**Later at night, in the Kuran's mansion**
"Have I mentioned how beautiful you are tonight, my dear?" Aido asked, as he snuggled closer to Yori, while taking care of her injuries. Yori smiled gently at Aido before leaning into his embrace, unmindful of her injuries. "Yes, you did, many times." Silence prevailed for a moment as the young couple took each other in. Wrapping his arms around her, Aido heaved a sigh and murmured "I was out of my mind with worry tonight, Yori. From now on, I will never leave you alone." "Even when I go to the ladies?" Yori teased, as she leaned back a little to look at Aido in the eye. "I am fine, Hanabusa. I was definitely frightened at first but deep in my heart, I know you will come for me in the end. Don't worry anymore."
Looking at his beloved intently, Aido said nothing more but gathered her in his arms again, as Yori gradually fell asleep in his arms, worn out by the events of the night and the drugs that Hikari had given her for her injuries. Although her injuries were numerous, it does not require stitches, which were a small blessing itself. Looking out of the window where dawn was breaking, Aido hoped that the challenge will come to an end soon, with his happiness at the end of it.
** A few days later**
"Why are we here today, Hanabusa?" Yori asked, as she walked next to Aido, who held her hand all the while.
"I have no idea. The summons came from the grand dame this morning and nobody in their right minds would dare to refuse her summons." Aido replied, as he gazed worriedly in front of him. "We will know what the old dragon is up to in a short while." So saying, he took a deep breath before pushing open the doors that will lead them to the dining room at the Souen's mansion.
"Aha! There you are, gel! Welcome! Come, take a seat!" Lady Souen crackled, waving a cane in the air as she spotted the pair. "Where are your manners, boy? Help the gel to her chair!"
While helping Yori to her chair, Aido sneaked a glance around the table. His parents - Lord and Lady Aido were there, along with his youngest sister, Akira. Kaname and Yuki were seated together as well, with Kaname at the head of the table, Yuki on his right hand side. Lady Souen sat on Kaname's left. However, what really shocked him was that Hikari was seated next to the Grand Dame, looking as comfortable as she can be. To the best of his knowledge, most debutantes would have fled as fast as they could as the Dame is someone not to be trifled with. Stay too long, you would be sliced to pieces with her acidic tongue. Taking a seat next to Yori, he waited to see what will happen next.
Seeing that everyone who is supposed to be present had been seated, Lady Souen then spoke again. "As per agreed, the last stage of the challenge is a surprise round, with no warning given. The participants are to be summoned and then given their task immediately. By rights, this task was supposedly designed by Hikari-san and Her majesty. However, yesterday, when I summoned Hikari-san for tea, she offered the rights to me instead. Her majesty had agreed to let me decide the task as well. Sitting at this table now, I ask, are there any objections?"
"Well! Since no one is voicing out anything, then I will make the decisions then." Lady Souen smiled wryly. Picking up her cup of tea, she took a sip before gesturing towards the door with the cup. At her unspoken command, the doors leading to the garden opened and twenty children came running into the room, chatting away like magpies. Catching sight of their elders, they stopped and bowed/curtsied.
"Good morning, your majesties! Good morning, Lady Souen! Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! We heard that Lady Akira and Lady Yori will be here today to play with us! Are they here yet?" The children chortled as they smiled charmingly up at the stunned adults at the table, with the sole exception of Lady Souen who cracked a grin.
" Oh, they are here already, children. Akira, Yori, stand up!" The Grand Dame ordered impatiently. As these two stood up from their chairs, Lady Souen addressed the children "There they are, the playmates that I promised you all today! They will spend two hours with you all before you are to go to the home room for your studies. At the end of these two hours, you will tell me who your favourite playmate is. Now, go!"
As one, the children surged forward, catching both Yori's and Akira's hands as they dragged the two ladies out to the garden eagerly. Seeing this, Aido sprung out of his chair, protesting "Hey brats! Take care of the injuries that Yori had! I will kill you if you hurt her!"
"Sit down, boy!" Lady Souen snapped as the children ran out into the garden, with the two girls in their midst. Chastened, Aido sat down sullenly, eyes not leaving Yori. Addressing the adults at the table, Lady Souen explained "I chose interaction as the final deciding task for the challenge as children are the most impartial judges. Interaction with them is something that one cannot prepare for. In other words, we will see how they will cope with these children. Should any of the two be insincere, the children will be able to tell. Whoever has the hearts of these children by the end of these two hours will win. What I am looking for is the purity of the heart. Although the deciding votes are determined by the children in the end, we can still observe the whole lot from the windows."
**In the garden**
"So, Lady Akira, Lady Yori, what games will you be playing with us today?" 20 expectant children looked up eagerly at the two ladies who looked at each other for a moment. Akira was the first one to break the connection between them as she looked back at the children. "Err…"
Seeing the height difference between them, Yori smiled at them all before she kneeled amongst them, gathering the two closest children to her. "First thing first, don't address me as Lady Yori. It sounds so formal! Since we are going to be playmates, how about addressing me as Yori- nee-san? Let's have a good time together, shall we?"
"Hai, nee-san!" the children shouted. Turning to Akira, they asked "Can we call you Akira-nee-san then?" At her hesitant nod, the children shouted for joy as they danced around the two ladies. After a while, they stopped and asked the same question again "So, what are we doing today?"
Looking around the garden, Yori took inventory of what she have available. Catching sight of a ball some distance away, she asked "How about a ball game? I will teach you how to play Captain's ball!" Smiling at the excited whoops of the children, she pointed towards the ball which was hidden underneath some bushes. "Can someone please get the ball for me? Whoever brings me back the ball first will be one of the team leaders!"
While the children took off for the ball, Yori walked to Akira who continued to stand there, like a frozen statue. Reaching out, Yori took hold of Akira's right hand and said softly "Akira-san. Let's just have a fun game with the children, shall we? No matter what is the turnout of today's competition, I hope that all of us will have fun. Can you do that for the children please?"
Looking into Yori's earnest eyes, Akira shut her own for a moment as she whispered "I wish I can hate you, Yori-san, but I can't. In fact, I do admire you for the courage that you have shown so far. In the face of social pressures and objections, you managed to hold on with my brother till today. If it is up to me, I would have given up long ago." Opening her eyes again at the voices of the children running back, Akira covered Yori's hand with her left. "Let's have a good time with the children, Yori-san. I wish you and ni-san the best." So saying, she released their linked hands, as she called out to the children "Throw the ball!"
**2 hours later**
"So? Who is your favourite playmate?" Lady Souen demanded as she stood in the garden, facing the children.
"Yori and Akira nee-san!" All 21children shouted in return. "Both of them?" Lady Souen asked. "Hai!"
Looking back at Lord and Lady Aido, Yuki remarked "Honor your words, Lord Aido. 2 wins and a tie, Yori-chan fulfilled the challenges perfectly. Will you not concur that she is suitable for your son, Hanabusa, despite the fact that she is a human?"
"Yes, Yuki-sama. I concur." Lord Aido sighed, as he gathered his wife next to him, who continued to look pretty put out at the results.
"Arigato, Father, Mother." Aido said, as he bowed to his parents "Thank you for accepting Yori. I promise, you will definitely not regret this." He promised vehemently.
"Arigato, Lord and Lady Aido. Thank you for your acceptance of me." Yori said, as she curtsied to the vampire nobles. At this, Lord Aido nodded stiffly before collecting his wife and offering his arm to Lady Souen. And just before she was lead into the house, The Grand Dame spoke to Aido directly "Count your lucky stars, boy! You have a gem of a gel there! Make sure you treat her well or everything that you had fought so far for will come to a naught!" At this, Aido nodded solemnly as he took hold of Yori's hand tightly.
Once the older vampires were some distance away, Hikari practically pounced on Yori as she offered her congratulations for the newly acknowledged couple. "Omedeto~~~~~~~" Hikari laughed, as she twirled Yori around. Laughing, Yori hugged her friend hard. "Thank you, Hikari, for all that you had done so far. Though I want to ask something – why did you offer the rights to this challenge to Lady Souen? My heart nearly stopped beating when I heard she had the rights to it!"
"Because she IS the Grand Dame." Hikari replied simply. "Oh, I know what Aido is thinking! What a risk! However, you must know that she is not as scary as you all thought. Her bark is wayyyyyyyy worse than her bite. With her support for you two, both of you will be secured for life. It will be better than Yuki's support as hints of favoritism will always pop out in the end."
"But….how do you get on so well with Lady Souen?" Aido asked.
At this, Hikari smiled a Mona Lisa smile as she replied "That's a trade secret. Should you have a daughter in the near future, Aido-sempai, I will spill the secret method then as to how to get into the good books of the Dame! In the meanwhile, you just have to wait! Therefore, before you press me anymore, produce a daughter first please!" She laughed merrily at the blush that covered Yori's cheeks. "Don't blush now, Yori-chan! Since you can get on so well with the twenty children earlier, handling one or two children should be a piece of cake to you!"
With the challenges concluded and wrapped up, the status of Yori and Aido is now confirmed. In the face of social pressures and disapproval, they managed against the odds to come together in the end, to gain acceptance for their relationship.
Finally, finally…it's completed! The challenge had been left alone for too long, ever since I started off on the first chapter. I sincerely do apologize to my readers out there who had been waiting for this final chapter for such a long time. Uni had been quite nasty as I was caught up with all the work to be done. In addition, I must really thank you all for your continued support all these years. Finally, I hope that you will like this chapter!
Reviews are welcomed! Till the next story then. =D