Amber Forest

Chapter 15- Alliances

I raise my flags, don my clothes

Its a revolution, I suppose

We'll paint it red to fit right in

-Imagine Dragons, Radioactive

“So, you ought to know about the Juppongatana,” Misao called to the red wolf picking his way through the snow before her, “lucky for you I’ve met them!” Silence, save for the crunching of snow, but Misao was used to silence from Aoshi-sama so she took it as permission to continue. “First off there’s Shishio’s alpha female, I think her name’s Yumi. She’s a dog and I don’t think she really knows how to fight—she didn’t seem very interested in it, anyway. Also uninterested in fighting is Hoji, a wolf. He’s mostly in charge of recruitment and spends most of his time kissing up to Shishio.”

“They don’t sound that bad so far, that they do not.” He speaks! And jokes. Not the same as talking to Aoshi-sama, then.

“Yeah, well, those two are the easy ones. Shishio’s beta is named Soujiro, he’s a little like me—half coyote, anyway—so he’s pretty small, but he’s fast and ruthless.” Misao shuddered, “And he smiles. Like, even more than you.

A hitch of breath that might have been a laugh was her answer; Misao struggled not to pout at the response. “Other than him, there’s Kamatari—he’s a freaking mountain lion, I have no clue how Shishio recruited him.

“Hyottoko was a bear,” Red pointed out, clearly amused. Misao ignored him.

“Henya’s some kind of hawk, spends most of his time spying. The next one is actually two—they have this giant wolf they call Fuji. He never talks, and doesn’t listen to anyone except Saizuchi, this creepy rat he lets ride around on his head. They’re really strong. Cho is another wolf—I think, he looks almost as weird as you, Red—he’s probably crazy. Likes fighting a little too much, you know?” Misao took a breath to steady herself, “The last two are dogs. Usui… Usui is the one who murdered my pack,” she was shaking again, her tremors blurring Himura’s prints as she stepped in them. “He’s blind. I don’t—I don’t know how he fights. He says he can read minds but I don’t—the only reason I got away is because of the last Juppongatana. His name is Anji. He found us when Usui was attacking and stopped him. It gave me time to get away… I’ve never seen him fight, but the fact that Usui avoided fighting with him tells me that he’s pretty strong.”

Himura slowed, then came to a stop, looking across the field of snow. Misao listened intently, trying to hear the reason for the pause, but there was nothing.

“What is it?” she finally asked, annoyed but sure that there was no ambush waiting in the wings for her to be a distraction. And Red didn’t immediately shush her, so it wasn’t that.

“This was the old boundary of the Bakufu,” he said quietly.

Misao felt her eyes widen as her brows rose. “Wow, when you said you were here a long time ago you weren’t kidding. I don’t think the Bakufu pack has been around since the Ishin Shishi beat them a few years ago.”

“And yet we have crossed no Ishin Shishi boundaries,” Himura noted, a hint of a question in his statement. Misao shrugged.

“I say that they won, and they did, kind of. The Bakufu broke up and cleared out, but by then… well, the Ishin Shishi were a lot smaller. Gramps said that a lot of wolves on both sides found out that they didn’t have the stomach for war and just left. Those that didn’t… well. Shishio didn’t really hold back.” Nervously Misao let her ears swivel on her head to try and pick up any sounds. “Speaking of Shisho, we had better be careful. He’s got a few outposts along the borders to stop folks going out or coming in.”

Red’s smile returned, now a touch grim. Misao shifted uneasily. “What?”

He glanced at her before sweeping his gaze over the snowy landscape before them once more, smile fading.

“For a war long over, nothing seems to have changed.”

Red’s observation killed conversation for a while, but soon Misao couldn’t resist pestering her companion for details on Aoshi-sama.

“Did he seem depressed at all? I mean, obviously it can be hard to tell, he keeps most things quiet, but when he’s upset there’s a certain way he holds his ears,” Misao tried to demonstrate with her own ears, but couldn’t seem to fine tune their position very effectively. “Normally they’re just up, but when he’s upset they turn outward… just… a… smidge… Are you even paying attention?” The Rurouni clearly was not, sliding purposefully through the shadows of snow-covered trees, ears pricked forward for any hint of danger.

“You were the one who pointed out the existence of Shishio’s sentries, Miss Misao,” the crimson wolf reminded her, “it seems wise to be vigilant for them.”

“I didn’t mean for you to ignore me,” Misao muttered resentfully, “and I just wanted to know how Aoshi-sama was.”

“This one would imagine that you would be a far better judge of that, Miss Misao,” Kenshin responded, still facing forward, “all this one can tell you is that Aoshi left injured but in good health otherwise.”

How injured?” Misao pressed, but Kenshin stopped abruptly, focused on something… In the silence she heard it too, the low steady mutter of multiple conversations.

Himura glanced at her and the coyote nodded silently. He set off quietly through the woods, angling for the noise. Misao followed his lead, mentally comparing their position to the map of the territory she held in her head. They had passed the mountains dividing the North from the South, and approached the main basin that the packs of the past had warred over. Here the foothills of the mountains would slope away into the plains. In fact, the edge of the hill should be… here.

Ahead the ground fell gently away into the basin proper, and plainly visible out in the open instead of under the cover of trees was a pack of assorted canines. Wolves and dogs milled around in loose formation, orbiting a fairly solid center. Misao dropped to a low crouch to avoid being seen. How many of them? Thirty?

“That’s one of Shishio’s outposts,” Misao hissed, the snow brushing her belly and chilling the butterflies rioting wildly within. “We should get out of here.”

Himura studied the rough assortment of dogs and wolves below them, not visibly sharing Misao’s unease. He seemed to catch something, some scent or feeling in the air and grimaced. “While the element of surprise would be advantageous in the fight against Shishio, allies will be of more use in the long run.” He sighed, visibly annoyed. “And my ally is about to attack that outpost, that he is.”

Misao was opening her mouth to ask what ally he was talking about, since she wasn’t about to throw herself down that hill and she didn’t see anyone else when the animals below erupted into furious barks and panic-stricken howls and Red was gone.

Cursing whatever idiot had come up with this plan the coyote shoved herself to her feet and followed suit. Kenshin was visible before her, a red form cutting a swathe of destruction as he met the confused cronies. For a second Misao could see a similar arc of destruction being cut through the other side of camp before it was her turn to do some damage.

Irritation was a bitter tang in the back of Kenshin’s mind, but the Rurouni didn’t bother to banish it. The crimson wolf felt he had every right to be irritated.

Flushed from a place, from a pack that had begun to feel like home by an old enemy would do that to the most understanding of souls—even if it had ultimately been his choice. Then there was his new traveling-companion, Miss Misao, an unwitting reminder of his failure to save the Oniwaban from Kanryuu’s machinations. It wasn’t her fault, of course, though the uneasiness churning in his gut about allowing her to follow him into danger undoubtedly was.

And finally, there was this.

Coming out of hiding, giving up the element of surprise that had given Battousai the satisfaction of knowing that several of his targets had never known what had ended their lives. All to run to the aid of a wolf that might be an ally, but would never be a friend.

What is Saito doing attacking an outpost like this, anyway? While it was true that the Shinsengumi would probably be fine, probably wasn’t definitely, and any assistance Saito might give would be invaluable.

So yes, Kenshin was feeling a bit irritated. Fortunately there was an entire contingent of canines before him that he could subtly work it out on.

The assorted dogs and wolves of the outpost were so focused on the disturbance Saito was causing on the far side that Kenshin’s first attacks took them completely off guard. Well at least this one still has the element of surprise with them, the crimson wolf thought dryly. He dealt punishing blows with precision, working to incapacitate or frighten rather than kill or maim—though he doubted that Saito was showing the same restraint.

He could hear the muffled thuds of footfalls through snow behind him, followed by soft swearing as Miss Misao recklessly followed his charge. Ahead of him, a wolf snarled in equal parts rage and fear—with a quick leap, the Rurouni avoided panicked fangs and landed on the black-on-gray back with a punishing bite. An even louder curse exploded from Miss Misao—whatever else she had learned from her alpha, his quiet reserve hadn’t been on the list—and the coyote threw herself into the fight.

Part of Kenshin not focused on thinning the crowd noted that it had taken some time for the coyote to join him—more than he would have expected of an Oniwaban. Still, having seen all of her pack slaughtered by a mad dog, it was a wonder she had dared to enter the fight at all.

Dogs and wolves parted reluctantly before the pair, and more than once Kenshin winced as a particularly complex move pulled at his still newly-healed injuries. Miss Misao was a silver-tan shadow fighting in his wake, stubbornly keeping the dogs and wolves he pushed past from closing ranks behind him. The red wolf kept half an eye on her as he blurred around his opponents, pleased when they dealt accidental damage to their own allies when they attacked where he had been as opposed to where he was. We aren’t outnumbered, memories of war whispered their own brand of humor, we’re just in a target-rich environment.

Miss Misao wasn’t unskilled, he noted, she was quick on her feet and seemed to understand that her lightness of frame wouldn’t lend itself to crushing blows, avoiding body-to-body encounters with dexterity. But still there was a… hesitance around her, an involuntary, unthinking flinch in the face of attack, a few seconds of delay that turned what should have been graceful retreats into frantic backwards scrambles. He had seen it before—and the familiarity of watching it twisted through his heart with all the pain of poison. But he wouldn’t let himself ignore the young fighter just in case she needed help.

Miss Misao fought the way that Miss Kaoru had when they first met, uncertain, unsure of her own skill, unaware of what she was truly capable of, and in some ways afraid to try.

The red wolf had already been painfully reminded of the tanuki in meeting Miss Misao, now it seemed that she intended to hound his memory even to Shishio’s very camp. How very like her. His smile was bittersweet and caused the sheep dog he was facing to back up uncertainly. Painful as it was, a memory of her… it wasn’t unwelcome. Apparently unnerved by the crimson wolf’s smile in the midst of chaos the sheep dog turned and ran without more than a snap at his heels from Misao to speed him on his way.

The coyote worked her way closer to Kenshin, her angry expression reminding him now of Yahiko. “This better be some ally, Red!” she warned, obviously ready to assign Kenshin the blame for dragging her into this attack despite the circumstance being her own choice. Kenshin fought down an answering frown and channeled the negative emotion into a harrying bite that made a black hybrid aiming for Misao’s unguarded shoulder reconsider his attempt. The Oniwaban startled away from his unexpected movement, a flash of remembered terror sharpening her reaction. Kenshin deliberately ignored the emotion, continuing his assault, watching the young coyote without seeming to.

If such a reaction had come up earlier, the crimson wolf could have moved to console, to soothe and reassure the coyote of her safety. But the terror was not of here and now, and he had seen her fight. The little coyote followed the path of the Oniwaban and to openly favor her during battle would crush her warrior’s pride as surely as it would Yahiko’s. She recovered while Kenshin continued parting the crowd, moving hesitantly back into the role she had chosen.

They approached the center now, where a bellowing roar became understandable, if rough, orders, “Kill them! Kill them you weaklings, or on behalf of our lord Shishio I, Senkaku, will punish your failures myself!”

Wonderful, Kenshin sighed to himself as the last of the defenses crumbled before him, another idiotic bully. What was it about such creatures that inspired others to follow? Kenshin would never understand.

The defenders facing him joined the mass exodus encouraged on its way by Misao’s agile fangs and the Rurouni got his first look at the loud-voiced Senkaku. He was a peculiar looking dog, a bull terrier, his skull resembled nothing so much as a truncated cone with slantways eyes and an impractical looking jaw. His coat was short and brown with a few white markings—he had to be freezing in this snow—over a set of muscles that reminded Kenshin of the former Oniwaban Shikijou. At his side one of the few lackeys that hadn’t fled, an auburn setter, pinned a young German shepherd on his back. The nervous setter’s eyes darting from his leader to the oncoming storm of violence to his captive and back again.

None of the three had noticed Kenshin’s arrival as of yet, Senkaku’s attention focused in the direction of the original attack. A juvenile thrill of smug triumph flashed in the crimson wolf before he could quash it as he realized that despite starting later he had beaten Saito to the middle. Within moments the victory was rendered moot as Saito emerged on the scene.

As Kenshin had expected, bodies littered the ground in the Shinsengumi’s wake—their stillness was the stillness of death. Dark amber eyes swept over the scene, taking in Senkaku and his sniveling lieutenant, lingering for a heartbeat on the pinned dog before rising to find Kenshin, with Misao just trotting up to stand at the crimson wolf’s shoulder.

“Battousai,” he acknowledged, not seeming at all surprised that his old foe had abandoned his peaceful existence for the war of the North.

Of course, Kenshin eyed the older wolf in return; sometimes enemies know each other better than friends.

One fang poked from beneath Saito’s upper lip in a smirk, “Replacing your little Raccoon-girl already?”

Kenshin’s answering growl and Misao’s indignant squawk were overridden as Senkaku finally realized the threat at his back. “What the—!”

Kenshin ignored the reaction, choosing to address Saito, “This one does not appreciate being made to give up the element of surprise, Saito,” he informed the gray wolf flatly. As he continued the tone slid down into a clear warning, “And you will not speak of Miss Kaoru again, that you will not.”

Saito snorted in response, answering the first comment and ignoring the second. “You might still have your surprise if you had bothered to kill your opponents;” the wolf answered impatiently, “What kind of hitokiri does not stain the snow red?”

Misao growled even more audibly, but Kenshin’s response was firm. “My decisions are my own.”

“Who the hell are you guys?” Senkaku broke in furiously, cone-shaped head swinging to take in one wolf, then the other. “How dare you interfere with lord Shishio’s pack!”

“A fool like you must not rank very highly in Shishio’s little organization to not know the leader of the only free pack still in the area,” Saito sneered in disgust.

And he must not be from around here if he doesn’t recognize this one’s name, Kenshin knew, though honestly the thin coat would have told him as much. This dog was suited for warmer climes.

“A fool am I?” Senkaku bellowed, “only a true fool would stand against the great lord Shishio!”

“As if!” an angry young voice answered, dripping scorn. Kenshin caught himself looking for Yahiko before realizing that the young German shepherd had been the one to speak. His black and tan fur was dusted with snow, but the furious light in his brown eyes was familiar.

“You’d better keep quiet until I’ve got time to deal with you, kid,” Senkaku growled, though the dog holding the youngster down appeared to be counting up the number of enemies versus his boss and coming up with a number that he didn’t like.

“Quiet, Eiji,” Saito said without looking at the dog, and the adolescent sank further into the snow without a word. “Battousai, if you would watch him while I deal this.” Amber eyes locked with violet eyes as Saito silently ordered the Battousai to stay out of the fight. Kenshin allowed one brow to rise in answer to Saito giving him orders, but inclined his head in a signal for the Shinsengumi to do as he wished.

There was no need to undo all of Healer Gensai’s hard work by running around after an annoyance like Senkaku.

“Pointy-eyed jerk telling us what to do,” Miss Misao grumbled, probably, Kenshin decided, annoyed at having not been addressed at all. “If this is your idea of an ally, I’d hate to see an enemy.”

Humor warred with depression at her statement, “True enough,” Kenshin answered, matching her low volume if not her annoyance, “but it seems we ought to attend to the young prisoner.”

Saito was pacing forward, tall and strong, wintry sunlight glinting off his pelt. “It is my duty,” he said, “to safeguard this land and bring her criminals to justice.” He smiled. It was not a reassuring sight. “And to stand against upstarts such as Shishio is my pleasure.”

“I’ll make you eat those words!” Senkaku howled, launching himself at the wolf. Kenshin took the opportunity to make his way to the setter, Misao trailing closely behind him. The dog, which had apparently been chosen for its loyalty and brawn rather than brains, shifted uncertainly. Clearly he was hoping for further instructions—perhaps the order to kill his captive—but Senkaku was too busy to notice his underling’s dilemma.

Misao seemed to take in the guard’s uncertain stance and then fairly bounced up to him as though they were old friends. “Hey there,” she greeted, voice a friendly chirrup. “You’ve got some guts, huh? Sticking by your boss through all of this, I mean. Nobody else did!” The setter’s eyes darted around, apparently noticing again the lack of backup. Misao continued, hardly giving the guard a chance to speak. “And it’s pretty brave sticking around when you’re outnumbered like you are.” Casually she glanced to Saito and Senkaku’s fight, inviting the setter’s gaze to follow hers. The wince was at least half-real as she watched Saito ram into his opponent like a charging bear, knocking the stocky dog off his paws and into the air for a few seconds. “Oh, ouch,” the coyote said with feeling, “I guess that Saito guy takes his duty pretty seriously. I would so not want to be you in a few minutes. I mean, look at what he’s doing to your boss just for working for Shishio. It seemed to me like he knows this guy,” she nodded at the pinned Eiji, “So I’m guessing that what he’ll do to you is gonna be worse since its personal and all.”

The setter’s tail was firmly tucked and the whites of his eyes were showing. Kenshin took pity on the guard, interrupting before Misao could begin detailing what exactly would be done to the hapless hound.

“You should probably go, that you should,” the red wolf advised kindly. The setter glanced at him in open appreciation before bolting. No longer restrained, Eiji pushed him way to his paws.

“That was stupid,” he said seriously, a frown causing creases on his brow, “he’ll probably go straight for reinforcements to track you down. You should have killed him.”

Kenshin felt his brows rise—even Yahiko wasn’t this blunt. Misao spluttered in rage,

“Hey kid, if you didn’t notice we just fought off a freaking army to get you. You’re welcome.

The dog wrinkled his muzzle in annoyance, “No one asked you to come—and leaving those goons alive causes more problems down the road. If you want to see how to deal with enemies, look over there.” Eiji nodded toward Saito and Senkaku, the wrinkles in his brow smoothing as he relaxed. Kenshin followed his gaze, unsurprised to see that Saito was approaching the end of the fight—Senkaku hadn’t struck him as strong enough to present much of a challenge.

The bull terrier retreated frantically, desperate to stay ahead of the Shinsengumi captain’s scything fangs. The brown dog swung right, then left with surprising speed, trying to get past Saito’s deadly combination of offense and defense.

“Why won’t you just die?!” His howl was hysterical, eyes as wide as they could go in his oddly shaped face. “This is lord Shishio’s land, there’s nothing left for you here!”

“There is,” Saito said calmly, moving into the low crouch of his favorite move. Kenshin winced in anticipation. “The same thing I have always had,” Saito continued, deceptively still. Senkaku, half-blind with frustration and fear proved himself a fool by charging to attack rather than running for the hills. “Slay. Evil. Instantly.” The words were chill across the snow, Saito’s iron code of the North. Gray and white fur moved and crimson splashed across the snow. Misao made a choking noise at his side, and Kenshin turned his head to check on the coyote.

Her jade green eyes were wide and horrified, “That was awful,” her voice was a bare whisper, “Senkaku wasn’t even in the same league—Saito was toying with him the whole time.” Kenshin winced, dismayed at her reaction but not entirely surprised given what she had been through.

“Despite what you may think, Saito did give him a chance to withdraw,” he said gently. “This one may not like him, but Saito is not without honor.” You will be safe, hung in the air, unsaid, but Kenshin hoped that somehow the coyote would hear it anyway.

Eiji eyed her, apparently having no sympathy for her lingering trauma. “What are you getting upset for? Senkaku was one of Shishio’s guys, and they don’t have any honor.” His dark ears flattened as he stared moodily at the ground, “He was going to kill me while I was pinned and couldn’t do anything.”

Misao shuddered, but the motion wasn’t one of terror, rather she seemed to be shaking off the memories that plagued her and she straightened to eye Eiji curiously.

“What were you doing to get caught by those guys anyway?”

“I—” Eiji started, but cut himself off as Saito approached their little group.

Misao eased back slightly as the gray wolf approached. Himura had implied that this guy was an ally, but there was no mistaking the tension between the two of them, and certainly no harm in being ready for a quick getaway.

Though jeez, imagine being on rough terms with the Battousai himself and still breathing. Unreal. Which of course begged the question of who Saito was. Let’s see, he’s North-native, and has been around long enough to know the Battousai on sight. Never left the area, name is apparently Saito and probably wasn’t allies with Kenshin in the past. So think, Makimachi, who is he? An echo of Gramps’s smile pulled at her muzzle. Okina had loved deductive games, and the idea of playing this one with him lifted her spirits. Even if this puzzle wasn’t hard, especially after getting Red’s identity. Hajime Saito of the Shinsengumi, elite guard of the Bakufu, Misao labeled the approaching wolf, it’s got to be.

“So, Battousai,” the wolf ignored her again and Misao glowered, “you decided to come out of your southern retreat.”

A muscle in Himura’s jaw twitched, but he managed to keep his overall expression calm. “It was never this one’s intent to leave the North in chaos, that it was not. You are not the only one who wishes this land peaceful for the sake of those who perished here.”

Something about Saito’s look—it wasn’t anything as overt as surprise, more realization—told Misao that wasn’t the gray wolf’s reason for fighting Shishio. Of course, Misao recalled his conversation with Senkaku, for him honor is probably enough.

“At least you trimmed the dead weight,” Saito’s amber eyes flicked to Misao and he snorted, “most of it anyway. Was this one hiding behind a tree during our last encounter?”

“Excuse me?!”

“Miss Misao is a new acquaintance, that she is,” Kenshin overrode Misao’s indignant response; thought the coyote noted that his ears had angled back in annoyance when Saito referred to his previous pack as deadweight. Speaking of which…

“I am not deadweight!” Misao declared hotly, glaring at the dangerous wolf. Saito’s shrug sent his black-tipped pelt rippling along his shoulders.

“Actions speak louder than words, girl. If you want to represent yourself as independent, stop hiding behind others.” Clearly he hadn’t missed her slight retreat.

But that’s stupid! It’s stupid to mindlessly attack every opponent with brute strength, especially when you don’t have brute strength. If I fought with him on his terms, I’d lose, but smart fighters don’t fight on their opponent’s terms. I know my strengths and I’ll use my strengths, I’m fast, I’m often underestimated and I have allies. It would be stupid not to use them!

Of course, none of this made its way to Misao’s mouth; what came out was, “I’m not hiding!” And she didn’t want to be independent, that was just another way of saying she was alone. Being an Oniwaban was all about being part of a pack, working together, partnership, not independence, because what could be achieved together was greater than what could be achieved alone. The gray wolf shot her another skeptical glance.


Saito turned away from Red and Misao, the coyote quietly fuming at his casual dismissal. Dark amber eyes sought out the scuffed up puppy. The youngster sat up straight despite the weight of the Shinsengumi’s gaze, only his head lowered to avoid meeting his eyes.

“That was extremely foolish, Eiji,” Saito said, the dog flinching in response, dark muzzle wrinkling for a second. “If I had not been passing by, you would have been killed.” The head sunk a little lower. “Does Tokio know that you are out here?”

The puppy visibly winced and finally raised his head to answer, “No sir. I didn’t want to worry her, and thought I would be able to manage on my own.”

Saito snorted, “Then I trust your capture has disproved that notion.”

“Sir,” Eiji dared, a tiny spark flaring in his brown eyes, “We had run out of food. I was worried for my brothers.”

Saito’s frown… wasn’t quite so harsh. “Your concern is understandable, but your carelessness is inexcusable. By leaving without telling Tokio, you have placed her in the position of either abandoning your brothers to look for you or remaining at the den with even more worry than that which you professed to avoid giving her. If you had perished, do you understand the distress that she would suffer?”

Eiji lowered his head again, his body giving a shiver against the cold and against Saito’s words. “I… understand, sir. I’m sorry.”

“You owe your apologies to Tokio and to your brothers,” Saito corrected. “Tokio is an adult, if hunger became a concern, it would have been far safer to allow her to go and hunt while you watched over your brothers.”

Eiji blinked, as if this plan had not occurred to him before. Saito’s upper lip twisted slightly in what seemed to be a pained grimace. “You are not alone anymore, Eiji. You must make an effort to remember that.”

The German shepherd nodded, the sheen in his eyes suggesting that he was too choked up to talk. Apparently satisfied with the result of his talk, Saito swung back around to face the two who had helped him rescue the puppy.

“I will take Eiji back to Tokio. Battousai, word of this incident will get back to Shishio, you had best find a place to defend.”

Clearly we aren’t invited back to your den. Sheesh, with allies like this, who needs enemies? Wait… den… Tokio… No way! This guy has a mate?! I bet she was the one who wanted to take in Eiji, it’s kinda hard to things out of the goodness of your heart when you don’t have one.

“This one is aware,” Red answered coolly, probably not wanting to spend any more time with Saito than Saito wanted to spend with him. Old rivals and all that. Sheesh… Battousai, huh… “Before this incident,” which he still hasn’t thanked us for, “this one intended to journey to Hiko’s mountain. This one doubts very much that Shishio’s arrogance will take him there.” The smile that Saito quirked in response was dry, but he didn’t argue.

“Then I’ll know where to find you, Battouasi, when the time comes to talk of war.” Turning, he barked a command to Eiji and the two set off into the snow. Misao frowned uncertainly at the backs of the retreating pair.

“I hope that Eiji kid will be all right with that guy,” she growled a little, annoyance still fresh. “Is he always so pleasant?

“In this one’s experience, yes,” Red answered dryly, then he shook himself. “Actually, that was a rather civilized interaction with Saito. Usually there’s a lot more fighting.”

“I could see that,” Misao murmured, though, really, she couldn’t. The Battousai up against the Immortal Captain of the Shinsengumi? Yeah, no. Talk about fights she did not want to be anywhere near. “Did I hear that guy right—that he has a mate?” The question spilled out incredulously.

Kenshin met her eyes with a faintly horrified expression. “She must be the kindest soul in existence to put up with such a partner.”

“You think?” Misao asked sarcastically, sitting heavily in the snow. “Gah, I can’t even picture it!” She shuddered dramatically. “Actually, I don’t think I want to either.”

The pair had moved away from the deserted outpost, farther North. Their goal was a solitary mountain that rose craggily from the surrounding countryside. Hiko’s mountain, Himura had said, and Misao found herself wracking her brains for any scrap of information about the place. The only thing that kept coming to mind was that the mountain was a no-wolf’s-land.

No one ever tried to conquer it, no the Bakufu, not the Ishin Shishi, not Shishio’s group. Okina had told her that the mountain had its own law and to leave the place alone. And he had said it with one of his rare serious faces that had in turn extracted one of her rare serious promises.


To Hiko’s mountain.

Still, the mountain was a ways away, so Red had called a halt for the night in the shelter of an old cave hidden by pines, more a crack in the earth than a substantial shelter.

“How did you know this was here?” Misao wondered aloud as she followed the crimson wolf into the gloom and chose a bed of pine needles. Kenshin’s response was a little distant as he paced the circumference of the cave, checking for surprises before choosing a place of his own.

“Shelters like this were common during the war, when one might get separated from their pack and need a safe place to rest and recuperate before attempting to rejoin them. Though of course, their locations were closely guarded secrets.”

“So it seems like there are ghosts of the war everywhere,” Misao mused. “Old shelters, old enemies, and smelly old Shishio.”

Kenshin chuckled, “Saito truly did not make a favorable impression on you, did he?”

Misao fumed, “If he wanted to make a good impression on me, he shouldn’t have spent his time either pretending I didn’t exist or saying that I was a coward.”

“You are not a coward Miss Misao, that you are not.”

“Well I know that, but it’s still not a nice thing for the guy to say,” Misao huffed and let the conversation peter away into nothing. Kenshin hesitated, seeming to struggle to bring something up—she had been around Aoshi-sama enough to have an idea of how to use silence to encourage someone else to speak. Even if it was difficult for her, it was worth it when Kenshin broke the silence first.

“And about what Saito said…” Kenshin trailed off. Misao noticed his unease and yawned impressively in the face of it.

“About you being the Battousai? Please. I grew up in the North. Red wolf with a scarred face, history up here and freaky fighting skills? The Oniwaban works on information. Of course I knew who you were.” Perhaps she hadn’t put it together until they actually crossed into the North and she had seen how familiar he was with the territory, but there was no need to tell him that.

Kenshin’s breath left in a sigh, “This one would suppose that he should have been prepared to be known up here. Perhaps this one has simply become used to the anonymity of the south.”

Ah yes, the south. And that not-pack you left behind. Say what you like about Saito (and I will, frequently, loudly and angrily) but he did give me a good opening to bring them up.

“So the female in the pack you left behind was a raccoon,” Misao remarked offhandedly, mock seriousness weighting her green gaze. “I’m not judging you.”

“She’s not a raccoon, that she is not,” Himura protested, the topic seeming to make him smile despite himself. “Miss Kaoru simply has very unique markings.”

“You’re one to talk,” Misao retorted with a smile of her own, eyeing her companion’s red pelt.

“Perhaps,” the wolf allowed himself a chuckle before falling silent again. Misao could easily recognize the lonely smile that touched his muzzle—she wore its twin often enough, when she remembered all over again that Aoshi-sama was gone, and she didn’t know how long it would be until she could see him again. And yet, she couldn’t help but smile, because the thought of Aoshi always made her smile. An important female then, this “Miss Kaoru.”

“Will you tell me about them?” she found herself asking into the stillness. “You don’t have to, of course,” she rushed on, watching the smile for signs of slipping.

“This one doesn’t mind,” Kenshin hesitated, gaze straying southward as if hoping to see a familiar figure coming toward him out of the night. But there was no one. “Miss Kaoru owned the territory that this one wandered on to, though at the time she was having trouble holding it…”

Kenshin’s quiet voice opened the story of a young female left alone in the world by the death of her father, trying to hold the remains of his territory in his honor through sheer willpower. Of a young puppy with a foul temper and noble heart who sometimes found it difficult to admit that he had made a family to replace the one he had been born into. An easy-going fighter with a habit of getting lost who had found his way into their lives and never left. A pair of frightened foxes, one flirtatious and catty and skilled, the other young and sweet-tempered.

It did not escape Misao’s notice that although Kenshin told day-to-day stories of everyone, Yahiko, Sanosuke, Megumi, Tsubame, and even a social bobcat named Tae—Kaoru’s name came up most frequently, and many of the stories centered on her.

I wonder if she knows, Misao lowered her head to rest on her paws, I wonder if she knows how thoroughly she has invaded Himura’s heart. His “Miss Kaoru.”

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