Synopsis: A companion piece to 'A Soft Hope'. During the Christmas season, Misao turns all her attention to Aoshi, hoping that once and for all he will come to love her.

Author's Note: This story takes place between chapters 7 and 8 in 'A Soft Hope'. While it would make more sense to have read 'A Soft Hope' before reading this story, it's not totally necessary – I believe you can enjoy it either way.

I am a horrid procrastinator. I started this story back before I had even finished the epilogue for 'A Soft Hope' and then hit a wall that took me forever to get past. I have just finished this story, though, which is why I'm posting it finally. There will be three chapters, and I should have the next two up fairly soon as they only need some editing.

Please read and review. Hope you enjoy.

Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin

A Persistent Hope

Chapter 1 – To Meet Again

She saw him for the first time when she was twelve. It had been at a bright afternoon at a garden party at her family's country estate in Kent, where she had been surrounded by the twittering of adults as they converged to eat and gossip. It had been a rather boring affair until she had looked up from her empty plate to see him sitting not far away on a stone bench. Something about him had held her gaze and made her young heart skip a beat. His dark hair, his stoic features, his cool, icy gaze – she found herself ensnared, and it was with a curious smile on her lips that she had walked over to him, sat down beside him, and introduced herself.

In the way of words, they didn't get very far. She learned his name, but after their terse introduction, he remained curiously silent. So she spoke enough for two of them that afternoon. When he left later with his family, she had been consumed with a need to see him again. And so she had.

There had not been many social gatherings that spring, but she was lucky in that the few she did attend, he was also present. She had latched onto him like a gnat, ever-present and unshakable. Since it was unlikely that he hadn't noticed her constant presence, she came to the conclusion that while he didn't exactly revel in her shadowlike tendencies, he was able to tolerate them. If they had been in London instead of the countryside of Kent, she wasn't sure if he would have been as lenient with her. But, the countryside allowed a freedom that the great city did not.

That memorable spring had served as a revelation to her in many ways. She began to act like a girl. She started to care about her appearance, because it surely wasn't the fashion to run about in muddy trousers with her hair snarled in tangles. She became accustomed to and even welcomed the formal dress that young women were expected to wear.

By the time she returned to the countryside the following spring, she had undergone a transformation that made her mother giddy with pleasure and her father proud, but had left her terribly uncomfortable. Still, the tightness of the corset, the restraining layers of her petticoats, and the elegant sweep of her various gowns gave her an edge that she hadn't had the previous year. She was ready for him.

If only he had come. The spring of her thirteenth year had been dreary indeed. As had her fourteenth.

On the fifteenth, her father invited a group of acquaintances to their country home for an amiable gathering. The young man of her affections arrived with his father. She had searched for some flicker of recognition in the icy glint of his blue gaze, but his expression had remained expertly schooled. Unfortunately, she hadn't had the time to search him out after that dinner party, because he left with his father for London two days later. It had been an incredibly frustrating time to say the least.

The next time she saw him, she was seventeen. Determination had filled her, and instead of standing back on the sidelines to watch, she stepped back into his life again as much as possible. He hadn't spoken much to her except for the customary greeting that polite society dictated. Now that she was older, she was unable to get away with the many things that she had been able to when she had been twelve. Being alone with him was strictly prohibited, and she was forced to adapt to the stringent rules of society.

She became quite proficient at shadowing him at certain functions. Her mother had scolded her, her father had turned a blind eye, and she had been content for the first time in a long while. Well…at least, she had been until she had had to leave Kent and return to London, where in the following season, she underwent her public debut for the ton, and her parents announced her eligibility for marriage.

She did not see him for another two years - until her 19th year - and unfortunately, the circumstances of her visit to Kent that year had not allowed her the freedom she would have wished. She had remained with her best friend, Kaoru, who had still been recovering from the terrible loss of her parents. Nothing had happened during that dreadful time. In fact, the spare moments that she had spent in his presence had been rather disastrous.

And at present, a little over a year later, she unfortunately still remained in that rut of inactivity.

December, 1822. London, England.

She was so bored.

How anyone could find the opera interesting was baffling. Sitting on a balcony for hours on end and watching a parade of performers belt out songs and musical notes that were too obscure to even exist, in her opinion, was a ridiculous waste of time. She'd rather be at home watching the paint dry on Kaoru's newest painting. That was twice as exciting as this. Even the balcony's chairs were dismal. In fact, her posterior had gone numb not even ten minutes into the production. It'd be a miracle if she would be able to walk when it was time for intermission.

Misao fidgeted, trying to spread some tingle of awareness through her muscles. Scrunching her nose, she gripped the program in her hand and frowned. Patience had never been one her strong points. She would have liked nothing better than to bolt from her seat and run away from this nightmare, but she would feel horrible about abandoning her friend to brave the rest of the musical production alone.

Misao slid her gaze over to Kaoru and frowned. Kaoru had apparently managed to sneak a pencil into her silk reticule and was now sketching a very nice likeness of the interior of the opera house on her program. It was at a time like this that Misao wished she had some fabulous talent to help distract her when life became tedious. She sighed heavily and turned a back to the stage to stare at it blankly as a woman clad in a sparkling blue gown took center stage and began to sing.

Usually, Misao was very adept at weaseling out of having to attend such functions, but there were only so many times her mother would believe her feigned illnesses. Public appearances, according to her mother, were extremely important to one's reputation and assertion into society. Without them, you were 'a nobody', and apparently that was a horrifying thought…to her mother. For Misao, she didn't give a fig if anyone noticed her at all.

Well, that wasn't true. Only one person had ever really mattered to her, and he wasn't even in the city, so this was all pretty pointless in her opinion.

A thunderous applause abruptly drew Misao from her impatient thoughts. Beside her, Kaoru lifted her head and blinked with slight confusion. Misao watched as the stage's curtain closed, signaling intermission had begun.

Intermission. What a beautiful word.

Slumping with unladylike relief, Misao closed her eyes and sighed. There was a steady roar of conversation that filled the air, but the discordant, overloud melodies that had reigned minutes ago were blissfully absent. The silence was sublime.

Kaoru stuffed her pencil and the now ruined program into her reticule and then placed a hand on Misao's arm. "Why don't we stretch our legs? We're only halfway through, and knowing that the torture shall continue, I'm anxious to move around a bit before we're trapped again."

"Excellent idea. Give me a second to get steady on my feet," Misao replied as she stood slowly, wincing at the stiffness of her legs. A few moments later, she was able to follow her friend out of the box and into the hallway crowded with nobility.

Kaoru seemed to know where she was going, so Misao stayed close behind her. The last thing she wanted was to become entangled in an unwanted conversation.

When they came to a stop in front of a table serving lemonade, Misao let out a slight sigh. She should have known. Kaoru loved the sour drink. Misao took a small glass and sipped the liquid tentatively. Lemonade had always made her thirstier than she had been before she drank it, so moderation was the key. As a rule, she generally avoided it, but this situation didn't allow her that possibility.

"I wish there was some way we could leave without ruffling my mother's feathers," Misao murmured quietly to her friend.

Kaoru smiled, slipping an amused gaze to Misao. "Feign an illness?"

Misao resisted the urge to snort. "She would see through such an obvious ruse."

"Then I guess succumbing to a bout of feminine vapors is out of the question as well?" she teased.

"I have never fainted before in my life," Misao responded emphatically, offended by the possibility.


Misao grimaced, and sighed deeply. "But this awful music may be the death of me, never mind the vapors."

Kaoru watched as Misao placed her half-full lemonade glass back on the table. The two women shared a look of common reluctance that even a passerby would have recognized as malcontent.

"We should head back," Kaoru intoned solemnly. "Intermission will be over shortly."

"I don't suppose you have an additional pencil stuck in that reticule of yours, eh?"

Kaoru bit back a smile. "No. However, I'm not sure I would have given it to you even if I did. I know you wouldn't use it to draw with."

Misao sighed. "Too true. I'd probably end up hurling it at the stage, and then where would I be?"

Kaoru laughed. "Imprisoned for the rest of your life."

"Yes, I do believe my mother would have an apoplexy." She sighed and backed away from the table to let Kaoru pass. "I guess there's no point in dallying."

Before moving, she glanced at Kaoru's face absently and was surprised to notice a change of expression; Kaoru's eyes widened, her lips parted, and flicker of secret amusement lightened her countenance.

Before Misao could question her friend, she took a step back and bumped rather forcefully into something solid and warm. A pair of hands came up to grip the sides of her arms and steadied her, but fell quickly away as she whipped around, an apology on her lips.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she began, raising her wide eyes to her victim's. And she froze.

Her breath caught in her throat, and she blinked owlishly for a few stunned seconds before her senses came rushing back to her.

"Aoshi! What a surprise," Misao burst out. To hell with titles and formalities. It had been too long since the last time she had seen him.

He inclined his head in greeting, yet remained silent.

"I wasn't aware that you were in London," she continued.

"No one was."

"Oh? Well, it's wonderful to see you again. You remember Miss Kaoru Kamiya?"

He nodded. "Miss Kamiya," he replied in greeting.

"Viscount," Kaoru responded. "I hope you and your shipping company both are flourishing."

"As well as could be expected. All captains and crews are working diligently."

A sad sort of smile covered Kaoru's lips and she bowed her head slightly. "I'm glad."

Misao watched the exchange, cocking her head to the side. She was quite aware that Kaoru had just inquired, through veiled words, about Kenshin's wellbeing as the captain of one of Aoshi's merchant ships. At the curt, positive reference to Kenshin's welfare, Misao had the sudden urge to fling herself in Aoshi's arms – his small reassurance would help to maintain Kaoru's good spirits for a time.

An usher announced the end of intermission and urged all to return to their seats. Aoshi bid a polite farewell and walked away. Misao watched him depart, and then followed her friend.

Once back in the box, Misao ignored the fluttering chords of the music and the loud voices of the singers, keeping her gaze fixed on the man in a seat across the theater and three boxes to the left of hers.

Lifting the small gold binoculars to her eyes, she smiled.

Maybe tonight wasn't so awful after all. Things were beginning to look interesting.

There was nothing more uncomfortable than riding sidesaddle. The saddle tended to dig into one's hip, and the precariousness of one's balance made the ride less than thrilling. Unfortunately, it was the only dignified and accepted way in which a woman was allowed to ride a horse, and it was something that was not up to debate. But that didn't mean that Misao couldn't grumble about it. Men and their stupid ideas of decorum…

Despite her obvious aversion, Misao still managed a morning ride each day with her maid following close behind acting as a discrete chaperone. This particular December morning, frigid as it was, Misao had decided that Hyde Park would be her destination. Usually, she avoided it because of the constant congestion, but the cold weather deterred many people from journeying out. Even with the chilly air, however, a respectable crowd milled about on horseback and in closed and open carriages.

Since Aoshi had attended the opera the night before, there was a slight chance that he might be at the park today, so she had come. There was nothing really for her to lose, and it seemed like a good idea at the time that she had set off.

She had been riding around the park for the better part of an hour, making polite, but brisk conversation with those she was acquainted with. There had been no sign of him, unfortunately, and even if she wished to spend the entire day milling about in the cold weather searching for him, she didn't have such freedom, and she was likely to catch a chill if she dallied much longer.

Ready to head back home, Misao steered her mount down a somewhat less populated path that led back to her house. She was a little ways down the path when she brought her horse to a slow halt, and stared with growing anticipation at a carriage that was pulled off to the side. One of the large spoked wheels sat against it, broken and beyond repair. The carriage sat lopsided because of the missing wheel, and as she stared at the glossy seal on the door, Misao felt her lips part with recognition.

She heard voices coming from behind the carriage, and with a delighted smile, she dismounted and led her horse over. From the corner of her eye, she saw her maid dismount a small distance away. When she rounded the corner and saw what she had hoped to see, the smile on her lips grew.

Aoshi stood next to the carriage, his back to her as he spoke to his driver. There was something thrilling about seeing him in the daylight versus the dimed interior of an opera house. He wore a thick maroon coat, black boots, and dark trousers, though had no hat atop his head, which was unusual in such weather. Misao could only guess he had left it in the carriage when the wheel had broken.

"I'll ride the horse back, my lord, and bring a replacement carriage if you would prefer. I'm unable to correct the damaged wheel by myself."

Aoshi frowned, but nodded as he stood and slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Go on ahead. I'll remain here, then."

They had yet to see her, and she couldn't help herself by interrupting and saying, "I'll keep you company!"

The driver became immediately flustered, and stuttered nervously as Aoshi slowly turned toward her. She swore she saw a wry expression touch his lips before his features took on their typical aloofness. He met her open stare with coolness.

"Lady Misao. What a…surprise."

Misao beamed and stepped forward. "Such a coincidence, I know."

The driver finally managed to speak, his voice timorous, "But, my lady, you cannot possibly stay alone with him."

"Oh, posh," she replied with a friendly smile. "His lordship and I go back ages. We're like family."

Aoshi raised an eyebrow, fixing her with a hard stare.

"My lord, I –"

"It's alright, Danvers," Aoshi interrupted. "Lady Misao will be fine. I see her maid right over there next to the oak, and we're still insight of others," he said, motioning back down the path. People were still visible as they traveled about the park, just beyond the beginning of the path. "Her reputation will remain pristine."

Danvers nodded, albeit slowly. He moved reluctantly to the horse, mounted, and rode away.

Misao stood staring at Aoshi after Danvers left, though she knew it wasn't the most polite thing to do. Aoshi avoided her stare and gazed beyond her at the people behind them. When he spoke, he caught her off guard, for his focus was still on a passersby just over her shoulder.

"I trust you are in good health?" he asked.

Misao blinked. "Yes, I am. I hope you are fine, as well."

He hummed lowly in accord and then finally moved his gaze to hers.

His eyes were as blue as they had always been and held a cool glint of ice-like seriousness. His lips were pressed in a tense line, and his eyebrows were held in a way that dictated severity.

At first glance, not much about him had changed over the years. However, as she studied him, she noticed additional layers to him that had not been there previously. She hadn't had enough time to analyze him a year ago while she had been in Kent with Kaoru, but this change in him had obviously not occurred overnight. While she couldn't be certain of the cause that brought about the changes that now marked his features, she suspected it had something to do with the death of his father and running his father's formerly debt-ridden shipping company.

Aoshi had always been serious, stern, and quiet. Yet this behavior of his had almost been taken to an extreme these past years. Despite his title and lofty position in society, his life had not been easy. The slight boyishness of his features had faded, and only a domineering man remained. He was a hard man to read; it was even harder still to get him to react. Misao hoped that with time and her help, the cloud of indifference that cloaked him could be parted. If this was an impossible task, she'd find out sooner or later, but for now, all she could do was try.

She clasped her hands in front of her. "I found a kitten wandering the streets yesterday and took her home. I think I'll keep her," she stated, her eyes twinkling.

Aoshi was slightly taken aback, though she could tell he wasn't too surprised by the subject. Misao tended to bring up the most unexpected topics. "Oh?"

"She's a little orange thing. Adorable. And a troublemaker." She smiled. "You should meet her."

"She sounds…interesting."

"You have no idea." Misao cocked her head to side and sighed. She studied Aoshi keenly before saying, "I've been trying to come up with a name for her, but I haven't able to find an appropriate one. Do you have any suggestions, my lord?"

His stare was intent as he stood before her, eyebrows in a line of nonchalance. Holding her gaze, he said quite clearly, "Minx."

For the first time in a long time, Misao felt her cheeks flush. Was there double meaning to that statement?

"The cat?" Misao asked.

He looked away, but not before she saw the smallest corner of his mouth lift. "Yes."

"Well, I…I think I like it. The kitten is quite a troublemaker."

"Indeed," she thought she heard him murmur.

"Thank you for the suggestion, Aoshi."

Aoshi made noncommittal sound in the back of his throat as he reached within the open doorway of the carriage and pulled out a small pamphlet. Clutching it in his hand, he moved over to the tree behind Misao. A large, wooden bench sat underneath the tree's branches. She watched as he settled down quietly.

"If you'll pardon me, Lady Misao, I have some reading I must finish."

Misao sighed. Typical of him to say something surprising, and then turn around and ignore her. She bit her lip and glanced at her horse. Pulling her mare towards the carriage, she tethered the reins to part of the railing, confident that the anchor would remain, and then turned to the silent viscount.

The pamphlet was laid out on his lap, and he did appear to be actually reading it. Pursing her lips, she reached into the side pocket of her riding habit and pulled out the Society Papers that she had stuffed there absentmindedly earlier that morning. 'What an odd situation for them to be useful,' Misao pondered with a secret smile.

She lowered herself as gracefully as possible on the opposite side of the bench, careful to give him plenty of room. Aoshi didn't take notice of her change in position, and remained fully involved with whatever subject his pamphlet was about. She pulled the heavy folds of her velvet cloak tighter around her body for added warmth, and then began to thumb through her Society Papers until she found a particular piece that seemed mildly interesting.

As time passed though, her eyes remained on the same exact place on the page. Her attention was focused instead on the man beside her, and she found herself watching him out of the corner of her eye. She couldn't help but admire how the wind tousled his short black hair, and how the expression on his face was slightly softened as he concentrated on the paper. She couldn't help the small smile that slowly spread over lips.

To be able to enjoy the cool weather beneath a sky filled modestly with clouds was refreshing…more so than she would have thought. Maybe it was because she was next to him.

She had often wondered these past few months if there was actual depth to her feelings for Aoshi - if it was, in fact, still merely an infatuation that had stayed with her all these years, or if it really was love. Misao shivered. Love was such a strong word. It was frightening and exciting, painful and joyful, comforting and foreign all wrapped into one. It was hard to say you loved someone who so very apparently did not return the sentiment. It made one think twice about it. Recently, she had spent many an afternoon daydreaming about the possibility that maybe she was wrong. After much deliberation, she had come to the conclusion that she might need to look at her feelings for Aoshi in a more pragmatic manner. She told herself to be more serious about it all. Think less with her heart and more with her head.

And then yesterday, the second she had laid eyes on him, on his straight, serious, familiar form, all those doubts and misgivings flew right out the window. She knew him. She knew herself. And she knew it was stupid to doubt an emotion that had continued to grow and grow over the years to a point of bursting. How stupid of her to think he didn't hold her heart in the palm of his hand, even though he was unaware of it. There had never been anyone else who made her heart catch, her mind go fuzzy, and her cheeks flush. She supposed that she had known all along that he was the only one for her. Silly of her to try to delude herself. There would never be anyone else.

Now, if only she could get him to realize the same thing. He was just so damn stubborn.

Holding back a sigh, Misao folded her papers as she heard a new carriage roll to a stop next to the broken one. Danvers quickly jumped down from his lofty position and hurried over to Aoshi.

"A team will be by to retrieve this carriage. I'll take you home, now, my lord."

Aoshi nodded and slowly stood as he brushed the clinging snow from his trousers. Turning to Misao, he politely held out his hand to assist her. His skin was cool to the touch as she placed her palm within his, and when his fingers wrapped around her own, she felt an involuntary shiver travel up her spine. He had never directly touched her like this before…even if it was only to assist her to stand. Gloves, which she had not worn today (a stupid oversight on her part considering the weather), had always been an unlucky barrier.

As his fingers slipped from hers, she sighed slightly and looked up to thank him with a courteous smile. There was something in his eyes that stopped her lips from sliding upwards – an expression she had never glimpsed before. And before she had real time to analyze it, he shuttered his eyes with deliberate calculation.

The smile she offered instead was rather weak and as she watched his carriage roll away moments later, she cocked her head to the side quizzically. What had that been?

Her behavior was scandalous. She knew that. Women simply did not make social calls on men. Men were the ones who did the visiting. This was not done. It was taboo. It was the road you took if you wanted to set your reputation aflame. But, Misao was doing it anyways.

She had been persistent and obvious with her attentions when she was younger, and she didn't see the why she needed to change her strategy. Besides, time was an obstacle that she couldn't avoid. His time in London was limited, and she had to make do with what was available – and that did not mean tiptoeing around on eggshells, fearful she would ruffle some feathers.

Even if her advances backfired, at least she could say she had spent time with him. Maybe these stolen moments would be able to sustain her for another few years as similar instances had done in the past…as depressing as that thought was.

Beside her, Misao's maid shifted uncertainly, obviously wondering if her mistress had lost all sense of decorum. Cozette was acting as her chaperone, which would help diminish some of the impropriety of the situation.

Raising a hand, Misao knocked loudly before stepping back expectantly. The butler who opened the door was stout and stern, his eyes keen as they studied her.

"I am here to call upon Lord Shinomori," she stated.

"And what, may I inquire, is the meaning of your visit?" he asked in a slightly condescending tone.

"Tell him that Lady Misao is here for a social call."

The man bowed and opened the door wider. Misao and her maid stepped inside and were shown to a small receiving parlor. Instead of sitting, Misao moved to one of the large windows to peer outside at the dewy morning. Cozette moved over to a solitary chair near a bookcase and sat, letting the basket she held in her hands rest in her lap. It was a few minutes later when the butler returned and announced the viscount.

Misao turned from the window, clasping her hands in front of her. As her eyes settled on him, she felt a small smile of curiosity curl her lips.

She had interrupted something. She could tell by the calculating gleam in his eyes. His clothing was unusually rumpled, and it looked as if he had run his hands through his hair multiple times. His gaze didn't quite catch hers, and Misao came to the assumption that he was still caught up in whatever he had been so intently slaving over. He had probably only received her visit because her appearance so abrupt and unexpected. He didn't appear as if was worried about her welfare, so he hadn't rushed over because he thought she was in some kind self-imposed danger. No…he had probably come to the conclusion her visit was just another curious exploit of hers.

He knew her better than he let on, she mused.

"Lord Shinomori," she greeted cheerfully.

"Lady Misao. To what do I owe this surprise visit?" he inquired softly, while glancing over to his butler. The short man nodded and hurried from the room.

"Oh, this is just a simple social hello."

"Simple?" he asked.

Misao sighed. "I know I'm being intrusive. You must be thinking nothing is simple with me around."

He quirked a brow.

She bit her lip to keep from smiling. "I couldn't help myself, though."

"And why is that?"

"I decided that I simply must show you Minx."

For the first time in a long while, his face went completely blank and he stared at her with a growing sense of dread. She hadn't…had she?

Misao motioned for Cozette with her hand, and the maid got up from her seat and walked slowly over to her mistress. She lifted the lid of the basket and pulled out a fluffy orange kitten with large green eyes and long, long whiskers. The kitten let out a plaintive meow and stuck her claws into the front of Misao's bodice.

"You named it Minx?"

"I named her Minx," she corrected. Misao detached the kitten from her dress, and held her out towards Aoshi. "Would you like to hold her?"

"No, thank you. I'm quite alright."

"She's a darling. Don't be afraid."

Misao watched as his expression changed from one of mild discomfort to one of exasperation. The chiseled seriousness that usually characterized his features fell away to a poorly hidden uncertainty. Who would have thought a mere kitten would have such an effect on him? Smiling, Misao stepped forward and thrust the animal into his arms unexpectedly.

Claws dug into his jacket and held as the kitten let out an annoyed yowl. His hands came up quickly to support the small animal.

"You came here to show me a cat?" he asked.

"I thought that this would be the best way to introduce you."

He quirked a brow. "The best way? I shouldn't have even received you, Misao."

It was ridiculous how much pleasure she got from hearing him say her name without the customary title attached.

"But, you did," she couldn't help but say.

"It's probably best that you go. Even with a chaperone, there will be consequences if people see your carriage outside my residence."

Misao stepped forward and took the kitten from him. Tucking it's tiny body underneath her chin, she smiled at him. "You speak logically."

"You should act logically," he replied with a frown.

Misao turned and handed the kitten back to Cozette. "When matters of the heart are involved, often the mind is left out of the equation," she replied softly, her back to him. She wondered if he had heard her.

When she turned around, his expression was unchanged. She didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. However, it wasn't as if she didn't wear her emotions on her sleeve. If Aoshi hadn't been aware of her intentions before, he had to be aware of them now.

"I apologize for disturbing you this morning," she said as she pulled on her gloves.

"Misao, you should know that I can't receive you again. Unless it's an emergency, that is." He stared down at her for a moment before looking away. "I guess now would be a good time to tell you that I'll be leaving again within the next few days."

It was probably the worst news that he could have told her. Misao looked down, afraid he'd see every emotion - sadness, anguish, anger - reflected in her eyes. She had expected him to stay at least a few weeks, not merely a few days. She should be glad that he had come at all, though. She hadn't expected him back in town until late in the spring, anyways. These moments that she had had with him would have to serve her well.

When she raised her head to say goodbye, she had schooled her features. "It was very nice seeing you again, then. I wish you the best in your travels."

"Farewell, Misao."

Two days later in the rose parlor of her London townhouse, Misao frowned at her best friend. "I'm just informing you, Kaoru, that you should have picked a better subject to paint for your next masterpiece," she muttered, shooting her friend a wry glare. "Holding the kitten still is like asking me to sew embroidery! Impossible! Her claws are sharp."

"Please stop whining, Misao. I am almost done."

"Hallelujah," she murmured softly.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Nothing, my dear."

Kaoru sent her a disbelieving look, and Misao couldn't help but grin in return.

"I still think you've taken a leave of your senses," Kaoru murmured, her eyes catching her friend's as she glanced over the top of her canvas. "Tuesday's antics were a little extreme even for you."

Misao quirked an eyebrow. "I thought we decided not to discuss this any further."

Kaoru sighed. "I know, I know. I can't help it."

"I have heard enough from my mother."

"I can imagine," Kaoru replied with a chuckle. "Tilt you head to the left a little."

Misao tilted her head to the right just to hear Kaoru sigh in exasperation, and then she tilted her head as her friend wanted.

"So he's gone now, I presume," she asked with her eyes glued to her painting.

"Yes. I received word this morning that he departed."

"He told you himself?"

"No. I made friends with a maid in his household - don't ask how!" she said pointedly when Kaoru raised her head to spear her friend with a look of disbelief. "She sent me a note this morning. Didn't know where he was headed off to, though. Pity."

A servant walked into the room with a heavy tray filled with biscuits and tea. She set it down carefully on a table off the side, curtseyed and then departed. Misao abandoned her seat the instant the girl left the room, setting the kitten free on the rug and attacked the tray with vigor.

"I'm starving," she said as she grabbed a small porcelain plate and filled it with two biscuits before pouring herself a steaming cup of tea.

From her behind her painting, Kaoru noted dryly, "I noticed."

She turned to her friend. "Care for some?"

"Why, yes. I'm actually quite famished, as well."

Misao gathered a couple biscuits, poured some tea for Kaoru, and brought them over to her. She then settled back onto the sofa with her own afternoon treats.

"I can't believe it's almost Christmas," Kaoru said with a sigh. "Time is passing by so quickly."

"You'll be staying with us for the holidays, of course," Misao said in a tone that allowed no argument.

Kaoru smiled over her tea cup. "I wouldn't dream of spending it with anyone else. I'm not quite sure where I'd be now without your family."

Misao smiled back at her. "I just wish my father would allow us to retreat to the country for the month. I'm so weary of the city."

Kaoru shot her a suspicious look before setting down her now empty tea cup and reaching once again for her paint brush.

Misao had been about to suggest Kaoru finish up painting for the day so that they might go shopping, when her mother walked into the room; she knew her friend needed a new pair of gloves since she had quite ruined her last pair with paint, and she so wished to spend some time out of the house. Apparently her mother had other plans for her.

There was a look mingled of surprise and pleasure on her mother's face, which was nice considering the glares Misao had been receiving the past couple days.

"I have excellent news. Brilliant news, in fact!" she exclaimed.

"We're having chocolate torte for desert tonight?" Misao asked.

"Don't be ridiculous, Misao."

Her lips twitched in response. "Sorry, Mother."

"We have been invited to a country house party in Kent for the Christmas holiday!"

Kaoru's eyebrows rose in surprise as she looked over to Misao. "Oh, goodness! It's just as you hoped. Time in the country."

Misao's mother unfolded the letter of invitation she held in her lap and handed it to her daughter. Misao felt her stomach drop out from under her, and all amusement she had felt previously was abandoned.

"It seems the Viscount is having a house party with a few select families. I'm shocked he thought to include us due to your abominable behavior of late."

Misao couldn't hear her mother's words over the load roar in her ears. Never had such an opportunity presented itself to her before. It was marvelous. It was wonderful. It was perfect. She'd have to make it count, for this may be her final chance to snare Aoshi.