Amber Forest

Chapter 10- Revelation

The sacrifice that I made

That brought me to my knees

The choice that cost me everything

And set somebody else free

-Conjure One, Extraordinary Way

A large tan paw nudged the dark fox kit and she awoke slowly. She blinked large brown eyes and couldn’t stop a tiny yawn from splitting her cinnamon-colored muzzle.

“Come on, kid.” The young fox blinked again, looking up at Shikijou. It was a long way up, which hadn’t bothered her for a while but… the Rhodesian Ridgeback’s golden-tan face was grave, and he hadn’t teased her about whatever strange shapes her fur pressed itself into while she slept. The scarred dog always teased her about her bedhead, just like Miss Megumi had… until the day she hadn’t, and everything changed.

The black fox had been brave to run, Tsubame reminded herself, trying to find some of that courage now and force it into trembling limbs.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” she didn’t really need a response, now that she was awake she could see Hyottoko glowering at the ground, flexing large paws as if he wanted to crush something. Beshimi lay nearby, glaring around the pine grove indiscriminately with one leg stretched out behind him at an awkward angle.

Well, he was almost glaring indiscriminately—his yellow eyes caught her brown ones for a second and he tore them away to avoid her gaze.

“Megumi didn’t come back last night,” Shikijou told her, looking as alien as he had the first time the kit had seen him, striped by dark scar-tissue. “We told you what would happen.”

The fox nodded, a patterned brown head sliding through the spots of pale autumn sunlight that made it into the pine grove. “I know.” Her voice was small, but she managed to get black paws underneath her and stand. There was nothing else to do; she would never get away on her own.

“Thank you for everything.” Especially for the stories. Tsubame fervently wished that the brave puppy that ran amok through them was here with her. It might make her less scared.

Her guardian looked at her, almost said something but changed his mind at the last minute. Instead he sighed, heavily muscled frame quivering with the movement under short fur.

“Come on.” Grimly, he began leading the brown patchwork-colored fox through the grove.

Shikijou,” a cool voice interrupted their barely-begun progress, the lion-dog stopped and turned his head. Aoshi materialized from the perpetual gloom, icy green eyes the first thing to appear. Hannya was a horrific shadow to the leader’s right. Tsubame crouched a little closer to Shikijou, unable to tear her eyes from the ruined face of the emaciated spy. Wolves weren’t supposed to look like that. His skeletal frame was covered in lusterless black fur that hung limply on his bony features. Queer stripes made from vegetable dyes marched up the odd wolf’s legs, patterns of color that broke up the spy’s thin shape and made him harder to pinpoint. And that face… devoid of fur, an expanse of leathery skin that was frozen into a perpetual snarl and eyes that appeared to be two different sizes because of how the face had frozen.

The fox kit shut her eyes hard and made herself look back up to Shikijou, who was looking to Aoshi.

“Leader?” the burly dog sounded ever-so-slightly puzzled. Aoshi glanced down at the fox for half a second before his cool eyes held his underling’s gaze once more.

“Stay here with Hyottoko and Beshimi. Hannya and I will take the fox.”

Tsubame’s dark ears pressed gently against her skull and she fought the urge to gulp. If it’s going to be scary, I guess it’s going to be all scary. She dared a quick glance at Hannya’s pale eyes before fixing her gaze on the earth between her paws.

Shikijou frowned, scars turning his face into a mass of alien lines, but he didn’t argue. With a respectful nod to his leader, the dog turned and walked back to where Hyottoko and Beshimi licked their wounds.

The small kit shivered, feeling the icy weight of the leader’s eyes slide over her briefly.


It was difficult to get her quivering legs to do as they were told, but she was just slightly more afraid of what would happen to her if she did not go, as what would happen to her if she did.

The two wolves took up positions on each side and led her from the comparative safety of the pine grove into a forest penetrated by the sun and patrolled by Kanryuu’s dogs.

Tsubame started shaking—she couldn’t help it. Canine eyes fixed on her and she quailed, expecting at any moment for the hounds to resume what seemed to be their favorite pastime—tormenting someone smaller and weaker than themselves. But the dogs who got a glimpse of her seemed to be forced to look at the dark wolves escorting her, and shrank back. Dogs of various colors and breeds parted before the odd trio, providing a straight path to the natural ridge that was Kanryuu’s preferred haunt.

Today the leader of the pack sat calmly surveying the sparsely-wooded land that fell away to the rear of his camp. Tsubame supposed that Kanryuu liked open spaces (which she really, really didn’t like) because he was a greyhound. The young fox had often heard Miss Megumi bitterly state that the only reason Kanryuu wasn’t dead was that he was fast.

He didn’t look particularly fast, just strange. He had a long nose and neck that flowed into each other seamlessly around a skull that barely curved, a thin whippy tail and equally thin legs. The brown saddle markings and white underbelly and legs could have belonged on any of the mutts working for him, but in everything but color he was like no other dog Tsubame had seen; in some ways he reminded her more of a deer.

But no deer had teeth like that.

Aoshi and Hannya led her up the rise and the young fox was able to catch sight of what held Kanryuu’s interest. Two dogs picked their way across the sparsely-wooded field, one almost as thin as Kanryuu, the other big and slow.

They clearly did not want to be out in that semi-open space, but a line of dogs kept them from running back to the camp. The thin one took another step and a loud crack pierced the air followed by an anguished cry. A steel trap, concealed in the fall leaves on the forest’s floor had closed on the dog’s leg.

The larger dog panicked and abandoned his shrieking comrade, bolting away from the camp. Another snap, another yelp and Tsubame squeezed her eyes shut to block out the sight of the two figures struggling like moths in a spider’s web.

“Ah, Okashira,” Kanryuu’s voice was pleasant, a smile hovering around his thin muzzle as he observed the trapped dogs. Gingerly, the fox kit opened her eyes again, trying to focus on the greyhound rather than the two trapped dogs. “Since your small group has been busy, I’ve had to resort to other methods of punishing failure.” He observed the spectacle, twin brown patches under his eyes almost looking like the eyeglasses humans sometimes wore. “It’s not as neat of course, but the humans just left their toys lying around, and I do believe in using all my resources.”

He had yet to turn and face them, but Tsubame got the feeling that he was paying very close attention to the trio’s every movement.

“You’re welcome to use the field yourself, Okashira. It is so liberating to cut away the deadweight.”

Hannya stirred briefly, but stilled at Aoshi’s lack of reaction.

“Discipline within the Oniwabanshuu will be handled within the Oniwabanshuu, as it always has been.” The words were calm, Tsubame didn’t know how he could be that calm with the injured dogs’ cries rising in the morning air. The sound made her feel ill.

“Suit yourself,” Kanryuu shrugged his thin shoulders as those of his pack who had herded the two unfortunates slowly trickled back into the camp.

“We have recaptured the fox kit.”

The greyhound finally turned to look at them, his gaze skipping over Tsubame entirely to rest on Aoshi. “Really. Three days of chasing these two vixens and you manage to catch the child.” Cruel brown eyes looked down at Tsubame finally, and she wished they hadn’t.

“Without Megumi this one is worthless. Megumi is the one who—”

“We know the location of Megumi Takani,” Aoshi cut him off placidly. Kanryuu’s urbane face twisted into a snarl,

“Then go and drag the little witch back here. Let her spend her time doctoring herself. And get rid of that thing,” Tsubame’s heart rate tripled as terror roared through her, “she’s useless.”

“No, she isn’t.”

Kanryuu stared, furious, and Tsubame couldn’t help but look up at the dark wolf too. He was defending her?

“No? No? Who do you think you are, Aoshi Shinomori? The Oniwabanshuu answer to me now. For all the good you are. Three days to catch a puppy, leaving critical weaknesses exposed…”

Hannya shifted on striped legs, the frozen leathery skin of his face making his expression unreadable, but it was an easy guess for the fox kit that it would not be a friendly one.

Aoshi interrupted Kanryuu again, this time his words seeming clipped and tense. “The fox kit is useful in the same capacity as before, as leverage on Megumi Takani.”

Kanryuu snorted down his long nose, voice dripping with feigned patience. “Except that dear Doctor Megumi isn’t here to be coerced by threat of force.”

“But we know where she is,” Aoshi raised a brow fractionally, “a message to remind her of her position would be easy to arrange for the Oniwabanshuu.”

Kanryuu remained skeptical, “The kid is no relation to Takani, why should our lovely lady care now that she’s escaped?”

“Good doctors create an emotional bond with their patients, and she is a female.” Aoshi replied levelly, “Females are more susceptible to emotional extortion, particularly when a child is involved.”

Kanryuu grinned slyly, “But females are hardly alone in that, right, Okashira?”

Aoshi didn’t answer, green eyes blazing in his dark face as he glared at the thin brown and white dog.

“Very well,” Kanryuu turned his head to observe the trapped dogs again. “Go send your message and bring our wandering fox home.”

“It would be wise to wait a few days,” Aoshi corrected, face and voice back to glacial perfection without a hint of a crack. “The pack she has sheltered with is not unskilled, it would be advantageous to allow them to think that we have given up on Takani before making any moves.”

Kanryuu glared back at his subordinate, “I don’t like all of these delays, Aoshi. Megumi needs to be back here within the week.”

“Of course.”

The greyhound smiled thinly, “I’m glad you understand. I look forward to seeing the skills of the vaunted Oniwabanshuu.”

“Stop being such an overbearing hag. I’m fine!”

“Yahiko, you were poisoned and you’re not moving from that spot!” Kaoru glared at the recuperating dog, but despite the akita-mix’s sullen brown eyes and frustrated scowl, he made no move to get up.

Megumi had ordered the bewildered pack to drag their youngest member into the den and then firmly told the groggy puppy not to move. But as the days passed and Yahiko’s strength had returned, so had his sour attitude, and while Kaoru was glad to see him doing better, she wished that he was a quieter patient.

“So, what, I have to stay down in this cramped little hole for the rest of my life?” the puppy complained.

Sano opened one eye from his midday nap to take in the other two inhabitants of the den. Megumi had left earlier to look for some plants and Kenshin had waited a few moments before quietly following suit. And Kaoru was trying really hard not to think about that.

“Kid’s got a point,” Sano mentioned lazily, “I’m all for keeping things cozy, but if I wake up one more night getting kicked in the ribs… there’s a perfectly good sofa in the junkyard with my name on it.”

Kaoru glared at Sano, but there wasn’t much she could say to defend her lifelong home. The den had always seemed overly large to her, at least until Kenshin and the others had shown up. But with the addition of one more adult to the enclosed space…. She was fantasizing about summer nights under the stars too.

“Exactly!” Yahiko pounced on Sano’s agreement, stirring slightly, “If I stay here one more day I’ll—”

“If you move one more whisker, I’ll tell Megumi,” Kaoru threatened quickly, “see what she has to say about your behavior.” The tanuki tried not to get annoyed at how quickly Yahiko settled back down. In the three days since the Oniwaban’s attack the puppy had slowly developed a sort of hero-worship for the pretty doctor that had saved his life and he didn’t want to disappoint her. Kaoru was quite sure that was the only thing that had kept his movement to minimum this far.

“Speaking of the fox, did she say what she was going out for?” Sano opened his other eye, brow furrowing in a pensive frown as he glanced toward the entrance.

“She wanted to look for some plant that fights infection… I forget the name.”

“Yarrow,” Yahiko interjected helpfully, eager to show off his knowledge acquired from time spent with Megumi.

Kaoru resisted the urge to roll her eyes—but just barely. “Thank you, Yahiko.” The female glanced at the exit and sighed, voice dropping to a disgruntled mutter, “I know that it’s important to keep an eye on her in case Kanryuu’s goons come back, but did it have to be Kenshin going with her alone?”

Sano raised his brows, tone one of mock disbelief, “Why, Missy, what a suspicious mind you have. I’m sure Kenshin will be,” Sano paused, a malicious brotherly grin revealing his canines, as if he were contemplating the sleek black female alone in the woods with the Rurouni, “pretty good. Probably.”

It took a great deal of effort for Kaoru to remind herself that attacking Sano in the den would almost certainly incite Yahiko to get up.

A. Great. Deal.

Megumi circled the base of an ancient oak tree, gently pushing through thin young plants that grew among the gnarled roots. In a way, she supposed, she was… jealous of the tree.

It was unthinkable that any force could move it from its home. Whereas she had been torn up by the roots and tossed to the wind. The fox let out a shuddering sigh, watched as the dying and drying leaves trembled with her breath. She should go, soon.

That it wasn’t safe in Kamiya’s territory was obvious, and she knew Kanryuu couldn’t threaten what he couldn’t catch, after all. But… they had needed her, needed what she knew so that another young life could cheat death, could go on with the messy business of living.

And… it was nice to be needed for something so simple again. She had always liked working with kits. At least they didn’t have the guile necessary to get away with deception.

So she had stayed, then. But now? Yahiko was completely recovered, as any of the odd pack would have known if they hadn’t let the threat of “poison” jar their minds. There was no reason for her to stay any longer. And a very good reason to go. But still… she breathed in, absently cataloging the plants around her and their uses.

“It was… nice, staying with you.” She whispered wistfully, already beginning to miss snappish banter, placating smiles and lazy watchfulness.

“It is not safe for you to be out alone Miss Megumi, that it is not.”

The black fox jumped, her perfectly-groomed fur standing on end fluffing her tail to twice its normal size. She spun around to stare at Kenshin, pulse hammering in her throat as her heart protested the surge of adrenaline. The red wolf stood calmly, not six paces away, head cocked slightly to one side, a concerned sort of smile hovering around his muzzle. As if he hadn’t just appeared like a ghost when she could have sworn she’d been alone.

How does he do that? Megumi knew she had been paying attention to her surroundings, so how had he gotten so close? When had he gotten so close?

“It’s not safe for you with me here,” she finally managed. “Kanryuu will keep coming after me, but he can’t come after me if I’m not here.”

Kenshin raised his brows in politely surprised disbelief. “If Kanryuu found you once Miss Megumi, he will find you again. One with the gifts of the Takani family is not easily hidden.”

Breath fled from her body, collapsing her lungs, “How did you…?”

This time the look was mildly reproving, “You gave us your name yourself, Miss Megumi. This one did not always live so far south. It only took Sanosuke reminding one of a famous family of foxes… and you yourself did the rest, Miss Megumi.”

“It was so long ago… I didn’t think anyone still remembered.” Megumi let her gaze slide away from Sir Ken’s face, unwilling to see the pity she knew would be coming. Because everyone always pitied her for her loss. For the family of healer-foxes who had trained their noses to track down herbs and taught their kits how to use those herbs to heal.

But that was everyone else’s grief, strangers, mourning the loss of a force of good in a world of danger and the last chance of the dying. Those that pitied her for “her” loss never saw Mother, russet-red against spring greens, teaching her children rhymes about growing things. Never saw father staring down wolves twice his size to demand that no fighting be brought to his den. Those that pitied her had never played firefly-tag with her brothers or gone grasshopper-leaping in the tall grass.

Sometimes she didn’t even feel like she had done those things. Those memories were so clean, and so, so old.

“Many still remember,” Kenshin said gently into the silence, “Your family was a beacon of hope in dark times.”

“They were fools,” pain made her voice bitter, but she couldn’t soften it, not with the memory of broken bodies strewn among ravaged plants. “Trying to save everyone, believing everyone was worth saving…” the vixen shook her head. But they taught me a lesson. I know when someone’s too far gone.”

“Someone like Kanryuu?”

A hopeless laugh pulled from a throat that was too tight, “He doesn’t want me. He wants some mythical Takani healer to come in and cure the impossible with a wave of her paw.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “It doesn’t matter that I never wanted to, it doesn’t matter that it would break my parent’s hearts.”

“This one doesn’t believe so. You ran away from Kanryuu, Miss Megumi, and you stayed to help Yahiko despite the danger. Those aren’t the actions of one who loving parents would be ashamed of.” Kenshin’s face, when the fox allowed her gaze to be drawn back to it, was wreathed in a sympathetic smile. “You have been of invaluable help to Yahiko, Miss Megumi. Perhaps you should now let us help you.”

The rebuttal was on the tip of her tongue, all of her persistent doubts about safety and shame, and how they would be better off without her.

But… even hunted, she hadn’t felt so safe in weeks. Maybe… it was okay to be just a little selfish. The vixen tossed her head in a show of carelessness, aware that it really was only a show. “Hmph, of course I can’t go anywhere, at least until I tell that silly tanuki that Yahiko is fine, or she’ll never let him outside again.”

Kenshin chuckled gently, and the pair set off for the den.

Cold winds sighed through the trees as the sun dipped toward the horizon. Every day there were fewer leaves for the winds to playfully buffet to the ground. Sanosuke picked his way through the forest without really paying attention to where he was going. He’d been restless since yesterday. More specifically, since Kenshin and the vixen had come back to the den (it really was too crowded in there now) with… limited explanations.

So, Kanryuu took the fox so he could have his own pet healer. Possible, healers were notoriously hard to find, and were getting rarer by the day as the old generation died without passing its knowledge of plants on to the new. Sano frowned, But why would Kanryuu want a healer? None of the rumors that the hybrid had painstakingly collected had hinted at any kind of injury or sickness the dog would need treated. And Sano really doubted that Kanryuu was the kind of leader that would keep a healer on paw to treat his underlings out of the goodness of his heart. So what is she not telling us?

That the fox had held some things back in her little heart-to-heart with Kenshin was obvious to the fighter-for-hire, and probably to Kenshin too. But for reasons that Sanosuke simply could not fathom, Kenshin didn’t seem to think that it was important.

Guy gets so hung up on his own past; you’d think he’d push a little harder to get at hers.

Which… might actually be the reason Kenshin wasn’t prying. The hybrid paused briefly in a halfhearted attempt to get his bearings—he wasn’t lost, he was rambling, though the little Missy probably thought he was on patrol. He might have muttered something to that effect when he left the overcrowded den that morning… he needed space to think.

Space without the Missy alternating between annoyance and sympathy, Yahiko bounding around under everyone’s paws and the vixen smiling shyly from time to time, as if none of what had happened was her fault. As if she had told the truth when Sano knew she hadn’t. Not all of it anyway.

But how’s a guy supposed to get her to talk? The half-wolf scowled, slipping between a pair of yew trees. A scent was waiting for him on the other side, one he’d been all too close to lately, sharp herbs and cool crushed mint. Now, what would the fox be doing out on her lonesome?

Sano scanned the surrounding forest, keeping still and trying to place where the scent was going. Seems like she moved to the… west? Pretty sure that’s west. With a great deal more care than he had previously exercised Sanosuke moved forward. The fox’s scent wandered through the trees, pausing briefly at various indistinguishable plants. As far as Sano could tell, the black vixen was traveling in a rough semicircle with the den at its center. So, probably not ducking out on us then.

The hybrid knew he was good at hunting and tracking (as good as anyone who had lived alone had to be), but he was still surprised when he found Megumi and she didn’t even notice.

Sanosuke checked his pace, trusting his earthy coloring to camouflage him among the tree trunks and dead leaves. The wind blew helpfully across his muzzle, pulling his scent away to the… south, maybe that was south? and rustling the leaves, hiding any noise his approach might have made.

The fox had her slim nose buried in a plant with thin, triangular leaves and didn’t so much as look around. An unhappy tingle ran down Sano’s spine, settling in his gut like a rock. Come on, Kitsune. You’re a hunted animal. Act a little more suspicious of your surroundings or you’re gonna get killed.

But the vixen remained blissfully unaware of her observer as she straightened with a flick of her white-tipped tail and set off again.

Wonder if this is how it feels to be Kenshin, Sano wondered in morbid fascination as he slowly followed, keeping a healthy distance between himself and the troublesome healer. The fox moved onto another plant, then another, all without the slightest hint of unease. That’s it… she needs to wake up, the hybrid stepped forward, intent on making his presence known, but for the second time in as many minutes, froze. But then, Megumi had frozen too, as a strange pair stepped into view from around a thick-trunked tree.

The one that immediately drew the eye was a huge dog, golden tan with muscles that made Sano envious and striped by dark scars all across his body.

His companion, Sano sucked in a breath, distantly glad that the noise of the wind masked the sound. His companion looked wrong. A small emaciated wolf so patterned with vegetable dyes that it was difficult to pick out any one part of the unfortunate creature. Any one part, except that was, for the wolf’s face, a mass of ruined flesh, stripped bare of fur.

“Doctor Takani,” the tan dog’s voice was solemn, “it’s time to come back.” Megumi tensed to flee, and still hidden, Sano tensed as well.

I’m not… not going to save her. With any luck those two will say… something about this whole crazy mess. But I can jump in when things start to go sideways. Sano coached himself, ignoring the fact that he was slowly sliding into a combat crouch.

Ignorant of her rescuer waiting in the wings, Megumi prepared to bolt. The strange wolf moved, not so much seeming as though he stepped to the frightened fox’s side as he simply appeared there.

“Running would be unwise, Doctor Takani. Little Tsubame would surely weep were she unable to see you again.” The fur along Sano’s spine stood straight up as Megumi quailed, posture losing even the small courage that running away would have taken.

“You can’t! She should have gotten away; I made sure she’d get away!” Megumi’s eyes were wild, her composure lost. “You were supposed to follow me!

So that’s why she went with them. Sano felt his upper lip curl, silently exposing his fangs. They threatened a kid…

The dark wolf appeared unfazed by the fox’s outburst, Sano wondered if the heavy scar tissue allowed him to alter expression at all.

“You know better than that, Doctor Takani. Our orders were to hold you; of course we would recover the means for doing so.”

“You’re a monster…” Megumi whispered with venom, eyes suspiciously bright.

“I am useful to the Oniwabanshuu,” the wolf corrected, “To accomplish that, I would become a nightmare without end.”

“Whatever you say about us,” the dog interjected, “the story stays the same. We have Tsubame, if you don’t do as we say, she gets thrown to Kanryuu’s dogs… and even you won’t be able to put her back together again.”

Damn it… should I go out there? There’s a kid’s life at stake here. Sano closed his eyes briefly, forcing his racing thoughts to slow down. Okay, Sagara, think. Those guys are Oniwabanshuu, so even if I go after one, the other can get back to Kanryuu and carry out the threat. Damn, damn, damn! Do I really have to watch this?

Megumi shuddered, the shy smile of that morning a distant memory. “You already know I don’t have a choice,” she finally breathed, gaze dropping to the forest floor between her paws rather than the messengers before her.

“Then come. Kanryuu has been anxiously awaiting your return.” The dark wolf turned back the way he had come, the lion dog waited until Megumi took a few listless steps forward before taking up position as a rearguard. Sano waited a for the trio to move out of sight, then a few moments longer before slipping from his hiding place to follow the escort and their unwilling captive.

I still don’t know what to do. Seems wrong to run back to the den and leave the kitsune on her own, but if they’re really heading to Kanryuu’s den we need the rest of the pack here. I don’t think I could protect two non-fighters from thirty or so dogs. All I can do for now is follow them… The decision tasted as bitter as bile in his throat.

The Oniwaban clearly knew where they were going and moved through the forest easily. The dog always had eyes on Megumi, while the wolf observed their surroundings.

Everyone who’d heard of them said that the Oniwaban were good, looking at these guys Sano could finally see why. More than once he had to hang back to avoid detection, and he was never able to travel as close as he would have liked.

Through it all Megumi moved listlessly on, not even lifting her muzzle to look ahead. Of course, what is there to look forward to? She’s given up. It seemed wrong. The elegant and cunning vixen that he had shared denspace with seemed to have vanished. Sano would never have thought he would want her back.

The wolf leading the procession crossed over the Kamiya boundary without so much as a second glance of those weird eyes. Across the invisible line the land began to slope away downhill, but Sanosuke could see through the thinning trees that it began to rise again some distance away. Guess this is as far as I can take it. The hybrid stopped, waiting as those he had pursued slowly left him behind. Guess it’s time. In hindsight, the answer had been plain, and if anybody asked, he’d swear it had been his plan all along.

Filling his lungs, the malinos-wolf hybrid threw back his head and howled. It was weird, saying something other than, “Hello? Anybody live here?” but then, he hadn’t had friends to call on before.

His strong tenor rose to fill the air, to carry his message of a stolen friend and of danger. The pack would hear him, he was sure of it.

And one little fox who was probably feeling all alone in the world definitely would.

Megumi jerked, as ungraceful a movement as she had ever made. Dimly she was aware that Hannya and Shikijou had stopped as well, but she was whipping her head around to stare back the way that they had come and couldn’t care about her escort now.

Not with that lonely howl rising through the barren trees to fill the chill air. Sounding the alarm at her capture.

Who…? It’s not Kaoru or Yahiko… that’s not Sir Ken. Sanosuke?

“So, our shadow takes action.” Hannya noted calmly, turning eerie eyes to look at Shikijou. “It could be troublesome if we are unable to get the doctor back quickly.”

Shikijou nodded, floppy ears perked toward the ongoing cry. “I’ll go shut the punk up. You keep going.”

Hannya turned his pupil-less gaze on Megumi, “Come, Takani.” For a second the fox hesitated, but only for a second. Nothing had changed. Kanryuu still had Tsubame, and Megumi didn’t love herself so much that she would be able to leave the gentle young kit to her fate.

With a last glance at the place that could have been home, Megumi followed, holding her breath that the howl echoing in her bones would continue.

Sano filled his lungs again, ears straining for a hint of an answer. He’d always had faith in his ability to be overwhelmingly loud, but a response would be nice.

It was because of this attention that the hybrid was able to leave off mid-howl and jump quickly to one side in order to avoid an almost-silent attack. Muscled tan thundered by him, coming to a stop as the attacker realized that his maneuver had failed.

“Nice dodge,” the dog said, his tone friendly as he turned to face Sano, “You’re not as wet-behind-the-ears as you look.”

Sano grinned brazenly, recognizing the expression of another fighting fool. “Just because a guy doesn’t flaunt it like you do doesn’t mean he can’t fight.” The strange dog eyed his scars, then laughed, sending the dark lines rippling.

“I like you, kid. You’ve got spunk. What’s your name?”

“Sanosuke Sagara.”

“I’m Shikijou of the Oniwaban,” the grin suddenly seemed to have a lot more teeth, “which means whether I like you or not if you get in the way of our leader I’ll break you into kibble.”

Sano snorted loudly, lowering his center of gravity. “I’ve heard of the great Oniwabanshuu. Tell me, what’s so great about kidnapping females and pups?”

Shikijou snarled and charged.

Kaoru was getting quite tired of being the only one who had to worry about everyone. It wasn’t that she wanted to add to her friends’ burdens, but sometimes a little awareness could go a long way. For her, it just seemed that a lot of awareness was ruining her day.

She ought to be enjoying herself; Kenshin and Yahiko certainly were. The puppy’s convalescence had left him six times more energetic than he had been before, and Kenshin was patiently wearing him out by letting Yahiko chase the crimson wolf around the clearing. It was a faintly nostalgic scene; it had been so long since it was just the three of them. Unfortunately, that only heightened Kaoru’s awareness that Sanosuke and Megumi were off on their own somewhere.

Kenshin stopped, stepping idly to one side to allow Yahiko to go tearing past his intended target with a bark of dismay. “There’s no good in worrying, Miss Kaoru, that there isn’t.”

Kaoru scraped together a weak smile for the Rurouni. “I know, and I know that they both needed some time alone, I just…” It had been pretty obvious that Sano was sitting on a temper that wasn’t used to being suppressed and that it would be easier on everyone if the belligerent pack member could go and work off his stress in private.

And Miss Megumi… Kaoru hadn’t thought it possible, but the sleek fox had actually appeared overwhelmed by the small pack’s support. She too had quietly excused herself with a promise not to go far.

“I can’t help but worry about them being on their own,” Kaoru finished. Kenshin smiled, one ear trained on a mock-grumbling Yahiko, realizing that the game was over.

“This one doubts very much that they are alone, Miss Kaoru. One would be quite surprised if they hadn’t bumped into one another by now.”

Yahiko eyed his hero, cocking his head to one side as he rejoined the pair and plopped down. “How do you know that?”

“Call it a hunch,” Kenshin told the curious puppy, then turned back to Kaoru. “I am quite sure that Sano will look after Miss Megumi, whatever he may say about her.” Kaoru tried to make her smile seem a little more genuine.

“I guess you’re right, Kenshin. It just feels strange with them gone.”

Whatever Kenshin would have said in response was interrupted by a howl from the northwest, a familiar strength filling the air.

“Sano?” Yahiko scrambled to his feet, ears turned to the sound of that voice. Kaoru frowned, listening.

Ally/one-under-protection/annoyance stolen/taken/gone. Outsider/Enemy-in-shadows.

“Someone got to Miss Megumi,” Kenshin’s smile was gone, his violet eyes grave as he looked at his companions in turn. “We must hurry.”

Kaoru nodded, throat tight as they set out—and Sano’s howl stopped mid-message.

To Megumi’s lackluster gaze the camp hadn’t changed. Dogs of various breeds milled about without apparent purpose, breaking into fights amongst themselves at the slightest provocation. Aside from the wind and the snarls there was no noise—local wildlife had long since fled the stench of the predators.

The fox steeled herself as she and Hannya descended into the thick of the canines, adopting an expression of detached calm as a fragile defense against the comments she knew were coming. With the nightmarish Hannya at her side, they would remain only comments—if Shikijou were here the dogs wouldn’t even dare that much. But she shouldn’t think of Shikijou, if she thought of Shikijou she would think of a brash young fighter who had never hidden his dislike for her, and whose voice had gone silent as she walked away.

No, she really should not think of that if she was to keep this mask in place.

The dogs formed a rough aisle for the dark travelers, craning necks to get a whiff of the elusive doctor and crowding as close to the scarred wolf as they dared. But no one stood in their way.

Kanryuu sat at the summit of his small hill, his curved neck arched to watch his kingdom of fools and a self-satisfied smirk on his long muzzle.

I could kill him, Megumi thought with almost clinical detachment, observing her torturer with no expression. I could kill him so easily. I wonder if he knows that. A distinctly unladylike part of her mind wanted to snort. I doubt it. That’s far too original a thought for him.

Yes, she could kill Kanryuu, could slip something into one of the meals he was too “busy” to hunt down himself, could bite through one of those major veins sending blood through his neck and watch him bleed out. She could do it before anyone thought to stop her. But she wouldn’t. Because even if she won against Kanryuu she would still lose.

The dogs would revolt without a leader, and she and Tsubame would be torn to shreds. Megumi wouldn’t mind so much if it was only herself, but Tsubame didn’t deserve that. And if, by some dark chance they evaded the dogs, there was still Aoshi and his Oniwaban. She would never get free of them. They would bring her to him, and… her soul would be well and truly damned.

Megumi and Hannya made it to the hilltop, the fox unable to hold back a start of surprise as, without a whisper of movement, Aoshi Shinomori appeared beside Kanryuu.

“Ah, Doctor Takani,” Kanryuu’s voice was brimming with cheer. Smug fool! “So good of you to rejoin us. I trust your little vacation was educational?”

The fox allowed her gaze to slide from the greyhound to Aoshi and back again. Her throat was dry but she managed to get out the question that had been bothering her since she entered the camp.

“Where’s Tsubame?”

Kanryuu’s face was ugly in its victory, so Megumi looked away from it, daring instead to petition Shinomori with her gaze. The black wolf regarded her coolly and surprised her by answering.

“The kit is with Hyottoko and Beshimi.”

“We were followed,” Hannya reported, his strange eyes making it unclear as to whether he was speaking to Kanryuu or Aoshi. A flash of interest lit the Okashira’s icy eyes for a moment and Megumi stared, unsure if she had ever seen such an expression on the taciturn wolf.

Kanryuu scoffed. “Whatever filthy ragamuffins our dear doctor has been staying with, they wouldn’t dare come into this camp.” The Oniwaban’s silence was not one of agreement. Megumi shuddered, uncaring if it ruffled her fur. They were wrong. There was no way that daft little pack would come this far, right?

“Regardless, we move north at first light,” Kanryuu dismissed the warning, “the alpha has been looking forward to our lady doctor’s soothing touch.”

Small favors that Kanryuu didn’t want to move out now with the day growing old around him. The fox knew that the greyhound would never admit it, but his night vision was horrible.

“But before all that,” Kanryuu was smiling again, “we need to discuss your punishment, Megumi.” The fox caught her breath, painfully aware of the slow approach f two of Kanryuu’s favorite grunts.

Aoshi stirred, “Kanryuu—” he started, but the greyhound cut him off.

“I know, Okashira, I know.” The sinister smile turned to his bruisers. “Don’t break her pretty little legs—we’ve got a long walk tomorrow.”

Sano would have cursed if he could grab a moment to spare. As it was he was having a hard time even winning space to think, much less speak.

Well-defined muscles shifted in warning and Sano barely stepped back in time to avoid fangs in his throat. Fighting Shikijou, the hybrid was discovering, was a bit like fighting a faster Hyottoko. Crushing strength was evident in every move of his opponent—and Sano was only the merest breath faster.

“What’s the matter, kid? Afraid to take a hit?”

Sano’s ears shot up indignantly, but any response the fighter might have made was stolen by a quick duck to get underneath his opponent’s next lunge. The move brought him so temptingly close to the tan throat. Quickly the hybrid craned his own neck, opening his mouth for a punishing bite—a bite that was choked off as powerful jaws closed on the back of his neck. Thick fur cushioned the worst of the blow, keeping the lion-dog from snapping his spine.

Black and gold spots danced in Sanosuke’s vision as Shikijou lifted him with a grumble and shook him—once, twice. Sano’s body was limp, trying frantically to avoid damage that could be incurred with a struggle. With a massive heave the lion-dog slung him away like a used bone.

The former fighter-for-hire tried to orient himself in the air to land on his feet but didn’t quite make it. He slid on his belly on a carpet of dead leaves, still turning with the force of the throw before he could get his paws under him again. The hybrid scarcely had a moment to look up before he saw Shikijou barreling toward him again—there was no time to dodge.

The impact lifted his front paws from the ground and Sano backed up furiously to keep from falling top over tail. Shikijou had followed him up to his hind legs, snarling, the tan dog locked his forepaws around Sano and snapped at his face.

Sano almost didn’t pull back in time, close enough to hear the grind of Shikijou’s teeth as the latter’s jaw snapped closed.

Screw this defensive crap!

Ignoring a little voice in the back of his head that sounded suspiciously like common sense, Sano threw his weight forward, a bite of his own catching one of Shikijou’s floppy ears. The former fighter-for-hire locked his jaw to hold onto his prize and shoved his front paws against Shikijou’s muscular chest, breaking free of the other’s hold and feeling the lion-dog brace himself to try and stay upright.

Jaws opened and closed in his vision, uncomfortably close to his right eye, and pain exploded in his right cheek and Shikijou’s fangs found purchase. Sano choked down a grunt of pain, turning it into a half-bite that carried his own fangs further up Shikijou’s ear toward his scarred skull. Muscles tensed in the Oniwaban’s neck, preparing to wrench to the side, tearing at Sano’s face.

Acting quickly, Sano threw his weight forward again, sacrificing his own balance to paw at Shikijou’s muzzle in effort to dislodge the bite. Shikijou’s impressive bulk shifted, then toppled, the powerful jaw coming unclenched just enough that Sano could pull his abused face free. Shikijou’s ear tore free of Sano’s fangs as the lion dog landed on his back, but for the moment Sano had no purchase on the forest floor.

In a move that felt impossible even as he was doing it, Shikijou used his paws, still hooked around Sano’s neck, to accelerate the hybrid’s fall and cracked their skulls together.

Colored lights burst in Sanosuke’s vision, obscuring all else in a bright-edged haze of shocked pain. Dimly, Sano felt himself get his paws in the proper place and stagger to one side, but his treacherous body was shaking and his vision was slow in clearing.

“You’ve got a hard head kid, I’ll give you that.” Shikijou’s voice was wavery and seemed far away. “You actually made my head hurt on that last move.”

Sano forced himself to keep his eyes open, staring at where he was pretty sure Shikijou was, willing strength back into his limbs.

“The Oniwaban can always use strong guys like you—what do you say? You could join us. You’d have power and as many fights as you want,” Sano’s vision cleared enough to show a standing-Shikijou’s grin. “And don’t tell me you don’t live for fights. I recognize your type.”

Sano’s lungs emptied in a sound that was half-sigh half-chuckle. “You know, if you’d found me a month or so ago, I’d have taken you up on that. But my head’s gone up against a lot harder than yours. And you’re wrong—I don’t just live for fights,” Sano straightened, watching Shikijou’s grin vanish. “Not anymore.”

The lion-dog scowled, “Then—” but Sano was done waiting for the Oniwaban to lead the party. He charged, lowering his head at the last minute to ram his still-aching skull into the throat Shikijou had unwittingly exposed as he raised his head in surprise. The lion-dog choked, airway straining against the outer obstruction, but Sano dug his paws in and pushed grimly on.

Shikijou sputtered, trying to move side to side to dislodge the fangless attack, but so close Sano could see the moves his opponent would make written clearly in defined muscles and follow without much effort.

Finally the Oniwaban let out a rattling wheeze and his body collapsed. Sano felt himself sit heavily, staring at his unconscious foe as his body paid the toll for its heavy exertion and his brain throbbed in waves that made it difficult to concentrate.

Everything ached in the good, clean hurt of a tough fight’s aftermath. He was unsure how long he sat there in apparent stupor, but eventually his ears (heh, even they hurt) twitched, picking up a steadily-oncoming rustle from… his-head-hurt-way-too-much-to-decide-which-way-that-was.

With an effort, the hybrid was able to raise his head in time to see three familiar shapes race through the trees.

“Sano!” the Missy looked relieved and Sano was distantly amused to note that she and Kenshin took in the fallen Shikijou and Megumi’s absence at the same time. With a grimace that he tried to turn into a smile, Sano pushed himself to his feet.

“You guys get my invitation to the party?”

“Are you okay?” Yahiko sounded vaguely concerned—he must look worse than he thought, though now that he remembered it, the side of his face must be bleeding.

“Just a headache,” Sano assured the puppy before turning to Kenshin. “They took Megumi. Seems like they’re holding someone she knows hostage to get her to go along with them.” Kenshin’s eyes blazed, Sano held back a grimace; he hadn’t thought the crimson wolf would be a fan of that part.

“Then it would seem we must move even more quickly, for the sake of two lives.” Violet eyes hesitated, sliding over to Yahiko. “Yahiko, perhaps it would be best if you waited at the den.”

The akita-mix squared his stance in defiance of his hero, expression at its most mulish. “No way. Megumi saved my life, and you guys are going up against a lot of dogs—you’ll need everybody you can get.”

Kaoru winced, looking as if she wanted to say something, probably to urge the puppy to reconsider, but instead looked to the fallen Shikijou. “What about him?”

Sano shrugged, “We can’t worry about him right now, and I don’t want to kill the guy. Not like this anyways. We leave him and keep on going.” The hybrid smiled grimly, “We’ve got an annoying fox to save.”

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