Amber Forest

Chapter 13- Shattered

I don’t know what stressed me first

Or how the pressure was fed

But I know just what it feels like

To have a voice in the back of my head

Like a face that I hold inside…

-Linkin Park, Papercut


A voice, chill as the air it moved through drifted to Kaoru even before they made it onto the scene.

“Your resolve is impressive,” a stranger’s voice said, “but your perseverance is foolhardy. Further attempts to move will cause you irreparable harm.”

There was a moment’s sharp anxiety and then the three canines burst onto the scene.

“Sanosuke!” the name spilled unbidden from Kaoru’s mouth, the same way that the hybrid’s blood spilled from his wound. He was still alive, wonderfully, obviously, alive.The fallen fighter struggled to regain his feet, though he was having no luck and his brown eyes were unfocused, not even glancing toward the arrival of his friends.

Satisfied that her pack-brother was still breathing, Kaoru allowed her eyes to search out the other figure. The tanuki barely had time to register impressions of tall, storm gray, snow white and amber eyes before some sixth sense compelled her to look back at Kenshin.

The red wolf had gone still, frighteningly still—even the white puffs of breath from his muzzle were gone. His head was up, every sense alert, locked on the stranger. For a moment Kaoru thought she saw a tint of amber in his eyes, but it must have been some visual trick left over from deep gold of the stranger’s eyes.

“Who are you?” Yahiko’s angry question broke the spell that Kaoru was under and she tore her gaze away from the crimson Rurouni to desperately search for Yahiko, making sure the brave fool hadn’t approached the stranger. He hadn’t, paws planted firmly in the snow and bristling like a porcupine in a reaction that was probably born half from anger and half from fear.

The stranger ignored Kaoru and Yahiko, and even the groaning Sano in favor of staring down the wide-eyed wanderer.

“Battousai…” It wasn’t surprise that tinted the stranger’s tone. Kaoru was willing to bet that this wolf didn’t get surprised. Though he didn’t sound like he had been expecting to see Kenshin here.

“Hajime Saito,” Kenshin returned, soft as snowfall, “the only one of the Shinsengumi to be considered immortal.”

Saito grinned wryly, one fang poking out from under his lip. “An interesting title from Katsura’s ghost.”

“Why did you attack Sanosuke? If you seek to air old grievances, you should have come to me directly.”

The tall wolf arched a brow, amusement sliding away in the face of Kenshin’s still-faced inquiry. “How self-important you’ve become for a shadow, Battousai. My coming here has nothing to do with you. And this child,” he curled a lip at Sano, “chose to step between me and my duty.”

Kenshin blinked, and Kaoru had to privately agree that an enemy from Kenshin’s past that wasn’t here to challenger him seemed very strange considering their lives thus far.

“And why are you here?” Kaoru stepped forward, forcing her voice to stay strong, to try and act like the alpha of the territory that Kenshin kept insisting she was. It was hard, especially when those dark amber eyes swung to her, and she suddenly felt about as tall and dangerous as Tsubame. But she didn’t flinch. Kenshin did from his spot beside her, breaking out of his thoughts to shift into a more protective stance, seemingly by instinct.

A sarcastic smile twisted the Shinsengumi’s muzzle, as if he could see just how much effort it cost her to stay still. “A brave one,” his eyes flicked to Kenshin’s again, “she suits you much better than your last.”

The sound that tore from Kenshin’s throat was so guttural, deep and primal that it took Kaoru several startled heartbeats to work out that there had been words in that impossible, fear-inducing sound. “Don’t speak of her.”

If Kenshin’s voice was unrecognizable, his face was horrifyingly familiar. Sharp features displaying tortured wrath, muzzle pulled into a furious snarl, displaying fangs that promised certain death. And the eyes that blazed out of the blood-red face were the wild wolf amber that had haunted Kaoru’s nightmares since the encounter with Jineh.

The Shinsengumi had called Battousai, and Battousai had come…

No…

Cold wind moved the fur on her cheek and Kenshin was gone from her side, crossing the distance to Saito before the breeze of his passing had died down. Saito didn’t seem at all caught off guard by the lightning attack; with a snarl of his own he surged forward to meet the encroaching threat.

Kaoru couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, her mind filled with an icy fog of horror that this day had turned so drastically. Crimson and storm gray met in bone-shuddering fury, the contenders rising up on their hind legs, their front paws wrapped around one another’s necks to prevent escape as savage fangs flashed.

“What the…” the shuddering words hadn’t come from Kaoru, and the female remembered that she wasn’t the only bystander. She tore her eyes away from the carnage, from the red wolf writhing like a tongue of flame around the stone gray of his opponent. Looking away screamed against her nerves like the grate of a broken bone, but no matter how much she wanted to collapse in a horror-filled fugue—no matter how much she might want to cry or make sure that Kenshin was all right, she wasn’t the only one here. And Sanosuke was still bleeding out on the snow.

Yahiko hadn’t moved from her side, tense with shock and watching the fight with mouth agape and ears pinned flat to his skull. Forcing her frozen body to move was hard, but no harder than turning away from the furious snarls tearing at her delicate ears.

“Yahiko,” she nudged the puppy, her patience frayed when he didn’t respond and she pushed him again, harder, “Yahiko!”

With a small yelp her ward came back to himself and sought out her gaze with wide eyes. But Kaoru had no reassurances to give.

“We have to check Sano.” It took longer than she liked for the words to penetrate the dog’s brain, and she turned toward their fallen friend without waiting for him to catch up.

Instinct had the she-wolf crouching down, sneaking along, terrified of drawing attention to herself or her vulnerable friends, but dread whispered to her that the enemies would never turn from their duel. She was unable to prevent a quick glance at the fight as she approached Sanosuke.

Saito was gathering his weight onto his hind legs—he catapulted forward in a charge that the tanuki knew she would never have stood a chance of dodging—and it seemed one such attack had already hit Kenshin, as he bled freely from a deep wound on one shoulder. But once bitten was twice shy of hitting Kenshin with the same attack again. He was already twisting, dropping away to the left and out of danger to snap at Saito’s heels as he passed.

Kaoru forced herself back to her self-appointed task, reaching Sano quickly. The hybrid’s breathing was labored—from pain or the severity of his injury Kaoru didn’t know. His eyes were closed and he had long since stopped trying to get to his feet.

“Sanosuke!” Kaoru’s cry was soft, as if trying to hide from the violence nearby. The fallen fighter groaned in response, one eye cracking open.

“Miss…y?” he blinked slowly, this time opening both eyes, a pathetic-looking smile that was meant to be reassuring tugged at his muzzle before he gave up the effort.

“I’m here, Sano, we all are.” The tanuki reassured him, turning to look at his injury. The tear was deep, bleeding sluggishly against the cold, the gleam of a rib bone mocking the gleam of the snow he was staining.

“It doesn’t look that bad,” Kaoru informed him tightly. Sano tried to roll his eyes, but quit when the motion made him dizzy.

“Well it hurts like hell, but as long as it doesn’t look bad I guess I’m fine.”

“I’m going to roll you further on your other side,” Kaoru informed her friend as Yahiko stumbled up. “Try to move on your own a little if you can to help out.” Placing her head firmly against Sano’s side the tanuki waited until she felt him suck in a deep, bracing breath and pushed. He rolled easily enough, the wound was now facing up into the sky as Sano clenched his jaw against the pain of moving.

Standing by his head Yahiko looked sick, his spiky fur drooped, his ears were pinned and his ever-high tail had dropped between his legs. Nervously he glanced sideways at the fight every few seconds.

“I’m going to pack the bite with snow,” Kaoru informed Sano shakily, “it’ll slow the bleeding and it should numb it for you.”

“Numb would be good,” the fighter agreed as the female moved to do as she said. Mouthfuls of snow were dropped onto his injury, white vanishing in a wave of crimson as it touched his blood and was packed down with a careful muzzle. Sanosuke’s eyes roved wildly for a distraction, lit on the shaking Yahiko.

“So, kid, you get that tunnel finished?”

The dog flinched violently and swallowed, tearing his gaze away from the fight to look at his surrogate brother. “Y-yeah. It’s done. The girls are settling in.” Brown eyes darted back to his hero. “What happened?”

Sano sighed, breath sending snow crystals skittering away half-melted from his muzzle. “Had a feeling I was being watched, I was. That guy out there said he was from the North and was looking for someone. Figured it had to be the doc and tried to make him leave. Didn’t work out for me.” Sano told them matter-of-factly, then grimaced in annoyance, “That is one tough bastard.”

“It’ll be okay,” Yahiko could have easily been reassuring himself rather than the adult, Kaoru thought, as his voice shook. “He’s fighting Kenshin now, and Kenshin doesn’t lose.”

Kaoru dropped her last mouthful of snow, a tremor of her own running through her. “No, he’s not.” She couldn’t stop the words from falling just like the snow, chilling and soft. “That’s not Kenshin right now,” she tried to clarify, looking into her brothers’ confused faces. “That’s Battousai.”

“I don’t get it,” Yahiko shook his head; “Kenshin is Battousai, isn’t he?”

“He is,” Kaoru tried to explain, all too aware that she didn’t fully understand it herself. “But this is complicated. It’s the same as the time he fought Jineh. The one that’s fighting right now…” She shook her head, desperate to explain but knowing that she couldn’t. Because it was more than amber eyes and different speech patterns, it was some bone-deep change that she couldn’t even put into words. “That’s not Kenshin!”

Sano closed his eyes for a moment speculatively, “If I heard right while I was bleeding over here, you guys said that this Saito guy was one of the Shinsengumi.” He waited for Kaoru’s stilted nod before continuing. “And if I remember, Jineh was one too.”

“Who are the Shinsengumi?” Yahiko asked urgently, looking back and forth between the adults, desperate to understand even a small part of what was going on.

“Shinsengumi were an elite group of wolves that were part of the Bakufu pack in the North during the war.” Sano said through gritted teeth, “The way I heard it, even their own alpha was wary of them. For an Isshin Shishi like Kenshin, they would be deadly enemies.” Sano looked up at Kaoru, a puff of air that was half sigh and half painful exhalation escaping him, “I hate to say it Missy, but if Kenshin’s gone Battousai in response to a threat from his past, he might not be able to hear us anymore.”

Fighter’s trauma, Kaoru knew, the mind latching on to a familiar circumstance even years later, locked in an old pattern despite the changed world around them.

But that didn’t fit. Kenshin had been able to talk to his opponent about current events, so on some level he couldn’t be trapped in the bloody past. And if the Shinsengumi were the honorable opponents he had mentioned earlier, then why would Saito be after Megumi?

A particularly loud snarl yanked her attention back to the fight. Both opponents were peppered with bites, though neither seemed to have been able to deal a critical blow thus far. Saito moved forward, but Kaoru recognized Kenshin’s footwork an instant before the red wolf launched himself into the air in a familiar crescent, ready to come down on his foe in punishment.

But Saito, it seemed, had faced this move before. He gathered himself once again, but instead of charging forward the gray wolf charged straight up. He plowed into Kenshin’s smaller form like a hawk into a sparrow.

Kenshin twisted slowly in the air in effort to defend himself—but scything teeth tore into the white fur of his underbelly. Kaoru was dimly aware of screaming the red wolf’s name as he fell. The snow exploded in a small cloud as the bodies of the fighters impacted forcefully with it, glittering crystals of cold casting a fog over the details of the struggle. When it cleared, Kenshin was standing again, harsh breaths shaking his narrow chest as his fiery eyes blazed at his foe.

Saito shifted his weight, tongue coming out to lick the blood off his muzzle in a languid movement. He grinned mid-motion, causing Kaoru’s already chilled blood to freeze in her veins. Kenshin’s glare intensified slightly as he scowled at the gesture.

“I didn’t come here to fight the Battousai,” Saito mused, the first words since the fight began. “But it doesn’t matter.” A feral smirk stretched his muzzle and displayed sharp canines. “I’ll kill you now.”

“I think you’ve got it wrong; those are my words,” Battousai answered, his own expression still grave in its fury.

Kill…? But we don’t even know why he’s here! And oh, how she wished he had never come, this stranger who had taken away her Kenshin—Kaoru had the sickening feeling that if the crimson wolf were to triumph over this opponent (could he?) then the Rurouni would be forever lost to her. This fight has to stop! But how? Observations and half-formed ideas raced through her head in unattainable flashes, like lightning illuminating falling raindrops then vanishing.

Saito crouched in the by-now familiar stance, burst forward without further delay. But if Saito’s stance was familiar, Kenshin’s was as close to her as her own heartbeat, keeping time to the fight within her chest.

A half-curl away from the opponent, exposing a flank to the oncoming threat. A whirling turn, defenselessness replaced by snarling offense as Kenshin moved around Saito’s attack to latch on to the larger wolf and use his centrifugal force to fling his opponent away into the trees.

Branches snapped, gleaming with the frost that gilded them. With a roar of fury the Shinsengumi came out of the shadows, bleeding heavily from the new wound on his shoulder. Kenshin slid away from the attack like quicksilver, and the two wolves began to circle each other with deadly intent. No energy was wasted on snaps or snarls now, the contest had been going on too long, the combatants too focused.

At some signal invisible to the observers the combatants surged forward again, flashes of red and gray, blood and snow making events hard to follow as swift attacks rained down on both sides. But even in the confusion Kaoru could see that it wasn’t an even match. Despite his speed and skill, Kenshin was at a disadvantage in close quarters. He simply wasn’t as big as the other wolf, the muscle mass that held his challenger immobile against attack wasn’t on his side.

Come on, Kenshin! Break free, get some distance! Kaoru had no doubt that the crimson wolf would, he knew far more about fighting than she did, and he had to know that staying in close where he couldn’t use his speed to its full advantage was a recipe for disaster. But it seemed that Saito was well aware of his advantage, and he was making it nearly impossible for Kenshin to split his attention long enough to withdraw. Come on, Kenshin!

Fangs flashed perilously close to Saito’s eye and the tall wolf stumbled back involuntarily to protect his vision. Battousai was moving in an instant, sliding to one side of his opponent, taking advantage of his forward momentum rather than taking the time to backtrack. He was already halfway into the light-footed stance that accented his already considerable speed when Saito turned.

There was no warning of the charge this time, no shifting of weight or tensing of muscles, the Shinsengumi appeared to leap from one place to another like a demon. He plowed hard into Kenshin, spinning the smaller wolf off his trajectory in a spray of blood. The Battousai stumbled, and Saito rose on his hind legs, towering over the crimson wolf before coming down hard, his open maw closing on the back of Kenshin’s neck.

“Kenshin!”

Kaoru couldn’t stop the anguished scream, couldn’t stop herself from taking a few steps forward. Amber eyes sought her out and held her gaze with a burning focus that seared through her brain, stopping her in her tracks. Battousai held her gaze for a heartbeat, two, before he braced his legs against the weight of his attacker. With a savage twist of his head he single-mindedly tore the loose skin and fur on the back of his neck free of Saito’s crushing jaws.

The Shinsengumi stumbled coming down, and Kenshin scored a long blow on one flank before stopping a little distance away, breathing heavily and dripping blood onto the churned up snow. He wasn’t looking at her now, but he had.

She would never be able to imagine something like that. Battousai had heard and responded to her voice, to her movement, and maybe this was even more like the time with Jineh than she had realized. Which meant that there was something she could do after all.


Time moved like the blood from his veins, dripping out onto the snow in crystal-clear moments. On some level Kenshin knew that he should be concerned with how much blood he was losing. He was already dancing on the edge now, each stolen drop nudging him closer to weakness, to dizziness, to impaired judgment. But the problems were held back, walled off behind a barrier of protective, possessive rage that had called the Battousai to the front once again.

The enemy was here, the threat to his pack was here. And the Battousai would allow no more harm to come to that which was his.

Saito stood a short distance away, blood drenching his muzzle as he panted—but it dripped from his pelt to the snow in equal measure to Kenshin’s own, as if to keep the playing field even.

Dark amber watched him in a stark face, and for a moment the familiar landscape of the North was behind his foe, before it blurred away into the here and now.

And he couldn’t forget the now, because he couldn’t move. In the past he would have fled, Battousai operated alone, he struck quickly and vanished, completing his missions quickly and surviving to the next one. Saito was not an enemy one defeated quickly. Some part of the crimson wolf wondered if it were even possible, the Shinsengumi seeming to share the same blighted luck that had kept Battousai alive all these seasons. Pack brothers and sisters might fall in battle on either side, but Saito never crumbled. An immovable object. And Battousai never wavered, an unstoppable force.

But now there was no way to avoid collision, because the crimson wolf wasn’t alone. Protecting the lives depending on him superseded anything else.

“I think it’s time we end this,” Saito breathed.

“I agree.” Whatever end that might be. Battousai was unsure of victory, though he was sure he wouldn’t be defeated. Perhaps they would kill each other.

Paws shifted in the snow and Saito was moving towards him. Somehow in the familiar dizziness of blood loss the crimson wolf had missed the moment between moments where the heartbeat of the fight demanded action. Now he could only rally himself and move forward in a delayed reflection of Saito’s motion.

The gray wolf approached head-on, and Kenshin sheared to the side to rake his foe’s flank with his fangs. True to a reflection, Saito did the same to him. Pain was a distant sensation, unimportant except in its indication of injury. Scarlet blood arced out in sparse spatter, mirroring his turn as Kenshin whirled to face his opponent once more. Saito had stopped some distance away and was similarly turning to face him.

A rustle sounded, too close for Saito and suddenly a small figure planted itself between the two wolves with its back to Kenshin.

Ice gripped the Battousai’s heart, his lungs, his blood as his eyes widened in horror. The nightmare had followed him to the waking world. Blood loss darkened his vision and for a moment the pelt of the female in front of him was black, not smoky silver and stripes. And it was happening all over again, the scent of blood so rich in his nose that it drowned out anything else.

He didn’t trust himself to move, to open his mouth or even to blink as the colors righted themselves slowly in his vision. But he couldn’t see Saito anymore, and not having his enemy in sight with her in the line of fire was equally unacceptable.

And she was saying something, he knew she was, but panic was an all-consuming buzz in his ears and he couldn’t make sense of it. Then she turned her head to look at him, those blue eyes that were so expressive now so scared but so strong, searching his gaze as though searching for him.

But now no one was watching Saito.

The ice sheathing Battousai’s bones shattered instantly and he moved.

Moved around Kaoru, who was still looking at where he had been, clipping her shoulder with his own to spin her around. Another strategic blow and her legs collapsed under her and the Battousai crouched protectively over her, head lowered to stare at the immobile Saito, black lips peeled back to reveal white fangs as a warning growl fumbled through his bones and into the snow-covered earth.

Saito eyed the new development impassively for a long moment. Then his face twitched in… amusement?

The panic that had roared into life at the sight of Kaoru standing between Kenshin and his foe was fading now that he could feel the warmth of her fur where it came into contact with his foreleg. Enough that he could hear again.

“Kenshin? Kenshin! You need to stop fighting. Do you hear me? It’s okay, we’re all okay. Sano’s going to be fine. Don’t you think we should know why he’s here before we make a decision?”

And… it made sense. He was sure he had meant to get more information before attacking. Before the rage.

Saito eyed Kaoru with a dark chuckle, and Battousai wasn’t able to stop his growl from increasing in volume, didn’t want to stop the warning from getting louder.

“Who would have believed it. A little female holding the Battousai’s leash. At least she shows sense.”

“I’m not holding Kenshin’s anything,” Kaoru snapped, fear and anger sharpening her tongue. “And you still haven’t told us why you’re here.” The tanuki shifted as if to rise and Kenshin shifted in response, silently letting the female know that it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. “Sano said you were looking for someone, who is it?”

And speaking of Sano…

Although Kenshin couldn’t take his eyes off Saito—the larger wolf was skilled enough that he didn’t always make noise—he let his ears twist to pick up the sounds of Sano’s breathing, interspersed with cursing as Yahiko relayed information to him. And relaxed slightly. A cursing Sano was a Sano that would be fine.

“I search,” Saito answered archly, “for two criminals fleeing justice; the rogue wolf Jineh Udo and,” he sneered, “Kanryuu Takeda.”

“Kanryuu,” Kaoru repeated in surprise as the Battousai let out a shuddering breath. “Why are you looking for him?”

Saito’s already dark eyes darkened even further as his brow furrowed, “It is a matter of honor and no business of yours.”

“Your vendetta ceased to be private the moment you followed Takeda across pack boundaries,” Kenshin growled out, then exhaled slowly, stepping to one side so that Kaoru could regain her feet. “You aren’t the only one involved in this anymore, that you are not.”

It was hard not to meet the relieved glance that Kaoru shot at him as she stood, but even if the threat of immediate violence had passed, Saito was not a wolf Kenshin would ever feel comfortable looking away from.

“I have no time for such an interview—the hunt is urgent.”

“And unnecessary,” Kaoru broke in, “as both Kanryuu and Jineh are dead.”

Saito’s brow arched at this revelation and he looked coolly at Kenshin once more. “Really, Battousai.”

Anger clawed along the crimson wolf’s ribs at Saito’s tone, his obvious assumption that Kenshin was little more than an assassin, but he pushed it down with icy resolve. After all, he hadn’t been the one to kill Kanryuu.

“Jineh contracted the foaming sickness,” the red wolf informed his enemy tonelessly, “he died shortly after crossing the pack boundary.”

Saito snorted, “That arrogant wolf’s bloodlust was always going to be his undoing. The madness would have done little but ensure he could only act alone. But Kanryuu is another matter.”

Dread’s icy tendrils shivered against Kenshin’s bones, travelling paths made familiar over the past few weeks. Because Kanryuu had not been working alone, and he had come down from the North.


Now that Kaoru was reassured that the two wolves were through trying to settle their apparently fatal differences, she turned her head to check on Sanosuke. The fighter lay where she had left him and Yahiko, some distance away. He didn’t’ seem to be any worse from here—at least she could make out a steady stream of cursing in his voice anyway.

Yahiko stood beside him as default caregiver in Kaoru’s absence and he looked quickly and continuously from the hybrid to the three wolves, as if afraid to miss something in either place. Kenshin was now quietly explaining an edited account of their encounter with Kanryuu, somehow contriving to keep Megumi’s name or her importance to the incident from cropping up.

Leaving him to it Kaoru slipped silently over to Sanosuke and Yahiko. The young dog’s red-brown eyes were huge in his stressed face.

“So what’s going on? Why would this Saito guy follow those other guys here if he wasn’t working with them?”

Kaoru sighed, once again the gap in Yahiko’s pack-knowledge rearing its head at an inopportune time. “I’ll explain later, Yahiko. For now, just accept that he didn’t come here for Megumi.”

The tanuki frowned down at Sano, eyeing his shivers against the snow. “How are you doing, Sanosuke?”

“Been better,” the fighter sighed pragmatically. “Might be numb enough to move, but I don’t think I could go far.”

“I was afraid you would say that,” Kaoru muttered, glancing over at the two wolves still in conference. She didn’t know what else she could do for Sano, he needed Megumi’s expertise. But if Kenshin thought it wasn’t safe…

As if he could hear her thinking his name Kenshin turned his head slightly to take her in with one violet eye. He seemed to read the indecision in her face, then nodded slightly and turned back to fully face Saito. It did not escape Kaoru’s notice that despite their apparently-civil conversation, Kenshin had kept one eye on Saito even as he turned.

O-kay… I think that was the go ahead.

“Yahiko, I need you to run and get Megumi, okay? Tae should still be there, ask her to look after Tsubame and then you come right back here with Megumi.” The dog scowled, clearly about to protest being sent away from this strange meeting. “Now, Yahiko. Sano’s going to need her help.”

The akita-mix hesitated, but the fact that Sanosuke did not speak to refute this statement seemed to clinch it for him. “Alright… just… keep an eye on things for me, okay?” With a last glance toward the fearsome fighters Yahiko sped off into the skeletal trees.

Slowly Kaoru edged her way back over to the conversation.

“It is our understanding that he was working for someone else,” Kenshin was saying, “someone in the North.”

Saito noticed Kaoru’s return but did not comment on it, eyes flicking over to her dismissively before returning to Kenshin. “Someone. You could say that. An upstart who’s been pulling in massive numbers of followers to take the Northern lands. When I got wind that one of his lieutenants had been sent out to recruit, I followed to contain the problem.” The Shinsengumi shifted his weight on his paws, seemingly ignoring Kenshin’s instant tension at the movement. “Humans are already starting to get suspicious. Apparently he finds it good sport to have his followers kill any that they find.”

“But that’s crazy,” Kaoru gasped, “If the humans think that wolves are hunting them then…”

“They’ll wipe out any wolves in the area,” Kenshin finished for her, controlled horror creeping into his voice. “Why would any alpha order such a thing?”

“He believes that animals have grown complacent, allowing mankind to take over our territories, suffering affronts from them that we would never tolerate from our natural rivals.” Saito’s voice was dry, cynical as he recited the mad wolf’s creed. “His conclusion is that we must purge out lands of two-leggers and take a rightful place of superiority.”

“He’s crazy!”

“But charismatic. More power-seeking wolves and dogs flock to him every day. A message of revenge is… enticing to any who have suffered at the human’s hands.” Saito deliberately eyed Kenshin. The crimson wolf deliberately ignored the bait.

“Who is this wolf?” Kenshin asked.

“Now that is an interesting question coming from you, Battousai.” Saito’s muzzle split into a fanged grin, “considering that most call him your ghost.”

Only the slightest backwards flick of crimson ears betrayed Kenshin’s surprise. Kaoru was a bit easier to read.

“What?”

“Well, Battousai’s successor I should say. The war didn’t stop when you vanished, it limped on for a little while longer.” Kaoru couldn’t help glancing at Kenshin’s reaction to this mention of the war, but the crimson wolf remained inscrutable. “Your allies had seen the advantage having a shadow assassin could give them, so they gave the job to another wolf, Makoto Shishio.” Saito shook his head, disgust curling his lip, “They chose poorly. While Shishio was deadly, he was also ambitious, a trait you lacked which kept your own leaders safe, I think. Having an ambitious killer knowing where they slept seemed to make them nervous, and as the war drew to a close they moved to resolve their feelings.”

“Assassination,” Kenshin acknowledged, violet eyes distant. “This one always knew it was a threat.”

“But from your own pack?” Kaoru questioned, dismayed. That shouldn’t be… never, not to Kenshin! For pity’s sake, he didn’t want to be an alpha! At least, he refused to be alpha of “her” territory, and she doubted that he had changed all that much since the last time he was in a pack.

“For Shishio, it was a bit more than just a threat.” Saito said dryly, ignoring Kaoru’s query. “Since the humans had proved so… effective at removing you from the playing field, the Ishin Shishi decided to use them to expedite the process.

“Shishio was sent on a suicide mission into man’s hunting ground. We know two things, he was shot and somehow the whole area went up in flames. And your leaders thought they were safe… Until two seasons ago when they started dying. Shishio has since come forward and begun gathering allies. A core group supports his every decision while the average follower seems loyal only to the notion of power. Still, there are many of them.”

“So you came to stop the inflow of troops,” Kaoru nodded, remembering the large group of dogs that Kanryuu had been preparing to lead North. Saito waited with sarcastic patience as she reiterated what he had already told them, but Kaoru pushed on regardless. “It seems to me,” she continued carefully, “that you might also be looking for allies of your own.” The sentence scratched her throat raw as she forced it out, like splinters of bone. Because she would be lying if she said that her first instinct wasn’t to try and help fight against a force that had already proven itself a foe. But it would be equally deceitful to ignore the dread that coiled in her stomach like a nest of adders. All along she had feared the day Kenshin might leave. All along she had felt uneasy when he talked about where he was from. And now an old enemy had come with word of a new enemy, someone who was connected to Kenshin, at least in part. Someone he might feel… responsible over.

Saito arched a brow in amusement, “Looking for allies is generally a task better suited to one who actually likes the company of others. Still… encountering the Battousai while harrying his successor does seem… fortuitous.” Dark gold eyes looked at Kenshin. “The female is right that in this instance I would not refuse aid. Though you might want to sharpen your fangs before you venture back. You’re a fool if you think this war won’t come to you—it already has.”

Having apparently said his piece, the gray wolf turned and set off northward without further farewell. The sound of Kaoru’s breathing was like knives in the silence following his departure. Even Sano’s cursing had petered away and dimly Kaoru wondered if the fighter had fallen into unconsciousness.

Kenshin’s eyes followed the path Saito had taken through the snow, black shadows of paw prints marching unerringly North. And Kaoru knew what she wanted to ask, but she didn’t know if she could.

“Kenshin?” she didn’t’ try to hold back the confused jumble of emotions in her voice, hoping to some degree that Kenshin would hear the question she couldn’t bring herself to say.

The crimson wolf sighed, breath escaping in a plume of white against the darkening forest. “Saito would never admit to needing allies unless the situation was even more desperate than he has said.”

“Desperate enough that he would ask you minutes after trying to kill you?”

A grimace tightened the expression on Kenshin’s face and Kaoru wished she could snatch back the impulsive and incredulous words. Because, yes, if Saito was asking for help from an enemy, things had to be very desperate.

“I mean, obviously what Shishio is doing is bad, but…” But what? It was none of their business?

Except there was a pair of foxes under their protection who would be terrified to be reminded that the reason for their capture was still out there. Except there was a certain freeloading ruffian now living with them who they hadn’t needed to give a home to. Except there was a young dog they looked out for whose supposed debt had been none of their business. Except that Kaoru’s own problems with Gohei had been none of an exhausted wanderer’s business.

So it wasn’t really a surprise when Kenshin turned to her with distraught apology in his eyes.

Heartbreaking, but not a surprise.

“Miss Kaoru,” she had never hated the distance he put between them when saying her name more. “This one must return to the North, to see what can be done about Shishio.”

Shivers wracked the tanuki’s frame, but it couldn’t be from the cold, she felt so numb, maybe they weren’t shivers but tremors, her body quaking in time with the frantic beating of her heart. “That’s…” the words shook themselves free of her mouth before they were fully formed, shattering like fallen ice. “I’ll go with you!”

“Miss Kaoru, you cannot,” Kenshin’s eyes were distressed, but he controlled his voice, the tone was warm even as the words themselves bit at her. “It is not your fight.”

“What does that matter?! I care about you Kenshin, I’m not going to let you go alone!”

The crimson wolf shook his head, “And what of Sanosuke and Yahiko and Miss Megumi?” Kaoru shifted on soot-colored paws, all too aware of Sanosuke’s silence.

“They could come—”

“Sanosuke is injured,” Kenshin pointed out, “he will need time to recover from his wounds. It has become apparent that this territory is not safe, the others must be protected.” The Rurouni pressed on ruthlessly, “And while Sanosuke is healing, you will be the only one who is able to look after them.”

“That’s not fair,” Kaoru whispered achingly. Because she couldn’t leave her family vulnerable. She couldn’t.

“I have seen that life is many things,” Kenshin said softly, “but never fair. Miss Kaoru… this one has found happiness here. And you-your kindness will always be remembered.”

The crimson wolf moved towards her, his head arcing to rest on the back of her neck, her own pressed up against his shoulder. This close, she could feel his shuddering inhalation. “My wish will always be for your happiness, Miss Kaoru. Thank you… for everything.”

He breathed in again and instinctively Kaoru duplicated the motion, drawing in his scent, his warmth—and then he was gone, vanishing into the trees to the North.

And she couldn’t move except to tremble as the night fell all around her.

The cold wind, laced with snow blew back in her face like a hollow laugh. What good are your threats and promises now, it moaned, when I have called him home?

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