Summary: Kenshin promised…he'd always come back. And nothing will stop him. Nothing. Not even death.
Disclaimer: I own only my own interpretation of RuroKen, which differs from the original in that I have decided that Kenshin should have been a telepath. The title is taken from a Star Trek: Strange New Worlds story about starships, prison breaks, look-alikes, and traitors to the nation. In short, I only stole the title, not the plot.
Warning: Character death. Zombies and/or undead. Blood and gore. Violence. That sort of stuff. Also, contains ideas blatantly stolen from Reflections, especially the one that made a really deep impression on me. Also, take note: I really fancy turning Kenshin, Kenji, and Hiko into telepaths of various sorts, so there are ideas in here that will be developed further in later stories. I have at least one on the drawing board now about Kenshin, whereupon I may just turn to Kenji, if more Kenshin stories don't appear.
ON WITH THE SHOW!
They buried the stranger at dusk, with the new moon—the dead moon—rising in the sky behind him, and that was when the trouble began.
No one had ever expected him to live, not in the condition he'd been found in. No one knew how long he'd been there, quietly bleeding to death. If it weren't for Kiyo, he would have died alone, and they'd have found a skeleton some months later. No one went up there but the children at play, and it was getting too cold for the little ones to run in the hills.
Winter came quickly up north. If Kiyo hadn't found him that day, he would have lain there until the spring equinox.
The first news anyone got of the man was when little Kiyo ran into the village, little more than a collection of small, warm huts, screaming "Mama, mama!"
She ran straight to her home, where she found her mother working on the ripped nets that never got finished. "Mama, there's a demon on the hill!" she informed her breathlessly.
"Is there?" replied her parent. "Is it playing with the ogre tribe you found last week?"
Kiyo screeched with impatience and was promptly slapped gently. "Don't scream, girl."
With effort, she lowered her voice. "No, mama, this one's real. He's bleeding."
Her mother put down her work, eager to entertain her daughter's fantasies if it meant she would be left in peace. "All right, Kiyo dear, tell me all about it."
After a few false starts and deep breaths, the girl burst out again, "There's a demon in the hills and he's bleeding real bad, mama!"
Now, Kiyo was subject to flights of fancy, but they were never, so far as her mother could remember, this consistent, let alone bloody. Last week she'd been playing at house with an ogre tribe; the week before that, dancing with foxes. There was a distinct possibility, the adult realized, that Kiyo really had seen something, although she doubted that it was a demon.
She rose from her work, daughter in tow, and set out to find her older son, who she assumed would be loitering with his friends, boasting outrageously. This didn't stop her from marching into their midst and dragging him away.
"Kiyo may have found someone injured, Sanyo. Please go with your sister and bring me back the truth."
Still resentful from being corralled so abruptly, Sanyo followed his little sister reluctantly. The reluctance lasted all the way until they got into view of the man.
He was lying unconscious in the meager bracken; his bright red hair was obscured by a double coating of mud and dried blood. He carried nothing except the clothes he was wearing, and they were rent and weatherworn, patched amateurishly and stained beyond hope of redemption.
To his credit, Sanyo's first act was to kneel down to touch the man just to make sure he was real, not to mention to check if he was still alive. What Sanyo could see of the wounds under the filth made him doubt that the stranger could have lived very long.
He was alive, but barely.
As Sanyo rose from his crouch to bolt for the village, he noticed that from where he was standing, the man was nearly invisible, even with the hair. The boy was no expert woodsman, but he couldn't help but think that the stranger had made some effort to hide himself away, as if he was being chased, or hunted.
Their village did not normally welcome strangers, but he was wounded, and unarmed, and quite small, so the men who came brought him in anyway, believing him to be no threat. They got few visitors, this far to the north. They were so far removed, in fact, that the wars of the southern islands had never touched them.
Some of the men, who were not needed, set out to follow his tracks in hope of finding out where he had come from and if there were any other people with him. The latter was inconclusive—obviously there had been someone to inflict those wounds—but the former was equally puzzling.
News had spread rapidly by the time they got back, and what seemed to be their whole population had turned out to stare, silently. The silence was broken by one ancient grandfather who shared Kiyo's first impression, pointing at the half-dead bundle, small enough to be carried by one man, screaming, unprompted and unwarranted, "Demon! Demon!"
He was quickly hushed, but continued to repeat his words whenever he thought anyone was listening until the stranger died some days later.
"Hush, Grandfather," one of the men in the search party soothed him, "it's only a man. He's injured."
"What happened?" another voice asked. "Where did he come from?"
"Kiyo said he came from the north," someone else contributed.
An aged woman's voice, cracked by age and the salt air, pointed out, "There's nothing to the north! Nothing but rocks and waves."
"Only death, grandmother!" the superstitious old man told her loudly.
This belief had plenty of followers among the remote village. Many people began muttering, frightened.
"Death and evil," the man rasped, satisfied.
Despite the rumors that sprung up like weeds, the village's healer agreed to tend the man, although he held forth little hope.
"This man has been cruelly hunted," he said, washing blood from his hands, acquired after cutting away the least-salvageable bits of clothing. "See how the fabric has been forced inside the wounds? He has run away from something that was intent on savaging him, and he has been running for a while. By the amount of dirt and mud, I'd say he dragged himself the last few miles. I can't even guess about how far he came before that."
One of the men, captain of a ship, who had insisted on sitting in, rumbled, "There are no large predators around here. These wounds—they are sword wounds."
"I would say so. Also, there are many other old wounds that may have been aggravated. I will do what I can to save him. But I fear all we can do is hope that he never wakes up again. Perhaps it would be better for us all."
"What do you want, Kiyo?"
"He's going to live."
"Who? What? No way! How do you know?"
"He told me."
"He woke up?"
"He said so in my dreams."
"Oh, Kiyo…dreams aren't real."
"He told me, big brother. He just wants to go home."
"I wish he could, Kiyo. But, face it—he's dying."
"But he'll still go home."
"Yes, big brother?"
"Go back to bed."
He woke once, and that barely counted, as he was on the edge of delirium, floating between life and death.
"Hey, he's awake!" little Kiyo whisper-shouted across the room, leaning over his still form. "He's got funny eyes."
Her older brother sat up, embarrassed. "Kiyo!" he hissed, glancing around in hopes that no one else had heard. The two of them and the wounded man were the only ones in the room. He scurried over to join her and took a look himself.
"You know, you're half right," he agreed finally. "Never seen eyes that color before. But he's not awake, little sister. He's not focusing. His eyes are just open, that's all."
"He looks awake," she insisted stubbornly. Leaning over the man to look into his eyes, she said loudly, "It's OK, we're taking care of you. You're safe."
Sanyo smiled patronizingly at his sister, who had insisted that he was 'her demon' and that she should be permitted to help look after him. Seeing as all they could really do was keep vigil, she had been allowed to.
Looking again at the man's peculiar eyes, Sanyo jumped. At the sound of her voice, his eyes had focused on her face, the first sign of life he'd shown.
Delighted, she smiled at him. "You have pretty eyes," she told him unabashedly. "I'm Kiyo. What's your name?"
His eyes unfocused for a second as he struggled to stay awake. "Kiyo, don't tire him," Sanyo warned, torn between fascination and the feeling that he should be fetching the healer.
Sanyo's eyes bulged in surprise as the man struggled to reply, lips moving jerkily, helplessly. Eyes fixed on the tableau before him, he dipped a cloth in water and passed it to Kiyo. "Wet his lips," he murmured. "Not too much."
Obediently, Kiyo dabbed the sodden fabric across his mouth, freeing him to speak.
"Wh—where?" he said hoarsely, and Sanyo suddenly couldn't shake the feeling that the stranger wasn't seeing the hut and the children at all.
Kiyo didn't get to answer, suddenly struck dumb as children abruptly given attention sometimes are. Despite the lack of feedback, he went on as if she had replied, whispering, "…going home…"
Sanyo's eyes bulged at this repetition of his sister's prediction as she patted the redhead's hand dumbly.
"Where were you going?" Sanyo said hopefully, feeling that he might as well try.
It was no use. "…promised…" the red-haired stranger finished, gasping.
This appeared to be the last effort he had any strength for. His purple eyes closed again with a sigh.
He didn't wake again, and he died that afternoon without another word.
They buried him at dusk without a name to free his spirit from as it fled. Behind them, as they shoveled the barren, rocky soil over the small corpse, a black moon rose.
Megumi brushed her hair back from her forehead as she bent over her sleeping friend to check on her again. It was only luck that she'd been in Tokyo a week ago—otherwise she would have been days away when Kenji burst in through her door yelling for her help.
Without any explanation, Kaoru had simply collapsed in the middle of the afternoon as she'd walked through the dojo. Her son might not have his father's exact psi power, but he'd sensed his mother's faint even before she'd hit the ground.
Seven days later, Kaoru had settled into a steady pattern of sleeping all day without so much as moving to brush hair from her face when it was blown there by the wind through the open window. Her friends and son were taking it in turns to sit by her side and watch over her lest her condition change or worsen.
During the night, she was sluggish and unresponsive, but at least she was awake and moving around. However, she didn't seem to register anyone who tried to speak to her, and she certainly couldn't hold a conversation. The evenings and nights she spent wandering around her home, brushing her fingers against walls and trees and spending long hours watching the stars.
For the first couple of nights, she'd maintained a listless if conscious demeanor, enough so that her extended family had felt somewhat all right about leaving her alone for a little while when she begged solitude.
That had ended when Tsubame found her seated on the top of the wall surrounding the Kamiya dojo, calmly staring out down the road without the slightest concern for her position.
Yahiko had to bring her down bodily, for although she didn't put up a fight, neither did she make any move to help. After that incident, the round-the-clock Kaoru Watch had been put into effect.
Now, as the sun set, it was Megumi's turn to keep vigil over her. There. She'd thought it. She'd been trying to avoid the phrase, but one look at Kaoru's face—lifeless, slack, and unmoving—did suggest the last vigil for the dead.
Or it would have, were it not for Kenji fidgeting around the room.
"Kenji," Megumi said tensely, finally fed up with the boy's pacing, "either stay in one place or leave."
"She's my mother," Kenji said edgily. "I'm staying."
"Then sit down, please!"
Megumi looked over her shoulder just in time to catch Kenji's grimace.
"No way. I'm too worried to concentrate—do you have any idea just how much I'll have running through my head in this state and without proper shields?"
Kenshin hadn't been sure if his ability to read minds and hear thoughts would be passed on to his son—he knew almost nothing about his own ancestors, so there was no way to be sure if it was inherited. As it turned out, whatever gift or curse that gave Kenshin telepathy had given Kenji an ability to see images from the past—the stronger the emotion, the more vivid the picture. His first trip to Kyoto on his own had been a disaster.
Kenji seemed to have worn himself out with this outburst, though. He perched next to Megumi with sudden weariness. "What's wrong with her, Auntie Meg?" It was a sign of just how scared he was that he fell back on the childish nickname.
"I don't know, Kenji. And I've no new information to help—unless you know something I don't."
"Like what?" She'd hit a nerve, though, because the words came boiling out. "Like, where's my father?"
"Well, that would be a start."
Kenji ground his hands into the tatami mat. "He got nervous about a month ago, I don't know why. He never says. I'm no telepath like him, but he was acting like he was being chased. I think he was trying to draw whatever or whoever it was off."
"And you haven't seen him at all since then?"
"You know, that's what's really irritating! He can always tell when she's sick; comes back here at top speed. There's nowhere in Japan that would take him a week to get back from if it's for her. So where the hell is he?"
Megumi didn't know how to respond to that, so she tried to redirect the conversation. "Kenji, I want you to check out the place she fell again."
Kenji crossed his arms, scowling. "That was an utter failure the last two times I tried—and I was dizzy for the rest of the day, both times. Whatever she was feeling, it was so confused I doubt even she knew what it was."
She covered her irritation with a bright smile. Kenji was just as stubborn as both his parents, although he was ruder about it. "Kenji dear, despite your unique powers, I think your mother knows her own mind better than you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, you're trying again." She corralled him before he could pull away, dragging him toward the dojo by his elbow. Apparently giving up, he made no move to fight her.
When they reached the dojo, Kenji communicated his displeasure only with a resentful look before homing in on the place where his mother had passed out without hesitation. On one knee on, Megumi was willing to bet, the exact spot, he braced himself and closed his eyes.
Megumi was no telepath, not even a sensitive like most who had learned some style of swordsmanship. She could not feel what happened when Kenji dropped his mental shields that he'd learned part from his father, part from Kenshin's own mentor, and part made up himself, but she could tell when it overwhelmed him, because he tried to leap away with a cry and just ended up sprawled on the floor trying to hold his head and his chest at the same time.
She caught him, bringing him back upright and letting the little teen lean on her until he recovered his breath and his balance, not to mention his ability to be sarcastic.
"I told you before," he said, when he felt well enough to speak, "I don't know what that was. All I can say is that it feels like—" he trailed off, attempting to illustrate with his hands. "Like being pulled apart, here." He waved at his chest. "All empty. And stubborn, so desperate."
Well, that didn't help her medical analysis, but she was saved by Kaoru beginning to wake up, coinciding with the full setting of the sun. It was a slow awakening, and completely ignored the presence of whoever was in the room with her at the time.
Breathing slowly, she watched the ceiling, blinking occasionally. As Megumi and her son watched, she raised one hand before her eyes, looking at it as though she'd never seen it before in her life.
"…doesn't hurt…" she murmured for her own ears. This was followed by a deep sigh. She didn't seem to move individual body parts so much as flow out of her futon, rising to her feet and wandering out of the room slowly.
Megumi and Kenji followed her. They accompanied her through the gardens, around the wall twice, on a slow and stately circuit of the dojo, and to the gate, which she leaned against for a long time, looking at the wood through unfocused eyes.
Although there was no pattern to her wandering as far as anyone had been able to tell, tonight seemed no different from any other night.
Until Kaoru looked up from the wall and turned her head to focus on her shadows.
"Kenji?" she asked. "Megumi? What are you doing here?"
They gaped for a second before bursting out with "Kaoru!" and "Mom!"
Her son leaped toward her, remembering himself at the last instant and stopping a centimeter before he barreled into her full-force, which would have certainly sent her flying. He wrapped her in a hug instead.
"It's all right," she soothed him, playing with his red hair. "I'm all right now."
"What happened to you, mom?"
"I'd like to know that too," Megumi put in, resting her hand on Kaoru's free shoulder (the one without Kenji's head on it) affectionately. "Welcome back, Kaoru."
Kaoru smiled at her, but suddenly Megumi's instincts started screaming at her. There was something empty about that smile, empty but somehow satisfied. "It's good to see you, Megumi," she said along with the smile.
"What happened?" Kenji repeated more insistently. "I couldn't figure out anything!"
There was a second of incomprehension that worried Megumi before understanding leapt to Kaoru's eyes. "Oh, of course. No, you wouldn't be able to."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
To Megumi, Kaoru seemed suddenly nervous. "I don't want to tell it more than once, Kenji love. Wasn't Tsubame here for a little while?"
"You remember! So was Yahiko."
She beamed at her son. "Why don't you and Megumi go and find them, then?" she suggested. "And then I'll explain."
Kenji looked hesitant. "We shouldn't leave you along, Mom…"
"Nonsense. You'll find them twice as fast if you both go. I'll be fine now. Everything's okay now."
"Are you sure?"
Affectionately, she pushed him away. "Go on, Kenji." Before he could move very far away, she pulled him back and kissed him on the cheek. "Love you."
Puzzled but glad, Kenji left with Megumi beside him, heading into town, where they would most likely find the couple at this time of night, each trying to figure out what had just happened.
A little over halfway there, Kenji stopped short, eyes widening steadily. Megumi actually walked a few steps past him before she realized what he'd done and stopped as well. "Kenji? What is it?"
Kenji's mouth opened to match his eyes, a faint wail escaping.
"It's him!" Kenji howled. "He's there! I can—oh, my God, no, no, no! Mine! No!"
Megumi had to physically grab him to stop him from bolting off down the road. This was taking a great risk, she knew, because he was younger, stronger, and in far better shape, if shorter. Luckily for her, he didn't seem ready to break away.
"What's happening, Kenji? Who's here? Is it Kenshin?"
"He's come back! How can he be back?"
"Kenji! Without shouting!"
The boy slumped against her. "He can't be back," he wailed. "I can't reach him, I can't hear him, there's no voice, just, just he needs to come back, to be…let go of me!"
"What's wrong with Kenshin?"
Kenji stared at her, aghast, blue-purple eyes wider than she'd ever seen them go. "He's come back, he's dead, and he's come back!"
Megumi released him in shock and confusion, only to take off after him as fast as she could go.
He was faster than her, of course; he was Kenshin's son and a hell of a swordsman already. As she ran back to the dojo, little lights appeared in front of her eyes, swirling and dancing wildly. She didn't have to run much in her career as a doctor, certainly not down country roads in the middle of the night.
Kenji was caught between wanting to run to his parents and wanting to run away, hovering on the dividing line between the two courses and uttering little cries of distress. As her vision cleared, Megumi was caught between the two impulses as well.
Clearly, Kaoru had sent them away on purpose. A little way from the gate in the wall, she sat in the embrace of her husband and lover, both still as death.
Overcoming her fear, Megumi approached the pair, although she could tell that they had both been dead probably ever since she and Kenji had gotten past the point where they couldn't turn around and see. What was odd was—when had Kenshin gotten back? And there was no wound on Kaoru—why was she dead?
But when she turned her head to look at Kenshin, she leapt back, one hand over her mouth in fear. There were wounds, fatal wounds, riddling his body, gashes that had been inexpertly patched and torn open again through exertion.
Any of those wounds would have killed him, and Megumi could not shake the feeling that they had, especially when she realized that the wounds had stopped bleeding forever almost exactly a week ago.
He had promised. He'd promised to return to her side—no matter what stood between them. Even death. Even death.
Author's Note: You see, Reflections got on my nerves, probably because, when you come right down to it, it could be heart-wrenching, sure, but it just wasn't cool enough. (Yes, I AM that shallow sometimes!) I like this concept better. More short stories about psi-powered redheads should follow whenever the floating ideas turn into actual narratives. Thanks for reading.