Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin.
Note: Response to Reviewers at the end of the chapter
Yahiko woke up to an empty space on the bed next to him. How did Tsubame do it? She always seemed to be up before he was. He lifted his chin and heard the shower running in the bathroom. She was washing again, poor kid. She'd really freaked out about all that blood on her.
"Hey Yahiko, your girlfriend better not take too long in the shower. We've got to get going." Sano's voice called across from the other bed.
Yahiko sat up abruptly. "She's NOT my girlfriend!" he yelled back, and was surprised by the rush of disappointment that accompanied his words.
Sano smirked, and made another smart aleck remark, and the argument was on. As they argued, Yahiko and Sano dumped their belongings into their bags, and waited for Tsubame to finish up.
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen.
"Hey Missy, how much longer are you going to be in there?" Sano hollered through the bathroom door, knocking on it with the back of his hand.
Yahiko came over. "Tsubame?" he called out questioningly.
Exchanging a look, Yahiko and Sano pushed the door open together. The bathroom was empty. The shower ran on, unoccupied. Yahiko moved to it automatically and shut it off, drenching his sleeve in the process. He turned around to find Sano picking up a piece of paper lying on the countertop by the sink.
"What's it say?"
Ignoring him, the taller vampire simply held the paper up high, at the level of his forehead, eyes scanning quickly over the handwritten lines.
"Sano!" snarled Yahiko, grabbing the arm nearest him and yanking it. He hated it when Sanosuke used his height to his advantage.
Sano let the hand holding the paper drop and handed it over tamely.
"Huh?" Yahiko recovered quickly from his surprise at the capitulation and yanked it out of Sano's hand.
"It's for you." There was an odd expression in Sano's eyes. He stepped back, turned, and left the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
The paper was cream colored and had the Motel 6 logo at the top. It was one of those 'complementary letterhead' papers you found in drawers of hotels. On it Tsubame had written:
You don't need me anymore so I'm leaving. Please don't try to follow me. Thank you for your offer to help me, but I can't accept it. I don't want to be what I am now. I never did, and if the only way I can survive in your world is the way you said, then I'd rather be dead. I won't prostitute myself in order to live. Please understand, and leave me alone.
"Idiot." Yahiko called himself. "Lunkhead. Moron. Retard."
How could he have been such a fool, telling her she had to seduce humans to survive? No wonder she'd run away. Nice girls like Tsubame didn't go around having sex with anyone who wanted them. And she was a nice girl, Yahiko was certain of it, even though that idiot rooster head kept saying she was feral.
Yahiko groaned, and clenched the paper in his hands. He'd ruined everything when he scared her by kissing her and tried to cover for it, pretending he'd just been teaching her a survival tactic.
"I'm going after her," Yahiko announced, shoving open the bathroom door and striding over to the bed where he'd left his duffel bag. Then he yelped as Sano grabbed the collar at the back of his shirt and yanked him away from the bed.
"No, you're not. Something's going down in Los Angeles soon, and Captain Sagara ordered us back, so that's where we're going."
Yahiko reached back and pulled the cloth out of Sano's hand, whirled around and glared.
Sano met his angry stare calmly. "You really want to disobey the captain?"
Grinding his teeth together, Yahiko dropped his gaze to the floor. He'd sworn an oath of loyalty to Captain Sagara, just like Sano had. In return, Sagara protected him and the other vampires in his band. There's strength in numbers. Vampires learned that over the centuries and now it was rare to find vampires who survived on their own without affiliation to a group. Battousai was a very rare exception.
"No." Yahiko grudgingly admitted, and waited for Sano to make some stupid, teasing remark.
It never came.
"Then let's go." Yahiko looked up and saw Sano, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, walking out the door.
The first thing Yahiko noticed when he pulled into the parking lot of the abandoned warehouse Sagara used as his headquarters, was the number of cars already parked there. The warehouse was in a really bad part of town, an industrial area gone to pot. It was a squat, grey concrete building with dirty, broken windows.
The next thing Yahiko noticed were the two battered steel doors up the concrete steps. They were hanging open. He parked his Cadillac next to Winston's blue truck with the camper shell on the back, and got out of his car.
A noise at the rusted chain link gateway caught his attention. It was Sano, pulling in. Yahiko stifled a smirk. He'd told that rooster head to take the other exit time after time, but Sano insisted his favorite one was faster.
Seeing him, Sano pulled up next to him and got out. Immediately, his eyes went to the open doors up a small flight of concrete steps.
The expression on his face stilled Yahiko's gloating comment.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Sano looked at him. "When I called Sagara before, he said he thought something might be going down tonight."
"What? So soon?"
Yahiko tried to stay out of the politics. He followed Sagara's orders, and came when called, but his work as an assistant kendo instructor at a local dojo kept him busy. The human who ran it was a friend, and didn't mind when Yahiko took off and left him with the evening classes. Yahiko liked the routine of kendo, though for real conflicts, he preferred his katana or his wakizashi.
Sano reached behind his back and pulled out a gun tucked in his belt under his shirt. Seeing it, Yahiko opened his car door, leaned in, and grabbed his wakizashi. He knew Sano preferred the wood tipped bullets, but Yahiko would rather take his chances with a blade.
Without another word, Sano slipped quietly up the concrete steps and leaned in by the open metal doors, listening. Yahiko followed, blade unsheathed and up by his shoulders, ready to slash down when needed.
Concentrating, Yahiko heard what Sano did, faint voices from inside. They crept inside to what Sagara laughingly called the reception area. The smell of waste and chemicals in half rotted away metal drums would knock a regular human on his rear. They barely noticed the familiar smell as they crept through the bits of rusted machinery Sagara left there coated with dust to make the warehouse look abandoned. There were nicks in the machinery where the metal under the rust had been exposed by slashes or bullet holes.
The pressure pads of Sagara's security system were still in place. Vampires in his group knew where to and not to step to get to the cellar doors that led to the true headquarters.
Sano and Yahiko noticed them and and exchanged a look. The cellar doors were wide open. Piles of clothing lay about the opening, with the dust of decomposing vampire flesh still inside.
Coming out from behind the shadows of an interior girder, Sano made his way to the stairs and walked down them, gun clasped in his hands, pointed forward. Yahiko followed quietly, moving aside to avoid stepping on the piles of dusty clothes.
There were so many of them.
The stairs down opened up into a hallway with doors on either side. The doors were window dressing. The rooms behind them weren't used for anything, but the attackers hadn't known that. Doors hung drunkenly off hinges, or lay inside the empty rooms where they'd been kicked inward. Sano checked out each one, but there was nothing there.
Finally, they made it to the last door on the left, the true entrance. Just as Sano prepared to kick it open, it swung inward on its own.
He stepped back and aimed his gun at the center of the doorway. Without being told, Yahiko hugged the wall to the left of the opening, blade lifted above his head, ready to slice downward.
It was Keisuke's voice.
Sano lowered his gun, but Yahiko stayed put until the large vampire actually stepped out of the doorway. Seeing the distinctive, bushy sideburns, he relaxed his arms and let his blade lower to rest, tip down, at his side.
Keisuke acknowledged Yahiko's presence with a glance, then crossed his arms and answered Sano. "We were attacked. Sagara got word ahead of time, so we were ready, but…"
Sano grimaced. "Was it the Meiji?"
Yahiko breathed a sigh of relief as Sagara came into view, his dark eyes lingering over Sano and Yahiko as if checking for wounds. His gaze stopped at the band of cloth Sano had tied around his forehead, and his eyes tilted inquiringly.
Sano put a hand up absently to touch the burned area. "Why didn't you call me?" he asked accusingly.
"We were a little busy here," Keisuke answered.
Sano opened his mouth to retort, but Sagara lifted a hand to stop him. "The Meiji didn't do this, Sano. It was the Tokugawa."
"The Tokugawa? But I thought they were in Japan!" burst out Yahiko.
Sagara's eyes lit on him. "Yes, Yahiko, they are. But like most groups, they are eager to expand their territory. They planned to do what the Meiji did, and come here."
"So they're copying the Meiji's tactics, huh? A surprise attack like there was ten years ago, the dirty swine." Sano's anger came through his voice loud and clear.
"It was the Meiji who warned us of this attack." Sagara said simply.
"What?" Sano unconsciously gripped his gun tighter.
"You're behind the times." Keisuke told him as he leaned back against the doorframe.
"I've spoken to Katsura. There was a traitor in the Meiji organization. It was he who ordered the attack ten years ago without Katsura's knowledge. By the time Katsura returned from Sacramento, the attack was already started. He couldn't stop it, but he could and did pull his forces back at the first opportunity."
"What traitor?" Sano's voice went cold.
"Izuka, a vampire who'd been with Katsura since his human days. Katsura thinks he may have been in the pay of the real Tokugawa bakufu even then. It was Izuka who sent us the false cry for help with the serial killer, then told Katsura that the killer was one of ours, sent to cause problems for his group up North. He planned to let the Tokugawa group wipe us out while our strongest warriors were up chasing the serial killer, then get Katsura to come after my best and strongest for encroaching on Meiji territory without permission. With the Sekihoutai out of the way, the Tokugawa planned to move on the Meiji next."
"How'd Katsura find out Izuka was the traitor?" Yahiko asked.
'Katsura has his own ways of getting information. Just as there are vampires who work as assassins, there are others who work as informants."
"Where's Izuka now?" Sano asked, eyes glinting with hatred.
"Arrangements have already been made." Sagara told him.
"Katsura promised me, Izuka will not live out the week. He already has someone on it."
Sano cursed softly and glared his disappointment at the floor. Yahiko drifted over to his side. Sano lost his best friend, Katsu in the war ten years ago. Even though the big rooster head was an idiot, Yahiko didn't want him to do anything stupid like rebelling against Sagara and going after Izuka on his own. Just as he reached Sano's side, the taller vampire lifted his head and spoke.
"I hope this doesn't mean that we're best friends with the Meiji now," he said, a dark humor in his voice.
Sagara shook his head. "No. The past cannot be entirely forgotten. The Sekihoutai and the Meiji will remain separate, Katsura and I both agree on that. But if the Tokugawa ever attacks again, we will fight them, separately if possible, but together if need be. Right now we maintain a balance in California. Lose either group, and the other becomes easy prey for the Tokugawa."
Sano nodded grudgingly, then got back to the topic at hand. "How many did we lose?"
Sagara bowed his head, and told him.
There wasn't much time left until dawn, so Yahiko stayed at headquarters to sleep. The next evening, he helped clean out the evidence of battle. The Tokugawa remains were thrown in a dumpster down the street. The remains of the Sekihoutai were placed in urns to be secretly buried in a Buddhist cemetery outside of town. Yuji, the vampire who'd loved to tease Yahiko for being the youngest, was gone, as was his friend Tetsu, and Winston. Now Yahiko would never have a chance to ask again what it was like when California was part of the Wild West, and gold miners roamed the hills. If only he'd had a few more years, he could have worn the vampire down, and got him to talk.
But there were no more years for Winston, or for the other Sekihoutai members who'd died defending their captain and the territory they'd carved out for themselves. Yahiko realized, seeing the grief in the faces of his fellow Sekihoutai, that despite having lived long after their allotted human span of years, vampires (like humans) felt that there was never enough time to do all the things you wanted or to say all the things you meant to say. Death was ever a robber who came to take that which was most precious to you.
Captain Sagara immediately began looking for a new headquarters, a place to keep the organization's records, and a place for the Sekihoutai to assemble and defend in case of emergencies. Within a week, he sent word that he'd rented an old office building with an underground parking garage – a perfect place to build the new headquarters.
The evening of the move, Yahiko found himself at the old warehouse, and joined in carrying boxes to the moving trucks Sagara had rented. He felt restless back in his old life of teaching kendo classes in the evening, and roaming around the city late at night. He'd always been a city boy, but all of a sudden the smog and relentless garish lights were getting to him. His apartment, one of the cheaper studio ones in the building next to Sano's, seemed too small and empty. It felt constricting, which is why he volunteered on the spot to help in the move. He told himself it was just to try to feel connected with the remaining Sekihoutai, the ones who still lived.
Ferrying boxes to the new building gave him a sense of purpose. The lowest floor of the parking garage was already being carpeted and room partitions were in place. It was going to be a maze of corridors and rooms, designed to confuse intruders. Sagara was smart that way.
"…figure Tsubame's got a year maybe, before she's completely feral."
Sano's voice drifted out from one of the open doorways. Yahiko, carrying a box through the hallway outside the newly constructed room, opened his mouth angrily, and prepared to rush in to give the rooster head a few choice words when Sagara's voice answered Sano.
"If she did drink human blood for the first time last week, and she's been a vampire ten years before that, she may not have a whole year. She was already well on her way to becoming a true feral. The stories say that once a vampire tastes human blood then rejects it in favor of animal blood, the process accelerates."
Yahiko stopped dead in his tracks, holding a box of files and staring straight in front of him. An image came to him of Tsubame, her arms and face covered in blood, standing behind a bathtub full of it. Her first taste of blood came from an overwhelming quantity. He remembered how the smell and sight of it had affected him, and he'd even drunk recently. The box rustled in front of him and he saw that his hands were shaking.
"So what do you want to do about it?" Sano's voice asked reluctantly.
"She'll have to be killed."
Yahiko felt as if he'd been punched. That couldn't be Captain Sagara's voice saying that. The captain he'd sworn an oath of loyalty to, a vampire he admired almost as much as he did Battousai, couldn't be that unfair. Tsubame helped find the serial killer. She'd done everything they'd asked her to do. No, everything Yahiko asked her to. He'd got her into this. He had to get her out.
Yahiko bent and gently placed the box on the floor. Kneeling beside it, he continued to listen in to the conversation.
The silence in the room trailed on. Yahiko wished that Sano would say something to defend Tsubame, but he knew the older vampire blamed her for Katsu's death. Sano eventually replied, as Yahiko knew he would.
"I'll do it. She knows me; I can get close to her. At least with me, it'll be quick."
"No." Sagara's denial came firmly. "Your relationship with Yahiko would be harmed by this. I'll ask an outsider to do it. I'll call Battousai tomorrow. I believe he's still in San Francisco."
"What about Yahiko?" Was that concern in Sano's voice? Yahiko listened wide-eyed.
"I will inform him." Sagara replied calmly. "It is my decision."
"Doesn't sound like you." Sano's voice came speculatively.
"No. It was a joint decision. It was one of the things Katsura and I discussed. Though the human serial killer has been disposed of, having a feral vampire roaming free is still a danger to us all. Since Tsubame came from our territory, Katsura agreed that it was our responsibility to take care of the matter."
"Yahiko won't take it well." Sano warned.
"I know. He will blame me, and may do something rash. I trust that as his friend, Sano, you'll help him through it."
"Yeah," Sano's agreement came softly. "It really sucks, though."
There was another silence, and then Sagara said, "We need to discuss who will replace Yuji and Tetsu as leaders on the team."
As Sano and Sagara started throwing out various names, Yahiko concentrated on being as quiet as possible as he inched his way back down the hallway. Once he got to the end of it, he walked quickly to the stairs, caught a ride on a moving truck going back to the warehouse, and retrieved his car. Within minutes he was on the freeway and on his way back up North. He had to stop Battousai from killing Tsubame. He didn't know how, but he had to try.
Yahiko left his wakizashi locked in his car and walked from the parking lot to the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. It's not as if it would do him any good against the Battousai, against Kenshin, anyhow. Kenshin moved faster than the eye could track him. When he'd killed the man who'd shot Yahiko all those years ago, he'd just been a blur. As much as Yahiko had practiced and improved since becoming a vampire, he still wouldn't stand a chance against the professional assassin. He'd have to use words instead.
He'd driven like a madman to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but with the traffic and the long summer daylight hours and proportionally shorter nights he'd had to stop the night before at a motel.
The next evening he made it to the Fairmont Hotel, hoping against hope that Kenshin hadn't left for the national park yet.
The Fairmont's lobby was vast and intimidating. Huge columns of gold and burgundy mottled marble rose up to a two storey tall ceiling. Backless sofas that looked like something Cleopatra would have lounged on were scattered in tasteful groupings along with overstuffed upholstered chairs around curving oriental rugs that accented rather than merely covered the marble floor. A massive staircase with intricate dark wrought iron banister and side panels swept towards an upper floor. Yahiko glanced around, gulped, then made his way to the front desk.
"I'd like to see Mr. Himura please. Kenshin Himura?" This was too important to let go. If he had to hypnotize the pleasant faced middle-aged woman in the concierge's uniform to find out the room number, he would.
He didn't have to. She'd already been hypnotized. He could tell by the instantaneous glazed look she got in her eye the second he said Kenshin's name.
"Of course, Mr. Myojin. Mr. Himura is in room 508. He's expecting you."
Disdaining the marble staircase, Yahiko took the elevator to level five and found himself in front of room 508, knocking sharply on the door.
It opened the moment he took his knuckles off the wood. There was Kenshin, dressed in a dark blue kimono with his hair tied back in a ponytail. In his right hand he held the sheath of his sword. Glancing over the redhead's shoulder into the sitting room area, Yahiko saw Kenshin's sword, disassembled for cleaning, lying on a towel on the coffee table, which separated two small sofas.
Kenshin was cleaning his sword. Yahiko's heart sank.
"Come in, Yahiko. I've been expecting you."
Yahiko stomped past and dropped down on the sofa furthest from the door. Kenshin followed and sat across from him, laying the sheath across his knees. Yahiko stared at him accusingly.
"You know why I've come here, don't you? You know what Captain Sagara wants to do to Tsubame." Yahiko burst out challengingly. "It's not fair! She helped us and now Captain Sagara and Katsura both want her dead. You saw her! She's not dangerous. She's brave, and good. How can you kill her?"
The red headed assassin lifted the plain blue metal sheath from his lap and began to polish it in smooth even strokes with a soft cloth. Eyes on his work, he spoke softly. "I did not accept the job of killing Tsubame, Yahiko. I refused it. I do not know who they plan to send to execute her."
Relief washed over Yahiko. His shoulders sagged. Tsubame was safe for now. She could fight off most vampires, but not the Battousai. However, there were still a lot of problems.
Yahiko was a member of Captain Sagara's group. The captain wanted Tsubame killed, and would probably send one of his own to go get her. Since Yahiko purposely left his cell phone back in Los Angeles, Sagara couldn't order him to do it, but he could order anyone else from the Sekihoutai to kill her. Even Sano.
"Kenshin…what should I do?" Yahiko felt like his life was skittering completely out of control. He owed Sagara his loyalty and obedience, and yet…
"What do you feel for this girl?" Kenshin's hands continued to move in confident circles over the sheath, his eyes watching for any nicks or dents as he polished.
Yahiko gaped. He was looking for answers, not questions. "What do you mean?"
Kenshin's hands paused momentarily and he shot a hard look with glints of amber at Yahiko out from under his crimson bangs. "What are your feelings towards Tsubame?"
What did he feel about her? "I…I like her." The words felt right, so Yahiko continued more confidently. "I like her a lot, and I don't think it's fair to…"
"Forget fair." Kenshin broke in harshly. "There is no 'fair' in life or in the existence we have now. I'm not asking about her situation, I'm asking how you feel about her and what you intend to do about it."
Brown eyes met amber tinted violet ones steadily. Kenshin's hands stilled on the sheath. He sat motionless, his whole attention on Yahiko, waiting.
"I love her." Yahiko admitted at last. "I love her and I want to protect her no matter what, but I don't know how."
It was true. The most important thing in his world right now was Tsubame, and keeping her safe. The question was, how long could he and she run, with who knows how many assassins chasing after them? Where could they go? While Yahiko mused, a curious thing happened.
Kenshin began to smile, the expression breaking slowly across his features like the dawn across a still lake. It lightened the angry gold glints in his eyes to a gentle blue violet, and softened the hard, dignified contours of his face.
Yahiko gaped, and felt his mouth literally drop open in surprise.
"What is it?" Kenshin asked, amused at Yahiko's expression.
"You're smiling. I've never seen you smile before."
Kenshin's smile widened as the door handle on the door behind him turned. "You've never met my wife Tomoe before either, have you?" he asked rhetorically, setting the sheath down and rising to his feet. He shifted slightly and directed his smile's warmth to the woman entering through the doorway.
"Anata," she greeted him, an answering warmth in the quiet smile she directed toward her husband.
Yahiko found himself gaping again. Tomoe was beautiful. She had a milky white complexion like the finest porcelain. Jet-black hair fell about her shoulders, with a few shorter wisps framing her face. She wore modern style clothes, a black skirt with a fitted suit jacket over the palest of pink silk blouses, but she moved into the room with an old fashioned grace. Yahiko wouldn't have been surprised in the least to see that she floated instead of walked on the ground like mere mortals or vampires.
She moved forward and came to stand quietly at her husband's side, her almond shaped eyes regarding Yahiko with a steady curiosity.
Kenshin turned back to him. "Wanting to protect those who are dear to us is what keeps the last vestiges of humanity alive in us, Yahiko. Not drinking human blood once a month. I'm going to tell you a secret few vampires know." He took his wife's hand and clasped it. Yahiko noticed that Tomoe's fingers curled gently around Kensin's as he continued. "What you must do is…"
Tsubame inhaled so that she could take in the woodsy scent of the trees and the wildlife that nestled in their branches. She'd fed yesterday, but it didn't hurt to map out where her prey lived.
A slight tingling sensation in her stomach alerted her to the presence of another vampire. She turned her head and inhaled again. It was Yahiko.
Dropping from the tree branch she'd been standing on, Tsubame touched down to earth with bent knees, and straightened them to stand upright, facing in the direction Yahiko was coming. Why was he here? She'd said everything there was to say in her letter.
For a second she considered running. She was good at it. But Yahiko was a vampire like her, and could sense her presence if he got close enough. She hadn't been able to shake him before.
The tree branches laced together above her cut out the starlight and left her in shadows. She wanted to see Yahiko's face again, without shadow.
Turning, Tsubame began to walk toward the edge of the forested hill she was on. Sometime in the past, the stream running next to it had eroded away a large portion of it. At the drop-off point, the trees thinned. She emerged from the trees and stepped to the edge.
Clusters of ferns and wild violets grouped around the reddish brown trunks at her back. Before her, across the drop, were the tree trunks and lacey green branches of the rest of the forest. A small stream gurgled low in the streambed below, and Tsubame amused herself counting the boulders protruding from the middle and sides of the rushing waters, her mind already formulating an escape plan and figuring which ones were safe to step on.
The ferns brushed against Yahiko's clothes. She heard the dry susurration of plant against fabric. Turning slowly, she saw him, standing just outside the forest shadows.
His face was exactly as she'd remembered it – warm brown eyes with pleasant, confidant features, and spiky-looking short brown hair.
His wakizashi was strapped to his back over his plaid flannel shirt, left open over a white t-shirt and jeans. He was dressed like a hiker, except for his hand, for he had it fisted around a small black box. He looked really good.
She thought the way her name sounded in his mouth wouldn't sound as good once time and distance had separated them for a while, but it still made her melt inside.
Relief flashed over his face. Did he think she'd reject him? Or try to kill him again?
He walked forward, stopping about a foot away. "You're still you." He said simply. "They said once you'd drunk human blood then were away from it, you'd go crazy faster."
Tsubame frowned. "What makes you think I drank human blood?"
Yahiko blinked. "That woman, Melissa Murphy, you killed her, didn't you?"
Nodding, Tsubame explained. "I pushed her under the blood and drowned her in it. I couldn't let her live, not after she'd killed so many people. I've never killed anyone before."
Yahiko's eyes widened. "You didn't drink any of it?"
Tsubame shook her head.
A big smile pasted itself across Yahiko's face. Tsubame found herself entranced by the way it warmed the expression in his eyes. She could watch those eyes of his forever and still feel she hadn't captured every expression, every bit of the brave, determined, laughing, quarrelsome, irresistible boy that she'd come to know so well.
He reached out and grabbed her hand. "Sit with me," he commanded, and sank down to his knees, dragging her gently down with him so that they both knelt across from each other, the tree line on their left, and the stream below on their right.
"There's something I have to tell you, and ask you. Just don't talk or anything until you hear me out, OK?"
He looked so earnest. Whatever it was obviously was important to him, so Tsubame nodded back, and kept her hand in his.
"I found out there's a way for you to survive without human blood. It's kind of a miracle you've made it for so long without going feral, but even if you didn't drink Melissa Murphy's blood, eventually you're going to forget how to talk, and attack anything that comes near you." He searched her face, as if trying to see from her expression that she understood.
Tsubame blinked, and thought back to the way she'd reacted the first time she met Yahiko. It had taken her brain a while to remember talking. Her body had identified him as a threat, and acted on instinct, ready to kill without finding out anything about him. The only reason she hadn't attacked any humans is because she'd trained herself to stay away from them.
Being with Yahiko and Sano had brought her back to something approaching normal, but since she'd been away from them, she could feel the call of the savage wilderness, and had been steadily surrendering to it.
"I know." she admitted. "I feel it, but what else can I do?"
Yahiko's hand tightened on hers. "There's a way out. Kenshin told me about it. His wife Tomoe is like you. She'll kill other vampires if she has to, but she won't kill humans and she hates to drink their blood. So she feeds off Kenshin right after he's drunk. The human blood in him gets transferred to her that way. I want to do that for you. Kenshin said he'd square it with Sagara and Katsura. Let me do this."
"But, humans still get hurt, Yahiko."
He was already shaking his head in negation before she finished speaking. "Not if I only drink donated blood. Heck, I already only drink Red Cross rejects. That whole club scene and picking up suppliers got real old real fast. Those people are weird. And what you said to me before? That goes for me too."
Reeling from the information, Tsubame picked up on Yahiko's last sentences. "What I said before?"
Yahiko stared at her intently. "I only want to kiss you, too."
He dropped her hand and used it to open the small box in his other palm.
Starlight twinkled on the diamond ring inside it. "Marry me, Tsubame. Marry me and come back to L.A., or I'll move here. Wherever. I don't care, I just want to be with you."
Tsubame looked at the ring, looked up at Yahiko, and looked back down at the ring in shock. Of all the things she'd thought he'd come to tell her, she never would have guessed this.
"Can vampires get married?" she heard herself ask dazedly. "I thought we weren't allowed in churches."
"Naw. We can go in, we just have to stay away from the crosses, and we aren't allowed to kill anyone, vampire or human, in them. It's a deal we made with the Catholics a long time ago."
She'd glanced up at him to hear his answer, and saw that he was watching her hopefully as he continued to hold the box with the ring in it between them. "So. What do you say? Will you marry me?"
Surprising herself, and Yahiko, Tsubame threw herself against his chest and wrapped her arms around his back. She would never have been so forward back in her human life. Perhaps she really was going feral, but she didn't care. In his arms was where she most wanted to be.
She heard the box drop on the grass and roll off the edge as Yahiko copied her gesture and put his arms around her back. She loved the way he held her, like she was his most precious, delicate possession, and not a bloodthirsty creature of the night.
He moved back a little and she moved her head back to look up at him, still cradled against his chest. Then he shifted his face closer to hers, and kissed her gently at first, then passionately, possessively.
If Tsubame were still breathing, it would have taken her breath away. As it was, she felt a little dizzy when Yahiko finally raised his head and smiled down at her, smugness warring with tenderness in his eyes.
"I think I dropped the ring down into the stream," he said.
Tsubame laughed back up at him, and raised her hand to touch his cheek. "I know. I heard it fall." And knew precisely which boulder it landed on, judging by the length of time it fell and the sound it made when it landed.
He captured her hand against his cheek and moved it down to his mouth so he could kiss its palm. "You're beautiful when you laugh, you know."
Tsubame smiled, then felt her smile fading into seriousness as she continued to look in the face of the only love she'd ever known. He was all that mattered, and the way he was looking back at her made her feel things she'd never felt before. All those clichés from romance novels suddenly made sense.
"What about the ring?" she asked. "Shouldn't we go find it?"
He hadn't even put it on her finger yet, and suddenly she wanted it, the symbol that he'd claimed her, that he wanted to spend his eternity with her. She wanted to look down at her hand and see it there every evening when they woke.
"Later," murmured Yahiko, and bent his head to hers again.
Sano sprawled in a big leather chair in Sagara's new office. The captain had just turned on the large flat screen TV set in the bookcase of the far wall. A news program was playing.
"And in other news today, the last of eighteen total bodies, the work of the bloodbath killer, was discovered in the Sequoia National Forest by a police volunteer. The body, which had been there several months, was badly decomposed. The police have done an excellent job finding these last victims, and search crews say they've never had as much success before, and are considering sending search teams out in single crews rather than in pairs more often, since the last bodies were discovered by single searchers out in the forest alone. On a more somber note, forest rangers in the same area are reporting a rash of anemia in animals found in the Sequoias lately, and sources speculate that some new disease that attacks animal blood cells may be present in Northern California…"
Sagara clicked the remote and shut the news off.
"Looks like Yahiko's doing well." Sano observed lazily.
"Yes, though I wish he'd ask before hypnotizing policemen to find buried corpses." Sagara didn't sound terribly put out by it though. Sano thought that the captain had to secretly admire Yahiko for using Tsubame's bloodhound-like senses to find the last remains of Kent and Melissa Murphy's victims. Then to hypnotize the searchers so they'd find the bodies and bring an end to their families' suffering…Sano was kind of proud of the kid.
"He did abandon the Sekihoutai." Sano observed casually. "Some would say he's cut off all ties. Some vampire groups kill for that kind of disloyalty."
Sagara regarded Sano steadily. "You know me better than that."
"What are you going to do? The others have started asking about Yahiko. We lost a lot of our group. They're protective about the ones we have left."
And if they thought Yahiko, like Izuka, was a spy…Sano didn't want to think about what they'd do to him. Sagara needed to do something soon.
Setting the remote control down on the desk, Sagara leaned back in his chair. "Katsura has been asking about a liaison between our two groups, someone from our side who'd be willing to live up there and relay messages. Someone we both trust. I think Yahiko would do for the job."
Sano smiled, reassured. Of course Sagara had a plan. "Maybe the little brat's ready for more responsibility. But you might have to wait until he gets back."
"Gets back?" Sagara's eyes narrowed inquiringly.
Sano pulled a postcard out of his pocket. It was a picture of two bears, one with a top hat tied to its head, and the other with a lopsided bridal veil, attempting to eat the bouquet of flowers in its hand. He tossed it on the desk in front of Sagara.
"Gets back from his honeymoon." Sano smiled, and had the rare opportunity to see Sagara's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline in surprise as he read the message Yahiko had written.
I'm married now; so don't be calling me a brat anymore. I know Kenshin called Sagara and told him about Tsubame and me. You can tell him from me, feral isn't all that bad. See you when we get back from our honeymoon.
A/N: Apologies to Kenshin/Kaoru fans, but in an alternate universe an author is allowed to rewrite history, and frankly I thought Tomoe's early demise in the OAV was tragic and heartrending. So in my story she gets to live on with Kenshin, keeping that little spark of humanity alive in him, as he does in her by shielding her from the need to kill. Sorry too for the silly sentimental glop at the end – writing romance does not come easily for me.
Note to Reviewers:
Zoleth – Thanks so much for reviewing, and especially for calling my story 'original'.
Lolo popoki – Yeah, he's married to Tomoe. I just couldn't resist letting her have a happy ending.
XkenKao12x – I actually can't draw worth beans – my brother ended up with all the artistic genes in my family – so I didn't draw the RK vampire manga, but I'd love to see it. Where can I find it?
Nekotsuki – Glad I didn't gross you out too much on the 'disgusting revelation'. Bathing in blood is creepy, but I tried to keep the descriptions to a bare minimum. Thanks for all your encouragement!