A/N: As always... I don't own Rurouni Kenshin, NightLife, or anything else in here except the insane plot idea. This story is a sequel to "Blades of Blood", so it's likewise AU and borrowing freely from both manga and anime versions of RK. And now, on to the supernatural streets of NYC...
:Hungry. So hungry.:
:Unit will wait,: the mass mind hissed.
Hidden under rubble and cobwebs, the detached mobile unit waited. Information filtered through its circuits; steady temperature, the low air pressure of a typical New York weekend rainstorm, the uninterrupted flow of electrons through the circuit it was guarding. A circuit that was somehow important - though the unit did not know why.
It didn't have to know. Virus knew, and that was enough.
"Well?" an enemy's voice floated down the tunnel.
:Voiceprint ID: Himura, Kenshin.
:Current host, Target Alpha operative Battousai.
:Lethality rating: Extreme.
:Known vulnerabilities: Ultrasonics. Apparent inability to recover from temporary death; enchanted weapon sakabatou instead passes energy form of enemy unit Battousai to new host.
:Known abilities: Supernatural speed and agility. Heal early-stage Infections. Suspected bio-energy perception.:
A cautious footstep raised dust, glinting in a flashlight's glow. "It doesn't look good."
:Voiceprint ID: Sagara, Sanosuke.
:Target Alpha operative. Human. Usually encountered with enemy unit Battousai.
:Lethality rating: Estimated, average. True rating unknown due to close association with Battousai.
:Known vulnerabilities: Human.
:Known abilities: Suspected magical perception.:
"What do you see?"
"Nothing," Sanosuke said dryly. "That's why it doesn't look good."
:Likelihood of enemy unit detection: Moderate.:
A change in air pressure signaled a human-sized body approaching Sanosuke's position, with no detectable accompanying sound of footsteps. "Maybe you should look more closely."
:Likelihood of enemy unit detection: Increasing.:
"Yeah, I... Kenshin?"
The host body's voice turned chill. "Duck."
The mobile unit surged out in a cloud of dust and snapping cobwebs, smashing down the weaker target. Odds of taking down Battousai in one blow rated at less than ten percent; better to be targeted by one foe than two.
The mass mind's stored memories of Battousai's fights let the mobile unit dodge most of the blow. It still reeled away from the impact, circuits of one leg sparking and useless.
No matter what the mass mind wanted, the mobile unit needed human bio-electricity. And all it had to win was one moment on top of the fallen, swearing human, to plant its claws deep and feed.
Knees bent, body slightly twisted, the red-haired enemy unit held the sakabatou's sheath against one arm. Eyes glowed, inhuman amber. "Even were Tsunayoshi still shogun, it would not save you."
:Statement does not compu-:
The two halves of the Virus Dog fell away from his turned blade, and Kenshin shuddered inside. Evil or not, that had been a living creature.
"I would not be so certain," Battousai murmured, still holding their body as he performed chiburi and sheathed the sakabatou. "They are creations of Virus, hai. But living? I think not."
:It moved,: Kenshin pointed out. :It decided. Given I now live with a talking sword, I think that's close enough.:
A talking sword, is it? Battousai laughed silently, walking over to where the tall, rooster-haired agent was cursing his bloodied way to his feet. What is it about adrenaline that makes you so cranky, my heart?
:Do you want that in chronological order or alphabetically?: Kenshin tapped at that sense of scales around his soul. :You can let go now...:
A moment. Only a moment. Ignoring Sano's yelp of pain, Battousai laid a clawed hand near where he'd heard ribs crack, almost in the red trickle of blood. There is... something I need to do.
Warmth moved down his arm, tingling from his fingers into flesh and bones. For a moment he could see the flow of energy about the raking gouges, and how easy it would be to shift it back to its proper flow...
Kenshin blinked, feeling an odd sense of exhaustion in the back of his mind even as Sano sucked in a surprised breath. "'Sai?" the agent asked, patting his no-longer-bleeding side in wary surprise. "How the hell did you-" He lifted his flashlight, and caught a better look. "Kenshin."
"I-" Kenshin shook his head, probing at the other in his mind. "I don't know, Sano. He's asleep." The redhead glanced toward sparks dying on the tunnel floor. "Is it dead? It feels dead..."
"Generally when you take out something like that, yep, dead is the order of the day," Sano agreed, opening his jacket and shirt enough to look at unmarked skin. "How did you do that?"
"You've never seen Battousai heal before?" Kenshin asked, puzzled. And then even more confused. Battousai's never said he could heal anyone besides his bearer. Why am I so surprised Sano doesn't know he can?
"Inuits can heal. Some Elementals. Sword-spirits - scrapes we've been in, would've been really handy if he could," Sano said tightly. "Especially when it was... kids..." The agent's fists clenched.
Kenshin hid a wince. "Sano, I-"
"And what do you mean, he's asleep?"
Kenshin blinked again, taken aback by the sudden shift in Sano's ki from distrust to concern. "He... it wasn't easy, Sano. Like stretching an old scar..."
A strong hand caught his shoulder. "How old?"
Kenshin glanced down, trying to coax out the memories enchanted steel had carried into his mind. For a moment, the tunnel faded into a storm-torn night, blood heavy on the air from black-clad bodies scattered through what remained of a small farmhouse. His arms folded, cradling violet eyes in a tiny face; a small form so frighteningly still as his desperate other-self drew on every power magic had granted him to strengthen life within that tiny body...
Kenshin came back to himself with a gasp, halfway across the tunnel from the agent before he realized he'd moved. "My - Battousai's son." A name. I finally have a name.
Not that it does me much good. I don't know much about Japanese names, but Kenji can't be that rare. Heck, it was Great-Grandfather's name.
"So... Meiji-old," Sano said warily. "And he hasn't done this since because...?"
Wordless, Kenshin shrugged. Stepped around the ruined mass of circuits on the floor, heading for the odd flicker in his ki sense he'd felt just before the Dog's attack. "I think it was guarding something over here."
"Uh-huh. Somehow, I doubt this is Con-Ed standard wiring," Sano said thoughtfully, not quite touching the copper-wrapped crystals spliced into a more conventional cable along the side wall. The crystals themselves were lying on dusty foam ledge duct-taped to the wall, insulated from most harm. "Ruby, chrysoprase, coral, opal, looks like at least three kinds of sapphires... interesting."
"Witchcraft?" Kenshin ventured, testing a flicker of memory. "Why didn't Uramura's people see it?"
"Witchcraft, maybe sorcery, yeah. Looks familiar, somehow. And speaking of looking, Kenshin... try turning off your ki sense."
Turning off-? Hesitantly, Kenshin closed down that extra perception, relying only on five senses better than human.
The crystals vanished.
Unnerved, Kenshin released his hold on ki sense, sighing with relief as the life of the world surged back into place around him. "Illusion."
"Probably what the opal is for," Sano agreed. "Uramura's people would've walked right past it."
"Past a Virus Dog?" Kenshin raised a red brow in disbelief.
"If the main mind wanted them to." Sano frowned. "Letting a bunch of tasty humans go by without trying to feed on them... this thing's got to be important."
"Which means..." Kenshin started.
Trading a bug-eyed glance, the pair bolted back out of the tunnel.
"I knew we should have cleared out the damn inventory!" Sano drew his gun as they hit the basement of Zip Electronics, brown eyes already searching the dimness for any trace of Virus-controlled gadgets.
"It won't be here." Kenshin didn't slow down, trusting ki sense to warn him of the holes in the world that were Virus as he dashed through the cluttered, dusty room to the stairs.
"Virus, Sano!" A mass telepathic mind, that had access to whatever any of its members knew. It'd know who had silenced its Dog. A mind that had hacked most computers in New York, specifically to find information on its enemies. Names. Relatives. Addresses. "Your apartment's gone - my old one's gone-"
But Wonderful Things is still there.
Oh gods, Yahiko!
"There's got to be a simpler way to run this place," Kaoru Kamiya grumbled, head buried under the counter to find a special order of painted porcelain teacups.
Yahiko Myoujin Himura shook his head minutely, keeping an eye on one of the last customers of the night; a young Japanese lady in orange skirt and blouse topped with a white scarf, currently browsing through modern wooden hairpins carved in styles from the Heian era all the way to late Meiji. Just because Ms. Tae Segihara was a friend of Kaoru's, didn't mean she wasn't as likely to try for a five-finger discount as anybody else off the street. "Last two years, people have been paying good money to keep some things out of the computer system." His voice dropped. "Guess we know why, now."
"I still have a hard time believing that." Pushing Yahiko's shinai and a bundle of cloth and steel back where Kenshin had left them, Kaoru emerged from under the counter with a book-sized heavy-duty cardboard box and a look of triumph. "Here."
Yahiko opened the lid just enough to check that it was the lacquered black chest that held the cups, then set the box to the side to be rung up when Tae was finished looking. "Kenshin may be a wuss about some things, but he wouldn't take off before closing if it wasn't serious." And ever since that night a little over a week ago when the whole world had gone berserk, just about anything to do with Target Alpha qualified as serious.
That unspoken fact lay between them like Kenshin's cloth-wrapped blades, quiet and unforgettable. Yahiko knew his brother, knew Kenshin hated even the thought of breaking laws. No matter what their father might have done in the past.
Undercover FBI agent - man, I should've known, how could I not have known something was different about us?
Still, Kenshin had believed they were a nice, normal, law-abiding family. Working for a secret government agency that felt it had free rein to stomp the Bill of Rights to hell and gone because the creatures it kept in check legally didn't exist - no. No way would Kenshin do that.
Not unless it was important, Yahiko knew. Save-somebody's-life important.
And that somebody, the boy was guiltily aware, was probably him.
Well, me and probably Kamiya-sensei. Yahiko shivered a little, thinking of just why it was important. He could still see that awful, bloody, circuit-laced mess that had been Pidge...
"Virus will take you out personally if it gets the chance," Sano had said a few days back, snatching a piece of toast from under Kaoru's hand as he mooched off their new breakfast table. "It's supernatural, it's got to feed like any other Kin. Two birds, one stone. But it's also got one hell of a mass mind going for it, and access to just about any computer we don't have real wizards working security for - and yeah, I do mean Sorcerers, on top of the regular geeks. Minute the agency takes the blocks off your personal info, you guys are going to be up a very nasty creek with no paddle and a burning canoe. Identity theft, nothing. Virus can hack stuff to get certain other government agencies to toss you into concrete and steel bars incommunicado for weeks. If you were lucky." The rooster-haired agent had bent a serious look on Yahiko. "Maybe you could take that. Your brother can't."
Because Kenshin needs blood. No one needed to say it. The very fact of opaque bottles in their refrigerator was clear enough.
Kaoru slammed a hand down on the table. "So why don't you stop them?" she said hotly. "We haven't done anything wrong!"
Sano shrugged. "You're Crowley. You live with Kin. Far as Target Alpha's concerned, if you haven't broken the law yet, you will." He shifted under her accusing gaze. "Damn it, Jou-chan, I don't make the rules! I just... try to make sure we get more of the bad guys than the good ones..."
"We're not going to solve the world's problems this morning, that we are not." Kenshin came out of their new kitchen with a second serving of salsa-topped eggs to go with the rice; Yahiko shook his head, still amazed at his brother's appetite. "Is that not Zen, Miss Kaoru? See things as they are, understand things as they are, and let things go as they go?"
"Yes, but-" Kaoru's blue eyes squinted in a frown. "Understanding doesn't do any good if you don't use it to change what has to be changed!"
"As the wise man Saiou said, 'We'll see'." Kenshin had smiled then, violet eyes glimmering with just a hint of amber.
It'd kept the hairs on the back of Yahiko's neck straight up for hours.
The Horse of Saiou, the thirteen-year-old thought now, keeping a subtle eye on Tae as she selected three particular hairpins; cherry blossom, cherry fruit, and dragonfly. Some old story about all these things that happened to this guy, that all his neighbors thought were so bad or so great, and he just kept on keeping on; 'cause even the bad luck had good parts, and the good luck had bad ones...
Not a story his brother had known. Not two weeks ago.
He's still Kenshin. Still my idiot big brother. But... he's different.
Yahiko still didn't know how he felt about that. The red hair and shift in clothes, he could take. The sometimes-weird food combinations that ended up on the table - well, he could live with that, just like he lived with the odd bottles in the fridge; the teenager just made sure he never, ever took a bite or a swig without knowing exactly what he'd picked up. And the constant early-morning or late-evening practices were kind of cool.
But there was a hard edge to his brother that just hadn't been there before. And even if he felt... weirdly safe around Battousai...
Still. It was like flopping down onto an old, familiar, comfy couch... and gradually realizing that the odd lump he'd landed on top of was a loaded gun.
He'd tried to explain some of this to Kaoru. Even if it made him sound like an idiot. This was his brother, after all; Kenshin had only let Battousai in to keep him safe.
Weird thing was, Kaoru had listened to him. Like he wasn't just a kid. Listened, and nodded, and hadn't tried to talk him out of being scared.
Yahiko glanced at her now, puffing a strand of dark hair that had escaped from her ponytail out of her eyes. Gulped.
Kaoru raised an inquiring dark brow. "Yahiko?"
"It's just - sometimes I kind of feel like he isn't my brother anymore!" Yahiko kept his voice down, just barely.
"Well, he - kind of isn't." Kaoru's jaw tightened; deliberately relaxed. "Yahiko. You've met some of my self-defense students, right? You know how some of them are angry, and some of them are just sad..."
"Sure. Real weepy-" Girls, he almost said, but cut it off at her narrowed eyes.
"A lot of them are there because they're crime victims, Yahiko. Like you. And your brother." Kaoru swallowed dryly. "And me."
"Violence changes people. Even if they don't want it to." She braced herself. "Your brother found out he can do - something most sane people never, ever want to know they can do to another person. Even if - our new friend wasn't involved - he's not the same person anymore. He can't be."
"But-" It hurt. Oh god, it hurt.
"But he's still your brother, and he still loves you," Kaoru declared, arms crossed to head off any more argument. "It's all right to be confused, Yahiko. He's confused. I'm confused. I'd bet even Battousai's confused." She rolled her eyes. "The only one who's not confused is Sano, and that's because that rooster-head doesn't have enough brains to worry about more than where his next free meal's coming from... Yahiko?"
She sounded worried, Yahiko realized, gaze involuntarily turning toward the back of the store, where an out-of-sight door would lead to the alley behind Wonderful Things and the now-defunct Zip Electronics. Why? She wasn't the one hurting over a brother.
Only he didn't feel hurt right now. More numb, really. In a kind of weird, chilly way.
Numb... that way.
Kaoru frowned, turning so Tae wouldn't see her pick up her bokken from behind the counter. "I'll just see if they're back yet."
"No!" Yahiko stared at his fingers wrapped around her wrist, and flushed. "I mean - they'll be back when they're back, right?"
Don't go out there, his eyes pleaded. Something's wrong out there.
Shyeah, right. Like he'd know?
"I do think I'm done here," Tae said in her soft, near-Southern accent, laying the hairpins on the counter. "Listen; you have to be dead tired after helping out in this place, Kaoru. Why don't you and Yahiko grab your coats an' skip out a few minutes early? We could sneak on down to Akabeko, grab a sushi plate in the kitchen before the evening snoots show up to run us all off our feet."
Yahiko let go of Kaoru to ring up the purchase, ignoring his sensei's look of confusion. How the heck should he know why the lady who'd just spent a happy half-hour browsing like she didn't have a care in the world was suddenly jumping to get out of here? Items, price, tax on, check ID, check in the drawer, stuff in the bag, receipt...
Just as he was handing Tae the printed slip, the lights went out.
"Damn!" Faster than anyone should be, Tae reached over the counter, grabbed him by the shoulders, and bodily tucked him under her arm. "Kaoru, don't ask, don't argue - we have to run!"
Out in the alley, something crashed.
Yahiko struggled against the unnatural strength in that feminine arm, keenly aware of Kaoru's wide eyes and raised, uncertain bokken. One hand scrabbled behind the counter before Tae dragged him away from it; he felt the wrapped handle of his own shinai brush his fingertips, then slide out of reach. "Let go of me you ugly - Kaoru, get out of here!" A knickknack display almost came down on top of them as he kicked Tae in the shins; past its wobble, he saw Kaoru disappear into the back, running for the alley door. "Not that way!"
Out of sight, Kaoru yelled. Something thocked.
Tae was cursing him in what sounded like three other languages besides Japanese, dragging him tooth and nail toward the front door as Kaoru bolted back their way, her bokken dripping oily fluid. "They're coming!"
Lady or the tiger- Yahiko stopped fighting and let Tae haul him out the door into the rain, feeling as if someone had shoved icicles into his gut. He'd handle whatever Tae was later; for now, all he wanted was to get himself and Kaoru away from the Virus coming through the back and into that oh-so-welcome crowd on the storm-dark street outside-
Only as Yahiko saw rain run down cold, uncaring faces, he suddenly knew they weren't a crowd at all.
Kaoru made a sharp, hurt noise, backing up into a loose triangle with him and his unlikely kidnapper. Tae had let him go; face white as her scarf, dark eyes darting here and there as she looked futilely for a way out.
Kaoru swallowed dryly, raising her bokken to ready stance. "Can you get out of here?"
Tae gulped. "I - I could, but you-"
"Go." Kaoru glared at their slowly-closing enemies, daring them to rush her. "Get help."
"There ain't no help, Kaoru! This is Virus. Time I got back here with anybody who'd dare-" Tae shivered, eyes bright with fear. Set down her bag, and cracked her knuckles, steely claws sliding out of her fingers. "Fight 'em, kid. Fight 'em with everything you got."
Which isn't that much, Yahiko though bleakly, yanking off his jacket to twist into a weak flail. Damn it, I ought to start wearing that shinai, I don't care if people look at me funny-
And then the world was all arms and legs and confusion, yelling and slashing and eerie silence from the mobbing crowd. Bodies went for him; he snapped wet cloth in faces and eyes, trying to blind if he couldn't hurt them. Hands grabbed; he bit, terrified by the chill, dead feel of skin.
Something stabbed into his neck; pain and static and cold, so cold...
"Let him go."
Kenshin's voice, level and sharp as drawn steel. Yahiko struggled to lift his head toward it, cringing inside as that alien static wormed through neck and shoulder. There was red over there... somewhere...
Silence from the crowd. Vision was gray and fading; Yahiko tried to blink-
Darkness filled with whispers like the tread of a merciless army, bearing him somewhere he knew he didn't want to go. Cold... alien... every one pushing just a little harder down on what was left of him...
But even as the whispers pulled him under, Yahiko knew that blur of red wasn't Kenshin. Not anymore.
"Go back the way you came, or die."
:And I was having such a nice nap...:
Anytime, Kenshin pointed out, staring down the crowd of newly-infected Virus with his best imitation of Battousai's chill confidence, trying not to shiver. Behind him he heard Sano cursing his way toward them, flashlight flickers marking the agent's path through the pitch-black store. Farther behind lay the alley, now littered with steel-and-circuit remnants of dismembered Virus.
:Hmm... no.: A mental yawn from steel. :Too tired... and you'll need me later. I'll guide. You fight.:
:Start with "pushing the crowd apart". Sano can watch for artillery, and our training should take you from there-:
Which it had, in the alley; steel moving against creatures of wire and malice almost without the need for thought. They felt like enemies, looked like enemies; he'd moved with Sano's punches and shots easily as flame, knowing what would happen to them both if he did not. Had left the sakabatou and taken up the deadlier daisho in one smooth duck and roll under and over the store counter, knowing there was more Virus outside his front door.
But Virus or not, they still looked human. I can't do this!
:They're attacking Kaoru. They have Yahiko. They've hurt him. Don't fear your anger, my heart - use it!:
The world slowed.
Pushing the crowd apart.
A shrug of shoulders and body against two Virus in his path, creating not a domino-fall - they were too strong for that - but a momentary tangle of limbs and reflexes, as the mass mind tried to sort out where it had intended them to move from where they actually were. He slid past in that confusion, blades still sheathed; ki sense spread to sense the mass of them as vision focussed on the hand that had implanted feeding-tendrils in Yahiko's neck.
On the hand - and the wrist.
Red washed the world.
They're still human enough to bleed...
It didn't matter. It couldn't matter.
:Those are the Enemy,: Battousai said coldly; scaly armor against the panic a human should have been feeling. :These are who you Protect. For one to live, the other must die. I will not force you to the choice...:
But as blood and flesh flew, Kenshin knew he'd already chosen.
Virus fought like a computer, like a school of fish in the sea; shifting and striking as one synchronized unit. It worked well enough - against another fish.
:You know how they move. You know how they will die.:
So very simple.
Steel sang. Wood thudded. Claws slashed. Flesh smacked flesh, as bullets punctuated the dance.
It wasn't easy, but it was short.
Impaling a last wriggling form through the heart, Kenshin rose from his crouch and looked about for any others.
:None,: Battousai observed grimly, feeling through their ki sense. :I don't like it.:
"Thank gods for wide-area distraction spells and a damn understanding Elemental," Sano muttered, reloading. "Get Yahiko out of that mess and get over here."
Swallowing dryly, Kenshin picked up the limp teen. He's so still.
:They've Drained him,: Battousai said darkly. :And possibly more...:
Comfort touched him. :This is why I saved my strength, Kenshin. We can help him. We will.:
"Come on, come on, out, good-" Opening a screw-top bottle of white pellets, Sano scattered them over the Virus-piles and jumped back.
Green flames roared up.
"You're starting a fire on the sidewalk?" Kaoru blurted.
"This is Wonderful Things, Jou-chan. One of the few places you can get magic supplies and not have to deal with the head Witches of New York. Sorcerers around here talked the local Elemental into blurring Edge-use out of people's minds a long time ago. Right, miss?" Sanosuke grinned darkly at Ms. Segihara's bloodstained nails. "Cute little Ubo like you wouldn't dare pop claws in public otherwise."
"Ubo?" Kaoru's eyes went even wider. "You're a butterfly vampire?"
"I..." Tae's voice failed her. She curled her fingers, looking away.
"You could have flown away." Kaoru let out a slow breath, and dredged up a smile. "I'm glad you didn't."
"Well, I couldn't leave a little kid to them-" Tae turned toward Kenshin. Stared, going paler than pale. Whimpered.
"Ms. Segihara?" Kenshin ventured, holding a polite smile on his face as he carried Yahiko's unconscious form under the awning. It wasn't easy. All he wanted was to get his brother inside and warm.
The Ubo gulped. "Battousai..."
"You'd think he was Lazarus Smile." Sano rolled his eyes, and rested a not ungentle hand on her shoulder. "Come on, lady. We saved your neck, killed some Virus, wiped out the evidence without getting anybody official breathing down our necks... all in all, I'd call this a pretty good night."
"I wouldn't." Yahiko's too-slow breath stirred his hair as Kenshin headed inside, pausing by the counter to retrieve the sakabatou, absently registering how the lights had flickered back on without Virus' interference. Not that it mattered to his eyes. He's so still.
:He's alive, Kenshin. Hold to that.:
Kenshin nodded, laying his brother on the small restroom floor. He'd seen what Battousai had done for Sanosuke, it shouldn't be too much harder to do it for Yahiko, no matter how tired he was...
Except - something was wrong.
He bent closer to the smell of blood - gods, Yahiko's blood - mingled with the lingering metal, plastic, and dead-flesh stench of Virus. Nothing unusual about that, no matter how stomach-churning it was. The wound looked normal, felt normal-
No. Not quite.
His fingers pressed near the circuit-punched holes along Yahiko's neck and spine, tingling with the hunch of something wrong. A hunch that wasn't touch or ki sense, but a bare whisper of combination of both.
"Kenshin-" Sano's quick stride announced the rest of their company. "What the hell are you doing?"
Claws bared, Kenshin slashed into Yahiko's neck, barely avoiding the large veins. Touched something slicker than flesh, that squirmed and tried to escape-
I don't think so!
The bloody metal tendril squealed as he pulled it free, writhing to escape. "Jar!"
"The hell is-" Sano's jaw dropped.
Kaoru darted out into the store, coming back with a quartz specimen box whose contents she unceremoniously dumped on the floor. "Here!"
Kenshin dropped the metal worm into the box, not relaxing even as Kaoru slammed the lid shut. "Tape, something..."
A shrrrip of duct tape in Sano's hands wrapped it as the agent shook off his daze. "What in all the Twisted Dimensions is this thing? Virus Infections don't look like this!"
"Not that we've seen." Kenshin let himself shiver; Yahiko's ki felt almost normal now, though drained. What is it?
:I don't know.: Battousai's uncertainty was a chill parallel to his own. :I've never seen anything like it before. It's subtle. If we weren't so much a part of each other...
:I doubt I would have sensed it at all.:
A rattle of steel and latches told him Tae had found their first aid kit. "We got to stop that bleeding-"
"Not yet," Kenshin made himself say, despite that frightening trickle of blood from Yahiko's neck. "We don't know if the wound's clean yet."
:And there's only one way to be sure.:
Saya in hand, Kenshin drew the sakabatou a bare inch. Just enough to nick Yahiko's still hand on enchanted steel. Fine drops of ruby touched the bright edge. Shimmered there.
:Hold steady, my heart. This is always - dizzying.:
Vanished into the blade, like water into thirsty ground.
Battousai's heartbeat - his heartbeat - quickened in Kenshin's ears, drowning out the room's silence. Yet there was a subtler sound joining that demanding beat; one that skipped and faltered and was so, so tired...
:Lean on us, little one,: the blade murmured to that second heart. :We have all the strength you need. Echo us. Be part of us.
:I am a swordsman's soul, little samurai. I will not allow you to be less!:
Eyes closed, Kenshin reached through that crimson thread of magic binding them to his brother, searching for anything that was not Yahiko. Gray threads of alien, of not-life seared at his touch, crumbling away into ash and wind. Mine, he snarled at that dying presence. My brother; my blood! You'll never have him!
:Never,: Battousai affirmed, chill as winter. :For we are what we are; and noble blades will shatter before an unworthy hand may wield them.:
:Noble? The Demon of Kyoto?: A dark laugh touched them, even as the last of the infection collapsed. :We'll see, Battousai...:
Kaoru's voice. Kaoru's hand, warm on his shoulder. Kaoru's scent, jasmine and sweat and rainwater, wreathing him like a kami's blessing.
"Kenshin," the kendo teacher said again, "You have to let go, so we can treat Yahiko's shoulder- oh."
Kenshin blinked in time to see the wounds of Virus and his own claws closing, flesh and skin knitting back together as if it'd been weeks healing. Unruly dark hair stirred against his shoulder; Yahiko muttered something even his ears couldn't quite make out, but which sounded suspiciously like one of Sanosuke's careless curses. I should have a long talk with a certain rooster-head about that, Kenshin thought tiredly. Yahiko's not living on the street; he doesn't need that kind of language.
Yes. He should definitely have a talk with Sano about that. Later. When the world wasn't quite so gray and quiet...
"Damn it, 'Sai! Push yourself and him over the edge, when he's still too skittish to take more than animal-"
Kenshin tried to frown, conscious of how suddenly heavy Yahiko was in his arms. He sounds upset.
:I think... we did too much...:
Kenshin leaned against that tired voice, hoping the pair of them could brace each other. But we had to.
:For Yahiko,: Battousai agreed wearily. :But I think... we're in trouble.:
"What are you doing?" Kaoru's voice, rising at the end in a yelp of pain.
"Stay still, damn it! You're the only one of us who can spare anything, and he's enough out of it I don't trust his fangs, okay? Sheesh, newbies..."
"Ow!" Sano's footfalls retreated out of the restroom with unseemly haste. "Man! I was better off with the damn Virus!"
Fresh blood. Kenshin inhaled that warm, tantalizing scent, fangs aching - then jerked his head back in sudden dismay. Kaoru's blood! "Sano, don't you dare-!"
"Oh, he dared, all right!" Kaoru flared, left wrist raised to slow the trickle of blood even as she brandished her bokken at the wary agent. Glanced Kenshin's way, and hesitated. "You - you really don't look too good."
"Kaoru... dono," Kenshin whispered, trying to fight back that draining thirst. All too aware of Tae deliberately keeping herself back behind Sanosuke; an Ubo, battling her own instincts in the presence of human blood. "You don't have to do this." Damn it, help me!
:I am, young one.: The sword's thoughts were strained, dark with hunger. :I... will not take from the unwilling. I will not...:
Blue eyes stared back at them, wide and frightened - and suddenly, determined. "Next time, I get to stock your fridge."
:Kaoru in our kitchen? Run!:
Hair standing on end at the very thought, Kenshin barely noticed when welcome crimson touched his lips.
He nuzzled the soft skin of her wrist, licking the salt-and-bitter taste of fighting sweat near the blood. Shifted the warm burden of the one under his protection so there was room to draw her against him as well. He wanted this closeness, this warm brush of bright ki on his own shadowed energies; breathing her breath, feeling stray strands of midnight tickle his throat as his flame stroked hers.
:She is so beautiful.:
Even after he'd licked the knife-wound closed, Kenshin held Kaoru close, comforted by the humanity of touch. He could feel her brightness, like a beacon in the endless dark...
:It is a beacon,: Battousai said softly. :We know the taste of her ki now, as we know Yahiko's. They are under our protection. We can find them now. Always.:
Somehow, he could think of worse fates.
"Ugh... what hit me... auggh!"
Jabbed by his brother's flailing elbow, Kenshin jerked back and sideways.
:Ambush?: Battousai fought to keep steady through the sudden yelp of agony and flashing lights in their vision. :But I didn't sense any-:
No, Kenshin thought, dazed. Sink.
:...There are times I hate the modern world...:
Kenshin blinked back smarting tears of pain. "Are you all right, Miss Kaoru?"
"Is she all right?" Still pale, Yahiko stubbornly wavered to his feet. "You - you - that thing was trying to eat me, and you two are necking?"
"We weren't-" Kaoru started.
"Not eat, exactly-" Kenshin said at the same time.
"It wasn't like it was her idea," Tae put in, glaring at Sano.
"And you woke up before they got to the good part, kid," Sano sighed manfully. "He never even got near her neck."
:Oh, he is so dead.:
"Oi! Jou-chan! Not the stick!"
"Feisty little gal," Sano muttered, rubbing near his bruises as he leaned against the wall of Dr. Ogumi Gensai's waiting room. He took one more wary look at the other worn, tired New Yorkers taking advantage of Gensai's odd clinic hours, then glanced over at the redheaded shadow trying to disappear into pale cream paint. "I can see why the two of you like her."
Kenshin gave him a sidelong, ever so mildly disapproving look.
Translation: we really do like her, but I'm too embarrassed to talk about it, Sanosuke thought gleefully. Oh, you picked a fun one this time, 'Sai.
Which definitely beat picking another guy like Ward; a Target Alpha agent with no other way out of life-threatening injuries or illness, who didn't like Kin any more than cops liked muggers, and who'd always hate what Battousai's magic would make him. Yep. Kenshin was way easier to deal with.
At least when it comes to talking, Sano thought. Other things... I dunno. "Tsunayoshi?"
"Tokugawa Tsunayoshi," Kenshin sighed. "The Dog Shogun."
"Guy who made it illegal to kill dogs, even when there was a good reason. I know that." Captain Sagara had been a good teacher. Even if he'd had to spend a lot of his corporeal time reading up on American history to give his young charge a more modern education than that a Meiji ghost remembered.
Kenshin shrugged. "He wasn't nearly as bad a guy as a lot of writers painted him later. He just lacked a certain... sense of proportion. And dissolving Yodoya was definitely over the top, no matter how many debts it wiped out-" He stopped at Sano's look. "What's wrong?"
"Outside of the fact that the guy's been dead since, oh, 1709?" And Battousai's always sworn he dates back to maybe a decade or two before Meiji. What gives?
Kenshin blinked, eyes violet and puzzled. "He did read history, Sano."
"Yeah. That I got," Sanosuke acknowledged. "But that didn't sound like something you read." He raised a dark brow. "'Sai?"
Violet shimmered into amber.
Damn it, 'Sai-
A red brow flicked up, amber eyes dancing with amused gold glints. "One might think you don't trust me to know his strength, Sano."
"You didn't pull this with Ward," Sanosuke muttered.
"A joint lock will not break the arm unless the held one struggles," the sword-spirit shrugged. "Kenshin allows the hold. Ward did not."
"It's not that simple, and we both know it-" Later. Bug Kenshin about it later. Allowed or not, Battousai couldn't be present for long. "Why the hell didn't you tell Kenshin to bring Yahiko to our doctor?"
Battousai gave him a level look. "Your doctor, perhaps. Not Yahiko's. Certainly not Kaoru's." A red brow arched slightly. "And while Kenshin has known him but a week, he is comfortable in Gensai-isha's presence. Why should I force him to bring his brother, the only family he has remaining in the world, to one who fears us?" His voice dropped, almost too soft to hear. "My heart deserves better of me than that."
My heart. My young one. My own. Sano's eyes narrowed as he studied his partner. You never talked about Ward this way. "Dr. Doctor's at least twice your age, and the last time I saw that Drac show off for the incoming newbie agents, he did a nifty pretzel imitation with steel bars. And you think he's afraid of you?"
Which goes to show the doc may be about as pleasant to be around as a porcupine with a hangover, but he's not stupid, Sano reflected. In terms of sheer physical strength, Dr. Doctor could beat Battousai, hands down. Most vampires could. But when it came to an actual, no-holds-barred fight...
Most Kin could've stomped that Dog, Sanosuke thought, absently wondering how the control teams he'd called in to look over that enchanted circuit were doing, before he shook it off to deal with the problem at hand. Long as they didn't panic, at least. Long as they had just a little practice fighting for their lives.
Which, granted, Kenshin had had plenty of, ever since he'd grabbed Battousai off a penthouse floor to take out the werewolf that had tried to have him for dinner. Even when he'd still been human, Kenshin had at least had the concept that Things would try to eat him. Which was a lot more than most baby Kin had.
Those five Virus in the alley, though...
Armed and with backup, most sane Kin still would have rather run than fight five full-fledged Virus. Telepathy meant every Virus knew what any Virus knew, and armored metal bodies meant conventional weapons might as well be rubber-band shooters. Even the special rounds Sano had, courtesy of Target Alpha, that could take out an engine block in one shot - even with that, you gave the damn things two to the chest and one to the head, and you hoped like hell you hit a weak spot. Battousai's swords were some of the few he'd ever seen that didn't bounce off the monsters; the two years Virus had apparently been active hadn't been enough time for Virus-Attuned weapons to make it into general use.
And that doesn't even get into that - that swarm that had Yahiko.
Granted, each one individually was a lot easier to take down than the metal-heads. About as easy as a... human...
There were damn few Kin willing to take on a mob of humans. All the Edges in the world meant zip when thirty-odd hands were tearing you apart.
Battousai hadn't thought twice about it.
The Demon of Kyoto. Captain Sagara told me, but... I don't think I listened.
Yet Kenshin still seemed to be as quiet and nice a guy as ever. As if it never even crossed his mind to use those lethal capabilities on anything that wasn't an immediate, life-threatening problem.
Not like Ward at all.
In a way, it was kind of creeping Sano out. Nobody was that nice. That decent.
When he does blow a fuse, it's going to be one hell of a mess.
"Has there been any report?" Battousai asked, amber searching his gaze. "Sanosuke. You're worried."
Sano sighed. "They got Falconi poking around for magic with Uramura's squad and a couple others for backup. So far, all they got is that circuit - they think it's some kind of weird Root Magic - and a lot of wrecked Virus."
"Natasha-san." The sword spirit inclined his head. "Good."
"And they want us to bring the little wriggler into R&D."
"Us." Amber chilled.
"Yeah," Sano said carefully. "Us." You haven't gone near HQ since Kenshin picked you up, 'Sai. Don't think we haven't noticed.
Battousai held his gaze a moment longer, then shrugged. "We'll see Yahiko-kun and Kaoru-dono into safety, first."
"Like she needs help?" Sano raised his hands to ward off that dark look. "Fine, whatever. 'Sai-"
A blink, a near-soundless gasp - and violet lifted to look at him. "It's... not nearly so bad as you think, that it is not," Kenshin smiled wanly. "He is careful, Sano."
"Oh yeah? Then why are you sweating?" Sanosuke grumbled.
"I did not say it was easy; that I didn't." Kenshin looked away. "What sort of person would I be if I held two friends from speaking to each other?"
I don't know, normal? But Sano didn't say it. It'd only been about a week; Kenshin might seem to be okay with being Kin, but under all those polite manners he had to be mad as hell-
Saved by the brat. Sano had to grin as Kenshin was near bowled over by a hyper little brother, shinai and all. Kaoru, Tae, and Gensai himself were right behind him; Kaoru looked relieved, the Ubo tense but not jumpy, and Gensai...
If he's not interested down to his toes, I'll eat my headband, Sano thought, eyeing that friendly smile. Sorcerers live for poking into mysteries.
"Well! I certainly can't fault you for bringing them in, but it seems your first aid was very effective," the elderly Sorcerer smiled broadly. "Well done."
Kenshin flushed slightly. "It wasn't me, really-"
"Himura-san." Kind gaze quite sober, Gensai touched Kenshin's arm gently. "Well done."
Fascinated, Sano watched his partner's cheeks go from light pink to near-flaming red. He gets any more embarrassed, he's going to spontaneously combust.
"Now," Gensai said lightly, "shoo, shoo - we have actual sick people in here, no need to have your kumi cluttering up the way..."
Almost before Sano knew it, they were all out on the clinic sidewalk, staring at each other. "Um," Tae ventured. "Dr. Gensai was - I mean, you know..."
"Crowley, Crowley, Crowley, sword-spirit," Sano stated, jabbing a thumb at himself and everybody else in turn. "Easy on these guys, they're still going to college. Ubo, huh? How's a butterfly-lady who can't stand garlic work in an Oriental restaurant?"
"Akabeko's a Japanese restaurant," Tae said archly. "An' we cater to all sorts of special clientele, Mr. Sagara." She lifted a plucked eyebrow. "Why, we even let a few of your co-workers in. If they play nice." Her smile warmed a little. "Not that most of 'em ever know they're anywhere but a quiet, old-fashioned restaurant."
"I sure didn't," Kaoru said softly. Squared her shoulders, and gave Kenshin a fierce look. "We're going home with Tae. Find out what they were up to, and stomp it a good one!"
"Up to?" Sano said incredulously. "Come on, Jou-chan. They came, they saw, they lost!"
"They knew they would lose," Kenshin said distantly. "Or they suspected."
Kenshin glanced around an office that looked like a paperwork tornado had hit it, pausing a moment on the life-sized poster of a younger, grinning Dolly Parton on the wall. Ki sense felt the busy minds testing and experimenting throughout these labs disguised as a small Brooklyn factory. Hearing was trying to tune out the inescapable country music, focussed on Sano's semi-heated discussion with the gum-snapping secretary keeping them from the guy who owned this office. Scent - well, he was trying not to smell anything; beyond the moldy coffee cups and long-dead African violets, the slightest taste of the air brought plastic, gunpowder, and a sickening burn of acid-eaten flesh. I don't want to be here.
:That makes two of us.: Battousai sighed in his mind. :But it would be more suspicious if we were not.:
Suspicious? Kenshin pounced on the thought, suddenly wishing he'd brought the daisho rather than politely leaving them hidden in Sano's car. What are you up to?
:Up to? Of all the people to ask me that, you-: Anger deflated, slumping into the weariness that still afflicted them both. :Kenshin, I... you saw how Tae-dono looked at us. At me.:
Kenshin winced. There had been such fear in brown eyes. As if, in the space of a breath, she'd seen the mild shopkeeper she bought jewelry and knickknacks from turn into a demon straight from hell.
:In a sense, she did,: Battousai said reluctantly. :For decades, I have been Target Alpha's blade, passed from host to host, killing as they willed. To try to serve with honor. To keep myself sane - for no matter how I despise some of what I have done, were I to be trapped within this blade without a mind to touch, without a hand to hold me...
:I would go mad. Mad as Jin-e. Or worse.
:But you hold me now. You chose me.
:And I... I am so very tired of life as an assassin...:
Kenshin drew a quiet breath. You - you want to leave Target Alpha!
:Yes.: Another silent sigh. :But they cannot know that, Kenshin. Not yet. You're still young, new to your form - a "baby", most Kin would say - and Kaoru and Yahiko have a great deal to learn before they can count themselves safe as most Crowleys. We have to be patient. And careful. Even if - I truly do not want to...:
Lean on me.
A blink of surprise. :Kenshin?:
I... Kenshin swallowed dryly, fingers brushing the sakabatou's hilt. You let me lean on you when we're fighting. When I - when I need to be angry. Lean on me now. Let me help you stay calm.
A surprised, tired laugh touched him. :Gently, then. But be careful, my heart. I am no small spirit, whose malice or kindness can be repaid with a saucer of milk. I am a killing blade...:
It was like being dropped in a forge fire.
Hate. Anger. Rivers of blood. Killing, and loathing the kill, and cringing inside as the one who bore him despised him and all he was...
"-Kenshin?" Sano stood in the office door, a skinny guy with a pocket protector and a black cowboy hat staring around his shoulder with predatory interest. "You okay?"
"Just thinking," Kenshin said hoarsely. I'm trying, I am...
The fire retreated. Still hot. Still painful. But he could bear it.
"You like my inspiration?" Cowboy Hat smirked at him.
Kenshin glanced at the poster, and stifled a heartfelt sigh. "Your pardon, but you are-?"
"Call me Texas."
Kenshin tried not to stare. With a Connecticut accent?
:James Holstein, Coordinator of R&D,: Battousai supplied, as if through gritted teeth. :The man responsible for that - that noise currently being inflicted upon us.:
Kenshin almost raised an eyebrow. You don't like country?
:"Wild Angels", I can stand. "That Don't Impress Me Much" expresses sentiments any samurai would agree with. But every time Target Alpha has decided to indulge their petty curiosity about my link to my hosts, I have ended up here. With that music.: A ripple of disgust, and weary resignation. :And once you hear Sano sing "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off", with visual aids...:
Kenshin winced. "Holstein-san," he said evenly. "Have you determined what it was Virus intended to implant in Yahiko?"
"Bug." Texas kept staring at him, like he was a piece of machinery not quite performing up to spec. "Thought the ENO item passed on memories to each host intact."
"Battousai remembers everything," Sano said, with the air of someone who'd explained this a hundred times before, and knew he'd probably have to go through it a hundred times again. "Kenshin just has to ask him about it. And what do you mean, bug? I thought it was some weird - delayed Infection, or something."
"Could have been." Texas crooked a finger to beckon them both into the hall, trotting back toward the main labs. "Any chance you could get the affected subject in here? We don't have a real good baseline for Virus Infection-"
"Yahiko's been through enough for one night," Kenshin said firmly, liking this less and less. Wisps of Battousai's memory rose with every step within these walls; ghostly images of watching a dreadlocked young man pound his fists bloody on observation window glass, caught in the grip of Inuit Madness that was the last gasp of a human mind succumbing to that Kin's Infection...
Texas had been there, Kenshin recalled. Making notes. Taking data. Cool and cheerful as if he were watching one of his many gadgets perform in its first field test.
:A volunteer,: Battousai murmured. :A fool. I... did not wish to be there. I had seen such Infections before, I knew the depths to which the victim sinks. Ward... Ward wanted to remind himself of why he killed Kin...:
"Yes, of course," Texas waved a dismissing hand now, "but the data-"
"I am not bringing my little brother within these walls." Kenshin heard the steel in his voice; softened it. "That I am not."
"Your-?" Texas jerked to a stop, wiggling a finger in his ear to clear out any blocking wax. "Hey, you're on the job. You know what comes with the territory."
"Skipped the personal details on the file again, huh?" Sano said wryly.
"What's that got to do with Battousai taking a new host?" Texas looked honestly puzzled.
Sano cleared his throat. "Dr. Holstein, meet Kenshin Himura. Civilian."
Texas stared. Wiggled a finger in his ear again. Glanced at Kenshin, then back at Sanosuke. Chuckled. "Nice. Good one. You really had me going for a minute there-"
"We're not joking, that we are not," Kenshin said firmly.
"But," Texas protested weakly, "in order to even be here, you've got to have a security clearance of..."
"We had to default him to a 7," Sano shrugged, leaning against one of the few pieces of corridor wall that didn't have a corkboard full of notes and scientific posters on it. "Kind of a backdoor way to clear a field operative, but like you said, Battousai does pass on memories."
"Are you absolutely insane?"
"Only mildly annoyed," Kenshin muttered. "Holstein-san. We are tired. We've been wounded. We need rest. And I want very much to know why Virus sacrificed so many of its members in a fight it knew it would not win."
Texas' jaw clicked shut. "Knew?"
"Its actions do not make sense, otherwise," Kenshin stated. He knew it, bone-deep; surely as he knew that knowledge was not his, but that of a sword who'd survived countless battles. "A feint? To disguise planting an information-gathering device?" He eyed the R&D scientist. "What sort of information could it have gathered, inside Yahiko?"
"Now, that's the interesting part." Texas gave him a wary look, but eager curiosity pushed even that aside. "It's a lot more advanced and a lot more bio-electric than what we use - but it looks a lot like the sensors we use to track Infection progress."
:What? But I-:
Don't Infect. Not when you already have a bearer. I know, Kenshin thought, troubled.
"Crazy," Sano stated. "Virus has pulled enough data-raids to know Battousai can't Infect anybody." He paused. "Well, outside of-"
"One who chooses to bear him, when his host has perished," Kenshin said flatly. "I know."
"The ENO doesn't Infect, yes," Texas nodded. "But it does mark."
"Any Kin can do that-" Sano started.
"No, no, no," Texas cut in, eyes agleam with smug interest. "Not any. Not the way Battousai does. Gentlemen, if you'll follow me..."
Tae accepted the cup of warmed red liquid with trembling hands. "You sure he won't mind?"
Perching in one of Kenshin's kitchen chairs, close enough to kick Yahiko in the shins if he got snarky, Kaoru smiled at her old friend. First Dr. Gensai, now Tae. How many of the people I know are Kin? "He's Kenshin. What do you think?"
"Hey!" Yahiko glared at the Ubo, eyes narrowed. "Don't you say things like that about my brother-!"
Kaoru put a hand on his shoulder. "He's Kenshin," she repeated firmly. "We've been with him since - since this happened. Battousai's there, but he's still Kenshin."
Tae stared at her, then knocked back the cup of beef blood like a biker in a drinking contest. "And you're okay?" she demanded when she came back up for air. "He fed on you, Kaoru. Are you - has he been-"
Flushing slightly, Kaoru glanced at the pink line still healing on the inside of her left wrist. "That was... the first time..."
She was young, she had a healthy fantasy life - when she had time for fantasies, between teaching kendo, working odd jobs to fill in the empty spots in her budget, and being an adoptive big sister to Ayame and Suzume. She'd read some of the classic vampire stories; she could practically make a checklist of what having your blood drained by a sexy creature of the night was supposed to feel like.
Let's see: ultimate pleasure, shuddering surrender to instinct, don't care if you die here as long as it's with him...
It hadn't been like that at all.
Warm. It was... so warm...
Like being wrapped in a down blanket by a roaring fireplace, while the rest of the world was silent snow and ice. Strands of red had ghosted over her bare skin as Kenshin pulled her closer, mingling her breath with Yahiko's. For a moment she felt their three heartbeats falling into rhythm, as the clean kiss of steel touched them all.
And then, with one last shivering sweep of tongue over skin, it was over.
Kaoru sighed now, missing that feeling of being warm, being... cherished. "I don't think he'll do that again. Not with the way Sano was leering at us-"
Tae's eyes glowed, red shining in brown. "Tell me what he did to you."
"He protected me." It was her voice, but not her will saying the words. Like Jin-e all over again. "He... kissed me..."
"Both of them..." She couldn't move. Couldn't fight.
I can't give up! I won't!
"What are you doing to Kaoru, you ugly!" A shinai whistled through the air.
Hand wrapped around her student's, Kaoru drew deep breaths of air. Looked across the kitchen, where a wide-eyed Ubo was backed against the sink. "Don't do that again," Kaoru said breathlessly.
"People," Tae swallowed dryly, "aren't supposed to be able to break that."
Kaoru let go of Yahiko's hand, still trying to get her breath under control. "Yeah, well - next to Kurogasa, Tae, whatever you just did was a wet paper bag."
"Kurogasa?" Tae paled.
Kaoru felt her brows climb to match Yahiko's slack-jawed surprise. Can vampires faint?
"Mean, nasty Muramasa wakizashi," the teen said flatly. "Kenshin stomped him." Yahiko's eyes flickered away, suddenly finding the gray and blue rug bunched up on the floor by the sink absolutely fascinating.
And that's how Kenshin got into this mess in the first place, Kaoru finished silently. Protecting us.
But there was no time for guilt. She had to press her advantage now, before Tae pulled another supernatural rabbit out of her hat. "He makes me feel safe, Tae," Kaoru stated. "He cares about me. They both do." She spread her hands, silently asking for honesty. "You know him, Tae. Why does he scare you so much?"
Tae bit her knuckles, fangs not quite breaking skin. Shivered. Glanced at Yahiko, and Kaoru's left wrist, and shivered again.
Wrestling down her impatience, Kaoru waited.
"I knew Kenshin," Tae managed at last. "Battousai... he's a killer, Kaoru. Stone cold. He's- he-" She swallowed dryly, looking at Yahiko. "Kid, you don't want to hear this."
"He's my brother," Yahiko bit out.
"He's a nightmare," Tae whispered. "And for Kin, that's saying something. I mean... a couple dozen Virus, and he just- just-"
"I saw." Kaoru crossed the kitchen, put her hands over Tae's own chill fingers. Fingers that had borne claws, and dripped oil and blood. "I saw him save us, Tae." Blue eyes sought frightened brown. "Or is everything Sano told us about Virus - how it hates everything that isn't it, how it eats you, until there's nothing left but a metal shell that remembers and doesn't feel - is all of that a lie? Is it?"
"No..." Tae hiccuped, suddenly; burying her face in her hands. "Oh gods, Kaoru - I just wanted to fly away. I just - just wanted to leave you there, I was so scared..."
"Say what?" Yahiko yelped.
"But you didn't," Kaoru said gently, watching clear drops trickle through Tae's fingers. "You didn't, Tae."
"I-I'm so s-sorry..."
"We were all scared." Kaoru had felt that, too, even amidst Kenshin's comforting warmth. A quiet, incredulous joy; as if he had to hold them, had to be certain they were real and breathing and alive. And if Kenshin had felt that way...
So did Battousai.
"It's okay," Kaoru said softly, accepting the tears now dripping onto her shoulder. "We're going to be all right." She wrapped a gentle arm around the other woman, and gave Yahiko a speaking look.
The teen rolled his eyes, but put the shinai down on the table, carelessly yanking fingers through unruly dark hair. "Just wish I knew what the hell was going on!"
"Language," Kaoru said automatically. "They'll tell us when they get back."
"Yeah." Yahiko grinned at her. "Or we'll feed them some of your cooking."
"So." Texas finished his long spiel, finger jabbing at three different charts at once, talking over both that incessant country music and the more soothing rumble of the running-water tank on the black side counter; meant for testing vampiric vulnerabilities, along with bits of meteorite, stray flints, and neat leaf-piles of wolfsbane, garlic, and other herbs. "While most Kin have the tagging capability, Drain, and Infection as separate - though interrelated - aspects of inhuman physiology, the way a Muramasa possesses people, through the blade tasting blood, means they're really all parts of the same thing." He grinned, spreading a hand as if to flourish his results at the rest of the gathered crowd of scientists, engineers, and various other Target Alpha tech types. "It's amazingly efficient."
Kenshin swallowed dryly, not liking either the conclusions or the focussed attention they were garnering. "And you know this how...?"
Texas made a grab for Sano's right hand, backed off when the agent glared at him. "Battousai and Kurogasa cancelled each other out. From what we know about enchanted blades, that shouldn't happen. But from what we know about Kin Infections, it makes perfect sense. Somebody who's already got vampiric viruses in their veins won't succumb to lycanthropy. The seat's already taken. No room at the inn. No-"
"We got it, we got it," Sano broke in hastily. "Kenshin?" You okay? that wary tone asked.
Kenshin shook his head. I've Infected Yahiko? But that can't be, I- I didn't mean to-
Haunted, he let warm scales take hold.
"You are mistaken," Battousai said levelly. He ignored the gasps, the whispers, the hasty steps backward by some of the more cowardly or intelligent denizens of the lab. "Jin-e tasted blood to weaken the will, and to seek new hosts when his body was slain. But Ward was dead long before Jin-e attacked Sanosuke. Were the mode of action as you claim..." Amber swept upward, searching out warm brown. "I would have found myself within Sagara Sanosuke, and not Himura Kenshin."
Surprise flashed over Sano's face, followed swift by guilty relief. "'Sai..."
"Well." Texas wasn't smiling anymore. "There's an easy way to prove it. Just bring this Yahiko in, and-"
The skinny engineer's eyes narrowed, disbelieving. "It's not like you have a choice in the mat-"
Sheathing his blade, Battousai waited that brief fraction of a heartbeat, as the impact of hilt to jaw hit the brain.
A ghost of a smile touched his lips, despite the grating music. That feels... much better.
:Violence doesn't solve anything,: Kenshin sighed.
Oh no? I would say he is quite solved, my heart. "Listen to me." Amber eyes swept the room, pointedly not looking at the unconscious body on the floor. "Kurogasa and I are not Kin as you know them. If you treat us as such, in your tests, they will fail. And if you fail with Kurogasa, one of you will slip, and draw blood - and a soul will be condemned to destruction, as Udo Jin-e walks this world once more."
"Gangway - coming through - move it!" A short girl with a long black braid, a pencil stuck behind her ear, bright green eyes, and a Goth-ninja-style outfit of blue and white that would have gotten grins at any Kin club forced her way to the front. A manila folder of printout was tucked under her left arm, and midnight-blue fingerless gloves fisted on her hips in pure defiance. "Not Kin, huh? So what do you say you are?"
Misao Makimachi, Battousai told his bearer, amusement glimmering through his chill. Hacker, lab wizardess, and self-confessed caffeine addict. One of the few people who make coming here bearable at all. "I am a Muramasa blade, Misao-dono. Read the tales.
Misao's nose wrinkled, puzzled. "The sword that kills..." she translated hesitantly, "the sword that gives life?"
"So swords are meant to be." Battousai unsheathed the sakabatou and plunged it into running water, facing the sharp edge into the tank current. "But Muramasa's blades bring only death." One hand picked up a leaf of wolfsbane, and dropped it into the swift rivulet.
And amber eyes looked away.
A Muramasa blade is killing perfection, Battousai recalled. Against that perfect edge, the mere pressure of the water will slice a leaf in two. But when a lord praised one of the Muramasa smiths for such blades...
"Masamune will always be our master," Muramasa said. "Thrust his blade into that same stream, and let another leaf sweep toward it - and the course of that leaf will change. It floats around the deadly edge, sailing on, untouched; for Masamune's swords possess power beyond simple destruction. They spare the leaf; they choose to spare it, for they have the strength to protect life and preserve the order of things. Against his blades, our work is as nothing."
:I'm sorry,: Kenshin whispered.
We are what we are. Battousai drew the sakabatou from the water, drying it on his sleeve. Magic sealed it from most mortal harm, but that was no reason to dishonor the blade.
:Yahiko will be glad to see you, you know.:
But if we've tainted him-
:I can find him. I can protect him. Just like you always did for Sanosuke. You told me we would look after him. Well, we are.: Comfort touched the spirit. :Let's go home now.:
Home, Battousai thought, releasing his bearer's body. I think... that is the most wonderful word in the world.
Friends in low places, Sanosuke thought, staring at what was left in the water tank as Kenshin's soundless steps vanished down the hall. I feel pretty damn low right now. "That Falconi's report?"
"Uh-huh..." Numbly, Misao handed over the folder. "But you-" she stammered, green eyes wide.
"Yeah," Sano said flatly.
"But how can you possibly explain-?"
"No clue whatsoever." Still stunned, Sanosuke went after his partner, stuffing a small, fragile treasure in his jacket pocket.
One wet, untouched leaf.
Translations and Info:
Attuned - when a weapon is enchanted to ignore the supernatural armor of a specific race of Kin.
Battou-jutsu - a.k.a. iai-jutsu. Lethal sword-drawing, draw and strike all in one motion.
Battousai - "Master of lethal sword-drawing".
Bokken - wooden sword.
Chiburi - shake the blood from the blade.
Commune - faction of Kin that advocates peaceful coexistence with humans.
Crowley - human aware of the existence of Kin.
Daisho - "Great and small"; paired swords, katana and wakizashi.
Drac - vampire who tends toward Hollywood stereotypes.
Go to college - learn about Kin.
Hai - yes.
Jou-chan - "Little missy."
Kami - spirit, divinity.
Kin - supernatural creatures.
Kumi - team, group.
Lazarus Smile - the Kin's bogeyman. A possessing spirit that kills Kin, only detectable by the fixed, eerie smile of its host bodies.
Oi - Hey. Usually used by guys.
Sakabatou - "reverse-blade sword".
Saya - sheath.
Shinai - bamboo practice sword.
Twisted Dimensions - a source of magic and many other paranormal creatures.