Author's Note: Egads the second (and final) part grew much longer than I ever intended it to be! It is also coming much later than I had planned, but considering its length that might help to explain why. I hope that you enjoy the conclusion to what was supposed to be a short piece of writing! XD Enjoy~! Constructive Criticism is always welcomed.
Requiem from Heaven's Radiance
"I invited her," Kaoru glared, her voice clipped and icy. "Mako is family. She's always welcome."
Mako watched as the bride-to-be's lips slid into a feral smile.
"My, my," her tone was steely as she stood in the doorway of the wedding hall, trying to bodily block Mako and Kaoru's entrance. "Has the kitten finally found her claws?" She sneered, blood-red painted lips curling back to show unnaturally white teeth.
Her dismissive gaze raked over Mako's form. "Too little too late," she murmured so quietly that Mako almost didn't catch it. The bride-to-be stood up straighter, planting her hands firmly on her hips so as to glower down on them even as she matched Mako in height.
"Nothing you say or do can convince him to halt this wedding," she boasted in a voice that carried across the hall, making the other attendees turn and stare at the commotion. Mako ducked her head, letting her hair fall across her face. "Takeru has already made his choice – me."
Lacey dropped her voice again so that only Kaoru and Mako could hear, all but hissing at the pair of them. "I am his bride, not this," she dragged her eyes up and down Mako's form with a sneer, "little girl." She gestured to her own full-bodied figure. "Takeru needs a real woman, one who can satisfy all his," she grinned wickedly, "desires."
Her eyes narrowed at Kaoru, disregarding Mako as if she was nothing more than an annoying gnat. "And no amount of meddling is going to convince your cousin to go back to what he threw away. Nice try with the old flame," she smirked, "but another failed attempt all the same." She turned as a petite brunette called out to her from across the room, and waved, assuring that she'd be there momentarily.
"If you're so confident that Takeru is yours then you shouldn't be threatened by Mako's presence here," Kaoru shot back, causing Lacey's head to snap toward the young woman with a glare.
"I'm not," the dark-haired beauty all but hissed back in response. "Go ahead, let the little tart stay. I'll take great pleasure in seeking you out later when the vows have been made, and his delicious lips have met mine in our first kiss as husband and wife." She turned on her heal and marched over to her waiting friend, bridal gown trailing behind her like a smear of icing scraped off the top of a cupcake.
Mako resisted the urge to "accidentally" step on the long, dragging train. But only just.
"Well?" Kaoru asked after a moment, not quite daring to meet Mako's eyes just yet.
"I'm torn between wishing I had worn a sleek red dress and being glad I didn't."
Kaoru's lips cracked in a grin. "Didn't want to give the witch another reason for accusing you of trying to steal her fiancé? Or afraid she'd try and rip it off you instead?"
"I don't feel like being arrested for indecent exposure," Mako's tone was light but her eyes were focused on where Lacey had made her departure. "If she has claws it wouldn't only be my dress that would be in shreds on the floor."
"She's a real piece of work, isn't she?"
Mako nodded. "She definitely wasn't like that before."
Kaoru glanced at her friend once before looking quickly away. "Her claws came out plenty once you left."
The lines around Mako's lips tightened, a sharp stab of pain and guilt lancing through her chest. Before she could apologize, however, Kaoru pressed on. "So what do you think of her now, besides the obvious?"
"She reeks of Shadows," Mako murmured, having already filled in all the gaps Kotoha had left out once the two had met up to formally conduct the arrangements with Mako's family. "She's definitely a succubus, but…" Her brows furrowed as she thought.
Kaoru glanced toward the hustle and bustle, trying to suppress her mounting anxiety as she waited for Mako to process her thoughts.
"She's almost too confident," Mako explained. "She's not bothering to hide her inner nature anymore, but she has to know she what I am." She cocked her head to the side, trying to sort out the bride-to-be. "I just can't decide why."
"Why?" Kaoru repeated the question in confusion.
Mako made a small noise of agreement, her brows knitting together in perplexity. "She's not young or new to her trade – she wouldn't have been able to hold Takeru for so long otherwise, and now she's even letting her kind's characteristics leak out like that. She was so careful about it before. Now she's acting as if concealing her true nature doesn't matter – as if she's already achieved her goals. The problem is that we don't know what those goals are."
"Marrying Takeru isn't enough?"
"But why go to such lengths?" Mako ventured out loud. "Why marry him at all? Why not amuse herself with him for a few weeks, and then drain dry him like they usually do? Why play it out for so long? If she does know what I am – and she doesn't appear stupid so she has to know – why take such an egregious risk?"
"Revenge?" Kaoru suggested. "Maybe you killed off one of her kind not so long ago, and she's decided to hurt you the only way she knows how."
Mako shook her head. "She would have lured away Chiaki, Genta and Ryunosuke herself and then had one of her incubus cousins go after you and Kotoha, one-by-one, until they either killed all of you or I killed all of them." Her mind raced furiously, trying to puzzle out the nagging feeling gnawing at her stomach. "Something is different; some plan is in the works that can only be accomplished by this farce of a wedding."
Kaoru studied her friend for a long time, her features paling at the casualness with which Mako spoke, but pushed on determinedly. "So what now?"
"I need to figure out what she's planning," Mako murmured. "I want to get a handle on this before it is too late." She didn't mention that she feared it was already too late. Kaoru nodded, unaware of the terror Mako was doing her best to tamp down deep inside her until she could deal with it.
"I'll leave you to it then." Kaoru glanced over at her friend with a serious expression on her face. "And if anyone gives you a hard time for being here, send them to me. I'll deal with them personally."
Mako shot her a grateful smile before the petite young woman moved to head off further into the wedding hall when she stopped suddenly. "By the way," she glanced back at Mako. "I love the dress."
Mako smoothed a hand over her completely black ensemble, a small smile fighting its way onto her face. "I figured I would play the protesting ex-lover, and if our suspicions turned out to be true, then I would already be dressed for the bride's funeral."
The wicked smile Kaoru sent Mako's way made her intensely grateful that Kaoru was on her side. She had no doubt that Kaoru was now only holding back on going after Lacey's throat herself in deference to Mako. Kaoru knew that if anyone deserved to take the manipulative Shadow creature out more, it would be the one who wanted payment in blood for all the heartache and loss.
All the same, the smile sent a shiver up Mako's spine that she shook off as best she could before setting out to steal along the hallways as quietly as a ghost in the shadows.
It was grating on Mako's nerves to have to act like the pining and discarded ex-lover as she wandered down the halls, pausing for a moment when the dulcet tones of Lacey's shrieks reached her ears. Curious, Mako tiptoed further down the hall, pausing outside an ornate door and pressing her ear to the cracks to hear the soon-to-be-bride screaming about getting her hair tangled in her veil.
Mako rolled her eyes then winced when Lacey's shrill voice ratcheted up another notch, causing her to jerk away to save her nearly bleeding eardrums.
She has a voice that could rival a harpy. She grimaced, wondering how the bridal party would survive to the ceremony let alone the end of the day with the way Lacey seemed to be gearing up. Mako frowned. Unless…
She twisted the knob carefully and pushed the door open silently, taking a brief but proficient look around the room and its flurry of occupants. She bit back her initial distaste at the sight of Lacey in the mounds of taffeta that made her look like a hideous vision of some kind of pale, frosted pastry and the equally hideous pastel colors of her bridesmaids' dresses. Then she felt it – the undeniable reek of Shadows and things that haunted human's nightmares. She eased the door shut without a sound before moving swiftly away from the door on silent feet.
Ducking into a quiet room she placed a hand over her pounding heart. It wasn't just Lacey. It was the entire damn bridal party! Every last figure in that room had been a demon, cleverly hiding in their human guises, and she was willing to bet money that the bridal brigade wasn't the only pack of demons in the place.
Mako's gut twisted painfully as she realized how quickly this could turn into a massacre if she made the tiniest mistake now. She worried her lip as she thought of Takeru and Kaoru's family sitting unwittingly across the aisle from this murderous group – the perfect batch of hostages should any one thing go wrong. Mako had been raised in this line of work since birth, but even she couldn't guarantee the life of every human here if a melee broke out.
If she tried to save Takeru, the demons would attack his family and friends. If she stayed her hand to give them a fighting chance, the demons would kill Takeru.
It was an impossible choice – how could she choose who to sacrifice? She could never live with either.
Kotoha was wrong; this wasn't something Mako could or should have been assigned to. Mako gritted her teeth. She needed a way to balance the numbers – she needed allies and fast. She was clearly in over her head, but there was no time to call home and ask her grandmother to send reinforcements.
Her hands balled into fists, her hands shaking in frustration when a sudden image burst into her head, one that she rejected as quickly as it had appeared.
She wanted to keep them as far from her personal nightmare as possible, not extend the invitation herself. With a grimace she recalled her grandmother's many warnings: having friends was a liability. Sooner or later they were drawn into the Shadow World, their lives on par with the one who had dragged them into it.
Could she ask them to risk their lives in a war that had been going on for centuries in the dark place of the world? Could she afford not to?
Mako wanted to throw a hard punch at the wall in frustration as she cursed silently at herself, barely restraining her hand in a struggled effort not to attract attention. It was a fortunate decision as she heard footsteps not a moment later as they approached the room she had slipped into.
As silent as an apparition, Mako slipped behind a heavily brocaded curtain near the windows, quieting her breathing and slowing her heartbeats as she waited tensely inside the folds of fabric. She counted the sound of at least five different footfalls before the heavy, cold weight of Shadows leached into the room with them. She stood as still as a statue, not daring to twitch so much as an eyelash lest they be notified of her presence. Official invitation or not, these demons would be far too comfortable in numbers to care about taking on a lone hunter who was caught spying.
With the resounding click of the door closing, the demons inside seemed unable to contain their glee any longer.
"Quite the turn out, eh?"
"Did you see all the humans? Like sheep for the fodder."
"Oh and they smelled absolutely heavenly. So much fresh, young blood in one room."
"And no one here to stop us from the feast at the reception tonight."
The sound of sickening elation filled the room, chilling the blood in Mako's veins. Her muscles ached to yank out her weapons, shove aside the heavy fabric and finish them were they stood. She tamped down on the near-burning desire with the sharp reminder that she was too close to Lacey's dressing room. She couldn't afford to attract more attention; it was still too soon.
"I heard that a demon hunter is here," one voice whispered, as if afraid that mere mention of one would cause it to appear.
There was a scoff of disbelief from several of the others. "What hunter would be aware of today to try and stop it?"
"No, no! I heard the same thing. They say it's her."
A beat of silence was followed swiftly by incredulity, "The one Lacey stole her human pet from?"
"Yes, the Young One."
A hiss of irritation sliced through the room.
"I told her not to play with a hunter's mate! She'll bring death upon us all for her folly."
"Don't be stupid. The prophecy's portents clearly pointed toward those two. Lacey wouldn't have gone after him otherwise."
Only long years of training kept Mako from starting at the news. She held her breath, afraid to miss a single word over the pounding of her heart in her chest.
"You don't know that!" One of the demons argued back. "It could be another mated pair."
An aggravated sigh preceded the sharp retort. "Lacey has held her pet under thrall for well over half a year and yet he still lives!"
A sound of surprise and begrudging admiration answered the news. "A rare specimen, indeed."
"Perfect for a union with a hunter."
"Exactly! Even without the prophecy's warnings, a mated couple such as that would have only strengthened their advantage. Imagine just how overwhelming the next generation would be."
"And the two have powerful allies," another chipped in. "We wouldn't stand a chance; we would be reduced in numbers to the point of the Age of Light."
Hisses and snarls followed the mention of time in which the demon hunters had once been plentiful – skilled and ruthless in their eradication of all demon kind. It had been an immense time of peace and prosperity for the human race until the Dark Ages when the world fell into chaos as the demons rallied and laid waste to village after village of hunters. Humanity had suffered great losses, but eventually the demon hunters had managed to struggle back and create a tenuous balance once more.
The war had never ended between the two factions, though with the changes of the world had come changes in the battles. Most were fought in secrecy and darkness as the world at large forgot about the Shadows in its past, kept at bay by the lives and sacrifices of the hunters who remained. Demons were now nothing more than scary tales told at night for a laugh and theatrics.
Some days Mako felt like she'd trade anything in the world to forget and laugh along with them. Others she was proud to be part of the wall that keep the nightmares reality as nothing more than myths and whispers in the dark. Days like today.
"Do you really think it's them? Is the prophesized pair the Young One and her mate?"
"All the signs point to them."
"And if we're wrong?"
A sharp bark of laughter cracked across the room. "Then we'll still be leaving the bodies of several dozen humans and a broken hunter in our wake!"
Mako's blood rushed hot in her veins, her jaw clenching in anger.
"Why the human ceremony?"
"If Lacey can complete the ceremony before sundown, the final vows will break the remaining bonds between the mortal and the hunter. There will no longer be concerns over her or her potential allies."
"And what better way to shatter the Young One when she discovers all the corpses of those she once cared about left behind after our feast?"
Malicious laughter filled the room.
"That's if the Young One's mate will survive until sundown. He will not be able to endure Enthrallment much longer, hours at most."
"But what if the rumored demon hunter skulking about is the Young One? Lacey stealing him away didn't stop her – it only made her angry. She's picking us off with the ferocity and precision of one of the hunters of old."
"Even if the Young One and her mate aren't the prophesized ones, she will no longer be a concern of ours by nightfall – the end of a once proud dynasty."
A sudden knock at the door cut off the conversation as a new voice entered the room, informing all those inside that the ceremony would begin shortly – all guests were to begin heading to their seats.
Mako stood in silence behind the curtain long after the door had closed and the footsteps had begun to fade away.
It all made sense in a way that thoroughly shocked and horrified her.
Takeru and Kaoru were spiritually observant and strong fighters, descendants of an ancient line that had given Mako cause to wonder if their family had been a rival clan centuries ago. Now they lacked the training to hone the skills that would make them a force to be reckoned with within the Shadow World. Something Mako's family would all too easily be able and willing to provide had her relationship with Takeru continued.
Even Kotoha, after being around Mako practically her entire life had only made her more "aware" than combat-ready, waiting only for that push that would send her into focusing her power. A push that very well could be started with the risk of imminent death to her loved ones in an event all too eerie similar to one like the one about to break loose that very day.
Her mind shifted over their other friends. Chiaki, Genta and Ryunosuke too had shown an innate aptitude for the craft – their "gut feelings" all too precise for Mako's comfort at times, even if they had no clue as to the depth of the things they were sensing.
Was this fate? Had the very thing she been trying to avoid been inevitable from the start?
Mako felt her insides churning, her thoughts whirling too fast to contemplate the full-extent of this supposed prophecy and what it could mean. Instead she focused on the one point that mattered most – the lives and wellbeing of every last person beginning to gather in the wedding chapel.
As silent as a whisper she slipped out from behind the curtain and stole back into the quieting hallways. She shoved her thoughts and feelings down to study when she felt like she could breathe again.
A quick ear to the door of the bridal dressing room told her that the wedding hadn't begun just yet, and she quickened her pace down the hallways. With every stride she affirmed her decision to alert both Kotoha and Kaoru to the direness of the situation, wishing with all her heart that she didn't have to drag them into this mess but knowing she couldn't handle this alone any longer. Face setting into a grimace as cold determination stole through her, she realized she would have to somehow convince Chiaki, Genta and Ryunosuke too if any of them expected to live to see the dawn.
Looks like you're bringing the prophecy to fruition with your own two hands. Mako tried to shove the thought away but it haunted her every step. Maybe it was fate after all, the insistent voice continued. Maybe all Lacey did was delay it, or perhaps strengthen the hazy prediction into solid reality.
Mako shook her head, firmly dislodging the nagging thoughts and shoving them to the back of her mind to simmer quietly in the background as she focused on the most important thing – making sure they all survived the night before they even contemplated the future… Or the consequences of the past.
"You were right; something is wrong – vastly wrong." Mako closed her eyes, exhaling slowly before opening them again. "And it's partly my fault for being too blind to see the signs before now. But I promise I'll make things right again – I'll do everything in my power to correct my mistakes." She met all of the eyes before her for a moment. "I will save him."
Ryunosuke and Genta exchanged alarmed and bewildered glances.
"Is there something you're not telling us, or were you just being overwhelmingly dramatic?" Ryunosuke asked, disbelief coloring his tone.
Mako flushed but her response was steely. "I'm saying that if this farce of a wedding takes place that Takeru won't live to see the dawn." She winced at her own tone. She hadn't meant to snap back. They had every right to be disbelieving and defensive, but she didn't have time for this. He didn't have time for this. She needed their cooperation and she needed it now.
"Is it really that bad?" Kotoha's voice was barely above a whisper, her face nearly devoid of color.
Mako gave her closest friend a long, steadying look before nodding reluctantly, her voice softening even as she knew it wouldn't do much to help temper the blow. "It's worse than we thought." She bit her lip, battling back the fears that were thrashing just under the surface of her seemingly impassive façade. "I never dreamed of something on this large of a scale, Kotoha." She winced. "Or that our actions – my feelings – the sheer ramifications of –" She shook her head to clear her thoughts and met her friend's terrified eyes. "You were right, and I apologize for ever doubting your sincerity."
Mako sighed deeply, her gaze flitting toward the main wedding hall. "I helped cause this and I intend to fix it." Kotoha laid a gentle hand on Mako's arm causing Mako to look at her with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry I was difficult."
Kotoha's curls bounced as she shook her head. "I probably would have done the same."
Mako's smile was grateful, even if she didn't believe for an instant that Kotoha would have run off with hardly a second glance back. She sighed again, cursing herself for the umpteenth time since she'd walked through the front doors and walked into a film of Shadows. She turned back to the small group assembled before her. "I'm sorry I have to drag all of you further into this mess. I had hoped you would never have to know about it, but," she sighed in bitterness and regret. "Shadows always leave their mark."
"So I gather we're not talking about simply stopping a wedding between our friend and the Wicked Witch of the East anymore?" Genta tentatively spoke into the silence left in the wake of Mako's words.
Her answering smile was bitter. "I'm afraid not."
"What? Is Lacey part of a gang or something?"
Kotoha gave a half-nod. "Something like that."
"What do we do?" Kaoru's face was stone but her eyes were lit with a raging fire. No one messed with her family, human or otherwise.
"Let it take place," Mako answered back.
There was a beat of silence before a chorus of disbelief rose up.
Mako held her hands up in supplication, trying to ward off the accusations that were about to start flying. "Trust me," she pleaded. "This wedding has to begin as planned, completely unhindered, so that you can remove as many of the groom's relations as possible without arousing suspicions."
"What about Takeru?" Chiaki demanded, scowl fixed firmly in place from his confusion and irritation.
Mako shook her head. "Leave him be; he is more hindrance than help right now and she might accelerate the damage if she suspects he's being interfered with."
"Accelerate the damage?" Genta's voice was colored with shock and alarm.
Ryunosuke was all but fuming where he stood. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Got it in once," Mako murmured, causing the young man to scowl in a perfect imitation of Chiaki.
"What should we do about Lacey?" Kaoru interrupted before the conversation could be bogged down with misguided accusations.
Mako's gaze darkened, her voice deadly in her response. "I'll take care of her, personally."
"And Takeru?" Kaoru continued, her sight fixed on Mako as the others watched the conversation like a tennis match, hanging onto every word in an even mixture of fascination and befuddlement. "What will happen to him when you engage her?"
"The Enthrallment should shatter once I have her attention," Mako assured her friend with more certainty than she felt. "She shouldn't be able to maintain her hold on him and face me at the same time."
Mako's smile was predatory. "I'll make sure of it."
Kaoru studied her friend for a long time before finally nodding her head in acceptance.
Kotoha breathed a silent sigh of relief, even as the guys now stood gazing at the two in trepidation, faint traces of disbelief still coloring their expressions, not able to believe what they were hearing.
"Enthrallment?" Genta tried, grasping at the odd term in faint desperation.
Mako nodded, partially distracted as she reviewed everything she knew about the situation, "A succubus's main weapon, though her claws can be wicked when forced into a physical confrontation."
"A succubus?" Chiaki deadpanned.
"A female demon that prefers young men in love as their victims," she answered, her gaze slipping towards the hall once again, checking to make sure they were still undisturbed. Everything could go from bad to worse if they were discovered before they were ready. Their little alcove off the main hallway wouldn't go undisturbed for long, especially with several key members of the wedding party missing with the ceremony about to begin. "The high levels of emotions are perfect for her to feed off of."
Everyone except Kotoha was staring at Mako with similar looks of incredulity until Kaoru muttered, "Love, huh?"
Mako blinked, finally brought back to the conversation at hand and flushed. "It was clever," she admitted begrudgingly, "using our feelings against us the way she did." Her arms slipped up to embrace herself in a subconscious gesture. "I loved Takeru, but was always so terrified that it would end – that he'd find out about my world – about the Shadows and monsters that lived there – and leave. That he'd reject me and find someone new, someone who could live fully in the Light."
"So when Takeru met Lacey," Kaoru spoke, connecting the dots as fast as ever.
Mako nodded. "I'd thought my fear had come true. I was so blind-sided – so confused, so devastated, so – resigned – I didn't see the signs staring me in the face." She frowned, her eyes glinting with guilt and anger. "All those hints – the gloating…" She scowled before gathering herself back together and meeting Kaoru's eyes. "They targeted him because of me."
Mako blinked, looking at Genta who had asked the question. "Why?"
"Why target you or Takeru or any of us for that matter?"
Mako stared back at his immovable stance, his eyes silently demanding that Mako give a concise and prompt explanation for exactly what the hell was going on. She drew in a deep breath to steady her nerves, knowing full well that they not only needed answers but deserved them.
"I come from a long line of demon hunters," she told them without preamble, pushing forward despite their varied expressions of disbelief and surprise. "You could say it's a family business, an ancient one, one that's been practiced for more generations than I care to count. All the myths, legends and stories you tell one another to give you a chill in the dark of the night – they're all true. Every last monster, creature and figment of your childhood nightmares are as real as I stand before you now. And it's my family's job – my job – to help eradicate them, to give humans a fighting chance."
The three young men before her blinked openly, their minds abuzz with the sheer magnitude of what Mako was telling them. They would have believed it to be a poorly delivered joke if it wasn't for the serious faces of all three young women before them. Or the stark evidence that was Takeru himself that screamed all too loudly on its own to protest Mako's argument.
"When you told me there might be a just cause for breaking up this wedding, you didn't exactly mention all hell breaking loose if we didn't," Chiaki muttered, his arm slipping around Kotoha's waist, drawing her in close as if to hold onto something solid and real in a suddenly unstable reality.
Mako nodded solemnly. "Kotoha told me of her suspicions, but I wasn't willing to believe her at first." She flushed. "A mistake, one of many." She shut her eyes briefly, her hands fisting at her sides as she rode out the waves of panic for a brief moment, reining them in quickly before they caused her to lose control. "But she provided me with enough evidence to inspect the situation, especially once Kaoru added her own suspicions."
She met all of their eyes individually, her sorrow and regret shimmering all too brightly in them. "I'm sorry I left you behind to deal with this on your own, to watch what was happening to Takeru without the means to help him." Her heart clenched tightly in her chest. "I completely understand if your reluctance to believe a word I say now. I know how insane this all sounds, but I need you to trust me on this. Takeru will die otherwise." She fingers clenched into fists at her sides as she fought for control over her fears. "You've seen the evidence of his condition yourselves; you can't deny what your own eyes have seen."
"But demons? Enthrallment?" Genta shook his head. "You have to admit it's a lot to take in."
Mako's smile was grim. "I know. If you believe anything I say tonight, believe that had I any other choice you all would have continued to live in the Light – completely unaware of the Shadows that follow in your footsteps."
"Lurking in some corner to spring out on us unawares," Chiaki muttered.
Genta nodded. "While I suppose ignorance is bliss, I have to agree with Chiaki on this. It's easier to be on the alert and ready for these things than wait around as live bait to snatch us when our guards are down."
"Like they did to Takeru," Ryunosuke pointed out.
Mako's eyes dropped to the floor, abashed. "I'm sorry."
"Let's save the apologies and blame game for another time," Kaoru interrupted. "We need to focus on what's going to happen now."
"Why is Lacey doing this?" Kotoha asked, her brows furrowed in confusion. "Why continue the Enthrallment this long? Why go so far as a wedding?"
Mako hesitated briefly before revealing what she had seen and overheard, trying in vain to skim over the mention of the prophecy. Ryunosuke, as sharp as ever, refused to budge until she described the prophecy in detail. With one last quiet sigh, knowing they were well on their way to fulfilling it now she divulged everything she had discovered.
A stunned silence followed her startling revelation.
"How much of it true I don't know," she reminded them softly. "It could all be a fabrication, an embellishment of the truth even, but what is certain is that Iam their ultimate goal and they're using Takeru to achieve it."
There was a beat of silence in which everyone caught each other's eyes, communicating without words before Genta asked what they were all thinking.
"So what do we do?"
Mako felt a small, grateful smile finally break across her face. The tension in her shoulders eased even as the burden of no longer having to do this alone was supplanted with an even greater and a much more daunting one.
Mako blinked but Kaoru wasn't looking at her, her gaze intent on Takeru as they stood unobtrusively in the shadowed recesses of the chapel, Ryunosuke and Genta already in place near the altar with Chiaki and Kotoha in their seats on the groom's side of the room.
"You said 'loved', past tense. So you've moved on, then?" Her tone was inquiring, seemingly mildly curious, but Mako didn't miss the tense set to her shoulders or the firm line of her mouth.
Mako shook her head, her voice quiet. "I tried," she admitted. "I tried my damnedest – thought I had nearly succeeded too, but when Kotoha handed me that invitation…it all came flooding back."
There was a slight quirk to Kaoru's lips now. "Like a tidal wave?"
Mako smiled back wryly. "It gave me new insight into the phrase 'drowning in your emotions', that's for sure."
Another quiet pause, the tension lessened somewhat.
"And now?" Kaoru's voice was a soft murmur.
Mako's gaze was drawn to Takeru's wasted form instantly, as if it pulled at her instinctually. Her voice was even quieter. "I love him," her smile was soft, tinged with remorse. "I always will, no matter what comes of today."
"But…?" Kaoru prompted upon hearing the unfinished thought Mako held back.
"It's for him to decide," her eyes met Kaoru's momentarily before being tugged back to her former lover. "I can't change who or what I am. He'll have to accept me and my whole world or he can't." Her smile was rueful. "I'd be lying though if I didn't say there was a tiny ray of hope mixed in with all the fear and doubt, even if it's only a fool's hope." Her eyes grew downcast. "That is, if he ever manages to forgive me for what I did – for leaving him to her mercy." She grimaced, taking in his sunken, almost death-like appearance and her insides twisted painfully. She forced back the bile that swam in her stomach at how she had let it get to this point – that she had almost been too late to even hope to change anything.
"He might surprise you."
Mako shot her friend a questioning look.
"You know our family has greater instincts than most."
Mako nodded though the younger woman hadn't been looking for an answer.
"We suspected something…more was going on, even if we weren't entirely sure what. You used to reek of this ShadowWorld sometimes. Though we didn't know that's what it was called."
Mako winced. "Suspecting and knowing are two vastly different things."
"True," Kaoru nodded, "but Takeru's also stronger than he looks." Her gaze darkened. "Or did look."
"He's lasted under Enthrallment longer than any human I've ever encountered before," Mako agreed.
Kaoru made a quiet murmur of noise that might have been agreement before, "He also loves you more than I've seen anyone love another before." She peeked over at Mako to see the young hunter blushing heavily before turning her gaze back to her cousin. "I think that's why he's held on so long under her curse."
Mako didn't reply but when Kaoru glanced over at her friend, the look she saw in her eyes gave Kaoru a small, quiet smile of triumph.
The sudden sound of an organ playing had the two young women glancing at each other. Mako nodded at her friend. "Showtime."
Kaoru's smile was grim. "No matter which way this goes, I suppose this part of the mess will be over soon."
Mako's eyes were pieces of flints as the bride began her entrance, all smug smiles and fluttering eyelashes. "It won't be our end, I assure you." Her gaze never left the dark-haired demoness as she floated down the aisle in her pastry-inspired gown.
As if sensing her presence the bride glanced over and spotted Mako lurking in the shadows, a scowling Kaoru at her side. Lacey shot the pair of them a haughty, triumphant look before fixing her gaze hungrily on the man awaiting her at the altar.
With a slight sway of his body that belied the dazed, adoring smile on his face, Takeru brought his fiancée to stand beside him on the raised floor, halting them in front of the minister.
Mako had warned her friends over and over again that they were not to interfere with the ceremony until she gave the signal, but suddenly found herself tested against her own advice. It was taking every last ounce of her resolve not to charge up there and rip Takeru away from the demon binding him to her will. She could feel the tension rolling off Kaoru's shoulders as the minister began his speech.
Kaoru kept glancing at Mako's set features, anxiously awaiting the signal to begin discreetly escorting her family from the room. The plan was to wait until all the demons present were too focused on the proceedings to heed the warning signs they themselves had initiated.
With the barest nod of her head, Mako signaled for Kaoru to start.
The shorter young woman calmly walked to her nearest relation and whispered discreetly in the other's ear. Mako watched intently, one eye on Takeru's family and the other constantly sweeping out over the human-guised demons just across the aisle.
It was with a deep sigh of relief that the demons were too careless in their premature triumphant to pay much heed to a few measly humans exiting the room.
One of Takeru's relations stood up so fast at Kaoru's whispered words that Lacey caught the motion. Mako froze, tensed to spring into action, but the woman who had stood simply glared daggers at the bride before swiftly turning on her heels and marching out without a single glance back.
A look of irritation crossed Lacey's face as she turned to Mako, only to see the young demon hunter standing miserably and forlornly in the same corner she had remained huddled in since the start of the ceremony. She followed Mako's gaze to see it fixed solely on Takeru and smiled gleefully before turning back to the minister, perfectly sated with the anguish she was creating.
Mako, for her part, let out a slow even breath once Lacey was distracted again. She wasn't entirely sure what Kaoru was telling her relatives, but judging by the looks of anger and hatred they were throwing Lacey as they exited, she felt the tiniest thrill of vindictive pleasure. They had agreed not to tell Kaoru's family the whole truth, but something as akin to it as possible. Mako wondered with amusement what they were hearing to storm out as they were.
She tuned back in to the minister's voice and realized it was her cue to slip into the audience.
Making sure to keep her features schooled and downcast, Mako unobtrusively shuffled into one of the now-unoccupied seats left behind by a departing couple. Kaoru took this as her signal to halt her whisperings so as to not draw any further attention to their group and take her own seat. The real trick was about to begin.
They all braced themselves as the minister spoke the immortal words.
"Speak now or forever hold your peace."
Mako felt momentarily overwhelmed with a thrill of fear and anxiety, heart hammering a staccato rhythm in her chest as she breathed in deeply, eyes trained on the floor as she rose shakily from her seat. Cheeks flushed, voice trembling slightly, she spoke the words every couple dreaded to hear.
"I object to this union."
She could feel the eyes of everyone in the room suddenly focused on her, the hisses of disbelief and anger biting through her as she kept her eyes diverted. Mako felt it the instant Lacey laid eyes on her; she was sure that if looks alone could kill she would have been a pile of ash on the floor.
With a calm but slightly surprised tone the minister's voice breached the growing hostility in the room. "May we inquire as to why, Miss?"
Mako's eyes flashed up and met the Lacey's where she stood at the altar with her grip tightening on Takeru's wrist, his body beginning to sway dangerously. Anger coursed hot and thick through Mako's veins, any fears or doubts washed away in that single instant. Her gaze narrowed in hatred and revulsion but her voice was steady. "I don't approve of unholy matrimony."
In the moment of shock left behind by Mako's words, she slipped a wicked-looking silver gun from within her clutch; the engravings and symbols upon its surface caught the light and set it gleaming.
Within a fraction of a second Mako set off two rounds towards the altar, the first bullet sweeping dangerously close to Lacey's grip on Takeru and causing the demoness to jerk her hand back. The second bullet hit its mark, embedding deep into the succubus' shoulder, wrenching an unearthly shriek of pain from the demon enchantress, her body stumbling back from the blow.
With a gasp like a drowning man finally finding the surface, Takeru stumbled in the opposite direction, immediately unsteady on his feet now that his body was no longer being pulled around like a puppet on a string. Genta was at his side in an instant, helping to catch his friend and ease him to the ground, Ryunosuke only a step behind.
Pandemonium broke out instantly in the small chapel.
The remnants of Takeru's family that they hadn't managed to spirit away to safety were jumping out of their chairs, unsure of where to go or what to do first. The demons on the other hand either converged upon the exits or began shedding their human guises to ready themselves for a fight.
For her part, Mako had already been on the move the instant her second round was fired, her focus on getting as quickly to the altar as possible. She shot of a few more rounds behind her as the first wave of demons began to try and congregate around her. She didn't have to turn and check to see if her bullets made their mark, the shrieks of the dying told her all she needed to know.
When more shrieking reached her ears, Mako glanced over her shoulder as she jumped over the remaining pew in front of her. With a smirk and a wave of gratitude she saw that Kotoha and Kaoru were already containing the problem, holy water and blessed silver in hand. Then she was making the last leap that placed her directly between the former bride and groom.
Mako's hand was steady as she held her gun pointed at Lacey's face, said demoness hissing in outrage and pain. She made to move toward the succubus when a single voice had her halting in her steps.
Mako felt the exhausted, confused and all too familiar voice travel deep within her soul and nearly gasped out loud from the sound of it. With every ounce of training she had she forced herself not to turn around but instead to walk steadily back toward the voice, her gun still trained on the succubus until she was even with the trio behind her.
"Give it to me."
Mako glanced briefly over at Ryunosuke's determined but pale face. "Are you sure?"
He nodded, his lips a tight thin line, in response.
She felt a tickle of pride that despite his initial disbelief he had decided to trust her, and when all hell had broken loose had stepped up to the plate rather than run screaming like most normal humans were wont to do. As she transferred the warm gun to Ryunosuke's hand she glanced quickly around, feeling that spark of pride turn to a flame as she realized how well all her friends were handling the situation.
They were ashen faced – whether from the remains of demons as they went up in flames once their heads parted ways with their shoulders or from the sheer unreality of the situation, Mako wasn't sure, but they remained steady and focused as she slowly allowed herself to kneel down and meet the face she was most anxious to see.
"Mako?" Takeru's voice sounded as weak as the rest of him, causing her hands to immediately flutter over his prone form, checking for any other signs of injury or harm now that she was finally close enough to inspect him up close.
"Yes," she assured him, her voice soft but her smile remained tense from guilt. "It's me."
"What – what happened?" His dazed eyes took in all the chaos around them. "Where are we?" He finally spotted the enraged bride across the altar from them, Ryunosuke's hands steady as he kept a gun pointed at her hatred-filled eyes. "What are we doing in a chapel?"
"It's okay now," she answered, her fingers stopping just short of physically touching him, suddenly vastly unsure of herself now that she had ascertained that it had been an Enthrallment and nothing else. She smiled gently before moving to stand, freezing when his warm hand encircled her wrist.
Mako's eyes found and locked upon his bewildered ones, heart slamming into her ribcage with an all-mighty lurch. She read the questions and hurt in his eyes as easily as if he had voiced them out loud and felt her hesitancy sway. Before she could second-guess her decision she slid her arms around his too-thin shoulders and hugged him fiercely to her, burying her face in his neck for a moment, allowing all her pent up and whirling emotions rise to the surface. Unbidden tears stung her eyes when he embraced her back, a sob nearly breaking the surface when he could only hug her back with a fraction of his former strength.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"What for?" He asked, startled and confused by the apology. She shook her head, the lump in her throat choking off any other response.
"The last thing I remember was getting ready to propose to you," he admitted. "And now we're in a church..."
Mako froze as his words sank in. She pulled back enough to meet his warm, dark eyes, a flood of warmth washing through her as her tears threatened to spill over. Ever so gently she leaned in and kissed him softly on the cheek, whispering, "I'm glad you're back."
Now Takeru was completely bewildered. "Did I go somewhere?"
Her smile was bittersweet. "Only for a moment."
The sound of a gunshot close at hand and a frustrated female hiss reaching her ears had reality crashing back in around Mako. She pulled back with great reluctance from his weak but all-too-familiarly warm embrace and smiled gently. "I have to take care of a few things, but I promise to come back this time."
Her smile froze on her lips but she shook her head to keep him from pressing her. "They'll explain," she gestured at Genta and Ryunosuke before giving his hands a tight squeeze and standing in a single, fluid motion, her gaze immediately locked on the appearance of a young woman bleeding crimson all over her bridal gown.
"Demon hunter," Lacey snarled at Mako.
Mako gave an elegant, mocking bow, her eyebrow lifting smartly in silent question.
"You'll pay for this," the almost-bride warned, her voice dripping venom.
In a practiced motion, Mako reclaimed her gun from Ryunosuke with a "see to him," her gaze never leaving the demoness. "You had to know this would be the end result once I discovered what was going on," Mako addressed the crimson-stained female before her.
Lacey's lips curled in a snarl, her eyes promising death before she flew towards Mako, her nails elongating as she drew closer.
Mako shot off a couple rounds, but the succubus had abandoned her human guise, giving an unnatural speed to her movements and dodged the bullets with an apparent ease.
Mako had the wicked knife she had strapped to her calf unsheathed from the confines of her boot before the demoness could get far, swiping at her attacker's body and causing her to twist away from the deadly blade.
The succubus stood poised at the end of the altar, her fangs bared in a hiss as her black wings snapped out on either side of her back. The fair-skinned beauty was now covered in a mottled mix of swirling dark marks, her once beautiful blue eyes now reflecting an unearthly icy gaze. Long, dark hair hung loosely around her shoulders – the once perfectly coiffed curls tumbling out as small, dark, curved horns appeared on either side of her head.
For a demon, Lacey was still alluring, if in a more sinister, terrifying way. Power radiated off her from her long, enriched feeding, and it was that power that would warn even the most careless of humans away now. Gone was the devastating beauty, in its place was a siren of Hell, one who would all too readily and eagerly lead her victims to a demise that stemmed from the purest part of their being – the heart.
"Bitch," Lacey hissed in fury.
Mako's countenance hardened into her hunter's stone-faced façade. "The feeling is mutual."
With an enraged shriek the succubus launched herself at Mako full force, Mako having just enough time to shoot off her remaining rounds, the bullets managing to do enough damage to the demoness' wings to render them unusable before Mako was jerking away from the flash of claws determined to take her face off. From there it was a flurry of movements as the two danced around each other, Mako's blade hitting their mark more often than not while she managed to dodge Lacey's clutches.
At a sound of surprise and alarm, Mako glanced behind her with a trill of fear to see a demon, its fangs and angry red eyes closing in rapidly upon Genta and Takeru as Ryunosuke struggled against another demon, unable to get to the pair in time. In the next instant the demon gave an agonized shriek as a pointed blade surfaced in the center of its chest to be removed and relocated along its neckline in a swift, proficient manner.
In the wake of ashes stood Kaoru, eyes blazing and her face hard. "Stay away from my cousin."
There was a brief moment of intense relief before a flash of pain raked across the left side of Mako's face. She turned back to see a triumphant grin spread across Lacey's face.
Mako swiped casually at the blood trailing down from where the succubus' nails had finally found home. She studied the blood on her fingertips with a false impassivity before glancing back at the demoness. "Celebrate all you want," she told her. "That is the last time you lay a finger on us again." The look she threw Lacey's way had the grin vanishing instantly from the succubus' face, something akin to fear quickly settling in its place.
Mako was on top of the demoness in an instant, her blade moving nearly too fast to see. It was all Lacey could do to keep each blow from being a fatal one. With a last, deft move of her wrist, Mako had the demoness stumbling to the ground, pinned to the altar as the silver blade embedded itself deeply into her shoulder. Lacey shrieked in pain as the blessed sword made contact with her blood stream followed by another as Mako ripped the blade out, only to press it threateningly into the succubus' throat.
"I should make you suffer for what you did to him," Mako breathed, her eyes deadly.
"You wouldn't dare," Lacey challenged, she hissed as the blade pressed deeper into her throat, eliciting small beads of blood to surface.
"For all the pain and turmoil you caused Takeru, my friends – me," Mako's face was composed but her tone held a dark edge. "I could. And very easily I might add." She eased the blade up marginally.
"But I won't," she glowered at her adversary. "I don't sink to the level of your kind. I don't play with other's lives for my own enjoyment; I don't revel in their pain and torture."
"At least with me he would have died happy; blissfully unaware of anything but his overwhelming feelings of love," Lacey spat, eyes narrowed to angry slits.
"That's not true happiness," Mako snapped back. "It's a mockery – a human doll dancing to your bidding. Maybe it would be easier to die in ignorant bliss but that's not love either. Takeru deserves more than that, he deserves a life."
"And what about you?" Lacey smirked devilishly. "What can you offer him but pain? When you die, your life as short as all those who came before you, when he and his loved ones are under constant attack from the world that lies just within the shadows of the streets – what then? How will you convince yourself then that he deserved that life?"
"It doesn't have to me," Mako's voice was quiet, her heart panging in her chest at the truth behind the demoness' words. "So long as he's happy, so long as he's alive."
Lacey's laugh would have been musical if the joy in it wasn't so thoroughly tainted by malice. "And how long will that be?" Her grin was wicked. "As much fun as this has been, it wasn't all planned on a whim. It won't be just you they come after anymore. My kin will be out for blood – for revenge – and everyone you hold dear has just been painted with a bright target on their backs."
"I'll protect them," Mako hissed through her teeth, her blood boiling in anger and the faintest traces of fear.
Cruel, amused laughter filled the air. "You can't watch everyone every minute of every day," Lacey reminded her opponent. "You could hide them away," she admitted, correctly reading the thought that flashed across Mako's face, "but that wouldn't really be living now, would it?"
Her lips curled in faux sympathy, voice taunting her enemy. "You were better off alone, Young One. Alone, they would have lived, but with you," her eyes sparked with malice, "with you they're going to wish they were dead."
In a move nearly too fast to see, Mako swiftly removed the succubus's head from her shoulders, cutting off whatever other taunting words and prophecies the demoness had tried to spill off her lips.
Mako's expression was one of stone as the stood from the pile of ash that had once been an enemy. The emotions tumbling inside her, however, were turbulent and nearly overwhelming. She glanced over to see Kaoru frowning at the pile of ash that had once been her cousin's torturer.
Kaoru glanced up from the residual dust, her frown deepening at what she saw in the face of the friend before her.
Mako avoided Kaoru's disapproving stare as she looked out over the ash strewn chapel, all other physical traces of demons cleared from the room. She closed her eyes and focused, curious to find that all lingering presence of Shadows had vanished.
Clenching her spent gun in one hand and her silver blade in the other Mako moved to leave the room and inspect the reasons for the sudden lack of demon activity.
"Where are you going?" Kaoru's hard voice sounded from behind her.
"To make sure the last of them don't get far," Mako answered without turning around, determined to leave without a second glance back.
Mako froze, her body tensing at the underlying accusation.
"I heard what she said, Mako," Kaoru told her. "And she's wrong."
Mako felt tears instantly well up in her eyes, part of her wanting to do nothing more than turn around and run back to her friends, the other just stubborn enough to urge her to continue walking out the doors and leave them behind for good this time – to offer what little protection she could in distancing them from the nightmares that would surely await them if they traveled any further into the shadows with her.
"Death follows me everywhere," Mako reminded her quietly once she could speak past the lump lodged in her throat. "That's the reality of the Shadow world; she wasn't lying about that."
"We're all going to die one day anyways," Kaoru responded mulishly.
Mako spun on her heel, frustration and anguish displayed openly on her features. "I already lost my parents to this world, Kaoru!" She felt the warm moisture betray her will as it spilled over and down her cheeks. "I can't lose more people I love to it. I won't."
"Then train us," was Kaoru's short, snap reply, even as her features held a new understanding and sympathy.
Mako was too thrown off-guard by the statement to retaliate. "What?"
"Train us to defend ourselves," Kaoru continued. "To protect ourselves and everyone else from these creatures."
"We're family," Kotoha's voice was quiet as she broke into the conversation for the first time. "And family sticks together, Mako."
Mako gaped at her friend's stubborn faces, caught up in a strange whirl of frustration, relief and fear.
"Well said, dear," a voice spoke suddenly from the doorway of the chapel.
"Grandmother!" Mako choked out, stunned. "How did you – when did you – what?"
An aged, tough-looking woman stood in the remnants of the doors, her hair shot clear through with silver. Power and knowledge radiated off her like the noon-day sun as she took in each person of the room for several long minutes.
"I saw the wedding invitation on the table," the older woman finally answered as she continued to study them. "It absolutely reeked of Shadows." Her sharp gaze pinned Mako where she stood. "I'm disappointed that you were unable to realize this, Mako," she reprimanded. "Severely disappointed."
Mako's gaze dropped to her shoes. It didn't matter how old or skilled she became; her grandmother could make anyone feel like an incompetent child with a mere glance.
"But," her grandmother continued, her tone softening slightly as she took in Takeru's weakened state and the looks of exhaustion and incredulity etched upon the other's. "I suppose, given the circumstances, I will let this one go unpunished."
Mako's head snapped up to meet her grandmother's empathetic eyes. "But only this one time," she warned.
"I rather like the looks and spirits of the little family you've garnered," the wizened matriarch continued. "They have great potential, though we will have to break them in from the ground up – once they've all had a breather or two and time to process what has happened here today." She eyed Mako with an appraising look. "Apparently the 'Young One' and her group of friends have managed to inspire a resounding thread of fear in the demonic community. Something about a prophecy coming true if what those blathering idiots were shouting while they were fleeing had any truth to them."
"Truth or no, they believed it and I think that's reason enough to make them think it has come true," Kaoru met Mako's grandmother's eyes with an unrelenting gaze of her own.
There was a beat of silence before the retired hunter cracked a small grin. "Like I said, mettle, and plenty of it." She sighed deeply and muttered. "I'm getting too old for this – training young ones and believing in heralds." She shook her head, turning to leave. "Most of the demons that managed to slip your grasps should have been caught by the others by now, the coast is clear."
When no one made a move to follow, still slightly stunned, she turned around and barked back at them. "Well? What are you waiting for? Move it or lose it!" She snapped. "There's a war about to begin and you lot need all the training you can get before it arrives."
She glared at their blinking eyes. "Now!" The group inside jumped at her demand and quickly made room to follow her out the door.
Mako stared at her grandmother's retreating back in something akin to awe, starting when Genta's voice sounded from right next to her.
"Seeing as we all know who the strongest one is at the moment, I think Mako should be the one to take care of Takeru, don't you?" His cheeky grin and amused eyes had Mako's widening in shock as the others agreed with matching grins of their own. Without further hesitation Genta lifted Takeru's arm off of his shoulder and left him swaying on his feet for the half-second it took Mako to catch and steady him.
"You're in good hands, Take-chan," Genta winked at a furiously blushing Mako as she stood gaping at her friends' retreating backs, trying and failing to come up with a suitable response.
"Sorry," a quiet voice sounded near her ear. "I don't seem to have much control over all my motor skills just yet."
Mako immediately softened at Takeru's sheepish face. "No, no," she insisted. "I don't mind, really."
"Genta's also not the subtlest of people."
Mako couldn't stop the huff of laughter that escaped her. "Has he ever been?" She felt a genuine smile begin to grow on her face, the action unfamiliar as of late, as an identical one spread across Takeru's.
"No," he admitted as they began to make their way slowly toward the chapel doors, Kaoru trying not to hover just on the other side or at least not be obtrusive about it.
"I'm sorry I left."
Takeru looked over at frowned at the melancholic face of the young woman next to him. "Genta and Ryunosuke gave me a brief overview of what happened." He halted his steps, causing Mako to pause beside him. "It wasn't your fault, Mako. It isn't your fault," he insisted until she finally met his eyes.
"You came back," he continued. "You saved me, my family, our friends – everyone here is alive today because of you."
She shook her head. "I've endangered all of you. I should never have been so blind to the obvious signs; I should've seen that she was a demon –"
"I suppose that's why they say love is blind," Takeru interrupted, a small smile prompting a watery one of her own. He reached over with his free arm and gathered her close, hugging her as tightly to him as he could manage, even if he had to lean on her slightly to do it. "Thank you for coming back, Mako," he breathed into her ear.
Mako felt tears spill over as she hugged him just as fiercely back, burying her face in the crevice between his neck and his shoulder, breathing in his scent and feeling the warmth and nostalgia sweep over her like the swift breeze that follows a storm. "Always," she whispered against his collarbone. "I'd always come back for you."
Takeru turned his head and kissed her temple, feeling a small, triumphant smile slide across his face as the move elicited the same response in her as ever, prompting her to lift her head to meet his gaze. Without giving her a moment to process the move he promptly leaned in and covered her lips with his own.
As easily as breathing, Mako responded as she once had when they were lovers and reveled in his warm, soft mouth on hers, sighing shakily into the kiss as her pent up emotions found a release.
A tiny cough sounded from behind them and Takeru bit back the temptation to roll his eyes, knowing that Kaoru was all too ecstatic to see things beginning to return to rights, but also knowing this wasn't the time or place for elongated apologies or expressions of love.
Mako sighed quietly as Takeru partially released his hold on her, her eyes blinking almost dreamily up at him as if caught somewhere only halfway to the waking world. Takeru couldn't hide his pleasure at her reaction before he gazed about them briefly.
"I always wondered if we'd get married in a chapel one day," he admitted to her quietly. "But now?" He grimaced as he leaned more heavily onto the petite young woman beneath him, torn between astonishment at her strength and his current weakness.
Mako's smile was lopsided, part elation at the mention of Takeru's confession, part wince as she looked around at the battle-torn chapel.
"I hear backyard weddings are fairly popular," Kaoru's piped up from the doorway. "And if not, there are plenty of temples and shrines in the area."
Takeru glared at his cousin, no real heat in his gaze as she grinned playfully at him. Mako flushed, now all-too-eager to leave as she began guiding her charge out the door.
"Of course, we'll need enough time to at least get you back up to par," Kaoru continued, unabashed. "A healthy diet, plenty of exercise and sunshine, and we'll have you back in-shape in no time." She beamed devilishly at the pair. "That means you two have to play nice in the meantime. No fighting, rough-housing or love-making until I say so." She wagged a finger at the pair impishly. "And don't think I won't know if you try."
"Kaoru!" Takeru's face was as red as Mako's, if not more so for the paleness of his skin.
"Now there's the nice, healthy flush I've missed," Kaoru sighed cheekily, winking as she strode ahead to catch up with Genta and Ryunosuke, sending mischievous looks back their way as she began to whisper conspiratorially with her companions.
Takeru groaned. "I see nothing's changed."
Mako's smile was bittersweet. "She's changed a lot in the last year." Her voice quieted. "We all have."
Takeru's brow furrowed with a touch of anxiety. "How much?"
Mako turned her head and gently kissed Takeru's cheek in reassurance, reveling in the delight of being able to do so after so long. "More than you think, but not as much as you fear."
He gazed at her warily. "Should I be worried?"
She shook her head. "Only that everyone will be keeping a much closer eye on you for quite some time."
She smiled tenderly. "I'm never letting you out of my sight again."
Takeru's answering smile was bright as he leaned in to kiss her softly once more. "I think I can live with that."
Mako shone with a dazzling inner-light as she returned the kiss in earnest, the love in her heart shining brighter than the radiance of the heavens above.
The war would come in its own time, but for now, Mako was content to simply have her life and love back right where she wanted them – in her arms.