Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Reunions ( Chapter 8 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 7 - Reunions

A/N:  ...I have NO idea why I didn't post these chapters on MediaMiner until just now. o.O

o.o.o

It was a cool evening, and Kenji thought idly that the pleasant sensation of the breeze playing through his hair was probably the only reason he had not killed himself yet.

He was huddled on the far side of the roof, which gave him a nice view of the backyard, but the only thing he was interested in looking at right now was the way the blood from his injuries glimmered a little in the moonlight as it trickled slowly across the rough shingles.

'When are they gonna get here?'  He had called an ambulance what felt like hours ago, even though he knew it had only been a few minutes.  That's what you did when people got hurt, you called ambulances.  Kenji knew this, knew it was normal, knew that hospitals were...theoretically...supposed to help people, keep people from dying.  That's why he had called them.

It's just...he was glad they were coming for Kenshin, not for him.  And nothing in the world would have persuaded him to stick around for them to find him along with their intended victim - not that he would have stayed with the terrible thing he had done a second longer than necessary, anyway.  In any case, they would arrive and find the corpse alone in the house.  Kenji was pretty sure his father was dead by now, no matter how securely he thought he had tied the makeshift bandage.

From the street, he heard the sound of a vehicle - smaller and quieter than a van; no siren.  Another neighbor returning home.

But no, the car slowed abruptly and turned aside.  Kenji frowned and crept up to the peak of the roof so that he could see - yes, the car had pulled haphazardly into the Himuras' driveway.  What was their business here?  He tensed for a moment as if for battle, then deflated again when he saw the female figure flinging itself out of the driver's side door.  He knew that woman.  Himura Kaoru.  His mother.

It was a strange thought, and painful.  He could only tolerate it for a few seconds before he had to push it away again.  Himura Kaoru.  An assassin's wife.

She was somebody's mother, though; she was shouting something to the little girls in the back seat before slamming the car door shut and running to the house.

Kenji stared hard at those two small figures, who were prudently burrowing out of sight.  His sisters.  He tested that thought, too, and it also hurt, but not nearly as much.  They could still be his sisters, even if he had completely failed to keep them safe.  He wanted very much to go down and be close to them, but he could hear the siren now, rapidly approaching, and he dug his fingertips painfully into the edges of the shingles to force himself to stay put.

'They're still not your family.  They could have been, if you weren't such a....'  He called himself cruel names until it started to become a sort of selfish, sordid pleasure.  Wallowing in self-hatred seemed oddly gratifying, so he stopped.  He didn't deserve any comfort, even a stupid kind like that.

They were all gone pretty quickly:  the wounded man, who was apparently not dead yet and therefore warranted the rush; the woman Kenji could not stand to think of as his mother; and the girls.  The siren faded into the distance again, and Kenji was now truly alone.

His purpose was gone now.  He had kept watch, fulfilled his duty; Himura Kenshin was now as safe as circumstances allowed.  Kenji had nowhere to go.  Nowhere was safe, and he didn't deserve to be safe, anyway.  Shishio would not take him back, not after he had disobeyed orders like that...and yet Kenji could not muster up even a shred of regret for putting his own desire before orders this time.  If he had not sought out Yukishiro Enishi in that moment, he would have lost his chance forever.  After that terrifying battle, he had had strength enough left for only one more confrontation, and in a strange way Kenji was glad he had picked the one with his father.  He had not wanted to turn on the police, on those men who had once saved his life.  If he had not faced Kenshin tonight, it just would have meant more of the same cold assassin's life, more of his heart dying, and Kenji knew now that he had wanted all along to be free of Shishio almost as much as he had wanted to be free of Enishi.

Then...Kenshin really had known what he was talking about with that ridiculous statement - "Let my blood be the last your hands ever spill.  Set your crimes on my shoulders.  Be free."  They would always be Kenji's crimes, there was no changing that.  But there had been hope offered, too; hope that Kenji was too heartsick to accept, but which he was glad to be allowed a glimpse of.  Hope.  Ridiculous, not for him to own; but the fact that others had it was...a good thing.  People with hope, like those little girls, might not make such a terrible mess of things like he had.

Freedom, though.  The thought of it was like fresh water to Kenji's parched soul.  He craved freedom like he once (like he still, despite it all...) craved life.  'I want to be free.'

He had thought he would be free when he cut down Yukishiro Enishi's wretched life.  It had been such a terrible struggle, horror dawning as each strike seemed to have so little effect, as the monseter had recovered from every attack almost instantly, laughing.  Despair had set in, Kenji had been possessed by a suicidal desperation; and then when he had laid hands on his enemy's fallen sword, expecting it to be the final attempt in a long series of failed ones....  It was over.  Just like that.  His frantically vengeful abuse of the body afterwards had been unnecessary; after only two strikes with that sword - one for surprise, the other for the fatal blow -, Enishi's life had ended, and Kenji had no idea why.  He didn't care, either.  Just as long as it was over.

"Now my life is over, too," Kenji told himself.  If he didn't bleed to death up here, he would starve on the streets or be picked up and locked away by the police, and probably condemned to die for his crimes.  He had nowhere to go, nobody left to turn to, no purpose to pursue.  "He was...right," Kenji whispered in amazement, then cursed himself.

Kyouya had seen this coming.  "Eventually the world is going to fall apart again.  What are you going to do then, since you've cut off all other ties?"  And Kenji had been so flippant, so careless of the future; and now that it really was happening, he desperately wished that he had done things differently.

'Done what different?  Refuse to be kidnapped?'

Kenji lay carefully back on the roof and stared up at the sky as he reached for his sword.  The cold, smooth feel of it reassured him a little, and he couldn't help a small smile.  "My last friend," he mused, holding the sword straight up above him with both arms outstretched.  "My last friend is a killer's weapon.  Figures."  With leisurely grace, he drew the blade and tilted it a little, watching the way it glimmered in the moonlight.  Then he began to think, unhurriedly, about whether he should make a try for life on the streets or just give in to fate right here; and if the latter, how best to accomplish it.  Throat?  Wrists?  Heart?

"...."

Those little girls would be very upset if they came home and found a gory corpse fouling up the place.  He was going to have to go somewhere else to do this.  Kenji sighed, re-sheathed the sword, and sat up with a groan.

There was a sudden noise from the street.  If the engine had been a car's, Kenji would have ignored it; but it was a motorcycle.  Suddenly curious (and probably procrastinating, like a miserable little coward...) Kenji crawled up again to look.

To his considerable surprise, the motorcyle veered into the Himuras' driveway.  Then Kenji actually collapsed in shock, lying flat on his belly as he stared at the white-jacketed figure leap off the bike and stride purposefully up to the house.  "Sano, what are you doing here?!" he whispered in amazement.

o.o.o.o.o

Sagara Sanosuke started to pound on the door before remembering that children lived here and were probably in bed, so he changed it to a jittery, impatient tapping.  "Himura, answer the freakin' door," he muttered, knowing even as he said it that obviously there had not been time for anyone to get to the door unless they had been waiting right on the other side of it.  "Come on!"

A sudden shuffling in the bushes by the front porch made him spin around, but then he saw a glint of reddish hair, a slight figure and the vaguely asymmetrical impression of a face.  "What're you doing, playing guard dog?" he snapped in relief, moving quickly over to the other man.  "Oi, I talked to the Ootori kid again; he'd managed to scrounge up some new info - they found Shishio, they're doing a raid tonight."  He paused expectantly.

The figure did not speak, merely shifted a little.

"Himura!  Wake up, this is a chance to nab our little punk!  For all I know the police've already moved in, we might even be too late!"

"You are," the figure said softly.  "Shishio's gone."

Sanosuke stared.  "Uh...wha--?"

The figure half turned away, laying a slim hand on the porch railing.  "...Sano...I - I killed my own father."

At the sound of that unexpected voice, Sanosuke felt like someone had punched him, and he couldn't move.  Then, just when the figure in the darkness shifted again as if to slip away, Sanosuke lunged forward and seized him, hauling him over to the porch light so he could see his face clearly.

For a second Sanosuke stared down at that wide-eyed, wounded expression in disbelief.  Then he howled out of sheer emotion and flung the boy against the wall.  "What the freak are you doing?!  We spend a week trying to track you down, and now you turn up at the front door?!"

Kenji said nothing.  He simply stared at Sanosuke, tremors occasionally seizing his body from both emotional and physical stress.

Sanosuke stared back, slightly at a loss.  Why didn't the kid say someth--?  "Wait - what'd you just say?"

Kenji swallowed.  "Sano, I...came here...to k-kill my father.  I...stabbed him."  He looked away.  Sanosuke swore.  "He's gone now," Kenji added in a low voice.  "No one's home.  I was just about to go away, too.  I'm sorry you had to...come here--"  He paused and looked back at the man.  "I'm glad you came," he whispered.

"Himura's dead," Sanosuke repeated numbly.

Kenji shifted uncomfortably.  "I don't know.  They took him away.  If he's not dead by now he...probably will be soon."  He thought about the girls again, and had a sudden desperate hope for their sake that their father would live.  "Or maybe not.  I don't...know."

Sanosuke ran a shaky hand through his hair.  "Urgh...I can't deal with this.  I'm calling your mom."  He pulled out his cell phone, but Kenji gripped his arm.

"No.  Don't call her.  She'll hate me.  I don't want to have anything to do with her."

"Kenji," Sanosuke growled, "do you realize how worried sick she's been about you?  She thought you were dead; your real family thought you were dead; then they find out you're alive but you've been going around killing people - stop being so freaking selfish and cut them a break already!"

Kenji had gone very cold, and suddenly he couldn't breathe.  "What do you mean, my real family?" he said belligerently.  "What do you mean, she?"

Sanosuke frowned.  "And that's another thing.  Why the heck didja tell me your mom was dead?  Nearly gave me a heart attack when she came strolling through the door!"

"Megumi!" Kenji gasped, feeling as if a sword had just been driven into his heart.

"Yeah, I found her - found Himura, too - when I was trying to dig up your info--"

Sanosuke had just enough time to register Kenji's twisted expression of rage before the boy slugged him in the face.

"What the--?!"  Sanosuke floundered back to his feet, sputtering and cursing.  "Are you crazy?!"

"Sano!" Kenji screamed, but then found he had no more words.  How could Sano, of all people, do this to him?  How could Sano taunt him so cruelly about the only person Kenji had ever truly loved?

The boy turned away to leave - and was attacked from behind; he gasped in surprise and outrage when he found that Sanosuke had knocked him to the ground and planted a foot on his back to keep him there.  Kenji winced in pain, his wing muscles trembling convulsively beneath his skin.  "Get off me."

"I'm calling her," Sanosuke growled.  "Stay put.  Five minutes.  Give me five minutes."

"Get off me!"

"Kenji!"

"Fine!"

"Little brat," Sanosuke muttered as he removed his foot.

Kenji sat up and glared, his fingers curling into the grass roots beneath him as he listened to Sanosuke dial and activate the phone's speaker.

[*"Hello?"

"Oi, it's Sano,"*] Sanosuke said, watching Kenji.  "I'm coming over."

"Ugh; I'm not home, Sagara."

At the sound of her voice, Kenji bowed over and stuffed his sleeve into his mouth, trying to shut himself up long enough to keep listening.  Unfortunately he couldn't do anything about the tears that had suddenly started streaming down his cheeks.

"This is important, woman!" Sanosuke said in exasperation.  "I need to see you!"

"For heaven's sake, Sagara, this is not the time!  I'm preoccupied right now!"

"I'm not asking for a date again, you moron!"

Her voice sounded equally exasperated.  "Look, I'm at the hospital, Sagara.  Kenshin-san's been injured; Kaoru-san won't leave him, and neither of them are in any state to look after the girls.  I've just managed to convince her to let me take the girls home instead of sitting with them at the hospital all night, so again, this is really not the time."

"We'll meet you there, then," Sanosuke snapped.  "Just stay at the hospital for, like, ten more minutes, can you do that?  I'll meet you outside."

"...Like I said, this had better be good."  She hung up with a click.

Kenji had never heard Megumi be so rude before, but it didn't matter.  Her voice, her tone and the inflections of her speech, had been unmistakeable.  He pulled his sleeve out of his mouth, pressed his forehead against his knees and sobbed.

Sanosuke stood there for a while, fidgeting both with great discomfort and with frantic impatience as he felt the seconds ticking by.  "Look, kid," he finally grumbled, not knowing where to look.  "Kenji...look, stop, uh...shut up, will you?"  The boy showed no indication of having heard him.  Sanosuke growled to himself and paced up and down a few steps; scrubbed his hands through his hair; cleared his throat and tried unsuccessfully to focus his attention elsewhere.  Finally he burst out, "Kenji, please shut up!"

The boy raised his face and stared at him, still crying softly.  Sanosuke stared back.  For freak's sake; it should be illegal to have eyes that huge and watery.  The sight of it was breaking his thick jaded heart and making him rethink any vague desire to have kids of his own some day.  "K-Kenji...look, just get on the bike, will ya?"

Kenji obviously was trying to reply, but Sanosuke couldn't hear a thing.  He could guess, though.  "Trust me, they won't care.  They won't care.  And if you're trying to be a selfish little brat again, forget it.  You owe it to them to stop - to stop running away like a coward you hear me?"

Kenji had thankfully stopped crying, but his head had dropped again, and he didn't move.  Sanosuke fell to his knees beside the boy and leaned over him urgently.  "Kenji...I'm sorry, you're not a coward; you're the bravest little punk I know - Kenji, please.  Just get on the freaking bike and come with me, please."

Kenji swallowed hard, and Sanosuke was relieved to see his expression hardening.  Wordlessly, Kenji climbed to his feet and trudged over to the motorcycle, pausing to lay a hand on it.  "You got a new one."

Sanosuke chuckled sharply.  Anything to avoid emotional topics - which was fine with him.  "Yeah."  He meant to say more, but his throat had suddenly closed.  Kenji was back.  It had finally sunk in, and now his job was to make sure the kid stayed back for good.  If he somehow slipped off again, those three parents were gonna kill someone, and Sanosuke had the feeling he would be the most convenient target.

"Still looks like a junk heap."

"Shut your mouth 'til you see her in action!"  Then they were bantering again as if it were the old days, except that each of them could see the pain in each other's eyes, and could feel the deadly urgency that had seemed to seep in.  "You ready, kid?"

"Let's go."

o.o.o.o.o

Kaoru was being absolutely useless, and Megumi could not even blame her.  The woman seemed as silent and motionless as a doll, slumped in a chair in the otherwise empty waiting room, her head bowed and her arms wrapped around her older daughter.

Ayame sat there in her lap just crying hopelessly, crying and crying from fatigue and stress and because her mommy was not acting right.  The exhausted Suzume was sprawled kicking and screaming on the floor, as Megumi knelt over her in exasperation and a distressed-looking nurse tried to get them to leave.  "I'm sorry...you're disturbing some of the patients...I'm so sorry...."

"I know," Megumi said tiredly.  "I apologize."  She felt like throwing herself on the floor and throwing a tantrum of her own.  She DID NOT want to deal with this, but apparently she was the only one who could.  "Kaoru-san, please!"

There was no response, and the girls' cries continued to clamor in Megumi's ears until she wanted to either slap them across their poor tired faces or bash herself in the head to get it all to stop.

She, understandably, barely heard her phone ring; luckily it was on vibrate as well.  She pulled it out and looked at the caller ID:  Sagara Sanosuke.  Immediately she snapped open the phone.  "Hello there," she said sweetly, though the effect was a bit spoiled by how loudly she had to talk just in order to hear herself.  "Can you hear that, you self-absorbed bird head?  Are you hearing what I've been having to deal with?"

"I bet it beats what I just had to deal with at the house," he shot back, barely audiable over Suzume's screams.  "Oi, we're here.  Come down, will ya?"

"I can't leave, Sagara Sanosuke!  They're trying to kick the girls out because they're screaming, and I doubt you want a couple of screaming children around when you try to ask me out again or propose or whatever NONSENSE you're insisting on this time!"

"For crying out loud, I just asked you out once - as a JOKE, you conceited fox-woman!"

Megumi hung up on him.  She flung the phone into a chair and then scooped Suzume into her arms, rocking the child mindlessly.  She could feel herself shaking in anger.  She wanted to cry.

"I want!" Suzume shrieked.  There was a pause as she apparently tried to figure out what she wanted.  Finally she gave up and just howled, "Mama!  Mama!"  Then she squirmed tightly into Megumi and bit her hard.

Megumi lay down on the floor with the child still in her arms and stared up at the too-bright ceiling.  There were two nurses now, but she couldn't hear what they were saying and didn't care.

"...Your phone is ringing again."

Megumi sat up again in surprise.  It was Kaoru who had spoken, though the woman did not otherwise move or look up.  Ayame had gone quiet, and was simply huddled miserably against her mother's chest.  Megumi could see her phone lit up and buzzing on the seat next to Kaoru.  For a minute she considered simply not answering it, or even finding the nearest window to throw it out of, but then she sighed and got to her feet and hefted Suzume onto her hip and then answered the phone one-handed just before it went to voicemail.

"...I'm sorry."  Sanosuke sounded almost as tired as she felt.  "I am very sorry, Ms. Takani.  I apologize.  A million times, or whatever you want."  He sighed very heavily.  "Will you please come down?  Please?  I'm afraid Kenji's gonna take off again if I leave him alone too long."

Megumi forgot to breathe.  "What did you say?" she finally managed to gasp out.

"Did he really stab Himura?" Sanosuke suddenly burst out, as if he had been wanting to ask it for a long time.  "I just...I can't believe--  Look, I can't deal with him right now, he's a basketcase and I thought if anyone could do anything with him it would be--"

"I'll be right down," Megumi interrupted.  "Where are you?"

"Front lobby, right by the doors."

"Okay."  She hung up.  She paused a moment, torn between immediately rushing down to Kenji or waiting to settle the girls first.  Then she sighed.  Whatever.  Kenji had sisters now and would have to get used to them.  "Kaoru-san, I have to take Suzume-chan out of here."

Kaoru looked up, and hesitated.  Then Megumi could actually see the decision to not say anything cross her face, and Kaoru dropped her head again.

"Ayame-chan," Megumi coaxed, holding out a hand.

"No," Ayame wailed, clutching at her mother.

Megumi pressed her fingers hard against her own forehead.  "I'll be back, then," she sighed, and left.  Suzume had finally quieted somewhat; now she was just clinging to Megumi and crying without resistance.

Sanosuke was fidgeting right by the front doors, just as he had said.  For some reason the sight of him warmed Megumi's heart, the welcome thought of another adult who was on her side and could help.  'My rescuer,' she thought in bitter amusement, then shook her head.

"Finally!" Sanosuke exclaimed when he saw her.

Suzume whimpered and hid her face against Megumi's neck.

"Why'd you bring the kid?"

"Couldn't leave her up there.  She was bothering patients.  Where's Kenji?"

"Hiding."

Somehow Megumi knew he meant, hiding from them, not staying out of sight for fear people might recognize him as an assassin.  "Here, take Suzume."

"Wha--?!"  Sanosuke seemed as resistant to the idea as the child was, but Megumi had run out of patience.  She yanked out Sanosuke's stiff arms and pushed Suzume into them, loosening her grip just enough so that the threat of dropping her caused him to tighten his hold securely on the child.  Man and girl stared at each other mistrustfully.  Suzume's lip began to wobble.

"Look, Suzume-chan."  Megumi tugged on one of Sanosuke's black spikes of hair.  "Bird head."

"Bird head," Suzume repeated uncertainly, obviously trying to decide whether to be amused or throw another tantrum.

"Oi!" Sanosuke hissed indigantly, but abruptly stopped when the little girl burst into tears at the look on his face.  "Wh-What do I do?" he stammered, staring at the child as if she was a dangerous wild animal.

"Rock her.  Pat her head.  Tell her everything will be all right.  Smile, for heaven's sake.  She's frightened, and tired, she doesn't know you very well, and you're a big scary man."

"Thanks," Sanosuke said sourly.  He hesitated, then awkwardly jiggled her up and down.  "Uh...everything will be all right, little girl."

Suzume tried to twist away from him as she cried, glaring up at him nervously.

"Um...."  An idea occurred to him.  He put on a smile and bent his head a little to tickle her cheek with the tips of his hair.  "Look, I'm a bird head.  Awk, awk!"

To his profound relief, she stopped crying and patted his hair solemnly (he winced as he felt the carefully-gelled spikes getting crushed, but wisely said nothing).

"Bird head," Suzume agreed.  Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and began to cry again.

"Good enough," Megumi told him with a surprisingly encouraging smile.  "At least she's not scared of you anymore.  Come on."

They went outside, where crickets were chirping somewhere in the shadows, and clusters of moths seemed to be attacking each harsh glare of light.  For a while they strolled along paths here and there, leading between narrow patches of landscaping and occasionally branching out to the parking lots.  "Where are we going?" Megumi finally asked.

"No clue.  Just walking around 'til the brat decides to show himself."

A few minutes later, a dark figure landed with a rustling thump on the grass a few steps away from them.  Megumi jumped and moved instinctively behind Sanosuke, who simply grinned at the figure.  "About time, idiot."

"Shut up."

Megumi's throat constricted, and she swallowed hard to clear it.  "Kenji," she said softly.

He approached slowly, uncertainly.  She reached out to take hold of his shoulders and drew him into the light.  They gazed at each other for a long time, his hands drifting up to grasp her arms lightly.  Finally she smiled a watery smile and hugged him.  "I've missed you, kid."

"Missed you, Megumi," he whispered.  "So much...."  His voice broke and he began to cry quietly into her shoulder.  She held him and stroked his hair, thinking sadly that she had not had to do this for him in so long, and now it was like he was seven years old again.

When he seemed to have gotten some control of himself, she pulled back and cupped his face in her hands, gently wiping away the last of the tears as she studied his face, her lips tightening as she took in the scarred cheek and the tortured eyes.  "My baby," she whispered, "my darling, I'm so glad you've come back."

It was obviously an effort for him to speak.  "M...Megumi...what am I gonna do?"

She had no answer for him right now, at least not the kind he wanted.  So she smiled and smoothed his hair and said strongly, "I don't know yet, baby; but you've got us.  We love you.  We'll help you.  Don't fight us, don't run away - we have to stay together."

He looked away, gazing at nothing for a while.  Finally he said in a low voice, "Don't call me baby," but he was smiling a little.  He looked back at her, almost shyly.  "Can I...go home with you?"

She kissed him and held him tightly again, forgetting to say out loud that of course he was coming home with her.  Then she remembered, "Oh - the girls are coming, too.  They can't stay here all night, and Kaoru-san can't leave--"  She stopped when she felt him suddenly go tense.  "Kenji," she said gently.  She pulled back again, looking into his face.  "Kenji, my love, listen to me.  Your...."  It was so hard to say.  "Your mother is up there," Megumi said softly.  "You need to let her see you."

He shivered a little.  His expression pinched stubbornly and he pulled away from her, refusing to meet her eyes.  Megumi said nothing, watching as he caught sight of Suzume, who had fallen asleep in Sanosuke's arms.  Kenji stepped up to the little girl and leaned his face close to her, studying her for a long time before reaching out to gently touch her cheek and then smooth a lock of dark hair out of her face.  "Her hair's all sweaty," he commented, sounding almost affectionate.

"She's heavy," Sanosuke pretended, pushing her into the suddenly alarmed Kenji's arms.  "Hold her, will ya?  She's yours, not mine."

Kenji stood awkwardly trying to balance the limp bundle of flesh in his grip, wincing as her weight put pressure on his injuries.  The little girl fussed in her sleep and cracked open bleary eyes, face puckered in irritation.  Her eyes widened as she stared at the young man who held her.  Then she burst into tears and seized him.  "Daddy, Daddy."

Megumi smiled sadly at Kenji's panicked expression.  "She knows you're not really her father - she's upset because she's not allowed to see him."

Kenji's face went white.  Then he squeezed his eyes shut and held his sister tightly.  "I'm so sorry, Suzume," he whispered brokenly.  "I'm...I'm so sorry."

"I want Daddy," she wailed.

Kenji was so tired.  He sat down on the ground and held her, hating himself for having hurt her.  Why hadn't he realized that if he killed Himura Kenshin, it was not only one life he would be affecting?  'Stupid, stupid, I'm so stupid.'

He heard the clicking sound of cell phone buttons being pushed, and he looked up to see Megumi dialing.  Their eyes met as she put the phone to her ear and listened to it ring.

'Please don't, Megumi.  Please don't make me.'

'Don't run away.'

'
Please, Megumi....'

'Don't run away.'

Megumi was relieved when Kaoru picked up - apparently the other woman was not so worn down that she would ignore a call from the person who had temporary charge of Suzume.  "Megumi?"

"Kaoru-san, could you please bring Ayame-chan down? ... Yes, Sagara's here, we'll be okay. ... I promise.  It's all right, Kaoru-san.  Please come down."

Kenji managed to last for about a minute.  Then he was forced to last for another couple of minutes, because Suzume was still gripping him and starting to fall asleep again, and he had trouble handing her off to one of the others.  Finally, though, Megumi took her; the girl settled grumpily into her arms and sighed, keeping her eyes closed.  Kenji managed to slip away just as a woman he recognized was starting to come out of the lobby doors, holding the hand of another little girl.

"Kenji!" Sanosuke hissed, but the boy had vanished.  "That little--"

Megumi laid a hand on his arm, and they shared a long look.  They leaned close to exchange a few whispers, then Sanosuke straightened and nodded, and Megumi went to greet Kaoru.

"Megumi-san," Kaoru said in a low voice, coming to a stop as the other woman came up.  "This is really hard for me."

"I know."  Megumi indicated Sanosuke behind her with a jerk of the head.  "I'll make him stick around as a guard dog.  It'll be fine.  We'll keep the girls safe for you."

Kaoru tried to muster up a thank you, but could not.  She looked down at Ayame, who was clutching her hand and staring at the ground.  "...Ayame-chan."

"I don't want to leave you," Ayame said in a small voice.

Megumi crouched down and smiled.  "Ayame-chan, won't you come with us and help look after your sister?"

Ayame gazed at her solemnly.  "Who's going to look after Mommy?"

"We'll come back tomorrow," Megumi promised.  "First thing, we'll come back and see how Mommy and Daddy are doing.  For now you need your rest, sweetheart."

Kaoru knelt down as well and kissed her daughter, rocking her in her arms for a moment.  "Go on," she whispered.  "I'll be all right.  Take care of Suzume, and come see us tomorrow, okay?"

"Okay, Mommy," Ayame whispered, kissing her back.  Then she dolefully took Megumi's free hand and started to walk down the path with her, her head craned back to watch her mother.  Kaoru stood silhouetted against the light from the lobby, her arms wrapped around herself as she watched them go.

Kaoru could not see much.  Sagara Sanosuke's figure stood out in the glare from the lights that lined the path, but his face was shrouded in shadows.  She felt just a little reassured.  The girls would not be completely alone and helpless with Megumi, with that woman who was walking away with her children again.  If they had a protector like Sagara around, maybe...maybe this time nothing would....

She expected Sagara to take Suzume's burden, but he made no move to help Megumi as they walked away.  Kaoru frowned, watching as they moved off and got harder and harder to see.  Then Sagara paused - and suddenly leaped off the path; for a minute all she could see of him was the light patch of his white jacket as he struggled with something.  Then he lurched back onto the path, hauling someone else with him.

For a minute Kaoru's heart seemed to jump into her throat as she thought wildly that it was another enemy, attacking them when they were so vulnerable, meaning to hurt her family yet again.  Then Sagara came dragging whoever-it-was back up the path, and Kaoru nearly cried out when she first saw the glint of light on reddish hair.  Tattered traditional clothes, stained with blood; the gleam of a sheathed sword; for one second she was struck with disorientation as she thought that Kenshin had somehow made his way out here.  Then she realized, and she nearly cried out again.

Sagara's arm was wrapped firmly around the young man's neck as he dragged him toward her.

"Let go of me!"

"I don't think so."

"Let go, Sano, before I hurt you!"

"Why should I?"

"...Because I'll walk by myself, jerk.  I hate you!"

"...Hm."

They broke apart and stood glaring at each other for a minute.  Then, briefly, Kenji turned to face her - their eyes met.  It seemed as if he had been about to take a step toward her, but then he suddenly looked away and shifted in the opposite direction.  Sanosuke's hand fell heavily on his shoulder and they glared at each other again, then Kenji dropped his gaze and just stood there, staring at the ground, his face turned away, the set of his shoulders indicating that Sanosuke's grip was the only thing keeping him there.

Kaoru, horrified, suddenly understood.  'How can he be afraid of me?!'  The next second she was striding forward, pushing Sanosuke aside and wrapping her arms around her son.  The feel of him in her embrace, his smell, it reminded her of her other lost sons, the ones she would never hold again, and she was struck by a sudden wave of fresh grief that left her weeping and helpless just when she needed to be strong.

He said nothing, but she felt him hesitantly raise his hands to hug her back.  "Kenji," she whispered.  "Kenji."

His voice in her ear was low and a little hoarse.  "I'm sorry."

"Stay with us," she whispered.  She pulled back and found herself mesmerized by his face, so like Kenshin's from a distance and yet, up close, completely different.  Her eyes traveled over every contour and detail in an attempt to memorize them, pausing briefly on the scar, riveted enitrely by the eyes.  "You are so precious to me," she found herself telling him, because it had been something she had held tightly in her heart for so long.  She had to make sure he knew it, now that she could finally tell him.  "You are so, so precious to me.  Please stay."

He looked away and did not answer, and she began to cry again.

"Don't," he muttered.  He lifted a hand to her face but then dropped it again without touching her.  "Please...don't."

Sanosuke suddenly shoved his shoulder, and Kenji glared up at him with resentful gratitude.  "She's crying because her idiot son won't promise not to run away.  She'll stop when you tell her you'll stay and mean it."

Kenji looked away again, sullenly.

"Kenji," she said hurriedly, "listen.  We've been looking for you for so long.  When you were born - don't you remember hearing our voices?  Your name--"

"I remember," he said abruptly, cutting her off.  "I know where my name came from."

She was hesitant now.  "Only five years...then just when you were starting to communicate clearly, it was like--"

His scowl grew fierce.  "I didn't want anything to do with the voices after--  when I was five."

"What did we do?!  Why did--?"

"It wasn't you!" he snapped at her, and at her stricken look he stepped away from her and she could see from his face that if she tried to approach again she would lose him.  "It wasn't anything you did," he said bitterly.  "I just didn't want to talk to you anymore.  I didn't want to be a dragon anymore.  I hated dragons.  I still hate them.  I hate them."

Because she could not touch him, she reached for his sleeve instead, taking up the edge of torn cloth and cradling it in her hands.  "Kenji, we did everything in our power to get you back.  We love you so much.  We love you so much."

Though he said nothing, he tilted his head a little so that he could peer at her from behind the shelter of his bangs.

"Kenji, please stay," she begged him.  "We have to be together.  We need you, please don't leave."  She felt like she would die if she lost one of them again.

"I'm not going to run off," he muttered.  "'Least not for now."

There was a pause, and he squirmed uncomfortably.  Then she suddenly stepped close and took his face between her hands, not quite gently.  "Promise me," she said, and even though tears still glimmered in her eyes, her voice was like steel.

Kenji swallowed.  "I...I can't...."  He could lie.  He could assure her that he would stay, and then he could just take off again if he needed to.  Yet somehow the words would not come.

He stared at her, waiting for her to say something, but she didn't.  Though he could almost read it in her eyes - "Why are you doing this to me?"

She really was his mother, he could see it now.  The same love he knew from Megumi's expressions was here now in this woman's.  Even so, how could he promise her such a thing?  How could he back himself into a corner like that?

'Just say it.  Just promise, and don't worry about breaking it next time you have to run.'

He took her hands in his own and lifted them away from his face, still holding them as he met her eyes and told her solemnly, "I promise I'll stay."

She searched his face.  She knew he was lying, he was sure she knew he was lying, but all she said was, "Keep your sisters safe...we're depending on you."

He cursed silently.  There was that.  Something to pin him down, and he didn't like it.  This was why he had vowed to never let anyone become precious to him again.  Why had they been stupid enough to keep making more children after they had lost him, more weaknesses?

He could see the rising panic in her face, and he suddenly knew what to do.  He leaned forward and kissed her cheek before stepping back with a smile.  "We'll be waiting for you.  Mom."  He had to work not to grimace when he said that word.  Megumi was 'Mom.'

"Do you promise?" she asked again.

It surprised him how easily the words came this time.  "I promise.  We'll see you tomorrow."

"...I'll be waiting.  I love you."

She did not move, and after a long time he realized that she could not bring herself to leave, that he had to be the one to break away first.  Gently, he tugged his hands out of hers and began to back away.  "...Good-bye, Mom."

Her face started to crumple, so he quickly turned away.  Megumi was sitting on a bench by the path, still holding Suzume and looking exhausted; Sanosuke stood nearby, supporting the now-sleeping Ayame as she slumped on his back.  "Ready?" he asked quietly.

Kenji nodded.

Sanosuke looked past him and nodded to Kaoru.  "We'll be back."

"Don't let anything happen to them!"

"I won't."  Sanosuke frowned and opened his mouth again, but then shook his head.  "Let's go, Kenji."

"Yeah."  There was no way he could bring himself to look back, nor did he have any desire to to.  If his mother was hurt by watching him leave, it wasn't his fault and he did not want to see it.  It wasn't his fault.

to be continued...

Author's Notes:  A few weeks ago, while trying to quick-edit the first paragraph of what was meant to be Chapter 7, I realized that it was not going to work as a brief summary of events and that I'd have to re-write it into an actual scene.  What was supposed to be one short scene ended up as two long ones (over 6,000 words altogether, more than enough for a chapter in and of itself).

Today I decided to just post what I have as Chapter 7 and save the rest for Chapter 8.  It's not long enough right now, but I think it will be once I re-write a scene to make better sense and then add in yet more stuff that I forgot in the initial draft.  So yeah, all the previous Chapter 8 stuff is now Chapter 9, and so on.  There are now 11 chapters total, plus a short epilogue.