Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Friends ( Chapter 5 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 4 - Friends (ROUGH DRAFT)

A/N: This is the "lost" chapter that I've been putting together since the last update - I realized that there was a surprising amount of material that I'd forgotten to write in the first draft of this story, and most of it seemed to fit between Chapter 3 and the original Chapter 4 (which is, obviously, now Chapter 5). I hope the tone doesn't clash with the rest of the fic.

--

"Blargh...." Kenji stumbled down the hall at a little past three o'clock in the morning, making his way pretty much by feel alone, since his eyes were still refusing to open. He had his sword grasped in one hand, since there was nowhere else to put it - he was still only wearing the boxers and tank top he had slept in. Silently, he cursed Shishio for giving the assignment in the first place, then himself, for getting off to such a late start. Still, the man was insane for expecting a teenager to wake up before seven in the morning.

"And if Chou finished off the last of the eggs, I'll kill him, too...."

Kenji trudged into the kitchen and over to the cabinets, opening them to peer blurrily at their contents. He was already pulling out a frying pan and spatula before he realized that he was feeling uneasy; and the stove was already on before he realized that he felt uneasy because he was sensing someone else in the room.

"Who is it?!" The carton of eggs dropped to the countertop with a rattle as Kenji whipped his sword out of its sheath.

"It's me it's me it's Yahiko don't kill me don't kill me!!!!"

Kenji stood there, trembling in surprise as he and his would-be victim stared into each other's faces. The scruffy-haired, dirty-faced kid looked terrified, standing stock-still with the blade poised at his throat.

Then Kenji blinked and re-sheathed his weapon. "Oh." He turned away and started checking the eggs to see which ones had been cracked. He could hear Yahiko shifting uneasily behind him.

"What the freak was that for?" the boy finally burst out. "I wasn't doing anything!"

"Don't sneak up on an assassin next time," Kenji muttered, getting a plate ready.

"I didn't sneak up on you," Yahiko insisted. "I was just going about my business; you were the one wandering around like a drunk zombie before you realized I was here."

Kenji gritted his teeth, though he did not look away from the food he was preparing. "What are you doing up at three in the morning anyway?"

"Had to take a leak," Yahiko muttered, "thought I'd stop and get a snack on the way back to bed. What are you doing up at three in the morning?"

That was such a stupid question that Kenji did not bother to answer. He cooked his eggs in silence and dumped them onto his plate, which he carried along with a glass of water to the table, where he dug in without pausing. He would have loved to be able to season his eggs and to add coffee and juice to the meal, as well as any kind of sugar-saturated cereal and maybe some rice with meaty chunks, but he was much better disciplined now than he had been in his previous life. It sucked.

"So...who is it this time?" Yahiko finally asked, cautiously.

Kenji glanced up in mild irritation. He was surprised that the kid had not run off yet. "Who cares. Some dragon-hating creep who lives an hour's drive away." He swore and added under his breath, "If I could just fly...."

Yahiko fidgeted. He could not imagine what it would be like, not even to be a regular human who had never known what it meant to fly on one's own wings, but to have had the ability and then - lost it. He wanted to ask the older boy about it, but he didn't dare. "You think you'll be able to make it?" he finally asked instead.

"I'd better," Kenji muttered darkly. Even though he had finished eating, he felt stupidly unwilling to leave, so he just sat there and sipped at his water, grimacing a little at the bland liquid. Sometimes he felt like he would kill, literally, for the chance to taste ice cream or something again. Then he glanced at the clock and swore again. "It's worse than school!"

Yahiko frowned cautiously. "What?"

"I hate getting up early," Kenji snarled sulkily. "It was bad enough having to drag myself out of bed for school; now I'm getting up at two, three in the morning so I can go off these rich, fat bozos and then get my butt out of there." He tipped his head and hurled the last of the water down his throat.

As he was getting up to take the plate and glass to the sink, he thought he heard Yahiko say, "I wish I could have gone to school."

Kenji turned around and stared. "You want to go to school?"

Yahiko fidgeted again. "I...I envy you, you know." He looked away as if anticipating Kenji's glare. "In some ways. I mean, you got to have a few years of a normal life. I...I've always been...."

Kenji kept staring, curious now. He knew that Yahiko had been a dragon for most of his young life; had ended up with Shishio and Sôjirô as a toddler and had grown up in their strange company. It had never occurred to him to ask for details. "You've never been to school?"

Yahiko fiddled with the empty bag of chips in front of him, having long since finished eating the contents. "What's it like?"

"It sucks. You have to wake up early, and teachers are herding you around all day from class to class, and homework sucks, and--" Kenji swallowed, shocked at the sudden emotion that was clogging his throat and stinging his eyes. "...and...you get to - hang out with your friends," he added hoarsely, lost in memory. Daisuke, Kimi, Kyouya, Kakeru. Gone, along with his old life.

"...Did you have friends?"

Kenji frowned and swallowed hard. "Yeah. Bunch of idiots." He shook his head violently. "It was cool hanging out with them, though," he added wistfully. "We'd joke around at lunch, meet at the mall, play baseball on weekends and go to movies and concerts...." He thought of Daisuke's gentle laugh and easy-to-tease sense of propriety; Kimi with her boobs and her sexy long hair and her energetic, exasperating personality that had usually gotten them into trouble; Kakeru's sense of humor and crazy adventures that had usually gotten them into even more trouble; and Kyouya, with his dark smile and steady demeanor, they one they all depended on, the one who always managed to get them out of trouble, for a price. "I miss them," he whispered.

Then he looked up sharply, wondering what the boy would think of this sign of weakness. To his surprise, Yahiko's expression was very odd. Almost...lonely. "Sounds fun," he said in a low voice.

Kenji fidgeted, knowing that he really needed to leave, thinking that he'd probably be catching his target at breakfast or something and would lose his chance to kill the guy without any witnesses around. "Hey," he suddenly said. "Stick around 'til I come back. Maybe we'll go...somewhere. You must be pretty bored around here, with nothing to do."

"I've got training," Yahiko answered, even as his eyes were growing large with pleased surprise. "But I'll be able to put it off once you get back."

Kenji suddenly felt very uncomfortable, and embarrassed, and a little bit happy. "See you later," he muttered, roughly tousling the boy's hair as he stalked past and headed for the stairs.

Yahiko stayed in the kitchen for a while, still fiddling with the empty chip bag and smiling at nothing.

o.o.o.o.o

Kenji had most of the rest of the day to himself after he had eliminated Hiwatari Kei. No one gave it a second thought when he let it be known that he and Yahiko were leaving to hang out, though he knew better than to ask for a car when he wasn't on business. He took the precaution of putting a bandage over his facial scars and altering his hairstyle, darkening it and tying it back in a braid; after that, he and his new companion were ready to go.

"...but I do know what karaoke is! And a mall! I've even been to one, once," Yahiko complained at one point as they were changing trains, obviously embarrassed that he had had so little firsthand exposure to pop culture.

Kenji rolled his eyes, grinning. "Look, it's short for 'Dance Dance Revolution,' and you stomp on these arrows 'cause it's, like, a dancing video game."

"Sounds stupid."

"Yeah." But Kenji was eyeing him, and could see that the expression on Yahiko's face was more wistful than scornful. "Wanna try?"

"What? N--! ... They have DDR things at malls?"

"Sometimes."

Yahiko's eyes were wide and he kept very close to Kenji as they threaded their way through crowded corridors and past store after store after store. "People here are rich," he whispered.

"Most of them have jobs," Kenji grumbled, "unlike us...." He himself had a lot of money at the moment, having won it off Chou and Henya in a dice game, but he couldn't do that too often. He was going to have to pay Yahiko's way too, since the boy refused to pick pockets except on orders or for emergencies.

Yahiko loved the arcade. He tried hard to pretend that he only found it marginally cool, but his shining eyes gave him away, and for some reason the sight of it made Kenji happy. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he went back to Samurai Legend, which he was pleased to find still held his name ("KATANA") in the list of high scores, though it had drifted down to number ten. To his own shock, he beat his own previous record by about 10,000 points, placing him at number two this time (number one was obviously an automated, impossible-to-beat computer score). Maybe all that insane training had come in handy after all.

"Yo, Yahiko," he called. "The restrooms are right by the food court; I'll be back."

Yahiko grunted in acknowledgement, eyes still fixed to the screen in front of him. Kenji shook his head and left.

The crowded mall seemed light and open in comparison to the dim heat of the arcade. Kenji smiled a little as he fought through the crowds. It felt really good, just being able to hang out again like this. Yahiko wasn't exactly his first choice for company, although other than being way too small and young, the kid didn't make a bad friend. He had, Kenji supposed, been forced to grow up quickly, the way all dragons seemed to. 'All dragons except Ayame and Suzume.' They were the only ones he knew who had grown up in a real family, with people who loved them.

For a minute he thought about them, taught with mixed feelings, missing those sweet little girls and hating their parents and grieving for Megumi and Katana and wishing fiercely that--

'I don't have time for this.' It was all over now, behind him. He had a new life now.

Kenji found that he had left the water running again, and that the sink was making desperate creaking noises under his grip, as he had been staring unseeing into the mirror for far too long. Some of the other people in the bathroom were giving him wary glances from the corners of their eyes. He forced himself to take a deep breath and relax his fingers, turn off the water, and reach to dry his hands.

The door opened. At first Kenji did not even spare more than the most cursory attention to it, because it had been opening and closing a lot. The new figure bumped past someone heading out, slowed down, paused by the row of sinks, stared.

Kenji's attention flared into alarm. Glaring, he turned to face the newcomer and opened his mouth; but then he forgot to say anything.

"T...Takani?" the boy said tentatively.

"...Niwa," Kenji whispered after a moment.

Niwa Daisuke had not changed a bit. A bit taller, perhaps, but that was all; he still had that same head of spiky hair, the same sweetly bewildered look and huge soft eyes. "T-Takani!"

Kenji quickly moved in close. "Shut up, will you?" he hissed. "I'm supposed to be dead."

"You're supposed to be--!" Daisuke broke off sheepishly. "Um...I...ah...."

Kenji sighed and gave in. "Is it just the other three out there?"

"Yes - well, now, that is. Er, Riku-san had to leave early." And then Daisuke smiled so brilliantly that Kenji felt a smile melting over his own face as well.

"New girlfriend?" he teased, and was surprised when Daisuke got only a little flustered. Apparently it was true.

"Yes," Daisuke whispered joyously.

"Huh. So life goes on." Which was a good thing, very good, though also a little bit sad.

"Eh?" Daisuke said in confusion.

Kenji shook his head. "Look, just...go warn Kimi and Kakeru to keep their mouths shut, and then I'll come out." There was no way he was going to be able to resist seeing them again.

"Okay!"

When he walked into the food court a few minutes later, he supposed that it could have been worse.

"KEN-CHAAAN!!!" Kimi came streaking towards him, her beautiful hair flying out behind her and smacking a few fortunate young men in the face as she passed. Then she was pouncing and her arms were coming around him and he had to put all this training to use in order not to fall over.

"Oof."

"You're so BAD!" Kimi screamed happily in his ear, squeezing him so that he couldn't breathe. "You haven't called me in AGES! How dare you treat your fiancée like that!"

It was their running joke, or at least, Kenji hoped it was a joke. In any case, hearing it reminded him yet again why there had been no way he could have resisted seeing them, knowing they were so close. Nostalgia lay heavy on his heart, bittersweet and precious.

"Kenj-- Ken!" Kakeru called over happily as the rest of them approached at a more respectable pace. So apparently Daisuke had followed instructions and told the others not to call Kenji by his old name. "Hey loser, so you finally decided to stop by and visit your old pals?"

"Actually, it was an accident meeting up with you guys at all," Kenji confessed, making it sound like a joke, his eyes shining.

For a long moment they all just stood there and stared at each other, grinning their heads off - except Ootori Kyouya, who was scrutinizing Kenji very closely. The physical build, the hair, the bandaged left cheek. Kenji suddenly felt cold. Kyouya knew. Of all of them, Kyouya would be the one to guess. Kyouya's life was in danger. "Ootori," Kenji said, very quietly. "Don't ask. Don't say it."

"I figured I shouldn't," Kyouya returned smoothly, and Kenji relaxed a little. Kyouya was smart enough to guess the truth, and he was also smart enough to work through the implications.

"Don't say what?" Kimi pouted.

"That you're the most gorgeous girl in school and that I've got you in my arms at last." He suddenly pulled her head around and kissed her. It was so easy. He didn't even remember to be afraid. All those months of longing for her, of drinking in her beauty but being too terrified to approach her - suddenly, it all seemed so pointless. And it was so wonderful to have the confidence to kiss her at last.

Then Kenji suddenly realized that he was doing something very stupid and dangerous, so he quickly pulled back and smiled apologetically at Kimi's stunned expression, even as he savored the taste of her lingering on his lips. "Thanks, pretty girl. It'll be good to have something to remember you by." Then he turned away and walked past them, his heart pounding. 'Stupid, stupid, stupid, Takani...!'

"OI!" Kakeru's shout was loud and indignant; the next moment he was flinging himself on Kenji's back like a monkey, sounding confused and glad and indignant all at once. "What's up with you?"

"I'm dead, remember?" Kenji said gently, trying to keep his voice low. The others had hurried to catch up, were crowding around him, their eyes full of joy and hurt and questions.

"Ken-chan kissed Kimi! Ken-chan loves Kimi!" she demanded, yanking at his arm, her eyes searching.

Kenji paused and smiled at her. "Dead boys don't date. But I've always thought you were gorgeous, Kimi-chan."

"That's because I am gorgeous," she preened, then frowned. "But Kimi already knew that! What--?"

"I just wanted you to know," he told her, with finality.

She crossed her arms over her chest and pouted.

"Tak-- I mean, Ken," Daisuke said, looking distressed. "Aren't you going to explain anything? I mean...."

"It's got to do with DASP," Kakeru said knowingly. "Am I right?"

"Most definitely," Kenji said in relief.

"CIA AGENT!"

"Nope. And you've guessed that one about eight times by now."

"Fine then! Ex-burger chef who murdered his cheating wife with a spatula!"

"You're getting close," Kenji snorted.

"I swear," Kakeru crowed, "I'm going to unlock the secret of DASP, even if I have to do it with my last breath!"

"That," Kyouya said quietly, looking bored, "would be a very unwise goal to pursue."

Dark And Sinister Past. Kakeru's nickname for what Kenji had kept refusing to tell them, the past experiences that had made him such a weird kid. Before, the old joke had been a form of protection for himself, a way to keep him from having to revisit those old memories until he was ready to tell them. He never had been. And now it didn't matter, because this time the protection was for them. They could not be allowed to know what he had become. It wasn't just that he was ashamed. There was the very real fact that no one could learn the identity of the new hitokiri, and live.

"Ken," Daisuke said slowly, "when you leave us today, are you going to disappear again?"

"Yeah. Ghosts aren't usually supposed to be wandering around outside hell, you know."

"Is it really hell, where you're from?" Kyouya asked in a murmur, and Kenji froze again.

"It...it's not so bad," he finally said.

Kyouya nodded. It gave Kenji a strange, glad, heartbreaking little feeling to realize that Kyouya, of all people, was worried about him.

"Kimi wishes she had a DASP, too," she huffed. "It would be so much more exciting! I bet you don't even go to school anymore, Ken-chan!"

"Nope."

"Lucky!" Kakeru exclaimed. "What do you do all day, then? Shoot pool with the yakuza?"

"Maybe."

"There you are!" Everyone turned in surprise to find a small figure hurrying determinedly toward them through the crowds.

"Who's that?" Kimi asked, wrinkling her nose.

Kakeru snapped his fingers as if he had just made a realization. "That's it! You kidnap little kids and hold them for ransom, don't you!"

"No, I don't," Kenji replied, a little exasperated. All the happiness had drained out of him at the sight of Yahiko. Instead, he began to feel strongly how disconnected he had become from his old life, how the world that Daisuke and Kimi and Kakeru and Kyouya played in so obliviously was no longer his. He was a dragon, the only place he would ever belong was with other dragons, and it was so lonely but he was better at it than he had ever been at pretending to be a normal stupid human.

"Where'd you go?" Yahiko asked accusingly when he had reached them.

"I told you where I went."

"Didn't think it'd take you twenty minutes."

"Guys," Kenji snapped, turning to his curious friends (former friends...), "this is Yahiko. I don't know his surname, because he probably doesn't have one."

"I do so! It's Myoujin!"

"Oh." Kenji paused thoughtfully.

"Hello, Myoujin-san," Kyouya said with cool politeness, frowning a little as he studied Yahiko's eyes.

'Just stop, Ootori,' Kenji thought tiredly. 'You're too curious, and too smart, for your own good.'

"Hiko-chan, you're not a very cute little boy," Kimi told him, poking at one of the dirty, haphazard spikes of the kid's hair. "Kimi thinks you should take a bath."

"Shut up! What do you know?" Yahiko cried frantically, looking as if she had hit him in the face. His desperate eyes met Kenji's, and Kenji understood. "What are you doing with these people?" those eyes seemed to say. "You're not one of them. They don't understand."

'I know,'
Kenji thought.

Kakeru pointed eagerly. "Is HE part of DASP, Kenji? I mean, Ken?"

"It's...none of your business," Kenji said, starting to be afraid, backing up toward Yahiko. "Look, I have to go."

"Wait!" Daisuke cried desperately. "But you only just came back! Can't you...stay a little longer?"

Kenji narrowed his eyes, straightened up, planted his feet, and rested one hand on Yahiko's shoulder. "Takani Kenji is dead," he told them quietly, looking each of them in the face, one by one. "He's gone. You're never going to see him again. Just remember him with fondness and let him go." He stared hard at Kyouya, but Kyouya only gazed coolly back. "Today was an accident, and it's not going to happen again."

"What?" they cried indignantly, but at his glare they abruptly fell silent again.

"Good-bye." With Yahiko, he turned and started to walk away. Then he paused. Grudgingly, he looked back over his shoulder and muttered, "I was...glad to see you, though. Just this one last time."

Kyouya's voice was quiet, self-assured, warning. "It's not going to last, you know. Eventually the world is going to fall apart again. What are you going to do then, since you've cut off all other ties?"

Kenji shrugged. "If that happens--" He shook his head. "When that happens, I doubt I'm going to be in a position to care either way." Then he gripped Yahiko's arm and vanished into the crowd.

o.o.o.o.o

Kenji could not get it out of his mind, the encounter with his old friends. When he and Yahiko got back home, he locked himself in his room and moped, thinking and remembering.

He missed them. He really did. Not just his friends; and not just Megumi and Katana either - their loss had left a gaping wound in his heart that felt like it would never heal. He still grieved for them; it seemed like every single time he let his thoughts wander, he thought of them, even after all these months. But what Kenji also missed, with a different kind of ache, was his old life. Those few years of happiness, sandwiched like a dream between the nightmare he had been born into and the cold existence he lived now. He wanted it back again, badly - the chance to laugh freely, the lack of all but the most trivial obligations, to be able to pretend that he fit in with normal people, to have someone there who would love and comfort him as if he was still a child.

Kenji could not stop thinking about it, even though it was all gone now. He had to put it all behind him; he could never go back, and he would only hurt himself by continuing to long for the past. Megumi and Katana were gone. He had bid his farewells to his friends. Maybe if...maybe if he severed the last link....

o.o.o.o.o

The man was, unsurprisingly, tricky to track down; it was close to nightfall by the time Kenji found him. The bar was dim and comfortably noisy as Kenji, shrouded in a floppy hat and long coat, made his way to the front counter.

"Need t' see some ID," the man there grunted, eyeing the boy's slight figure distrustfully.

Kenji pitched his voice with a tone of low confidence. "Just looking for my brother."

The man did not move, gazing silently with an unfriendly expression.

Kenji glanced out at the tables and was surprised at how quickly he located the tall, spiky-haired figure. "There," he said, jerking his head in indication. "That's him, the one in the white jacket."

The man snorted disbelievingly. "Sagara's little brother, my-- hey!"

Kenji, losing interest, dismissively moved away, heading to the table in the corner where the rowdy group had shoved the remains of their meal aside to make room for a dice game. Kenji paused silently behind his target, having arrived just when the dice were about to roll. In an instant's study, Kenji read the movement of the dice roller's hands. Then he leaned down and gently murmured into his target's ear. "Five-six, odd."

The white-clad shoulders stiffened, and in the next moment the dice came to rest: five and six.

"Yeah!"

"All right!"

Amidst the cheers and curses, the man in white spun in his chair to face the boy, his eyes wide with shock.

Kenji smiled. "Hello, Sano."

"Kenji!"

He winced. "Sano, don't say my name in publ-- Urk!"

Sagara Sanosuke had leaped to his feet and wrapped an arm around Kenji's neck in his idea of a hug. "Kenji! It's-- What the heck-- Is it really you?!" He whipped off the hat so as to better study the boy's face with delighted incredulity.

Kenji snatched the hat back and clamped it down firmly on his head. "Sano--"

"What happened to your face?" Sano demanded, fingers brushing against the edge of the large bandage on Kenji's left cheek as if he meant to tear it off. "And your hair, did you dye--?"

"Sano!" Kenji hurriedly caught the other's hand. "Hey, do you think we could talk outside?"

Sanosuke glanced back at the game, and at the slightly annoyed but increasingly curious faces of his friends. "Oi, this kid! He's my-- Well, he's.... Anyway, I haven't seen this punk in, what, two years? This is awesome!"

The men mumbled or called out greetings to "Little Brother-kun."

Kenji nodded to them, trying not to be rude even though his stomach was starting to churn. This had been a really stupid idea. He was gonna get it when he got home, unless he could do some good, fast talking. "Cool. See you guys around. Sano...?" He tugged at the man's sleeve, letting a little bit of his anxiousness leak into his expression.

Sanosuke smiled, threw an arm around his shoulders and steered him outside, past the grumpy-looking proprietor. "Let's go talk where we can hear each other without shouting, eh?"

When they had gotten to a corner of the building, in the dark away from any exits or views from the street, Sanosuke practically flung him against the wall and planted one hand beside Kenji's head as if for an interrogation, though he was still smiling. "Where've you been? How's life been treating you? What's up with your face? How's the vixen doing?"

Kenji's throat caught, so that he had to clear it before he could speak. "Sano...it's really good to see you," he finally managed.

"Hmph." Sanosuke crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall next to Kenji. "Good to see you too, kid; though I hope you aren't gonna bum a place to crash again."

Kenji shook his head. "No, I have a...I've got a place to stay." Home had been a dream, gone with the rest of his old life. He would never be Home again, and he had already made his peace with that.

"Just a visit, eh? Sorry I forgot to tell you when my number changed - oh yeah, I couldn't, 'cause you guys had up and fallen off the face of the earth." There was a question in his voice.

"Megumi and I...had to lay low for a while," Kenji mumbled. "...I'm sorry." He flinched, then relaxed when Sanosuke's hand came out of the darkness to rest on his shoulder.

"No problem, kid."

Kenji smiled. "Sano...I've really missed you."

"You keep saying that." Sanosuke moved to face him again, his tone serious. "You never really answered my questions. How are you? How's your mom?"

Kenji pondered how much to tell him. "I...I'm doing all right, Sano. Megumi...." Very carefully, he drew in a breath, and let it out. "She's in a good place now." He hoped so. He desperately hoped so.

"Hm." Sanosuke reached for Kenji's face again, holding his head, one thumb across the bandage. Kenji tensed. "And this?"

"...Cut myself. On accident. Uh, shaving."

He wrinkled his nose at Sanosuke's sudden burst of laughter. "Shaving! Yeah right."

"Whatever," Kenji sulked. "It was an accident."

The laughter died away, and there was a very, very uncomfortable pause.

"A cross-shaped accident, maybe?"

Kenji swallowed. His words were frozen.

Finally Sanosuke moved in close; his voice now was low and urgent. "It's you, isn't it. Who they've been talking about in the news. Kenji. You're killing people."

"Sano," he whispered. "I've...I've got...a new life now."

Sanosuke swore and spun away. Paced back and forth a few times; came back. "Kenji. What the he--"

"I shouldn't have come to see you."

Sanosuke paused.

"Now I've put you in danger. It was bad enough, running into my old friends on accident; but you...I sought you out...." Kenji swallowed a sudden sob. "I missed you, Sano."

"Kenji?"

"Megumi's dead."

Silence.

"I never told you anything about my past, Sano. I'm a dragon."

Still nothing.

Kenji finally managed a weak little laugh. "You remember Sleeping Beauty? That stupid movie-- It was because of the dragon. I loved it. When Prince Philip killed the dragon. Plunged that sword into its effin' heart; hurled it over the cliff, squashed it to a pulp." He suddenly sighed, and shook his head. "Sano, I was born a dragon, I was born a monster; now I'm a murderer, and it suits me perfectly. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come to see you. I--"

"You killed her?"

Chills came over him. "No! Someone else did. Someone killed her to get to me." Kenji was shaking his head hard. "Look, Sano, it's too much to explain; but, I - I'm not human. I'm not. Megumi--" His voice caught again, and he made an angry little scream trying to clear his throat, his hurt and fury and desperation straining to get out. "Megumi tried to teach me how to be a human, but it didn't work, they came back for me, they killed her and got me back again, and my new master has taught me the true art of the sword, and I know now what I was meant to do with my life, Sano."

Sanosuke made a soft, horrified noise. "Kenji." Unexpectedly, his hands came out of the darkness to grip the boy's shoulders.

Kenji struggled, sudden fear bursting up in him, reaching for his sword and terrified when he remembered that he had left it behind. "Let go of me!" He wrenched free even as Sanosuke called his name again.

"Kenji!"

Kenji backed up a few steps, breathing hard. "I've probably ruined it for you; I was an idiot to come here. I can tell Shishou that I was considering you as an ally, that you're strong and a good fighter. But then they'll probably come for you, and I know you'll never go for it, Sano. You like to fight, but you're not a killer like me. You're not a thug, you have--" He laughed hollowly, helplessly. "I dunno; you have morals, or something. I doubt you'd let Shishou recruit you. I screwed up, Sano. You'll have to leave. Go into hiding for a year or two. I'm sorry."

"Kenji."

Silence.

Then Sanosuke cursed. "You idiot! All this time, I never knew...."

"I'm sorry." He took another step back, intending to melt into the shadows.

"Don't you dare go melting into the shadows yet, punk."

Kenji stopped, startled. "What?"

Sanosuke stepped up close again. "Kenji."

"You keep saying my name," he said, irritation beginning to creep in. "What do you want? I can't fix any of my mistakes, Sano. I can't."

"Why are you doing it?" Sanosuke asked softly.

Kenji blinked. "What?"

"Kid. I lived with you for a year. I may not've known a single effin' thing about you, but I know you. Why are you letting them do this to you?"

Kenji was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, he was trembling with rage. "Why - am I - letting them do this to me?"

"Megumi's dead, so you say. Is there some other hostage? Some other hold they have on you?"

"What are you talking about? It's not like that, Sano! You idiot-- fine, I'll explain; you're already deep enough in it, anyway. I have no home, no family. It's all gone. I have a master; he taught me everything I know. I've always loved the sword, Sano; now I get to wield it. It's - fate. The only thing about my life that feels like fate; the sword, feeling the handle of that blade in my hands, making that blade sing. That's what I was born for. Shishou's taught me far more than I ever could have learned in that human dream-life. I have no reason to say no, when he asks me to run his errands."

"Errands--!"

The outburst was explosive, but Kenji simply talked over it, so that Sanosuke was forced to shut up again in order to hear him. "We all owe our lives to Shishou, for one reason or another. We have no reason to leave him, no reason to rebel against him; every reason to serve him. He's fighting for our people." It suddenly sounded stupid, saying it; 'our people,' as if that pack of wary, hostile, lonely fighters was some sort of chosen race; but he plowed on, because matters like that didn't really concern him.

"He's fighting for a better world for us," Kenji continued. A world where we, so much more powerful than you humans--" 'You humans,' as if Sano, as if Megumi or Saitou, as if people like them were some sort of lower life form...? "--Where we're the ones who are on top, as we should be; where we're not hated and hunted. Shishou knows what he's doing. We trust him, we believe in him. Sano, I'm hap--"

It was a lie, he was not happy at all.

"I'm fine, Sano. That's the world for me, where I belong. I have food, a place to sleep. No one chains me. No one hurts me; if they try, now I can fight back. It's good, Sano. I'm not a prisoner anymore." It felt strange, having said it aloud like that to someone like Sanosuke. An outsider. It felt...strange. Kenji shifted uneasily. There was a very long silence, and he finally considered melting into the shadows again.

Sano finally spoke. "K'so."

Kenji smiled a little. "We live in different worlds now, Sano." He sighed. "I'm sorry. For everything. Hopefully I'll never see you again."

Sanosuke slowly moved forward to rest his hands on Kenji's shoulders. "They've brainwashed you good, haven't they."

"?!"

Sano cursed again, and again. "I can't believe I didn't know. I can't believe it."

Kenji frowned in confusion. "What are you--?"

"Sleeping Beauty, for crying out loud. Your frickin' broken-glass eyes. I should have asked, I should have at least thought about it...." He cursed again, and took his hands away. "I refuse to be too late, kid." His gaze was steadier now, hard, stubborn like the idiot he was.

"Look, I'd better go--"

"Wait." Sanosuke felt around in his pockets, pulled out a stub of pencil and a gum wrapper, and scribbled on it blindly in the dark. He pressed the wrapper into Kenji's hand. "My cell number."

"I'm going to throw it away."

"Don't throw it away, punk."

Kenji paused. "I'm not going to leave my master."

Sanosuke's voice was frustrated. "Kenji, I'm going to get you out of there. I'm going to get you out."

"You'd be an idiot to try. I'm going to do what I can from my end to keep you safe, but if you go walking into trouble, it's not my fault."

"Kid, you are so deep in it. You are deep, in it."

Kenji was starting to get annoyed. "Look, I just told you; it's not bad. I'm fine. Compared to what I'd come out of before I met you, before I met Megumi--"

Sanosuke's hand, still lightly grasping his, suddenly tightened. "Where'd you come from, Kenji? How did you get born as a dragon?"

Kenji wrenched away. His breath was coming hard, his back starting to ache with a phantom pain. "I'm going now."

Sanosuke cursed, knowing he was unable to stop Kenji as the boy vanished into the darkness, furious at the stupidity of his past self for not realizing what he now thought should have been obvious.

o.o.o.o.o

Kenji waited in tense silence, watching his master. Shishio continued to lean back in the swivel chair, eyes gazing casually at the computer screen, one hand idly grasping the handle of a half-full mug of tea.

Finally the man closed his eyes and sighed, took another sip of the drink, carefully set the cup down, then swirled slowly to face his nervous young apprentice. "I see."

Kenji swallowed, as discreetly as possible. His master still looked casual, almost bored, but that meant nothing.

To his relief, Shishio merely nodded and then reached for one of the files lying beside the computer, which he held out to Kenji. The boy accepted it respectfully. "Next assignment?"

"Mm."

Kenji opened the folder, caught sight of the photograph of his next target, and froze.

"Something wrong?"

"N...No, sir." Kenji continued to stare at the photo. He had never killed a woman before. He knew that the others had, though they never spoke as if it was any different from killing men; but Kenji himself had never been given an assignment like this until now.

"Good. You have three days."

Kenji very carefully closed the folder. It was a test of loyalty, he realized. To make sure that today's foolish visits to the past had not dulled his sword. This woman's life was going to be the price for their safety, Sano and Daisuke and the others. Very well, then; the choice was clear.

Kenji lifted his head and smiled. "Got it."

Shishio smiled back. His tone was an undisguised mockery of fatherly affection, but somehow it made Kenji stiffen with pride all the same. "That's my boy."

o.o.o.o.o

The next day Kenji washed the dark dye out of his hair and went to work, scoping out his new assignment, studying her home, the building where she worked, her route between the two, and any potentially helpful habits she might have. At first, the sight of her family made him uncomfortable, a husband who laughed too loudly at his own stupid jokes, even when no one else did; two kids, a bratty girl who went to some sort of elite elementary school, and a happy, burbling, but ugly two-year-old. Perched outside, Kenji watched them together at dinner for a while, his heart aching.

Then he frowned, and sudden anger washed out all the pain. This woman didn't deserve to have a family, even one as stupid as this. She was going to die soon; why had she bothered to make these kids when they were just going to lose her?

Why did anyone go in for this? Didn't people realize how perilous life was, how easy it was for someone to just disappear, cease to exist, in the blink of an eye? Why did anyone go through the trouble of trying to love another person, when all it did was cause pain and create weaknesses?

'Megumi,' he wondered, 'why did you love me?' She hadn't even given birth to him. She'd just taken him home, a wild half-grown monster, for what was supposed to be one night, because no one else would. For some reason she had not kicked him out, even when she saw how much work it was going to take to look after him. She had endured his rejection and insults, for some reason she had kept...for some reason she was still nice to him, even when he had tried to push her away.

'See where it got you, Megumi?' Dead. Dead, dead, dead, just like this stupid lady was going to be.

'I hurt her so much.' He couldn't tell whether the thought had come first or the tears, but either way it made him even angrier, and he pulled out a knife and jammed it into the flesh of the tree beside him. He looked back at his target and felt his lips stretching into a smile. "You are so dead, lady," he whispered. "You are so dead."

o.o.o.o.o

When he got back, he passed Chou training among the trees, and meant to simply continue on without acknowledgment.

"Oi - it's the Himura kid! Hey, Himura, train with me; I'm bored."

"Don't call me Himura," Kenji snapped automatically, and kept walking.

A branch nearly over his head suddenly seemed to explode into twigs and came raining down at his feet. Kenji turned in annoyance, to find Chou grinning invitingly. "See, this is why I don't like training with you, Broom-head; 'cause you've got all those stupid trick swords."

The flame-haired warrior's grin faded. "Oi," he warned, "lay off my swords, or you're gonna get it, Kitten."

Kenji snarled; he hated the nickname, which referred to his childish cutesey looks and further implied that he was weak and helpless - though he supposed he might have invited it, by pulling out the 'Broom-head' comment. "Why should I? You fight like a magician, Chou; once someone upends your bag of tricks, you get as predictable as a thug swinging a club."

Chou had by now very definitely picked up the boy's bad mood, and their duel was one of the less friendly ones. In the end, however, Kenji did spare the other's life, and determinedly did not try to decide whether he had pulled his punches because he would get in trouble for damaging one of the remaining Juppongatana, or because he had simply felt bad for taking out his feelings on a fr-- on someone who had nothing to do with the situation.

"You're still a baby-faced mutant!" Chou yelled sulkily after him. Kenji raised a hand in acknowledgment, not slowing his stride or glancing back.

He did the same when he passed Yumi in the hall and she took one look at him, wrinkled her nose, and said, "Ew."

"Sorry," he murmured instead, "you've got me confused with your boyfriend."

"You want poison in your tea tonight?" she growled.

"No thanks, I'll pass." He came limping into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, pulled out the remaining half of the cooked chicken Kamatari had brought home from the last shopping trip, and fell on it ravenously.

Yahiko, who had made a fort out of Cheerios and was now eating them one by one, wrinkled his nose at the wet red footprints that Kenji had tracked into the room. "Dude, this is the kitchen. Wash up first, will ya?"

"Starving," Kenji mumbled through his current mouthful of meat.

"...You get hurt on assignment?" Yahiko asked uneasily after a moment.

Kenji swallowed the food, then went to rummage around for juice, any kind of juice. "No. Chou."

Yahiko swore softly, though he was grinning a little. "He's got to look worse than you, then. Shishio's gonna be mad."

"Chou asked for it," Kenji muttered. He practically upended the orange juice carton into his mouth, gulped several times, then slammed it onto the counter and forcefully expelled a breath of air. "Actually, he didn't. I picked a fight. I'm in a rotten mood."

"Obviously," Yahiko said under his breath. He sighed and then looked back up hopefully. "Wanna blow off steam at the arcade again?"

"No. If I hang around you, I'll bite your head off. I'm gonna go take a bath." Kenji crushed the empty juice carton with more force than was necessary and slung it into the trash can before trudging out of the room.

Yahiko paused. People usually didn't worry about whether or not they were going to bite his head off.

Fighting off both sudden stinging tears and a doofy smile, the boy looked back at the bloody footprints and went to fetch a towel and some antiseptic.

o.o.o.o.o

It was quiet, here in the woods at twilight. The day's heat had not quite dissipated; Kenji felt his still-damp hair sticking unpleasantly to the back of his neck. "Anji, I'm going to use your punching bag."

The fallen priest slitted open his darkened eyes and surveyed the intruder. His annoyance melted at the sight of Himura Kenji's frustrated expression and the hurt, lost look in his eyes. He was careful not to smile. It was bad enough that he still apparently had a soft spot for children; it wouldn't do at all to reveal the fact. "Come sit down. Cross your legs and try to still your mind."

Kenji swore, but came over quite willingly. "I'm not into meditation," he seemed to feel obliged to point out as he arranged himself in the same position Anji was in, facing him.

"Fallen priests don't meditate." Anji raised his sword and drove it into the ground. The stones that encircled him exploded.

Slowly, a genuine smile touched Kenji's lips, and he shook his head in admiration. "Cool."

o.o.o.o.o

Akira was asleep. Tomoe was curled up beside him, trying to lose herself in Jane Austen to keep the constant worry at bay. It was a different kind of fiction than she ought to be reading, for it was more important to study the modern, realistic stories that had been helping her grow accustomed to this strange new world for the past seven years. Yet something about the elegant, old-fashioned prose, the well-ordered and quiet society that was laid out in the pages of this story written by an eighteenth-century British woman.... Tomoe found it soothing, despite its strangeness.

There was a knock at the door, and she sat straight up in bed, gripping the book hard before deliberately relaxing. She laid it on the nightstand and got out of bed, going to open the door before her husband was disturbed.

"...Hello, Sis."

"Hello, Enishi," she said quietly. Her heart ached to see him. The expression on his face was soft, uncertain; for a moment he looked again like the little boy she had loved so long ago.

"...You didn't eat dinner again, did you."

Tomoe sighed, so quietly that it made almost no sound. "I am not hungry."

His hands reached for her; she forced herself to be still. His fingers came to rest gently on either side of her face, caressing a little, carefully, as if he was afraid of breaking her. "You have to...keep your strength up. You-- You can't give up, Sis! You have to keep waiting for me."

Her heart softened a little, and she reached out affectionately to smooth back a few stray strands of hair. "I have not given up, Enishi."

He smiled, a genuinely sweet smile that made her feel like her heart was breaking. "Good. Come eat with me?"

She forced herself not to glance back longingly at Akira. "Very well."

They took their meal up to eat outside, so that she could see the stars, so that he could feel the wind whisper around them. She felt, suddenly, very unsafe to be alone with him; and it hurt her that she should be so frightened of the little brother she had once loved dearly. "Enishi?"

"Mm?" He was gazing up at the sky.

"I...It pains me, when I see you hurting things that are weaker than yourself. I...wondered...."

He moved his gaze down to her, and she caught her breath. However he merely smiled and said, "You always were squeamish like that, Sis."

She closed her eyes briefly. "I just thought...perhaps there is some way I could make you see that you don't need to hurt others."

He pulled forward and leaned his elbows on his knees. "Come on, Sis; it's not like I hurt things just for the fun of it. I know you don't approve. But sometimes - I mean, obviously, animals usually aren't cooperative. People used to 'break' horses in order to ride them; if you've got a rebellious dog, you beat it 'til it does what you want. Right?"

She was trembling a little. She knew that that's what it was, that to him, dragons weren't people at all. The implications of that chilled her, and she could not bring herself to continue. "You are more ruthless than I would wish," was all she managed to whisper.

He smiled placatingly and leaned toward her. "I know. I'm sorry, Sis. I know you don't like it. Once I get you back to normal, I'll try to stop. I don't care about dragons anyway, as long as you're safe; Shishio and them can do what they want, I don't care. As long as you're safe."

She swallowed. "I understand."

He lay down with his head close to her knees and was silent for a while. Hoping to keep him in a good mood, she reached to stroke his hair, noting how he cringed at her touch before submitting to it. Eventually he made a remark about one of the constellations, and she answered, glad to talk about something different for a while. Their conversation was slow and muted; both of them seemed to be half-listening to the sounds of the night as well as to each other.

Slowly, the sky changed. Enishi was sitting up again, staring into the remains of his drink as he restlessly twirled the cup around and around. Finally, when her courage had returned, Tomoe took a deep breath and spoke. "Enishi...I never understood. You've lived for so long, and yet you are not a dragon." She did not miss the tiny shudder of disgust that tremored over him at the suggestion. "How, Enishi?"

He fiddled with his glass, looking lost in thought. "Hmph. Found some old notes, long time ago; almost at the beginning. Took me a while to figure out how to do it, but I was finally successful." He looked up at her and grinned. "I'm invincible, you know. Nothing can kill me." He shrugged one shoulder and added with an uneasy smile, "that is, only one thing can kill me, but I keep a very, very close eye on it. So you don't have to worry, Sis."

She stared at him. "Enishi, I don't understand. What notes? What did...what have you done to yourself?" When he had explained it to her, when she finally understood, her eyes widened. "But, Enishi - if that's true, then it means you are no more human than we dragons are!"

His reaction was so instantaneous that she had to time to prepare herself. The remains of their meal were scattered with the violence of his rising, and in the next second his hand was squeezed around her throat.

"Don't you dare," he said in a venomous whisper, "let any filthy lies like that pass your lips ever again."

She could not speak, her eyes huge with desperation as she clutched helplessly at his arms. Then, slowly, a change came over his face and he released her. She dropped back, coughing, tears of betrayal filling her eyes.

"Neesan, I...I'm sorry." When she did not answer, he knelt down so that he could look up into her face. His own eyes were wide, his expression distressed as he begged, "Please, Sis, I didn't mean it. I didn't mean to hurt you. It's just that sometimes...it's hard to remember, you know? That's it's something else saying those horrible things, not you. I know you would never hurt me, Sis. I'm sorry it's taken me so long. Don't worry, I'll bring you back...I'll bring you back to me, I just need a little more time."

She was staring at him, feeling as if he had thrust a sword into her and cut open a gaping, streaming wound. "Enishi...who am I? Am I your sister?"

He took her hands, and after a long moment he said to them sadly, "My sister is dead. I miss her so much." His grip tightened. "But I will get her back. I will get her back, or I will die trying." He glanced back up at her, grinning. "And I can't die anymore, you see?"

o.o.o.o.o

When Kenji got home from *Sohma Ren's* assassination some time between midnight and dawn, he flung off his clothes, scrubbed the blood off his flesh, and fell straight into bed. He awakened only a couple of hours later, gasping with horror, because in his nightmare he had thrust the sword into his target only to find that she had Megumi's face.

Shivering, he wrapped himself in a robe and tried to pick up his sword, but found that the touch of it repelled him. He pushed it away from him in anger and crept out alone, slipping almost invisibly through the halls until he got to the Kiyosatos' room. He tried to be silent, and yet a part of him must have been longing for human contact as well, for perhaps he made a bit more noise than was necessary. After he had curled up on the floor by the bed, he heard Tomoe's soft voice. "Kenji-kun?"

"Tomoe-nee," he whispered, disgusted with himself. "Just one more night. I won't do it again." They both knew it was a lie, because it was what he said every single time.

He felt her hand touch his hair, and he hid his face against his arm. Then she began to hum, so gently that Akira barely stirred beside her. Kenji did not know when she stopped, because by then he had fallen back into sleep, and this time there were no dreams at all.

to be continued...

Author's Notes: I am actually not going to explain Enishi's immortality in The Lost Hatchling. If you're familiar with Watsuki-sensei's Busou Renkin manga, you'll find out what Enishi did in the sequel that crosses over with that series; if not and you really want to know, shoot me a message.

Heh, and it's a similar case with Sleeping Beauty - that has some backstory to it, but I won't get to it until the prequel, which I'm sure I won't be able to post for quite a long time.

It has become my practice to borrow characters from other series when I need "extras." Niwa Daisuke is from D.N. Angel; Ootori Kyouya is from Ouran High School Host Club; and Kakeru and Kimi are from the Fruits Basket manga. I did not realize until I was writing this chapter that when you add Kenji to the group, Daisuke is the only one with a name that doesn't start with K. *sweatdrop* Oh, and Hiwatari Kei is a minor character in D.N. Angel, and Mikage Kagami from chapter 3 was a villain in Ayashi no Ceres.