Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Captivity ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 2 - Captivity

A/N: This chapter sucks, both in content and writing quality.

--

It was incredibly frustrating, having to abandon their dragon forms outside the city and rely on wheels instead of wings to get them to where they so desperately needed to go. Perhaps if one of them could have driven, it might have been a little easier - but having to ride on subways, sitting still while their children waited for them, needed them....

"What do you think she meant?" Kaoru asked softly, leaning her head on his shoulder as they watched the night rushing by outside the windows.

"About something...other than the girls?"

"Mm."

He sighed and absently touched his sword, nestled out of sight in the carrying case beside him. "I don't know."

He did not know the specifics. Yet he had a cold feeling that Tomoe had not told him over the phone because it was information she could not afford to have overheard. For years, all of them had pretended that their every move was watched, their every word listened to. You never knew. Just because Yukishiro Enishi was behind bars did not mean that he had lost all his power. For years, the night skies had seemed to grow dim under the shadow of dark wings - even the humans were beginning to notice, and become uneasy.

The two of them ran swiftly and silently when they emerged onto the streets, paying no attention to the humans who looked up in astonishment at the blurred figures rushing past. The pavement echoed grudgingly under their feet; each mile was an obstacle between them and their daughters. They pressed on in grim determination.

Kaoru had already set foot on the first step up to the Kiyosatos' apartment when her husband laid a restraining hand on her arm. She looked back at him in surprise and anger. "Kenshin--"

"The door is open," he said quietly.

"So?!"

"Let me go up first."

She gave way a little sullenly, her eyes following him as he pulled out his sword, slid it into the belt of his faded jeans, and slowly ascended. Testingly, Kaoru sniffed the air, but could detect nothing out of the ordinary. Of course that didn't mean much...only true dragon-children like Ayame and Suzume could use their heightened senses in both forms. 'Kenshin,' she thought. 'Be careful.'

After what felt like an excruciatingly long wait, his voice drifted down to her. It sounded wrong. "Kaoru-dono. There is no one here."

Her heart pounding, Kaoru raced up the steps to join her husband in the empty apartment. Every light was on, but it was deathly quiet. A few objects here and there seemed to have been knocked out of place; clusters of moths were fluttering frantically around the light bulbs.

"T...Tomoe-san?" Kaoru called, wincing when her voice cracked. "Akira-san?" There was no answer, of course. Kenshin slowly moved into the kitchen, kneeling to touch something on the floor. "What is it?" Kaoru said in alarm. She went over to see that he had picked up a clump of auburn hair, and was clutching it in his fist so hard that his knuckles were white. "Kenshin--!"

"It's not mine," he whispered, his voice shaking with anger. "But the color is close."

A thought occurred to Kaoru, but she banished it immediately, pushed it far into the back of her mind and locked it away. It couldn't be. Surely there were other reasons why Tomoe and Akira might have a lock of dark red hair in their apartment...why Tomoe had refused to tell them anything until they were face to face-- "Kenshin," she croaked, her voice a sob.

His eyes were pulsing gold when he rose to his feet, and she covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. He would not be this angry unless....

"There has to be a message," he said in a voice of deadly calm. His hot eyes roved over the apartment until they settled on a DVD jewel case that had been left on the coffee table.

When the face, horribly familiar, flickered into view on the television screen, Kaoru choked back a gasp of rage and terror. Kenshin was silent. She didn't dare look at him.

"Well, hello there! If you're watching this, Battousai, then you've probably figured out by now what happened to your spawn...."

o.o.o.o.o

Kenji's mouth felt beyond gross...like he had been chewing gravel. His bleary eyes cracked open hopefully, but there was no water, even though this time he would have knowingly drunk a whole drugged bottle and been thankful. He squeezed his eyes shut again. "Please," he croaked. "Water." He did not want to see where he was, did not want to know if he could not move because he was just so tired, or because he was tied down.

A horribly familiar chuckle sounded above his head, and he shuddered before he could stop himself. 'It's not real,' he thought hopelessly. 'Please, please let it be just another nightmare....'

A nozzle was thrust between his lips, unleashing liquid into his parched throat. It was not water. It burned his mouth raw and left a rancid taste on his tongue that made him gag; he tried to spit it out, but there was suddenly pressure on his face and he couldn't breathe. Struggling wildly, he found that he was bound, and realized that he had to swallow or choke.

He could not stop coughing for a while, barely able to hold back tears of humiliation. Still he refused to open his eyes. He did not want to see what was coming for him, or who the people were, laughing so cruelly on all sides.

Suddenly he became aware of a sound that made him almost wish that he had not swallowed, that he had allowed himself to suffocate to death. This was no mere nightmare. None of his nightmares had included children's voices crying softly in the background. Kenji's hands clenched into fists as he listened. 'If you hurt them, I will kill you,' he thought, even as he felt his own powerlessness more keenly than ever.

"There's something I've been itching to try out," the hateful voice said above him. "Now don't look at me like that, Sis, it's just a minor cosmetic alteration this time." There was a pause, perhaps for a wordless demonstration. "What do you think? ... No opinion? Well, if you don't care, then you won't mind doing it with your own hands, right? Yeah, and you too, Akira! You can do it together, just like the wonderful little couple you are."

Tomoe's voice was quiet. "No."

"You're a sick man," an unfamiliar male voice added.

There was a long silence, and Kenji had to fight to keep his eyes closed. Somehow he succeeded, even when he heard Tomoe's gasp and then a horrible soft click. "I don't need both of the females alive, you know," Enishi said, very quietly. "In fact, I've been thinking of doing another dissection soon."

Kenji's eyes flew open, and he was immediately assaulted by the sight of his most feared and loathed enemy pointing a gun at his small sisters. "Don't you touch them!" he raged. "I'll kill you! I'll kill you!"

Enishi smiled, then lowered the weapon. Kenji's fists were clenched so hard that the nails bit painfully into his palms, but he was helpless to do more than glare.

The man picked up a red marker and reached for him; Kenji flinched and turned his face away, hating himself. "Other side, kid," Enishi said sweetly, wrenching the boy's head around hard enough to bruise. He drew two marks on Kenji's bared left cheek; Kenji tried to bite him, but the fingers deftly avoided injury. "Right there. Perfect." He turned and looked at someone beyond Kenji's line of vision. "You two - take the knives, and come here." There was a silence, and then he raised his gun in the direction of Ayame and Suzume again. "Now."

"Do it!" Kenji shouted. "Whatever he wants, do it!" He could not stand the thought of seeing one of those children bleeding and lifeless, of the other tormented like he had been, cut to pieces and doomed to nightmares. "Please," he begged, ashamed of the tears sliding down his cheeks. "Don't let him...."

It hurt, but he had endured much worse before. He kept his eyes closed so that he would not have to watch their faces as their trembling hands cut him.

o.o.o.o.o

The two of them sat huddled together, an immovable island of pain in the midst of the purposeful activity around them. Their faces were intimidatingly blank, their hands tightly clasped.

Saitô Hajime was irritably throwing around orders, machines and computers beeped and whirred, phones kept ringing. Enishi's old headquarters had been long destroyed, the surviving pieces scattered among his enemies for filing or study, but his newly-freed followers had lost no time in taking over a research facility. Now there was a whole complex full of captured scientists and staff to worry about in addition to the children.

Not that Kenshin and Kaoru were the worried ones. Saitô, whatever his other failings, seemed perfectly capable of handling the situation - and the other prisoners were not being held out of personal grudge.

"Excuse me...Himura-san?"

At last they stirred. Kenshin slowly turned dead amber eyes to the speaker; Kaoru raised her head from his shoulder and stared, her eyes red-rimmed. The woman standing before them was stunningly beautiful despite her expression, which was just as haggard as the Himuras'. "I am Takani Megumi," she said in a low voice. "I'm so glad to finally meet you...I wish it could have been under better circumstances."

"Takani-san," Kaoru said awkwardly as they rose to greet her. "We...we've been wanting to thank you, for taking care of him all this time."

Megumi looked down at her tightly folded hands. "It was only meant to be temporary, while we investigated the case and made a search for his relatives," she whispered. "But by the time it was determined that there was no one to claim him, he had become...very important to me." She looked at them earnestly. "Kenji is such a wonderful person, Himura-san. You will both be as proud of him as I am."

"Megumi-san," Kenshin said quietly. "I see no reason for there to be such formality between us."

Megumi's smile was sad. "I agree, Kenshin-san."

The waiting communication screen flickered to life exactly on schedule. Enishi's coldly handsome face appeared, grinning into a camera that he appeared to be holding himself. "Hello, Battousai."

"Give them back, now," Kenshin snarled, "or I will make you regret, by the time I have finished with you, that there is a vow to prevent your miserable life from ending."

"Oh, good," Enishi said cheerfully. "Looks like the communication setup works like a charm." He indicated the audio receiver tucked into his ear. "This is all live, and you'll be able to hear everything from my end - but don't try talking to your little darlings directly, 'cause I'm the only one who'll hear you."

The camera he held must have been small enough to clip to the front of his clothing, because the visuals suddenly shifted wildly before settling into the rhythm of Enishi's gait as he strolled along a corridor. There were no clues on the stark white walls; anything that might have indicated his location in the building had been removed. "Now, our first exhibit: the younger female, had a rough night but starting to recover." There was a pause as he tapped out a security code off screen, and then the door slid open to reveal a stark room with a small figure curled up on the floor.

"Enishi! What did you do to her?!"

o.o.o.o.o

Suzume was shivering convulsively, her skin as white as paper, a purplish tinge to her lips and around her glazed eyes. Her hair was lank with sweat; a dried crust had formed around her mouth. Her teeth chattered when Enishi approached, and her inaudible mumblings suddenly swelled with shrill panic. "I w-want my m-mommy, I want m-my daddy, I-I want...."

"Suzume!" they screamed. "Suzume!"

Ignoring them, he settled down on the floor next to her and affectionately stroked her hair back from her face, seeming not to notice when she cringed away. "Poor little thing. You feeling better, kid?"

"G-Go aw-way," she sobbed. "Neechan...Neechan...."

"Sorry hon, but she's got her own problems to worry about," he said, smiling. "Would you like some water?"

"M-My stomach h-hurts," she whimpered.

"I know it does," he said soothingly, uncapping a bottle of water and holding it to her chapped lips. "But look at it this way - thanks to you, we now know about how much kaerathol my pets can handle before it starts poisoning them."

o.o.o.o.o

"...Kaoru...will you stop me?"

"...Yes. Because I will kill him myself."

o.o.o.o.o

Enishi, nose wrinkled in disgust, carefully wiped his fingers with disinfectant before moving into the next room. Ayame, on her knees, was crying as she pried at the window with bloodied fingertips.

"Won't work," he told her cheerfully as he walked in. "It's bullet-proof, fire-proof, and definitely baby-dragon-proof. Though try all you want, it's amusing to watch."

She had whirled to face him and was fighting to get to her feet, but both legs were injured now and they buckled under her weight. "Where is my sister?" she screamed at him. "Give me back my sister! Don't you dare hurt my sister, you horrible, horrible man!"

He scooped her up, and she shrieked and struggled in his arms until he dumped her back in the middle of the room. "Better stay put this time, or I'll chain you. Wouldn't want those legs to heal wrong, would we?"

"I hate you!" she shouted at him.

He crouched down casually as if to see her better, and his hand fell to her leg to grip hard where it was bandaged. She screamed, trying to push him away. "All the more reason to convince Mommy and Daddy to get you out of here right away, hm?"

He let go and left her crying brokenly as he had done her sister. "Feisty one," he commented to his helpless, unseen audience as he cleaned his hands again. "I've been thinking of using her for some psychological testing...though of course, whether I'll get to it or not will be up to you." He clicked his tongue at the foul language streaming into his ear from the receiver. "Such a filthy tongue for a woman. You ought to do a better job keeping her in line, Battousai."

He paused at the third door. "I know you've been looking for this for a long time," he said quietly. "You can't imagine how happy I was when my prize specimen ended up back in my hands...the genesis of his filthy race, the failed savior of my poor sister." He grinned viciously. "Your spawn has repaid the debt for your sin, Battousai - some of it, anyway. Not until you and everything you've touched are in pieces, not 'til I see your broken corpse will my revenge be complete...but, heh. It's a start."

The room was poorly lit, completely empty except for the auburn-haired figure huddled in one corner, wrists and ankles locked into handcuffs. Enishi heard their agonized, sobbing breaths through the receiver, and he smiled. "Got to be careful with this one, he's more dangerous than the others." He went to crouch down near the boy, who seemed to shrink even further into himself. "Kenji," he said gently. "That's what you like to call yourself, isn't it?"

"N...no more," the ragged voice whispered. "P...Please...."

"Look up, Kenji. Look into the camera, let your mom and dad see your big pretty eyes."

Slowly, a haunted face emerged, bandaged on one side beneath glistening eyes. "Wh...What?"

Enishi smiled. "That's right - they're watching us now. They came for the little females and found out that I have you, too. Aren't you excited?"

The already strained breathing grew harsher. "A...Ayame...Suzume--"

"They're just fine," came the smooth answer. "As long as you keep doing everything you're told like a good boy, I promise I won't hurt them." The face dropped in defeat, and Enishi frowned. "Now wait a minute, we haven't checked how well you're healing yet."

Kenji cried out as the bandage was ripped off. He moved instinctively to protect his face, but his hands were pulled away so that the cross-shaped cuts bled in full sight. "Hm, doesn't look too bad," Enishi said critically, ignoring the cries in the receiver. "Pity. Looks like I'll have to go over them again."

Releasing the boy, who was shuddering with hatred, he unclipped the camera so that he could grin at his invisible audience. "Now look, I have a deal for you, Battousai. I'll give you one of your spawn back, absolutely free. Any of the three you want. No strings attached, this is just to prove you can trust me." He raised a finger coyly. "But only one of the brats, mind you. Don't get greedy. Now, take your pick, whichever one you like."

When the shouting died down again, Battousai's voice rose, clear and full of rage. "All of them, Enishi. You will restore all of our children to us immediately, and then you will prepare to face me."

"All of them?" Enishi gasped in mock-astonishment. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Battousai. For all the progress I've made, I haven't found a real solution yet, and I still need at least one of the original specimens for my work. As I said, though, I'd be happy to oblige you on one of the three. Face it, Battousai, you're going to have to do things my way - you can't break through in time to stop me. Going into beast mode to smash the whole place would only put your spawn at risk, and as for trying to burn me--"

Kenji pushed at him, weakly but determinedly. "Get...away from me."

Enishi stared at him for a minute. Then his face twisted into a mask of rage; he seized the boy's head and struck it hard against the floor. Then again, and again, until he finally became aware of the mother's screams. "Suzume! Suzume! Give her back to me, give me back my baby, I'm choosing, I'm choosing, don't hurt my babies!"

Slowly, and it was very difficult, Enishi released his hold on the boy, who lay as if dead. Then, gathering himself, he climbed heavily to his feet and left the room.

o.o.o.o.o

Kaoru lay curled up in the darkness, crying and crying even though her eyes ached from having cried for so long, from the moment she had seen Suzume again. The soft starlight, the gentle swishing of the leaves over her head, the soothing drone of night insects, all seemed to make a mockery of her grief and rage. She clutched her arms around herself because she could not hold her youngest child, who lay fighting the poison in her system in the hospital room above. Neither Kaoru nor her husband could be at their daughter's side in this state, both full of emotions too wild to control.

Kaoru blinked her wet eyes and listened to the crashing sounds coming from the parking lot, sounds that would be drawing unwanted attention very soon. He could smash Saitô's car to shrapnel; she could cry until she went blind; it was not going to bring their other children back.

When silence finally fell, Kaoru slowly got to her feet and shuffled through the rows of cars until she found him. He had dropped to hands and knees amidst the destruction, his fists clenched, his hair spilling wildly over his back. She went to kneel beside him, watching his shoulders heave with ragged breaths.

"I need...a real sword," he finally whispered. "Not that...useless...thing." She looked around until she thought she saw it on the pavement some distance off, a glimmer of moonlight on the sakabatô that he must have finally hurled away in his frustrated wrath.

Now she reached to touch him, and he suddenly surged up and seized her, crushing her in his arms. More tears leaked down her face as she held him, feeling the rigidity of his trembling body, his slow sobs tearing at her ears. In the century and a half she had known him, she could count on one hand the number of times she had seen him cry.

For a long time they held each other, weeping and grief-stricken. Finally Kaoru whispered to him, "Kenshin...I need to see her again."

He drew in a shuddering breath and slowly let her go, pressing his hands over his face. After a long moment he finally nodded. She tried to get up but he rose first, silently reaching down a hand. She took it and let him help her to her feet.

As they approached the hospital room again, Saitô Hajime stepped out and glanced over at them. There was a long pause. Then he fished for a cigarette and said nonchalantly as he put it to his lips, "If she's anything like her brother, she'll beat this."

"Thank you," Kaoru said, her voice wooden. This man had watched over her son in the past, just as he had come to check on Suzume now - when he should have been back with his men, keeping an eye on Yukishiro Enishi. Years ago, this man had also been the reason that Kenji had slipped from their grasp when they were so close to finding him.

"Saitô."

Saitô gave Kenshin an inquiring look, obviously impatient to leave the building so he could have a quick smoke before returning to work.

There was no apology in Kenshin's voice. "I had to find something. Yours was the only one."

Saitô went very still.

"Don't worry, I'll reimburse you."

For a long moment they held each other's eyes; one challenging, the other furious. Then, without a word, Saitô stalked past them and on down the corridor.

Megumi looked up when they entered the room. "She's still sleeping," she assured them in a tired voice. "You didn't miss anything."

"Thank you," Kaoru whispered. She touched Suzume's pale, clammy cheek, and did not look at Kenshin, for she could see that his fists were clenched.

"She is doing better," Megumi told them. "Most of the poison has been purged from her system, and with the kind of care she is getting here, I am sure she'll make a full recovery in time."

"Thank you," Kaoru said again.

She lifted her eyes and looked quietly at Kenshin until he finally repeated in a tight voice, "Thank you, Megumi-san."

Megumi nodded and rose silently to leave, allowing them to keep their vigil in peace.

o.o.o.o.o

"We had a shoot-out last night," Saitô told them. "We lost one of our men, three others were wounded; we hit a few of theirs, too. It'll be a tough defense to penetrate."

"I can get in," Kenshin said flatly.

"If it was just a matter of 'getting in,' I could do it in my sleep," Saitô said disgustedly. He had never said a word about the car. "What are you going to do when you do get in - hack your way through an army, only to find that your enemy has had time to have the children moved? There are other factors here, Himura. Nearly a hundred hostages for one thing, plus the fact that my men aren't as equipped as you are to deal with...shape-shifters."

His lip curled in clear disgust at the idea of warriors who could suddenly sprout fangs, claws, and wings at will...not to mention breathe fire. "I'm in charge of the Yukishiro case this time," he muttered under his breath. "If he weasels his way out of another death sentence, I'll kill him myself." No one questioned whether or not a policeman should be saying something like that.

Kenshin had been turning the sakabatô over and over in his hands, staring at the blade, watching the sharp edge revolve in and out of the light. When Saitô had finished speaking, he looked up and said again, with no change in tone, "I am getting in. And then I am coming out again with my children."

Saitô looked at him with narrowed eyes. "If I lose a single one of my men or a single hostage to your stupidity, I'll have your head."

Kenshin bowed silently and turned away.

o.o.o.o.o

"I have another deal for you, Battousai. You can have another one of the little brats back - in exchange for your mate."

"What?" he snarled.

"Done."

"Kaoru!"

She turned to him with sapphire eyes that were fully a match for his blazing gold. "Do you trust me?" she asked with her hands.

He paused, his eyes following the sign language that only the two of them understood. Then he raised his own hands and signed back, "There's an army of them, the children could get hurt, you could get hurt, your transformation is nothing like theirs--"

She held her hands as if gripping a sword in front of her heart. "Kenshin."

Hands, fingers, and arms danced patterns in the air, more and more swiftly until the room seemed to pulse with their silent conversation. Both were glaring. More than once, they signed so furiously at each other simultaneously that one or the other would make a violent cutting gesture: "Shut up and let me finish!"

Finally there was a pause, as they went still and stared tensely at each other. Then Kenshin suddenly dropped his hands and closed his eyes. "Yes," he whispered.

Kaoru turned to the communication screen, where Enishi waited with a suspicious frown. "When you give us Ayame - I will come to you willingly."

"You are not in a position to demand the first move of me."

She held his eyes, her gaze hard. "Fine. Kenshin will be watching. If you go back on your word, he'll torch you."

"You think you're so smart, that your darlings won't come to harm if you try to set me on fire. In case you've forgotten, my pets are fire-proof, too, and have orders to destroy the brats immediately if anything like that should happen to me."

Kaoru grinned menacingly, even as she felt herself trembling at the thought of the danger her children were in. "I'm sure you'll enjoy gloating in hell."

"As long as that monster next to you ends up there with me, I don't care."

The flatness of his voice gave her chills, as she realized that he utterly believed what he said. The life of Yukishiro Enishi had crumbled away, until all that was left was a burning desire for the destruction of her family. She leaned gratefully into the weight of Kenshin's hand as he gripped her shoulder.

"But honestly, why are we even talking about this? I kept my word last time, didn't I? Just hold up your end of the deal, and everything will be fine."

o.o.o.o.o

Some discomfort, but no real pain. Mostly boredom. To Kaoru's fury, this is what she experienced at the hands of her enemies, after her children had suffered so horribly.

To distract herself from the intense desire to tug at the restraints, she tried craning to see what was on the computers. Strings of unintelligible text, graphs; more than one set, perhaps comparisons. Enishi had obviously been frustrated for some time, though everyone else in the room was utterly silent except when speech was unavoidable. Occasionally they would come over to do another scan or fluid draw or something, or make her do stupid stuff like repeat her husband's name over and over again as they tensely studied instrument readouts.

Enishi finally whirled and flung the newest results across the room, shouting profanity. "Why isn't it working?! Same sex, similar physical age development, so why--" He suddenly turned back to Kaoru, his eyes burning. "It's because you're different, isn't it. That's why. You and your foul mate are in a class completely on your own. It was a mistake to bring you here. You're useless."

Kaoru glared back silently.

Enishi stalked in a circuit around the room, then suddenly halted and gestured sharply. "Bring her in. We might as well try."

Tomoe was led in, one arm respectfully but firmly gripped. Her eyes did not so much as flicker in Kaoru's direction as she sat down and folded her hands in her lap.

Enishi strode over and leaned in very close. "Hello, Sis."

"Hello, Enishi," she said in a low voice.

"Don't be upset. I'm not going to hurt you."

"...."

"Listen to me!" He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him; his own expression was intense, distressed. "I would never, ever hurt you. Don't you trust me? Just sit still and cooperate, and everything will be okay. I promise."

Her eyes were steady as she gazed into her brother's face. "Enishi, nothing will be all right if you continue in this madness. I have made peace with what I am. I am happy - or I would be, if you would let me. But you have already hurt me more than words can express."

For a long time he said nothing. Then he slowly let her go and backed away, his eyes still fixed on hers. His voice was flat as he said, "That's not my sister talking." He turned away, snapping at his men, "Hook it up."

Kaoru wanted to scream with impatience, it took so long for Tomoe to finally glance in her direction. Kaoru determinedly kept her eyes fixed on the other woman until finally, Tomoe looked at her for a moment, then away.

"No!" Everyone paused to look at her in surprise, except for Enishi, who worked on as if she had not spoken. 'Tomoe-san,' Kaoru thought, wishing so much that she could communicate mind-to-mind. However, something in the restraints was preventing her from transforming, and it would have been of no use anyway unless Tomoe shifted as well. 'This is not working out as well as I'd hoped....'

At last Tomoe was looking at her, absently brushing aside the cords of the sensors that had been attached to her. Her lips were forming silent words: "I'm sorry."

Kaoru hesitated. The two guards were dragons, but they were in the hall, focused on keeping watch. Perhaps they would not notice. She took in a breath, then made a soft little chirp. It was the closest human approximation she could get to the dragon verbal signal for "nightfall."

Tomoe's eyes widened.

"Shut up, will you?"

Kaoru quickly looked over at Enishi, who was glaring at her in annoyance.

"You get too irritating and I'll gag you." He turned back to the computers, not really interested.

When everyone's backs were turned again, Kaoru gestured rudely at him with her fingers. Then she shook her head and looked back at Tomoe, who gave the slightest of nods before whispering a single word: Akira.

o.o.o.o.o

Kenshin started when the communication screen suddenly fizzed back to life. He stared. It was that dark cell again--

When he realized what was happening, he became riveted, hands clutching the screen's frame so hard that it began to crack, his eyes blazing helplessly with rage and horror.

o.o.o.o.o

Why was there a communication feed in her cell? Kaoru stared as Enishi's image on the screen glanced at her, expression oddly serious, saying nothing. Then he clipped the little camera onto his shirt again and entered the cell of her captive child.

o.o.o.o.o

"Hi there, Kenji. So you're finally awake, huh?"

The boy glared and edged away. Enishi strode forward and seized him to haul him up; Kenji fought back until his captor practically crammed some crumbling bit of food into his mouth. Kenji was hungry enough by now to choke it down immediately, knowing from experience that it was usually best to eat whatever he was given. At least some of the time it was no more than token bits of nourishment to keep his soul connected to his body.

"Talked to your mom and dad earlier," Enishi said casually.

Kenji was silent.

"What? Not interested?" He held out another morsel, just out of reach.

"I'm interested," Kenji mumbled. "Whatever you want." The food came closer. He tried to seize it before it was shoved down his throat, but was not quite quick enough. He was choking too hard to hear the beginning of Enishi's next words.

"...but they didn't want you."

Kenji coughed, trying to work up enough saliva to make the last crumbs slide down his throat.

"Isn't that sad?"

"What?"

"I offered them the chance to save you, but in the end they didn't want you."

Kenji held very still, trying not to comprehend the words.

Enishi pulled out a fresh plum. Kenji stared at it, not believing his eyes at first, but then Enishi raised it to his teeth and tore away a small chunk. A heavenly scent wafted up; Kenji's mouth flooded with saliva and he actually felt tears filling his eyes.

"That's right. I made a bargain with them. I told them they could have their children back. They chose Suzume. They chose Ayame. But they didn't choose you."

Kenji was only half listening. He was staring very hard at the plum in Enishi's hand. Then, miraculously, it was brought invitingly close. This time Kenji was allowed to snatch it up and eat it at his own pace, which was not much slower but at least didn't cause choking. The cool, sweet flesh slid down his throat, but this time he could hardly swallow for the sobbing. It tasted so good. He had never, ever tasted anything this good in his life before. That was why he was crying.

"I suppose it's my fault. You know, cutting you up and all. Damaging you. Really, I didn't want to, but it's so hard keeping a specimen intact when it's the only genuine one I've got! You understand, don't you?"

Kenji could tell that Enishi was in the right mood for begging to have an effect, so he begged. "Please. Please, I'm so hungry...."

There was an angry pause, and Kenji went cold as he thought for a moment that he had miscalculated. Yet not quite, for he was given a tiny morsel of bread, which he instantly devoured.

"Are you even listening to me?" came the soft, dangerous question.

Give him what he wants. "My parents don't love me," he whimpered. "They abandoned me." He was rewarded with the rest of the loaf, which he ripped into like the starved animal he felt like.

"Ah." The note of smug realization sent shivers down Kenji's back. "I see. It's that woman - Megumi, isn't it."

He nearly lost control then. "Don't--!" Shut up, shutupshutupshutup.

"Yes." The voice was a purr now. "That's it. You never really believed that Mommy and Daddy loved you in the first place. But it's all right, 'cause there's always good old Megumi, the backup plan, waiting in the wings with open arms. Right?"

The fury was surging through him, he couldn't hold it back much longer. He had to stop it before it made him misstep in this sick game that he had hoped never to play again. "Megumi's...nothing. Government dog. Her job to study me, that's all." Detach, belittle. Make worthless what is precious; take away its power to harm. "At least she fed me."

Enishi sighed in mock-sympathy. "Very true. Sounds like she meant a lot to you. Too bad she's dead."

His knees buckled then. He was too shocked to even notice that Enishi caught him and lowered him gently until they were both sitting on the ground. "Poor little Kenji. I hate to break it to you, but it's true."

"You...killed her." The rage was surging up again. It suddenly occurred to him, not for the first time, that maybe he could just let it take him, that maybe he could attack this monster like he so longed to. Then Enishi would kill him, and this nightmare would end...right?

"Of course I didn't!" The pretend-shock alone made Kenji want to punch him. "How could you think such a thing of me?"

"HOW DID SHE DIE????" Kenji screamed. 'Cool it, don't let him get to you, he's lying, he's a liar...please let him be lying, oh please, Megumi I need you, I need you so bad...Saitô...please, help me....'

Enishi was shaking his head. "Such a shame. Freak accident, nothing to do with us, incredibly enough. I admit I did send a few beasts over to capture her, thought maybe she'd be useful since you were stupid enough to make her yet another of your weaknesses...but the whole place was already burned down when they got there."

'Burned,' Kenji thought thickly. 'House, burned.' He would not think about Megumi, her beautiful face twisted into screams, charred black and unrecognizable. 'Burned...the whole house? Had he been inside or outside?' "Kat--" Shut up.

"What was that? Oh! The dog, right?"

'I'll kill you.'

"Poor mutt. Yeah, it's sad when they get trapped in the house like that. We found 'em together. That's a consolation, you know? That the faithful hound died trying to save its master? Heh, master's fake mom, whatever." The false sweetness was beginning to crumble, the glee starting to leak through.

'I'll kill you I'll kill you I'll kill you.' He had to be lying. He had to be.

"It was a wooden beam that killed them. Landed right on her effing head, crushed the little beast's paw.

Crushed his paw--

No one knew the truth about that except Megumi, and perhaps Saitô. No one would have known that Katana was lame unless they'd...seen him.

Kenji snapped. Screaming mindlessly in grief and rage, he turned on his tormentor with sudden fangs and claws, but of course he was still bound and had no chance. The blow that took him out was vicious.

"Overdid it," Enishi snapped in annoyance, absently wiping at the blood trickling down his face as he looked at the boy's still figure on the floor. "Oh well. Good game while it lasted, kid - seven years of fresh air did you good. Looking forward to the next." He kicked the prone body in salute and left.

o.o.o.o.o

Night had fallen again when Kenshin smelled her rush of adrenaline and knew that it was time. There was a query in her scent, and he sifted through the thousand smells again to confirm that Kenji was far enough away to be safe. He lifted his head and roared the "yes" signal, keeping an eye on the nervous enemy sentries. Bullets could not pierce through most of his scaled armor, but dragons were still not entirely invulnerable.

The sentries soon had something else to worry about when a whole chunk of the building exploded from failure to contain a creature suddenly several times too big for it. Kenshin winced, hoping that she was not too badly hurt, but she did not seem any slower than normal when she howled a dragon war-cry to the sky and then moved purposefully along the building, scenting for something. "Are you all right?" he asked anyway.

"I'm fine," she answered impatiently. Her diamond-hard claws punched through walls which were not designed to withstand such a sharp, focused assault. Then she seemed to vanish, breaking their brief mind-to-mind contact.

'Kaoru-dono,' he thought in frustration. Her human form was far more weak and vulnerable...though she was now a much more difficult target for, as an example, the guards who were now frantically shooting at him. The impact of the bullets on his scales stung a little, and he shifted his attention with a sigh. He had a job of his own to do, namely getting Saitô off his back about the hostages.

Meanwhile, Kaoru and the newly freed Akira were running through shuddering corridors, making their way to where Kaoru assumed Kenji was being held. Each set of panicked-looking guards they ran into was an infuriating holdup, and she envied Akira his easy ability to shift only partially, to enhance his fighting skills without the inconvenience of enlarging his size.

Kaoru felt a little better when she weapons in her hands, looted from downed enemies, but she was dismayed when Akira shot out the lock on a door and yanked it open to reveal - Tomoe, standing at the window of a pleasantly-furnished room. For a second the two women stared at each other, and then they opened their mouths at the same time.

"Where's Kenji?!"

"Where is Kenji-san?"

Akira hurried inside, spreading his arms. "Tomoe-san, you're safe," he said gladly, starting to embrace her.

She stepped away, her eyes narrowed. "Why did you come here first?"

"I'm getting you out of here," he said firmly. "Did you think I would save myself and leave you in danger?"

"Kenji-san needs us," she said, and moved swiftly out of the room.

o.o.o.o.o

The ground was shaking. Kenji shivered and squeezed his limbs as close against himself as he could. He was so cold...his stomach ached from hunger, and it was getting harder and harder to deny how afraid he was. He listened to the huge noises that had started up outside, mingling with distant shouts. The wall at his back was trembling, as if in an indecisive earthquake.

The door opened with a soft shushing sound, a shaft of light piercing through the gloom. Kenji moved his arms instinctively to cover his head. He cringed in shame to hear himself whimpering, and pressed his lips together hard to silence it.

The person who addressed him had a sweet, polite voice. "Hello, Himura Kenji-san."

"Who are you?" he whispered. He shuddered when he felt something drop over his shoulders - a robe. He clutched at it in relief, desperate for its warmth.

Someone was tugging at his feet. Kenji sucked in a breath and started to pull away - but then realized, to his shock, that the handcuffs were being unlocked; for the first time in what felt like ages, he was able to stretch his legs. It hurt, and he bit back a cry of pain. Raising his head, he dared to look at this angel of mercy for the first time, and saw a young face, with a sweet boyish smile and eyes that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "Who are you?" he demanded again.

"My name is Seta Sôjirô," the boy said pleasantly. "Please give me your hands, Himura-san, and I will free them as well."

Shaking, Kenji extended his wrists and watched almost in disbelief as Sôjirô released them from the handcuffs. He fingered the chafe marks on his skin, flinching a little when his rescuer reached to tie up his hair and pull the robe's hood over his head. "We don't want anyone recognizing you," Sôjirô explained. "Now come along, we need to leave as quickly as we can. Things are getting interesting out there."

Gently, he took hold of Kenji's hands and pulled him to his feet. Kenji cried out as his legs buckled under him; Sôjirô quickly pulled Kenji's arm across his shoulders and slipped his own supporting arm around the boy's waist. "Lame, Takani," Kenji grumbled at himself under his breath.

"Can you walk if I help you, Himura-san?"

"Barely," he ground out, gingerly trying to force his legs to support his own weight.

"It's all right, Himura-san," the other boy said soothingly. "We can take it slowly. As long as we keep moving, we will be all right."

The light was blinding, after so long in the dark. He had to shut his eyes and trust Sôjirô to lead him for a while. They shuffled on through alarms and through clumps of running, shouting men, as the building continued to shake ominously with increasing frequency. Occasionally there was a tremendous crash, the sounds far away but growing closer. Then, just when Kenji was getting used to the light and was able to start cracking his eyes open, the power went out.

Plunged into sudden darkness again, Kenji let out an involuntary shriek, then turned his face away and stammered, "S-Sorry."

"It's all right, Himura-san," Sôjirô assured him, scanning the ceiling overhead with a little frown. "I have my own apologies to make, anyway. I need to set you down for a moment."

"What?" The word jerked desperately out of his mouth as Kenji tightened his hold. "You're not leaving, are you?"

"Just for a second," Sôjirô said soothingly. "Just sit down and rest for a moment, Himura-san. I'll be right back."

"Please," Kenji begged, but Sôjirô paid no attention, carefully sitting him down against a wall. "Now please stay there, Himura-san, so that I will be able to find you again easily."

"Don't go...."

Sôjirô was gone. Kenji shivered, and for a moment he sat there in the darkness with his arms around himself, as if he had never been freed. Then he drew in a deep breath and reached for the wall to guide him as he fought to get to his feet. He swayed there for a moment, but his legs held him this time. "I'm not a baby," he whispered to himself. "I will do this."

A sudden burst of shouting down the hallway startled him, and he slapped his hand over his mouth to stifle a yelp. A fierce battle cry tore the air, there was a sound of metal striking flesh - then hurrying footsteps in the sudden silence.

Terror coursing through him, Kenji searched for something to defend himself with from the coming threat, and his fingers closed over a length of smooth metal, perhaps a broken pipe or someone's dropped weapon. Grasping it tightly, he turned back to the approaching enemy and choked down a cry - two points of golden light were glowing in the darkness, like the eyes of a tiger; there was the clink of a weapon held at the ready. "NO!!!" Kenji shouted, and charged at the terrifying figure.

A voice hissed out of the darkness, low and tight with fury. "Get out of my way."

Blinding pain exploded across Kenji's chest; he was slammed aside like a doll and felt his head crack sickeningly against the wall. He slid helplessly to the floor. The last thing he heard before he lost consciousness was a single word, muttered in disgust as his attacker strode past.

"Pathetic."

o.o.o.o.o

Kaoru resisted the urge to round on the Kiyosatos and savage them when they found Kenji's cell empty. "Where is he?!" she screamed.

They both seemed to be at a loss. "He should have...been here," Akira fumbled. Tomoe closed her eyes and moved her head slightly. The olfactory interference from the damaged building made it more difficult, but her impression of Kenji had been strong. If he was anywhere nearby, she would be able to trace him.

"Look for his scent!" Kaoru shouted, unable to do so herself in human form and not realizing that Tomoe had already begun to search.

"I'll try," Akira said, "but this place is falling apart and it might be hard--" He glanced at his wife in surprise when she spoke.

"He is still in the building. He is with...that boy?" She frowned, and did not voice her anxiety. Instead she added, "Kenshin-san is near. He must have taken care of things outside and has now come for you and the child."

Kaoru raked a hand through her long bangs in frustration, now having two family members' safety to worry about.

Meeting up with Kenshin took longer than it should have, because they ran into two blocked off corridors and at least five groups of frightened, furious guards whom they had to fight. It did not help matters that Kaoru, with her human eyes, could barely see where they were going until the lights finally buzzed weakly to life again, flickering threateningly. Tomoe seemed to be uncharacteristically frustrated by the detours and delays, even when they rounded a corner and nearly collided with one of the people they were searching for. "Kenshin!"

"Kaoru-dono!"

"Did you find him?!"

"No, did you?!"

"We have to keep moving," Tomoe told them urgently. "I cannot find a straight path to them."

"Who's 'them'?" Kenshin asked sharply.

She hesitated for a moment. "Kenji-san, and the one who let him out."

o.o.o.o.o

Kenji woke up in pain, but he was too used to this for it to take up much of his attention. He was being carried on someone's back, a someone who apparently sensed his awakening and stopped. "Are you all right, Himura-san?"

"...Chest hurts," he mumbled, then winced. "'M okay."

"Really?" Sôjirô said with gentle skepticism. "I've heard that Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryû attacks can be pretty rough."

"Hiten...what?"

"Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryû. Your father's sword style. I'm pretty sure that your injury was from a Ryûkansen...though it's odd that he would attack you like that. I wouldn't have thought it of him."

Kenji considered passing out again, just to escape and make it all go away...but that would be a stupid, cowardly thing to do. Not like it mattered, anyway. "Whatever," he mumbled. "My parents hate me. Didn't want me. I don't care." He drew in a shaky breath. "Where are we?" he asked, trying to get down.

Sôjirô complied and then answered, "We need to get as far away as we can before the order comes in. Please bear with me, Himura-san."

Kenji blinked gratefully around at the homely sight of closed shops and parked cars on a quiet moonlit street, and followed his guide without protest.

o.o.o.o.o

"Himura," a voice crackled from the communicator at Kenshin's belt, making them all jump. "Where are you? The hostages are all out, except the ones who belong to you."

"Kaoru-dono is with me. Where is my son?" Kenshin snarled back at Saitô.

"How should I know? Weren't you the one who was supposed to find him when you insisted on charging in?"

"He's been moved, we think he might not be in the building anymore...." Kenshin forgot to finish, because his eyes had fallen on Tomoe and he saw her suddenly tense. For one second she stood as if listening. Then her eyes widened. Just as she began to turn, just when Kenshin had reached out with his senses and realized what she was reacting to, several half-transformed dragons came barreling around the corner.

Tomoe raised her arm, there were shouts from Kaoru and Akira - and then all three of them were gone. Kenshin, finding himself alone in the corridor, shouted furiously and charged after them. Even in his human form he was terrifyingly fast, but they were hybrids, and a match for him in speed; in addition to that they had the element of surprise and the benefit of being able to see better in the guttering light. He barely even registered which direction the Kiyosatos were taken in when the dragons carrying them suddenly split up, since all his attention was focused on Kaoru.

"Let me go!" she was shouting. "Let go of me, before I knock your stupid heads off!" They rounded a corner and he lost sight of them; he put on a burst of speed and found himself slamming out into the open night. "Kaoru!" he shouted.

"Kenshin!"

He ran toward her voice, plunged straight through a row of hedges and found her on the other side. "They disarmed me before I could even blink!" she yelled angrily. He dashed up to her and slung her behind him, swirling frantically as he searched for her abductors. "They're gone," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Kenshin--"

He whirled back to her and for a moment they held each other tightly. Then he pulled back so he could see her face. "What happened?"

"I don't know - one minute they were dragging me off, then I managed to get in a few good shots and they dropped me...but I don't think I hit them that hard."

"Adrenaline?" he mumbled distractedly, already turning his gaze back to the building. "Kenji's still--"

The world was thunder, and fire.

o.o.o.o.o

Two people were waiting for them next to an idling car: Enishi, and a short man wearing a business suit and a long coat.

"Enishi," Akira spat as they were dragged up. "Enough with your games. Let us go, now."

"Neesan," Enishi said conversationally, "aren't you grateful that I remembered to save your mate, too? I just hope he shuts his annoying mouth soon, or this sword might get antsy." He patted the ornate hilt of his ancient but still deadly weapon.

Akira, red-faced, opened his mouth for a retort, but Tomoe spoke first. "Sadojima-san," she said quietly, "what does your master have to do with all this?"

Sadojima Houji shrugged. "We're interested in the boy. It seems that if we have him, we won't need the rest of his family after all. Yukishiro-san has agreed to cooperate for now, since our interests have something in common."

Tomoe felt cold. "Enishi?"

He shrugged. "I've got plenty of data from the females to work with for now, and they want the Himura brat for stuff that makes just as good a revenge as anything I could do to him. As long as you're safe and he's not, I could care less."

"Enishi!"

"Put them in the car," Houji ordered, then pulled out a communicator. "Are we all out?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Houji flipped a switch, altering the signal. "Sôjirô."

"Hello, Houji-san. Is it time?" came the boy's cheerful inquiry through the static.

"We're all clear. Punch it."

"As you command."

o.o.o.o.o

Kenji watched curiously as Sôjirô replaced the communicator. "What's going on?"

"Just a moment, Himura-san." Sôjirô pulled out what looked something like a remote and casually pressed a button.

"What's that do?" Kenji asked suspiciously. As Sôjirô smiled, Kenji jumped at a sudden distant boom, and he looked back the way they had come to see fire and smoke blackening the night sky. "What did you just do?!"

"Let's go, Himura-san."

"Where are you taking me?" Kenji demanded. "And quit calling me Himura! I'm Takani!" His throat instantly tightened as he remembered about Megumi, that the only mother he had ever known was dead. He did not have a home to go back to anymore. He was...lost.

"I am taking you to my master," Sôjirô said quietly. "Unlike Yukishiro-san, my master recognizes your true value, and will not mistreat you. Will you come willingly?"

"Do I have a choice?" Kenji said sullenly.

"About the fact that you are coming with me? No," Sôjirô answered easily. "About the method of conveying you, yes."

Kenji closed his eyes, his hands curled into fists. Sôjirô waited. Finally Kenji opened his eyes again and nodded. Sôjirô smiled. "Very well, then. Come - it will not do for me to take on my dragon's form here. We still have some way to go."

o.o.o.o.o

She must have blacked out for a few moments, because she woke up feeling as if she was suffocating. Coughing desperately, Kaoru peered through watering eyes and saw nothing but burning wreckage, smoke choking the air, and Kenshin on his knees close by, staring at the aftermath of the explosion in utter shock. "Ken--"

She could not speak. It burned her throat and set her coughing again, the taste of smoke filling her mouth. Her ears were ringing...the shouts of people in the distance were very faint, the sound of the flames was hushed. Kaoru reached urgently to grasp Kenshin's arm. He flinched and whirled as if to attack, but checked himself in time. For a minute they stared at each other, tears streaming from eyes that were irritated by the thick smoke.

Except that he was sobbing, too.

"Kenshin!" She spoke with her hands, because it hurt too much to use her voice. "Kenshin, where is Kenji?" Why was she asking when she already knew the answer?

His hands seemed so heavy as he signed back, "Gone."

"Gone?!" The word, cried out in shock, sent her choking again. She felt his hands on her as she struggled to recover-- His hands were shaking. It terrified her. "What do you mean, 'gone'?!"

They locked eyes for a long moment. His were unfocused, not fully recovered from facing the explosion. She couldn't understand his gestures - "building," "out," "not." Then, unmistakably, "Dead."

"NO!" she screamed. "NO! NO!!!" Wracked with agony in her tortured throat, she dropped to her hands and knees and coughed up trails of acid saliva. Her mouth felt filthy. He reached for her again, meaning to comfort; she flinched when one of his tears dropped onto the back of her hand. She furiously slammed her fist into his chest. 'Kenji...no...my first child, gone like all the others...I never got to hold him...he thought we-- he thought we didn't--'

"NOOOO!!!"

o.o.o.o.o

"He doesn't look like much."

Kenji glared, forcing himself to uphold his fake-relaxed pose. Sôjirô had brought him to something like an underground labyrinth that had been hidden beneath a seemingly-abandoned old house in the middle of nowhere. It was a fitting cave for the ultimate dragon - if Shishio Makoto was really up to all these people's bragging. Kenji now stood under the gaze of many eyes, most of them contemptuous, wondering wistfully if there was any way he could have avoided this situation.

"His father does not look very impressive at first glance either, Shishio-san," Sôjirô pointed out cheerfully.

"Hm." The heavily-bandaged figure rose and approached. Kenji held his head high and glared as he was inspected, feeling like he was about to be sold off or something. "You don't look so impressive yourself, Mr. Band-Aids," he muttered.

The man leisurely came back around and paused. He was very close. "Pardon?"

The voice was soft, but it sent fear prickling up and down Kenji's spine. He struggled to control his breathing and finally said, "Who're you to talk about other people's looks?" He steeled himself for a blow, vowing to show no emotion, but the scarred man merely smiled before turning away in apparent disinterest. "True."

In the next second he had flashed back, suddenly with a sword in his hand that Kenji just had time to register before finding himself facedown on the floor. Furiously, aching from the blunt strike, he pushed himself back to his feet. Someone thrust a weapon into his own hand, and he gripped it without thinking. This was a real sword, and the heavy steel dragged back at him sullenly, but he attacked anyway.

He could see almost at once that it was no use. Amazing as his kendo progress had been, he had not been training long enough to match this man, and he was not used to wielding a deadly weapon anyway. Shishio was stronger and vastly more experienced. Kenji managed to land a single glancing blow, not even enough to draw blood. One or two of the bandages parted, but that was all; then Kenji's world shrank down to pain and a deep, agonizing humiliation. In the end it was a relief to pass out and escape the mocking laughter.

o.o.o.o.o

Their bodies formed a warm nest, the last of their precious children nestled within the circle of their protection. The girls were curled into each other, Ayame with a wing spread to cover her sister. They lay silently, Ayame clutching her father's hand as he stroked her hair with the other, Suzume wrapped in her mother's arms.

Kenshin's voice was low and soothing, barely seeming to break the quiet. "What was he like?"

"Ken-nii was brave," Suzume asserted at once, as if she had been longing to say it. Yet the loudness of her own voice startled her, and she hid her face.

"He was very brave," Ayame whispered. "He protected us just like you, Daddy." She paused, then said in a voice that trembled, "When they were cutting his face, he didn't even cry." She could not see her mother's expression, because Kaoru had covered her face, but Ayame saw her body shaking with silent sobs, and it frightened her. "...Mommy...?"

"Your mother is very sad," Kenshin whispered.

Ayame could hear the tears in his voice. "We're all very sad," she said, and they cried together for a while.

After a long time, when Ayame could talk without her words sounding like rocks that had been crushed to gravel in her throat, she folded her wings and turned around so that she could see her father's face. She had to move slowly and carefully, because her legs still hurt. "Daddy?" She didn't mean to, but she was shivering. "Daddy...are me and Suzume going to die, too? Just like--" Just like the others, she had meant to say. Just like all the other brothers and sisters, both the ones she had never known and the ones she had. She could not finish speaking, though, because the look on her father's face...the way his eyes were suddenly blazing--

She yelped when she felt a hand grip her shoulder, and squirmed around frantically until she saw that it was her mother. The movements made the ache in her legs flare up again. "Ayame," her mother told her in a furious voice, fury at all the bad things that kept trying to hurt them. "You will not die. You will not die. You and Suzume will live."

Their father's strong arm came around them, like a shield. "You will live." His voice was softer, but filled with no less conviction. "We will fight with all our strength so that Ayame and Suzume will live."

Ayame's eyes filled with tears, and she heard Suzume's wavering voice. "Why do we have to fight?"

Kenshin leaned over to kiss her. "Because you are worth fighting for." After a long time the girls fell asleep, safe. Their parents kept watch, and wept.

to be continued...

Author's Notes: This chapter was unbelievably hard to write and edit. The only way I could deal with it was by creating a comic relief behind-the-scenes world to take the edge off things. I ended up turning that into an omake, which I plan to post after the epilogue.

Kenshin and Kaoru's personal sign language was developed in Sapphire Scales.

Although Kenshin can sense ki, he cannot distinguish between individuals except by normal guesswork (as when he figured that the scumbags hiding behind the fence were probably the Hiruma brothers, or that the vengeful presence in Houji's room had to be Aoshi). Note how he once mistook Kaoru for Jin-e, because her fury was so comically close to Jin-e's hostility. If some unseen enemy comes charging at him in the dark, intending serious harm, it's very unlikely that he'd realize that the enemy would turn out to be a person whom he thinks is being held captive elsewhere.

There are a ton of other behind-the-scenes notes for this chapter, but they all manifested in the omake. For example, after working for me in Faerie Chronicles, the two villains approached me while this fic was in development and asked if they could switch roles. "Can I please be the Figure of Ultimate Evil this time?" Enishi begged, and Shishio informed me coldly, "The next time you expect me to do all your friggin' dirty work, I'll consider it a breach of contract."