17 . 6 . 08

So. This is the end. I hope you enjoy the final chapter!

Disclaimer: Cordelia Albany still does not belong to me. Clar the Pirate is fantastic.

"And so, as every fairy tale ends, 'They live happily ever after. The End.'"

The Real Cinderella --Crayola Color Sky

Jody woke up to see someone creep into the unlit back room. He slid his legs from underneath Meriwether's as smoothly as he could and made his way to the door.

If it's the doctor, I'm going to feel incredibly stupid, he thought, repressing a yawn and looking in.

A shape was bent over the sleeping princess, holding a knife.

"Hey!" Jody shouted, hoping to startle him as he lunged.

The figure stood straight up, and Jody pinned him to the floor with little effort, though he, surprisingly, almost wriggled free before Jody smashed the knife hand violently against the floor, eliciting a gasp.

"What is happening?" Roderic said, falling out of the narrow cot and jumping instantly to his feet.

"Someone else is trying to murder the Princess," Jody said through gritted teeth, holding the figure securely despite his desperate attempts to escape.

Roderic fumbled to light a lantern while Katharine wordlessly propped herself up on one elbow to observe the proceedings, as if third time attempted murder was nothing too interesting. As the lantern flickered to light, the unrepentant face surprised both men.



"Jody," she said flatly. "Long time no see."

"Since when are you an assassin?" Jody asked.

"Samantha?" Roderic said, sounding strangled.

Jody twisted his head around to look at him, question forgotten.

"How do you know her?" he asked aggressively, registering the disbelieving, panicked look on his face. "Why do you look guilty? If you hurt her—"

"The fraternal affection is touching, but you're a little late," Samantha said coldly.

Jody's jaw tightened.

"What happened to you?" he asked.

"Love happened, Jody," she said, smiling. "I loved the best man anyone could have wished for, but he didn't even try to love me back. The one time I couldn't stand up for myself, the one time I could have used your help, you weren't there. Now, I'm taking care of the problem myself, and you show up. Thanks for nothing, Joe."

"You thought killing Katharine would make me love you?" Roderic said faintly.

"You're not thinking clearly, Sammo," Jody said worriedly, helping her off the floor while surreptitiously pocketing her knife.

"Oh, Roderic, you look terrible," Samantha said in concern, taking in his tattered peasant's clothes and bandaged arm.

Without even a shift in weight, she sprung and flung her arms around Roderic and kissed him violently, ruthlessly, until he grabbed her shoulders and held her at arm's length. Her eyes were glinting and wild, and a knowing expression fitted her smile.

Both Roderic and Jody had the urge to cry, but they both overcame it fairly easily, Jody by yanking her arms behind her back and jerking her away from Roderic, and Roderic by sitting down hard on the end of Katharine's bed and gritting his teeth. There was something else to be said.

"You are going to die for this," he said quietly, the royal severity in his tone.

Samantha looked stricken. Jody looked hostile.

"No!" she whispered, tears pooling in her eyes. "You can't kill me for loving you!"

"It is not – loving me that you are being punished for. You are being punished for the irresponsibility of your actions." He paused, the firm kingly aspect of him under attack by her weeping. "With some careful talking, I might be able to get you a life sentence."

Samantha glared at Katharine.

"I should have killed you the first time."

No one had time to react to that revelation.

"That's enough," Katharine said coldly, rising from her bed as she might have from a royal throne.

Her manner drew respect, unwillingly from Samantha, despite her disheveled and altogether shocking appearance.

"I have heard quite enough of your begging and blathering, miss. Rise from the floor, hold yourself like the respectable woman you are not, look me in the eye, and give me a reason why you shouldn't be sentenced to death. You have tried to kill me twice. Speak, now!"

Samantha's glare would have weakened a lesser opponent, even with the tears still welling in her eyes.

"I love him," she spat, "and I want what's best for him."

"Were you made the orchestrator of the universe? Pity, I've missed the announcement," Katharine said scathingly. Roderic had to wince at the biting sarcasm.

"You're a heartless woman," Samantha seethed. "You will ruin him, beyond repair. I was doing the world a favor."

Katharine held her eyes.

"I rather think that killing the woman he loves would ruin him more."

Samantha burst into tears again, sinking to the floor. Roderic glanced at Katharine, but her mask was set on her face, making her coolly indifferent.

"Jody, if you please," Katharine said, gesturing toward the puddle of Samantha.

Jody looked distinctly indistinct. This was Sammy. His little Sammy! I can't just cart her away like a common criminal!

"I can't," Jody said, appalled at the gravely quality of his voice.

"Jody, I'm not asking you to wield the axe," she said, though her tone had softened. "Please just make sure she doesn't leave while someone fetches the butcher."

After a few moments of muted protest, Roderic agreed to help Katharine from the room, though he insisted on finding the butcher himself. Jody had the feeling that he was only agreeing because he didn't want his wife in the same room as Samantha.

Jody lowered himself painfully to sit beside Samantha, looking at the woman he regretted barely knowing. Her hair: that was what had defined her as a Flannlin. Now, long and luxurious, it was the exact same shade as his own and their father's. There were hints and traces of their father and her mother splayed over her features, hardened by the passing of time since he had last seen her, five years ago.

It was haunting how much she had grown up in those short years. She was a carefree girl at her sister's wedding, excited at her liberation from the bossy older sister, but tearful at their parting. She was quite normal, Jody had thought. She must have moved to the palace after that. But why? And why didn't she send him word? What had happened to her at home?

He put a large hand on her arm, and she whipped her head up. She stared impassively at him, sniffling.

"What?" she said thickly.

Of all the questions he wanted to ask, the only one he could seem to voice was,

"Why the Prince?"

Samantha wiped her eyes and nose with her already drenched sleeve and sighed.

"You've spent time with him, I wager. You should know! He's so caring, and sensitive, and he protects who he loves. They matter to him more than life itself. I fell for him, Jody. What's this business I heard at the castle about you rescuing Celeste, and Roderic giving you two a cottage? Wasn't Lee the one that was smitten with her way back when?"

"He died in the war," Jody said.

Samantha nodded, looking faintly sympathetic.

"So you got her?"

"I didn't 'get her,' Sammy. That's a little crude. She was pregnant when he died, so I married her to take care of her and baby Mara Leigh."

"Another loveless marriage," she growled. "Please don't tell me you deluded yourselves into thinking you're in love with each other, too!"

"I'll say nothing of the kind," Jody said ambiguously.

"Good," Samantha said. "Because you know it can't really be love when you're forced together. You may think it's love, but it just won't last."

Jody leaned back against the wall and let out a breath.

"Samantha," he said after a pause, hesitating and feeling very self-conscious. "I think love might be a bit different than you think. You can love anyone, and surely you can grow some romantic feelings for someone after being close to them for a long time. But more than romance, love is a mutual caring, a selflessness, and without even realizing it, you've crossed the border between intense friendship and romantic love. It's not something that just happens, or at least, not all at once."

Samantha studied him.

"You've deluded yourself. Poor wretch."

"Celeste! What are you doing here?" Katharine said in surprise, starting to stand from her position on the couch.

Roderic held her firmly down, smiling at Celeste.

"Hello, Mrs. Flannlin. How do you fare?"

"Much better now that I'm here where all the action is," Celeste said with a nervous smile and a wobbly curtsy. "Cordelia came by and asked me if I wanted to come with her to town. Kayla said she could manage without me, so here I am! Where's Jody?"

"Watching the murderess-to-be," Katharine said lightly. "In there." She gestured toward the back room.

Celeste's green eyes widened in surprise.

"Who did she try to kill?" Celeste asked.

"Me," Katharine said, almost carelessly. "Again. Jody seemed to know her. Samantha? Sammy?"

"His half-sister?" Celeste said, eyes widening further.

She strode toward the closed door.

"I think young Sammy was different than older Sammy," Katharine commented wryly, pushing Roderic's restraining hands off her midsection. "Let me up. I'm not an invalid."

"Drink some more water," Roderic said, handing her a glass.

She rolled her eyes with a longsuffering air and took an exaggerated swig of water. Roderic allowed her to sit up, then, and he sat beside her. Their fingers found each other without a conscious thought from either of them. Roderic suddenly thought of something.

"Wait, how do you know Celeste?"

"I have been staying with her for the past several days," Katharine said, not bothering to keep a laugh out of her voice.

"There are worse places you could have stayed," Roderic said with a sigh, not wishing to envision any of the worse homes he had seen in dreams.

"They had seven children," Katharine said with a smile.

"Oh, I am terribly sorry."

"I like children," she said, looking over at him.

"You like children?" Roderic said, taken aback.

A swift knock on the door saved either of them from an answer.

"You highnesses?" a man said, poking his head in, then smiling.

"Hello, Anthony," Katharine said with one of her brilliant smiles, though Roderic saw that this was not a genuine one.

He knelt before Roderic, bowing his head.

"I am Sir Anthony, my prince."

"To what do I own this honor?" Roderic asked tactfully, looking over at Katharine with a questioning look.

"I have come to offer my humble services to you in whatever way they can be used, as a member of the Justice Preservation League."

"He rescued me from the vampires," Katharine whispered in his ear.

"You and your League have my heartfelt thanks," Roderic said earnestly, taking the information in stride, "for rescuing my princess. Are you represented in my council?"

"No, your majesty," Anthony said, looking up, but still kneeling.

"I will grant your League a position in my personal council, where your voice can be heard."

"Thank you for your generosity, your majesty," Anthony said, breathless with joy.

Roderic didn't notice Katharine's stricken eyes until Anthony had left.

"What is wrong, Katharine?"

She looked at him, her face set strangely, and Roderic began to have the feeling that he had made a big mistake before she burst into laughter.

"You're going to have – a heck of a time – trying to tone down their ideals," she said through fits of laughter. "Oh, Roderic. I should have warned you."

Roderic shook his head and laughed too.

"I suppose I am too impetuous."

"That's a change from what you were before," Katharine said, calming her laughter somewhat.

Roderic considered this thoughtfully, but Joseph's burst of sleep-singing and Meriwether consequently waking from the armchair with a startled scream kept him from any earnest consideration.

"Katharine! You're alright!" she said, after she'd discovered that someone other than her and Joseph were in the room.

She rushed over to the couch and sat next to Katharine, beaming.

"I'm so glad you're alright!" she said happily.

"You could have been killed, Meriwether," Katharine said sternly. "I don't know what they were thinking, allowing you to come with them." The corner of her mouth tipped up fondly. "I'm glad you're alright too, Mer."

Celeste came back from the doorway with a strange look on her face, but when Katharine questioned it, she said it was nothing.

"Have you heard that the Prince and both Terriotian Princesses have been found?" the woman asked, filling her basket with bread.

"Katharine too? How badly was she mangled?" the sour man asked, holding out a hand for the woman's money.

"No, alive, you ninny. Here, that should be right. It's true! And a godsend, too, when talk of uprisings and the breaking of the treaty were being tossed around like hot flapjacks."

"A godsend, surely," the man said, triple counting her change and nodding a goodbye to the woman. "I won't believe they're all alive 'til I see 'em with my own peepers."

"Roderic, we need to leave for the capital!"

Roderic startled awake, recalling with amusement those days where he actually woke up normally. Johnathon stood in front of him, dusty from the road.

"The carriages will be arriving within the hour. We need to make sure that you are ready to go, and—"

He froze when he saw Katharine. She seemed oblivious to the awkwardness the other man was obviously experiencing as his eyes darted to the door, the ceiling, Roderic, the window, the floor, and anything other than her.

"Hello, Johnathon," Roderic said, smiling, and endeavoring to ease his friend's awkwardness. "I see you wasted no time getting here."

"Yes, well, no; no, I didn't," Johnathon said, clearing his throat. "Well, the carriages are arriving. One is carrying King Gollath and Princes Everard and Willnim; they wish to take Princess Meriwether and go home to Terriot at once, to show her to their country, no doubt. You two are going straight to the capital, where your father has organized a festival in honor of your safe returns. You two will be there to still everyone's tongues on rumors of bodies being found and other such nonsense."

"Johnathon, talk with me a moment," Katharine said, giving Roderic a pointed look.

"That sounds marvelous, Johnathon," Roderic said to him, then turned to Katharine.

He paused a moment, then decided to overrule his gut feeling of jealousy – something he seemed to be feeling an annoying amount of lately – and leave the room. He set out on a brisk walk in the afternoon sun, nodding and smiling at the villagers who beamed and waved at him. The cool air cleared his mind, and he felt more awake than he had a few moments ago. The quaint town wasn't much to look at, but once Roderic started walking, he found it hard to stop. He circled the town several times and found himself humming the song Joseph sang under his breath as he walked.

The carriages arrived with fanfare and trumpets, making Roderic grin.

"The royalty of Terriot has arrived! Make way for the King!"

He trotted over to where the carriage was stopping, in front of the doctor's house where Johnathon's horse was tethered.

"Welcome, my lords," he said, slightly out of breath, as he made it to the carriage. King Gollath and Prince Willnim were already disembarking. "I apologize for my poor appearance."

"Thank you, Roderic," King Gollath said largely, bowing marginally.

"Thank you," Willnim echoed, looking around distractedly. "Where is Meriwether?"

"Father!" Meriwether said, sweeping out of the house as fast as propriety allowed her.

Willnim's face lit up as he embraced his daughter, kissing her repeatedly.

"Meriwether, oh, your mother has been so worried about you! You must tell us all about it once you're safe at home," he said.

Prince Everard hugged her tightly as well, though his eyes wandered to the doctor's house anxiously.

"Welcome, Prince Everard," Roderic said, bowing. "Katharine is inside resting. If you will join me, I am sure she will be delighted to see you."

A hurried reunion among the Terriotian royalty took place while the horses were switched to begin their long journeys home. A change of clothes had been thoughtfully packed for all the royalty, and they were all grateful to have their own clothing back again. All too soon, the servants declared that it was time to go, if they were to be in time for the festival the next morning.

Everyone flurried about, waving goodbye to old friends and new, and some tearful hugs were exchanged between Katharine and Celeste. Celeste was the more tearful of the two, but Roderic thought he saw some moisture in Katharine's eyes before she turned away. Jody and Roderic just smiled at each other and waved. Cordelia hugged them all gaily, laughed heartily at Joseph's ballad commemorating the whole ordeal, then swung her leg over her horse and rode off before anyone could tell her that her parents were looking for her.

Meriwether hugged Roderic and Katharine both, cried a little, then boarded her own carriage. The Princes and King exchanged formal bows, friendly handshakes, and one solid shoulder-thumping from Gollath. Joseph hugged absolutely everyone, never closing his mouth for a minute as he lamented their short friendships.

"Parting is such sweet sorrow," he sniffed, clinging to the very surprised King Gollath's shoulder.

After he was prised off of everyone, Katharine was carefully moved, despite her protests that she could walk, into the carriage, and both royal carriages set off. Roderic and Katharine both leaned out their respective windows and waved to the townsfolk as they rode out of town.

"Goodbye Katharine!" Celeste called, wiping her eyes. "Have a wonderful time at the festival!"

"Goodbye!" Katharine shouted back.

"Goodbye Pwince Wod'wick!" a little boy said, jumping up and down and waving as hard as he could so that he could be seen.

Roderic smiled at him and saluted. The boy's mother beamed.

Once they had passed out of town, with only bronzing trees to see, they both pulled their heads back in and looked at each other. Katharine smiled wickedly and daintily held out her hand.

"Hello. I'm Princess Katharine."

They both laughed loudly enough to frighten the footman, but he managed to regain his composure fairly quickly.

"Royals," he said with a dry chuckle.

Celeste had her arms linked around Jody's torso as he watched Samantha be driven away – back to Allearsi where she would await trial.

"It's not your fault, you know," Celeste said to him.

"I know it isn't," Jody said, and he meant it. He truly knew that it wasn't, but that didn't stop his heart from going out to her. "I know it isn't."

Celeste buried her nose in his shirt and inhaled, then murmured something.

"What?" he asked, dipping his head to hear her over the receding sounds of horses.

"You were right about love," she said into his ear, her breath tickling it.

"What?" he repeated stupidly.

She smiled at him, and turned back to the house.

Final word count: 3172

What did you think of the twist? Did you see it coming? How do you like the ending?

silliana: Thank you for your advice, as always. I would have liked to stretch it out, but I just couldn't, plausibly. Yet another thing I will fix on the rewrite. And thank you for your insight on Katharine; it was most appreciated. The Blooper Reel's first chapter (an epilogue of sorts that I didn't feel fit very well here) is already posted.

Pixel Fairy: Thanks for your views on Katharine. I love hearing from all of you! The vampires are just vampires. They are the 'bad guys' in this story. Don't try to think too hard about them... unless you're reading SHOE, because they do have an important story in that. Here, they're passed off as the bad guys, and since they, well, vanish, they can't really be apprehended. In SHOE, you hear more about them and what they were really up to.

Natsuhiko: Thanks for reviewing! Surprises, ah. You know, I think I like those a little too much.

Eva: Whew. I am much relieved that you are more satisfied with my chapters now. I was on pins and needles. 36: I liked that part, too. It was added as an afterthought, but I'm glad someone picked up on the strange sweetness of it. Jody and Rod are both growing up a little too. I'm very pleased that you're catching all of those little life-change moments. Joseph and Suzie. Heehee. 37: For your answer to the vampire question, you won't mind if I copy and paste from Pixel Fairy's similar question, will you? "Don't try to think too hard about them... unless you're reading SHOE, because they do have an important story in that. Here, they're passed off as the bad guys, and since they, well, vanish, they can't really be apprehended. In SHOE, you hear more about them and what they were really up to." Thank you for your wonderful insight into Katharine's character. I love it when you do that. I'm glad you're proud of her; I am too. Even though she wasn't planning to really die, she did face her terrible fears to save his life. She grew up a lot. "Will she ever learn to be genuinely affectionate, and encouraging?!" you ask? Well. Read The Blooper Reel and see what you think of that. Celeste! Ha! Yes, she probably could. While a sequel sounds fun, I really must be getting back to my other series: The Iris Chronicles. Perhaps, starting with a rewrite of Nasap to get me back in the Action/Adventure/Romance genre in earnest. Ah, as for Joseph's fixing: I'll tell you that bit of information (along with some other pieces of trivia that couldn't fit comfortably in the story) in The Blooper Reel.

Bingo7: Confusing, yeah. It is. Sorry about that. Cadmus tends to overcomplicate things. --glares in his direction-- Thanks for your opinions on Katharine's behavior. Of course there must be a confession sometime: she's too straightforward, and Roderic's too pitiful. She said she loved him, of course, but she did it in her own way. --chuckle-- Ah, she's a brat. But, she's growing on me. Jody didn't exactly swing Celeste around, but what did you think of their relationship progression in this chapter?

FaylinnNorse: Oh, that is a relief. Yes, I think most people are quite busy this time of year. Oh, a wedding! I'm glad it went well. I extend my congratulations to him, not that he has any clue who I am, but, weddings are a happy thing nonetheless. Ah, heh heh, about that wonderful story of yours... Well, you'll see that I reviewed it properly now. I've been reading it all along. I'm so wicked on occasion. Yes, good eye; they were mentioned in SHOE. Oh, and you suspect someone? Brilliant. --pokes Lobuck-- She's falling into the 'very busy' category at the moment, but hopefully she can eke out another chapter soon. --pokes again for good measure-- Marrying Spencer, hm? You'll have to fight the Philettin princess for him. Heh. --wink-- Describe vampires more. --looks over at Caddy who has begun a preliminary sketch under the 'rewrite' area of his chalkboard-- Thanks for the tip. Of course you knew it. Hm. I liked your insight on Katharine. It was well thought out: love and guilt in combination, almost like she was making something up to him. Good ideas. Thanks! Johnathon and Samantha, though... --biting lip with a sad frown-- Oh, if only she would have grown up! It kills me, sometimes, what people—erm—characters—put themselves through.

littlema: The lack of imminent peril didn't last long, as you can see. --grin-- Katharine has a knack of getting herself into trouble. Interesting questions and insights. Thanks for the review.

Darth Chocolate: Motor mouths are great fun to write. Twilight? Oh, don't get me started. --face-- I hope this measured up to your expectations!

Crayola Color Sky: You answered all of them! Wow! Thanks! I like your opinions on Katty, and I hope the ending wasn't a disappointment.

daring2dream: Katharine did act weirdly last chapter. Thanks for your opinions! Joseph's a peach. He's just darling, and so much fun to write. --grin-- Celeste is quite the little heroine.

It's over. Finally. What begun as a simple, albeit spiteful, story has now come to its meandering end 38 chapters later. I'd like to extend a special thanks to those few of you who have been with me since the very very beginning:

Clar the Pirate: Your reviews never cease to brighten a day, no matter how dreary. Your insight and wittiness make me laugh whether I feel like it or not. Your characters that I so happily borrowed really added an element of humor and sweetness to the story that I otherwise could not have attained. Thank you for sticking with me.

FaylinnNorse: Your opinions and praises always make me sound better than I am. For that, I thank you. Thank you, also, for painting such a vivid picture in my mind that it inspired me to write one of the scenes I am most satisfied with, though it never fit into the story. (But, it IS going to be in The Blooper Reel!) Your optimism and good cheer are infectious, and I know that when I have a review from you, I can be prepared to smile.

daring2dream: You always have something nice to say, and I love that you have an opinion on almost everything in the story. You've followed my story all the way to its conclusion, giving me sweet reviews the whole way. Thank you.

SIMBA: Though short and sweet, and somewhat sporadic at times, your reviews have always been there. Thank you for your ceaseless encouragement, and for liking my obstinate characters even when they're idiots. I'm not sure whether I should thank you or make a face at you for inspiring that Meriwether/Andrew scene that is to feature in The Blooper Reel, but you at least deserve some recognition for that. Thanks for everything.

Now that I feel already as if I am making a tearful farewell speech, I might as well finish it out that way by thanking all my reviewers, which are too numerous to mention. I appreciated every one of you, no matter if you gave one review or thirty-eight. Feedback means a lot to me, and that you took any amount of your precious time to read my story, much less write me a note about it, brings a smile to my face. I can only hope to have such a supportive cast of reviewers in the future.

Not only were you supportive, though, but you told me what you thought. You let me know if it was confusing or startling, you pointed out plot holes and impossibilities to me, and you handed me your constructive criticism that, while sometimes hard to hear, was nonetheless honest and helpful. For your genuineness, you deserve more than cyber food, but that's all I have to offer you. Help yourselves to some end-of-fic cake.

While you're eating, I'd like to remind you all of The Blooper Reel. The first chapter (an epilogue of sorts for both couples) is posted now.

Thank you, all of you, and I hope to see you again when I pick up "Not All Princes are Nice" and "Not All Books Should Be Read" again, which will be soon.