Amber Forest

Chapter 11- Reprisal

Do you feel cold and lost in desperation?

You build up hope, but failure's all you've known
Remember all the sadness and frustration
And let it go. Let it go

-Linkin Park, Iridescent

"Alright, what's the plan?" Yahiko bounced lightly on his toes as if in preparation for a sprint, "Charge in and tear the place apart?"

"I think we can do a little better than that," Kenshin responded, taking in the camp still some distance away. "We have the element of surprise, and can choose when and how to attack."

Kaoru frowned, following the red wolf's gaze, "But, Megumi…"

Kenshin shook his head, smiling reassuringly at the silvery wolf, "The enemy has made it very plain that they want her alive. It is improbable that a delay now would risk her life."

"And the kid?" Sano questioned, eyeing the dogs that could be seen through the trees. "Not Yahiko, the kid that they've got down there," he clarified, eying Yahiko's habitual glare.

The red wolf sighed, "It would be prudent for Kanryuu to keep her alive as well, for continued leverage on Miss Megumi. But I'm afraid we won't know until we go down there.

"Our first task is to thin their ranks. Miss Kaoru, I'd like you to skirt the eastern perimeter; Kanryuu must have sentries on the outskirts of the camp, find them and silence them as quickly and quietly as you can. Sano, take the west side; I'll head in from here. Yahiko, you wait here—"

"Wait here?" the puppy exploded, furious, "was the point of me coming at all if—"

"Yahiko!" Kenshin's tone was sharp, cutting the puppy off, "allow me to finish. If you are to participate in this fight you will do what we say, when we say—if we say to hang back, let go, or duck, you do exactly that without argument. If you feel incapable of following instruction you may return to the den now. Miss Megumi will not be aided by random or conceited action."

The puppy gulped, his eyes wide at his hero's ire. His tail had come down from its customary position over his back and his ears were flattened.

"No, I… I can do it. I want to help."

Kenshin softened just noticeably, "Good. As I was saying, wait here. Our actions will eventually raise the alarm, when that happens we will return to this spot and attack in force. We will be moving quickly, you must keep pace."

Yahiko swallowed, straightening his posture, "I can do it, Kenshin."

The crimson wolf allowed a small encouraging smile, "I know that you can." He turned to the two adults, "Miss Kaoru, Sanosuke, remember, as quietly as you can. Our goal is to eliminate as many defenders as possible before our attack."

"Got it, Kenshin," Sano nodded, turning to move purposefully to the west. Kaoru hesitated a moment, looking from Kenshin to Yahiko to Sano.

"Be careful, everyone." She finally managed with a significant look at Yahiko. Then she turned and made her way east.

Out of sight of the others the tanuki felt her nervousness rise steeply. So much depended on stealth, and while she was gratified that Kenshin seemed to think enough of her skills to afford her the chance, there was a clawing sensation in her stomach that dreaded being the that reason the plan fell to pieces.

She clung to an almost-imperceptible border, a boundary where the trees began to thin in the camp center. No sentries yet, but Kanryuu would have to be a fool not to post them. Somehow she had a hard time believing that anyone who could scare Miss Megumi so badly was a true idiot.

At the very least the weather seemed to be on her side, the steady creaking groan of swaying branches as a slow breeze wound its way through the trees meant that if she was very quiet her passing should go largely unnoticed. As a double blessing the wind was blowing from the camp, not towards it. Although, with so many dogs there, Kaoru had to wonder if they would even notice her subtle scent. Kenshin ought to go completely unnoticed—not that he needed another advantage.

The she-wolf slipped from shadow to shadow, wishing that it was a little earlier in the year so that the shrubby plants that grew around the trees roots could provide a bit more cover for her silvery pelt. Still, the shadows ought to be enough. Kaoru froze, dropping to a stealthy crouch.

There was noise up ahead, something that didn't meld with the muttering wind, a scrape of earth under restless claws, the grumbly cracking sound of fangs against something that refused to yield easily.

Okay, quiet and slow, Kaoru coached herself, just like you're stalking a deer. You've done that before, lots of times. Of course, with a deer, it didn't matter if things got really noisy after you had already pounced.

With her heart pounding out a nervous rhythm in her throat, the silvery wolf skulked closer to the source of the sound. She was further from it than she had initially judged, but eventually she could see her unsuspecting quarry.

A female who looked as though she might have some retriever in her kept a lazy watch, more interested in chewing a hefty stick to slobbery bits than in any intruders that might approach. But even a lazy guard could raise an alarm.

It took Kaoru a moment longer to steel her nerves than she would have cared to admit, so she did what she always did—charged ahead, nerves or no. The sentry certainly never saw it coming. One moment the dog had successfully broken off another chunk of wood, the next she had been rolled teeth over toes and was staring up into the angry blue eyes of a female whose teeth certainly weren't hampered by the stick she'd been chewing.

"Make a noise and I'll make you choke on it," Kaoru advised in a harsh whisper. "I'm not here for you, so you've got a choice. Keep quiet and get lost or I shut you up." Please just leave, Kaoru silently prayed. While it would be all too easy to rip out the retriever's throat, Kaoru knew that she'd have trouble sleeping for months afterward if she did.

The pinned female worked her jaw for a moment, allowing the stick to fall free. Kaoru tensed.

"I'll go," the whisper was almost a squeak, "I'll go, I'll go, I'll go!"

Bemused, Kaoru stepped back and allowed her captive to scramble to her paws and dash off. I wish they were all that easy.

They weren't.

Moving slowly and carefully Kaoru was able to displace three more guards. None sounded the alarm, but they had required some… persuasion, to leave their posts. The tanuki actually found herself surprised at how little fight the sentries had to offer.

I guess that's the worst of hanging out with Kenshin and Sano, your perspective on what normal strength is gets shredded to smithereens. Still, things were going well.

Discipline in Kanryuu's pack seemed to be pretty poor—Kaoru couldn't decide if that made sense to her or not. On one paw, it suggested that the large size of the pack wasn't generated by anything like loyalty to Kanryuu. But on the other paw were the Oniwaban, who seemed to be the only real threat, and the only ones serious in their service to Kanryuu. The two realities didn't sit well with each other. If Kanryuu had won the loyalty of a group as skilled as the Oniwaban, it should have made his other followers more loyal, not less. And if he couldn't count on the loyalty of rank-and-file dogs, there was no way a group like the Oniwaban should be anywhere near him.

Worry about that later. Kaoru shook her head, still moving silently through the shadows. The quiet won't last long. If nothing else that massive dog, (Shikijou?) that Sano had faced would wake soon and make his way back to the camp. Well, it wasn't like we could kill him. The tanuki only hoped that if the lion-dog did return his path wouldn't lead him past Yahiko. She doubted the young dog would have the sense to stand back. And that thought itched at her mind the farther she got from where they had left the youngest member of their little pack. It itched at her like an extremely persistent flea. Because he was the youngest, and someone had to look out for him, even if he had doubled in size since Kenshin had brought him home by the scruff of his neck. But he wouldn't appreciate that, and she knew how important it was to get even one more dog out of the way before they were fighting a small army of them.

Kaoru exhaled her frustration in a quiet sigh, a particularly snarly part of her brain looking forward to the next contestant so she could have something to take this emotion out on. An angry bark broke the twilight stillness and Kaoru froze. For a heart-stopping moment she thought that she was the cause of the alarm, but the continuing cries were too far away. Probably Sano, the tanuki decided. The idea of Kenshin getting caught was almost funny.

All attempts at stealth abandoned, Kaoru whirled and ran back the way she had come. No longer trying to sneak, the landscape rushed past in a darkened blur, making the she-wolf feel as though she hadn't gotten very far at all. Too soon she could see Yahiko anxiously shifting from paw to paw, ears straining toward the approaching barks of the dogs. As Kaoru approached, Kenshin ghosted into view, confirming her suspicions that it had been the ex-fighter-for-hire that had the misfortune of being caught.

"Kaoru!" Yahiko blurted, then jumped in surprise as Kenshin stepped alongside him. "Kenshin!"

Kaoru shot the kid what she hoped was a reassuring smile for before turning to peer through the trees into the camp. It was hard to tell through the gloom but she thought she could make out the forms of dogs moving quickly through the camp, like ants in a disturbed hill. She didn't trust herself to try and count them. Nerves humming with tension would wreak unholy havoc on her ability to accurately perceive a threat.

"Where's Sano?" Yahiko asked, looking around for the hybrid.

"This one is sure he's on his way," Kenshin reassured the dog absently, "he knows the plan." Most of the crimson wolf's attention was clearly elsewhere, monitoring the immediate area for threats. It wouldn't take long for the dogs to sniff out where they were, and then the tiny advantage they held would be lost. Seconds ticked by like seasons.

Come on, Sano, where are you? Even in her nervous state, Kaoru found it hard to be overly worried about Sanosuke; the fighter was more than a match for any three dogs. Yahiko's brow furrowed in thought,

"Maybe we should go without him."

"Oi," The voice appeared before an indignant Sano trotted into view, "Going to the party without me? That's just rude." Yahiko snorted, but some of the worry lines were smoothed away.

"Feh, What were you doing? Did you decide to take a stab at being fashionably late?"

Sano rolled his eyes but stopped short of an actual retort. Kenshin shifted slightly, drawing focus to him as he looked towards the heart of the camp.

"Sorry, Kenshin. One of my fights got a little loud."

The red wolf smiled ruefully at his friend, "It was bound to happen to one of us, Sano. Now, are we all ready?"

Kaoru nodded, feeling as if the butterflies in her stomach had somehow found their way into her blood—it hummed and fluttered through her veins with sweet tension and nervous energy until she felt she would come apart if she didn't move. Kenshin waited for the rest of the pack's assent before turning back to the camp.

"With me."

The four pelted toward the baying in the trees.

This was what he had needed. Sano nearly sighed with pleasure as the pack reached the first defenders. No staring cross-eyed at some coy vixen trying to puzzle out a straight answer from a dozen stray comments, no tiptoeing on the edge of violence, trying to keep quiet. An open, honest brawl.

'Fools rush in,' the old saying said, and he'd been a fighting fool for years.

Kenshin held point in their little band, restraining his true speed to stick with the others. Yahiko was just behind Kenshin, probably too scared and excited to notice that his self-appointed sister was running just behind him and to the side, sandwiching the gangly puppy between herself and Kenshin.

And Sano? He had his best friend at his side, the wind in his teeth, and oh-so-many idiots stretched out in front of him. It's not even my birthday.

The front wave hit Kenshin first, or Kenshin hit them was probably more accurate. Dogs swarmed and scattered, but Sano was only a heartbeat behind so it was hard to tell what his friend was up to. A black-muzzled hound went for his throat, Sano turned to take the blow and set himself up for one of his signature grab 'n' slings. The cur landed in the midst of his comrades, sowing consternation in their ranks.

Sano was able to keep track of maybe two more moves before the euphoria of the battle swept him off and the scene dissolved into adrenaline-lit fragments. A red wolf, high in the air, descending on his foes. A mask of dark fur and a ringed tail as Kaoru whirled to deliver a punishing bite to the blue heeler who thought he'd been sneaking up on her. Yahiko gamely going after larger dogs, putting the skills he had gained dodging Kaoru to good use. And there were so many eager volunteers to vent the frustration of the past few weeks on that Sano couldn't keep track of them all as he reared up on hind legs or spun quickly to pick off a dog circling around behind him, or rammed his impressive frame into somebody going after one of his little pack. It was hard to tell amidst the melee, but Sano was pretty sure that they were still moving. He'd lost track of which direction, but the hybrid was willing to bet it was toward the heart of the camp. They were following Kenshin, after all, and he didn't seem too fazed by the fight.

Just a little longer. We're coming to get you, you damn fox.

Aoshi Shinomori was not amused. This was hardly unusual, or noticeable if he did happen to be. Emotion, the dark wolf had learned, was the enemy of professionalism and the precursor to disaster.

Take the Takani doctor—if she had not responded to Kanryuu's threat on her then-patient Tsubame, she would not have found herself so painfully entangled in the ambitious greyhound's web. If she had abandoned the sick kit from the start she might have avoided capture altogether. Emotion.

So, no, the Okashira was not amused. He did, however, feel some measure of dark satisfaction. The Battousai, bringer of calamity and the legend that still caused northern wolves to shiver and look about unforgiving shadows uneasily. The Battousai. After seasons of silence and supposition, he had been found.

Shinomori could almost believe some of the more implausible stories—ones whispered at moonset when sleepy pups could no longer hear. Tales that Battousai was the North's guardian spirit, summoned forth by carnage to wipe clean the snows once more.

Still, that tale couldn't be true or else he would have never been found so far south.

"Leader," Hannya said in an undertone. Deliberately, Aoshi turned away from Takani's punishment to face his subordinate. Enslaving a terrorized fox for the purpose of a power-hungry hound's play to curry favor was not included in his orders. Of course, it wasn't against them either. Accompany Kanryuu south, follow the greyhound's orders and oversee the recruitment of dogs and wolves to the cause. Follow the greyhound's orders. Even if doing so damned his soul.

"Report," he matched his master spy tone for tone, keeping an eye on Kanryuu lounging nearby at the top of the hill. The greyhound was fixated on the fox and gave the shadowy pair no notice.

"Shikijou never returned," Hannya's voice was emotionless, and it was impossible for his expression to change, but Aoshi could sense his subordinate's eagerness regardless.

"It was to be expected if our opponent was the Battousai." Though with Shikijou's skill it was unlikely that the dog had perished in the fight. "Doubtless he approaches even now to extract the fox."

Hannya ducked his head in acknowledgement; "Should Kanryuu be informed?" the spy's gravelly voice was dry. Aoshi spared a cool glance at dog.

"I believe he will find out soon enough."

Obey Kanryuu's orders. But Kanryuu hadn't ordered him to report the doings of his enemies. Kanryuu believed that he had none. Fool.

The Okashira's gaze scanned the quivering vixen lying feebly on the ground as Kanryuu's goons assailed her. "If you continue the doctor will be unfit for travel." It was an interesting trick to make yourself heard at a distance without raising your voice, and Aoshi had learned it long ago.

Kanryuu's left ear twitched in acknowledgement, as if dislodging a persistent fly and he sighed dramatically. "I suppose the vaunted Okashira is right. You may stop now, Rai, Jun." Reluctantly the two dogs stopped and withdrew a step, leaving the stricken doctor to gather up the shreds of her dignity.

Aoshi would not allow himself the luxury of a sigh, but his next breath did come marginally slower.

Kanryuu's thin tail moved side to side lazily, "I do hope this has been a worthwhile instruction to you, Megumi. It's important to know—" An alarm bark broke through Kanryuu's condescending statement as below them the camp erupted into chaos.

Aoshi's ears angled toward the noise as he cast a calm glance into the mayhem below. "He's earlier than expected."

"What?" Kanryuu scrabbled to his feet as a small formation of fighters broke from cover to attack his dogs. The whole pack, Aoshi noted, icy eyes assessing the small group. Interesting. The Battousai was not known for fighting alongside other wolves, it wouldn't do to underestimate those that he did partner with. Dogs were scattering like leaves in a maelstrom, pulled into the fight and then blowing to the corners of the world as they fled.

"Who?!" Kanryuu demanded, the arch of his spine reminding the Okashira of a displeased cat.

"The pack Doctor Takani sheltered with," Aoshi kept his tone cool, but anticipation was starting to shiver its way down his spine. "We believe their number to include the Battousai."

Kanryuu stared, muzzle slightly agape, "But that's only a legend!"

Hannya snorted, "No legend to those who lived through it."

"But why…?" the broken whisper came from the almost-forgotten Megumi. She stared with wide and wounded eyes into the chaos below and trembled.

"Because he is a wolf of honor and named you as one under his protection." Reason enough for any true pack. For a wolf like Battousai, used to impossible missions, stealth raids, and the blurry loyalties of wartime, it was likely as natural as breathing.

"You knew he was coming?" Kanryuu's eyes narrowed in blatant threat as he recovered, "How dare you keep this from me, Aoshi!"

Hannya shifted beside him, a heartbeat away from vanishing into the gloom to attack unseen but the Okashira didn't move. Reason, he needed to use reason. Very deliberately the cold wolf shut a small silver-tan form with laughing turquoise eyes out of his mind. Reason.

"I could not be sure the reports were accurate, nor could I anticipate his arrival so soon. By tomorrow we would have been beyond his reach, and I trusted that Shikijou would hold him back should the Battousai attempt pursuit. Obviously he was unable to do so."

Kanryuu glared, "You still should have told me, Aoshi, and next time you will."

"Of course. For now, might I suggest that the Oniwaban be mobilized to deal with our intruders?" Aoshi couldn't keep a certain dryness from his tone as he made the suggestion.

"Well what else are you here for?" the greyhound snapped irritably, "Send your followers out. You I want here, to keep watch."

Protect your worthless neck, you mean! Aoshi swallowed a growl. Reason. "I would be more useful in the fight," he noted. "If our opponent truly is the Battousai then the power of my Oniwaban alone may not be enough."

Kanryuu scowled for a moment, and then gave a displeased sort of smile. "Yes, of course you're right, Okashira. Go on to your fight." With Hannya at his side, Aoshi left the ridge for the pine grove to collect Hyottoko. Kanryuu waited until the dark wolves were out of sight, then let the breath he had been holding hiss out from between his teeth.

"Well, Megumi, it seems you've been rather a bad girl, wouldn't you say? Rescue attempts? Will you never learn to stop causing trouble?" He turned to the two dogs still standing loose guard over the prone fox. "Rai, go and kill the fox kit."

"No!" Megumi lunged to a half-upright position, brought up short by the pain of her injuries.

Kanryuu looked at her horrified face with mock-pity, "I told you what would happen if you caused me more trouble, Doctor. It's time to take your medicine." Rai grinned at his master, white teeth in a white face, before the husky set off at a slow trot, giving the Oniwaban plenty of time to get clear of the trees before he made his entrance.

The Oniwaban… Kanryuu frowned. Aoshi's behavior was disturbing; perhaps Megumi's temporary escape had given the dark wolf ideas about his own servitude… maybe it was time to remind the Okashira just who was in charge.

"Jun, take some of the others and get rid of the bear." He looked out over the continuing fight. "It's time to cut off the deadweight."

This whole business of putting unruly dogs to bed had started off fun but Sano was slowly becoming bored. What's the world coming to, he wondered in disgust, when I can't even enjoy a good brawl?

He blamed Kenshin. The Battousai was over there making it look easy (and, okay, maybe it wasn't that hard), so it was a little hard to enjoy the challenge… when it didn't feel like a challenge. Oh, Yahiko was feeling it, but the kid was so focused he hadn't even noticed the few times an adult would step in to engage a threat he hadn't seen.

Discontent gnawed at Sano even more than his opponents did. In fact, he was just raising his head to call out a derisive challenge when an unstoppable force slammed into him like a runaway boulder.

The hybrid lost contact with the ground, only to become intimately reacquainted with it a moment later. Adrenaline and experience had him rolling to his feet before his body had even begun to finish complaining. His ribs especially felt bruised.

Sano looked up in time to see an arc of teeth scything in for a bite and barely managed to pull back before they closed down on where his neck had been.


It wasn't that he'd forgotten about the lion-dog, but he certainly hadn't been thinking about him right at the moment.

"Sano?" Kaoru called, taking a moment to look toward him, ready to offer help. Kenshin and Yahiko's ears turned toward their friend but they stayed focused on their respective fights.

"I've got him!" Sano called back, turning to face his opponent. "One on one is more my style anyway."

Shikijou bared his teeth. "You shouldn't have come here, kid. A lot of good folks are gonna get hurt."

Sano cocked and ear at the mayhem around them, "Sounds to me like the only ones getting torn up around here are the bad guys."

Shikijou growled low in his throat, "And that lack of awareness is why you must lose!"

Sano had to bite back his reply in a hurry as the lion-dog charged in for another attack. I beat him once, I know I did. Trouble was Sano was pretty sure that had been blind luck, and Shikijou didn't seem eager to give him another chance to go on the offensive.

Blood spattered the trampled ground as the Oniwaban landed a bite to the back of Sano's neck where it met the shoulder. Any higher, and he'd have been making his excuses to Captain Sagara. Sano squirmed free of the hold and snapped desperately at Shikijou's front legs—but the dog pulled back and the bite met nothing but air.

Swearing, Sano backpedaled in an attempt to avoid Shikijou's next attack. Okay, Sagara, a strategy would be great about now! He winced as a glancing blow pulled brown fur from his shoulder. Ah, who am I kidding? I don't do plans! Not for fights, fights were supposed to be fun.

So maybe that's what I've gotta do, the hybrid mused, have a little fun with it. Peripherally he noticed that Kenshin and the others had shifted their direction to form a protective shield, keeping the dogs from disturbing his fight. There were fewer of those now, as individuals decided that discretion was the better part of valor and pelted off toward the woods.

Okay, Sano, he coached himself, we're going to have fun with this, so what's step one? Hmm, Shikijou was a big guy and fast, but he wasn't as fast as Sano, and all that muscle made him pretty heavy. What was more fun than making a fool out of your opponent? But this was going to hurt; he wasn't that much faster than Shikijou.

Ears flat to his skull Sano surged forward; straight for Shikijou's snarling face. The lion-dog was a veteran of a thousand fights, the price of survival carved into his golden body with dark angry lines. Instinct took over and he reacted without conscious thought, hunching his shoulders and compressing the target of his extended throat into a barrier of solid muscle. Which was fine with Sano, he'd taken Shikijou out with a neck shot in their earlier fight, so Shikijou's defense now wasn't really a surprise.

The hybrid dropped like a stone, folding his legs to hit the dirt as Shikijou braced for an attack that wasn't coming. The Oniwaban's reflexes were good; Sano had to give him that. At the sudden loss of his target the tan dog managed to change his trajectory in a second. Rather than running into the fighter now crouched in his path, the hound leaped over him—but it was a poor jump, performed at the last second with all of the muscled dog's momentum going forward and bare bones to spare for altitude.

Certainly not enough to get his paws out of reach. Sano snared a golden-tan hind leg as it passed overhead with a sloppy charge of his own, jarring Shikijou from his course and messing up his landing. Not that Sano really meant to give him a place to land. Shikijou had been surprised, now he had to keep him disoriented—if Sano could keep the dog from getting his paws underneath him, so much the better.

The Oniwaban fighter was thrashing, half-rising from his position on his side to snap at Sanosuke's head. The hybrid felt his triangular ears pull even closer to his skull as they tried to avoid hostile teeth. You know, this was a lot funnier in my head. Sano was sure he'd already thrown caution to the winds, but he gave it another growl to make sure it stayed out of his way as he released Shikijou's leg and launched a series of quick shallow attacks on the lion-dog's flank. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't take the time to line up some serious damage; he had to keep Shikijou off-balance, reacting to Sano's attacks instead of finding his feet.

The lion-dog was peppered with small bites, most of them bleeding—his short slick fur not providing much protection from Sano's activities.

"Hold still you little weasel!" Shikijou roared, head coming around to snap at the fighter tugging on his ragged ear.

"Are you kidding?" Sano wasn't sure if he'd said it or just thought it really loud. With a growl that Sanosuke could feel shaking his bones, Shikijou ignored the half-wolf's latest attack and regained his feet. Damn.

Sano couldn't really call it a surprise when the Oniwaban managed to grab him by the scruff and sling him away to buy some breathing room.

"Aw, hell." So much for knocking the veteran fighter off-balance. Shikijou was already preparing a decisive attack.

"Do you want help?" Kenshin had managed to keep his query calm and neutral in tone—which was good because if Sano had heard any number of probable tones (like worry or condescension or just about anything else) he would have been distracted by critical annoyance. As it was he grimaced and called out stubbornly,

"It's still my fight!" And it was, even if his bruises wanted to claim no part of the golden adversary now barreling toward him.

It's my fight. Screw all of this other crap!

No more fancy tricks. Sano faced the oncoming threat, lowered his head and ran out to meet it. The impact of skull-on-skull rattled his teeth and sent a starburst of pure agony exploding in his cranium. Dazed, Sano staggered a few steps to the side, unable to sort out which of the four Shikijous shaking their heads was the real one. But he couldn't wait for the images to resolve, baring unsteady fangs he leapt for his best guess.

One paw connected as he bit down on air and Sagara adjusted, using his encounter as a guide to finally bite down hard on Shikijou's muscled shoulder.

The lion-dog roared in pain and Sano took advantage of his distraction to bowl the hound over, seconds later his teeth were gently brushing the major veins in the Oniwaban's neck. Sano didn't move for a long moment except to pant tiredly, absorbing the report from his battered body and the stillness of his beaten foe.

"Shikijou," Kenshin's voice was nearby, but lifting his eyes to pinpoint where seemed like a lot of effort. "You have lost, that you have. Surrender would be advisable."

Shikijou was silent. Sano groaned with exhausted exasperation.

"Come on. Don't make me kill you." He felt the Oniwaban's throat shift as he sighed into the stillness.

"You win. Let me up."

It took an effort for Sano to slowly back away, and the look he gave Shikijou as the lion-dog rolled to his feet was definitely wary. Please don't attack again, Sano thought hazily through his pounding headache, Just… don't.

Shikijou winced, rolling his shoulders and shaking his head slowly. "Damn, kid. I think your head's gotten harder than last time."

"Heh," Sano managed a rowdy grin in response, "I was just thinking the same thing about yours."

"Pardon this one," Kenshin stepped forward, one ear trained on the dogs attempting to regroup closer to their boss' hill. "Shikijou, this one has heard stories of the Oniwaban as a pack of honor. Why then do you aid a one such as Kanryuu?"

Shikijou's scarred face was impassive as he looked at Kenshin, "We've heard of you too, Battousai. Nice of you to tell Hyottoko who you were, saved us the time of sniffing it out ourselves. But you should know the answer, if any of the stories they tell about you are true. When does a pack get desperate?" Dark eyes scanned the small group that had formed around Kenshin. "When they've got something to protect. And some things you would stain your soul in rivers of scarlet to see kept safe.

"I know you guys are here to get Megumi, and I can't do anything to help with that. But there is someone here who doesn't need to be. If you really want to do something for the doctor, get Tsubame out of here."

"The kid?"

"Yes. Do you see that stand of pines?" Shikijou nodded to a small copse of trees to one side of Kanryuu's lookout hill. "That's where she's being held. The other Oniwaban should be guarding her, but if you take her they won't stop you."

"Why tell us this?" Sano questioned, eying the other fighter suspiciously.

The lion-dog scowled, "None of us want to be remembered for kidnapping pups."

Kenshin sighed, turning his head to observe the few dogs cowering between the invading pack and the thin silhouette of their leader. "And Miss Megumi is not with Miss Tsubame…"

"But we can't just leave her," Yahiko blurted nervously, "I mean, we're here to rescue her too, right?"
Kenshin smiled at the young dog, "Indeed we are. Yahiko, I would like you to take charge of the retrieval of Miss Tsubame."

Kaoru looked startled, "But Kenshin—" the red wolf shot her an understanding glance, but continued to address Yahiko.

"This is an important mission, Yahiko. You will be responsible for Miss Tsubame's life, which means that should you fall in battle, her life will be forfeit as well. Be cautious and choose your fights accordingly."

The kid shifted uneasily on his large paws, his ears angled slightly back in apprehension, "I… I'll do my best, Kenshin." Yahiko said hesitantly with little of his natural confidence.

"And I am sure you will succeed," Kenshin assured him with a smile. "I would not entrust you with a task I did not believe you could accomplish."

Yahiko's ears came up a little bit and he stood up straighter.

"I'll see you guys soon, then!" Barely pausing to check his direction, the young akita-mix moved off into the gloom.

"Nice move," Shikijou noted, gingerly sitting down, "getting the kid out of the way of the heavy fighting."

Kenshin acknowledged the comment with a brief nod before fixing amethyst eyes on the rallying dogs once more.

"Listen, Shikijou," Sano told the other fighter, "we don't have any more time to sit around talking, so I guess we'll leave you here." The hybrid hesitated, uncertain of how pack-rules covered this situation. "I trust you won't be coming after our backs." Best to leave it that way; the golden dog could take it as a threat if he wanted to. Sano's little pack was on the move again.

Tsubame rested her head on her dark paws, allowing her eyes to droop half-shut. They had let her see Miss Megumi earlier, from a distance. Hyottoko had loomed over her as she trembled at the edge of the grove, straining to see the black fox standing at the crest of the hill with Kanryuu, Aoshi and Hannya. But now the pine grove was mostly empty. The Oniwaban were called away by the alert, the Okashira moving in the stillness to direct his fighters to various positions in the camp. Beshimi still lay on his side, one eye shut and his broken leg stretched out straight. If he'd still had a tail it would have been twitching.

Tsubame imagined that if things had stayed quiet Miss Megumi would have been here by now, fixing the cat's leg. Though she probably wouldn't have been happy about it. Miss Megumi didn't much like Beshimi.

"Why haven't you run?" the unexpected question brought the fox kit's head up in a flash. Beshimi still looked impassive, one eye shut as if he didn't really care about her answer.


"Why haven't you run?" the cat repeated deliberately, opening both eyes to look at the captive fox. "In all the confusion now the dogs would never notice you slipping away, and I can't really chase you with a broken leg."

Tsubame swallowed, tense. It wasn't that she didn't want to leave, but… surely it wouldn't be that easy. She could never leave Miss Megumi behind, and even if she could, the older fox had laid the plans for their escape weeks before they had found their chance. They hadn't even been guarded by the Oniwaban back then, just some of Kanryuu's dogs. And the Oniwaban… there was no way they would have left her with just Beshimi, right? Hannya had to be hiding somewhere in the trees.

Except… Beshimi didn't look like he was lying… and she had heard the Okashira order his followers to their posts. But still…

"Why are you telling me this?" Tsubame kept her voice soft, head tilting to one side in confusion. Beshimi regarded her for a long moment, eyelids sliding until they were half-closed.

"There is someone… very dear to us, who is in almost the same situation that you are now. And if we could dare, we would wish that someone would give her such a chance."

The puppy from Shikijou's stories? It must be. "But Miss Megumi—"

"The healer stays." Beshimi's voice was firm. "But there's no reason for you to remain."

Tsubame put her ears back, annoyed for once. "No reason except Miss Megumi. I don't want to leave her alone."

Beshimi snorted, crooked whiskers shaking, "It would be better for the doctor if you weren't here. You're leverage."

I know that, but… "Leaving her just feels… wrong."

Yahiko panted as he ran through the thinning ranks of dogs. Before this whole crazy assault, he might have thought this job was simple busy-work. Something to keep him out of the way while the adults sorted things out.

But not all of the dogs infesting the camp were running, and while no one seemed to be noticing him at the moment, it didn't mean none of them would.

The young akita-mix sped his way through the camp, heading for the copse of pine trees Shikijou had pointed out. Hard to believe one of the Oniwaban is helping us, Yahiko winced, thinking of Sano's mangled shoulder and bleeding face. Well, kinda.

Shadows and the clean sharp scent of evergreen surrounded him as Yahiko picked his way into the trees, keeping his ears pricked for any noise. After all, it could be a trap. Shikijou had no way of knowing that the pack would send their weakest fighter to check on his story… wait, weakest? Had he really just thought that?! Must still be feeling loopy from the poison. And speaking of poison… Beshimi's voice was trickling in through the gloom.

"…there's no reason for you to remain." Was the cat telling his hostage to leave? Whoa. That's… different. Yahiko crept closer, keeping low and trying to make his movements as silent as possible. The hostage was speaking now, scared but stubbornly loyal to Megumi. Seems about my age? Tricky to tell from the voice. She could be younger. Beshimi made another point, and the puppy prepared to show himself.

Maybe if she saw that there was someone out there fighting for the foxes the girl would be willing to move. The puppy was pretty sure this was not what Shikijou had meant to happen but there was no way he was going to run away from a fight like this. Besides, the camp was almost empty of dogs now and a pair of kids (or one kid and her protector) were a lot less likely to bump into trouble in the camp as opposed to stumbling through the woods, where everyone was running for their lives.

Tsubame hesitated again, but she sounded almost convinced—

"Well, well, won't Kanryuu be interested to know that his pet Oniwaban are letting his prisoners go?"

"Rai!" Beshimi's voice was full of dread.


"Stop right there!" Yahiko yelled impressively, breaking cover.

Beshimi was lying on the ground with his broken hind leg stretched out to keep it straight, staring with surprised dread at a grinning white husky. Yahiko actually had to glance around the clearing a second time to see the fox he assumed must be Tsubame. She cowered at the base of a tree, her gray and bracken patterned fur making her difficult to distinguish in the gloom. But her eyes were a warm brown that was really… pretty, and would have threatened to do funny things to his insides if they weren't wide with terror now.

Yahiko's sudden entrance didn't have quite the effect he'd hoped for. The husky's overall expression of confident glee didn't change, Beshimi seemed more worried about the husky who must be Rai, and Tsubame just kept darting glances between him and the white dog as if she wasn't sure which was the bigger threat.

The akita-mix could feel an annoyed twitch building in the muscle just under his eye. "I'm here for Tsubame!"

The fox kit's darting eyes fixed on him in shock, and Yahiko continued, annoyance ebbing as he puffed out is narrow chest, glad to be noticed. "My name is Yahiko Myogin, son of Samurai. Megumi came to our pack for help."

The husky let out a bark of laughter, stalking forward, "What, you're gonna stop me? Run home to your mama and drink milk, pipsqueak, there's grownup things going on here."

Yahiko tensed, "I am not a kid!" he snapped, "and I'm not running away!"

Rai snorted, "Fine—then you die with the rest of them, kid!"

The young dog had to bite back a yelp as Rai charged, mouth open to inflict damage. Crap! Yahiko backpedaled and dove to one side, nearing the other dog turn with him, right on his tail. Day after day spent fighting with Kaoru kept him moving, trusting his ears, when before he might have turned to confirm Rai's position with his eyes. It galled him to think that Kaoru had helped him with anything, especially a fight, but Rai was fast, and a moment's hesitation could end the fight before it began.

That being said, running away wouldn't work forever. Time for a move he liked to call the slingshot rabbit… not that he'd ever say the names of his moves aloud. Yahiko had a sneaking suspicion that a certain footloose fighting hybrid would laugh at him for days if he ever let it slip.

Putting on an extra burst of speed Yahiko ran alongside a narrow pine, pivoting close to the trunk to suddenly change his trajectory, the dog sped around the tree in a circle and was rewarded with the sight of Rai's fluffy white hindquarters just beginning to follow him around the trunk.

Time for the ankle-biter! With a lunge that almost cost him his footing, Yahiko threw himself forward to snap at the husky's heels. The damage was superficial, but Yahiko's confidence began to return as he went on the attack.

The moment didn't last long, with a pivot of his own Rai spun to face his small attacker, black lips against white fur and fangs visible for an instant before Yahiko felt those teeth clamp down on the loose skin of his scruff and the world tilted as the husky tried to flip him onto his back.

Instinctively Yahiko crouched, trying to lower his center of gravity and make himself harder to move. It was a good thing he wasn't fighting Sano. The hybrid would have no trouble flipping him, given his penchant for tossing dogs around like sticks. Then again, if he was fighting Sano, his life wouldn't be on the line.

"Let him go!" Tsubame's voice wavered with fear even as she gathered the courage to shout. If Yahiko twisted his head to one side he could see the kit standing stiffly, her bushy tail puffed out to twice its normal size and her pretty brown eyes filled with terror.

They shouldn't look like that, Yahiko thought almost absently. Her eyes were so big and so emotional and so nice, it seemed only right that they get to show nice feelings, but so far he hadn't seen any. She's scared, and I'm supposed to be protecting her!

"Stay back!" Yahiko called, the command coming out harsh as he fought to keep his own panic out of his voice. "Don't worry about me!"

Rai made a grumbling sound that was probably a mix between a growl and a laugh, but didn't open his jaws to venture comment. Hostile teeth closed down harder, breaking the skin and Yahiko winced at the pain, feeling a flinch shudder through his body as it instinctively, and uselessly, tried to get away. He wouldn't have thought such a small movement would make any difference, but it seemed Rai had been waiting for just such a distraction. The husky jerked his head violently to one side in the instant that Yahiko wasn't completely braced against the attack.

The young dog's paws left the ground in a sideways slide, claws belatedly spread to scrabble vainly at the ground for a grip. Willpower managed to keep a cry of dismay to a subdued grunt as he crashed to his side like a landed fish, the breath knocked out of his lungs.

Rai's face loomed as the husky dove for an attack on the young akita's throat while he recovered. Panic had Yahiko striking out at the oncoming snout with his paws, luck let him connect and kick the threat back for the second it took to scramble back to his feet.

The white husky ran his tongue across his muzzle. "Give it up, pipsqueak," the husky advised with a chuckle, "you're just upsetting everyone before they die for no reason."

"What?" there was a buzzing in his brain that made his voice sound so distant. Sure Rai meant to kill him, and his pack was on the shortlist of folks Kanryuu didn't want breathing anymore but the only ones here for him to upset… But—she's a hostage, and Beshimi's one of them—Tsubame whimpered quietly, eyes searching wildly for a way out, though she didn't move. She doesn't think she'll make it, not with Kanryuu's goons out there and this guy all set up to chase her.

Rai continued, shifting his gaze to the young fox's trembling form, "Word direct from Kanryuu, kid. We don't need you anymore—not with the state your doctor friend is in."

Yahiko seized on this information about the female who had saved his life, "What did you do to Megumi, you bastard?!"

Rai sighed, shifting to slowly circle the younger dog, "Not everything I wanted to. Couldn't have all of my fun since we need the vixen alive and moving… but you really shouldn't be worrying about her. After all—" the muscles in the husky's powerful hindquarters tensed and Rai leaped forward, "—you're never going to see her again!"

Yahiko saw red, ignoring a voice of caution at the base of his skull he moved to meet the white dog in midair. Rai plowed through him, slowed but not stopped, jaws snapping to try and catch a vital target. Yahiko felt himself spiraling out of any sort of controlled form and thudded hard against the ground for the second time in so many minutes.

He wished he was bigger! It wasn't that he was small, but he couldn't match the husky weight for weight, so he'd never be able to win body to body. But… Kenshin doesn't fight body to body either. He's fast… and slippery—and he used his opponent's weight against them. I don't know if I can, not like Kenshin, but I've got to try.

Yahiko swallowed, gathering his limbs into a crouch but not standing just yet. He couldn't help the glance over to Tsubame and Beshimi. After all, my life isn't the only one riding on this.

Rai was coming in low, angling his muzzle for a devastating bite to his downed opponent. Wait… wait… now!

As the white dog closed in Yahiko sprang towards him, biting down had on the muzzle just above his opponent's nose and throwing himself sideways so that his smaller body didn't crash into Rai's. His weight didn't stop Rai, but that wasn't what he'd wanted, Rai's head was turning, following the pull of Yahiko's body even against his own forward momentum and the husky fell, bent into a crazy arc. Half-dragged along for the ride Yahiko released his prize in favor of clamping his jaws around Rai's fluffy exposed throat.

"You lose!" the younger dog managed to get out around the cottony fur invading his mouth, "Give it up!"

Fine tremors were wracking Yahiko's body and he hoped that if Rai felt them at all he thought it was adrenaline and not fear. But it might be fear, because Yahiko had no idea what happened next. Rai was obviously beaten, and if he surrendered then he shouldn't attack again—right? He didn't want to kill the other dog, wasn't sure if he could even now, standing over the body like this. The akita-mix caught himself wishing for Kenshin or Kaoru, heck, even Sano, and squashed the impulse ruthlessly.

He was here, not them, so he'd just have to do things his way… even if he wasn't sure what his way was. Waiting for a verbal response seemed like a good place to start, maybe Kenshin or Sanosuke could pick up on subtle, unspoken signals from their opponents, but Yahiko had no clue what those might be.

He tightened his grip on Rai's throat fractionally, tension turning him into a rigid statue of a dog. He could hear Beshimi and Tsubame moving nearby. The fox was probably doing most of the moving, but Yahiko didn't quite dare lift his eyes to make sure.

Rai's windpipe swelled as he inhaled, pressing firmly against Yahiko's jaws, then subsiding as he exhaled.

"I give up." Sullenness laced the white dog's voice like bad blood, but at least he'd spoken.

Gingerly Yahiko released the other dog, unsure until that moment whether he'd be able to open his mouth enough to let go. Stepping back he turned to face the wide-eyed Tsubame, she was looking at him as if she wasn't sure he was real. He wasn't sure he liked that.

"Are you okay?" Yahiko managed, shuffling his paws awkwardly, "I mean, I got to you as soon as I could but—you're not hurt or anything, are you?"

Tsubame quivered violently, "I should be asking you that, you're bleeding, and that fight was awful."

Rolling his shoulders to loosen abused muscles Yahiko hid a wince as the motion tugged on his torn scruff, "What, that fight? It wasn't so bad."

He was glad the others weren't here to point out to the fox kit that it had been his first real fight, on his own, without help. The gratitude and awe that Tsubame was regarding him with was shooting little bursts of fizzy warmth to tingle from his chest to his toes, and the last thing he needed was Sano here to muck it up for him.

Beshimi's front paws raked the dirt restlessly. "You're here to take Tsubame to safety?"

Yahiko scowled at the cat, who was eyeing him with thinly veiled dislike. Part of him wanted to lay into the feline for poisoning him—but he didn't have time now, for all he knew the others had already reached Megumi.

"Yeah," Yahiko's ears twitched absently at a rustling noise from behind him. "Shikijou said you guys didn't have a problem—"

Tsubame yelped a warning and Beshimi's eyes widened. Too late Yahiko's brain caught up to the information his ears had been sending. Behind me! The curse he let loose was pure Sano as the akita-mix spun to face the threat. It wasn't going to be fast enough, he could see that in the leaping form of Rai, just barely entering his peripheral vision as the world slowed around him.

But… I beat him! Confusion swirled in Yahiko's head, fighting with his frantic need to do something about the attack. Rai's fury at his loss and embarrassment was like a tangible thing, stuffing itself down the throats of the watchers to suffocate any cries they might make.

Yahiko wasn't going to make it, still turning uselessly, no time to brace himself or dodge.

A golden-tan blur leapt from nowhere into existence, a muscled form slamming into Rai's attack with a force that couldn't be ignored. Yahiko's first disjointed thought was that Sano had followed him after all, but the brown had too much gold in it, and dark scars marred the muscular frame in irregular stripes.

"Shikijou!" A cry of relief and recognition from Tsubame, a satisfied grunt from Beshimi, but Yahiko was speechless as the lion-dog bore the husky to the ground.

White writhed in fury, fangs flashing upward as Shikijou's dark maw came down. Twin bursts of red blossomed in the night, and Rai was still.

Yahiko was frozen, muscles shrieking in protest of that last desperately useless turn, staring at the Oniwaban who'd finished his fight. Shikijou straightened slowly, blood decorating his muzzle and chest.

"But… I beat him." Yahiko's voice was small, plaintive, uncertain. He'd beaten Rai. The loser wasn't supposed to get back up.

The red on Shikijou's chest was getting bigger.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

His voice sounded tired, "If he'd had honor he'd have stayed down." Shikijou's legs were shaking.

Drip. Splash. Splash.

"Don't worry about it, kid. Just keep an eye open next time."

"Shikijou," Beshimi sounded stricken, made a noise of pain as he tried to move toward his comrade. The scarred fighter chuckled, the sound unhealthy and wet.

Yahiko was trembling almost as badly as the lion-dog was, because he could see now that the red stain spreading across Shikijou's chest started at his neck

"Bastard tore open a vein," Shikijou noted almost calmly as he sank toward the ground. "Ease up, Beshimi, we all knew this is how it would end." His legs folded, and he rested his head on the ground. "Tell Lord Aoshi that I'm going on ahead."

"Shikijou…" Tsubame had moved forward, ears flat to her skull and tail curled to a picture of abject misery.

"Don't cry now, little one," Shikijou breathed with a funny sort of smile, "You've got things to do tonight. You're gonna be safe." The light began to fade from the fighter's eyes, "I protected you. Thanks for letting me be myself one… last…"

Yahiko held his breath waiting for the final word, lungs crying out in protest until he realized that the fighter would never finish his sentence.

And suddenly he wanted nothing more than to be back with his pack, even if they did treat him like a puppy in front of Tsubame, because he wasn't grown-up enough for this.

"Go." Beshimi's voice was hollow. "Both of you. Go."

Tsubame looked at the vacant-eyed cat, staring fixedly at a still form. "But… what about you?"

"I'll stay with him."

Yahiko nodded, throat too tight to speak, and turned to lead Tsubame away from the sill scene. As the young pair raced away through the pines, Yahiko could hear the sound of the crippled cat dragging himself to the body of his fallen friend.

Standing on the crest of the central hill, Aoshi admitted to himself that Kanryuu had chosen a good position in terms of defense. To the south they oversaw the basin of the camp, trees sparse enough to easily pick out activity. Sweeping around to the north the hill crumbled into a rocky embankment and the lowlands on that side were salted with the human's traps as an additional deterrent.

Part of the Okashira wondered if the greyhound had taken these things into account when choosing his position, or if he had only wanted to raise his physical position by making use of natural elevation the way he tried to raise himself within his master's pack. Both motivations were possible, but it was an apparently fruitless avenue of thought. What mattered was that, even though Aoshi had conceded the need to protect Kanryuu and his prize, the Oniwaban leader could still see the battle unfolding.

Kanryuu paced a circuit along the summit of the hill, glaring down as his forces splintered and broke before the small pack. Megumi lay huddled in on herself, refusing to look down into the fighting as she gingerly tended to her wounds. The fox flinched at every cry of pain, every angry bark that reached them, as if bracing for Kanryuu's gloating crow that her rescue had failed, that the Battousai and his allies had fallen.

Unlikely, if rumors are to be believed, Aoshi reflected dispassionately. At least, it was unlikely for the slaughterer of wolves to fall to Kanryuu's horde, but an Oniwaban ought to prove more effective.

The leader was entirely unsurprised when Shikijou managed to catch up to Battousai's group and offer challenge, but Aoshi was disquieted to note that Hyottoko never swept in from the east as he had been instructed. The bear may have been one of the less innovative of the Oniwaban, but he had never failed to follow his Okashira's orders.

The group fought on, approaching Hannya's line of defense. Kanryuu growled, not bothering to mask his displeasure.

"Weaklings! That's all those filthy mutts are!" He leveled a glare at Aoshi, "I hope your pack prove to be a better match, Shinomori!"

Aoshi thought of mountain-high glaciers and drew on chill and stillness before replying. "Hannya and I are prepared for battle." He didn't bother saying that at this point even beating the Battousai wouldn't undo the damage. The army it had taken so long to build had fled into the night. Kanryuu's lord would not be pleased.

"An entire unit this damn wolf has cost us," a speculative gleam entered Kanryuu's eyes. "If I could persuade him to join us…"

Megumi tensed, head turning to observe the emptying field for the first time. Aoshi felt a snarl press against his ribcage, consigned it mercilessly to the ice shoring up his soul.

"The Battousai can't be bought with promises of power or territory and your usual methods," he noted clinically, teal eyes scanning Megumi's watchful form, "would be ineffective without support from your followers."

Assuming that the dogs could even get to someone the crimson wolf cared about and extract them from his protection. The Oniwaban might be able to, the chill in Aoshi's soul grew at the very thought. Yes, they might be able to. However, accidents always happened in the field and who could truly say when a captive had escaped… or been freed?

Megumi stirred and slowly pushed herself to her feet. "You want to do this to Sir Ken?" Wine-colored eyes darted to the copse of pine trees, "You would do that to Yahiko?" The puppy, Aoshi remembered, thinking to Beshimi's report. The one the cat had poisoned, and who Megumi had apparently cured. "No more," the fox breathed, the final sigh of wind over an abyss, "let me be the last."

Warning cries went off in the back of the Okashira's mind. Takani's moment, her tone—desolation, despair… The sound of a creature with nothing left to lose.

Kanryuu was half-turning to his captive, a retort already formed, confidence restored as he turned to something he was still in control of. Confidence that shattered at the sight of a black vixen with no skill, only raw determination streaking toward him with murder in her eyes. And Aoshi couldn't let her.

The greyhound let off a choked yelp as his tongue tangled, trying to go from arrogance to alarm in the space of a heartbeat. Megumi reared up on hind legs, dainty—but deadly—fangs approaching Kanryuu's arched neck. The Okashira moved fluidly, wasting none of his actions he appeared beside Doctor Takani and almost gently plucked her from her leap. Her acquaintance with the ground was less careful, but the doctor only looked on in anguish at her unscathed target.

"Let's stop this here," the command was probably unnecessary, the Okashira didn't truly believe that the doctor had another assault in her, but he had to make his own position plain. Behind him, Kanryuu completely lost it.

"How dare you!?" The shriek screeched through the upper reaches of any sane creature's vocal range. "I've been kind to you and offered you a position of importance in the new world, and you…" Kanryuu faltered, spittle spraying from his muzzle. "You shortsighted female!" Furious, the greyhound seized Megumi's left paw in his jaws and bit down hard.

Megumi screamed, and Aoshi wondered how many more cracks his glacier could withstand before he was left with a frozen wasteland.

I am absolutely not thinking of Yahiko, Kaoru told herself firmly as she pried a spotted mutt free of Sano's back. Not that the fighter had seemed to notice his hanger-on, but still, she couldn't help but see he was moving a little slower than before, his injuries from Shikijou taking their toll.

So not thinking of Yahiko really wasn't helping, because all the three males she cared for most in the world were up to the tips of their ears in danger. Of course, she was too—sort of. It had taken a while, but Kaoru was starting to have a deep-seated suspicion that Kenshin was deflecting the worst of the fighting away from her. And her conflicted feelings were making it very easy to lash out at the dogs around her.

On one paw, it was a sweet gesture and she was amazed that he had the concentration, not to mention the ability to pull something like that in this melee. On the other paw… Kaoru snarled at a toothy boxer-mix before attacking it. Damn it, she had told Kenshin from the beginning that she could look after herself, and it annoyed her to no end that she seemed to keep finding herself in situations that made her claims seem untrue. Kenshin did not need to be protecting her in a fight like this, and the tanuki was beginning to itch with the desire to prove it.

Steady, she reminded herself again as a crimson form placed itself in front of some shepherd-wolf hybrid that had been moving towards her. Steady. The important thing is to get to Miss Megumi. Then you can worry about skinning a certain Rurouni for how he chose to do it.

Fortunately, it looked as though they would see the vixen again soon. The dogs that had pressed so strongly against their little pack grew ever-scarcer, and they had made it to the foot of the hill.

Kenshin sent his attacker on his way with a few well-timed bites, and Kaoru suddenly became aware of how still the night had become. Their path was open. After so much effort it didn't even seem real.

Sano craned his head around, searching for any stragglers, "Aw… is that it?" He sounded genuinely disappointed and Kaoru shook her head in disbelief. The fighter was obviously sore all over from the pounding he'd received facing Shikijou, not to mention the sluggish bleeding of wounds that just hadn't had a chance to close properly.

His head might want another fight, but his body has to be ready to collapse.

Kenshin smiled wryly at Sanosuke and took a moment to give his companions a quick once-over for injuries. "We should hurry, that we should, Kanryuu will be growing desperate."

"Not quite as desperate as you will be," the voice was gravel and dark confidence and seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Kaoru tried to disguise her startled surprise and scanned the seemingly-empty trees.

"How many fights have you gone through, Battousai?" the voice continued, ignoring Kenshin's instinctive twitch at the old name, "How well will your companions hold up to another attack? Because even if you win past me," a chuckle like boulders grinding together before a rockslide grated on their ears, "the Okashira awaits at your destination."

Kaoru held back a shudder, Sano was in no shape to fight another of the Oniwaban and Kenshin was right, Kanryuu had to be getting nervous by now. Maybe even nervous enough to cut his losses, kill the vixen and run. She couldn't let that happen, regardless of whether or not she even liked the other female.

Kenshin was shifting, ears angled toward a particular spot—Kaoru followed that invisible line with her eyes and stared until she could pick out the gaunt form of a wolf, almost invisible in the play of night and shadows. The Rurouni stepped toward the stranger and Kaoru hurried to cut him off.

The look on his face was priceless.

"Go, Kenshin. You and Sano have to get to Megumi." The red wolf's brow furrowed in unease.

"Miss Kaoru, it is too dangerous—"

"It's too dangerous for Megumi," Kaoru interjected, stopping his protective speech before he could really get started. "I'll be fine, Kenshin."

The camouflaged Oniwaban growled low, "Do you flee me, Battousai? Will you leave a little female to fight Hannya in your place?"

"You watch your mouth," Kaoru snarled back, pinning the ruined face of the dark wolf with a glare. "I've had enough of you Oniwaban threatening my family!"

"Miss Kaoru," Kenshin began again, no trace of the yielding Rurouni in his manner, "this one will—" He was cut off by a cry of agonized despair from the top of the hill. Megumi…

"Go!" Kaoru ordered, keeping her eyes on the grotesque wolf, Kenshin hesitated a fraction of a second more before giving the tanuki a quick nod and moving away up the hill.

Sano swore feelingly, glancing between her and his departing friend. Kaoru swallowed, mouth suddenly dry now that she was getting what she had wanted.

"Keep an eye on him for me, Sano," she wasn't sure if she was asking or ordering, "He may need someone to watch his back."

Sano grimaced, but Kaoru guessed it was probably supposed to be a grin, "Be careful, missy." Losing no more time the hybrid took off after the crimson wolf.

Kaoru kept her senses trained on Hannya as the Oniwaban sighed.

"That Battousai would flee a battle… perhaps the legends about him were only rumor after all."

The tanuki bristled, "Don't you dare insult Kenshin! There's more to him than just some famous killer, he's a goodhearted guy trying to do the right thing—which is more than I could say for you!"

Hannya exhaled in a quiet hiss of air, "You know nothing. I will defeat you quickly and go to aid my leader."

Kaoru sucked in a quick breath to retort, held it instead as Hannya melted into the background right before her eyes. Damn. Instinct had her tense, half-believing that the Oniwaban had ignored her completely to follow after Kenshin and Sano.

As seconds slid by, she became ever-more convinced of her theory. Rage boiled up in her like a scalding geyser. That old cheat! So all his talk was just talk after all. With a curse she turned to pelt after her packmates.

A line of fire opened on her shoulder, she caught a brief flash of leathery skin and a whiff of something dry, almost snakelike, before the tanuki instinctively jumped away from the source of pain.

Hannya melted back into the shadows. Kaoru bit back a frustrated curse, eyes darting quickly to scour her surroundings. The Oniwaban appeared to be nowhere. He had hardly any scent and made seemingly no noise.

The tanuki wished that she had Kenshin's ears—the Rurouni had better hearing than she ever believed possible. It had gotten to the point that Kaoru decided to never discuss anything that she didn't want Kenshin to know if she even suspected he was in the area. Not that Tae seemed to be picking up on her subtle hints.

Wind creaked through the trees and Kaoru flinched, half-expecting another attack. The sounds that had helped her before mocked her now, and Hannya stayed invisible.

Okay, Kaoru tried to calm the hunted feeling mercilessly squeezing her heart in her chest, I can't smell him, I can't hear him, and I can't see him. That's not very reassuring. If she couldn't find her opponent she'd be limited to counterattacks once he'd already revealed himself. And given the spymaster's stealth, Kaoru had little confidence she would have enough time to pull together a concentrated attack. Think girl, think!

How much time had passed since his first attack? Seconds, minutes? How much time did she have to collect herself and find a plan?

A favorable wind bringing the dry smell to her nose was the tanuki's only warning and she twisted to meet the silent maw that would have snapped her spine at the neck. Hannya knew his strengths, she had to give him that, she only managed a shallow bite at the comparatively thick fur of his ruff before the dark wolf was fading into shadow again, leaving her bleeding from another injury.

He might be lighter than me, Kaoru calculated, if I could catch him in a body-to-body engagement, I could probably win. Which, she assumed, was why Hannya had perfected the art of stealth attacks. Come on, Kamiya, there's got to be a way…

Movement teased the corner of her eye and the silvery wolf turned to look. There was nothing there. Movement, again just in her peripheral vision. Not at all the way a wolf would move, but then, Hannya hardly seemed like a wolf to her anymore. Another shudder of movement, a ripple of shadow sliding through darker shadow for a brief instant, and suddenly it clicked into place. Fishing, that was what the movements reminded her of. Not so much watching for individual bodies of silver and brown as watching for flickers, for patterns of alien movement that might show her when a fish was coming her way.

She had never needed Kenshin's help to fish, which surprised her, a little. If it hadn't been Kenshin, she might even say she was better at seeing through the distortions to where the fish actually was. But it was Kenshin, which meant if she looked better, it was because he was letting her look better.

The shadow hovered, wavering, and Kaoru tried hard to avoid looking directly at it—him. She had no doubt that if she turned and charged Hannya, the camouflaged wolf would be gone by the time she reached her destination. But if she kept him in her periphery and let him come to her… well, that was enough of a warning to make a difference.

For a long moment Kaoru thought he wasn't going to go for it, she had been too obvious in her perusal and now the game would change. It took all of her willpower to turn her head completely away from the concealed wolf to scan the empty forest, as if she didn't know where he was.

Wait. One breath. Wait. Two. Just like fishing. Wait. Her lungs were frozen as surely as if she was facing Jineh once more. Unable to bear it a moment longer, the tanuki whirled to face her silent attacker.

Hannya must have known in an instant that his strategy had failed, but Kaoru had no intention of letting him escape this time.

A barely-coordinated leap flung her to meet him and her lithe frame crashed into his skeletal one. This close she could smell that the snakelike odor came from Hannya's leathery face and it was plain that despite being frozen into a permanent snarl the spymaster's fangs were still deadly. Yellowed teeth snapped for Kaoru's face, which she forced herself to ignore in favor of her own attack. The emaciated wolf's flesh broke before her assault like cobwebs in the wind, a sickening sensation. Dark fur flew free of its owner in lackluster mats as Kaoru savaged the Oniwaban's shoulder.

Moving quickly the she-wolf released Hannya's shoulder to wrap her front paws around her opponent's neck. Scrabbling with her hindpaws, Kaoru bought enough traction to hurl herself to one side, carrying Hannya with her. The fighter landed poorly, his slight mass entirely subject to Kaoru's ploy. The tanuki righted herself fluidly, placing one paw on Hannya's throat to forestall his attempts to move.

"Yield," she advised harshly as she panted for breath. Hannya's pale yellow eye seemed to glare at nothing.

"If I don't, what then? Will you kill me?" He sounded only vaguely interested in her response.

Kaoru swallowed hard, "It would be my right by pack law," she reminded the other wolf. She didn't want to. She hated killing her opponents.

"The Leader's orders were to halt the advance of the Battousai and his compatriots," the gravelly voice took on an almost ritualistic cadence, "The commands of the Okashira are absolute."

The tanuki tried not to gape, "No alpha would ask for the death of his followers!"

A dark chuckle answered her, "How little you know of the world. But the Okashira does not ask for our deaths, that is why we are willing to give them in his service."

Kaoru shook her head, trying to clear it of the camouflaged wolf's twisty logic, "But if he doesn't want you to die… wouldn't he be upset if you died now?"

"Really upset," a young voice broke into her discussion and Kaoru jerked up her head to see Yahiko wide-eyed and breathing heavily from a long sprint standing next to a young fox with pretty eyes.

"Yahiko!" For a moment Kaoru wanted to leave her prisoner to check the akita-mix over for injuries, but a second look revealed the dog to be alright, at least no worse for wear than she herself was. And his stance was ever so slightly off—his eyes might be as wide and wild as they'd ever been when he had needed reassurance, but his posture was firm, angled slightly in front of the fox—Tsubame, Kaoru remembered—protective.

Yahiko's brown eyes searched Kaoru's, then moved down to her captive.

"Shikijou's dead," he told the emaciated wolf, "one of Kanryuu's dogs killed him."

Sano pushed himself, trying to keep pace with Kenshin although the fighter couldn't be sure if he was running in a straight line anymore. His head ached with every jarring footfall and it was a good thing Kenshin's fur was so red because that ache made it really hard to focus on details.

Gotta be almost to the top of the hill. It didn't look that tall, damn fox, couldn't she have gotten kidnapped by someone who didn't like heights? Of course, thinking about the fox brought to mind the scream of pain that had directly preceded their ascent.

She better be all right. Sano's battered body warned that there wasn't much he could do if the fox weren't all right, but he ignored it. She had just better be all right. I don't do rescues and it would be a shame to let this one go to waste.

Further mental ramblings were cut off as the pair finally reached the summit. A black wolf regarded them with expressionless teal eyes, his relaxed posture suggesting that he had heard them coming. That's gotta be Shikijou's leader. The idea that the warrior-dog would take orders from the startled greyhound a little further away was almost laughable. The thin brown and white dog looked like a bundle of nerves, long face lined in arrogant hate and four limbs trembling with fear.

Megumi was at the hound's feet, feebly trying to pull herself away from him using only three legs. Her left front leg was bleeding and curled protectively into her side. The vain vixen didn't look at all like herself, bloody, with black fur matted and disheveled over her injuries.

A growl rumbled through Sagara's chest, and he didn't try to stop it.

"What have you done to Miss Megumi?" Kenshin's voice was tight with anger; Sano was glad that he'd decided to do the talking, because the fighter didn't think he could stop growling long enough to get the words out. The crimson wolf took a step forward, and Kanryuu quailed.


The black wolf moved fluidly to stand between his employer and the two angry fighters. "Battousai," his tone was cold, but not angry, it didn't seem to be anything.

"You are the leader of the Oniwaban?" Kenshin narrowed in on the still threat, the wolf called Aoshi tipped his head in assent. "What this one offered to your followers this one now offers to you. There need be no quarrel between us. Let us pass."

Aoshi raised one brow fractionally, a dramatic change in expression for the wolf. "And when offered such a choice did my Oniwaban withdraw? They did not."

"Then on your own head be this folly," Kenshin snarled and charged.

Until the fight began, Sano had been harboring the idea that he would join in to give Kenshin some backup. Within seconds of its genesis the battle erased such thoughts. Kenshin leapt straight for the immobile Okashira, launching the lightning-quick attacks that were his hallmark. The black wolf sidestepped them, drifting seemingly aimlessly from side to side, always just ahead of scything fangs.

But he looks like he's moving so that didn't make sense. Sano had been on the receiving end of those moves before and he knew Kenshin was fast, impossibly fast. He had to be using his speed to its full advantage now… which was apparently no advantage at all.

Aoshi kept drifting just ahead of the attacks, making it look easy, making Kenshin, Kenshin! look clumsy. And all the while that cool expression never altered.

"Is this really the Battousai?" Shinomori's voice came without inflection. Sano tensed, then watched in disbelief as the larger wolf bit down on red fur. Kenshin wrenched himself away in a crimson arc, putting distance between himself and his opponent. Aoshi had not moved to press his advantage; he tilted his head fractionally to the side, as if inviting Kenshin to try his luck again. The red wolf eyed his opponent with an unreadable expression of his own,

"So this is the strength of the Oniwaban? To hold your territory in the middle of a war, this one had often wondered about your abilities."

The Okashira raised one brow, "As we often heard of the fang of the Isshin Shishi. My followers and I dreamed of the time we would meet you in combat." The brow lowered, teal eyes cool, "And now we find that the truth makes the legend a lie."

Kenshin shook his head, "This one could say the same. There was honor in keeping your home in the face of devastation. Where is the honor in what you do now?"

Aoshi's eyes darkened slightly, "There is honor in life, Battousai."

The Okashira moved like a dark river, relentless and fluid, encroaching on Kenshin's space in what seemed like a few short steps. The red wolf pulled back, the distance he put between himself and Shinomori's attacks noticeably larger than the whisker's breadth he usually contented himself with while dodging.

Can't dodge 'em too close when your opponent is that fast I guess.

Red danced around black like fire flickers in smoke, looking for a place to catch and burn. At every turn though there was the face of the Okashira, focused, blocking any attempted attack. Frustration was an itch under Sano's skin. The fighter wasn't at all sure how Kenshin seemed to be avoiding the same feeling but he had to be; none of his attacks carried the tell-tale energy of aggravation. But his expression, when Sano could glimpse it around the fight, was grim. A sentiment Sano could identify with. The fight had been going on for several minutes now and Kenshin hadn't landed a single hit. Of course, he reminded himself, besides that first bite neither had the Okashira.

From what the hybrid could see, Aoshi's battle-strategy was a perfect defense, allowing the opposing force to attack to exhaustion, at which point they would become easy pickings. He seemed to have speed comparable to Kenshin's, but rather than using it to dodge attacks he used it to prevent their ever being launched.

Kenshin circled one way, then the other, gauging Aoshi's reactions. I know he's good, but he's gonna have to pull one hell of a move—before the fighter's very eyes the crimson wolf vanished mid-step. To his credit, Aoshi did not panic. He scanned his surroundings slowly; his dark ears swiveled on his head, searching for a sign of his opponent. Memory bit at Sano's heels and the fighter looked up in time to see a red blur dropping like a stone from the apex of a leap that no one had seen him make.

Shinomori recovered well, looking up a fraction of a second before the Battousai hit him with gravity's aid, barely long enough to brace his legs for the impact so he was not knocked from his paws. A swathe of red opened on the Okashira's shoulder, the thick scent of blood testifying to the wound's depth. Damn, so that's what that move does. Though something told Sano that particular move could do far worse if Kenshin wished it. Aoshi's injury was awfully close to the back of his neck, after all.

Kenshin landed lightly, stepping out of his opponents range with a few movements that bore echoes of the Okashira's fluidity. Blood coursed down the black wolf's leg, dripping into the dirt.

"So. The Battousai dwells in you yet." Shinomori drew in a breath, becoming utterly still. "In gratitude for sharing your legend, I will send you to your grave with the strength that forged ours."

"Come on, Kenshin! Get him before he can—"

Aoshi moved before Sano could finish his warning. It was just drifting, the same as before, aimless, fluid, unpredictable, but it was faster now, visibly faster, Aoshi's shadowy form appearing and disappearing around Kenshin in flickers of ghostlike movement. The Rurouni stood fast, but Sano could see his senses working overtime to try and find the threat that had to be coming. Muscles flexed in thin white legs as the crimson wolf drew himself up on his toes, poised to flee in any direction.

That was when the attack struck, a confused jumble of forms on Kenshin's far side, more blood twisting into the night air and then down into the dirt. Kenshin fell heavily, his back to Sano as he lay on his side. But the hybrid could see the start of the damage, a vicious wound that started on Kenshin's flank and must curve around to his belly. The red wolf didn't move, and the scent of blood clogged the air.

Aoshi straightened, sliding free of the shadows, cold eyes almost regretful.

"And so ends the legend."

The air seemed to die in Sano's lungs, clogging them with the corpse of a breath he couldn't release. Dimly he could see Kanryuu beginning to relax, Megumi's despairing eyes, Aoshi raising his head to regard the paralyzed fighter. But there wasn't any meaning to it, to any of it. Just rage, hot and red as the body of his friend gently touched by moonlight.

"You bastard," he growled, the new breath he took tasting of blood and fury. "You bastard."

"Insulting the faithfulness of my parents will have no effect on the current situation," Aoshi advised him, not even having the decency to look smug in his victory. "The Battousai is dead and you are in no shape to continue this ill-conceived rescue."

"Rescue, hell!" Sano spat, hackles rising, "That's my friend you just killed! I swear I'll send you after him if it takes every last breath in my body!"

Shinomori moved toward him slowly, giving him plenty of time to decide that his words were folly and to abandon the hilltop.

Except I can't do that. 'Cause there's a Missy and a little kid who think the sun rises and sets with that guy you just killed, and if I don't put an end to you, one of them will. He'd seen what happened when a mentor was killed, and one screwup with a misspent youth was all this pack needed.

The red body bleeding out into the night shuddered.

"While this one appreciates your words, Sano, such action will not be necessary, that it will not."

I'll be damned… The small wolf quivered again, drawing himself up on slightly wobbly white legs. Aoshi stared at his resurrected opponent.


The Rurouni smiled almost sheepishly, "Ah, this one's Shishou was quite determined his pupil should survive, and was perhaps… over-enthusiastic in training this one to withstand attack. It became habit to roll with the impact of a hit."

"Lessening the force of the blow," Shinomori muttered quietly. "It's impressive that you survived, Battousai, but now you are a weakened, tired, your strength seeping out along with your blood." The black wolf moved slowly around Kenshin, "A second time will not see the same result."

Kenshin gave his quiet Rurouni smile, "You speak the truth, that you do."

The Okashira's eyes narrowed and he flickered in and out of sight. Not again! The bleeding from Kenshin's side was slowing but he couldn't possibly have it in him to take another hit like that. The Okashira appeared like shafts of moonlight through trees.

"You have shown me your legend, Battousai, now let us make an end."

Kenshin's smile had slipped away and his posture was different from the first attack. He stood loosely, head hanging low, seeming almost to curl protectively around his injury. Dread was a metallic taste in Sano's mouth, as foul as the scent of blood still in the air.

"It's over, Battousai," the harsh whisper could have come from anywhere. Kenshin shifted his head slightly and abruptly the posture clicked. Black and red collided and blood flew. Aoshi hit the dirt with a gasp, crimson seeping from a throat wound. Kenshin stepped gracefully to one side, observing the fallen wolf.

"Your attack is formidable Aoshi, that it is, however," the Rurouni cocked his head slightly to one side, "this one notes that it would be better utilized in the cover of a dense forest, where you might truly disappear. Likely that is where the technique originated." Shinomori's paws scraped against the ground as he tried to right himself. "You should take it easy, Aoshi, that you should. Your injuries aren't fatal, but they are severe."

Ignoring the words the black wolf forced himself to his feet and haltingly moved to stand between his employer and the ragged attackers once more. "For the Oniwaban, while one can stand, one can fight."

Time was moving too fast, blowing past Kaoru like a howling storm. Time since the pack has split up, since she'd started fighting Hannya, since Kenshin and Sano had gone on ahead. Time was moving too fast, passing to quickly and it felt like she was moving so slow even as she ran up the hill.

How long had Kenshin been fighting? How long since Megumi screamed? It felt like hours, and anything might happen in that span of time. Her nerves weren't helped by the fact that Hannya was running to her right, sliding in and out of focus as he instinctually half-camouflaged himself.

The tanuki didn't think he would attack again, he seemed utterly focused on reaching his alpha, but with Yahiko and the gasping Tsubame gamely trying to keep pace, the she-wolf wasn't inclined to feel very trusting.

Time was moving too fast, trees zipping by in a blur while she crawled at a snail's pace across the ground. Maybe that was why Kaoru didn't realize at first when she had made it to the top of the hill.

They had stumbled into the middle of a confrontation, two wolves facing off while their allies waited in the wings. Her eyes found Kenshin on the left first, his familiar form a bit more red than she remembered, but upright and standing firm. Amethyst eyes found their group and sought her out; giving her the same check over she had given him. Sano stood a bit further back, no worse off than he had been when she last saw him.

To the right a dark wolf that had to be the Okashira stood with the sort of braced determination that indicated he was only upright through sheer willpower. Further right a furious greyhound paced nervously, eyes darting between the new arrivals and Kenshin, trying to calculate which was the immediate threat. At his feet was Megumi. The fox was battered and seemed so emotionally and physically exhausted that even amid all of the distractions she couldn't bring herself to move.

It was a relief to see the vixen alive, but her condition churned bitterly in Kaoru's gut and the tanuki couldn't help but feel guilty for her earlier jealousy.

"Miss Kaoru," Kenshin's voice drew her attention back to him. The Rurouni looked at her, then allowed his gaze to slide to the shadowy Hannya in question. Kaoru glanced back at the grotesque wolf, he was staring at the condition of his leader in what might have been disbelief, but it was hard to tell on that immobile face. Signaling Yahiko and Tsubame to follow her Kaoru slipped over to her pack's side of the hilltop.

"We're all right, Kenshin." Kaoru assured him; the crimson wolf spared a moment's smile for the trio, but soon redirected his attention to their foes.

"Leader," the gravel of Hannya's voice was distressed, and Kaoru was sure that if pride would have allowed it he would have rushed to support his leader. At the sound of one of his pack Aoshi straightened a little further, his desperation became less visible.

"Hannya, report."

"We are betrayed," the grotesque spy's voice was brutal in its grief, in its fury. Kanryuu stopped pacing.

"What are you on about?" he snapped, "There are more important things going on right now! Protect me, you moron!"

Hannya's snarl was a nightmare of sound, "Liar! Your dog killed Shikijou!"

Shinomori was very, very still.

Kanryuu blinked rapidly and blustered, "How could I know about that? I didn't even know he'd returned or where he was!"

"But Shikijou's not the only one. The little ones found Hyottoko, and I confirmed their words with my own eyes. He was surrounded by the bodies of the dogs that you sent to kill him!"

It was then that Kanryuu made what might have been the biggest mistake of his life.

In retrospect, Kaoru could see the thin dog's desperate plan. Aoshi obviously cared for his followers, and would never forgive their deaths. Of all those gathered on the hilltop none wanted Takeda dead more than Shinomori. But belief hadn't quite set in yet, and blood loss was obviously slowing his judgment. It was the only chance Kanryuu was going to get.

Before Hannya had finished his accusation, Kanryuu dashed forward to attack, not the raggedy pack that had decimated his forces, but his own Okashira.

Speed was the greyhound's ally, audacity his refuge. Still shocked by what he had heard, Shinomori was unprepared for an attack from his employer.

Kaoru never saw Hannya move—he simply wasn't, and then he was between his beloved leader and his treacherous boss. There was no time for a counterattack, no time even for Kanryuu to register the change in targets. A narrow muzzle snapped closed, and a lusterless wolf fell at his leader's feet.

Takeda trembled, ears flat to his skull, eyes going wide with panic. Shinomori was very, very still, but his voice was as clear as the shattering of a glacier.

"By the strength of the darkness I will send your soul to hell, Kanryuu Takeda."

Kanryuu's jaw slackened and fear enhanced the arch in his naturally curved spine. This wasn't supposed to be happening. Not now. Not to him. He'd been assured that the Oniwaban had been tamed, that for all of their posturing and snarls, their fangs had been well and truly pulled.

They can't possibly… but the crimson Battousai stood in challenge despite blood and grief, and those bonds that had held his Okashira at bay had been gnawed through and Kanryuu was left to face the demon.

The Okashira wasn't looking at the greyhound; his burning eyes were fixed on Hannya's still form. The wind died away with a hiss, and Kanryuu could see, with painstaking slowness, the fur lining the black wolf's spine slowly standing on end. The growl permeated the air and settled in the greyhound's bones.

Kanryuu fled.

The camp he had taken such pride in was in shambles, deserted by all but his foes. Someone had miscalculated, badly.

Fear lent the hound extra speed as he crashed through the remains of his kingdom, poor vision turning every dim shape into another shadowy attacker. He stumbled over the corpse of the bear, nightmarish in the gloom, surrounded by the dogs he had sent to kill the creature. He had to get away from here, had to get back to his lord and tell him of Shinomori's treachery—if only to watch the vengeance be meted out. After that the Okashira ought to be a broken wolf, and it would be easy enough to rid the night of one more terror clinging to its darker shadows.

He couldn't hear the chase, but he knew it was coming. The Okashira would never stand by and watch this. Kanryuu was so preoccupied with what lay behind him that he missed the warning signs until one of the dark shapes his eyes couldn't make out actually reared up and attacked him. It was small, and fast and so clumsy—he didn't have time to deal with such a foul-smelling little nuisance. It was the work of a moment to snap the crippled animal's spine with a quick bite, but the greyhound feared even that moment had been too long.

An odd howl was rising in his ears, the keening cry of a dark soul wounded past endurance. The lean dog stumbled over the changing landscape and growing fatigue, all sense of direction lost. He wasn't used to running this long. Short sprints to leave pursuers in the dust and then lazy days of luxury, that was what he lived for. The deposed ruler stumbled again, barely noticing that the forest had suddenly sprung up around him, dark and denser than he liked, he couldn't see


Pain was instantaneous, screaming up a foreleg that had broken neatly in two in the face of that awful ripping pressure. Momentum carried him forward when he would have stopped, sending his thin body to the ground, ripping at the hold metal teeth held on delicate skin. He screamed.

Somehow in his panic Kanryuu had run out into the area of forest seeded with the human's traps. Pain made it impossible to think, impossible to move. Every twitch brought a fresh grate of sharpened steel on flesh. The ruined greyhound made so much noise in his agony that he never heard the quiet steps that heralded the black wolf's approach. So Aoshi waited, silent as a specter, watching the dog who had hoped to tame him with unfathomable icy eyes.

Kanryuu couldn't remain ignorant forever. Eventually the fallen dog looked up in horror. Aoshi waited for that look, for the pleading to begin, for the cries of a black soul to smear itself further as he promised anything, anything, for his own safety.

The Okashira bared his fangs. He was sorely tempted to leave Kanryuu to die, slow, painful, agonized—but this was a human trap, and the humans would return to check it. If the greyhound was still alive when they did he could survive. And lesser creatures had found the strength to gnaw off limbs to escape such traps before. No. This call for revenge, this cold fire in his soul—there was only one way to answer it.

White teeth flashed in the shadows, and there was silence.

Silence, and the call of the north.

Sano half wanted to chase after the two who had gone tearing out of view, something sour and surly in him wanting to pitch in and give the greyhound a few things to think about. A subtle shake of Kenshin's head discourage such action. Shinomori would do for Kanryuu, even if he had to drag the scheming hound's body to the gates of hell himself.

On the other side of the hilltop Megumi stirred, slowly picking her way upright on limbs that had once seemed dainty and now only seemed weak and frail.

"Miss Megumi, are you all right?" Kaoru was moving forward to reclaim their wayward fox and something uncomfortable in the fighter-for-hire's chest loosened a tad, because of course the Missy would look out for her now, and they could all go home—

But Megumi shied away from the tanuki's concern.

"Miss Megumi?" Kaoru repeated, confused worry leaking into her tone. The vixen looked up at the crew that had faced incredible opposition to rescue her with eyes that wavered between panic and sorrow.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I got you caught up in all of this."

"It's all right, Miss Megumi," Kaoru had switched to the soothing tone that generally only came out when a certain brat had a nightmare that was just too real to laugh off. "It's all right now. Let's all get back to the den and get some rest."

"It's not all right!" the black fox cried out hysterically, "All of you almost died, and for what, for me?" Takani backed away toward the northernmost edge of the hill, where the ground sheared away in a natural overlook.

"But Miss Megumi, it's all right now, we're all okay." The timid voice belonged to a bracken-colored fox kit who had apparently glued herself to Yahiko's side. Takani's expression softened,

"Tsubame… I'm glad you're safe. But as long as I'm around, you won't be."

Sano broke in, scowling as his approach incited the doctor to retreat even further. "What the hell are you talking about? Of course she'll be safer with you around. We'll all be, with a doc to patch us up."

Anger sparked in wine-hued depths, visible even under the agony that laced Megumi's features. "You don't understand, none of you do." The fox had reached the edge, and the wistful smile she was wearing tied Sano's guts into knots. Aw, hell.

"Thank you so much, and I'm sorry."

Sano was moving before she finished her goodbye, drawing on the last reserve of strength he had to get there before the fox did something stupid.

Turning, Megumi closed her eyes and leapt into the open space beyond the edge of the cliff. Straining his body to its limit, Sano managed to snag her scruff in his teeth and throw on the brakes to prevent being hauled off to his death after her. The fox came to an abrupt, yanking halt, forward momentum lost she dangled from Sano's grip for a second before he could haul her all of the way back.

The black vixen promptly gave up, collapsing to the ground as she was released. Sano glared down at her, anger keeping his legs locked in a standing position when he would have fallen over.

"What kind of crap are you trying to pull, Megumi!" he was yelling, couldn't seem to stop himself, didn't really want to either. "Kenshin and Kaoru and Yahiko risked their lives to save you! And what about the kid—Tsubame, you think she'd be happy watching you die?!"

"You don't understand, if I'm alive they'll always come after me!"

Sano lost all vestiges of patience "Who, damn it?! In case you hadn't noticed, everyone's gone!" Megumi just shook her head, weeping.

"This one believes he understands," Kenshin's voice came, quiet and soothing. "You believe that the purpose for which Kanryuu acquired you survives his death." No one questioned Kenshin's certainty of the greyhound's demise. Megumi looked up at Kenshin, ears back against her skull.

"Kanryuu had a boss… somebody he was taking orders from." The vixen took a gulping breath to try and get beyond her tears. "He was—he was supposed to gather fighters and return north with them. But he grabbed me too, because I'm a doctor."

"And so you would remove yourself from his reach forever." Kenshin nodded, conceding her point. "But, Miss Megumi, this one doesn't believe that fear should dictate when your life is ended. This boss of Kanryuu's, it is true he might come seeking you, but this one doubts it very much. One would certainly urge you not to kill yourself over an event that may never come to pass. You are safe, and we are safe, and as long as you will allow it we will protect you. And in the meantime, there are still lives that can be saved by your knowledge." Megumi shuddered, and then was still, quiet, thinking over what the red wolf had said. Kenshin stepped back and nodded to Kaoru, who moved forward with soothing noises to help the vixen to her feet. Then of course Yahiko had to come over and put in his two cents, trailing a tearful Tsubame who cuddled up to Megumi's side as if she would take root there.

Sano let a breath hiss out, all too aware that it could have easily been another shout.

"It's a long walk back; we should get started," he pointed out helpfully. The sooner this night was over with the better in his mind, he needed a few days of sleep before he tried to puzzle out what had just happened here.

"We'll never make it if you try to lead us back," Kaoru observed with a grin, gently inviting Megumi to share in her mirth. "Come on, let's go." Moving slowly, the triumphant group began limping its way home.

"Crazy vixen," Sanosuke muttered, ears flattening slightly as he scowled at the black-furred fox flanked by Kaoru and Yahiko in her departure. He looked back over his shoulder at that heart-stopping drop, and shook his head.

"She wanted to be saved," Kenshin's soft voice at his side held a smile, and Sano shot the Rurouni an incredulous look.

"Jumping doesn't seem like a good way to go about it then."

The red furred wolf laughed at his friend's undisguised skepticism, violet eyes merry, "Megumi-dono knows the lore of plants Sano. If she had truly wished to die, she might have chosen from a hundred green-growing deaths we would have had no knowledge to cure. That she chose to jump says that she was hoping someone would save her."

Sano cursed, ducking his head as the sound of his voice incited the four traveling ahead them to look back. "Manipulative little vixen…"

Kenshin didn't offer response, pacing sedately ahead with a smile for Kaoru, who was watching the stragglers in slight confusion. Sano shook himself, feeling the ripple of thick fur on his ruff following the motion. She'd wanted to be saved, huh? Wonder what Megumi'd have to say about that. If she had, it hadn't been part of a plan—those scheming maroon eyes had been devoid of all chicanery, filled only with the gut-wrenching sorrow of one who doesn't believe that they deserve to go on.

Trotting to catch up, the half-wolf eased himself into the space on Megumi's left side, turning his head to tease Yahiko about his newfound female shadow. It was a curious feeling, saving someone for a change.

"So you're saying that if I put that stuff on my cuts they'll heal quicker?"

Megumi rolled her eyes, obviously regaining her self-confidence, "Before you wanted my opinion as a doctor and now you don't trust my word."

Sano glanced at the fox skeptically, "Hey, how do I know you're telling the truth, you could be trying to get me to disfigure myself somehow."

"One male with a scarred face is quite enough, thank you." Megumi informed the hybrid archly, she turned to Kenshin with a smug smile, "Of course I'd be happy to see to your injuries as well, Sir Ken."

Kenshin smiled uneasily, "That's very kind of you, Miss Megumi."

"Oh come now, you needn't sound so doubtful, it's no secret that I am the very soul of charity."

Kaoru gave a loud snort at this statement, surreptitiously easing closer to Kenshin so that their pelts brushed with every other step.

"Is it much farther?" Tsubame piped up, glancing up to the adults in curiosity. Kaoru opened her mouth to answer, but Yahiko quickly overrode her response with one of his own.

"It's not too much father now. Are you tired?"

Tsubame turned back to her self-appointed protector, just as the puppy had hoped, "No, I'm all right. I guess I'm just excited." Kaoru couldn't help but smile at the fox kit, she could easily see how the Oniwaban had developed a soft spot for her.

"Well, I hope that you like it, because here we are."

Yahiko covered for his lapse in answer by urging Tsubame to join him as he raced forward to show the young fox the high points of the den and the surrounding area. Sano and Megumi followed at a more sedate pace, bickering still as Megumi mused aloud on the multitude of plants she would likely need to patch up the pack.

Smiling, Kaoru turned to see Kenshin, standing apart from the pack, looking back the way they had come. Quietly the tanuki moved to stand beside him, her smile fading as she caught sight of his somber expression.

"Kenshin? Is everything okay?"

With an effort the Rurouni turned from his vigil to offer the female a small smile.

"It is nothing, Miss Kaoru, that it is."

"Kenshin, why don't you just tell me what's wrong?" the tanuki huffed in exasperation. The crimson wolf winced, then looked away again.

"One was only thinking that something must be going on up north."

Kaoru frowned, "North?"

Kenshin's head dipped in a brief nod. "Yes. First Jineh came down, now Kanryuu and the Oniwaban. And the one behind Kanryuu… one can't help but wonder what turmoil is brewing."

A stray bit of gossip clicked in Kaoru's mind, "You're… from the north, aren't you?"

Kenshin's voice remained grave, "It is this one's homeland, yes. A long time ago, this one fought in a pack-war there—but that fight is long over. Still, this one can't help but feel… uneasy." The red wolf sighed and shook his head, meeting Kaoru's concerned gaze with a smile. "This one is only borrowing trouble, Miss Kaoru, that I am. Shall we rejoin the others?"

Kaoru returned his smile, but hung back a moment as the Rurouni made his way over to the boisterous pack. Almost against her will she turned her face into the cold wind blowing down from the north.

"Leave him alone," she whispered fiercely into the oncoming winter. "Kenshin's ours now, leave him alone."

The wind did not answer, and, fighting an inexplicable sense of dread, Kaoru turned back to the warm knot of family and friends outside her den.

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