Amber Forest

Chapter 14- Seperation

Couldn't sleep so I went out walking

Thinking about you and hearing us talking
And all the things I should have said
Echo now, inside my head

-Conjure One, Tears from the Moon

Misao was good at sneaking.

Well, most of the time.

She really couldn’t help it that sometimes she was just so awesome that she had to let somebody know. Even if it was the target she was following. If you had a gift like that, why keep it to yourself?

Omasu had tried to be delicate, saying that the young coyote would soon grow out of it, that it was just an awkward phase that everyone went through… And Gramps had just thrown back his head and laughed, loud enough to scare birds out of their trees.

“That’s my darling Misao,” he had all but crowed with pride, “Just like me, my granddaughter has too much life in her to just disappear!”

Then she’d had to jump on his head and chew his ears for mocking her when she was trying so hard to be a proper kunoichi—mostly. And—he wasn’t her grandfather, though she refused to say that. The grizzled wolf had raised her, after all, loyal to the last of the Makimachis; to the parents she couldn’t remember. She didn’t like to think of that much; that her place with her adopted family was because she was heir to some faceless mysteries that were vague as mist. She couldn’t remember her parents.

She could remember Aoshi-sama. Quiet and dark and always there. Even in her earliest of early memories, before even Gramps.

Except, he wasn’t here now. And so she was sneaking.

Because it had never been more important that she find her alpha, and while it would take more than a few muscle-bound goons to keep her caught, with every delay the bereft wailing in her soul shifted closer in pitch toward utter despair. But it would be okay. Because she was good at sneaking, and she would find Aoshi-sama. And they would find a way to fix everything.

Being a coyote (and a young female at that) Misao had resigned herself to the knowledge that the sight of her silver and pale tan form would never intimidate her foes, but the kunoichi was nothing if not… creative. Aoshi-sama would have to accept her help this time—he wouldn’t try to make her wait somewhere while he took care of things—!

With an effort Misao shook herself free of her circling thoughts, she had to find her leader before any of this would matter.

Come on Makimachi, focus! Not paying attention is how you got into trouble in the first place! Though to be fair there simply wasn’t much to pay attention to out here. Certainly no one to be suitably impressed by her stealthy form gliding through snow-covered shadows.

It had taken days for her to work her way southward through the mountains and into the foothills, a normally quick journey lengthened by the little ninja’s need to double back on her own trail—obliterating tracks, laying false paths, and generally trying to ensure that anyone hunting her never got close enough to so much as hear her chuckle vanishing into the moonlight.

And while the foothills had become a haven of sorts, now that she was ready to move on survival habits reared their heads again. The foothills offered their own challenges here, as it was no longer just pursuers that she was avoiding—men also lived at the base of the mountain in scattered dwellings whose denizens lived closely with the land as ranchers or mountaineers. As a coyote, she would naturally be seen as a pest and killed; at the very least they would try.

Misao set her ears back in a pout, brow furrowing. It just wasn’t fair. Humans didn’t like her, most wolves didn’t like her… not for the first time she marveled at the insane amount of either strength or charisma her parents must have had to work their way into—and run—the Oniwaban. All she seemed to have inherited was the “insane” part of that equation. Still, there was no point in griping over not being a wolf—not when those she loved didn’t care about it.

The moon made an unreliable lantern, its soft glow whisked away by the clouds that swept across its surface with alarming frequency. The poor visibility meant that no one was likely to spot Misao as she moved in short bursts through the thickening trees to the south—but it figured that the sky would threaten her with a winter storm when she was finally ready to get going. The moon was blacked out again for even longer and an icy wind plucked at the black tips of her silver ruff viciously.

Maybe I should turn back… the kunoichi told herself even as she took another few steps forward into better concealment. If this storm is a bad one, I’ll need to ride it out in a shelter. Of course, the fact that she had felt warm and not-alone, not rattling around inside her own skull with the sound of her voice driving her ears mad with boredom had nothing to do with it.

The light finally returned and Misao realized with a start that she was not the only one taking advantage of the natural cover of darkness. A crimson shape had appeared like a phantasm from the gloom, ahead of her and a little to the right. If she bore a bit more to the left and was very quiet, they might pass each other by within a few moments. Yes. That would be the proper thing to do. The Oniwaban-ninja thing to do, and she would go right ahead and—

Misao froze in the snow, paralyzed by an instinctive panic as the smell of blood finally reached her nose. It was coming from the crimson ghost, it had to be. Memories rattled at their chains like dying gasps—stealing her breath away for a moment before the coyote could lock them up once more beneath the cheerful demeanor that so easily fooled strangers into believing she had no depth.

So. The strange red thing smelled of blood. Might the red even be blood? The thought churned her stomach even as she discounted it as foolish. Of course not. No being could lose that much blood and still live, and the being was obviously alive—and still moving.

Curiosity loosened her limbs and the coyote snuck a few paces closer to the creature’s course. It was a wolf—she could see that now—or rather, he was a wolf. And it was hard to tell at this distance, but she thought that the red was the color of his fur. Unusual, but then, she had grown up with Hannya’s odd penchant for dying his fur with vegetable stains, so “unusual” wasn’t too outlandish by comparison.

The crimson wolf stopped, raising his head, and Misao frowned in confusion before realizing with some consternation that the wind, still busily scuttling clouds across the moon, had swung around behind her and was now carrying her scent to the stranger.

So much for being good at sneaking.

The red wolf looked at her, staring silently as if in hesitation before slowly raising a paw to continue on his journey. What, am I not important enough to come and check out? Misao bristled, but it was a halfhearted reflex—because she wasn’t looking for trouble, and a stranger was just as likely as not to be trouble. The cold wind blasted her again and the sky rumbled threateningly. Although, trouble could also be weather, and she had better get under cover… the coppery scent of blood from the slow-moving stranger burned at her nose again and the coyote winced.

It was none of her business and she had troubles of her own but something in her squirmed and balked at—a wolf, collapsed onto the snow, blood a spreading stain—the effort of shoving the image back into the dark recess it had oozed out of made the young coyote suck in a painful gasp of icy air. There would be nightmares tonight, unless she could find a distraction—and there was one conveniently pacing north through the snow.

“Hey, Red!” the crimson wolf faltered in its progress, and the head was coming around to stare at her again. Misao shoved down the little voice squealing that this was a bad idea and stomped on it. Drawing on the sheer nerve that came with being part of the Oniwaban, she moved confidently toward the stranger. “Where are you heading in weather this bad?” Because it was getting bad, the temperature dropping further as sharp breezes began to be frosted with fat snowflakes.

The wolf (a male with a silvery cross-shaped scar across the left side of his face) arched a brow over violet eyes. “This one could ask you the same question, Miss.”

Yeah, but you didn’t. “Just thought I would try and get a little ways before the storm broke, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. What about you, Red?”

The wolf seemed amused at the nickname, and Misao felt the knot of anxiety in her gut loosen ever so slightly. Despite the scar, that face seemed more inclined to smile than to frown, and in her experience bad guys rarely had a sense of humor.

“This one has many miles yet to go.”

Misao frowned, “Well you won’t get much farther bleeding like you are.” She hesitated, trying to see if there was any dark intent hidden behind that pleasant smile, “Listen, I was just about to head back to shelter. I could take you with me, if you want. It’s a place some pets live, one of them is kinda a healer, so he could probably fix you up.”

Red’s expression was surprised, in a way that suggested he had been ambushed by some thought or memory. Slowly, as if testing the words out the wolf responded, “How can you be so trusting of someone you just met? You don’t even know my name.”

Misao rolled her eyes in exaggerated annoyance, “I know that you didn’t attack me on sight, and that you won’t get much farther to wherever you’re going if you don’t stop bleeding all over the snow. So are you coming, Red?”

The crimson wolf hesitated a moment further, looking over his shoulder back the way he had come. Some thought or memory seemed to come to him beyond the rapidly disappearing line of pawprints that marked his passage and his expression softened before he turned to face her once again.

“My name is Kenshin Himura,” he offered with a polite smile, “and I would be happy to accept your shelter that I would.”

Misao shrugged expressively knowing that her attempt at nonchalance was undermined by her habitual grin. “Misao Makimachi. This way, Red.”

The weather was definitely not travel-friendly by the time Misao had managed to retrace her steps back to their origin. Himura had kept up with her surprisingly well despite his injuries, and the kunoichi was mentally revising her opinion of how tough he would be to fight. If she had to.

Ahead an old wooden construct stood grumpily against the wind and snow, refusing to budge in the face of winter’s chill. The barn had probably been a cheery red in the days of its youth, but age had peeled back paint to expose silvery-gray boards to the elements.

The main door was shut, but Misao wasn’t worried about that—there was a side window that stayed propped open to let the barn cats in and out, and it wasn’t too high to jump. Approaching the building, she looked back at her silent follower.

“In here!” she shouted against the groaning of the wind. Snow flew into her eyes and made Himura’s expression tough to read, but his body language was suspicious, ready to bolt despite injuries.

“This isn’t a good idea,” he returned in the same volume, “if the humans come to check on their creatures—”

“They won’t,” Misao shook her head, scowling as snow blew into her ears, rendering her momentarily deaf, “They’re sheep-herders; apparently they’re moving the flock around to lower pastures.” The wolf still hesitated, Misao rolled her eyes. “Come on, Red. The storm’s too bad to go anywhere else!”

Trusting him to see her logic, the coyote leapt through the open window to land on the dusty hay-strewn floor.

“Hello?” Someone called out of the gloom of the interior, “who’s there?”

Misao nearly choked on some unpleasant emotion trying to slip past her smile at the sound of the old voice. “It’s me, Doctor Gensai! I’ve brought you a patient.”

An old collie-dog moved out of the darkness, his long fur pattered in brown and white but liberally peppered with the gray and silver of old age. “Well, if it isn’t young Misao! I did wonder if the storm would force you to turn back.”

“For now,” Misao groused sourly. Gensai made a show of looking around, raising shaggy gray brows.

“You said you had a patient for me?”

The coyote winced, glancing up at the open window, through which a few errant snowflakes were blowing. “Um, yeah. Unless he decided not to come in…” Raising her voice she hollered, “Red! Are you still out there?”

In answer the wolf’s crimson form became visible as it arced up delicately through the window frame, not so much as a paw brushing the wood, and landing beside her with hardly a breeze to disturb the dust.

“About time. Doctor Gensai, this is Kenshin Himura. Red, this is Doctor Gensai.”

Red turned to face Gensai’s studiously neutral expression as she introduced the males.

“Sessha apologizes for disturbing your home, that I do. Miss Misao mentioned that you are a healer?”

“Of a sort,” the old collie acknowledged. “And you are welcome here, Himura, providing that you keep to the same rules that young Misao here does. Offer no violence to any beast in the barn and hunt none of our sheep.”

Kenshin ducked his head in a bow of acknowledgement, “Of course.”

Gensai shook his rough coat in a businesslike way, “Come on then, let’s get away from that dratted window letting all the cold in.”

Misao followed the elderly collie without hesitation, trusting that Himura would in turn follow her. Truth be told, it was nice to get out of the wind, even though, as an Oniwaban, she was more than equipped to deal with freezing temperatures on her own. Aoshi-sama had prepared for everything in teaching his followers how to survive—even the eventuality that they might have to do so alone.

She could have dug herself a snug berth in the snow to wait out the weather—but the promise of companionship was a powerful lure.

The trio moved deeper into the structure, leaving the sharp cold of the wind behind for an easily-ignored chill. Doctor Gensai led them to a series of stalls and turned in the open door of the nearest. Inside hay was piled thick into an insulating cushion, with a few rough-woven gunny sacks lying around to keep stiff stalks from prickling into dense fur too harshly. Sitting on one of these gunny-sacks were two fuzzy puppies watching their entry attentively.

“Misao!” cried one, breaking her focused (and probably Gensai-ordered) sit to bound toward the coyote, swiftly followed by her sister who chimed in her own joyful,


“Girls!” Misao laughed, lowering her upper body to meet their exuberant charge head on. The puppies shrieked in delight as they bounded around her face, tiny tongues giving kisses of pure affection as Misao drank in their milky puppy-scent and the warm fuzziness of their fur.

“You’re back!”

“Mii back!”

With a mock-rough twist of her head Misao bowled the two little scamps over with her muzzle, though she didn’t’ straighten up just yet. “Of course I’m back! Have you felt it out there? Brr! A few more steps and I would have been a coyote-cicle!”

The girls laughed before seeming to notice the silent stranger that trailed Misao. The giggles ceased, and the pair instinctively moved so that the ninja was fully blocking the wolf, peering around her foreleg with wide brown eyes. Misao straightened, smiling at how the puppies scrambled to adjust their hiding place to her new position.

“Girls, this is Kenshin Himura. Himura, this is Ayame,” she nodded toward the slightly bigger of the two pups, “and Suzume,” the smaller. Misao turned to catch Himura’s expression. He had frozen in the entryway at the sight of the pups, face cycling quickly through surprise and consternation before moving to the smile that seemed to be his default setting.

“Hello, Miss Ayame and Miss Suzume,” he said with careful cheeriness, “This one is very delighted to meet you indeed.” His violet eyes lifted to seek out Gensai, who had been observing the introductions with wary attention. “Are they yours?”

Gensai blinked, a surprised chuckle escaping him as he turned to paw at a stray gunny-sack. “No no, not mine, not directly. I’m their grandfather and babysitter while their mother is away with the sheep. My bones are a bit too old to go charging up and down the mountain anymore, and theirs are a bit too young!” The old collie managed to pull the sack open, revealing a selection of plants—the uses of which Misao couldn’t begin to guess. “Now, my young wolf, if you’ll lie down over here, we’ll see about getting you patched up.”

Kenshin hesitated, still on the threshold, before crossing over to Gensai and slowly lowering himself to his belly. Misao noted with amusement that the two normally-talkative pups had fallen silent and were staring at Himura as if he had fallen from the sky. Lowering her head the spy whispered to them conspiratorially,

“It’s okay, I don’t think he bites.”

Ayame, the only one who could form complete sentences yet, looked up at Misao with a face full of wonder. “He’s all red! Is he okay?”

“Pretty,” was Suzume’s comment, not moving her dark brown head from its position of rapt attention. Misao chuckled,

“He’s fine, or he will be. He just has a few owies for your Grandpa to fix. He’s good with owies.”

Ayame’s eyes were serious as she corrected sagely, “Grandpa is the best with owies.”

After that it was a little… annoying to the Oniwaban how quickly the girls took to Red. She had thought that she was good with pups, heck; she had known she was good with pups, but Himura was in a whole other league. It had taken almost two days for Ayame and Suzume to really warm up to the coyote in their midst, but mere moments after declaring him “pretty” Misao had been hard-pressed to keep the pair of them from interrupting their grandfather’s work to get close to their new “friend.” (Some of the bites were quite deep, as Misao had seen when Gensai’s silvery brows rose in surprise that Himura had still been walking relatively unhindered. None were life-threatening, but the fact that there were so many of them formed a picture in Misao’s mind that she didn’t much like.)

Himura had quietly borne with the treatment, only venturing to comment that he had been in a “disagreement,” when pressed and turning to instead ask Ayame and Suzume about their parents and humans. The girls had been delighted to be the center of attention and verbally crashed into one another as they simultaneously tried to explain their lives to the red wolf. Misao stuck a word in edgewise when she thought Himura might be getting confused and kept an eye on his unwavering smile as Gensai moved steadily from injury to injury. There were a lot of them, and the girls were sleepily winding down by the time doctor Gensai was able to straighten with a groan, pawing unused supplies back into the concealing sack.

“Well, that should do it for now, Mr. Himura.” Faded brown eyes regarded his granddaughters, curled together in a mini-pile, flanks already moving rhythmically with the pattern of slumber. “You must have experience with pups; they don’t usually take to newcomers so quickly.”

“Not with ones so young,” Red shook his head before seeming to catch himself, “They wanted to be heard. This one has found that most beings want to be heard, so one has made it a habit to listen.”

Gensai eyed the wolf thoughtfully. “Well, there will be plenty of time for that while you heal. I’d say you need at least a week while your body repairs itself, and if my old bones aren’t wrong, this storm may keep you here at least that long.”

Misao sat bolt upright, her own sleepy thoughts startled away. “A week?! Are you sure?”

Gensai glanced meaningfully at his sleeping granddaughters before turning to the young coyote. “Sure enough. Creaky they may be, but these bones are seldom wrong about such things.” Softer he continued, “I’m sorry Misao; I know you had wanted to hurry south.”

“It’s not your fault,” the coyote sighed, moodily settling back down into the hay, “it just feels like I haven’t made any progress, I guess.”

Himura’s gaze on her was interested, but reserved, and he didn’t ask for clarification. Not that it matters, Misao thought moodily as she lay back down and closed her eyes, we’re going to be stuck here a week without much to do but tell our stories. At least the presence of Ayame and Suzume, including her in their puppy-pile, ought to keep the nightmares at bay.

As it turned out Gensai and Misao did most of the talking over the days that followed. True to what he had said before, Red made a habit of listening—and keeping his story to himself.

After whining entreaties for stories from their new playmate had failed Ayame and Suzume turned back to Misao for stories. The coyote only considered herself fortunate that she had not run through her stock of stories during her previous stay. Sometimes getting into so much trouble paid off.

Every now and again Gensai would share a story of his own, mostly to give the coyote a chance to breathe. Even more infrequently Red would venture to comment, starting conversations rather than stories. The healing wolf seemed well-traveled and knowledgeable about a variety of topics, but it rankled Misao that she didn’t know any more about him than his name. Where he was going, where he had come from and how he was injured remained taboo. But despite Himura’s silence, the stories continued.

“So anyway,” Misao finished with a smirk, “Gramps never got in the way of my practice again. It took weeks to get all those porcupine quills out of his nose.”

Gensai tried to look disapproving, but now that his granddaughters were asleep and he didn’t have to appear as responsible the amused twinkle in his eye was much easier to see. Red’s signature smile never wavered, but the coyote thought that it had slid a little closer to genuine as she told her story.

“Honestly, Misao,” Gensai sighed, “You should treat your grandfather more kindly.”

The kunoichi let a bark of laughter loose. “If I was nice to Gramps he would probably think I was plotting something.”

Himura’s soft chuckle warmed the cozy stall. “This one has certainly seen that sometimes the relationships that seem the most…quarrelsome to observers are in fact the closest.”

Misao raised one brow at the crimson wolf, “Oh? Know someone who can’t admit their feelings?”

Red’s ears flicked (in embarrassment?) before he coughed lightly and redirected the conversation. “This one has to admit to some curiosity, Miss Misao. From your stories you seem very close with your pack—what was your purpose in leaving them?”

Yeah, yeah, keep me talking about myself so we don’t poke at you. But… try as she might the coyote couldn’t feel too annoyed. After all, the question had reminded her of Aoshi-sama.

“I’m travelling because close as I am to my pack, there’s someone who means more. I guess I can tell the story now that the pups are asleep. It’s not as… nice as my others.” Misao waited for acknowledging nods from the males before continuing.

“It was when I was still just a pup,” Misao glanced fondly at the sleeping collie puppies, “About their age or a little older I’d guess. I don’t remember anything before that night—Gramps said I might have pushed the memories away without meaning to. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, since it means I can’t remember my parents, but Gramps always said I shouldn’t worry about it, since they would rather I be alive than remember them.

“That night… it was dark and cold. I was alone with the smell of blood everywhere around me, and I was scared. Apparently a rival pack had found my family when we were away from the rest of our pack… When the fighting was over my parents were dead and the attackers were dead… and I was alone.

“That’s when he came. He was really young, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Only a year old and already a lone wolf, looking for a new pack. He found me and,” Misao shook her head, “he took me with him. There was no reason for him to—I was just a kid, I couldn’t help him hunt, I wasn’t even a wolf. But he… he didn’t let me be alone.”

The coyote let her gaze turn inward, ignoring the cozy interior of the barn in favor of her memories. “We were together for a few days, he kept me safe, even though watching me meant he didn’t get many opportunities to hunt, and a few stragglers from that hostile pack were still wandering around the territory looking for us. It was a pretty bad situation, especially since he was so young himself. With just the two of us, there was no way we were going to survive, especially if he kept trying to take care of me instead of himself. But he didn’t leave.

“Eventually Gramps found us,” the coyote reminisced, “he was ready to rescue me from this strange wolf that had been holding me prisoner—and my rescuer was ready to save me from another attacker. It was really just luck that Gramps noticed I wasn’t afraid and managed to talk to us first. He was impressed that we had survived so long, so he offered a place in the pack, even though it was leaderless now.

“Within a year Aoshi-sama was the leader of the Oniwaban,” Misao couldn’t stop her proud smile, thinking of how the dark wolf that had saved her life had grown into the respected and loved alpha. “Aoshi-sama… my relationship with him has been the most important one in my life. He had to go away, but now I’m going to find him again. I’ll never stop,” The coyote vowed with a solemn smile at her forepaws. She glanced up into the stillness following her story and felt her heart give an uneasy twist in her chest.

Red’s face was stricken as he looked at her, as if seeing some invisible injury. “Aoshi Shinomori,” he breathed into the quiet, and the unease twisted into panicked euphoria that carried her to her feet in a very un-ninja-like motion.

“You know Aoshi-sama?! Where is he?”

“You are a member of the Oniwaban?” Himura asked, as if he hadn’t even heard her question.

“Yes, of course,” Misao acknowledged impatiently, “How about the others, have you seen them? Hannya, Shikijou, Beshimi and Hyottoko—if you had met them you wouldn’t forget them in a hurry. They’re the elite vanguard of the Oniwaban.” Silence ate at her excitement, turning it to bitter anxiety. “Come on Red, it’s not that hard, have you seen them or not?” Misao demanded.

Kenshin exhaled quietly, gaze sliding over to check on Ayame and Suzume. Misao started to tremble because it was never a good sign when you had to check that the kids were asleep before continuing.

“Miss Misao… this will not be easy for you to hear, that it will not. This one has met with Aoshi and his Oniwaban while they worked for Kanryuu.” The crimson wolf hesitated before continuing gently, “The four following Aoshi, those you named, fell in battle. This one is sorry.”

“No,” Misao could barely hear her own voice for the ringing in her ears. “No, I know those guys, they’re strong, they’re—they can’t be dead!”

“They were betrayed by Kanryuu and they fell with honor, fighting to protect both Aoshi and,” Himura hesitated, “noncombatants on the battlefield.”

Misao tried to quiet the wailing voice of grief stirred to life inside her soul, it wouldn’t do to begin howling in despair here. She had to focus, focus on what she could do. Red hadn’t said that Aoshi was dead. If he knew where Aoshi was then she could still accomplish her goal of reuniting with him.

“Do you,” she swallowed down the grieving howl that was trying to slip into her voice, “do you know where Aoshi-sama is?”

Himura hesitated. “The path that Aoshi walks is a dangerous one. This one doubts very much that he would wish for you to join him on it.”

“I don’t care about that—please just tell me where he is!” Misao saw him hesitate and snarled, ears lying flat against her skull. “Don’t lie to me! Don’t you dare. You don’t get to decide what’s too dangerous for me—I do! And finding Aoshi-sama is more important than any danger!”

Red’s expression faltered for a second, ears flinching backwards in a barely perceptible motion before his visibly hardened his resolve.

“You may say that, but it is plain that you are not thinking clearly, Miss Misao. From what this one knows of Aoshi, he would want you to remain safe. You ought to return to your pack, it is there he is likely to seek you.”

“I don’t have a pack!” Misao howled, barely noticing Gensai quietly soothing the puppies awakened by her distress. “Everyone’s—everyone’s gone—and if you say Hannya and the others are gone too—”she swallowed, trying to control her emotions, but the action only seemed to fill her eyes with tears, “then Aoshi-sama is the only one in the world that I have left. Again. Please, if you know anything about where he is you have to tell me.” A fine trembling shook her limbs and a desolate whine pulled at her throat, straining to be voiced. “Please. I can’t be alone.” She tapered off into a whisper, staring at Himura, willing him to just, just tell her where her dark leader had gone, the last of the Oniwaban.

Himura’s gaze had sharpened, “The rest of your pack is gone... I remember now, one of you was taken by Shishio, isn’t that right? It was why Aoshi and the others were with Kanryuu.”

Misao nodded, her throat so tight she could barely speak. “I was. I was stupid and careless and everyone suffered because of it—but how do you know—”

“—And the rest of your pack,” Himura looked sick to his stomach with guilt now, “they were killed when Shishio learned of Aoshi’s defection?”
“No,” Misao shook her head, “We hadn’t heard anything from Aoshi-sama, not for a long time, and one of Shishio’s lieutenants got,” she swallowed, “bored.”

The red wolf released a slow breath through his nose, eyes focused on some place she couldn’t see as thoughts coalesced behind them. “But how do you know about that?” the coyote pushed, “how do you know about Shishio?”

Kenshin sighed, “This one first heard that there was something wrong to the North when one met Aoshi. A week ago this was… explained by an old enemy. Shishio is a danger to all and must be removed from power. This one left the pack with which one had stayed to come North and deal with him.”

“You left your pack? To take on a problem that isn’t even yours?” Misao couldn’t keep her incredulous tone from seeping into her question. Leave your pack on purpose? She couldn’t imagine it. Red didn’t meet her gaze, as if trying to convince himself rather than her.

“The pack was not mine, and this one… lived in the North, once. Shishio has already shown that he is no respecter of territories, and I will not allow the friends I left behind to be put into danger because of him, that I will not.”

“Himura,” Misao hesitated, “Shishio’s pack is big, but that’s only part of the problem. If it was just numbers then the Oniwaban,” she had to clear her throat before continuing, “the Oniwaban would have been okay, but his lieutenants—his Juppongatana…” she did not shudder, she didn’t, even though she could remember paralyzing fear as her family had fallen one after the other. “They’re strong. I don’t think anyone weaker than Aoshi-sama could beat them, and there are nine of them.”

Red inclined his head. “It will be difficult,” he acknowledged, but didn’t seem overly concerned and Misao was struck by the sudden realization that Himura and Aoshi had probably fought—and that Aoshi hadn’t won.

“Red, please, what do you know about Aoshi-sama?”

Kenshin hesitated another moment before seeming to sigh. “The last this one saw of him he was seeking his vengeance on Kanyruu. Having achieved that his trail led north—presumably to try and get to you and your pack before word of his defection reached Shishio.”

“Not that Shishio really cared,” Misao snarled. “He thought it great fun to hold the Oniwaban captive—a great symbol, having the untamable pack brought to heel like a toothless dog—but once he had sent Aoshi-sama and the others south he forgot about us.” A growl was lodged in her chest, it wormed into the ragged gash that had been left when she saw her family killed. “I’ll go North with you, Himura, since that’s where Aoshi-sama is going. It’s past time that the Oniwaban bites back.”

“I’m sick of this.” Kaoru whispered the words into the darkness of her empty den.

Empty because Sano was still recuperating at Megumi’s, where the healer could keep an eye on him.

Empty, despite the warmth of Yahiko pressed against her side like always.

Empty as the place in her heart where a red wolf had once burned himself into her life.

She couldn’t say it aloud during the day—there was too much to do, and she couldn’t be selfish. Sanosuke had to be cared for and fed, and the territory had to be protected. She hadn’t been able to follow Kenshin because of these things, so at least she ought to do them well.

But the territory had been largely ignored by threats (real or imagined) and Sano was out of the metaphorical woods. All he needed now was time. Empty time sliding through her veins like shattered ice to ravage the cinders left of her heart.

Yahiko sighed, the feeling of his ribcage expanding and contracting somehow comforting to the she-wolf. “Me too.”

The tanuki winced. “I didn’t realize you were awake.”

“Yeah, well, I am,” the young dog grumbled, shifting slightly to rest his head on his forepaws. “And this still sucks.”

“I know,” Kaoru kept her voice quiet, even though there was no one in the den to wake up, now. “I said I would look after and protect everyone here, but,” she shook her head, “protect them from what?”

Yahiko snorted, “I doubt that Shishio guy knows or cares that we’re here.”
“And if he does,” Kaoru breathed out, “I’m not the same female who would hide in my den while enemies overrun my territory. I’m different now. I met Kenshin and you, Sanosuke, Megumi and Tsubame. I have ones precious to me that I want to protect, and I’ve never been the most patient wolf.”

“Don’t I know it,” a gleam was starting to come into Yahiko’s eyes, “So are you saying you’re going to leave the territory to go after Kenshin?”

Kaoru’s blue eyes were icy with resolve. “The pack is more important than the territory. Yes. I’m going after him. He might not want my help, but he’s going to get it—and after,” she swallowed, “I’m going to bring him home if I have to drag him back by the ears.”

“I hope you know that I’m coming too,” the akita-mix informed her. “There’s no way I’m staying behind.”

Persuasive words to convince him to stay rose in the smoky wolf’s throat, but were quickly choked down by the memory of firm violet eyes locking her in place. No more. I’m coming.

“Fine,” she said instead, calculating, “Sano probably needs another few days before he’s up for serious travel. We’ll leave him with Megumi and he can come when she says so.”

Yahiko glanced up at his sister, displaying one upper fang in a satisfied smirk. “He’s going to be furious,” he said smugly, “us leaving without him and all.”

“He can get over it,” Kaoru knew her own expression was grim, but she couldn’t quite summon up a smile. “We leave tomorrow. I’m not wasting any more time.”

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