Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Reconciliation ( Chapter 11 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 10 - Reconciliation (ROUGH DRAFT)

"Oh, thanks!  Take me off guard duty, just to give me more guard duty."

"Shut up, Sagara.  This needs to happen."

"You know the kid's gonna hate you when he finds out."

It was at this point in the overheard conversation that Kenji suddenly realized what they might be talking about.  He did not dare peek around the doorframe, both because he was pretty sure that his father already knew he was there, and that the other three would stop talking as soon as they realized it as well.

"I refuse to discuss this again.  We've decided, and now we need to go through with it before--"  Megumi's voice suddenly cut off, but even though he thought she might be about to cry, Kenji didn't feel the least bit sorry for her.

Kenshin's voice was gentle.  "Megumi-san...you are welcome to stay longer--"

"Ngh!"  Apparently she was still on the verge of tears, because that seemed to be the only sound of refusal she could make without completely losing her composure.

"...I think that Kenji would - be very upset if you left now.  Maybe...maybe you should wait."  That was Kaoru, not sounding happy at all.

"I think we should ask Kenji," Sanosuke said forcefully.  "He's not a baby who needs people to decide what's best for him."

"You only knew him for a year, Sagara," Megumi snarled.  "If you had been there when--"

Kenji couldn't take it anymore.  He flung himself through the doorway.  "What's that supposed to mean?" he growled at Megumi.  "That I really am just a little baby who can't decide what's best for me?"

They were all staring at him now, obviously.  Kenshin merely smiled in greeting, as if he hadn't just been caught.  Sanosuke smirked a little, almost in commiseration.  Kaoru looked stricken; Megumi's face simply tightened.  "I'm leaving, sweetheart."

That was one thing he usually loved about Megumi.  She didn't make him frantic by trying to cushion bad news.  It's just that this time, instead of offering comfort and strength, she was the one causing him pain.

"No, you're not!"  He swore at her so offensively that even Sano looked taken aback.

Megumi's expression did not change.  "I'll check in on you tomorrow."

She turned her back abruptly to get her purse and bags (which were already packed...), so that he was forced to trail after her.  "You can't leave!  Sh-Shishio's still out there.  He'll--"

"That's what my guard dog is for," she said shortly.

Kenji looked wildly at Sanosuke, who rolled his eyes.  "You think Sano'd last two seconds against the Juppongatana?!"

"Hey!"

Kenji paused, only allowing himself to be distracted because he owed his friend more respect than that.  "Well...maybe five or ten minutes.  Depending on who he fights."

"Hey!"

"You have to stay here, Megumi!"

She hoisted one bag strap over her shoulder, pointedly indicated for Sanosuke to get the other one, then turned and kissed her adopted son on the cheek.  "I love you," she said.

"I hate you!  I hate you!"

"It's not the first time you've told me that," she murmured.  Then she walked away.

For a second Kenji stared numbly after her.  Then he felt a light touch on his arm - from the woman who was not his mother; he shook her off and dashed after his real mother, catching her on the front steps.  He gripped her shoulder tightly, moved his mouth close to her ear and said in a fierce whisper, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry I called you names, I didn't mean it - I love you too Megumi, I really love you, I really do.  Please stay.  Please stay."

She merely jerked away and continued walking, without looking back.  If she had, he would have seen the tears that had started running down her face; but she didn't, so all he saw was her back.

Megumi and Sanosuke were gone.  Kenji stood there, staring at nothing, feeling like his heart was being torn in pieces, and he couldn't do anything to stop it, so he wanted to tear other things into pieces, too.  Abruptly he whirled around and shoved back into the house, not even realizing that his parents were trying to speak to him.  His arm swept out; dishes went crashing to the floor in pieces.  He sent a chair flying across the room to leave a dent in the wall.  "KATANA!"

The girls scampered out of their room where they had been playing, their faces screwed up in nervous curiosity about the commotion.  The dog knew better - he had crept under a bed to hide.

"Katana, come here!"  The dog merely whined; Kenji had to physically drag him out.  "Let's go!  Let's go!"

It had been a long time since Katana had seen one of these moods, but apparently he still remembered them.  As soon as he was dragged out of hiding, he ran for the open front door, yelped all the way down the block, watched fearfully from a clump of bushes as his master slowed to a dispirited walk, then finally trailed from a safe distance, whimpering, as Kenji trudged along miserably.

At one point Kenji stopped.  They were about a mile away from the house, and seeing his dog's drooping ears and tucked tail, Kenji finally felt a pang of remorse.  "Katana...I'm sorry.  Come here, buddy."

It took quite a bit of coaxing; and then Katana did not trot or frolic or explore as usual, but merely paced along at his master's side with his head down, occasionally whining.  Kenji often reached down to touch his fur, and would have kept his hand on him if the dog was tall enough.

Katana's presence was soothing as usual.  Kenji was beginning to hate himself for frightening the best source of solace that he had had all throughout his childhood, and to despise himself for the worse things he had done in the past that Katana had forgiven him for.  "Katana," Kenji whispered, gently stroking the scars on his dog's back, "I'm so sorry...."

Katana flinched under his touch, but then reached around and licked his master's hand.  Kenji suddenly stopped and sat down right there on the pavement and flung his arms around the dog's neck, burying his face in the russet fur.  He sat like that for a long time.  Katana, gradually relaxing, started trying to lick his face with a little more enthusiasm.

When Kenji finally got to his feet again, his heart was a little lighter and there was a determined expression on his face.  Katana, picking up on his changing mood, barked in relief and bounded ahead as if to lead the way.

o.o.o.o.o

That night, Megumi woke up crying.  She thought at first that her dreams had disturbed her out of her sleep, but then she tensed, oversensitive to even the smallest noises.  Was there someone...?

She tried to resist, because this would make it the third time, but finally she gave in and got out of bed and crept out to the living room, where Sanosuke was flipping listlessly through TV channels.  "Did you--?"

"No, I did not hear anything," he said flatly.  Hitting the mute button, he rolled his head around to face her, looking exasperated.  "There's no one out there, woman.  At least...."  He paused, suddenly frowning.  Then he switched off the TV and got to his feet, looking tensely at the windows.

"What is it?" Megumi whispered.

"Stay here," he said shortly.  "Get ready to call Himura, and try to find a weapon."

Her heart in her mouth, Megumi did as she was told, watching as he went outside.  Minutes ticked by in terrible suspense as she waited.

Finally Sanosuke came back, shaking his head.  "Checked all around the house, couldn't find anything."

Megumi blew out a frightened breath.  "What does that mean?"

"Means nothing," he said shortly.  "Nothing you should care about.  I'm here, so try to get some sleep."

"As if I can sleep now," she snapped, falling into an easy chair and curling her legs up.

They sat like that for several long minutes.  "Really," Sanosuke finally said, his voice softer than she had ever heard it.  "You can trust me.  I'll keep you safe."

"Kenji said you wouldn't last ten minutes against one of those dragons," Megumi mumbled.

"Hmph.  Little brat's underestimated me.  I could kick his butt in the old days, and I've picked up some stuff since then, too.  No one's gonna be able to get to you."

Megumi didn't believe him, but all the same, she ended up moving to the other end of the couch where he was sitting.  She curled into the corner of it, tense with worry and wishing the silence didn't sit so heavily between the two of them.  She thought that she would never be able to go to sleep, but at one point she drowsily realized that Sanosuke was putting a blanket over her.

Then it was morning, and it smelled and sounded like someone was cooking breakfast in the kitchen, but then she heard the toilet flush in the other direction.  There was someone else in the house.

Megumi leapt to her feet, staring frantically between the hallway and the entryway to the kitchen.  There were definitely two people.  Megumi opened her mouth to scream for Sanosuke, but just then he wandered back into the living room, zipping up his fly.  Frantically, she pointed in the direction of the kitchen, and Sanosuke...grinned.

'What are you grinning about?!?!' she thought furiously.

"You only get one egg for breakfast," Sanosuke told her, "because there's just three others left in the carton, and two of them have my name on them."

"Who is that?" she hissed, pointing even more frantically.

"Oi, is Megumi up?" called whoever it was, and then her shoulders slumped as she realized.

Thunderously, Megumi stormed into the kitchen, where Kenji stood cracking the last egg into a sizzling frying pan as calmly as if he still lived here.  "What do you think you're doing?"

"Frying eggs," he said snottily.  "Look, I'll put a happy face on yours."  He picked a couple of beans out of the open container of leftovers beside him, dropping them onto one of the plates.  "There.  Now it's got eyes.  I'll add a mouth once the noodles heat up."

"You're supposed to be home!"

Kenji flung the spatula across the stovetop, shattering his mocking pretense at good humor.  "I AM HOME, Megumi.  This is my home, with you."

"Kenji, you belong there, with your family.  I'm not your real mother!"

"Oh, well THAT'S good to know, seeing as how you've acted like one ever since--!"  Cutting himself off, Kenji stormed over to the back door to let in the dog, who had been pawing at it insistently.  Katana looked up at his master, whined, and quickly retreated back into the yard.  "Make up your mind!" Kenji shouted, then slammed the door shut again and turned back to Megumi.  "I live here!  I live here!  You can't kick me out!"  Immediately he winced and looked away.  "You can't make me leave," he whispered, pleadingly this time.

Megumi shut her eyes tiredly.  "I can't deal with this right now."

The three of them ate breakfast in silence.  Sanosuke then went to sleep in Kenji's bed, as Megumi wordlessly started getting ready for work, which she had been missing far too much of lately.

Kenji was not pleased.  "What do you mean you're going to work?  I just got here!"

"You can entertain yourself, then," Megumi snapped.  "I'm not taking off yet another day just to keep you company."

"I'll have to go with you, anyway," Kenji growled.  "Someone's gotta make sure you don't get assassinated before we can--"  Before we can kill Shishio, he meant to say, though he found himself unable to voice the words aloud.

"Do what you want!"  Megumi was about to say, 'It's not my business anymore,' but she had not become quite that heartless.  Besides, it wasn't true at all.  She still loved and cared about Kenji more than anything else in the world, even though he was driving her up the wall.

"Fine, I will!"

"Don't get in my way!"

"No problem!  I'll never get in your way again!  Sorry I ruined the last seven years of your life."

"Eight."

"Eight."  He suddenly looked like he was about to cry.  "Eight years of freedom.  Because of you."

She couldn't fight him anymore.  She went over and hugged him, pretending not to notice his tears.  "They've been the best eight years of my life," she whispered.

"I'm sorry, Megumi."

"I'm sorry."

They pulled back and looked at each other sadly, calling a silent truce.

o.o.o.o.o

For three whole days, Kenji managed to pretend that his new family did not exist, that it was only him and Megumi and Katana and Sano, just like the old days.  But then he came into the living room that third evening and saw Sanosuke giving flowers to Megumi.

Kenji came to a dead stop, staring.  She was in a shimmering dress, with makeup and high heels and her hair elegantly put up.  Kenji could count on one hand the number of times he had seen her dressed up like this, always for business occasions.

And he had never expected to see Sagara Sanosuke in a suit.

"M...Megu...mi?"

She turned around.  "Oh - I forgot to tell you earlier, we'll both be out tonight.  There's leftovers on the top drawer in the fridge, or you can have the rest of that pizza.  We should be back by eleven or so.  Stay out of trouble."

Sanosuke, looking embarrassed, nodded once and then ducked out of the house.  Megumi blew Kenji a kiss and then quickly followed.

Kenji stared, still in shock for a minute.  Then, as soon as he heard the engine of the car start, he bounded around to the back of the house so that they wouldn't see him come outside.

It was no use, though.  They would know it was him if he tried to follow on Sano's motorcycle, and even he couldn't keep up with a car for very long on foot.  So he shouted out his frustration to the night and stormed back inside to impatiently bide his time until their return.

He pretended to be asleep when they got back.  He listened to their movements in the house, their murmured exchanges.  Finally, he crept into Megumi's room - the lights were off and she was in bed, but she sat up at once when she heard him come in.  He climbed up onto the foot of her bed and sat there in the darkness, waiting.  "Well?" he finally demanded.

"It was lovely," she answered, with maddening cheerfulness.  "I've only been to Raghetti's once before - heh, I'm surprised Sagara even knew the place existed."

"Whoo hoo for you!  How could you, Megumi?"

"What, go on a date?" she said, so scathingly that he paused.

Come to think of it, she had never gone on a date, never had a boyfriend, barely ever shown romantic interest in anyone in all the years he had known her.  A horrible thought occurred to him.  "Megumi...have you...have you been single all this time because of me?"  Have I ruined your life even more than I thought?

"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped.  "I've been single all this time because I've never yet met a man who wasn't an idiot.  Well," she suddenly amended, "I've met one, but he's taken."

Kenji REALLY did not want to pursue that train of thought.  "So suddenly Sagara Sanosuke is good enough for you."

She reached out to ruffle his hair.  "Jealous?"

"What?!  No!  Are you crazy?!"

"At having to share me," she clarified, her smile almost audible in her voice.  "You've had me all to yourself for seven-- eight-- no, seven years."

"You're my mom," he said hotly, feeling his face redden.

"I'm teasing you."

"Don't tease me!"  He went quiet, because he could tell he was sounding stupid.  Then, when she didn't say anything, he ventured cautiously, "Do you really like Sano that much?  I mean, he's cool, but...I thought you hated him!"

"He convinced me to give him a second chance."

"What's that supposed to mean?!"

"What, would you rather I dated someone else?" she snapped.

"NO!"  There was a pause.  He could almost sense her surprise, even though she said nothing.  "I'd rather it be Sano than anyone else," he finally grumbled.  "But...it's just...."

"It's just what?" she challenged, echoing his own thoughts.

Why was he so upset, anyway?  That his mother, now that she had the chance to be relieved of the burden of raising him, was trying to start a love life?  'Takani, you're an idiot,' he thought, thoroughly disgusted with himself.  "Never mind.  I'm going to bed for real now."

"Give me a hug."

He did, because he wanted her to know that he had forgiven her.  "I'm...sorry for...acting like a kid," he mumbled.

"I'm sorry too," she murmured.  It did not occur to him to ask what she might be sorry for.

o.o.o.o.o

"So, how did it go?"

"...Surprisingly well."

"You don't sound very happy about it."

"Kenji'll kill me if he finds out it's all an act."

"Oh, is it all an act?"

"Of course it is!  You don't think I'd honestly consider going out with Sagara Sanosuke!"

"But you did go out with him."

"Did you not hear the part about it being an act?"

"Oh.  So you didn't really go to Raghetti's after all?"

"No, we went.  I had to pay, though.  The idiot was broke."

"Oooh, you really went?  Was it as nice as they say?"

"It was, actually."

"Did he kiss you?"

"NO!"

"Did he look like he wanted to?"

"Of course not, he was a complete jerk!"

"Really?"

"Well...no.  No, he wasn't.  It's just that I was frustrated, and it was so hard trying to keep up the pretense in case we were being watched, and there's no telling how long we'll have to keep this up...."

"...."

"Well, Sagara was actually pretty patient.  Considering the circumstances."

"...."

"Looking back...I think I did most of the talking."

"Do you think you might eventually start liking him, Megumi-san?"

"Well, I wouldn't consider him as a boyfriend or anything."

"...Really?"

"Why?  Your tone is worrying me, Kaoru-san."

"Well...it's just that, like you said, Kenji will be pretty mad when he finds out you tricked him.  I'm thinking...it'd be interesting if he never had to know."

"...What are you implying?"

"From what I understand, Sagara-san is not such a bad man.  Kenshin likes him, and of course Kenji adores him."

"Hmph.  Those two aren't known for their taste."

"Eh?  What's that supposed to--?  Wait a minute!"

o.o.o.o.o

Megumi and Sanosuke went out on another date later that week, and even though this time Kenji could have followed them, he didn't.  It just...creeped him out, the thought of those two together.  It kind of pleased him, too, in a way that made him want to respect their privacy.  Either way, he was left bored and lonely at home, so eventually he found himself hovering outside another home, watching the parents and the two little girls eating dinner together.

"Think we should be in there too, Katana?" he asked, mostly to fill the silence.

The dog panted at him curiously.

"Of course, you want to be in there, 'cause that's where the food is."

"Bark!"

"Shut up, Katana!" he hissed, holding the dog's jaws shut.  Katana shook his head in irritation and barked again when Kenji's hand was dislodged.  "Stay quiet, mutt!"  He shot a nervous glance at the windows.  For a second he thought that Kenshin was looking right at him - but no, he was talking to the rest of the family again.  Kenji sank into a relieved huddle next to the dog, absent-mindedly scratching behind Katana's ears.  "This is so lame...."

He watched as the family started cleaning up after the meal; as Kenshin started doing the dishes and then was shooed away by his wife; as the girls ran out of sight and turned on a light in the bathroom a few seconds later.  He watched as his parents spoke together for a while, wishing he could hear them.  It bothered him that Kenshin was sitting down, that he looked so tired.  He obviously still had not fully recovered.  'You suck,' Kenji thought at him.  'And so do I.'  Because here he was, sitting in the dark, stuck on the outside looking in, like a loser.  'So why don't you do something about it, Takani?  Do something about it.'

He couldn't, though.  He couldn't make himself move any closer, and then finally when he looked at his watch again, it was late enough.  He made his way home, where he was met by the depressing sight of Sanosuke kissing Megumi on the front porch.  'Maybe I should have spent the night at the other house.'

Neither of them seemed to be in a hurry.  Even when Megumi finally pushed Sano away, it was not with any real force, and then she just stood there for a while, still resting her hands against him as she stared at the ground.  Sanosuke murmured something to her; she murmured back and turned for the open doorway.  Sanosuke stretched his arms high over his head, and Kenji moved up to ask, "Should I leave you two alone tonight?"

Sanosuke jumped and whirled around.  "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

"I was, like, three meters away.  Bit distracted, weren't you?"

"Shut up," Sanosuke mumbled.  He looked into the house, where Megumi had gone.  "...I like your mom."

"Don't wanna talk about this."

"All right," Sanosuke said agreeably.

"...So, should I go?"

"Huh?  Oh, no, don't bother.  I--  We were just--"  Sanosuke shook his head in frustration.  Kenji could not remember ever seeing him at a loss like this.  "She's really something."

"Like I said, I can leave," Kenji snapped.

"Don't leave," Sanosuke growled, his attention fully on Kenji for the first time that evening.  "Look, I...it's complicated, with us."

"Whatever.  I'm going to bed, you can keep watch tonight."  Kenji pushed past him, not sure whether he was angry or not, and not really caring.

o.o.o.o.o

"I've got nowhere to go."  Kenji was sitting on a bench and staring at Katana, who sat in front of him and stared back.  "Just a homeless little freak.  Katana, where do I go?"  He couldn't go to the Himuras', he couldn't.  Megumi and Sanosuke were driving him crazy; Shishio's doors were closed to him.  He could sleep on the streets, except that he had the feeling Saitô might snap him up if he left the protection of the only warriors who had a chance against Shishio.  "I've got nowhere to freaking go."

Katana whined uncertainly.

"Except to hell."  Kenji considered this, but only briefly.  He wasn't that desperate....and besides, he was better than that.  "I'm not running away," he whispered.  "I'm not afraid."  Except that hiding from his family was like running away, and he realized that he was going to have to...not become one of them, but he would have to face them sooner or later.  The longer he tried to avoid it, the worse it felt.  He was just going to have to suck it up, go and admit to their faces how badly he had screwed up, and try to get them to like him.  Then hope that Megumi was merciful and would take him back, because he didn't want a new family.  "I can't do it, Katana."

Bored, Katana lay down with his head on his paws.

"Stop that!  I'm not dithering!"  To prove it, he got to his feet right that minute and started heading purposefully to the Himuras' house.  The journey became less purposeful as he went, since he was all too willing to let himself be sidetracked; yet eventually he found himself standing on the sidewalk in front of his parents' home.  He stared at it morosely.  "I want to burn you," he told the house.

Just then the girls came yelling around the corner into the front yard, Suzume squealing indignantly as her sister shot her with a stream of water from a toy pistol.  "Stooooop, Neechan, it's cold!"

"I got you!  You're dead, Suzume!"

"No, I'm nooooot!"

"You are!  Ken-nii, Suzume's dead, isn't she?!  She's dead!"

Both girls ran up to their brother, waving their water pistols and arguing insistently.  "Neechan shot me!  It's COLD!  Make her STOP!"

"It's part of the GAME, Ken-nii!  Make her die, she's dead!"

Kenji stared at them.  "I've seen a lot of dead people," he found himself remarking.

"What?" Suzume whined, but Ayame suddenly fell silent and looked at him soberly.

"I don't like this game!  Make her play right!" the smaller girl insisted, shoving her sister.  "You have to be nice, Neechan, and let me shoot you!"

"That's not how it works!" Ayame started to protest, but then fell silent and shot an uneasy glance at her brother.  "Ken-nii, I don't want Suzume to die," she said in a small voice.

"Crap."  Kenji suddenly felt sick.  He yanked the water guns out of his sister's hands, crushed the plastic in his fists until it cracked, and threw the toys aside, where Katana ran to sniff at them.  "Don't play stupid games," he snarled at them, then repeated the order with coarser language.  Suzume gasped in horrified glee and ran to tattle on him.

Ayame's face suddenly twisted as she grasped his shirt in her fists.  "Don't let anybody hurt me, Ken-nii."

"I won't."  He stared down at the top of her bent head and found himself swearing silently to protect her.  "Don't play stupid games," he repeated.  Go practice your kata or something."

"Okay," she whimpered, and trudged off.

"I'm an idiot," Kenji muttered at himself as he watched her go.  Vowing to protect his little sister, after he'd gone and deprived so many other people of their loved ones.  'I'm a killer.  I don't deserve to have a family.'  He paused, as a revelation occurred to him.  'Just like Dad.'

Speaking of which, the man himself had come out on the porch and was smiling a little.  "Welcome back."

"Shut up."

"Are you staying for dinner?"

"...."

"Your mother could use some help in the kitchen."

"So?"

Kenshin just looked at him, cocking his head a little.

"Shut up, I'm going!"  Kenji stormed past him into the house.

Steam was rising from the pots on the stove.  Kaoru stood in front of a cutting board with a knife in one hand, snapping at the whining Suzume.  "I said no."

"I want cookies!  Neechan was mean to me and Ken-nii broke my toy and I'm hungry - and I want - COOKIES!"

Her voice has risen into a petulant howl, but Kaoru looked as if she hadn't even heard.  She was staring at Kenji with her mouth half open.  She made a little surge forward and then pulled up short, her expression torn.  The sight of her obvious emotion at seeing him and her attempt to hold it in check made Kenji want to scream.  He marched straight past her into the hallway, wandered about, eventually trudged sullenly back into the living room, and slowly edged toward the kitchen, where Kaoru was standing with her shoulders slumped and her back to him, seeming completely unaware of Suzume's insistent attempts to get her attention.

Kenji looked at his mother, seething with resentment but forced to recognize that he had hurt her and the others just as badly as they had hurt him.  'I don't want to play nice to her.  It wasn't my fault.  Nothing was my fault.'  He did not realize that he was glaring, and he wondered vaguely why Suzume suddenly fell silent and ran to hide behind her father.

Kaoru finally turned around and blinked in surprise when she found her son's intense gaze fixed on her.  "Kenji?"

He was silent.

She came forward hesitantly.  "Can I...?"

He let her hug him as usual, that annoyingly hesitant touch as if he were...as if he were some kind of skittish animal that would bolt at the merest flicker.  It was the first time the comparison had occurred to him, and it made him angry.  He put his arms around her as well and forced himself to relax a little, which was harder than he thought it would be.  'See?  I'm not afraid.'  He wondered if he could ever let this woman be his mother for real.  He...wanted help her, but at the same time her need always made him want to run.  He could almost see it, a huge grasping thing that wanted to cling to him and suck the life out of him.

Somehow she sensed the sudden change in his mood, and she managed to pull away first.  Her need drew back and was tucked away again, and he almost admired her smoothed-out expression and even smile as she asked, "Kenji, would you like to help me make dinner while the girls keep your-- keep their father company?"

He did want to help, now that her self-control was back.  There had been too many lonely days; he wanted to feel the comfort of a human presence at his side.  Only...only he didn't know how to say it without seeming weak.  After a long pause she leaned sadly to kiss his cheek, then turned away and went back to work.

Frustrated and uncertain, Kenji wandered away and watched as the girls drew their father into a game with Katana.  Kenji could somehow tell that although the man's eyes and voice and laughter were all devoted to the girls, no small part of his consciousness and attention were fixed on his son.  Kenji found himself pleased, and the childish feeling of that pleasure angered him.  'I am not a baby.  I don't need you - I don't!  I don't want you!'  And since he knew full well that he was lying to himself, just like a kid throwing a tantrum, he was more disgusted with himself than ever.  'I really am a baby.'  All the anger drained out of him, leaving him tired.  'I'm a stupid little brat.  Geez.'

He went back to the kitchen, where he stopped and stood in the middle of the floor, unsure of what to do and feeling like an idiot.

Kaoru paused, then picked up a measuring cup, turned, and held it out to him, saying casually, "Put four cups of rice in that empty pot, will you?  And six cups of water.  Then you can chop vegetables while it soaks."  He ducked his head sullenly to preserve his dignity, but obeyed without hesitation.

They worked silently for a few minutes, listening to Kenshin and the girls and the dog playing in the living room.  Then Kaoru smiled and said chattily, "What do you say we go shopping tomorrow, Kenji?  You're growing out of all the clothes you brought over, and I think you'll be okay out in public now that you've changed your hair."

"Whatever," he mumbled, concentrating on making the pieces of carrot he was cutting as evenly chopped as he could.  He was startled when he felt a gentle touch on his forehead, smoothing his hair back.  "You hide behind your bangs, just like your father," she observed, her voice quiet and not without affection.

"Maybe I should cut them off, then," Kenji snapped in embarrassment.  "His, I mean.  Not mine."

"I don't think he would appreciate that," she laughed, amused by the thought.

"Of course he wouldn't," Kenji mumbled, a little confused.  Then he angrily bowed over again and concentrated entirely on his task, refusing to speak anymore.

He set the table, because it was something he could do alone.  He was disconcerted and a little annoyed when the girls bounded eagerly over to "help," chattering unceasingly as they painstakingly folded the napkins juuuust right and went around straightening bowls and chopsticks he had apparently set down too carelessly.  He spoke only to answer their direct questions, and then as shortly as possible.

"Ken-nii, can we braid your hair?"

"What?  NO!"

"But Daddy let us!"

"Well, he's--"  Kenji stopped himself just in time from telling two young girls that their beloved father was a fruity idiot.  "...different."

"Pleeeaase?" they begged.

"No!"  And then, to stop himself from yelling at them, he stormed out the front door.  He stopped short when he saw his father on the front porch, about to descend the stairs.

Kenshin smiled at him.  "Walk with me?"

It didn't occur to Kenji to speak.  He simply shuffled over to sullenly offer his arm for support, hearing his mother calling the girls back into the house.

'Great.  Now I'm alone with him.  I think they planned this.'  He kicked angrily at pebbles as they walked.  Kenshin was tranquil, saying nothing for a long time.

The silence was starting to drive Kenji crazy, and he finally burst out, "You're pathetic.  Almighty Battousai, hanging off the arm of a fifteen-year-old kid."

"Is it pathetic," Kenshin asked, sounding merely curious, "to take any opportunity I can to spend time with my son?"

"Shut up," Kenji mumbled in an agony of embarrassment.

"I don't feel like shutting up," Kenshin answered mildly.

"F-Fine then," Kenji growled.  "Talk your head off, I won't listen."

"All right.  As long as I still have your arm to lean on."

Kenji promptly threw his arm off and stalked ahead.  After a while he stopped and turned, highly impatient to find that his father, obviously still recovering from the injury, was lagging far behind.  Kenji sighed and rocked back and forth impatiently, waiting for his companion to catch up.

Kenshin took his time approaching, glad for the chance to study his son's appearance at his leisure.  Kenji fidgeted, looking anywhere but at Kenshin, so obviously uncomfortable that it made Kenshin sorry for him.  The boy was depressingly thin, though he tried to hide it with baggy jeans and a loose, unbuttoned shirt layered over a long-sleeved one.  His naturally handsome face was creased and drawn from nursing unhappiness for too long.  He had slashed off his hair and dyed it black in defiance of continuing to look like his father, but the resemblance was still gratifyingly clear, and not just because of the scars.  'You are my son,' Kenshin thought.  'You have been torn from us, even now you continue to hide from us, but the bonds between you and your family are too strong to be broken.'

"Come on," Kenji snapped when Kenshin was finally close.  "Let's go."

"I'm sorry," Kenshin panted, shamelessly falling back on his sincere fatigue.  "I need to rest for a minute before we head back to the house."  With that, he sat down and settled himself comfortably against a neighbor's tree.

"Oh, give me a break!" Kenji burst out in frustration.  Seeing that his father was perfectly serious, he kicked at the ground and paced for a minute, then cursed and plopped down next to Kenshin, facing away from him.

Kenshin looked at the boy's sullenly hunched back, his thoughts soft.  'Why don't you walk away from me, Kenji?  Why do you stay by my side instead of abandoning us?'  He was a little surprised when Kenji suddenly turned back to him, glaring.

For a moment the boy's eyes raked over him, and then he asked something Kenshin had not expected from him.  "Did I really hurt you that badly?"  The discomfort in his voice was good to hear, since none of it showed in his hostile expression.

"You mean, was impaling me with a sword damaging enough to really turn me into this hobbling old man?"

Kenji angrily turned away again, but looked back in surprise when Kenshin laughed.

"I'm sorry for holding you back, Kenji."

Kenji surged to his feet.  "You're not holding me back!  You idiot!" he shouted.  "You're so stupid!  Do you honestly think that me and your wonderful little family can exist together?  You're killing me!"  His hand gestured violently at his heart.  "Unless I kill you first!"

He backed away warily when Kenshin, eyes hardened at last, climbed to his feet.  "Our family will do very well when it's together, as it should be.  As it should have been long before.  As it will be, if you choose."  He held out his hand.  "We have been waiting for you, Kenji.  Always, we have been waiting for you."

Kenji backed slowly away from the offered hand, looking as if he thought it was a trap.

"Kenji."  The boy was stopped in his tracks.  "We have come to you as far as we can.  Now you must come the rest of the way to us."

Kenji met his eyes in defiant challenge, but soon became preoccupied with his own thoughts.  His insides felt like they were roiling; he wanted to bolt, he wanted to run to his father, but that would be like a betrayal of...something.  Somehow he felt as if whatever he chose would be a choice of forever.

The decision weighed down on him heavily.  "Shut up!" he screamed, wild to vent his feelings, but he heard his own voice and heard how childish he was being.  'I'm such a...!  Such a...!'  Why couldn't he be what he wanted to be?  Why did he always have to be such a child, why were his hands always tied by pride?  What could he possibly have to be proud of?

Something broke in him, and defeat settled heavily over his shoulders.  He went tiredly over to his father and stood in front of him, staring at the ground.  "I hate myself," he whispered.  The other's arms came around him, though not a word was spoken.  Kenji felt a spark of resentment at this, until he realized that his father couldn't speak, because he was crying.  Kenji felt himself crying too, and this time didn't bother to hide it.

to be continued...

Author's Notes:  To my surprise, I realized that this fic actually has the same theme as its predecessor, Sapphire Scales - both Kaoru and Kenji suffered unjustly under self-hatred and the false identities that were imposed on them, and then tried to push away their rescuer before finally giving in.  I wasn't planning that, but it's interesting....

Random unrelated note that will definitely be taken out of the final draft:  I saw How to Train Your Dragon for the first time - twice - Friday afternoon, then watched it yet again yesterday, and am kind of itching for a fourth viewing.  New favorite movie. :D