Amber Forest

Chapter 12- Cold

Say goodbye

As we dance with the devil tonight

Don’t you dare look at him in the eye

As we dance with the devil tonight

-Breaking Benjamin, Dance with the Devil

Yahiko woke to stifling heat and bit back a curse. He had somehow gotten sandwiched between Kaoru and Kenshin’s sleeping forms—not, unfortunately, that this was unusual. Ever since the rescue the pack had been sharing tighter quarters than normal as the addition of two more bodies strained a space that had been cozy for four.

Painstakingly extracting himself the puppy tried hard to remember that it was just for a little while longer. It had taken Kaoru only one night to admit that the den she so steadfastly defended against criticism was too small for all of them. That had been over a week ago. In the intervening time the ugly girl had discussed the situation with Tae; the bobcat had immediately taken a shine to Tsubame and was sympathetic toward Megumi. She had offered to stay with the foxes if a suitable place could be found. It was finding that place, Yahiko groused, that was so tricky.

The foxes, naturally, would prefer to sleep underground in a burrow with at least two exits. Tae wanted a sturdy tree with limbs that could hold a napping cat. Yahiko wouldn’t have thought this combination such a hard thing to find—but then there was proximity to Kaoru’s den to be considered. Megumi was still a bit jumpy, and as long as nobody knew what had happened to Aoshi they were unwilling to let the doctor stray far.

Yahiko’s paw came down on Sano’s tail (the hybrid was sprawled out, taking up twice as much space as anybody else) by accident and the adult snarled at him sleepily. Other than that nobody moved. It must be pretty early still, and Yahiko noticed that the adults slept more deeply while their wounds were healing. Thanks to Megumi’s wonder herbs, that work was almost completed.

The akita-mix took a moment to scan the den. Sano, as he already noticed, was on his side, half-blocking the front entrance. Megumi was a tight black ball of fur pressed against the wall. It had come as something of a surprise that as touchy-feely as the doctor was when awake, she intensely disliked anyone touching her when she slept. Just another reason to find the vixens a new home. Kenshin and Kaoru rested by the back wall, and now that Yahiko was no longer between them they seemed to have inched closer together. The only one missing was Tsubame.

Curious, Yahiko turned his head toward the entrance, but Sano’s wheezing breaths drowned out any sound that might have filtered in from outside. With a last look back at his family, the young dog made his way outside. He didn’t have to look far for the pretty young fox—she was sitting just outside the den, tail curled shyly around her paws, staring expectantly at the sky.

“Good morning,” Yahiko blurted, darting a glance of his own heavenward to double-check his greeting. The sky was still dark, but it was probably getting close to sunrise. Tsubame started and looked at him with wide eyes.

“Oh! Good morning, Yahiko. I didn’t expect anyone else to be up yet.”

The urge to impress the pretty young fox was overwhelming, and Yahiko kinda hated it because he was convinced it was making him feel clumsy and stupid, and he wasn’t, he knew he wasn’t. His tongue still felt thick and useless though.

“Uh, yeah. It’s early. But it was getting crowded in there.”

Tsubame cocked her head to one side, “Really? I thought you looked very comfortable.” All snuggled up to Kenshin and Kaoru like some sort of baby. The tips of Yahiko’s ears burned and he sat down quickly to keep his tail from giving him away by going down.

“Feh, what are you doing up so early anyway?” His tone was defensive, but for once the sensitive fox seemed not to notice.

“It’s going to start snowing soon.”

Yahiko blinked. “How can you know that?”

The bracken-colored kit looked shyly at her paws, “I’ve always been able to tell, there’s a feeling in the air when the weather’s about to shift. It’s hard to describe.”

Yahiko eyed the girl doubtfully, then raised his head and strained his senses. It didn’t really seem any different, the smells, the late-night-early-morning sounds, nothing looked different. He glanced at Tsubame from the corner of his eye and found her looking skyward again.

“With snow,” she explained, “it’s a stillness, as if all the world holds its breath.” Yahiko frowned, searching for the feeling she described.

“There it is!” Tsubame moved to her feet, smiling up through the trees. Tiny flakes of white drifted down through the uppermost branches, falling so slowly Yahiko was almost afraid to breathe. Was that the stillness she meant?

The icy crystals reached them and slowly began to cover the ground. Tsubame laughed in delight, spinning in a quick circle before leaping into the air to catch a flake on her nose. Yahiko felt a grin stretched across his own features and joined her playing in the snow.

It felt like he was bringing the snow with him. Flakes scurried along in his wake like restless ghosts, behind him the northern territories were blanketed in a white that dogged his heels. Cold grew in patches, thickening reluctantly over the ground, as if the North was expanding its territory. A reflexive snarl momentarily tightened the wolf’s features: that was the curse of the North.

In seasons past he had watched the relentless quest for more ravage his homeland, had fought fang and claw for his ideals alongside his pack. That pack was gone now, but the ideals, the responsibility, remained. He was blood and bone of the North, set to keep watch over her boundaries and to drive back her demons. It was this that spurred him south in the start of winter.

Two creatures had ducked his authority, seeking to endanger other lands with their poison, but justice was hard on their heels.

Bringing the snow.

Bringing the cold.

Bringing the North.

Bringing death.

Sano stretched with a groan that petered into a sigh, feeling his back legs just brush Megumi’s form and the fox’s unconscious and instinctive retreat from the thing encroaching on her space. Blearily opening his eyes he raised his head to look around. Faint sounds of young beings at play filtered in from the den exit, answering the silent question of where a certain young dog and fox had got to.

…And since a certain runt wasn’t in the den anymore… Sano looked over at Kenshin and Kaoru. Just as he’d expected. In lieu of anything keeping them apart the pair had... well, cuddled would probably be the best word.

Kaoru had moved so that her head was resting on Kenshin’s forepaws, while the curve of the crimson wolf’s body wrapped around the tanuki’s and his own head rested on her neck.

Sano snorted ruefully, it was a common enough sight with the den so overcrowded—everyone tended to wake up in awkward positions, but the hybrid was willing to bet a good elk bone that one or both of the wolves was actually awake. He was betting on the Rurouni being the one pretending—as he’d told Megumi, the Missy just didn’t pull off deceit well, and her face was too relaxed, serene even, for her to be awake and clinging to a few more moments of unconscious affection.

If it had been any other pair Sano was observing he would have huffed and rolled his eyes, but, well, he liked Kenshin and Kaoru a bit too much for that. It bothered him for the first time that he didn’t know any of the wolf customs for showing interest in a potential partner, because he kept getting the feeling that the tanuki and the Rurouni weren’t going about it in the usual way.

With a sigh the hybrid pushed himself to his feet and indulged in a quick shake. They were another day closer to an emptier den, maybe the change in circumstances would inspire his friends to talk about the feelings they so obviously shared. In the meantime, there were kids to go annoy.

The day started late, probably due at least in part to the dark clouds scattering gentle snow and the accompanying chill in the air. The sort of persuasive cold that convinced one to curl up a little tighter, snuggle a little warmer, and let the rest of the day be lost to dreaming.

Eventually however, roused by the good-hearted but definitely not soft-voiced romping going on outside, the three remaining adults moved out into the elements.

Sano grinned roguishly, pausing in his lazy pursuit of a gleeful Yahiko to eye the newcomers.

“Well hello there. Finally decide to give up on beauty sleep?” His gaze shifted to pin down Megumi in particular, “Because I can tell you now, I don’t think it’s really working for you.”

Kaoru couldn’t help but be grateful that Sano had chosen to focus on the fox this morning, she had an uncomfortable feeling that the hybrid could easily have gone after her.

Wine-colored eyes narrowed in annoyed distaste, “I doubt that you would look any better even if you slept a hundred seasons.”

Sano shrugged, his shaggy ruff moving gently with the motion. “So sorry to be offending your delicate sensibilities with my ugly mug your worshipfulness—but don’t you fret, soon enough we’ll find you a decent place to sleep so you don’t have to see it anymore.”

Kaoru sighed gently, raising her head to watch the snow softly alighting on her muzzle. After so long of winter threatening to fall, it almost felt surprising to see it here, as if the shift of the season had brought a shift in her life, a blind turn now in view, the destination unknown.

Still, it was beautiful.

Kenshin stood out sharply against the whiteness beginning to blanket the ground and the tanuki couldn’t help but wonder if Kenshin had managed to be at all sneaky up North, where she knew the snow lingered for months longer than it did here. But if Kenshin was thinking of his former home such reflections were hidden behind placid violet eyes.

The sharp-edged banter that passed between Megumi and Sano continued and Yahiko, distracted from whatever game he was playing with Tsubame, threw in his own jabs. After a moment Kaoru realized that she was subconsciously waiting for Kenshin to step forward with a few words to quell the argument, but the crimson wolf was silent, unfocused. Maybe the snow is affecting him more than I thought.

She knew the Rurouni was worried about the North—he had admitted as much a week ago, and if the change in the weather had her thinking of that distant land, it was likely that he was as well.

“Sounds like I got here just in time!” Tae’s voice rang out through the cold and the escalating arguments. Kaoru twisted her head to look up at the bobcat, high above them on the bough of a tree, smiling as if she had caught a canary.


“Hello, Kaoru, everyone. Good news, I’ve found a place that might work for us.”

Relief was an instant reaction; muscles Kaoru hadn’t even realized were tense in her back relaxing in the space of a moment.

Tsubame’s brown eyes were wide and pleased. “Really?”

Tae worked her way down the tree, landing in a patch of snow and shaking her paws in disdain of the cold wet before giving it up as pointless. “Yes, really. It’s not far from here, but private enough. A hollow at the base of a dead oak tree—there’s only one way in or out, but I figure you lot can sort that out easily enough.”

Kaoru chuckled, not missing that Tae held herself exempt from the digging. “Well don’t keep us in suspense, Tae. Show us!”

With a Cheshire grin and an abortive flick of her bobbed tail Tae turned to do just that.

The hollow wasn’t quite perfect, despite Tae’s claims, but it was easily the best thing they had found for the foxes thus far. The space under the tree had to be enlarged a bit so as to fit its new occupants comfortably (Kaoru only had to look at Yahiko to remember that Tsubame wasn’t done growing, even if she knew the fox was never going to be as big as the dog.)

Megumi was consulted for the location of a back door, though after the fox had decided on a spot she remained suspiciously aloof from the digging effort. Instead she chose to take Tsubame off on a quest to find what bits of bracken and leaves had not been buried by snow and line the den with them. It was a trick Kaoru had never tried herself, though she knew it was supposed to help make a space warmer. With the addition of Yahiko, Sano and Kenshin however, she doubted if her den would ever feel cold again. And that was a warm thought indeed.

After noon had passed the group took a break to hunt a quick meal, the slowing snow charming several unfortunate animals from their burrows. But the other side of the meal saw them working again, digging in shifts, working from within the den and without.

Sano groaned and sat back on his haunches. If he had to do much more of this work then he would go mad. Was it really so long ago that he’d been a vagabond? Sleeping on any surface that stayed still long enough for him to plop down on it; content with the knowledge that a new day would find him with new earth under his paws and a new sky over his head. Who would have ever thought that not only would he have a spot of his own, but would be spending a whole day making a home for somebody else? Especially someone as annoying as the vixen.

Still digging, Yahiko shot the sitting adult a dirty glance. “Come on, Sano. We’re almost through.”

The hybrid gave another theatrical groan, “We were almost through hours ago… I need a break from looking at all this dirt or my eyes will think I don’t love them anymore.”

The young dog’s response was a scathing look, “Your eyes think? Must be pulling double duty to make up for all the work your brain’s obviously not doing.”

“Oh, ha ha, you’re a regular riot. I should leave you to finish by yourself for that.”

“Yeah?” Yahiko was unimpressed, turning back to his digging smugly, “you go ahead and try that. See how far you get before the girls are on your back.”

Sano couldn’t stop an involuntary wince. There is something wrong with the world when a vixen, a cat, and a tanuki make me more nervous than a fight. Not that he got nervous before fights, but the point remained.

Of course, now that Yahiko had all but dared him…

“Watch and learn kid.”

The dog rolled his eyes but otherwise didn’t look away from his digging.

These girls are bad for my rep… Rising back to his paws the former fighter-for-hire worked his way out of the tunnel they were digging and out into the gray light of the snow-covered day.

“And where are you going?”

Sano waited a moment before looking up the tree at Tae, determined to play this cool, “Just stretching the old paws,” he grinned roguishly, “I was thinking of running out for a bit.”

“While everyone else is working.”

Sano bit back the observation that the cat wasn’t doing anything at the moment. “I’ll be back before you miss me,” he told her instead. “Thought I’d go and see about some of those pheasants I owe you.”

One brow on the cat’s spotted face arched in polite disbelief, “Of course you were.”

Sano feigned surprise, “Well, if you don’t want me to pay you back then naturally I wouldn’t dream of it. It would be a relief to me anyway. How many did I owe you again? Four?”

“Six.” Tae corrected instantly, hesitating before continuing, “Oh all right Sanosuke, go on.”

Sano let another grin stretch across his muzzle as he padded away into the snow. Okay, so it wasn’t quite the glorious in-your-face exit he might have implied to Yahiko, but a win was a win.

The hybrid slipped easily into the snowy world, confident in his ability to find his way back to the others once he finished his ramble. He was starting to get to know the territory, if he did say so himself. The trail of pawprints he was leaving in the snow in his wake didn’t hurt his chances either.

About an hour later, when he was satisfied that most of the work had been done without him, Sanosuke turned to begin moving back toward the fox den in a lazy arc. The faintest stirrings of guilt pricked at him, and he resolved to keep an ear out for possible meals lurking in the trees. Not that he would go out of his way; the tab he was running up with Tae wasn’t that bad… yet.

By now he figured the exit was done and the rest of his pack would be saying goodbye and returning to their own den to let the foxes settle into their new home in privacy. If that was true and he was likely to run into Kenshin and the others en route, completely bypassing the need for any awkward almost-goodbyes to the vixen… well, that was just a fortunate coincidence.

Goodbyes were tricky things for fellows with itchy paws, he had long ago decided he didn’t like the taste of them and so they went unsaid as he faded away into the night wind. And it wasn’t as if he was never going to see the females again. They were neighbors living in the same territory for pity’s sake. Best to leave all that emotional blubbering to the Missy and the kid.

Snow crunched under his paws, compacting reluctantly against the ground as the hybrid made his way through the early winter. It wasn’t something that happened all at once, it was little things, slowly. The ears that should be lazily listening for a meal started straining at his skull, swiveling to pick up the faintest of movements. The line of fur that ran down his spine rose slowly with a prickling sensation. By the time that Sano caught himself peering suspiciously into the frost-rimmed undergrowth the fighter’s instinct that had kept him alive through seasons spent on his own making other dogs very unhappy with him was snarling a warning from the base of his skull to his already-quickening heart.

The hybrid stopped in his tracks as the sky overhead darkened with the promise of more snow.

“Alright,” he pitched his voice into an aggressive tone that carried well through the frozen stillness, “I know you’re out there. Come on out.” He thought about then quickly discarded the idea of tacking on a more pleasant message in case it was one of his group messing with him, if it was then there would be plenty of time for friendly apologizes once they stopped skulking around the cold shadows.

It hurt the fighter’s pride a little bit that he wasn’t looking in quite the right spot when the interloper appeared, but he quickly quashed the feeling to observe the silent visitor. The newcomer was a wolf, tall, surprisingly tall to Sano, who realized that his perception of normal might be slightly skewed from dealing with the shorter Kenshin and Kaoru. The wolf was similar to Sano in build, though slightly more muscled and less lean, his pelt was the mottled combination of gray and white that was so common and his narrow eyes were the color of old gold. Killers eyes… Sano pushed back the intuitive whisper, though he didn’t discount the warning entirely. Settling his weight a little more firmly into his stance Sano shot the stranger a humorless grin that had far more teeth in it than was strictly polite.

“Well hello there. Awful rude of you, barging through folk’s territories without so much as a by-your-leave.”

The stranger arched a brow, his voice calm, “The nature of my mission is urgent, I have no time to cater to… diplomacy.” He spoke the word with the distaste one usually reserved for life-long enemies. Part of Sanosuke wanted to sympathize, he’d wandered over a few boundaries in his time, and banged his admittedly hard head against pack-law diplomacy a few more, but that fighter’s instinct was still buzzing in his brain, reminding him of the two kids he’d played with only that morning and how easy it would be for one of them to be out here instead, counting on the safety of being in their own territory.

“Must be something pretty important,” he agreed tightly, “Which is why I figure that you get to tell me about it now. Seeing as I live in this territory you’re barging through.”

This was no time to confuse the issue with who owned the territory, especially since he knew Kenshin and Kaoru hadn’t really worked that out for themselves, they just kept putting off talking about it. And according to that ever-intrusive pack law, Sano was well within his rights to drive the intruder to the nearest border with malice aforethought.

Dark amber eyes narrowed in displeasure, lent severity by the juxtaposition of white and dark gray spreading across the wolf’s face. “I come from the northern territories, I am in pursuit—”

Sano cut him off with a snarl, not needing to hear any more. Moving instinctively he lowered his center of gravity, his tail held out rigidly behind him. “So you thought you’d just come down and kidnap them, is that it? You damn bastards, when will you get it through your heads that they aren’t any of your business.”

The stranger’s lip curled, though he held himself curiously still, avoiding the shift to a fighting stance that Sano had anticipated. “Careful, boy. You don’t know what you’re getting in the middle of.”

“I know exactly what I’m doing; this sick quest of yours stops here.

The wolf stilled further, almost seeming not to breathe, sending alarm calls howling through Sanosuke’s head—because that was way too close to how Kenshin looked before he cut loose for the former fighter-for-hire’s sanity.

“How highly you must think of yourself,” the stranger intoned softly, “how big you must think yourself to stand between me and my honor-sworn duty.”

What honor is there in going after a scared female and a kid? “Big enough to stop you!” Sano roared and thundered toward his motionless opponent.

“Not hardly,” the wolf corrected, and moved.

It wasn’t like watching Kenshin, because Kenshin was so graceful even in the midst of violence that the eye sometimes forgot it was even supposed to be watching him, his movements were so fluid and natural. But that was the only thing that even came close in Sano’s experience. The stranger moved in hard-edged lines, sharp, almost jerky, but so quickly that they had their own sort of grace.

Sano’s pre-emptive attack never landed one hit. The stranger stepped to the side and laid open Sano’s flank to the bone, allowing the half-wolf’s own momentum to do the brunt of the work. Sanosuke groaned at the pain, but didn’t allow himself the luxury of dwelling on it, turning quickly to snap at his foe in retaliation. The stranger had moved back and Sano’s teeth closed clumsily on empty air.

The intruder’s next move was odd-seeming, almost slow and deliberate. He settled the majority of his weigh on his back legs then used them to leap forward, launching his body from motionlessness to unstoppable speed in the space of seconds. But the damaging fangs didn’t retrace their path on Sano’s body—his opponent slammed into him, his full weight crashing into Sano’s injured side, causing the injury he inflicted to scream in pain and Sano to stagger for a step, trying to keep his four paws under him.

What the hell? How could anyone hit so hard? His lungs felt bruised and he was dizzy after only two hits. Who the hell is this guy?

The guy eyed him without sympathy, without remorse, then savage fangs were tearing at his already injured side and the snow was coming up to meet him as he stained it crimson in sprays.

Dark earth crumbled before industrious paws, filling the air with the scent of the promise of new life. Kenshin clung to that thought as he dug, trying to duck the creeping dread that was wrapping icy tendrils around his heart. Beside him Kaoru worked with the same shining and stubborn determination that she always did.

And silence, which he wasn’t sure if he was grateful for or not.

If she wanted to speak, the Rurouni knew he’d be a poor conversationalist, distracted and brooding, but at the same time he didn’t want to worry the silvery female. And he had noticed that Kaoru ended toward a sort of bruised, introspective quietness when well and truly worried.

The earth before them gave way steadily as the pair dug on, scraping away pawfuls of dirt from the tunnel end. If Kenshin focused he could hear the quieter off-rhythm digging of Yahiko and Sano coming from the other end of the tunnel. It couldn’t be long now. The back door would be finished and the den would—at last—be ready for the foxes to move in.

The pair worked on in silence until a short time later when the earth crumbled away to reveal dirty white paws darting in and out of sight from the other side. From there the remaining ground fell away quickly and the tunnel was finally complete.

“Yahiko,” Kaoru’s voice was raised slightly in surprise, “where’s Sanosuke?”

The dirty puppy bristled, already-spiky fur jutting out even farther. “He decided he wanted a break and left,” Yahiko groused sourly. “I can’t believe Tae let him leave!”

“I can’t believe he didn’t skip out earlier,” Miss Kaoru returned with a smile. “This sort of work isn’t really his style.”

Kenshin found himself chucking in agreement as the three remaining workers filed through the tunnel and back into the den, where Megumi and Tsubame were spreading around the fresh-dug dirt to keep the ground level.

Megumi glanced up first, taking in the begrimed diggers. Kenshin was not at all surprised to note that the healer had contrived to remain spotless.

“Finished then?” she inquired politely, though Yahiko’s presence made the completion of their task obvious. The young dog threw out his narrow chest importantly, surreptitiously looking at Tsubame from the corner of his eye.

“Of course! It was no trouble at all!”

Kenshin smiled and kindly observed, “Yahiko did very well indeed, especially since he finished the work alone.”

While Tsubame stuttered thanks and praises Megumi rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation.

“So, the idiot ran off. I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“I don’t think anyone is,” Kaoru agreed dryly. The black vixen smirked and sidled closer to Kenshin.

“It’s so refreshing to have a male you can depend on around.”

Kenshin fought to keep the discomfort off his face as Kaoru went from annoyed to infuriated in a heartbeat. Gently he sidestepped so that the doctor’s dark pelt was no longer brushing his own. Perhaps he was being rude, but the Rurouni felt… tired and numb from his dark thoughts. Really, he just wanted to go back to the den, so he could breathe in the scents of his friends and try to hold their presence up as a guard against the nightmares.

“Yes, well,” he managed a smile in the face of the impending storm, “if that’s all, we will leave you to settle into your new home, that we will.”

Megumi blinked at him, and Kenshin wondered if perhaps his smile wasn’t quite up to its usual standards. But the fox smiled back at him after a moment and the group said their goodbyes.

The snow had begun to pile up in their absence, though it wasn’t yet so deep as to make travelling difficult for even Yahiko. Although he wasn’t familiar with how this particular territory acted in the winter, Kenshin had a hunch that this first snow wouldn’t stick around for long—the earth beneath it would make a few more scattered reappearances before being locked in white until spring.

Free of the dark underground, Yahiko moved ahead of the adults, observing his snow-covered world with the quick interest of the young.

“I have to say,” Kaoru interjected into the companionable silence, “I’m glad that Megumi and Tsubame have their own space now.”

“It will be good for them to have some privacy again,” Kenshin agreed.

“And it will give us some space again,” Kaoru continued, “I mean, at the very least it will give Sanosuke a chance to relax, he always seems so tense around Megumi.”

“That’s true,” the Rurouni mused thoughtfully, “though this one would imagine much of that simply has to do with their respective personalities.”

“They do seem to get along like a pair of squabbling crows,” Kaoru laughed with a smile. But the laugh was short, petering away into stillness as the tanuki glanced at Kenshin from the corner of her eye.

She had been shooting him similar looks all day. They were easy enough to read, as Sano took great delight in saying, Miss Kaoru didn’t have any sort of deceptive nature. She was, Kenshin thought fondly, exceptionally easy to read. The looks now were… concern. Quiet worry warring with a nagging frustration that was likely born from her apparent resolve not to bring the matter up. Kenshin caught her look and smiled back at her, hiding the hint of warm amusement that sparked when she realized she had been caught and her ears flattened in embarrassment.

“Kenshin…” the female said hesitantly, looking at him a bit more openly. “Is everything… okay? It’s just,” she hurried on, gaze sliding away to land fixedly on the snow beneath her paws, “You’ve been pretty quiet lately, and I know we’ve all been stressed, but I can’t help but think that there’s more to it than that.”

“This one hasn’t meant to worry you, Miss Kaoru,” Kenshin tried to reassure her. Kaoru ducked her head, an embarrassed smile flickering across her muzzle.

“I know, but I can’t really help it, Kenshin. You’ve been so quiet lately and I’m not sure what’s going on.”

The red wolf hesitated for a moment, “This one… has been having dreams.” Even saying it sounded equal parts ominous and superstitious, but there was no taking back the words.

“Nightmares?” Kaoru pressed quietly, waiting for his brief nod before continuing, “What of?”

“The North, mostly,” Kenshin admitted, glancing reflexively in that direction, “the past.”

“Not of the pens?” Kaoru seemed a bit surprised so Kenshin just shook his head. It wasn’t strange that the tanuki should suppose that his bad memories centered on his time as a captive, especially since he had made such an effort to conceal just how dark the days in the north had been. Though it wasn’t quite true that the dogfighting didn’t come into his dreams.

His slumbering mind frantically mixed memories, turning the alpha of the Isshin Shishi into his jailor, Katsura into the one who rattled his cage. He would be released and tumble away from iron bars and straw and dirt into icy whiteness and black shadows. In a black and white world he brought a wrenching rape of color, splashing crimson on the snow as he hunted down and killed the alpha’s targets.

This wasn’t a fight, not like the pens, which had at least been honest. He skulked in black shadows, he gave no warning, he attacked in silent fury and gave no chance for surrender. Again. And again. And again.

He corrupted the purity of the snow, staining it a scarlet that climbed up the trees until he was running through an endless forest of blood. Until… a black shape rose before him, heartbreakingly delicate, and he knew it would be swallowed by crimson—and he would awaken in the den, senses spiraling out to reassure himself that the ghost had not followed him.

“I’m guessing it was pretty bad up there,” Kaoru offered into the quiet, looking ahead to Yahiko to avoid seeing Kenshin’s reaction. Waiting to be shut out again. That seemed… he didn’t want to…

“It was war,” he answered slowly, “a war that had gone on so long that neither side was behaving honorably any more. Well,” he corrected, “the leaders weren’t anyway. There were those among the Bakufu who fought with integrity, one could almost count it as an honor, meeting them on the field of battle.”

“Honorable opponents,” Kaoru mused with a small smile, “after Kanryuu, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

Kenshin couldn’t help the quiet snort. (Sano was perhaps rubbing off on him.) “Indeed. They would never have stood for such underhanded measures. This one believes that even the Bakufu leaders were wary of crossing them.” The crimson wolf caught Kaoru’s serious and considering expression, “What is it?”

The female blinked, falling back on a slightly unsure expression, “It’s nothing really; it’s just that you’ve never really opened up about your past before. Not that I’m complaining,” she hastened to add, “I’m glad you’re talking to me about this, it’s just…” a shrug rippled the fur on her shoulders, “different.”

Kenshin couldn’t quite find his regular smile, so the one he gave her in return was a little lopsided, but Kaoru didn’t seem to mind.

Of course that was when the wind shifted and the scent of blood chilled the air around them.

Kenshin barely noticed Kaoru’s sudden tensing as she recognized Sano as the blood’s owner, already turning to call Yahiko back to them. The young dog had noticed and instinctively made his way toward the adults. Kenshin managed to let him reach them before pulling ahead of the pair in a lope, following the scent of blood in his nose and the dread weighing down his bones.

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