Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Final Battle ( Chapter 12 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 11 - Final Battle (ROUGH DRAFT)

A/N:  Mwaha, witness my atrocious battle scene writing skills.

o.o.o

"KEN-CHAAAN!!"  It could have been worse, he supposed.  The mostly-healed wounds that Kimi's glomp was currently aggravating would have been only half-healed if he had not waited this long to let his friends know he was back from the dead.

"Glad to see you too, pretty girl," he whispered.

"Takani...I'm so happy you're back," Daisuke said, his eyes shimmering with tears that he seemed to be holding back with limited success.

"Hurry!" Kakeru shouted, grabbing Kenji by the shirtfront so that he could yank him inside and slam the door.  "The neighbors will've seen you!  We still have to keep your super-villain identity a SECRET, remember?"  He grinned and clapped Kenji on the back rather harder than was necessary.

The five of them had gathered together at Kimi's house for lunch, since Kenji was not comfortable going out in public yet.  Wild rumors were going around about the identity of the 'dragon assassin,' and not all of them were false.  His parents and Megumi were probably not going to be able to keep him safe from the police and the government forever, even with Saitou Hajime as an ally.

Kenji had no idea what would happen when they did catch up to him.  He had taken people's lives, he had committed crimes; he had also been a victim and a prisoner.  His future was still very uncertain, and even now he wasn't sure if Saitou was on his side, or even whether that would be a good thing or not.  For now, though, it was enough to be with his friends again, to pretend once more that he was normal, to know at least that he was accepted and loved.

At least, mostly accepted.  "So, spill," Kakeru demanded, pushing Kenji into a chair and shoving mounds of food at him as if consuming it was supposed to help Kenji expel information.  "You're the hitokiri?  You killed people - like, for real?  That's the big secret?"

Kenji propped his elbow on the table and tiredly leaned his face against his hand.  "One secret out of so, so many."

"Start from the beginning," Kimi commanded, climbing into his lap and helping herself to the servings on his plate.

"Hey!  Eat your own food!"

Eventually he did tell them, almost all of it.  How he was a dragon.  (They were all, Kyouya especially, very interested in that; and to his mortification, they insisted on practical demonstrations.  Kyouya took notes.)  How he had been held captive and experimented on as a child, though he determinedly avoided most of the details; how that had led to the dragon-human hybrids that had begun showing up in the news.  How Megumi had begun to raise him, then lost him; how he had lived with Sanosuke for a year; how he had been reunited with Megumi and gone into hiding with her.  How he had been re-captured and handed over to a new master; how he had learned to wield a real sword, and to kill with it.

It took hours, because they all interrupted so much.  But finally Kenji finished talking, and they all sat around the living room in uncharacteristic silence, and he kept his eyes fixed on his knees because he couldn't stand to see the looks they might be giving him.

Kyouya was the first one to speak.  "You also have a new name, don't you."

Kenji closed his eyes briefly.  "My real name.  I forgot it, on purpose, when I lost my wings."  He had never willingly taken dragon form again after that, not until he had come back to his family all these years later.  He had not wanted to be a dragon, he had not wanted to remember flying, even though he had remembered and missed it every single day; he had not wanted to speak to the voices in his head ever again.

"Himura," Kimi said thoughtfully.  "I like that name."

"I guess I have to start calling you 'Himura' now, instead of 'Takani,'" Daisuke mused.

Kenji smiled a little.  "It's...okay if you just call me 'Kenji,' you know."

Daisuke looked up in surprise, then smiled brilliantly.

"You too, Kyou--  uh, Ohtori," Kenji added awkwardly.

Kyouya shrugged.  "Fine.  And you might as well forget the Ohtori; I've gotten used to what these two idiots call me."  He gestured at Kimi and Kakeru.

"Same here, Kenji-kun!" Daisuke put in.  Then, at the protest of the other two, "I mean, about using my name, not about you guys being, uh, i...idiots."

"Kyouya," Kenji murmured, trying out the names and feeling, to his annoyance, like he might cry.  "Daisuke.  Kyouya.  Daisuke.  I like that."

"You forgot Kimi!" she yapped at him.

"And Kakeru!" he called out.

Kenji smiled.  "Daisuke, Kyouya, Kimi, Kakeru.  I'm...."  He shook his head, it sounded so cheesy out loud, but he made himself say it anyway.  "I'm really glad to have friends like you."

By then he definitely had to leave, because he was supposed to be training and his father was probably getting as impatient as was possible for that man to be.  "We'll get together again soon!" Kenji yelled at his friends as they jostled in the doorway and shouted at him to stay.  "See you!"

"Bye, idiot!"

"See you soon, Takani!  I mean, Him--  er, Kenji-kun!"

"COME BACK TO ME SOON, MY DARLING!"

"Take care."

Kenji waved one last time, then shook his head and continued on home.


o.o.o.o.o

"Kenji, watch your language."

"Why should I?  That hurt!"

Kenshin smiled.  "Good thing we're only using shinai then, right?"

Kenji glowered but said nothing, obviously having realized by now that in the hands of someone like his father, even a stick of bamboo was not a weapon to be taken lightly.  Even so, "I still think you're wrong.  The almighty Battousai could probably kill someone with a toothpick, but in most cases, shinai are fit only for weaklings.  Real warriors use real swords."

"All hail the wise teachings of Shishio Makoto," Kenshin said grimly.

Kenji flinched a little, then growled and raised his shinai.  "Whatever, I don't even care.  I swear, I will master this thing before sundown!"

"Kenji, your progress is remarkable," Kenshin said encouragingly.  "In a few hours, you are learning moves that took me days to even perform remotely correctly, much less effectively.  Even when I thought I'd mastered them, I could never seem to faze my teacher.  And look what you've done to me."  He raised his arm ruefully, indicating the blossoming bruises.  He also did not voice the possibility that his endurance might be light-years behind his old master's, since that seemed to...go without saying.

Kenji impatiently swept his bamboo sword through the air, ignoring the fact that he was covered with bruises of his own.  "Must just be 'cause you're a weakling.  Looks like Shishou--  like Shishio was right, and Seta-kun was wrong."

"Shishio Makoto thinks me to be a weakling at his own peril," Kenshin said seriously, lips tightening as he thought of the task ahead.

"Well," Kenji conceded, "he was a bit interested in Hitokiri Battousai...but you say you haven't been hitokiri in centuries."

"I won't be hitokiri again ever," Kenshin snapped, "and neither will you, if I have anything to do with it."

Kenji suddenly grinned.  "You know I'm teasing you, Dad.  You're strong, and so fast.  I was an idiot to think I would have lasted a minute against you, if you'd even bothered to lift a finger in defense."

Kenshin stared at him, a little taken aback.  "Oh.  Ah...well."  He smiled.  "You know that you will soon surpass me, Kenji.  I may be stronger than you now, but believe me, that won't last long at the rate you're going.  Megumi-san was right to be proud of you."

Kenji blushed uncomfortably.  "Enough chit-chat!" he burst out.  "Let's get on with this, we don't have all the time in the world!"

Kenshin nodded, not having forgotten the seriousness of this training.  "Right.  Back to work."  They raised their shinai and flashed at each other once again.

o.o.o.o.o

They were out of time.  Kenji realized this as soon as he caught the scent.

Kenshin had gone out and Kaoru, having been up late the night before, had fallen asleep on the couch.  Kenji himself had been scrounging for tidbits to pile onto his sandwich when he sensed something wrong; at the same time, Katana pricked his ears, rolled to his feet and began to bark.

"No...."  Kenji raced outside, shouting for his sisters, and crashed straight into Suzume running in.  The little girl had tears streaming down her face and seemed too frightened to speak.  Kenji slung her behind him ("Katana, guard!") and shoved through the back door, only to come to a dead halt.

Usui stood there grinning, relaxed and casual, except that his sword was out and he had an arm wrapped around the terrified Ayame's neck.  As soon as she saw her brother, her face transformed with relief.  "K-Ken-nii, please kill him quick, please kill him quick...."

"Stay cool, Aya-chan," he murmured, glaring hard at Usui.

"Hello, boy," the blind warrior greeted mockingly.

"I'll be there," Kenji said shortly, skipping all preliminaries.  "We'll be there.  Tomorrow.  Tonight.  Whenever he wants.  Where?"

Usui shrugged, gesturing at the girl.  "I told her where.  Who are you bringing?"

"Dad.  Sano.  Saitou."

Usui's grin widened.  "The Wolf, eh?  Looking forward to that."

"Fool."  Kenji lost his cool for a moment; the word snapped out in offended irritation.  "If you knew Saitou, you would not be looking forward to that."

Usui sighed in mock exasperation.  "What a child you are still."  He suddenly released Ayame and pushed her toward the house.  She stumbled, hurriedly regained her footing, and ran to cling to her brother.  Kenji absently put an arm over her, wishing she would go inside and not get in his way like this.  He knew that Usui was just a messenger, but having that man here, violating his safe haven, still made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, and he wanted the girls to be far away from all this.

Usui continued with a condescending smile.  "Be good children and give your Daddy my message.  See you tonight."  The next second, he was gone.

Kenji knew he was gone, but it was still very hard to put his sword down, to crouch down and comfort his sister, when what he really wanted to do was freak out and patrol the neighborhood and kill anything bad that even thought of getting too close.

"Wh-Why didn't you k-kill him?!  Why didn't you kill h-him, Ken-nii?!" Ayame demanded, her arms tightly around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder.

Kenji held her distractedly.  "He wasn't going to hurt you, Aya."  Probably.  "He was just here to give me a message.  It'll be fine.  Dad and I are going to take care of it tonight.  We'll take care of it for good, I promise."  Then, because she obviously wasn't believing him, "I promise."

After a minute, Ayame looked up at him.  She searched his face.  Then fresh tears welled up in her eyes.  "Ken-nii, are you okay?"

His eyes were hot, and he suddenly realized that he was shaking.  Disgusted with himself, he scooped her up, walked into the house, slid the door firmly shut behind him, and dumped her down next to Suzume.  Katana leaped at him, barking anxiously.

"It's okay, mutt...good boy, good job, Katana...they're gone now, the bad guys are all gone...."  It was much easier to comfort the dog than his sisters.

"They're really gone?" Suzume finally wavered.

"Yeah," Kenji said tiredly.  "We'll protect you, we'll keep you safe...."  He managed to stop himself before continuing with 'blah blah blah.'

Shakily reassured, Suzume ran to the living room, and when Kenji realized that she was waking up their mother, he quickly slipped back outside to hide.  He couldn't face her, not when he felt like Usui's invasion had been his fault.  He walked the streets with nervous energy, looking for enemies that were not there and fumbling to find his phone.  "Dad, hey...you need to come home now...like, now...."

o.o.o.o.o

Okay, so he was wearing the hideous pink ribbon, because after all it was Suzume who had given it to him "for luck;" but that didn't mean it had to show.  Still, it was kind of nice to have it...almost as if all the women who had become so important to him were with them now, watching over them.

"What's wrong with your arm?" Kenshin asked in the lowest of whispers, looking concerned.

"Nothing," Kenji said quickly, taking his hand away from the sleeve under which the ribbon was tied.

"Keep it down," Saitô ordered, looking irritated.  Kenji just managed not to snicker.  The police captain's whisper was as quiet as Kenshin's, but since his voice was deeper it sounded almost like a purr.  Probably not a good idea to point that out.  So instead, Kenji raised his fingers in an 'It's all good' gesture and refocused on their mission.

"It's that place," Ayame had told them earlier, "the big huge building with broken windows that they're gonna knock down.  The...the man with the blindfold told me.  He told me to tell you."  Kenji did not like remembering that, because Ayame had burst into tears once she had delivered her message.

The place seemed deserted, but Kenji knew it was not.  The scent of dragon was everywhere, and strong.  He could tell that Kenshin and Saitou knew it, too, though with different senses.  Sanosuke was looking a little dubious.  "Oi, you sure--?"

"Yes."  Kenji eyed him.  "I don't know why they're taking their sweet time to show up, but they're here."

Sanosuke raised a hand dismissively.  "If you say so.  I'm just gettin' a little bored, that's all."

Kenji was anything but bored.  Adrenaline was running through him just like on assassination trips, but this time he felt a sense of pride, too, that he was not alone on a mission this time.  He was part of this team, his father and Saitô and Sano needed him, would rely on him, would have to trust him.  It also made Kenji very determined to not mess up.  The three men were not the only ones who would be affected by his performance.  He briefly touched the spot on his arm again, where if he concentrated, he could sense the faint pressure of the ribbon.  'Mom, Megumi, Ayame and Suzume, Tomoe-nee....'

Kenshin stopped walking.  He was looking steadily behind an old peeling counter as if something important was there, but his pose was completely relaxed.  Kenji frowned and stepped closer.  Suddenly a strand of scent clarified itself against the general backdrop of dragon, and Kenji realized that there was someone sitting there, watching them, and who it was.

"Yahiko?"

"Yo," the boy muttered.

"Who is he?" Saitô demanded imperiously.

Kenji put his hand on his hip.  "I dunno.  Friend or foe, Yahiko?"

"Does it matter?"  Yahiko picked up the wooden sword lying beside him, looked it in contempt, then flung it at Kenji's feet.  "Not like anything I can do would make a freaking difference to anything."

Sanosuke chuckled.  "Definitely your buddy, Kenji - he's just as whiny as you are."

"Hey!" Yahiko snapped, and Kenji glared indignantly.

Kenshin's voice was gentle.  "Who do you name as your master, young one?"

"I'm not a young one!"

"Apologies."  There was a smile in Kenshin's voice.  "I can see you have come a long way for someone of your years."

"He also dodged the question.  Where's your allegiance, boy?" Saitou said impatiently.

Yahiko looked away and sullenly did not answer.

Kenshin looked at his son questioningly.  "Kenji?"

Kenji shifted, uncomfortable.  "Shishio practically raised him.  He's not a bad kid, though.  I dunno.  We hung out."  He did not know how to put it into words.  Yahiko was his friend, a child who had been starving for something just as much as Kenji had.  They had both loved Shishio, in a way; had been grateful for being rescued, had been in awe of his skill and gratefully seized on what he taught them.

They had also both been trapped.  They had both longed for something more, cultivated their swordsmanship in an effort to belong, to matter.  Neither of them had been able to capture the prize that always hung tantalizingly out of reach.  'Yahiko might choose to be our enemy, but I don't want to abandon him here.'  It would be like abandoning himself.

"You betrayed us, Kenji," the boy accused.  There was hurt in his voice.

"Yahiko," Kenji said slowly.  "You know it's better, now that I left."

Yahiko's eyes narrowed.

"You're different from the others," Kenji added.

"I know."  The boy looked like he was on the verge of either rage or tears.  "I can't get as good as them.  I practice all the time, all the time, but I'll never even come close.  I'm useless.  I hang around all day and do nothing, and nobody would care if I just - disappeared."  There was an unspoken question in his eyes.  Would you care?

Kenji was almost too irritated to notice.  "That's not what I meant.  You idiot.  I don't care if you don't want anything to do with us, but what the freak did Shishio ever do for you?"  He was arguing with himself, too, trying to convince himself that destroying his old master was the right thing.  "Shishio just picked you up off the street to use you as a guinea pig.  You know why his dragons are as good as they are?  Because he nearly killed you trying to figure out how to make them.  That's your reward, being allowed to hang around and stay out of the way.  Aren't you grateful, Yahiko, for not getting kicked out once you'd served your purpose?"

Yahiko's eyes glittered.  "Easy for you to say, Kenji.  Everything's so much easier for you.  You have...."  He did not say it aloud, but his eyes ran across Kenshin, Sanosuke, and Saitou, and Kenji understood perfectly.

Kenji's throat suddenly tightened.  'I have a family?  My life is so wonderful just because I have a family?  Being kidnapped and tortured, it's all okay because there were people who supposedly loved me hanging out in the background?'

"At least you have somewhere to go!" Yahiko cried, unware that Kenji wanted to strangle him.  "I...."

Saitou rolled his eyes.  "Don't look at me, I just got rid of Eiji."

Sanosuke gave a wry laugh.  "I dunno, I think I'm getting used to looking after homeless dragon brats...."

Kenshin had been watching both of the boys.  "Yahiko," he said.  "You would always be welcome among us."

Yahiko's jaw tightened, and his eyes flashed.  Without a word, he picked up his bokutô and charged out at them.

Kenji shouted and reached for his own weapon, meaning to avenge himself, but was unexpectedly pulled out of the way by Sanosuke.  "Let go of me!" he yelled, struggling to get at his sword.

Saitô had stepped aside immediately, rolling his eyes.  With most of his targets quickly disappearing on him, Yahiko faltered.  With a little cry, he regained his footing and swung forcefully, but Kenshin caught the blade with his sheath and swiped it aside.  "I will not fight you, young one - Yahiko.  Even if you choose to defend Shishio, you are not my enemy."

"They'll kill you!" Yahiko shouted at him.  "Sôjirô will get you if Anji or Usui or Chou don't, and even IF you SOMEHOW survive Sôjirô, Shishio will kill you because you're weak and he's not!"

Kenshin could hear what he was really saying.  He smiled and said mildly, "Let's see what happens before deciding, shall we?"

The boy whirled helplessly on Kenji, who glared at him.  Yahiko looked at Sanosuke, who raised an eyebrow, and at Saitô, whose face was dark with impatience and disgust.  He clenched his jaw, feeling helpless.  "Give me back my bokutô."

Kenshin handed it over with a smile.  "Join us while we search for your companions, at least."

"They're farther up," Yahiko mumbled.  He eyed Kenji.  "Kenji...Shishio swore you wouldn't get out of here alive."

"He can go ahead and think that," Kenji snapped back.  "I can handle myself."

Kenshin frowned and laid a stern hand on his shoulder.  "Remember what we agreed on, Kenji."

"Dad--!"  Kenji started to protest, since he thought it was both ridiculous and an offense on his honor that Kenshin would try to stop him from fighting his own battles.  However, something in his father's face....

"Kenji."

Kenji remembered what his father had told him earlier, before they had left.  "You must trust me, Kenji."  It was too much to ask.  Kenji had thought he could, back in the sunlight where it was safe, but now he knew that it was impossible for him to trust, even though he wanted to.  "Yeah, fine," he muttered.  He'd let Kenshin have first go, anyway, but Kenji knew that he would be the one to end Shishio's life, just as he had done Enishi's.  He could not leave something this important up to someone else.

The building was dark, since most of the lights didn't seem to work, and there was dust and debris everywhere.  Not that Kenji really minded, but he did wonder a bit about the battle to come.  He was used to ambushing one or two targets; it would be different now, in a group, fighting another group face-on.  Maybe the lighting and the uneven footing would be more of a challenge - if so, Kenji had to be careful not to let it get the best of him.  He could not afford to fail, not when Saitô and his father were watching.

Dragons were waiting for them - finally - on the third floor, though they were all flunkies.  Most of them came flying out in an ambush, but when Saitô ran a couple of them through, they backed off.  While Kenshin and Saitô were arguing heatedly about those two deaths, Sanosuke punched out a few more dragons who tried to take advantage of the situation, and Kenji practiced how to attack without killing.

He decided it was much harder, and probably wasn't worth it - but if it was so important to his family, he could still make the effort.  'I'm not a monster,' he tried to convince himself.  'Enishi and Shishio tried to turn me into one, but I'm not.'

The idea fell flat.  All he needed to do for evidence otherwise was shift his teeth into dragon fangs and run his tongue gingerly over the sharp points.  'I'm designed to damage, wound, destroy.'  True, but even so, he would try.  It was just like Shishio had said, in a way.  If Kenji could accomplish his mission without shedding mortal blood, his father would be right.  If he couldn't, or if he didn't survive, Shishio would be.  'Let's see who knows what's they're talking about, Dad.'

Kenshin and Saitô finally got their acts together, sort of.  The latter stalked past in a disgusted huff, heading for the next stairway, while the former turned the rest of the flunkies into groaning piles on the floor.  Then they all moved on, with Yahiko trailing uncertainly behind.

They found Saitô facing down the blindfolded warrior on the next floor.  "Move along," Saitô murmured, hand poised by his sword, not even glancing in their direction.

"Saitô," Kenshin started to say, a warning tone in his voice.

The police chief smiled.  "Don't worry, I won't kill him."

Kenshin nodded and moved on.  Kenji stared after him.  'You're just going to take the word of a wolf like Saitô?  Usui'll be dead before we even see Shishio's ugly face.'

"You're right, Captain," Usui smirked, posing like an idiot.  "You're the one who's going to die."

How strange that his menace seemed to depend on his opponent - Kenji had been terrified of the man when he'd had Ayame in his power.  Now, trying to get the best of Saitô Hajime, he just seemed pathetically foolish.  'You shouldn't get cocky when you're up against Saitô.'  It occurred to Kenji that the same could be said about his father.  He would have liked to stay and watch, but he was getting left behind, and he was also getting a bad feeling about what was to come.  "Dad, wait...."

He slowed to a stop along with the rest of them, as they rounded a corner and found their way across the wide room blocked by a line of warriors.  These were nothing like the last batch.  Kenji's eyes traveled over their familiar faces, and he took a deep breath to steady himself.  Anji, Chô, Kamatari, Henya.  No longer his comrades - they meant to kill him, and he knew they would not hesitate for a second.  He had to do the same.

"Well, if it ain't the kitten," Chô laughed.  His fingers brushed the hilt of his sword as bloodlust crept into his eyes.

"Hiya, Broomhead," Kenji muttered.  Even as the words left his mouth, he realized that he would not be able to speak with the mockingly bantering tone he intended.  He tried instead to inject hatred and disgust into his voice, but it fell flat.  The emotion that was most tightening his guts was regret.  'Crap.'  He couldn't let himself be distracted by sentimentality, there was too much at stake.

A soft figure made its way forward, and Kenji blinked in surprise to see Yumi.  Her eyes passed disdainfully over him and settled on his father.  "Himura Kenshin, you are welcome.  I've come to escort you to your opponent."

"What are we, small fry?" Kenji burst out, insulted.  So they wouldn't be fighting together...they had been singled out for a sort of hierarchical combat.

"Do you honestly think you could handle Seta, you idiot?" Yumi snapped, her composure momentarily lapsing.  Then she smiled and seemed to smoothe out again.  "Our master no longer has any interest in you."  And with that, he was dismissed.  "This way, Himura-san."  Talking to his father, of course.

Angered, Kenji surged forward with no particular plan in mind, but was brought to an abrupt halt when one of Chô's swords came snaking out of nowhere, slicing a crimson line across his arm.  With an efficient snap, the flame-haired warrior whipped his blade back in and smirked at Kenji as he...licked at the blood that was trickling down the flat.

"Oh, GROSS, Chô!  That's, like, what...ugh!"

Yahiko, though not bothering to duplicate Kenji's incoherency, looked equally disgusted.

"Better rethink that 'small fry' comment," Chô growled pleasantly.  "Did it ever occur to ya that maybe I was holding back in our little friendly bouts?"

"Give it up, you hack, you know I'm just gonna pound you to a bloody pulp again."

"Kenji?" Yahiko ventured, "Have you, you know, counted them?  Like, one, two, three, four of 'em you're going to be fighting?  At the same time?"

Kenji became aware of his father's uneasy glance.  'Don't look at me like that, I can handle it!'  He rested his sword confidently over his shoulder and grinned.  "Don't sweat it, Yahiko.  I'll catch up with you in a minute, Dad."

"Don't be overconfident," Kenshin murmured to him.  Then in an even lower murmur, apparently to himself, "God knows I've had more than my share of such opponents...."  He clapped Kenji's shoulder, his expression one of determined trust, and followed Yumi out of sight.

Sanosuke cracked his knuckles in anticipation.  "Take cover, kid," he told Yahiko, who obeyed promptly but watched with intent interest as Sanosuke charged straight at Anji, the largest warrior in the lineup.

Three of the Juppongatana at once was a bit much, and despite Kamatari's delicate looks and Henya's skeletal frailty, neither of them were opponents to take lightly.  While fighting them and Chô, Kenji had to concentrate deeper than he ever had before, battling fiercely just to keep himself alive.  He had no attention to spare for the world outside their whirling swords, even though he knew in the back of his mind that this was dangerous.

What if someone (Anji, for example) decided to jump him while he was busy with the first three?  What if he missed some important feature about the terrain, such as that the ground was about to end under his feet?  What if he was so busy with the swordstrokes that he didn't notice whatever master plan they might be weaving to herd him into a more vulnerable position?  Yet he had no time to even acknowledge the worry, much less do something about it.  At the back of his mind was the vague thought that perhaps Kenshin and/or Saitô would finish their matches soon and come to help.

Henya let loose with another explosion, and Kenji seized the opportunity to duck backwards through the smoke in order to earn some space to think.  He regulated his breathing, analyzing the battle patterns so far.

'Stop whining.  You're a Himura warrior.  Three at once?  Pssh, you can off these pansies no problem.'  Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryuu was designed for a lone fighter against many, after all.  This should be just your average, run-of-the-mill HM-R battle, right?  Except that Kenshin would get mad if he killed anyone, and he was nowhere near being a master of Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryuu anyway, and, and, and....

So many ands, but there was no time.  Already he was fending off the frustratingly long reach of Kamatari's weapon while keeping an eye out for a sneak attack from one of Chô's tricky blades and he had to keep the dang swords away from him.  "Agh!"

First blood.  Not much, just a shallow cut, but Kenji was furious that it was his own flesh that had been marked, while his enemies were still completely whole.  "Not for long!" Kenji shrieked furiously at them, adding a bit of more colorful language; then he swung into another attack sequence.

Deliberately Kamatari misread his move, aimed for the scythe instead, managed to score a chip on the blade.  Not much of a victory at the moment, but could prove useful later.  Pretended to press his advantage on the furious Kamatari, who was angrily flipping his weapon to utilize the chain; sweeping straight past him to disarm Chô instead, so satisfying to watch the weapon go flying.  Now for Henya--

Pain in his side, as one of those creepy cheating swords came snaking out of nowhere and plunged into his flesh.  "Chô!!!"  Shrieking curses, Kenji smashed into Chô at Hiten Mitsurugi speed, transforming as he went.  He bellowed fire right into the other dragon's face; it caused no damage, but it did obscure his vision, prompting a series of curses from Chô in turn as Kenji used the opportunity to stab a full set of claws into him.  Then he nearly toppled right over on top of Chô as either Henya or Kamatari struck him in the back.

Snarling, Kenji whirled and leaped for Henya, who transformed as well and took to the air.  'No you don't,' Kenji thought furiously.  'No flying in front of me, no gloating; I am going to take you down!'  He hit the wall and scrabbled up it like an insect, chunks of plaster raining down in the wake of his reckless ascent.  He leaped, twisting; Henya screeched at him and tried to duck out of the way, but Kenji managed to clip one of his wings as he fell, then swiftly brought his tail around to strike Henya hard in the face.  Seeing that he had thrown the other dragon off balance, Kenji gleefully transformed back again in midair.  He drew his sword in a lightning-fast battoujutsu as he dropped, having just enough time to execute it before he landed heavily right on top of Kamatari, who squealed and struggled to get free.  Henya came crashing down to sprawl on the floor, bleeding, not moving.  "Oh yeah," Kenji crowed, "who's the best?"

"Cocky kid," Kamatari growled, now back in human form as well.  "You are so dead."

Kenji sighed.  "One down, two to go."

It did not get much easier, even with Henya down for the count.  Chô and Kamatari just seemed to get more vicious when wounded, and Chô in particular seemed to be in Bloodthirsty Savage Mode.  There was absolutely zero warmth or friendship in his eyes, it was completely drowned by the lust to kill.  Kenji knew that his own eyes were glowing gold, but it wasn't the same.  He felt stronger, faster, more focused, more resistant to pain; but thanks to his family, he had inhibitions that Chô entirely lacked.

'Is it really possible,' he wondered despairingly at one point, 'to beat this monster without killing him?'  Was it really possible to stop remembering Chô's cocky smile, or the teasing sparkle in his eyes when he was in a good mood?

Maybe Kamatari would be easier.  Kenji had been concentrating on Chô, treating Kamatari with only preoccupied defense; but even as he switched gears, transitioning instantaneously from a block against Chô to an attack on Kamatari, pain exploded through him, seemingly out of nowhere.

The sword went flying out of Kenji's hands, and the hilt clanged right into Kamatari's head before the weapon violently settled at the base of the far wall.  Kamatari dropped like a stone and did not move.

"What are you doing?" Chô shrieked.  "You trying to kill your own allies, fool?!"

"It's not my fault the boy can't keep hold of his weapon," a familiar voice rumbled.

Kenji groaned from where he was sprawling helplessly on the floor, and cursed under his breath.  Anji.  Coming out of nowhere with that meaty fist of his at the worst moment, just as Kenji had been afraid he would.  When he looked weakly for Sanosuke, he found the man crumpled and battered at the base of a far wall, as an anxious Yahiko knelt over him.  Kenji couldn't move, except his hands and feet and head, feebly.  It felt like all the ribs on his right side were broken.  He had serious doubts that he would be able to get to his feet.

Anji solved the problem by seizing the back of his clothes and hauling him up; Kenji screamed, feeling as if somebody had just stuck twenty knives into his side.  Still couldn't move, and now his hands were trembling as an involuntary reaction from the damage to his body.  Like his father, he was simply built too small and slight to be able to take Anji's hits.

Chô cackled and readied his sword.  "Hold 'im for me, Anji.  He's finished."

"Chô," Kenji whispered.  "Come on.  You're really gonna kill me?"

The other man frowned.

"So one minute we're living together and exchanging jokes, next minute we're trying to make each other die," Kenji went on wryly.

"I didn't start this fight, kid," Chô growled.

Just then Yahiko ran up, planting himself firmly between them.  "Isn't it enough?" he said angrily.  "Kenji and that guy over there are almost dead.  We're all dragons, we're all hated by normal humans.  Why do we have to keep fighting each other like this when the rest of the world is already trying to kill us?"

Chô rolled his eyes.  "Spare me."

Kenji felt a flickering of hope - it sounded a little like the old Chô, the normal one who had good-naturedly teased him and mocked him like an older brother.  "Seriously," he said, knowing what Yahiko was trying to do.  In his condition, his voice was the only weapon he had left.  "You'd think we'd be on the same side, seeing as how we're all in the same boat and all."

"You know what happened to my family," Anji rumbled.

Kenji winced.  He knew the story, of how Anji had escaped Enishi's service, had scraped together a life for himself in the outside world, had ended up caring for a few orphans who knew about his dragon form and loved him anyway.  They had only been forging their life together for a few years when it was all taken away, by the same sort of people who were now working in the government to make the lives of dragons absolutely miserable.

Still.  "You know what happened to mine, right?  'Cause of humans.  The ones who killed all my other brothers and sisters.  But also - 'cause of Enishi.  And Shishio.  Who're the bad guys here, Anji?  Who--?"  Just when Anji's face was growing still and hard with listening, just when Kenji thought he had started to get through to him, he was skewered again by one of Chô's nasty swords.

"Shut up, kid.  You talk too much."

The pain was so bad that tears were leaking down Kenji's face.  He tried to speak, but could not; decided he was seriously going to die, realized slowly that it was not at all a bad way to go.  He had done his best to help his father on this mission.  He had taken out two enemies and wounded another.  He had already said all his good-byes.  Technically, he was ready for death.

'I don't feel ready.'  He hung there in Anji's big hands and waited, because that was the only thing he could do.  'I hope they don't do it where Dad can see.'

"Chô."  It was Anji's voice.  "You know I am no friend of Shishio."

Chô scowled.  "So, what.  You'll fight me to protect the kid?  I ain't betraying Shishio-sama, I'm telling you that much."

"If he stays alive.  But you're no Kamatari, no Yumi, to stay loyal to him even when he's gone.  If Shishio does not survive this, where will you turn, Chô?"

"You think Battousai's gonna win?!" Chô screeched.

"Darn right," Kenji growled, wishing he could raise his hand to wipe away the blood trickling down his face.

"Look at this boy, Chô."

Kenji blinked and glared, not liking being stared at, though he was glad to see that Chô seemed to have forgotten to stay in Bloodthirsty Savage Mode.

"He has a place where people love him and care for him, regardless of what he is.  Battousai and his people are dragonkind, and yet they bear no grudge against humans, despite having suffered at their hands.  You saw how he worked side by side with that police chief."

"Then he's a traitor."

Kenji shrieked, "Talk about my dad like that and I'll...!"  Unfortunately, he could think of no suitable threat, seeing as how he had been half-crushed by a single blow and was currently dangling from an enemy's grasp, finding it difficult to breathe, much less move.

Chô smirked.  "And you'll what, bleed on me?  Go ahead, knock yourself out."

Kenji carefully drew in a breath, knowing he had to calm down.  He thought of Megumi and Tomoe, the calmest people he knew.  "Look," he tried.  "How about a deal.  If Dad beats Shishio, you come with us and see how to get things done.  If not, fine, you can have me."

"We've already got you, kid," Chô pointed out.  "Pretty lame deal, there's nothing in it for us."

"You can have my sword?" Kenji tried, a little sheepishly.

Chô rolled his eyes.

"Why don't we see how Shishio fares and decide then?" Anji suggested dryly.  "Whether he lives or dies will have a great effect on our decision, I imagine."

Chô ended up going on ahead, because it took awhile for the others to get going.  Anji set Kenji carefully down and set to work wrapping up his wounds.

"Ow!  Ow, ow, ow ow...."

Anji paused for a moment.  There was a strange little smile playing over his mouth, and tears in his eyes.  "Tasuke used to sound like that when Tsubaki would brush his hair."

Kenji was quiet for a moment.  "...Sorry."  Then he frowned.  "I can't help it, you know.  After you punching my ribs out and Chô running me through a few times."

"I'm not sorry to remember."

Kenji tried to keep quiet after that, but soon realized it was impossible.  "Ow...ow, ow, ow...."

After that, all he wanted to do was just close his eyes and escape into sleep, but there were too many important things to take care of first.  Wincing, Kenji crept slowly over to Sanosuke.  "Geez, you really did a number on him, Anji...if he's dead, I'll kill you."

"He's not dead," the older man rumbled.  "He has an endurance beyond anything I've ever seen."

"He will be dead soon, though," Yahiko pointed out, "if he doesn't get some help."  He eyed Kenji.  "We could always...you know."  He made a snapping sound with his teeth.

"Sano'd hate that," Kenji grumbled.  "He's really...genuine.  He wasn't born into it like me, I don't think being forced into immortality and superhuman abilities would sit well with him."  That did not mean it wasn't a pain to try to transport the wounded fighter.  Anji ended up carrying him, after Kenji had recovered enough to move on his own two feet.  He limped slowly along like an old man, leaning heavily on Yahiko for support.  In this way they reached the room where Kenshin was supposed to be fighting.

It was empty except for Sôjirô, who appeared to be casually lounging on the ground with one knee crooked up and his arm thrown over his eyes.  Except that there was blood everywhere and the carpet was torn to shreds.

"Had fun, Sôji-kun?" Kenji called out.

"Too much," the other boy mumbled.  "I'm afraid I underestimated your father, Kenji-san."

"W00t."

Sôjirô uncovered his eyes and rolled his head to the side so he could look at them.  "Looks like you enjoyed yourself as well, Kenji-san."

"Oh yeah.  Great time.  We should do this more often," Kenji grumbled, wincing.

Slowly, Sôjirô climbed to his feet, looking almost as shaky as Kenji felt.  "Anji-san, Kenji-san, Yahiko-kun...I think this is good-bye for now.  I think...I know how it's going to end.  Either way, I cannot stay here anymore."

Kenji stared at him.  "Wait, what?  You're leaving?  Without even watching the fight?"

Sôjirô smiled sadly.  "I wish you well, Kenji-san.  You have a very fine family.  I'm sure you have a good future ahead of you."  He limped past them to leave the room.  It was a very long time before Kenji ever saw him again.

To be continued....

Author's Notes:  Even though Kenshin didn't have to go through Aoshi to get to Shishio this time, he was still not fully recovered from what Kenji had done to him earlier.  And of course, Sano lost to Anji because he hadn't learned the Futae no Kiwami attack like he did in canon.

*sigh*  So, here's what happened.  I'd written the Final Battle for the original draft, then later found several significant mistakes in it.  After adding all the revisions that resulted from previous revisions, such as Kenji's reunion with his friends and Usui's reappearance with Ayame and the additions of Sanosuke and Yahiko (Sano gave me sooo much trouble, though Yahiko was surprisingly helpful), I went to tackle the Final Battle scene itself.  Fight scenes are not my forte, so that was really hard, and for a while I had writer's block because of it.  It was a huge struggle trying to re-write a battle that I thought I'd already finished, though I was able to salvage some things from the original scene.  I still think the writing sucks, both in this chapter and the next where the fights are wrapping up.

In the end, however, what gave me the most grief was stuff that ended up being in the next chapter.  I wrestled with it a lot until I finally realized that I'd have to ditch some things I really liked and re-write the whole scene.  I also realized that the Final Battle chapter had ended up a lot longer than it used to be, well over my 9,999-word chapter/one-shot limit.  I was forced to break it in two, with everything through Kenji's battles as the first part, and the rest incorporated into the "Broken Wings" chapter.