Epilogue: Inklings and Inches
The immediate aftermath of the Feast Day Coup was chaotic, and in truth there was much more to be done than any of those who had participated were quite prepared for. Even so, the night of the actual event was spared, made a true Feast Day celebration. A nation, joyous that at least the iron fist that had loomed over them for three years was at least gone, launched into an entire week of revelry and celebration that ceased neither during the day or at night.
Those nobles found relatively innocent of Shishio's crimes opened their coffers freely to feed the people they had been compelled to starve with the king's taxes, and the Crown itself fed everyone else. The first night, as the members of his strange little band filed into the palace, Crown Prince Kenshin met each of them with gratitude that flowed freely at last from the bottom of his heart.
Those that had been injured were treated by their resident physician, and the lot of them spent the night- bar one public appearance to reassure the people that they all still lived- in relative solitude and the pleasure of each others' company. All knew that they would have few such opportunities anymore, and all wished to hold onto the camaraderie that had developed as much as possible. The wine and stories flowed freely, and all were able to forget at least a little the tasks of the next day, injured though many of them might have been.
The ensuing weeks were a mess of political arrangements. Most of the nobility wanted to make Kenshin king, as he was the one who had defeated Shishio in the duel, but he personally was having none of that, and they accepted Katsura readily enough. The moment he was given his administrative powers back, the first thing he did was name Kenshin his official successor, just so there would be no ambiguity about such matters in the future. From there, their first task to repair their nation was to remove Shishio's taxes and clean his supporters from the ranks of nobility. The Usurper and his allies all faced trials, and all were condemned to prison for their crimes. Only a few went quietly; the others fought, but all were eventually incarcerated.
It was in the midst of hunting down those who had tried to escape that the king and his heir went about the much quieter but equally-important business of selecting advisors and rewarding those who had served faithfully.
Kaoru had been living in a guest wing at the palace for about a month now, having decided along with the others to stay on as long as they were needed to help keep the peace. In that short time, it seemed like so many things had happened: Shishio's trial amongst them.
Perhaps less momentous but much happier was Sano's proposal to Megumi, which the doctor accepted tearfully and with a happiness that she had clearly never felt. Kaoru could only watch with joy and twinges of envy, the latter of which were chased away as swiftly as she could. They deserved their happiness.
Soon after that, Kenshin had begun the hunt for advisors, nobles to keep at his side for both protection and counsel, and somehow with this move, she knew her time here was limited. It was like something out of a strange dream, the way people, even nobility, bowed to her and called her "Lady Watchman" or Lady Kaoru. The fact that she had no title at all did not seem to deter them from this, no matter how many times she explained. Her friends were enduring similar treatment, though most of them were handling it a bit more gracefully than she would have thought possible.
With a promise to return for the wedding, Hiko had taken off a few days ago, taking Soujiro with him. While he had said point-blank that Kenshin was the only heir to his style, he thought that perhaps the boy might benefit from the lifestyle he could offer. Privately, Kaoru thought that perhaps the friar would be lonely in the forest by himself, having been most decidedly not alone for a number of years now, but she could not deny that Hiko's firm hand would be good for Soujiro, who to her just seemed in need of guidance.
Yahiko stuck pretty close to her these days, as did Misao, and Kaoru was grateful for their company. It seemed to her that the three of them were the most out-of-place here, the two forest children and the fletcher's daughter from Nottinghamshire. Though Sano claimed not to like it (and she believed him), he was still the son of a noble, and Megumi had spent a large portion of her life living in this world.
For the moment, though, the two of them were off on some errand or another, leaving her very much alone to wander the palace, trying to avoid anyone for fear of being bowed to.
"You know," said a voice from behind her, "most people would be basking in the peace they were responsible for." She whirled around, to notice Kenshin leaning casually against the opposite wall, dressed the part of a Meiji prince, all the finery one would expect, but with a sword at his side.
"Then perhaps you should be somewhere basking," she replied with the hint of a smile. She had seen him precious few times since the night after the fight. He was either recovering or attending to business most of the time, and she found she missed him terribly. Still, it was a feeling she'd have to get used to and she knew it.
As if he sensed the troubling turn her thoughts were taking, he pushed himself off the wall effortlessly and crossed the space between them. "I was not talking about myself." She'd known that, of course, but she still didn't think she deserved credit for what had essentially been his victory. It was not she who had laid out the Usurper, after all, and it certainly was not she who now sat atop the throne and brought order back to the chaos of a post-coup Meiji with admirable swiftness. So she said nothing.
"I'm going to give Sano his father's lands, and a title to go with them," he continued conversationally. "I think Megumi deserves one, too. Adjoining dukedoms, perhaps?" A small smirk played over his face, and she could not help but think that the expression, part residual danger from the outlaw he'd once been and part confident, quiet assurance from the prince he was, was devastatingly handsome. It tore at her heart, but she pretended it didn't, matching it with her best attempt at the same.
"Some people would say that to give that much land to a woman is to invite disaster." Truly, it did fly in the face of a number of customs, though the impending marriage would settle some of them, anyway.
"Frankly, I don't give a damn," Kenshin growled, and she was caught a bit off-guard by the strength of the conviction behind it. It was almost as if something else was playing out beneath the surface of this conversation, and she wasn't quite sure what it was. "I'm making both of them my advisors as well, but with they, Aoshi, and Saito, I'm still going to need one more."
"Well, while you're busy flying in the face of convention, why not Misao? She's a bit young, but…"
Kenshin sighed in frustration, and regarded her askance. "Misao has no head for politics, you know that. I know Sano doesn't, either, but he knows other things very well." That was true; he understood people on a level that neither of them could ever really get to, that much was certain. "No, I was thinking to give the job to you."
That got Kaoru's attention, and she started visibly. "Me? But I… I think we both know I'm unsuited to that sort of thing," she hedged. "Besides, there's still the Watchman to consider and I-"
"Forget being the Watchman, or a fletcher, or whatever you were thinking," Kenshin insisted in a low voice, and all of a sudden, he was in far too close a proximity, only for Kaoru it wasn't nearly close enough, because his face still hovered a few inches from hers and she really, really wanted those inches to disappear. Stop! You know it doesn't work like that. You're a commoner, he's the Prince.
"Yahiko can do it if you think someone must," he continued, regarding her through pensively-narrowed eyes. If their darkened color was anything to go by, he wanted that distance to close as much as she did, but something was stopping him as well. She figured he must have realized what she knew.
She went to shake her head, to refuse. She knew Yahiko was almost good enough to handle it, especially if he still consulted her on his training, but he was too young, and she felt like she needed this reason to keep those inches where they were, because if she didn't, they might disappear and make the impending heartbreak that much worse. He cut her off. "Kaoru, from the very beginning, whether I liked it or not, you have been there to challenge me, to check me when I was about to do something I shouldn't. Your counsel has been invaluable, and it was you, not I, who truly began this revolution. It was your will that carried the group of us to the point where we could succeed, and…" Kenshin seemed to hesitate, which was most unusual for him, but Kaoru was hanging on his every word, hoping against hope that she might hear something she had been hoping to hear for much longer than she cared to admit. But it didn't come. "Please," he implored, tone husky and raw, and she bit her lip.
"I don't know, Kenshin. I mean… I'd have to take a title or something, right? I'm not sure if I can handle that kind of responsibility." Frankly, she wasn't even sure why she was arguing anymore. It was not as though she thought she could deny him something he had asked so earnestly, not when it gave her what she wanted more than anything as well- the chance to be near him.
His chuckle was quiet, as though he were privy to a joke that she did not know. "Yes, Kaoru, you'd be taking a title, and yes, it would be an enormous responsibility. But I know for a fact that none could bear the duties of a princess or a queen better than you."
It took a couple of seconds for that to sink in, and Kenshin's smile only grew as her eyes lit with recognition. "I love you, Kaoru, and I'm asking you to marry me. The princess is ever the prince's most valued advisor, after all."
"But… I'm a commoner, Kenshin." Kaoru was elated, she really was, but there was still that rather large hurdle to overcome.
"And I don't care," he replied, a little too flippantly for the amount of trouble she was having with it. "Neither, as it turns out, does my uncle. He was so impressed with you that he practically demanded I ask you the moment the crown was back on his head."
Katsura… wanted her to? Kaoru could scarcely believe it. She could hardly bring herself to accept that this wasn't all some kind of foolish dream, but that didn't stop the radiant smile from lighting her entire face. "Well?" Kenshin prompted, but the look on his face assured her that he knew the answer.
"I don't know, Your Highness, are you sure you want me around to point out the flaws in all your plans? I seem to recall that you were not terribly fond of it before…"
Kenshin laughed again, a rolling baritone sound that she found she loved. "Oh, I'm sure," he replied lowly, and then he did her the favor of removing those scant inches, and kissed her.
The second reign of King Katsura II was long and prosperous. Under his hand, the Crusade was called off, the kingdom restored to its former glory, and the people returned to happiness and contentment. When he felt that he had done all he could do, the king abdicated his throne, handing it over to his nephew Kenshin I. So began the Golden Age of Meiji, for under the king and his firebrand of a Queen, the nation was launched to new heights.
Duke Aoshi Shinomori and his wife Duchess Misao served as the Seconds for the Royal couple for the entirety of their lives, and the children of the four and their old friends Duke Sanosuke Sagara and Duchess Megumi all grew up together, becoming the best of friends even as their parents had, save in more peaceful times.
Lord Yahiko Myojin was awarded the King's former personal holdings in Loxley, including the town of Nottinghamshire. Though the Watchman's wanderings became more widespread, never did he forget to serve the people of Nottingham as his predecessors had done, and even today the black arrow is a symbol not only of House Himura, but also of unerring justice in Meiji.
The former Crown Prince Hiko returned to his forest, new apprentice in tow, and to this day, the legend of the forest-dweller persists in telling the tale of an immortal man who guides the lost from the forest of death. It is said that those who wander deep enough will encounter the man, and that he will tell them the true version of these events. That is why you sought me out, is it not? To hear my tale?
Well, I daresay that now you have heard it in its entirety, just as it was passed to me from my predecessor, and we have now reached the edge of the forest. This path will take you into the capital city. Farewell, traveler, for we shall not meet again.
A/N: And that, my friends, is the conclusion of Hood. I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I had fun writing it. If you are so inclined, please leave a review. This story may be over, but that doesn't mean I'm done writing, and I could really use the comments to help me along in my next project. Several of you have expressed interest in reading an A/K story from me, and the modern international spy AU seemed to be the most popular choice, so I've put up a teaser for it in my profile. I have no idea when I'll get around to writing it, but I will.
I can't believe it's been almost a year since I started writing Hood. But it has, and I want to thank those of you who've stuck with me from the beginning. You have no idea how uplifting it is to read reviews from people who have been around since the first chapter or TAoSaG and are still here! You guys seriously blow my mind with your awesomeness. I of course love all my reviewers and readers, but that is something truly incredible to me. Thanks to everyone who's been reading/reviewing, and I hope it was all worth it in the end. For now, I'll stop rambling, but unlike our forest-dwelling narrator, this need not be the last time we meet, eh?