Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Homecoming ( Chapter 9 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 8 - Homecoming (ROUGH DRAFT)

They loaded the children in Megumi's car, though Kenji opted to ride with Sanosuke on the bike.  He did not notice when he slipped into a light doze, leaning heavily against Sanosuke's back although his steadying grasp loosened only a little.

He knew that they had been told to make themselves at home in the Himuras' house, since the girls would be more comfortable there and Megumi had ominously hinted that it would be better for Kenji to get used to the place as soon as possible.  Therefore he was a little surprised when he blinked fully awake and realized that they were home - his home, the neighborhood where he and Megumi had lived before his past had caught up to him.

Megumi got out of her car, and as the roar of the motorcycle's engine died, she could suddenly hear Ayame's shrill puzzled voice saying, "This isn't our house."

"We're just stopping here for a moment," Megumi said soothingly.  "I have to get my medical supplies and some other things we'll need."  Oops - there was the dog to feed, too.  Megumi guiltily remembered this only when she heard Katana barking frantically in the back yard.

Bark!  Bark!  Bark!

At the sound of it, Kenji froze.  "He's alive," he whispered, scrambling shakily to his feet.

"We can take him with us," Megumi said at once.  There was absolutely no point in arguing against that.

Kenji barely heard; he immediately took off like a shot and vaulted over the fence.  "KATANAAAAAA!!!!!"

BARK!!  BARK!!  BARK!!

Megumi, Sanosuke, and the girls listened to the sudden sounds of violent snarling and yelling.  "What the...?"  Sanosuke frowned and clenched one hand into a fist.

"What's happening?" Ayame asked fearfully, and her sister moved to cling to Megumi's leg.

"Let's go see," Megumi suggested.  When she got the gate unlocked, they all walked into the yard to find Kenji and Katana locked in what looked like a vicious battle to the death, howling and biting and clawing as if they were wild animals.

"The doggy's eating him!" Suzume shrieked, and burst into tears.

"Megumi-nee, save our brother!" Ayame begged tearfully.

"No, it's all right," Megumi assured them, and quickly put out a hand to stop Sanosuke.  Even so, she found herself grinding her teeth as she watched.  She hated it when they did this, but there were some things in which it was better to let Kenji have his own way.

"I'll kill you," Kenji snarled, trapping the dog in a careful chokehold.  "Grrrr, I'll take you apart, you little beastie."  They growled into each other's faces.  Then Kenji's expression slowly crumpled, and his grip turned loose and shaky.  He buried his face in the russet fur.  "I thought you were dead, you stupid mutt...I thought you were dead...."

Alarmed, Katana whimpered and squirmed to get Kenji's face within licking distance, the game forgotten.  Kenji could not help laughing when the slobbery tongue sloshed indiscriminately over ear, hair, cheek, and mouth.  "Ugh, gross!  Cut it out, Katana!" he exclaimed, still crying a little even as he laughed.  He half-lay there, digging his fingers deep into thick fur, roughly caressing the floppy ears and furry head he had thought he would never see again.  Then he suddenly looked up and realized he had an audience.  "Urk."  He sat up quickly, glaring.  "What?" he mumbled defensively.

"K-K-Ken-nii," Ayame blubbered, as Sanosuke rolled his eyes.

"I'm fine," he said quickly.  "We were just playing."

Interested, Katana scrambled to his feet and trotted over to investigate the new arrivals, but the girls screamed and clung to Megumi.

"He's not gonna hurt you," Kenji insisted, his face coloring.  "Katana!  Come here!"

The dog whined, then bounded back and flung himself on Kenji, joyfully discovering complete access to the boy's face at last.

"Argh, no!  No, Katana, down!" Kenji yelled, but perhaps the laughter in his voice was not very convincing, because Katana happily took no notice.

o.o.o.o.o

The girls were unbelievably cranky upon their arrival home, having finally succeeded in dozing off again during the ride, only to be awakened yet again only minutes later.  Kenji and Sanosuke prudently kept their distance, to Megumi's extreme exasperation, bounding away to "check for bad guys" as soon as they caught on to the girls' mood.  Megumi sighed and grumbled unintelligible curses under her breath as she coaxed the children up to the house and rummaged for the key Kaoru had given her.

It was dim and a little musty-smelling inside - the air conditioner had been off for too long.  Megumi, however, had more important thoughts on her mind as she herded the girls along, yelling for the others to come help her get them ready for bed.  Of course they dragged their feet and were no help at all.

Ayame ended up flat-out refusing dinner, ate three candy bars while Megumi was busy elsewhere, went to turn on the television, whined about the lack of good cartoons, defiantly swallowed a mouthful of toothpaste when ordered to brush her teeth, and finally fell asleep in front of the TV.  Suzume wailed throughout the entire duration of the microwave's re-heating process and then complained about the choice of food, refused every single other edible item offered her, threw things across the room when ordered to eat the first choice, then fell asleep on the kitchen table while Megumi was distracted by Ayame's toothpaste fiasco.

"Megumi, I'm gonna go sleep at our house, okay?" Kenji finally told her, eyeing the girls dubiously.

Megumi...had no words.  She opened her mouth, wanting to spew, but nothing came out - luckily, the look on her face must have been expressive enough.

"Never mind!  Never mind!  I'll stay right here!" Kenji yelped, holding up his hands placatingly.

"You take that one, I'll take this one," she said in a brusque tone, scooping Suzume up and heading off to put her into bed.  Then came the matter of trying to get Sanosuke to stay in his guard dog post.  "Leave the doors open, sit right here in the hallway and don't you dare leave or fall asleep 'til tomorrow morning."

"You're crazy, woman!"

Kenji thought it would be a good time to take Katana for a walk - after all, the poor thing had been locked up all day.  Unfortunately he was at the last of his strength, and barely two houses down he felt like he could not take another step.  So he leaned against the side of a neighbor's house and nearly fell asleep standing up; awakened to the sounds of Katana chasing a raccoon; tore after him to get him to shut up; somehow made his way back home, and then got completely chewed out for wandering off without telling anyone.  "But you were busy!"

"And you, among MANY other things, are wounded!  Get in the bathroom and strip!"

"I'm hungry, I want to eat first," he whined, but That Look came back to her face and he found himself jumping to obey orders.  Grumbling, he self-consciously slipped out of his sleeves and undid his belt as Megumi came in with towels and medical supplies.  Then she stopped and just stared at him for a while.

"It's not that bad," he mumbled, trying to rub off some of the blood that had long since dried on his skin.  It crumbled and continued to stick to him, just now in skinny little wads that made him look like he was diseased.  The thought occurred to him that he himself might be the source of the distasteful smell he had kept detecting on and off over the last few hours.

"How are you still standing?" Megumi said faintly, dumping her supplies down and leaning close to his torso to inspect the worst of the injuries, which was still oozing a little.

"Well...I'm really tired," Kenji offered truthfully.

The smell of antiseptic made him want to throw up, but other than that he was able to mentally check out as she tended to him.  Her touch was gentle and barely brought any bad associations; the occasional shock of pain kept trying to pull him back, but his mind, having become much better disciplined in recent months, was able to maintain his concentration.  'She's not a doctor,' he kept telling himself.  'It's just Megumi.  It's only Megumi.'  The worst part was when she was bandaging the raw scratch on his back, but it was not a serious injury and was taken care of quickly.

"You should really be in a hospital," Megumi grumbled as she straightened, stretching painfully before moving to pack her things away.

He didn't say anything.

Megumi shut the box with a click and sighed.  Then she met his eyes for the first time since she had started working.  "There's only so much I can do for you on my own.  Luckily for you, it's too dangerous to take you anywhere, but you really ought to have better care than I can give you."

"I trust you, Megumi," he said pointedly.

Looking sad, she leaned over and kissed him, then handed over a clean set of clothes for him to sleep in.  "Get some rest, kiddo.  Don't even think about taking off.  I'll see you in the morning."

He looked at her.

She had been moving to leave, but paused in the doorway to look back at him.  "We have a lot to talk about."

"I don't want to talk about anything," he said softly.

She came back over and kissed him again, then put her arms around him and just held him for a while.  "That doesn't change the fact that we have a lot to talk about," she murmured compassionately.

He held on to her and closed his eyes, resting against her warmth, breathing in her smell.  "She's not my mother," he finally whispered.  "You are."

He slept on the couch, because there was no way he was going to sleep in his parents' room, and Megumi wouldn't let Katana on any of the beds anyway.  Kenji fell asleep right away with his face against the dog's smelly fur, but when he woke up an hour later from nightmares, his scream was silent and he lay rigid until the sky began to lighten, straining to hear the comforting sounds of his sleeping family.

o.o.o.o.o

"Yay, he's up, he's up!"

Kenji sat there, staring at nothing and feeling like a zombie.  He desperately wanted to lie down again, but between Katana and the girls, whose high spirits had returned after a night's sleep, he knew such an action would be pointless.  "Shut up," he mumbled unintelligibly.

"Kenji, come eat breakfast," Megumi called.

"No."  Then he stared down at his stomach in surprise when it rumbled loudly.  "Ugh...."  With Katana close on his heels, he dragged himself off the couch and into the kitchen, where he plopped into a chair and slumped face-first over the table.  Not, unfortunately, without getting a glimpse of a clock first, which displayed the numbers 7:44.  "You guys are insane...."  He had only managed to snatch maybe an hour or so of sleep before the girls had started jumping on him.

"Hurry up, Ken-nii!" Suzume practically screamed in his ear.

"We're ready to go see Mommy and Daddy - we're just waiting on you!" Ayame clamored.

"Blargh."

He heard and sensed the scrape of a bowl being slid across the table, and despite himself he lifted his head and dragged the bowl closer.  Himura Kenji was not one to turn down food, and he began shoving spoonfuls into his mouth without bothering to ascertain what he was eating.

A few bites in, he noticed that Katana was politely begging.  "...Look, buddy, you know you're not getting any of this."

Katana tensed and licked his chops, unblinking eyes fixed on his master's.

"It's rice.  You're a dog.  You don't like rice."

Katana whined.

"Come on, boy,"  Megumi chuckled as she came back over.  "Time to go out, let Kenji finish his breakfast."

Katana spared her a distressed glance and then whipped his attention back to Kenji.

"Katana, go.  Go potty," Kenji ordered.

The girls picked it up at once.  "Go potty, doggy!  Go potty, doggy!  Ha ha ha!"

"Keep it down, will ya?" Sanosuke groaned from the couch, where he had crashed soon after Kenji had vacated it.  "Some people are tryin' ta sleep...."

Looking confused, Katana reluctantly let Megumi and the girls pull him outside, leaving Kenji to finish eating in peace.  As soon as he was done, he went to curl up in an armchair and fell instantly asleep.

What felt like the next instant later, he was shaken awake again.  "Ken-nii, let's go," Ayame insisted, tugging at him.

He glared at her, restraining the impulse to hit her.  "I'm staying here."

Her mouth fell open in surprise.  "Whaaaat?"

The girls were seriously getting on his nerves this morning.  He sat up quickly, but then forced himself to calm down when he saw the frightened way she backed away from him.  "Look, Ayame, I'm--  I--  the police want me."  He couldn't quite bring himself to tell his little sister that up until yesterday, he had killed people for a living.  "I'll get in really deep sh...in really deep doo-doo if anyone recognizes me.  I have to stay home."

She stared at him for a long time reproachfully.  He squirmed, and was just about to flop over and shut his eyes again when she finally said, "You could go in disguise."

"Ayame.  They'll recognize me."  You little brat, he stopped himself from adding.

Megumi came over from where she had been arguing with a very disgruntled Sanosuke ("I'm not going!  In case you forgot, I've been up all night - I'm tired, woman."  "Oh, so you don't care if something happens to the Himura kids on your watch, you stupid bird head?").  "Kenji," she said.  "Are you sure?  Even if we can't risk you going in, you can at least let Kao--  your mother come out and see you.  And you'll be safer if you stick with us."

"I'm tired," he shot back, realizing too late that he sounded just like Sanosuke.  "I hurt."  He poked at one of his bandages.  "I'm staying home, okay?"  This place was not 'home.'  "I'm staying here."

Megumi sighed.  "Why is it that I'm stuck dealing with all the stubborn babies around here...?"

Furious, Kenji flung himself back into the chair and squeezed his eyes shut.  "I am sleeping and refuse to move," his body language said.

Megumi rolled her eyes.  "Fine.  Sagara, get up, we're leaving; girls, go out to the car.  Katana!"  The dog, which had been lying dolefully on the floor by the armchair, leaped to his feet and looked to Megumi for orders.  "Stay and watch over Kenji."

"Bark!"

"Make sure he doesn't leave."

"Bark?"

Megumi walked back over and stared down at her adopted son, who was pointedly 'asleep.'  "Did you hear that?  You are going to be here when we get back."

"I'll be sleeping all day so it doesn't matter," Kenji mumbled.

Megumi sighed, reached down to lay a hand on his head, then turned around and went to herd the others out to the car.

When Kenji opened his eyes, feeling much better, he was startled to see someone sitting very close to him.  He gasped and backed away at once, wincing in pain both from the sudden flaring of his injuries and the unexpected crick in his neck.  "What the...?"  The light, he noticed distractedly, was different; it looked like early afternoon.  He had been asleep for hours.  "Uh...."  He could hear the girls in the kitchen, their high-pitched voices mingling with Megumi's calm tone and the sounds of a meal being prepared.  Sanosuke was fast asleep on the couch as if he had never moved.  "Hi," Kenji mumbled.  He struggled to get out of the chair, unable to meet her eyes.

"Kenji."  The warmth in her voice as she said his name made him wince.  Kaoru reached out to steady him as he got to his feet, and he had to remember not to flinch away.  "I was worried about you."

"I slept the whole time."  Not knowing what else to say, he sat down on the floor and dug his hands into the dog's fur.  Katana licked him encouragingly.  He wanted to ask what she was doing here, but it would probably hurt her feelings or something.

He could feel her watching him quietly for a while, and it made him nervous.  Finally she said, "He sends his love."

Kenji ground his teeth tightly together, trying to keep his emotions under control, and it wasn't until Katana yelped that he realized his grip was too tight.  He deliberately relaxed his hands.

"We're both so glad you're back," she continued softly.  She leaned down rested her head against his, her hand on his shoulder.  He forced himself to be still.  "Kenji, thank you.  Thank you so much for being here."

"I promised, didn't I?" he said, because it seemed to be what he was supposed to say.  Then, because the silence kept dragging on and on, he finally escaped with the admittedly very true, "I need to take a bath."

Afterward, Kenji found that he was ravenous for lunch - so was Sanosuke, apparently, since the man appeared swiftly at the table when called, despite having been sound asleep just seconds before.

"Look at Mr. Bird Head's face," Suzume laughed, poking at the red mark on his cheek from where Sanosuke's face had been pressed against a patterned pillow.

Sanosuke forced a smile, patted her head and told her she was a very funny little girl, then dug into his food so heartily that the girls were rather too awed to address him again during the meal.

Luckily, the children provided most of the chatter, since the adults seemed to have trouble making conversation.  Kenji answered Kaoru's questions as shortly as possible and tried to lose himself in eating.  Megumi's conversation attempts were graceful but did not seem to have much heart in them.  The men occasionally locked eyes, each understanding exactly where the other was coming from:  "When can I get out of here?!"

Finally Kaoru said that she had to leave again, since she would be staying another night with her husband at the hospital.  Kenji was so relieved at this that he gave her a kiss good-bye without being asked or prompted, though his feelings were an unpleasant mix as he stood at the door with his sisters and watched her walk away.  "Don't go...."  It was as if he could hear a child's voice whispering deep within him, and he tried his best to quash it.  'I'm home now.  Shut up.  I'm home.'

He looked at Megumi, his Home, and his heart sank as Sanosuke and Katana and the girls entered his line vision as well, and he was forced to acknowledge that his family had grown disturbingly large.  'Will I be able to let go of all this again if I have to?'

It wasn't fair.  He didn't want this.  He had liked being alone.  He didn't want this....  'I don't know what the freak I want,' he realized.  Suddenly disgusted with himself, he called to Katana and fled outside and threw sticks and wrestled and ran until he was too exhausted to think about this stupid stuff anymore.

o.o.o.o.o

That night, Sanosuke jerked out of his doze and was halfway to his feet before he realized that it was only Ayame tiptoeing past him in the dark hallway.  He squinted and rubbed at his face.  "What's up?"

She froze and stared at him.  Then she said in a small voice, "Are Mommy and Daddy still gone?"

"Yeah.  Um...you want me to..." he racked his brain, "...get you a cup of water or something?"

Ayame stared at her feet and did not say anything.

Sanosuke sighed.  "You want me to wake up Madame Fox?"

She shook her head.

Were kids always this troublesome?  "You wanna sit here with me for a while?"

"No."  She edged away.  "Ken-nii...where's Ken-nii?"

Sanosuke jerked his head in the direction of the living room.  "He's out there again.  You want me to get him?"

"No, thank you," she said politely.  Then she trotted away hurriedly.

Sanosuke got up and watched as the little girl moved cautiously to the couch where Kenji was curled up with the dog.  Katana raised his head at her approach, perking his ears and panting in greeting.  Ayame was just reaching out her hand to pet him when a thought suddenly occurred to Sanosuke.  "Don't touch them!  Stand back, kid.  Wake him up with your voice.  Stand back."

Ayame looked at him in confusion.  Sanosuke sighed and went over to the couch, pushing the girl gently out of the way as he did so.  "Oi, Kenji!"

The boy shot upright, hand grasping automatically for his weapon.  Sanosuke was glad he had remembered to warn Ayame in time.  "Cool it.  It's just us."

Kenji stared at the two of them for what seemed much longer than necessary before he finally relaxed.  "What do you want?"

"Ken-nii, I had a bad dream," Ayame told him, sounding expectant.

"Oh.  You did?" Kenji said warily.

Ayame was already climbing onto the couch with him.  "Tell me a story," she commanded as she snuggled into his chest (which hurt, judging by the look on his face).  The couch was not particularly large, and she looked as if she might fall off again at any moment; Katana had been forced to shift to the far end by Kenji's feet.

"Huh?  Why should I--?"

Sanosuke shoved him.

Kenji glared, then rolled his eyes and amended, "If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep again?"

"Yes," she said, frowning as if he had said something unintelligent.

"In your bed?"

"Huh?  No, I want to sleep with you!  Tell me a story."

Kenji gave Sanosuke an 'Is this for real?' look, and the man responded with a grin as he held up his hands and backed away.

"Ugh...whatever...okay, once upon a time."

Ayame closed her eyes in contentment, a fold of his shirt clutched in her fist.

"Once upon a time there was...uh...a dog."  Katana licked his ankle, making Kenji yelp in surprise.  "Um, the dog...went...to the store, and...bought clothes?"

'Why are you making it sound like a question?' Sanosuke thought in amusement.

"Why did the doggy buy clothes?" Ayame asked sleepily.

Kenji rolled his eyes again.  "Because he was...going to a party.  He wanted to look fancy."

"A birthday party?"

"Dogs don't have birthday parties."

The girl opened her eyes.  "They don't wear clothes either."

"Fine!  He didn't buy clothes, he bought...I don't know...cigarettes."

Ayame regarded her brother gravely.  "Your stories aren't as good as the ones Mommy tells."

"Then go back to bed!"

Immediately she squeezed her eyes shut again and latched onto him.  "No, I want to hear the story!"

The continuation of Kenji's story was no better than its beginning, but luckily he did not have to go on long before it had done its work.

About an hour later, the peace of the house was disturbed by Suzume's crying.  Sanosuke sighed, went in to check on her, and found her sitting straight up in bed, wailing as if her heart would break.  At the sight of him, she screamed.

"For crying out loud, just bring her in here," Kenji's voice called sleepily from the living room.

o.o.o.o.o

Megumi woke up while it was still dark, about an hour before the time set on her alarm.  Too stressed out and uncomfortable to try to go back to sleep again, she rolled out of bed and started to reach for her bathrobe, then grimaced.  The air conditioner must have broken down some time in the night; it was stiflingly hot.  She changed into something decent but breathable, then tiredly went out in search of coffee before investigating the state of the A/C.  On the way to the kitchen, noticing that Sanosuke (who was shirtless...) had fallen asleep sitting against the wall, she gave him a little kick; he grunted, but did not otherwise react.

The situation in the living room first startled and then fascinated her.  A heap of small dragons - that is, they actually all fit inside the room - were huddled silently together in a tangle of limbs and necks and wings, their sides heaving regularly as they breathed.  The largest - Kenji, she realized with a jolt - just managed to fit, curled up, with all the furniture shoved against the walls.  The two smaller ones were nestled close to him, occasionally twitching in their sleep.

Katana came slinking out of the kitchen, whining as he pressed against Megumi's legs.  She reached down to pat his head.  "First time for you too, huh?"  The heat was nearly suffocating, though she realized now that the air conditioner had been running all along.  Well, not surprising when there were three dragons crammed into a small space.

Kenji's eyes suddenly opened, and Megumi stood there staring, riveted.  She had never seen him like this before.  It was unsettling to look at this looming creature with deep red scales, and know that it was really the boy she loved as a son.  Except that she could not force her mind to make the connection - her instincts kept screaming at her to flee, and it was all she could do for a minute to remain still, her hand tightly gripping the cowering dog.

The jewel-bright eyes narrowed, and low rumbling began to shake the room.  Megumi tensed.  Then she deliberately forced herself forward, step by step, even after Katana fled.  The dragon tucked his scaled head out of sight, as if protecting himself from...what?  Her disappointment, her disgust?  Somehow it gave her the courage to close the last of the distance between them and place her hand on those scales.  The heat of his body seeped quickly into her palm, but she did not move.  "Kenji," she said softly.

A shudder passed through him, and she instinctively jerked her hand away.  Yet it was merely the beginning of his transformation - she watched as his size dwindled, scales softened to flesh, claws to fingers, the red color gathering away into his hair.  He sat on the floor, bracing his arms on the ground as he glared up at her.  His eyes, though they were smaller now, were the only part of him that otherwise remained exactly the same.

The loss of his body mass sent the two little ones sprawling, where they snorted and blinked awake.  At the sight of Megumi, they leaped to their feet and pranced around her for a minute before suddenly regaining human form and asking if they could have doughnuts for breakfast.

"Of course not.  Hurry and go make your beds, I'll cook something in a minute."

After the girls had scampered off, Kenji wrapped his arms around his knees and glared at the floor, grumbling in a hurt voice, "You're afraid of me."

She crouched down next to him and propped her chin on her hand.  "Dragons eat people, you know.  Don't I get some credit for not running away from my fearsome child?"

After a minute, he crawled over to her, closed his teeth gently on the flesh of her neck and then mumbled, "Yeah, I'll eat you, crunch you up to pieces.  Then I won't have to care about you anymore."  She put her arms around him and held him until Katana ventured back into the living room.

The dog crept across the floor, whining at the strong smell of dragon that still lingered in the room, but when he reached Kenji he was so adamant to lick and nuzzle and paw at his master to make sure that he was all right, that Megumi lost her hold.  She laughed and patted both boy and dog on their heads before getting up to go start breakfast.

While they ate, with Sanosuke teasing the kids about overheating the house, Megumi asked what they had been doing.

"Couldn't sleep," Ayame explained matter-of-factly, mashing her boiled egg into an unappetizing-looking paste.  "When Suzume came, we turned into dragons and Ken-nii sent us happy thoughts 'til we fell asleep again."

"'Ken-nii sent you happy thoughts,'" Sanosuke echoed, sounding confused.

"I saw a puppy," Suzume announced.  "It looked like a baby Katana."  She patted the dog, who wagged his tail happily.

"It was Katana," Kenji grumbled, right before stuffing his mouth so full that he would not have to speak again any time soon.  He was hunched deeply in his chair, his eyes completely hidden behind his hair.

"Oh!  I knew it!" Ayame cried.  "And the mommy lady you showed us was Megumi-nee, and the motorcycle man was Mr. Bird Head!  Duh!"

"Princesses," Suzume added.  "They wore pink and blue dresses, and they twirled."

"That would be Sleeping Beauty, I bet," Sanosuke said dryly.  "So, you like, sent memories into their brains?"

"Dragons can do that," Ayame told him importantly.  She paused.  "But only when we're dragons, 'cause it hurts to try to talk human with a dragon mouth."

She suddenly slipped out of her chair and transformed.  Sanosuke shot to his feet and bit off a surprised exclamation.  He and Megumi watched as the two children, both dragons now, thrummed at each other and beat their wings.  A second later, Kenji shoved away from the table and took his meal away to eat outside with Katana.

The girls quickly shifted back so that they could ask worriedly, "What's wrong with Ken-nii?"

"Hm...I think maybe dragons make him uncomfortable," Megumi said awkwardly, her thoughts still reeling about the idea of mind-to-mind communication.

"But Ken-nii is a dragon, too," Suzume protested.

Ayame was frowning.  "Maybe there really are bad things behind the wall."

"What do you mean, sweetheart?"

The girl looked up at Megumi seriously.  "Ken-nii's mind has a humongous wall in front, even bigger than Daddy's.  He had to bring the puppies and princesses and stuff out through a gate.  I think there's bad things behind the wall.  Maybe that's why he doesn't like dragons."

"I think you're right," Megumi said slowly.  It would explain some things.

"My head hurts," Sanosuke said flatly.  "Can we talk about something normal now?"

Like the day before, Sanosuke accompanied Megumi and the girls to the hospital, leaving Kenji alone at the house.  Unlike the day before, Kenji did not spend the entire time sleeping.  Tying up his hair and donning a hat, makeup, and tinted glasses, he went out to buy something from the nearest convenience store.  Then he splashed and cursed in the bathroom as Katana lay unhappily just outside the doorway, occasionally sneezing at the harsh smells.

The phone rang only once, at a moment when Kenji had just dropped the box and both hair clips on the floor and was in no mood to answer it.  However, when he heard the voice leaving a message on the answering machine, he yelped happily and dashed to grab the phone before it was too late, slipping on a puddle as he did so.  He ended up in a tangle of towel and water and dog and phone cord on the floor, but he had been in time - "Yeah, come on over!  Everyone else is gone, but I'll be here."

So it was that the others came home to a couple of unexpected developments.  "What did you do to your hair?!" Megumi squawked, more out of surprise and motherly indignation than actual displeasure.  Kenji actually looked very handsome with short black hair.

"I like it this way," Kenji said defiantly as both his mothers came over to fuss with his hair, patting it and running their hands through it and inspecting the chin-length tips with what he thought was entirely unnecessary intensity.  He felt like a girl trying on wedding dresses or something, what with the sudden tense desperation for their approval - which was stupid, because he'd done this for himself, not for them.  "Now I look Japanese instead of like a freak."

Kaoru finally smiled, knowingly and a little sadly, and patted his shoulder.  "Yes.  I'm sure that looking Japanese is a high priority for you."

Kenji's small blush flared crimson as Ayame added disapprovingly, "You don't look like Daddy anymore."

'That's the point, brat.'

"You really don't," Kaoru said thoughtfully, looking into his face.  She would never tire of looking at his face.  "You really don't look like him at all except for the eyes, and your build."  And the scars.

"Well...well, good."

"Any chance of getting an introduction any time soon?"

That was Sanosuke, the only one who had not been drawn to Kenji's new hairstyle like a moth to flame.  He was instead gazing at the woman standing hesitantly just inside the kitchen, his stance wary.

"It's her!" Ayame shrieked.  Suzume burst into tears and clung to her mother's leg.  Kaoru held on to both her girls and did not trust herself to speak.

"Um...Kiyosato Tomoe-san, right?" Megumi said uncertainly, glancing between Kenji and his family.

The young man seemed perfectly at ease, even happy.  "Tomoe-nee called earlier," Kenji explained.  "I told her she could come.  But, hey, she said that she found out our address from Saitô, so I was thinking I should--"  He paused, suddenly realizing that he should probably keep this to himself for now.  "Never mind."

"Please forgive me for the intrusion," Tomoe said in a low voice.  "I learned that Kenshin-san was hurt.  I...."

"She brought FOOD," Kenji told them almost rapturously.  Then he paused, a slightly guilty expression crossing his face.  "I, er, ate most of it already, but...hey, there's a few cookies left.  You want them, Ayame?  Suzume?"

"Ken-nii, she cut your face," Ayame said in a small voice.

Kenji paused, startled, as if learning new information.  Then he smiled a little and turned to Tomoe, putting a hand absently to his left cheek.  "Yeah.  Way to go, Neesan, now I'll never be popular with girls."

"Somehow, I do not think you will have a problem with that," she answered, her expression inscrutable.

It angered Kaoru that all could be forgiven so easily between them, that her son trusted a woman who had hurt him more than he trusted his own mother - but then Kenji took hold of her hand and tugged her into the kitchen, chattering about something, and somehow the very carelessness of his gesture was soothing, that he would be able to reach for her in such a way.

"Look, well, there's only crumbs left, but that was the best...something ever ate.  I think there was octopus in it."

"You didn't even find out what it was before you ate it?" Sanosuke said indignantly.  "That's no way to appreciate a woman's cooking, idiot kid!"

"Sorry!  Tomoe-nee, I'm sorry," Kenji said, both sincere and playful.  "If you make it for me again, I promise to ask what it is before I eat it."

"Perhaps you might permit me to teach you how to prepare it yourself."

"Aw...I'm not much of a cook, but...whatever, sounds fun."

"Hey, some of us are still introduction-less here," Sanosuke pointed out.  "This lady is...?"

"I was captured at the same time Kenji was," she explained.

"She's what kept me from going completely crazy in that place," Kenji added, beginning the comment in the confident tone he had been using, but suddenly dropping in volume and looking away uncomfortably.  Tomoe briefly laid her hand over his, and he smiled at her.

"In that case I should thank you, Tomoe-san," Kaoru said stiffly.  'I'll try,' was what she wanted to say.  'I feel like I can't forgive you, but I'll try, for Kenji's sake.'

"I honor you, you and your family, for the sacrifices you were forced to make."

Kaoru was not the only one to notice the sorrow in Tomoe's eyes - Kenji cut in loudly, "WELL, you guys haven't eaten yet, and I won't say no to more food, so what are we having for lunch?"

Kenji seemed giddy and restless during the meal, chattering uncharacteristically until someone, usually Sanosuke, would give him a strange look.  Then he would fall silent for a time, then suddenly either pounce on Katana for being the "best doggy in the world" or jabber at Tomoe or tease one of the girls, and as soon as he finished bolting his food down, he looked as if he would be physically incapable of remaining in his seat for longer than two more minutes.

"Kenji," Megumi finally suggested, "Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan look like they could use some sunshine.  Why don't you take them and Katana out for a walk?"

He shot out of his chair immediately.  "Awesome."

"Don't wanna go for a walk," Ayame snapped crankily.  Suzume started crying again as she got out of her chair and headed straight to the front door to get her shoes, sobbing the whole way.  Megumi and Kaoru shared a look that, for once, held the exact same thought - the girls were upset at Tomoe's presence and confused by their brother's reaction to her, and they needed time to process their feelings.

"Yes, you do," Kenji informed his sister, scooping her up over one shoulder and then staggering briefly as her weight sent pain shooting through his injuries.  He put her down again quickly as Katana danced around them, barking.

"I'm not going!" Ayame screamed.

Kenji, having no clue how to deal with her and in the wrong mood to try, simply whirled away to slather more makeup over his scars.  Ayame watched him intently as he first did this and then went to grip Tomoe's shoulders from behind, looming over her with a sort of menacing affection.  "Neesan," he murmured to her in a pleased, half-wild growl.  "Neesan, I'm alive."

She turned her head a little towards him.  "You've done well to survive so far," she said softly.  "Now live."

"Yes!  I have to run now."  He spun back the other way and flung himself out the door, with Katana racing frantically after him.

"Ken-nii, WAIT!" Ayame shrieked, rushing to catch up as well.  "Ken-nii, Ken-nii, Ken-nii!"

"Can't catch me!"

"KEN-NII!"

"Run, Ayame!" he called over his shoulder.  "Use your stubby little legs!"

"Mommy, MAKE HIM WAIT!"

Their voices were fading quickly; Kaoru, who was not going to be left behind, had to hurry with Suzume to catch up with them.

The others watched them go.  Megumi clenched her hands tightly to try to keep the pain and resentment at bay.  It wasn't reasonable of her.  It wasn't fair, to anyone, including herself.  But it hurt, trying to give Kenji up to someone else, and she didn't think she could do it.  It was all she could do to stay seated and not hurry after them.

She was surprised when Sanosuke came to her rescue, though of course he had no idea how welcome the distraction from her own thoughts was.  "So, obviously I'm only the bodyguard, and don't warrant any explanations, but does anyone just happen to feel like volunteering some info here...?"

Tomoe looked at him, and he shivered a little, not recognizing the goodwill hidden in her expression.  "I will explain, Sagara-san.  My maiden name was Yukishiro.  My brother--"

"Yukishi--?!  Wait, just a--  That would mean--!"

"Sagara," Megumi said sweetly, "are you sure you want those explanations, or would you rather keep sputtering like an idiot?"

He shot her a glare, though with no heat.  "Woman...."

Megumi smiled.  "Please continue, Kiyosato-san."

o.o.o.o.o

When the Himuras got back to the house, the girls seemed subdued and tired, though no longer upset.  Kaoru had her arm lightly around Kenji, who seemed very uncomfortable at the contact but no longer bouncing off the walls.  He broke away from her as soon as they reached the front walk and came into the house, stopping short at the sight of Megumi, Sanosuke, and Tomoe looking as if they had been interrupted in the middle of an intense conversation.

"What were you talking about?" Kenji asked belligerently.

"You," Megumi and Sanosuke answered at the same time, both teasing and truthful.  They looked at each other in surprise.

"Poor Kenji, he had such a horrible childhood, let's all be nice to him," Kenji mocked in a whiny, high-pitched voice.

"Something like that," Sanosuke scoffed.  He stood up and stretched, then went over and began propelling Kenji across the house to the back door without breaking stride.  "Let's go spar or something, I'm bored out of my freaking mind.  All I wanted to do was track down you and Shishio, but somehow I ended up with a long-term baby-sitting job."

"I think you're good at it," Kenji told him, grinning.

Sanosuke snorted.  The two of them disappeared into the backyard as Kaoru and the girls came into the dining room.

"Did you have a nice walk?" Megumi asked.

"A little hectic," Kaoru admitted.  "But I wouldn't have traded it for the world."

"I know what you mean," Megumi said softly.

Kaoru suddenly wanted to cry.

Tomoe rose to her feet, picking up her teacup to take to the sink as she did so.  "I will take my leave," she said quietly.  "Thank you, Kaoru-san."

"Tomoe-san...thank you."  It was hard to say, but now she was able to mean it more than she had earlier.

Suzume was still hiding behind her mother, but Ayame came hesitantly up to Tomoe, her fists clenched and her expression wounded.  "T...Tomoe-nee...please don't hurt my brother again.  Okay?"

Tomoe knelt so that they were looking into each other's faces.  "Will you forgive me, Ayame-chan?"

Ayame burst into tears and threw her arms around the woman.  Tomoe held her close, her eyes squeezed shut in an attempt to suppress tears.  Guilt at having betrayed the girl's trust was tinged with the feel of the child in her arms and a sudden pang of familiar longing for children of her own.

"I'll forgive you, just don't hurt Ken-nii again," Ayame sobbed.  "Be nice like you were before, okay?"

"Yes."  She pulled back and smiled, which was when the tears came.  Perhaps that was a good thing, for at the sight of them Ayame finally smiled as well, and they exchanged watery gazes as the tentative beginnings of trust slowly began to seep back in.

o.o.o.o.o

Late the next night, Saitô Hajime got home to find three people occupying his apartment, rather than just two.  "...What is this."

Tokio smiled brilliantly.  "I had to let him in.  The poor thing was screaming outside the door."

"Are you kidding?!  I was NOT!"

"Inside joke.  Chill," Eiji muttered.  He was sipping noisily from a cup and trying hard to pretend that he wasn't wildly fascinated by the fact that a known assassin was sitting two feet away from him.

"I'm not a 'poor thing,' and all I did was knock," Kenji grumbled.

Saitô rubbed absently at his temple.  This already long night looked as if it was going to get a lot longer.  "I was unaware of the necessity of stating the obvious fact that showing your face anywhere in public, much less in the home of a police chief, is an unwise move," Saitô said, very pointedly.

Kenji shifted restlessly.  "Look, Mom and, uh, Mom will kill me when they find out I snuck out to come here, but at least hear me out before you try to arrest me or something."

Saitô flung his necktie onto the arm of a chair and then stalked into the kitchen, forcing Kenji to follow him like an anxious puppy.  "Look...Saitô."

"As far as I'm concerned, you're not here."

"Thanks.  Um.  You see...."

Tokio came breezing into the kitchen, where she effortlessly tugged Kenji along with her as she went to cuddle her husband's shoulder coaxingly.  "Don't you love what Kenji's done with his hair?  It was beautiful before, but he does look quite dashing now, don't you think?"

Saitô poured himself a drink and tipped it down his throat without answering.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eiji edge into the room, no longer able to completely conceal his interest in the proceedings.  The sudden impression that his tired sulking had an audience made Saitô even more irritable.  "You're not completely stupid.  Therefore I hope my assumption is correct that you have an exceedingly good reason to be here."

"...You knew where I was," Kenji said quietly.  "You know what's going on.  You're the one who told Tomoe-nee that...that my father got hurt, and where to find us.  It's only a matter of time.  I'm just asking for...well, I don't know exactly how long, but I'm just asking for you to wait until Himura - until Dad - is strong enough to fight again."

Saitô finally glanced at him, raising an eyebrow in unimpressed inquiry.

Kenji took a deep breath.  "We're going to need your help.  Me and Sano and Dad...I don't think...we're going to be enough."

For the first time, their eyes met full on.  Then Saitô turned away and poured another glass, though this time with deliberate refinement.  "Shishio."

Kenji smiled, relieved.  "Yeah.  Lucky for us you can use a sword...suits you, by the way, even if you are an old-fashioned codger.  Definitely'll come in handy, so brush up on those skills while you're waiting for us to heal, okay?"

"I'm going to take a bath," Saitô grumped, handing the bottle and glass to his wife to take care of.  "My work day is over."

"I'll be out of your hair by the time you get out, I promise."

"Make sure to take your time, darling," Tokio called after her husband as he stalked away.  "I haven't seen this boy in years, and we're not finished catching up!"  She smiled back at Kenji.  "He really does like you.  Even Eiji couldn't have gotten away with the 'old-fashioned codger' comment."

Kenji rubbed a hand distractedly through his hair, and was startled once again at the absence of length.  That was going to take some getting used to.  "Aunt Tokio...he's gonna help, right?"

"Don't worry," she said, affectionately brushing a stray piece of lint off his shoulder.  "Hajime-san won't abandon you.  He knows how important this is."

Kenji paused.  Then he leaned in close to Tokio, not touching her, but taking comfort in her nearness.  "Auntie, is it...how bad is it that I - still - that I...."

She waited patiently.

"...Shishio-sama...I mean, that man...he was my master.  Even the thought of opposing him now - my throat gets all tight, and - I...."

She stroked his shoulder, with such a lack of consciousness that it never occurred to him to feel uncomfortable.  "It's hard for you, isn't it."

"Makes me seem like such a baby," he grumbled.

"What do you think about it?" she asked gently.  "What's important to you?  What's the right thing to do?"

He let her hug her now as he thought about it.  He already knew, of course - that's why he had come here.  Yet he lingered over the decisions, worrying, knowing exactly what he planned to do and still worrying.  Shishio was strong, and even now Kenji still admired him.  He had learned to love and respect his master; loyalty and obedience had been instilled in him.  And there was Yahiko and Anji and Chou, friends he had made, people who had given him, strangely enough, good memories.  Yet, underlying all that was fear, and an ugly uncertainty.  Every hour in that place had been like walking on the edge of a cliff - one slip, and you'd fall.  It had been an awful way to live.

On the other hand, there was his "real" family.  There was Megumi, who truly meant the world to him.  Sano, who had become so important to him; and now...a mother and a father, two small sisters, all whom he didn't want, all whom he felt irresistibly drawn to.  There was terrible fear in that, too; uncertainty and a frantic sense of future loss.  Still...it was different.  So different, completely different.  If there were only the two cliffs to choose from, Kenji...thought...that he wanted to throw himself down that one.  Family.  It would still hurt like hell, but...maybe he wouldn't be so lonely at the bottom.

"Auntie," he whispered.  "I'm strong, right?"  Am I strong enough?  Can I do this?

He heard the almost soundless exhalation of her smile.  "Kenji, do you know that I remember our first meeting as vividly as if it were only a few days ago?"

Kenji groaned and pulled away from her.  "Oh, gosh...do you still have the scar?"

Tokio smilingly presented her hand, which was still marked by a faint curving line of dots, just slightly darker than the surrounding skin.

Kenji swore unhappily.  "Yeah, I guess anyone would remember getting bit by a rabid dragon...."

"You were not rabid, and you were perfectly human at the time."

He fidgeted.  "I...actually transformed my teeth, you know," he confessed.  "Just a little.  When people touched me, I wanted to hurt them."

"I would, too, if I were in your place."

"Aunt Tokio...."

Her face.  Her expression.  Kenji had never met anyone with such warmth, such love that just...came beaming out of her eyes, even if you were a complete stranger.  He couldn't get enough of it.

"Kenji, my dear, I thought you were the most amazing child I had ever seen.  Your eyes were...."  She paused, searching for the right word.  "On fire.  It was like I could see your spirit shining through your eyes, and it took my breath away.  I knew that you were going to become a great man."

Kenji spread his arms as if to present himself.  "Sorry, Auntie.  All you got is me."

She pushed his head in exasperation.  "Silly thing!  I'm praising you, in case I didn't make it clear enough."

"Yeah, I'm pretty incredible," he said bitterly, trying and failing to joke.  His chest felt tight.

"We all saw it from the beginning," Tokio said gently.  "I knew that if we could give you enough love to grow in, we would watch you break free and become who you were meant to be."

"What if you're wrong?" he said harshly, his eyes desperately searching hers.  "What if all of you...have these - expectations of me that I won't fill?  What if I--"  disappoint you, screw up, prove I'm the worthless failure I know I am, "--What if I can't do what you all think is the right thing?"  His eyes suddenly flashed.  "What if I don't want to?"

Tokio looked straight at him, and she said, "I trust you."

Kenji stared at her.  Then he swore, unable to control a nervous smile.  "You guys make it really, really hard."

"We'd be disappointed if you took the easy way," she said briskly.  "You're worth more than that.  Now--"

"Yeah, I know, I heard it."  Kenji cast an apprehensive grin at the bathroom door, behind which he had just heard the water being shut off.  "I gotta go, Auntie."  She inclined her face, and he obligingly kissed her good-bye on the cheek.  As he passed Eiji on the way to the door, he paused and studied the boy a moment, then smiled.  "See ya around, kid."

Eiji stared back, his expression serious.  "Maybe not."

"Huh?"

Tokio came up and put one hand on Eiji's shoulder, the other on Kenji's.  "Kenji...Eiji is leaving us at the end of the week.  We found a...place for him, in one of the foster homes."

"I told you not to cry," Eiji suddenly snarled at her.  "I told you!"  He looked upset, but did not resist when Tokio suddenly wrapped her arms around him, unable to speak.

Kenji stood there, his mind blank for a minute.  "Huh," he said musingly.

When Tokio had straightened again, he looked back at Eiji.  "Oi, did Saitô teach you how to fight any?"

"A little bit," Eiji mumbled.  "I can take care of myself."

Kenji smiled a little, and punched him lightly in the shoulder.  "You're a good guy."

"Of course I am."  Eiji looked like he was about to cry.

"Tell me where you're moving, I'll keep an eye on you."

"Uh huh."

"...Oi, Eiji."

"...."

Kenji moved closer.  "They don't go away, you know," he said softly.  "You can't lose them.  Even when you try...your family always just keeps chasing after you."

"Yeah," Eiji managed.

"Eiji-chan, please give me more time," Tokio burst out.  "He's almost relented.  Hajime-san won't abandon you, I'm sure of it."

Eiji eyed her, then Kenji, and then stared at his feet.  His hands tightened into fists.  Then he suddenly sucked in a breath and threw his arms around Tokio, clutching her tightly.

Kenji watched them, trying to figure out his feelings.  He could see how much they loved each other, how much they wanted to protect each other and be together.  Megumi was strongly in his thoughts, but he could not help remembering his father and mother as well.  'I should...at least...give her the chance.  It wasn't her fault.  Just like me.  It wasn't her fault either.  Or...or his.'  He wished he could make himself accept that, get it into his thick skull instead of having it float unconvincingly around the outside.  'It wasn't their fault.  Why can't I believe that?  Why can't I let her be my mother, too?  Why can't I let him be my...father?'

He had never had a father.  The closest had been Saitô and then Shishio, and now everyone was expecting him to just tear his loyalty out by the roots and offer it up to some womanly fool he had never even met except for the night he had tried to kill him.  'You are not my father, Himura Kenshin!'

"Kenji, are you all right?"  Tokio was looking at him, even as she comforted her foster-son.

"I'm fine," Kenji snapped.  "Though I won't be if your husband catches me still here, so I'm out.  See you."  He turned his back, yanked the door open, plunged through it, and disappeared into the night.

To be continued....

Author's Notes:  I had a lot of trouble with the final scene of this chapter, which is partly why it took me so long to update.  A little odd, since the scene involved the two characters in this fic who like me the best.  Kenji got frustrated and told me the script sucked; even Tokio mildly suggested that it wasn't working and we ought to change something.  I think she's the one who came up with the "I trust you" line that finally broke through my writing incompetence.  (Which I realized, when quick-editing, she had actually borrowed from Kenji and Megumi's scene earlier. ^^;  But whatever; I think it still works.)

This was a pretty transitional chapter - again, I was trying to fit in a lot of stuff that had not made it into the initial draft.  Everything except the beginning of the chapter is either new material or was completely re-written.  I apologize if it seemed boring or too slow or meandering; I'll make an attempt to tighten it up for the final draft.

Also, I'm a bit annoyed at myself - I was looking at the manga's final epilogue again recently (where the Kenshingumi get together for a picnic), and realized that Kenji actually has brown hair, not auburn.  Which makes sense.  But Kenji with dark red hair is cooler, which is why I let the OVAs trick me.  YET ANOTHER REASON TO HATE THE OVAS, HAH. *eyeroll*  Whatever; I need Kenji to have Kenshiney hair in this fic, but in new stories I'll go with canon.

(Random)  Also also, Saitou keeps frustrating me about alcoholic beverages.  This is now the second time I've impulsively handed him a drink, and then was rudely reminded that when Saitou drinks, he has a tendency to want to kill people.  (As he says in volume 7 with his creepy/cute Fujita Goroh smile.)  So, yeah; what he's drinking in the kitchen there is most likely not alcohol.