Ceteris Paribus

Chapter Nineteen (Final): Home Is Where the Heart Is

A sudden commotion spread through the palace captives like a ripple, every man, woman and child squirming and whispering about in tense, hushed voices.

Mako frowned in concern, her eyes scanning the crowd before her with apprehension.

What could possibly be going on now?

"Stay here," Mako whispered intently as she made to stand, jostling Kotoha from her light doze, the early, warm summer sun having made her lethargic in their waiting.

"What is it?" Kotoha mumbled, rubbing at her blurry eyes against the sun's glare.

"I'm not sure but something might be wrong."

This had the immediate effect of causing Kotoha to sit up straighter, alert in an instant. "Are we going to be okay?"

"I don't know," she murmured. "Wait here. Don't move from this spot. I'll come back once I find out."

Kotoha nodded, biting her lip in anxiety as Mako slipped nearly unnoticed through the crowd.


Mako kept her head down but her eyes darted from side-to-side, listening intently to puzzle out what had her fellow prisoners in a tizzy.

"They found another one."

"Another one? How many are there?"

"I thought they'd all been apprehended or killed outright during the fighting."

"Well, some of 'em managed to slip away unnoticed."

"Not all of them royals were stupid. Some were too damn crafty for their own good. Always looking to scheme their way higher up the food chain, you know? Always hopin' the king would notice them and take favor."

"But the king's dead."

"Exactly. Ain't nobody left to save 'em now, so they're tryin' to save their own hides."

There was a sniff of disapproval and a couple of muttered hisses amongst the crowd.

"I say, let these foreigners take 'em all in. They weren't useful for anything in the palace, and they sure as hell won't be useful for anything now."

"I don't know. Not all of them were bad."

There was a few nods.

"Some didn't like being there anymore than we did. They treated us alright."

"Well sure, there were a couple, but the rest of them? I say these foreign types take 'em in for questioning and then put 'em out of their misery. Who's going to miss 'em anyways?"

"They were still family of Pluvia's royalty," one man reminded the lot. "Even if it was a distant branch and not thought of too highly, I don't think Pluvia would want to see them all killed."

"I can't imagine many survived the palace fire anyways."

"Well some did and they're hiding amongst us now. Trying to blend in with the other servants and palace guards."

A snort of dark amusement. "Royalty mucking about with those lower than them to save their own skins, huh? I'm surprised they'd be so willing to lower themselves to our standards."

"Wouldn't you if the only other option might be death?"

"There's a few royals in mind I hope don't get caught, wherever they might be," one woman sighed. "I don't even know if they survived the night, but if I saw their faces in the crowd now I'd keep my mouth shut."

Her friend nodded. "I would want them to have a second chance; they'd deserve as much."

"Which ones are you so keen on? Is it –"

Mako missed the, what she presumed, would be a very short list of royalty the servants and lower classes deemed worthy of sparing, not sure if she could stomach it.

She knew all too well how those living in Aduro viewed the royalty and rightly so, but it didn't mean she wanted to stick around to hear who would make the cut and who would be thrown into the lion's den. Instead she hastened back to her sister's side, head and eyes down, trying not to attract anyone's searching eyes, foreign or otherwise.

"Mako? What's going on?" Kotoha asked the instant her sister was at her side once more.

"They're threading through the captives to clear out surviving royalty," she relayed in hurried, hushed tones.

"Why?"

"To pull the weeds out at their source," she continued, her eyes never leaving the several foreign-looking men scrutinizing every man and woman in the area. "With the sudden overturn of Aduro, many prominent figures are suddenly finding themselves with the same status as the everyday peasant – assuming they managed to escape the melee inside the palace. By rooting out those people now, Pluvia and her allies can hope to prevent any plots for revenge."

"What will they do with the ones they find?" Kotoha whispered, her voice tight.

"Interrogate them – find out how much they know before it can be used against Pluvia. After they get their information…I don't know."

They watched as several more figures were pulled roughly from the group to be secured and bound by a large group of soldiers, some going defiantly, others with pleads of mercy.

"Hey!" A voice sounded out from behind them, startling them both before Kotoha cried out in surprise. "This one's a royal!" A tall imposing soldier had grabbed Kotoha by the arm from behind while they had been fixated on the commotion in front of them.

Mako immediately tried to fend Kotoha's attacker off. "Let her go!" She was surprised when more than one of the men and women surrounding her began helping her.

"She's a royal!" He insisted, signaling for his fellow soldiers to help him pull the struggling girl away from the agitated crowd. "Take her in!"

The commotion continued to rise as more bodies became involved – those trying to fend off the soldiers and the soldiers trying to do their job – until an authoritative voice rang out clearly above the noise.

"What's going on over here?"

Everyone froze, soldiers all but snapping to attention as a youth on horseback carefully made their way into the crowd.

Mako watched the young serious face, dark hair pulled tightly up upon their head. While she was tempted to call this newcomer's face almost feminine, it was impossible to tell with all the armor adorning the youth's body. Whoever this person was, Mako was well aware that this young face was someone of great power and importance.

The guard still clutching to Kotoha's arm fumbled through a bow before replying, "There's a royal here pretending to be a servant your Majesty."

The serious-faced youth frowned at Kotoha for a long moment before giving a deft flick of the wrist. "Bring her forward."

Mako twisted her wrist free of the young soldier who had managed to grab a hold of her and seized Kotoha's free arm, tugging the smaller girl behind her. "Don't you touch her!"

The youth signaled to a few of the soldiers standing nearby and they immediately moved in to restrain Mako. Quiet, attentive eyes watched the struggle for a moment. "And just who are you to protect a royal? Loyal servant, perhaps?"

"She's my sister!" Mako glared at the men holding her back even as she yelled at the soldier dragging Kotoha further away. "Leave her alone! Take me instead."

The youth's delicate eyebrows rose in their first open display of emotion. "I wasn't aware Aduro's royalty held any familial bonds. Quite the opposite in fact – always a …lust for power."

Mako felt a flush steal over her face at this arrogant youth's implications. She wasn't surprised – it was no secret how her family traded sex for power and control, but neither she nor her sister had held with family tradition. "Don't touch her!" Mako warned, her glare promising more than her petite body seemed able to contain.

"If you are indeed her sister than you are a royal as well," the youth studied her intensely before signaling to the surrounding guards. "Take them both."

Kotoha's eyes went wide and she turned to her sister. "Mako! No!"

The youth turned sharply to the pair. "Mako?"

"Kaoru-hime!" A voice called out from behind the crowd and Kotoha stilled at its sound.

"Good timing," Kaoru's grimace was quiet. "We've uncovered two more, and from the way the servants are reacting, two rather important and favored royals."

A large snort of amusement was heard as the caller drew closer. "Favored? No one favored any of the royals, at least no one except –" the owner of the voice froze as he rounded Kaoru's horse and stopped short at the sight before him. "Kotoha?!"

"Chiaki!" Kotoha's elation was all but tangible as her eyes confirmed what her ears already had.

To Kaoru's immense surprise and amusement her stalwart soldier all but tripped over his own feet at the sight of the short girl in front of them. She connected the dots rapidly and turned her full attention to the man next to her, switching to their native tongue. "Is this the woman Takeru mentioned in connection with you?"

Chiaki's flush was all the answer she needed before she nodded to the guard to release Kotoha who could now only stand rooted to the spot, torn between disbelief and confusion.

"Bring the other woman forward," Kaoru ordered her soldiers before turning back to Chiaki and noting that he had gone as still as a statue at seeing the other figure behind Kotoha. "I take it you know her as well? She claims to be this girl's sister."

Chiaki gave a dumbstruck nod. "That's Shiraishi Mako, First Princess of the Court to Aduro."

Kaoru blinked, stunned for a moment. "Shiraishi?" She absorbed the information before nodding to herself and turning to face an irate and confused Mako. Kaoru gave her a quick, respectful bow from her saddle before switching back to the foreign tongue of Aduro. "At last we meet Princess. I am Shiba Kaoru, princess and heir to Caelestis Via's throne."

Mako and Kotoha exchanged quick glances of surprise. With a look that all but radiated suspicion she shifted herself subtly to place herself between Kaoru and Kotoha. "Ten no Michi's heir?" Doubt laced every word. "But I thought Takeru…"

Kaoru let out a rare, small smile. "We have much to discuss. Please, follow me." She turned her horse around expertly and indicated that the two young women should follow.

"Wait!"

Kaoru paused, looking over her shoulder to see that Mako's face had gone pale, a look of dread filling her eyes. "Takeru – if you're now the heir – is he – he didn't –?"

"We will discuss this inside," was all Kaoru responded with before pushing forward.

Mako was torn between her need for answers and protecting Kotoha from this stranger. She glanced at Chiaki who nodded and with fresh determination grasped her sister's hand and pulled her along. If she couldn't protect her then she was at least not letting her leave her side.


Whispers and murmurs erupted on all sides as they walked. Chiaki was certain that rumors would be spreading like wildfire within moments but he couldn't bring himself to care at the moment, his entire vision was filled with the woman walking in front of him, unable to believe that she was really alive.

He waited at a respectful distance, cautious of Mako's already strained nerves, before ducking underneath the tent flap that was held open for him and entering inside Kaoru's private tent at the center of their camp.

He arrived just in time to overhear Kaoru whispering to one of her soldiers to "fetch the others" before the man was all but racing out of the tent.

Kaoru waved to two empty seats around a solid wooden table before taking a seat herself. "Please, sit," she instructed. She caught the look in Mako's eye. "I will answer all of your questions momentarily. We are merely waiting for a few more of my men to arrive."

Mako nodded, murmuring her thanks out of courtesy's sake before she and Kotoha sat tentatively on the edges of their seats. Her gaze switched between Kaoru, the hard-faced soldiers inside the tent and her sole exit out of the temporary room.

Where Mako appeared to sit as quiet and calm as a stone in a riverbed, Kotoha was the opposite, fidgeting with her clothes, her eyes constantly darting about the room, never resting for long on anything or anyone save for her sister or Chiaki.

With a sudden burst of the tent flap that startled Kotoha nearly out of her chair, three blood-flecked, dirty and exhausted men entered the room. They froze just inside the door at the sight that greeted them, a tense and weighted silence filling the room.

One man's slow growing grin lit his eyes before breaking the quiet. "Welcome to our camp, Princess. It's good to see you made it out alive too."

Mako couldn't help the infectious smile that graced her face before a loud "HIME!" rent the air and one of the figures dashed forward.

Mako and Kotoha were on their feet in an instant, meeting their friend halfway across the room before encasing each other in arms with exclamations of joy at seeing the other alive.

Kaoru couldn't help the small smile on her face at the scene as she nodded to herself. "That answers most of my questions for the moment, I believe."

She stood and walked quietly over to the last figure, still stunned into silence in the doorframe. "This is her then?" Her subdued voice couldn't be heard over the excited chatter.

Takeru could only nod jerkily in response.

Kaoru placed a quiet hand on his arm until he turned to look at her and she smiled softly up at him before turning back to the room and commanding its attention once more. "I know everyone has questions, but they must wait until later. There are still many loose ends to wrap up that requires all of our attention." She looked pointedly at Takeru, Genta, Chiaki and Ryunosuke. "I am just as eager to hear stories as all of you, but now is not the time."

She looked over at Mako and Kotoha. "My guards will escort you to another tent where you will be safe and taken care of." Her eyes traveled to everyone in the room. "We all will have much to discuss."

With a deft wave of her hand, a couple of soldiers firmly but gently led Mako and Kotoha back out into the early morning light and across the camp to a new tent. Once inside, the soldiers excused themselves, positioning themselves outside to guard the entrance before a couple of servants were brought inside with necessary items to freshen the girls up.

After much miming and miscommunication, Mako and Kotoha allowed the serving girls to clean them and then dress them in new clothes. While Mako had tried to insist that she and her sister could bathe themselves, both girls were at a complete loss with the clothing that was provided for them.

Apparently there were several layers and a correct order in which to wear them. Not to mention the flurry the serving girls had gotten into when Mako had tried to close one side of the robe-like garment closed first before the other. She wasn't entirely sure what she had been doing wrong, but the girls had swooped in to correct her mistake before she had proceeded far. Eventually Mako gave up and allowed them to do their job, much to Kotoha's amusement.

"I'm glad one of us is enjoying this," Mako muttered rebelliously.

"I think it's their native clothes," Kotoha remarked. "They would know best how to put it on."

"I hate being treated like a doll."

Kotoha smiled sadly at her sister. "Enjoy it while you can Mako. This may be the last time you ever get the chance."

Mako started, causing the girls smoothing her new clothes down to look at her with inquisitive glances. She looked down at the delicate stitches of embroidery in the cloth. "I suppose you're right."

Once the girls had finished with their clothes and hair, Mako and Kotoha were shuffled to a low-seated table where they were fed and watered with simple but filling dishes, the tang of new spices distracting their minds for a while as they ate in companionable silence.

When the table had been cleared away the servant girls left, leaving Kotoha and Mako to wait.

Mako watched Kotoha pick at her new clothes. "These are so different," she commented after a bit. "It looks like I'm wearing different layers of robes with a skirt on top." She tried to wave her arms around. "These sleeves are so long! I was afraid I'd drag them in my food."

Mako smiled at her sister's study as she recalled what glimpses she had seen of the rest of the camp. "The men seem to wear something similar to our country, though the top resembles these robes."

Kotoha patted her head. "Do all their women walk around with no veils? Or did they just forget ours?"

Mako shook her head, her plaited hair swinging along her back. "I don't think they have them."

Kotoha frowned, her fingers fluttering around her face. "I feel so…revealed without it."

Mako grinned. "And yet you are more bundled up now than when you tangle yourself in your bed sheets." Kotoha grinned in response.

A movement at the door stilted their conversation as the tent flap opened and the young woman who claimed to hold Caelestis Via's throne entered the room.

Kaoru gave the two girls a bow that was equal to their status before she sat herself gracefully down at their table, sighing in quiet relief as a couple of serving girls removed her armor and brought in refreshments. When the three were alone again, Kaoru instructed Mako and Kotoha to relate their stories to her while she ate.


"I see," Kaoru sighed. "You have my gratitude for not only getting my men and the servants out of the palace during the fire, but for releasing Takeru and sending him my way." She met Mako's eyes directly. "And I will be forever in your debt for protecting him while he was in your care."

Mako flushed and looked down at the table, her insides twisting themselves into intricate knots.

"I realize your lives have not been the easiest of paths thus far, but I'm afraid a new, more challenging road is yet to come," Kaoru continued pausing until she held both Kotoha and Mako's attentions again. "With the death of your father came the end of his rule and all those he had placed into power, this of course includes the two of you.

"You are no longer princesses of this country," Kaoru explained to Kotoha's look of confusion. "Pluvia has long considered your line to be a false one, and with the end of the last ruler, so too ends that false line." She held up a hand to silence Kotoha's protests. "This country will be united once more with the imperial palace in Pluvia taking back control of the citizens here. There is nothing left for the two of you to do."

Kaoru's lips tightened into a firm line. "I apologize for your loses – all your loses – family, kingdom, titles – But in the meeting I have just come from, all of us rulers have agreed to sever any living royals' lines with that of Pluvia's. You can no longer claim such status in this country."

She watched with critical eyes as both young women nodded firmly in assent at the decisions made for them without their consent or input, a little surprised that there had been almost virtually no argument. She warily acknowledged the relief at not having to deal with angry, crying princesses – of those that had survived – like the others were surely dealing with at the moment. Of course, with those who had vouched for these two, she supposed she shouldn't have suspected any other reaction.

"Putting Pluvia's demands aside, I do come with offerings of my own." Mako and Kotoha now looked up at Kaoru in curiosity, though Mako maintained a wary, suspicious distance, something Kaoru highly approved of. She turned to Kotoha first.

"Chiaki has asked for your hand, if you are willing." She watched in amusement as the young woman before her flushed as red as a sunset. "This was…unexpected," she assured the two. "I have heard the story from my men that they revealed their instructions from me regarding their various missions while they were to remain temporarily, openly concealed within your palace."

"When they were spying on us to relate information back to you," Mako clarified, crossing her arms across her chest.

Kaoru nodded in acknowledgement. "They were to both gather and relay information; it was necessary positions they needed to fulfill in order to ensure that this war was a success." She sighed. "As such they were strictly ordered to keep all such knowledge, including their reasons for being there silent even upon torture and imminent death. That is the loyalty I expect from my men."

Mako shifted quietly in her seat recalling all too vividly the scars Takeru had gleaned as the price for his silence. She frowned but didn't say a word. She couldn't argue against Kaoru's orders, Mako herself would have kept her own silence from her father had he ever deemed it necessary to extract information from her by physical force.

"As the two of you are well aware," Kaoru continued. "Though he wasn't the only one, Chiaki revealed rather sensitive information at a crucial time in our plans. Fortunately things ended up working out in our favor, but he did break a direct order from me."

Kotoha paled. "W-what's going to happen to him now?"

Kaoru watched as Mako's eyes flitted to her sister's changed countenance and sat up even straighter in her seat, flint in her eyes. Kaoru smiled internally, welcoming the fire and spirit of the woman seated across from her.

"What Chiaki did was necessary," Mako began, truly engaged in the conversation now. "Information had fallen into my hands that shook my faith in your country and its rulers. While we wavered in our indecision, Chiaki brought forth his own information to the table, hoping that it would solidify our relations once more. It was," she paused, searching for the right, diplomatic word, "upsetting at first but as we received further information and all the threads pulled everything in to place we were able to make our final decisions at the most critical moment.

"I had already trusted Chiaki with my sister's life once before from careful observations and conversations. I still do. He has proven to me on more than one occasion that the trust I placed in him was not played false. What he did was necessary. It may have even saved our lives. If you were to discredit or harm him for this act of valor, you will have lost my view of your aptitude in ruling your own country." Mako and Kaoru stared each other down for a long time, Kotoha's anxious gaze darted back and forth between the two.

"Bold words from one with nothing to lose," Kaoru stated, her jaw set firmly, but she finally relented. "I have no intentions of harming Chiaki. As you stated so bluntly, what he did was necessary to the success of his mission. Although I hope such actions are not repeated in the future, I do understand their requisite need in that moment."

Mako relaxed slightly in her seat even as Kotoha heaved a giant sigh of relief, glad she was already sitting down because she wasn't sure her legs would have held her up at the moment.

"I am curious though. You so readily defended Chiaki's action and position, but I still wonder what you think of Takeru," Kaoru watched with hawk eyes as Mako's posture stiffened at once.

"Before we delve into that matter, however, I do believe that I owe you some answers first." She took a deep breath before beginning. "Yes, I am the true heir to Ten no Michi's throne. Takeru is from a very distant branch of the family. My parents were unable to conceive for many years. Takeru was born within days of my mother's first birth – a child that did not survive the week.

"A deal was made to pass off Takeru as this child, naming him prince and heir, and securing the throne during a tumultuous time in my country. My mother became pregnant several years later but hid the pregnancy for fear of another mishap, but I arrived healthy and strong, the true heir to the throne.

"So as not to stir evil thoughts amongst our enemies, my parents hid me away from the outside world to grow in health and happiness. Takeru grew up knowing full well that while he is still considered a prince through the adoption, he is no longer heir though he must continue to pretend to be."

Kaoru let out a rare smile, her thoughts turning introspective as Mako began to watch the young ruler more in curiosity than suspicion. "Takeru is like an older brother to me, one that has watched over and cared for me since our youngest days…until we were brought into this fight." Her smile vanished instantly. "I was beside myself with worry after I heard of his capture, but intensely relieved to hear that he was alive, surviving under the watch of a…mistress."

Mako flushed but kept her silence.

"While others twittered about the palace bemoaning the loss of dignity and honor to our country that was so obviously being soiled by our enemy's daughter, I instead comforted myself at night that my brother was alive and well, healing even, under such care." Kaoru fixed Mako with a firm stare. "Takeru would compose his letters to me while you slept in the night, relaying important information that was vital to our cause. And through these letters I also was able to get to know you, to watch his feelings toward you shift and grow with each passing day. I grew very eager to meet this woman who had so entirely captured my brother's heart."

She waited for Mako to comment but when the young woman kept a firm silence Kaoru sighed. "I know you read a correspondence between us unintentionally, and I am afraid that it brought forth the wrong impression." She pulled a small lacquered box from within her sleeves and set it on the table between them. "Takeru may have burned his letters from me out of necessity, but I was able to keep all of his. I would like you to read them." She opened the box and pushed it closer to Mako.

After several moments of deliberation, Mako's hand slid out of her sleeves, removed the smooth lid and grasped the letter on top with slightly shaky hands. She unfolded the small letter and instantly recognized the bold, simple hand from the lessons she had had with Takeru what felt like a lifetime ago now. "I am not adequate enough to read these," she admitted, holding her frustration inside.

"I would read them for you," Kaoru answered. "But I surmise that you'd trust the words more from your former advisor's own mouth." Kaoru raised her voice to order Ryunosuke brought in.

Kotoha all but bounced in her seat as he entered the room, bowing respectfully at all present as he always had. Mako smiled warmly at him, glad to have her friend and ally in the room with her.

Kaoru indicated a seat and before Mako could so much as blink she was awash with nostalgia as Ryunosuke translated the note to her, sending her thoughts spiraling back to her rooms where the three of them had done just this, time and time again for months. It startled her – the sudden desire for such familiarity now that her world had changed so irrevocably.

Mako schooled her face into the mask she had learned to control as the details contained in the letters at times left the heat rising inside her, knowing for a fact that the flames would have spread across her cheeks like wildfire should she slip in her grip on her emotions. It didn't help to have Ryunosuke stumbling across certain lines that left Kotoha sighing like she was reading one of her romance stories.

When the letters were finished and Mako was thoroughly embarrassed Kaoru waited out the silence as the two girls absorbed all the information – the last pieces of the puzzles they needed to sort out their lives.

Kotoha broke the silence first. "So what happens to us now?"

"As I stated before, Chiaki has already asked for your hand if you are willing," Kaoru informed her.

Kotoha flushed prettily, her eyes dancing with happiness, but she paused, glancing at Mako, suddenly unsure.

Catching her sister's look, Mako smiled softly and embraced her. "Be happy Kotoha. This is what we fought for – freedom, choices…love."

"But Mako, what about –?"

Mako shook her head. "This is not my decision to make Kotoha, it's yours." She hugged her again tightly before releasing her. "Whatever choice you make, know that you have my full support behind you."

Kotoha turned shyly to the regal young woman seated across from them and nodded.

Kaoru brightened almost immediately, stunning both girls momentarily before they were all on their feet and following the young heir out of the tent.


Mako grasped one of her sister's arms as she stumbled for the third time. "Take smaller steps," she suggested.

"These clothes are so awkward," Kotoha lamented. "I'm clumsy enough as it is!"

They heard soft laughter as Kaoru turned towards them. "Your country's style of clothing is certainly…different from ours." She shuddered slightly. "Much too revealing for me. But you will eventually learn to move in these." She paused for a moment, her voice soft as she assured them, "They suit you. Both of you."

Kotoha flushed and nodded as they were brought back to Kaoru's tent. All around the shelter people bowed at their heir's entrance, giving Kotoha and Mako a moment to center themselves before all eyes lit upon their arrival.

Mako felt her spine stiffen at all the sudden attention, her face automatically schooled to return to its nearly blank façade, but Kotoha was almost beside herself in nervous anticipation. Mako knew it the moment Kotoha's eyes found Chiaki's.

Kotoha felt her heart stop for an instant before it restarted in double-time, flooding her with boundless energy. She immediately moved to start across the room but halted herself to look toward Kaoru, suddenly vastly unsure of how she was supposed to act, but the instant Kaoru nodded her assent, Kotoha was half-running and half-tripping across the room, all but launching herself into Chiaki's arms as he met her halfway. "Yes!"

"Yes what?" Chiaki's look of confusion caused Kotoha's grin to widen even further, lighting up the room like the sun.

"I'll marry you Chiaki," she clarified, laughing out loud at the look of astonishment on his face and the slow dawning realization.

"Really?"

Kotoha could only nod rapidly in answer.

Chiaki's response was immediate and exuberant as he pulled her in swiftly for a kiss, heedless of the audience around them.

Everyone in the room found it difficult to fight the smiles spreading across their faces even as they averted their eyes to give the couple some semblance of privacy.

"Shiraishi-san?" Kaoru called and Mako turned to find the young woman staring at her pointedly. All heads turned to follow Kaoru's gaze, making Mako itch from the many eyes fixated on her.

Mako took a deep steadying breath that calmed her nerves but did nothing to settle her racing heart as she turned back toward the room's occupants, locating his face almost instantly as if drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

Kaoru discreetly signaled for the room to empty itself, something Mako was intensely grateful for, reminding herself to thank the young woman for it later with the back of her mind as the forefront stayed focused on the man in front of her.

When the room was quiet, Kaoru herself closing the tent flap behind her, Mako finally approached Takeru where he stood just off-center of the room.

"Hi," she greeted quietly, breaking the silence that had threatened to expand between them.

Takeru nodded back to her, shifting his feet. It was taking all his restraint not to touch her, hold her, make sure she was really standing before him and not burnt to an unrecognizable shape amongst the ruins of what had once been her home.

After a few more moments of silence as the two watched the other, assessing any harm that they could glean from eyes alone, Mako finally moved closer, reaching out her hand to gently touch his neck, tracing the faint pink markings the slave collar had rubbed in.

"I guess the ointments didn't work as well as I'd hoped," Mako frowned, her brows furrowed. "It will take a few weeks for these to fade, if not longer."

Takeru caught her hand before she could pull it back and she started.

"Mako."

She looked up then, her eyes scared but searching, his full of regret and longing. Mako felt her eyes fill with unshed tears against her will, her carefully crafted mask slipping off so easily under his gaze.

"I didn't expect to survive," she admitted quietly. "I always thought I would die; I never made a plan for after – I couldn't."

His eyes watched her steadily and her chilled hand held onto his warm one like a lifeline.

"I could never plan a future for myself because I wasn't supposed to have one," she continued, feeling all her pent up fears and worries rushing out of her at once. "I wasn't supposed to fall in love; wasn't supposed to want to be with someone because there wasn't anywhere I would be. I –"

Mako was cut off swiftly as Takeru pulled her tightly to his chest, kissing her without a sound. She stiffened in surprise at first but relaxed into his warm, solid embrace as tears streamed down her face.

Takeru broke their kiss to press his lips to her forehead, her nose, her cheeks, anywhere he could reach to ensure himself that she was really there, in his arms, alive and largely unharmed.

Mako shivered from the heat his lips brought to her skin but also from the knowledge of what she had so nearly lost.

"When the palace went up in flames," he started, holding her close, afraid to let her go. "I thought…"

She held him closer to her in response.

"Mako, I love you." She froze, her eyes popping open, her limbs beginning to tremble and he reluctantly loosened his grip on her. "I know it's been nothing but lies, secrets and manipulations but –"

"Were the kisses real?"

Takeru paused, meeting her eyes with his.

"The touches?" She continued. "Did you feel the same fire I did? The same delight of a challenge during our games? The same guilt at what we hid but relief at what we shared?"

"Yes," Takeru's answer didn't waver or falter in the slightest.

Mako's smile was watery as she cupped his face in her hands, his own reaching up to cover hers, holding them in place as he relished in her touch. "I love you too," her voice was soft, just above a whisper and his eyes found hers once more. "I love you Takeru, not the prince, the prisoner, or the resistance leader, but my Agnitio partner, my protector, my friend." Her eyes were gentle, conveying all that she couldn't put into words. "I love you."

Takeru pulled her in close for another kiss and as before the sensation of time stopping, of wrapping them inside their own world, washed over them. The feeling of being safe, warm, protected and wanted stole over them both; that intangible feeling of knowing right where they belonged in the world.

In the heart of the other; the feeling of being home.

0~0~0~0

Love is friendship caught on fire.
It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving.
It is loyalty through good and bad times.
It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.


Final Author's Note: And that's all she wrote folks~! With this story I tie with my most-written chapters for a fanfic at nineteen chapters, but it has left behind all of them in word count which is rather exciting for me, truth be told. Although I still can't believe it's really over...

I loved writing every minute of this story. I can only hope that those who have followed it since I posted up the first chapter, those who joined along the way, and any who journey along after its completion find as much of a thrill in the tale as I did.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. ~MidnightRosebud