"You did it!" Yahiko pounced on the man currently dropping chopped vegetables into the evening's soup, grinning. "I knew you could do it! Baka Guards..."

"Maa, maa, Yahiko-kun." Kenshin surreptitiously latched onto the boy enough to keep them both from pitching off the edge of the engawa into simmering fish stock. "They're not so unskilled as you might think, that they are not. They are swordsmen, they can sense ki as much as any gaijin can, picking out threats from simple folk about their business. They are simply unprepared for one whose ki can appear harmless as anyone... carrying a bundle of laundry." He felt his smile flicker as he looked past Yahiko's teacher to the red-streaked sky. Soon. Very soon now. "Kaoru-dono. Megumi-dono. Welcome home."

"We're home," Kaoru replied, a trace of pink in her cheeks before she glanced away. "Selenay says the Council's going to be arguing all night, and she'd better let them, or they'll never figure out hanyou are just as much people as gryphons. So Healer Gensai and the girls are staying at the Palace."

"But someone else is not." Kenshin blinked, sensing another familiar ki at the gate. "Sanosuke?"

:Yeah, well, hanyou's out of the bag, right? I might as well get back to working with the Guard. Beats hanging out in Companion's Field watching the next coat of whitewash dry on the stables.: Sano trotted inside, caught the rope tie Kaoru had installed for Megumi, and pulled the gate to. :Besides, Kaoru's going to need a witness besides Megumi when she takes your testimony under Truth Spell, Chief Tostig's going to be testifying in front of the Council half the night while the lords yell at Yamagata, and I figured you'd rather have somebody you know...: White ears came forward. Blue eyes studied the redhead. :Yeah, you'd better have someone you know. Or am I wrong?:

So Sano can sense it. Kenshin wasn't surprised. Some of the stronger youkai could detect the shift before it happened; no doubt the guardian spirits of these lands could as well. "Testimony? Sessha would think the events of this day were well attested, that I would."

Oh, please, not back to sessha again, his darker self grumbled. Even Valdemaran "one" is better than that-

You be quiet. After what sessha did to Kaoru-dono-

Almost did. Almost doesn't count - not when she asked you to stay. Kami, that lovely scent-

Ice water. Snow. Mountain streams in the first melt. No scent but clear, clean snow...

Snow and blood. Kenshin hid a shudder, turned his thoughts away to the quiet simmer of soup.

"Not today." Kaoru shifted her feet, wary. "Something that happened a while ago. In Rethwellan."

Something happened in Rethwellan? Kenshin thought, puzzled. "Sessha takes it you mean something beyond being pursued by fearful gaijin."

"Is that why Chief Tostig was ready to tear the dojo apart?" Yahiko jumped in. "Because of something that happened while Kenshin was wandering?"

"Tostig?" Kenshin shot Kaoru a swift look. Agent of law or not, no Guard should trouble a dojo's calm lightly.

"We're pretty sure we've got that straightened out," the Herald said, carefully casual. "I just need to ask you a few questions under Truth Spell. About a village called Pastun, about six months ago."

Almost six months in Valdemar's reckoning, that was. Oh yes, he remembered that village. Though why anyone in Valdemar should be concerned about a place he'd bought supplies... "Truth Spell. That makes use of the vrondi to touch the one enspelled, ne?" He stirred the savory liquid, drawing in its scent. Already he could taste how it would blend with vinegared rice wrapped around fish fresh from the river. "We should eat, and go inside."

Dinner was quick and relatively quiet, Yahiko first cupping his bowl in his hand to slurp soup as fast as possible, then belatedly glancing at his elders and switching to a grip of thumb and fingers curving around the edge.

Good. His time with the yakuza didn't wear away all his parents' manners. Kenshin smiled ruefully, recalling how many months Hiko had spent breaking him of peasant habits. A samurai had to be ready for attack, always. Cup your bowl from below, and any sudden blow to your hand would send hot soup straight into your face. So one trained to the sword from birth did not cup his bowl, any more than he would stick his chopsticks straight into his mouth instead of lifting morsels to the side.

Hiko's lesson on just why not had involved one light arm-strike, one pair of chopsticks embedded inside his pupil's cheek, and a week of eating with a very sore mouth.

It did work. I'm... not even certain I could take my meals like a villager, anymore...

Dishes were rinsed and away, as the last light faded from the sky.

Very soon.

"You wish to know of Pastun," Kenshin said, ignoring the slow curses of Battousai in his soul.

"The night you were there," Kaoru nodded soberly, pushing back her sleeves. "Let me-"

"A moment, Kaoru-dono. Please." Kenshin shook his head. "Sessha was not there at night. Sessha arrived, dealt with a few of its dwellers for food that would keep on the road, and left out the far end of the village a few hours before sunset. Sessha did not wish to risk staying the night amongst strangers, that I did not."

"You're sure?" Kaoru frowned. "I mean, if you weren't, we'd understand. This was a while ago."

"Six cycles of the moon," Kenshin stated. "On a night like this one, just after the new moon, when the first thin crescent stands like a drawn blade in the sky." He drew in a breath, feeling youki ebb as that moon climbed the star-struck dark. "On a night... exactly like this one."

"Kenshin, you're not making sense-" Kaoru stopped, feeling something prickle at her ki sense. Something's off.

Something's happening.

Lantern light glowed on fiery hair, glimmered as flaming strands were suddenly streaked a darker red. Auburn that flowed and spread as Kenshin closed his eyes and breathed raggedly.

It feels like a storm passing, Kaoru thought, stunned. Like - something's just going away-

Another heartbeat, and Kenshin let out a shuddering breath, blinking dazed violet eyes. "Sessha - always forgets how quiet the world really is..."

As if in a trance, Kaoru moved around the lantern. Picked up an unresisting hand.

A callused, clawless, human hand.

"All of the legends are true, Kaoru-dono." Kenshin gave her a shy, fangless smile. "We are born with a youkai's power, but our bodies are mortal as yours. And from time to time they must rest, powerless as any ningen."

Her lips parted, but no sound came out. He knew- he was-

"This is your human night?" Yahiko jumped in. "But - you should-" His eyes darted about the house, as if he expected onmitsu to come tumbling out through paper screens.

"Sessha cannot think of a safer place to spend it than under a Herald's watch," Kenshin said firmly. "And now you may cast your spell as you will, Kaoru-dono. Sessha's youki is ebbed until the dawn, and will not harm the little vrondi; that it will not."

Her jaw worked. :You knew!:

:Sano picked it up first,: Megumi admitted from outside. :Kenshin's energies started fading just before sunset. It's as if the part of him that's demon just went to sleep.:

:Which is a good thing, or else somebody could argue that he used that to tamper with the vrondi.: Sanosuke's hooves thudded on her engawa; the shoji slid aside with a hiss. :Hang on, let me get in there so we can do this properly-:

Kaoru turned to face the startled Companion, as Sanosuke blinked at Kenshin. "What's wrong?"

:...I saw you...:

Kenshin raised auburn brows.

:Later. I promise. Let's - get this out of the way.:

Kaoru nodded. "Yahiko, stay over there. And stay quiet." She frowned, concentrating.

"Think of a cloud," her instructor had said, years ago. "A cloud with eyes."

The familiar blue light gathered over Kenshin's head, glowing bright against the lantern light. "Now," Kaoru said firmly, "tell me about Pastun. What you saw. What you did. Who you talked to. Everything."

Kenshin inclined his head. "One came to the village called Pastun just before noon, while snow still blew in the wind..."

Human, Sano thought, stunned, as Kenshin carefully outlined the events of that day and night, the vrondi's light holding steady as he spoke. He feels... he is... human.

A human brightly Gifted with Fetching to Sanosuke's senses, no matter how Kenshin tried to hide it.

That's what I felt. That's what Called me.

But how? I felt the Call for days! If he's only a human for one night, and a hanyou the rest of the time...

A hanyou who'd acted very carefully human every minute he was in Pastun. He'd dealt with a dry-goods store for salt, a greengrocer for a nut spread and some of the tender sprouts wise people grew in glass jars to ward off winter ailments, and a baker for stale loaves. Like most Yamato, he'd found out on his own that bread was easier on the stomach than some other local foodstuffs.

"...And one needed that, Kaoru-dono, for one's temper was - uncertain, that day, and one felt it would be wiser to spend the night away from strangers; that I did. But one stopped by a well to wash before leaving, and... I was tired, and it was cold, and for a moment my ki was less than innocent. And that is when I sensed a shock in a passerby's ki, and knew my claws had been seen." Kenshin shrugged wearily. "One can distract. One cannot create illusions, as onmitsu can. Once seen, remains seen. So sessha left. Quickly." A corner of his mouth turned up. "Sessha did not go in a straight line... but it is likely one covered two hours' ride by horseback before sunset. When sessha stopped, and made a hidden camp, and waited for dawn. Then - one napped a little, and set out once more. It took a few days to realize that sighting had drawn any more attention than the others. And then sessha was quite busy, eluding pursuit both by sword and by magic."

"And you never stopped to ask why?" Kaoru gave him a skeptical look.

"They thought sessha a Changechild," Kenshin shrugged. "One was less than interested in risking capture or confrontation to explain otherwise, that I was not. Especially as one's command of Rethwellan was still limited." He hesitated. "And in truth, Kaoru-dono, one was not interested in stopping. Sessha had finally pieced together enough sense of the land and rumors of Haven, and Valdemar, to guess where the clans might have gone. Sessha... I... wanted to go home..."

And still the vrondi glowed, steady as the sun. Sano flicked his ears, rolled an eye toward Kaoru. :Do we need anything more?:

"No." She dismissed the little air elemental with a whisper, picking up pen and paper to write her report. "I'll have copies of this made for Chief Tostig and the Circle. But it's pretty clear this is just a case of wrong place, wrong time." Kaoru gave the swordsman a rueful smile. "You have awful luck, you know that?"

"Sessha's been told so before, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said wryly. "But sessha does not feel unlucky, that I do not. Sessha is here - itai!"

Gripping an obviously human ear, Yahiko growled in pure frustration. "You're human. Why is your hair still red?"

:Some humans do have red hair, kid,: Sano pointed out.

"Not samurai!"

"Not most Yamato," Kenshin stated, detaching Yahiko's fingers. "It is very rare, Sano. Very rare. And... not usually found." He drew in a slow breath. "Save where there are gaijin among one's ancestors. Which, for all the centuries of the Tokugawa Shogunate, has been grounds for exile, or death."

:So you had a reason to fight them.:

"Sessha did not fight them for that." Kenshin shrugged slightly. "A small rinse of dark dye, every night, and one can make it look as though one's hair is always this dark. A useful deception during the Bakumatsu; for unlike most hanyou, whose youki fades but two or three times in a year, this one's human nights return every moon. And if the Shinsengumi had learned that-" He shook his head.

"So you are taiyoukai!" Yahiko grinned, punching him in the shoulder. "I knew it!"

:So that was just dye?: Sano tried not to sigh in frustration. :I suppose it had to be - it was daylight, after all, even if the snow was coming down pretty fast...: But damn it, that Call had felt so real! Kenshin had to have been human... but he couldn't have been... but...

"Sano." Kenshin gave him a measuring look. "Sessha has not dyed my hair since Toba Fushimi."

:Um... I got lost?: Sano offered.

"You were in the Isles?" Yahiko gaped at him.

:Really, really lost.:

Yahiko snorted. "That's not lost, that's-"

"Yahiko." Wood slapped into Kaoru's palm; she held the bokken with casual ease. "Crazy things can happen around Companions. Especially when they," she hesitated, "leave Haven."

:And especially when we go out Searching for people who might help Valdemar,: Sano said bluntly. :You should hear what Kantor went through to get Alberich out of Karse.:

"You must have great skill at concealment," Kenshin observed. "A white horse of your size should have been remarked on in Kyoto."

:I wasn't in Kyoto.:

Kenshin stiffened.

:It was... a forest. High in the mountains; snow was coming down, and I know it wasn't even harvest yet here. And there was something wrong about it. I couldn't sense energy. At all.:

"No ki?" Yahiko shivered. "Creepy... you ever hear about anything like that, Kenshin?"

"The Forest of Barriers." Violet was haunted. "It is... not far from Otsu. You were there?"

:Looking for a human to carry off, yeah. But I couldn't sense the one I was Searching for, or anybody, so I just started looking. And then I found a trail.: Sano fixed the swordsman with a jaundiced eye. :Guess now I know how a person could lose that much blood and survive.:

"One... almost did not."

:But hanyou heal-:

"Hanyou, hai," Kenshin said, almost too low to hear. "But the curse had forced this one to human form, that day. That day, and many days beforehand, though it had not bled in weeks... one supposes it had been biding its time, gathering its strength to leave sessha unguarded in the face of the Oniwabanshuu..."

:So that's why the Call was so intermittent!: Whickering with glee, Sano pounced, clamping red hair between his teeth. :I found you I found you I finally, finally found you-:

"Sessha can't be a Herald!"

"Why not?" Kaoru was on her feet, steam all but rising from her head. "It'd solve everything! You'd be one of us - you'd be safe-"

"I would be in service to your Queen, and that I will not do!"

Kaoru froze, eyes wide and wounded.

"Kaoru... dono," Kenshin whispered. "Please. Please understand." He swallowed dryly. "The first principle of Hiten Mitsurugi: the sword swung in my name is wielded to protect the innocents of the world."

A killing style... meant to protect? If he hadn't been holding red hair, Sano would have shaken his head. And why are you surprised, Companion-baka? You were Called for this man. You never would have been, if his heart wasn't pure...

"But Heralds-" Kaoru started.

"Heralds serve the Monarch, and Valdemar. Hiten Mitsurugi must never serve any power." Reaching behind him, Kenshin gingerly pried his hair from white lips. "Never again."

:I think I understand.: Sano nudged the swordsman with his head. :I could still Choose you.:


:I could,: Sano went on deliberately. :But I won't.: Even if it hurt. Even if it broke his heart. This man deserved to be a Herald, and Companions had gotten around their Chosen's oaths before... :You're hanyou. I'm - well, you know enough to know our powers come from different ends of the spectrum. If I Chose you, our bond would have to do what Megumi's does to Kaoru; suppress your youki. Forever.

:Only that's half of what you are. It's your Gift, your magic, and you're never happier than when you're using it to pound some dangerous idiot into the ground. I won't take that from you. Ever.:

"You are... truly a friend," Kenshin said softly. "Sessha cannot understand... how you could see any of what passed in the Forest of Barriers, and still be a friend."

:What I saw?: Sano snorted. :I saw a fifteen-year-old - if you were that old! - fighting for his life against a fighter three times his size, who'd already used underlings and blasting powder to tear the kid apart! I saw you trying to save yourself. I saw you trying to save her! And damn it, if she wanted so badly to live - she was a Mindspeaker, I Heard her! She could have been your eyes...:

"You... saw...?"

:Stuck in a damn chuugumo's web. Yeah.:

Kenshin was shaking his head. "It was my fault-"

Stupid stubborn baka rurouni- :Fine. You want to be guilty? Be that way. Forget justifiable - which it was, only a lunatic jumps between two people with blades. Call it accidental death. Hells, call it manslaughter. You've been doing, what, ten years of community service since Toba Fushimi? That's enough in any sane kingdom. Sentence over. Quit it already!:


:You heard me. Hey, Jou-chan! I think I'm sensing a serious guilt overload here. Could cause all kinds of nasty things. Depression. Paranoia. Odd wandering tendencies at inopportune moments. You're the local Herald. When you going to drag this guy to a MindHealer?: Privately, he whispered, :Get ready, Jou-chan, I think we've almost got him.:

"Sano!" Kenshin's face was almost as pink as his gi. Sessha doesn't deserve-

:Ah HA!: Three minds pounced on the errant thought, Megumi backing Kaoru's grab. :Gotcha!:

Kenshin blanched. Raised hands, as if to ward their thoughts away.

Kaoru snatched his hand first. "I know it hurts. I know it hurts. Please, Kenshin, just try. Try letting a little energy through. Just enough for us to hear you. For you to hear us." She chafed his palm between her hands, warming trembling fingers. "Whatever happened in that Forest, it tore up your channels. Some of them you Healed, but you didn't even try to fix your Mindspeaking. I guess I can understand that... but you're safe now." She grabbed the rurouni's gi and shook him. "Kenshin no baka! Let us help you!"


"Um... whatever you're up to, busu, I think it'd work better if he were conscious?" Yahiko observed.

Kaoru looked at her fist-full of lumpy-headed rurouni, and blushed.

And this is all I've got complete at the moment. I have some fragments with Saitou, but they'll have to wait until RL and Murphy stop double-teaming me with football bats...

Maa, maa - "Now, now"; easy, calm down.

Ne? - isn't that right?