Oooooooooooooo-Kay! Let's have a big cheer for Wulf's new and shiny Kenshin story! ::cricket… cricketcricket:: Ah… yes, well. I guess the only people who would cheer a story they haven't read yet would be those of my following ::checks her "List of Followers":: And… not sure that I have one of those ^_^ Oh well! How about a cheer on faith? Yes? I've pounded this story on the anvil of Legitimate Plot Development, and I'm quite pleased with the results. Not that I've written it yet… but I have about 8 pages worth of outlining and stats, *cough* And trust me, that's crazy forethought on my part.

Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin or anything pertaining to him… I do, however, take full responsibility for the perversion of storyline and character relationships that's about to occur in this fic. Is that prosecutable? I hope not… ::hides for good measure::

Summary: Kaoru's quiet, tomboy life in the countryside is suddenly dashed against the walls of the palace when she's given a startling prophecy. Tragedy will befall the prince, and she is the only one who will recognize the danger in time to prevent it. Simple enough, she thinks, until she gets a crash course in what "duty" means… and what cost can be exacted for not understanding it.

In These Final Hours: Say Goodbye to the Simple Life

Alternate Title: Hello, my name is Doom. I'll be your prophecy for today.

A trickle of sweat beaded down the young woman's brow as she brought her sword down in a strong, even arc. She barely paused to swipe a cloth over her face before she was once again chanting through her daily training ritual. Her clothing was stained with dirt, sweat, and even a little blood from the day's session. There was a patch of bramble that was growing too far out into the path. She'd already made a mental note to inform her brother about it later. If she was too big to avoid the little thorns, he would be in shreds.

Finally, after a furtive glance at the sky, the practice was over. With a content sigh of accomplishment, she restrapped the well-loved bokken onto her back, gathered the basket with her lunch, and headed off to the stream. If her mother saw her sweating like a common tomboy with her hair sticking every which way, she'd have a fit. Then, she'd set her daughter through another intense round of etiquette lessons in the vain hope that the twenty-second time's a charm. The girl's delicate nose wrinkled in distaste at the thought. Her mother was determined that her only girl would be a lady.

Kaoru had no real interest in that.

"But you're of noble blood," her mother would argue, the phrase stale with repeated use.

"So are my older brothers," she'd follow through the ritual, "and you don't make them behave properly."

"I gave up on them a long time ago," she'd rub her temple then at the onset of a headache, "Besides, they're young men. They're allowed to be rough. You're a lady, and already past the age when you should have started attending court. It's time you started thinking about your future, and knowing how to swing a sword won't help that... Especially now that the kingdom has found peace."

"What about Misao? She's younger than me and already has a future in swords. Or at least daggers. Mr. Aoshi is training her personally to join his organization."

"Kaoru," her mother would snap, "Misao does not have the obligations you do. You are of noble blood; she is not. I wish that it could be different for you, because I know how much you love the art… but you can't change your blood."

And around that part of the argument Kaoru would usually stomp off in a huff, leaving her mother to deal with another headache. They did the dance at least three times a year, ever since she'd started her cycle and joined the ranks of womanhood. The fights had been increasing exponentially with age, though. At nineteen, Kaoru was almost past her prime by court standards and had yet to appear before the king. She was a fading flower in the eyes of the other nobility. Not that she cared. She fully intended to live the rest of her life in the village bordering her family's modest estate. Most noblemen weren't much with swords, though her father's generation and some of the older boys knew the smell of blood. The war between the kingdoms hadn't been so long ago.

Which was why it disgusted her so much that a mere fifteen years could find a line of proud, strong men turning out fops for sons. All the young men her age she'd been introduced to by her mother certainly fit that description.

"Not for me," she told the birds as she knelt by the river and scrubbed her face clean of sweat and dirt. Next came her neck and arms, her brother's old shirt getting very damp in the process. After shedding her footwear, she dangled her feet into the water, letting the soreness wash away as she scrubbed at the dirt stains on the cuffs of her brother's old pants. All of her gear was a motley assortment of castoffs from her older brothers. Misao had offered to lend her some training clothes once, but Kaoru had declined. The getup the younger girl wore was already short by Kaoru's standards. She didn't want to see how much more skin they would reveal when put on over a longer pair of legs. At least her mother couldn't fault her for immodesty.

The sun was already high in the sky by the time she felt herself decent enough to return home. Kaoru trotted briskly through the woods to the road. She would be late for lunch if she didn't hurry. She broke free of the underbrush, hopping on one foot as the other briefly tangled with a creeping vine, and stumbled onto the road.

And into an old woman.

Kaoru sat up numbly, her brain trying to process the oddness of the situation. Then she heard the old woman groan. She was back on her feet in an instant, helping the lady to stand and apologizing profusely.

"I'm so sorry, madam, I lost my balance," she gushed, helping the woman to brush the dust from her clothes, "and I wasn't watching where I was going," her conscious compelled her to admit.

The old woman roughly adjusted the heavy shawl wrapped around her shoulders back into place and scowled at Kaoru. The younger woman winced guiltily and apologized again.

"Bah, you young people are always so eager to get somewhere," she spat, bending creakily to retrieve a large walking staff from the dust. Kaoru pounced on the ugly looking bag lying next to it, lending the woman an elbow to straighten herself with. The lady snatched the bag from Kaoru's hands and slung it over her shoulder, all the while sending her death glares. Kaoru managed to smile disarmingly, but couldn't help the small bit of frustration building in her. She'd already apologized several times and was trying to help. This woman was just being plain cranky.

"No respect for your elders," the woman rambled on, checking various pockets on her ragtag outfit to make sure everything was in place, "I'll bet you don't pray properly for your ancestors, either," she declared, wagging a boney finger in Kaoru's face.

That snapped what little patience and guilt Kaoru had left.

"Look, I said I was sorry," she defended, "and you have no right to accuse me of something like that. You don't know me."

The old woman's eyes flashed with anger and she stomped up to Kaoru until their faces were inches apart. Kaoru blinked in surprise. She hadn't thought the old hag was so tall. Not that Kaoru was a giant; far from it, in fact. Still… hadn't she been at least a foot shorter a few minutes ago?

"Don't take that tone with me, missy," the woman started, eyes glittering in a worn, leathery face. Kaoru scowled back.

Suddenly, the woman leaned back, her expression turning thoughtful. She grabbed Kaoru's chin and turned her head from side to side to get a good look at her. Kaoru sputtered and pulled away, more than ready to continue her dash home and to lunch. Lunch!

Kaoru groaned silently. If she hadn't been late before, she would be now. The old woman's disturbing cackle reminded her exactly why she would face her mother's wrath. She glared at the strange woman who was now chortling and looking immensely pleased with herself.

"What is it?" Kaoru demanded, "Why are you laughing? And why did you grab my face?!"

The older woman subsided, but a knowing smirk still played on her lips.

"I'm laughing," she explained, "Because you were wrong. I do know you," her eyes crinkled shut as a wide grin split her features. Kaoru almost recoiled, but managed to restrain herself. There was no way she was going to let a creepy old woman get under her skin.

"I've never met you before," she countered instead.

"No, and I haven't met you," the woman agreed, pausing for dramatic effect, "but I've seen you."

"… What?" Kaoru was at a loss for words in response to the cryptic statement, "… You mean, you've seen me in the village?" she offered cautiously.

The old woman snorted, shaking her head, "In my visions," she corrected, "I believe this meeting was destined. You see, I've been searching for you for quite some time."

Kaoru frowned. Seers and fortune tellers were common enough, so the strange proclamation didn't really bother her. What did bother her was the idea that this cantankerous old woman could have that much power. And that now Kaoru might actually have to listen to her.

"Why?" she asked finally when she realized that the woman was waiting for a response. Visionaries were notoriously melodramatic.

"Time is running out. You must leave immediately if you are to prevail," she went on, voice taking on the solemn cadence of prophecy. Kaoru sucked in a surprised breath. There was no doubt about it; the old bat really did have power. She could feel the weight of the words settling around her like a heavy cloak, being engraved into her mind.

"What am I supposed to do?" she asked obediently.

"The prince is in danger, and you are the only one who will recognize it in time to prevent the disaster from befalling our kingdom," she intoned, waving her hands before her in what Kaoru assumed was a prophetic manner.

She stared at the old woman blankly, at a loss for words. The prince? She'd never even been to court before. If she didn't feel the power of truth behind the seer's words she would almost accuse her of being put up to this by her mother. Conventional methods couldn't get her to the palace, so why not try prophecies of disaster?

"What do I do?" Kaoru asked reluctantly. She didn't like where this was going, but it generally wasn't wise to ignore a seer's words.

The old woman shook her head with a cluck of her tongue, "I can't reveal anymore than that or it could have grave consequences on the outcome of your fate," her voice was deep and sonorous.

Kaoru's expression turned flat, "You don't know anything more than that, do you?" she guessed.

The seer snorted angrily, "Such impudence!" she drew herself up haughtily.

Kaoru nodded. She'd guessed right.

"Alright," she sighed, "I'll go to the palace in a few days and ask my brother to keep me informed on what's going on."

"Did you listen to one word I said?" the old woman sputtered, mouth pursing so much it disappeared into the wrinkles that lined it, "You must leave immediately! Today! And you must be by the prince's side at all times or you could miss the warning. His fate depends on you alone. You will be the only one to recognize the danger," she poked a clawed finger at Kaoru's stomach, "You'll feel it here, a feeling of dread," she waved her hands again, the shawl shuddering around her shoulders. Kaoru tried not to role her eyes at the theatrics. Still… she was beginning to feel an itch in the back of her head.

"I'll go straight home and ask my brother for help," she promised, "He's one of the prince's bodyguards."

This seemed to satisfy the fortuneteller. She nodded briskly and turned to go.

"And Kaoru," she stopped suddenly, twisting her head to look over her shoulder, "this will not be easy. Do not let your naïveté cloud your vision or the fate you prevent could be turned back on you in equal force."

Kaoru shivered slightly at the warning and nodded mutely. Why were prophecies always so complicated? And full of doom? Seers rarely gave prophecies like "say a prayer for the gods and you will receive a bountiful reward," or something of a similarly benign nature. She shook her head as she watched the old woman totter away. Her head cocked to the side as she again tried to decide how tall the old hag was. Now she looked maybe half her height.

With a snort, she decided that it really wasn't worth her time to worry over. She needed to get home and tell her brother about the prophecy.

And lunch.

"Mother's going to kill me," she groaned, turning back up the road and starting the sprint home.

At least she had a really good excuse for being late.

"Do you know what time it is?" a handsome lady demanded from the doorway.

Kaoru sighed and slowed to a trot as she approached the house and her mother. Now the etiquette threats would start.

"And look at your clothes!" her mother waved an elegant hand to indicate her workout gear, "I can't even send you in to see the guests out. You're an absolute mess," she sighed, then, looking defeated. Kaoru paused the retaliation she'd already prepared. Instead, she approached the frail figure and peered anxiously at her face.

"Are you alright, mother?" she asked apologetically. While her mother's frequent poor health wasn't her fault, she certainly aggravated it and couldn't help but feel guilty as a result.

"Yes, yes," she waved away the hands going to check her forehead for a fever, "I just did too much this morning and now I'm getting a headache. I'll go lie down in a minute once I get the neighbors seen out."

Kaoru nodded mutely. Maybe now wasn't a good time to tell her about the prophecy.

She trailed after her mother through the kitchen, snatching a stray apple lying on the nearest counter. The cooks wouldn't miss on little apple, she reasoned. With her conscience properly absolved, she took a hearty bite of the fruit. Her mother glanced over her shoulder at the sound and rolled her eyes.

"What?" Kaoru asked defensively, checking the dribble of juice on her chin with a sleeve.

"I think it's pretty clear, missy," her brother drawled. Kaoru flicked him an annoyed glance and pointedly ignored him when he detached himself from the wall and joined the little procession.

"You're a slob of a girl!" he ruffled her hair good naturedly and ducked the apple core lobbed at his head.

"Sanosuke, you have no business saying anything," their mother snapped, stopping in the hallway and rounding on them. A stern finger was thrust into her son's face. Sano observed it calmly before giving his mother a rakish grin.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he chuckled.

"You and the other boys haven't made my job any easier," she accused. Kaoru winced. She didn't like the fact that her own "shortcomings" occasionally got her brothers in trouble as well. They certainly hadn't excluded her from their rougher lifestyle, but she'd been the one who chose to follow it.

"Knowing how to defend yourself is wonderful, but not at the expense of other equally important lessons."

"Like embroidery?" Sano guessed helpfully. Kaoru ground a heel into his foot.

"Sano," their mother warned, voice suddenly tight. He quickly held up his hands in a gesture of defeat.

"Sorry."

Kaoru shot him a dirty look. He should know better than to antagonize their mother so much. After all, he was rarely home anymore with his job at the palace. He should try and make the best of that time. Which meant avoiding driving her off the deep end.

"The palace!" she burst out suddenly, lightly smacking a fist to her head. She'd almost forgotten.

"What?" Sano turned surprised eyes on her. Her mother looked like she'd just swallowed the moon.

"I have to go there," Kaoru explained, "Immediately,"

"Kaoru!" suddenly she was engulfed in a crushing hug of silk and scented powder, "I'm so happy. Are you really going to try, now? And to think I'd almost given up hope on you,"

"As a boy," she finished with a squeak.

A deathly silence filled the hall.

"… I need to sit down," their mother announced after a long, awkward moment. Sano hastily helped her into the sitting room and settled her into the cushiest chair. Kaoru trailed after them, an unsure smile plastered on her face.

"Now," their mother began calmly, folding her hands primly in her lap, "Would you mind explaining yourself, daughter?"

Kaoru cringed at the distant title. She only called her that when she'd done something especially horrifying. Though, announcing that she'd need to cross dress in the palace probably fit under that description.

"Well, I met a fortune teller on the way back home," Kaoru shifted uncomfortably under her mother's intense stare. Sano was leaning casually against the chair, watching his little sister out of the corner of his eye.

"That's why I was late getting home," she went on hopefully. The stare didn't waver. With a disheartened sigh, she launched into the explanation, trying not to leave anything out, even the part about literally running into the old woman. If she tried to sugar coat things, her mother would know immediately and dismiss the story as another wild excuse.

"So I figured I could go to the palace disguised as a boy. Sano, do you think you could get me into the bodyguard unit? It's the only plan I can think of," Kaoru finished cautiously. Her mother still hadn't said anything, her blue eyes never leaving her daughter's face.

"No good," Sano vetoed crisply, still not quite looking at her.

"What do you mean?" she demanded, a little stung by the flat dismissal of her idea, "Can you think of anything better? You said yourself that they won't let court women get near the prince anymore."

Sano shrugged, "They're too interested in tricking him into marriage."

"So," she concluded, "The only thing for me to do is go as a boy! Being his guard would be perfect. The old hag, ah, fortune teller said I had to be near him at all times."

"I know," he conceded, "Being part of the guard would be the best way to watch him,"

"So what's the problem?" Kaoru threw her hands up in disgust.

"You. Will. Not. Cross. Dress." Their mother's voice rang coldly through the room.

Kaoru and Sano froze, both shooting worried looks at the seething woman sitting in the chair.

"Ah, well," Sanosuke fumbled for words for a moment before falling into the explanation, "The problem is that they'd spot you right away. We bodyguards aren't dummies, and the prince is sharper than all of us together," he couldn't resist a smirk, "You really think anyone would mistake a noble girl like you for a boy? That's pretty stupid, missy."

"Well then, what do you suggest I do, rooster head?" Kaoru shot back acidly, forgetting her mother's anger.

Sano ignored the barb, shrugging lazily, "Simple. Go as yourself. Well… as Sou's little sister, of course," he amended with a grin.

Kaoru and her mother both stared at him like he'd grown another head. He held up his hands defensively.

"It's a good plan, just hear me out!" he folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the chair again, "There's a special place in the bodyguard for girls. The king doesn't trust court women to escort his son to balls and parties, so he makes sure there's always a woman in the bodyguard to fill it."

Kaoru nodded slowly, picking up the thread, "To beat the frill-heads off? Oh, and I bet as protection where male bodyguards can't go."

Sano nodded approvingly, "Maybe you do have a brain, missy. When the prince does his emissary thing out of country, the foreign leaders would get offended if he had a bodyguard with him at all times. It would look like he didn't trust the country. Bad for treaties. But it isn't rude to bring his own escort."

"So, Kaoru would be forced to act like a noble woman?" their mother pounced on the idea, eyes gleaming with triumph. Sano glanced at her nervously and nodded. Kaoru sighed. Whether she'd been put up to it or not, the old hag had certainly fulfilled her mother's greatest wish.

"Fine," she nodded crisply and stood, shaking her dress back into place, "Kaoru, you will leave as soon as you can pack. Sano, you will make whatever preparations are necessary to see that she gets this position. It's empty right now, I presume?" when he nodded again she turned a stern eye on Kaoru, "You will honor this task on your life. You will be polite. You will be elegant. You will use proper manners. If something goes wrong and disaster befalls the kingdom because you shirked your duty, I suggest you do not return to this house because you will not want to face me in that instance."

Kaoru backed up a pace at the intensity in her mother's voice. Even Sano looked taken aback. After a moment's hesitation she placed a solemn hand to her heart and pledged upon her family's name to honor her duty to the kingdom. It seemed to satisfy her mother because after another bone crushing hug, and a hastily covered sob, she was rustling out of the room to attend the hereto forgotten guests.

Sano and Kaoru stood frozen in the room, eyes glued to the door their mother had just exited through, for a long minute. Then Sano relaxed back against the chair and let out an appreciative whistle.

"She took that a lot better than I would have thought," he chuckled. Kaoru nodded mutely as her brain danced around her new situation like a scared rabbit.

"How am I going to do this?" she moaned suddenly, collapsing onto a loveseat.

Sano smirked, "Just like you do everything else," he advised, "Lower your head and charge. You're good at that."

She shot him a venomous look and he laughed, pushing away from the chair and strolling towards the door.

"Well, you better start packing," he said, "As soon as I get back from Soujiro's, we're going."

"Why are you going to Sou's?" she asked, puzzled.

"Because you're going to be his sister, remember?" he grinned.

Kaoru frowned, "But I'm your sister already. Isn't that a good enough recommendation?"

Sano shook his head, "One of the qualifications for being the escort is that the girl can't be a noble. She might have marriage schemes, otherwise. Though I don't think there's any danger of that from you," he laughed at her fuming glare, and even harder when she averted her gaze.

Kaoru grumbled to herself and stalked out of the room towards one of the back staircases. He was right, but he didn't have to sound so condescending about it. Some women just weren't interested in games involving snaring a husband. That didn't mean they weren't womanly. She certainly didn't consider herself less a woman for it. She just couldn't bring herself to be conniving. The thought of tricking a man into marriage wasn't appealing in her mind. Women did it to gain power, and she certainly didn't want that. Power meant dresses and no swordplay.

She made a face to herself as she trotted up the stairs and through a series of halls to her room.

And really, besides power, what would any woman see in the ultimately spoiled and pampered noble? In the prince?

Ok kids… can we all use deductive reasoning and predictable plotline to figure out who the prince is? Come on, I'll give you a cookie if you're right. Hehe.

So wow… this is a pretty long chapter… and it's only the first one! Dang, you guys are in for some major muscle flexage on my part. I didn't know I had the stamina in me for this kind of page count. Well… let me know what you think!