Courting The Jester

Epilogue

Rowen lay on the small hard guest bed that he had spent so many nights on, arms crossed beneath his head as he stared at the ceiling. He knew every bump and speck of dust, every mark and mistake, but knowing everything about this room didn't make this room his. It just meant he was allowed to stay there for a while. Rowen couldn't help but connect the feeling to the rest of his life. He heard a soft sigh and turned his head. Sage lay in the bed across the room, looking pale and tired as he too stared at the ceiling. The cuts that had torn them all up were gone now. Sage had insisted on healing them all after he had regained consciousness and enough strength. They had told him no, but Sage had forced the issue. Rowen secretly thought that the healing was not so much from Sage's concern for them, but from him not wanting to see them walk around with wounds so similar to those that had killed Cassie.

Cassie. Rowen could remember her now, with only a general haziness surrounding the memory. He hadn't known her as well as he could have, having spent most of his time focused on Nikki when Cassie was around, but there were still images and sounds and smells that floated through his mind when he thought of her. He remembered her quiet laugh, always teasing him as if she knew something he didn't. He remembered how angry she would get when one of them got hurt, as if she took the injury personally. He remembered that she smelled like flowers and old books, a bizarre combination but not unpleasant. He remembered that she cared for two of his friends very very much.

They had been at a standstill, neither Sage nor Cye making a move, with Cassie never treating one with more kindness or care than the other. Rowen hadn't known if she had been in love with either one of his friends, but his instincts told him that her heart had belonged to Cye. She had been fascinated with Sage, a brightness that illuminated her darkened life, but it was Cye's name on her lips when she died. He might be wrong. Rowen had never understood what had been between those three, none of them had. Not even Cye and Sage seemed to understand completely. It was too late to figure it out now.

Sage sighed again and shifted beneath his blanket.

"You okay, Seiji?" Rowen asked, knowing that Sage wasn't okay, that he wouldn't be okay for a very long time, and that Sage would now lie to him because that was the only thing he could do without pouring his broken heart out. The use of his Japanese name was Rowen's way of telling Sage that he knew all this, and that he was worried, and that he cared.

"Yeah. I'm fine, Touma." Sage knew he knew. And he appreciated it. Sometimes guys said more in their few words than anyone ever realized.

"Do you think he's gone for good?" Sage asked Rowen after a while. Damian's name hadn't crossed anyone's lips in the day and a half since they had returned. Anytime he was brought up it was with the same general pronoun that Mia had used. They understood that now. No one really wanted to talk about him, and using his name made him seem even more real. No one wanted Damian to be anything more than a nightmare that they had finally woken up from.

Awakening. That's what this felt like. The edginess in Rowen was gone, and that was not simply from the fact he had fought recently. The armors themselves had hated having their memories taken, and had tried to alert the Ronins that something had gone wrong. Now that his memories were back, Rowen was of mixed feelings about them. Yes, he felt like they needed to know what had happened. But at the same time, he also could understand why Mia would have wanted to take their memories away. They had lost their battles in a way so complete that it was like getting punched in the stomach. The sick dread he had felt when realizing that they were all going to die, and he might not even be able to get the girls to safety before they did, was still inside him. Sure, it had been dulled by time and the haziness that still hung around his memories, but he had felt it and that feeling was in there permanently. And they had lost someone close to them, someone that had no business being involved with them in the first place. Is that what Sage thought about when he closed his eyes? Or Cye? Did the guilt of losing Cassie cut at them the way it cut at him? Rowen thought about Nikki, and about if she had been the one, and his stomach went cold. The guilt must be tearing them apart, because if something had happened to Nikki, Rowen wasn't sure if he would be able to stand it.

"I think so," Rowen replied. "I talked to Mia about the seals some more. As far as I can tell, the original seal that had held back everything from his realm was broken when this all started. The one that was used to send him back the first time never really stopped working. It just kept him from coming through all the way this time. It still let enough of him through that he was able to do that much damage, though. Mia thinks Kayura knew that the first seal wasn't working well enough and that's why she found the second seal. Mia thinks that she went to use it without knowing he had already slipped part of himself back through. That she hid the second seal away, along with the memory crystal, hoping that we would find it. Or Mia would find it. I'm not sure exactly how all of that was supposed to work out. When we used the second seal it should have been enough to stop him from coming back through at all."

"Then what happened to Kayura? Do we have any idea? Did he kill her?" Sage asked. Rowen shrugged, his mouth creasing into an unhappy frown.

"I don't know, Sage. Ryo tried to contact her late last night. Nothing happened. I really don't know where she is or if she's okay."

Sage nodded and fell silent. His violet eyes flickered over the ceiling and Rowen knew that Sage wasn't thinking about Damian or Kayura anymore. There was something in Sage's eyes now that had never been there before. When some people are hurt deeply, they close themselves off from others, nursing their wounds. But Sage was different; he had spent his entire life closed off from people. The wound in his heart showed in his eyes, and it was impossible for Rowen to look at his friend without thinking that Sage wasn't ever going to get over this. He was holding on to Cassie even tighter than he ever had. Rowen suddenly felt very tired and very sad for his friend, and he felt confused as to what to do now.

Rowen sat up in the bed and wrapped his arms around his knees. His mind drifted back to Nikki. Most of his confusion centered around her. True he had not liked her very much when he met her this time, and had spent most of his time arguing with her. He hadn't understood why he had always been so angry and harsh around her, but he got it now. The new Rowen didn't know what to think about Nikki, but the old Rowen had been very much in love with her. She had frustrated him just as much then, but along with the memory of anger came memories of gentle kisses, warm bodies pressing together, and of feeling that he had finally found someone that was his match. She was infinitely difficult but she understood him in a way no one else ever had before. She had broken his heart when she had pulled away from him, and he had never known why she had turned her back on him. Rowen had never let himself get too entangled with members of the opposite sex before her, because he had never found one that could keep up with him. But mentally and emotionally and physically Nikki was right there challenging him, and he had locked onto that like a starving man would food. Nikki completed him and even though his hurt from years before was just as strong as it had been, Rowen was ready to make peace with her. Time had passed, and Rowen found that as he watched Sage silently mourn Cassie, that he missed Nikki very very much.

Rowen rose and walked over to Sage's bed, placing his hand on his friend's shoulder. He didn't say anything and he didn't have to as he squeezed once and moved away. Sage said nothing but the tension in his face eased slightly. Rowen went down to the room Nikki had stayed in the night before. He knocked lightly, and after no answer, Rowen poked his head inside the door. There was no one there. Rowen turned and checked Mia's room. It was empty as well. He wandered the house until he finally found Mia sitting in the small bay window off the living room, her knees pulled tightly up to her chest as she looked out at the lake behind her house. Her eyes looked sad and lost and she fingered the small silver necklace that she always wore. Thinking back about it, Rowen couldn't think of a time since any of this started that she hadn't worn that necklace. Seeing her sparked feelings of resentment and anger, but Rowen pushed them down. They needed healing between them all now, not more harsh feelings. His brain understood what had happened and their reasons for their actions, well most of them anyway, but his heart hadn't had a time to catch up. He carefully schooled his voice into a non-threatening and blameless tone.

"Mia, do you know where Nikki is? I need…we need to talk. To work some stuff out. Do you know where I can find her?"

Mia turned to Rowen and she gave him a sympathetic look. Her one hand tightened down on a mug sitting next to her.

"I'm sorry, Rowen," Mia said gently. "Nikki left this morning. She called a cab and caught an early flight back to the States. She should already have taken off, about an hour ago."

Rowen stood there silently. Then something dark passed over his expression and he turned away wordlessly. Mia heard the slam of the back door and saw a blue haired form crossing the yard towards the dock. He kicked at one of the dock posts, sending a crack down the thick wood, and then he bent his head over and rested his forehead against the post. At that point Mia silently looked away, giving Rowen his moment. She had known this would hurt him. Nikki had known that too, but as was true to her nature, Nikki had bolted as soon as she could. In a way Mia couldn't blame her. Out of all of them, Mia was the only one who knew how much Nikki had cared about Rowen before everything became so messed up. Nikki thought things were beyond fixing, and that it would be better for everyone if they didn't drag things out too much. So she had left before her and Rowen had had a chance to fight things out. Personally Mia believed that Nikki just didn't want to face Rowen's anger and disappointment, and didn't want to see him turn his back on her. Mia understood that, and didn't blame her for it either.

Mia stayed curled up in her window for a long time. Her body was still very sore and she was tired, but she had spent enough nights in her bed trying to face the solitude. This time she wanted space around her and the sunlight in her eyes. She raised her mug to her lips and took a sip. A mixture of coffee and brandy. Harsh to be sure, but Mia felt like she needed both right now to calm her nerves.

They all found her one by one to say goodbye. She had known they would. This house had too many memories good and bad for them, especially since they were all fighting to understand the heap of emotions that had been dropped in their laps. To their credits, no one had been unkind to her. They just looked at her, eyes flickering as they tried to understand. Mia wasn't sure if they ever would. To many times she had turned her back on them, and had not trusted them. To them that was worse than any collaboration with the enemy. They had held her as part of the team, but Mia was pretty sure she was out of that now. But only time would tell, it was really up to them.

Rowen had left first, his handsome face dark and distracted. He wasn't dealing with Nikki leaving without saying goodbye very well. He had grunted to Mia that he would see her later, had grabbed his jacket and had left without any other words. Sage had shown up not too long after Rowen, his violet eyes haunted and his face drawn. He had paused in the doorway a long moment before moving towards her. He had many conflicting feelings, she knew, especially since she was the one that had personally kept him from trying to save Cassie. Sage had said nothing, had only leaned over and kissed her softly on the top of the head. She had looked up at him with glistening eyes, but he only turned and left, unconsciously following his best friend. Cye had appeared not to long afterwards, and he looked slightly better than Sage, if only slightly. His skin was damp, and Mia knew that he had spent most of the last day and night in the water, trying to center himself. Cassie was in his eyes as well, but where Sage was haunted, Cye seemed sad, as if he had missed out on something he would always regret. Cye had given her a gentle hug, and had not spoken either except to tell her he would see her soon. No one had brought up what had happened, and for that Mia was infinitely thankful.

Mia held her necklace and her mug tightly, waiting for who she knew would come next. She felt his eyes on her as he entered the room, and as he moved over to sit next to her on the window. Ryo took her mug and sniffed at it, taking a small sip. He made a face.

"Ugh. That's nasty, Mia." Mia just shrugged, smiling slightly at him.

"Everyone's taking off," Ryo said. Mia nodded, looking back out the window. Ryo reached over and took her chin in his hand, gently turning her face back towards him.

"No words?" he asked. Mia looked down at her lap.

"What's there to say?" Mia asked. "Now you guys know everything, the bad guy is gone, and now you know how much we betrayed you. What can I possibly say? I'm so very sorry we hurt you, and I miss Cassie so much it makes me want to cry, but I don't take back any of it, and I would do it all again if I had to. I've had a long time to think about my decisions and I wouldn't change them. Is there anything beyond that you wanted to hear?"

Ryo leaned forward and brushed a strand of hair out of her face.

"Just that you are okay. I'm very worried that you aren't okay. The Mia I knew isn't here." Ryo forced her to look up into his eyes. "I don't see her anymore. She's gone."

"She died, Ryo. Bit by bit, a long time ago in ways I never want to think about again. But you guys are still here, and are still alive, and that's all that matters. I'm not really that important." Mia gave him a brave smile. Ryo just shook his head.

"No, Mia. You're still in there some where; you're just too scared to trust yourself to come out. But you will, one day." Ryo stood up and kissed her the way Sage had.

"And you're wrong by the way," Ryo whispered. "Us being okay isn't all that matters. There's someone here that thinks you being okay matters more than anything else in the world." With that Ryo headed for the door.

"Ryo?" Mia called behind him as he reached the doorway. He turned around, curiously. "I'm really sorry about White Blaze." Her voice cracked as she said it and Ryo nodded sadly at her.

"I'll miss him, too," Ryo replied, without a hint of blame in his voice. "I'll see you later, Mia. Don't forget to call me this time. I really missed you when you were gone." Then he left. Mia wiped the tears out of her eyes and took a large gulp of her drink, knowing what was coming next. Who was coming next. Mia took another large gulp and steeled herself.

-----

The forest was quiet again. The animals that had been disturbed by the cave in had settled, and the birds had finally resumed their singing. There was a lighter feeling now, as if something bad had finally gone and the animals were once again at peace. A man moved quietly through the woods, his footsteps barely making a sound. He walked next to a grazing doe. She looked up at him with liquid brown eyes, trustingly allowing him to stroke his fingers against her fine coat as he passed by, quivering under his touch. Then she bounded off, not afraid, but on to greener fields. The man continued.

He finally found what he was looking for. He stopped and stood silently, his peaceful face darkening. He knelt down before the statue, which was now clothed in a glorious robe of shimmering stone. Her head remained bent, with her hair fanning out over her shoulders. Her hands were folded quietly in her lap, her beautiful face expressionless. He let his hand gently brush down the statues cheek and his voice was thick with emotion.

"We will find a way to rescue you," Cale whispered softly. "Kayura, I will find a way to rescue you. I will not sleep until I do," he swore. The statue remained silent, the way statues do. Cale remained there for a long moment, then felt the pull of the others, telling him that he needed to return, they couldn't hold the barrier to the mortal realm open much longer.

"So weak we are without you," Cale murmured. He leaned forward and touched his lips to the statue's temple, then gracefully rose. He left the clearing quickly, without looking back. If he had, he might have seen the single stone teardrop now standing out on the statue's face, or that one of her hands had stretched out before her. The birds continued to whistle as the rest of the world moved on.

-----

Nikki took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. The man next to her had given up trying to talk to her, and had retreated to reading one of the provided magazines. He was eyeballing one of those new inflatable mattresses, and Nikki wondered if he had any idea that a creature of ultimate terror had almost been unleashed into their world. By the excited look in his eyes as he read the details of the inflatable mattress, he probably didn't. Lucky him. Nikki settled deeper into her seat and tried not to think about anything. That didn't work out too well. The problem with being relatively intelligent and a being a female meant that it could be very hard to shut her mind off. The only person she knew who had a harder time shutting off his head was Rowen. That guy wouldn't stop think and analyzing until the day he died.

Rowen. Nikki bet he was pissed. Rowen was a tough guy, but he hated being left behind. He hated when people walked away from him, whether it was just a conversation or someone he really cared about. He hated to be left, which was probably why Sage was his best friend. Whether anyone realized it or not, Sage was just as dependent as Rowen. Sage just hid it by being around a guy whose personality and dependency overwhelmed his own. Nikki told herself that Sage would get Rowen through everything, and that he would be okay. They would all be okay. Nikki hoped that if she repeated it enough times she would eventually believe it. Right now she thought she was full of shit. She had left them all messes, with only Mia to clean up after them. Nikki didn't think that Mia was going to try very hard. She was messed up far beyond any of the rest of them. Damian had tortured Nikki and Cassie, but he had done things to Mia's mind and body that Nikki couldn't even comprehend. Nikki had seen the look in Mia's eyes when she had activated the seal. Mia knew it was going to kill her, and Mia wanted it to kill her. She was ready for the lie to be over.

Lies. So many lies. Everything had twisted and turned until she wasn't sure she knew what was real and what wasn't anymore. Everything had become so complicated. She had to give the guys credit though, in the last day and a half they had attempted to be kind, if not understanding. Sage and Cye were torn up about Cassie, and Ryo was broken hearted to lose his tiger. Rowen looked lost, and confused. Kento seemed…withdrawn. He hadn't spoken to anyone after they had escaped the cave, silently accepting Sage's healing before he had moved off to be by himself. But they were all trying, which was more than Nikki felt like they deserved.

Cassie was dead. And Nikki and Mia had made sure she died. Nikki wondered if the guys had put that together. That Mia and her had known the seal would kill Cassie once she used it. They hadn't known that she would be the one, they all had believed that they would be the one to finally use it. But once Cassie had activated it, they had made sure that Cassie was the one that died. The old armors hadn't been as powerful as the ones the Ronins wore now, and had they tried to rescue Cassie, even with all of them, they most likely would have all died. Kayura had told Mia, Nikki and Cassie the seal would work, but also the terrible price they would have to pay. That they would have to get close enough to Damian to catch him off guard. It had taken almost a year to catch him off guard just once. And it happened to be a moment when Cassie held the seal. That was how the hand was dealt, and Nikki wouldn't lie and say she wished it had been her. Nikki didn't want to die, she never had. But she didn't want Rowen and the others to die even more, so she had done what she had to. And now she had bolted. That was her right, earned by month after month of horrors at Damian's hands. Now it was over, and she was gone. They could deal with the rest. She was done.

"Are you really, little one?"

Nikki started out of her seat, turning around. One of the passengers behind her looked at her curiously, but other than that everything was normal. Shaking her head in irritation, Nikki sat back down. Nothing was here. She was okay. She breathed a sigh of relief and closed her eyes.

That's when he began to hum. Nikki's eyes snapped open and she froze in her seat. He leaned forward and touched his mouth to her neck, still humming.

"One two, waiting for you…"

Nikki cried out softly in fright even as he grabbed her by the throat, pulling her out of her seat and into the isle.

"Three four, open the door…"

There was that same tearing noise, and a portal opened down the isle in the middle of the plane. Heat waved out of it, along with the stench of sulfur, and Nikki shrieked in terror, kicking and clawing at the thing holding her.

"Five six, show you some tricks…"

Damian dropped down to the ground and began to crawl backwards on all fours towards the portal, dragging her by her throat with him. Nikki grabbed at seats and people in terror, but he was too strong. One of Nikki's nails broke as her fingers scraped down the isle.

"No…" Nikki wept as they got closer to the opening. She could even hear the roar of the creatures waiting for them.

"Seven eight, stand up straight…"

Damian grabbed her by the hair and rose up to a standing position, dangling her as he stepped into the tear. Nikki shrieked one more time as she was drug in too, and the portal snapped shut.

"Nine ten, do it again…"

-----

She wasn't sure how long he had been standing there, but at some point Mia looked up and realized that Kento was in the room, leaning against the door jam, his arms crossed. Her heart skipped a beat and she looked away, then couldn't help looking back. His steady blue eyes were locked on her face and Mia blushed, looking away again. She brought the mug back up to her lips, wishing there was actually liquid in there for her to drink. She also wished that Kento would stop watching her like that, that he would turn around and walk away, letting her sink into some kind of beautiful ambiguity. But he seemed to have no such inclination, remaining where he was with those blue eyes and an expression on his face that she couldn't read.

"You're staring," Mia finally said, unable to stand the silence.

"…Yeah." It wasn't much of an answer, and the way his deep voice rumbled only served to unsettle her more. She didn't want to look at him, didn't want to face him, didn't want to see the disgust in his eyes. From anyone else she could take it, but not him. Mia forced herself to relax her expression into one of uncaring callousness. Like she didn't care at all.

"If you don't mind Kento, I'd like to be alone right now. I'm pretty tired." She was surprised she got it out without mumbling the words, but flinched at her tone. She hadn't meant to come off so…cold. Kento however didn't reply. Instead of leaving he straightened and moved farther into the room. She caught a scent of his spicy aftershave and with the smell rose up images unbidden in her mind. Images of being in his arms, of leaning against him for strength, of wanting to kiss him so badly…

Mia flushed and turned her face to the window, trying to ignore the man that had grabbed a chair and turned it, sitting in it backwards as he rested his chin on folded arms.

"What are you doing, Kento?" Mia asked, wincing again as her voice became harsh.

"Waiting for you to finally look at me. To finally admit that I'm here," he replied softly. Mia's heart lurched again, but she looked down at her knees.

"I know you're here Kento," she said. "You've been here all along."

"Yeah, Mia. I have." He stressed the last two words.

"Kento, what do you want?" Mia asked softly, unable to keep this up much longer. She wanted to burst into tears and throw herself into his arms, telling him how awful it all was, how much it hurt when she realized that it wasn't his arms she was in, but Damian's. That she had betrayed them all because she had let herself believe that they could be together, that her biggest weakness was how badly she wanted to be with him. That she loved his hair and his eyes and his shoulders and the way that he always waited, letting her be what she needed to be, caring about her for the person she truly was. But now she was only a shell, that she had lost so much of herself, and that she was dirty and no matter how long ago everything had happened, she still felt dirty. That she had lied to him, lied to his face, using the fact that he trusted her implicitly and leading him and his friends around by the nose until she got the chance to play her hand. That she didn't deserve him, and she was ashamed every time he looked at her with those big blue eyes, and it broke her heart. That she was in love with him and had said nothing for years because she couldn't…she wasn't….

Mia wilted inside, and her shoulders slumped. Her hand reached up and clutched her necklace like a lifeline. Kento scooted his chair closer, reaching out and taking her mug out of her hands. He put one large rough hand on her leg and gently tugged at her, pulling her so that she was facing him. Their legs touched at the knees, the low wood back of the chair the only thing separating them. Kento's hand remained on her leg, his thumb rubbing soothing circles on the scratchy jean fabric. He ached to touch her, to hold her, and it showed in his eyes. But Mia's eyes were on her lap, and she didn't see.

"Mia…" Kento started, then cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I just wanted to say that…"

"What?" she asked, waiting for the worst. Waiting to hear him condemn her.

"That I was scared to death when you activated that seal. That I thought you were going to die. I saw your hand shove in the spearhead...Even now, after it's all over, it still has me shook up. You stopped breathing and I lost it. That's the only reason I was able to get us out of there. I saw you lying there and I was so angry and scared, I threw everything I had into it. That's the reason I was able to tear us out of that place." This time Kento looked down and Mia looked up. She reached her hand out to touch him, then let it drop. There was so much she wanted to say. So much she couldn't say. Finally she murmured,

"I'm sorry I worried you."

It was lame and sounded disconnected. Kento actually flinched. But gamely he tried again, moving his hand to rest on her knee.

"We all…none of us blame you, you know? We're still trying to understand, and a lot of stuff is still really fuzzy, but we want to understand. We don't want to have our group torn apart anymore than it already is." Mia's head snapped up.

"You don't remember everything?" she asked quickly. Too quickly. This time when he flinched it was inwardly where she couldn't see. There was a spark of hope in her eyes, a spark that he misunderstood. Kento let his hand slide off of her leg to hang by his side, trying to hide his disappointment. He tried to tell himself that he'd been hiding his feelings for this long, he might as well play along. It was what she wanted, and damn it, but he could never stop himself from doing everything he could to give her what she wanted. Kento plastered on a stupid rueful grin, scratching his head.

"Naw. There's lots of stuff I don't remember. Just vague outlines, most of it centered around the battles."

Mia smiled in stark relief, sealing the lie. Kento's heart sank. Her hand went up to the necklace she wore at her throat, a silver chain with tiny emerald chips set in a heart shape, held together by a silver shell. Kento gave a small smile, not being able to help himself.

"This is beautiful," he said touching her necklace. Their fingers brushed together once before Mia let her hand drop down. She didn't say anything. Kento let the stone fall and he moved back.

"It reminds me of you," he said softly, standing up. He stared at her for a long silent minute then gave her a weak smile. "I'll see you later, Mia," he said softly.

Mia nodded, not trusting herself to speak as the broad shouldered man turned around and walked away. Then she crushed the necklace in her grip, tears welling in her eyes.

"That's what you said when you gave it to me, Kento," she whispered brokenheartedly. Tears ran down her face as the front door closed shut, then she shook herself. She dropped her necklace, wiping at her face with the backs of her hands. She went upstairs to her room and went to the closet. There was a suitcase there and clean clothes in the dresser. She had only been gone less than a week. No one would have missed her by now and she had a job still waiting for her. She had sworn a long time ago that she would always do her part to help the Ronin Warriors. But she could do her part just as well far away from here. Taking a deep breath and forcing everything out of her head as much as she could, Mia picked up the suitcase.

-----

Nikki screamed and something grabbed her shoulder, shaking her.

"Ma'am! Ma'am! Are you okay?!"

Nikki's eyes flew open and she jerked away violently, throwing her hands up protectively. The man next to her in the plane was staring at her and a flight attendant hovered overhead, both with concerned expressions.

"Ma'am?" the attendant said. "You were having a nightmare and started screaming. Are you alright?" Nikki stared at them in wide-eyed shock. She looked around. No one was there except for the normal passengers, all of which seemed to be staring at her right now. There was no portal. There was no Damian. There was only her. Nikki took several short hard breathes, then managed to nod her head. The guy next to her leaned over and gave her a sympathetic look.

"Are you sure you're okay?" he asked her. Nikki looked out the window, away from the staring eyes and out at the ocean glistening blue beneath her. The ocean that and the plane that were taking her far away from Japan.

"Yes, I'm okay," Nikki whispered. Then she added almost inaudibly, "Or at least I will be." She took another deep breath and rested her head against the window. The plane engine rumbled as she watched the wings soar through the sky, wings that were finally taking her home.

The End

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Wow. I finally finished this beast. It took a little over seven months, which I don't think is terribly long for a fic of this length. I would like to thank everyone for being so very supportive along the way, and a double thanks to everyone who reviewed. As I said from the beginning, any criticism is welcomed. Good and bad, it makes me a better writer. After Ch16 being so long, it seems odd to have an epilogue of this length, and I know there's a lot of questions still unanswered. But I did that for two reasons. First, I put a lot of information in this fic that probably didn't make much sense as you read it the first time, but that is important and gives more info on what happened. Knowing this might get some of you guys with too much time on your hands to go back and reread BTL and CTJ…I know, wishful thinking. Lol! The second reason for not answering all the questions is that I am planning to write more about these characters. So if I tell you everything I have to tell, then what's the fun of that?

One last thing I wanted to do was thank some specific people for being extra supportive, and making sure this fic was finished: Ghost of the Dawn for pushing and pulling and telling me when I sucked and patting me on the head when I did good. (She kept me writing more often than she knows.) Teahleafs for being such a great cheerleader, and sticking with my fics from the very beginning. (huggles) And Anliya for giving me good fics to read when I didn't want to write, always being a sweetie, and definitely inspiring me. (You did! I retreat to your stuff when I don't want to deal with my own.) Thanks a bunch you guys. Yeah! I'm done with my fic! Lol. Later everyone.

-em