Chapter 20

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Author's Notes:

I was mulling over how to write this chapter and "Dust in the Wind" by Queen came on the radio. The Highlander fans know why this is a bit freaky. ;)

This is the final chapter. All done. THANK GOD!!!! DONE DONE DONE! Mouse does a happy dance before collapsing in exhaustion

Thanks to everyone for all the wonderful feedback; it really does mean a great deal. I've written fanfic under a couple different handles and I've never gotten this much feedback before -- so far, the amount of reviews on this story is five times greater than anything I've ever written before. The last story I posted under another handle had NO reviews. It's quite a bit of a pleasant shock. ;-)

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Tessa looked up when the shop's front door opened, and grinned when she saw who had entered. "Atsuko! Kenshin!"

"Tessa!" Atsuko said, with enthusiasm. Tessa noted that Atsuko looked to be in an exceptionally good mood, matching her own happiness. Atsuko was almost bouncing as she walked. Kenshin, behind her, had his hands in his pocket and an odd smile on his face. "Good morning!"

"Hey, good to see you! I was worried you wouldn't be coming around. MacLeod's kinda being an idiot, I'm sorry Kenshin." Tessa stepped around the counter, glanced at the single customer -- who seemed to be fascinated by a sword in a case at the back of the shop -- and then said, "You're not going to believe what MacLeod did last night!"

"Yeah? What did he do?" Atsuko asked.

"He proposed to me! Fourteen years and he finally did it!"

"Congratulations," Kenshin said, smile growing broader.

"Wow! That's amazing!" Atsuko hugged her impulsively. "That's just amazing! What prompted that?"

"I have no idea!" Tessa laughed. She didn't, really, and she was reasonably sure it had been purely impulsive since no ring had been involved -- but she wasn't complaining. "Guys, I'm so happy!"

"I'll bet!" Atsuko hugged her again. "My goodness, that wasn't news I was expecting!"

"I'm going to invite you two to the wedding, of course," Tessa said, grinning. Then she remembered the bit of information that Atsuko had given her a few days earlier, and the sad look in Atsuko's eyes when she'd said Kenshin wasn't interested in a relationship with her. "You and Kenshin -- not as a couple, I know you're not that ... do you have someone else you each want to bring?"

Atsuko, to Tessa's amusement, said smugly, "Ohhhh, as of last night, you can invite us as a couple."

"Oroooooo, Atsuko!" Kenshin protested, turning a very interesting shade of scarlet from his hairline clear down to the collar of his t-shirt.

Tessa blinked and regarded Atsuko, who was grinning and not blushing, and Kenshin, who looked like he didn't know whether to hysterically giggle or flee. "No! Really?"

"Oh, yes." Atsuko laughed. "And yes, and yes, and yes." The woman's grin grew broader.

Kenshin protested, loudly and indignantly, "Atsuko!"

Atsuko continued, still grinning, and obviously delighting in harassing him, "Emphatically. And, uh, thoroughly. I don't know what prompted the change of heart, but trust me, I'm not complaining." Atsuko said, giving Kenshin a fond grin that he met with a glare -- he was still blushing furiously -- before saying, "Tess, can you get away from here a bit for coffee and gossip?"

"No, afraid not. Richie and MacLeod are off running errands. I've got the shop." Tessa sighed. "I'd love to talk to you two but I'll have to take a rain check on it."

"Damn." Atsuko sighed dramatically.

"Why don't we get together tomorrow night?" Tessa suggested. "I'm meeting with a buyer tonight."

"Can't, I've got a conference call with my boss. I've got an assignment in Africa in a few weeks and we're planning things. What about two nights from now?"

"Ah, that won't work for me ..." Tessa sighed.

"Damnit," Atsuko rolled her eyes. "Kenshin and I were going to take a bit of a road trip before I have to go back to work -- we're leaving in three days. Akane's going to head down to San Francisco as soon as she gets out of the hospital, so there's nothing really tying us here as soon as she's gone."

Tessa hugged her, "Don't worry about it. We'll keep in touch. Send me post cards."

"I will, I will." Atsuko assured her.

Tessa added, to Kenshin, "Giving Mac some space might not be a bad idea, either, Ken. Mac doesn't actually stay mad forever, it only seems like it. I'd give him about a month and then approach him and I imagine he'll have calmed down a bit."

"Why's he so mad at Kenshin?" Tessa asked.

"I don't think he's that mad at Kenshin, Atsuko. Mac's lost a lot of friends recently. I think Kenshin just managed to hit a few of his buttons just right." Tessa sighed.

"I'll give him time, then," Kenshin said. "I won't be back for a few weeks anyway. After Atsuko leaves, I figure I'll do a bit of wandering -- it's been awhile since I've done that. I like to travel and see what I can see, that I do."

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"No, Toshio." Kenshin said, in Japanese. "I'm sorry, Toshio. She's not coming home."

He rolled his eyes at Atsuko, and she snickered. Very few people could annoy Kenshin to the degree that Toshio did.

He paced across the apartment as Toshio yelled; Atsuko could make out Toshio's occasional word from Kenshin's cel phone, clear across the room. The man was in rare form.

Kenshin said, "United States. San Francisco ... no ... he'll take care of her ... aa ... aa ... Toshio, I don't think that's wise ... no, Toshio, you don't need to come out here ... Soujiro is a friend, not a boyfriend ... I'll try to talk them into coming home for a visit but I can't guarantee it ..."

Atsuko winced. The thought of Toshio confronting Soujiro sounded like a remarkably bad idea.

"Toshio, I. Am. Not. Your. Dog!" Kenshin said, in a tone of voice that she'd rarely heard him use on family. "Toshio, pleaselisten to this one."

Silence from the phone. Kenshin had said that last bit in the same tone of voice she'd heard him use a few times on bad guys.

"Thank you. Toshio, Akane is not coming home right away. Akane may never come home."

Surprisingly, silence continued to reign from the phone.

"...take note that she is your daughter and she loathes you. What kind of father are you if your daughter cannot even stand to speak to you on the phone? You love her, yet you do not show it. With your harsh and cruel words you have made her hate the thought of even talking to you. Think about that!"

Kenshin pulled the phone away from his ear, and frowned at it. He tapped it once with his finger, and sighed, and said, "I thought the silence was too easy."

Atsuko giggled. She couldn't help it; Kenshin looked downright disappointed. "Lost the signal, huh?"

Kenshin shut the phone off and said, "It is most probably for the best, I suppose. I will send him an e-mail tomorrow." He sighed. "Some things need to be said to that man, and I've never managed to get him to stop talking long enough to start listening."

"You might try a gag."

"I might try a letter. Truthfully, I doubt the man listens to anything anyone says, least of all me."

"Especially you. If he calls you a freak one more time, I swear I'm going to shove that phone of his down his throat." Atsuko sighed. "Let's go. You were on the phone with him for an hour ... we're going to be late for our dinner reservation."

Kenshin nodded. "Let me get my sakabatou ..."

He disappeared into his bedroom to retrieve it from the rack by his bed; when he returned he was wearing the sword across his back and had his coat over his shoulder, but he also had a bamboo shinai in one hand. The shinai had a note attached to the handle with her name on it in kanji. "Do you know where this came from?"

"No. I've never seen it before."

"I would swear it wasn't there earlier, when I was taking my shower." Kenshin frowned at the shinai, "Doesn't seem to be dangerous, though."

"What a weird thing to leave here," Atsuko said, taking it from him. She pulled the note off -- it was tied on with a length of blue ribbon. The paper was handmade, and the note entirely in kanji. It read, simply, "Atsuko-chan, I thought you might need this."

Kenshin had gone curiously still. He reached for the ribbon, ran it through his fingers, eyes distant. He brought it to his nose, inhaled deeply, then said quietly, "She approves, Atsuko."

"Who? What? Who left this?"

"You know what you said to me about Kaoru not being rude and obnoxious?" Kenshin's eyes were dancing. He pulled his wallet out, to her surprise, and flipped it open to the thick stack of photographs he carried everywhere. "You're more rude and obnoxious ..." she stuck her tongue out at him, "... but she had some fine moments herself. Including now, I would say."

"Kaoru?" Atsuko breathed out.

The room was silent, for a long moment. There wasn't any sense of a presence, no ghostly ki. They were utterly alone. Kenshin said he often sensed her presence. Sometimes I felt a spirit about him as well. But she's not here now. Why?

The very first photograph at the top of the stack of photographs was a small hand-tinted picture of a teenage Kaoru. It was old, and worn, but still clear. Kaoru was perhaps seventeen or eighteen in the picture, and was dressed in a kimono and slippers -- and she had a shinai in one hand. The woman was smiling; it wasn't the small, dignified smile that Atsuko would have expected of a woman of that era in a photograph, but an ear-to-ear tomboyish grin.

Atsuko glanced at the shinai in her hand, and a small chill ran down her spine. "You really think ..."

Kenshin closed his hand around the ribbon. "I know." He paused, and added, "She used to hit me over the head with that thing. Regularly. I generally had it coming, too."

"I couldn't hit you!" Atsuko protested.

"Please don't," Kenshin said, "you wield words far better than you wield a shinai, that you do."

"Thanks. I think." Atsuko said. Then she raised her voice and said, "Kaoru? Thank you."

There wasn't a response, but then, she wasn't expecting one. Kenshin, however, shook his head, "She's not here. I think perhaps she has moved on and leaving us the shinai was her way of saying goodbye."

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A month later, Kenshin pulled up to the curb in the alley behind the shop, parked, got out of the truck. It was snowing, big fat wet flakes blown by a damp cold wind. Probably, it would snow harder later. It was already starting to accumulate.

The antique shop was dark, upstairs and down, despite the fact that it was only six in the evening. Even the lights over the door were out. He leaned over, opened the truck's glove compartment, and retrieved a flashlight. In the alley, his boots crunched in the snow and the flashlight shone weak and yellow.

He picked his way through the snow and ice to the shop's door. There were a dozen newspapers piled up in front of the door, and no sign of MacLeod -- no buzz from his Immortal ki. The shop had the indefinable feeling of emptiness indicating a building totally bereft of human presence. Richie and Tessa weren't home either.

He shone the flashlight around the door. It illuminated a "closed" sign, and a note below it, taped to the glass, that said, Out of business.

Stuck in one of the windows facing the street was a For Sale sign.

Kenshin sighed. So this is why the phone is disconnected. Mac, Tessa, what happened?

There was no clue, no hint, where they might have gone. He realized he didn't know anything about them, not really. Where would they go? Who are their friends? Do they have another home somewhere? I don't even know how to begin to network to find them.

Kenshin sighed, returned to his truck, and sat in silence, thinking.

I wish Atsuko was here, she might have some ideas.

Atsuko had left for her assignment from LAX two weeks ago; he'd spent the time between then and now just driving thousands of miles across a whole continent and three separate countries. And thinking. He'd done lots of thinking.

He'd spoken to Atsuko once, late at night, on a connection that was scratchy and echoing. She'd sounded distant and lonely and he knew she was seeing terrible things in a far-away place. He could only trust in luck and skill to bring her home safely, to Tokyo, in the spring.

War. He knew war. And Atsuko had chosen to go right into the middle of one, to bring the truth of that war to the world. He'd seen several of her photographs in Newsweek and Time yesterday. She was doing what she believed in. Making a difference. Fighting for change.

We're a lot alike, that we are, in that we both can't stand to see all the suffering and pain in the world, right before our eyes, without trying to change it. There's no way I could stop her from going, and I'm not sure I'd ever want to.

And if something happens to her, it'll break my heart, that it will.

He shook his head, brought his attention back to the problem of finding MacLeod. Mac might be dead, he thought with a hint of fear, then he reassured himself, Thought given that he's survived four hundred years, I somehow doubt that. MacLeod's a survivor, that he is.

Most likely, MacLeod had just found it necessary to relocate in a hurry, Kenshin decided. Immortals sometimes had reasons for doing that, with 'suspected for murder' often the cause of a sudden change in residence. Kenshin sighed, and reached up to the ignition. He started the old truck, suddenly feeling every one of his years. MacLeod obviously wasn't here, and no amount of sitting around and worrying was going to change that.

He'd go home, to Tokyo. MacLeod had his cel phone number. If Mac had wanted him to know where he was, the man would have called. If Mac wanted to get in touch now, he easily could. And if Mac didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be.

Kenshin turned the truck towards the airport. He was finished here; he'd done his best and now it was time to move on.

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