Kenshin was dreaming again.
He woke up in a bed that he didn't recognise wasn't his own, and reached happily for Kaoru beside him. He wrapped his arm around her waist under the covers, and pulled her close, snuggling his face into her hair as she lay on her side, facing away from him. He had expected this to wake her up, but when she didn't move, he finally felt how frozen and hard she felt under his arm, as if she was carved out of stone, when she was normally so warm and soft.
He shot up in a flash, terrified his worst fears had come true, and at that moment, he was able to see her face. Kaoru's skin was a dead, greyish white, her expression stretched into a grimace of pain, her blank, opaque eyes open and staring. Kenshin panicked, throwing back the covers, adding even more horror to the image as he discovered the ocean of drying blood that stained everything below her waist.
"No..." Kenshin moaned with an inhuman sound, as if it had been ground out of him by the weight of the agony. He reached out to touch her face, but the blood was on his hands. He tried to wipe them clean on his hakama, but saw that they too were saturated. He scrambled off the bed, staring at the gory contents and panicking over what he would do next, how he could ever possibly even begin to exist without her.
Then Kaoru's head slowly revolved to look at him over her shoulder, her dead, yellowing eyes catching his, the scene splintering his sanity. He felt a scream bubble in his throat.
"Kenshin..." she whined in pain, "It hurts..." She rolled onto her back and he saw that she was clutching her stomach, and the large bump the baby made there.
Kenshin calmed a little. She was alive? Everything was still alright, she was alive! But she didn't look it. She was still ghostly white, paler even than he was, with black shadows around her mouth, nose and eyes, her cheeks sunken. And her eyes weren't glistening blue, but filmy and decayed.
"Kaoru?..." Kenshin spoke hesitantly, approaching the bed and climbing onto the mattress, regardless of the blood. If she had survived the miscarriage, and she was in pain, she needed him.
She cried out and hunched over her stomach. Breathing hard, she lifted her shirt, exposing her bloated stomach. Even that managed to look skeletal somehow, far from the round, healthy, fertile mound it should have been. It looked scratched and bruised, and as he watched, fixated, the skin stretched as if pushed from the inside. Kaoru screamed again, but Kenshin couldn't look away from her stomach. The grey skin turned white where it was being extended, stretching further away from Kaoru's body than he thought possible, and it moved, indicating it was being done by something alive on the inside.
Finally it split, and a tiny, thin white hand popped through. No more blood came from the wound, only a thick yellow pus. Kenshin jerked back, his eyes still riveted to the performance before him as a small wasted creature dug its way out of its mother.
Looking at it, he knew it wasn't human. It could barely even be called a baby. It had none of the peachy, cuddly plump innocence of a newborn – instead, it was white and bony, its features sharp and evil-looking, expressing an unnatural self-awareness. It was grinning as it lifted its legs out of the mauled meat of Kaoru's body and snapped its umbilical cord between sharp fully-formed teeth, each one like a tiny razor.
Then the thing looked up at Kenshin as if it had known he was there and expected him to be proud. It hopped down onto the bed and walked towards him, the cord hanging from its belly trailing between its legs and smearing the yellow ooze across the sheets. Kenshin shuffled away from it; he wanted to kick it, but he was too reluctant to touch it at all.
"Oh, Kenshin, isn't he wonderful?" Kaoru spoke dreamily from her reclined position on the bed, her hands calmly folded over the gaping hole of her torso. She was looking at them as if this was some touching father/son moment.
Kenshin spared her a glance before returning his eyes to the infant, not allowing it out of his sight. Was Kaoru pleased with this thing? Was she happy with it? Could it be that her maternal instincts even extended to such a monster? Would he have to love it for her sake? What a family they would make, a zombie mother, a demon child, and a horrified, trapped, vampire father.
But what else could he have expected? It was his son, how could it have ever turned out normal, to bring happiness to those around it? This was how it was always going to be, and while he could see the monstrosity of it, Kaoru had demonstrated during her pregnancy her fierce determination to protect and love the child, no matter how it turned out. This horror was his fate, and it was his fault.
Tokio heard Saitoh's keys rattle in the front door, but she didn't put down her scrying tools. She'd been trying for about an hour to find out something useful that could help her husband and Kaoru with their case of mysterious vampire possession, but for some reason her clairvoyancy was failing her in a way it never had before. She was using meditation to scan the city for any strange supernatural forces, but something was off somehow. It was like her concentration was being artificially weakened whenever she tried to look closer at anything suspicious. After an hour of constant interruptions, the best she had was the impression that certain areas of the city, or certain people such as the victims, had a funny look about them.
It wasn't much to go on, and definitely not anything worth relating to Saitoh, but she thought that sometimes when she looked at something, it was like she was looking at a painting. The things she was focusing on looked distorted, as if they were underwater. She had no idea what could be interfering with her magic like that, and she would certainly be asking her coven if they saw the same thing when they scryed for the victims. It was only a very subtle effect, not something you would notice unless you were concentrating very hard on it. She might have said it was the fading traces of magic, but it was much too artful, much too deliberate. And she had found one victim who appeared to be walking in his own portable darkness, as if a malevolent presence surrounded him, but that too was very faint. The main problem was that she could see these things, but there was nothing for her to feel, there was no magical presence, and that was impossible to erase.
It wasn't like anything she'd ever seen before. It quite clearly wasn't vampire or werewolf behaviour, and no lesser magical creatures had the power or the interest to do anything like this, and usually when those categories were ruled out, the conclusion was that it must be a witch, but Tokio had never heard of any magic like this. The portrait and underwater effects could be extremely advanced, or extremely archaic spells to disguise magic, but the darkness was new. And even if it was a witch, that just led Tokio back to the absolute fact that it was impossible for a witch to possess a vampire.
As Saitoh walked into the kitchen where she sat at the table, she finally sighed in defeat and gave up, frustrated at having spent over an hour going round in circles. She opened her eyes and tilted her face for her mate's greeting kiss.
"Did you find anything today?" she asked, standing up to talk to him as the officer began looking for food in the cupboards. He would want to eat a lot before going out for the full moon tonight. She began making some old fashioned tea for them, just the way he liked it.
"No, nobody knows anything and even if they did, they're all too paranoid to talk," Saitoh replied.
"I've been scrying this afternoon, but something's interfering with it, it's so strange," she said for her own ears as well as his.
"Who could do that?"
"Well, I've never seen it done this way before, but if they're trying to keep their magic from being seen, I'd have to say a witch, but they can't be the one interfering with the vampires like that."
"So maybe whoever it is has a witch helping them?" suggested Saitoh. He had little experience with witches and magic, so talking through a case like this with his wife could be a great help.
"I suppose, but that still leaves us with the problem of who the mastermind is, and what they're trying to accomplish. None of the covens nearby use magic like that, and none of the rogues or solitary witches are anywhere near that powerful," Tokio said.
She handed Saitoh a cup of the tea while he looked thoughtful, and when he took it he seemed to decide to change the subject.
"How's Okita been today?" he asked.
"He came down with a bit of a fever so he's in bed early," she answered. Despite his werewolf father, her son still got the same sniffles and colds as any other child, he just healed them a lot faster.
"A fever? Is he alright?"
"Oh yes, he's fine, it's probably just one those things."
Saitoh nodded and took his tea into the living room to drink. Tokio followed him, ready to watch the news with him and relax, as they usually did in the evening.
However, half an hour later, little Okita left his bedroom and toddled out to the living room, his tired eyes blinking from the comparatively bright light. Tokio and Saitoh heard him coming in that ever-alert way that parents have, instantly looking to him in concern.
"Mommy, my head hurts," he said pathetically, rubbing his eyes, and Tokio's heart almost broke at the scene.
"Aww, come here, baby," she said, extending her arms to him, and he eagerly crossed the room and crawled into her lap, cuddling up against her.
Saitoh meanwhile put his hand to his son's forehead, and his eyes widened in alarm. "Tokio," he said, getting her to feel it too.
She gasped, "He's burning up! I don't understand it, he was fine a couple of hours ago!" Instantly concerned, she gave the boy to his father and jumped up to get a thermometer and medicine. Okita started crying, sniffling into Saitoh's jacket, as the man rocked him absent-mindedly.
Tokio returned and quickly took his temperature with the digital thermometer they had added to their possessions when Okita was born. When she saw the result she almost screamed, "Oh my God! Look at this!" She hurriedly showed it to Saitoh.
"He shouldn't even be conscious with a temperature like that!" the man responded, deeply concerned but also puzzled. This shouldn't be happening to the son of a werewolf, they didn't get dangerously sick like this.
"My tummy hurts too," offered Okita, freeing his face from the now wet fabric of his father's uniform to look at his parents, who were trying hard not to scare him while on the inside they were freaking out.
"Don't worry, Okita, it's okay, everything will be alright," Tokio told him, trying to reassure herself in the process. At least if he was still talking coherently, then it couldn't be too bad, could it? "I'll go run him a cold bath," she said, leaping up again, but before she left the room, Saitoh called her back.
"Tokio," he said, his voice sounding strange. It had lost the edge of panic, but had gained a new flat resignation. It did nothing to comfort her. She raced back to the couch, dreading what he had found.
Her mate had lifted their son's pyjama top to look at the hurting stomach, and what they saw there explained everything. His stomach was growing a fine, black fur.
"What? But he's too young to change! He's only two years old!" the woman cried in surprise.
Saitoh shrugged. "It's different for everyone," he said. Logically, his brain was telling him that everything would be fine now, that his son wasn't sick, just growing into his rightful nature, that children had their first change when their bodies were ready for it, so Okita wasn't in any danger. However he couldn't stop himself being scared for his son, who still seemed like a baby to him, who was so little and very young.
Tokio came back and sat down next to him, taking Okita into her lap. She probed his ki, and found that it was in fact fluctuating wildly, jumping all over the place, like a feral animal trying to escape its bonds. But she couldn't find an underlying wolf ki which would have made her feel better.
Because they thought they had years before Okita's first change, they hadn't quite explained to him that he was a werewolf. He knew the word, he knew his father was one, and he knew what a wolf was, but they didn't think he understood that werewolves were people who could transform into wolves. It looked like they were going to have to give him a crash course now, and try and keep him from getting too scared.
"Do you want to explain to him?" Tokio asked her husband, since this was squarely in his area of expertise.
"Okita? Listen to me, you're not sick right now, what's happening to you right now is normal, so you don't have to be afraid. You know those stories I tell you, about werewolves, and vampires? You're becoming a werewolf," Saitoh said in a clear voice, hoping to make his boy understand through his headache.
"Like you, Daddy?" the toddler replied, his eyes half-closed.
Saitoh was relieved he understood so easily, and his son's words made affection swell in his chest. "Yes, exactly, like me. You're going to turn into a little wolf, just for tonight. You should be proud, you're a member of the Shinsengumi pack, don't forget."
"Shinsen...gumi..." he repeated, before putting his little hand to his head and screwing his face up in pain, lying down against Tokio's legs so that the tears ran sidewise from his eyes.
"I'm going to try to lessen his pain," Tokio said, unable to see her infant son like that. Concentrating carefully, she used her magic to lessen the tension in his head and stomach, and anywhere else she detected. She also did her best to smooth his ki without hindering the transformation, letting the wolf energy come forward as much as it wanted to, without drawing it out or pushing it down at all. It seemed to work, because Okita relaxed, removing his hand from his head and opening his eyes again. The fur began to spread more quickly and evenly.
Saitoh took off his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"What are you doing?" Tokio asked him.
"I'm going to be there for my son. My change will probably help his, and he won't be as confused and scared if my wolf form is there to reassure him," Saitoh explained, and as he began working on his belt, Tokio understood and stripped the boy of his pyjamas. The little baby feet she had loved so much were already more like paws on the end of crooked animal legs.
"Give him to me," Saitoh said, and his wife passed their son over. Saitoh held the boy to his bare chest, and slid off the sofa onto the floor. With one hand carefully supporting Okita who was instinctively clinging to his father, the Wolf got onto all fours, lowering Okita to the floor beneath him.
Changing was easy for Saitoh, who'd been doing it for over two hundred years, since he was a child. He was more a wolf than a human. However, he knew that if he was going to try to influence his son's change, it wouldn't work if he transformed as quickly as he normally did, in a matter of seconds.
He found the wolf ki inside him, and reached out to the toddler's erratic energy that was trying to take shape, then slowly began his own change to see if he could in fact bring his son over the threshold with him. It seemed to be working, as he sensed Okita's ill-defined wolf ki becoming clearer and stronger.
"Try to focus on me, Okita, don't fight it," he said to his son, who nodded weakly and whimpered where he lay curled up in a ball, always wanting to please his dad.
It was distracting to try and keep up the connection with Okita while shifting, but his wolf was close to the surface thanks to the full moon and ever-ready to come out. He managed to slow his transformation down enough to successfully pull Okita with him, though it hurt the boy, and soon Tokio was looking at a daunting black wolf with narrow yellow eyes, standing over a little grey and black fluffball still cowering on the floor. She was relieved the ordeal was over and her little boy shouldn't be in pain anymore.
Saitoh gently nuzzled his son's puppy-like form, smelling him and trying to get him on his feet with a few parental licks. Eventually the boy did manage to stagger up onto his shaky legs and he turned around to face Saitoh, blinking his mother's red eyes at the much larger wolf. Saitoh quickly lay down to put himself more on a level with Okita and hopefully be less intimidating. He put his muzzle to the tiny wolf's face and inhaled, and the boy learnt his father's scent as well with adorable little sniffs.
Tokio joined them on the floor, kneeling next to her mate, and extending her hand to her son. She wanted to touch him, but Saitoh had made sure she had more class than to pet a werewolf like a dog, so she was unsure. But Okita stumbled towards her and put two little paws in her lap, his fluffy tail wagging ever so slightly, so she ran her hands down his back and was able to smile again. Her son was just fine, and now she wasn't worrying anymore, she was proud of him.
Although Saitoh's powerful animal muscles were straining to run and hunt, he stayed in the apartment that night, compassionately leading Okita through all his new discoveries, tempting him into walking, jumping and running, though the vocal lesson had to be abandoned since the boy's high-pitched rattling growls and tinny yaps were not exactly fitting for the Shinsengumi just yet.
Little Okita was soon exhausted, and fell asleep in his mother's lap after only an hour or two, so Saitoh was free to go out to the forest and terrorise small creatures and lesser wolves without a pack. It was the first time in a very long time that he wished he could talk in wolf form for, while he usually was grateful for the escape from the pointless noise in the human world, tonight he wanted to brag about his two year old son making his first change, much younger than the average age, which clearly meant he was going to grow up to be a powerful wolf.
With a bit of rearranging, Kaoru had managed to organise the apartment so that they wouldn't have to move when the baby came. Tonight, they were redecorating Yahiko's old room-slash-study-slash-storage room and turning it into a nursery. Well, truthfully, Kenshin was doing everything. Whenever he saw Kaoru about to move a piece of furniture, climb a ladder or lift a paintbrush, he thought of the baby and rushed to take over. This was beginning to frustrate Kaoru, but she was also mindful of the baby's health, and she was just happy to be able to do something with Kenshin in the midst of the recent chaos. So she just watched from the middle of the empty room as her lover painted the wall a pale yellow, looking very pretty by Kenshin's eyes in an old shirt beginning to stretch over her growing belly, jeans, and her hair in scraggly bun.
They had decided on the colour as a nice, cheerful colour that was gender neutral, as they didn't yet know the sex of the baby. Kaoru also liked the suggestion of sunlight it gave – she had worried about giving a child a room without a window in an apartment underground, but then she had remembered that her baby might be sunlight-intolerant, making a window dangerous.
Kenshin, meanwhile, had no objections to doing all the work. He liked working with his hands, and it wasn't as if the work was going to make him tired. The smell of the paint was a bit strong for his sensitive vampire nose, but Kaoru had brought in some fans to ventilate the room. He too was enjoying the simple time spent with Kaoru. Seeing her smile made him feel better about the dreams he was having. Remembering them, he frowned, turning away from Kaoru so she wouldn't see. He hadn't told her about the nightmares, not wanting to worry her, or add to her burdens. He knew how stressed and busy she was with the baby and the tensions in the city.
Kenshin had no idea what was causing the nightmares. Vampires weren't supposed to be able to dream, and he never had before, but then they weren't supposed to be able to father children either. He considered the possibility that the two things were related, that he was becoming more human somehow, but that was... crazy, ridiculous, absolutely impossible. Or was it? It would explain both events, if after three years living bonded to a human, he was somehow drawing on her life and turning slowly human himself. Kaoru showed no signs of it, but what signs would there be? If he was draining her, she would be weakened, but that could easily be explained by her pregnancy. And if she was absorbing his vampirism (God knows he'd bitten her enough times that it would be surprising if there hadn't been an effect) then maybe she would become nocturnal, become physically tougher, but her job required that she sleep during the day, and she had given up kendo in her condition, so no one would notice if she was becoming faster or stronger, and Kenshin was certainly not going attempt to injure her to see if she healed more quickly than average. But at least she hadn't expressed any interest in drinking blood.
Not yet, his treacherous mind supplied before he could silence it.
God, if that were true, what would they make then? A couple of half-vampires, with a half-vampire child. Kenshin shook his head, he didn't even know where to begin to process that image. He didn't want to diminish Kaoru's humanity, but he had to admit, he was not opposed to her becoming less vulnerable, and a suppressed, selfish part of him liked the idea of never having to watch her grow old and die.
But these dreams... He didn't know what they were or where they came from, but he knew there was something strange about them. The relentless horror of them for one thing. He understood that if someone was about to become a father for the first time, he might have nightmares about what could go wrong - and Kenshin had more cause to worry than most – but these dreams were relentless... Every day, from the moment life left him, to the moment he woke up the next night, his mind was a cinema for worse than his worst fears. Things he didn't even dare to think were acted out for him, with no gore or tragedy spared. It had started with visions of Tomoe, and her death in the clearing, but now the focus was almost always on Kaoru and the baby. It made him afraid of the morning, but of course he couldn't avoid his 'sleep' like a human could, nor could he ever wake up from these terrors until night had fallen.
He had been having these nightmares for months, and they were only getting worse. In the beginning, his memories of them were blurred, and the dreams themselves lasted only a few minutes at a time. But now they lasted all night, and every second was recalled in perfect clarity whenever he closed his eyes. It was fast approaching the point where he would have to tell someone, and seek help. He wouldn't be able to stand it much longer, waking up nauseated, in a soul-deep terror that Kaoru had suffered some gruesome, agonized, monstrous death because of him, and that he would spend the rest of his life haunted by his demonic, inhuman child.
But he wouldn't tell Kaoru about the dreams tonight. Tonight was for looking to the future with hope, decorating the small room with bright colours, a shelter for a sweet and innocent baby. And Kaoru was happy, something that didn't happen often enough these days. She was watching what he was doing with a grin, visualising the nursery in her head as it took shape around her. Kenshin just hoped they would have a baby to put in it.
"Oh, Kenshin, this place is turning out great!" Kaoru exclaimed, looking around the room. They had already ordered all the furniture and accessories they would need from the internet, such as a crib, a changing table, and toys. They would be arriving over the next few days, and the couple would assemble them together, unless Kaoru needed Kenshin to work. She couldn't go out herself anymore, or risk being seen. This baby didn't need black market rumour mills talking about it, so Kaoru accepted that when she began to show, she should stay in the Dojo. She could direct operations from her offices, but when she needed a special lead followed up, Kenshin had volunteered for the job. Kaoru trusted him, because despite his inexperience in muscling around members of the supernatural underground, she also knew he wouldn't allow himself to be intimidated, and he wouldn't come back to her empty handed.
Kenshin smiled at Kaoru's comment and continued painting. He thought again about Kaoru's mother, and what Dr Gensai had revealed about her. Kaoru was still working through it, but as was her manner, she didn't let it stop her getting on with what needed to be done. The night they had met with the doctors, they had discussed it together once they got back to the apartment. Kaoru had freaked out a little bit, but neither of them had mentioned the elephant in the room. Neither of them had said out loud, "What if our relationship is based on an addiction?". That had been what Dr Gensai was implying, that Kaoru was unconsciously following in her mother's footsteps. Addictions could be based on genetics, alcoholism can be passed on from one generation to the next, so there was the possibility that Kaoru was addicted to him.
However, she had never shown any signs of it, no withdrawal or desperation to be bitten again, so they had decided to work under the assumption that Kaoru had dodged that bullet. But Kenshin still worried that, while Dr Gensai suggested that the vampire endorphins in her mother's body had somehow affected Kaoru before she was born, so too might he have contributed to his own child's inhumanity by contaminating Kaoru's body. Kenshin thought darkly, if this child is born human, it'll be a miracle.
That being said, Kaoru's optimism and joy was contagious. She clearly wasn't having nightmares about what kind of monster might be growing inside of her. So it was easier than Kenshin had thought it would be to be happy for her, and to hide his anxiety from her. For the majority, he loved the baby, it was just the nightmares and his 'what if?s that made him doubt.
He had something he wanted to ask his lover.
"Kaoru," he began, and his serious tone made her turn to him and look at him worriedly. It hurt him that that was her first reaction now, to be afraid of some new issue that would fall on her to be fixed. Kenshin didn't want her to worry, so he smiled and she seemed to relax. But smiling was difficult, because he wasn't relaxed himself, he was nervous as all hell. He was about to do something that might ruin their relationship if it went bad. He stopped painting and sat down on the step ladder.
"This baby is going to make us a family, isn't it?" he said, leading into it.
Kaoru beamed at him and laid her hand on her stomach. "Yeah, it is," she said, and his mouth went dry. He found it hard to meet her innocent eyes, looking at the floor instead like a teenager, though he couldn't remember his teenage years himself.
"Well, a family is more than just a couple and a child, right?" Kaoru looked confused. "I mean, a mother and father, they're usually... husband and wife." Kenshin dared to glance at her face, and she looked surprised, so he assumed she had understood his meaning.
"Kenshin... Are you asking me to marry you?" she asked, her voice sounding light and airy with shock. Kenshin kept his eyes on hers, wondering not for the first time at their beautiful deep blue colour. He nodded. Kaoru floundered, and he spoke again to explain, but unfortunately, it came out as a babble.
"I haven't asked before because no woman, let alone one such as you, should be tied to a vampire. I wanted you to always have the freedom to change your mind about being with me. But now, I want to be there for you, to have this baby with you. I want to give you security. I know that times are different now, and that women support themselves, and raise children on their own, and that you don't have to be married to have honour, but still, I just want... to give you a family. I don't want what I am to keep anything from you any longer," he said in a nervous rush.
Kaoru exhaled, and smiled sweetly at him. She walked over to where he was sitting on the step ladder and leaned against his knees, taking one hand in hers and placing her other one against his cheek.
"Kenshin..." she began, and he sensed a rejection, but her tone was reassuring. "You don't have to marry me because I got pregnant." He quickly opened his mouth to object, but she silenced him. "You don't have to be my husband to be with me, to help me raise this baby, and give it a secure home. I would love to be your wife, I know you would be an amazing husband, but... I've thought about this before, and it's just not a good idea. Not for the reasons you think! Not because I'm ever going to change my mind about being with you, because I'm not, but just because... I'm mortal, and you're not. I'll age, and one day die - you won't. I've made my peace with that, but getting married would be a mistake. You understand, don't you?" she said, looking down at him lovingly.
Kenshin didn't know what to say. On the one hand, he wanted to give her everything, be everything for her, but on the other, he understood what she was saying. It was exactly what he thought – a vampire and a human didn't make good life partners. Even if his and Kaoru's reasons for thinking so were different, the result was the same. He nodded and she bent down to kiss him tenderly.
"Thanks for asking though," she teased.
Kenshin considered the new problem she had brought to the foreground. What would they do when Kaoru's mortality became a problem? Neither of them wanted her to be changed into a vampire, but it also seemed that neither of them would happily separate from the other. Kenshin suddenly appreciated how too few years of happiness he had left, and pulled Kaoru down for another kiss. Even if they were not officially married, she felt like his wife in his heart, and he was hers forever.