---------------

Kaoru

"Not here." Colonel O'Neill visibly reins in whatever he was planning to say. "Is he safe?"

"I don't know," I say baldly. "Is he?"

And I watch O'Neill flinch. Maybe I'm enjoying this a little too much?

Naah, a little voice that sounds entirely too much like Sanosuke chirps in my head. Give it to him good, Jo-chan!

Which might be easier if Sanosuke were actually here. I thought about calling him; he'll be coming over here this afternoon anyway, and a near six foot, wiry, supernaturally tough martial artist is a lot more impressive to the average soldier than a five-three female kendo instructor.

But O'Neill is not your average soldier, and for goodness' sakes, I am a master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. The day I can't handle three Air Force types - keh.

And if I have to handle them, if we've misjudged their intelligence and common sense that much... then I may as well pull one of Kenshin's tricks out of my sleeve and concuss them all before they realize I've even moved.

It startled the heck out of me the first time it happened, sparring Kenshin; just as it stunned Yahiko after he had time to pick apart his duel with Kenji. Just one breath when I felt everything slow around me, and my sword moved light as the wind....

Hiko Seijuro, damn his arrogant hide, just smirked when we tracked him down at his kiln and asked him about it. You live inside a Hiten Mitsurugi master's protection, Kaoru-san. It has consequences.

Which I swear is probably as close as that egotistical, overbearing, conceited master swordsman will get to admitting to my husband that he had no idea Hiten Mitsurugi was passed down from hanyou to hanyou. I don't know when that bit of lore was lost, but apparently Hiko's master either never knew or never told his student he was a neko-hanyou. And our Hiko never realized the little redhead he picked up as a student had dragon's blood in his veins. He just thought Kenshin "felt right".

I wonder how many pots Hiko broke when someone finally got it through his head that the hermit potter wasn't aging?

I can't call on the dragon's speed often. It'll likely wipe me out for a good few hours if I do call it. And I'm still no match for Kenshin's quickness.

But if I want these people down, they'll be down.

I see O'Neill read that in my eyes. He doesn't look worried, exactly. But concerned. Definitely concerned.

"I believe she is displeased with your actions, O'Neill," Teal'c rumbles.

"Ya think?" O'Neill mutters. "How bad did he look when he got here?"

"Bad," I say flatly. "Think Pearl Harbor. Dachau. Nagasaki."

"You were there?" Samantha bites her lip.

"No." Thankfully. I've read descriptions. Talked to some of the survivors, on our few visits to Japan. It's more than enough. The only thing that saves my sanity sometimes is the knowledge that no one - no one - really had any idea what radioactivity truly did to human flesh.

And given what Hiko and Saitou told me of how our homeland itself seemed to go mad, of tales of cannibalism, unholy experiments, women on all sides forced into the most degrading prostitution - I can't help but be guiltily glad for Kenshin's red hair.

He could stand being called old-fashioned. He could take being frowned on for carrying a banned sword. He could even endure being hated as the Hitokiri Battousai.

But as the twentieth century rolled on, the insult that came more and more often was gaijin.

It's when they started calling me that, for my blue eyes, that Kenshin admitted it was time to go.

Past is past. Let it go. "I don't know what happened. I don't know if you had a good reason. Right now, I don't care." I glare at O'Neill. "You hurt him. I've picked up warriors off the battlefield in better shape! I've seen my husband-"

I choke off the words. It hurts. It'll always hurt.

Use the pain to save other lives, my beloved's voice whispers out of memory. That is why Hitokiri Battousai is still alive in the Meiji Era.

"I saw my husband look like that," I whisper through threatening tears, "When we found what was left of our son."

I remember the ache of fear as Aoshi told us who had snared our little one, and why. The Illuminati, a group of arrogant bastards whose tradition reaches back to at least to 9th century Europe, bent on the twin goals of world rule and extending their own lives by any means possible. Including the capture and draining of magical creatures' essence, to create the potions that hold back Time.

And a hanyou's children... a dragon's children... are so very magical.

I remember the scream of panic down my nerves as we hit that compound in one fast, silent rush; mother's instinct, shrieking at me that my baby was hurt, my baby was dying. I remember blood, and cold flesh, and the endless black grief as we realized we were just too late.

And I remember violet lost in one terrible blaze of amber, and the scream of steel as my own sword flew free....

Aoshi won't talk about the rest of that night. Misao's a little more helpful, but most of what the little kunoichi remembers is one scared Oniwabanshu leader tossing her out the door of the Illuminati lab before twin blasts of ki shattered every bit of glass in thirty feet. After that, there was some gunfire, a few screams, and Aoshi's hands shaking as he set the whole place up to go when we were... finished.

Kenshin had to show me how to clean off my sword.

"I think you're lucky," I manage, forcing back the memories. "Daniel's not going to kill you." The thought probably hasn't crossed Daniel's mind. There's darkness in that young man, yes, just as there is within everyone. But whatever touch of oddness or magic lets him sense ki, he doesn't have the pure, predatory viciousness you find in hanyou. "I also think you ought to be pounded into the ground like a tent peg. So give me an excuse. Please."

Wisely, O'Neill shuts up.

"Kamiya Kaoru." Teal'c inclines his head, black wool cap as gracious as a samurai's topknot. "Samantha Carter and I wish to speak with Daniel Jackson, so we might plan our strategy to deal with the events we now know to have occurred."

"We didn't know." Sam shoots a dark look toward her colonel. "There's a lot we didn't know."

It doesn't sound like a lie. And there's a limit to how much salt you can pour into a wound if you want it to heal. "Then come on."

Trailing military officers, I start into the woods behind the dojo. Not heading toward Kenshin's practice ground; if he's still there, Daniel's in no shape to talk yet. But there's another place he might be. Up this way, where the little rivulet that comes off granite skirls into a shallow creek next to a patch of ground too full of rocks to have much tree cover.

"Hyah!"

And there's my husband, dancing steel through air.

No matter how often I see him practice, it still takes my breath away. Kenshin's katas are pure, precise; every move so perfectly placed you can see the opponents that exist, and fall, only in his mind's eye.

Upward slash across the chest, under his enemy's too-slow sword. Pivot and turn to block another's strike from behind, continuing the slash to tear open a throat. Hilt-strike and a saya tangling a war fan and a swift dodge that I feel taunting his enemy's Gatotsu....

Other styles may rely on strength. Hiten Mitsurugi is precision, height, and blinding speed.

A clean, high leap-

Ryuu Tsui Sen and battoujutsu, before he ever touches the ground.

Kami-sama, he's beautiful.

---------------

Sam

God, he's terrifying.

My feet are frozen to the ground, refusing to carry me one step closer to the blade currently slashing the wind to pieces. I've seen so-called primitive weapons in action before. Arrows, spears, axes, slingshots - I think we've had them all headed our way at one point or another. Humans may be slaves of the Goa'uld across the galaxy, but they still work out ways to kill each other. And us. Some of them are pretty good at it, too.

But I've never seen anything like what Himura's doing.

Shadow and flame-flicker and the swift, clean arc of steel. Violet eyes watching the whole battlefield at once, sparks of amber in their depths. Body and sword moving as one as he strikes, dodges, tumbles, strikes again.

Fine hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. Chill sweat prickles down my spine. The pure reptile part of my brain is screaming Run! Now!

A slightly more evolved section of my brain is emitting mammal-whimpers of distress, recognizing that fuck it, it's too damn late to run. The predator is here and it's fast and it sees me - and if it wants me for lunch, I am toast.

And what's left of my higher brain functions are just watching, impaled between horror and wonder, as Death dances with the wind.

He slows. Draws the blade once more through air. Snaps his right wrist, twisting the blade a quarter-turn counterclockwise.

My brain paints in blood, shaking red off the blade, god, so much blood-

Steel slides back into its sheath, and I remember to breathe again.

Feet and legs vote for getting while the getting's good. Hind-brain agrees, narrowly overruled by my conscious mind's iron clamp on my fear. I will not desert my superior officer. I will not.

But God, I am regretting ever, ever coming near this man....

"The first principle of Hiten Mitsurugi," Kenshin says quietly, still not looking at us. "The sword I raise is lifted in defense of all people."

Gack, my brain yelps.

"If you had said from the first you feared invasion from the stars, O'Neill," Kenshin turns toward us, eyes cool violet, "We might have saved a great deal of time."

---------------

Jack

Erk.

He knows.

He knows.

How Kenshin knows, I don't know. It's not the guy in glasses making himself unobtrusive against a maple over there to my right. I know Daniel. I know he knows what classified means. He may have walked Catherine Langford straight through our front gate, but she was in the Stargate program years before I was. She knew we had an interplanetary gateway.

So someone else told him. Who, I'd better find out. Soon.

Right after I deal with the fact that Kenshin knows... and now Kaoru does too. I heard her gasp. That wasn't a "that's impossible" gasp, it was an "are you sure" gasp. Trust me, after a couple years dealing with alien tech, alternate realities, and Apophis refusing to stay dead way too many times, you learn the difference.

He knows, and he told his wife in front of us. Which means he wants all of us here to know they know.

And it'll probably mean a lot more than that, once I get a chance to breathe and think it out. I know that, just from seeing him practice.

I'm not sure how much Sam got out of Kenshin's little display, besides a spine-tingling case of the heebie-jeebies. Which, to be honest, Teal'c and I also got. Himura may be all small bones, girl-slender muscles and innocent eyes, but those moves are Death pure as Tek'mateh Bra'tac in a serious bad mood.

Purer. Fast. Efficient. Precise. Every slice of steel calculated to take someone down or out.

Drop Himura Battousai in the middle of a squad of angry Marines, I'd lay even odds he'd walk out without a scratch.

That's not just sword-work. That's thinking. Thinking in the middle of one of the worst possible environments for a mind to work in ever known to man; face-to-face combat, tasting your enemy's breath, every blow and scream jarring right through your fingers into your brain. Himura can kill and think.

I may have finally met somebody who can out-tactic me and Teal'c put together.

Well, damn.

Reality check, O'Neill, part of my brain pokes at me. You wanted someone out there who could stop the Goa'uld if they ever got past the Mountain, right?

Oh yeah. I just didn't believe anybody like that really existed.

"Daniel!" Sam pounces on our errant archaeologist, all but giving him a full body check before she looks in his eyes. "Oh, Daniel... I'm so sorry. We didn't know. We didn't - oh, god...."

"It's all right, Sam." Danny sounds tired, but together. Mostly. "We're going to get through this. I promise."

"I, too, must render my apologies, Daniel Jackson." Teal'c inclines his head, formal as he would be to Bra'tac. "I had thought my oath to you discharged. Now I know it is not. I will not be so swift to lay my debt aside again."

Himura clears his throat quietly. Gives me a look, and a tilt of fiery hair.

I can take a hint. Especially when it's pounded in with a sledgehammer.

"So," I say as the two of us make a stealthy retreat back toward the dojo, leaving Kaoru to look after my team, "You going to tell me how bad I screwed up?"

"That, you already know." Kenshin's voice isn't edged, but there's no give in it either. "Why should I tear the wound deeper?"

Somehow, that makes it worse.

The violet gaze brushes mine, just a few flecks of amber glowing in their depths. "Though had I any idea last night that you had made such an unfortunate miscalculation of judgement, I might have Ryuu Tsui Sen-ed you a few feet closer to China."

I don't want to know. I really don't want to know. "Ryuu-?"

"Dragon Mallet Strike." Kenshin's hand mimes one of those overhead blows.

I can't help but flinch. This guy leaps over twenty feet into the air and makes it look like nothing. Imagine that coming down on top of you, gravity pulling his sword stronger than any human muscles could slice it down. "What does that do with a real blade?"

"I believe you can imagine it, that I do."

I wish I couldn't. "Who told you about the Mountain?"

"Who told me about your Stargate, and the war you have started through it, is my concern." Kenshin sounds slightly amused. "Or should I say, the war you rediscovered. For soon or late, this foe would have found us again, that they would. And if late, the way of the sword might have died out of the world, and any resistance would be crippled to the core."

Yeah; we might have ended up like the Tollans, so dependent on our tech that we wouldn't know how to fight the Goa'uld without it....

And he just slipped the subject right out from under me again. Damn, he's good. "What goes on in NORAD is classified. What goes on under NORAD-"

"Concerns not only this continent, but the whole of the world." No smile on Kenshin's face. Not now. "Why do you cripple those who would fight by your side?"

"It's not that simple."

A slight nod. "Life never is."

"You saw World War II," I persist. "You know what kind of double-dealing and sabotage goes on in a war, even here in America-"

And I feel like checking my tongue for boot-prints.

Consider the cultural background, Daniel's always telling us. Just because you're standing in the same place, doesn't mean you see the same thing.

Kenshin and Kaoru are Japanese. If they were here in America, odds are they were stuck in a camp at Manzanar. Or someplace worse, given that Kaoru's got a temper and Kenshin is just plain dangerous.

"Kaoru and I spent much of that war rurouni, with our children." Kenshin brushes back red bangs. "Most thought us half-breed Indians wandered from the Four Corners, not Issei, or even Nisei." He smiles faintly. "It helps that I have some skill in medicines. Few will turn down a healer when there is true need."

Some skill, huh? Is that like saying you're just a little good with a sword?

But he's left me an opening, and damned if I'm not going to take it. "Is that when you lost your son?"

"No." Cool. Abrupt. "Kanaye was born later."

And murdered later still, I see in those dark eyes. "I'm kind of surprised," I say carefully. I'm walking on lava crust here, and I know it. But I've got to know. "The way Kaoru looked, I would have thought nothing short of a bomb could've hid the bodies."

"Kaoru acted as any mother would."

Any mother who's a master of the sword. Pure, protective rage; that's what I saw in her eyes. That first red heat where you don't see human beings anymore. You just see enemy, and pain, and hate. Whoever got Kanaye, she got him. Cold. "How many were there?"

"Together, we faced thirty-seven." Amber burns at me. "And that is enough."

Mrs. O'Neill didn't raise any idiots. I bite off and how many of those did you get before it ever gets to my lips. I already know the answer is most of them.

After all, he's the guy who kept count.

"At least you have someone else to blame," I mutter.

"Do I?" Kenshin shakes his head. "He died because I lowered my guard. Because I did not believe my child would do something... foolish." Small shoulders sink in a sigh. "I was wrong."

I didn't believe Charlie would pick up the gun....

"Dads are supposed to be perfect," I say quietly. "There's this wonderful little person who looks up at us like we saved the universe, and we're not supposed to let them down. Ever."

"Hai."

I swallow. "But at the end of the day we're just people. We try, and we love them... but we're just people." Even if we can cross the galaxy in a single step. Even if we can dance steel with the wind.

"Death is easy," Kenshin says, just as quiet. "Life is as fragile as a fluttering swallowtail, and as precious." Violet looks up at me. "But a butterfly can only live on an open hand. Close your fist about it, and it will perish; that it will."

They say about the best swords, you never know you've been cut until you start to bleed.

All I know is I feel a shock in my heart as Himura steps back and bows. And retreats a few careful, respectful steps, before turning his back to go look after his wife. Or maybe protect my team from his wife. I'm not sure anymore.

I'm not sure about much of anything anymore.

I find a solid oak and lean on it, trying to catch my breath. Is that what I did to Daniel?

Stifled him. Locked him in and locked him out; kept him away from civilians because he's SGC, wouldn't listen to him in the field because he's still a civilian, not a soldier, and never mind he's got more experience than half the Guard reservists I've met. I'm the colonel; I knew better than he did when it came to keeping him safe from bad guys with guns, and bad guys with glowing eyes, and bad guys with twisted senses of morality like Archangel....

Clue, Jack. If Daniel wanted safe, he'd never have gone through the 'Gate the first time.

It's the innocent look, I swear it is. You see that, and you hear the absent-minded chatter about Egyptian influence on Mesopotamian writing systems, and you notice the sidearm on his hip is the last thing on his mind, and you think he's an idiot.

And you miss what's really happening. Which is that Daniel walks into dangerous people like an EOD specialist confronting a live round; both eyes open, trying to figure out if it's a bomb or a dud or too unstable to do anything but run. And he smiles, and he fumbles with words, and he tries to figure out how to soothe arrogant tempers... and every last bit of it is aimed so that we never have to draw our guns.

I'd take that skill over a grenade launcher any day. You can replace a grenade launcher. No one can replace Daniel.

Believe me, the general's looked. Partly to make the upper brass happy; partly to try and get Daniel some backup and deal with the backlog of artifacts and writings we've picked up along the way. That's how we snagged Major Mary Roscoe out of an intelligence language center. That's how we've gotten half a dozen soldiers and airmen with odd scientific and craft skills, from a sergeant who pokes around megalithic rocks to a private who's written newsletter articles on fourteenth-century battlefield medicine. But there's nobody out there with the kind of linguistic and cultural skills Dr. Daniel Jackson has....

And my blood runs cold.

We can't replace Daniel. General Hammond can't replace Daniel.

And now I know why we haven't been looking for Sha'uri.

---------------

Daniel

"I'm sorry."

I pour Jack a cup of coffee, freshen my own as I stand in my apartment kitchen. "I know."

Jack cradles ceramic in his hands, staring down into the rich steam. "I didn't plan... I just...."

I wait.

"I didn't want to hurt you."

You never do. Well, almost never. There's been once or twice... never mind. "I know."

"I just didn't think we could be that lucky," Jack says in a rush. "The universe isn't fair. Fate doesn't play nice. I'm dead in other universes. Hell, you're dead in a lot of them. We saw her die, and just because she was alive in that one place-" Knuckles clench on white glaze. He takes one hand off the cup, deliberately loosens up his fingers. "The world's not fair."

Especially a world where you lost Sara, and I might have a chance to get Sha'uri back, I think. But I don't say it. I'm not sure Jack's looked at himself that deeply. I'm not sure I want him to.

I'm not the only one in the SGC on shaky mental ground. I know it, the general knows it, and deep down, I think Jack knows it too.

Thirty days of combat. That's all any reasonable human being can take before they start to crack. Before you have to pull them out of the line of battle, away from the front, to stop and rest and shake away the terror. Thirty days.

Which, come to think of it, was about as long as the typical European medieval siege was supposed to last, before a knight's term of service was up and their obligation to their own lands outweighed that to their king. Hmm. Maybe they knew something we didn't....

Anyway. We're not usually in combat for thirty days at a time, thank gods. But there's nowhere we can go to get away from the fight. Not even on Earth. The NID saw to that.

Have I mentioned I'm really starting to not like those people?

Michael's putting together a plan. Trust him.

I do, even though the thought of an Archangel-inspired plan makes my stomach want to do flip-flops. I've got no real clue what Archangel and Aoshi kept talking about after Kenshin and I left, but I have this gnawing suspicion it will be wild, crazy, lethal, and the NID will get it in the teeth.

That kind of feels... nice.

Time to throw the dice. "I want to be able to talk to Archangel."

"Daniel, nobody's stopping you from-" Jack stops. Looks at me.

I stare right back, trying to keep my face calm while my guts are busy tying themselves in knots. You heard me, Jack. I said Archangel, not Michael. "The Tok'ra have been after the Goa'uld for two thousand years, and all they've done is keep the System Lords as one loose confederation of squabbling powers. A group that only pulls together to face the Asgaard... or the Hivemind. The Tok'ra don't care about the Asgaard, but I will bet you two weeks of translation the main thing keeping them from really moving against the Goa'uld is the Hivemind."

"And?" Jack says levelly.

"Archangel's got access to Hivemind information on Earth. I want it. I want to talk to the people working on it. I want to know what they think, what they see." I wave a hand at the window, vaguely indicating the wider world. "The Tok'ra aren't giving us the whole story, and the Asgaard have been pretty picky in their details. I want to put what we've got together and see what it looks like."

Or in plain language, Jack, get me some help. We can't do this all ourselves.

"Joint Chiefs aren't going to like it." Jack holds up a hand. "This isn't like sneaking in Williams to be a host. You're talking large-scale information exchange with the Firm, and they are not going to like it."

I snort. "Do I look like I care?"

"Point." Jack sips his coffee. "So how did Himura find out?"

Uh-uh, you don't get off the hook that easy. "Ki sense," I say smoothly. "Teal'c has two auras. And it's pretty obvious he's not pregnant." I shiver. "Kenshin says that one of them is... clearly not from around here. As in, makes the hair stand up on the back of his neck, not from around here. And if Teal'c wasn't obviously my friend, he'd have a hard time not killing it."

"People with ki sense were demon slayers," Jack mutters. "You don't think...?"

"Seth was on Earth," I say firmly. "Hathor was on Earth. Why couldn't there have been others?"

"Others we never knew about, because the heart readers got them?" Jack says skeptically.

"Why not?" I shrug. "Ib-seshatai. The bogeyman. The people the Goa'uld tried to wipe out of the gene pool. Who can hear farther, or move faster, or just do things the Goa'uld with all their technology couldn't explain." I glance at some of the texts piled on one side of my counter. "Sounds like legendary heroes from every culture I've run across."

"People who kill Goa'uld without thinking twice. Because it's instinct." Jack shakes his head. "How could we lose something like that?"

You have to ask? I saw their faces when they watched Kenshin practice. All of them. The people I thought I knew, who I thought would be amazed and delighted, who knew I would never lead them into enemy hands....

I can tell you what their first thought was, and it wasn't wow.

More like, where did I leave my grenade launcher?

"Humans are pretty good at killing what scares them," I say neutrally.

Jack gives me an odd look. "Kenshin doesn't scare you."

I tilt my head. "Why would he?"

Jack's jaw works. "I hate to say this, Danny-"

Yeah, I'll bet.

"-But hello? Assassin?"

"Former assassin," I say bluntly. "I know. He was the Hitokiri Battousai. Terror of Kyoto, killer of samurai, and all-around government nightmare. Operative word there being was, Jack." I put down my coffee. "He has a wife. Children. He teaches kendo. He works with Dr. Takani to treat people who don't trust Western medicine. He's kind."

Jack lifts a brow, unconvinced. "And he could kill you inside of five seconds."

"But he won't." I toy with the handle of my coffee mug. "Jack, sooner or later you have to trust somebody."

And I hope you never realize what a hypocrite I am right now. Standing here in my kitchen, listening to me ask you to trust... when I'm the one who's let Archangel sneak into the SGC computers.

Only - it's my job to find ways to solve SG-1's problems. Before they kill us. Before I'm even asked; because if Jack has to ask, it may already be too late.

And the NID is the biggest problem we have.

And if it takes Archangel and the Firm to solve it - well, damn it, what else am I supposed to do?

"I'll talk to the general about Archangel," Jack says at last. "Meantime, let me tell you what the Tok'ra haven't found on Amaunet...."

---------------

Kenshin

"Aliens?" Sanosuke says again, rice forgotten in his chopsticks.

"Aliens," I say firmly, letting four-year-old Rei lean against my knee to make faces as we eat around Megumi's low table. Megumi and Sano's youngest daughter has all her mother's fox humor, mixed more than a little of her father's wry sense of timing.

Pop! Flash!

...Though one could call that an unnerving sense of timing. I blink the green spots out of my eyes as Kaoru finishes strangling the foxfire illusion of a hand-sized flying saucer. "Rei-chan...."

"No kitsune-bi at dinner, daughter," Megumi says firmly. The effect's somewhat spoiled by the doctor's giggle, black fox ears appearing for an instant in long black hair.

Rei grins back. "'Kay!"

"Two words, Megumi," Kaoru shakes her head. "Home school."

"Been looking at it already," Sano admits. "It's not as easy as it used to be. Bunches of rules and regulations, paperwork...."

"Not to mention the tests to make sure you're not ignoring your child's 'special needs'." Irony laces Megumi's voice as she watches her daughter sleepily damp the glowing blue light in small hands. "I hate to see what will happen the next time you have to argue with an administrator, Ken-san. At least Sano and I seem old enough to be parents. You still look as if you should be brought up on truancy charges!"

"I know," I sigh. It's not as if I can help it. Youkai blood considers time much as ordinary flesh considers wind, and dragons are worse than most.

That is the more comforting way to think of it. Less comforting, but I fear more accurate, is Megumi's theory; that our youkai heritage marks the time in life when we were most perilous, and returns our flesh to that point given the least opportunity to draw on its magic.

For Megumi, that was when she broke free from Kanryuu and attained her doctor's mastery; early twenties. Aoshi's blood in turn recalls being twenty-six, facing myself and then Shishio in Kyoto. Saitou's has settled at thirty-five, marked by that same battle. Shishou Hiko's is not far different; he came to Hiten Mitsurugi already a swordsman. As for me....

The Bakumatsu will always be with me. Hitokiri Battousai - will always be with me.

It can make dealing with others difficult.

Kaoru stares into her bowl. "It's not like we're going to have to worry about it any time soon."

Megumi and Sano exchange speaking looks. Their ki flares in a mix of comfortable friendship, exasperated patience, and a firm twist of determination.

This... is not good.

I firmly squash the desire to toss my rice bowl in Sano's face, sweep Kaoru into my arms, and bolt for the nearest exit. Sanosuke knows Hiten Mitsurugi masters. He's probably double-locked the doors, and the windows, and booby-trapped them on top of that. And Megumi knows some of the few toxins that will take even a dragon down.

And carving a hole in their house wall would be rude. Very.

When all else fails, bluff. "Oro?"

"Three decades, Kenshin," Sanosuke says firmly. "Don't you two think that's enough time?"

"You miss children," Megumi adds quietly, watching Rei yawn and nestle against my leg, every inch the sleepy fox-blooded kit in a child's kimono. "You love them, and you miss them." Her smile has a bittersweet edge. "I know you love taking care of other people's young ones, but it's not enough."

Sanosuke shrugs at Kaoru. "Got to trust yourself again sometime, right, Jo-chan?"

"I...." Kaoru bites her lip, blue eyes bright.

My beloved is trembling.

I gather her into my arms, whispering soft endearments as I glare over her shoulder at our hosts. Megumi sticks her tongue out at me. Sano just shrugs once more, mouthing, Somebody had to say it.

"Thank you for dinner," I say politely. "Perhaps we shall see you tomorrow."

Our walk back home is mostly silent. Save the ordinary noises of a city, of course; leaving aside cars and electronic alarms, those have changed little in a century and a half. There is still laughter, and music, and the occasional scream....

"Green raincoat?" Kaoru says under her breath as we near Daniel's apartment building. Her gaze slides over the black-capped man standing in the shadows of a bookshop awning just as any other night-blind human's would, though I know she can see him nearly as well as I.

"Hai." The man's ki is muddy, unfocussed; he likely does know how to use the gun under his raincoat, but not nearly as well as he believes. And he has been staking out Daniel's apartment building for the past three days.

It's beginning to annoy me.

Kaoru grins at me, some of the sparkle returning to blue eyes. "Don't break anything important."

I smile back, and drop a kiss on her cheek.

And vanish.

To most eyes; those like Daniel would catch the hint of movement, and I know Kaoru can see a blur of pink before I step into the shadows wholly.

Cities have so many places to hide.

A few minutes to do what I must, and I rejoin Kaoru at the door. We smile our way past the doorman, hand linking with hand as we make our way up the stairs. "Feel better now?" Kaoru asks wryly.

"Hai." I can't help grinning. Just a little. "And you?"

"I miss him," Kaoru says softly. "I'll always miss him."

I nod. "And we always will, that I know."

She takes a deep breath. "But... I want...."

I kiss her.

And I sweep my arms under her as Kaoru leans against me, feeling her giggles warm against my gi as I take the rest of the steps at godlike speed. Giggles which only intensify as we sense O'Neill's ki drop down in the elevator, completely unsuspecting the gift which awaits him below.

It's good to be home.

---------------

Jack

There's a lump in the passenger seat of my truck. And it's groaning.

I have to admit I spend a good second or two blinking at the guy in the green raincoat, before glancing over the wallet contents somebody's tastefully spread over my dashboard. Not to mention the neatly slashed metal pieces that used to be a 9-millimeter.

I get the distinct feeling that somebody didn't like this guy.

Three guesses who?

"Augh..." Raincoat blinks at me, and tries to shrink through the back of the seat. "Oh, Christ!"

Uh-huh. Six-foot-plus shorthaired colonel, versus five-two skinny redhead with a ponytail. No way did he mistake me for Himura.

Which means this guy - who I know is NID, the combo of Daniel's apartment building, civilian clothes, and military ID is a dead giveaway - didn't even see who hit him. Nice. "Nope. Though if I were you, Freeman, I'd keep asking. You can use all the help you can get."

He shuts up, which is good for both of us. Now I can think about what to do with Himura's little present. Or should I say, ticking time bomb.

The NID know I don't like them. And I know that they know, and they know I know they know... you can work that around in as many circles as you like.

Kenshin, however, has just set it up so it looks like I not only don't like them, but, one, I know they're stalking Daniel, and two, I'm willing to express my displeasure with that occupation in blunt and embarrassing terms.

Damn it.

I'm not ready for this. Hammond's been trying to work through channels. I've been trying to talk to various people who've wound up owing me over the years, getting subtle chips knocked out of the wall of deniability around the NID's "rogue elements". I know Maybourne didn't go rogue - he got sent rogue, to get that 'Gate back from Russia. I don't have any evidence, not yet, but it's the only scenario that makes sense.

So we've been working on trying to wriggle out of the NID's stranglehold. But it takes time. It takes patience.

And me, being the brilliant guy that I am, just had to get a guerilla skirmisher who survived a civil war with about a hundred-odd competing factions involved in this whole mess. A guy who apparently has no patience, and even less compunctions about framing me for a crime I would have very much liked to commit.

I can almost hear Himura's voice. I think you have spent enough time sitting on this fence, that I do.

Damn it, this goes farther than my team, or even the SGC! I'm trying to think about the whole world here....

And... that's exactly how I wound up hurting Daniel, isn't it.

"Get out."

Freeman goes white. "Wha-"

"Get out!" I snarl. "Now!"

He bolts out the passenger door, leaving his ID and what's left of his gun behind.

I wait until the sound of his panicked feet fades into the night, then lean my head against the rim of the steering wheel. My head hurts. My heart hurts.

Duty or my friend. Duty or my family. Duty or my team.

I can't decide.

I can't.

---------------

Translations from Japanese (Webster's Pocket Dictionary, the RK manga, and Flashing Steel by Masayuki Shimabukuro and Leonard J. Pellman):

Gaijin - Foreigner.

Kunoichi - female ninja.

Ryuu Tsui Sen - Dragon Mallet strike.

Rurouni - Wandering swordsman. (Word created by Watsuki.)

Issei - Japanese immigrants to America.

Nisei - First American-born generation of Japanese.

Hai - Yes.

Kitsune-bi - Foxfire.