"Miss, miss...are you all right?" A gentle tapping on her cheek.
Soundly, er, asleep, Megumi turned her head away instinctively, annoyed at the interruption. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter, striving to remain in the embrace of delirious unconsciousness, and smiled inwardly when she found herself once more in the landscape of her-- beautiful dream. She dreamed that she was chasing Kenshin and Sano down the slopes of Mt. Fuji while swinging a huge spiked club in her hands. All of them were dressed in bearskins.
Suddenly, though, the sky darkened and a huge slab of stone emerged from the snow-covered earth, blocking her path. Written on it in big glaringly bright characters were the words:
'Thou shalt not covet another man's man.'
A wordless scream left her throat as fireworks exploded in the horizon. Horrified, Megumi looked up and nearly fainted with fright when she saw Kenshin and Sano on top of the mountain holding hands and smiling at her like two benevolent Buddhas. Megumi's vision dimmed as the temperature around her lowered to freezing point. Shivering, she looked down at herself and cried out in shock when she saw her bear skins being replaced by bird feathers.
Dazed, Megumi glanced at Sano and Kenshin who were fading away slowly in resplendent glory into the night. They were shouting...
"Wake up! Wake up! Miss!" a nasal voice blasted into her ear.
"Do you think she's alive?" said a deep booming one.
"Is she breathing?"
"I don't think so."
"OK, people, step away!" a thin querulous voice spoke authoritatively. "Scram, you brats. I'm police, got that? Now..." the sound of scraping boots scratched against the hard ground as the voice moved closer to where Megumi lay.
"Well, sir?" said the nasal voice.
"Hmm...I don't think she's dead but just to be sure..." A sniffing sound somewhere near her ear. Megumi frowned and turned her head away slightly.
"Well...she doesn't stink or anythin'..."
"But her face is so cold and hard! Like an ice block!" the deep voice boomed out. "Look!"
Someone -- or something -- nearly flattened Megumi's cheek into non-existence with what felt like a battering ram. She snarled, half-awake already, as she turned her head away only to be poked firmly on the nose for her trouble.
"She moved!" someone shrieked.
"Hmph," the policeman snorted. "Well, she's alive then. But first, we gotta move her out of the way. Come on, men!"
"But-- but--" the one with the deep voice hesitated, "sir, do you think it's safe? She might be hurt..."
"Of course it's safe!," said the 'sir' in a sanctimonious tone of voice. "She's a road block, for cryin' out loud! What if someone trips over her or something? Article number 218, section 3 in the road ordinance code states that anything which blocks a public road such as this one should be removed without further ado. And 'anything' could be a fallen log, a stray cat, a dead mouse, spilled sake and a comatose retardate like this woman. Now, get on with it!"
That's it. She was definitely not going to lie back and let these obnoxious idiots have fun plagiarizing the law at her expense. Especially since they were obviously men and all men, as she learned from recent painful experience, were perverts.
A slimy hand grabbed hold of her arm. Megumi slapped it away and, with a growl, she sat up abruptly. "What do you think you're doing, you morons?!" she demanded angrily.
A huge fat man (probably the one with the slimy hand, Megumi thought sourly) backed away from her, a scared expression on his face. Megumi watched as he moved behind a painfully thin guy who stared back at Megumi with faint horror. She frowned at the couple and they cringed visibly, apparently afraid of the vision sitting squat on the ground, dark tangled hair arranged anyhow, kimono soiled all over and a 'come-closer- and-I'll-eat-you-alive' expression in a dirt-streaked face.
"Well, what do we have here?" another man stepped forward and Megumi turned to look at him, her frown deepening as she noted the neat blue uniform and glaring gold buttons arranged neatly on the washboard chest. The one who called her a road block.
The policeman gave her a suspicious look. She glared back. "OK. What were you doing lying on the street?"
Megumi rolled her eyes. "I died," she retorted sarcastically.
"Hmm?" the other raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you weren't onto something?"
Megumi felt her already rising hackles prickle even more. "What are you implying, officer?"
The man shrugged. "Like drugs or something..."
"How dare you?!" Megumi shrieked as she stood up in one hurried motion. "Why the hell would I do something like that?!"
The other sniffed deprecatingly. "Why are you asking me? You should know. Besides, you look like you've just been dumped by your boyfriend or something like that..."
Megumi clenched her fist. Dumped by her boyfriend...
"Hmm..." the officer squinted at her as he leaned in closer. "Now that I think about it, you look awfully familiar. Right, Keisuke?"
The big man nodded timidly, "Yeah. Now that you mention it, sir, she does look like someone we know."
"That's right!" The anemic guy beside him burst out excitedly. "You're the doctor working at Genzai-sensei's clinic, aren't you? Takani-san!"
Megumi felt slighly mollified as she flashed a smug little smile at the policeman. "Well, officer," she said coolly, "it looks like I'm not some nameless 'comatose retardate,' after all, hmm?"
To her irritation, the other just shrugged calmly. "Takani Megumi...Takani Megumi..." he suddenly flashed a toothless knowing grin. "Now I remember!" he crowed triumphantly.
Megumi blinked, confused. "What are you talking about?"
"You're Sagara Sanosuke's woman, aren't you?" the policeman said slyly.
That struck a raw nerve. "What?!" Megumi burst out.
The man just wagged a thin finger at her. "Come on, Takani-san... Surely you aren't going to deny it now? Why, you've been the talk of the entire town ever since Sagara announced in Matsumi's tavern that you're head and heels over in love with him!"
Megumi started to shake. "He did WHAT?!"
"Oh yeah!" Keisuke said. "Now that I think about it, Sano also said something about Takani-san's violence in and out of bed, didn't he, Shoji-chan?" he beamed at the thin man beside him.
Shoji blushed. "Uh, I don't think those were the exact words he used, Kei-chan. Not bed, at least."
Megumi couldn't believe it. If the situation were any different, she would have laughed. However, the morning's events hardly put her in the right mood to listen to three complete strangers debate about her non-existent sex life. And as to Sano... "Really?" she drawled. "What were his exact words, Shoji-san?"
"Uh, I can't remember..." Shoji muttered.
"Oh but I do!" the policeman said in an annoyingly superior voice. Megumi gritted her teeth. "Well?" she bit out.
The man grinned again. "He said you were as violent in bibs as you were out of them, Takani-san." He laughed. "Bibs indeed! Trust Sano to say that!" He broke off his laughter to look at her clothes and then laughed again, "I can see what he meant, though."
Megumi saw red as volcanoes exploded right in front of her darkening vision. Why that abominable dirty-minded twisted rooster head...
"Which...now...brings us to the...point," the policeman wheezed between fits of laughter. "Are you sure you and Sano didn't quarrel or anything, Takani-san?"
It was an effort to even open her mouth. "Why do you ask?" she said slowly, still trembling with rage.
The other shook his head. "Well, I just saw him walking towards the Akabeko with a gorgeous red-head in tow."
"Yep. I saw the girl, too. What a babe," Shoji said sympathetically.
"What?" Megumi choked out.
Alarmed, Keisuke reached out to place a hesitant hand on her shoulder. "Now, don't worry about it, Takani-san. Maybe they're just friends..."
"Well, Sanosuke had his arm around the girl," Shoji interjected doubtfully. "They looked awfully close..."
"And Sano even called her, 'sweetie honey,'" the policeman said wryly.
"No," Keisuke said, frowning. "I think it was 'you cute little puckaroo...'"
Shoji snorted. "You got it all wrong. It was 'the darling moon-faced, star-eyed sun of my life.'"
"Oh gods," Megumi groaned despairingly when a scary thought dawned on her.
Wait a minute. Kenshin and Sano were going to the AKABEKO?! Megumi's eyes widened in horror. That's where Kaoru is staying! Who knows what'll happen if she found out -- as she inevitably would if she saw Kenshin and Sano together -- that two of the people she trusted most in the world were-- were--
Argh! She can't even think about it! Megumi clenched her fist as she wheeled abruptly away from the still-arguing trio.
"Hey!" the policeman shouted behind her but Megumi ignored him. She would get even later. Right now, she had to get to the Akabeko. And work out a plan with Kaoru.
One thing's for sure, Megumi thought grimly.
They aren't gonna get away from us that easily.
"Now, Kaoru-chan, don't worry about it," Tae said soothingly. "I'm sure we'll work something out."
Kaoru looked at her hopefully, "Really? Any ideas, Tae-chan?"
Now, Sekihara Tae was a practical and intelligent woman, used as she was to thinking her way through problems, especially those which came with the running of a busy restaurant, without batting an eye. But she had to admit that this particular -- problem had her stumped for a solution. Tae forced a smile on her face. "Er, I'm still working on it, Kaoru-chan," she stammered. "But I have-- I have something. Yes, of course...something..."
Kaoru shook her head wryly. "Tae-chan..."
"Isn't there any way to reverse the effects, if ever?" Tae asked.
Kaoru shrugged. "I don't know," she muttered. "I'm not even sure if something's gonna happen at all. But I want to be prepared."
Tae raised an eyebrow. "How?"
Kaoru clasped her hands tightly in front of her. "Tae-chan, I--" she coughed nervously, "can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," Tae smiled.
"Do you think Kenshin really likes me?" Kaoru asked softly.
Tae took the other girl's hands in her own. "Of course I do, Kaoru-chan," she answered warmly. "Everyone from here to the twentieth century knows that you and Kenshin-san are meant for each other."
Kaoru smiled faintly, "I wish."
"You know," Tae squeezed her hands.
"But he deserves more from me, Tae-chan," Kaoru said, frowning slightly.
Tae tilted her head to one side. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that he needs more than a bokken-wielding, battle-ready, Oda Nobunaga look-alike..." Kaoru's voice trailed off when she saw Tae's incredulous expression. Despite herself, she laughed. "He deserves a woman, Tae-chan. In all ways that count. Especially now that he probably isn't -- himself, anymore."
Tae stared at her. "Kaoru-chan, I don't think..."
"I just want to make sure of 'us,' Tae-chan," Kaoru said firmly.
"Give him no room to maneouver, huh?" Tae asked wryly.
Kaoru winked at her. "Actually, I plan to give him lots of room..."
"Kaoru-chan..." Tae said sternly.
"But I don't where to start," Kaoru finished. "I've tried the, er, 'natural' approach but it didn't work so," she sighed, "I need something -- more to reel him in."
Tae choked, "Kaoru-chan, you--"
"I intend to fight for Kenshin, Tae-chan," Kaoru said determinedly. "Whatever it takes, I'll do it. And," her eyes glinted wickedly, "I want to be prepared."
Tae sighed. 'Megumi-san,' she thought, 'where are you?'
"Kenshin, you OK?" Sano asked worriedly.
"Yeah, I guess," Kenshin answered, forcing a smile. He frowned as another twinge of pain came from his stomach.
"Hunger pains, I'll bet," Sano remarked. "But the Akabeko is up ahead so hang on, buddy." Then muttering, "Jeez...of all the times to have a damn stomach ache... If I didn't know better, Kenshin, I'll say you planned to get sick as soon as we entered Michiko-san's shop."
Kenshin winced. "Yeah, I did plan something," he said wryly. "Mainly to drag you away from there screaming and begging for forgiveness. You should be glad I felt ill or we wouldn't be walking together like this."
"I don't understand you, Kenshin," Sano said, frowning at him. "I'm trying to help you and all you do in return is give me death threats." He sniffed.
Kenshin sighed. "Yes, I know you are, Sano," he said gently. "And I'm grateful. Really. But you just can't expect me to sit by and let a woman with a dragon tatooed on her forehead decorate my face with rice powder and bleach my hair, right?"
"Hmph. You're just picky," Sano muttered. "I don't know what the hell Jou-chan sees in you."
Kenshin's eyes darkened and he looked down at the ground. "Yeah, me neither," he returned softly.
"Oh hell," Sano cursed when he saw his friend's downcast face. "I'm sorry, Kenshin... I didn't mean..."
"No, it's OK," Kenshin smiled at him sadly. "I know I'm not--"
"One word about you being unworthy and all that crap and I decorate your face with road dust, Kenshin," Sano growled.
His mood lightening, Kenshin laughed. "Whatever."
"Besides," Sano said, "you have your redeeming qualities which Jou-chan'll be crazy to ignore."
"Really?" Kenshin lifted an eyebrow.
"Uh-huh," Sano drawled. "Like the way you say 'KaoruIloveyouyoure sobeautifulandkindandsweetandIloveyousomuchorooroorooro' in one breath. Amazing, huh?"
Kenshin flushed slightly, "Now, Sano..."
Sano grinned at him as they walked up to the entrance of the Akabeko. "Or the way you say--"
"Tae-chan! I didn't know you had it in you! I couldn't do that..."
"But Kaoru-chan, you said that there should be 'no escape!' That means you should cover all the exits...!"
Sano and Kenshin froze as they slowly looked at each other in horrified shock.
"Oro," Kenshin muttered, his eyes glazing over, "she's here..." He turned to his friend frantically, "Sano...she's here...Sano..."
"Calm down, Kenshin," Sano said as soothingly as he could. "Kenshin..."
Kenshin grabbed Sano's sleeves tightly. "She's gonna see me like this!" he burst out in a panic.
Sano tried to pry Kenshin's hands which were actually squeezing his neck as gently as he could. "Kenshin--" he began and choked when Kenshin dug his fingers deeper into his throat. "Damn it, Kenshin, calm down."
"Who's there?" Tae's voice rang out through the closed window.
Kenshin let go of Sano abruptly, his eyes widening in horror. "Oh no..."
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit," Sano said in a distraught rush. He grabbed Kenshin and shoved him down on the ground with him. They crouched beneath the window, barely breathing.
Sano's mind raced. A plan. They need a plan before Kenshin goes berserk with Kaoru within hearing and seeing distance.
"Sano, we gotta get away from here," Kenshin whispered furiously.
"No way," Sano hissed back. "Look, Kenshin, the whole point of this entire exercise is for you to show yourself to Kaoru, remember?"
"Not like this I'm not!" Kenshin said through gritted teeth.
Sano's hold tightened on his arm. "Now, listen here, Himura," he muttered harshly. "You ain't running back to the dojo like a shriveled flower, ya hear me? It's now or never, Kenshin."
"But Sano..." Kenshin protested.
"Now," Sano said as he yanked Kenshin to his feet, "you're gonna go in there...," quickly he brushed off the dust which gathered on Kenshin's gi hurriedly, "and say 'hi' to her like the man that you are, and you're not gonna freak out or say even a single 'oro,' understand?"
"Sano, I can't do this," Kenshin choked out.
Sano shook his head gravely. "Sorry, buddy," he said softly, "but you have to." He placed his hand on Kenshin's shoulder. "This is all for Kaoru. You said so yourself."
Kenshin looked at him hopelessly. "Yeah," he said hesitantly, "but..."
"So go on!" Sano said as he propelled Kenshin stiffly towards the door. "You can do it, man."
"One last thing, though," Sano muttered as he dug in his pockets. "Here...wear these..."
"Sano, no way!"
"You're wearing these or I'm gonna call Kaoru right now!" Sano growled threateningly.
"Kenshin, I mean it," Sano said firmly.
Kenshin glared at him. "You have no mercy, don't you?"
Sano grinned at him. "Not a bit." He watched as Kenshin yanked the proffered item from him with a frown.
"And Kenshin," he said, smiling.
"Yeah?" Kenshin asked warily but Sano could see the lurking nervousness in the other's eyes. His grin widened.
"There is one more thing..."
"I wonder what's taking Megumi so long," Kaoru said worriedly.
"Maybe some more patients arrived," Tae offered. "She'll be here soon." She frowned as something hard slammed on the outside wall. "What is that noise?"
Kaoru frowned too. "Maybe we should check it out," she said softly.
Tae nodded. "I'll go out the back, OK? And you--" she jumped in surprise when the entrance doors suddenly banged open and morning sunlight streamed in the murky interior.
Kaoru put a hand up her eyes. What the heck--
Tae gasped as someone stepped into the room. Well, more precisely, the person lunged into the room, almost as if he or she had been thrown inside. "Who are you?" she whispered.
Kaoru's eyes widened as she studied the intruder. Her fasciated gaze moved from the polished bright hairstyle, to the blue gi, to the flaring hakama, to the -- she choked -- bright pink gold-trimmed slippers. Kaoru swallowed as she looked up again to study the stranger's face. Wide violet eyes gazed at her in somber observation, an expression which contrasted with the wide cocky grin pasted on the thin lips.
"Ke-kenshin?" she whispered hoarsely.
Yatta! Sano whispered exultantly as he took note of the total silence coming from inside the room. Kenshin must have wowed Kaoru good, he thought with a grin. Now, if only Kenshin would say something...
The sound of a throat being cleared broke the hush. Sano crept in closer, his grin widening. Go, Kenshin!
'I gotta do this right,' Kenshin told himself fiercely. 'Come on...'
He forced himself to relax as he tried to remember Sano's instructions.
'Remember, Kenshin, poise is important. You gotta capture attention, understand? Now, try this. First, put your right hand on your waist, feet wide apart. And then ever so slowly, raise your left hand and brush your hair away from your face.'
'But Sano, I don't have *any* hair left on my face, remember?'
'Brush your forehead then. Subtly, OK, not like you're smacking yourself on the head. Then freeze for a few seconds. Hold that pose. Stare at the ceiling like you're longing for something. And then, SLOWLY, you look at her... longingly, Kenshin, LONGINGLY. Not like you just swallowed her cooking! OK. That's fine. Chest in, stomach out.'
'Isn't that stomach in, chest out?'
'That's for a different pose! Do as I say! Excellent. And quit scowling, Kenshin. Now, smile. Longingly... Good. And then, for the finale, you say...'
'Oh gods,' Kenshin thought frantically as his mind went blank. 'What am I supposed to say?'
"Kenshin..." Kaoru repeated, staring at him.
He took a deep breath and nearly choked because of the way his stomach was protruding. Damn it, Sano...
'Kenshin...' Sano muttered as he waited.
Just as he was about to rush into the room himself in a state of nervous frenzy, he heard Kenshin speak. He held his breath...
'Here goes nothing,' Kenshin thought.
He smiled at Kaoru. Longingly.
Sano strained his ears to listen.
Kaoru and Sano fainted.
END OF PART SEVEN
Tin: Mark-niichan... do you think we should have made