Authors Note:

Hello dear readers!

I'm really sorry to do this and put up your hopes for another chapter, but I have honestly lost interest in this story. I've been trying for a while now to write in it, but it has been TWO YEARS and nothing seems to come to mind anymore. My inspiration seems to have faded away, and I feel it's just terrible of me to maybe-sort of-possibly update at some random point in the future.

So I am going to discontinue this story. I'm so sorry to all the faithful readers that have asked about the progress of this story and hoped that it would keep going… But I think that it's better just to close it off rather than keep anyone's hopes up.

However!

I do have a draft of the upcoming chapter that I ended up stopped writing in the middle of. I'll post it here, though that's all I have left. I hope you enjoy it, even if it is incomplete.

This Heart of Mine
Part VIII (Incomplete)

Kaoru was never the type to be weighed down by sadness—she always tried to look at things in a positive way. After all, that was how she decided she would approach her marriage to Kenshin; wide-eyed, nonjudgmental and full of hope for a happy and peaceful future. But as they traveled further north, distancing herself from the southern part of the country, she couldn't help but feel a sense of depression creep in.

They had been travelling for half a day now, and would reach the village of Ren by nightfall. Withdrawn to her carriage, she watched the landscape pass her by, and in the process she began the notice the startling changes as she crossed into northern territory. No longer were the skies a bright, welcoming shade of blue, but rather were dull and gray, with the sun hidden behind ghostly clouds. While Taisho had enjoyed pleasant summers and warm winters, she could feel the brisk springtime wind settling in and nipping at her skin. The terrain at Taisho had been prairies—fields upon fields of wildflowers with gorgeous, wide-open lakes that stretched on for miles. But as they continued down the path to Yazawa, Kaoru could see tall, towering forests waiting for them in the distance, appearing far more daunting than welcoming as she headed toward her new home.

She let out a long, heavy sigh. It caught the attention of one of her traveling companions.

Sagara Sanosuke looked over at her curiously. "What's wrong, Your Majesty?"

She turned her distraught eyes to the black-haired man. "Sanosuke…What's Yazawa like?"

"Yazawa?" Sanosuke repeated, surprised by the question. Then he broke out into a kind-hearted grin. "Oh, you should be ready to be amazed, Your Highness. Yazawa is the most beautiful place in the entire country."

Before she could stop herself, Kaoru let out a small scoff of disbelief. Sanosuke arched a brow at her.

"Something wrong, Your Highness?" Sanosuke asked.

"Well…It's just…you seem so sure of yourself," Kaoru said.

"About what?"

"That Yazawa is the most beautiful place in the country," she said. "It is quite a bold statement."

"Bold, but true."

"I'm sorry, Sanosuke. But I must disagree. You have not seen true beauty until you have seen Taisho." Kaoru's voice was firm and full of pride.

"And I must disagree with you, Your Highness," Sanosuke said. "Yazawa is called the 'Land of Beauty' because of its exquisiteness."

Kaoru rolled her eyes. "And who gave it that nickname? That description is totally biased if it comes from a Northerner!"

"What about Taisho?" Sanosuke shot back. "Aren't you partial to it because it's your home? Also, isn't Taisho just a bunch of flat land? What's so special about it?"

Kaoru looked aghast at such a comment. "Taisho isn't just a bunch of flat land! It is located just next to the largest lake in the country—"

"Yazawa is just only a few miles away from the border of the Rai Sea—"

"And it has the most gorgeous terrain! Wide, open green grasslands and wildflowers everywhere—"

"There are mountains! Snow-capped mountains that face the green wilderness of the woods—"

"Large oak trees that you can sit under on those hot summer days—"

"Horse-back riding through the snow on a nice winter night—"

"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Yahiko said, interrupting the bickering pair.

Sanosuke and Kaoru turned to look at the teenage boy sitting in the carriage, looking irritated that he had been woken up from his pleasant nap to a stupid argument.

"Yahiko!" Kaoru said excitedly. "Can you please convince Sanosuke that Taisho is—"

"Unfair, Your Highness. The prince has a biased opinion—"

Yahiko growled as he rubbed his temples. "Can you explain what the hell you two are arguing about?"

Kaoru quickly validated the cause of the argument to her younger brother.

The prince stared at the two for several long seconds. "You two are so stupid," he said bluntly.

"Yahiko!" Kaoru exclaimed, swatting him on the shoulder angrily. "That is extremely rude to say, not only to your sister but also to Sanosuke!"

He shrugged indifferently. "Well, the two of you are being completely irrational. No matter what anyone says, neither one of you can win the argument…Think it through—You each love your own kingdom too much to actually convince the other anything. So just calm down and be quiet."

And he settled back against the seat of the carriage and closed his eyes once more, continuing on with his nap.

Sanosuke and Kaoru exchanged looks of blank surprise before breaking out into embarrassed smiles.

"I guess I just got too carried away," Sanosuke said, scratching the back of his head. "Sorry about that, Your Highness."

"Oh no! I was being foolish too!" Kaoru said, waving her hands in emphasis.

"But quite honestly," Sanosuke said. "Once you get to Yazawa, I'm sure that you will realize what I'm talking about."

Kaoru quickly composed herself comfortably. "Please, Sanosuke, tell me about Yazawa. This is the first time that I've ever stepped into the North. What is it like up there?"

"Well, its—" Sanosuke started. But then he glanced over at the queen. "I'm surprised that you're still so unaware about the North. You seem to be very curious. Haven't you asked Kenshin about it before?"

Kaoru looked startled before looking down at her hands. For the past three days, Kaoru has been studiously avoiding her husband by any means possible. After the encounter in the garden, Kaoru's emotions were a confused mess. Her heart ached for Enishi's embrace yet fluttered when she made brief eye contact with Kenshin.

Why? She didn't know and it made her feel incredibly hopeless and terrible as a person. How was she supposed to feel? What was right and what was wrong? To who was she supposed to give her loyalty? The man that she'd loved since childhood or the man she was now eternally bound? The uncertainties flooded her head continuously.

But the thoughts didn't stop there—They pressed onwards to her new position as queen. She would now have to stand beside the man that was responsible for so much violence and bloodshed across the country. Kenshin obviously didn't share her same political views nor did he seem to want to change. The Northern empire was expanding—and lives were being lost because of it. She felt herself being caught in a moral dilemma. Her beliefs were vitally important to her and she struggled to find a balance between them and a prosperous new life with Kenshin.

And how did Kenshin even feel? He had just bound himself to a girl who had no intention of ever supporting his cause and yet had married him anyway.
"…I want to treasure you."

Kenshin's words from the garden floated back into her mind and she felt her cheek flush pink. She let her eyes drift over to Kenshin, who was riding at the front of the convoy. He looked so powerful and dangerous, even at rest. Yet his words to her were so kind and honest…

"Couldn't you have just asked Kenshin about it?" Sanosuke prompted her again, jolting her out of her thoughts.

She quickly pulled her gaze away from the king to look at her companion. "Oh, well…" She tried to hide the blush on her cheeks. She hadn't really spoken to him much over the course of the last few days…She had been avoiding him while she collect her feelings to make some sense. "The king's been busy, and I suppose I've just forgotten about it…"

But something else quickly registered in her head at Sanosuke's words. She looked at him curiously. "Sanosuke, how long have you known the king?"
"Me? Well, we've known each other since we were kids. Why?"

"It's just that…you address the king by his first name," she said observantly. "And you are always by his side… It seems that the two of you share a close relationship."

"When he was chosen to be the successor of the former king, I honestly couldn't just start calling him 'Your Majesty'. I know him too well to do that."

Kaoru raised an inquisitive brow. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean. Wasn't Kenshin born and raised as a prince?"

Sanosuke shook his head. "The former king didn't have any children. Kenshin was his most talented and prized student. Among the many other candidates, the king chose Kenshin to be his successor."

"But wouldn't the throne pass to the next closest blood relative?" Kaoru asked.

"Things work a little differently in Yazawa," Sanosuke told her. "Who leads the nation is not determined by the bloodline, but actually by whomever the current ruler deems fit. Essentially, we have no 'royal' blood because almost every person in Yazawa is a descendant of some former king and queen."

"That is…very different from Taisho," Kaoru said. "Yahiko will be king because he is my father's son. If something happened to him, since I am no longer applicable, the throne would go to my distant cousin."

"Well, it not like kings haven't passed the throne to their own children or family members…But there have been many occasions when the king didn't think his children were appropriate, or his children didn't even want to be ruler, and he was able to choose someone he thought would be best for the kingdom."
"Isn't there uproars or rebellion against the king if he chooses someone that the people don't want?"

Sanosuke looked thoughtful. "It may have happened in the far past, but the citizens trust their king…and his decisions. When Kenshin ascended the throne, it was a very joyous celebration."

"What did his family think? I mean, if their son was to suddenly become king—"

The dark-haired man shook his head. "Kenshin has no family."

Kaoru blinked. "Pardon?"

"He's an orphan," Sanosuke said quietly. "His parents were killed in an invasion on Yazawa some twenty-years ago…"

Her heart clenched tightly at Sanosuke's words. Orphan? Dead parents? In some sense, she could understand the pain of losing a parent, but Kaoru still had her father, brother and Tae as her stable and loving support system. But to lose your entire family…

"It must have been lonely…" Kaoru whispered, her blue eyes saddened.

"It probably was," Sanosuke agreed. "But soon after, the king decided to take Kenshin in. And Kenshin entered the palace lifestyle. I mean, he was practically a prince anyway, with the attention the king gave him. My father was friends with the former king, and that was how the two of us met."

"Even still…" Kaoru said softly. "To lose your entire family…"

Sanosuke looked at her kindly, glad she was feeling compassion for his king. "It's true that he lost one family, but he gained another when he came to the palace. And he gained an even larger one when he became king."

Kaoru tilted her head to the side, slightly confused. Sanosuke laughed.

"Kenshin is loved and supported by all of the citizens in Yazawa. That's his family now. And he will do his best to protect it."

"That's why I can't simply call Kenshin 'Your Majesty'. We're part of that family. There's no need for such formalities—especially since we've known each other for such a goddamn long time…" Then he gazed at her with a mischievous gleam in his eye. "And that includes you too, Your Highness."

"What do you mean?"

Sanosuke leaned into the carriage slightly and grinned. "I mean that you're part of Kenshin's family now too."

Kaoru was taken aback by his statement. Part of Kenshin's family? Was that true?

"Well, your part is quite more…intimate than mine," Sanosuke said, and Kaoru flushed in horror. "But it's still the same nonetheless."

"The family?" Kaoru repeated, still slightly startled.

"Yep," Sanosuke said firmly, nodding. "And you know—"

But a yell from up ahead interrupted him. It was Kenshin. "Sanosuke!" he called out, his eyes filled with an unreadable emotion. "Come here."

Sanosuke sighed. "Ah, the king calls." He looked back at Kaoru. "Rest easy, Your Highness. We should be arriving at Ren shortly."

He began to turn away, but Kaoru reached out and grabbed his sleeve. Sanosuke turned around in surprise.

"Your Highness?"

"If you truly believe that I am part of Kenshin's family," she said with a small smile, "then, please, call me Kaoru."

xXxXxXx

Kenshin watched as Sanosuke easily ambled away from Kaoru's carriage and towards him. He knew that he shouldn't feel irritated…But the fact for the past half-hour his friend had been chatting away with his wife while he couldn't even get her to look at him... Well, let's just say that Kenshin was frustrated.
Ever since Kaoru ran away from him in the garden a few days ago, she had been strangely avoiding him. She was usually talkative, although a bit shy and reserved around him, but her eyes would light up when she spoke. However, after their encounter, she didn't speak or look at him until necessary, and for the life of him, he couldn't tell why.

He wandered if it was because of his candid words to her. Perhaps it was too early to say such things? Kenshin shook his head. He wasn't sure. But he was certain that she was bothered by something. For the past two nights, Kaoru had gone to bed and risen earlier than him. And last night, according to her handmaiden, she'd fallen asleep in her brother's room and had no intentions of returning to her chambers.

This girl…Kenshin thought, looking around to see her leaning out of the window of the carriage, the gentle breeze flowing through her tresses. She looked ahead and suddenly caught his gaze. Flushing, she quickly withdrew back into the carriage before he even had a chance to react. He released a frustrated sigh. What am I going to do with you?

"Kenshin," Sanosuke said, approaching him. "What is it?"

"Oh," Kenshin said, remembering he had called his friend over. "Nevermind."

"What?" Sanosuke said, looking annoyed. "And here I was, having a pleasant conversation with your wife…"

"I noticed," Kenshin said in an equally irritated tone.

The annoyance melted off Sanosuke's face and transformed into a cheeky grin. "What? Jealous already?"

Kenshin shot him a small glare but said nothing.

"She's a chatty girl," Sanosuke said, almost affectionately. "Inquisitive."

Well, lately, she hasn't been that way with me… Kenshin mused in vexation. "What were you even talking about?" he asked dully.

"We talked a bit about Yazawa…" Sanosuke told him. "She wouldn't believe me when I told her that it's the most beautiful place in the country. She was really curious about it."

The young king remained uninterested.

"And oh yeah…We talked about you."

Kenshin snapped his eyes onto his friend. "What?"

"She asked about you. I told her how you were chosen to be king," Sanosuke replied. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "She seems interested."

Kenshin briefly wondered what had warranted such a sudden interest, especially since she had been carefully evading him. "Is that so?" Kenshin said, in a slightly indifferent tone.

Sanosuke looked at his friend curiously. "That's it? I thought that you would be thrilled."

"I'm not sure what to make of her yet," Kenshin said honestly. She was charming and personable in one moment and cool and eluding in the next. What was he supposed to think?

"With the way that I constantly catch you looking at her," Sanosuke said, "that seems highly unlikely."

It was true. Kenshin had somehow created a habit of staring at his new wife. It was such an easy endeavor…She was, after all, very pleasant to look at. But to only look was a hard venture. He wanted to talk to her, listen to her laugh and hear her words as they flowed effortlessly from her rosy pink lips. And so, Kenshin was trapped in a bothersome state of unfulfilled want.

"Anyway, do you think that it's a good idea to bring Kaoru to Ren?" Sanosuke asked suddenly.

Kenshin looked at his friend in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"It isn't exactly…stable over on that side of the border, you know," Sanosuke said, lowering his voice. "There have been small uprisings near the city…"

"Yes, I've heard about them," Kenshin said. "The Akimoto clan seems to have started a camp only a few miles from the edge of Ren."

"It could be trouble," Sanosuke noted.

"It's possible."

"Aren't you concerned?" Sanosuke said, arching a curious brow. "If they know that you are visiting during the Spring Festival, they might try something against you—Do you really want your new wife to be exposed to the violence against the Empire so soon?"

Sanosuke did make a valid point. He had no intention of revealing to Kaoru the harshness that his empire sometimes faced. While he firmly believed that she should be aware due to her status as queen, this was not something that he wanted to show her right away. He hoped to get to Yazawa safely first before they would encounter any problems. Most definitely, once she arrived at the palace there would be many issues that she would have to be informed about and involved in. That would be a new fact of life for her, despite her seemingly detached nature from her own nation's politics.

"That's why, while Kaoru and the others are out enjoying the festival, you, Aoshi and I will be doing something about the Akimoto matter," Kenshin said, revealing his plan to his friend. He gave him a small smirk. "Sorry, Sanosuke, but you won't be able to drink too much tonight. We'll have a bit of work to do."
Sanosuke looked slightly surprised, but quickly recovered. He sighed dramatically. "So this detour to Ren was actually double-sided?"

"Of course," Kenshin replied easily.

"And here I was, thinking I'd be able to have a good time tonight." Sanosuke sighed dramatically. He quickly recovered, knowing that there was soon work to be done. "What's the plan in dealing with the Akimotos?"

"I've already sent the mayor a request to bring their leader to the city. I thought we could have a talk."

Sanosuke could already picture the image of Kenshin have a talk with the Akimotos. Kenshin was one of the most rational and logical men that he knew and therefore would offer multiple suggestions work out the disagreements between the two. After all, the negotiations with King Kosuke of Taisho had gone amicably. But if the Akimoto leader was not receptive to any of Kenshin's proposals to end the uprisings…It could easily become an intimidating and harrowing encounter.

"Do you think that will actually work?"

Kenshin shrugged. "Why not?"

"Is that code for 'if it doesn't, I'll make it work'?" Sanosuke said with a grin.

"Well, I want to wrap it up quickly. The Spring Festival is one of my favorite times of the year," Kenshin said. He also hoped to spend some time with Kaoru while they were there—she had mentioned her love of festivals…perhaps that would lighten her evasive mood? He could only hope…

But the Akimoto matter had to be dealt with. Kenshin knew that invading and conquering neighboring nations would obviously incite some sorts of rebellions, but he hadn't planned on having to deal with one so close to Ren. Ren, with its friendly and respectable alliance to the North, should not be receiving such troubles on his account.

"Looks like we're here," Sanosuke said, snapping Kenshin out of his reverie.

Kenshin turned his head in the direction of the setting sun, seeing the small village contrasting starkly with the darkening sky. The city was ablaze with bright lights and the projection of excited voices could be heard from where they stood.

Their visit to Ren was about to begin.

xXxXxXx

It's so pretty!" Kaoru exclaimed, her blue eyes sparkling as brightly as the diamond on her wedding ring. She took in vivid colors and dazzling lights excitedly as she stood in the midst of it all. She grabbed Yahiko's arm eagerly. "Doesn't it look magical?"

"Eh? Isn't it exactly the same as all the other festivals we've been to?" Yahiko said, looking much less enthused than his sister.

"What are you talking about?" Kaoru demanded. "All festivals are different! I mean, look at those games over there—I've never seen them before! And those sweets around the corner—they look delicious! It's nothing like we have in Taisho!"

"You just get excited too easily…" Yahiko mumbled.

But Kaoru didn't seem to hear him. She was suddenly dragging him away, towards a vendor that stood near the side of the road. Spread across his table were the most brilliantly colored pendants, all cut into different shapes and sizes.

"Look at these!" Kaoru said, pointing at the lovely jewelry.

"You just clearly proved my point," Yahiko said, shaking his head.

The vendor gave her a toothy grin. "Find something that you like, Miss?"

Kaoru leaned over the table and inspected the jewelry more closely. They weren't made of precious gems or embedded in fine gold, but there was something very unique about them. She reached out to gently grab one of the blue lockets but stopped when she heard her name.

Looking around, she saw Misao running towards them through the increasing crowds of people. The girl had a worried expression her face and when she approached them, she breathed out heavily in relief.

"Princess, please do not wander off like that!" Misao said. "I turned around and you were gone!"

Kaoru had the grace to let an expression of guilt cross her features. "I'm so sorry, Misao. It's just that I got a little excited…"

"It's hard not to get carried away, especially in the middle of the Spring Festival!" Misao said cheerfully. She peered around them to see what had dragged the young woman away from the rest of their companions. "What are you looking at, anyway?"

"Oh, well, I just saw these charms, and I thought that they were very beautiful," Kaoru told her.

"Kaoru, you already have so many jewels," Yahiko said with a scowl. "You really don't need any of these—"

"Ah, but that's where you are wrong, young sir," the vendor said, interrupting the prince. Misao, Kaoru and Yahiko turned to look at him. "These aren't just simple pieces of jewelry. Oh, no. They are much more than that."

"What are they?" Kaoru asked curiously.

The man grinned. "These charms…Well, they've been blessed by the local shaman. They will bring you good luck and happiness."

"Really?" Misao and Kaoru said in unison, wide-eyed and mesmerized.

Yahiko resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Come on, you can't seriously believe—"

"I want one!" Kaoru said.

"Want one of what?" she heard someone say. She whirled around and found Kenshin and an elderly man standing behind them. Kenshin looked mildly curious as he stared at Kaoru.

Kaoru's felt her heart skip a beat at Kenshin's sudden presence. Her lack of resolve when talking to him, including her avoidance of him, seemed to have made her even more nervous when she was in his company.

"Kaoru wants one of these pendants," Misao contributed happily, pointing to the display of jewelry.

Kenshin moved closer to Kaoru as he bent over the jewelry. She was nervous enough at that point, but when she felt Yahiko and Misao leave her side, she tensed slightly.

"Which one did you like?" Kenshin asked her.

She didn't want to appear as a spoiled little girl, one that had to be bought whatever she desired. She quickly waved her hand, hoping to dismiss the idea. "Oh, no. I was just admiring them—"

"But didn't you just say that you wanted one?" Kenshin countered easily.

"Yes, but I just being…"

"Ah, Your Highness, you should take one," the elderly man at Kenshin's side said. "It will be a good token to remember Ren by."

"Kaoru," Kenshin said. "This is Lord Miyabe. He is the mayor of Ren."

Kaoru dipped into a small bow with a smile. "It is a pleasure to meet you, my lord."

"No, not at all, Your Highness. It is our great pleasure to have you here in Ren, especially in the company of the King. We have all been quite eager to see you," he said with a kind smile.

"Now, Kaoru," Kenshin prompted her again. "Which one did you want?"

Kaoru sighed. "Kenshin, I really don't need—"

"Fine then," Kenshin said determinedly. He looked over the jewels and picked up a blue one on a silver chain. He quickly took out some money and paid the vendor. Then he lifted Kaoru's hand, uncurled her fingers, and gently placed the piece of jewelry in her palm. "This one is yours."

She felt her face heat up at the feel of his touch. "I…" She looked up at the red-haired man before her. "You've already presented me with so many gifts. To get another…"

"This one is different," Kenshin told her. "Let's call this gift a truce."

Kaoru looked surprised. "A truce? What do you mean?"

"Well, now, perhaps you can stop avoiding me," Kenshin said softly.

If at all possible, Kaoru's cheeks flushed even deeper. It was embarrassing to get confronted about her childish and evasive behavior. She had been so concerned about how to deal with her own confused feelings that she hadn't even thought about how her actions had affected the others surrounding her. She felt a twinge of guilt as she caught Kenshin's gentle and inquisitive gaze.

What should she say? Should she apologize for her selfish conduct? But that would have to entail some sort of explanation…and there were certainly some details that she did not wish to divulge. Regardless, his consistent kind manner towards her, despite her unpredictable one, was something that clearly worthy of praise.

"Thank you," she said finally and she closed her fingers around the necklace. She looked up at him earnestly. "I'll treasure it."

Kenshin appeared pleased by her answer. "Ren is filled with a number of beautiful things," he told her. "If you find anything you like, don't hesitate to ask."
"Oh no," Kaoru said. "This is more than enough—"

"Kaoru!" Misao called out suddenly. Kaoru looked behind her and saw Misao, Yahiko and Megumi standing a few feet away, waving at her. "Come on, let's go explore!"

Kaoru smiled brightly in return. "I'm coming!" she called back, taking a few steps in their direction, until she noticed that Kenshin remained where he was. She trotted back to him, looking curious. "Kenshin, let's go!"

Kenshin shook his head apologetically. "Sorry, Kaoru. I have to take care of some…business with the mayor."

She titled her head to the side. "You aren't coming with us?"

"Not for a while," he replied. "Have fun."

She nodded with a dazzling smile. "Yes!" she said before rushing off towards her companions. Misao eagerly grabbed her hand and pulled her along. He heard her musical laughter drifting over the crowd before she disappeared amongst the swarms of people.

"Your Highness," Lord Miyabe said. "The leader of the Akimoto clan is waiting for you."

"Let's go," Kenshin said, turning around and leading the way back to the manor.

Author's Note:

They live happily ever after, I swear. :3

Thank you so much for supporting this story until now. You are all amazing!

-Aya