Walk Through the Valley

A/N: Rurouni Kenshin belongs to Watsuki. I only lay claim to the sci-fi setting and plot.

"Slashing myself, I have trained countless blades.
"My son reviles; but for my grandson, I bleed."

Darkness. Darkness with a very odd quality to it; as if feelings had taken on color and depth, velvet tints against unrelenting red-black.

"Hiko?"

Arai's voice. Arai's voice sounding... oddly worried. Now that was unusual. Not the worry part, no; Dr. Shakku Arai worried more than any ten sword-smiths or alterant researchers put together. Which was saying a lot, for people qualified to tamper with the very stuff of sentient life. But for him to be that worried about me? Seijuurou Hiko, scout-explorer, gene-tech, dazzling master swordsman, and survivor of too many Rim-world missions to count? Unreal.

"Damn it, Seijuurou, if you've managed to fry your brain by a misplaced decimal point, I swear I will dump your carcass in the nearest teaching hospital as an object lesson in why gene-techs shouldn't be allowed to work on their own DNA!"

"You... wouldn't dare..." Ow. Dry throat. And a headache that rivaled the hangover from Hell. What on earth had we gotten up to last night?

Or... was it last night? It felt longer...

"Gods, you scared me," Arai grumbled. Water gurgled into a cup; I could smell it, almost taste the cool freshness in the air. Freshness with just a hint of specific minerals.

Kwannon. We're on Kwannon. In Arai's cabin.

Which both did and didn't make sense. The last I remembered we'd been on-ship, nowhere near this gentle, somewhat chilly world the Arai family called home; one of too many hapless planets both the Federation and Confederacy ran roughshod over as the War ebbed and flowed. Yet it seemed right to be here.

"I took the somni-unit off you hours ago." Footsteps and worry approaching; though Arai's worry was settling now, calming into the familiar watchfulness of a scientist with an experiment. "Trust you to take your own sweet time waking up... think you can sit up?"

What did he think I was, an invalid? I managed, rearranging soft covers as I leaned back against the headboard. Oddly surprised - and yet again, not - that there was a headboard. A diagnostic bed? Not a futon?

Questions later. Water first. I cupped the ceramic mug in my hands, drinking in the somehow familiar scent of Arai's well before I sipped. Carefully. By now I was reasonably sure this was no hangover, yet I was slightly dehydrated. No point in doing myself any more harm.

Cool. Clear. Just a hint of the rocks the water rose from. Delicious.

I communed with the mug until it was almost empty, then glanced up at the silent wariness next to my bed. Or tried to. "I can't open my eyes."

A statement that should have brought panic. I'd survived exploring more worlds than most would ever set foot on, including decades in the deep wild of the soul-shaking nightmare some ex-Kwannon settlers were now calling Satoyama, by keeping my wits and senses about me. There should be no reason being blind should feel right...

"We planned it that way, remember?" Arai's voice was gruff, but not angry. "We're playing with enough unknowns here; I don't care how many years you spent watching your damn kiryuu. They're not Terran, we don't know how they bond socially to the rest of their species. All we've got is your wild-assed guess-"

"My observations," I tried to get in edgewise. I am an explorer, I know how to study an ecosystem.

"Oh, my mistake. Your sophisticated wild-assed guess, that the young bond with their relatives in the neonatal stage, before their eyes open." Exasperation sighed out of Arai as he leaned against the bed. "So. Here I am, ready to give you your dose of human interaction to balance out the mess we made of your neural nets."

More memories were filtering back in now. Bringing the first gene samples to Arai years ago. The trips back and forth to Satoyama, as Arai garnered a local reputation as a sword-smith and I gathered the information and genetic samples that were public cover for our classified work with the ookami-moya alterations... which in turn were a distinctly illegal cover for my own, special project. Long nights arguing, fine-tuning the alterations to come. The thrill of excitement - and, yes, fear - as Arai loosed the alterant serum into my veins; the first heart-pounding rush of fever-

And then modern medicine in the form of Arai's equipment had taken over, inducing a controlled coma while my body remade itself to a new blueprint. "It worked."

Worry touched me. "We won't know that until your eyes open-"

"It worked," I repeated confidently, reaching over to set my mug down on the table Arai had left the somni-unit on-

Ceramic thumped down on wood, just brushing against the unit's casing. I could smell the lacquered wood, yes, but I hadn't seen the somni-unit. I had no reason to know it was even on the table.

But Arai knew. Arai could see it. Arai had tensed and relaxed as I'd waved the mug about, a blind man finding a clear spot for his drink. And I'd felt it.

It worked!

Hands free, I touched the fine, still-short tendrils that had replaced my hair, feeling the alterations that until now had been mere computer models. Silky-soft, tingling with just a trace of static from emotional upset. Silken strands that sensed my fingers, curling against them just as a kiryuu's tendrils would to comfort an upset cub...

Reluctantly, I took my hands away. I wasn't upset. There was no reason to be upset. I'd made a plan and it had worked. Of course. Why should I feel upset?

I rubbed the pad of my thumb against my fingertips instead, then drew up my legs to touch my toes. Pads of what felt like light callus now tipped each digit, leading under the still-human nail. I could just feel the tiny depression in each, that should open into a slender gap when the right new muscles tugged. Instinct. It should work on instinct. But how did we determine would be best to activate it?

Ah. Yes. Basic instinct needed a basic trigger. Think of :hungry,: of :prey to kill-:

Warmth rippled in my fingers, something solid I hadn't felt before sliding out from under my nails. The world felt sharper.

"Damn it, Hiko!"

"Arai?" Fear washed over me - yet it wasn't my fear. I sheathed my new claws, trying to figure out just how Arai had felt like Satoyama, like a frightened hana-koumori involuntarily sending its fear into the creature about to eat it-

But Arai couldn't have sent it. Confederacy humans didn't have empathic capabilities, and even if Arai were confident enough to tamper with his own DNA, he would never try engineering in anything from a merrow. The sneering arrogance might be catching.

"Gods," he gasped. "For a minute there, you felt like... Chikusho. It did work."

"Arai-"

"I told you. Not just blindsight. Not just EM perception. I told you it had to be tied into emotional centers as well." Fear of a predator faded, supplanted by curiosity. "You feel me, don't you?"

Oh, damn.


Walking out a cabin door when you're blind isn't the most straightforward task in the universe. There's a handle to find. Locks to unlock. A step to feel your way down.

Not to mention a cranky alterant researcher gene-tech to find at the end of it.

Though that was the easiest part, startlingly enough. Once I was outside, where living things were growing and breathing and otherwise emitting... whatever it was I was sensing, damn Arai for being right, it wasn't pure electromagnetic, not even close...

The world had edges. Shapes. Bright and dark spots that matched up with scents of grass and insects and the lingering musk of a tree-rat that had munched on scattered peanuts.

Spending five minutes trailing it was not being distracted. It was simple mental exercise. Exploring new capabilities. I was a scout-explorer with a perfectly level head on my shoulders, and there was no way on this planet or any other that I was going to take off up into a tree, blind, just to catch a tasty-smelling morsel of fur and teeth.

Very tasty. And quite out of reach. I could all but see it as it taunted me, sixty feet up; a brightness against the dark-gray sense of the slow-living tree, flicking its tail in arrogant disdain.

Hmph.

I dropped from the branch, picked bark out from under my claws, and went back to stalking - er, finding - Arai. Who was making it all too easy, stifling snickers as he leaned against another tree.

I reached out, found a spot of empty bark. Settled myself back against it, and waited.

"Better this morning?" Arai asked at last.

"Seems to be." Not that I had much of yesterday to compare it to; I'd faded in and out after waking, barely remembering a fishy-tasting nutrient shake at one point, aid to the necessary facilities at another. All sorts of little aches and odd feelings had cropped up, leaving me twitching in and out of sleep. Those at least were normal; untold numbers of purely Terran alterants had shown that new muscles and nerves and bone structure had to make themselves known to the brain, and vice-versa. "Things feel more... settled."

Although I wasn't certain if it was the alterations that had settled, or my own bruised psyche. I'd engineered in more than just physical changes, and part of me couldn't help but wonder when - if - they'd kick in.

Arai had been against that. Arai had argued, hard, against introducing any instinct from a creature not born of Terra. Wolf instinct works, yes, he'd argued. The great cats, the vulpines, the weasel, even the wolverine - we've tried them all at times past, we know what can and can't be loosed in human society. But this...

Hidden claws, I'd argued right back. Tendrils. Sensory perception like nothing else that's ever been used as a source of alterations. They live in social groups, Arai. They know each other. Anyone altered with this who's going to try to live with humans afterward will need kiryuu instincts. Or they'll end up like the first tiger-alterants, who had no idea when not to use their claws.

I was right, of course. But Arai had convinced me to handle those alterations very, very delicately. So delicately, I couldn't even be sure they were working.

Still, unpleasant as it was to contemplate, there were more important things to worry about than any subtle kinks in my greatest work to date. "I distinctly remember you saying we were on our way to Trollbridge Station." Not my favorite place in the universe, but some might consider that an orbital station with enough room to hide a comatose alterant-in-change and a publicly-secret government lab Arai could work in while I slept might be a better option than a war-torn planet with Federation merrows, Confederacy covert operatives, and who knew how many local Resistance groups all preoccupied with tearing each other into little, tiny bits. Just maybe.

"Changed my mind," Arai muttered.

"Oh?"

"Seiku."

"Ah."

Well, that was the difficulty of having children. Whiny, smelly, annoying... hostages to fate. Who'd be insane enough to be a parent? Not me. Definitely not.

"So." I raised a brow slightly, curious. "He called?"

A silent growl. "Of course not."

"But we're here," I noted wryly. "Strange, this doesn't seem like the controlled environment you said would be best for the first few months..."

Cloth rustled against bark, accompanied by a wave of anger and discomfort. "I'm getting what's left of my family off this planet," Arai bit out.

I smirked. "Something I'd think you could pull off with a good tranquilizer gun and some funds slipped to one of the more trustworthy small freighters."

"That wouldn't give you legal possession of the property."

I'd have blinked, if I'd been able to. "What?"

"You have to be careful who you leave your secure codes to in case of emergency, old friend." There was humor in Arai's shrug, sparking bright against his gnawing dread. "I need some liquid funds to make sure we'll land on our feet. You need a place the Confederacy won't be looking for you. At least until you know enough about what you are to pass as human. Unless you want them to find out you've made yourself something completely illegal?"

"You've sold me the cabin?" I still couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. "You're leaving me here."

"As soon as you convince me you're fit to be loose without a keeper." Arai paused. "No, before then; I'd be waiting forever..."

I rapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Here? On Kwannon?"

"You wanted somewhere out of the government's way," Arai pointed out. "You've got that. You need to learn how to blend in all over again - and that's going to be hard enough as it is, without adding your sword in the bargain. No one on Kwannon will look twice at a swordsman."

So spoke the sword-smith. One of the reasons he'd ended up working with me in the first place; Satoyama's iron sands were as much of a draw as the unusual wildlife. Which gave me a very good guess as to where Arai planned to drag his son off to. The same place so many of Kwannon's heartbroken children were going; about as far from the Federation as you could go and still be in the known galaxy. "Neither would anyone on Satoyama."

Dark amusement. "Satoyama doesn't have merrow for you to play with."

Hunting. I shook away the thought, slightly unnerved. The best swords stay in their sheaths. I knew that.

Yet part of me was... all too interested in the idea of :hunting.:

Relax. Breathe. I pictured a kata, each perfect movement of steel through air. Felt myself calm, even with the spike of adrenaline beside me as Arai reacted to my sending. "This isn't a game."

"Isn't it?" Arai's voice was bitter, but I could feel it wasn't aimed at me. "I should never have been able to get the funds for this research. Illegal alterants. Creatures that will hunt and kill our enemies with no more compassion than a tiger for its prey..."

"They won't be, Arai." I laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Take the research we've already done; the rejuvenating therapies alone should be useful enough that the military won't question what you've done with the ookami-moya alterations. Take the data you're getting from me. Use it for comparison. Keep at the genes until you're sure they're ready." With luck, that might be never. Theoretical research and design was well and good, but even the darkest of black-ops officers would hesitate before implementing permanent alterations. Especially with their creator muttering dark imprecations of not ready and possible psychosis. "You'll be a healer again one day, Arai. I know it."

"Speaking of rejuvenating therapies..." Real humor lightened his tone. "In a few days, you should be able to open your eyes. And I'm going to be there."

Why did I not like the sound of that?


Ohhh, stretch. Oh, wonderful...

Late afternoon light was warm and red through my eyelids as I worked my way through the gentle exercises that would lead to full-blown kata. The kata themselves would have to wait; despite Arai's best efforts, the change had taken its toll. The past few days had done wonders for working out lingering stiffness, but it'd take months to rebuild lost muscle tone. Not to mention I was not going to test new reflexes with edged steel while my eyes were still sealed.

But joints and muscles responded without a trace of the nagging complaints I'd felt the past two years, and that in itself was worth all the lost months to unknowing sleep. Confederacy medicine had drawn out human lifespans near twice what they'd been on pre-space Terra, but... well, Arai and I were both of an age where one started looking for less vigorous careers. Not so bad for a sword-smith, perhaps - but I was a scout-explorer. I loved wild lands.

Unfortunately, I was a scout-explorer who was also a genetic researcher in Arai's rarified league. And while no one would try to keep Arai from his forge, there had been more and more subtle pressure from our government employers for me to leave off playing with sharp objects. Oh, and while I was at it, stop risking my damn neck in benighted, uncitified wildernesses.

Which was absolutely infuriating. It was my neck. I'd risk it any way I damn well pleased.

But I hadn't gotten this far without some charm to go with my impressive resume. They'd suggested, I'd allowed as how their suggestions might have some merit, we'd all smiled at each other and not meant it, and I'd kept on doing what I meant to do all along. Which had been enough to put them off for the last few years.

Still, there was only so much arguing even I could do with medical exams. Another year, two at most, and they really would have me. And they knew it. I'd seen that imbecile Weardon smirking, the last time we minced around the subject.

I'd let him smirk. The kiryuu alterations had been finished, finally - and all Arai and I had to do was arrange for a year's sabbatical so I could use them.

In biological terms, Satoyama's EM-sensing carnivore species used k-selected strategies. For the layman, that meant the three species I'd spent most of my time studying might look different, yet they all shared certain common traits. The neko-tengu was a small ambush predator, clever and quick, filling a niche much like a Terran wildcat. The ookami-moya was a long-distance hunter, a pack species, somewhere between a wolf and a wolverine in sheer bad temper toward outsiders. The kiryuu, quietest and most secretive of all, was... well, an opportunist. The kind of opportunist that, raven-style, would make off with anything in your camp not nailed down while your back was turned; pure, unrivalled curiosity on four flexible paws...

Well. They might look different, but where it mattered, all three were the same. Low birthrate. High parental investment in those offspring that were produced. And long, healthy lifespans to balance it.

The kiryuu took this to an extreme. In all my years of study, I'd never seen a kiryuu die of natural causes. Cubs were few and treasured; one might even say spoiled, if one hadn't watched the number of hazards the fuzzy little beasts dealt with on a day to day basis. And while cubs might be too frail for the various perils adults hauled them out of, grown kiryuu were tough. Resilient. Anything that didn't kill them immediately, tended not to kill them at all.

No more aching knees. No more bad back. Just the easy burn of muscles getting used to moving again.

So, I thought, rising from a deep bend. I'd take what was left of my year to get used to the changes, go back and confound the damn medics...

Hmm. Something didn't feel quite right. Like I hadn't stretched everything-

Oh. Well, this was... interesting.

I made my way to the slow life of a conifer, reaching up as far as I could. Unsheathed my claws, and dug at rough bark. Just one more set of muscles to stretch, nothing to get upset about...

Hmm. Stiff as everything else. But loosening more easily now. Which only made sense. These muscles were entirely new. They had no strength to get back to; only new habits to learn.

Which was why I was wearing sandals, and no socks.

Leaping up, I clutched the trunk and dug toe-claws into bark as well. In and out. Down and rake. Stretch and release. Let it burn, it needed to burn, but stop before the point of real pain.

I'd mastered the rest of my life. I'd master this.

Satisfied, I dropped back down, blinking as my feet struck the needle-strewn ground-

Was that-?

Yes. Oh gods, yes, I'd felt one eyelid move, seen just a silver of bright light-

Patience, I warned myself. Don't fight it. Let them open slowly.

Patience. Definitely. I knew patience. You had to, in my chosen professions. Patience, and caution, and measuring every gap you could before you leapt it at a dead run.

Which wasn't quite what I headed for the small creek downhill from the cabin at, but close. After all, I was being patient. Very patient. Patient enough to wait while my eyelids lost the gluey coating that had sealed them together; patient enough to wait even beyond that, however long it would take for rippling water to still enough for me to get a good look.

Patience, and a sudden reluctance to go back inside, where Arai was working on the latest data he'd gathered. This wasn't the lab I'd planned to be in; why should I settle for the cold sterility of a mirror, when I could look into living water instead?

:My water.:

That brought me up short, just as I'd stepped onto one of the rock ledges just above the calmer side of the chuckling creek. Since when was this my anything? Legal shenanigans or not, this was still Arai's cabin.

:Mine.:

Ah. Territorial instincts. Check. Interesting; I'd always been a traveler, never really staying in one place more than a year or two, until I'd had ookami-moya packs and kiryuu sparks to keep tabs on. I'd never really felt attached to a place before. As long as it had wildlife and interesting problems to work on, one was as good as another.

Not anymore. Scents, sounds, the sense of small lives moving through the trees - all of it was becoming familiar. Welcome.

:Home.:

I set that aside to think about later; there was light now. Light, and a loosening hold; maybe one gentle blink...

Gaah. Bright.

I shaded watering eyes with my hands, waiting for the sun-dazzle to fade. Damn, this would've been easier at night. Day-adapted or night-adapted; you can have eyes good at one, but not both. I'd spent decades as a diurnal mammal chasing creatures that loved the darkness, to the point I'd fallen in love with it too. Compared to humans, kiryuu owned the night.

And now, so would I.

In the meantime, daylight was getting its licks in.

Sunglasses. Definitely.

I kept my eyes slits, waiting for the sudden storm of information to die down to a dull roar. Light, dark, the first flickers of colors...

Washed-out colors. But that fit what we'd predicted. Kiryuu walked a fine, fine line between dark-adaptation and vision still useful enough to hunt - or flee - during daylight hours. Bright light faded the creek and rocks to pastels; only in deep shadows did colors regain the intensity memory told me they should have. Even there, shades had odd silver components to them; as if the simple concept called gray had shimmered into an exotic rainbow.

I blinked away a few more watery drops, and looked down.

Blue eyes. Not brown.

You planned for this. Breathe.

Another look. Definitely blue. The deep, rich blue of chromatophores, shading out as much light as possible from dark-adapted eyes. By day, it'd pass for an exotic human blue; not common, but not immediately suspect.

By night would be another matter. Darkness would trigger the chromatophores to retreat, leaving eyes true, kiryuu amber. Amber that would pierce the night better than any starlight scope, because I'd never leave it behind...

So. Eyes, check. Hands?

I curled and uncurled my fingers, finally satisfied that the claws were, indeed, invisible to even a discerning eye. Fingers and thumbs were a slight bit thicker than they had been, due to the claws and their muscles, but the only outward sign was a tiny bit of what seemed callus at the fingertips. Suspicious fingers might feel it, but anyone suspicious that close would already be dead.

I shook away that morbid thought, feeling a double ghost of sensation as tendrils brushed over my skin. Fine enough most would mistake them for hair, they were definitely longer now than when I'd first woken; dark bangs and nape-length strands, blowing loose as wind or will took them. Shorter, stiffer tendrils served as elegant eyebrows; I'd had to fiddle a little with the various pelt versus sensory tendril tendencies to pull that off, but it was worth it. Hair blowing in the wind, people could live with. Eyebrows - no.

I turned my hands to catch glints of sun over my knuckles; light glimmering off still-finer pelt tendrils now pulling off a fair imitation of human body hairs. A brush of fingers along my cheek confirmed the wavering reflection; altered DNA had laughed at trying to put sensory tendrils there, instead dusting skin with pelt tendrils subtle as the delicate facial hairs beardless humans took for granted. So much for shaving, I thought, smiling wryly. That chore, I wouldn't miss.

All told, Arai and I had pulled off exactly what we'd intended. An alteration that wouldn't look like an alteration. A covert alteration. I brushed my fingers over well-known features again, relieved-

Wait. Something wasn't right. Almost right, but... I stared into the water, searching that familiar face.

Familiar, all right. But wrong. The running creek didn't give a perfect reflection, but below the ledge, it was still enough. And not even running water could shift my own well-known craggy middle-age to the smooth-edged features of a young adult.

"Damn it all to hell!"


Arai was waiting on the porch as I stormed up the path.

"You mulberry grain-eating caterpillar thief!"

Hmm. Behavioral note; difficult to throttle the living daylights out of an old friend who's just collapsed in chortling laughter. No matter how much he deserves it.

Still, I could try. "You knew this was going to happen!"

"Not-" Still chuckling, Arai swatted at my hand on his gi. " Not until I collated my samples from the first month."

I kept my grip on him, though it wasn't a bad swat, even for someone a few decades younger; he'd taken advantage of the more conventional treatments we'd developed months before I'd taken my plunge. Rejuvenating treatments that had healed muscle and joints, while leaving the outer appearance almost untouched; treatments I deliberately hadn't taken, in case they might affect the course of the alterant change.

"Couldn't believe it when I saw the pattern," Arai went on, his wild salt-and-pepper tufts of hair shaking with not-so-silent laughter. "Had to take another two weeks' data to be sure - knew it wasn't a mistake, and the whole plan was shot..."

"But we tested the effects on biological aging!"

"As a treatment," Arai pointed out, mastering his amusement as I finally let go. "Evidently letting some proteins scour out your system is a lot different than turning the same genes loose in a working organism." He stifled another set of snickers. "At least you're old enough to be a kiryuu adult!"

Very funny. Not. "This was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical," I said numbly.

"Better make it a few decades," Arai said dryly. "Why do you think I slipped under the sensors to get us both here? If I show up again after being out of touch, I'll get a full-body scan, a brain check to look for conditioning traps, and a nasty reprimand. If you show up..."

The kiryuu would be out of the bag. Oh, gods.

"Huh! Never thought I'd see you at a loss for words." Arai's smile had a wry edge. "We're on Kwannon, Hiko. On the Edge, with the Federation on one side of us and all the Confederacy's rabble-rousers on the other. I should know; I got some of them started. Resistance fighters, ordinary people who want off the planet and don't want to drag legal tangles with them, even the rare Federation citizen who says he just wants to see what the Confederacy is like... there are people who make their living setting up new identities out here." Humor gleamed in brown eyes. "And we had to clear out all of your accounts that needed a DNA scan anyway. You won't be hurting for funds."

"Arai." His expression might be all laughter, but I could feel the echoing pain even before I rested my hands on his shoulders. "Come with me."

"One key researcher of Project Miburou gone? Accidents happen. And I'll be able to assure them Seijuurou Hiko is in no position to be passing secrets to anyone. Both of us-" He shook his head. "I have to see this through, Hiko. If the War rages on... if we truly need these alterants... I have to be sure it's done right."

And suddenly I knew that while I'd been laying my plans, so had Arai been laying his. "Arai, no. You hate what you're doing. Don't go back there!" Don't buy my freedom with your soul, Arai, gods damn you!

"I hate what I'm doing, yes," my friend said soberly. "But you, Hiko - you hate what you are." A flicker of humor. "Or I should say, what you were."

Hate myself? Impossible! I was an expert. The top of my field, in both exploring and genetic research. I didn't hate myself, I just-

Wanted out. Wanted it so badly I'd reshaped my entire genome, to the point that instinct would rather :kill: than walk back into the government's hands. "Arai..."

"I'm a crotchety, settled man, Hiko. I have a family to look after, my swords to forge, and projects that may make real difference to us all. And I have a friend. An arrogant, brilliant friend, who as long as I've known him could stand any fate but being caged." He lifted a hand near my face, watched dark tendrils reach out to brush it with true delight. "You said I'd be a healer again. Helping you do this... I am."

I should have said something sarcastic and cutting to that. I should have. But there was an odd lump in my throat.

"So that's settled. Good!" Arai said briskly, nodding toward the house. "Come on in and tell me if you see any holes in your new IDs."

"New-"

"We need a retina scan to activate the full account, but I did have your current DNA to set the wheels in motion," Arai noted, ushering me into the cabin's welcome dimness. "How do you feel about Ni'itsu Kakunoshin?"


Ridiculous name. Utterly ridiculous.

I kept it, of course.

The less-than-public branch of government that had sponsored Project Miburou had a psych profile on every last one of us. I'd hacked in and read them years ago. Hardly accurate when it came to me, needless to say; there were words like "arrogant", "insensitive", and even "jerk" in there.

But accurate in the personal details or not, the goons associated with our sponsors had a fairly good record for finding government contractors who decided to suddenly disappear.

Fairly good, of course, unless they were dealing with a genius. Which I am. More to the point - given he was conscious at the time - so is Arai. And the real measure of genius isn't intelligence, though that helps. No, the true deciding factor is this: geniuses do research.

The way to beat a psych profile is to break it. Do what you wouldn't do. If you're a city type, head for the country. If you plan everything to the last detail, pick up a map and throw darts at it. And if you have an attachment to an honorable and dignified name, granted by your shishou decades ago...

Well, get over it.

The other hole in psych profiles? Garbage in, garbage out. They may be good at predicting what you would do, or what your best friend might do, or even the two of you together, given what they already know. But add in what they didn't know, what even Arai and I hadn't known, and all the actions spawned from that... the goons' dead-on predictor was suddenly about as helpful as a fortune cookie.

Or so I hoped.

One way or another, the next five years passed in relative quiet. I acquired a pair of sunglasses, met Seiku as a "friend of a friend", saw both Arais off the planet, kept my head down like everyone else when the War flared hot and left Kwannon officially cut off from the Confederacy, and otherwise settled in on my mountain. Met a few of the locals downhill, and worked out an arrangement. The town needed a potter; I needed a source of explainable income that didn't require lots of contact with people. Because Arai was right, curse it all; the mode of perception we now called ki-sense picked up far more than simple electromagnetic auras. The closer I was to people, the more I could sense. And knowing everything your fellow sentients are feeling, when they have no idea they're forcing their hates and loves and petty cravings for revenge down your throat, isn't exactly conducive to peace and goodwill toward your fellow man.

Which might be why the merrows are so thoroughly nasty toward all of us who aren't conditioned.

Though nasty would be understating the case. Kwannon was slated for absorption, a source of new human genes to be carefully filtered into the Federation population even as their minds were conditioned into the mold merrow telepaths found tolerable.

No fools, the Kwannon settlers fought it tooth and nail. With rather more success than a lot of other planets who'd gone the same route. They were spread out, mad as hell, and a fair amount of them had some training in the sword. Training that makes a mind slightly more resistant to conditioning or external suggestions... and gives that mind an effective weapon, if a merrow's incautious enough to come into range. Telekinesis trained against blasters is no use against razor-sharp metal coming for your head.

Also no fools, the Federation planted a merrow clan somewhere on the main settled continent, educated in Kwannon's own culture to make the "assimilation" as "kind to our new acceptable gene-donors" as possible. Meaning the Oniwabanshuu, as they called themselves, tended to stop at simple torture, instead of soul-breaking atrocity.

Simple. Gods. I'd found one of the unlucky bastards who thought he could hold out when an Oniwaban started asking questions. I didn't know you could do that with candles and iron spikes.

Shortly afterward, I found the merrow in question. And discovered yet another twist to my altered DNA neither Arai nor I had predicted.

Conditioned minds felt wrong.

In retrospect - hours after the blood-rage faded, and I stopped shaking - it was obvious. An intelligent, social creature, and kiryuu were definitely both, is a very delicate evolutionary creation. Any time you put that many neurons together in one skull, there's a distinct chance something can go wrong. Creating mental illness, paranoia, or even creatures that somehow weren't wired right to empathize even with their own kin, much less their own kind. In a word, psychopaths.

Kiryuu could sense others' feelings. Share them. If they couldn't sense when a mind was sending out something wrong, entire sparks would have disintegrated the moment a psychopathic kiryuu overpowered them with its images of other-as-object, my-wants-are-all.

Which was exactly what the Oniwaban tried to do to me.

It was the first time I'd ever cleaned human blood off my sword. It wouldn't be the last.

Which led to my other deal with the locals.

My mountain was safe.

I couldn't be everywhere, of course; but where I could be, I was. And as the years passed, and my control over my ki-sense grew stronger, more and more merrows, psi-active agents, and conditioned unfortunates fell victim to what locals gleefully called the "haunted mountain". Some were found felled by a swordsman, others by a clawed beast; still more by rockslides and ice water and all the hazards a mountain could bring to bear on human flesh.

And many weren't found at all.

Federation citizens aren't stupid. Bigoted, blithely convinced they've found the one true way of the universe, and absolutely certain it's their duty and birthright to inflict that way on the rest of us, but not stupid. When subtle searches and outright sweeps of the area found nothing, they didn't send in more men. They marked off my mountain as part of a bombing practice range, enter at your own risk, to be reinvestigated later when (ha! If) they had the populace more firmly under control. Which was definitely annoying, but livable. I might not be able to sense specifics from a fighter jock punching holes in the atmosphere, but I could sense :predator: even if it was straight up, and plan my day accordingly.

Which was how I ended up on the far side of my mountain one windy autumn night, slicing down the last ruthless survivors of a damaged Federation raiding ship.

"What are you?" One of the brighter ones managed, before the blade came across.

"You won't be alive long enough to remember my name."

Dead. So many dead.

I stood among the bodies and sighed, already planning my trip to the nearest stream to rinse out the few bloodstains on me. I didn't feel heartsick about it, not anymore; this was my territory, they were the enemy, and the very fact that they'd landed here indicated they were involved in traffic even the Federation frowned on.

But sad... yes, I was sad. Evil or not, they were still human beings. Humans who had perished in anger and pain that still echoed in the air here, the very trees resonating with rage.

Perished - and not all by weapons.

Poison.

I could smell it in the air sighed out of dead lungs, all but taste it in the foam on the contorted lips of women and children dropped among the blood. A slave ship. Damn them all.

A ship that seemed to have suffered some sort of internal dispute... no. Different groups of clothing among the men, and there was a drop shuttle over at the side of the clearing. I eyed it, read the track patterns and blaster marks. So. Slave ship and enemy raiders, trying to take the cargo; probably a space battle between two ships. Damaged, the slaver set down here, while the raider sent a shuttle to finish off the crew and take the living valuables.

And the slavers had seen their cargo running in the chaos, and pressed their deadly little remotes to take down one fleeing form after another...

Wait. Fleeing how? I knew enough from my contacts with the Resistance to know what I'd find inside that grim vessel without ever setting foot within. The captives were held by more than physical bars. Unless their captors turned off the locks, their cells were programmed to set off the poison tattooed into the back of their right shoulder the moment a captive passed through the door. So either someone had convinced one of the crew to do something very stupid...

Or someone had been incredibly brave. Suicidal, but brave.

Scent and tracking led me past dropped corpses and weapons - including a discarded katana, of all things - to the body of a dark-haired young woman, barely more than a girl, who smelled neither all of blood nor all of poison. A Kwannon-born youngster, from that proud set of slanted eyes and stubborn chin so unlike those lying dead about her. The slavers must have made at least one quick raid on this planet as well. Taking prisoner a woman who had...

Oh, you poor, brave soul.

The skin of the tattoo had been cut away. An act which would itself unleash the poison - but if the cutter were quick, there wouldn't be enough to kill instantly. She might have lasted a few more hours, had someone not clubbed her to the ground. A few awful, agonizing hours.

She broke them out. And she wasn't alone. Someone would have had to wield the knife. Another, subtle means of control; it was one thing to sentence yourself to death, but to kill another, even if they asked...

Not far off, someone whimpered.

Impossible. No one was alive here. No one could be.

But as I reached out, I could sense someone definitely was.

I walked toward the sound. Carefully. Checking where the young settler had fallen, in relation to yet another young woman's body, who still bore a faint scent of her fellow captive's blood. Another from Kwannon. Why was I not surprised? From the same raid, most likely. So you knew her. And knew what would happen, and cut anyway. Gods. And then you ran in cover - then turned and leapt here, in plain view. Why?

Not plain view, I realized, looking at slavers' footsteps. Line of sight.

She'd taken a remote signal. Deliberately.

Suicide? Or...

I followed those fainter footsteps, leading away. Yet another set of spacer's boots overtopped them, and this trail I remembered - it led to one of the first I'd cut down. A man who'd been standing, and gloating.

Gloating over a woman's body. A woman who had still been dying, I'd :felt: her bewildered grief-

No. Not hers. I could still :feel: it - as I still heard whimpers that had never come from an adult's throat.

Someone was alive here. Someone yet a third young settler had given her life to protect, turning her back to her killer so his remote signal would trigger her tattoo, and not the tattoo of...

A boy.

I crept up soundlessly, unwilling to frighten the little mite as he knelt by his savior's limp hand. So much for thinking they were protecting another from their village. He might be wearing cast-off gi and hakama like any young Kwannon boy, but hair that red had never come off this planet. Unless one of his parents came here from Caerlon? We do have a couple of those madmen in the Resistance-

:Fear: spiked; he whipped his head toward me, dark eyes wide.

I'd approached silently. Utterly silent.

How in the worlds did you know I was here?

He blinked, obviously unable to see much beyond a dark figure in the night. Touched her cooling hand, and rose to face me.

Huh. Well, you're brave enough to be one of ours, I thought wryly. Not many could stare back at inhuman amber. I was fairly certain it was one of the Resistance, working with me at night, who'd started the rumor that the haunt of this mountain was actually an ancient Terran werewolf. "You were unlucky, child."

Another silent blink. Shock, likely. Children were such fragile creatures. Or so I'd heard. It wasn't as if I ever planned to find out. The odds of finding a woman I honestly wanted to spend the rest of my days with, and said woman being willing to go through the change I had... ha.

"There will be people coming, from the village at the foot of this mountain," I said briskly. "Tell them your story. They will care for you." I gave him a sardonic bow, and walked into the darkness.

And almost missed the little redhead's whisper, even with my ears.

"No, they won't."

In Federation Standard.

I almost kept walking. Yoson Hotate and his men would be here soon. They had the skills to strip anything useful off the carcass of the ship. The relatives to take in one more orphaned child...

Relatives who'd already lost more than enough to Federation forces. Even a few stray words of Standard might set off a violent reaction.

He used contractions, a wry corner of my mind pointed out. That's not a few stray words.

So possibly he'd been with the slavers a while, taken from yet another planet, and it was his off-world parent who'd been from Kwannon. Still no reason for me to get personally involved.

Except - there were a damn lot of fallen remotes around here. Keyed to set off the poison beads still in the little one's shoulder. And some of Hotate's men just could not resist playing with buttons.

I'm going to regret this. I can feel it in my bones.

I walked back to where he was pawing at the ground with a small bowl. Probably what they'd fed him with, curse them all. "What are you doing?" I kept the question soft, in Wakuseigo; the old Terran language that had been carried by certain spacer clans to become the native tongue of many worlds, Kwannon among them. He'd obviously understood some of it before.

"They have to have graves."

What?

"One couldn't protect them before. One tried, but Kasumi-san wouldn't let-" He swallowed dryly.

The katana near the first woman's body, I realized with a shock. It'd had the faintest scent of... dear gods, had this little one tried to pick up a blade?

"Ta- Tousan said this one is too young to use a blaster. So one can't burn the bodies. So they must have graves. Or... or one of the anfarwol might come here, to make them dance... and Sakura's body should not dance. Not hers. Not anyone's..."

Anfarwol. The Undying; merrow and psi-actives trained to use their telekinesis in a way that could make hardened soldiers turn and run screaming. Who were one of the other reasons Kwannon fighters clung to swords; it was a rare soul who could deliberately pick up a blaster and burn through the approaching bodies of their dead comrades, even if they knew they were dead. But once they'd grabbed hold of you - well, then survival would take over. Or not. And even the most skilled anfarwol had a hard time animating bits and pieces.

But Confederates didn't call them anfarwol. We called them reanimators.

Which all but made ta really tad. Standard for father.

Damn, damn, damn...

Jumping to conclusions, I told myself sternly. He can't be - well, he just can't. Slavers would never dare raid a Federation world. He's been with them a while; they've probably hit him with every Federation scare-story there is.

Convincing. Almost. Especially since I couldn't :feel: any trace of conditioning in his mind. No conditioning, not Federation. End of story. "What is your name, boy?"

"Shinta."

...Or not. Heart of the rice field? He's young. Young enough to have been born after Kwannon knew they were in trouble. There's no way his parents would have given him such a peaceful name.

Unless they were collaborators.

Ugly, ugly thought.

The same kind of ugly thought that would leap even quicker into the minds of Hotate's people. After all, if the parents were collaborators...

"Too gentle a name for a swordsman of this world, and this time," I said firmly. "From now on, your name is Kenshin."

Now to get you out of here before Hotate even realizes you exist.

I wasn't going to keep him. Of course not. I was just going to take him off, talk him down, solve this odd little puzzle of Confederacy-Federation mishmash before anyone jumped to the wrong conclusions. That, and talk Okiku Toyotomi, the annoyed gray-haired grandmother who was my main contact with the village, into letting me borrow the Resistance's tattoo-remover. She liked me, the stubborn old witch. Said I reminded her of herself, when she was my age. I'd bitten my tongue more than once, not to tell her I probably was her age.

Not that it seemed to matter anymore. Arai had been right, again. Well - we'd both been right. I did need the kiryuu instincts; their sense of restraint-with-kin was all that had kept me from making some very lethal mistakes. Yet those same instincts had wiped away things I hadn't even realized I'd taken for granted. I didn't automatically respond to the ordinary human categories of society anymore. Everything from baby to young teen fell into cub; everything else was adult. Time didn't march anymore; it flowed, season to season, and I flowed with it.

Time to flow on out of here.

Assuming, of course, I could drag one stubborn little redhead of indeterminate ancestry away from burial detail.

And how hard could that be?


"What do you mean, it's broken?"

I could hear the roll of Okiku's eyes even through the audio transmission. "Shizue. Kiichi. A dropped oil-pan. Do I have to go on?"

"No," I bit out, thinking of those two clumsy idiots as I listened to muffled sobs from the futon across the room. Pain or grief, I couldn't tell. I was leaning toward pain, though. There was a numbness in Kenshin that :felt: like where the girls had been. Though how a little one had gotten his emotions intertwined with others now dead...

Focus on what you can fix. Which had started with prying a mule-stubborn redhead away from the bodies, gone on to blaster-burning the remains to take out the nerve clusters a reanimator would hit first, and ended in a mad dash up the mountain with a young idiot wrapped in my cloak, shaking in pain.

Stupid, I'd cursed myself, all the run up here. Stupid, stupid... that last remote signal had been at close range, and even if Sakura had taken the brunt of it, enough would have gotten through to set off one of the poison beads. The damn things were designed that way. After all, anyone a slave tried to protect was likely just as guilty, in the eyes of their captors.

One bead shouldn't kill. Shouldn't. It was meant to warn, not kill; to impress on valuable property there were far worse fates than submission.

But Kenshin was so small...

I'd done what I could. Wrapped him warmly. Dosed him from my emergency kit. Swabbed inside his cheek to run a full gene-scan, in case the boy had a medical quirk I didn't know about, and set up screens to block the light from my equipment so stray glimmers wouldn't set off more spasms.

It still hurt.

"Our friends will fix it when they can, but it's not exactly at the top of the list," Okiku went on. "We have to make the parts. But first we have to get the right compounds to make the parts... well, you know how that goes."

"I know." Unfortunately.

"It's not like we have anyone who really needs a hairdryer."

"Of course not." Ah, code-words. A thin veneer of safety for the both of us; though if the Federation ever searched this short-range, "primitive" part of the transmission spectrum and broke its encryption, simple code would be unlikely to save anyone.

A long, thoughtful silence. "This is a ploy to get a pretty girl over there with towels, isn't it?"

"Er..." That wasn't part of the code. Exactly. "I can dry my own hair." No, I do not need help. The very idea.

"Sure you can. Men!" With a sniff, the transmission cut off.

"Women!" I grumbled; more for form than anything else. What in the worlds was Okiku up to now?

Not that it mattered. Not now.

Hot-packs for the body. Ice for the poisoned shoulder and head. Measured small doses of muscle relaxants to ease the bone-threatening spasms when they did come. A quick stroke of red hair, from time to time; no one in such agony should be forced to endure it alone.

He tried to be quiet. He tried so very hard.

It was a long night.

Thin sunlight through my eyelids roused me from my sword-on-shoulder nap against the cabin wall. I blinked, rose, thrust my saya through my obi and headed for the shades-

Stopped. :Felt: at my unwanted guest.

Asleep.

I drew blankets a little farther over flame-colored hair; no point in waking the boy any sooner than I had to. I'd only taken the quickest of reads through his gene-scan last night. Just enough to check I wasn't dosing him with something he was deathly allergic to.

Now, I wanted a closer look.

Contrary to what some might believe, you can't read planetary origin from a gene-scan. Humans aren't that diverse to start with, and even on the planets that tend to be more isolationistic, there's enough traffic with travelling spacers to keep a few genes flowing. But you can narrow it down.

Hmm... let's see. Some alleles that traced back to Terra's old Northern Europe; fit with the red hair. Others that matched fairly well with the Terran Japanese background so prevalent on Kwannon; a background I shared by way of a spacer clan, one reason I could blend in here so well. Plenty of traces of something that could be anything else. All in all, the kid could have been from any of a dozen planets. Or none at all; just an anonymous spacer mix.

At first glance, anyway. But something didn't look right.

Frowning, I manipulated the program to separate out genes by parental contributor. Not something your ordinary scan can do, but Arai hadn't left me with substandard equipment. Set up, and analyze...

And that sinking sensation was my stomach hitting my ankles. Sometimes, I hate being a genius.

Father looked reasonably normal. If your definition of "normal" included the kind of gene constellations I'd found from my absent-minded analyses of every sword-master I could talk into contributing. Intelligence, agility, a certain tendency toward inward focus... I could go on, but what would be the point? Add that to the Terran Japanese alleles, and Kenshin's father very well could have been from Kwannon.

It was Mother that blew that theory out of the water. Mother, with her red-hair gene, her genetically-limited set of immune responses, and her distinct lack of lethal recessives. Not just the shortage of them you might expect from prenatal care and genetic counseling. None.

Gut clenched, I ran a very specific search. The kind of search people outside certain sensitive areas of the government couldn't run, because they simply didn't have the information to match the genes.

Match found.

I was not going to pound my head on the desk. It would only dent the desk, and give me a headache. Make that a worse headache.

So. Now I knew how he'd known I was there, when he couldn't have seen or heard me. What I didn't know was why. The tattoo was there, plain as plain, when any sane slaver had to have known that-

I was on my feet, thumb loosening my blade in its saya, before I'd even realized what I'd sensed.

Okiku, I realized, reaching out with ki-sense. Coming up the long, hidden path to my cabin. Alone. And worried. More than worried. :Worried-for-cub.:

"How did you know?" I burst out minutes later, eyes narrowed behind dark lenses as I plucked the heavy pack off her shoulders. Supplies... fresh fruit, when I'd already been into town for what I wanted a few days ago... cookies?

Wrapped in a dull olive green haori and pale gray scarf against the autumn wind, she gave me a look. "Ni'itsu." You idiot was unspoken, but plain. "I'm a grandmother. If I didn't know what hurt children sound like, I'd never have gotten them old enough to marry off."

Ouch.

Okiku gave me a moment to settle the pack, then kept walking. "So why didn't you want Yoson to know there was a survivor? I grant you the man has no time for children; too busy running his little war. But someone would have found a place for him-"

"Not likely." Okiku was the best chance I had of granting Kenshin a normal life. She'd see his slips - the same I had last night. She had to know. "He's an out-cross."

She stopped cold.

"Or at least, his mother was," I amended. Not that it'd make much difference to most. Federation was Federation.

Okiku searched my face, as much as she could see through the glasses. "You're sure."

"Yes." Federation citizens are inbred. Insert your rude joke of choice here. But from the merrows on down, Federation citizens are chronically inbred. And that makes a very great deal of difference.

Inbreeding, short-term, is bad. Particularly for humans. We tend to carry a high quantity of lethal recessives, meaning finding a mate too close produces... very bad results.

Chronic inbreeding, though - that can be different. If you had a small population to start with, but not too small; say, the inhabitants of one very lost sleeper ship, out in the galactic wilds. If you tried to produce as many offspring in the first generation after landing as possible, to capture as much genetic variability as you can before the founders die off. If you maintained careful records of who bred to who, and ruthlessly culled any offspring with unwanted characteristics as soon as they were identified. Keep that up for generation upon generation, and eventually you'd weed out the vast majority of harmful genes.

And that, in a nutshell, was what we thought created the Federation. Well, that and some almost-forgotten experiment on their part to create new genetic variability, which had instead created the polydactyl, telepathic merrows, who'd then organized themselves into clans and taken over. Which seemed to work, for them - until an outlying Federation planet was met by some wandering Confederacy traders, looking for new markets.

It wasn't our fault they were carrying Liwio Fever. Who could have known? It wasn't a serious illness in the Confederacy, even back then, with far more primitive medicine. You got it, you got sick, you got better. And yes, some did die - but very, very few.

Among the Confederacy.

Another effect of chronic inbreeding? Severely limited immune response. Or as laymen might put it, where a healthy population has a hundred different locks in the neighborhood to keep the viral yakuza out, a chronically inbred one might have ten. Or less.

You try apologizing for wiping out nearly half of a dozen planets' population. That's how far Liwio Fever got into the Federation, before they stopped it. And that doesn't even begin to count what else came in its wake, as Confederates with the best of intentions - and no few with all too vicious intentions, damn it - flooded into the affected planets.

Give the merrow clans credit for figuring out the problem. They needed new DNA. Healthy gene-donors, to add a few more locks to their immune systems' doors. Some of which they got, at the start, by inviting Confederacy citizens in. Welcome, have a job, have a place to stay... all you have to do is give up your entire culture, and submit to conditioning that makes you oh, so glad to do and feel and be what the merrows want you to be. Which includes being a person who's happy to see inferior offspring culled - it's for the Federation's good, after all.

Needless to say, after word of that got out, the pool of applicants dried up.

Which was when the slave raids started.

Frankly, I'd have just sent people in to raid fertility clinics for gametes. But then, I have no hang-ups about potentially getting sperm or eggs a medical gene-tech had "tampered" with to snip out lethal genes. And the Federation wanted willing donors. As if women and children torn screaming from their homes, battered into submission, then turned over to merrow clans for conditioning were somehow more willing than cells in an anonymous freezer.

Some psychoanalysts said it was cultural. The willing sacrifice of the innocent to purify new kin-group members, or some such arrogant nonsense. I didn't really care. I didn't understand it, and I didn't want to.

What I did understand was that slavers trying to sell an out-cross' child back to the clans probably would have ended up... well, much like they actually had. Only dealt out by the merrows, not me.

"I know criminals aren't in it because they're smart, but that..." Okiku shook her head, jaw still slack with amazement. "How in the worlds did that happen?"

"I don't know. Yet." I reached out to the cabin, and hid a grin. Alertness, wary interest, a sense of cool on a body that had left warm covers. "Hmm. Someone's well enough to be curious."

:Fear. Will-to-hide.:

And a vanishing, as if all that young brightness had stuffed itself into a closet.

Stepping up onto the porch, I raised a brow. I could still sense him; a pale, fearful ghost of the stubborn ki I'd pulled away from the wreck. But to an ordinary Federation psi-active, Kenshin would be no more visible than a lichen moth against mottled bark.

"A man who's found an answer," Okiku observed, regarding me with wary skepticism.

"More like another piece of the puzzle." I laid a hand against the door. "It's all right, Kenshin. A friend of mine just came to bring breakfast."

The pale ki gained some color and interest, but he was still nowhere in sight when we entered. Nowhere in obvious sight, at least.

Unwrapping a few cookies, Okiku tilted her head at me in silent question. I shrugged, and glanced to a subtle little corner made by a group of bookcases.

Sweet lure in hand, Okiku approached Kenshin's hiding place, inching her hand closer and closer to a huddled curl of hunger. "Well, young man. I know this big lump of a sword-swinging idiot probably scared you stiff, but you're right where you belong now - yeow!"

She dragged her arm back with teeth attached.

Teeth, fingernails, feet - it wasn't a child, but a redheaded ball of silent fury. Utterly silent; just the bare noise of breaths between every tear of a small mouth at her hand and wrist.

Maximum pain, maximum disruption to concentration, I thought in passing, grabbing flailing arms and feet. The soundless tears rolling down that pale face made it all the more frightening. "She's not a slaver, Kenshin!"

He froze. Let me detach him from Okiku's bleeding arm, a rigid lump of fear and terror and :fury: in my grasp.

"Medical kit's on the table," I said matter-of-factly, not taking my eyes from a terrified gaze. An odd brown-green, in this light; I'd have to ask Okiku to be sure of the color. Assuming she was still speaking to me after this. She almost never used the kind of language now getting past gritted teeth. "Kenshin. You're with me. You're safe. The slavers are gone. You're safe..."

"They said I was going where I belonged." A bare whisper, just audible through Okiku's hissed curses.

Ah. Hence the violence. "When they took you from your parents?"

"The parents - died of Deincryd Flux last year."

Some kind of cholera that induced gnashing of teeth? Nothing I'd ever heard of...

"One was left to the headman. 'Kaasan didn't trust him-" White-faced, he stopped talking. Shivered.

Not taken. Sold. I clamped down on my own anger, thinking instead of morning sunlight warming the walk down the path, the quiet pleasure of climbing a tree just to see what could be seen.

He tensed - then sagged against me, boneless as an exhausted kitten. "She hates this one."

A little empath. I held onto him. Purely practical, of course. The boy needed to know that not everything in the universe was trying to kill him. Just most of it. "Okiku's upset, yes. She'll live." I pointed him toward the pack of food. "Let's see if some of that's edible, hmm?"


"Nice of you to give that little hellion a last meal."

I let my gaze go to Okiku's bandaged arm as she rested it on the porch rail, lifted it to the woman herself. "That set on strangling him, are you?"

"Ni'itsu." Her worn face was uncharacteristically sober as she glanced toward the front door. "Can he hear us?"

I shook my head. "He's buried in the wildlife book you brought." Actually reading it, not just looking at the pictures. When it wasn't in Federation Standard or Confederate, but Kwannon's own antique hiragana. Yet another layer to the puzzle.

"We should take him to the hospice. They can make him-" she winced, "-comfortable."

"Okiku-san," I said softly.

She braced herself. "He'll be dead in a week, Ni'itsu. A month, at most."

For the space of three breaths, I couldn't take it in. It didn't make sense. Couldn't make sense. "I checked him, Okiku! He's thin, yes, and I doubt he's had a good night's sleep since his parents died, but-"

"How much do you know about the slave tattoos, Ni'itsu?"

I snorted. "Microscopic subdermal poison beads, developed by the Federation and handed out to the bastards they claim don't work for them, vicious, usually set off by hand-held remotes - what else is there?"

"They have a time limit."

No.

"I don't know all the details, young man, only what a few of those we've helped escape managed to see, but... the outer coating on them that fools the immune system only lasts about a standard year. After that, if there's no Federation medic to replace the aging beads with a new set, the inner coating breaks automatically. Anti-escape measure." Bitterness rang in her voice. "He must have been picked up on one of their first stops, and this must have been one of their last-"

I held up a hand; stop. I didn't want to hear this. I didn't want to know. But... I had to. "Fools the immune system?"

"They take a cell sample, code the antigens, and tattoo the beads in," Okiku said patiently. "That way, even if the victim manages to get the slaver to tattoo himself - and one or two have - the bastard's system recognizes it as foreign and sheds the whole patch of skin... where are you going?"

"No time." But I turned around anyway, giving her a fierce hug. "Thank you."

Okiku stared at me as I let her go. "We'll never get the remover fixed in a week!"

"I know." Hand on the door, I gave her a sober, fierce look. "Okiku-san. If we've ever been friends... don't ask."


Done. Leaning back in my chair as sunset filtered through the cabin windows, I regarded the code still dancing on the screen, absently listening to the sequencer hum as it finished constructing the serum. It will work.

But should it?

This wasn't like my own change. I'd been an adult; an informed adult, at that. One could legitimately argue that, except for Arai, there wasn't another person in the galaxy more informed about what I'd been about to do to myself when I created that first serum. Even then, the very fact that I'd chosen to alter myself permanently would have gotten me locked up as a dangerous felon.

Kenshin was a child.

"Nid eir i annwn ond unwaith." Quiet footsteps behind me, as Kenshin left his cup of juice on the table to peer over my shoulder at the mass of words and colors.

One goes only once to Hell, I translated silently. "Why do you say that?"

"It's what T-tousan would say to Kaasan, before he did grownup things she was worried about. And she'd call him a baka, and then I had to go outside and play, and not heart-listen inside."

Federation and Confederate. Each speaking the language of the other, when it mattered most. How? "Heart-listen?" Suspicion isn't knowing, after all.

Kenshin looked away, hands folded over each other, right forefinger unconsciously rubbing along the edge of his left hand. Right where a failed out-cross might have borne scars, where her sixth finger had been removed.

Polydactyly is a dominant trait. The out-cross child of a merrow might not bear the telepathic powers they sought, but she would have six fingers.

He doesn't know, I realized:feeling: old confusion in his grief. He knows he's different. That she was different. But he doesn't know why. "Your kaasan said not to talk about it, didn't she?"

Eyes wide, Kenshin nodded.

"You don't have to." I'd fine-tuned the alterations as much as I could, matching his gene-scan to comparable alleles in my kiryuu database. Some of the best options were a genetic match for my own. Others were almost as different as they could be, collected from sparks halfway across their home continent, where individuals tended to be smaller. Which suited me just fine. If there were going to be two of us, there might eventually be more - and in that case, I wanted a healthy level of genetic variability. All told, the alterations should work, merrow component or not.

Unless they didn't.

"It'll be okay."

As if I needed reassurance from a child. I gave him a sardonic lift of brow. "Is that what your tousan said?"

"Well, it was." The impish spark flickered out; he looked away. "It was other people in the village who got sick first, it was..."

"I believe you."

:Disbelief. Hope.:

They blamed you, didn't they? Why? Even a failed out-cross has more status in the Federation than any ordinary citizen-

If they knew she was an out-cross.

The pile of facts I'd gathered shifted, falling into new and startling order. Merrow clans kept track of their children, failed or not, specifically to find offspring with the potential to be psi-active agents. No out-cross' child should have been left without family.

Or without conditioning.

Not enough pieces. Not yet. "Exactly what kind of grownup things did your tousan do?"

Kenshin shrugged, not meeting my eyes. "We were farmers."

A lie, by telling the truth. And had it been an accident that his gaze had drifted to my blades? "Where?"

Another shrug; this one honestly weary. "Far away. One doesn't know... the stars were never the same..."

He didn't trust me. Not wholly. Not yet. I'd need months to unravel this puzzle.

Months I wouldn't have, unless...

I braced myself. Drew a calming breath - for his sake, not mine. Sought his gaze. "Kenshin."

Startled, he looked up.

Keep it simple. "The slavers' tattoo. It's deadly. If I don't do something, it's likely to kill you."

Three good meals had brought a little color back to his cheeks. It drained away like water.

"If I do," I went on carefully, picking my words like a path through a minefield, "it may not work in time." A week likely wouldn't be enough time to change his immune system. A month - maybe. Just maybe. "If it does work - you'll be different. For the rest of your life."

"Different?" he whispered.

I took his hand. Turned it palm up, laid my fingers on it in plain view, and extended my claws.

He gulped. But he didn't run.

I let him touch and prod, trying not to smile as Kenshin pricked himself on sharp bone and cursed under his breath. My, my... either his parents had been unforgivably lax in their speech, or he'd spent far too much time with the slavers.

Claws led to a closer look at my hands; Kenshin stared at the little hairs-that-weren't dusting my knuckles, red brows climbing right into his messy bangs. He dropped my hand, grabbed the chair arm, and pulled himself up to get a good look at the mid-back-length black tendrils everyone else on Kwannon took for hair.

Intelligence, deductive reasoning, and quick action on both. If he lived, he'd make an excellent swordsman.

Kenshin touched black tendrils, flinching a little when a few curled against his hand, tickling skin with gentle static. "Do they hurt?"

"The change hurts," I said honestly. And it'll hurt you more than me. I don't have the supplies Arai did. Which was part of the uncertainty in the equation. Unlike Terran-based alterants, the kiryuu alterations could take hold without extensive life-support equipment. We'd designed them that way. After all, what would be the point of a covert alteration if all the other side had to do was keep an eye out for shipments of specialized medical equipment?

Which was how Arai had been able to move my unconscious carcass around without setting off alarms from here back to Terra. All he'd needed was minimal equipment, the kind any paramedic might have for a coma patient.

The equipment, I had. The specialized painkillers that would work in a changing body without poisoning it - no.

So I use what I have. Carefully. "It does hurt," I acknowledged. "You'll be sick all winter." If you live. "But when it's over... no, it doesn't hurt. It's just different." Amazing. Terrifying. And, of course, utterly illegal.

Kenshin bit his lip. Looked down. Dragged a toe on the tatami, and took a deep breath. "Okay."

Okay?

My disbelief must have been clear as sunlight; he glanced up. "Sakura... Sakura-san only knew this one a few days. Like Kasumi-san. And Akane-san. But she said live. For them."

Them. Three children of Kwannon, defiant to the last. Kasumi, who'd sacrificed herself to open the cells. Akane, who'd used the knife. Sakura, who'd kept her head and made the plan and carried them through it all, knowing it was the longest of long shots.

And she'd almost won.

No. She did win. They all did. They spit in evil's eye. And they died free.

"The injection stings a little," I said quietly, preparing it. "Finish your juice. You're going to bed early tonight." Early, and for a very long time. "And from now on... call me Shishou."


So what started as one long night turned into long weeks, then months. For the first time I was glad for Kwannon's long winters; I could stick fairly close to the cabin, and no one would think anything out of the ordinary was going on.

Well, no one besides Okiku. But she was a friend. All she would ask was, "Still breathing?"

Yes. He was.

Though I'd had more than my share of bad nights, as fall faded into winter and snow howled round the door. A week, then four, and the damn tattoo still hadn't sloughed off-

Four weeks and a day, and the first translucent bits started peeling away.

Damn, Arai. You didn't tell me I shed.

Poor little mite looked like he had a bad case of sunburn. All-over sunburn. It wasn't a one-time event, either; head to toe, he shed no less than three times before the first breath of warm wind even thought about coming back to the mountain. Now those notes of Arai's on the extra nutritional supplements made sense.

Extra supplements I had to dig out of my own emergency supplies, then improvise out of minerals, plants, and anything else not nailed down. The first time Kenshin shed, I was too busy to worry about why I was so worried; the few moments I had to think, I was only grateful that my skills as a scout-explorer had taught me how to use equipment, common sense, and sheer nerve to create rough-and-ready medical supplies out of whatever might be on hand. It might not pass muster in a Core-worlds hospital, but it'd do.

The second time, monitors let me see the hormonal shift coming, and I could prepare what I needed in advance. That went much smoother, even if the little one lost all his hair with the dead skin. I rubbed the last of it off him, and finally got a good day's sleep.

When I woke that sunset, I knew there was something wrong. Or... not wrong, exactly, but too right.

Kenshin's scent had shifted.

He just might make it after all. Relief washed over me, and I spent a minute just breathing. Wonderful, comforting scent; not as laced with kiryuu as mine was, not yet, but there was such an enticing newness to it...

I sat bolt upright, biting back a blistering curse. The somni-unit should have had Kenshin out cold, yes; but the intermittent pain of the change often brought him very close to waking. And I did not want him to hear his shishou cursing himself for a blind, ignorant fool.

At least ignorance can be cured. As I did, with a few minutes' monitoring of my own biochemistry.

It's really not possible to wring your own neck with your bare hands. Not that I wasn't tempted to try.

Kenshin wasn't the only one in this cabin whose hormone levels were changing.

Kiryuu alterant, yes. Kiryuu cub - and all the adult members of a spark, male and female alike, related or not, are deeply involved in raising the little fuzz-balls. They have to be. Cubs start throwing defensive sparks from their sensory tendrils within a few days of birth, and it doesn't take more than a few years for them to get strong enough to start fires. And while kiryuu are quite inclined to take advantage of fire - deliberately encircling and roasting Satoyama land-crabs, for instance - they also know they can't leave cubs unsupervised, no matter whose they are. There's no such thing as an orphan kiryuu cub. Not unless some catastrophe has wiped out every adult in the spark.

I was the adult here. It didn't matter if Kenshin was related or not. He was mine.

I could just see Arai laughing his head off.

"Maybe this will help you work out a few more kinks, you old caterpillar thief." I smiled wryly as I prepared yet another info-package to make its stealthy way to the old friend in question. "Or at least you'll get the chance to break a rib laughing."

After all, underground or not, I couldn't forget the ache in Arai's soul. He wanted Project Miburou to be right. To make covert warriors, not soulless killers. So once or twice a year I'd been sending him my own collected observations, physical and otherwise, through a one-way info-drop we'd set up before he left Kwannon.

A risk. Definitely. But I owed him. Even if Arai would swear I didn't.

So I monitored the changes in us both, amused and annoyed, and - well, maybe just a little frightened as well. Just a little. After all, Kenshin had already proven himself capable of surviving whatever mayhem his parents had been up to, and the active malice of his village headman, and a year with some of the most vicious people in the known galaxy. It wasn't as if I risked breaking him if I breathed wrong. Even if he was... small. And helpless. And so frighteningly young...

Chopping firewood is a very good exercise for frustration. Going out for an hour or two with swords to take down the occasional tree for next year helps, as well. Not to mention if I planned my route right, I could patrol some of the inner edges of my home territory on the way. Which was suddenly vital. Nothing was getting near the cabin.

I'd kill anything that tried.

Poor Okiku. I may be charming, intelligent, and a master of my various crafts, but I have to admit I'm not always the easiest person to deal with. And based on her reactions the few times she walked up the mountain to meet me on the path - I didn't dare let her into the cabin, friend or not, I could see the chaos in my own biochemistry and I did not trust myself...

Well, that winter, I definitely wasn't charming.

I think it was the growling that tipped her off. That, and the way I was digging my fingers - and, unseen, my claws - into the nearest tree whenever she made sudden movements. Which scared us both, honestly. She was my friend. I knew that. But she didn't smell right, she didn't :feel: right - she wasn't :mine.:

And behind me, in the heart of my territory, was a helpless young alterant. An :eyes-sealed cub.:

Humans are predators. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. And kiryuu kill predators who come near the birth den.

I didn't hurt Okiku. I didn't really want to hurt her. I just - couldn't let her near the cabin.

It'll pass, I told her. Wait until the spring. I should be fine then. We both should.

Please don't ask.

And she didn't. Not directly. But then, Okiku was no idiot. She'd heard enough tales of the haunted mountain to make a few guesses. Couple that with her surreptitiously slipping back to check the tree I'd assaulted after that first tense meeting... I think she had a fair idea what might be going on, after all. Especially given the first question out of her mouth on our second meeting was, "Werewolf? Or were-cat?"

I'd just grinned.


Something was tickling the right side of my throat.

I came around slowly, for some reason unwilling to bolt awake, despite the unfamiliar warm weight nestled against the shoulder not bearing a sword. I was leaning against a bookcase near Kenshin's futon, again. Unable to override the instinct that said someone had to be ready to protect the cub - again.

No real surprise. The less sleep I got, the more instinct seemed to urge me toward protective paranoia; anything, to preserve the existence of our very small spark. And it'd been another long series of watchful weeks, checking and rechecking the change's progression. Especially checking the eyes that had sealed with Kenshin's second shedding, and stayed sealed with the third; nerves, rods and cones rebuilding themselves into something quite different from standard human vision. So far, everything looked right. Even the change in Kenshin's scent was within parameters, no matter what havoc it might be playing with my nerves.

Neither of which explained that odd:happy: warmth. Or the gentle tugging at my gi, as if multiple small points were pulling forward and back.

I cracked an eye open, blinking at the sudden contrast of the somni-unit's black headset against red. Glimmering red, like someone had scooped up all the shades of flame and spun them into short, fine tendrils on a sleeping head.

Kenshin was kneading my gi.

I scooped the still-sleeping cub a little farther into my lap, testing the faint :feelings: radiating from him as new, tiny claws pricked at dark blue cotton. Out cold, and he'd managed to crawl out of his futon, find his way by scent or :feel: to me, and not wake me up?

He doesn't :feel: like a threat. At all.

I smoothed down his yukata and pulled my blanket over us both, watching a tiny yawn before the renewed warmth sent him back into deeper sleep. Well. Obviously, I'd have to be certain all the doors and windows were locked before I did anything distracting. Who knew where the little one might end up next?

Was I smiling?

I couldn't remember feeling like this before. Ever.

He needs me.

Not the brilliant gene-tech. Not the dauntless scout-explorer. Not even the matchless sword-master. Just me.

A few more days, I judged, looking at eyes that were still sealed, but had regained definite lids. A few more days, and I let him wake up.

And hope he doesn't hate me.


Chaos. Panic. Disorder. Snow in various tender and unmentionable places.

And that was just the first three hours.

Shaking my head, I fished a wriggling little body out of yet another late-season snowdrift, watching still-short red tendrils curl to strain information from a winter breeze. Kenshin was even wobblier than I'd been, that first day back in the waking world. Not that it'd stopped him. "Sure you're not tired?"

"N-" Yawn. "No, Shishou..."

Right.

Kenshin was still protesting how sleepy he wasn't as I dusted snow off him and hauled him inside. Right up until I held him near the stove long enough to warm up and dry off, chilled skin turning pink with radiated heat.

Out like a light.

Definitely got more of the tropical than temperate kiryuu genes, I thought wryly, watching him snuggle under the blanket I'd tossed over him. He was curled up like a chilly kitten, just a few tips of red tendrils poking out from under the covers to sense the world. Kami, but Okiku would probably think he was cute...

I blinked. Re-ran that thought. Okiku, the cabin, Kenshin...

No hostility. It even felt like a good idea.

Hmm. Yoson near the cabin-

I shut that thought down, before the flare of :fury: could disturb my cub. Ah. That fit more with the hormone levels I was still recording. The defense-of-den reaction was still there; I'd just managed to bash it over the head often enough with my rational reaction that Okiku was a friend that it'd sulkily re-categorized her as :spark ally.: Much like some individuals of known ookami-moya packs seemed to be treated; they weren't left alone with cubs, but the adult kiryuu seemed to believe they'd do no deliberate harm.

Grinning, I headed for the transmitter. I couldn't do anything yet; until Kenshin's eyes opened, there were still too many questions I couldn't answer. But someone had been very patient with me all winter. And she deserved some good news.


Violet. I stared into that wide-eyed gaze, gauging that shade plucked straight from a twilight sky. A color I honestly couldn't recall ever seeing in kiryuu chromatophores. Blue, yes. Indigo, definitely. Myriad shades of green, from near-blue all the way to pale jade. But never violet-

Wait. There had been one. An odd-colored cub in a spark that made their lair in forest-cloaked mountains. One with a pale, cloud-gray and brown pelt, instead of the more usual fiery red-and-black shades.

And those were the chromatophore genes my scans had picked as best for Kenshin. How in the worlds did that happen?

"Shishou?" Still cuddled against me after wrecking half the cabin in pure panic, Kenshin shrank in on himself. "I'm sorry..."

I couldn't blame him. Not really. One thing to wake up blind and be told it'll wear off. Quite another to have your eyes open, and everything look wrong. "Don't do it again."

"No, Shishou."

"You're not drugged. You're not sick. This is how we see."

"Yes, Shishou."

"And you're going to get used to it, by helping me put everything back the way it was."

"...Yes, Shishou."

I gave him a skeptical look, then set him gently down. "Stay there."

It was the work of moments to draw the shades, turning the cabin from winter daylight to twilight. I should have done this before. "Better?"

I didn't need that :feel: of taut muscles loosening to know it was. Darkness prompted the shielding chromatophores to pull back, unveiling kiryuu amber. The myopia that had panicked Kenshin went with them, dark-adapted eyes coming into their own.

Myopia. Likely blurred vision on top of that, given his eyes had just opened. Both very like being drugged to the teeth with certain sedatives he'd probably been dosed with in the past.

No, I couldn't blame him for panicking.

Not that I planned to tolerate it, either. He was my deshi now. He'd learn.

If we didn't kill each other first.


"Are you raising a kid, or a kitten?"

I turned toward Okiku with a wry look, letting ears and ki-sense keep track of the cub as he dashed after some of the first day-flying moths of near-spring. "I'm not sure."

Undaunted, Okiku grinned, stepping to a spot where the slush was a little shallower. "So you are keeping him."

"Of course I'm-" Easy. Easy. I was a rational being. A little more emotional than I used to be, but rational. "It'd be irresponsible to leave him on his own. He has gifts. Talents the vast majority of people wouldn't understand." Not just those of his altered DNA. I'd already guided him through the first steps with a bokken, and concluded that Kasumi had saved his life by making him drop that katana. If Kenshin had had the chance, he would have dealt a fatal wound - and the slavers would never have let a little one turned lethal survive.

Okiku raised an intrigued gray brow. "Would I understand?"

"Most of it." Though not the set of mind and genes that had taken to ki-sense like a falcon to the sky. No knowing how much of that was empathy, and how much just being younger and more flexible than I'd been when I'd changed. Kenshin played with ki-sense; hiding, flaring, echoing what other creatures :felt: like right back at them, so unwary animals thought he was just another of their kind. I'd had to stretch myself just to keep up. Which had led to no few hours of sitting the boy down with yet another book or calligraphy lesson while I tried to figure out just how he'd done whatever it was that'd confused me this time.

Frustrating. But sometimes, it was actually... fun.

Okiku shrugged, letting that go for now. "So you think his father might have been from Kwannon?"

"Who knows. I haven't found a listing for an Akira Himura yet, but-" I echoed her shrug. Kwannon's records had taken more than their fair share of damage these past five years.

"But his mother-"

"I doubt there's any parent in the Confederacy who'd name their daughter Cadnawes." Not that Vixen was a bad name. It was just obviously... not ordinary. "Much less Strim-Stram-Strellach."

"What?"

I grinned, wriggling my fingers. "We'd say helter-skelter, according to the little expert. Tousan's nickname for Kaasan." I nodded toward the blur of nearby red. "I'm getting the distinct impression Akira was by far the more organized of the pair."

"Little expert." Okiku's expression was only politely interested, but her ki felt distinctly uneasy.

"Speaks Standard like a native," I said frankly. "Apparently it's what the family always spoke in public. Or even at home, if there were neighbors over." I lifted a dark brow. "Though apparently Akira would bring home strangers once in a while. And they'd speak Wakuseigo. Or even, sometimes, Confederate."

"You think...?"

"I think even if the records were in one piece, I might not find any listing of an Akira Himura."

Okiku's mouth pursed into a sour line, then shifted to pure puzzlement. "I've read news-flashes about deep-cover Federation agents uncovered on this side of the Edge, but there's no way we could-"

I shook my head slowly. "There's always a way, Okiku-san. Always."

"But - conditioning-"

"First, they have to catch you," I said dryly. "Or rather, first they have to be interested in looking in the first place. Apparently whatever planet they were on, the outlying farms were too far for the administrators to be bothered, unless the taxes came up short or some off-planet official got hot under the collar. And if that happened - so far I've gotten Kenshin to admit to knowing two ways to disable a cawellenaid without getting caught, and three more you can use if it's life or death."

"A what?"

"Soul-cage."

Silence beside me. "If I were a nosy, interfering old woman," Okiku said at last, "I'd have to wonder just who Ni'itsu Kakunoshin was, that he knows things like that."

Damn.

I knew Okiku. I liked her. I trusted her. Too much, perhaps, for my own safety.

And my safety was Kenshin's safety. If they found me, they'd find him. And kami, if they ever found the cub-

A gilded cage. If he was lucky.

:Fear!:

My thumb had loosened my blade before my mind could think twice. Damn, where was he, there wasn't a flash of red anywhere-

:Shishou!:

Part of me knew I was still standing on slushy, half-frozen ground, near a ki taut with worry. Yet what I could see and smell and feel was almost shoved aside, overwritten by desperate images.

:Ground blurry through eyes hit by pale-spruce needles. Stroppy branch, weaker and more flexible than first grasp had thought, creaking and quivering under terrified fingers. Feet slipping-:

I hit the conifer trunk at a dead run, scrambling up over the scent of a cub who'd decided to explore the vertical without telling me first-!

:Fear of anger. More fear of falling - falling so far, couldn't let go, couldn't-:

"Kenshin." I clung to fissured bark about six feet below him, feet braced on a limb almost a quarter-turn around the trunk. There wasn't a better place; pale-spruces flaked off bark with every scratch of claws, and while climbing was no problem, perching wasn't possible without more than bark under my feet. "Easy."

:So far to fall!:

"Kenshin:breathe.:"

Battling images. All he could see was :ground hitting hard.: I fought it back with :cub shifting grip along branch, moving back toward trunk.:

:Arms so tired - hands slipping-:

:Claws! Grip! Move! Now!: "Kenshin!"

And he was half-climbing, half-falling into my arms as I clawed out to meet him, shaking like a leaf in storm. "Sorry," he hiccuped into my cloak. "'M sorry, Shishou."

"Don't be sorry. Be smarter. You have claws. You have instincts for those claws. Use them." I scrambled back to the supporting branch, caught my breath as I looked him over. Needles had slapped red across the bridge of Kenshin's nose, and his arms were still trembling, but he was intact. "I know it feels strange to unsheathe them. Even stranger when they want to come out on their own. But you will get used to it. They're part of you now, and they're meant to save your life. Don't stop them."

"But-" :Okiku below, watching. Discovery. Fear. Death.:

"Okiku already knows we're different." Just how different was another matter, but that wasn't important now. "Learn to climb first. Hide how you do it later." Speaking of... I felt at thin arms. "Pull-ups. Every morning."

"Shishou?"

"Exercise, deshi." I let him cling to me as I scrambled earthward. "You'll never hold your own in a sword-fight if you can't lift your own weight."

"Kitten," Okiku chuckled as I set Kenshin down.

I rolled my eyes. "Okiku-"

"And you've obviously never raised one of your own, Ni'itsu, or you would have known you'd have to fish him out of a tree." She winked at Kenshin. "Won't be the last time, either, hmm?"

Wide-eyed, Kenshin ducked behind me. I sighed, and hauled him back in front. "Be polite."

Kenshin visibly swallowed, managed a shaky step forward, and delivered a reasonable bow. "Good morning, Toyotomi-san."

"Kami, Kenshin-chan, call me Okiku." With the speed and skill of a practiced aunt and grandmother, she ruffled shoulder-length red tendrils.

And for one brief instant, a very odd look crossed her face.

I grabbed Kenshin before he could bolt, hiding a wince as fear-sparks jumped from red tendrils to my hand. "It's all right. I told you. Okiku knows."

"Guessed," Okiku managed, surprise overriding that chill splash of fear in her ki. "Not quite the same. May I...?"

Kenshin was still pale as lingering snow, but he walked back to her without more than a nudge from me. Let her reach out and feel, static-touched red gliding along her fingers. Looked up, wide-eyed, waiting for surprise to shift into lethal anger.

He almost fell on his face when she smiled instead.

"You're just a sweet little kitten-child, aren't you?" Bending one knee, Okiku offered open arms.

Kenshin jumped up and wrapped his arms around her neck:relief: and :happy: ghosting off him like faint steam.

"Oof." Not quite so much surprise in her ki this time. Okiku had seen us both climbing, it didn't shock her to have tangible evidence that Kenshin could leap higher than a still fever-weak young child should ever be able to. She let him bury his head in the crook of her neck and sniff, breathing in lavender and woods and a hint of baked cookies, red tendrils blowing without wind to feel and :feel: at the stranger his shishou called a friend.

She held the cub as he explored, giving me a wry look. "Not exactly a cat alterant, is he?"

I shrugged.

"Ni'itsu..."

"He's alive," I said flatly. "He's healthy. And any Federation-allied scum that tries to take him will get a nasty surprise."

"I'm not complaining, you arrogant lump of muscle. I'm just curious." Okiku gave Kenshin a warm smile. "Do you know what you are, little one?"

The redhead gave her a grin of pure, innocent devilry. "Baka deshi."

She slanted a scowl at me. "Ni'itsu..."

"What?" It was only the truth, after all. The little imp!

Okiku rolled her eyes, and set my student down. "Look. Whatever you two might have done, or might be doing, that's slightly... less than legal-" She sighed. "I only want to know what I should do if something happens, eh? If you're injured, or ill - it's not always easy to get a good doctor, and I know you can't show up in a hospital, Ni'itsu. Can Kenshin?"

Violet blinked at me, equally curious and worried.

"If he's careful," I said after a moment's thought. "You have a few allergies, Kenshin, but they shouldn't look unusual. And if someone had to do fine work on your hands, or cut your hair - they might notice. But outside of that, no. Ordinary hospital gene-scans don't look at the whole code; just a few specifics for each treatment." Specifics that would catch Terran alterants, but not what I'd designed. Arai had made sure of that. "I'd prefer it if we never had to put it to the test."

"But what if Deincryd comes here?" Kenshin barely whispered it, but the :fear: was palpable.

"You'd be fine, and your blood gave me the tools I needed to make sure we'd be fine as well." I caught Okiku's worried look, and gave her a reassuring smile. "I'm still not sure what it was, but Kenshin does have antibodies to a very nasty virus in his system. They're in the planetary health-net now, and no one should be the wiser."

"You're saying he caught it?" Okiku said, stunned. "When it killed-" She cut herself off, but not before Kenshin seemed to shrink.

"It's not your fault." I gripped his shoulder, forced sad violet up to my gaze. "Kenshin. A child's immune system is different from an adult's. Sometimes, it's weaker; but when it comes to new diseases, a child may live through infections an adult might not. It is not your fault."

"They tried to take care of me." Kenshin barely breathed it. "They weren't sick until-" He looked away.

"They'd already been exposed to the rest of your village," I said bluntly. "You didn't kill them."

Strictly true. If evasive. Exposed, yes - but it was possible they'd managed to avoid infection until they had their own sick child to tend. Not likely, given farming life. But possible.

But Kenshin hadn't killed them. I would not lay that guilt on his shoulders. He already had enough memories to carry.

Kasumi. Akane. Sakura.

He still cried their names in his sleep.

I'd taken gene-samples from their bodies, but there had been no safe way to run a match against any official databases without drawing official attention. Given that official meant Federation these days... no.

The best I could do was check local news to find villages and homesteads that had dropped off the grid in the timeframe the girls had been taken. I'd put that together with the names, files of gene-scans, and a few of the less morbid details, then set up a long-way-around file transfer with a "birthday" code-lock on it, to expire three years from now. It'd take time, but at least their families would have a chance to know what had happened. Some of it, at least.

Your daughters died horribly. Frightened, and in pain. But they died fighting.

And they never gave up.

Damn war. Damn secrecy.

But when it came to honoring the dead or preserving the living, I knew which path I would take. Always.

Time to help the living a little further. "Well, deshi," I said casually, nodding toward faint impressions in icy mud, "why don't you show Okiku-san what you know about tracking?"

And he was off again.

Sharing a silent laugh, we followed.


Those were good years.

Everything he could learn, I taught him; from math and science, to swordsmanship, to surviving on planets no one had ever ventured onto before. As he got older, the lessons got more dangerous. How to walk through town without drawing undue attention. How to hunt and kill something larger than himself. (And there were tree-rats larger than the cub, I swear.) How to sense and stalk conditioned innocents, psi-active agents... and merrows.

Stalk only. I never let him fight, and I never let him kill. He was a cub.

But accidents happen, and the Federation knew something was on my mountain. Better to teach him how to hide now, while I could kill any enemy who saw through his mental camouflage.

There weren't that many who did, even at first. After he hit eleven, there weren't any. Kenshin knew what telepaths looked for, even more than I had - and he knew how to damp his ki.

Which led me to the gradual conviction that Cadnawes hadn't been a failed out-cross at all.

"I'm sorry, Shishou," Kenshin had whispered, clinging to me fiercely after one time he had slipped, not caring about the scent of blood on my blade. "I'll try harder, I will! I know you hate... doing that..."

He never said anything more direct, but it was enough. So. Some of those times Akira had gone out on "grownup business" hadn't had anything to do with Confederate covert ops, and all too much to do with psi-actives who'd detected his son.

Farmers. Right. And I was a simple potter.

It was odd. I'd been a scout-explorer for most of my life. I thought I knew everything about discovering how worlds worked - both inward, in DNA, and outward, in what we could see and touch.

It was only when I was teaching Kenshin that I realized how much more there was to learn.

"Are the stars happy? If snow is cold, how can we dig shelters in it? Why doesn't dawn last forever?

"What are we, Shishou?"

Alterants, I told him from the first. Illegal came up much later; though the cub had already figured that out on his own. Safe from Federation conditioning. I hope.

That led to a few years' worth of discussion, off and on; breaking down what I knew about neural networks, and what Federation conditioning did to them, into pieces Kenshin could put together into rational sense. Merrows had invented conditioning techniques to deal with their own people first; meaning they'd started from an already-limited set of mental architectures. They'd expanded their methods as more and more Confederates fell into their hands, but still, conditioning was designed to deal with human minds.

Alterants weren't very far off the human mold. They couldn't be; no one in their right mind would abandon their humanity, and any of the few scientists who'd developed alterations that did had rotted in the deepest, darkest prisons the Confederacy could find. Yet alterants had to be slightly different to deal with their enhanced senses and claws, and that was just different enough that Federation conditioning almost never took. Stick an alterant in a soul-cage for weeks, he'd come out just as mad as he went in.

A fact both sides' militaries had taken to heart. Federation forces tended to kill alterants on sight. Confederates, on the other hand, often fought to have alterants in their units; horror stories of soldiers captured, conditioned, and dropped back among unsuspecting troops to sabotage and kill had all too much basis in truth. To have even one person in their unit who absolutely couldn't be turned against his will gave those risking their necks and minds that thin sliver of sanity to cling to.

Still. Useful as alterants were, there was one area they simply couldn't handle.

Covert operations.

The Federation, after all, was not composed of idiots. They were perfectly capable of stealing gene-scan technology from us, and used it with a zeal that would make conquistadors blush. And given alterants had to, by law, have standardized DNA sequences for normalization...

Even if you hid all outward trace of the alterations, sooner or later, you'd be caught.

Which meant all our operatives were like Akira Himura. Human, with a human's vulnerability to being caught, and turned, becoming unwilling double agents in the Federation's service. A fate far worse than death - because conditioned or not, part of them still knew they were betraying us, knew their lies would lead to Confederate deaths.

A few, a rare few, were lucky enough to commit suicide.

Those who weren't caught had to deal with the constant fear that maybe they had been, and they just didn't know it yet. Merrow telepaths could do that to a conditioned person; rewrite memories and emotions to fit their script, smooth over the few inconsistencies an abused mind could still catch.

Or so Arai told me, those dark nights we both got drunk together and he spun tales of classified information even I, technically, wasn't supposed to have access to. Azayaka's birthday - that was usually one of the worst nights.

Oh yes. Seiku had had a sister. Once.

Arai had done his own digging on the subject before we'd ever met. You simply couldn't make alterants in mind only. That had been tried - and abandoned, very quickly. Alterant instinct without physical alteration was like declawing a cat; volunteers went over the edge within weeks.

Hence our very covert, very illegal research. Though technically it wasn't illegal - not unless it was used...

I hoped it never would be. How desperate would the Confederacy have to be, to inflict permanent alterations on its soldiers? What sort of people would volunteer to become other than human, for the rest of their lives? What would happen to them, when the inevitable occurred and some of them - one way or another - wanted to stop fighting?

In my darker moments, I wondered: if the Confederate military ever decided to use Arai's work... would those changed even be told what they would become?

You didn't tell Kenshin, a sniff that sounded like my conscience reminded me.

Well - yes and no. I'd told him as much as an eight-year-old could understand in the time we had to save his scrawny little neck. I'd given him as much choice as I could.

And he was happy.

It was a warmth within me, bone-deep. Even when Kenshin was scared, or sad, or red-in-the-face mad as only a thwarted child could be - still, the core of his changed instincts recognized me as his adult. His :parent.:

And as long as I was there, nothing could go wrong with the world.

Which was utterly exasperating, sometimes. I trained him the way my shishou had trained me, after all. Even if I toned it down for still-growing bones, it was enough to send a grown man swearing off into the night. I should know.

But he loved it. Loved me. Not that he was loud about it; he was never loud. Not that he never grumbled or complained, either; I found enough froglets in my washbowl and love-lies-scratching leaves in my sandals and underwear to keep me on my toes.

Yet every once in a while, Kenshin would look up at me. And smile.

Damn kiryuu hormones.

It had to be those, of course. I've always been impatient with people. Stupid, ignorant, greedy... I could go on for hours, gladly. So it had to be altered instinct. How else could I stand dealing with a shrimp who didn't even have a college degree yet?

At least I knew how much people had always irritated me, so I tried to be a somewhat responsible excuse for a foster parent and teach him how to appreciate their good points. Such as they were. I wouldn't care much if most of them chose to jump off a cliff, but if they were being pushed... well, someone has to do something about it.

I should have known better. I really should have.

No good deed goes unpunished.


"Ni'itsu?" A wary step on my front porch. A creak of an opening door, and a purely feminine gasp of disgust and worry at the mess inside. "Kami, what happened?"

I could still feel the sake cup in my fingers, so I sipped at it. "He's gone."

"He's - what-" Okiku stared down at me as I leaned back against the wall, visibly tallying the empty bottles. "What happened? Where's Kenshin?"

"Little idiot," I said bluntly.

Okiku counted to ten under her breath. "Of course he's an idiot. He's thirteen. Everyone descends into idiocy just before they hit thirteen. The lucky ones climb out by twenty. The rest don't get clear until near thirty, and a particular crowd of Resistance morons hasn't gotten out yet. What happened?"

The walls weren't spinning yet, so I took another sip. "My clan's adults at thirteen."

I could hear her suppress a growl of frustration. "Spacers don't exactly swim in the same river as the rest of us, Ni'itsu. Outside of the hard vacuum, living on a freighter's simple. Living with other people, even just a town-full of other people, is complicated. Where is he?"

"He actually hit me," I muttered, rubbing my head. Blinked toward the now-audible growl. Oh. Okiku. Asked a question. Right. "Yoson. Hosting some off-planet high... whatever. Takasugi. I think."

Silence.

Then there were hands tearing the cup out of my grasp, dragging me to my feet. "Go after him."

I almost didn't recognize her voice. "Okiku-"

"He's a child, Ni'itsu!" Anger, raging from her to me, despite the tears in her eyes. "You know what you've taught him; you know what he can do! And I don't care what he thinks, or you think; he doesn't know enough to know when he shouldn't!"

Almost, I slapped her away; he was thirteen, he was a :cub near grown.: It was time for him to take damn-fool chances with the world, before the spark took back a more sober, wiser adult.

But Kenshin wasn't just a cub. He was a human being, no matter how altered.

And if Okiku thought a young human swordsman wasn't fit to be out on his own...

Maybe I was wrong.


"KYAAAA!"

I love that reaction.

Leaning against the inside wall of the Resistance guard-post, I smirked at Shizue, sunglasses and arrogance hiding any trace of the mother of all hangovers. "It's a simple question." Even for you two morons.

"Hotate-san. Right," Shizue babbled, his dark-haired partner in criminal clumsiness, Kiichi, staring at me with wide, unblinking eyes. "I'll just - Kiichi, you-" Shaking, he bolted.

Hmm. Was that a ripple of a retreating Resistance leader's ki I felt a few rooms away?

Why, indeed it was.

One maze of corridors and a few yelps later, I dropped a groaning Kiichi on top of the sprawling excuses for inner security I'd used him to flatten. Tch. Barely concussed, and they were too dazed to struggle. What would happen if they ever had to fight their way free of the Oniwabanshuu? As if I couldn't guess.

But that wasn't my problem. Not now. I stepped forward into the carved-out cavern Hotate's group used as a meeting hall, and bared my teeth. "Yoson."

"Kakunoshin." Pale as milk, the burly Resistance leader still stood his ground. "Nice of you to drop by."

What?

If I hadn't played the deadliest of hide-and-seeks with Kenshin, I'd never have felt it. A trickle of :triumph: through numb quiet, of :targeting the shot-:

Ryuu Tsui Tsen took me off the ground as paralytic darts fired; sandals striking the rough stone ceiling, I saw gray fletching brush by my white cloak.

Four. No, five, counting the one collapsing under my turned blade. All clouded in my ki-sense, cloaked by the psi-deadening drugs the Confederacy had developed for infiltration teams, to mute the signature of unconditioned minds. Drugs that hadn't been made on Kwannon for almost nine years.

Drugs the various Resistance groups could never have gotten on their own.

Hate is an ugly, ugly thing. It takes root almost invisibly, infiltrating the finest tendrils into every corner of your soul. And then, in one blinding flash, those roots swell, pouring acid through your veins.

Arai'd been right. I had hated myself, all those years ago.

But I'd never hated someone else before.

I flicked my blade in a quick chiburi, not really thinking about whose blood was dripping free of steel. Worse, not caring. "You sold him."

Yoson was huddled among the remains of his ambush team; men and women I didn't recognize, gasping or bleeding or very, very still on the floor. "I - I-"

"You sold my cub."

His Adam's apple bobbed against the edge of my blade, drawing one bright bead of blood. Fury gleamed in his gaze, defiant to the last. "Go ahead. You sister-loving bastards will never find us all."

Time seemed to freeze. It didn't make sense, it didn't...

Oh, but it did.

I always knew who'd been conditioned.

The Oniwabanshuu had never caught me.

I knew where people were - an uncanny, inexplicable knowing some of the few Resistance survivors from ten years back might have seen clouded by their use of psi-deadening drugs.

Kenshin - my sweet, gentle, classic merrow-redheaded idiot of a cub - spoke Standard.

And of everyone who'd ever known me on Kwannon, only Okiku knew I was an alterant.

"Federation citizens," I said softly through the urge to murder drumming in my ears, "know better than to take a sibling to bed. Sense I doubt I'd find from you." I closed fingers, and then claws, on his throat. "Where is he?"

"Wha- what are you?" Yoson choked.

Lost.

It was a shattering within me, as a last fragile thread of ki-sense tying me to :my cub: gave way. A sudden lurch that intellect frantically yelped had to be the jump of a smuggling ship out of atmosphere, had to - but that instinct could only see as-

:Death.:

:My cub!:

I howled denial to the skies.


Interesting thing about bloodstains. People tend to move out of your way. Especially if you look like you know where you're going.

Well, most people.

"Kakunoshin-san..."

I smirked at Officer Gin Toyotomi, catching his subtle gulp and wave-off of his partner Jo Nagasawa as we both kept walking past the murmuring crowds gathering at the village roadsides. Okiku did say he was one of her smarter sons. "You could try to arrest me."

"Do, or do not," Gin muttered. "You're not this stupid. Sir."

"I'm leaving."

Gin thought that over another minute. "Really."

Amazing how one word could pack in, and you think I'm going to let you, what the hell just happened - and most of all, why?

"I'm leaving, and I'm attempting to make it obvious even to the idiots here that I am. In case there's anyone else as imbecilic as Hotate out there, adding two and two and coming up with your family being conditioned agents under my control. Agents I just happen to have protected all these years by exposing every other conditioned soul the Oniwabanshuu create in the area, like the devious little out-cross I must be."

Guilt shifted in Gin's ki.

I was too weary to be outraged. "It was the red hair. Wasn't it."

"Damn it, Ni'itsu-san, what did you expect?" Gin hissed, all too aware of watching eyes. "He's not one of ours. He never has been."

And I'd thought Kenshin was shy. That he simply didn't know much about playing with children. After all, he'd always been agile enough to avoid the few bullies in town. "I suppose you're right. It's his own fault for being born under our enemies' colors." I gave Gin a smile, straight from that bitter wound in my heart. "There are merrow with black hair, you know. The Oniwabanshuu barely have a red hair among them."

He flinched.

I left him standing guard in the street, and knocked on Okiku's door.

One look at me, and her face crumbled. "No..."

"I'll find him," I said softly. "He has to be out there. Somewhere. I will find him."

Even if I have no idea where to start.


Which I didn't. Not even after I cleared out the cabin, vanished myself off the planet, and took my first tentative steps back into the wider galaxy I'd left behind. The Confederacy's a big place, even if it doesn't hold as many planetary systems as we think the Federation does. And Kenshin could be, literally, anywhere.

All I had was a name, and a chain of logic. The name was Takasugi; subtle and not-so-subtle digging led me to the fact that he was a military recruiter, both for conventional and covert forces. Kenshin wasn't the only youth who'd vanished off Kwannon in his wake.

The logic... was tentative. But there. Hotate had gotten his supplies. Meaning it was likely Takasugi had been happy with his side of the bargain. And why not? Kenshin spoke Standard like a native. Used a blade as easily as breathing. Knew how to survive in the wilds, and blushed like a charming, shy youngster in civilization. And to anyone who wasn't as grief-driven and paranoid as Hotate, he could pass for an out-cross or a Confederate.

In short, a perfect candidate for covert operations.

Project Miburou.

It was running. It had to be. I could :feel: the desperation in the air when I passed military personnel on various space stations; all but taste it when I walked among the spacer clans I was kin to. The Federation had pushed the Confederacy to the breaking point, and we were all running out of options.

Ordinary medical scans wouldn't find Kenshin's alterations. But the full gene-scan work-up done on any alterant candidate...

Takasugi was about to have a highly-classified firecracker go off in his hands.

And given his superiors had the brains evolution gave a gnat, that firecracker would only lead one place.

Guard yourself, Arai. I know how to find you...

And we're going to have a long talk, you and I.

Owari.


A/N: Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil...
For I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the whole damn Valley.

I've always thought Hiko personifies this quote.

Translations:

Baka - idiot.
Bokken - wooden sword.
Chiburi - move to clean the blood off the blade.
Chikusho - beastly; "damn".
Deshi - apprentice.
Gi - top, as in aikido or karate outfits. Shorter than kimono.
Hakama - lower part of samurai outfit, ranges from almost-pants to culottes to something more akin to a divided skirt.
Haori - jacket.
Kami - spirits, deities.
Kenjustu - sword-arts.
Kiryuu - "fire dragon". In this case, a felinoid alien.
Kya - I could be wrong about this, but I think it's a girly scream.
Miburou - the "wolves of Mibu".
Neko-tengu - "goblin cat". A smaller felinoid.
Obi - belt.
Ookami-moya - "mist wolf". Somewhat canine alien.
Owari - end.
Ryuu Tsui Tsen - "Dragon Hammer Strike".
Saya - sheath.
Shishou - master; antique term in kenjutsu.
Wakuseigo - "planet language".
Yukata - informal light kimono, sometimes sleepwear.