I'm back! Sorry this took so long, folks. Just a warning, this chapter is where we start to get into the PG-13 rating.

Disclaimer: Starlight, star bright, first star I see… *gets hit with a rotten tomato* Okay, okay! I don't own Rurouni Kenshin!

~~~

"Protect her."

Why did Hiko have to use those words? Just two simple words, but they triggered memories to one of the heaviest burdens that Kenshin bore.

Kenshin's mind carried him back to a small office, the sole piece of furniture in the room being a chair and desk covered in documents concerning the matters of war. He stared across the desk into a face made weary by years of countless battles, yet with eyes still strong and lit by the fiery passion of belief in one's cause.

The owner of said eyes had been giving him a somewhat unwonted assignment. Instead of the usual disposal of a high-ranking officer or politician, he was being given bodyguard duty. He was not happy about this particular assignment. Usually he would have refused without a second thought, but the look of desperation in his superior's eyes had begged him to listen to the request. Kenshin had made it clear long ago that he disliked anything other than the usual assignments. He would not be asked to do this unless his leader had no other choice.

 "Her name is Tomoe Yukishiro. She's defecting. You have to be careful; she has family that she doesn't want involved, but she thinks one of them could be catching on. Just get her back here without being seen and we'll take of getting her to a safe house. You don't need me to tell you that we almost never get defectors these days. I cannot stress enough how valuable this girl is to us. Protect her."

Simple enough.

She had met him at the appointed location, the smell of white plum perfume preceding her. As she approached he had seen the light glow of her species, the Hantoumei, enveloping her solemn form like violet flame. It was a glow that so often marked his enemies, his targets. It was odd to be protecting someone who bore the mark that usually resigned them to death by his hand.

To this day, he still didn't know why he had taken the assignment. He could have refused. He should have listened to the feeling of foreboding that was setting off alarms in his mind. But at the time, it had seemed like nothing more than an assassin-turned-bodyguard meeting a charge that he didn't want.

"Protect her."

Why had Hiko used those words? What game are you trying to play, Shishou?

His dreams were still plagued by that night. Immediately after he met his charge there had been a surprise attack. The enemy had known of the meeting place; there was no other explanation for the nearly perfect timing and coordination of the ambush. Even now, all Kenshin had to do was close his eyes and he could feel the concussion bomb going off right in front of him. Somehow, he managed to keep to his feet even as his senses were thrown into pained chaos. Stunned by the explosion, he didn't see the approaching attacker until the Hantoumei warrior was nearly on top of them. He grabbed a hold of Tomoe's arm in an effort to pull her out of the way. One heave of his leathery wings jerked them both backwards several meters. They stopped only as his reverse momentum sent him crashing heavily into a wall. Her body had continued flying forwards, slamming into him and shoving his left hand upwards. One of his own claws raked across his cheek, leaving a long gash from his chin to his eye that immediately began to weep thick, dark blood.

The warrior was still coming. Kenshin shoved Tomoe behind him. She clung frantically to the side of the dirty building in an effort to keep her balance. The Hantoumei's blade came down in a high arc. Kenshin met the sword with his own, causing their two blades to interlock. A flick of his wrist separated their swords, and another quick motion sent a stab deep into his unprepared opponent's heart. Blood spurted over Kenshin's sword, splattering onto his hands and chest. He paid it no attention. He had long ago learned that his job required that he not to allow himself to notice things like that.

Five more warriors fell before there was a slight pause in the attack. Kenshin saw his opening. Sword still grasped tightly in his right hand, he wrapped his left arm around the girl's waist, preparing to flee. Under normal circumstances he would have stayed and fought until every one of his opponents was dead, but tonight the safety of his charge came first. He had to get her out of there. After a quick grunt of effort they were in the air, Kenshin straining against their combined weights to get above the buildings. He could feel the fear radiating from the girl's body, yet when he glanced at her face her expression was perfectly impassive, as if she was used to being carried through the air with only a blood slicked arm keeping her from plunging to her death. Outwardly, she hid her fear well. Respect for the girl flickered in the back of his mind. "Don't pass out," he grunted at her, "If you pass out you could go transparent and you'd fall." She only nodded, tightening her grip around his neck.

They almost made it. They were quickly approaching the edge of the highest building, a marker of relative safety, when Kenshin heard a slight noise above them. He looked up- straight into a second bomb, dropped by another Hantoumei standing at the building's edge. His vision exploded into painful colors and the steady rhythm of his wings faltered. Vaguely, he felt the girl slipping from his grasp. His grip tightened on her clothing and he tried to pull her back towards himself, twisting his body around, trying to get himself underneath her to protect her from the worst of the coming impact. It came sooner than he expected and he failed to get completely twisted around, landing instead on his side, the breath knocked from him. Tomoe's shoulders crashed heavily onto the one arm he had managed to keep underneath her. A choked gurgle made him open his eyes. His vision swam and he struggled against the pain, forcing his eyes to come into focus. He stiffened in horror when he finally realized what he was seeing. The girl had landed on her back. Kenshin's right hand had somehow managed to keep its grip on his sword during the explosion, and it had swung around as they fell. The cold, bloodstained metal was now buried deep in her chest, the blade scraping the ground beneath her. Blood trickled from her mouth as she drew in a last ragged gasp. Kenshin stared at her dumbly, stunned. His own heart seemed to stop as her heartbeat slowed, her eyes sliding closed as she died.

Shouts drawing quickly nearer finally worked their way into his consciousness. Kenshin snatched his hand from under Tomoe's body as if the touch burned him. He stood swiftly, becoming aware of a second cut stinging his cheek, intersecting the first one. Some flying shrapnel must have hit him sometime during his fall. He jerked his sword from the girl's chest, flinching involuntarily as her torso rose with it before flopping lifelessly back to the ground as the blade came free. Kenshin lifted the blade quickly, preparing to fling the blood and gore off of the metal, when he froze. Bringing the dripping blade close to his own arm, he inspected it carefully.

His bright amber eyes went dull. Tomoe's blood was a slightly lighter shade than that of the other warriors he had felled. It blended perfectly with the red tone of his Shifters skin.

The shouts suddenly grew louder. Their hunters had found him.

Kenshin drew in a sharp breath, shaking himself free of the memories. His hand rose to the scar on his cheek. It takes a lot to leave a visible scar on a Shifter. The fact that the scar was still there was evidence of just how deeply he had been wounded. His hand lowered again to pick at the hem of the bright fuchsia t-shirt the human girl had loaned him. Not his color of choice, but his own shirt was in shreds and this oversized woman's tee was the only thing the girl had that even came close to fitting him. He glanced at the girl out of the corner of his eye. She was staring at the road, shoulders and hands tense, studiously ignoring him. He sighed and let his hand drop to rest on the sword propped up against his seat.

"Protect her."

 "I don't believe I ever got your name, Miss…?" Kaoru jumped, startled by the question and somewhat thrown off by the politeness of it. Her passenger had been acting like a complete jerk up until now, hardly speaking a word while they reloaded the truck, then falling into a moody silence after they had gotten underway.

 "We were never properly introduced," he explained at her continued silence.

"It's Kaoru."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Kaoru. I'm Kenshin."

"Yes, Mr. Seijuro told me your name. And you don't need the miss; just Kaoru is fine."

He nodded and looked away. Kaoru flinched mentally. Weren't you the one just accusing him of being rude, you idiot? Now he's probably going to start brooding again. Dang it, this guy is creepy when he's quiet. She hadn't expected the conversation to continue and so was slightly startled when, after a slight pause, he asked another question.

"Do you have a hair tie?"

She blinked, trying to make the mental jump in response to the second unexpected question and topic. After the conversation suffered another awkward pause, she realized that he was looking at her expectantly, waiting for an answer. "Oh! Ah, there should be one in the door pocket."

She watched out of her peripheral vision as he dug around in the pocket for a moment before finding a plain tie. Using his fingers as a makeshift brush, he pulled his hair up into a high ponytail.

The thick silence descended again.

~~~

No sane person would dare brave the streets of New Kyoto at night. Even the city's few well-lit areas were not protected from all of the many miscreants that prowled the night streets, looking for blood or other mischief. For anyone who knew Sanosuke Sagara, this danger alone would have explained why he was out in one of the darkest parts of the city. It would have explained why he was slightly out of breath, why he was running, and why there were spots of blood dotting his clothing, standing out in sharp contrast on the otherwise white material. However, it would not have explained the troubled light in his usually mischievous eyes, nor the nearly frantic body language that was so different than his eternally cocky manner.

Sano's chase came to a stumbling halt as he reached an intersection. Damn that woman! Where is she? His attention was caught by a faint meaty thud, immediately followed by chittering laughter to his right. He sprinted toward the sound, the knee-length material of his open vest billowing behind him. It took him mere seconds to find the source of the sounds, a swarm of creatures that looked like oversized bats with beady eyes and sharp little fangs. They were the scavengers of large cities, finishing the mischief that other, bigger villains started. The creatures were drawn to trouble like vultures to carnage. There were over a dozen of them, shrieking and laughing and hovering in a grotesque cloud around an unmoving, humanoid-sized form. The knot of dread grew in his stomach. His fears were confirmed as he finally caught a good view of the subject of their torment.

Shit.

He charged forward with a roar of fury, his fist connecting with the skull of the first creature he got to. The vile thing went flying into a wall.

The shrieks rose in pitch as the semi-intelligent creatures left what they had been tormenting to come after this new quarry. The next creature flew at Sano, the knife in its gnarled claw glinting. He grabbed the thing by its wing and flung it into one of its comrades, the knife stabbing the second one in the chest. They crashed to the ground in a tangle of wings and flying blood. Sano grabbed the next two and bashed their heads together, letting them fall to the ground as well.

Sanosuke snarled. He usually enjoyed a good fight, but enough things had gone wrong tonight that he was simply not in the mood. He hated these things. They were easily dispatched, but it took a while to get rid of them because they traveled in confusing swarms. He peered through worriedly through the mass of wings and claws toward the form that was now lying alone at the end of the alley. It was no longer being attacked, but it had not moved, either. A prick on his back alerted him to where one of the parasites had latched on to him with its claws. He reached around and snatched an ankle, tearing the thing loose. Another careened around behind him, managing to grab the dangling tails of his red headband. Within moments it had fallen to the ground, dead of a snapped spine. After a few more seconds that seemed like hours to the worried Sano, enough of the creatures lay dead to convince the few survivors to go find an easier meal.

Sano could see the body lying unmoving at the end of the alley. Cursing fluently in a wide variety of languages, he ran up and knelt beside the still form, checking the neck for a pulse. Breathing a sigh of relief at the steady thump under his fingers, he tapped the face roughly. "Fox? Hey Megumi, wake up." No response. "Fox!"

He had to get her out of here. He scooped her up, cradling her against his chest, this time cursing his own stupidity. The two of them had been heading home from an evening visit to one of Megumi's patients when a burly, scar-covered human man had stepped from a side alley and challenged him. Thinking he would be able to defeat the guy easily enough, Sano had told Megumi to wait behind him while he strode forward to give the brute a good beating. But as soon as the guy blocked his first punch with ease, Sano realized that the fight would not be over quite as quickly as he had expected. And when he had heard Megumi's scream and turned to see her being carried into an alley by a creature moving too fast to identify the species, he had not been able to get away from his opponent to help her. His fight continued on for several agonizing moments. It finally ended when Sano trapped one of his opponent's punches in his own hand and knocked him unconscious with a solid head-butt, getting some blood on himself from the guy's broken nose in the process. By that time, Megumi and her captor were long gone and he had spent several more frantic minutes searching the alleys before finally finding her.

Megumi finally began stirring in his arms, fox-like ears twitching back and forth as she rose from the depths of unconsciousness.

He didn't pause in his trek back home until a slender clawed hand reached around his shoulder to give a sharp tug on a tail of his red bandana. "You can put me down now, Rooster," her annoyed tone drifted up to him, the usually sultry purring of her voice lowered to a near growl.

He finally slowed his long strides to grin down at her. "Hey, Fox. About time you woke up. Were you planning on sleeping out here the whole night?"

Pretty charcoal eyes glared up at him in annoyance. "Back off, Rooster. As I recall, a certain someone told me to wait behind him because 'this will only take a second'."

That elicited a wince. "It shouldn't have taken that long. And they cheated, having another guy hiding. Cowards, goin' after the woman like that…" He broke down into unintelligible grumbling for a moment before locking eyes with her, voice rising in anger. "Kuso, Megumi, you could've been hurt bad!"

"I'm fine, Sano."

"Fine? You were unconscious, Fox."

"That little rat knocked me out right after he grabbed me. I didn't even get a chance to figure out what species he was. Now put me d-"

"How'd you know that it was a he then?"

Her expression split into a positively foxy smile, exposing two small canines.

"Ah, never mind, I don't think I want to know," Sano balked. A sudden frown crossed his features. "He didn't do anything else to you, did he?"

Her smiles could turn into glares so fast it made his head spin. "I don't believe so, no thanks to you. Perhaps if you would put me down I could determine that for certain."

He shrugged and lowered the arm holding her legs, letting her slide out of his embrace. As soon as she was on her feet she immediately began smoothing out her appearance with pristinely kept clawed fingers. She shook out her tail and hair, trying her best to get the dirt out of the soft fur and shiny black tresses. Sano couldn't resist. He reached out and tweaked one of the fuzzy rust colored ears that adorned her head, grinning as the ear flicked away automatically. "There somebody around you're trying to impress, Fox?"

She jerked her attention away from checking the multiple hidden pockets of her doctors uniform, a sharp retort on her lips. It died as her hand closed around a slip of folded paper in one of the more obviously placed pockets. She rarely used those outer spaces because they were much too easy a target for pickpockets. She pulled her hand out of her clothing, frowning at the crinkled note.

"Sano… I didn't have this before."

"Waddya mean, Fox?"

"I mean, you stupid Rooster, that I didn't put this here. Someone else did."

"The thug?"

"It would help explain why he didn't do anything -else- to me."

"What's it say?"

She unfolded the crumpled scrap of paper. Her tail began pumping back and forth in confusion as she read the short letter. "Fox?" Sano's voice carried a hint of concern at her puzzled expression. She turned the note around and held it still as he read the terse note.

'Do not help the girl. Her ward will be ours.'

His brow furrowed in confusion. "What the hell does that mean?"

Chapter notes:

This is actually only about half of what I had intended to put in this chapter but I wanted to get this posted, so the other stuff will be coming in the next one.

Just to make sure this is clear, Megumi is not human. I haven't quite decided on a name for her species yet (which I need to do, because several more characters will be this species- argh, make a decision, Sachi!) But if you're having trouble picturing the species, think Inuyasha with a fox or wolf-like tail.

A big thank you to you wonderful reviewers!

Riverwood- Hehe, glad you like the Shifters, because there will be a lot more of them! (Kenshin is the main character, after all)

Unique-starfish- Thanks again for pointing out that problem with the chapter order. *smacks self* I'm glad you liked the chapter! Bummer about not being able to write until summer… I look forward to seeing you update then!