Disclaimer: I do not own the Kenshingumi; all you lawyers, please don't sue me. And all you readers please take note: I don't own anything I quote.

General Notes: Hmm... we seem to have gotten a spiffy new ratings system. I will accept the assigned rating for now (it seems to be the new PG-13), but might have some individual chapters that get rated higher for things.

Other notes: AU, which means that OOCness will jump up and down and wave its arms on occasion (although I'm trying to keep it minimal). Also, there are going to be spoilers, in the sense of riffs on or references to things in the anime and manga.

Chapter Thirty-Three: Interlude, With White Coats


beep... beep... beep... beep

Even from her position in the hallway waiting area outside of the doors leading to where the doctors were working feverishly, Kaoru could faintly hear the noise of the operating room machines. Every so often, a white-coated figure would rush past or back out again, and she would catch fragments of sentences, sharp and disconnected.

Underneath it all, the machine keeping track of her father's heartbeat kept going with a monotonous rhythm that Kaoru struggled to find comforting. The beeps meant that her father's heart was still going. The beeps meant that, whatever else was going on, at least that was one nightmare she wasn't going through.

It was terribly tempting to just curl up in the chair and close her eyes, but Kaoru held herself rigid. She didn't want any of the hospital staff to come over and ask her if she was alright, or attempt to give her more hospital cafeteria coffee. It was an indication of her mental state that she'd drunk half a cup before realizing what she'd been handed, and then hadn't been able to think of anything better to do with the rest of it than dump it out into a convenient planter.

She was pretty sure that the ficus tree was fake, anyway.

Her suspicion that it was now looking slightly droopy and that some of the leaves were decidedly crinklier was something she was not examining too closely.

Besides the lack of privacy, Kaoru knew that it was only a matter of time before her friends showed up. Her friends... and her little brother.

'I have to be strong for Yahiko... Yahiko shouldn't have to feel like he needs to take care of me as well as worrying about Dad! That's not fair to him.'

The atmosphere of the hospital was stifling her; it seemed like the beeping of the machines kept getting more and more intrusive. Kaoru fought down the urge to bolt; she would not leave her father alone, and she didn't want everybody to worry about her. Besides, the doctors would be coming back once they had finished examining the X-rays, and she wanted to know what they were going to say.

She didn't know how long it was until she heard the elevator door open, quietly, and soft footfalls coming down the hallway. Looking away from the wall, she was unsurprised to see Kenshin, his violet eyes filled with concern, walking towards her. Without saying a word, he knelt in front of the chair she was sitting in and brushed her bangs away from her face carefully before he took both of her hands in his.

"Your hands are cold," Kenshin murmured, holding them carefully, as if he was afraid she'd break. Somebody had found hospital scrubs—at least, he assumed they were scrubs—for her to wear instead of the fancy Halloween dress from the party, but her hair was still elaborately curled, and the remnants of make-up around her eyes made them appear hollow and haunted.

"Kaoru... are you alright?"

"I'm fine... I didn't get there until... it was after whatever happened to Dad. Nothing happened to me."

"Kaoru..." Kenshin said softly, "That's not what I meant. Are you alright?"

She looked at him, and he could see the faintly lost expression in her eyes for a brief second before she got herself back under control. Kaoru's eyes flicked briefly to the door at the end of the hallway as another nurse rushed in with a tray of instruments before she replied, "Thank you... I'm just waiting for everybody else to get here..."

Trailing off, she looked down to where their hands were joined and realized that there was still blood around her nails. There was still blood...

Kaoru went tense, staring. "I... I should wash my hands before they get here," she blurted, moving to stand up. Kenshin stood with her, a single fluid movement, and refused to let go.

"Kenshin... I need to..."

"Kaoru, it's going to be ok," Kenshin said. She could almost see the desire to take her into his arms in his eyes, and she took an infinitesimal step backwards, still stiff and tense. Kenshin opened his mouth as if to say something, but before he could utter a word, Megumi and Misao rounded the corner, with Sano close behind them.

Kaoru pulled back with a sudden motion that was completed before the other three were fully in the little waiting area. Kenshin allowed it, letting her hands go as she moved. She had barely managed to stand back, away from him, when Misao hit her with a hug. To the girl's credit, she didn't tackle Kaoru with her usual force. Instead, she put her arms around Kaoru's shoulders for a brief moment before she also stepped back, her expression speaking volumes about how concerned she was. Megumi hugged Kaoru as well, before saying, "I'm going to go ask for an update. I'll be right back, ok?"

"But, Megumi—that's the operating area! Only doctors can... oh, right. Sorry." Kaoru flushed slightly, embarassed at her gaffe.

However, rather than delivering one of her usual cutting remarks, Megumi just repeated, "I'll be right back."

Kaoru watched her cousin go and swallowed, then blinked as she realized Misao had been saying something. "What?"

"I said, we brought coffee. Sano has it. If you want it. It's in a thermos, so it's not going to get cold, if you don't want it. I mean, if you want it later instead of now. Because, um, the vending machine coffee in hospitals is only good for stripping grease off of bolts. Well, according to Sano, and if he thinks that the coffee is awful, you can imagine what it tastes like to normal people."

"Hey!" Sano protested, putting the thermos down. "There's nothing wrong with my whatjamacalit… um… palate! Nothing wrong with my palate."

Before Misao could respond, Kenshin stepped in, saying, "Thank you for the coffee. I'm sure it will be very good."

Misao blinked at Kenshin, suddenly seeming to register his presence for the first time.

"Aoshi said to call him as soon as you get a chance," she told him. "He said that it wasn't urgent, but, you know, as soon as you can."

Kenshin nodded. He supposed that he wasn't surprised; knowing Aoshi, he was taking any attack on Kaoru's family members as a personal challenge to his security skills. By the time Kenshin called, Aoshi would probably have performed a complete sweep of Kaoru's apartment building, as well as the dojo, the club, and anyplace else he felt was necessary or relevant.

Kenshin also knew that "as soon as you can" was essentially code for "Take care of everything at the hospital first and don't bother me until you're ready to pay complete attention to my report."

Rejoining the rest of the group, Megumi said, "Ok. Did the doctors give you any specific information yet, any diagnosis? Did they tell you what they were going to be doing?"

"Um... " Kaoru said, trying to collect her thoughts. "I... they... took X-rays... they have to set his leg... they're thinking they have to put pins in... and... there were stitches... they did that already... and... I think... there was something about skull pressure, or brain pressure, or something... they did something... they were thinking they might need to do something... I don't know..."

Truth be told, Kaoru had only half been listening to what the doctors had said, her mind replaying the scene in the dojo over and over and over again during the ride in the ambulance. Then she had sat and waited, numbly, for everything to be finished. When she'd gotten to the hospital, she'd answered the questions about insurance and family policies mechanically, twisting her hands over and over again in the fabric of her dress. It had taken the nurses ten minutes to realize that the darker splotches staining Kaoru's skirt weren't part of the normal fabric, and another ten minutes for them to find her something else to wear.

"Ok," Megumi said again, her professional demeanor clearly in place. "That's fairly normal. They are probably going to be in surgery for another couple of hours; they'll want to make sure the bone is set absolutely correctly. He seems to be stable, and his pulse is very regular. That's good. It's very important, especially in these early stages of a head injury. They should be sending somebody soon to give you more details. We can go wait in the lounge, ok? I mean the upstairs doctor's lounge, not the one with the horribly tacky plastic chairs."

At that, Kaoru focused on her cousin, blinking, suddenly putting pieces together, "Megumi… you were… I'm sorry; you and Sano, you were supposed to be home, and…"

Her cousin shushed her and said firmly, "It's alright, Kaoru. We hadn't even gotten back to the apartment yet. We stopped to get coffee and donuts at that diner over on Third, and we were just on our way out when you called."

"Oh…" Kaoru murmured, "That's good." Her voice sounded slightly lost, as if she knew that she should say something in response to her cousin, but wasn't sure what. Kenshin didn't blame her.

"What's happening with Yahiko?" Misao asked as they headed down the hall and into the elevator.

"Kid's probably asleep… or, you know, bouncing off of the walls after eating his weight in Halloween candy. I'll go get him in the morning, ok, Missy?" Sano said. "I can just bring him straight here if you want me to. Club's closed tomorrow anyway."

"Yutaro said they'd bring him over tonight… I thought it was important… I mean, Yutaro's father said it was alright for Yahiko to just sleep over there and wait until I knew more, but I didn't want to have to suddenly tell him in the morning, especially if… if Dad…."

"He's not going to die," Misao said determinedly. "He's as stubborn as you are! He's not going to let some idiot Halloween trick-or-treat prank attempt gone horribly wrong… because, you know, this was probably just teenagers trying to vandalize things again, and he was still there, and… I mean… it'll be fine; he's going to be fine. All you Kamiyas are stubborn as rocks. Umm."

Kaoru almost smiled at Misao's tone, hiding a sudden sniffle.

The upstairs lounge was indeed more comfortable, with a tiny kitchen area and a set of couches and chairs grouped around a low table covered with magazines and a remote for the small television in the corner. Sano immediately claimed the couch, sprawling across it and stretching out. Kenshin put the coffee thermos down next to the microwave and started hunting through the cupboards for usable cups.

"Try the dishwasher," Megumi advised. "Nobody ever ends up having the time to put anything back into the cupboard; it just goes from the sink to the dishwasher and back again. It's worse than college."

"Ms Kamiya?" The doctor who came into the lounge holding a clipboard, wasn't one Kaoru remembered having seen before. However, given the number of hospital personnel she'd had to deal with in the past hours, she knew that not remembering didn't really mean anything.

"How is my father?" she asked, aware of how everybody else in the group had fallen silent and gathered around her supportively.

"He's currently stable; we're almost done setting his leg. He had two distinct fractures, and an anterior cruciate ligament tear—that's the knee joint. The other leg is fine, although he did sustain some cuts, which we've stitched, and his ankle was sprained. I'll give you some brochures on the knee injury. There were also numerous other lacerations, which we've stitched; there was significant blood loss, but fortunately you found him in time and none of the major arteries were hit. We didn't find any debris or glass in the injuries themselves, which is good. Some may turn up later, though; there are often small particles that work their way out of the wound once it starts healing. Three of his ribs were fractured, but fortunately there was no lung puncture."

The doctor flipped through some pages on his clipboard and continued, "The most significant issue, of course is the head injury. There's some swelling and a possible brain herniation we're keeping an eye on. We'll know more when the test results come back; once the surgery for his leg is finished, we'll do an MRI. Right now he's in a coma…"

Kaoru inhaled sharply, barely registering Kenshin's arm around her shoulder or the way that he was supporting her.

The doctor raised a hand. "It's not a deep coma; his score on the measurement scales is very good. He's breathing on his own, for now, but we have a respirator ready in case it becomes necessary. Really, with this kind of head trauma, a coma is very standard, and we'll be monitoring him very carefully. There were no toxins in his blood, and no sign of existing illness or infection, so we just need to keep an eye on the brain itself and see what the best course of action is."

"So is he going to be ok?" Misao demanded.

"With time and physical therapy, full recovery should be achievable," the doctor said, "Obviously, he'll need to work very hard to get his leg back up to full strength. In terms of the coma… well, as I said, we're going to be performing an MRI and determining the location and severity of the swelling. It's possible that he'll need to have surgery to remove fluid build-up, but really, Ms Kamiya, he seems to have, errr… had a very thick skull; there weren't any fractures."

Kaoru wasn't sure if the doctor was being serious or trying to make a joke. She tried to sneak a glance at Megumi, to see if she could glean any hints about hospital humor and how to react to it, but her cousin was busy scribbling notes and thus no help.

Having finished what he had come to say, the doctor closed his clipboard and looked at Kaoru, clearly awaiting a coherent response.

"Thank you," Kaoru said. 'I hope that counts as "coherent,"' she thought.

Fortunately, the doctor, who was obviously used to talking with patients and their families under all sorts of circumstances, gave her a smile and said, "You're welcome. We'll update you when he's out of surgery and being moved to recovery. Feel free to ask at the desk if you need anything while you're waiting." With that, he turned and went back into the operating area

"I told you he was as hard-headed as the rest of you," Misao declared. Her voice held only the faintest traces of unsteadiness, and her jaw was determined as she said, "Alright… Megumi, when Yahiko gets here, where are they going to tell him to go? I mean, can he come up here without an escort or anything?"

"I'll go wait for him," Sano said, clearly relieved to have something constructive he could do. They know me; it won't be a problem to get back up here. Um… he'll have changed out of the samurai costume, right?"

Kaoru nodded distractedly as she sat down, feeling an odd mix of nerves and relief at the doctor's update. "Yes, he'll have changed… I assume he will have changed… I mean, he was wearing normal clothes when he went over there, and he had normal clothes for tomorrow for coming back… although, considering those two, they might have decided to have an all-out samurai pillow war or something…. The house has enough room for it, and that main bannister is horribly tempting for… "

Realizing that she was babbling, Kaoru closed her mouth and swallowed before trying again.

"Yahiko should have changed back; if he hasn't, I'm sure they can find scrubs for him, like they did with me. Thanks for volunteering, Sano; bring him up as soon as he gets here."

Sano nodded. "Ok. Want anything from the cafeteria when we come back?"

"Sanosuke Sagara!" Megumi interjected. "You did not just offer my cousin something from the hospital cafeteria!"

"It's always seemed fine to me…" Sano replied weakly.

Megumi shuddered. "How does that relate to inflicting it on normal people? If we get hungry, we'll send you to get something later. Meanwhile, go wait for Yahiko to get dropped off. If Yutaro or his father ask how everything is going, just tell them that the doctors said things were stable. No point in giving them the details before Yahiko has had a chance to hear them from Kaoru."

"Right," Sano nodded sharply and headed out of the room.

As he started to leave, he almost collided with two police officers, one of whom was just raising her hand to knock.

"I'm sorry; is this where Ms Kaoru Kamiya is?" she asked.

"Yes?" Kaoru said. "May I help you?"

"Ah, good; Ms Kamiya, I'm Officer Kirihara; this is Officer Matsumoto. We would like to talk with you about what happened this evening, if that's alright."

"Can't this wait?" Misao demanded.

"It's best if we get a preliminary statement immediately, Miss," the other officer said as he came into the room. "Time is crucial in any investigation."

"It's ok, Misao; I don't mind."

The police sat down on the sofa Sano had just left, and Officer Matsumoto pulled out a notepad and pen as Kaoru sat down across from them. Sano leaned against the wall, all thoughts of waiting for Yahiko gone in the face of getting information about who he needed to go pound into the pavement. Kenshin stood behind her chair, ready to support her or glare at the police, depending.

"Now, Ms Kamiya," Officer Kirihara said, "Can you, in your own words, tell us about the events of last night?"

Kaoru swallowed. Looking at her pale face, Kenshin resisted the temptation to point out that discovering "the events of last night" was actually supposed to be the police's job.

Taking a deep breath, she said, "I was at the Halloween party at the club from… oh, mid-afternoon onwards, helping with set-up. Then there was the actual party. That went until midnight, and then I helped with clean-up for a bit… um… half an hour? Maybe an hour? Katsu and Misao told me to go home, because I wanted to be sure to show D-dad my costume and… and…"

Taking a deep breath, and reminding herself that this was necessary, this was to help them catch whoever hurt her family, Kaoru continued.

"I drove back to the dojo from the club; there wasn't much traffic… it was late. I wasn't really looking at the building; I was thinking about… um… I was thinking about telling Dad about the party, and everything that had happened, and getting stuffed into that dress, and Sano proposing… and… everything. I thought Dad must be asleep already; the house was dark. Then I looked over and saw that the door to the hall was broken. I assumed that it must be teenagers again; they've been known to do stuff like that in the past. I think they watch too many ninja films with people flying through shoji doors…. Um… Anyway, the lights were broken; that seemed odd."

Kaoru hesitated. She wasn't sure if it was wise to start talking about how the courtyard had felt wrong to her. Halloween or not, she doubted that bringing up the idea of demons to the police was going to be at all helpful.

"I started to really notice that something was wrong when I got close enough to see the damage more clearly… the wood was all splintered… I… there weren't any lights. And then when I went inside, Dad was just laying there, and there was blood, and I tried to wake him up, but he wouldn't wake up, and I ran for the phone and called the ambulance and then stayed with him until they got there and then rode with him to the hospital."

Kenshin's hand on her shoulder helped to steady her. Kaoru took several deep, focusing breaths, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

Officer Kirihara said, "These teenagers you've had problems with; have they been a regular issue, or just on Halloween?"

"There isn't… I mean, it's not like there's a particular group of kids. Last year, there were a bunch of them at a party or something, and they thought it would be funny to play a prank. Dad caught them, and he made them help repair everything. And take lessons."

The other officer raised his eyebrow. "So… they committed a crime, and in return your father gave them free fighting lessons?"

Lifting her chin, Kaoru glared at him. "The Kamiya Kasshin style believes in protecting life. We believe that people have potential, and that proper training can help them to find balance and release that potential. My father felt it would be more useful to give those kids a focus that didn't involve petty vandalism, one that taught them to respect themselves and showed them that they could accomplish something. It might interest you to know that three of them are going to be participating in the regional kendo tournaments this year."

Kaoru's tone and expression made the man in front of her raise a conciliatory hand. "I'm not saying that it was the same group; but, you know, what about some of their friends? Somebody who didn't like that your father was getting kids off the street, you know?"

Misao chimed in, "But if it was gangs, wouldn't they have just shot… um… err.. sorry; never mind…"

"It could have been meant as a warning," Officer Matsumoto said. "If they meant to vandalize the hall, in addition to whatever other Halloween pranks they had planned, they might have decided against bringing guns in case they were pulled over at any point."

"And they could have just grabbed the blade they used in the attack on site!" Officer Kirihara finished.

"Blade?" Kenshin asked, raising one eyebrow.

Consulting her notes, Officer Kirihara said, "According to the doctor, several of your father's injuries were cuts which were consistent with the use of a very sharp blade. If his attackers picked up a sword when, say, he discovered them…"

"Impossible," Kaoru cut in, "We teach kendo." Seeing their incomprehension, she clarified, "We don't use live steel; we don't have anything like that in the training hall."

"What about historical swords?" Kenshin asked softly. "Would there have been anything like that available?"

"Not in the dojo," Kaoru repeated. "We have some family swords, but they're all in the house."

'And occasionally covered in ofuda and stuffed under the bed, but never mind…'

"Yeah," Sano chimed in, "Don't want the students getting overly excited and deciding to play samurai or something."

Both police officers raised an eyebrow.

"Have you had difficulties with students attempting to 'play samurai' before, Ms Kamiya?"

Gritting her teeth and reminding herself that the officer was just doing her job, and that beating Sano over the head would not help prove that kendo helped teach control and emotional balance, Kaoru said, "You think the attackers were some of our students?"

"It does seem like it's a good…"

"You're wrong! None of our students would have done that! That's not what our style teaches!"

Before Kaoru could say anything else—or before the police could say anything which would lead to their receiving a personal demonstration of how effective Kamiya Kasshin could be without need for a blade--, Kenshin asked, "What about the other injuries?"

The second officer consulted his notepad, and said, "They're consistent with a fight. We'll have a team out to check the scene tomorrow morning, see if we can find any weapons nearby, any DNA, anything like that. Meanwhile, we'll wait for your father to wake up and see what he can tell us about who attacked him."

Kaoru opened her mouth, then closed it, recognizing the futility of saying anything else.

It wasn't surprising, really, that the police would see a student prank gone wrong, or some kind of gang retribution, or whatever it was that they were thinking. She supposed she should be grateful that they hadn't started asking pointed questions about where her brother was, or if he had any suspicious friends, or if her father had a cashbox in the office.

There were a lot of things that she wanted to say, but since most of them didn't involve the police, she simply smiled at them, assured them that she would inform them if she remembered anything else, shook their hands, and thanked them for their prompt attention.

After they left, Megumi said, "Those idiots. I can't believe that they would suggest that …."

Her voice trailed off and her eyes narrowed. "And as for those opinions about his injuries, I think I need to go have a word with the doctor."

Sano, no stranger to Megumi in this mood, tentatively said, "Umm… do you want me to go with you?"

"I can handle one idiot surgeon, Sano. You go wait for Yahiko downstairs."

"Right. Going. Back soon."

Misao jumped up and said, "I'll go with you; I'm gonna grab something out of the vending machine."

Before Kaoru could think of anything to say, the three of them had headed out the door.

"Misao hates hospitals…." Kaoru said faintly. "Her folks died in an accident when she was little, and she ended up wandering around alone for hours, because nobody was keeping track of her."

Kenshin knelt in front of her, still moving as if he was afraid to startle her. "It will be ok, Kaoru. This isn't like that."

"Then what is it like?" she asked, her eyes meeting his. "You and I both know that this wasn't some stupid teenage prank, Kenshin. What if… what if they were looking for…"

Kenshin embraced her, cutting off her words. "I promise you; I swear to you, on my honor and my own blade, that this was not because you hid my sword, or because of anything else that you did. Nor was it the same thing that attacked your brother. Your father was never involved in this, and anybody who acted otherwise will answer to me."

"Not until after I'm done with them," she said simply, her words muffled against his shoulder.

It was exactly what he expected her to say, and it made him smile, in spite of everything else. Before he could respond, the door burst open and Yahiko ran in, his face pale, his expression that of a boy who had already lost one parent far too young.

He released Kaoru so that she could go hug her brother, reassuring him that their father was going to be fine, that the doctors had said it would take time for him to heal, but that he was going to be alright.

Yahiko made a sound that was suspiciously like a sniffle before he pulled away and demanded, "What happened? Why would anybody do this?"

"They don't know who did it yet, but the police are trying to figure it out. And… um… so is Kenshin. In case it's not really something for the police."

It took several seconds for this to sink in, but when it did, Yahiko looked from his sister to the red-head leaning casually against the wall and said, "Oh… you mean… this was one of those things? A demon thing?"

"Possibly," Kenshin said. "The police seem determined to just label it as gang related; it wouldn't surprise me if they decide to throw in drug use just to round things out."

Yahiko snorted. "Yeah, right. Like Dad would get beat so easily."

For some reason, the thought that it had been demons or something supernatural that had gotten the better of his father seemed to go a long way towards cheering Yahiko up. From the way Kaoru rolled her eyes at her little brother, Kenshin could tell that being with him was doing good things for her state of mind as well.

"So, do you know what it was yet?" Yahiko asked, turning to Kenshin.

"Yahiko, he just got here! He hasn't had a chance to go investigate at the dojo yet!... you haven't had a chance to go investigate at the dojo yet, have you?" Kaoru demanded, also turning to face Kenshin.

"No, I haven't been there yet."

There was no need to mention that Aoshi was probably going over everything there with a fine-toothed comb and a peeved attitude.

"But when we find out what it could have been, we'll let you know." Before the younger boy could ask the question behind his eyes, Kenshin reassured him, "It wasn't what attacked you at the park."

"Oh, great, still more things that go bump in the night," Kaoru muttered under her breath.

The identical expressions on the siblings' faces had him almost smiling, but before they could ask more questions, the door opened and Megumi, Sano, and Misao came back in. Megumi's expression of satisfaction indicated that she'd not only managed to corner the "idiot surgeon," but had made sure to scare the stupidity right out of him. Misao appeared to have purchased half the contents of the vending machine, and Sano had cheerfully stolen several bags of indeterminate fried potato products.

"You want anything, Yahiko?" Misao asked.

"No… no more chocolate…" Yahiko said, looking faintly green.

"I agree; you should try to get some sleep. I got you a room." Megumi's satisfied grin said more than words could have about the strings she'd pulled to get Kaoru and Yahiko into an actual room at the hospital. "They'll let you know when there's more news."

With that, Megumi left the lounge, heading down the hall towards whatever room she'd scared the other doctors into leaving empty for her cousins, clearly expecting everybody to follow her.

And, after a few seconds of looking at each other, everybody did just that.


Kenshin carefully pulled the blanket up over Kaoru's sleeping form. Yahiko had pulled the curtains around his bed, curled up, and fallen asleep almost immediately, worn out after a long evening and trusting everybody else to wake him up if anything important happened. After both subtle hints and more direct remarks had failed, Megumi finally shooed everybody else out of the room, shoved her other cousin at the second bed and threatened to stick her with needles full of tranquilizers if she didn't get some sleep.

He supposed that it was possible that Megumi had meant to include him when she
told everybody else to get out and let Kaoru sleep, but he had avoided any discussion of it by slipping into the shadows and then stepping back out once the room was clear and Kaoru's breathing had fallen into the even patterns of sleep.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been watching her when he heard the faint ding noise of the elevator door from outside the room, but didn't bother to turn around. When the noise was repeated, somewhat louder, he sighed. Casting one last look at Kaoru's sleeping form and pulling the curtains around her bed, Kenshin walked out to the elevator and pushed the "down" button.

"It's about time, idiot," a deep booming voice said from inside. Gritting his teeth, Kenshin stepped in. As he looked around, he raised an eyebrow. Unless municipal hospitals had conducted a cost survey and determined that richly-stained mahogany siding and soft carpeting were conducive to helping patients get over their illness, it looked like his Master hadn't been able to resist showing off.

The space which he found himself in looked like a small study. He wasn't sure if the fire crackling in the marble fireplace was real in any recognizable sense, but, considering the sunlight streaming in through the neo-Gothic windows, he decided the fire wasn't worth quibbling over.

All in all, he was just grateful that his Master had changed out of the extravagent costume from earlier. Not that the cape was less flamboyant, but at least it usually sparkled less.

From his position in one of the dark leather club chairs by the fire, Seijouro Hiko swirled the clear liquid in his cup before taking a very precise sip. Looking at his apprentice, he raised an eyebrow and said, "Well?"

"The police have convinced themselves it was some kind of gang incident. I doubt they're going to look much beyond that. Kaoru's… Mr. Kamiya's injuries are serious, but not fatal; the training hall can be repaired; there weren't any other attacks. Also, there has been at least one other incident involving teenagers and the dojo at Halloween."

"And what is your opinion?"

"It seems…. rather unlikely that a group of half-trained teens could defeat a full-fledged Master of his own family's style."

"At least you're not completely hopeless. How is the girl taking it?"

Tightening his fists, Kenshin ground out, "She found her father in their dojo, in a pool of blood, wounded, unconscious… he's in a coma, and even once he's awake he's going to need months of physical therapy… how do you think she's taking it?"

It was only with great effort that Kenshin was able to refrain from lashing out at something. The thought of Kaoru coming home to find her father beaten and bleeding was bad enough; even worse was the way his imagination insisted on painting scenarios of what could have happened to her if she'd arrived at the dojo just a little earlier.

Hiko's tone was exasperated. "Aoshi set up wards. Saitoh was watching her at school. You were watching her at home. You were patrolling another section of the city, dealing with a very legitimate and known threat. Stop blaming yourself for something you couldn't have forseen happening"

Before Kenshin could say anything more, there was a whisper of shadow in one corner of the room and Aoshi stepped into the circle of firelight.

Without preamble, he stated, "Definitely supernatural; not any of the players we're familiar with; some oddities in the energy residue which preclude immediate identification. Hannya is keeping watch. I have several leads to investigate, but nothing definite."

Hiko looked thoughtful. "If this was meant as some kind of message, they did a very poor job of communicating it. It would have made more sense for them to attack the Kamiya girl directly. Put that down, you idiot, before you break it."

Kenshin looked down in surprise to find himself holding something brass and abstract-looking from the table. Slightly abashed, he put it down and attempted to join the discussion. "I told Kaoru that it wasn't because of anything she had done."

Aoshi nodded his agreement. "There was no attempt to attack the house, and no way that anybody could have known Kaoru was going to be visiting the dojo at that particular time. Himura, have you asked her about reasons her father might have been a target?"

"I didn't want to raise the subject so soon after the police tried to paint Mr. Kamiya as somebody dumb enough to teach teenaged delinquents how to beat him up."

Raising one eyebrow, the tall ninja said, "Yes… I can see where that would be unwise. It would be a good idea to ask, nonetheless. Hannya made some notes based on his observations at the dojo and in the hospital."

Aoshi handed a small notebook to Kenshin, who leafed through it. At one point, he raised an eyebrow and remarked, "Left-handed? That's unusual."

"Good; something unusual is something easier to track," Hiko commented. His tone implied that his two subordinates needed all the help they could get when it came to tracking. Both Kenshin and Aoshi ignored it with an expression born of long practice.

With an air of decisiveness, Hiko stood up and said, "Shinomori, finish your investigation of the dojo and then return to what you were doing. Set whatever wards you need to prevent anybody from finishing the job. Report back to me if you discover anything of interest in either area."

Nodding in acknowledgment, Aoshi stepped back into the shadows. Once he was gone, Hiko took a drink before he turned to Kenshin and said, "I realize that it's going to be completely useless to tell you to go back to our primary investigation before this issue is resolved. Therefore, you have permission to focus on protecting the Kamiya family. Saitoh is almost as bad as you are, by the way. He's been reporting in every half-hour, ostensibly to update me on how his patrol is going, and casually asking if there is any new information about the dojo attack."

"Did you explain to him that this hunt is mine?"

"If Saitoh is faster than you are in tracking down the culprit, I don't think any explanations by me will make the least bit of difference."

Kenshin glared, but Hiko merely took another drink. While he never directly encouraged competition among those who worked for him, he found it made them all much more enthusiastic if they knew that their target could get stolen out from under their noses.

And anything that made his job easier was not to be disparaged.

In this case, however, he suspected that Saitoh would be disappointed. Not only was his idiot apprentice more than usually worked up about this, the Kamiya girl herself was full of surprises.

"If there's nothing else, Master," Kenshin said, "I will return to the hospital and finish reading Hannya's report before I talk with Kaoru tomorrow."

"An excellent course of action, and one which will definitely be more useful than standing around trying to glare a hole in my carpet. Shinomori or I will be in touch with any additional information. If you discover anything of importance, report it in the usual manner. And try not to do anything too idiotic on your own. This time."

Hiko managed not to smile at the way Kenshin's jaw clenched before he bowed and turned to leave.

Really, sometimes it was just too easy.


Next Chapter: Investigations, interrogations, and the serious possibility that putting the Kamiya siblings together in one apartment will result in culinary disasters sufficient to wipe out a small country.

In this chapter, I don't own: Officers Kirihara and Matsumoto (who are rather AU here).

Author's Note: Umm… would you believe that in an attempt at verisimilitude, the author put herself into a long-term coma for research purposes, hence the ridiculous delay? Actually, it was a combination of Real Life (insofar as graduate school counts; that is to say, neither "real" nor "a life") and wrestling with the medical terms and how best to arrive at "coma" without sounding like it was a soap-opera-style coma from which the character will wake up in three chapters with AMNESIA.

I am so thrilled that people have been reading and enjoying "Moonlight," even during my extended absence; I haven't had a chance to go and read all the reviews yet (figured I should work on getting this finished and posted first!). However, I look forward to them. If I can work out a system to respond to them, I will let folks know about it.