A/N: I've said it on my website, but I thought I'd just mention again how grateful I am that you guys haven't been giving me a hard time about my lack of timeliness in updating ::sighs:: You can get more details from the news section of my site, but in short I've been having a helluva time with school, and my grandmother died last week. I've not been a chipper Wulf lately, nor have I had much time to write. The next chapter won't take as long as this one, I can promise that most definitely. Thanks again, guys – both for not bugging me and for those of you who have expressed sympathy. You know how to make a girl feel loved ^_^

::is tempted to use a cliché, Texan colloquial expression for surprise… and doesn't:: Mmm. So… I guess you guys liked the last chapter? In the "well constructed and powerful" sense versus the "HAPPY!" sense, of course ::laughs:: But! You will be rewarded!

Oh, and this was a big question: The song in the last chapter was Bonnie Raitt's "Can't Make You Love Me" ^_^;;; Everyone kept asking and I was like "it's in the disclaimer, I swear!"

Disclaimer: Ah… how many times can I say this? I really don't own Kenshin. If I did, I'd have millions of adoring fans writing stories about my creation… which is a paradoxical loop since I am one of those adoring fans writing stories… Okay, my head hurts now.

In These Final Hours: Tearing Away

She woke from the feeling of someone watching her. For a moment she was dizzingly content with her position, snuggled in a huge, soft bed with the comforting weight of her lover dipping the mattress next to her as he watched over her sleep. Her mind languidly floated images from the previous evening through her groggy consciousness. The bedroom, washed with the soft, golden light of a handful of candles. The electric feel of skin sliding across skin.

Guilt in a pair of angry, desire-filled eyes. Her own tears as she clung to her few remaining moments of stolen warmth.

The weight of reality settled on her chest.

"Why are you staring at me?" she asked and opened her eyes. Violet shaded worry hovered before her face.

"Are you alright, Ms. Kaoru? Did I hurt you last night?" she watched with detached amusement as concern and consternation flitted back and forth across his face. "I wanted to ask you before I fell asleep, that I did, but…" his lips thinned and he rocked back on his heels, out of her line of sight.

Kaoru sighed and brought an arm across her eyes. Morning was bright through the drapes and very unwelcome. "I'm fine, Kenshin." Her voice was level and tired. Sleep hadn't brought the peace she'd hoped for last night, only solidified the depressing truth of her situation.

Even behind her arm, she could see the puckering of his brows. "I don't believe you."

A faint smile tugged her lips. Now there was the backbone of her prince. And his observant nature. It felt good to know that he could recognize her lie, even if he didn't know the cause behind it.

"You're right, I'm not. But, not for the reasons you probably think." Depression agreed with her; her thoughts were very collected this morning.

She sat up, just barely remembering to drag the sheet with her. No need to embarrass the poor man now that he wasn't under the power of the spell. Then she turned to face him.

"You're not dressed," she observed, red-faced. He looked quite casual sitting there, cross-legged amid the billowy, blue sheets of the bed. Like it was everyday he woke up beside his not-fiancé after a night of drug-induced passion.

His head tilted to the side and he fixed her with a considering look. The measured calculation in his narrowed eyes spoke of the Battousai, even though they remained a light violet color. Between the look and the massive amounts of finely-toned skin, her coolness dissipated into shy nerves.

"What are the true reasons?" His stare was hooded even as it pierced her in place.

Simple questions are the hardest to answer. Now where had that collected thought run off to?

"Well," she tried to look somewhere other than his face, but he wouldn't let her, "I'm not upset about what happened last night." Her nose wrinkled, "No, I am, but not because you hurt me or scared me or, or anything like that," she worried her bottom lip as she tried to phrase her answer to be as little revealing as possible. Then, with a frustrated rake of her fingers through tangled hair, it spilled out.

"Mou, I'm upset because… I betrayed Tomoe's trust, I failed my duty to you, I lost my virginity, and undermined my competence as Escort all in one night." A shaky breath punctuated the summation and she yanked her head down to avoid seeing his reaction and to blink back threatening tears. She wasn't supposed to be having this conversation with him. The plan had been to wake up before him and quietly sneak out of the room to find her brother and pack.

Instead, she was being forced to face his probing questions and pity. And she didn't want his pity or comfort. He had other ideas, though.

She squawked as he hauled her into his lap in a brisk movement.

"Kenshin!" Her hands fumbled to keep the sheet clutched to her chest. "What are you doing?"

He ignored her half-hearted struggles, intent on tucking her head under his chin and trapping her in the circle of his arms.

"Please forgive this unworthy one," he murmured, "I do not want you to think that you have made a mistake. I am equally at fault for this. I should have been more suspicious of the Princess."

She stiffened in his grasp and then collapsed against his chest, tears freezing in her eyes as she began to tremble. He was too much for her, sometimes. That he would share the blame for something so twisted and out of his control was the mark of god-like compassion. She had been warned, repeatedly. Her purpose had been to prevent a disaster he couldn't have known about.

"No, it's my fault. I'm the Escort, my job is to see and avoid plots to trap you into marriage." She wanted to push away from him, but her body wouldn't obey. Her cheek pressed against the hollow of his collar bone, her eyes blinded by the arch of his neck. Why did it have to feel so natural to be held by him? Control was slipping from her faster than the sheet in her limp fingers.

"We are all caught in Enishi's game, Kaoru. Do not blame yourself. He is the one who manipulated all of us, even Nishimoto. And it is because of my past sins that he does this." Now he was stroking her arm with warm, lulling sweeps of his fingers.

The touch and the soothing rhythm of his breathing were quite distracting and a beat of silence passed between them before she stirred. Her lips puckered in a frown as she pulled her attention back to the issue. Was he arguing with her over who was wrong first? Of all the ridiculous, selfless things... A bit of anger stirred her spine straight and she lifted her face to look him in the eye.

"Now listen, prince. Don't try to undermine my duty. I joined this Guard to protect you, to put your wellbeing above my own." She jabbed a stern finger in his chest. "And that's what I did, even if I made a mess of things. And it's also my responsibility to clean that mess up." Her cheeks puffed out as she narrowed a challenging glare at him.

"Oro!" He stared down at her with a helplessly.

"First of all, you don't want everyone to know. It would look bad for you. But Tomoe needs to be told, and I'll handle that- Don't try to argue with me!" She pressed the tips of her fingers to his mouth and frowned. "And, once I straighten things out, I'll resign from my post and go home. That will be best for everyone, I think."

Apparently, he didn't.

He pulled her fingers from his mouth and leaned in with earnest. "Do as you wish, but I won't let you leave, that I will not. I won't let your honor be tarnished. It will take some persuasion with my Lord Father, but I will ask for you to be my wife, Kaoru."

And there was every hope she'd ever had, offered to her on the lips of the one she wanted so desperately. She didn't think she had any pieces left to shatter, but her heart broke all over. A rueful smile curved her lips and she brushed his face with cool fingers.

"You really would, wouldn't you?" she murmured sadly. "You would throw away your happiness for the sake of my honor." He opened his mouth, but she trapped it again with her hand. "No, Kenshin. I know you too well." She strained her neck up and pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. "And I won't let you. It is my job to ensure you're happiness. And no prince is going to stand in the way of my duty."

Something like awe shone in his eyes for her and she caught her breath. It was rare that he let her read his emotions so clearly. Then he shook his head and fixed her with a darker gaze. Her hands flinched against his chest as warm fingers slid over her belly.

His voice was feather-soft. "Please, Kaoru, let me ask for your hand. I have a duty as well."

To say she was tempted was a cruel understatement. It was taking every ounce of her self control to keep the tears threatening to slip past her eyelids in check and to keep her expression appropriately neutral. Inside, she was breaking and wailing in anguish. How easy would it be to lie? To say she could possibly be carrying his child? She doubted even Megumi's magic would be able to tell for certain this early. And by the time it became clear that she wasn't, she would be tucked securely at his side. No one would fault her. The first try wasn't guaranteed for success.

She sucked in a calming breath through her nose and released it with a sigh, shaking her head. "Kenshin, nothing will come of last night. You have no obligations to me." Her cycle rose and fell as steadily as the moon. She was no where near her fertile period. Unlike the princess.

A sigh hissed from his mouth and he nodded. The warmth of his hand left her stomach and she dropped her gaze so he wouldn't see the despair in her eyes from the withdraw.

"I see. Then I will not pressure you, that I will not." His tone was light and she bit the inside of her lip at the casual relief she heard in his voice. He was free from her, now. She had fulfilled her task.

The prophecy would rest; fulfilled, but harmless.

Now she needed to untangle herself from his lap so she could retreat to lick her wounds. She was about to give him a gentle nudge to let her go when suddenly his arms tightened around her. Confusion lifted her head to look at him, but his gaze was narrowed over her head.

"We have company," he noted icily and reached down with the arm not supporting her back to pull a portion of the thick comforter up around her shoulders.

"Kenshin?" She darted wary eyes between his stiff jaw and the door to the room where his glare was leveled.

"Please allow me to handle this, Ms. Kaoru," he murmured.

Her brows puckered in a frown and her mouth opened to question him again. Then the door slammed open, bouncing off the wall with a dull crack. Kaoru whipped her head around and her eyes widened with shock.

An imposing, red-faced man stormed into the room followed by a fluttering crowd of lesser nobles. She paled as she noted the jewels adorning his fingers and the filigreed crown resting on his brow.

"How dare you betray my trust by forcing yourself on my daughter!" His voice roared over the room and a tiny shiver snaked up Kaoru's spine. Being cuddled, naked, in Kenshin's arms in the face of anyone else would have been awkward. But right now she couldn't feel anything but grateful to have the assurance of corded muscles resting beneath her fingertips.

"Good morning, King Jien." She didn't need to glance up to know his eyes were laced with amber. She could feel his anger in the stiff way his fingers curled around her waist. Her own were occupied with keeping the coverlet firmly tucked under her chin. She really wanted to pull it over her head, but didn't feel it would be polite. A part of her was able to step back and view the situation with an ironic sort of appreciation. She couldn't manage to do anything right, could she?

"Don't patronize me, boy!" he thundered, thrusting an enraged finger at them, "I hope you are prepared to accept the consequences for your irresponsible, shameful actions."

"Um, my lord?" One of the other nobles coughed politely and nodded in Kaoru's direction. "Princess Nisemono doesn't appear to be here."

Her initial alarm faded into amusement as the king literally deflated. He stared at her hard enough to bruise, blinking rapidly, as if he couldn't reconcile what he was seeing with what he was supposed to be seeing. A smug grin fought to pull her lips up. She could see the moment when he realized he'd just shoved a wrench into his own plot.

Silence settled over the room for a moment as both parties sized each other up and watched the balance of power tip in favor of the pair on the bed.

The king sputtered to life again. "How… How dare you insult my daughter by sleeping with this low-born trash after being invited into her very home!"

She lifted a hand from under the cover to cover her mouth as she let out her own polite cough. His attempt was so pathetic that she couldn't even feel insulted by the slur against her reputation.

"Ms. Seta is my escort," Kenshin's voice rolled with quiet fury, "Do not insult her."

A command. No, a threat. Her eyes widened at the statement and at the same time she caught a flicker of movement by the door. She shifted through the gaudy robes and tunics of the king's retinue until her gaze settled on a familiar set of glasses. Perched before an equally familiar pair of eyes.

"Enishi," she breathed. Her hand dropped from her mouth to clutch at Kenshin's shoulder in alarm. Hatred rolled from the man's form, belied by a pleasant smirk etched across his face. And he was staring directly at her. She forced her gaze away from his and stared at the far wall. The contact had only lasted a moment, but she had felt him drawing her in with his magic.

"I suggest you forget what has happened this morning," Kenshin went on. "I have no wish to disrupt the treaty between our kingdoms, so I am willing to forgive your questionable actions."

The king looked ready to protest again, but was brought up short as someone in the back of the group squawked. All eyes turned to the doorway and a small path opened up for the cool figure of Saitou to stroll through. Nisemono trailed behind him sourly, little bags of sleeplessness marring her eyes.

"My lord," he drawled in Kenshin's direction, "I have interrogated the suspect and she has admitted to the plot set up by King Jien and herself to force you into a marriage. She has also named the accomplice who provided most of the supplies and magic to carry out the plan."

Kaoru's eyes snapped to Enshi's figure again and she frowned when she couldn't find his pale head in the crowd of nobles anymore.

"Unfortunately the accomplice has already decided to escape from the palace," he smirked at Jien and released his daughter into his arms, "Too bad. He might have contested my findings."

Jien glared first at Saitou, then at Kenshin. His gaze settled on Kaoru the longest, boring into her with hatred. No doubt he was seething that she'd managed to botch their plan. She lifted her chin and returned his glare. He needed white hair and a disturbed smile if he was going to intimidate her now.

He drew himself up. "I'm willing to overlook this insult," he spat the word at Kaoru, "In favor of keeping peace between our kingdoms. I hope you have enjoyed our hospitality and do not hesitate to visit again." He sniffed regally and stalked out the door, Nisemono pouting on his arm. The rest of his advisors and nobles looked at each other uncertainly before wandering out behind him.

The noble who had spoken earlier paused at the door. "I apologize for the King's, er… I apologize." He bowed and shuffled out. Kaoru grinned. It was hard to insult your king in front of a neighboring country's prince.

Behind her, Kenshin sighed and relaxed. "Saitou, will you please inform the Guard that we will be leaving as soon as possible?"

The man straightened from his lean against the wall and smirked. "Already taken care of. As soon as you're dressed and packed, we can go." He cast a pointed look in Kaoru's direction at the word 'dressed'. She widened her eyes in a pleading stare, trying to convey that her current, snuggly position with the prince was not her fault. His gaze leveled into something neutral and he sketched a bow before striding from the room.

The moment the door clicked shut she let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Now that she wasn't faced with half of the Nishimoto royal court, she could step back and appreciate the fact that she'd just faced half of the Nishimoto royal court. Naked. In her prince's equally naked lap. Which brought her around to her current problem.

"Kenshin?" She straightened in his hold and secured the coverlet around her a little more.

"Mm?" he blinked and focused on her face, obviously lost in thought. Meanwhile, his hand had resumed the languid caresses up and down the length of her arm. She needed to get out of there fast before she blushed so hard she burst something important.

"Um… we should probably… get dressed." The words were calm even if her gaze kept flitting everywhere but his face.

The hand on her arm stilled. "O-Oro. Yes, we should get dressed, that we should, Ms. Kaoru." He cheerfully sputtered.

Her gaze met his in surprise and she blinked to see a cherry blush dusting his cheeks. And she couldn't help a slightly evil grin at his discomfort. The tables had turned, for once, and she was in fast danger of getting heady from the power.

"Can you let me go, then?" she asked sweetly.

"Orororo." He muttered under his breath as he withdrew his arms from under the covers, from around her, and leaned back so she could rise.

"Thank you." She paused for a moment as her former nerves returned and tickled at her belly. Then she scrambled from his lap and slid off the side of the bed, her arms wrapping the covers around her. It was hard to gloat when she was just as flustered as him.

She sorted through the mess of fabric on the floor and found her short tunic and pants and breast bindings… and underwear.

A whole new flavor of embarrassment flushed her cheeks as she stood and opened her mouth to order Kenshin to turn his back. She clicked it shut when she saw that he'd already faced the window. Now she was presented with a mane of red hair only partially covering the broad set of his shoulders and battle-scarred skin of his back. Her fingers twitched with the memory of running over each rough line and smooth plane.

Not good.

She tumbled into her clothes and chucked his bundle at his head, "Oro!" before scuttling a safe distance from the bed.

"I'm done." She called in a sing-song voice while her hands twisted each other into painful knots before her. Leaving didn't sound like such a bad idea, now. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to look at him again without remembering exactly what his smile felt like when it curved against the skin of her chest.

The rustle of cloth turned her head instinctively and she stilled.

Her prince had slid from the bed as well, opting to dress standing… and free of the cover sitting among puffy bed sheets might have afforded. She stared at the graceful movements of flexing limbs as he casually pulled his clothes on. He hadn't even turned to keep his back to her, standing not quite face-on, but forward enough that she had a clear view of everything that he was. And everything that she could not have.

Guilt turned her head away from his figure, but she wasn't filled with the jitters of a woman in love.

"I'm going to go make sure Megumi doesn't need help with my things." Her voice rang with false casualness and she silently apologized for not having the courage to stay. He would need help with his own packing and here she was abandoning him. But she could rationalize the guilt, knowing that if she stayed a moment longer she might do something stupid.

"Ms. Kaoru?" There was subtle command to the question, but she pretended to not understand in favor of bolting from the room.

She crashed into the next room, barely remembering to turn the handle to avoid a flattened nose. Megumi and Sano froze over separate trunks in the room and fixed her with wide stares. Kaoru tried for a reassuring smile, but it wobbled into something anguished.

They knew. She knew that they did. And for some reason that was too much for her to handle. Her mouth gaped in mute apology as a tear dripped down her face.

"Sano, go help the prince with his luggage," Megumi snapped as she crossed the room to envelope Kaoru in a tight hug. Kaoru buried her face in the older woman's chest and shut out the world.

She let the iron restraint she'd placed on her emotions since she'd woken up fall away and bawled. For Kenshin. For Tomoe. But mostly for herself.

Sanosuke leaned against the inside frame of the door and watched his prince move through the room as he packed. The door had shut behind him just as the first muffled sob tore from his sister's throat and he curled a fist to know that he couldn't be in there to comfort her. But, as much as it pained him, he had a larger mission to fulfill. A mission for her benefit. And, hopefully… if he was reading things right… for the prince's as well.

"You know," he drawled, "I should be kicking your ass right now, prince or not."

Kenshin paused, bent over placing the last of his clothing into his trunk, and calmly resumed his work. "Why is that, Lord Kamiya?"

The taller man hissed in appreciation and strolled further into the room. The prince was really pissed if he was resorting to that kind of formality. Now to pin exactly why he was pissed.

"Because you just slept with my best friend's little sister. Hell, missy is practically a sister to me," he stifled a smirk at the irony, "I'm feeling a bit protective right now. Need to defend her honor, you know?"

"Then by all means, defend her." The red head invited, straightening and facing him fully. His gaze was flat in a face set in stern lines. If Sano wasn't so confident in his theory, he probably would have started cracking his knuckles in preparation for a good fight. His friend looked like he could use an excuse to throw a few punches.

"Don't have to." He shrugged and folded his arms across his chest.

Kenshin's eyes narrowed and while he didn't tense up any further, he didn't relax. "And why is that?"

Sano paused for a moment to decide exactly how to phrase his reasoning. He could try a subtle approach, but he'd never been very good with those. And besides, being blunt was so much more fun. Especially around Kenshin.

"Because I think you're in love with her."

To his credit, the prince didn't faint. He did turn three shades of white and wavered a bit. Then the glare returned. Sano smirked at the thin-lipped noble and shouted silent victory.

"Why would you think that? I'm engaged, that I am." Kenshin sniffed primly and folded his arms into his sleeves. Sano didn't miss the slight tremor to his hands before they disappeared, though.

He kept his tone casual. "I wasn't sure at first, I'll tell you that. Actually it wasn't till after missy said she thought you might like her that I got suspicious. She didn't know about Lady Yukishiro at the time, but it got me thinking." He shook his head. "I've watched you with her since then."

The prince's eyes narrowed slightly and he held himself very still. "And what have you seen?"

"That you're not as smooth at hiding things as you think. I wasn't close enough to hear anything, but I saw her talking with you at camp the other night." His tone was smug. "No wonder the whole Guard is joking about wedding dates."

Kenshin's mouth pursed. "I'm already engaged, Sanosuke."

He snorted. "The Guard doesn't know that. I've been keeping a lid on the gossip, but everyone in the company figures as much. In fact, about the only person who doesn't know is missy, herself. But she can be a bit dense about that kind of stuff." He frowned. "About as dense as you."

His head dropped and his bangs shadowed his face. After a moment he lifted it again, but kept his gaze fixed away from Sano's face.

"I know that she is in love with me, if that's what you mean," he protested quietly.

He shifted to cover his jerk of surprise. That was something he hadn't counted on. He'd figured that was the only hitch in the whole plan: that the prince was holding back because he thought his feelings were one-sided. But if Kenshin knew his sis was in love with him, and he was in love with her… what was holding them back?

Enlightenment struck. "Aw crap… You're still in love with Tomoe, aren't you?" Well if that was the case, there was nothing more he could do. But wait. What was that on his prince's face? Guilt?!

"I do love Tomoe." He said slowly. "With out her, I don't think I could have been able to resolve my guilt as the Battousai after the war."

A slow, knowing grin itched Sano's face. "But not like you love missy, eh?" he guessed.

Kenshin shot him a dirty scowl before dropping his gaze again and nodding. The taller man chuckled and strode over to clap his prince on the back. The prince stumbled forward a step at the enthusiasm.

"Well great! That does it then, right? You'll marry Kaoru and everyone will be happy!"

Kenshin shook his head firmly and moved over to one of the couches. Sano's grin faded into a worried frown at the ginger way his friend settled into the seat.

"I wanted to tell her last night," his voice had dropped, "I don't think she realizes how expressive her face is. I could see how it was hurting her and how hard she was trying to pretend that she was just embarrassed by the situation and nothing else." He let out a shuddering breath. "I was so close to telling her that I would have wanted her even without that damn spell. So she wouldn't be in so much pain." He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

"But you didn't." That was obvious from the state his sister was currently in. He wondered if he should tell Kenshin exactly what that 'state' was, but a thoughtful glance told him that the prince already knew.

"No. She kept interrupting me. But now I think it's best that she doesn't know. It will make it easier for her to walk away if she thinks her feelings aren't returned." He spoke with a ring of certainty. Sano wanted to wring his neck.

"Bull. And why does she need to walk away? I know about that agreement you have with your dad about marriage. It's not like not marrying Lady Yukishiro is going to screw up any of the King's plans. Why don't you just marry Kaoru?" He cracked his knuckles in annoyance.

Kenshin shot him a muted glare. "I have an obligation to Tomoe. I cannot cast her off like that. I made a promise," his mouth twisted, "And it's never good to break a promise. I should feel lucky that I have such a wonderful fiancé and not take her for granted, that I should not."

Sano snorted and shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from fulfilling his desire to bop the shorter man over the head. "Oh, well that's great. I'm sure she'll be really happy to know she's marrying a guy who's in love with someone else."

The line of Kenshin's shoulders straightened and stiffened. Apparently he hadn't thought about it like that before. Sano pressed the issue.

"The only reason you're getting married in the first place is love, right? So it'd be pretty crappy of you to force her to marry you when you don't really love her like that."

"I… suppose," he conceded after a moment and then looked thoughtful.

A wolfish grin spread across Sano's face as he went in for the kill. "Look, it's not like you have to decide what to do right now. Missy is about ready to crack with all the stress she's been under. Let her go home for awhile and rest. Talk to Tomoe, see what she thinks about everything. And if she wants to break the engagement, I'll help you talk to your dad about marrying Kaoru."

He kept his voice mild, like he hadn't been planning on doing just what he'd said the whole time. The only real trouble he saw right now was hauling his sister back to the palace once she'd had enough time to straighten herself out.

Kenshin remained silent long enough for Sano to begin to sweat. Then he sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face.

"You are right. I should speak with Tomoe before I decide anything. She has a right to know, that she does." He sounded three steps away from meeting Doom.

Sano turned his sigh of relief into another snort. "Hell, with as obvious as you've been around everyone else, I'm sure she already has an idea of what's going on."

The prince blinked in horrified shock. "Do you think…?" Then his face melted into a rueful smile. "I suppose she probably does. Even Ms. Kaoru noticed that I kept forgetting to give her farewell kisses."

His first impulse was to leer and suggest that the prince had probably been busy fantasizing about kissing Kaoru instead, but held off. The idea made his stomach churn. That was his little sister. Geez.

He cleared his throat and pasted on a grin. "Great! Now that that's all figured out, what do you say we get the hell out of this creepy place?" He turned a wary eye on the walls around him. He couldn't detect magic, but he'd spent enough time around Megumi the night before to pick up the unease.

"I just wonder how my Lord Father will react," the prince sighed as he stood, "I had half hoped Ms. Kaoru would end up with child. That would have made things much easier. I'm allowed to marry who I wish, but not marrying a noble will cause political stir that I'm sure he won't want to deal with."

"Half hoped?" Sano echoed, intrigued.

Kenshin blushed slightly. "I wouldn't want her to think I had only married her because of the child, but… it would have convinced her to marry me and I would have had an honorable duty to break the engagement with Tomoe."

Sano chuckled and shook his head. "Trust me, I don't think convincing your dad to let you marry Kaoru will be as hard as you think. Just a hunch, but I think he likes her." He didn't add that he also suspected that the king already knew Kaoru's true heritage. That Hiko hadn't called her out already spoke silent volumes of his opinion of her.

Kenshin sighed. "I hope so."

The trip back to the palace was about as pleasant for Kaoru as the time she'd been caught sneaking into Aoshi's room on a dare from Misao. He'd calmly asked her what she was doing holding his second favorite shirt, and, not wanting to give her friend's secret crush away, she'd lamely tried to say she was stealing it for herself. He hadn't believed her. He'd also gently booted her out of his first story window into the bushes. The only positive note about the whole incident had been that he hadn't taken the shirt back, which had caused Misao no end of joy.

Her thoughts kept straying into the past, when her life had been almost painfully simple. It was an escape she relished with almost obsessive need. She'd been tossed between grief, guilt, and embarrassment so many times in the day and a half journey that she was ready to collapse. Her only solace was in the moments she tuned everything out.

But far sooner than later she'd be bumped back into reality and all the pain it held for her at the moment. And all centered around that one, complicated night. Her entire existence seemed tethered to the event. She tried to walk away, but found her feet walking her in circles, slowly drawing her closer and closer to the source of her discomfort.

The best and worst part of it was that Kenshin didn't change how he interacted with her. He was still unfailingly polite and absently affectionate. The lack of reaction was enough to give her a headache. If she'd thought something had shifted between them, she'd been wrong. He was still oblivious to her and focused on Tomoe. She'd even overheard him mentioning to her brother about how impatient he was to speak with his fiancé.

So when the carriage finally pulled into the Guard barracks, she jumped out and scrambled to find Sou. It had been agreed that he would accompany her back home, and he was in charge of finding Tsubame to arrange for their immediate departure. Sano had apologized for not coming with her, but said the prince needed his assistance with a matter vital to the country's future. Though not quite in those exact words.

In the meantime, she needed to intercept Tomoe before Kenshin did. She wanted the older woman to know exactly where the fault of the other night's betrayal lay. And she knew Kenshin was too self-sacrificing to place any blame on her.

Still, even with her resolve, her heart clenched and throbbed in time with every jarring stride down the hall toward Tomoe's room. And it was with a heavy fist that she knocked on the door. She held her breath as she waited, hoping and fearing that the maid she'd asked had been wrong about the Lady's whereabouts.

Air brushed around her face as the door opened and she closed her eyes briefly to steel herself.

"Kaoru, come in." She sounded pleased to see her.

She stuck a bokken in her spine and met the gaze of the woman she'd betrayed. Tomoe's eyes flicked over her face and darkened in concern. She stepped aside to let her in and closed the door softly behind her.

"What has happened since you left?" she asked as she glided past Kaoru and settled into the nearest chair.

Kaoru watched her move and swallowed heavily before following and taking the chair opposite. She fussed with the fabric of her pants, her mouth drawn into a hard frown. Tomoe waited patiently, hands folded over each other in her lap. Elegance draped her form like a shawl.

"Enishi was staying in Nishimoto," she whispered finally.

Tomoe's hands clenched in the silk of her dress, but she didn't comment. Kaoru sucked in a breath and let everything that had happened from the moment they'd arrived spill from her mouth.

She explained their initial worries about the magic pervading the castle and how the princess had tried to separate them. She related the confrontation at the ball where her brother had teased her with his magic, turning her thoughts against her. The attack by Ekubo and Kenshin's decision to divide their power evenly among the group. Her failure to prevent Kenshin from drinking the tea and her triggering the spell to herself. The conversation in the hall where they'd realized just how complicated Enishi's plan was.

"And then… I went back, and we… we-" Her voice faded into a murmur and died.

"I understand," Tomoe held up a forestalling hand. "You don't have to talk about the rest. I don't want to upset you further."

Kaoru lifted incredulous eyes. "What? Upset me? But you're the one who's been… that I've betrayed!" She gritted her teeth together and blinked rapidly. She was determined to get through this without becoming too hysterical. That was the last thing Tomoe needed from her.

The older woman regarded her solemnly. "Was there any other way to break the spell?"

She shook her head. "No. Saitou could not break the compulsion and the spell is very specific. The man has to-" she broke off, reddened, and dove back in, "He has to make sure the woman could become pregnant from the union before the compulsion will end. There was… nothing else I could have done to… to relie-" She broke into a small coughing fit. This was not a conversation she'd ever thought she'd be having. Only the thought that she must maintain Kenshin's reputation kept her plowing forward.

Tomoe seemed a little pale, but her voice was steady. "Well, then it wasn't a betrayal. You were trapped by the scheming of my brother."

Her voice became distant and she turned her face away. Kaoru almost didn't hear her next words.

"My own brother."

Her throat closed in sympathy and she slid from her chair to kneel before Tomoe's feet. She wanted to say something to comfort the older woman, but nothing was coming to her lips. To have her own brother force her fiancé into the bed of another woman… she couldn't imagine. That he would try so hard to destroy her happiness and all the while think he was ensuring it.

Kaoru carefully set her own worries aside and took up the chilled hand of the woman sitting in the chair between her own in mute apology and understanding.

They brooded over their own thoughts in silence for a minute before Tomoe stirred and gave Kaoru's hand a small squeeze.

"What's done is done. I hold nothing against either of you." Her voice was flat but honest. Kaoru swallowed hard and nodded. Guilty relief swept through her.

"I'm glad. I didn't want Kenshin to suffer for my own mistake."

Tomoe's hand withdrew from her own and rested against her cheek. It was a welcome coolness against the emotional flush of her skin.

"And what about you, Kaoru? It must have been hard to sacrifice yourself to someone you believe doesn't love you."

She lifted her face in surprise and then smiled. Of course Tomoe would worry about her wellbeing. The compassion was touching. But right now she wasn't sure if she could accept it without dissolving into a mess of tears.

"Well, it was my own fault," she bit off a small laugh. "What I'm more worried about is what that idiot prince is going to do at balls from now on. They better find a good escort fast."

The hand on her cheek withdrew. "What do you mean?" Her voice was light with surprise.

Kaoru blinked and smiled. "Oh, I'm going home. I can't be the escort anymore now that my position's been… compromised. Saitou wouldn't hear of it."

The Lady's brows inched together in a small frown. "But you'll return, of course."

"No, I think it will be better to make a clean break. My family has been trying to get me to think about marriage for years. After all this adventure I think it's about time I settled down and found someone to marry." The words hurt on her tongue, but she kept her tone glib. Yes, she would burry herself so deep in children and household duties that she wouldn't have time to think about her red-headed prince. That was how it had to be.

"I suppose." She sounded dubious, but then a tiny smile parted her lips. "Yes, I think it would do you well to marry a good man. But, please, will you promise to visit?"

She got the distinct impression Lady Yukishiro was amused about something. Her eyes narrowed in agitation at being left out of the joke. Was it really so funny to nobles to think of a tomboy like herself finding a husband? She hadn't thought Tomoe was that kind of person.

"Mou, I don't think that would be a good idea." This she was certain about. She wouldn't set foot near the palace for as long as she lived.

"Please, Kaoru. I'm returning to Nobu at the end of the week and I would like to see you again before you make your final plans." There was a note of urgency in her tone. Kaoru wavered beneath the warm darkness of her eyes before giving a reluctant nod. She owed the woman at least this one small favor. She owed her a lot more, actually.

"Good." She smiled fully and opened her arms for a hug.

Dazzled, Kaoru couldn't keep an answering smile from her lips as she returned the embrace and stood from her crouch.

"I won't keep you any longer, but remember your promise." The tone made Kaoru think of the older sister she didn't have. She resisted the urge to cross her arms and pout at being ordered around.

"I will," she chuckled.

"Go home and rest, Kaoru. You are hurt, let yourself heal for awhile." She patted her hand and stood to walk her to the door. Kaoru gave her a wan smile and nodded. She wanted to curl up in the meadow behind her house and lose herself in the clouds for a few hours. Or days.

She left Tomoe with another hug and hurried back to the barracks. By the time she arrived, the carriage to take her home was already packed and hitched to a fresh set of horses. She'd never welcomed a sight with such anguished relief.

"Did you say goodbye to everyone?" Sou's head popped out of the carriage door and he held out a hand to help her up the step. She scrambled in and relaxed against the plush seat, not meeting his eyes. Sano had given her a bear hug when they'd arrived and she'd made a quiet farewell to the Guard the night before.

But she hadn't seen Kenshin since she'd bolted from the carriage earlier.

"Yes, I did."

She pasted on a smile wedged herself into a corner to take a nap.

She hadn't slept well the night before, but she knew she would have been exhausted regardless. Since the moment she'd run into that old woman she'd been running in desperate circles. She was bruised and battered in heart and mind, and her shoulder blade still ached with phantom pain.

A war had been waged in and around Kamiya Kaoru and she'd just barely come out with her sanity intact. She wasn't running away; she'd earned this rest. And she'd ignore the tiny ache in her heart that regretted not saying farewell to her love. She'd done that the other night in the darkness of a room thick with the sound of his deep breathing and her muffled sobs.

She'd already said goodbye, even if it was only to herself.

Now she was going home.

You love me now, right? Only one chapter to go! Mmm, I'm not so sure how well I pulled this one off, but it was really hard to get through. *sniff* I can't believe it's so close to being complete! How long have I been working on this thing? Almost six months?! ::dies:: Jeeeeez.

Thanks to Everyone! Over one hundred reviews for one chapter. I can't believe it! But you'll forgive me if I don't do individual responses this go around, yeah? It'd take a full hour and a half to just do that. And I have a gov paper I'm supposed to be working on ::blush:: Ahem. Special thanks go out to Lauren Madrid for all her sweet emails and to Leilani Williams for archiving ITFH on her site Guilty Pleasures (Go look! The link is on my webpage) Also thank you to everyone who supported ITFH through the first round of the Elimination voting! We'll see how it does in this second round, yeah? Also, big thanks to Pia Bartolini, ChiisaiLammy, jezzjamer, Koishii Sweet, Bunny / Sailor Moon, squeakyinuears, and Evil Bunny for pointing out plot points that I'd almost overlooked ::sweat:: and bonus points for raine84 for hitting the love-triangle resolution square on the nose! Rest assured that I read every review and loved them all!