Author Notes: I'm well aware that this story hasn't been touched in nearly four years, but I always wanted to write a few more scenes for it. Now that I added a few chapters to Believable Courtship, I was inspired to write a piece for this one. Maybe because they are in similar genres with only Kenshin and Kaoru in opposite roles? Anyways, I might add to this one down the line but I wouldn't wait around for it. Who knows, it might take another 4 years. So at the moment this will stand as a two-shot. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: The Rurouni Kenshin world and all characters depicted are a creation of mangaka, Watsuki Nobuhiro.

Prize

By Hoshi-ni-Onegai

This chapter is set approximately a year before the first chapter.

Kenshin gritted his teeth as he trotted his steed away from the arena. The page quickly took the reigns as he swung his legs over the saddle and leapt deftly to the ground. He bit back a moan as his armor stabbed into his side. He tugged his gloves off and marched back to the stables with the crowd from the stands roaring behind him.

He had barely scraped by and won that last round at the joust. The lance of the opponent had slammed into his chest and nearly unhorsed him, but Kenshin had kept on by sheer will -the same couldn't be said true about the other guy. While the other man fell off his horse, meaning Kenshin had ultimately won the round but his armor did not fare well.

Alone with the horses within the confines of the stables he ducked into where his steed would be hitched. The armor had cracked and a piece of the mental was now painfully jutting into his ribs. Each breath was a new stabbing sensation, but there was no way he could take the armor off himself. The trick with jousting armor was that to get in and out of them he needed assistance. His page, Yahiko, was on his way to the blacksmith to fix the steed's shoe -something Kenshin had noticed before the final lance.

Now Kenshin was stuck trying to foolishly reach back to unbuckle his armor. He had to resign to wait for Yahiko to help, the more he attempted at the straps the more the broken edge dug deeper into his skin.

He moved to tug off the hood he wore to hide his incriminatingly noticeable hair but paused when he heard movement from the other end of the stable. He stepped out a bit to see a knight appear from the other end with a steed in tow. Kenshin couldn't recognize the crest on the armor, if anything it looked nondescript with a dragon and a sword -the crest could easily have been from anywhere.

As the knight came closer Kenshin frowned. This was no knight, this was a mere slip of a boy. He looked no older than his page Yahiko by a couple years. The knight saw him and nodded his head in greeting; Kenshin did the same out of habit. Judging by the quality of the armor the boy wore, he came from a wealthy family. Maybe he was the young son of a noble?

The boy wordlessly led the horse to the stable next to Kenshin's. The boy mumbled a few comforting words to the horse, then came out. He glanced at Kenshin and quite obviously looked him over. Kenshin frowned. Was he getting checked out by a boy?

The boy walked up to him gestured with his fingers for Kenshin to turn. The redhead's frown deepened. The dark haired boy who sported a high pony tail, much like himself, with wide young eyes and a feminine face had the audacity to ask him for a show? This wasn't the first time that a bored knight approached him to attempt using him as one-time companion -something they severely regretted after finding out who he was- but they were usually large burly men.

Kenshin stood his ground. He wasn't going to humor the boy, nor was he going to threaten a young boy who probably didn't know any better.

The boy raised his brows and gestured again. When Kenshin didn't turn, he huffed and grabbed Kenshin by the edge of his armor and swung him around. Kenshin was a bit stunned by how gently the boy turned him around. There was no force in his action and that took him enough by surprise to cause him turn his back toward the boy.

In the next moment Kenshin felt his armor slacken. A whoosh of air filled his lungs as the metal was no longer putting pressure on his ribs.

Kenshin turned when he heard the retreating figure of the boy. The boy was walking out of the stables with a sword now in hand and putting on his helmet.

"Thank you." Kenshin called out to the back of the retreating boy.

Without turning, the boy just waved his hand and left out of the stables.

Kenshin chuckled to himself. Was he such a narcissus to think he was being propositioned by the young pretty boy?

Kenshin tugged the chest plate off, and was able to reach the buckles that strapped across his chest that kept the rest of his armor on. Once off, he fell back into the hay in the corner of his steed's stable and sighed.

Why did he joust anyways? He was best at the sword. He glanced at the state of his old, slightly rusted, armor. Oh yeah, because he was poor. He was pretty much guaranteed the prize of the sword, but the joust paid better.

Kenshin was poor by choice, but that didn't mean much when it came to his daily needs. He kept himself mildly fed and was unable to have a permanent page, not that he wanted one. Every time he came to these tournaments, he enlisted one of the boys by the gate who waited for a noble to hire them for menial tasks. The past few times he came to this particular kingdom he hired Yahiko, more out of habit than anything.

Kenshin tugged off his hood and shook out his hair. He didn't mind putting his helmet on without the hood, but he preferred hiding his red hair. In a land of dark haired citizens, he stood out like sore thumb. It also didn't help that his Battousai reputation preceded him. Kenshin knew that his short stature kept anyone from questioning who he was. But after seeing him fight with the sword and add that with the combination of his hair color, the entire tournament would know who he was.

He thought back to the boy with the generic crest. Maybe he had something to hide too? Kenshin could relate all too well. Hell, his armor had no crest -not from a lack of trying by the king's part. Kenshin groaned when he thought of the king. He completely forgot about him. Kenshin needed to greet the man, especially if he was participating in the tournament at the king's castle.

"Kenshin?" Yahiko called out in question as the sound of the horse's hoofs clomped against the dirt packed floor of the stables.

"In here." Kenshin answered back from his current comfortable spot in the hay. He contemplated sneaking in a nap before seeing the king.

Yahiko came in with Kenshin's steed, Kyoto, in tow. The young page frowned at the state of the knight. Yahiko glanced at the piled armor to the side. "How did you get out of it?"

"I have my ways." And a really helpful good Samaritan.

Yahiko reached for the chest plate and studied it. "You can't wear this again during the next round."

Kenshin shrugged, "I'll have to."

Yahiko narrowed his eyes at the man, "This thing has been welded nine ways to Sunday. Next time it's not just going to break and dig into your side, it's going to stab you right through your chest."

"Can't afford a new one." Kenshin responded nonchalantly.

Yahiko sighed. "Then you'll have to be sure to win the tournament to buy yourself a new one. Just avoid any fatal blows the chest."

"Don't worry, I'll buy one off a knight who's ready to get rid of his old armor."

"You could afford a new one if you weren't so charitable with your funds with the beggars." The page gathered up the armor to take to the blacksmith. "I'll get this mended by the smith, but don't expect miracles."

Kenshin nodded as he began dozing off.

"Oh, and the king was asking for you. His valet came to find me to tell you." Yahiko left with that final comment.

Kenshin blinked his eyes opened and sighed. He really did need to pay his respects to the king, especially when he treated Kenshin like a son at times. When Kenshin had joined the war at thirteen years of age, the king attempted every way to get him out. He kept saying the war was no place for a boy his age. But even the king had to concede when he saw Kenshin fight with a sword. He had the ability to change the tides of a losing war.

Kenshin stood from the hay and patted the flanks of his horse. Kyoto was his only companion during his wanderings, and there was an understanding between the two that could not be broken.

"Stay out of trouble now Kyoto." The steed neighed in response and bumped the knight out of his stable. "Fine, I'll see the king."

Kenshin never spoke to Kyoto in front of others, he knew he looked like a madman talking to a horse as if he understood every word. But maybe Kenshin was a madman. How many years could a man wander alone before he went insane with his own thoughts?

He attempted smoothing out his clothes and hair a bit as he weaved through the tournament crowd. When he finally came to the nobles' viewing area he saw the king's faithful valet, who upon seeing Kenshin allowed him easy passage. Kenshin walked over to where the king sat on his throne. The older king was cradling his hand at his chest and Kenshin couldn't help but frown at the barely noticeable slump to his weary shoulders.

The red of his hair caught the king's eye and the older man grinned. He stood from his place and gestured for the knight to follow to a less crowded area. The king gave a fatherly hug to the knight, a show of affection that Kenshin never quiet grew used to.

"Kenshin! Are you well? I haven't seen you in ages!" The man was jovial as he pulled away. His firm hands were still on Kenshin's shoulders as he looked the knight over. "You don't seem to grow."

Kenshin rolled his eyes, an action that would be considered insolent by any other, was a received in good humor by the king. "I am twenty-eight, I doubt I'll get any taller."

"How will you live up to the stories of Battousai? The last I heard, he was a head taller than all the knights."

"Then you need to stop spreading false rumors Koshijirou." Calling the king by name would have been grounds for punishment, but with Kenshin it was always encouraged.

The king smiled not denying the accusation. "How are you faring in the tournament?"

"I just won the sixth round, I should be fine."

"Good, good." The king peered around distractedly then frowned as he turned to the knight. "I wanted you to meet my daughter, but it appears she's runoff again."

"Runoff? Again?" Kenshin furrowed his brows. "Would you like me to find her? With so many young nobles and knights around for the festival, you never know what kind of trouble a young maiden could fall into."

The king gave a hearty laugh and shook his head. "Not likely. If anything, she's entered the tournament and is avoiding me sighting her before the end. It wouldn't be the first time."

"In the tournament?" Kenshin imagined the young child that clung to her mother's skirts the last he saw her years ago. How long had it been? "How old is she now?"

"She just turned seventeen, but she entered her first tournament when she was fifteen." The king grinned. "She reminds me of you sometimes Kenshin."

The king entered into a small coughing fit, then righted himself while waving away the doting valet. Kenshin recognized the condition immediately. He had seen the sickness in others in the neighboring kingdom. The king who had treated him so well through his young life was dying. Kenshin leaned forward a bit while lowering his voice. "How long have you had this Koshijirou?"

The king's eyes widened a bit, but returned back to its good humored glint. "Nothing slips past you Kenshin." He sighed and patted his chest. "A few months. The doctor tells me the fresh air will do me good." Seeing Kenshin frown, the king shrugged. "But I know better. I have maybe a year left."

Kenshin nodded in response. What was there to say to a dying man that lectured him like a father would at times?

"That is why I'll be holding more of these tournaments before my time comes." The king grinned mischievously and whispered conspiratorially to Kenshin. "You see, I'm trying to find a match for my daughter. She's a bit of a spitfire and I need someone who is as strong as or stronger than her in a swordfight. She'd never lose to the man in spirit, but I know she'd never concede to marry anyone weaker in physical strength."

"Then you will match her with the winner?"

"I've tried. But she found me out and has stubbornly won the last five tournaments at the sword." The king grinned, "Maybe with you here this time, you can beat her and take her hand in marriage. I can think of no better man for her."

Kenshin chuckled and shook his head, "I'm not competing in the sword this time, I'm focusing on the joust."

"The joust? That's not even your forte."

Kenshin shrugged at the king's comment. He wasn't offended, far from it. It was true; Kenshin was a far better swordsman than he was a jouster. Sure, in comparison to other knights his jousting was above par but his inhuman skill was in the sword. No one could best him in the sword aside from his drunken master.

The king frowned, realizing Kenshin's reason for competing in the josut. "I wish you would accept the pay I keep offering you. You earned it by fighting in the wars on our side."

Kenshin shook his head, "I can't take gold for the blood I spilt. Also, what does a wanderer need with gold?"

"Your chivalry and code of ethics makes me believe you will do well with my daughter." The king said.

Kenshin smiled and bowed, showing his leave. "Don't pawn your precious daughter off to someone as tainted as this unworthy one."

"You're not tainted Kenshin." The king sighed in defeat. "Very well. I'll see you at the victory circle, you'll at least place second."

The knight frowned, "Just second?"

"I have a brute of a nephew competing this time. I think you've met him, Sano?"

Hearing the young man's name Kenshin sighed. That cut down his chances of winning. Kenshin hadn't seen Sano in over a decade, but there were widespread rumors about the young man.

Taking his leave, Kenshin rubbed the back of his neck. He now regretted not competing in the sword. He had traveled all the way to this tournament because the prize for the joust would be enough to tide him over for months during his wanderings.

He wove through the crowd until he felt a tug on his sleeve. Turning toward the distraction he saw a frantic Yahiko. The boy was panting. "Lord Sano is in the final round of the joust!"

Kenshin nodded and continued walking.

"He just won the round against Sir Cho! The broom head sailed clean off his horse from the impact."

Kenshin raised a brow at Yahiko's description of the blonde noble, but was distracted by Sano's win. Kenshin was never one to be nervous, however it was possible that he wouldn't win this time. "How much longer until the next round?"

"An hour. Would you like to rest until then?"

Kenshin shook his head, "Just make sure my armor and Kyoto are ready. I'll meet you at the stables later."

Kenshin decided to nix his previous idea of a nap. If anything, he would end up groggy and unfocused if he slept. He also couldn't help feeling a bit wired. If Sano was in the final, that meant Kenshin would be his opponent after winning in the next round.

Why did he kid himself? Kenshin had precision his side. He knew exactly where to strike the opponent to break the lance or unhorse them if he was lucky. But what Kenshin did not have was enormous strength. There really was only so much push a person of his stature could put behind a lance.

Kenshin was desperate for a distraction. And a distraction he got.

The familiar clash of metal on metal rang through the air. The crowd cheered watching over the swordfight. The sword was not an unpopular event, but it did not draw the crowds jousting and archery did.

Kenshin ducked through the roaring crowd and broke through to climb the steps. There was no way he would see anything from the ground, the audience was pushing too far up to the edge of the fight ring. He finally found a spot on the second balcony and he had a decent view of the duel. The two fighters were in armor and helmets as they swung their heavy swords.

Another crash of metal and metal, and Kenshin couldn't help grinning. He wished he was down there fighting. There was something about the weight of a sword and the art of the fight. Jousting, in comparison, was a brutal game of men with large sticks knocking into each other.

He promised himself to always participate in the sword now on for all tournaments he participated in. The agony of watching others fight while he remained a spectator was too much.

He carefully watched the match and saw that the two fighters were surprisingly petite. He guessed that they were probably no taller than he was. Kenshin looked to the crests where the score flags were kept. This was the final match, the winner would be the sword champion for the tournament. He recognized the first crest: it belonged to the boy that helped him with his armor in the stables. Kenshin was surprised to see that a boy so young would have made it this far, but seeing the clean and efficient form along with his fiery passion, Kenshin now wondered why he had never seen him at other tournaments. The other crest, Kenshin also did not recognize.

His luck came around when the boy swung his sword upward at his opponent. The helmet of the unknown fighter flung off and there was an audible gasp through the crowd. Kenshin narrowed his eyes seeing the feminine face. Thinking back on the king's words, Kenshin figured this must be the princess. No wonder the crowd was surprised, who would expect their beloved princess fighting in a tournament? Then again, the king did mention she had won the past five tournaments.

The princess played the crowd and flipped her short hair while bracing herself with the sword. Kenshin frowned. The king thought Kenshin would be the perfect man for this ostentatious girl? He suspected she needed someone a bit more theatrical than his quiet self.

And it appeared she needed to reign in her confidence, because she lost the match with a final blow and a lost point. She was easily distracted by a catcall from the crowd. Kenshin shook his head and turned away. The boy was a much better fighter anyways.

Avoiding the steps, he decided to swing over the back railing onto the pile of hay below. He needed to get back to the stables.

When he finally reached Yahiko and Kyoto, Kenshin realized he was scraping by on time.

"I said an hour." Yahiko pointed out with the leather lining Kenshin needed to wear below the armor on the ready in his hands.

"I was distracted by the swordfight." He tugged on the leather tunic and turned away for Yahiko to tie it off in the back.

"Who won?" Yahiko asked as he efficiently strapped the knight into his now mended armor.

Kenshin scoffed a bit. "Not the princess."

"Lady Kaoru lost?" The page stopped in his movements for a moment, but picked up the chest plate to strap that piece in as well. "I'm surprised. Only Lord Sano and Aoshi ever beat her during practice."

"You know her?"

Yahiko rolled his eyes, "I do live in her kingdom."

"But you've seen them practice?"

The boy shook his head and stepped back as he looked over the knight to make sure everything was in place. "No, but you hear rumors. And I've seen her fight at tournaments before. She switches up her crest and armor every time and keeps hidden until the end. Once she mixes in with the young knights, most people can't figure out which one she is."

"No wonder they gasped when they saw her face." Kenshin took the hood the boy offered and tucked his hair underneath it. It had been a bit of a risk walking around the crowds with his red hair out, but no one seemed to notice with the excitement of the tournament.

Yahiko took the helmet and unhitched the Kyoto's reigns. "Be careful Kenshin, that armor really won't last. You need to at least make it to the final to claim a prize."

Kenshin laughed, "I'm aware Yahiko." He reached down and ruffled the boy's hair. "You're way too responsible for thirteen."

The boy grumbled in response, "I'll be fourteen next month."

They made their way to the arena, and the match was over within the first lance. Kenshin had been paranoid enough about his armor, which currently served only as adornment, that he finished the lance on the opponent's chest and knocked him off his horse.

Kenshin leapt off Kyoto and leaned down to speak to his page without others hearing. "That was luck. I need to get the armor replaced before I face Sano."

"Do you have the funds?"

Kenshin frowned. "If not all of it, the chest plate needs to be changed." He straightened up and firmly pet Kyoto's neck. "Take him back to rest. I don't want this tournament to exhaust him. I'll find a replacement for the chest plate."

"You need to rest too." Yahiko pointed out.

Kenshin sighed, the boy really was too responsible for his own good. "Take Kyoto back to the stables."

Kenshin turned away after handing the boy his helmet. He knew not to risk taking off his hood, especially when the crowd was focusing on him with wild cheers. He needed to get to the smiths. He hoped to make some kind of deal with them, possibly a promise of higher payment after the win -which meant he had to win.

The throngs of people were getting heavier as the end of the tournament came near, and the main jousting event was only a short hour away. Why did they have to cram everything together within two days? There was no time to breathe.

Kenshin was suddenly jostled from his path when a body careened into him. He steadied himself and the offender against the post he was shoved into.

"Pardon me!" Deep blue eyes whipped up to him. Kenshin recognized the long-haired boy from earlier. Kenshin was surprised by how high the boy's voice was, he must be younger than he previously thought. When recognition entered the boy's eyes he furrowed his brows. "Oh, it's you."

Kenshin chuckled, "Sorry to disappoint."

The boy looked the knight over, "Do you need help with the armor again?"

"No, actually I'm going to get it replaced by striking a deal with the smiths." Kenshin wondered why he was telling the boy this much.

The boy laughed shaking his head. "Good luck. They all drive a hard bargain." He patted the knights shoulder and turned away, "I'm in rush back to the stable. Sorry about running into you."

Before Kenshin could say anything else, the boy was gone. He pushed off the post and made his way toward the blacksmiths. He really didn't have any time to contemplate the jumpy young boy -who apparently was the new sword champion. Kenshin made a mental note to congratulate him when he next saw him.

A half hour of haggling later, Kenshin made no progress. How was it none of the multitude of blacksmiths would take his deal? He promised higher payment after the final joust. Then again, he was a crestless and hence reputation-less knight. He couldn't very well reveal who he was. He had no attachment and even at times resented his war name: Battousai. But he did not want any favors dependent on the name.

Kenshin grumbled and marched back to the stables. This had been a complete waste of time. The only possible remedy to the situation was to stuff extra fabric and layers of leather below his currently shoddy armor. He chastised himself for not having enough foresight to have enough funds to trade for jousting armor. He supposed it served him right for competing in an event he didn't exactly care much about. The three sacks of grains he bought and left for the last family that let him board was probably hitting his funds more than he expected too.

He entered the stables and saw Yahiko tapping his foot in frustration. "You're cutting it too close Kenshin."

Kenshin shook his head, "I'm just going to pad this chest plate, it shouldn't take long."

The boy furrowed his brows. "But what about the new armor?"

"I didn't get it."

"What? Of course you did." Yahiko responded confused.

Kenshin was also confused. What was the page going on about now? He walked past Yahiko and into the stable with Kyoto. The glimmer of metal from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Turning to the neatly piled armor in the corner Kenshin was nothing short of stunned. He turned to the page. "Where did that come from?"

"It's not yours? It was in the stable after I came back from getting Kyoto some water."

Kenshin approached the armor and saw a piece of linen tucked beneath the helmet. Pulling it out, he instantly recognized the crest with the dragon and sword. The boy who helped him with his armor and who later crashed into him in the crowd, he was responsible for this. Tucked within the linen was a small folded piece of parchment. Kenshin's eyes read the skillful and delicate handwriting.

Good luck. This time ask your page to help you dress. –K

The boy had signed with his initial, but that meant very little to Kenshin. He had no idea who the boy was; the crest didn't help to decipher it. He looked at the armor and saw that it was mildly used, like it had been through only a round or two of the joust. Unlike the sword fighting armor the boy had worn earlier, this armor had no crest on it, only on the long strip of linen had a small embroidered depiction of the crest.

He thought the situation over for a moment, but decided to accept the unexpected blessing. Kenshin could return the armor to its rightful owner after the match. And if the boy did not want it after it was used, Kenshin would pay the boy for it.

"Suit me up Yahiko, we don't have much time."

Yahiko huffed and made quick work of the buckles of the old armor. "That's what I've been saying."

Once the armor was off, Kenshin considered the linen cloth for a few seconds. He then wrapped it around his neck and tucked it under the leather tunic. This would have been customary with tokens given by maidens, but he figured the young boy would act as his temporary guardian angel. He would take all the help he could get, especially against Sano's hammer-like lances.

Yahiko fumbled a bit with the new armor, but made efficient time as he suited up the knight. Kenshin was surprised to find the armor lighter than his own but felt sturdier at the same time. He reconsidered offering to buy the armor off the boy, there was no way that he would be able to afford it.

As they made their way toward the arena, the air reverberated with the shouts of the crowd. There was a certain electric quality to the atmosphere -something Kenshin was used to after over a decade of competing in tournaments. This was the final event at the two-day long spectacle.

Once they breached the arena Kenshin caught the lumbering figure of the opponent. The redhead glanced down at his page, "He's huge."

Yahiko smirked and shook his head. "He's only as tall as Aoshi, and from what I hear, you beat him in the Southern tournaments."

Kenshin smirked, the boy had a point. He took the helmet that the page extended out to him. Getting ready, he straddled Kyoto and faced his opponent doing the same at the other side of the field.

The herald announced Sano with all his titles, and the crowd cheered. He undoubtedly had the hometown advantage. When Kenshin was announced, the only titled mentioned was his knighthood and his membership in the Order of the Hiten Mitsurugi. Kenshin appreciated the king's discretion on his identity. No one knew the Battousai's real name. People only knew the town where he was born, Himura, and that was conveniently left off. His membership in the king's exclusive Order of the Kamiya Kasshin was also left off -for which he was grateful. There were only a handful of living knights in the Order, and Battousai was an infamous member. The crowd would have too easily put two and two together.

With the introductions made, the herald bowed away. The match was to begin.

Yahiko precariously balanced the lance in his arms and walked over to Kenshin. Kenshin reached down the grip the lance and readied in his arms. The flag swung down and the two riders were off.

Time slowed when Kenshin was in these matches. Although the joust had little to do with his own speed and more to do with Kyoto's speed, this was Kenshin's secret. He was known for his god-like speed when he swung his sword, but the reality was that everything else seemed to slow down.

As Kyoto charged down the tilt, Kenshin saw that Sano put a lot of strength into his torso. There it was, Sano's strength was his weakness.

At the middle of the field they crossed each other. Simultaneously their lances made impact, but this one went to Kenshin. Sano's hit grazed off his armor over his shoulder, while Kenshin's hit was clean and broke the lance.

Kyoto galloped to the end of the field, and then trotted back to where Yahiko waited with the next lance. The page grinned up at him, "That was great! One point on the armor! Just two more points! Break the next one on his helmet and you got the match."

Kenshin titled his neck a bit to pop out a kink. "It won't be that easy. Sano is notorious for being a terrible loser."

Yahiko smirked, "I guess it take one to know one."

Kenshin shot the boy a glare. He was right tough, Kenshin hated to lose.

He took the next lance and readied himself. The flag flew down and they were off again. He could tell Sano had corrected his posture, breaking the lance on his torso would be difficult this time. Kenshin considered the helmet, but knew that to be unlikely. Kenshin had accuracy on his side, not force -and that is what you needed for a helmet break.

When closing in, Kenshin saw Sano's lance aim lower than what was customary. The movement was all the distraction Sano needed. At the last moment the lance shifted back up and Kenshin felt the blow to his head before he saw it. His own lance barely touched his opponent before it slipped from his grip. Kenshin kept hold of Kyoto's reigns tightly. Even though Kenshin didn't have the habit of demanding a man's steed after he unhorsed them, he knew it was customary. There was no way he could fall off Kyoto and give him up, his companion was really all he had through the lonely years.

Kyoto knew the drill better than Kenshin at times, and slowed to a trot as to not knock off his rider. He made his way back to Yahiko. Kenshin slumped forward and his helmet buried into Kyoto's mane. That last lance made his head spin.

"Are you alright?" Yahiko sounded panicked at Kenshin's state.

Groaning, Kenshin lifted himself straight. "I'll be fine."

"He's a point ahead now. If he breaks the next one on your torso you've lost!" Yahiko nervously looked over to the opponent. "You've only got the option of the helmet left."

"Or unhorsing him."

Yahiko looked taken aback while he handled the next lance. "Are you mad?"

"As a box of cats." Kenshin flexed his fingers and stretched his neck. He was thankful that regardless how this last lance went, it would be the last one. Maybe he was getting a bit old to be competing so foolishly in these tournaments.

His eyes swept through the crowd until they landed on the king at his thrown. Koshijirou looked amused by the whole match. Who could blame him? Either his nephew or his most trusted knight would win. Kenshin suspected that if he were to lose, the king would try to talk him into taking on a high ranking position for the royal army -something the king had been trying to do since the end of the war. Telling him that obviously his tournament days were far behind him.

But if Kenshin were to win, then the king would try to set him up with his daughter. From what Kenshin had seen in the swordfight, he needed to avoid being betrothed to the princess. There was something about her that definitely felt off.

There was some rapid movements next to the king, and Kenshin saw someone tumble into the monarch's box. A girl, no, a young woman, rushed to the king and quickly said something. After a short second and seeing the knowing grin on the king's face, the woman sat down in the smaller throne next to him.

Kenshin barely had the chance to look at the princess, who proved to not be the person who lost in the swordfight. She was facing slightly away from him addressing a lady in waiting, but her hair was much longer than during the fight. Her raven locks tumbled over her shoulders and she was wearing a midnight blue gown. No, this was not the fighter who lost at the sword.

The flag fell before she could turn toward the crowd. Kyoto charged forward, the steed didn't need the signal from his rider, he knew how these tournaments went. Shaking off the odd feeling crawling up inside him, Kenshin focused in on the match. This was no time to be ogling the crowned princess. He turned the thought over. Was he just ogling?

Kenshin firmly grasped the lance and leaned it forward. Again, time slowed. He could see that Sano was aiming for his torso, a logical choice given that it would mean three points and a win. But there was his mistake. Instead of playing to defeat his opponent, Sano was playing to win the match. Kenshin leaned forward, something no jouster did. It would prevent the lance from having a chance to skate off of him and instead direct it inward. Kenshin steadied himself anyways and gripped the reigns and indicated with a tap of his heel against Kyoto to convey what to do. Kenshin smirked, the match was his.

Sano's lance was a battering ram to Kenshin's chest, but the new armor was able to absorb enough of it. With his old armor, there would be no doubt that Kenshin would be sporting a large piece of metal piercing his chest if the boy hadn't been so generous. Regardless, he would be nursing a bruise there for at least a week, but it would be worth it.

Kyoto slowed to a stop at the end of the field. Kenshin continued to grip the broken lance in his hand. He turned his steed around to look over the crumpled form of Sano on the ground. The tall man swore and pulled himself up before his squire could get to him. Kenshin tossed the lance off to the side as he approached Sano, who was now leaning on the tilt that divided the two sides.

"Are you alright?" Kenshin asked.

Sano grumbled a bit then took off his helmet. He shook his head trying to orient himself. "Yeah, just a bruised ego." The man smirked and extended out a hand, "Well played."

Kenshin was surprised by the gesture, especially from a noble with a significantly higher ranking title. After a pause he shook Sano's hand. Letting go, they returned to their respective corners. The crowd cheered with the champion of the tournament determined.

Kenshin swung his leg over Kyoto and leapt down. His tugged his gloves off and handed them to Yahiko who was there gushing and waiting. Kenshin turned toward Kyoto and stroked the steed's coat. "Couldn't have done it without you buddy."

He reached for his helmet to take it off; it was getting suffocating within the confines of the metal protection. As he went to lift it, it only budged an inch before getting caught. He attempted a few more times until he turned toward Yahiko.

"Can you help me with this?" He pointed to the helmet.

Yahiko frowned a bit and gestured for him to lean forward. He tugged on the helmet but again, it kept getting caught. "I think it's stuck."

Kenshin narrowed his eyes through the slit of the helmet. "I figured that part out."

"We'll need a smith." Yahiko said as he looked the headpiece over. "Sano's second lance dented the metal below your chin."

In that moment the herald called for the champions to step forward. Kenshin sighed, he would need to go to the smith later, there was no time now. Once the events were over, these tournaments winded down quickly -everyone was always in a rush to get to the ball.

He nodded to his page and patted Kyoto once more before making his way toward where the herald waited for the champions to convene. It appeared all the champions and the runner ups were in position, even Sano who seemed to a bit unsteady on his feet was there.

Kenshin walked over and the fighter who had lost in the sword winked at him. A chill went down is back, Kenshin was irked by this fighter. As he took his place, Sano chuckled from his place standing next to Kenshin. "Watch out with Kamatari, he's trapped a few knights in his day."

Kenshin turned to Sano, "He?"

Sano laughed, "Physically yeah, but if he had a say in the matter, he'd be here in the stands in a dress." He reached forward and knocked lightly on Kenshin's helmet, "Are you going to take this thing off?"

"After you did such a good job of molding it to my head with your lance?"

Sano grinned, "At least I got one up on you somewhere."

Kenshin chuckled. He got the feeling that if he knew Sano better they could be good friends. But much like every tournament, he would move on and leave before the tournament ball.

Kenshin had to turn his head to see in his periphery and noticed the absence of the boy from the stables.

"Where's the sword champion?" Kenshin asked Sano.

The tall man frowned down at his opponent. "What are you talking about? She's right-"

"Congratulations to all the champions." The king's voice cut off Sano as it echoed through the crowd. All chatter ceased as he continued speaking.

Kenshin barely paid attention, he heard one too many tournament speeches in a year to not know every word the king would say. Then again, Kenshin's attention was immediately occupied when he saw the princess standing behind and to the side of her father. She had expressive blue eyes, a delicate nose, pale unblemished skin, and pink lips. Lips, which were currently smirking at him along with a raised brow.

Kenshin couldn't deny she was far prettier than he expected, and prettier than the male sword runner up who he had previously mistaken as the princess. But what caught his attention more was the familiarity of her. He had seen that face before. Also, it seemed she was having an internal laugh at his expense.

He frowned, and wished the helmet was gone so that the princess could see his face. It wasn't exactly ladylike or polite to laugh at the tournament champion.

"Well tried Sir Kamatari." The king was already presenting the prizes to the second to last category. Kamatari received the silver goblet and bowed respectfully to the king.

Kenshin glanced at the empty spot for the sword champion. Where was the boy?

That's when Kenshin recalled the blue eyes of the boy who donated his armor to the impoverished knight. Then realization dawned on him. His head whipped forward as the king sighed and looked down at his daughter.

"And being as my daughter can't collect the prize, she will just get the title of sword champion... again." The king let a half smile cross his face and shook his head. "I really wish you would give the other knights a chance Kaoru."

The princess gave an ironic pleasant smile, "So you can trap me into a marriage with the winner? I know exactly what you're planning father."

The people that heard the conversation laughed. This was obviously a situation they were used to. Kenshin thought back to the war and how the king was strong and his word was law. The only time he ever folded was when the equally strong queen said something, or when his young daughter demanded to be played with. It appeared nothing had changed since the war ended a decade ago.

Kenshin looked over the princess. How was it that he previously mistook her for a boy? Well, it didn't help that her hair had been pulled back and she was dressed head to toe in armor. Kenshin mentally shrugged, it would actually be stranger that he would assume her to be a woman in armor than a young boy in his first tournament.

"Kenshin?" The king repeated himself.

His attention was brought straight forward, to the king. It appeared he had already presented Sano his prize and had moved onto the winner of the joust and tournament champion. He was grateful no one could see his face, as he was sure he would have been caught staring at the princess.

"Yes Koshijirou?" Kenshin responded.

The king gave Kenshin a look that told him that he knew exactly what the knight had been looking at. Clearing his throat he pointed to his head. "Your helmet Kenshin."

"I'm afraid I'll have to go to the smith to take the dent out." Kenshin made to take it off and showed that it caught.

The king smiled and glanced at his nephew. "Is this your doing Sano?"

Sano laughed, "Sorry."

The king proceeded to present Kenshin his prize and announce him as the tournament champion. The audience cheered for their champions. As the other winners bowed and waved to the crowd, Kenshin slipped away after one final glance at the princess. He needed to see a smith.

Crossing the field back to where Kyoto and Yahiko were he nodded to the page. "Get my things ready. I'll be leaving once I get this thing off my head."

Yahiko led Kyoto away and Kenshin headed to his previous destination. He came to the long rows of blacksmiths. Knowing who the champion was now, and the gold figurine of a horse he now carried, they would all now vie for his attention.

Just as he was about to pick one at random he felt a tug on his shoulder. He turned to see the culprit. "Princess?"

She shook her head laughing. "You had no idea did you? That it was me in the armor earlier."

Kenshin sheepishly reached the back of his neck, but was met with the cold metal of the armor. "No, I apologize. I'm not from your kingdom."

"It's fine. Better that way. You didn't go off telling everyone who I was. I don't like people knowing until after the tournament." She motioned toward the blacksmiths. "Want me to recommend you one?"

Kenshin considered her offer, then nodded. "I'd appreciate it."

"Go to the one closest to the castle wall, that's Seiku. You can count on him to do the best job for the fairest price."

Kenshin chuckled, "You worry about price?"

She shrugged, "No, but I do care about quality."

He nodded, then tilted his head in question. "Can I help you with something my lady? You came looking for me for a reason right?"

She furrowed her brows at his question. "I don't know. It just felt like you were going to disappear and I at least wanted a good bye."

"Don't worry, I would have left your armor in your stable. I wouldn't have runoff with it."

She shook her head, "No, it's yours. I was defeated in the joust within the first two rounds. And it seems like you need it more."

"I can't take this. It's too much."

At his comment she beamed a smile at him. "You're on a first name basis with my father. I'm sure you've done more than enough to earn some armor from his daughter."

If asked later, he would blame her disarming smile for his next action. He reached forward and stroked her cheek softly, "Kaoru?" He repeated the name the king had called her, and once the name left his lips, he flinched his hand back as if burned. "Sorry my lady. I don't know what came over me."

"It's fine, no harm done." A pretty brush swept across her cheeks as she turned away, "Good bye my champion... Kenshin."

She was gone within the crowds of people before he could react. Kenshin couldn't explain what possessed him to touch a member of the royal family so forwardly. He could easily be hung for a transgression like that. Well, he could be hung if the king didn't like him so much. If anything, the king would most likely declare that Kenshin would now have to marry his daughter. That thought didn't bother him as much anymore. There could be worse things in life than being betrothed to a feisty princess who could hold her own with a sword.

But this was a moment when he had to leave. There was too much blood spilt by his own sword for him to have a chance at happiness or peace right now. Once he had his helmet removed and paid Yahiko for his services, Kenshin would be moving on. He could now continue his mission of repentance. He could avoid tournaments for months now that he didn't need to get new armor.

But he had the feeling that he would enter another tournament in the near future and the sword wielding princess would be there again. So until then, the prize of this tournament would tide him over until he won the ultimate award.