And it's finished.

… and about time to! The only thing left is the epilogue, but after two and a half years, I've finally got the main story completed. Hope this chapter made up for the shortness and lateness of the last one.

A big thank you to everyone who has read and commented on the story over the years. I read every single one, multiple times, even if I fail at getting back to you. The support is so very appreciated.

A big thanks to my beta readers who have worked through so many chapters. You're the utter best.

Ravyn

Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin, however, Kagerou is mine.

Warning: … not really one for this chapter. Just please note that this chapter is not beta-read but will be reposted as soon as I get it back!


Kaoru was dying.

Even as Megumi swiftly crossed the ground clutching Sano's arm for support; the ground rocked and churned under the force of the mage spell, she already knew what would await her when she arrived at her King's side.

"He's holding her to him."

Megumi staggered. Looking up at her husband, she swallowed hard. "He shouldn't have the power."

Sano shook his head. "It doesn't matter. He's doing it."

But it did matter. The amount of power Kenshin had poured into her to pull her out of the temple had been bad enough on Kaoru's system, but to continue to force mage power into her system was going to send her into shock and kill her before Megumi could see how much damage had been done. She stumbled the last few steps as the ground heaved again she dropped to her knees and took in the sight in front of her.

Kaoru was bleeding out. The cut on her side went into her abdomen and Kenshin's hands were pressed against it in an attempt to slow the blood. There were bruises covering her arms and shoulder and she had another half-dozen cuts. Her skin was bleached white under the dirt and her breathing was slow and shallow.

Megumi was fairly certain that the only thing keeping Kaoru alive was Kenshin and she wasn't sure how much longer he could do it. She could feel his power wrapped around Kaoru's chest and lungs, keeping them moving even as he held her to him through their bond. His jaw and mouth were tight was strain and he was trembling with exertion.

"Kenshin, you have to let her go."

He ignored her. Megumi took a deep breath and looked up at Sano. Too much blood and not enough power. Kaoru was going to die.

"I can't save her."

Sano stared down at her before crouching next to her, one hand resting on her rounded stomach. "We have to try." Then his hand was on her shoulder and she could feel his power, solid and steady. "Take what you need."

It was a risk to both of them. If she failed… she would not think of failure or the risk to her baby. Taking a deep, slow breath she slowly funneled Sano's power into her hands, hoping that she wasn't just making the situation worse. She could not risk losing Kaoru. But she had to stop the bleeding. Even if it meant feeding even more power into Kaoru's already strained system. Taking a deep, calming breath she set to work.

A healing this complicated was difficult without the added difficulty of her child. She had to be careful not to drain herself too deeply or risk the baby. She had to put enough power into Kaoru to keep what internal organs Kenshin wasn't fighting to keep working functioning. The internal bleeding in Karou's abdomen took patience and control to mend and she was sweating and shaking before she was half-finished. Kaoru's system was fighting her off; over taxed and hurting she was moving away from that which was unfamiliar. Her system had already taken too much power into it today and Megumi only healed that which needed immediate attention with Sano's power.

"I need thread and a needle." She said grimly to her husband. "We're going to have to stitch and bandage the rest. Any more magic and she will go into shock. And that will kill her."

If she wasn't already. Kenshin hadn't moved from where he was half-crouched over her, his hair falling around his face and his eyes wheat-gold. She could feel the power rolling off him in waves.

When Sano returned with her gear she set about putting in the stitches needed to close Kaoru's side. They had to stop the bleeding or no matter how much work she did, they would loose her; her back ached and her hands trembled when she tied the final knot.

Kaoru was still breathing. Taking a deep breath she turned and faced her king.

"You're wife will live." Megumi said in a hoarse voice. 'For now.'

Kenshin was still for long moments before he turned his head and blinked at her, slowly, before his face drained of color of what little color was left and his body sagged to the side, completely spent.

X

"How are they?" Aoshi asked grimly as he entered the tent, still limping from his injury. The mage spell had finally ended and they had somehow managed to get both Kenshin and Kaoru off the battlefield and into a small, closed tent. Megumi felt weak and spent but she managed to stay on her feet long enough to assure herself that neither of them would die on her while she slept.

"They'll both live. But it was a close thing. Kenshin almost burned himself out holding her to him and Kaoru may not recover completely from the power he poured into her system. It's going to be touch and go for a while, but I believe they'll make it."

"He should not have been able to hold her."

"Our King is nothing if not stubborn." Megumi reminded him wearily. "Whatever he did worked, but they will both be slow to recover."

He nodded. "Good. It might keep them out of trouble."

Her brief smile was amused. "What is the word from the field?"

"Akira's body was fond half a dozen steps from where Kaoru fell. His eyes had been removed. It is Saitoh's assumption that the demon came back to claim what was his. I do not believe we will have to fear his return."

Megumi sighed. "That's a relief. Enishi and Tomoe?"

"We believe they are dead. Kagerou and Katsu went to explore now that the doors are opened and the main tunnels have collapsed in on themselves. It is not likely that anything could have survived."

"Good."

Aoshi gave a stiff nod. "Yes."

Megumi ran a hand over her eyes. "Will you need me for anything else?"

"No."

She nodded. Before she could say anything else Misao slid under the tent flaps. Her face a little pale and there was a large bruise on her cheekbone Megumi hadn't noticed before, but her eyes were bright.

"Shishio and Saitoh are dealing with the troops. Some of the mercenaries escaped the initial influx of power and have bolted south. We're going to have to figure out a plan to deal with them."

Megumi waved a hand as she stood. "I'm going to leave that to you two. I'm off to bed to get some rest before my husband decides he knows better than I do. Good night."

Misao bit her lip, waiting until they were alone before spinning towards Aoshi and marching over to him. Her hands ran over his chest and sides furiously.

"You're still bleeding."

He reached down and caught her hands. "Not much."

She stared up at his furiously. "You should be resting."

His fingers lightly traced her cheek and she grimaced at the expression in his eyes. "He's dead and gone."

Aoshi lifted a brow, a gleam in his eyes.

"I am not calling in their spirits just so you can have them hunt down a ghost to mutilate him even more. He's already passed. I made sure of that before I left the scene. Now, sit down Aoshi and let me look at that leg."

"It's been taken care of, Misao."

She huffed at him. "Aoshi…"

"There are meetings and plans that must be made while Himura isn't around to interfere. Things must be organized, Misao."

She slumped. "I know… it's just…"

He traced his fingers over her jaw once more and then stepped back. "You should be resting."

"So should you!"

"I will. When there is time."

"There is time now!"

Aoshi just lifted a brow. A moment later the flap opened and a messenger stepped in. "Lord Shinomori, his majesty Shishio is requesting your presence."

Misao glared at him, arms crossed. "You do these things on purpose."

He nodded at the messenger. "I shall follow you there."

"If you're not getting some kind of rest in three hours, Aoshi, I'm crashing your meeting."

"Of course."

"I mean it!"

"I expect nothing else."

X

Sano was a little surprised to find Katsu sitting by himself away from the tents, but not overly. Taking a long sip of the stuff that had once been ale; he settled himself down next to his friend and peered at the landscape that Katsu has chosen to stare at.

Twilight softened the remains of the battle, but it didn't hide the fact that there was a lot of work to be done to clean the field. He was glad he wasn't in charge of making sure none of the bodies fouled and invited other… things to come looking.

He silently offered his oldest friend some of the concoction in the jug. Katsu took it without much attention and swallowed several mouthfuls.

"That's terrible."

"Proof that our stomach linings can handle anything… including acid, it appears."

Katsu snorted.

"So," Sano asked, allowing gravity to pull him onto his back, "Why you out here moping. I'm alive. You're alive. Somehow Kenshin and that little lady of his managed to keep from killing themselves or each other."

Katsu shrugged and handed back the ale jug. "To simplify the events of the past half-year in such a way… seems to almost take something away from it."

Sano snorted. "Or it adds something. The good guys won and the bad guys lost! That's all the matters."

Katsu cut him a look. "How many of the people in that city do you believe think we are actually the 'good' guys?"

"Huh?" Sano sat up. "How could they not? I mean, you've seen the countryside! It was being stripped by those damn mercenaries and black priests…"

"The people in the city have very little contact with the countryside except for what it offers in supplies. I imagine if there were any complaints about the treatment of the people it would have simply been blamed on us."

Sano swore and took another, longer drink from his ale jar. "Fuck."

Katsu sighed heavily and looked at the twinkling lights from within the city. "You have forgotten the biggest problem that faces us…. Decades of beliefs that magic is evil and so are its users. It will be difficult for them to accept any of our people. We have won the first major battle but the aftermath of this will echo for a long time."

Sano swore again.

"Our little queen isn't going to like this."

Katsu ignored his words, choosing instead to stare at the countryside, his expression lost in thought.

This time, Sano let him.

X

Kenshin opened his eyes and immediately searched for his wife. She was lying next to him, pale and breathing so lightly he had to strain to hear it, but she was alive. Slowly, his limbs shaking with exhaustion he reached out and brushed a hand down the curve of her cheek.

He had almost lost her. His fingers curled into a fist and he let out a long, careful breath. That sudden, sick knowledge that something was wrong and it involved his wife… the mad, crazed laugh that Akira had given as Soujiro appeared, buying him time to track his wife… He owed his old friend for that. How Soujiro had known that she had gotten herself into a mess and he would need to help was something he would have to ask later.

Opening the bond to find her in a battle for survival was a shock he was going to go to great lengths to avoid for the rest of his life. He didn't know what had happened after that, only that he had poured everything he had left into what was between them in an attempt to save her and it almost hadn't worked.

If he had been two seconds slower…

The sound of a tent flap opening had him tensing until he recognized Megumi.

"I had wondered if you would awaken today."

Carefully he pushed himself into a sitting position. "How long?"

"Two days. It will be another two, perhaps three before you regain your strength. You drained yourself to the dregs and tapped into your own life force. You're both lucky you didn't kill yourself holding her to you."

"How is she?"

Megumi was silent for a long moment. "Her recovery will be longer than yours. There was some damage to her inner coils. It is possible that she will never recover completely. The likelihood of her being able to use magic at all has been greatly reduced."

Kenshin was silent for several minutes. "How badly does the damage run?"

"Deep enough that you will have to be careful with how you treat the bond for the next few years. The possibility of a full recovery is slim, but there is a chance. Her system will be slow to recover but it should stabilize eventually. You'll still be able to have children, but the chances of her doing more than candle lighting is just unlikely."

"Tokio agrees?"

"Tokio has not yet woken." Megumi said gently. "Neither has Yumi."

He nodded. "We shall take it as it comes, then. Beyond her ability to assimilate to magic, will there be any other lasting harm?"

"No, but she will have to be careful for several weeks. We cannot risk a healing session so she cannot pull her stitches. She needs to return to the palace to rest. Riding a horse will be difficult."

"We will discuss the possibility of a gate with Tokio once she has recovered." He ran a hand through his hair. "I need you to order a compressed healing, Megumi."

"No." Her tone was flat. "They do more damage than good and our healers are already drained."

"I'm needed on my feet, Megumi." Kenshin's voice was tired. "We have to figure out what exactly we are going to do with Triath now. Kaoru will be too exhausted to make any decisions once she is awake and I want the brunt of the decision making taken care of before I take my wife home."

She compressed her lips. "I do not like this."

"I know."

She stood. "There are enough healers back on their feet to do a compressed healing, but it will drain them. Your body was drained too completely for this to be easy. It will not be comfortable for you."

"I know." He reached up to rub his temples. "If there was another way I would be willing to take it. Have the worst of the injuries been treated in the tents?"

"Yes. We will not be able to completely regenerate your injuries. You will have to take it easy and you will get seven hours of sleep each night. This sort of healing is difficult for healers and patients."

Kenshin nodded, his eyes drifting to Kaoru. "I know."

"Good." She said firmly. "I'll see how soon was can arrange it. You will get some rest between now and then, understand?"

He smiled faintly and nodded, sliding back under the covers and reaching out to tangle his hand into Kaoru's hair.

X

Kaoru wondered if it was possible to feel worse than she did at that moment. Waking up had been a very, very bad idea. Her side was burning and her insides felt like a hammer had pulverized them. Pressing her face into her pillow she shook with the effort it took not to cry out.

"You would wake just after he left." Megumi's tired voice cut through her own pain and she managed to turn her head enough to meet the gaze of the healer. She was holding something in her hand and when Kaoru drank it, it was bitter.

She gagged.

"I know, it's terrible but it will help with the pain."

Kaoru wasn't sure it was worth it as she tried to swallow the aftertaste.

"I'll give you some tea to wash the taste out as soon as the pain starts to fade a little. If we can keep you awake long enough." Megumi said. "What I just gave you will put you back to sleep but it should help speed the healing process."

Kaoru nodded into her pillow and tried to lift a trembling hand to brush her bangs out of her eyes. It would hardly do as she commanded and she lifted her eyes to Megumi in surprise. Her limbs felt like jelly.

"You expended too much energy in your fight with Enishi." Megumi said quietly as she ran her hands over Kaoru's sides. It was then that she noticed she was wrapped up tightly with bandages and wasn't really wearing a shirt. "Kenshin pushed too much mage power into your system. You're going to be weak for a few more days I'm afraid."

"Is that what he did?" She murmured, her eyes a little unfocused now as the paid started to fade. "Pushed his power into my system?"

"It's a good enough explanation." Megumi agreed as she slowly put pressure on her shoulder, forcing her lie down as the pain medication took affect. "You can go back to sleep once we get some tea into you."

"How long?"

"Three days. I didn't fully expect you to wake till tomorrow. It's why Kenshin agreed to leave." She sighed as she poured something into a cup. "He's going to be disappointed. He's only been awake for a day."

She held the tea to Kaoru's lips with one hand and steadied her with the other.

"Where did he go?" She asked once she choked down the bitter liquid.

"Council meeting. He'll be back soon enough."

Against her will, her eyes were sliding shut. "When?"

"When he does."

She was asleep before she could argue.

X

Tokio and Yumi had finally woken a few hours ago. Kenshin was not overly happy to demand their presence at council, but it was necessary. They needed to know what the long term effects of the spell that had been used – by both sides – in order to make decisions about how they would handle the future of Triath.

"Most of the forces are being tracked to the South," Aoshi said quietly as he wrapped up his report. "We have already sent out a number of our forces to deal with the problems."

Kenshin nodded rubbing his face. He was just tired.

"Tokio?"

"The long term effects of the spells used are not clear." She said finally.

"The residue isn't acting wrongly but it isn't reacting how we would have originally anticipated." Yumi agreed. "It's as if something came in and gutting the majority of the power for their own use and left again."

There was a long silence.

"Does this have anything to do with the deal Akira made?"

"It's entirely possible." Tokio agreed. "The source of the drain on the backlash is unknown but depending on the entity that Akira bargained with, he could have absorbed most of the residue."

"Thankfully, whatever it was, without Akira's bond, it will be confined to the veil unless it has another creature it has bargained with. Wherever that power went, it will not be used against us at this point in time."

"Always a good thing." Sano muttered.

"But because of the drain, most of the more drastic side effects of using such power is no longer a problem." Tokio finished with a shrug.

"Small blessings," Kenshin said finally. "What else?"

"The city will be a problem."

Everyone's attention shifted to Katsu, who was sitting near the door. His expression looked grim. "Right now, they are willing to accept our supplies and assist us in refortifying their walls, but they have no desire to keep in contact with any of our mages. Once you announce that you will be leaving troops behind at least through the winter… and there is the matter of the temple. No priests survived either Tomoe or her Majesties attack. The people are lost."

Kenshin studied Katsu. "You have a plan?"

He gave a shrug. "Not a large one, no. But my family once ran a small, local paper. To do so again will not be too large of a leap… The largest problem here is a lack of education of what countries outside have. They are unaware of the impact of magic around them."

"It will take more than a few years to fix." Shishio said grimly.

"Our biggest problem," Yumi said breezily, "is the lack of royal figure to put into power. If there are any who are still alive, they aren't coming forward. That will take time to track down."

"The people will not accept Kaoru." Kagerou said quietly. "She has bonded with a mage king and fought against her family. It matters not that they struck first, they will never accept her on the throne."

Kenshin narrowed his eyes. "I will not give her up to rule in this country."

"This will take some thought." Aoshi agreed.

Tokio rubbed her forehead and sighed. "There is a great deal that will take several years to resolve."

Aoshi inclined his head in agreement. Kenshin laced his fingers together and stared at the table with a frown. "The important part now is to get enough of the decisions made that we can begin to repair the country."

Sano shot him a look. "Long distance?"

"Kaoru will need time to recover away from here." Kenshin said quietly. "And I cannot leave her alone to do so."

Everyone was silent as they digested that.

"Then we will need someone to stay here, to run the operations." Shishio said finally.

"But who?" Sano questioned. "None of us," he flickered his fingers out to include the room, "will have the time to do so."

"That is a question that we must answer." Saitoh agreed, looking irritated. "Who in their right mind would be crazy enough to take such a job?"

X

The tent was dark enough that Kaoru had to blink several times to clear her vision when she woke a second time. A single candle was sputtering in the corner of the tent and she was just able to make out Misao's small form curled up on several large cushions. She was pretty sure it was Misao…

"Misao?"

The girl jerked upright – startled – as if she had been attempting to sleep. Her head snapped around and the smile on her face was weary but still bright.

"Kaoru. You really do have the worse timing. Your husband just left to find dinner before another meeting."

Kaoru closed her eyes in frustration. Pushing herself up carefully, she bit her tongue to keep from verbally acknowledging the sharp pain in her side. Opening her eyes again, she looked around the tent.

She had apparently been moved while she was sleeping.

"Are you feeling alright? I can go get healer to look at you." Misao offered.

"No… what happened?"

Misao hesitated. "Megumi said not to put any stress on you…"

Kaoru smiled grimly. "Not knowing is worse, don't you think? The last thing I remember is fainting in front of the steps and then… I think Kenshin had me." She took a deep breath. "What happened while I was in the temple? How did Kenshin know I was in trouble? He had blocked the bond."

Misao drew her knees up to her chest. "I think maybe some of this you should ask Kenshin."

"Misao… please."

"You missed the worst of it." Misao said finally, her tone soft. "The battle was very difficult. Kenshin, Aoshi and Soujiro basically worked to keep Akira caged away from as much as the battle as they could. He was feeding off the blood and death of the battlefield. They managed to keep him away from most of the fighting but…" she gave a small, helpless shrug.

"Saitoh and Shishio were dealing with most of the mercenary priests. Fire works surprisingly well against the demon-like things they kept calling in."

"Kagerou and Katsu… they managed to pass along my message?" She unconsciously reached for Kenshin. She was startled to find she couldn't feel him. She could barely feel the bond, it felt… numb.

"We had already figured that something had gone wrong. Mage come in many different forms and…" she sighed. "I really don't think know is the time for this, Kaoru."

"How did you know something went wrong?" She asked stubbornly.

Misao ran her fingers through her bangs. "You're worse than I am. Okay. I'm a mage… sort of. I don't work like Aoshi or Kenshin… basically, I can see ghosts. Can even talk to them, although it works better if I had a connection with them before they died… anyway, we knew something was going wrong – or at least I did – because there weren't any ghosts on the battlefield."

Kaoru blinked at her. "You can see ghosts?"

"Some of them. Depends on their energy levels…"

"Oh."

Misao gave her a small smile. "Yeah."

"Why did it matter if you couldn't see ghosts?"

"Battles let off a lot of different kinds of energy. Half-complete spells, death magic, magical residue from spells that were casts… pockets of things that attract ghosts. If you can't feel them then there is usually a problem because that means something else is feeding off of them."

"Tomoe's spell."

"We aren't sure if it was whatever the hell she was doing or if Akira was pulling it all in and then feeding it to her. There was no way to know," Misao eyes unfocused for a moment before she shook herself free of those thoughts. "Anyway, I figured something was going on and tried to find you. When I couldn't I headed straight for Tokio and Yumi. By the time I made it to the mage tent to report my findings your men were already there."

Kaoru curled her fingers around her blanket. "I didn't stop Enishi from casting the spell."

"You bought us enough time to figure out how to block the attack." Misao returned her eyes bright.

She didn't want to talk about Tomoe. Not yet. Curling her arm around her side, she tried not to hunch in on herself. Later. She would deal with that later.

"Kaoru…"

She looked back up. "How?"

Misao gave her a frustrated look but continued. "Tokio called all the mages back to the tent and pooled together what power they had left. She and Yumi yanked the foundations of the barrier spell that Tokio had been working on at the castle to the grounds and they stripped every drop of magic they could find from anyone and shoved it into the spell."

Her eyes grew distant.

"Somehow it worked. Whatever they did absorbed the worst of the spells attack. Whatever it was caught Akira and the black priests up and… well, we lost a few people who weren't fast enough to get back when Shishio called the retreat. You came up just before the spell hit. Kenshin managed to get you both inside the barrier… and then things went to pieces."

Kaoru frowned, her brows coming together. "I… don't remember."

Misao dug her nails into her hands and nodded. There were some things she would not be responsible for telling Kaoru. She wouldn't tell her how they had heard Akira's crazed laughter even inside the mage tent as they scrambled to find footing to make the barrier stick to the foreign earth. Of how they had heard Kenshin's scream of utter despair when he realized what was going on and where his wife was… how close they had come to loosing them both. How badly Soujiro and Aoshi been injured keeping Akira off Kenshin while he was too caught up in his bond and her fight to protect himself.

She refused to speak of the terrible, gut wrenching fear that had sang through her stomach when she had watched Kaoru staggered out of the ground, white and bloody and wavering on her feet, half-ghost herself. Misao didn't know where Kenshin had found the strength to fetch her, the earth rolling with the force of the spell building underground or how he had held her to him during the worst of it. She wondered if anyone would ever tell her how close she had come to dying of blood loss and mage-shock.

Kaoru curled the hand against her side into a fist, feeling the bite of stitches even under her bandages.

"How did I survive, Misao? The healers were already drained down to the last when I left to stop my cousins." She knew how much she had been bleeding.

Misao shrugged and tried to smile. "You'll have to ask Kenshin."

"Where is he?"

"Finding food. He has a council meeting after that." Misao repeated.

Kaoru bit her lip. "What is happening to my people?"

"I don't know. I haven't been keeping up with the council meetings going on. Megumi and I have been taking shifts keeping an eye on you. Kenshin doesn't want you to wake alone."

Kaoru nodded. "Kagerou? Katsu? Did everyone make it?"

"Kagerou is going walk with an interesting limp and Katsu's hair is much shorter than it was, but they are going to be fine. Most of the causalities came from the front lines. Soujiro is still recovering from a gut wound and Aoshi is limping around, but we made it seemingly in one piece."

"How?"

"We got really, really lucky." Misao said flatly. "The spell Enishi cast worked for us almost as much as it worked against us. We still have some minor clean up to do – not all the mercenaries had mage blood in them and they are causing some havoc to the south, but the worst of the damage was limited to the plains and not in the city itself."

She bit her lip. "Oh."

"But these are things you can worry about once you're back on your feet. And I think that is more than enough information. You're starting to list to one side. Here," she lurched to her knees and reached for a pot Kaoru hadn't seen before. "It's time to take some more tea."

Kaoru wrinkled her nose, but submitted to Misao's stubborn expression. She was starting to sway sitting up and whatever energy she had had was slipping through her fingers.

"Is that the same stuff from before?"

"Yes, but its going to be another day before you can eat some broth. Gut wounds are difficult and the sword went deep enough that we need to be careful."

Kaoru sighed and drink the tea if five gulps and then lay back down, wondering where her husband was. Curling her fingers into the coverlet, she tried not to analyze the way her chest had tightened at the thought of him and the burning need to see him. Later.

X

Kaoru cracked and eye open once she was certain Megumi left and surveyed the tent to make sure someone else had snuck in. Between her and Misao she hadn't had a moment alone since she had woken up that morning. She knew the moment they saw she was awake they would shove that foul tea down her throat and she would be forced to sleep again. She was tired of being fed tea and the mild sedative Megumi seemed to think she needed to sleep. Yes, her side hurt but she was more interested in seeing her husband.

She was amazed at how she needed to see her husband.

Where was he? She bit her lip, suddenly feeling unsure. He couldn't be that mad, could he? Well, she wasn't going to sit here all day and wait for him to come to her. Surely after three (four?) days the stitches had set… Taking a careful breath – and giving herself a mental pep talk – she braced herself on her elbow and slowly pushed herself up. Her side burned, her muscles ached, but she managed to wiggle herself carefully into a sitting position.

Her vision swam for a moment but she stayed upright. Opening her eyes she had inadvertently closed she glanced down at her bandages and was satisfied to see that they remained white. She hadn't started the bleeding again. Good. Slowing pushing the covers back she moved her legs so that they were braced on the floor.

Just as she started to stand the canvas flap was thrown back. Twisting her head around she came face to face with Kenshin for the first time in days and swallowed at the expression of strained disbelief on his face. Even started as he was, she couldn't shake how good he looked. Or how her heart leapt in her chest at the sight of him.

"Kaoru…" He stopped, closed his eyes, and visibly started over. "What are you doing?"

"I wanted to see if I could sit up." She tried to smile. She wasn't sure she managed it. She was starting to sweat with the strain on her side. "Megumi said I have been sleeping for three days so I figured I better try sometime."

He stared at her, as if he couldn't quite wrap his brain around what she was telling him. She would have been a lot more comfortable with his expression if his eyes weren't bleeding gold. Finally he shook himself and walked over. She bit her lip as he braced one hand against her spine; the other slid under her thighs before he carefully lifted her and then settled her back against the covers.

She managed not to suck in a loud breath at the pain.

"Now you know." His voice was still too calm. "Any other bouts of curiosity will be explored only if someone is here to help you."

She bit her lip and continued to stare up at him. "You're mad at me."

He sighed and she relaxed a little when his fingers tangled in her hair. His forehead dropped against her temple and he stayed that way for several long minutes without directly answering her question. Some of the knot in her stomach relaxed and she leaned against him.

"We'll talk about what I am feeling later." He said finally, leaning back to frown down at her. She frowned at him and averted her eyes.

His fingers stroked through her bangs before he lifted her hand and placed a warm mug in it. She lifted her eyes to glare at him. He didn't say anything, just continued to watch her and she gave in.

"I really hate this stuff."

"It's helping your system recover." Kenshin said firmly. "We cannot risk using more magic on your system so we have to do this the old fashioned way."

"By drugging me to my eyeballs?"

"You're going to be lucky if I let you out of the immediate sight of myself or the castle guards for a long, long time, darling."

She handed the cup back with a face. "Here I thought you were going to wait on lecturing me."

He sat on the bed next to her, stroking her hair as she laid back. "You would be amazed at the amount of self control I am showing right now."

She snorted. She was already feeling the effects of the tea and her tongue felt funny as she worked out her next sentence. "Stay with me."

He was silent but then his weight was moving over her so he could settle on her good side. She pressed her face against his shoulder and curled her hand into his shirt. His lips brushed at the top of her hair. For the first time in days she felt safe.

"I'm a'right y'know." She murmured fuzzily. "Gonna be 'ine."

His fingers stroked down her neck. "I know."

She was out before she could respond.

X

Having her bandages changed was painful. The salve that they applied stung and her muscles burned as she sat. The stitched had bled a little, so the fabric had stuck to her wound, even soaking them in warm water hadn't helped much when the little man had set about peeling them away from her skin. By the time he finished she felt sick to her stomach and gasping for air.

"I know that was unpleasant, Majesty," the healer said as he helped her lean back. "But we need to try to get some food into your stomach now."

She gave him an exhausted sigh. "I'll try."

The Healer nodded before disappearing and retuning with a tray. There was a large bowl of broth that smelled thick with herbs and a steaming mug of tea. This tea smelled sweet and when she took a cautious sip she was relieved to find it tasted different than the sedative induced one that made her so sleepy.

"To help settle your stomach," The healer explained.

She took slow, cautious sips of the broth and refused to acknowledge the slight tremors in her hands as she held the bowl. It took longer than she had thought it would to finish off the warm soup and she felt exhausted by the time she was finished. She just managed to put the bowl down when she felt Kenshin enter the tent. Relief filled her as she realized the bond between them wasn't as fuzzy as it had been the day before.

The expression in his eyes however, was making it hard to breath.

"Hi."

He nodded at the healer before tilting his head. "How would you like a little sunshine?"

She brightened at the idea of getting out of the tent that smelled like bitter herbs and her own blood. Nodding in agreement she frowned at Kenshin when he leaned over and carefully lifted her into his arms, jarring her side.

"I can walk." Or at least, she would have liked the opportunity to try.

"I knew the moment I saw you that you were going to be stubborn." Kenshin said, his tone affectionate. "It's in that chin of yours."

"I am not stubborn. I am right. There is a difference." Kaoru told him, unamused. "I'm capable of walking. If I let you continue to baby me, I won't try and then it's going to take even longer to recover."

"If you push yourself too soon, it will certainly take longer to recover than if you give yourself a few more days rest." He returned, completely calm, "behave or you're going right back into the tent with a mug of tea."

She glared at him, but he didn't seem to notice. The place he was taking her was a small tent that had its sides rolled up. There was a fairly decent sized mound of cushions set up so she could recline, watching the camp even as she was kept out of direct sunlight. Kenshin made straight for the pillows and settled down comfortably, settling her in his lap. His arms cradled her against him and he breathed in her hair before letting his breath out slowly.

"That tickles." Kaoru informed him. Her eyes scanned the immediate area and she shifted uncomfortably. "Everyone is staring."

There weren't a lot of people, and most of them she recognized by face if not name. There weren't any noises that could be heard from outside of the camp and she realized that their location must have been near the center of the camped out army.

"Yes." He sounded unrepentant.

"Why?"

"You're their Queen and they are pleased to see you."

She relaxed against his chest and tangled her fingers with his. It was lovely, being able to relax with him, like this. Except… there were questions Misao hadn't answered. Questions that were going to go give her no peace unless she had answers.

"What is going to happen to my people, Kenshin?"

Kenshin was silent, weaving her braid between his fingers before he spoke.

"Neither Shishio nor myself are interested in taking this country over for ourselves. We have enough land to govern and it is too great a distance from Shishio's kingdom for him to be comfortable with an acquisition. Then there is your people's distaste for magic."

She nodded against his throat.

"However, we cannot trust what is left of Tomoe and Enishi's court to rule peacefully. Soujiro has agreed to stay here for the next ten years to act as Governor and your official liaison. In ten years time we will take his reports into consideration and then decide to elect someone to act as Steward for one of our children or to allow Soujiro to stay if he wishes for an extended time… what we would really like to do is find some of your family scattered about and begin to train one of them to take the throne."

She blinked rapidly. "I… is there anyone of royal blood left?"

"We believe there are some distant cousins that were not close enough to the throne to be a threat." He said quietly. "Do you have any objections to our plan?"

She shook her head slowly. "I…"

His fingers moved down her spine gently.

She sighed. "I don't want it. I never wanted it. The throne. I don't even know what to do with the one I have now."

"Soujiro is honorable."

"I know." She admitted. "… does Soujiro mind?

"You made quiet an impression on his during this campaign." His tone held a note to it that made her blush. "He wishes to see if any of your strength exists in any of the people here. He will be content to stay or leave as we wish in ten years time. Shishio holds his loyalty."

She nodded again and swallowed. "You have this all planned out fairly well."

"It was my intention of having this completed as quickly as possible. While we will be leaving a number of troops here to help safeguard through the winter, you need peace and quite to recover. I did not wish to tax you with endless council meetings to make decisions that would be difficult. This plan is one that all of us have agreed on, but if you find there is something different you would like us to do, we will certainly take that into consideration."

"No… I don't know the first thing about handling this type of situation."

"You know your people."

"Not as well as I had once."

"Perhaps."

She looked around and bit her lip. "Kenshin… how did you know I was in trouble?"

He stiffened. "You want to have this conversation now?"

She peaked up at him from under her lashes. His mouth was a thin line and his eyes were bronze. "Yes. The way I figure it, you can't yell at me if there are witnesses."

When he didn't relax, she tried another angle. "I'm a Queen you know and I have a husband who tends to be very cranky when people yell at me."

His thick lashes narrowed just a fraction but she could make out little bubbles of blue so she tried to smile. He shook his head. "This conversation is not going to save you from your scolding, Kaoru."

"Alright."

His eyes narrowed even further. "We both got lucky."

"What?"

His thumb dragged under her ear. "How I knew you were in trouble. We got lucky. Something felt… off. I just knew. And when I opened the bond…"

She smiled weakly. "Yeah. Good timing."

The hand at her jaw flexed lightly against her skin. "I never want to go through that again, Kaoru. You will never put yourself in that sort of reckless danger again. Whatever possessed you do go there alone?"

There were reasons. Good ones. Like how the temple wouldn't let anyone else in. Like how she was royal blood and able to bend some of the wards to her will and someone else would have just slowed her down… but she would tell those to her husband later. When he would be a little more rational about the whole mess.

"Misao… Misao said that I should ask you how I survived."

He blinked and then sighed, lifting his eyes away from her. His body was rigid against hers. Whatever blue had been creeping back into his gaze disappeared under white-hot gold. When he finally, his tone was deep but calm, belaying the force of emotions she could read in his gaze.

"I held you to me."

Her breath caught in her throat at the look in his eye. "How?"

"If the bond was any less between us… if you hadn't trusted me enough to subconsciously keep you with me…" he closed his eyes. "It was a close thing. I had to bend the bond to my will…"

She reached up and traced the tense line that was his jaw. "They said you were hurt."

Those thick lashes parted just enough to show her a sliver of burning gold. "Who?"

"I heard people talking as they walked by the tent." She lowered her eyes to scan him. "You don't look hurt."

"I had what they call a compressed healing." He said finally. "It is… uncomfortable."

Her eyes snapped back to his and she pursed her lips. "Why?"

"Because you needed me."

"And you couldn't be there healing like normal?"

He curved both hands along her jaw, his shoulders tense. "You don't understand yet…"

"Understand what?"

Kenshin let out a long breath. "Kaoru… I poured my power into you. Too much. It was… it was the only way, and I jeopardized your life when I did it. Then I had to pour more magic into you to keep you alive while Megumi worked on the bleeding and the worst of your internal injuries."

"So? What does that mean?"

"It means you may never be able to have magic of your own."

She blinked at him. His expression was pained but he continued on.

"I overtaxed your system and stressed your inner coil system. Your body had just recently been introduced to mage power; it wasn't able to handle the adjustments. When I put my power – raw battle magic – into your system we're both lucky it didn't crash."

Kaoru licked suddenly dry lips. "Long term… what does this mean?"

"It means that your body can contain magic but it might never be able to do more than hold it. It won't affect your ability to stabilize under our bond although we both have to be careful with how we tax it now… and it won't affect our ability to have children, but I have may have taken away any chance you had of being a mage."

Kaoru stared at him, studying the lines of his face and the exhaustion she could suddenly read there. The regret. He was apologizing for taking something away she had never had, had never really considered. Was she supposed to miss something she hadn't had?

And Kenshin…

Curling her fingers into his shirt, she considered him.

A few months ago she had been tending fires and plotting revenge. Now she was sitting in her husbands lap, his warmth and his magic curled around her and everything she had ever known was gone. Her father's murdered was dead at her own hands… and so were her cousins. She respected and trusted the man who was her husband, something she wouldn't have thought possible during those long weeks that he dragged her across her and his country on horseback.

And now…

Now she felt safe. Cherished. She ached for the regret and concern she could read in his eyes. Not regret for himself, but for her… because she would never know something he had never been without. But behind the regret there was acceptance. He was hurt for her, not for himself. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and admitted to herself what she refused to acknowledge for some time now. There were no more secrets, no more cousins hiding in the shadows waiting to destroy everything they touched…

She pushed away from his chest gently and turned to face him. Kenshin tilted his head in a silent question, watching her from tubulent eyes.

And this had been building for far longer than she would have thought possible. Yet, it still felt as if there hadn't been enough time. Lips curving a little at the irony of the situation, she let go of the last of her hesitation.

"I've fallen in love with you."

Her husband. Kidnapper. Lover. King.

He went still under her hands. She swallowed at the way his eyes were most certainly bleeding into pale gold but continued on. "I wasn't sure… I mean, the past few months have been a bit crazy but… I have. You care about my people; even if it's just for me and I…" she shrugged helplessly. She cleared her throat and tried again. "I can't say that at some point I won't look back and wonder if things had been done differently… but, if you don't mind about the lack of magic, then I don't either."

She deliberately opened their bond and hoped he could feel the truth in her words.

His hand came up to tangle in the hair behind her ears. And suddenly, there was a wash of emotion between them that stole her breath. It bubbled up in her chest and she felt lightheaded.

"I've been in love with your since the night of your coronation ball." His tone was rough.

"Oh." She reached up to run a finger down his cheek. Small, persistent butterflies were going off in her stomach to mingle with those bubbles in her chest. "Why didn't you say anything?"

His mouth quirked in one corner and the tent felt a lot warmer than it had moments before. "I had already stolen you from your lands, tied you into a bond you could not escape and by the time I realized certain things about us… we were going to war. I didn't think you needed another distraction."

She licked her lips. "Say it again."

The corners of his mouth curled even higher as he tugged her closer. "I love you."

She didn't bother to respond. Instead she pushed herself up to his mouth. The hand in her hair tightened as he returned the kiss, his arm sliding down her spine to hold her in place. His touch was careful, soft across skin that was still brushed. But his mouth…

His mouth was hot and greedy against hers. She forgot that they were exposed to the world, forgot that they were mostly in public. Instead she concentrated on the feel of his mouth against hers, his hands against her hips and his hair between her fingers. She would have kissed him forever if they if they hadn't been interrupted by a rather loud wolf whistle.

"Damn, Majesty! I didn't think you had it in you!" Sano's voice was full of laughter.

Kenshin pulled back and Kaoru could feel his glare as she pressed her burning face into his shoulder.

"Sanosuke…" Kenshin growled.

"Yes, yes, I'll just go tell Misao she owes me ten silver pieces!" He called as he all but sprinted from the clearing.

Kaoru swallowed and lifted her eyes to Kenshin's face and suddenly grinned. She felt lighter than she had in years. "So what next?"

His eyes lowered and studied her for a long moment before his expression lightened.

"We go home."

Home…. Home was a crazy place with magic and heated towels and Kenshin.

"I'm not sharing a horse with you."

"We're taking a gate and then you're going to be carried in a litter. A horse will knock your stitches loose."

"What? Why?"

"Why will the horse knock your stitches loose?"

She scowled up at him. "Why am I going to still have stitches?"

"We can't risk anything but the most serious of a healing with you. Your body would reject the magic or it would ruin whatever chance you have of recovering your inner coils."

"I thought you said…"

His fingers slid over her lips, slowly, calluses catching against her skin pleasantly. "There is a very small chance you could make a full recovering, but that chance is so small Kaoru…"

She sighed but allowed him to coax her back against his chest. Pressing her face against his shoulder she considered his words. They had made it. They were both alive and going home.

She could deal with everything else as it came along.

Curling her fingers into his shirt, she closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of home.


Again, thank you so much for sticking with this story.

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