Hey people! Back again. For the end! Who's pumped?! Eh, I'm neutral. I liked writing this story, it's kinda sad/happy to finish. But anyway: a couple notes. 1) I re-uploaded the previous chapter (18) with a slight change. Nothing huge; just a couple sentences near the end of the chapter. and 2) I like to thank my reviewers or the people who faved/alerted my stories, so at the end of this chapter there's a little thank you blurb. Okay, lets get on with it then! Please read and review. Tell me your parting thoughts, any questions (I'll try to answer 'em, if ffnet doesn't act up again), etc.
At Kenshin's delicate touch, Kaoru's eyes overflowed with fresh tears. The feel of his hand against her cheek seemed to break open a wound she hadn't known she'd had in her heart, and the pain and sorrow that had been caught there rushed through her body, leaving her trembling.
"I was so afraid you would die… I thought that I wouldn't be able to get here in time. While my body slept time was so strange; I couldn't tell if an hour had passed or a sennight. So when you left, I fought to wake, terrified that I was already too late," Kaoru said. Kenshin gathered her into his arms, embracing her gently yet warmly. "I fought so hard, because…because I love you."
Kenshin held her and they stayed like that for the space of several heartbeats. Then, he said, softly: "Sessha is not worthy of Kaoru-dono's love, that sessha is not."
His speech was humble to almost a painful level. Kaoru pulled away from him and met his eyes. She noted absently that they were vivid violet, with no trace of amber or gold in them. She lifted her hands and placed them on either side of his face, staring into his eyes so that he could not mistake her honesty.
"There are none of this world that are unworthy of love, least of all you. I give you my love based on your heart, not your worth."
Kenshin leaned forward until his forehead met hers. Kaoru closed her eyes, feeling the softness of Kenshin's hair where it fell against her face.
The battle above ground, outside the palace on the dead earth, had ended the moment Shishio's life did. The obake, created from the sorcerer's power, had disappeared the same instant in which he died. The power had gone from him and from his spells.
Though the sudden disappearance of their opponents had taken the King's forces by surprise, they soon overcame their astonishment and turned to the activities normal to armies after battle. The living walked the battlefield, giving aid to those wounded who needed it, granting mercy to those too far gone to save. Here and there, brothers, fathers, and friends knelt and mourned at the side of those less fortunate than they. Of the one hundred and fifty men the King had led into battle, one third would not return home.
It had been a while since the obake had vanished; long enough for the King to take stock of his remaining people, and to come up short one Messenger and one red-haired swordsman.
"We should perhaps send a group into the palace to see if they survived," he said to the Captain of his Guard. Sanosuke was winding a bandage around his hand, having injured it in the fighting.
"I would agree with your Highness, but I am not sure it would be a good idea to send people into the sorcerer's stronghold. For all we know, there are traps set to prevent such a thing."
"It is not necessary, in any case," said Aoshi, who was standing nearby. As they had fought through the obake, moving amid the chaos of battle, he and Katsura had ended up fighting side-by-side. The bonds that form between comrades in battle are closer even than those of blood and kin; Aoshi now stood at an honoured place beside Katsura, and between the three of them- King, Okashira, and Guard Captain- a flask of water was passed without ceremony.
"What do you mean?" Sanosuke asked, confused. Aoshi jerked his chin toward the east, where, across the desolation, two figures were making their way closer. Kenshin and Kaoru trudged painfully into the midst of their countrymen, leaning on each other for support. Sanosuke ran toward them, as best his injuries and fatigue allowed.
"Sano…" Kaoru gave him a tired smile. "You're alive. I'm glad."
"Katsura-sama," Kenshin said, inclining his head to the King as the sovereign came up behind his Guard Captain. "Shishio is dead."
And then both of them- Kenshin and Kaoru- collapsed, unconscious.
When next Kaoru woke, she opened her eyes to a broad canopy of white linen over her head. The fabric moved in the light breeze that passed over it. Kaoru blinked.
"Alright!" exclaimed a voice next to her. "You're awake finally!"
Kaoru turned her head to the side and saw the young ninja, Misao, sitting on the ground, one leg swathed in bandages and stretched out before her. The adolescent was grinning at Kaoru.
"It seems like anytime I see you, you're sleeping!"
"Are we still…?" Kaoru asked muzzily. Misao anticipated the question and pressed in with an answer before the words left her mouth.
"Yep, we're still in the wasteland. Somebody just managed to produce a tent, so they've moved the wounded under it.
"Hey, you killed Shishio, didn't you? Was it scary? Did he use a sword, or just his magic to fight? Was Himura there, too? Or was it Himura who actually killed him?" The questions came at her very quickly, flying out of the young girl's mouth. Kaoru feebly lifted a hand to stem the flow. A chuckle sounded off to the side.
"Young miss Misao here has been waiting for you to wake so she could have somebody to talk at," joked Gensai as he came around to the bit of cloth Kaoru was laid out on. Kaoru blinked. She hadn't known that the old man had accompanied them to the battle. But she supposed it made sense that a Healer would be brought. The elderly man smile down at her. "How are you feeling?"
Kaoru took a breath, and felt for the first time the restrictive bandages that had been wrapped around her torso. She looked down at her body. All her wounds had been treated and bound. She smiled back at the Healer.
"Better now. Not so much pain. How is Kenshin?"
"He was asleep, same as you, last I saw him. His wounds were a bit more extensive than yours, but I expect he'll be just fine," replied Gensai. "He is right over there."
Kaoru strained to look where Gensai had gestured, and could just make out the bright shock of red hair on one of the other figures that lay on the ground in the tent. Then the effort that the action of sitting up required became too much and she relaxed back down.
"Could you help me move over to him?" she asked quietly, her voice softening with emotion. Gensai and Misao exchanged a knowing look, and then moved their gaze back to Kaoru. The Messenger returned the gaze levelly, her heart in her eyes. Gensai chuckled.
"So that's the way of it, then? Alright. I can get some of the uninjured to carry you."
"No, I-" Kaoru winced at the word 'carry.' But Gensai adopted a stern look.
"Now now, no arguing; I don't want you moving unnecessarily and re-opening those wounds," he said. Kaoru lowered her eyes, and the Healer left to find somebody who would help move her.
Kaoru hadn't gotten to where she was by being the sort that gave up easily. Almost as soon as the old man had left the tent, she was levering herself up slightly on one trembling arm. Misao gaped at her companion.
"What are you doing? You're not gonna try to-- But Gensai said to stay still!"
"I won't be carried to his side," Kaoru told her, already beginning to pant from exertion. She got herself turned so that she was on her belly facing Kenshin, and started half-crawling, half-dragging herself over to him. "I can go to him myself."
Misao, immobilized by her wounded leg and unable to do anything but watch, followed Kaoru's progress across the tent with wide eyes. It was not a particularly long distance, but Kaoru was injured and exhausted. It seemed vast to her weak body.
"Kaoru! Please, stop, you're hurting yourself!" Misao begged, distressed. Kaoru did not reply.
The movement did hurt her wounds, the bandage across her chest pressing painfully into her skin as her breathing became ragged and heavy. She'd worked herself to her limit, and her body wasn't letting her forget it. But she made it to Kenshin's prone form, her fingers twisting into the material of his sleeve. She looked at his face, gentled by sleep, and took comfort in his nearness. She laid her head down beside his shoulder, face pressed to his gi.
When Gensai returned, with Aoshi and Sano in tow, Misao looked at them with tears on her face. The three men blinked at the girl, surprised by her tears. Sniffling, she wordlessly pointed toward where Kaoru curled against Kenshin's side. Gensai went to them immediately.
"Foolish child! Has she no regard for her own recovery?" he said, but the words were without rancor. Kaoru did not stir, having fallen asleep at Kenshin's side, drained of what little energy she'd had left. Aoshi went to Misao. His face showed no emotion, but his concern was still obvious.
"Why are you crying?"
"She… she just dragged herself over to him, even though you could tell it was hurting her. It was… she…" Misao whispered, wiping her cheeks with the heels of her hands. Sano stuck his hands into his pockets, slouching where he stood. He smiled a little wryly at the sleeping Kaoru.
"Ah, jou-chan, it hit you hard, didn't it?" He shook his head, smile widening a little bit. "Well, at least now I don't have to try to lift her up and carry her over there."
"What a terrible thing to say!" Misao exclaimed, suddenly completely devoid of any trace of tears. She groped for something to throw at Sano, as he cowered back with raised hands.
"Hey, hey! I just meant because my hand is injured! Really! Aoshi! Control your subordinate!"
The unflustered leader of the Oniwabanshu lifted an eyebrow.
"You brought this upon yourself," he replied, surreptitiously handing Misao one of her kunai. "Perhaps you should practice thinking before you speak?"
Kenshin woke a few hours later, along with Kaoru, who had woken when Gensai came to check her bandages again. The Healer treated her gently, but the light touches on her wounds still brought her up from sleep.
"Kaoru?" Kenshin questioned sleepily, looking at her with slight confusion.
"We're in a Healer tent," she said. Then to Gensai: "Did I open them?"
Gensai looked up from the wound on her arm he was re-bandaging. "No. Luckily enough."
"I have found in my experiences that love either makes one very lucky, or takes all that luck away," said a voice.
"Hiko," Kaoru smiled at him. "You seem to enjoy appearing suddenly in unexpected places."
Hiko crossed his arms. "I am a wizard. Part of what we do is appear where we are needed."
"Oh, I thought you just liked to look mysterious and powerful," Kaoru grinned. The release of all the fear and grief that had been caused by Shishio had made her rather giddy. Kenshin struggled upright; Gensai helped him.
"Shishou," he said. "Do you know to whom the power has passed on?"
'Oh, that's right,' Kaoru recalled abruptly, 'There are always two with power in the world. One master, on apprentice. Now that Shishio is dead, there must be another.'
Hiko was shaking his head. "No, the new power has not been revealed to me yet."
Then the wizard turned his dark eyes on Kaoru. "But two other interesting things have revealed themselves, and they seem to have some connection to you, King's Messenger."
"Me?" she said, surprised. "What are you talking about?"
"The King has given me responsibility over them, as they also seem to have had some connection with the sorcerer as well," Hiko continued, and gestured to somebody behind him, outside the tent. Two figures, dwarfed next to Hiko's tall, brawny form, stepped into sight. "After all the obake disappeared, these two were still hanging around, and when approached, they threw down their swords and begged leniency in your name."
Kaoru couldn't help the broad, genuinely happy smile that stretched over her face. Enishi and Sōjirō, with identical smiles on their bright faces, knelt before he and pressed their foreheads to the ground.
"You succeeded," Sōjirō beamed at her when they straightened. "I knew you would."
"I am glad that you two were able to reclaim your bodies," Kaoru replied. "I did not want you to die for Shishio."
"Neither did we," laughed Enishi. The happy, upturned face of the kneeling boy was such a change from the dead, vacant one she had remembered that she heart lifted looking at him. The difference was visible in both of them, in truth. The smile that graced Sōjirō's face was vastly different even from the smile his body had worn as a puppet. The two young boys fairly glowed with life.
"We owe our lives to you, so we thought that we could swear to serve you," Sōjirō told her. Kaoru was surprised.
"Serve me? Oh no, I couldn't…" she paused then, struck by a sudden thought. She continued slowly: "If you wish it… I can bespeak the King for you, and find you places in his service…"
"Would he accept the service of two such as we?" Enishi asked dubiously. "If it were possible, we would gladly serve him, but will he want us?"
"Katsura-sama values and trusts Kaoru," Kenshin spoke up. "And I can see into your hearts and I know that you are both trustworthy. I will bespeak you as well, if you wish it."
Enishi and Sōjirō bowed low.
"Touching," rumbled Hiko dryly. He nudged the two boys with his foot. "Come along, then. There are matters that require my attention, and as I am to be responsible for you, it is with me you must come."
"Thank you, thank you, Messenger," they said as they left, eyes shining with hope.
"I am setting the spell that will take the remainder of the army back to the King's Palace in Edo," Hiko informed them as he left. "So if you feel a slight lurching, don't worry. It's just the magic."
"Aw man!" exclaimed Misao in distress, "Last time made me all nauseous!"
"Edo," Kaoru repeated joyously. "So then the city is no longer a nest of monsters?"
"No," Kenshin replied. "They would have died with Shishio."
Kaoru sighed in happiness. "We really did succeed."
"Yes," Kenshin murmured. "We really did."
A few months later, they had finally scrubbed the last of Shishio's filth from the cities that had fallen under his command. In Edo, the last of the stench of blood and death was washed away to cheers and celebration. Though Sano, the surviving Oniwabanshu (including Misao, Gensai and Aoshi), Katsura, Enishi and Sōjirō were elsewhere, enjoying the public festivities, Kenshin and Kaoru stood on the engawa of the Royal Palace and watched the hanabi as they popped and crackled in the darkening sky.
Kaoru sighed in contentment and leaned back in Kenshin's arms. He put his nose near her ear and tightened the embrace. "So how are your trainees doing?"
"Very well," she replied laconically. "I've said it before, but I shall say it again: Enishi and Sōjirō will be amazing Messengers. I am proud to be their teacher."
"They are honoured to be your students," Kenshin said. "You know there are ballads being written of the Last King's Messenger?"
"How can I forget," Kaoru replied sourly, "when every single musician in Edo with half a measure of talent wants to honour me by performing their own version of the tale?"
"Laugh all you like, but don't forget that not one of them has forgotten to include the 'undead swordsman' that apparently was 'so struck by her beauty and innocence' that he 'loved her at first sight and swore to serve her in her mission.'" Kaoru twisted her head back to give Kenshin a look. He simply smiled.
"Oh I haven't forgotten. I just don't mind. It isn't far from the truth, really," he said calmly. Kaoru laughed and wrapped her arms over his.
"Charmer," she accused. Kenshin chuckled again, and Kaoru thrilled at the sound. She loved it when she got Kenshin to laugh; granted, it had gotten infinitely easier to do so in the months after the death of Shishio. But it still made her impossibly happy when Kenshin's lighter character was made evident.
'He really has changed since then,' she mused. 'And I am glad for it. His laugh is beautiful.'
"Have you heard from Yahiko recently?" she asked him.
"No," he replied, "but if I know my shishou, he is working Yahiko so hard that the poor boy barely has time to breathe."
About ten days after the fall of Shishio, Hiko had appeared in the King's Court and had declared Yahiko his apprentice. Everyone had been rather shocked, Yahiko as much as anybody else, but when Kaoru told Kenshin of it, all the redhead had said was: "I thought I sensed the power rising in him."
Kaoru had been so surprised that she thought it some kind of joke at first. A small part of her still marveled at the fact that the boy who had been so much a younger brother to her was now an apprentice wizard, learning the finer points of the Greater Magicks from the Master.
"I suppose that the next time I see him, I won't be able to tease him and call him Yahiko-kun without risking being turned into a marsh frog or something of an even less savory nature, will I?"
"Oh I'm pretty sure he'd rather just sling a few insults and teases right back at you. It's hard to bicker with a marsh frog," Kenshin replied, and they both smiled at the thought. A few hanabi exploded above the city, and the sounds of revelry drifted up to their ears on the wind. Kaoru was filled with a vast sense of comfort and joy. She broke the contented silence that they sat in with softly spoken words.
"I love you."
Kenshin captured one of her hands in his: "And I you, koishii."
sessha- this one. A very humble form of self-address.
engawa- the porch-like structure that wraps around Japanese houses. A traditional architectural element.
OKAY! So that's the end. Hopefully, I wrapped up all the lingering threads. Hopefully, my lurvely readers (that's you) enjoyed it. I enjoyed writing it, and I'm very glad that you guys liked it well enough to read it. So I think some feet-kissing is in order:
THANKS TO MY REVIEWERS/PEOPLE WHO PUT THE STORY IN FAVORITES/ON ALERT (in no particular order)
Anonymous but very interested
Scarred Sword Heart
Boring Green Girl
The Purple Ghost
Tigris T Draconis
White Lily of Devine Light
Bumbleflies and Butterbees
Evil Long Penname Having Individual End
Moonlight Star Phoenix
Steam Powered Aeroplane
Holy heck in a handbasket, there were a lot of you! Aww, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside now. One more time: THANKS TO ALL OF YOU, including those who I haven't mentioned that also read my fic. Cheers.