Flipping through The Science of Middle Earth with a notepad and pen in one hand, Harvey Falconi glanced at the chubby Italian huddled in one of his library armchairs. "You look like you could use something a lot stronger than coffee, Pete."

Petrio DuBuccio, Deputy Director of Target Alpha New York, scowled into his mug, thinking of the agent, two civilians, and one uneasy ally currently sitting in the Falconis' magical workroom. "We've got Kurogasa's damn sword under ward, lock, and key. Based on what we've vacuumed out of Tani's paperwork we've got a lead or two on who might have hired him. We also shook out enough evidence to bury Tani-dono so deep with the NYPD it'll keep his lawyers out of trouble for years, and so deep with Golgotha that this so-called Commune sorcerer's not going to even breathe wrong for at least six months, much less sacrifice anybody. You tell me why I'm not happy, eh?"

Harvey scribbled down a note; probably on optics as applied to elf vision, the magical researcher had been muttering something about developing a new Far-Sight spell. "You miss Ward already, huh?"

"Man was a pain in the ass, but you knew where you stood with him," Petrio admitted. "He made the best of a bad deal. You had to respect that. This Himura? I don't know him. But what I do know - not so much in the way of confidence."

"No?" Harvey sounded actively interested.

"Clean record," Petrio explained, distinctly unhappy. "Not so much as a parking ticket. Hell, the man barely has a driver's license. Never been in a fight, even as a juvenile. Bookworm, pure and simple. About the only thing in his background that says he might have any knack for the job is the fact that the NYPD still remembers he's Deirdre Himura's son."

"Oh yeah?"

"Street cop. Died in a werewolf attack, about fourteen years ago," Petrio filled in. "Real mess."

Harvey flipped a page. "So the bottom line is, you don't think he can handle the job."

"Job, hell," DuBuccio grumbled. "I don't know if he's got the stamina it takes to survive getting Battousai pried off him!"

"Well, you can stop worrying about that, at least," a light British accent broke in.

Petrio looked up to meet Natasha Falconi's calm gaze as she walked into the library, sheathed blade in her hands, not liking the look in the sorceress' green eyes. He waited until she put Battousai down on another chair; the sword couldn't read minds it couldn't touch. "You can break it off him?"

Natasha put an arm around her husband, snuggling her head into his shoulder for a long minute's comfort. Breathed deep, and stepped away. "There's nothing left to break."

Petrio gave her a hard look. "Can't be that easy."

"It can be when there's nothing to be done." Natasha straightened her shoulders. "Ordinarily, Battousai is bound to an agent, yes? With conditions set by the agent, so the blade can't erase his soul. Not to mention the assistance of more than a few spells, so that both entities can be separated at need. Which means that Battousai's host is an enchanted human. An altered human, who looks like Kin and feeds like Kin when he must. But beneath it all, still human."

"I get the feeling I'm not going to like this," Petrio said dryly.

Natasha inclined her head. "Kenshin let Battousai in. No magic. No conditions. He simply trusted the blade not to destroy him."

"Damn," Harvey said, interest lighting his face.

"What the hell was he thinking?" Petrio burst out.

"That someone he cares about would die if he didn't act." Natasha smiled faintly. "Battousai is already shaping their shields, but one can still detect enough of his aura to see that love. It's so bright. Pure enough to touch even a cursed blade." She regarded her superior steadily. "Himura is not under enchantment, Petrio. He's Kin."

"Son of a-" Biting off an insult that would have had a Brooklyn native after his guts with a spoon, Petrio grabbed onto the scabbard. "Just what the hell were you thinking?"

'That here, at last, was one who offered instead of bartered at swords' point,' Battousai's ice chilled his thoughts. 'And that I wanted him very much.'

"We had an agreement," Petrio said flatly.

'We had an arrangement in your agency's favor. You, and your predecessors before you, allowed me a limited touch of human minds; just enough to keep me from going mad within senseless steel. In return, I lent my hosts my strengths, my skills, my knowledge of Kin. I killed for you.' Cold, so cold; like a gale out of the Great Lakes, whistling down skyscraper canyons. 'But I was meant to take a bearer, not hosts. Kenshin is mine.'

Petrio shivered. But he'd never backed down from the worst the Kin could throw at him. He wasn't going to back down from one damn sword. "And what's he think about that?"

'He is wary of you.'

With good reason, damn it, if he'd read between the lines of Uramura's report right. Uramura took after tBuku too much; Petrio could slam all the reprimands into their files he wanted, but the control team leader, like New York's Field Ops commander, liked "hard option" first, and "soft option" only when he couldn't get to a Kin any other way.

'Your people threatened violence to both Yahiko and Kamiya-sensei,' Battousai agreed, following his thoughts. 'Kenshin will not easily forgive that. He cannot. It is not in his nature. Not when he was human, and had but the fire of a hitokiri banked in his soul... and certainly not now.'

"Assassin?" Petrio said blankly. He stared down the length of black lacquer, looking for suspicious cracks. "Somebody bang you out of alignment or something? I've read Himura's records. Far as they go. No juvie, no wants, no warrants; Santa Maria, he doesn't even have a parking ticket. This guy is a walking innocent bystander!"

'As his mother took great pains to teach him to be,' the sword reported matter-of-factly. 'Deirdre was a cop, DuBuccio. And a perceptive soul. She saw the fire in him early and moved to tame it. To teach him to care. Had she lived longer, he might have followed her into the force.'

Petrio frowned. "And you're telling me this because..."

'I know Target Alpha. If you cannot control who I bind to, you will try to control him who I have bound.' The chill was even as a clear winter dawn. 'That would not be wise.'

"He sells antiques!"

'And very near that domain he holds, DuBuccio-san, Virus had an interest none of us yet understands. What else might we detect of their motives, if I remain there?'

Scowling, Petrio set the sword back down. "Well?" Harry asked.

Tersely, he reported the blade's thoughts. "Scary thing is, it makes sense."

"You believe Battousai is up to no good, I take it," Natasha observed.

"It's a Muramasa blade. We've had a good long truce. He's earned the benefit of the doubt. But. None of us has ever seen this thing loose. I gotta say I'm a little less than happy knowing it is." Petrio threw up his hands. "Hell with it. Anything I should know before I talk to the guy?"

"Well..." Natasha's eyes twinkled. "He's cute."

"Cute?" Petrio said blankly.

"Adorable," the sorceress clarified fondly. "You'll see."

Adorable? Petrio shook his head, heading for the workroom with Natasha giggling quietly behind him. No way. He'd seen Kin of every shape and size; ugly, attractive, plain, stunningly hideous, breathtakingly beautiful. All shaped by their creator's choice and their supernatural nature to attract their reckless or desperate human prey. No way, no how, would a Kin ever be-


Cute. Petrio's mind stuck on the word, comparing it to small, almost girlish redhead sitting on the workroom bench, mussed black hair pillowed in his lap as his teenage brother snored away. Oh, god.

"Boss," Sagara nodded. "There a problem?"

Petrio glanced at Sagara. Looked at the snoozing kid. Drew his gaze back up, almost against his will, to meet innocent violet eyes.

Walked back out of the workroom, and started banging his head against the wall.

"You sure you want me to do this?"

"Griswold," Sano sighed.

Chafing his arms in the chill washroom outside the morgue, Kenshin took yet another deep breath to calm himself. Sano had dropped by his apartment long enough to water his plants. Kaoru was teaching a kendo class with another sensei; Sagara had quipped it was a rare Kin who'd face down two dozen swords, wood or no wood. And Yahiko was only a room away. He'd tended every detail he could think of before facing the forces of New York's law and order... save one.

I really don't want to do this.

'But the idea was yours,' Battousai noted. 'And wise. The detectives know you were injured. Though I would you had not set me aside.'

Kenshin's glance slid to where he'd set the saya aside on a shelf with Sano's jacket. I don't want to risk repeating all of that night.

The thin M.E. rubbed the back of his dark crewcut nervously. "I mean, the whole reason werewolves don't Addict is 'cause we eat pain. Not something most people look for. Unless you get into the whips and chains crowd, and even then-"

"Griswold!" Sanosuke broke in. "Just bite him, already!"

"You asked for it," Griswold shrugged. And blurred into fur.

Slow for a werewolf - I could dodge, so easily-

Clutching courage to him, Kenshin stood his ground, flinging up his left arm to block as teeth snapped for his throat.

Darkness, and gunfire, and my gods what is that-

Fangs bit into flesh and bone; he rolled on the chill tiled floor under furry muscle, fighting off flashes of carpet, and fetid breath, and hate.

Terror. Blood. A sudden roughness in his grip-

"Griswold!" Sano was thumping fur between the ears with a heavy fist. "Damn it, that's enough!"

The werewolf snarled. Licked at seeping blood, green-gold eyes gleaming with hunger, ready to dig its fangs in deeper.

Kenshin dug his fingers into the fur of the wolf's neck, claws drawing blood. "Enough."

Bloodstained fangs halted. Reluctantly eased their grip, just enough for him to pull free.

Gods, it hurts...

'Hold on.' Pain echoed back to him through steel, mingled with remorse. 'Breathe.'

Kenshin panted, letting Sano tug him to unsteady feet. Took a deep breath, and felt Sano back off. Stumbled to a sink, yanked on the water with his whole hand, and winced as the clear flow turned pink and crimson. All the while aware of a lupine form shifting reluctantly back to human behind him.

Steel snarled in his mind. 'We should-'


'But he-'

Followed his nature, Kenshin thought bluntly. Griswold is Kin. For a moment, he forgot I wasn't prey.

'You forgive too easily.'

Griswold cleared his throat. "Hey. Um, I can help you with that."

Scaled warmth swept over Kenshin without warning, setting him gently aside. "Don't come near me," Battousai said coolly.

"Come on, man, you're the one who-"

Amber glanced back.

Color swept out of Griswold's face as if someone had pulled out a plug. "Battousai." Wild eyes beseeched Sano's. "But - he's not Ward-"

"Ward's dead," Sanosuke said tightly. "'Sai?"

"A minute." He finished washing out the wound, paying particular attention to the ragged lip of flesh where one canine had dug deep. He was Kin, it would heal cleanly enough... but for the next few hours, he would have to treat it as though he were human, or risk drawing more of the detectives' attention than he already had.

"Ugh." Sano leaned over his shoulder. "If that was me, you'd be hauling me in for stitches."

"You wouldn't heal this within a few hours." Battousai accepted gauze and bandages, wrapping the wound with skills he'd practiced on humans for over a century. "I am slowing the healing so much as I can, but we must see your detectives tonight." He fastened the last strip in place, and released his bearer's body. 'There.'

Kenshin shuddered, feeling the pain crash back into his consciousness. But it was his pain again. Don't do that!

'You... were hurt.' Warmth couldn't hide the ruthless edge of calculation; a werewolf who had lost control once might lose it again. And if Battousai had felt Griswold even twitch their way, he would have slit the werewolf's throat.

You would have killed him, using me! Kenshin thought, suddenly furious. As if I were-

'A sword?' Battousai asked softly.

I'm not-

'You are. Kenshin. "Heart of Sword". You felt the pulse of my blade, and now your own heart beats to its time.' Gentle. Patient. Inhuman. 'What can I do, but protect my own heartbeat?'

"Oh shit, I am so dead," Griswold was babbling. "Look, I didn't know! 'Cause if I'd known I never would have touched you, you got to believe me-"

"Stop," Kenshin said faintly. "Just... stop." He walked past Sano to the shelves, collecting Battousai. Relief swept him as the saya rested against his side once more. Whole again. "Let's go."

"Just remember to paste in 'weird psychos' for Kin," Sano advised in low tones as they walked up the echoing stairs. "Outside of that, tell 'em the truth."

Kenshin swallowed dryly. "Even about Jin-e?"

"Especially about him," Sanosuke said grimly. "He took Kaoru right off the street; I know they've got witnesses."

"Sano." Kenshin rubbed his temples, feeling a headache threaten. "I know you live with Kin and Crowleys day to day. But for once, if you would, try to look at events from the viewpoint of those of us who live with sane, solid, everyday worlds that do not admit to magic, vampires, or metallic Things that eat one's brain."

Sano glanced down at him, confused. "Huh?"

'Be a little blunter,' Battousai advised.

Kenshin glared up at the agent. "The truth makes me look like an insane swordsman!"

"Nah," Sano grinned. "Just a little... over-enthusiastic."


"Hey, they're just cops," Sano said cheerfully. "Human cops. After this week, what could they possibly do to make your day any worse?"

"Kaoru." Miyauchi Maekawa gave her a worried look as they finished cleaning up the gym. "I didn't want to ask while the students were here, not if you didn't mention it yourself, but... are you all right?"

"Um, sure," Kaoru said faintly, one hand resting limply on the gym bag that held her gear and bokken. Her fellow instructor had been subtly hovering throughout class; the students might not have noticed, but Kaoru knew Maekawa-sensei had sensed her lack of focus. And now the students were gone, the gym no longer echoing with kiai, smacks of wood and bamboo on leather, and laughter. "Pretty much... sort of..."

"Because there were a pair of detectives here not an hour before you came," Maekawa said gravely. "I tried calling you afterwards, but all I got was your answering machine. I was so relieved when you walked in the door... can you imagine, they thought you'd been kidnapped by a murderer!"

"I- well-" Words died on her lips; Kaoru scrunched her eyes closed, fighting prickling tears.

Maekawa sighed. "Tell me."

Kaoru gulped. Shivered.

And it all spilled out; not a word about Kin and magic, no, but the whole crazy mess of an assassin crossing paths with her student and her student's brother, ready and willing to destroy anything or anyone to get what he wanted.

And what he'd wanted was Kenshin.

Maekawa's a swordsman. If he doesn't understand... I don't know who would.

"...And the agents took the body away, and I don't know what happened to it, and I don't want to know..." Kaoru grabbed blindly for the tissues Maekawa brushed against her hand, blew her nose. Blinked. Forced a thought through a tear-fuzzed brain. "But if the detectives were looking for me, how did they find you?"

"They weren't exactly looking for you." Maekawa left her side a moment, came back with two pages of photocopied images. "They were looking for people who knew the New York kendo community."

Passport photos? Kaoru thought, scanning the first page; three photos and all the accompanying information of a small family heading for Ireland almost twenty years ago. She didn't know the names, and she definitely didn't know the redheaded Irish woman smiling at the camera, but her young son looked vaguely familiar. And her Japanese husband...

He looks... almost like Yahiko might, when he gets older. "Thomas Noguchi?" Definitely a family resemblance. But it can't be, Yahiko says there just aren't any more of their family anywhere.

"Yes. I've been wondering for a long time what happened to the man. It's not like there are that many kendo practitioners around, especially with his level of skill. For one to just vanish, as he did - very, very odd. Though perhaps not unexpected, given certain rumors about his wife's... overseas relatives." Maekawa fingered his neat gray beard as he looked over the page. "Now check the next one."

The same people, a few years later. The same smiles, if edged with something... sad. But the names-

Kaoru blinked. Read again. Swallowed dryly.

"A Himura as a shopkeeper? Hah!"

Jin-e's sneer blazed in her mind, and Kaoru shuddered. She hadn't believed him. Even after she'd seen... that... she hadn't believed. Because she knew when her students lied to her, and Yahiko didn't lie to her...

Unless he doesn't know.

"I'm sorry, I've got to go!"

Kaoru was halfway out the door before she realized she wasn't alone. "Sensei-"

"If you trust him, Kamiya, he's no murderer." Maekawa shrugged on his coat. "I knew Thomas' little boy, Kaoru. I want to see him."

"Um. That might be tricky..."

Just how tricky, she hadn't guessed until they were wending their way through the crowded bullpen of the Major Case squad. "Interrogation?" Kaoru fired at the older detective in blue shirt and suspenders holding her at arm's length. "Why? He didn't do anything - exactly - well, he was just helping me-" Oh god, I'm just digging myself in deeper. Help!

"Kaoru!" Yahiko hit her like a guided missile, Sagara slouching in his wake. "You're here!" He scowled up at Maekawa. "Who's he?"

"Yahiko, Agent Sagara, this is Miyauchi Maekawa," Kaoru introduced the gray-haired kendo instructor. "He teaches Chuetsu Ryu. Maekawa-sensei, this is my student, Yahiko Himura."

"Himura?" Maekawa said, startled. "But he's-"

"Thomas' son," Kaoru agreed. "Yes, I think so."

"You think so?" Yahiko echoed in disbelief. "Kaoru, you've got to do something! They've been talking to Kenshin for hours-"

"Two hours," Sano corrected. "Don't sweat it."

"And he keeps saying there's nothing to worry about!"

"These things take time, you little-" Sanosuke implored the ceiling. "Look. These are good cops. Your brother's innocent. He'll be fine."

"Sanosuke, you idiot-!" Kaoru's fingers strangled air, wishing it was a certain rooster-head's neck. "Tani's in organized crime!"

"No kidding?" the agent said wryly. "And here I was wondering where the illegal artworks, loads of bodyguards, and - oh, yeah! - slavering vicious attack dogs came in. You know we had to get that one Kenshin slashed tested for rabies? Man, am I glad that came back negative-"

"Yakuza! Which means New York underworld! Which means-" Kaoru stumbled to a verbal halt, suddenly aware she had no idea what it meant.

But Maekawa knows. And if he does-

"Easy, little missy." Sano held his hands out, placating. "Kenshin will be fine."

"So you don't know," Maekawa stepped in matter-of-factly.

"Know what?" Sano asked blankly. "Kaoru? Yahiko? Something you guys didn't tell me?"

Cool, calm, and collected, Detective Bobby Goren thought, standing to one side of the interrogation room, head tilted as he watched his partner grill Mr. Himura. Or try to. Alexandrea Eames had gone over the little redhead's story three times, from penthouse to that wild showdown in Central Park, never getting any more than the standard deviations of a witness retelling events. And this after we left him in here an hour alone to get wound up.

It hadn't worked. Himura had sat for a few minutes, chafing his arms as if chilled; a common reaction in interviewees, even the innocent ones. Rose and paced the room once it was clear no one was immediately coming. Sighed, rubbing his bandaged arm, sat down - in a corner, not a chair-

And meditated. Quietly.

Not exactly your usual panicked homicide-in-self-defense case, Goren thought wryly. Not at all.

Of course, there was a reason for that. Goren glanced at his partner, catching the faint note of real exasperation under her acting. Now?

Now, creased blonde brows agreed.

"Well, I guess that about covers it," Bobby broke in thoughtfully. "I've got to say, we really appreciate your candor. I mean, the middle of a homicide investigation, arson, kidnapping... not too many people would give us the straight details." He smiled.

Kenshin's answering smile didn't touch wary violet eyes.

No, you are definitely not an antiques dealer. Not anymore. Goren felt a surge of excitement. Puzzles drew any detective like fallen apples drew hornets, and Himura was one for the record books. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Himura." He let a second slip by. "Or should I say, Mr. Noguchi?"

Violet blinked at him, speechless. "What?"

"Maybe this will refresh your memory." Eames shoved over their copy of the birth certificate. And the amended birth certificate.

"Shinta Noguchi... parents Eileen and Thomas Noguchi..." Himura read all the attached documentation, slowly growing paler and paler. "I don't understand."

"No, no, I think you do," Goren said thoughtfully. "I mean, you were - what, almost eight? Definitely old enough to wonder why your parents took you on one last trip to visit Eileen's relatives in Northern Ireland... and just never came back." He shrugged. "Well, not as the Noguchis, anyway."

"Hard to track down people gone that deep under," Eames said dryly, "but from what we could piece together, the Noguchis 'died' in Belfast. Rented curragh, overturned when a storm blew up in the bay. Whole family lost. A few pieces supposedly recovered later, only identifiable by some ID. Very neat."

"Three years later the Himuras show up in JFK International," Goren took up the tale. "Connor Dullahan makes a big deal about his long-lost niece showing up, she joins the force, your father takes over as assistant manager at Wonderful Things... and you wind up with a note in your file for remedial English help, since your family had just come out of the Gaeltacht. That's a part of Ireland the government supports in using Gaelic on an everyday basis," he added, "to preserve the cultural heritage-"

"I know what it is, that I do," Himura said tightly, accent wearing through his polite charm. "And you're wrong. You must be. False names... faked deaths... my parents weren't like that at all! My name is Kenshin Himura-"

"Which would be the point of the whole idea," Goren spread an empty hand, smiling. "Have a kid change cultures, change languages - he's so busy trying to fit himself back together, he never stops to think about what just happened. It's brilliant, really. I mean," the detective laughed, "who in the whole IRA would look for the FBI agent on top of their hit list in the middle of Gaelic Ireland?"

Kenshin stared at him.

Weird, Goren thought. Red hair makes a bigger difference than I thought. From this angle, his eyes look almost blue...

Himura's lips parted slightly, then firmed into a hard line. "I've no idea what tale you're spinning, that I do not." His gaze went to Eames. "And even if this - aisling of yours were true, what would any of that have to do with me?"

"Why don't you tell us." Eames spread out photos on the desk. "Marcus Weston."

Himura winced at the body sprawled on dingy stairs, neck at an impossible angle. "I remember."

"Also known as Marcus O'Phelan. And a couple of other names. Since you're convinced this is just a story, we don't need to bore you with the details. Let's just say that Japanese, Italian, Irish terrorist... dirty money all swirls to the bottom." The grim blonde leaned over the desk, almost in Himura's face. "There's no way he and his mercenary little pals firebombed you just because you knocked off one of Tani's dogs."

"Did they recognize you?" Goren pressed gently. "Is that why it happened?" He inched closer, adding to his partner's pressure.

"People like Marcus don't get second chances if they miss," Eames added. "Was that what this was?" Her lip curled in a sneer. "They finally got Noguchi, now they had to clean up the little brats that got away?"

"That was - my father died in an accident." Himura swallowed dryly. Shook his head. "I've told you what happened." He turned to Goren. "I've told you everything I know."

Something really wrong with the lights, Goren realized. His eyes look almost... no, they are amber.

And the odd fire was gone, swallowed up in steel-blue as Himura rose. "I'm going home, that I am."

Goren met that gaze, glanced at his partner so she stepped aside. "Don't go far."

"Damn it, we had him!" Eames burst out once the door was closed.

Goren gave her a raised eyebrow. "You think so?"

Eames pressed her lips into a tight line.

"That's what I thought," Goren said softly.

"He killed them, Bobby. You know it, and I know it."

"And he knows everything we have looks like self-defense," Goren pointed out. "And - you never know. It might even be that."

Eames raised her eyebrow.

"Either way-" Goren shrugged, "-we're not going to crack him. Not here. Not this way."

Eames blew out a breath. Gave her partner a grudging nod. And snorted. "Antiques dealer, hell!"

It can't be true, Kenshin thought, slipping past detectives' eyes to the small break-room where Sano and Yahiko should be waiting. Can't be.

But their ki hadn't felt like they were lying.

It's not true! I know who I am.

Donuts and bagels lay out on the folding table, one being slathered with cream cheese by a grumpy-looking African-American man whose gold-rimmed glasses and neat suit screamed government attorney. Of Yahiko and Sano, there was no sign.

They left me. An Mhaire, why did they leave me... Kenshin shook his head, trying to sink bits of Gaelic back into the darkness of forgetting. Three long years in green strangeness, surrounded by those who had never felt the pulse of busy streets, the hard bones of concrete and steel. Three years looking into faces that listened to his best attempts to speak his mother's ancestral tongue and heard only the words they treasured sullied by a half-breed outsider.

When he'd seen Idlewild under the wing as their plane circled, he'd cried.

Think, baka! They wouldn't leave you. They're just... not here...

He ghosted back out of the room, reaching out with his senses. Anger, exhaustion, the glittery slipperiness of madness; cops and criminals thronged the building, but there was no sign of the ki he knew.

'Sano would not go far.'

Kenshin bit back a snarl. Oh, now you speak up?

'I... did not know what to say.'

You could try, "They're lying", "This is crazy", "I know who you really are-"

'I do know who you are.' Battousai's tone held no compromise. 'You are Kenshin Himura. My bearer. Yahiko's brother. Kaoru's friend. All else is past and done.'

Turning in his visitor's ID, Kenshin swiped at his eyes. It just hurts so much...

'I know.'

Walking out onto the gray steps, Kenshin pushed aside the pain and reached out once more. No, no... there!

Sano. Kaoru. Yahiko. And someone else, who burned like banked embers.

'A swordsman,' Battousai murmured, as Kenshin stepped into plain view of the tall, gray-haired man in loose street clothes. A long gym bag like Kaoru's was over his shoulder, and the lumps within it hinted it too held a bokken. 'Do you know him?'

I... don't know...

"Dear god." The gray-haired swordsman looked over Kenshin as if he were an apparition from moor mists. "That hair, that build... you are Eileen's son."

"I don't know any Eileen!" Kenshin burst out. "My mother's name was Deirdre..."

"The sorrowful one," the older man said softly. "So she traded light for sorrow, and a chance for you both."

"Ease up, Maekawa," Sano said sharply. "We've had a bad couple of nights."

"So I've heard. I - what is it?"

"Maekawa-sensei?" Kenshin whispered, staring up. Though not nearly as far up as faint memory whispered he should be. Darken gray hair to brown, change street clothes to the white and black of kendo tournament gear... he knew that face. Almost. "You've grown a mustache, that you have."

"Yes. I did." A broad smile stretching his face, Maekawa hugged him fiercely. "Good lord, young man, I've wondered for years what happened to you-" Steel pressed against cloth, and the swordsman stiffened.


"I can explain," Kenshin said hastily.

"Explain why you're carrying a sword? In broad daylight? Out of a police station? I would hope so!" Maekawa backed off, gesturing toward the hilt he'd felt. "Unless you're a lot more like your father than you look, someone's going to bring you in for-" His jaw dropped a moment, staring at what he obviously could not see. "Carrying concealed," Maekawa finished. "Well. I suppose that answers that."

"Wait a minute!" Kaoru broke in. "Are you telling us that-"

"Their dad-" Sano said, stunned.

"Dad could use his ki to hide things?" Yahiko jumped in, eyes shining. "Like Kenshin's doing? Could I do that? Whoa, that would be so cool!"

"But he never said- I never saw-" Kenshin shook his head, bewildered. "I think we should take this somewhere more private, that we should."

"I don't have many photos," Maekawa said some time later, opening an old photo album as the motley group sat down around his kitchen table. "Your parents were very quiet people. Outwardly friendly enough, but if you looked hard... well, they simply seemed to skate away from public eyes. Understandable, I suppose. Given what they were doing."

Kaoru looked over the shot of tournament participants and families, fingers hovering over Thomas and his wife where they stood just on the edge of the picture, a young dark-haired boy clinging to his mother's jeans with wide violet eyes. "Just what were they doing?"

"Tracking money flows," Sano said bluntly. He glanced at Kenshin. "I called up Research after Maekawa dropped his bombshell. Once they had the right names, they were able to pull some stuff together." He waved at the picture. "Remember this was when bombs were going off all over Belfast. U.S. and Britain share a lot, intelligence-wise, but nobody wanted to bring up in public how much Irish-American money ended up in IRA coffers."

"So my parents-" Kenshin couldn't go on.

"Irish money was a sieve. Your parents snuck around plugging the holes. FBI has branches everywhere we have an embassy, and Eileen had relatives all over Northern Ireland," the Target Alpha agent stated. "Your parents could go from the Apple to London to Belfast to all over Ireland, and nobody thought much of it. At least, not for the first decade or so."

Kenshin swallowed. "And then?"

"Somebody did think of it. A lot," Sano said dryly. "As in gift-wrapped plastique on the ignition lot." He eyed Yahiko. "Your family's got a high degree of association with explosives, kid."


"Says the guy who blew up his own apartment." Kaoru looked at the agent askance.

Sano dug fingers into already-wild hair, shrugged. "Anyway... somehow whoever it was missed. The report was pretty fuzzy on how, with a certain nasty slant on the fuzziness that says the agency got seriously suspicious of Agent Noguchi. Nobody could have known that bomb was there in time to get himself and his family the hell out of range." Sano paused. "Nobody ordinary, anyway."

"But Thomas wasn't ordinary," Maekawa observed.

"Something I'm guessing he did not want his superiors to know," Sano shot back. "Bottom line? He was under suspicion. A bunch of Eileen's relatives turned up threatened or beaten. And some of his contacts started turning up dead. Word was out that Noguchi and his family were living on borrowed time."

"So to get out from under, he - died," Kaoru said haltingly. "Oh, Kenshin."

"It's all right, Miss Kaoru," Kenshin said softly, eyes still fixed on the photo. "How can one be hurt, when one cannot even recall the loss?" That's me. That was my family. Thomas. Eileen. Shinta.

And... I don't even remember being Shinta...

He buried his face in his hands. He didn't want to look. It hurt.

"I don't know what you remember, but that's what it looks like happened," Sano nodded. "Now maybe you can explain what you mean by not ordinary, Mr. Maekawa. 'Cause I'm telling you, it's news to these kids."

Head in his hands, Kenshin couldn't help a snort of wry laughter. Kid? He was at least Sano's age. Probably older. Even if he didn't look it.

'You certainly don't look it now.' Battousai's amusement brushed him like a cool breeze. 'You can't avoid mirrors forever, you know.'

"Thomas." Maekawa sighed. "Thomas was a mystery. I think he liked it that way. You could talk to him for hours and come away not knowing anything more about him than when you started. A Japanese-American who never admitted to knowing Japanese, except by the way he smiled at the jokes. A federal agent who laughed about being an armed accountant, chasing down rogue numbers, but who could vanish like a phantom. An excellent kendo practitioner who wouldn't let his son so much as pick up a shinai, and that truly got to me. I was actually rude enough to ask him about that, once, in private. And that's when he said something... rather odd."

Kenshin lifted his head.

"He said," Maekawa said carefully, "that any child with his grandfather's eyes was too dangerous to pick up a blade. Ever."

What? Kenshin thought, stunned.

'So he knew,' Battousai said thoughtfully. 'Your parents knew you were hitokiri. Kami, no wonder they fled.'

I don't understand!

'You would have tried to protect them. You would have killed to protect them. And then, unless they were swift and careful and very, very lucky - you know what would have happened. Jails, counselors; psychiatrists who would see only a child who killed, and not the heart that could refrain from killing so long as those it loved remained safe.' The images slashed home like diamond knives. 'Those in power would have taken you from the only folk who could keep your blade sheathed. And you would have been lost.'

"But our great-grandpa would have been Japanese, right?" Yahiko said, puzzled. "I mean, I think he was. Dad never talked about him..."

"I thought of that myself." Maekawa spread his hands, empty of answers. "I told you, the man was a puzzle."

I'm sick of puzzles! Kenshin thought fiercely. I want answers!

'They lie within you. Only reach out your hand...'

"Some outsiders, Europeans and Americans, naturalized into Japan by taking their Japanese wives' names," Kenshin said softly. Eyes not focused on the room, but elsewhere; an inn with white paper walls, where men with samurai topknots nudged and whispered to each other, glancing at a shadow with hair like blood. "It is not spoken of widely, but it has happened since the Black Ships came. And children there were before then, though that was barely spoken of at all. Better to let folk think your children were of youkai blood than to admit they might be foreign, and outcast, and worthy of only exile or death." He blinked, taking in the odd look on Maekawa's face. "I... came across an old account of Japan, just before the Meiji Restoration."

"I see," said Maekawa, still puzzled. He squinted at the hilt resting against Kenshin's left shoulder. "Odd. When your father had his own sword out of sight, I could still see it if I looked hard enough. Now, I can almost see a blur."

'Human ki wouldn't hide a non-magical blade as well,' Battousai said thoughtfully. 'Couple that with another swordsman actively looking...'

"Dad had a sword?" Yahiko said faintly.

"He brought it to a cutting demonstration once, and I saw it, or didn't see it, several times afterward," Maekawa nodded. "I wish I had more answers for you, Yahiko. But between the form of his sword and the way he could just disappear, I was convinced your father was ninja. And asking too much about ninja is - unhealthy."

"The form of his sword?" Kaoru asked thoughtfully.

"Yes." Maekawa held out a hand. "If I could?"

Gingerly, Kenshin peeled back the skin of energy he felt distracting eyes from Battousai, laying the sheathed blade on the table.

The older man frowned. "That is not your father's sword."

"It was recently passed to me." Kenshin weighed his options. Asked a silent question of the steel in his soul.


"The police believe I picked up one of Tani's swords," Kenshin stated. "I didn't. This blade was in the keeping of Sano's partner, another agent assigned to protect Tani from Kurogasa. He died. I was ducking the bullets, a very angry canine decided I was a fitting target, and I... got lucky." Kenshin smiled weakly. "And now I'm told I can't get rid of it."

"Nope," Sano said matter-of-factly. "It's cursed."

Maekawa eyed them both. "Surely you're joking."

"Don't call me Shirley. And no." Sano leaned back in his chair. "Go ahead, take a look. It's not going to bite."

Maekawa gave the agent a sharp look. Hmphed, and turned back to Battousai. "Your father's blade was far shorter than this," he noted. "A kodachi, not a katana. Much more common among ninja, given that they might be carrying it across rivers and up walls. The quality of the steel was also a giveaway; not nearly as good as what you see in heirloom long swords. Though given his was a fairly modern sword, he probably got the best he could. Many of the ancient forging techniques were lost between Meiji and the aftermath of World War II, and they're only recently being rediscovered..." He loosened the blade enough to see an inch of patterned steel, and drew in a sharp breath. "May I?"

Kenshin nodded.

Stepping back from the table, Maekawa drew the sakabatou. Watched the play of light along dull and sharp steel. Made a few, careful passes, gauged to avoid walls and furniture.

'His grip is good,' Battousai said clinically. 'He knows how to extend his ki into steel. Though I doubt he realizes I feel off because he can't reach into mine.'

Kenshin bit his lip. Would you have rather-?

'Maekawa fights with strength and courage, not speed and ki. He is the lion to our dragon.' A quiet laugh. 'And he already has a style. The habits I'd have to break him of!'

"Beautiful," Maekawa said reverently, sheathing the blade once more. "If odd. The steel looks new, but the style is at least as old as Meiji. A reverse-blade sword?"

Sano's grin was all teeth. "A Muramasa."

Blood drained from the older swordsman's face. He swallowed dryly, carefully handing the sheathed blade back to Kenshin, though every line of his body shouted he wanted to fling steel from him. "Those are myths." He gestured at the hilt. "And even if they weren't, why would one of the most vicious sword-smiths who ever lived create a sword meant not to kill?"

"Because a dragon's fang asked him to," Kenshin answered, shreds of dream wandering behind his eyes. "At least, that's what the story with it says," he added quickly, recalling his listeners. "So, do you think the detectives were right, Sano? Would the IRA still be looking for us?" Looking for me?

"Doubtful," Sanosuke said frankly, picking up on the change in subject. "Almost twenty years? Anybody with a grudge against the Noguchis is probably dead or rotting in a cell somewhere. They're just trying to rattle you."

"It worked," Kenshin grumbled.

"Well don't let it." Sanosuke gave him a look that promised seven kinds of aggravated maiming if he did let it. "They're good cops. They follow the law. But sad to say, the law really doesn't appreciate self-defense. I know and you know you did exactly what you had to, to keep the three of you alive. But unless you keep up with the follow-through and stay cool, they'll toss you in a cell and chalk up one more perp off the streets." He clapped a hand on Kenshin's shoulder. "Just hang in there. You're doing good."

"Yes, well; this sounds like something I shouldn't be listening to," Maekawa said firmly. "Here. Let me see you to the door."

"But you were going to tell us more about our Dad!" Yahiko protested, moving at a firm look from his brother.

"Maybe another time."

The apartment door closed behind them like thunder.

"This sucks!" Yahiko glared at painted wood, half a thought away from kicking in the lower panel. "And you say he's a friend of yours?"

"He is," Kaoru insisted. "I don't know what's wrong!"

"He's frightened of Muramasas, that he is." Kenshin gave Sanosuke a wry look.

Chewing a toothpick, the agent gave them his best clueless look. "What?"

Thrusting the saya under his belt, Kenshin kept his gaze on the man.

"Well, they... don't really have a good rep. And most swordsmen who're really into it know that," Sanosuke admitted.

"Sano." Kenshin sighed.

"Hey, I was thinking of you, you idiot!" Glancing down the hall, Sano jerked his head toward the stairwell. "Come on."

Stairs echoed under three pairs of feet; Kenshin ghosted along in the midst of them, any sound he might make covered by the others.

Sano stopped on a mid-floor landing, waited until they all stepped on level. "Maekawa's good, right Missy? Master-level?"

"He wouldn't be teaching if he wasn't, Sanosuke," Kaoru said firmly.

Sano switched his gaze to Kenshin. "And what's a master swordsman want to do when he runs into somebody else who might be as good?"

"Challenge them," Kenshin realized, feeling the sure knowledge surface from steel.

"Right. Challenge you, which means challenging Battousai. And I know you two haven't had enough time to practice slowing down." Sano swept them all with a sober look. "If Maekawa's that good, Battousai's reflexes - Kenshin's reflexes - are going to treat it as a serious fight. That guy would be on the ground in seconds." Sano sighed. "And how the hell would you explain that?"

Kenshin let out a slow breath. "Thank you."

"Yeah. Well." Sano shrugged, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets. "I'm sorry, kid."

"It's not fair," Yahiko said faintly. "It's just not fair."

"Are you going to give up that easily?" Kaoru planted a fist on her hip.

"But - he-"

"Just because your brother can't go near him yet, doesn't mean we can't! I've got another training session with Maekawa-sensei in a week. There's no reason I can't bring one of my own students." Kaoru held out her other hand. "What do you say?"

Yahiko glanced at his brother.

Kenshin nodded, smiling.

"Heck, yeah!" Grinning, Yahiko slapped his palm against hers.

"Not quite what I had in mind," Kaoru muttered, shaking out her hand as the elated teen jumped and sauntered downstairs.

Sano rolled his eyes. "Missy, you could say that about this whole flaming week." Noticing a sudden absence of redhead, he headed after Kenshin. "Hey! Where you headed, anyway?"

"After Yahiko," Kenshin replied. "And then, to find Miss Kaoru's landlord." His lips quirked into a smile. "Better to move while Yahiko's in a good mood, that it is."

"Right. I'll just-"

"Come along and help," Kenshin said, tone silk over steel. "After all, you too need a place to spend the night, that you do."

"And you know I would," Sano said easily, "but I've got this appointment with the agency shrink-"

"Which you plan to avoid, two and three times at least, to go out and drink and gamble until you feel distanced enough from the blood and death to speak. Sano." Kenshin stopped mid-stair, forcing the taller man to halt. Calmed himself, ready to slip aside in his own mind. "Look at me."

"Look, Himura-"

"Look at me," Battousai said evenly.

Kaoru tensed. Sano frowned. "'Sai, don't. You know that's dangerous-"

"He would risk it, even if the danger were ten times as great. He knows me, Sanosuke. And he knows you are my friend." Battousai held out a hand. "You have done your best by all of us. Do this one more, small thing. Let Kenshin hold you safe for a time. Let him, let us, be certain you sleep safe, and warm, and guarded from your enemies." A faint smile touched his lips. "We both know you have more than enough of those, ne?"

"Some best," Sano grumbled, looking away. "Almost got you killed, almost got myself killed-"

"We are alive, and our enemies have fled," Battousai noted. "I believe that is what you call Target Alpha rule #97?"

"There's rules?" Kaoru muttered.

"Some," Sano admitted. "Kind of unofficial. That one says... when the bad guys are dead, you win." The agent forced a rueful smile, taking the offered hand, claws and all. "Okay. Okay! Just back off, will you? I know Kenshin's one pretty tough guy, but you're making me nervous."

"Good," Kenshin said mischievously, swimming back to control in the wake of ghostly scales. "We'll need the help packing."

"Wha- packing? Hey, I never said I was going to do actual work!"

Laughing, Kenshin skipped out from under grasping hands.

'Are you certain you're ready for this?'

Standing on the roof of Kaoru's apartment building - now his as well - as night closed over New York, Kenshin let out a slow breath. Looked across the rooftop, where the sheathed sakabatou rested on a gym bag. Touched fingers to the two hilts by his side, trying to accustom himself to the deadly weight. I'm never going to be ready. Let's do it.

'Start slowly. Grip first. These blades are not me.'

Kenshin gripped the katana hilt, noting the truth of that. Enchanted or not, this steel had no more life in it than its maker had given. It was willing in his hand, but it could not help him find the right grip.

'So feel. Move your hand slightly, slightly... yes. There. Feel how the hilt nestles into your grip, where your thumb closes against your hand? That is what you want. Release. And grasp again. And release. And now!'

Iai, Kaoru called it. Battou-jutsu, in Battousai's ancient memories. A blurring song of steel that would have keened through an enemy's throat, shedding bloody rain before the foe even realized he had struck...

'Don't stop. Don't think. Move!'

Down and through. Whirling to catch an imagined blade on his own. Left-handed battou-jutsu, wakizashi striking for the gut, to spill blood and organs and agony. Moving, always moving.

Tonight, I dance with Death.

'Tonight, and always. She is ever with us; even if we only smile, and nod as she passes.'

I should be afraid...

'Does the falcon fear when it stoops? We are what we are.'

And even a falcon might kill its own kind. New York had seen that.

Darkness fell over the city, pin-pricked with all the myriad lights of a thousand skyscrapers. Kenshin kept moving, even as he sensed familiar, astonished ki. Finished the kata. Sheathed his blades, and looked up. "Sano."

"Every time I think I know what that looks like... well, I don't," Sanosuke admitted. Held up a blue thermos. "Hot drink?"

Kenshin caught the container, faint coppery scent telling him the contents before he opened it. "Thank you." I think.

'Is it that much worse than eating meat?'

Eating steak in public doesn't usually have every cop in the area looking sideways at you. Kenshin sipped at thick crimson. Salty. A little gritty. And just slightly bitter, like a dusting of unsweetened chocolate. But it was warm, and rich, and soothing as coffee never could be. How often do I-?

'Every three days, at the least. Every two is better. And if you're hurt, as often as you can. I've never had a host die of the thirst, but beyond four days, we tend to get violent.'

Cap drained, Kenshin glanced up. "Marble dust?"

"Stephanopolis." Sano shrugged. "Not like you had any meat left in your fridge worth eating."

"Ah." A maedar butcher, making a relatively honest living in the Apple these past three years by selling animal prey to local medusae, then shattering the resulting stone corpses into flesh for Herd customers who were none the wiser. Target Alpha had looked into the situation, brought in some close-mouthed FDA personnel, and warned the Kin his products had better keep passing inspection. Or else. "And of course, you don't have a fridge left at all."

Sano shrugged shamelessly. "I helped you move yours."

Which had been one of the few pieces of their household electronics to survive, along with his home computer and Yahiko's CD player. Meaning he was going to have to take more time than he really wanted to hit an appliance store; apartments here didn't boast a laundry room, and his washer and dryer were now so much exploded Manhattan scrap metal.

'And what's wrong with asking Kaoru if you can use hers? Or Dr. Genzai,' Battousai added, before Kenshin could sputter a protest. 'Just make sure Sano pays his share of the groceries. He'd give you the shirt from his back if you needed it, but after so many years on the street, Sano simply won't pay for things if he thinks someone else will.'

And yet he'd brought a drink. Kenshin smiled wryly, touching memories new and familiar as worry-stones. "Bad week?"

"Oh yeah." Sano shook his head slowly, unwilling to go on.

'Same as always.' Battousai's amusement was tinged with regret. 'His soul is mortal, not unyielding steel.'

"You miss Ward," Kenshin said softly, reading ki and memory and his own deep knowledge of loss. "You miss him, and you feel guilty that you didn't miss him before."

Sano's jaw worked. He said nothing.

"And it's worse than that," Kenshin went on. "You didn't like Ward. He didn't like you. He was a twenty-year agent; you were a punk Crowley off the street, working for Target Alpha because you've never fit on either side of the line, human or Kin. The only things that kept you together were the missions, and Battousai. And that killed him - because when the chips were down, Battousai abandoned the mission to save you." Kenshin shook his head. "And you think it's your fault."

"Isn't it?" Sano's fists clenched. "He's a sword-spirit, Kenshin. He's not human. He's steel and magic and no damn heart at all. You know that. He cares about me, and maybe you, and maybe a few other people. The rest of the world can go to hell. You're the one who's got him in your head. You tell me. If this happens again, what the hell's going to happen to you?"

Kenshin smiled wryly, covering Battousai's agonized flinch. It's the pain talking. Only the pain. "Nothing."


"I am not a host, Sano. I chose to take the blade. We may have... disagreements. But never would there be the struggle for control that led to Ward's death."

"And?" Sano demanded.

And. Yes, he would know there was an "and". Kenshin let out a quiet breath. "Hitokiri wa hitokiri."

Sano gaped at him. "Please tell me you're joking."

"No." Kenshin braced himself, accepting the truth bright steel had unsheathed. "I am not as Ward was, that I am not. I... do not have the instinct, that bids a normal soul to hesitate before blood is shed. Human, Kin - if it threatens one of mine, I will stop it."

"Damn," Sano whispered.

"So your warning, however well meant, is - not needed. I know what a sword-spirit is." Kenshin gave him a painful smile. "I am one."

Silence. A breeze blew between them, skirling a scrap of newspaper, skittering it across the roof to lodge against the chain-link meant to prevent humans from wandering off into air.

"And I still want to be your friend," Kenshin said softly. "That I do."

Sano looked away. "When I saw Ward dead - all I could think about was finding that damn sword," he said in a rush, as if the words burned. "The guy who'd been counting on me to watch his back was dead, and the guy we were after was gone, and all I could think was, my friend is missing."

"You left the dead to care for the living," Kenshin said plainly. "Is that not what Ward would have wanted?"

Sano shook his head. "He hated Kin. And-" Deliberately, he shut up.

Face him, Kenshin thought.

'I can't.'

You must.

'He'll never understand!'

Try. Please.

Scales wrapped his soul, and Kenshin felt himself set aside. "He hated me, and I killed him," Battousai stated. "That is what you feel, is it not?"

Sano whirled. "'Sai, you know that's-"

"Kenshin may judge the danger, Sanosuke." The spirit narrowed amber eyes. "And you should pay more attention to your feelings. They guide you well."

Sano was shaking his head. "Don't say that, 'Sai, I know you wouldn't-"

"You know nothing of the sort." Battousai touched one hilt by his side, letting all the lethality of steel shine in his gaze. "Blame me, then. So many lives weight my blade; one more will make little difference. Hate me, if you will; hate yourself for hating me, and caring for me, and choosing to stand at my side. Lose yourself in the darkness and forget the truth: I am magic, and magic always has its cost." He turned to the wind, wishing he had the power some Elder Kin did, to call storms to echo the raging pain in his heart. "Yes, I killed him. I fought him for your life, and that battle distracted us both long enough to die. And I would do it again."

Rain, the spirit thought absently, feeling liquid run down his cheek. Warm rain?

But rain never carried such bitter salt.

"I'm gonna go down and see if Yahiko mugged the pizza guy," Sano said, tone too casual to be real. "HQ's got me on paperwork chases until I do see the shrink. So I guess they'll get me back in a week or so." He headed for the stairwell door. "You better let Kenshin have the body back soon."

"Soon enough," Battousai murmured to the closing door. "You can come out now, Kamiya-sensei."

Ki flared indignantly, then settled to low-grade worry as Kaoru came out from behind the shed. "I was just-"

"Watching," Battousai nodded. "As any who love swords would."

Kaoru bit her lip. "I didn't mean to hear-" she waved a hand toward the silent door, "-that."

A ghost of a smile shadowed his face. "I know."

Kaoru stepped closer; daringly close, for one who knew what he was. "You're crying."

Am I? He touched the warm salt, watching how night's glow glittered in the drops on his fingers. "He is my friend," Battousai said thickly. "He has been my friend for over a decade. And he still doesn't - understand..."

"I do."

Startled, he met her gaze.

Kaoru reddened, but didn't flinch. "Well, I think I do! Sano... he's a guy. I've seen lots of guys in my classes. He likes to compete. He likes to go out with the guys, have a beer, do a little friendly gambling, try to get pretty girls' phone numbers. And I'll bet anything he just loves to chase the bad guys. It's serious, he knows it's serious, but at the same time, it's all one big game. Right?"

Bemused, he nodded.

"But it's not a game," Kaoru said softly. "My father told me... even though we only use bokkens, even though we only fight in self-defense - you never draw unless you're prepared to kill."

'This is Kaoru?'

Strong and wise, Battousai agreed. I admire your taste.


"It's the only way." Kaoru shivered a little. "Even if you don't want to, even if you think you can just strike to disable and get away... if you have to take it that far, to use force to protect yourself, or someone else, then you've got to be sure that you could. You've got to. You can't - go halfway..."

He put a cautious arm around her shoulders, ready to retreat if she flinched. But Kaoru leaned into him instead, breath catching in a hiccup. "'M sorry," she mumbled into his hair. "Don't wanna be scared. Not of you. You care. You're trying. Lot more than a lot of people do."

"Courage does not mean not being afraid, Kaoru-sensei." So brave. "Courage is following the course your soul knows to be right, despite your fear." So bright, shining like a star. She has seen death. She knows what it will cost her, to pick up a blade and defend herself. And she faces it, even now.

Daring, he kissed her cheek.

So beautiful.

But now he truly had overstayed his time. Take care of her.

'Are you insane? You can't just leave me in the middle of-'

Snickering, Battousai retreated.

Kaoru felt the shift in the arms holding her, the touch of lips turned from warm to tentative on her cheek. "Um." Kenshin's breath tickled her ear. "I'm... hoping I'm not unwelcome, that I am."

A second kiss pressed against her cheek, and withdrew. Violet eyes searched hers, shy and hopeful.

Heavenly choir, no, Kaoru thought wryly. Fireworks display, likewise no. Desire to melt helplessly into his grip, strip off his clothes with my teeth, and ravish him on the roof, uh-uh. Scratch the classic romantic symptoms.

But it was nice. Nice was a good start. She backed up an inch. "Did I hear Sano say something about pizza?"

"The ravening hordes requested it." Kenshin let go, shrugging slightly. "To tell the truth, the day we've had... I'm not up to cooking tonight, that I am not."

Mmm, pizza. Kaoru resisted the urge to lick her lips. "Is there enough for one more?"

Kenshin blinked, then smiled, and bowed formally. "Miss Kaoru. May I invite you to dinner?"

Kaoru grinned back. "You're on."

He laughed softly, walking across the roof to pick up the sakabatou. Straightened. And tensed.

"What...?" Kaoru froze, hearing something shiver through the noise of a New York night. Thin, shrill, prickling down her spine like spider-feet of ice-

"The caoine."

Kaoru jumped at the hand on her shoulder, warm where the night was suddenly chill. "The... what?"

"The death-keen. A banshee hunts tonight." Kenshin's face was sober. "It is not close enough to harm us, but if it prefers this territory to feed in... we'll need to get you and Yahiko cold-wrought iron to carry, that we will."

Cold iron. "They're everywhere, aren't they," Kaoru whispered. "All the monsters. All the nightmares..."

"They are." Kenshin searched her gaze. "But do you know what their nightmares are, Miss Kaoru?" Gently, he squeezed her shoulder.

"No way!" she sputtered.

"Prey that is not afraid," Kenshin stated, amber glinting in violet. "Prey that lives with what the worst of them have forgotten: love, and honor, and the will to fight for your right to share the world."

Kaoru swallowed. That warm smile was doing funny things to her pulse. "You're going to do it, aren't you?"


"You're going to help him." Fact. Bodies ended up in the Hudson. The Van Nuys was a traffic nightmare. Kenshin couldn't turn his back on a friend. No matter how weirdly that friend had been acquired.


Kaoru raised her eyebrows.

"I want to," Kenshin admitted softly. "I know what Sanosuke will be facing. A human, alone; the perils are far too great." His arm clutched the saya more tightly. "But the shop - it is home. It should be enough for anyone. I do not seek violence, I do not want to fight-"

Kaoru crossed her arms, giving him a look born of years spent measuring other martial artists across the dojo. "Yes, you do."

Kenshin blushed. "Miss Kaoru..."

She nibbled the inside of her lip. Keeping quiet, no matter how much she wanted to bash his head in until he admitted the truth.

"Virus was there," Kenshin said at last. "They took a place I thought was safe. Killed an innocent man. And we still do not know why." He met her gaze, sober and still. "And they know I am their enemy."

"You mean, Battousai is," Kaoru corrected.

"Virus will not care whose body they kill." His fists clenched. "They are one, Miss Kaoru. What one sees, all may see. And they saw me. By now they will know my name. My relatives. My last address. Anything, everything that may have been left unguarded on this city's computers."

Kaoru blanched. "Damn."

"Sano took steps to ensure we were protected as soon as he knew Battousai had bound me. There should be limits to the damage Virus may do us by electronic means. But if that protection is to continue..." Kenshin sighed. "Target Alpha does not devote their resources to civilians. Not for long."

The kendo teacher could almost feel steam shoot out of her ears. "That's blackmail!"

"It is," Kenshin said wryly, "Target Alpha's usual strategy when dealing with Kin." He brushed his fingers over her knuckles. "And Crowleys."

"But you've got a job!"

"And now it seems I may have another." Kenshin gave her a wry smile. "I do not yet know what I'll do, Miss Kaoru; that I don't. I only know I must do something." He spread a hand. "And helping Sano seems the most likely way to find the extent of our danger, that it does."

"Good point," Kaoru admitted. She skewered him with a look. "But you're wrong about one thing, you idiot!"


"You didn't start this." She glared at the redhead. "And if you think you're going to be the only one helping Sano, you'd better think again!"

"Er... ah..."

"Now come on!" Kaoru grabbed a wrist and started dragging.


"Sano, a teenager, and pizza," Kaoru pointed out, locking up his arm in one of her favorite come-along holds. "Let's go while there's still some left!"

The end... for now...

Hai - yes.
Iie - no.
Baka - idiot.
Ne? - "Isn't that right?"

Aisling - dream-vision. (Gaelic)

Kin and Target Alpha slang:

Addict - some Kin's Drain is addictive. Vampires, Daemons, and Animates are particularly noted for this.
Animates - inanimate objects, usually humanoid, come to life. Think Frankenstein's Monster, Chucky, living scarecrows, the Swamp Thing.
Beeps - Blue Plate Special. AKA Herd.
Commune - a loose group of Kin who advocate peaceful coexistence with humans in general.
Complex - one of the many anti-human Kin groups, who would like to establish a new world order with Kin on top. Commune-Complex rumbles have been known to take down small buildings.
Crowley - a human who knows about Kin.
Daemons - shape-shifters whose ancestors escaped from dark dimensions centuries ago.
Drain - the ability to siphon off life-force. Most Kin must Drain weekly, or even nightly.
Edge - a supernatural power. Used as a noun or verb.
ENO - ExtraNatural Operative; Kin working for Target Alpha.
Hard option - Target Alpha blackmailing a Kin into working for them. "We know who you are. We know where you live. We know what you did." If they can't find evidence of an actual crime, they get creative.
Herd - human.
Inuit - flamboyant Kin, often Native American in origin, who can cause Madness.
Kin - supernatural creature.
Maedar - sort of a "sport" of medusa, usually male, with no snake hair, that turns stone back into flesh. The victim is still dead, though.
Soft option - Target Alpha asking for a Kin's help, usually "paid" for by clearing up case files of homicides and creating official identities for Kin who don't have them.
Sorcerer - formerly human magic-user turned Kin. Note that Target Alpha still considers them human, the evidence of Drain to the contrary.
Triborough - mixed Kin and human Target Alpha teams; DuBuccio's idea, meant to ease tensions between the two communities in New York.
Virus - think the Star Trek Borg, only less communicative. And slightly easier to kill. They appeared about two years ago; no one knows what they want, but everyone suspects it can't be good.
Witch - human magic-user, usually works in groups.

Various persons of note (from the NightLife books):

Golgotha - a powerful vampire Elder in the Commune. Runs Club AfterDark.

Petrio DuBuccio - Deputy Director, Target Alpha New York. Prefers soft option. Created Triborough. Often in trouble with his hard-line superiors for both of these.

James nGao tBuku - Commander, Field Operations, TA New York. Prefers hard option.

Harvey Falconi - Magical Research Consultant.

Natasha Falconi - ENO Liaison Officer, sorceress.

Target Alpha - from about 1906 on, the U.S. government's main agency in charge of handling Kin in the States. Depending on the situation, this may entail anything from "losing" suspicious autopsy reports to hunting down a careless Kin with silver, cold iron, and flame-throwers. In 1986 they wiped out every Kin existing in Boulder, Colorado in "a season long campaign of terrorism and murder". Though there hasn't been as much open violence in the past years, relations between Kin and the agency have been (ahem) nervous.