Questionable Intent
by Talya Firedancer


Warmth.

Warm hands touched his face, rough but gentle and stroking his cheeks, a finger shiver-tracking over the ‘X’-shaped scar that bracketed his left cheek.  Most mornings woke him to an empty cold bedroll and nascent stirrings – easily quenched by a round of chores or laundry, fortunately, with no Sano at hand to –

Sano.  Warmth.

Breath poured against and through his parted lips and he peered through his lashes, half-wakeful and suspicious.  It was one thing to dream warmth and the arms of his lover wrapped around him; quite another to have the length of Sano pressed against him in the confines of Kamiya Dojo.  They had agreed not to...

Thin slivers of violet gleamed through the dusky fringe of long lashes, and met warm chocolate brown orbs.  "Eheh."  The young man’s handsome face crinkled up in a half-sheepish grin, part smirk, entirely mischievous.  "Ohayo, Kenshin."

"Sano, what are you doing here?" Kenshin demanded in a horrified whisper, squirming in the half-embrace but Sano only hooked a leg over his and drew him close.

"Nani?  I don’t even rate a ‘good morning’ anymore?" Sanosuke murmured, voice rough with sleep as he slanted in to nuzzle and nip at the redhead’s throat.  "And you mean you don’t even *remember* what I’m doing here, after last night?"  He paused, drew back, winked.

Kenshin’s eyes went wide as he raised his hands to keep the overly-amorous one at bay, pushing ineffectively at his broad bare chest.  "We didn’t.  Not *here.*"

"Oh, yes, we did," Sanosuke drawled.  "And we were very loud, if I remember right..."

Panicked plum eyes widened even further.  "Sano – let me go – Kaoru-dono must be so upset—"  Frantically he tried to disentangle himself.  Kaoru-dono had been bad enough with her jealousy over Megumi’s flirting, but having Sanosuke rubbed in her face would be worse than devastating.

"Iya," Sanosuke seized his wrists, blinking as Kenshin leveled him with a furious glare.  "Temper! Watch your temper...sheesh, you weren’t so protective of Jou-chan’s sensibilities last night, when you were—"

Kenshin contemplated biting him.  Hard.

"—singing at the top of your lungs with me, then passing out next to the table," Sanosuke finished with a sly glitter in the depths of his warm eyes.  "You’re heavier than you look, you know?  And I had to carry you back to your room but by then I was so drunk, too, Jou-chan informed me I was staying here to save the city the tax money it would take to fish my corpse out of the river and bury it."

"Sano," he breathed, and went boneless.  His young lover had a wicked sense of humor and seemed to delight endlessly in tormenting him about Kaoru-dono.  But fortunately he had not pressed him to reveal anything to her – which was a good thing.  He was still trying to sort through his feelings at having a male lover, let alone revealing that relationship to anyone else.

He gasped as hot breath cascaded across his neck, and was followed by the pressure of quick-dropped kisses and a flickering tongue.

He wanted to respond by pushing Sano to the sleeping mat and savaging his mouth with kisses, taking him off guard and using skillful teasing to frenzy him – but Sano was loud and, truth be told, *he* was louder.  "Ahh..." his fingers *did* clench against the lean flesh of Sano’s back.

"Just quick – we can be quiet," the suggestion whispered against his sensitized throat.

"We can’t."

Firmly but regretfully he began to push his lover away.  Sano was taking advantage of the morning reflex and easing against him, soft heat building from the slide and push of thigh and catch of the loose fabric of his hakama...he blinked.

"I’m surprised you didn’t undress me."  Sano was calculating when it came to their liaisons – he’d know Kenshin would find it incredibly hard to resist in the morning.  And the less clothing, the less resistance.

"I passed out," Sano admitted with a wry grin.

Kenshin raised his eyebrows.  "Ah, I should have known."  He squirmed free just as Sano bent to kiss him again and received a sloppy kiss between his ear and hairline.  "Sano!!"  The warning tone was slightly sharper this time.

"Yare, yare," Sanosuke sighed, backpedaling under the thin blanket.  "It’s your fault, you know."

"Hmm?"  Kenshin turned inquisitive eyes on him.

"You’re so *sexy,*" Sano averred in a growl, then pounced on him, mauling him thoroughly with mouth and hands.  Kenshin yelped as he was groped with hasty deliberation, then the hands slid to grasp his bottom and pull him roughly close.

"Sano!!"

In a moment, he promised himself, he would get angry.  But for now he could only summon half-hearted protests and he nipped back at Sanosuke’s neck, teeth clacking over the loose skin at the hollow of his throat, hands moving in expert feather-tormenting touches to tease in return.

"Moo~ou, you two aren’t fighting again, are you?" a clear voice called out, edged with irritation.  "Gomen kudasai!"  Then the *shuff* of wood over the runners blazoned over his senses, and he FROZE.

Kenshin had the barest of seconds to wrench his lips from their position glued to Sanosuke’s throat.  "K-Kaoru-dono!"  The doors had been flung open and the owner of Kamiya Dojo stood in her exercise gi, scowling down at them.

"Kenshin, are you biting him *again?*"  There was innocent exasperation in her voice.

"A-a-gain!?" Kenshin reeled.

Sanosuke released him and leaned back on his elbows, a lazy grinning feline.  Kenshin fell with a thud to the sleeping mat.  "Oro," he twitched feebly.  Suddenly the pounding headache that should have manifested upon waking made itself known full-force.  "Orooo..."

"Mou, you two!"  She stamped a foot, setting hands on her hips as she glared at the two sprawled men, not a trace of horrified comprehension crossing her face.  "Yahiko and I have been up since dawn practicing our kata and here you two are, still hungover in bed and carrying on your fight from *last* night!"

Kenshin scrubbed a hand over disheveled auburn locks.  "We were fighting last night?"  He couldn’t remember much but that didn’t sound...quite right...  Although he could vaguely recall sitting on Sanosuke’s stomach and growling...but fighting had been the furthest thing from his mind.

"Yes!  Sanosuke said something about tops and bottoms and you *attacked* him!" Kaoru exclaimed, her expression sincerely na´ve.

"I did?"  Kenshin turned a brilliant scarlet.  He choked.  "He WHAT!?"  He swiveled to face Sanosuke, who was rocking with silent laughter.

"Nani?" Kaoru inquired.

"I said...you didn’t know *who* was top or bottom..." Sanosuke managed to wheeze, pounding the floor as his eyes streamed tears of mirth.  "But I meant *what*!  You were so drunk!  Me too, though."  He scratched at his ear, the picture of innocence.

Kenshin glared at him through narrowed eyes.

"What?  Kenshin, why are you so angry?" Kaoru’s attention swiveled between the two of them as she peered at their expressions.  "Nani?  Nani?  Nani?"

Kenshin gave her his sweetest smile and stood, tugging awkwardly at his disarrayed clothing.  "Kaoru-dono, it was nothing," he assured her, beaming.  Then he pulled the neck of his kimono shut, not knowing if the Sano-induced red marks had faded.  "I was more drunk than I had thought."  After ten years as a rurouni, not able to afford much sake, it was only natural.

"Well..." Kaoru eyed him a moment longer, then looked with doubt upon the still-sniggering Sanosuke.  "Now that you’re up, could you go get some tofu, please?"

"Certainly," Kenshin replied with an engaging smile.  "I’ll get cleaned up, first."

At last Kaoru blushed.  "I’m sorry for walking in!  It’s just – I thought you were fighting...again..." she trailed off, gave them both a wide sheepish grin, and the doors slid shut as she backed out.  A moment later, her strident "Yahi-KO!  Where ARE you!?" rang out over the grounds.

Kenshin turned to Sanosuke.  Sano was scooting back and grinning uneasily.  "You.  I can’t believe you—!"

"It’s not what you think!" Sanosuke protested as Kenshin’s clear violet eyes turned that accusing glance on him.  "Hontou!"

"You *know* I can’t tell Kaoru-dono, and you *still*—"

"Now, wait a minute!" Sano stalled him, brown eyes snapping.  "Yes, saying ‘who’ instead of ‘what’ was my fault, but you’re the one who jumped me and squirmed in my lap and tried to stick your tongue down my throat!"

"I – I WHAT!?"  Kenshin was horrified.  But now that Sano mentioned it, he recalled how his initial angry impulse at the insult had faded once he’d climbed on top of Sano, and he had...

Kenshin closed his eyes and slid to the floor in a graceless thump.  He HAD.

"So I told Jou-chan you bit me, and I made her think like we were fighting," Sano continued, eyes wary as he regarded him.  "That okay?"

He took a few deep even breaths.  "That...that is okay..."  Slowly his lids lifted to unveil bitter violet eyes.  He was upset at his own lack of control.  "Thank you."

Sano’s expression was inscrutable.  "Just what is Jou-chan to you, anyhow?"  His fists clenched at handfuls of the thin blanket.  He could shred it easily if he wanted to.

Kenshin responded promptly.  "I want to protect her."

"Even from your own preferences?"

Kenshin grimaced.  "I..."

"Forget it," Sanosuke said roughly, abrupt.  "That wasn’t fair, and I shouldn’ta asked it.  Hell, I figure I’m lucky to get what I do from you."

Kenshin’s smile was soft and surprised.  "Sano..."

In one motion the former brawler stood, his lean frame towering over Kenshin’s.  He turned a cocky grin on him.  "So, you gonna walk into town with me?  You *did* tell Jou-chan you’d go to buy tofu."

"Aa," Kenshin nodded to him, looking over the rumpled blanket that lay on the bedroll.  Sano’s smile was broad but tight, a defensiveness lurking at the edges.  He knew the younger man expected to be told any day that he’d have to take a backseat to Kaoru.  But they hadn’t had that discussion yet – because Sano hadn’t pushed for it, and Kenshin was still unsure.  Both of Sano’s intent, and his own.

"And maybe I’ll have time for a few rounds of dice," he added with a smile.

Sanosuke recoiled, but his grin was genuine now.  "No way! Your Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu ain’t no good to me when it comes to gambling!  Unless you wanna Dragon Hammer them when they try to collect...?"

"Ah...no."

"You sure?"

"No Dragon Hammer, Sano."

"Not even if I bribe you with sex?"

"ORO!?"

"Not just ‘oro’...maybe all the way!"

"Sano, you are an evil man."

"Heh.  That’s what the jacket says."

***

"Ken-san?  Ne, Ken-san...?"  A glossy dark head poked through the doorway to the kitchen, eyes full of artful innocence.  She was met with the vision of Kaoru at the counter, sleeves rolled up as she labored away at a batch of onigiri.  The porcelain-lovely face fell as Kaoru’s eyes met hers.  "Ken-san wa?"

Kaoru glared.  "Kenshin," she stated the name clearly, "is not here right now."

"Ah."  A delicate pause.

Kaoru resumed molding the rice balls. *I will not let her get to me, I will not let her get to me...* she chanted silently.

"I suppose you’ve sent him off to run your errands, then?  Poor Ken-san...he’s too much of a man to deny any poor child a request, even a poverty-stricken little Northern guttersnipe..."  There was a teasing gleam in those dark eyes that, with her back turned, Kaoru failed to notice.

"NANI!?" Kaoru screeched, whirling to face her fox nemesis and wishing she had a shinai handy.  Instead she sputtered.  "You – you – don’t you have patients to see to?  Why are you here?"

Megumi put a hand to her mouth, eyes wide.  "Why, I came to see Ken-san, of course.  But since he’s obviously off somewhere with Sanosuke..."  The older woman infused a hint of naughty overtones into the gangster’s name.

Kaoru bristled.  "What about Sanosuke?

"Megumi-neesan!  Megumi-neesan!"

Two little brightly-clad girls came flying up the hallway, the elder in spring green, the other in sunset orange.  Ayame and Suzume came to a laughing, bright-eyed halt at Megumi’s knees and clasped at her hands.  "Did you come to play?  Ne?"

Megumi’s face lit up and she kneeled beside the girls.  "I can always play with my girls," she smiled.

Kaoru scratched at her head, oblivious to the sticky grains of rice on her hands that clung to the dark mass of her ponytail.  "Where did Kenshin *go* for that tofu, anyhow?  He’s been gone for hours..."
 
Megumi stood and chased the children along with affectionate swats.  "I’ll be along in a moment, girls.  Megumi-neesan has to talk to Kaoru-baasan."

"BAASAN!?" Kaoru hollered, as the girls scampered away giggling madly.  "WHO’S the baasan!?  Why, you—"

"I did see Ken-san in town," Megumi interrupted calmly, "and he and Sanosuke were headed for one of those gambling dens."  She gave a delicate shudder.  "Honestly, I don’t know why Kenshin tolerates his bad habits—"  She trailed off and let that sink in for a moment.  Kaoru’s eyes bugged out as she finally got it.

"Chotto—" Kaoru raised a clenched fist, her teeth gritting of their own volition.  Why, for Megumi to imply such things...

Megumi caught her fist in both hands and pushed it gently down.  "Maa, no need for such violent behavior, girl," she chided.  "Why, I thought you *knew* about Ken-san!"

Kaoru’s eyes flared white around the rims.  "What *about* Kenshin?" she asked in dangerous tones.

Megumi blinked.  "Betsuni."  She gave Kaoru a maddening smile, patted her cheek, and began to glide away.

Kaoru could feel her face turning blue.  Megumi was...she was...  Electric sparks were tearing up the line of her body.  HOW could she possibly – K-Kenshin, he wasn’t – ! Kaoru blinked.  She bonked herself on the head with her own clenched fist.  *Kaoru no baka, baka, baka!*

"YOU!" she thundered, leveling a finger at Megumi.  "I know what you’re trying to do!"

The older woman turned, raising one slender eyebrow.  It was a minuscule facial adjustment that Kaoru had attempted to practice for *hours* before her mirror, and failed miserably...another area where Megumi one-upped her.  "Nani?"

"You’re trying to make me think Kenshin is a...is a...an..."

"Okama?"  That raised eyebrow again.

Kaoru’s hackles rose.  "Yes, *that!*  You’re trying to make me think he’s *that* because you want him all to yourself!"

"Kaoru-chan, you’re exactly right," Megumi purred, the strangest smile on her face.  And with that, she left the room, leaving Kaoru to gape in open-mouthed amazement.  She...she had...

She’d won!!

"I am quite sure Kenshin would never do anything of *that* kind with Sano," Kaoru said haughtily to the empty kitchen, attempting to match Megumi’s careless airs.  Then her eyes narrowed as she looked at the meager fare she was preparing for lunch.  "Waaah Kenshin, where *are* yoooo~ou!?"

***

The sun was just fading from the blur-touched edges of the smoldering horizon when Sano released Kenshin, fingers sliding from the secure grip in his shadow-softened hair, mouths still locked and feeding.

Kenshin pushed at him with one hand.  "I have to go."  He lifted slightly hazed violet eyes.  "I’ll be late and Kaoru-dono and Yahiko will be hungry..."  He allowed Sano to press one more kiss to his mouth then turned away.  "Good night, Sano."

"Good night."  Sanosuke’s voice was a little rough, from what he couldn’t tell.  From sex and wanting?  From their unresolved status?

After several hapless rounds of losing at dice they had gone back to Sano’s home, one of his lover’s strong arms flung carelessly around his shoulders, for a bout of breathless sex.  With Kenshin on top this time, pushing Sano’s knees open, gliding between his thighs to take as Sano arched beneath him.  Sanosuke seemed to delight in experimenting, trying out any position readily so long as it was mutually pleasurable.  He hadn’t expected that – Kenshin had thought Sano would be an adamant top, but he’d proved very flexible.

As he hurried back to the Dojo, water slopping against the sides of the small tofu bucket, his thoughts tracked in circles.  Kaoru-dono’s face rose up to confront him, all softened eyes and parted lips and the imploring cry of his name falling from her mouth.  Instead of banishing it as blasphemous to contemplate her features, he dwelled on them.  She was lovely, there was no question – especially when she put forth the effort to be more feminine.

*Jou-chan.*  He smiled, hearing the nickname in his mind and now Sano’s face filled his senses, and the husky voice was in his ears.  His belly tightened.  With a rueful little gasp Kenshin acknowledged that Sano was the one who made his loins quicken.

He hurried his steps.  He truly hadn’t mean to allow Sano to sidetrack him from his errand for so long and if they had just been playing at dice, there would have been no great delay.  But Sano took reckless advantage of every possible opportunity.  Kenshin was grimly certain that if Kaoru-dono hadn’t walked in that morning, Sano would have taken him then and there.

"Ken-nii!  Ken-nii!" Ayame’s cry rang out as she spotted him not two steps inside Kamiya Dojo’s gates.  "Okaeri!"

"Ya, Ayame-chan!  Suzume-chan!"  Kenshin beamed as the two little girls hurled themselves off the steps and attached themselves to his legs.

"Missed you today," Suzume’s dark eyes peered up at him gravely.

"Hai-hai!  Megumi-neesan taught us a new game today!" Ayame added with an eager expression.  It turned wheedling.  "Wanna play?"

"Iya, Ayame-chan – Ken-nii is in trouble, remember?" Suzume giggled.  "He’d better get that tofu back to the kitchen..."

As if cued, Kaoru-dono’s voice rang out over the yard.  "YAHIKO! Isn’t Kenshin back YET!?"

"Oro."  Kenshin blinked several times and made himself very small beside the children, who giggled and clung to his clothing.  Kaoru-dono sounded very *angry.*  But then, Ayame had said something about Megumi-dono, which could account for part of the irritation.

Kaoru-dono appeared in the doorway, hands on hips.  Her eyes fell on him and her expression was halfway between exasperation and relief.  "Kenshin!"

He started guiltily.  "Ya, Kaoru-dono!"

Kaoru-dono pursed her lips.  "His-sa-shi-bu-ri."  She let each syllable fall from her lips, like the plinking of stones in one of the children’s games.

"Eheh...heh heh..." Kenshin scratched at his head.  "Gomen, Kaoru-dono!  Sanosuke dragged me along with him to the dicing games..."  Then he held up the tofu bucket with a placating expression.

"He’s a bad influence," Kaoru-dono stated darkly, and turned on her heel.

"Ken-san?  Ne, Ken-san!"

Megumi-dono’s voice.  Kaoru-dono was exasperated.  Sano wasn’t here at the Dojo.

It was sure to be a long night, de gozaru.

***

Sanosuke uncorked the bottle with his teeth again and took another long swig.  Occasionally he felt bad for running up such a tab with the Akabeko, but he assured himself he’d pay it all back someday.  Tae-san understood.  And besides, when a man needed sake...he needed his sake!

He grimaced and slid open the door of his ramshackle place.  It wasn’t much and he felt vaguely ashamed every time he brought Kenshin back here, but surely the rurouni had put up with far worse accommodations.  And at least this was *private* here, away from the prying eyes of children and inquisitive, calf-eyed young instructors of Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu...

Sano shook his head.  Jou-chan wasn’t such a bad kid, but she had a mile-wide blind spot when it came to Kenshin.  *He* had had his suspicions the first time he’d laid eyes on the sweet-faced, slender redhead.  But Kaoru had fixated on Kenshin firmly.

Hell, he could admit it – so had *he.*

Kenshin was possessed of the type of beauty, slim but undeniably strong, attractive to both men and women.  It made Sano wonder, sometimes, which Kenshin truly preferred when he could pick either but he didn’t really care.  Not when *he* was enjoying the incredible gift of Kenshin in his arms, and in his bed.  Whenever he could.

A rustling noise within made him cork the bottle and scan over the room, falling instantly into a more alert, fighting frame of mind.  No one messed with him, especially when he was buzzed and consumed with thoughts of Kenshin.  Damned frustrating.

"Who’s there?" he inquired harshly, eyes still trying to adjust to the gloom of the inner chamber.

"Excuse me for intruding," the diffident voice projected.  "Sagara Sanosuke?"  The rasp of a match birthed a ruddy glow, pinched between two fingers.  It threw a stain of illumination over the ascetic features of a vaguely familiar man, mouth drawn, eyes squinched shut and rendered glassy by the spectacles perched on his nose.

"Yeah, so?"  In the flickering light he moved across the room and struck a match of his own, kindling the lamp.  "What the hell do you want?  And why are you here in my place?"  With the steadier gleam of the lamp, he could tell that the man wore the simple dark uniform of the police.

"Again, I am extremely sorry for the intrusion," the man apologized at once.  "Please forgive me.  It’s a matter of some urgency."

"Oh?"  Sanosuke’s brows raised.  "Heh.  You’re that police detective, aren’t you?"

"That’s right," the man bowed his head.

"So what’re you doing here?  I haven’t done nothin’...not recently, anyhow.  Saa, I guess you want Kenshin, but why didn’t you just go get him at the Dojo?"  With a grunt Sano retrieved his bottle of sake and seated himself cross-legged beside the low table.

The policeman’s mouth tightened.  "Consider the girl," he invited, his tone quiet.  "Jin’ei held her hostage.  If we approach Kamiya Dojo, she will get involved again.  She’ll follow Kenshin."

"Hai-hai," he sighed, scrubbing at the bristles of his dark hair.  He could see Kenshin’s pensive expression.  *I want to protect her.*  "If Jou-chan is involved, Kenshin goes a little crazy."  Not just the Missy, he amended in his thoughts – Yahiko, or Megumi, or the little kids...any threat to his loved ones.  Kamiya Dojo.  The man had a good point.

"If I could impose upon you for your help, kudasai..."  The police detective trailed off delicately.

Sano uncorked the sake with his teeth and stared at the paper lamp.  Kenshin would have to fight again, but Jou-chan and Kamiya Dojo wouldn’t be put in danger.  And of course, *he’d* go along and make sure nothing happened.

"You want me to go get Kenshin?" Sano grinned.  It was a wicked expression.  Here he had the police’s invitation to go drag Kenshin away from the Dojo and the clutches of the raccoon and the fox...chotto.  "Just how *did* you know you could approach Kenshin through me?"  He scowled at the man who remained unmoving in the stripes of moonlight that glimmered through wooden slats.

The police chief – damn name escaped him, for some reason – gave him a patient smile.  "We have been observing the Battousai’s movements."

"...So...?" Sano prompted, wary.

The man adjusted his glasses and coughed.  "We have noted the number of times you and the Battousai have vanished into the woods together."

Red crept up his neck and flared over his cheeks.  "Naruhodo.  Ya peeping toms."

"We didn’t observe quite *that* closely," the man assured him.

***

"Let go of that! *I’ll* pour Kenshin’s sake!"

"Ohohoho!  Take your hands off; you couldn’t pour sake to save your life, little girl!"

"Hyuu..."  His quiet exhalation went unnoticed, seated as he was by the open door with his sheathed sakabatou propped by his side.  He drew up one knee and looked briefly out over the shadow-molten yard, trees casting a dappled scrim over the bare dusty grounds.  Kaoru-dono didn’t take Megumi-dono’s teasing very well.

Then again, Megumi-dono took a wicked delight in her sly jabs.

"Saa, it’s a good thing Megumi cooked dinner!" Yahiko stretched his arms wide beside the table, shooting a toothy grin at Kaoru-dono.  "Otherwise we’d all have stomach-aches by now!"

"Why, you—" Kaoru-dono bristled, rolling up her sleeves to attack.

Kenshin’s eyes crinkled up into a smile as they pummeled each other.  "Maa, maa..."

Megumi-dono began advancing on him with a bottle of sake and a sweet smile.

Kenshin suppressed a groan.  *Iyaa, this means more fighting when Kaoru-dono notices...*

A hand closed over his wrist and his eyes flashed to narrowed slits.  *Nani--*  Then he was dragged through the open door and around the corner in one swift, incredibly strong motion.  The sakabatou clattered to the wooden boards.  Kenshin recognized the hands and the scent and then he didn’t have to wonder as a mouth closed over his, the kiss rough and open-mouthed.  One hand rested hard on his thigh, the other pressing his wrist to the wall.

"Sano—" he breathed once his mouth was free, trying to push him away, but the lean ex-brawler had already released him and placed him at arm’s length.

"Ken-san?" Megumi-dono’s puzzled, slightly concerned voice came to him.  She stepped around the corner.  "Oh."  The small smile she flashed them was knowing.

"Konban wa, Sano," Kenshin blinked, striving for a guileless expression.

"Konban wa, Sanosuke," Megumi-dono purred.  The ceramic clicked as she poured a small cup of sake.  "Care for some sake?"

Sano sniffed, hands already buried nonchalantly in his pockets, but he extended one to take the little cup.  Megumi-dono’s eyes were fixed on Kenshin as the ex-brawler drank it in one gulp.  Kenshin scratched sheepishly at his head, overwhelmed with the conviction that she could peer right past his eyes and divine his guilty thoughts.  He could still feel the pressure of Sano’s palm on his thigh.

"Kenshin?  Kenshin, where did you go?"  Kaoru-dono padded onto the wooden porch, turned and noticed the little tableau.  She caught sight of Sano and her hands immediately fisted on her hips.  "Oh.  You."

"Evenin’, Jou-chan," Sanosuke lifted a hand.

"Naa~ani, Sanosuke, what are you doing here this time of night?  Did you come over to drink Kenshin under the table again?  Wasn’t brawling and passing out last night bad enough?" Kaoru-dono growled, her blue eyes wide.

"Oh, *that* wasn’t a brawl, Jou-chan," Sanosuke drawled, his eyes alight with wicked mischief.

Kenshin regarded him with alarm.  *Sano!*

"Well, I don’t know what *you* call it, but to me it was a brawl."  Kaoru-dono folded her arms, sulky.

"A brawl involves more property damage..." Sano cocked an eyebrow at her, "...but I guess we could oblige."  His grin widened.

"No thank you!" Kaoru-dono bristled.  "Not in *my* dojo!"

The panicked little thump in his ribcage subsided.  Sano got his kicks by this double-edged teasing, he was sure... getting Kaoru-dono’s goat, and at the same time making him wonder if he was going to say something direct.

"Ken-san, sake?"  At his elbow, Megumi-dono smiled demurely.

Kaoru-dono went rigid.  "I said *I’d* pour his sake!!"

Sano crooked an eyebrow at him, smiling, then jerked his head slightly in the direction of the rear of the dojo.  Kenshin sighed and gave him an equally slight nod.

The two women quarreled on their way back inside and he fell into step behind them, rubbing his head with a discomfited expression.  "Maa, maa..."

Behind him he could hear Sano’s footfalls fading; he was making his way to the back of the dojo.

"Ahh, Kaoru-chan, you could pour *me* some sake, onegai," Dr. Genzai rasped, lifting his own cup.  The old man had lifted his head up from a doze.  "And is there any food left?"

"Megumi-neesan!" Suzume tugged at the dark-haired woman’s skirts, her expression piteous.  "I hurt my finger..."

They were safely distracted.  Kenshin smiled, picked up his sakabatou, and edged away from the doorway.  With a swirl of white cloth and red hair he disappeared.

***

"He didn’t say what he wanted?" Kenshin queried as they trudged up the silvered-over strip of road that led back into the town proper.

"Iya," Sanosuke shrugged, hands fisted in his pockets.  He fixed his eyes on the road.  He’d had the sense not to try and kiss Kenshin a second time anywhere near the Dojo tonight.  He’d been pushing his luck recently.  "I figured it could wait ’til I brought you.  Oh, and he knows we’re sleeping together."

"Oro – !?"  Kenshin turned wide shocked eyes on him.

"I told you the forest was a bad idea," Sano muttered.

"It was the best idea I had!" Kenshin protested.  "We couldn’t do it in Kaoru-dono’s house."

"Yare, yare," Sanosuke sighed.  "At least he didn’t approach you where Jou-chan could catch wind of it, if this job really is so dangerous."

"Sou de gozaru," Kenshin agreed.

They paused outside Sanosuke’s house in the darkened, bare streets.  He caught Kenshin’s wrist and the rurouni turned to him, eyes thin-glinting chips of violet warning.  Sanosuke ignored it.  "Matte – chotto, just one second."

Kenshin’s lips thinned but he didn’t try to shake off his grip.  "What is it, Sano?"

He hesitated.  With one furtive look up the street, he brushed his thumb over Kenshin’s lips and the redhead’s eyes slid closed as he permitted the gesture.  "I just have a bad feelin’ about this, ya know?  Before – they came to Kamiya Dojo.  But now they want to leave Jou-chan and the others out of it."

"I’m glad."  Kenshin’s eyes opened and they were sober.

"Yeah – but if that’s the case, you..."  He stopped.  He didn’t want to say it, because voicing the words could make it real.  And there was no chance Kenshin could possibly be in any danger.  He was too strong for that.

"Baka," Kenshin huffed softly against his fingers, but he was smiling.

Instead of speaking he bent and placed his lips over that smile, something inside him smiling too.  He could never tell Kenshin a fraction of his feelings when it was obvious some day Jou-chan would command the rurouni’s, but for now...  He was the one receiving the warmth of Kenshin’s mouth, as that tongue stole between his lips to breath-deprive, teasing him.  One sword-callused hand slid up to clasp his nape.

"Ahhn..."  His hips molded securely to Kenshin to push him against the wall.  Just a kiss, all he wanted was a kiss.

He clasped the angular face in his hands and licked Kenshin’s lips, bit; the redhead released a soft sound as he nuzzled his mouth.  Then his tongue drove between the swollen moist lips in a claiming, both their tongues touching, twining, sparking a deeper heat that drove him crazy.  He tore his mouth away before it could ignite any further and they stood for a moment, entwined, hot flashes of breath stirring against the other’s skin.

"Sano."  Kenshin’s voice was low, the syllables labored.

With reluctant fingers that clung to the night-dark auburn strands, he released his hold.  "Yeah, yeah, I know," he replied roughly.  This wasn’t the time or place.  He offered Kenshin a half-smile, sliding his hands into his pockets, but the redhead’s eyes were overshadowed by the jagged fringe of his bangs.

When Kenshin lifted his head at last, it was the guileless smile of the rurouni he presented.  "Let’s find out what the detective has come for."

"Aa."

Sometimes he used that good nature as a mask for his true feelings, Sano observed as he slid open the door and waved Kenshin through.  He wondered what those true feelings were.  And occasionally, he wondered if Kenshin thought of Kaoru when they kissed.

"Muraki-dono," Kenshin greeted the police officer within.  "What brings you to Sano’s place in the middle of the night?"

The man adjusted his glasses meticulously and straightened.  He had been waiting patiently, apparently in the same position, for the entire time.

"Himura-san, we thought you should be the first to know," he began.  "As with Jin’ei, we have been having extreme difficulty of late with a powerful swordsman, a man who strikes without warning.  He leaves no survivors if the targets are armed – we finally have a witness, from the most recent strike.  A young girl."

"And you want Kenshin to stop him?" Sanosuke concluded.

Kenshin lifted his eyes and fixed the detective with a measuring glance.  "Since you mentioned the witness, the man’s identity must be of some importance."

Muraki nodded.  "Hai.  The style he used....was identified as Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu."  He adjusted his glasses again, nervously.  "We believe this man to be Hiko Seijuurou."

The words fell into flat silence.  Sanosuke could hear air shivering over the floorboards.  Muraki’s glasses gleamed with a slight shift of his face, jaw tightening.  Outside, someone’s door chime fractured the silence into tinkling splinters.

"Hiko...Seijuurou."

Kenshin repeated the words in a voice devoid of telling emotion.  When he finally lifted his eyes to the detective’s, the man recoiled at that look – intense, a pent-up striking energy.  He was *angry.*

"Go back to your men," Kenshin said calmly, "and tell them to question your witness more carefully.  Because it is impossible that the man you seek is Hiko Seijuurou."

Muraki hesitated then moistened his lips, a quick nervous gesture.  "Nevertheless, Himura-san, there is still a man at large and we have no means of matching his strength."

Kenshin remained silent.  From his profile Sano could see the moon-brilliant eyes gone narrow, the mouth drawn into a contracted frown.

"Kenshin, what’s wrong?" Sanosuke demanded.  The expression on the rurouni’s face was rigid.  "Who’s this Seijuurou guy?"

Muraki placed his hands flat on the mat and inclined his upper torso slightly.  "Himura-san, I understand this must be distressing but there are only five men who could possibly deal with a man of Hiko Seijuurou’s caliber."  He paused.  "If the unsubstantiated report is true.  Currently one man is unavailable, the location of Shinomori-san is unknown, and the other two are unapproachable."

"So you’re saying Kenshin is the only one who can take this guy out that you’ve got handy?" Sano intruded brashly.  Hell, someone had to say *something* — Kenshin was just sitting there like a block of wood, his expression fixed in terrible lines.

"This man cannot be Hiko Seijuurou," Kenshin re-stated, his voice soft but bearing a razor’s edge.  "And even if it were, Shinomori Aoshi would have trouble; he would have a high chance of losing.  I don’t know of the others.  What makes you think I would have a chance? —If it were Hiko."

Sano heard the implied words.  *It’s not.*

Muraki did not reply, but bowed his head lower.  His jaw was taut.

"Sou ka."  The low syllables were cold, calculating, verging on the Hitokiri’s steely tone.

Sanosuke scratched his head.  There was something hanging unsaid that both of these men seemed to understand, and he was outside of it completely.  "Who’s Hiko?" he repeated.

Both sets of eyes flickered at him briefly, then returned to stare straight forward.  Unyielding.

"Oi!" Sano was irritated now.  He slammed one fist into his open palm.  "Oi, if you’re gonna ask Kenshin to risk his life all the time ’cause you can’t handle somethin’, you should at least—"

"Shochou-san would not insult me by offering recompense for what my discipline commands, Sano."  Kenshin said the words in such soft tones but the force behind them was a withering rebuke.

Sanosuke clenched his own jaw now and was about to retort when the odd phrasing caught at him.  Not ‘vow’ or ‘honor’ but discipline – for what his *discipline* demanded.  Could Kenshin mean the dictates of the Flying Heaven’s Honorable Sword style?

"Will you do it?" Muraki looked up, one finger shoving his glasses to perch higher on his thin nose.  His expression was anxious and hopeful.

"Aa."  Kenshin’s head was bent now, eyes overshadowed by dark-limned hair.

Muraki pressed his hands together.  "Arigatou gozaimashita."  He bowed again.

Kenshin stood and replaced his sakabatou at his belt in one smooth motion, face composed.  Sanosuke recognized that look – it was his non-expression, the one he used when he was absolutely trying not to think about anything.  Or when his purpose was resolutely fixed on something unpleasant.  "Kenshin—"

"I should go back to the Dojo first, and tell Kaoru-dono I’ll be gone for a few days..."

"Iya, that’s the last thing you should do," Sano disagreed.  "She’ll ask you where you’re going, and how long you’ll be gone – and no offense, Kenshin, but you suck at lying."  He gave his lover a crooked grin.

Kenshin sighed.  "I have to tell Kaoru-dono—"

"I can inform Kaoru-san that you’ll be gone for a few days," Muraki offered.

"Yare, yare – neither of your heads are screwed on straight," Sanosuke scowled.  "That’ll just make her even more worried, shochou-san.  Think, the police at her door, and no Kenshin?  Here."  He pushed open the front door and waited a moment.  There were still people treading up and down the streets; it was barely after dark.  In a few moments a young boy started to pass his front stoop and Sano grabbed him.

"Kyaa!  Robber!" the boy yelled, and Sano shook him.

"Aw, stop that.  You wanna make a little money?"

The boy’s eyes lit up.  "Hontou?  How?"

"Deliver a note to Kamiya Dojo."  He waved a hand at Kenshin.  "Oi – write Jou-chan a note and we’ll have this boy give it to her."

"Kaoru-dono hates it when I do that," Kenshin observed wryly, but he was already hunting for a scrap of paper.

Finally Sano was blowing the ink dry and preparing to hand it to the boy.  One grubby little palm lifted.  "Eheh.  Money, right?"

Solemn eyes stared at him as the boy nodded.

Sanosuke raised his eyebrows at Muraki, expression innocent.  "I don’t seem to have any on me right now.  D’you think—"

Without even a flicker the detective fished some coins out of his pocket and handed them to the boy.  "Douzo," he murmured.

The boy dashed off, heels stirring up dust.

"Now," Sanosuke stuck his hands in his pockets, "where do we find this Hiko Seijuurou?"  He blinked.

Kenshin was glaring daggers at him.  Muraki was carefully expressionless.

"Eheh," Sano sweatdropped, "I meant, the *alleged* Hiko Seijuurou."  He scratched at his head and avoided the piercing violet-dusk stare.

"We’ll take a carriage," Muraki said solemnly.  "We think we may have pinpointed his next possible target."

Sano nodded and gestured for them to precede him on the way out.  Muraki stepped past him and he could see beads of sweat on the policeman’s brow – he really *had* been worked up.  This guy must be even worse than Jin’ei, to make a policeman so nervous.

Kenshin was staring fixedly at the stripes of moon-paled tatami in a corner of the room, gilded there by the light against the blinds.  Sano hesitated and decided not to prompt him.  Just before the redhead turned, so low he thought he missed it, he thought he heard a word fall so-softly from Kenshin’s lips.

Then he was turning and sweeping past Sanosuke with his graceful, controlled steps.

Sanosuke shook his head, brows puckering.  Had he really said it?  He slid the door shut and stared at Kenshin’s bow-taut backside as they made their way up the street.  It had had such a bitter, weary tone.

*"Shishou."*

***

Kaoru peered up at the moon through dark wispy bangs and huffed a sigh.  Footsteps whispered to a halt behind her and she folded her arms; remained unmoving.  If it was Megumi she hoped devoutly the woman would go away.  But no – she couldn’t be back yet.

"What’re you doing here, ugly dog?  Making sure your disfigured face is the first thing Kenshin sees when he gets back?" a brash male voice jeered.

Yahiko.

*BAM!*

"Who’re you calling ugly, you slacker student?" she demanded, dusting off her hands.  "If you were half as good as you *think* you are you could’ve avoided that."

Yahiko slid down the wall twitching.  She could practically hear Megumi’s *"Maa...what a violent woman,"* in the background but for the fact that the doctor’s assistant had been gone for ten minutes, walking Ayame and Suzume home with Genzai-sensei.

"Hmf!" she sniffed, seating herself on the edge of the porch, tilting her chin into her hands.  "Why, the young instructor of Kamiya Soul-Devoting Style is in her full bloom of beauty!"

Yahiko made no comment.  His eyes were still swirling.

Kenshin had disappeared not too long after Sanosuke had shown up – and then the ex-brawler was nowhere to be found, either.  Which normally wasn’t cause for worry since Sano dragged Kenshin off at all sorts of odd times, usually for dicing or drinking...but Megumi had said some nasty things today.  They weren’t true, of course – she was convinced Megumi said them purely for spite – but still Kaoru sat facing the gate, knees clasped in her hands.  Mou, she’d knock Kenshin a good one for making her worry!

Kaoru sighed again.  What if something had happened?  Maybe they’d both disappeared because Kenshin was needed again.

Moo~ou, if he’d ducked out without telling her, she’d bash him an even WORSE one!

A slender shape formed from the darkness that hung between the gates, and she straightened – then her shoulders slumped.  Too short, even for Kenshin.

"Oi...this Kamiya Dojo?"

The kid wandered forward into the spill of light cast by the open doors of the house behind her.  Kaoru blinked and levered herself up onto her feet, absently brushing at the rear of her kimono.  "Hai!  Kamiya Dojo desu!" she beamed.  "Nee~e, are you perhaps looking for a Budo instructor?"

"At this time of night?" Yahiko shot her an incredulous look.  "She’s spent too much time in the sun..."

"Iya," the boy denied, trotting up to the porch and handing her a slip of paper.  "A note for you, oneesan."  He bowed and excused himself.

*Oneesan...* Kaoru gritted her teeth.  Did she really seem so old?  Didn’t she rate an ‘ojousan’ anymore? She nearly crumpled the note in her hand then Yahiko was crowding her elbow.

"Oi, who’s it from?  Huh?  Huh?"

She unfolded the slip of paper.  After a moment it fell to the dusty yard, utterly crumpled now.  Yahiko backed up.  "Naa...you’re not gonna explode, are you?"  Kaoru’s shoulders were hunched.  Then she whirled around, and her eyes gleamed with evil sparks.  Prudently Yahiko withdrew, realizing he was the closest thing in pummeling range.  Her glaring eyes...her drawn mouth... *kowai...*

"KENSHIN NO BAKA!!"

***

It was approaching late hours once they finally reached their destination.  The room that Muraki led them to in the police building to spend the night was big enough for two.  Sano’s brow raised but he made no comment on the room arrangements and Kenshin said nothing as they entered and lit the lamps, then settled to sitting positions.  Sano prowled the circuit of the room like a large hunting cat growing accustomed to new surroundings.  Kenshin laid his sakabatou across his lap and stared at Muraki, face composed.

The police chief cleared his throat.  "Hrrm.  There’s not much we can do this evening, but with an early start we can go over the likely next target and if time permits you can question the witness—"

"No."

Muraki blinked, his words grated to a halt by that simple, incontestable refusal.

"That won’t be necessary, Muraki-dono.  The killer is not Hiko Seijuurou – that is not his way.  I will confront this man for you, but I do not need to speak with your young witness, because I won’t be facing Hiko."

"Very well," Muraki conceded gracefully.  "Tomorrow, then."  The chief bowed and withdrew.

Sano had been quiet for the entire carriage ride and now he paused by the window, regarding the older man through narrowed deep brown eyes and the fringe of a few spiky strands of dark hair.  Kenshin regarded the hands clenched loosely around his sakabatou.  He knew that his lover was a direct young man and didn’t brood for long – if something bothered him, he got it off his chest.

Finally the rangy man came to a halt in the center of the room, hands buried in his pockets, a reflexive scowl plastered on his features.  The expression was easily recognizable – Sano was stewing in his own restless curiosity.  But for once the redhead didn’t seem like he was about to offer a way to unburden himself – Kenshin appeared caught up in the circular trap of his own restless thoughts.  His violet eyes were blank and expressionless.

"Kenshin, what’s eatin’ at ya?"

The question came at last.  Slender shoulders stiffened as if under the onslaught of an actual attack.  Sanosuke gave out a small sigh and sank to the mat, near enough to touch but not bridging an inch of the space that gaped between them.

"Nothing is," each word fell clear and precise, "eating at me, if you please."

The dark-haired man made a face at the impersonal, painfully polite reply.  The words were spoken in Kenshin’s soft husky tones but they were empty.  "That’s bullshit," he replied rudely, shifting on the mat, sliding and twisting until he was seated behind Kenshin.  The rurouni remained frozen in the same position, sakabatou clenched in his hands, resting across tensed thighs.  As if he were poised to leap into action.  "Something’s bothering you or you wouldn’t be drawn like a bowstring ready to snap."

He lifted aside the heavy, rich tail of red hair, its silken mass like liquid fire against his fingers.  He smoothed it over one shoulder and felt Kenshin stiffen even further as he settled his hands on Kenshin’s shoulders.

"Oh, relax," he loosed the irritable words.  "I’m hardly going to molest you the night before a possible battle, especially when you’re this tense.  What kinda guy d’you take me for?"

Briskly he began to rub at the knotted shoulders.  Kenshin was no good to himself like this, much less Muraki’s plans.  After a quarter of an hour’s work the muscles beneath his hands began to loosen by degrees and Sano grinned in triumph.

"Naa, Kenshin...?"

"Aa?"  The voice was blurring to a drowsy lull.

Pause. "Who was your master?"

The muscles under the pads of his fingers *zinged* taut like a snapped, vibrating string.  Sano grimaced.  Okay, so maybe it hadn’t been the best question to start with.  But dammit, he would get Kenshin to unburden himself if he had to sit on his stomach and drag it out of him.  Sometimes the redhead sought to place entirely too much on his slender shoulders, taking the load himself.

Well, he’d prove he was strong.  He would prove that Kenshin didn’t have to carry everything himself.

With a soft whisper of cloth Kenshin pulled away, still presenting his back to Sanosuke.  "Sano," his voice was equally soft as the movement, and the ex-brawler’s face lit up as he could hear the lilting pause that indicated Kenshin had more to say.  He was going to *talk* to him, finally.

Kenshin did not turn around.  "...I will say this once, and not again.  If something were bothering me, it is none of your business.  I would ask you to respect that, if you please."

If Kenshin had jammed his sakabatou back and buried the hilt of it in his stomach, Sanosuke might’ve been less hurt.  Still every bit as surprised, of course – but it wouldn’t have been on the same level as utter rejection.

"K-Kenshin...oi..."

He lifted a hand to grip one shoulder, spin him around and demand why he was suddenly being so cold, but with a helpless expression he let it drop.  His eyes were still fixed on the slim line of backside that had drawn taut once more.  Sanosuke’s brows drew together.

"Fine.  I get the message – looks like being top got to your head, eh Kenshin?" Sano demanded nastily.

At that Kenshin whirled, his violet eyes cold glittering stars in the dim room.  "Sanosuke..."

He didn’t even stop, just plowed on—or else he’d lose the courage to say this; Kenshin barely ever used his full name.  "Guess you’re more confused ’bout it than I thought – you want me to fuck you, but I don’t get a say in how things go.  You fuck me, and...."

Kenshin’s mouth twitched.  It was not an amused expression.  His eyes were cold and dreadful and it made Sano’s stomach sink but at the same time defiance burned behind his eyes.  Just ’cause he’d let Kenshin take him a time or two didn’t mean he was just gonna bow to him like some tamed dog.  No, he didn’t like it *that* much."

"Get out," Kenshin finally said.

"Nani!?" he bristled, one hand smacking the mat.  He glared away from those cold impersonal eyes.  "Ch’.  What, no please?" he taunted, gaze fixed anywhere else, stomach sinking further.  Things had gone from bad to very damned bad and this time it was his fault.

An amber flicker surfaced from the depths of Kenshin’s dusky-violet eyes.  "Get out...please," he stated, each word careful and precise, his own gaze watchful.

"Fine," Sano snarled, "That’s fine.  That’s how you want it?  If that’s fine with *you* I guess it damn well better be fine with me, huh?"  With withering inflection he replaced the usual ‘omae’ with a cutting ‘kisama’ and pushed up from the floor.  "I’ll leave you to your business...guess I’ll just find someplace else to bunk tonight."  He slammed one fist into the wall.  A fine lacework of cracks radiated out from his knuckles, his last word on frustration.

Kenshin’s eyes were still burning a path along his skin as he turned to go.

He shoved his hands into his pockets with one swift violent jerk and kicked the door open with his foot, controlling a wince as it snapped off the track.  But he shoved it mostly shut with his heel anyway and kept walking.

He wanted his privacy...fine, he’d have it.

***

Delicate features contorted in a grimace as the screen made a *crack* as Sano ran it off the track, shoving it closed with his foot.  He’d fix it later – it was his fault the younger man was so angry in the first place.  Later.  He’d think about that later.  For now, he breathed deeply and fixed his gaze on the sheathed sword clenched in both hands.

The sword Hiko had taught him to use.

Not the same, though – this sakabatou ran contrary to the discipline he’d learned.  Like Gohei, Hiko’s uncompromising words had driven home a sword’s intended purpose, for the use of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu at least.  A sword was meant to kill.  But for the past ten years he’d been struggling to fulfill an ideal that Kaoru-dono had put into words.  A pleasantry...but it was one he would rather believe in than the sharp sword’s message.

With both hands he lifted the sheathed sword to eye level, noting with satisfaction that his grip was still one hundred percent steady.  He clicked a thumb’s length of blade free and the sharp edge seized at the scant illumination, evoking a frosty jangle of light.

"Sakabatou," he said softly.

He’d sworn off killing techniques for the rest of his life.  This blade was a clear reflection of his intent as glaring as the light that glinted from its reverse edge.  And so if he were pitted against Hiko Seijuurou in a life-or-death fight, he *would* die.

Abruptly he placed the sword flat on the mat.  It was *not* Hiko Seijuurou.  But the prospect of facing him again, on the heels of the bitter, angry parting nearly fifteen years ago filled him with dread.  Hiko had refused him the ougi.  If Muraki-dono’s reports were true—

*No.  It’s impossible.  Hiko does not leave his mountain.*  He stared at the sheathed blade, head bent, and tried to clear his thoughts.

*But the attacker used Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu – * an insistent thought continued to surface.  It was the one doubt gnawing at the wall of his certainty, Hiko’s undoubtable presence in Kyoto.  It was the one fact he couldn’t account for.

Kenshin sighed and raked bangs from his eyes.  To complicate matters he’d run Sano off, the boy’s temper sparking like dry kindling as he continued to meet Kenshin’s reticence.  And the parting shot about seme  had been sheer nastiness...it led Kenshin to believe that Sano was more insecure about trying different positions than he’d thought.

He knew Sano was only trying to help – but this was nothing he could help with.  At this point Sano was only a distraction while he tried to break free of his circular thoughts.  Hiko...impossible...Mitsurugi Ryuu...but, Hiko...

He glanced around the spare, immaculate room.  This was some kind of police safe-house or way station.  Muraki-dono had given them a room together with absolutely no comment, or even a telling facial expression.  It was slightly unusual, but then – supposedly he was the only man who could tackle their Hiko Seijuurou.

Alleged.

He tacked the word on in his thoughts, mouth set in a stubborn line.  And yet...  *A sword is a deadly weapon.  No matter what pleasantries you use to disguise it, that’s the truth.*  The deep voice filled his ears smoothly, reasonably.

Kenshin stood, grasping the sword and slipping it into his obi in an automatic movement.  For a moment he stared fixedly at the metal chimes that hung outside, stirred by a slight evening breeze.  Then he padded out of the room, grimacing again as he rediscovered the stuck screen.  He’d fix it later.  For now he wanted to find Sano.

Yes, he was a distraction.  But at this point, it was a welcome thing.

***

"Kaoru – oi, Kaoru!"

Yahiko’s voice rang out over the yard and the dark-haired mistress of Kamiya Dojo froze in her tracks, two steps from the gate.  Shimatta – what was Yahiko doing up so early?  Normally she would have to throw cold water over him to rouse him before dawn.

"Oi, ugly, where are you going?" the boy half-hung off the porch, clinging to a pole for support, eyes still fogged with sleep.

Kaoru reddened but kept a grip on her temper.  "Ohohoho!  Just to get some tofu!" she lied, holding up one hand to cover her mouth as she laughed.  "Since Kenshin’s not here, I’ll have to get it myself."

Red-brown eyes sharpened, now significantly less sleepy.  "So where’s your tofu bucket?"

"Iya...that is...etou..." Kaoru tugged at the sleeves of her kimono.  "Actually I’m just going to see Tae-san!"

"You’re going to the Akabeko *by yourself!?*" Yahiko yelled, affronted.  "Why, you ugly—"

*BAM!*

Kaoru dusted her hands off, satisfied.  A wooden plaque wasn’t as damaging as other things – like her bokken, or a few rocks – but it still got results.

"I’m going to run errands," she amended.

Yahiko’s eyes lit up.  "Hey, does that mean no practice today?"

"You," Kaoru leveled a finger at him, "must clean the dojo.  Then do two hundred strokes for practice."

"Aww..." Yahiko slouched and gave her sulky eyes.

Kaoru breathed a sigh of relief as she passed through the gates.  So close!  The last things he wanted was Yahiko tagging along today...if Kenshin had left like this, it was sure to be dangerous.  But she *had* to find him.  She was a master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu.  She could protect herself – and Kenshin needed her.

A beat of unease tripped through her for a moment, as she hurried towards the police station.  Megumi’s shocking words were still fluttering at the edges of her thoughts – something so outrageous wasn’t so easily forgotten – and the note had said he *and* Sano would be gone for a few days, at Muraki-shochou’s request.

Demo...demo...what if Muraki had not issued any such request?

Kaoru stopped stock-still in the middle of the road, crystal-blue eyes wide.  Then...

"Ohohohohoho!"

She lifted a hand to her mouth, laughing loud and forcefully.  Ridiculous!  How silly!  She was falling right into Megumi’s trap.  That was what the fox-lady *wanted* her to think.  Restless thoughts laid aside once more, she hurried to the station.  It was just up this street.

"Excuse me...ano, can you tell me where Muraki shochou-san is?"

***

Bright stabbing lances were beating a searing path past his eyelids.  Dammit, they were digging right into his brain.  Shit, that hurt.  Sano snorted, rolled over, and buried his face in the nearest available cover.

"Geh…ororooo…"

Something squirmed, pinned half-underneath him and protesting.  It released a few more desperate, feeble ‘oro’s as Sano shifted the marginal distance he thought necessary to prevent Kenshin from dying and kept his face buried in the loose fragrant mass of red hair.

"Ite," Kenshin said, breathless.  "Sano – you’re bigger than Yahiko.  You can’t sleep on me like this de gozaru."

"Gomen," he muttered, and shifted again but still kept an arm across the flat belly and a leg flung possessively over the slender redhead’s.  He was breathing deeply and evenly and about to fall asleep surrounded by Kenshin’s scent, clean-washed hair and the musk of his skin when he felt a hand brush over his jaw and a light kiss pressed to his forehead.  Sano’s eyes popped open.

"We need to go now," the redhead informed him seriously.

"Aa," he sighed, and buried his nose in Kenshin’s hair again.

Kenshin kissed him again.  "Now."

"Hey, hey," he grumbled, and Kenshin was pulling away, extracting himself from beneath Sano’s lanky frame.  He straightened out his kimono top and gave Sanosuke a sunny smile.

"Why do you have to be such a morning person," he griped, but was secretly pleased.  At least Kenshin wasn’t shutting him out completely, even if he wouldn’t answer his questions.  He had found him sometime in the middle of the second bottle last night and apologized – only to find that Kenshin had sought *him* out for the same reason.

*At least he forgave me for what I said,* Sano thought wryly.

He still wasn’t completely happy with Kenshin, but he knew the things he’d said were worse.  It was just that...just...Kenshin chose not to confide in him.  Even now, even after fighting side by side, after going through Gohei and Jin’ei and Kanryu, Sano had to wonder...if Kenshin still kept himself this adamantly separate, did he truly consider Sanosuke his equal?

They joined Muraki for a morning meal.  The man’s features were, if possible, even more pinched and distressed than the night before.

"Himura-san," he placed his hands flat on the floor, "we have received a positive confirmation for the target."

"Eh?"  One hand rested, perhaps unconsciously, on the obi near the hilt of his sakabatou. The relaxed look fled from his features.

"The...man..." Muraki paused delicately there, "has been exclusively targeting former Ishin Shishi.  And based on his description, we have received reports from men stationed near the Katsura residence."

"Katsura..." Kenshin repeated, his voice sounding numb.  Sano leaned forward, concerned at the catch in his voice but the rurouni’s eyes were overtaken by the auburn fringes of bang, his head bent.

"Himura-san, the next target will be the son of Katsura Kogoro-sama."

"NANI!?"

Kenshin was on his feet, sheathed sakabatou clutched in his left hand.  His eyes glittered and it was a feral, furious expression and Sano had a brief heartfelt instant of hatred for Muraki.  Somehow the man was pushing Kenshin’s buttons, whether deliberately or not – and Sano was sitting on the sidelines wishing he knew the story behind half of what they were saying.

Katsura Kogoro – that was a name he knew, only by repute, of course.  One of the three great Ishin Shishi, one of the three Restoration Royalists responsible for the Meiji Era.  Sano’s hands clenched.  But how did Kenshin know him?  No way...from back when he was Hitokiri?  He’d been that high up?

"I won’t let it happen," Kenshin uttered, low and controlled but rippling with undercurrents of rough anger.  "Iku zo."  He slid his sword onto his obi in a smooth crisp movement.

Sano stared at him.  He stared at Muraki.  Then back to Kenshin.  Then Muraki again, searching for any kind of clue.  He ground his teeth in frustration. "Aaargh!"

"Let’s go," Kenshin repeated, eyes narrow and hard.  He nearly shouldered past Sano on his way out the door.  Sanosuke glanced after him, bewildered.

Sanosuke sat back, folded his arms, and sulked.  Keeping secrets.  Both of them.  What was it, did they not think he was man enough, or something?  Silently the spiky-haired brawler plotted vengeance.

"Man...will *someone* tell me what’s going on!?"

***

*Katsura-san......Katsura-san...*

Kenshin’s thoughts were beating a frantic path through his brain.  Shochou-san had said the man was targeting former Ishin Shishi, and now Katsura Kogoro-dono’s household was targeted....it could not be a coincidence.

He remembered what Hiko had told him.  *A sword is a weapon meant for killing.  It is intended for a killing technique.  Anything else is merely a false pleasantry.*

But Kenshin sought to find a balance between the ultimate killing techniques he had learned, and the ‘false pleasantry’ of a sword that protected.  In the process he had wondered, many times, what Hiko would have thought of it.  A watered-down version of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu.

There were also the words Hiko had spoken on the day of their bitter parting.  *Mitsurugi Ryuu is an absolute technique.  Whichever side you pick, will win – and our style is intended to take no sides.*

The need to fight had burned fiercely in him, unable to remain motionless while people were suffering, and dying.  Even on Hiko’s peaceful mountain the word of war had reached.  So Kenshin had descended the mountain...and Katsura Kogoro had found him.  Katsura-san’s words had painted a world where they could right the inequalities and bring about a new era with the heavenly power of their justice.

When he had given up being Hitokiri with his vow, Katsura-san had confessed something to him that had troubled him many times.  *I ruined your life; I made you the boy-killer – and kept my own hands unstained.  I knew that I was ruining your life, and I continued to do it.*  And he had wondered what Hiko would have thought of *that.*

*But still....still, Himura-kun...I hope you can find happiness.*

***

Kaoru blew wisps of black hair out of her eyes and stamped her foot in irritation.  A sweetly-pleading nature could only get you so far – and she had missed Kenshin, *again!*  By a thin margin, it seemed – Kenshin and the chief and Sanosuke had been there only this morning and had left by carriage.  It was afternoon already.

She shifted on her feet – a little sore from walking all this way in her sandals, although they should be tougher from this from her constant exercise.  She stared at the slip of paper in her hand.  Kenshin had gone to the Katsura residence.

Ishin Shishi...  She brushed a long strand of dark hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear.  She could sense Kenshin’s past was closer than ever to the surface, but didn’t quite know why.  This was big, even higher up than she had suspected.  It made her hesitate and wonder if she should pursue this, or just return home.

Kenshin’s face clutched at her heart, the sweet smile that captivated her senses, his blue-violet eyes focused only on her.  A faint flush rose up in her cheeks but it was worry that filled her the most strongly – the same tearing sensation that had motivated her during the Jin’ei incident.

Back then, Kenshin had gone off to take care of Kurogasa by himself.  And he would have left afterwards, becoming rurouni again, to protect Kamiya Dojo – and her.  Then, she was positive only her efforts had kept him from turning rurouni – or worse, Hitokiri.

Kenshin needed her.  She was fiercely certain of this.  Sano didn’t possess the same attachments; he would not be able to appeal to Kenshin’s feelings the way she could.  Kaoru had the terrible conviction that, like when Jin’ei had shown up, Kenshin would attempt to disappear forever if she could not find him now.

Sano couldn’t stop that.  He didn’t feel the same way she did.

Kaoru squared her shoulders and tucked the paper into the sleeve of her kimono.  Kogoro...  She would find the residence.  She would bring Kenshin home.

And whack him a good one for making her worry so!

***

With the advent of the Meiji Era, Katsura Kogoro had married his geisha of long standing, a graceful and accomplished woman named Ikumatsu.  Kenshin remembered glimpses of her slender, well-kept hands.  Katsura-san himself had died the previous year and Kenshin had paid his respects at the nearest temple, unable – unwilling – to attend the extensive services.

They were welcomed into the Katsura residence with the hush and quick-smothered haste of a household under attack.  Ikumatsu performed the welcome, her clasped hands hidden in the sleeves of her kimono, pale doll-porcelain face strained.  Even under stress her trained manners were flawless.  She did not flash her teeth when she spoke.

When they were ensconced in one of the inner rooms with Ikumatsu off preparing tea, Muraki-dono's voice broke the strain.

"There is nothing to do but wait," he said nervously, then held his breath as if he would speak further.

Kenshin's eyes flicked over to him, then back to his threadbare tabi.  He stared at the big toes.  The waiting was the worst part.  He knew how finely it could stretch in that moment of anticipation before the strike. It pulled at his nerve-endings and made his skin jangle; his scars ache. But he was not here to kill.

This was the waiting for the moment to protect.

It was a slowly-unfolding distinction within him -- a necessary one, when many other signals from his past were causing the slumbering Hitokiri to stir. Battousai's violent side had slept so long within him he'd thought it to be entirely gone, until the fight with Jin’ei brought it surging to the surface, almost too much to control.

He hated the fact that Sano was here.

He was intensely grateful Sano was here.

Kenshin didn't want anyone to see him as he had been.  In a dull counterpoint to that thought, the crossed scars on his cheek were aching. He did not want to face Hiko with these scars, if Hiko was who it was. But with Sano here, it helped him maintain a grip on normalcy.  It kept him anchored here-and-now, with the person he'd become.

The rapid tattoo of feet over floorboards broke him from his introspection.  Kenshin's hand startled to the hilt of his sword, legs drawing up beneath him, ready to strike.  He heard Sano tensing behind him, cloth shifting over tatami.  His senses tightened in an almost painful keenness.  Then he relaxed.  The footfalls were too light, too closely-spaced to be a man of Hiko's proportions.

With a *shuff* the screen was wrenched aside and a young boy of Yahiko's age stood there, mouth hung open as he gulped air, eyes wide as he scanned the room over and the men within.  He was about Yahiko's height, a little taller, his bones and body more slender but carrying the promise of height in his hands.  The boy's eyes seized on Kenshin's sheathed sword and he took a few quick hesitant steps into the room, expression mixed in eagerness and reluctance.

"You...you're the Battousai, aren't you?  You knew my father, didn't you? You knew him?"

After the first assessing glance, Kenshin's eyes had fallen back to the hands that clasped the sheath.  He let the fringes of bang overshadow his eyes.  "I...I’m..."  This could be none other than Katsura Kogoro’s child.  But he did not want to remember his own role in the Bakumatsu.  The awed, whispered almost-pleas of ‘Battousai-dono’ as he stepped up to fight, and kill.  "I’m..."

"Shin’ichi."

The liquid syllables startled him into looking up as a hand descended on the wide-eyed boy’s shoulder.

"Shin’ichi, that’s enough," the gentle reprimand came from Ikumatsu’s lips as she balanced a tray against her hip.  "Himura-dono has come here to protect us, not to be storyteller to a young boy."

"But, okaasan – " he protested, rocking his head back to look up at her.

Ikumatsu squeezed his shoulder and glided into the room.  "Here is some tea for refreshment."  She set it down with quick but graceful movements, then withdrew into a corner of the room, effacing herself.  "Honorable police chief, what arrangements do you think would be best for the safety of this boy?"  She clasped Shin’ichi’s shoulders in her hands again.

Muraki-dono cleared his throat.  "Stay here in this room with us.  Night is falling, and the...suspect..." he hesitated, glancing over at Kenshin, "...should be approaching soon.  He strikes when the light fades."

Ikumatsu gave him a nod and sank to her knees.  Kenshin could feel Shin’ichi’s curious eyes burning into him, taking him apart from the loose gathering of hair at his nape, distinctly not the warrior’s topknot, to the fraying purple tabi that clothed his feet.  He knew he didn’t much look like a swordsman.

"You don’t look like the Battousai," Shin’ichi blurted, "you look more like a vagabond!  Shochou, are you sure this is him?"

"Shin’ichi!" Ikumatsu shushed her son with a horrified gasp.

Sano was laughing, a rolling amused chuckle.  "You wouldn’t think much to look at him, would you?"

Kenshin sweatdropped.

Shin’ichi shook off his mother’s clinging hands.  "He can’t be the Battousai!" the boy declared definitively.

Sano scratched at his head.  "Yeah...he’s pretty short...and his clothes are thread-plucked and worn...and he’s a pretty scrawny guy..."

Kenshin’s sweatbead grew to a cluster. "Maa..." he lifted a hand, eyes scrunching shut.

"...and he looks like he could barely cut a twig, let alone defeat a few armed men..."

Kenshin vein-popped and fell over.  *Whose side are you on?*

"Un! Un!" Shin’ichi was nodding.

"But when he draws his sword, he could slice the wind, that’s how quickly he moves," Sano went on, flashing the boy a crooked grin.  "And he may not look impressive, but his strength is the greatest you’ll ever know."

Kenshin levered himself up, beginnings of a flush forming.  "Sano..."  He was embarrassed.

Shin’ichi’s face was still skeptical.  He opened his mouth and his mother clamped a hand over it, giving the men an abstracted gentle smile.

Kenshin wrenched his eyes away from the boy, and back to his hands.  This was a finely ironic moment of his life – he had come back here, to Katsura Kogoro’s residence, to protect.  And the master of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu – he, or an impostor – had come to wield a killing sword against the Meiji Era, he, the non-partisan swordmaster.

If it were Shishou, he knew he was woefully inadequate to raise a sword against him.  The best he could hope for was to place his own life between the man and the life of this young boy.

***

The sky was deepening into strips that matched the blue-violet of her favorite ribbon as Kaoru hurried up the street, growing increasingly annoyed.  She was not *lost.*  SANO got lost.  She had simply misplaced her exact location, for the moment.  And the last person she’d asked about the Katsura residence had been extremely vague.

A sudden flurry of movement caught her eye and Kaoru turned her head to capture it, the scene not registering for a moment as it imprinted itself on her mind.  The swirl of a heavy cape, flash of gleaming steel – blood dripping to the ground, and at seeing that Kaoru scrambled for the cover of the nearest building, deep blue eyes wide.  The swordsman turned, his strong blunt profile sharpened by the play of silver moonlight as he flicked blood off his sword with a practiced flick of his wrist.  Then he moved off, heavy cape swirling behind him, stalking into the shadows and passing through the now-open gates of a large, imposing home.

Kaoru’s breath was thready in her throat for a long moment.  Then she seized hold of herself, berating herself for freezing up, and hurried over to the fallen.

"Police..." she whispered numbly, looking up at the house.  This must be where Kenshin was.  And the danger was stalking through the shadows to confront him.

Who was that man...?  A nagging impression was skittering just below the surface of her thoughts.  His style – it had seemed familiar.  But she hadn’t caught more than a glimpse from the corner of her eye.

One policeman had fallen with a shocked expression, his whistle lifted to his lips.  He had died before even drawing the breath to blow a shrill warning blast.

Kenshin was in there.  The swordsman was approaching, and they had no warning.

Kaoru yanked the whistle from the dead man’s hands, sucked in a decisive breath, and began to blow.

***

Sano jerked to his feet with the first piercing blasts of the police whistle shrilling through the air, seeing Muraki start up a hairs’ breadth behind him, part of his mind noting that Kenshin was already on his feet, sword-hilt gripped in a battle-edgy readiness.

"Shochou-san, protect Ikumatsu-dono and her son," Kenshin snapped tersely, then he was pounding up the hallway, Sanosuke on his heels thinking it was a good thing Kenshin had called on the chief to protect the Katsuras, because otherwise he would’ve known the redhead really *didn’t* think that much of him.

They cleared the house and Kenshin halted on the wooden porch, stiff-shouldered, stopping so short that Sano jostled into him.  Kenshin’s breath hissed between his teeth.

Sanosuke stared past him into the moon-dappled yard, where a lone broad-shouldered figure stood amidst scattered fallen bodies, wooden-handled sword catching cold fire along the beveled line of the blade.  Fat dark drops shivered from its edge to spill in the dirt.  The man was big, his frame more bulky than Sano’s, and a little taller.  His white cloak stood out in the darkened yard and black-garbed bodies like a field of snow.  The face was fallen into shadow but the hair that spilled unconfined over the massive white-cloaked shoulders was wild and long and black with the flat color only the moon could bestow.

"Shishou."

Kenshin’s soft utterance was shocked, disbelieving.

"It’s him?" Sano prompted, checking the urge to reach out and touch Kenshin’s shoulder.  "It really is Hiko?"  Was this man Kenshin’s master?  But he had just killed – brutally, unmercifully – to get to one small boy.

Flicked free of blood, the katana was raised, gleaming, as the big man assumed a stance of readiness.  "If you stand in my way, you, too, will be killed."  His tones rolled over them, deep and assured.

Kenshin clicked a thumb’s length of his sakabatou free and his eyes were glittering and sharp.

Sano began to back up as Kenshin assumed his battou jutsu stance.

***

With a heavy sense of inevitability, Kenshin’s hand fell to the hilt of his sakabatou; traced its shape lightly, held itself in readiness.  The proof was plainly before his eyes.  The hair – no longer tied back, but streaming around his shoulders – the smooth movements of his sword technique, the broad-shouldered, powerful frame, and the voice...  The voice that had spoken those words.

*A sword is a deadly weapon.  No matter what pleasantries you use to disguise it, that’s the truth.*

The massive white cloak of the successor of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu billowed about his shoulders.

"Shishou...why?" the whisper escaped his lips, even as he fell into a battou jutsu stance, preparing to meet the oncoming charge.  From his stance he was going to launch a lightning-fast frontal attack, and anything less than his swiftest technique – or an equal, opposing force – would get him killed.

No answer was forthcoming.  On seeing the stance he had assumed, the white cloak flashed and the man was springing forward, striking faster than coiled lightning.  And then he leapt into the air.

"Kenshin!" Sano’s voice rang a warning over the yard as his hand hesitated over the hilt.  This man...the way he moved...

"Ryuu Tsui Sen," the deep voice thundered.  In the backsplash of moonlight, his face was still shadowed.

Kenshin stared up at the soaring figure, the voice sinking into his senses, the fluttering cloak, the wild hair – his voice.  His technique.

Chigau.

His eyes slitted.  "Ryuu Sho Sen!" he yelled, launching the Rising Dragon Strike, meeting force with an equal, opposing force, putting his true strength behind it.

They fell to the earth and sprang back, breathing faster.  Dark hair was tossed away from the strong-featured face and they had fallen into opposing stances again, positions reversed – the moonlight fell squarely onto his opponent’s face.

"You are not Hiko Seijuurou," Kenshin grated, blade at the ready.  Relief was quicksilver in his veins.

He looked chillingly similar.  He wore a cloak identical to his master’s.  His voice was a very close, deep timbre – but this was *not* his master.

"I am Hiko Seijuurou the Fourteenth," the man proclaimed arrogantly, lifting his chin.  His gestures, the nuances of his voice, proclaimed the differences.  His style was smooth, controlled – but unrefined.  Unfinished.

Kenshin gripped his sword in white knuckles.  "There IS no Hiko Seijuurou the Fourteenth," he contradicted flatly, but still felt chilled.  "The succession technique was not passed on."  For a moment, he thought – no.  No.  This man was not young enough to be trained in the span of years since Kenshin had left.

The man’s lip curled.  "I AM Hiko Seijuurou," he reiterated in ringing tones, "and I will kill anything that stands in the way of my revenge."

Kenshin looked him full in the face.  "I am here to protect the boy."

"Then I will kill you.  You stand in the way of my revenge against Katsura’s line."

Kenshin just stared at him, his face grown still and cold.  The long scar on his cheek throbbed dully.  He had killed for that man, hands stained with blood again and again to allow Katsura-san’s to remain pure.  Now Katsura-san’s son was behind him, in the house, and this was his chance.  For Katsura-san, he would use his sword to protect.

"Then die!" the man roared, swiveling his katana with a flick of the wrist intended to build momentum for a killing strike, as he closed the gap between them.

With a scream of steel Kenshin’s own blade met the overhand swing and he diverted the strike to the side, ducking under and past his opponent’s arm, pivoting with the famed godspeed as he brought his sword to bear.  Violet eyes jumped briefly wide as his strike was met and smashed back.  Kenshin staggered and gave a few steps’ ground, grip going numb.  The man was strong.  His eyes narrowed.

Not strong enough.

"Who taught you?" Kenshin demanded, circling, both of them wary with eyes ranging continually over the telling points – eyes, hands, the slightest twitch of a leg.  "Where did you learn Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu?"

"Hiko Seijuurou the 13th, of course," the man’s eyes were grim, his face carved of marble in the watchful moon’s gaze.  "Where did you learn yours?  Your bastardized style, using a toy sword like that."

Kenshin raised the glittering line of blade, its reversed edge catching the moonglow and concentrating it.  "It’s enough to stand between you and that child," he replied coldly.

"Ch’," the man spat, lifting his sword, swinging it in a quick, dangerous arc before sheathing it.  The cloak fluttered about his shoulders as he fell into the quick-draw stance.

Kenshin gave a taut, small nod.  *So that’s how it will be.*

He lifted his own saya, eyes burning across the yard into the dark unfathomable ones of this stranger as he slid the sakabatou home.  He could hear his own calm, measured breaths; could even hear the slightly harsher ones of his opponent.  Then he moved, body sliding easily into the well-remembered stance with a flirt of cloth and night-drenched hair, eyes fixed on the impostor throughout.

"Kenshin."

The whisper barely reached his ears and he did not look, knowing Sano’s gaze was riveted on the battle.  With the battou jutsu it had escalated somewhat in terms of seriousness – Kenshin, having been serious from the start, and his opponent, finally deciding to become so. Sano must know that.  Just as Kenshin knew that Sano’s support was entirely behind him.  The outcome would depend on the technique that leapt from his sheath the instant he began to move.  This impostor...would he choose the Ryuu Kan Sen?  Or would he go for a double battou jutsu?  Kenshin’s life – iya, Shin’ichi’s life depended on what technique he himself chose and yet...to counter, he first had to know what his opponent would choose.  But the man’s eyes were as dark as if the night were moonless.

A tattered fragment of cloud began to break up the silvered ground.  In the corner of the yard, something flickered.  A shadow.

The man’s eyes snapped wide, a roar bursting from his throat.

A thumb’s length clicked free.

*That’s it!*  Kenshin’s eyes slitted and he sprang forward, air tugging fitfully at his clothes with the absolute speed of his passage.

"Ryuu Kan Sen!" the impostor boomed out, his sword inscribing a glittering, deadly arc as it was wrenched from the sheath.

"Ryuu Kan Sen, Tsumuji!" Kenshin yelled, beginning to spin in the first spiral that would bring him parallel and dip him under his opponent’s sword, positioning him perfectly for a devastating blow to the throat.

"KENSHIIII~IN!"

The scream ripped through the yard, breaking up the scattered wisps of cloud that had ventured to cross the moon, throwing everything into a sharp, deadly-keen sort of clarity.  Kenshin’s blood froze at the sound of that voice.  How...how could....

"Kenshin!" Kaoru-dono screamed again as the great bulk of the impostor launched himself, white cape spread out like crimson-lined wings.  Their swords clashed in a tortured shriek of metal and they both sprang away, their strikes halved by the brief instant they had both looked away.  Kenshin’s body thrummed, tightly controlled.  The other man was breathing a little more heavily.

How could she be here!?

"Kaoru-dono, get away from here."

"You," the man stared at her, features intent, then darted across the yard with a surprising feline quickness.

Kenshin yelled and sprang after him, sakabatou uplifted, intending to strike before his opponent reached Kaoru-dono.  For all his size the other man was faster, crossing the stretch of the yard and seizing Kaoru-dono in a crushing grip as the girl screamed and turned to run.  The edge of the man’s katana glittered uncompromisingly.

"Jou-chan!" Sano shouted, his voice filling the yard with anger and futility.  His strides pounded up until he stood near Kenshin, fists clenched, quivering with readiness to fight.

Kenshin came to a halt, eyes locked to the line of the blade that pricked Kaoru-dono’s throat.  "Don’t," he said, voice dreadful and quiet.

"Don’t what?"  The man’s eyes laughed at him over the pale strained face of Kaoru-dono’s fright, her mouth open in a soundless cry.  "Don’t hurt her?"  The sword eased in his grip and a line of night-dark blood crept down her throat.

Kenshin’s breath hitched in an abortive, useless plea.  He knew what kind of man this was and appeals wouldn’t do any good.  But if this man killed her, then he would fail to protect Kaoru-dono.  It could not happen.

"Is this your woman, Battousai?" the man taunted, watching Kenshin’s frozen face.  He laughed.  "Oh, yes...I know it must be you, Himura Battousai.  Pride of the Ishin Shishi.  Now reduced to nothing more than a rootless vagabond with a toy sword and childish ideas backed up by a pale imitation of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu."  His grip tightened on Kaoru-dono’s arm and she whimpered.

"You are the imitation here," Kenshin returned, sheathing his sword, voice vibrating with a barely-restrained anger.  "You call yourself Hiko Seijuurou?  Do you truly wield the sword of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu?  To kill a young boy, I suppose it requires the righteous katana of the Soaring Heavenly Honorable Blade style."

"What the hell do you know?" the man shouted, grabbing Kaoru-dono’s raven-dark hair in one fist, pulling her head back to expose the tender throat.  Kaoru-dono shrieked, her hands rising automatically to pry uselessly at the hand clasped around her hair, silver trails of tears spilling down her cheeks.  "You with your backward blade and your stupid vow not to kill, making a perfect technique into something gutless and weak.  If you wield a sword of flawed ideal, it too will break."

"You are no Hiko Seijuurou," Kenshin said flatly, but his eyes were watchful, hand poised.  Sano was tense beside him.  Each word that fell from his mouth could push this man over the edge.  Kaoru-dono could not be harmed; that much was absolute.  Even if he had to catch the blade in his two hands and turn it aside.  "You have killing technique without mastery.  A masterless sword is good for nothing."

The impostor’s eyes glittered.  "You think you know everything?  You had it easy!  Katsura’s little pet samurai boy.  There were people who had to make a living with their swords.  That’s a harsh reality."

"You don’t make a living by killing small children," Kenshin spat, "or cutting the throats of young girls."

The man twisted Kaoru-dono’s hair in his hand, lifting her to her toes.  Kaoru’s blue eyes went wide, welling with a fresh set of tears but she made no sound this time.  "It’s not a living.  It is my retribution."

"Against Katsura?" Sano yelled.  "The old man’s dead!  What’ve you got to win by killing his son?"

Kenshin’s eyes widened.  *Little pet samurai boy.....people had to make a living.*

"He turned you away, didn’t he?" Kenshin’s face was cold and uncompromising.  "You approached Katsura-san during the Bakumatsu, and he refused your sword."  This man was obviously insane.  His sword, however he had learned the style of Hiten Mitsurugi, did not follow its principles.  Katsura-san would never have been able to trust such a man whose style was at odds with the words from his mouth.

"Shut up!"  The big fist tightened around the wooden handle of the katana.  The other hand slackened and Kaoru-dono dropped off her toes, eyes still wide and scared.  A thumb’s length stretched between its razor’s edge and the pale skin of Kaoru-dono’s throat.  Kenshin’s muscles went tight with the readiness to spring and seize that blade.  It didn’t matter if he lost his hands.  If Kaoru-dono lost her life, something more vital to this era than his own soiled hands would be taken.

"Kyaa!!"

Kenshin and Sanosuke startled, but stood fixed in place as one elbow snapped back quick and hard into the impostor’s gut, then two seemingly slender hands reached up and seized the large fist that gripped the black ponytail, which had loosened as all the air was driven from the man’s lungs.  They watched in a timeless sort of frozen moment as Kaoru-dono used that leverage and tossed the man, putting her entire weight behind it, throwing him flat on his back in the yard.  He had managed to keep a grip on his katana and Kenshin’s sword leapt from its sheath, pointing squarely at the man’s throat as Sano stepped on his wrist, grinding bone beneath his heel.

"Impossible..." he rasped, his eyes still flat, cold....empty.  "You...a whelp, with a reversed sword...with your flawed ideal..."

"Oi, Kenshin," Sano eyed him.

"Oro?"

"If you’re a whelp....what does that make me?"

"A bad-tempered, ill-mannered brawler with a bar tab that reaches three digits, who swills sake and sponges off his friends," Kaoru-dono volunteered.  She was petting her ponytail with anxious hands, moaning at the few black threads that came away at her fingertips.  "Oh, my hair...my beautiful, glossy black hair..."

"Hey!" Sano protested, taking out some of his frustration on the wrist of the impostor as he ground his heel, clenching a fist at Kaoru.  "You don’t have to be so honest!"

Kaoru-dono sweatdropped.

Kenshin stared into the obsidian eyes of the fallen man.  There was the hint of a smirk there, as if there was a secret that he did not know, as if the madness that dwelled within was something that knew him, but gave out no answers.

*If you wield a sword of flawed ideal, it too will break.*

"Kenshin, let’s go," Kaoru-dono was tugging at his arm.  "Let’s get him to Shochou-san!  We won!"  Her face was flushed and happy.

Had they?  The man was no Hiko Seijuurou.  But here, this night, which of them had truly wielded the sword of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu?

Ten years of searching and still his fingers groped for answers that the hilt of a sakabatou could not provide.  *"Flawed ideal."*  He glanced at Kaoru’s moon-bright face.  If it was to protect, that was a flaw he was willing to live with.

***

Muraki laid his gloved hands flat on the table, inclining his upper body slightly.  "We tender our greatest appreciation for the help you have given us on this case," the man thanked them, bowing.  "The man could not have been overcome without your intervention."

"Does your appreciation jingle?" Sano muttered.

Kaoru elbowed him in the ribs.  "Be quiet," she hissed.

Kenshin was quiet for a moment, vivid eyes fixed on the floor.  "It was not enough to prevent the loss of your men’s lives," he said finally.  "I apologize for that."

"He struck quickly," Muraki said.  "They knew their duties and died fulfilling them.  Ikumatsu-dono has taken the responsibility of providing for their families."

"What about that fake Hiko?" Sano prompted, twitching the twig that jutted from the corner of his mouth.

"We still do not know his true identity," Muraki replied, "But Ikumatsu-dono recognized him.  Himura-san’s guess was correct.  He had approached Katsura-sama sometime during the Bakumatsu offering his sword for sale.  When Katsura-sama refused, the man became violent, claiming he was Hiko Seijuurou the 14th and that he would remember such an affront to his mastery.  Ikumatsu-dono remembers that Katsura-sama had recalled him as a former pupil of the true Hiko, for a very brief period of time.  He was discharged under questionable circumstances."

Kenshin’s brow furrowed.  "I see," was the only reply.  His eyes were distant and thin.

Sano and Kaoru were watching the red-headed rurouni intently.  When Kenshin looked to either side of him, violet eyes wide and inquiring, they hastily fixed their attentions elsewhere.  "Hmm?"  Kenshin’s face slipped into its pleasant scrunched-eye smile.

"Kenshin," Kaoru tugged at his sleeve, "it’s over.  Let’s go home now."

"Hai, Kaoru-dono."

Sano tucked his hands deep into his pockets as they all stood.  He gnawed thoughtfully on the twig as he watched Kenshin’s expression return to sober introspection.  It wasn’t over yet, not in the conflicted depths of Kenshin’s heart.  But for Jou-chan he would smile.  Sano contented himself with that.  For *him,* Kenshin would allow himself to be serious.

***

"Kenshin....oo~oi, Kenshin..."

The red-headed swordsman mumbled something and rolled over, light sheet twisting at the waist.  One drowsy-laden eye popped open.  "Go away, Sano.  You’re not supposed to be here."

"Kenshiii~in..."  This time it was a high-pitched falsetto aimed at him in deliberate mimicry, quiet but piercing nonetheless.

Kenshin shuddered and both eyes popped open.  "I am hearing voices.  I am sleeping.  Sano is a particularly insistent voice but it is just a dream and I know if I roll over mmph—"  The rest of his logic was sealed into his mouth as Sano covered it, one hand stripping the sheet away, sliding close to the warm body.  After a long moment when Kenshin had begun to respond, tentatively, he pulled away and traced the bottom line of the rurouni’s lip.

"Sano..."  Kenshin’s voice was packed with frustration and hints of longing.  "I have told you-"

"—not here at the dojo," Sano finished for him, reaching with gentle fingers to braille over Kenshin’s face and push aside stray wisps of red hair.  He rubbed his thumb along the long scar that followed the line of his jaw.  "I know.  I’ll leave."

"You will?"  The words popped out of his mouth in a quiet huff, unexpectedly hanging forlorn.

Sanosuke smirked and eased a hand over his hip, rubbing languid circles.  "Unless you wanna come home with me?"

Kenshin’s eyes half-closed.  "Why did you come?"

"It’s so hard to distract you," Sano sighed, hand stilling.  "I guess...I came to ask why."

"Why what?"  In the dark he could barely see the rurouni’s eyes and their solemn gaze, let alone his expression.  It made things easier to say, but at the same time he felt even more cut off from Kenshin.

"I mean, you don’t need me.  God knows why you even *want* me.  You do just fine by yourself, and someday...well, someday Jou-chan..."  Sanosuke fumbled to a halt.  "So I wanted to know why.  I know someday you’re not gonna be saying ‘not here,’ you’re gonna be saying ‘not anymore.’  And I wondered why me.  Why this, at all."

Kenshin was quiet.

"Kenshin?"  He couldn’t see the other man’s expression and in the dark, even touching, even with breath stirring over flesh, it was so easy to feel alone.

A hand touched his face.  Sano let the breath ease out he didn’t know he’d held, and turned his lips into the palm.

"I have never made love to any man before you, Sanosuke," Kenshin’s words finally pierced the darkness.  "You took me by surprise.  I never thought I would, but I think....I do think that you are something I need."

*Why?  For how long?*  The questions were pitiful, so he didn’t grace them with breath.

"You predict that someday I’ll say ‘not anymore,’ " Kenshin repeated his words slowly.  "Someday isn’t here yet, Sano.  It is hard for the true heart to reveal its feelings."  His breath caught as if he would say more, but they simply lay in the darkness.  Sano thought about it.

Kenshin hadn’t said just *his* true heart.  It was his own heart, too.  They had fallen into this so quickly Sano had barely analyzed his feelings, just acted out his impulse as he always had.  Kenshin was right.  The heart’s unsettled intentions were difficult to unravel – whether it was Kenshin’s, or his own – but the redhead was granting him...iya, *them*...the time to figure it out.  *Someday isn’t here yet.*

"Kenshin.  Can I stay tonight?"  His question barely rose above breath.  He slipped his arm higher, around Kenshin’s waist.  "Just for this.  I’ll leave before Jou-chan wakes up."  He turned his face away, looking at the ceiling, knowing the answer would be no.

"Just for tonight," came the mumbled reply.

Sanosuke turned his face back, burying it in loose silken hair and smiling.  It faded soon.  *Just for tonight.*  Once their hearts had been laid bare to all intentions, there might be nothing left, he was sure, to Kenshin beyond the desire to protect.  Tonight Kenshin was his.  But in his heart Sagara Sanosuke knew that what they’d kindled had nothing to do with forever, or promises.  He pulled Kenshin close, ignoring drowsy protests, arm possessive.  Shared warmth was better than none.

~owari~

Glossary of Terms:
~~~
Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu – Soaring Heavenly Honorable Blade Style.
Ohayo – good morning
"dono" – a prefix denoting respect (back in the Meiji era – it’s no longer used today)
Jou-chan – "Missy"
yare, yare – well, well or all right, all right
iya – no, nope.
Mou – geez
gomen kudasai – please excuse (this intrusion)
nani – what
hakama – what Kenshin wears
rurouni – see previous fic
doko wa – where are/is
Hontou – really
oro – Nobihara’s made-up word.  ‘Ara’ is a word used by girls, an exclamation of surprise or shock. Nobihara transformed the vowels to make a masculine form.
Onigiri – rice balls/wedges (depending on how you shape ’em)
shinai – wooden practice sword
’neesan – familiar form of ‘oneesama’ which means sister
’baasan – grandma
chotto – a little, (as it’s used) just a minute
betsuni – nothing
baka – e.g. Kaoru no baka
okama – gay, homosexual
Ken-nii – Ken-brother
okaeri – welcome back
hissashiburi – it’s been awhile
gomen – sorry
de gozaru – out-of-style suffix for sentences generally denoting samurai class
Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu – Soul-Devoting Style
dare da – who’s there; who’s that?
kudasai – if you will, if you please
naruhodo – I see
hyuu – expression of annoyance
maa, maa – calm down
konban wa – good evening
onegai – please
sakabatou – reverse-blade
sou (de gozaru) – That’s true; that’s so.
matte (matte – chotto) – wait, wait a bit
sou ka – I see; is that so
shochou-san – (police) chief, polite address
Arigatou gozeimashita – thank you very very much
douzo – if you will
tatami – the mats used in homes and dojo
shishou -- master

~~~