Rurouni Kenshin Fan Fiction ❯ The Lost Hatchling ❯ Broken Wings ( Chapter 13 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
The Lost Hatchling, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl
Chapter 12 - Broken Wings (ROUGH DRAFT)

Saitô had obviously walked right past Kenji's fight ('Jerk') when he had finished with Usui, because he was here now in the final battle arena, sitting in an impressively casual attitude against the wall, considering the fact that both his legs were covered with blood.  Chô and Yumi were standing near the other wall, looking very tense.

"Shishio-sama says it's his fight," Chô said shortly when they came in.  "Stay out of it, Anji."  He turned his face to them for a moment, so they could read the silent message of his expression:  'For now.'

Kenshin was looking, if anything, even worse than Kenji.  His clothes were in tatters and blood was running down his face and body.  His eyes were weird.  He seemed too juiced up to notice anything that did not pertain to the battle.

"Dad," Kenji whispered.  He was not sure how his father was even managing to remain on his feet.  Then Kenshin unleashed a fierce battle cry and a whirlwind attack - only to be brutally countered; even so, he fought back to his feet and seemed even more intensely wired than before.

Kenji learned a lot from that fight.  He learned that it is possible to put aside pain ten times worse than he was feeling at the moment, and fight just as well or better than ever.  He learned of the depths an enemy can stoop to for victory, especially when he has no scruples and you do.  Kenji learned that the will to fight is powerful, and unquenchable when fused with the desire to protect.  And, when Shishio's damaged body could take no more and burst into flames, Kenji learned that his father, even in victory, was not invincible.

"Dad!  Dad, Dad, Dad!"  It was a nightmare repeat of the night Kenji had returned to his family.  He ripped free of Yahiko's supporting grasp and flung himself down next to his father.  "Hey, stay with me, it's not freaking over yet!  Mom'll kill me if I don't come home without you!  You have to come home!"

Kenshin was staring up at him with glazed eyes, eyelids trembling.  He seemed to be trying to raise a hand to touch his son's face, but did not make it very far before the hand dropped limply into Kenji's lap, and the bleeding head lolled unconscious to the side.

"DAAAD!!"  Kenji looked around desperately for help.  Chô was standing there, mouth open, hands dangling at his sides, still stunned from the defeat of his master and obviously useless.  Saitô was still carefully working on standing up.  Yahiko was just a kid.  Kenji's eyes finally fixed on Anji, and the tears he had refused to shed earlier now spilled down his cheeks.  "Please.  Please help us."

"Hey, Hôji's running off somewhere," Yahiko started to say, but everyone was ignoring him, busy with their own concerns.  "...Just thought you might want to know."

Kenji felt like he was going to die.  Taking each step was an adventure in itself, he had no strength left to help Anji with either Kenshin or Sanosuke.  Both Yahiko and Saitô were talking, but since their tone was conversational he did not bother trying to listen.  He was wholly absorbed in keeping upright and moving, and he nearly screamed when someone grabbed his shoulder to hold him back.  "Ow!  What are you--?!"  Suddenly the ground was shaking.  Kenji, already unsteady to begin with, stumbled back into Saitô, the one who had caught him.  "What's happening?"

"This place has a lock-down mode?!" Yahiko was exclaiming.

Kenji looked up and found a heavily locked door before them.  He looked back the way they had come, and noticed that the walls were shaking as well, to the accompaniment of a far-away rumbling sound.

"Hôji, probably," Anji grunted.  "All evidence on the Dragon Project must be destroyed."

"Besides," Saitô added, "didn't you hear what he said back there?  If Shishio will never leave this place alive, then apparently neither will we."

"No!" Kenji shouted.  "We didn't come all this way just to die here!"

Saitô rolled his eyes.  "Don't get hysterical.  If you are dying tonight, it won't be here."  Studying the door, he stepped forward and took up an aggressive stance.  "All of you, move back."

Once again, Kenji remembered why he admired Saitô Hajime so much, a human who had, even in this era, mastered the use of a sword so well that he was able to break through the barrier as if it took no effort.  Looking perfectly cool, he sheathed his weapon again and turned back.  "This is where we part ways.  I can't be seen with you all."

Kenji stared at him.

"Don't let your guard down."  Saitô walked past them and was gone.

With nothing else to do, they continued on again.  Kenji willed his body to get its act together and stop hurting just long enough for him to do important things, like taking steps, and breathing, and getting out of this crumbling death trap.  His body apparently did not feel like listening.  He kept stumbling, noticed a few times that the drippiness on his face was from tears of pain, ended up in coughing fits when he breathed too deeply and aggravated his broken ribs.  It also did not help that the floor was being unreliable, though not as much as the ceiling, which groaned in a last warning before crashing down on their heads, weakened from the flames that had been eating at the floor above.

'I give up,' Kenji thought.  He could not move.  If he was not so battered, he could have probably struggled his way out of the debris, but if he tried to do that in his current state, he might kill himself.

"Kenji!" he heard Yahiko shouting.  "Kenji, are you okay?!"

"Of course I am," Kenji croaked sarcastically.  "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Anji!  Hey, Anji, answer me!"

The debris suddenly shifted; Kenji swore as his body was jolted.  He thought he could hear Sanosuke mumbling something.

"Here," Anji grunted.

There were scraping and thunking sounds.  "Anji, help me get them out!"

"Kenji," Anji called out, "can you shift?  It will help."

Kenji could see what he meant.  Moving to a bigger size might cause a lot of the debris that was pinning him to slide off.  Clenching his teeth together, he began carefully transforming, wishing that he could feel through his scales so that he would be better able to tell if a burning chunk of broken wood, like that one, was about to roll over one of his wounds.  "Ow!  Gah, that hurt...."  He thrashed a little, trying to work himself free.  "I'm out.  Mostly."

"It's so hot," Sanosuke was gasping.  "Someone help me, it's...."

"Be there in a second," Kenji said distractedly, trying to flip carefully upright with Yahiko's help.

Anji was pulling some of the bigger pieces of debris off of where bloodied bits of Kenshin's clothes were trailing through the dust and plaster, marking where he had fallen.  "Himura, can you hear me?  I know you can't shift here, but I'll have you out soon."

"I can hear you," Kenshin answered weakly.  "I...."  There was movement, muffled voices; then Anji had an arm around Kenshin and was hauling him to his feet.  "Sano," Kenshin was saying urgently.  "He--"

It suddenly occurred to Kenji that the fires were actually a problem, and a big one.  He had not even registered them before, but now, wondering if maybe his father's human form was not immune to flame the way all the hybrids were, he realized that one of their number was not even a dragon at all.  They had to get him out of the burning debris now.

Sanosuke suddenly screamed out a curse, as the flames flared up where he was trapped.  "Kenshin!" he shouted.

His clothes were on fire.  Forgetting to be careful, Kenji dove forward and seized Sanosuke's hand in his mouth, the first part of him he could reach.  He dragged himself closer and sank teeth deeper into flesh.  He sensed Anji and Yahiko stumbling toward them, unsteady among the mess as they started digging out the rest of Sanosuke, who had not stopped crying out.

"Kenji, what's happening?" Kenshin called, mostly helpless against the wall.

Kenji twitched his tail in the dragon signal for "wait," then, when it was enough, he slowly withdrew and collapsed back against the wall beside his father in human form.  "Bit him," he said shortly.  "Crap, I didn't want this to happen...Sano's gonna kill me."

"He might be dead or crippled otherwise," Kenshin sighed.

It was clear that speaking was difficult.  Kenji peered anxiously up at him, but Kenshin just smiled, a gesture that still managed to be comforting despite the ghastly state of his bloody face.  "You okay?"

"I'm hanging on," Kenshin said grimly.  He wiped an arm across his face, and Kenji realized that he was sweating.

"Will you burn?" Kenji asked urgently.  He glanced at the fire that surrounded them, licking closer and closer to their feet.

"As a human, my tolerance is much higher than it used to be, but I need to get out of here soon," Kenshin said quietly.

Kenji swore and struggled back to his feet.  "Can you...walk on your own?"

"...Maybe."

Kenji swore again.  "Neither can I."  He called to Anji, since both Sanosuke and Yahiko were too busy yelling at each other to pay attention.  "Anji!  Some help here!"

"Please," Kenshin added.

The big man approached through the flames, looking like some evil spirit in his state of dishevelment, with the black marks around his eyes emphasized against the sulky light.  "I don't think we will be able to get to the ground floor through all this.  I suggest we fly."

"You will have to carry me," Kenshin said.

Anji nodded.  Then he looked questioningly at Kenji, who gritted his teeth.  "Whatever," he snapped.

Anji helped the two of them along, as the others trailed in their wake.  Sanosuke, still a mess but now strengthened enough to walk, could not seem to shut up.  "...and my teeth, it's like biting my tongue every two seconds, how do you talk through these?!"

"Retract them," Yahiko said.

"What?  How?"

"Dude, I don't know!  Just - pull them in!"

Sanosuke pushed at the sharp points with no effect.

"Open your mouth wide and swallow," Anji suggested.  "You'll get used to it, it will become second nature."

"And don't think about meat," Yahiko added.

"Dang it, Yahiko, they came back!  Aw, my mouth is bleeding...."  Sanosuke frowned and touched his lips, then inspected the liquid that had smeared on his fingertips.  Some of it was blood, but the rest....  "What's this brown stuff?  It tastes like crap."

"It's venom."

"Gah!"  Sanosuke started spitting it out before Yahiko explained that he had produced it and was immune to it now.

"You can't turn yourself into a dragon if you already are one."

Sanosuke stopped walking for a minute and just stood there, swearing softly.  Then he turned and experimentally torched the wall.

"Watch it!" Kenji yelled at him.  "This place is already falling apart, don't help it along!"

Sanosuke ignored him, studying the blackened expanse he had created.  He nodded.  "That could come in handy.  Maybe."  Then he frowned and swiped at his lips again.  "Now what's this crap?"

"Protective coating, so you don't cook your own mouth," Yahiko said in exasperation.  "Can we please go already?  You can play around outside!"

They made their way to a wide open room with large windows, two of which had been shattered and a third with a large crack running almost all the way across it.  The scattered piles of debris across the floor had caught fire, and half the room was full of rubble from where a section of the roof had collapsed.

Yahiko hurried over to one of the broken windows and looked down.  "There's an overgrown lot over there," he reported.  "It looks like the street light beside it is out, so we might be able to make it down without being seen."

"You can meet us there," Anji said.  Yahiko nodded, shrugged out of his shirt, spread his wings, and took off.

Sanosuke watched in amazement.  "He's flying!  The little punk is actually--!"  Then he fell silent and just stared.

"Now it's your turn."

Sanosuke twisted his head to glare up at Anji.  "You're joking."

"You might want to take your jacket off," Kenji suggested.

"You're new to this.  I'll bring these two on my own," Anji said.

"What are you--?"

Anji put out one of his big hands and shoved Sanosuke out the window.

"Was that wise?" Kenshin said in alarm.

"Trust me, instinct will take over," Kenji said darkly.

They could hear Sanosuke yelling and cursing all the way down.  When they looked out, they could see him moving about on the ground below, still yelling furiously.

"What is he doing?  Get away from the building, you idiot!" Kenji shouted.

Sanosuke stared up at him.  "I can hear you!"

"Yeah, so do what I told you!"

"How can I hear you when you're all the way up there?!"

"One of the perks, now move your butt!"

"He's not moving," Kenshin observed.

Kenji shot Anji a pleading glance.  "Can you...?"

Anji nodded.  "I'll be back for you soon."

An explosion behind them rattled the entire building.  Although the structure still managed to hold together, more debris rained down, and the creaking and groaning had gotten a lot louder.

"Take your time."

Kenshin frowned.  "Wait a minute.  Kenji, why aren't you coming with us?"

Kenji turned away sullenly until he heard them leave.  Then he took a deep breath and edged as close as he could to the window frame, looking down.  'So easy...it should be so easy....'  It wouldn't be, of course.  If he was already healthy and only a few floors above ground level, he would have been able to make it.  He'd wreck his body for a while, but it was doable.  Now, trapped so high up....  It was horrible, feeling so helpless.  "Come back for me," he whispered.

Anji did not let him down.  The man returned, reaching out to take hold of him.

"You didn't tell Dad anything, did you?"

"No.  But surely you realize he has already guessed."

"...."

They met the others in the darkened lot, where Kenshin was sitting behind a stack of rotting crates and Yahiko was shaking his head as he watched Sanosuke, who was ranting about his shredded white jacket.

"Told you you should've taken it off," Kenji said as they arrived.

"Look at it!  Completely totaled!"  Sanosuke's wings were still out, and now he glared at them.  They were twitching and jerking, occasionally snapping open and closed at random.  He did not have control over them yet.  "How do I get rid of these things?  And don't just say 'retract them,' you little brat!"

"It's like breathing to me," Yahiko said indignantly.  "I don't even remember not being a dragon."

"Clear off the rest of your shirt and press your back against a wall," Anji instructed.  "You might have to use your hands to pull the ends in first, but they'll slip in pretty easily.  Most of the time you won't even notice them."

As Sanosuke went storming off to try it, Anji carefully helped get Kenji settled next to Kenshin.  Then he straightened and looked at them seriously.  "I will have to leave you here.  There are others who need my help."

"We'll manage," Kenji muttered.

Anji nodded, then turned and left without further delay.

Kenji sighed, leaning his head back against the soft wood of the crates.  "Yahiko," he said with his eyes closed, "you think you and Sano can go steal a car for us or something?"

"Borrow," Kenshin amended.  "We will borrow a vehicle, with every intention of returning it."

"Sure."

Yahiko's eyes were gleaming.  "Man, it really paid off being your friend, Kenji.  This is gonna be so fun."

"Get a van or some such," Kenshin added sternly.  "You will be transporting injured people, not joyriding.

"Aw...how about a Porsche and a van?" Yahiko said mischievously.  Then he yelped at the former assassin's warning Look.  "Just kidding, just kidding!"  He turned to Sanosuke, who had succeeded in retracting his new wings and was now craning his head back as if looking for them again.  "Oi, Sano!  We're gonna go steal a car!"

"Really?  Awesome!"  Looking way too excited about their mission, the two young men hurried off.

"Sano's limping," Kenji observed, frowning.  "Still looks like he got the snot beat out of him...."  He sighed.  "At least he can walk."  He glanced down at himself ruefully.

"And fly," Kenshin added softly.

Kenji stiffened.

For a long time neither of them spoke.  Finally Kenshin said, "Were you really too injured to fly down yourself?"

An escape.  Kenji seized it without even thinking.  "Yeah."

"...."

"...."

"You knew that instinct would take over.  You've fallen before."

An involuntary shudder went through him, and Kenji angrily pressed back against the crates, trying to force his body to be still.  "I don't want to talk about this."

"When shall we talk about it, then?"

"Never, okay!"

"Kenji."

Kenji looked away.  He reached out a hand to rip out a few tufts of grass beside him, but the action sent pain shooting through his ribs again, so he gave up and lay still.

"The girls tell me things.  Ayame thinks there is something wrong with your wings.  She said...they were all twisted."

"They tore them, okay?" Kenji whispered, sick with apprehension.  "When I was five.  I think it was an accident...he was so angry when he found out.  But it didn't matter, they healed wrong and now I...can't use them.  Much."  When he had been captured almost a year ago, he had thought that he would have preferred broken limbs over the pain from instinctively cushioning his fall the way he had.

There was a long moment of grim silence.  Kenji could not bring himself to look at his father, and eventually found himself talking just to fill the unbearable silence.  "I hate dragons, and I hate flying.  I hate them.  After that I never shifted unless he forced me.  I never wanted to hear your voices again.  I didn't even know who you all were, just that you were so nice and told such awesome freaking lies and you kept asking questions I couldn't answer and even after all that, you never helped me, never when I really needed you."

Kenji shut his eyes, furious at his own anger.  "You couldn't help me.  I know you couldn't, but it doesn't matter."  Tears were running down his face as he remembered.  Kindness in the darkest moments, love when things were at their worst, voices telling him of a completely different world, where not everyone was cruel, where he had a place he belonged.  "Thank you...for being there," he whispered.  "I would have died without you."

He jerked away as something touched him.  He looked over and realized that Kenshin was reaching for him, though the man's face was hidden and still he said nothing.

Hesitantly, Kenji reached out to meet him this time, and Kenshin seized his hand, gripping it so tightly that Kenji suddenly understood that he was overcome, not repulsed.  "It wasn't your fault, either," Kenji murmured.  "You were trying to find me, weren't you.  I was so little, so stupid, I didn't even realize."  He could not stop crying.  "I didn't know...even if I had figured out what you wanted, I had nothing to tell you...you would never have found me...."  If not for Megumi and Saitô.  They were his real saviors, the ones who had taken his hands and led him out of darkness.  "Why can't I forgive you?" Kenji wailed.  He reached up to dig the nails of his other hand into his scalp, as if trying to physically force a shift in thinking.  "I know!  So why can't I?!"

"I am so sorry I wasn't there for you," Kenshin whispered.  "I failed you."

'It's not true,' Kenji thought, 'it wasn't his fault, he did all he could, so why is it exactly what I need to hear, why is it...?'

They had pulled themselves together by the time Sanosuke and Yahiko got back.  "We saw this sweet truck parked outside a club," Yahiko announced, "but we left it alone.  We got you a boring old van instead."

"Sorry about the logo," Sanosuke added as he pulled the doors open, "but the seats are pretty wide.  Or else we can take them out and you can lie on the floor, your pick."

"Thank you, Sano," Kenshin said graciously.  His tone gave away nothing of the fury he was preoccupied with.  'Kenji...I wish so much that I could protect you.'  Frustration boiled hotly.  'Why can't I ever protect you?!'

Yahiko peered at him.  "Your face looks cleaner than it did before."

"Mind your own business," Kenji snapped.

On the way home, he worried about the family they had left behind, vulnerable to enemies who might have been sent after them in the men's absence, but Kenshin reassured him.  "Your mother is not exactly a weakling.  They'll be all right."

Sure enough, as soon as the two of them set foot on the lawn, the front door of the house burst open and they were descended upon by an insanely barking dog and two triumphantly shrieking little hatchlings.  "Daddy!  Ken-nii!  You're home, you're home!  You beat those bad guys good, right?"

"Of course not," Kenji said, pretending to be insulted even as he ruffled Ayame's hair and tried to fend of Katana.  "We beat 'em bad.  They won't be bothering any of us again."  He blushed a little when Ayame gazed up at him adoringly, and Kenshin laughed as he gingerly cuddled Suzume in his arms and kissed the top of her head.  "Your brother is right.  Everything is all right now."

Kaoru was approaching, apparently attempting to give them a dignified welcome, but she had only made it down the porch steps before holding back apparently became too much for her.  She burst into a run and, crying, flung her arms around the necks of her men, squashing the girls between them all.  "Kenshin!  Kenji!  I'm so glad you're safe, I'm so glad!"

"Ow!  Tadaima," Kenji mumbled happily, working a hand free so he could pat her back.  "We're fine, Mom."

Kenshin rested his face against hers and kissed her softly.  "Dearest one," he murmured, and she turned her head so she could kiss him properly.  This prompted shrieks from the girls and hurried attempts from Kenji to extricate himself.

Sanosuke watched, grinning a little, then headed for the house.  His steps slowed when he saw his sort-of girlfriend waiting for him.  He stared at her, and she stared back expectantly.  Then, to her surprise, he suddenly looked away and shoved past her into the house without a word.

Yahiko had also been watching everything, hanging back uncertainly, half-hidden behind the open car door.  He tensed when Kenshin suddenly turned and looked at him, beckoning with a smile.  For a moment, Yahiko's mind was a blur of panic, and he had not decided what to do before Kaoru was coming over to him, smiling and holding out her hand.

"So, you're Yahiko-kun?" she said.  "It's nice to meet you!  I guess you'll be staying with us for a while, huh?"

He glared.  Surely she wasn't okay with this, being forced to house a stranger and an enemy like him at the last minute.  "Why would I want to when that ugly face of yours gives me a headache just looking at it?"

She gasped.  "You ungrateful little brat!"

'I knew it.'  Yahiko shrugged loftily.  "I can take care of myself anyway, it's just that Kenji and Kenshin dragged me along--"

Kaoru grabbed him by the front of his shirt.  "Don't give me that B.S., you little brat!  You wouldn't last a second on the streets!"

"Shows what you know, you hag!  I've taken down thugs three times my size!"

"With those spindly little arms?  Don't make me laugh!"

"Watch it, you want me to take you on?"

"Go ahead and give it a try, you little punk!"

As they went for each other's throats, Kenshin, who had been watching in concern, now smiled and fell back.  "Seems like they will get along splendidly."

Meanwhile, Kenji had succeeded in getting a firm grasp on Katana's ruff, which served the dual purpose of restraining the dog's antics and providing a support for Kenji to lean on.  He did not the idea of seeing his sisters stained with any blood from his wounds.  "Come on," he told the girls, "Let's go in, I'm beat.  Any chance the baths've been warmed up already?"

"Yeah, but Aunt Megumi's gonna check you first," Ayame explained bossily.  "She said, 'Don't let them set a single toe past the living room before I've seen to them!'"

'Megumi,' Kenji thought.  Not hearing the girls' continued chatter, he proceeded to the porch, where Megumi was standing with her feet apart, one hand on her hip and the other grasping a first aid kit.  "Looks like you survived," she said, nodding as if she expected nothing less.  Then she smiled.  "I'm proud of you, kiddo."

His heart glowed even as he said challengingly, "Now how do you know we did it, and that bast--" he glanced at the girls, "...that Shishio didn't escape or something?"

"It's obvious, just from looking at you two and those triumphant smiles.  Now, hurry up and get in here, and don't bother trying to play the tough guy."

He smiled.  "Okay."

"Are you hurt bad, Ken-nii?" Suzume asked with a little worried frown.

"Nah.  That flame-broiled weakling couldn't hurt me if he tried."

Megumi rolled her eyes and herded the young Himuras inside, where Tomoe offered them things to eat and drink as Megumi set to work.

It took about a month for them to recover sufficiently.  Saitô was apparently stalling for them by mopping up any hybrid dragons who had escaped after the deaths of Yukishiro and Shishio; Kenji stayed quietly at home and no one with a badge came to pound on the door.

Even when it seemed to be safe, Kaoru was still unwilling to let the girls return to school, so she and Kenshin continued to tutor them at home - as well as Kenji, whose sickbed protests went unheeded.  "If you're well enough to play video games and talk on the phone with Kimi-chan all day, you're also certainly well enough to write a report on the Satsuma Rebellion, so get to it before I hit you again!"

They got by on the interest from various investments Kenshin and Kaoru had made over the years.  Megumi was able to return to work, and Sanosuke was able to return to...whatever he had been doing before he had been pressed into service as a bodyguard/baby-sitter for the Himura children.  The Kiyosatos moved into a home nearby, and were soon on friendly terms with the whole family again.  Although Kaoru and Yahiko's stormy relationship never got past the friendly snark stage, Yahiko seemed to be perfectly happy in his new home, especially whenever Kenshin agreed to help him train.

If Kenji noticed a marked absence of warmth between Megumi and Sanosuke, he did not show it.  Megumi, however, could only take so much.

The doorbell rang.  Sanosuke went to answer it, saw who it was, and shut the door again in her face.

Then he paced in agitated circles, his fingers itching to throw something, until his cell phone rang.  He stared it.  Was tempted to roast it.  Remembered how much money it would take to replace, so he didn't.

Then she started pounding on the door, so hard that he could see the liquid in a half-empty bottle of beer start to quiver.  "Sagara!  Open this door!"

He opened his mouth to shout "No!", but closed it again before speaking when he realized how much like a little kid it would make him sound.  Gritting his teeth, he went and opened the door, just in time for her fist, whether by accident or intention, to come down one last time and imbed itself in his chest.

"Ow!"  Sanosuke reeled back, coughing.  "Dang it, woman!"

Megumi shoved her way in and slammed the door behind her.  "So now that we've finally forced Kenji into his wonderful happily ever after, the plan's over and you have no more use for me, is that it?"

"What?  What are you talking about?"  He glared at her, and she glared back.

"What are you doing for dinner tonight, Sagara?" she asked bitterly.

"Dinner?"  Most of his evenings in the past few weeks entailed either getting drunk at gambling houses or falling asleep in front of the TV.

"Wow, I don't think it's an act, you really do have no brains," she snarled.  "Looks like I'm really not missing out on anything after all."  She whirled as if to leave, but then her footsteps slowed and her hand rested on the doorknob without turning it.  He could not see her face when she whispered, "So why does it still hurt so much?"

Sanosuke rubbed the back of his neck, having the uneasy feeling that something was his fault, though he wasn't sure what.  He really, really needed Megumi to be far away from him right now, but at the same time, the sight of her about to leave was strangely painful.  "Takani."

Her shoulders tensed.

"...I thought you hated me."

Her hand tightened on the doorknob.  "I do."

Something about that did not make sense.  "Uh...why'd you come here?"

"Good-bye, Sagara."  She ripped open the door and marched out of it.

Sanosuke found himself running after her.  He stood there in the corridor outside his apartment, clutching the railing, his eyes watching intently as she got to the end of the hall and began to descend the stairs.  'I want her here...I want her--  I'm not the same person I used to be.  She won't want me.'  He could feel the strange new muscles in his back shifting uneasily.  'Gah, you moron, she already hates you.'  His teeth were grinding together again.

He ripped off his jacket and shirt, and just when she had reached the deserted ground floor, he vaulted over the railing and landed in a heavily graceful crouch almost at her feet.  'I'm getting better at this,' he realized distractedly.  He rose and looked her straight in the eye for the first time in weeks, leaving his wings out, making it blatantly clear what he had become.

Megumi's eyes widened and she stared at him in shock, her mouth hanging open a little.  His hand started to move and he forced it back down to his side when he realized that he had meant to stroke those luscious, inviting lips.  'You don't have the right to even try anymore, Sagara,' he reminded himself.

She turned away from him and moved unsteadily to one of the unbroken benches lining the walls, where she sat down and rested her forehead on her open palm.  After a minute, he slid his wings back in and went to sit on the opposite end of the same bench, waiting.  "I didn't want to tell you," he explained.  Man, if he had realized how lame that would sound out loud, he would have gone and confessed much sooner.  Now he looked like a coward.  "You were dating Sagara Sanosuke, you know," he tried to backpedal.  "Not one of the freaking dragons who made your life miserable."

After a minute, she raised her head again and looked at him intensely, as if taking in every detail.  He could not maintain eye contact and her scrutiny made him squirm, but at the same time he did not want to be anywhere else except here, at her side, for whatever little time he might have left.  Then his startled eyes met hers again as she took hold of his chin to turn his face back to her, and at her touch he did not dare breathe for fear of breaking the spell that this enchantress had cast over him.

"Well," she mused softly, "not all dragons are monsters.  Maybe I could get used to you like this."  She leaned forward, closed her eyes, and touched her lips to his.  Then she pulled back.

'You have got to be kidding me.'  He seized her head and dragged her close again, kissing her as he had not even dared to do before, on their pretend-dates.  Her response was fierce and passionate, so that it was all he could do to remember that this was a less-than-ideal location for amorous encounters.  Not that there was anything he felt capable of actually doing about it, which was why it was probably a good thing that she eventually pulled back again.

"Yes," she said decisively, "I can definitely get used to you like this."

o.o.o.o.o

Ayame and Suzume began begging for another party, "'Cause we beat the bad guys!  We have to CELEBRATE!  With cake."

"Chocolate," Suzume supplied.

"And red icing, and those sparkly candles we saw at the store," Ayame continued.  "Suzume wants them too, Mommy!  So does Ken-nii."

"Dream on, Ayame!" Kenji yelled back.

However, there was no escaping the sparkly candles, and a couple of days later Kenji sat slumped deeply in a chair, studiously ignoring them as his sisters (helped by Kimi and Kakeru) clamored with excitement.

"Hurry, Suzume, blow them out before the sparklies run out!  And DON'T SET THE CAKE ON FIRE THIS TIME!"

"I'm not!" Suzume screamed.  "Mommy I'm not gonna burn the cake Neechan's being MEAN!"

"Kimi gets to blow out candles, too," Kimi pouted.

"So does Kakeru," Kakeru added, in a teasingly high-pitched, third-person mimic of his friend's voice.

"Just shut up and blow the candles out," Kenji snapped.

"Kenji-kun..." Daisuke murmured with an uneasy laugh.

"You shut up and blow the candles out!" Ayame yelled back.

"Oh, look, your sparklies are disappearing," Kenji said snidely.

Ayame gasped in alarm and blew so hard at the candle flames that she accidentally spit.  Sanosuke rolled his eyes, Suzume and Kimi shrieked in differing expressions of indignation, Daisuke sweatdropped, and Kyouya took inexplicable notes as the women laughed and Yahiko made a disgusted sound like "Gah!"

"Nice going, Aya."

"It's still clean, Ken-nii!"

"I wanted to blow candles, too!" Suzume shouted.

Ignoring her, Ayame tried to wipe off the top of the cake and then stared at her icing-covered fingers in dismay.  She glared at her brother, then shot a sheepish, questioning glance at her father before sticking her icing-ey fingers in her mouth to slurp.  Kakeru, apparently highly amused, swiped his finger in the cake's ruined icing for his own sampling.

"Now your mouth's all red," Kenji observed.  "You look like you've been eating a live sheep."

"I don't eat sheep," Ayame said haughtily.  "There's nothing around here but cats and raccoons, anyway."

Megumi was still wondering if that statement meant what she thought it did when Sanosuke abruptly got to his feet and escaped to the hallway with a frantically muttered, "I did not just hear that, I did not just hear that, I did not just hear that...."

"What's with him?" Kakeru wondered.

"Kenji-kun, you guys don't really eat...those things, do you?!" Daisuke exclaimed.

Kenji slapped his own stomach with exaggerated relish.  "Can't get enough of 'em, man."

Kyouya's pencil scribbled furiously across the page of his notebook.

"Kyouya.  Dude.  I was joking."

Kyouya raised an eyebrow.

"...Mostly."

Kenshin laughed.  "I'll make a fresh cake for our more fastidious guests...Kenji, come help me."

"Cooking's for girls," Kenji answered, as haughty as his sister, despite the fact that he had put together quite a lot of meals for himself before coming to live with this family.

"Don't be a butt," Megumi ordered, smacking his leg, and Kenji got up sheepishly to accompany his father to the kitchen.

It was not until after the party, when the girls had been put to bed and everyone except Megumi and the Kiyosatos had left, that Kenshin finally brought up what had been bothering him all these weeks.  "Megumi-san, Tomoe-san.  I was wondering if you would do something for us."

Everyone looked at him expectantly, and something in his voice caused Kenji to narrow his eyes in suspicion.  Kenshin glanced at him, then continued.  "I was wondering if, with Kenji's consent, you would be willing to examine his wings, and tell us if...if anything can be done."

Kenji sprang to his feet at once.  "No," he snapped, before either of the addressed women had time to reply.

Kaoru frowned.  "His wings?"

Kenshin looked her straight in the eye.  "That night, after we had fought the dragons and were trying to get to the ground.  Someone had to carry him," he said, in such a meaningful tone, with such restrained anger in his eyes, that Kaoru understood almost at once.  Her head jerked around to face her son.  "Kenji?" she said sharply.

"Don't look at me like that," he snarled, backing away.

Kenshin stood and moved toward him carefully, trying to hide his anger at those who could no longer suffer it.  "Calm down," he said soothingly.  "We're trying to find out if it is somehow possible for your flight to be restored."

Kenji realized that he had his arms wrapped around himself, and he abruptly dropped them.  "My wings are gone," he said flatly, "beyond repair.  Don't touch them."

"Kenji," Kaoru whispered.  It cut her to the core.  All those long, lonely, heartbreaking years of being a despised dragon, flying had been the one brightness in her life.  That her son had been denied even this was intolerable.

"Don't look at me like that!" he cried angrily.

Kaoru took a deep breath to get herself under control.  "Kenji," she said quietly, though in her heart she was raging and weeping, "We love you.  We could never be ashamed of you, never.  You don't have to be afraid."

"Who says I'm afraid?!" he screeched.  His eyes rolled wildly around the room.  Both Tomoe and Megumi sat tensely, not saying a word, with Akira glancing between them uncertainly.

Kenji squeezed his eyes shut and stood there for a minute, his hands tightly clenched.  Then he suddenly strode forward and shoved his father violently toward the girls' room.  "Get out," he snarled.  "Get out!"

Kenshin nodded at once and pulled Akira out with him.  Kenji barreled around, making sure that doors were shut and curtains closed, finally yanking off his shirt and flinging it at the wall, where it collapsed to the floor in a soft heap.  Then he stood there, breathing deeply, unable to still his trembling.

There were scars on his back.  Feeling sick at the sight of them, Kaoru went to put her arms around her son.  "Kenji," she said softly.

He sucked in a hissing breath and clung to her for a moment, his face pressed hard against her shoulder.  Then, with no warning other than a further tensing of his already stiff body, he began to unfurl his wings.

It was a long, difficult process, nothing like the naturally effortless gesture it should have been.  As the flesh of his back stretched, broke, and bled, Kaoru thrust her sleeve into her mouth and bit down hard to keep from crying out in horror; she did not notice that Kenji was only able to keep silent because he also had his own hand clenched between his teeth.

Megumi, despite being used to the sight of gore, had her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror.  Only Tomoe watched with an impassive expression, though her lips were pressed together and her dark eyes glittered.

At last it was over.  Kenji's knees gave out and he sank to the floor in his mother's arms, both of them silently weeping.  Blood was dripping heavily down his back, staining clothes and carpet; his wings stretched out awkwardly behind him, unnaturally twisted and glistening wetly crimson.

"It hurts," he whimpered, so softly that they almost didn't hear him.  Then he made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat.  "Sorry."

"No," Kaoru whispered fiercely, clutching him close, though taking care not to hurt him further.  "No.  Don't be sorry.  It's nothing to be sorry for.  I love you, Kenji, I love you like my body craves breath, I'll always be so proud of you...."

Kenji gripped those words in his mind as he held as still as he could and tried not to notice the gentle hands at his back.  It did not hurt as much now that the ripping part was over, though he determinedly avoided thinking about when he would have to draw them back in again.  Instead, he let his head rest against his mother's shoulder, and concentrated on the pattern of her shirt so close to his eye, and felt her warm arms around him, supporting him.  Occasionally he winced, but otherwise worked to keep his breathing under control.

"We're done, Kenji," Tomoe finally said.  "You did well."

Kenji lifted his head, which felt as if someone had been cramming it full of rocks.  "This is it," he told them in a voice that sounded like it had been dragged over gravel before it left his mouth.  "I'm not pulling out my wings again, so you better be finished.  No last minute stuff you forgot."

The women glanced at each other.  "Maybe we should call Kenshin-san in first...?" Megumi started, but Kenji spun on his knees to face her fully, his breathing harsh.  "No."

"All right, all right," Megumi said soothingly, though she looked a little panicked.

"Go ahead, Kenji," Tomoe said gently.  "We won't call them back until you're ready."

After a minute, Kenji's breathing slowed and he nodded.  He closed his eyes, and there was a quiet pause as he gathered his strength again.  Then began the ordeal of retracting the tortured, quivering wings.  Kaoru could not stand to watch and this time it was she who buried her face against her son's shoulder, unable to hold back her sobs.  Kenji clenched his teeth together and snarled at himself, 'I will not cry, I will not cry, I'm not a girl or a baby, I can take this....'  The tears of pain brimmed against his tightly closed eyelids, but he did not let a single one fall.

When it was over he leaned against his mother, completely exhausted.  He was going to have to sleep facedown for a while, though there was no way he was going to tell them that.

Tomoe came over to wipe the blood away and offer him his shirt.  "May we call them back now?"

"No," he insisted, pushing himself shakily to his feet.  "No, not yet."  He guided his still-crying mother into a chair in a shadowed corner and re-arranged the room back to its normal state, except for a throw rug, which he dragged over the large bloodstain on the carpet so that it was completely covered.  Then he sat down beside Tomoe and pulled over a couch throw to conceal the blood that had dripped onto his jeans, looking utterly drained.  "Okay," he mumbled.

When Kenshin returned, he looked first at Kenji, who was sitting up straight but with a clenched jaw and bright eyes that stared straight ahead.  Immediately after that Kenshin sought out his wife, and it was not reassuring to see her half-hidden in the corner, wiping away tears and looking as if she was trying hard not to produce more.  He looked demandingly at Megumi, who was white-faced, and Tomoe, who seemed almost as tired as Kenji.  "Tomoe-san?  Megumi-san?"

"It's bad," Megumi said flatly.  Kenji threw her a look, but said nothing.

Kenshin's heart clenched.  "Then...?"

"At the moment," Tomoe said quietly, "he would be better off with no wings at all."

Kenshin found himself groping for a chair near Kaoru, which he sank into.  Their hands slid into each other and grasped tight.  "Kenshin," Kaoru whispered, but said nothing else.  He knew she would tell him later.

"However," Tomoe went on, "I think...there may be a possibility - not to completely repair them, it is too late for that, but at least a limited restoration would be wise to attempt."

"And this would entail?" Kenshin said, very quietly.

"Not surgery," Kenji snapped at once.  "I am never, ever letting a knife touch me again."

There was a very long pause.  Then Megumi took his hand and said his name in such a tone that he was forced to look at her.  "Kenji.  Listen to me.  These wings of yours have been damaged, and now they continue to damage you.  If we don't take steps, it will get worse and worse until you will be completely crippled and in constant, severe pain.  Keeping your wings as they are now will shorten your life, and make what's left of it a nightmare.  If something can be done to prevent that--"

Kenji had been shaking his head, and now he broke in.  "No!  No, no, no, no, I'm NOT doing it!"  There was panic in his eyes, for even as he screamed against the proposition, he knew that there was no way he could live the sort of life they were describing.  He was a warrior, a swordsman; he could not endure living as the helpless, pitiful creature he was apparently to become.  He would sooner slit his own wrists.

His parents rose and came over to him.  He shot to his feet and glared furiously at them, hands half-raised as if to ward them off.  Undeterred, his father gently took hold of one hand, his mother held the other.  Kenji's mouth came open in surprise, but before he could speak, their voices came to him, soft with grief and love and...pride.  Suddenly he was blinking back tears again.

"This is your decision to make, Kenji."

"You must be strong."

"Yes.  Whichever path lies ahead of you will be filled with pain and difficulty."

"We love you.  Whatever your choice, we will be with you every step of the way.  That is a promise."

Kenji wrenched free and fled to his room.

o.o.o.o.o

"I won't take anesthetic."

Kenshin and Kaoru looked up in surprise, having just settled down in the living room together after putting the girls to bed.  It was good to finally have Kenji out of his room and talking to them again.

"What?"

Kenji crossed his arms and glared, as if daring them to argue.  "I won't take anesthetic.  I refuse to be doped up.  S-Strap me down if you have to, I don't care, but I will be fully conscious for every second of it, and no one touches me except Tomoe-nee and Megumi and you two."  He swallowed and looked both ashamed and defiant.  "That's the other thing.  Both of you there the whole time, and no one else in the room."

"Are you...talking about the surgery?" Kaoru fumbled.

Forcing out the words through gritted teeth, "Those are the conditions.  No anesthetic.  You four in the room; no more, no less.  Got it?"

His parents glanced at each other.  "I think we should call Megumi-san."

When the five of them had settled around the living room for the second time in two weeks, Kenji sulking in a corner with the adults all looking at him, Tomoe spoke.  "Sweetheart, I know this is difficult for you.  I know that there are some things you think you can't bring yourself to endure.  But...."

"No!" Kenji shouted, still glaring at the wall.

Megumi frowned.  Then she said in her best You Will Obey Immediately voice, "Kenji, come here."

Kenji wandered over and sat down at his parents' feet in sullen compromise, glaring at the ground and shrugging off the comforting hand one of them tried to put on his shoulder.

Megumi went on, "Kenji, doing the surgery without anesthetic is...."  She looked at his face and realized she could not say 'out of the question' without him shutting down completely.  "...is not the best idea.  Neither is letting two understandably overprotective warriors in sight of anyone making their son bleed, no matter how good the reason."

She watched Kenshin and Kaoru straightening stiffly, obviously struggling hard to stay silent.  "Don't you remember that incident with Takahashi Kimiko and her parents?" Megumi added, reminding him about one of the many stories from her work she had shared with him.  "This would probably be ten times worse."  She sighed.  "And, honey...much as I appreciate your confidence in our abilities, neither Tomoe-san nor I are surgeons.  We're not going to be able to do most of the work ourselves, though we might be able to help a little."

Kenji sat there, hugging himself tightly, not saying a word.  After a long time he whispered brokenly, "Megumi...why are you asking me to do this?"

She ignored her breaking heart and the looks on his parents' faces and went over to him.  "Because you're strong," she said, taking his hands and managing to smile, "and you're a good man, and I know - we all know - that you can do this, Kenji."

He stared at her, his eyes huge with terror and amazement.  Finally his lips moved, soundlessly.  "OK."

In the end, they had to go to Saitô again, there was no other way to get the space and equipment they needed without Kenji getting picked up by the police.  Kenshin and Kaoru were allowed to be with him, holding his hand, until the very last moment when his eyes finally closed.

They had not thought they would be able to do it, walk away from him, leave him, when he'd been staring silently at them in that desperate way.  Yet he looked so peaceful when he was asleep that they managed, with Megumi's coaxing and Saitô's impatient snapping and the very last ounce of their willpower, to retreat.  Then they waited.

o.o.o.o.o

It was very late at night when Kenji woke.  He did not realize for a long time that he was awake, and when he did, he opened his eyes.  That tiny flicker in the dark room alerted Kenshin at once, and he leaned in close.  "Kenji?  How are you feeling?"

"...Mm...Dad...?"

"I'm here, son," he found himself saying too quickly.  "Are you all right?"

"Where's...Mom?"

"She's sleeping," Kenshin said soothingly, "She's sleeping right there, can you see her?"

"...No."  He felt so tired, so very, very heavy.  There was no way he could move, and he suddenly really hoped that he wasn't tied down again.  He did not have the time nor the strength to ask, because he could already feel himself slipping away again.  "Where's...?"  He had to work hard to remember what he ought to call this man's wife, and did not realize that his words were the exact same as when he had asked for Megumi, "...Where's Mom?"

"I told you, she's right here," Kenshin murmured.

Kenji was confused, knowing that there had been a miscommunication but unable to expend the effort to figure out where it had gone wrong.  "...'S it...over?"

Kenshin sighed heavily, but his voice was brightly encouraging as he said, "About half of it is.  Next time you wake, Kenji, it will all be over."

Kenji tried to acknowledge that he had heard, but he couldn't quite remember how to do it, and while he was still trying to figure it out, he fell asleep again.

o.o.o.o.o

"Ken-nii?  You okay?"

Kenji blinked, wondering why Ayame and Suzume were here, staring at him.  Then he realized that it was because they were here, staring at him.

What?

He managed to raise his head a little (he was quite proud of himself for that, in the back of his mind), and found out that he was home.  Oh yeah.  He had been awake before, too, when they had been trying to tell him something.  He realized belatedly that they had been trying to tell him they were taking him home, because they couldn't keep him hidden anymore.

'Man, I am really drugged up.  I think.'  He had to let his head drop down again.  "Aya...'Zume...glad you're here," he managed, with a little twitch of his leaden lips that was meant to be a smile.

Their answering smiles were so relieved, so sweet and beautiful, that he fell asleep again at peace.

He was not sure which was worse, his utter stupidity when he was stuffed full of medication, or the severe pain that came without it.  The drugs, probably.  He was used to pain, and if it was the price for lucidity, for being able to string intelligent thoughts together and have more than rudimentary communication with the people he loved, so be it.

He did not want to see his own back.  He did not have to for a long time, during his recovery.  He was glad of this, for he kept imagining it as a huge, ugly clump of twisted scar tissue, so thick he could feel nothing through it, so sensitive that the slightest touch sent pain flaring through his whole body.  He found himself thinking of his back like it was not a part of him, like it was some foreign organism that had decided to attach itself to him and get in the way of his life.  "Will therapy make it go away?" he interrupted without thinking.

"What?" Megumi said, looking slightly confused.  "You mean the pain?  Well, in the long term, yes, but you know it's going to hurt a lot in the beginning--"

"No, that's not what I--  never mind."  He saw her exasperated expression.  "Look, let's just get this over with, okay?"

His back was not a congealed lump of scar tissue after all.  There were many scars, thin pale ones twisting and criss-crossing all across his flesh, but his back was slim and straight.  There was no sign of the turtle shell he felt like he had been lugging around.  It made the therapy a little easier to bear.

Over time, the pain began to dim until it was almost entirely gone.  To his amazement, the fragile things that could now emerge cleanly from his back, splotchily-colored and lumpy where the joints had been re-fitted and re-healed, grew strong enough to lift him, to carry him short distances.  He would never be able to come even close to the range or speed of the others, but just to have come so far was a miracle.

The first time he was able to ride the winds together with his family, he cried, and knew that it had been worth it.

To be concluded....

Author's Notes:  Since I didn't get a chance to work this into the actual story, I'll just mention it here until I have time to do so:  Saitou's not going to let Kenji off the hook forever, eventually he'll run out of patience with Kenji's excuses and try to arrest him.  Whether Kenshin and Kaoru successfully avoid this or not is up to you, and the epilogue and sequels are set so far in the future anyway that it doesn't matter.

I didn't really want to turn Sano into a dragon (I don't think it suits him), but I kind of needed him to be one
if I ever get to write the sequel to this.

The part where Kenji and the others escape from the building gave me a ton of trouble, fighting me every step of the way before I realized what needed to be done.  Originally, it was just Kenji and Kenshin trying to get out, and they had a scene on the roof (where Kenji is forced to tell him about his wings) which was pretty short but which I liked very much.  Unfortunately, there were some problems, such as Kenshin's huge size and the level of their injuries.

To my amazed displeasure, I was blocked again until I realized that I was going to have to completely re-write the scene, which would solve the problems but lose everything I'd liked about the original scene.  Usually, I am able to integrate the surviving pieces of cut scenes into the re-written ones, but not this time.  I am unhappy about that, although in the re-write I did get to include some things about Kenji's past that were kind of important to know but which would not have been adequately explained otherwise.  I'll probably include the original scene somewhere in the omake.