Chapter 17- Home is Where...
Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
Trouble, it might drag you down
You get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
I’m going to make this place your home
-Phillip Phillips, Home
Kenshin squashed an instinctive flinch as Hiko finally broke the silence. Being around his old mentor was making him feel very young and nervous again. He was sure the other wolf was doing it on purpose. The earth-toned wolf wasn’t even facing him, eyes turned disinterestedly to scan the slopes of his mountain visible through the entrance of his cave. “What have you been up to, idiot apprentice?”
Kenshin found himself wishing that Miss Misao had not wandered off to scout the territory; having his master’s undivided attention was not doing anything for his peace of mind.
“This one would imagine that you heard of most of his doings, Master,” he hedged carefully. Hiko had said that Kenshin could tell his story, but the crimson wolf had no desire to reopen old injuries. Or to give the stubborn old wolf a perfect opening to say I told you so again.
Hiko snorted, eyes narrowing for a heartbeat, “Of course I did, you numbskull. For a shadow killer you were far too flashy.” Kenshin’s reflexive smile was half-wince; he couldn’t deny that he did seem to attract more than his fair share of attention.
“I know,” Hiko said with deliberate slowness, making sure even his idiotic apprentice couldn’t miss the gravity of his next words, “I know how it came to an end. What happened… and that you were taken.”
Cold leeched into Kenshin’s bones and heart, numbness, but no pain. This wound had been bleeding so silently, so long, that there was no hurt left to feel. Just a crippling sensation of loss and the guilt-stricken grief that stole his breath away.
“How…” his voice was too quiet even in the stillness, with an effort he strengthened it. “How does anyone know what happened there?”
Hiko sighed, but the set of his face was curiously free from condemnation as he turned to face his errant pupil. “You weren’t thinking clearly,” he said gruffly. “There were survivors who saw what happened and spread the word. It was important news, after all. The Bakufu beta disappearing along with the Isshin Shishi assassin.”
Kenshin huffed out a breath in a humorless laugh. “So everyone knows then.”
Hiko shrugged, the impressive ruff of fur along his shoulders rippling with the movement. “Times change. I’d say anyone who might know has left the North by now. Is it really so bad to talk about it?”
The red wolf shook his head slowly, “This one… has never tried.” His master’s look was far too knowing, as if the black, white and red of Kenshin’s nightmares was emblazoned in the cross-shaped scar across his face.
“It might help,” he suggested, then continued archly. “Just don’t come to me with that touchy-feely talk-about-your-feelings crap.”
A wry smile twisted the corners of Kenshin’s mouth in an involuntary response. Hiko would listen, if he had to, if Kenshin chose to speak. He might not be able to help at all, but he would listen. The old wolf simply didn’t think he was the best candidate for such a conversation. Well, I’ve avoided it for this long; the red wolf thought with dark humor, it won’t kill me to leave it alone until Shishio is dealt with. Assuming, of course, that he could deal with Shishio. For now, however, he would just be thankful for a chance to sleep and push back the memories of bloody snow. The North was not being kind to him.
All the more reason to sort out Shishio so this one can move on. Though again, that left the problem of actually dealing with the burned wolf. Kenshin sighed roughly, ignoring his master ignoring the sound. They needed more information, less supposition. Where was Shishio denned? Did he keep all of his Juppongatana by his side or only a few? How many outposts guarded the borders, and how many wolves and dogs were in them? Were there any satellite packs like Kanryuu’s that could be recalled to bolster Shishio’s ranks? Perhaps Saito will have some of the answers, Kenshin supposed. The older wolf knew to rendezvous with him here—there wasn’t much else to do at the moment but wait.
A gentle crunch of snow alerted him, closer to the cave than he would expect someone to get without being noticed. He pushed himself to his paws, ears pricked to follow the sound of muted footsteps in the snow. It was possible that Miss Misao was putting her Oniwaban training to use and practicing her stealth—
“Hey,” Hiko grunted, annoyed, “I agreed that you and the pipsqueak could stay here for a while, I never said I was letting in a whole pack!”
A whole…? Only now could Kenshin hear it too, (only after Hiko had pointed it out… would he never stop being the student?) the pattern of steps had a half-blurred echo to it, another creature walking in almost perfect harmony with the first, disguising the number of beings approaching. Who…?
“Here it is!” Miss Misao’s voice broke through the taut stillness within the cave, instantly reassuring the red wolf who had begun to worry about the safety of his travelling companion. She sounded happy, exuberant as ever, her voice an overloud miss-match to her quiet footsteps. But who had she brought with her?
“Himura! Hey, Red!” she called, stealth abandoned in favor of the sound of her slight form bounding across the snow toward the cave.
“Miss Misao?” he called back curiously, moving toward the cave entrance to meet her. Snow exploded in tiny bursts as her paws impacted on the loosely-packed powder, her silver and tan form was lithe in the moonlight, her blue-green eyes lit from within by an infectious smile that seemed both natural and brilliant on her face.
“Look who I found,” she beamed, then corrected herself, looking over her shoulder, “or, who found me.”
Who indeed. A familiar form moved across the snow in Misao’s wake, the shadow to her silver, icy green eyes still as inscrutable as the last time Kenshin had seen the dark wolf.
“Aoshi Shinomori,” Kenshin greeted, inclining his head while keeping an eye on the Okashira. It was hard to forget that they had not parted as friends, exactly. Though they hadn’t much seemed like enemies either.
The black wolf came to a halt a respectful distance away and similarly inclined his head, “Battousai.” He blinked slowly, deliberately, “I hear we have a common enemy.”
If the smile that tugged at Kenshin’s muzzle in response was a little grim, he was sure the Okashira was the only one who noticed it.
“That we do.”
Hiko had let Aoshi into his den after a hurried introduction, thought he was still inclined to complain about being “crowded.” To divert him, Misao had told the lone wolf of her encounter with the four St. Bernards on his mountain. Thereafter the grumbles were mostly against Shishio and a good deal deadlier in tone.
Kenshin was suffered to explain to Aoshi how he had come to the North, and then Misao badgered her beloved leader into relating some of what had happened to him while they had been separated. The black wolf spoke sparingly of his time alone, except for any tactical information he had uncovered as he scoured the North for the remnant of his pack.
Eventually the conversation died down and Kenshin thought hard about the information Aoshi had given him. It seemed the borders were well-guarded, with evenly-spaced packs of between seven and fifteen members each stationed along them. There had been another satellite pack to the west—but after the debacle with Kanryuu it had been recalled and re-assimilated into the fold.
“Misao has told me you left your pack behind.” Aoshi observed into the quiet. Kenshin blinked, refocusing his mind on the present moment.
Hiko lay some distance away, curled to face the wall in a visual display of his poor temper. Whether he was asleep or awake was anyone’s guess. Aoshi lay somewhat nearer as they had been speaking, his head upright with his paws straight before him. Curled into the dark wolf’s side, having succumbed to her tiredness and the emotional exhaustion of finding Aoshi again Misao slumbered peacefully. She had buried her face into Aoshi’s fur as if to press herself into one being with him, so he could never leave her behind again. The Okashira didn’t seem to mind her intrusion—his tail had curled around her as far as it was able.
With an effort, Kenshin recalled Shinomori’s statement. “This one did indeed leave them behind.” Aoshi tilted his head fractionally to the side, considering.
“A pity. Allies would have been advantageous in the fight.”
Yes, I know. There’s a lot of them, even if we probably are the better fighters. “It was too dangerous.”
Aoshi’s gaze remained cool, “And coming after Takani was not?”
“That’s… not the same,” Kenshin sighed. “This isn’t their fight.”
“But you have made it yours, Battousai,” Aoshi observed. “Do you not believe your allies would aid your for such a reason?”
“They shouldn’t have to—” Kenshin began to protest, but Aoshi cut him off with that same inscrutable calm.
“No. Nor should Misao have found it necessary to stay and seek me once she was free of her captors, when it would only put her in more danger. Such is the nature of a pack.”
Kenshin allowed a fond smile to steal across his face as he regarded the sleeping coyote. “Miss Misao is quite brave indeed.”
The ice in Aoshi’s gaze thawed a little as it turned to the female, early, icy spring rather than the shattered heart of a glacier. “Far braver than she knows and more loyal than I deserve.” The gaze traveled back to meet Kenshin’s once more. “Do you count those who fought with you in the south as any less brave? Any less loyal?”
“No, they would have come if this one allowed it, or if this one asked it of them. But one did not, and what’s done is done.”
“Perhaps,” Aoshi allowed, lowering his head to the ground as he obviously prepared to sleep. “Perhaps not.”
Morning crept in slowly, as if hesitant to disturb the creatures sleeping in Hiko’s den. It offered a slight warmth with its approach, the better to coax the sleepers into wakefulness. Kenshin observed the gradual brightening of his surroundings with eyes that felt as though they had scarcely closed the night before. Troubled sleep was nothing new to him, though since learning of Shishio’s threat the nights had been restless even by his standards. He knew there was nothing to be done about the nightmares, but that didn’t stop the wolf from looking wistfully at the slumbering forms of Aoshi and Misao, curled together for protection and comfort against all the night brought. Since finding her Okashira, Misao displayed no intention of letting him out of her sight again.
For a moment he couldn’t help but wonder what Miss Kaoru’s reaction would be if he returned to her territory after this. Would she react at all like the young coyote? He knew his smile at the thought was pained, but that was all right, no one was awake to see it yet. Probably not. Even if she didn’t just tell him to leave—walk away and take the strife and death that shadowed his steps with him—she was more likely to attack him in a fit of temper. It was a rare time indeed that he had seen her respond emotionally in a way that didn’t involve belligerent yelling and violence.
If she hadn’t told him that she had been raised by her father as an only-child, Kenshin would have supposed the Tanuki grew up with a den full of brothers. But perhaps the strays her family had always taken in had filled that role.
The red wolf sighed. It had surprised him how much Miss Kaoru drifted into his thoughts since he left—a gleam of silver moonlight taking the place of black midnight in his mind. In some ways he blamed Miss Misao for that—he would catch the gleam of a silvery pelt out of the corner of his eye and turn his head, expecting to smell summer grass-flowers and see scolding, laughing blue eyes. But the quizzical gaze that met his was green, the silver pelt warmed by tan instead of shadowed by coal, and summer flowers were absent in winter’s chill. But he knew the coyote was not wholly to blame, for just as often he had turned to see nothing at all, the memory of Miss Kaoru’s presence teasing his mind in an empty landscape.
For the millionth time he told himself to forget about it—Miss Kaoru was safe now, and that mattered so much more than the ease he felt in her presence. Saito had reminded him of that, coming down from the North and shattering his illusion of being a protector. He ought to know by now; he was no guardian, no immovable wall like his master, a mountain, a shelter that would weather storms, breaking them before they could touch those under its protection.
He wasn’t strong enough for that, not stable enough. He was a striker, a… a hitokiri, seeking out threats and trying to dispose of them before they ever grew close enough to be an imminent danger. It only took one failure, just one, and the death that followed at his heels would swallow up his loved ones.
Dismal thoughts for an early morning.
Light increased steadily and Hiko finally stirred, either truly waking or giving up on the pretense of sleep. One baleful eye fixed on his prodigal student.
“Oh, you’re still here.” The words were dry, but not overly harsh and Kenshin decided not to play his master’s game by rising to the bait. The awakening Misao apparently had no such compunctions.
“Where did you think we were going to be?” Her voice was grumpy with sleep and she only stirred enough to raise her head and glare at the wolf. “It’s early. The sun’s only just come up.”
“And so you use your own laziness as an excuse to abuse a poor old hermit’s hospitality, is that it?”
Kenshin sighed as Misao spluttered, trying to wake up enough to respond properly. Aoshi had also roused, looking as unfazed as ever.
“Master,” Kenshin broke in with limited patience, “we already told you we intend to meet with Saito here and you agreed that we could.”
Hiko huffed, rising slowly and shaking his impressive ruff. “Hmph. Well, it had better be soon,” he warned. “Just be grateful I’m such a kind, forgiving master.” Kenshin knew better than to argue with the statement—the older wolf had raised him from a pup and there were far too many embarrassing stories he could choose to relive. Now, or worse, when Saito got here.
That tooth-grinding thought was more than enough to keep him quiet, and Hiko’s triumphant smile as he strode majestically out of the den made it clear that he knew of this power and was reveling in it. “I’m off to find breakfast. I suggest you three do the same.”
“Arrogant, condescending old grump,” Misao muttered resentfully under her breath. Kenshin didn’t disagree with her on any particular point.
The most annoying part is that Master has every right to be that proud—is it still arrogance if you can back it up? The red wolf almost longed for the overconfident thugs that could be defeated to show them the error in their thinking. Such tactics would only inflate his Master’s ego even more.
“It is generous of him to allow us to hunt here,” Aoshi’s unruffled observation brought an end to Misao’s rant, which, unchecked, had begun to grow in severity and volume. “Most lone wolves are fiercely protective of any territory they manage to claim.”
“It will also give us a chance to keep our eyes out for Saito, that it will,” Kenshin put in as he rose, shaking off some cave dust. “Even if he chose to tarry with his mate, he ought to be here soon.” Or he had better be, the thought had a bit of darker irritation to it, the thought of a hitokiri impatient for a target. If he makes me track him down and waste more time we might have a… problem.
The pickings were pretty good despite the snow, and everyone was able to catch something to eat. Once that business was completed and there was still no sign of Saito, Kenshin suggested traveling down the Mountain towards the border, in hopes of running into the Shinsengumi.
And if we don’t run into him by the time we reach it, this one is going scouting regardless, Kenshin thought privately with a good deal less of his usual good humor. The longer the day wore on the more anxious he felt, and he knew that if he could just find a path to his target the feeling would ease. His calm was not at all helped by the fact that Hiko had found them after his own meal and was amusing himself by alternating between goading Misao into a spluttering rage and belittling his errant student. Aoshi seemed mercifully exempt from Hiko’s fun; probably, the Rurouni knew, because even Hiko wouldn’t be able to get a reaction out of the stoic wolf.
Kenshin set his teeth as another biting insult and scathing retort sounded out over the snow. They were not yet off the mountain, but the idea of the sound carrying down to any of Shishio’s followers was raising his hackles, and again he had to weigh whether or not it was worth it trying to tell the two to keep quiet before they came into Shishio’s territory. His ears twitched just as a familiar scent reached his nose and the decision was neatly taken from him.
“You do realize that other beasts can hear you,” Saito’s familiar disparaging tone preceded him as the northern wolf came into view, looking just the same as the last time Kenshin saw him, lean and deadly with dark amber eyes that gleamed with their own vicious sense of humor.
Hiko rolled his eyes dramatically at Saito’s arrival. “I suppose you’re the one they’ve been waiting on,” he drawled, unimpressed. “Is there anyone else here to trample over my home? Any more friends you’ve got hiding behind boulders or up trees?”
“He is not our friend,” Misao grumbled, the fur on her back fluffing a bit as she visibly reacted to Saito’s presence. The Shinsengumi looked back at her with an arched brow.
“Perhaps not, but we are allies, here to make use of one another.” His upper lip twisted in disdain, “For all the use you’ll be.”
Misao sucked in a breath at the insult and bristled, ready to defend herself as Aoshi stepped forward.
“Saito. If we are allies as you claim, I would advise you to not insult my subordinate.”
Kenshin arched a brow of his own, but kept his words to himself. In hindsight he supposed it shouldn’t have been a surprise—Aoshi was just as native to this area as Saito was, as alphas of neighboring territories, the two would have met at least once.
For his part, Saito smiled thinly at the black wolf, “Aoshi Shinomori, so you found your way north again. Nice to see you were able to find someone useful, Battousai.”
“Where have you been, Saito?” Kenshin ignored the subtle dig at his choice in companions; he was long past ready to have begun the work of removing Shishio from his position of power. Saito blinked innocently at the question.
“What do you mean? We were to meet here, and here we are. I don’t think we ever agreed on a time.”
“This one would think that you of all of us would want Shishio gone sooner rather than later,” Kenshin pointed out. “Wasting time like this does none of us any good.”
“Then there’s little point wasting time discussing the past, don’t you think?”
“That’s enough, both of you,” Hiko’s arrogant tone broke into the barely civilized conversation between the two old enemies. “This is why I hate dealing with other wolves. We came to do a job, now let’s get on with it.” Kenshin held his silence a moment longer before speaking; to be sure his master had said his piece. A small part of his mind that sounded suspiciously like Yahiko was crowing in glee that Saito had shut up when Hiko told him to.
“We have decided to scout out Shishio’s position and power in the land,” he informed Saito matter-of-factly, “once we know more we’ll be able to make a plan for getting rid of him.”
Saito smiled sardonically, apparently finding Kenshin’s goals to be over-simplistic, but he didn’t voice any criticism. “This way then, there are back ways to travel so we can pass unseen.”
The days had run together as Kaoru and Yahiko had run north, eating miles with long strides, desperate to regain their splintered pack. North was a pull lodged in the wolf’s bones, a direction she never had to stop and check, and she wondered if her association with Kenshin had allowed the north to sink its claws into her by proxy.
Yahiko had been exceptional on the trip, the normally-complaining young dog showing rarely-seen determination as he followed his surrogate sister mile after mile.
“It’s the husky in me,” he had said with pride when Kaoru had commented on it the first night. “I’m built to go long distances.”
And it certainly was long. Up past the Uramura’s old territory, across a smallish mountain range before the land opened up to the vast plains of the North. At least Kaoru had known for sure that they had found the right place when she and Yahiko had to slip past a border-patrol of Shishio’s goons. She couldn’t say that she thought much of them—they seemed jumpy, more afraid that they would have to defend the territory than eager to actually do so. Still, there was no sense in looking a gift moose in the mouth.
The cover of night and a fortuitous snow flurry had seen the pair past the sentries and safely bedded down until morning. But now the morning hours were past and Kaoru had to admit that she didn’t know where to go from here. Out of some lingering sense of purpose she and Yahiko continued north across the territory, but…
“Quit dragging your paws, ugly!” Yahiko snapped in irritation, “at this rate we’ll be lucky to find Kenshin before winter’s over!”
“Keep it down, Yahiko!” Kaoru hissed, darting a furtive look around the white landscape. A moving shadow made her tense momentarily, but it was only a hawk circling high overhead. “This is enemy territory, it’s not safe here.”
The dog’s ears flattened at the rebuke, but his expression was positively mulish, “Well duh. That’s why we’re here isn’t it? So Kenshin doesn’t have to do this alone.”
Kaoru reigned in her temper to keep from yelling back at Yahiko out of sheer habit, “And that doesn’t involve getting caught before we even find him!”
Yahiko’s curled tail drooped a fraction and his expression flickered. “Where do you think he is, Kaoru?”
That’s… the tanuki hesitated, “I don’t know,” the answer was brutally honest—brutal in that it squeezed her lungs like an iron band to think about it at all. “But we’ll find him,” she continued firmly, “we know he came to stop Shishio, so if worst comes to worst we’ll just find Shishio and wait ’til Kenshin shows up.” Which of course assumed their ability to find Shishio, but since he had set himself up as alpha and tyrant Kaoru figured it couldn’t be too hard.
The land beneath them slowly rose, and Kaoru felt herself relax slightly as the trees began to grow more thickly around them in the beginnings of a proper forest. The sacrifice in visibility was worth it for the concealment it offered.
“Yeah,” Yahiko agreed after a moment’s thought, moving from tree to tree in what was probably half attempted subterfuge and half a game. “Boy, would he be surprised if we showed up then.”
Kaoru didn’t really think that surprised would cover it—part of her worried that the red wolf would be angry at her for not only coming north against his wishes but for bringing Yahiko into danger as well. She really didn’t want to meet up with Kenshin right before (or worse, during) a fight and exacerbate the situation. “Surprised,” she echoed absently, stepping around a particularly deep snowdrift, “right.”
Yahiko eyed the pile of snow, and she could read the longing in his eyes to charge through it fighting with her earlier warning about not attracting attention. Or, in this case, leaving behind a very obvious trail.
Not how any pup wants to spend their first winter, Kaoru sighed. It’s a shame he hasn’t had more time to play. But bringing up the issue would be worse than pointless—not only would it not change the circumstances of their travel, the young dog would probably take any such remarks as an insulting commentary on his age.
The brown and white canine came to his own decision regarding the drift and skirted it, following Kaoru’s own shallow pawprints. It bothered the tanuki to no end that they were leaving a trail at all, but the skies that had granted them snow the night before had cleared completely. Still, with any luck the wind that had chased the clouds away would scatter the snow on the plains, blurring the edges of their prints.
Uneasiness crept up her spine, raising the fur along it against the chill in the air. She scanned the area for any hint of the cause, but could see no sign of anyone but their circling friend the hawk. Still, despite the evidence of her eyes she knew—they were being followed.
The wolf came to an abrupt halt, listening hard. Yahiko continued on for a few steps before faltering to a stop himself. “What—”
“Quiet,” Kaoru bit out, twisting her ears to their limit in search of sound. There—it was gone now, but she could have sworn she heard footsteps continuing for a second after Yahiko’s aborted question. She slid slowly into a crouch, lowering her center of gravity and making herself a smaller target.
“Someone’s found us.” Her voice was barely a breath against the snow, but Yahiko’s eyes widened, red-brown gaze darting around the trees as he mimicked her motion.
The pair remained crouched, silent, waiting for further information from their straining senses. Just when Kaoru was about to decide she had imagined the noise after all, it came again. Yahiko took off like a bolt after the source, charging in a flurry of churning snow.
What the—? That idiot! Oh, he probably thought he was making a good decision, taking down whoever had found them before they could report back. The problem, Kaoru tried not to panic as she chased after the young dog, is we don’t know how many there are!
“What the—” a surprised female voice yelped, “Hey!”
With another burst of speed she could see the scene. Yahiko had come upon a group of five and was busily attacking the smallest, a silvery creature that looked to be a coyote. Kaoru had a vague impression of the others—an earthy-colored giant, steel gray and shadow black—before red caught her eyes.
“What? Yahiko—” his voice hit her like a sudden blast of spring air, warming her completely, easing the tension she had had to live with since he went away. Kenshin’s violet eyes landed on her and Kaoru stopped running, stopped breathing. “Kaoru?” Her name was a breath of wonder from his mouth, his expression one of hope warring with disbelief.
Kaoru’s heart thundered relentlessly in her ribcage, as if to break free of it with the force of its beating. An unfocused part of her brain wondered if it pounded so fiercely because she had yet to draw breath again or because, despite being miles away from the den she had known all her life, she finally felt like she was home.
“Kenshin.” Saying his name used the last of her air and she had to inhale again. Hesitantly she stepped forward—she was glad to see him, but he hadn’t moved. Did he… want to see her?
The tanuki realized horribly that she had taken it for granted that he would want to see her again. What if he were angry, or annoyed that she had followed him? He had told her to stay behind after all, even if it was to protect the others. Maybe—Kenshin moved forward without visible hesitation, but he moved slowly, as if she were some easily-spooked creature who might bolt. But that was silly because clearly she couldn’t move.
Finally he was directly in front of her, close enough that she could breathe in his subtle scent without difficulty. He still looked torn between hope and disbelief, but hope had the larger hold.
Kaoru was dimly aware of Yahiko some distance away making some noise about Kenshin’s companions, but making sure her little brother minded his manners was so far from being important right now.
“I wanted to see you,” Kaoru managed, sounding plaintive to her own ears as she looked up the small distance into Kenshin’s scarred face. “Are you angry with me?”
“Angry?” Surprise crossed his features and his ears twitched as if making sure he had heard her correctly. “Why would this one be angry?”
“You told me to stay behind, and I came anyway.”
Kenshin closed his eyes for a moment, but amazingly his expression remained unguarded. “Truthfully I am a little worried,” he admitted softly. “The North is dangerous, especially now. But,” a confused smile tugged at his features, his eyes reading her face as if he could work out the answer to his puzzle there. “I am also… relieved. I wanted to see you again, despite the danger.” He sighed, and repeated softly, as if marveling at his own feelings, “I wanted to see you again.”
Whatever invisible bands had held the majority of her being loosened instantly with relief. “Good,” she replied after a moment, struggling to marshal her treacherous voice into its normal playful tone, “because we came a long way, and I’m not turning right back around.”
“Well duh,” Yahiko interrupted, looking torn between sulking and smiling. “What would be the point of that?” Kenshin seemed to realize that the dog was feeling left out and turned to look at him with a smile.
“Yahiko, you’ve grown! This one hardly recognized you.”
Kaoru blinked, since she had been with him the whole time she hadn’t noticed, but Yahiko was bigger. The puppy that had been carried home by Kenshin had been replaced by a scruffy youngster whose head was level with her shoulder. When did that happen?
One of Kenshin’s companions, a female coyote, coughed meaningfully.
“Miss Kaoru, Yahiko, let me introduce you,” Kenshin hurried. “This is Misao Makimachi of the Oniwaban. Aoshi you know,” he nodded to the dark wolf standing behind the coyote. Aoshi inclined his head gravely in return. Kaoru blinked. Okay… so he’s not trying to kill us anymore? That’s… nice.
“And this is Seijiro Hiko, this one’s Master,” he indicated the giant of a wolf looking at the pair with almost humorous interest. “Of course, Saito you know.” The words were not a growl as the violet gaze cut to the dark amber one, but to anyone familiar with traditional Rurouni cheer they were ice cold.
The coyote he had called Misao bounced in place in apparent delight. “So you’re Kaoru! I’ve been hoping I’d get to meet you!”
“Ah, hi,” Kaoru offered weakly, “I’m sorry Yahiko attacked you…”
“No worries. I’d be a pretty poor ninja if a surprise attack like that could take me down.” Misao shrugged off the assault with a confident smile, and Kaoru did have to admit that despite Yahiko’s attack the coyote didn’t seem to be hurt at all.
Saito snorted, cutting off Yahiko’s bristling retort, “Ignoring that a ninja should not be so lacking in stealth that she gives away our position.”
“But it led to this reunion,” Kenshin pointed out mildly, bland expression almost daring the Shinsengumi to keep taunting.
I really hate that he’s here, Kaoru shifted uneasily, wishing that Saito had kept quiet so she could pretend the wolf didn’t exist. He had come to her territory because he was against Shishio, so she supposed his presence here now meant he was an ally. But she would never feel comfortable when the older wolf was around, not with the effect he seemed to have on Kenshin’s behavior.
“What’s he doing here anyway?” Yahiko glowered, shifting uneasily as he stared at the deceptively relaxed form of Saito. Kaoru wondered if, like her, Yahiko was having a hard time suppressing the memories of blood and snow, Sano lying gasping on his side, and Kenshin, a furious amber-eyed stranger attacking a wolf that seemed to match him in skill.
It was a bit odd, but despite the fact that Kenshin had fought Aoshi as well as Saito, Kaoru found herself worrying far less about him. She had understood the Oniwaban in the end, and doubted that the dark wolf would either attack or antagonize. Saito seemed to do both just by breathing.
Kenshin seemed determined to take Yahiko’s question at face value. “We came to scout out Shishio’s position in the land and the number of his followers so we can work out a strategy.” The red wolf looked around uneasily, as if expecting the enemy Kaoru was embarrassed to admit she hadn’t thought of since seeing him. “As he had the most experience, Saito was our guide. Though this one thinks it is time to return to the mountain and lay our plans, indeed it is.”
Hiko groaned, obviously uncaring whether anyone outside the group heard him or not. “More outsiders in my territory. And this brat seems just as noisy as the other one.”
“Just a minute you—!” Furious voices rang out from twin hotheaded throats, and Kaoru could have sworn she saw a flicker of a smile on Aoshi’s muzzle as he turned his head to scan the landscape.
“Master,” Kenshin’s sigh was exasperated in the extreme—for a moment Kaoru could picture him as a very young wolf, all paws and sullen attitude toward an adult who clearly didn’t understand what it meant to be young. The image made her turn her head to hide her own smile. I wonder if Kenshin became so polite to try and compensate for his master’s rudeness…
“I know, I know,” Hiko grumbled. “It’s either you lot or Shishio’s crew. Believe me; the choice isn’t as easy as you think.”
The seven assorted canines assembled back in Hiko’s den, which was by now beginning to feel quite cozy with all of the new additions to it. Kenshin sat in the same spot where he had slept the night before as the others arranged themselves so they could see one another’s faces. Hiko naturally did not join the gathering, but slouched against a wall by himself, watching the proceedings with dark blue eyes.
“Shishio is denned about half a day away from here,” Kenshin began, bringing Kaoru and Yahiko up to speed on the information uncovered earlier that day. “His Juppongatana are with him at almost all times, and squads of other pack members move in and out daily. In addition to them are the border patrols, which could be pulled into the heart of the territory to augment the main force.”
“We snuck past a few of them,” Kaoru put in, “they didn’t seem much like fighters, very nervous, but there were a lot of them.”
Saito nodded dryly at the she-wolf’s opinion. “They would be. We wiped out one of their outposts a few days back.”
“We’ve got a few options,” Kenshin said. “One is a war of attrition. Logic dictates that our smaller force will be overwhelmed by Shishio’s larger one—fighting by attrition would mean slowly picking off his followers until we reach a more manageable number.”
“That would take weeks and weeks,” Misao protested.
“Seasons, more likely,” Kenshin corrected, “and Shishio would not be standing idle while we gnaw away at his force—particularly in his recruitment. But there is another way. With the exception of a core group of lieutenants, Shishio’s followers are not close to him; their loyalty is to the power that they perceive he has. It is very similar to how it was with Kanryuu. If we remove that power, it is likely that the average followers will disband on their own.”
“So,” Yahiko swallowed, “you want to go in and… remove Shishio and the Juppongatana?”
“It’s the way hitokiri work,” Saito noted dispassionately, “eliminating specific threats rather than standing to fight the war.”
“Kenshin’s not—!” Kaoru started angrily, but was cut off by Kenshin’s apologetic tone.
“In this instance Saito is right Miss Kaoru. This one is afraid that the core idea of this attack is very hitokiri in nature.”
“There are still the guards to deal with,” Aoshi pointed out objectively, “It will not be easy to get past them to Shishio.”
“Not if we can get Shishio to come to us,” Kenshin smiled grimly. “As this one understands it, he seeks to conquer the north indisputably, and by now he must have heard of this one’s presence here. I believe that if I offer him challenge he won’t allow the main body of his pack to interfere.”
“Because this is like that time with Kanryuu,” Kaoru said slowly, trying to get a handle on Kenshin’s train of thought. “If it really is and he doesn’t hold the majority of his followers’ loyalty closely, he can’t afford not to answer a challenge.”
“It would be seen as weakness,” Kenshin agreed, “when followers flock to him for his strength.”
“That still leaves his Juppongatana,” Misao pointed out gravely. “They are devoutly loyal to him. If he told him to, they would still attack.”
“We will move against them as we need to,” Kenshin told the coyote. “This one plans to send Shishio the challenge tonight and face him tomorrow. We should be able to see quite clearly then whether he is accompanied by his lieutenants.”
“And we’ll take care of them while you go after Shishio,” Yahiko interjected fiercely, his eyes daring anyone to naysay his proposition.
“That’s all very well for you,” Hiko said from his position outside the group. “But I’ve got a plan of my own.”
Kaoru caught Kenshin’s lightning-fast flicker of surprise—apparently the crimson wolf had not expected his master to be doing anything more to help than providing a place to sleep.
“What is that, Master?”
Hiko grinned grimly, “You’re putting an awful lot of hope on the idea that Shishio’s followers won’t interfere. I can understand your reasoning for it, but I’m a lone wolf, and proof that creatures don’t always live in a way you’d expect. I’m going out to deal with Shishio’s army. It’s time I cleared the air of the stench of this rabble.”
“We would be grateful for the distraction, Master,” Kenshin began, but was cut off by Hiko’s arrogant expression.
“What distraction? We both know I’m the real threat. If anything you lot are the distraction while I go to work!” Silence stretched in the wake of this statement as everyone waited for someone else to contradict Hiko’s statement. Finally Kenshin coughed to change the subject.
“If there’s nothing more to be said, this one will go to call out the challenge to Shishio.”
The sunset was golden across the snow, amber waves deceptively warm looking, only deep blue shadows giving hint to winter’s chill. Shishio let his gaze scan over the land—his land, won by blood and conquest. His Juppongatana snarled and snapped at one another as they quarreled over the remains of the evening’s kill, though no blood was drawn under the watchful eye of their lord. Those eyes narrowed as they landed on Hoji, the other wolf slinking into view out of those cold shadows.
Red eyes caught gray, and the follower changed direction to approach his leader.
“Yes, lord Shishio?” The tone and posture were both deferential, displaying a respect that should have soothed the alpha, but instead raised Shishio’s hackles.
“Where have you been, Hoji?”
The earth-patterned wolf ducked his head, “I sent Henya on a scouting expedition to try and discover where the Battousai might be hiding.”
The burned wolf quashed his first, instinctive reaction—irritation that Hoji had given orders to one of his subordinates without his permission—it had been a good thought, and he wasn’t such a poor commander to turn down information. “Oh? And what did he find?”
A frown deepened the black circles around Hoji’s eyes, “The number of his allies has grown. The lone wolf of the Northern Mountain was seen traveling with him, as was Saito of the Shinsengumi.” He paused before continuing tactfully, “The surviving Oniwaban are with him as well—apparently the Okashira made his way north again.”
Shishio snorted, “I have no intention of worrying about such a creature as our old friend the Okashira, nor about that other one who was only able to run away.” He could see in his lieutenant’s quick flattening of his ears that Hoji didn’t agree with this assessment, but he wisely didn’t bring it up again.
“Two more joined him today. Strangers to the North, both of them. Though judging by Henya’s account they are quite close to the Battousai.”
“Hm, an unknown element,” Shishio mused thoughtfully. “I assume since they are working with the old hermit they are encamped on the Northern Mountain?”
Hoji inclined his head in an affirmative gesture, dark eyes studying his leader for an indication of his plans. It would be expedient, Shishio knew, to send his lieutenants with several squads to go and deal with the threat to his sovereignty. Expedient, yet… he had not started in a position of power, protected by underlings. He had been a striker, a bloody fang in the night, the same as the Battousai, cutting through any who stood in the way of his vision.
What would it be like to face the Battousai? To challenge the wolf that legends considered the soul of the conflict that had birthed Shishio’s ideologies? Glorious. Conquering the personification of the will of the North would cement his position forever.
“Lord Shishio,” Hoji began, but stopped abruptly as a sound rose over the snow. An eerie howl rode over the land, blowing down from the Northern Mountain. The Juppongatana stopped squabbling, pricking ears toward the message. Shishio felt his blood heat until it boiled through his veins—this, this was a challenge. The Battousai called down to him, demanding combat to determine the fate of the land, warning him of a future of blood if he did not deviate from his path.
Shishio grinned, charred lips peeling back from gleaming fangs. Oh, this was rich. Did his predecessor truly not understand? Blood was not death, blood was life. It was the gurgling, red flow that the strong glutted themselves on to increase their strength. How disappointing that the revolution’s bloodiest ghost didn’t understand his own strength.
The ancient call faded away into dusk, the amber sunset giving way to the pale blue of twilight. The Juppongatana looked up at him, and oh, some of them were so easy to read. Cho grinned like a pup with an elk bone, eager for a fight. Yumi looked worried, but caught his eye and offered a smile, letting him know she would support his decision as she always did. Soujiro smiled as if intrigued by the idea of the challenge, though as always with the coyote hybrid it was hard to tell if that was what he was really thinking.
“Lord Shishio?” Hoji interrupted his alpha’s thoughts, “What will you do? Surely you don’t mean to rest the success of our entire venture on a single battle between you and the Battousai?” The incredulous tone ruined Shishio’s good mood and he snapped at his follower, only just missing his face as the other wolf pulled back.
“Do you think I couldn’t do it? Do you think I couldn’t beat the Battousai?”
Hoji was silent, perhaps sensing that there was no safe answer. Shishio continued, “I am the lord of the Northern Lands, and I will not have anyone thinking that this land is not mine by my own strength. You’ve achieved the opposite of your goal by doubting me,” Shishio growled. “I will take up the Battousai’s challenge.”
“It is not my intention to doubt you, lord Shishio, I am sure that your strength is without equal. But my purpose is only to ensure the defeat of the enemy by any means necessary. To obtain ultimate victory. To achieve that goal, I would gladly be hated even by you. Please, consider taking the Juppongatana with you to the fight—we already know that the Battousai is not working alone.”
“I had already planned to,” Shishio informed his follower. “It will be a reward for my Juppongatana, getting to fight challenging opponents for a change.”
She couldn’t say what woke her; she just came suddenly awake in an unfamiliar cave. All was quiet, the night cloaking the bodies around her, buried deep in slumber. Kaoru slowly raised her head, scanning her surrounding with eyes and ears, trying to find the reason for her sudden wakefulness. It might only be sleeping in a den again, after so many days of fitful rest exposed to the elements, with only Yahiko at her side. He was still by her side, lying within easy reach, collapsed in a boneless sprawl that reminded her wistfully of Sanosuke. Beyond him, Misao was a streak of silver against the black of Aoshi’s pelt, the two ninja keeping to their pattern of closeness even in sleep. Hiko was huddled in the very back of his den, conspicuously not touching any of the interlopers.
Where’s Kenshin? She scanned the darkness again for any sign of the red wolf. Nothing.
Oh, tell me I didn’t wake up just because he left! The tips of her ears were hot with embarrassment, and the tanuki was fiercely grateful that Hiko was not awake to notice and tease her. Or Yahiko for that matter. But still, worry curled in her stomach as she realized that she had just found the wolf and now he was gone again—
She was out of the cave and blinking in the starlight before she could remember deciding to move.
Snow had fallen sometime earlier during the night, wiping clean the slate—except for a set of prints leading out of the cave and curing to move further up the mountain. Kenshin?
Kaoru followed the trail silently, the red wolf’s subtle scent lingering in the air reassuring her that Kenshin had not been out long. The trail meandered between pine trees, ever upward. The mountain was quiet, as if it too slumbered in the chill winter’s night.
The trees began to clear and Kaoru found herself slowing, gaze continuously teased away from the tracks and toward the sky. The stars blazed down at her like frozen diamonds, larger and brighter than she had ever seen, as if the mountain’s peak drew so near the heavens that she might touch them at a single leap. Even the darkness seemed less all-consuming, the sky showed deep indigo shading into cerulean where the stars pierced it. There was no denying it, the North was certainly beautiful.
Finally the silver she-wolf came to a large clearing, where a stony ridge forced the trees to relinquish their claim on the land. Gray boulders dusted with snow soared up thirty feet before continuing their rocky march up towards the summit. And here, at last was Kenshin, lying with his back to the stone wall, looking out toward the foothills of Hiko’s mountain, the snow-bound territory of the North.
Kaoru could have sworn she didn’t make a sound but still Kenshin’s head turned and violet eyes lit on her.
“Miss Kaoru,” he sounded surprised and, maybe… pleased? “This one did not expect to see you out so late.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” the half-truth came out easily as she approached him. “When I saw your tracks, I wanted to see where you had gone.”
Kenshin smiled up at her, “And here with one is. Will you join me for a little while?”
“Sure,” Kaoru managed, suddenly feeling very clumsy as she closed the remaining distance on soot-colored paws. How close was too close? She couldn’t plaster herself to his side like Megumi might, but it would be rude to be ridiculously far away. Finally she settled down beside the Rurouni, her silvery pelt just brushing his scarlet one. A single flinch and even that small contact would be lost.
“What is this place?” She inquired when she could trust her voice again. Kenshin’s smile remained as he turned to survey the view once more.
“This one often came here as a pup, when Master was being especially prickly.”
“So, always,” Kaoru observed dryly. Kenshin laughed in agreement.
“Well, let’s just say this one spent more time here than in the den”
“You came for the view?”
“And for the quiet,” Kenshin agreed, his smile turning wistful in the starlight. “It gave this one space to dream without Master crowding in his opinions.” The red wolf caught the look of curiosity on Kaoru’s face before she could entirely mask it. “This one often thought about going down the mountain to join one of the packs below,” he explained, “and as a lone wolf, Hiko didn’t have much patience for such thoughts.”
“With just you and him, I think it’s natural to want to be a part of something a little bigger. When I just had Tae, I still felt lonely,” Kaoru found herself defending that long-ago puppy’s dream of a family.
Kenshin shook his head. “It was still foolish. This one had no idea of the politics involved in the larger packs,” he sighed, violet eyes distant. “When this one came to the Isshin Shishi, its alpha saw only a threat. But he happened to be a wolf that preferred to keep threats close, the better to watch them. He assigned this one the role of hitokiri in his war, and by the time I had learned how packs operate, I was so enmeshed in blood I had no strength to pull back, to pull free.” His voice dropped to a whisper, “Not alone.”
Kenshin trailed off into silence. And here it was, right here was where Kaoru would back off, respecting the privacy of the crimson wolf, allowing him to keep his secrets behind walls that she made easy for him to maintain.
But that was before I realized he could leave even if I didn’t push. No more. He can decide if he wants to let me in, but I am going to ask.
“What happened?” the tanuki’s question was soft, the strength of her resolution at war with the churning anxiety in her stomach and a quiet dread of what Kenshin might tell her.
The Rurouni looked up at her, grief in violet eyes, but also… something like relief. “This one was in the service of the Isshin Shishi, working as a hitokiri,” Kaoru nodded, she had known this much since the encounter with Jineh. With her acknowledgement Kenshin continued. “This one was especially skilled in ambush attacks; even against larger numbers it was not difficult to prevail. Until…” he hesitated, “this one met an unfortunate wolf called Akira. He was not skilled or high-ranking in the Bakufu. This one suspects that his leaders intended to buy time with his death to allow the higher ranking target to escape. What was not counted on was Akira’s will to live.
“Twice I dealt him a mortal blow,” Kenshin recalled, gaze distant even as the warmth of his body radiated against her side, seeming closer than the distance she had originally given him, “twice he returned to his feet to engage me again. The third time his fangs finally reached me,” Kenshin inclined his head meaningfully, but Kaoru still stared for a moment before realizing that the crimson wolf was referring to the scar that branded his face. “However mine reached him again and he was not able to stand before I… finished it. It was a moment of clarity for me, of coldness. Because this one… I couldn’t understand how anyone could want to live so much, and I had never before taken such an injury.
“That night I began to question my path, I realized that I had no joy in being alive since the first of my missions for the alpha, and yet I felt trapped by my oaths of service and the weight of those I had slain. I managed to convince myself that if I were to abandon the war then the deaths I caused would be meaningless. But it was a hollow goal; my life was so stained with blood that I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything, and I had no real plans for life after the end of the war.” He sucked in a long breath before continuing.
“Lone wolves were fairly common in those days, mostly those trying to flee the war, abandoning their packs to do so, or young ones who had heard of the bloodshed and sought to make a name for themselves by allying with one side or another. When she came to our territory, she told us she was a lone wolf, a refugee.”
She… Kaoru’s heart stilled, huddling in on itself like a puppy trying to hide its hurts. Kenshin pressed on, voice staying calm although it was tainted with obvious sorrow.
“Her name was Tomoe Yukishiro, and she found me fighting off a Bakufu hitokiri. She didn’t move to help either of us, she didn’t seem afraid or distressed or surprised when I won. She was always so still, so quiet, as if she was a part of the night itself.” He shook his head, visibly pulling his focus back to the story that Kaoru almost wished she hadn’t asked him to tell. Almost.
“She came with me back to the Isshin Shishi leaders. They told her to move on, and she seemed to have no desire to stay, but she never quite left. There were so many other things to focus on that no one bothered with a lone female, so she just… stayed. Tomoe was the only one to seek me out and spend time with me, despite my role as the Battousai. Though she didn’t say any more to me than she did to anyone else. Perhaps it was inevitable,” Kenshin sighed.
“I grew to care for her, breaking my own silence, the living death of my soul to speak with her. She never told me where she was from, but she listened when I told her of my doubts, of my fears for the future and my desire for change. Spending time with her, it brought back the dream that had sent me from this mountain to find the Isshin Shishi. I wanted to protect, not to kill. To live as a wolf, and not as a nightmare. For as many terrors I had committed, I wanted to save that many more joys. Especially hers. I wanted to protect her happiness, and I even felt hope that I could do it. Hope enough that I told her so. She just looked at me with her dark eyes as though she understood.” Kenshin’s own eyes slid shut, “But I was the one who didn’t understand.”
Kaoru just waited, her throat too tight to even think of speaking, following her predecessor in silence. Eventually the crimson wolf continued, “In the winter we had a visitor, a young white wolf named Enishi, Tomoe’s brother. I had never seen her as happy as when she saw him, and I found myself wondering about her family, her past. But I stepped back, allowing them to be alone, particularly since Enishi hated me.” Kaoru’s brows rose unbidden. A kid not liking Kenshin? That’s… that’s weird.
“When I returned Enishi had gone and Tomoe was quieter than ever, except to say that she had sent him back to their father. I should have pressed her—she was so happy to see him, why would she make him leave? But I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, so I let it go.” Kenshin sighed and Kaoru felt the tips of her ears grow warm, unable to keep from comparing her situation with his. “Looking back, I think her silence was a plea,” Kenshin continued, oblivious, “I think that she was desperately hoping that I would ask her what was wrong, because she wouldn’t lie to me. But I didn’t, and in the morning she was gone.”
Kenshin took a shuddering breath, the tremors vibrating against Kaoru’s frame where they touched. “I followed her trail, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to find her again.
“I crossed from the Isshin Shishi’s territory into a no-man’s land, a known hunting reserve for humans. I was ambushed by Bakufu wolves again and again, but I didn’t think of what that could mean. I didn’t want to think of what that could mean—I just kept following Tomoe’s trail until I met him.
“Tatsumi was the Bakufu’s beta, a powerful wolf in his own right. By then I was gravely injured, hardly able to stand or see—but he knew how to draw more blood from me yet.” Another shuddering breath, and Kaoru realized that she was holding hers. “He told me about Tomoe, about a pair of low-ranking Bakufu wolves who were promised to be mates, and how Akira had been killed by Battousai on a mission to protect his lieutenant. He told me how I had unknowingly made revenge the sole reason the wolf I loved had for rising in the morning, that when he had approached Tomoe with a plan for neutralizing an Isshin Shishi threat she had agreed and crossed territories to become a spy. How every moment that we spent together was engineered to bring about this result, the Battousai, alone and injured, crushed in spirit and waiting for death.
“But he miscalculated if he meant to make me hate her as he said she hated me. She had done all she could in the name of her first love.” Kenshin’s voice had lost its calm gradually over the course of his tale, and now resonated with a tearful horror. “I—I had promised to protect her happiness, completely ignorant of the fact that I had been the one to steal it away from her.
“When Tatsumi attacked me, I retaliated out of instinct, nothing more. Why should I want to live? While aiming for redemption I had unknowingly slid further into hell. Eventually I made a grave misstep and landed in a human’s steel-jawed trap. I was pinned, injured and half-blind with blood loss and grief. I had nothing left, except, perhaps, that I ought to apologize to Tomoe.” Kenshin’ smile was bitter, a jarring sight after so many Rurouni smiles, with deep veins of self-loathing coming to the surface in his eyes. “It was foolish, because an apology would change nothing, and yet I wanted to see her again, to be sure that she was safe, even if she hated me. So when Tatsumi came in for the kill, I struck with all of my remaining strength, unable to even see my target.”
Kenshin fell silent, and when he spoke again his voice was filled with a sort of sorrowful wonder. “I don’t know when she got there, or if she had been there all along. I don’t know why she chose to move—I had never seen her fight before—but Tomoe… Tomoe had moved between us, baring her fangs at her own leader, turning her back on her vengeance. And I… I struck her down for it.
“Tatsumi fell, gravely wounded, and Tomoe did too. She had taken the brunt of the attack meant for him. She… she smiled at me when I asked her why. She had never smiled at me before. She told me that, coming to know me, she had begun to change. That she too wanted to protect the happiness of the one she loved. I don’t understand why,” Kenshin whispered brokenly, “I will never understand why. I killed her, but she smiled, she forgave me and she asked me to find a way to live the way I had dreamed, protecting the happiness of others.
“I don’t know how long I lay there, trapped on the battlefield with her body. Eventually men came, and by then I was in no shape to fight back. They took me, and I was sold to a man called Iizuka. For a long time I refused to fight my opponents in the ring, but as I have said before, Iizuka was shrewd. He found out who owned the other wolf that had been taken that day, and eventually he matched me against Tatsumi. I don’t know how he had survived, but he bore at least some of the blame for what happened to Tomoe. Killing him stilled the aching pit I had been holding inside, enough that I could think clearly again, even if I was still trapped.” Kenshin let out a long sigh. “I had years to come to terms with what happened, to dedicate myself to the dream Tomoe charged me to uphold, but until I escaped it was only a dream.
“And… until I met you I did not realize just how selfish a dream it could be. Protecting your happiness became the same as protecting my own, that it did, Miss Kaoru,” His voice was gentle, violet eyes locked nervously on hers. The wounded puppy of her heart stirred, slowly raising its head in renewed hope. “And such a thing… it is terrifying, that it is. I do not believe that I would be able to survive the loss of someone I… cared for. Not again.”
“And I—” Kaoru’s voice cracked from disuse, “I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you, Kenshin. So when you went off by yourself and wouldn’t let me follow—” she shook her head. “I know that you wanted to keep me safe, but doesn’t what I want matter too? Because even more than wanting to be safe, or wanting you to be safe,” Kaoru swallowed, “I want to be with you, Kenshin. I don’t care how dangerous the world is, as long as we get to face that danger together.”
Kenshin’s expression was stricken, and Kaoru faltered, her ears going flat in embarrassment. I screwed it all up, of course I did. I’m such an idiot. What’s the point of Kenshin finally talking to me if I don’t bother to listen? Subtly she began to ease away from the crimson wolf, preparing to bolt for some quiet spot far away where she could sob out her stupidity and her heartbreak.
What happened next… was a surprise.
The tanuki had been readying herself to stand when suddenly there was a warm weight on the back of her neck, holding her in place and the scent of autumn leaves and endless wind rose all around her. Kenshin’s head rested on the back of her neck, burying his muzzle in her ruff while encouraging her to rest her own head on his chest. Kaoru’s heart was choking her throat, beating too fast; surely he had to notice how fast—
“Please don’t go,” the crimson wolf whispered, and hesitantly Kaoru began to relax, shoving back the memory of the last time she had been held like this. Her head came to rest against the white fur of Kenshin’s chest, and a thrill of surprise tingled from her nose to her tailtip as the she-wolf realized that his heart matched hers, beat for racing beat.
“I don’t want to go, and I don’t want you to leave either,” she managed to whisper. “I just found you again.”
“Kaoru…” Kenshin seemed to savor saying her name the way she savored hearing him say it. “You cannot ask me not to protect you.”
“I know that, Kenshin, but you have to trust that I want to protect you too—and if that means keeping myself alive, I’ll do that too.”
The crimson wolf who shared her heartbeat was silent, as if thinking about her words. Kaoru smiled, even though he couldn’t see it as she wiggled a little closer, knowing that he would be able to hear it in her voice. “Besides, it’s like I told you; it’s not as though I don’t know how to look after myself.”
Kenshin made a humming sound, the vibrations of it rumbling pleasantly through her bones. “If this one recalls correctly, you said that you were not some pampered housepet who needed saving all the time, and that you could take care of yourself.”
“You remember it that well?” Kaoru marveled, before dismissing it. “Well, it’s still true, Kenshin. And I’ve decided that the safest place for me is right next to you.”