Amber Forest

Chapter 18- Into the Fight

So you think that you can take me on?

You must be crazy.

There ain’t a single thing you’ve done

That’s gonna faze me

Oh, but if you wanna have a go…

I just wanna let you know

Get off of my back!

-Bryan Adams, Get Off Of My Back


Kaoru felt almost completely content, a sleepy warmth encasing her mind and gently but firmly shushing any half-conceived thoughts of getting up. They only thing that let her know she was skirting the edges of consciousness and not locked in some blissful dream was that one of her hind paws was cold where it stuck out into the snow. Uncomfortable, but it hardly seemed worth the effort to draw it back it when the rest of her was so comfortable, if oddly… heavy.

“Oro…”

Hmm? Nobody says that but Kenshin. Kaoru’s groggy thoughts tried to marshal themselves into some sort of coherent order. That’s right… I found him again. She smiled and snuggled her face down deeper against its warm rest. I found him and everything is okay now. Shishio wasn’t even a thought this early in the morning. I found him last night and he finally told me about… things.

About Tomoe. It was worth it—even if the thought of Kenshin with another female had hurt—because at least he had told her. He hadn’t lied, hadn’t refused to talk about it.

Although, something about last night was niggling at her, like a robin trying to wrest a particularly stubborn worm from the ground. She remembered coming out after Kenshin and lying out under the stars talking. But she couldn’t seem to recall going back to Hiko’s den. Which argued that she hadn’t gone back to the den. Which meant that the comfy place she was resting…

One sky-blue eye opened a sliver. Sunrise touched the earth with rose-hued gold all around her, painting warm light on the boulders that had ringed the back of Kenshin’s spot and making the snow on the ground look deceptively warm. Definitely still outside then. The sleepiness leeched away slowly, leaving Kaoru to become aware of her position. She was half-curled into what could only be Kenshin’s side, her head resting on his forepaws while a weight on the back of her neck told her that Kenshin’s head rested there.

“Oro,” his soft voice filtered down to her ears once more in a sigh. Kaoru inhaled deeply before letting it out as a contented sigh with a sleepy murmur.

“You know, if all this time ‘oro’ was just some backwoods way of saying ‘good morning,’ I think I’m going to be very annoyed.”

A light chuckle shook the red wolf’s frame and the weight of his head slowly lifted off the back of her neck. “Good morning, Miss Kaoru,” his voice was still soft, as if he worried about waking her.

“So it doesn’t mean good morning?” Kaoru frowned sleepily, not sure if she was ready to work at getting up yet. A pause.

“This one doesn’t know. It doesn’t seem to mean much of anything.”

The response struck Kaoru as mildly funny, “So, you’re saying that you don’t know what you’re saying.”

“So this one would suppose.” The red wolf sounded amused, and Kaoru couldn’t help but suspect it was more at her sleepy-morning talk that what she was actually saying. With a grumble that was at least half yawn, half irritation, Kaoru raised her own head and stretched out her forepaws in front of her. The movement seemed to finally convince her body that yes, she did plan on getting up, and her mind cleared a little further.

“Good morning,” she offered, a small smile creeping out on her face to meet the one that Kenshin offered her.

“It is indeed.” The wolf cocked his head to one side, regarding her with that amused smile. This close to him, Kaoru could see the whiskers on his muzzle twitching with silent laughter. “This is the first time that this one has seen you this way in the morning, that it is.”

Kaoru’s ears flattened self-consciously. “I-I was tired, that’s all! Yahiko and I have been travelling almost non-stop for days—I don’t think either of us got much rest.” That and she had never felt so wonderfully protected and comfortable as she had last night. “I imagine it will be the same after the fighting,” she rambled out quickly before she could lose her nerve. “When we go home, we’re going to sleep for a week.” It wasn’t fair that she still felt nervous and fidgety around Kenshin—hadn’t they both admitted that there were feelings the night before? A cautious voice in the back of her mind pointed out that neither had said what those feelings were, specifically, and Kenshin was such a master of redirecting conversations…. Kaoru swallowed against a suddenly dry mouth. “You are coming home, aren’t you, Kenshin? We can all go back together.”

The red wolf blinked as he sorted through her rushed words, and violet eyes searched hers as if trying to read a map of stars. A slow gentle smile softened his expression. “That sounds rather good, that it does. If this one’s place is still open…”

“Silly,” Kaoru shook her head, relief a giddy warmth in her ribcage. “Your spot is always open.”

The red wolf’s smile turned to pure mischief, purple irises glinting with reflections of the amber sunrise. “What if this one prefers your spot, Miss Kaoru?”

Kaoru stared as he ducked his head in close to nuzzle at the soft fur that covered her cheek and then sprang away, agile as if he hadn’t just spent the night in the elements.

“We should return to the others, that we should,” his voice jarred her from her slack-jawed stare and she jolted to her paws, clumsy as a newborn fawn. She was still trying to think up a retort when the smile on his face dimmed. “After all, we must be at the lakeshore by noon.”


He didn’t have any nightmares. Kenshin stole a glance behind him at Kaoru, following him back to the cave, her surprised expression becoming troubled as she remembered what would happen today. He didn’t have any nightmares, the red wolf marveled, directing his eyes forward once more.

Generally he had at least one a night, more often more as his dreams shifted in and out of one another, bloody memories a fertile ground for a subconscious that seemed to delight in torturing him. He had settled himself alongside Kaoru last night, finally resting his own head as she slipped into slumber—the white forest of his dreams waited for him when his eyes closed.

A black shape had flitted through the trees and his sleeping mind waited with dread for the scarlet that would engulf the shape. It didn’t. The shape came closer, resolving itself into a black wolf with black eyes, the only hint of difference on her pelt the rings of white that just barely dusted the fur around those fathomless eyes.

Tomoe stared directly at him and Kenshin’s dread coiled like a trodden-upon serpent in his gut. This was going to be one of the really bad ones—the ones where she watched him with accusing eyes while his dream-self ripped out her throat—

Except her eyes weren’t accusing tonight. Tomoe smiled at him, a real smile, a friend’s smile, and Kenshin was sure she would speak—but the black wolf defied expectations again by turning and vanishing into a white wood, where hints of green poked through the snow on the boughs and a sky the blue of summer promised warmer days to come.

Perhaps it had been foolish to tease Miss Kaoru, still caught up in the fierce elation of feeling forgiven, he had probably startled her. Certainly he had surprised himself. And yet… quiet, wondering joy warred with the soldier’s mindset trying to take control for the fighting to come.

He hadn’t had any nightmares.

His paws found the trails of his childhood as easily as they had the night before. His master might call him an idiot, but there was nothing wrong with his memory.

“I told you they weren’t far away.” And speak of the devil…

The scene was easy to read for anyone with a little experience with the players. The group of creatures with a grudge against Shishio had made their way out of Hiko’s cave and into the chill morning. Yahiko was bristling even more than usual, probably a bit panicked to have woken up in a strange place with strangers and no sign of his self-appointed guardians. The young dog had clearly been yelling at Hiko, as he stood toe-to-toe with the large wolf, but Hiko was distinctly unruffled, a bored expression on his earthy features as he eyes sought out his wayward pupil.

“Ah, good morning!” Kenshin called out cheerfully, trying not to wince in the face of sudden scrutiny from his allies. It was a small miracle that Saito wasn’t here yet—but no one had seemed overly pleased at the idea of sleeping in the same cave as the Shinsengumi, and no one had protested when he didn’t stay the night. Small mercies.

“Where have you been?” The red wolf stifled a reflexive smile at Yahiko’s explosive question. When did he become the responsible adult, and I the foolhardy young one? Kenshin wondered with amusement, out loud he tried to appease the annoyed dog.

“This one apologizes; he went on a walk last night and simply forgot to return.”

Yahiko’s twisted muzzle said he was unconvinced and his gaze slid over to Kaoru. Perhaps one of his guardians wandering off could be overlooked, but apparently both doing so was a bit much.

“Well if we’re all here now,” Hiko’s voice was suspiciously bland and patient—a clear sign that the wolf was fed up with even these minor dramatics, “maybe we can get to work on getting everyone off my territory.”

Misao bristled instantly, turning to look at the lone wolf rather than study Kenshin and Kaoru with obvious interest. “Like anyone would want to stay here with you!”

Perhaps we should go face Shishio before we find ourselves at each other’s throats. Kenshin purposefully ignored Misao’s comments—“We should depart, that we should.”

“Kenshin. A word.” Hiko interrupted, inclining his head to the side to suggest that the two of them leave the others. Trepidation rose in the red wolf as he followed his master away from the group. Once the earthy wolf judged that they would not be easily overheard, he turned.

“You didn’t mention them.” Deep blue eyes flicked back to where they had left the others, specifically Yahiko and Miss Kaoru, the former joining Misao in a scowling match, the latter trying hard not to look interested in their conversation. Kenshin shook his head fondly. Always so transparent, Miss Kaoru.

“This one did not expect to see them again,” he admitted, facing his master once more. Hiko sighed, the thick ruff of fur around his neck shuddering as he did so.

“That’s because you’re an idiot. I don’t know why any of us put up with you.”

“So you are fond of reminding this one,” Kenshin observed dryly.

“Well it’s true,” Hiko’s answering scowl was fiercer than his teasing usually warranted. “Because you’re an idiot who tore off looking for something, and still haven’t realized that you found it.” He grumbled a bit under his breath before moving to explain, “You left to find a pack, determined to look in the worst place possible. Neither the Isshin Shishi nor the Bakufu were true packs by then, hell, the Bakufu was split into so many divisions within itself that they would have never held together without an enemy to face.

“You think I don’t know anything about packs? I know enough to recognize perversion when I see it. It was the last place you should have gone.”

Kenshin shifted uneasily on his paws, but the wolf that had raised him plowed on. “You’ve never been a lucky kid, not from the day you wandered onto this mountain as a bloody scrap of fur and not now. Just barely lucky enough not to die, and you didn’t do yourself any favors by getting involved with the Isshin Shishi.

“So then you go and meet this lot,” his shaggy head nodded toward the tanuki and the dog, “and you don’t even recognize what you have. I knew you were an idiot, but this is the pinnacle of your long career in stupidity. That’s. Your. Pack. And you thought they wouldn’t follow you?”

Kenshin felt his eartips warming even against the North’s chill. “This one would never have asked it of them—”

“That’s the point, idiot. You don’t have to. And unless you really screw something up, you’ll never have to.” Hiko sighed, raising his head awkwardly, avoiding Kenshin’s eyes in favor of looking out over his mountain. “Look, you left spouting some crap about protecting other’s happiness, but happiness isn’t so simple. Try protecting your pack, and you should find yourself protecting that happiness along the way.”

A gentle grin quirked at Kenshin’s muzzle as some of Miss Kaoru’s words from the previous night came back to him, I want to protect you too—and if that means keeping myself alive, I’ll do that too.

Hiko coughed and glowered down at the red wolf, “Even if you are an idiot, you’re my apprentice. You should at least be able to manage that much.” Without waiting for a further farewell, the lone wolf turned and moved off through the snow, leaving behind the others to embark on his self-imposed mission to rid the land of Shishio’s followers. Kenshin watched him go for a moment before turning back to his waiting companions and his own task.

“It is time we left, that it is.”


Kaoru found herself walking with the young coyote. She had to admit that she had been feeling rather curious about the other female. Some of the story of Kenshin’s journey up here had been relayed yesterday, and she couldn’t deny her interest had been piqued when she had learned that Misao had been his travelling companion. If she hadn’t already seen how the Oniwaban obviously adored Aoshi, the tanuki might have felt the faint stirrings of uneasy jealousy. But since she had seen it, the bitter tang of jealousy had had given way to curious interest.

Misao grinned at her companionably, seeming to recognize a kindred spirit. “I’m glad I got to meet you,” she repeated her sentiment from the earlier day. “Red missed you.”

The tips of Kaoru’s ears warmed. “He talked about me?”

A shrug rippled the fur along Misao’s small ruff, “Not at first; I don’t think he really trusted me until we got here and he saw I wasn’t some spy of Shishio’s. But yeah, he talked about you more than anyone else. And then the two of you leave everyone behind and spend the night under the stars…”

“It wasn’t like that,” Kaoru shook her head. “It’s not like I planned to sneak away or anything…”

“You don’t have to explain it to me!” Misao grinned. “I don’t think you even have to explain it to that spiky nuisance you brought with you. I mean, it’s obvious to me how you feel about Red, and I just met you.”

Kaoru’s ears went flat against her skull in embarrassment. “I don’t think it’s as simple as you’re making it out to be.”

“No?” The coyote shrugged carelessly. “I think that others tend to overcomplicate these things. Though I guess I can see how things would get complicated with Red, what with his history and all.”

“That has been a subject of some interesting adventures,” Kaoru agreed dryly. “Still, I can’t say he didn’t warn me.”

“So, why did you… you know. If he told you that.” Misao’s expression had fallen into relentless curiosity, but Kaoru wasn’t quite sure what she was asking. I don’t think anyone really chooses who they fall in love with. But still, there had been something that set Kenshin apart from the rest, even at the very beginning.

"Kenshin was the first one who... stayed." The words drifted out almost without her knowledge, and Kaoru rushed to amend her statement, "I mean—it's more than that of course!"

Misao shrugged, her teal gaze uncharacteristically serious. "Sometimes that's enough. There's a lot to be said for someone who's there for you when you need them."

“Still, I guess following him out seems a little clingy,” Kaoru admitted, ears flattening as she did so.

Misao shrugged, the bounce in her step never faltering. “I don’t think so. I thought it was sweet. I know that if I’d just found him again and Aoshi-sama wandered off without me I would go after him.” The coyote smiled to herself, eyes seeking out her leader walking alongside a suspicious Yahiko. “But I’ve been following Aoshi-sama for as long as I can remember, so he’s used to it. I think part of the reason he decided to team up with Himura is he knows I’ll follow him, so he’s trying to stay where he thinks I’ll be safe.” Misao nudged Kaoru’s shoulder sneakily, her tone lowering even as her grin widened. “If you ask me, Red’s still not used to the idea of somebody following him, but if you’re persistent he should catch on pretty quick.”

Kaoru’s answering laugh was a little nervous. I don’t think I can do that. Not as… enthusiastically as Misao anyway. “I’ll keep that in mind. But,” a smile of her own pulled at Kaoru’s muzzle even as her eyes sought out Kenshin, pacing forward at the front of their party, “we did talk about my staying with him, so I guess you could say he’s been warned too.”

Ahead of the females, Kenshin gave a quiet sigh and Saito appeared out of the snow-dusted pines to join them. Misao ducked her head a little closer to Kaoru’s to whisper conspiratorially.

“There’s our resident kill-joy. I wonder what he’s done with his mate.”

Kaoru startled, shot a reflexive reassuring smile back at Kenshin when he looked over his shoulder to see what had caused the disturbance. The red wolf agave her an answering smile before turning back to the path ahead.

“Saito has a mate?” Kaoru hissed to Misao when she was sure the males weren’t paying attention anymore.

“Apparently,” the coyote answered in a low tone, ears twitching as the scanned for eavesdroppers. “I’d wondered if she would be coming along to fight. I guess not.”

Kaoru shook her head as her brain tried to formulate a response to this. Unfortunately, her brain was having none of it, too preoccupied with the idea that Saito of all beings would have a mate. Perhaps, she wondered doubtfully, he wasn’t horrible and abrasive all the time. After all, Kenshin wasn’t as prickly as he was around Saito all the time either. Perhaps the two wolves simply brought out the worst in each other.

The part of her that was still annoyed at Saito for preceding Kenshin’s departure (a very large, very vocal part,) refused to see the logic of this.

Still, even the distraction value of Saito’s apparent love life wasn’t powerful enough to last more than a few moments today, and the quiet conversation she had kept up with Misao faded away as their paws carried them closer to the fight to come. At length, they came down from the mountain to the crest of a natural rise in the land, a final high place from which to view the sprawling territory of the North. Here Kenshin and Saito stopped, the others following suit silently to stare out over the center of such bloody changes in the lives of wolves.

Saito looked down the ridge to the icy lake and snowy pain, a predatory gleam lighting his amber eyes even as he curled his lip to display a fang.

“It seems that Shishio has accepted your challenge, Battousai.”

Kenshin followed his old enemy’s gaze grimly. On the edge of the woods beyond the lake a group of creatures were visible, presumably Shishio and his closest followers. Yahiko crept forward to stand by his leader, though he kept low to the ground, as if stalking.

“I guess it was too much to hope that he’d come alone,” the young dog observed, eying the group clustered together. Kaoru shook her head.

“Well, we didn’t come alone either. Is there any sign of other reinforcements?” She couldn’t smell or hear any herself from this distance, no matter how she strained, but the she-wolf was not at all embarrassed to admit that compared to her companions her skills were probably lacking in that regard. Kenshin gave an abortive shake of his head to answer her question, never once taking his eyes from the central figure below.

“Reinforcements or not, those are still Shishio’s Juppongatana,” Misao was uncharacteristically quiet, perhaps remembering the last time she had been this close to the burned wolf’s lieutenants. “We shouldn’t underestimate them.”

Aoshi stepped up beside the small coyote as if sheltering her with his presence. “We will not.”

Saito flicked he gaze back to the little ninja with a scowl, “If you’re too afraid to fight, perhaps you should go.”

Aoshi fixed his icy green gaze on the Shinsengumi. “Look to your own courage, wolf, and do not question that of the Oniwaban.”

The gray wolf snorted and turned away, but Misao stood a little straighter and Kaoru thought she could hear the other female whisper very quietly to herself, “I’m not alone.”

“Battousai,” Shinomori continued, “how shall we do this?”

“This one will seek out Shishio,” the red wolf answered. “He is the central threat. Doubtless the Juppongatana are there to prevent his being surrounded.”

“Leave them to us.” Yahiko’s words, brashly confident, reminded Kaoru almost painfully of a fierce, pinned puppy, incapable of looking after himself and unwilling to accept the suggestion that he couldn’t—but Yahiko’s stance, still and waiting, eyes fixed on the enemy with the calculation of a hunter leant his words a new weight. This was something else entirely, the kind of dog he had learned to be by watching Kenshin, responsible and brave.

Kaoru shook herself free of such thoughts and did a quick mental tally of the figures below versus the group on the ridge—

“We’re outnumbered,” she observed. Kenshin finally tore his gaze away from the enemy to smile wryly at her.

“Are we not always?”

Her answering smile was equally wry, but she found that she couldn’t help it. Still, Kenshin’s smile didn’t last long before he sighed and continued,

“This one will try to move through the Juppongatana’s ranks to get to Shishio.”

“And we’ll keep them from closing ranks behind you.” Kaoru finished. Saito shook himself, gray and white fur shifting with the motion.

“Don’t think that you’re going after Shishio alone, Battousai. The North is my watch.”

“This one expected as much. But Saito…” Kaoru caught the faintest glimmer of amusement in deep amethyst eyes. “Try to keep up.” The red wolf vanished in a flurry of snow—a moment later Kenshin’s lithe form could be seen streaking towards the group at the forest’s edge. Saito snarled expressively and hurled himself after his ally, pushing his larger body to catch up.

Kaoru caught Yahiko’s eyes for a moment, reading in them the same terrified excitement that shook her muscles, and then the remaining four followed the frontrunners down, spreading out as the land opened up on the plain.


“Don’t start without me!” a familiar voice howled breathlessly. Kaoru turned, scarcely believing her ears, to see a familiar brown and white hybrid loping towards her on long gangly legs.

“Sano?”

Behind the fighter, a slower, sleeker shadow, came a black fox.

“Slow down you idiot!” a curious mix of professionalism and worry laced the doctor’s tone, but Sano’s reckless grin as he came to a halt beside Kaoru told the tanuki plainly that he was back to full health. His plumy tail waved gently back and forth, lightly buffeting Megumi as she managed to catch up to his longer limbs.

New confidence bubbled through the tanuki in a relieved laugh, “You made it!”

“Barely,” Sano mock-grumbled, “the fox here would hardly let me walk five steps at a time.”

“You’re blaming me?” Megumi countered absently, burgundy gaze sweeping across the assembled creatures in an assessing glance. “This great lummox tried to get us lost at least seven times a day.”

Sano snorted and rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s old gossip. Hey Missy, I hope those guys back at the border weren’t ours. They didn’t let us through so I had to persuade them.”

Kaoru blinked, her smile turning wry, “You are definitely feeling better.”

“Damn straight,” Sano nodded with a grinning flash of fangs. “When the doc here patches you up, you stay patched. I might just keep her around when this is over.”

The look Megumi leveled at her former patient could have stripped the hide off the leanest hare’s ears.

“Just point out the bad guys, Missy.” Sano said, studiously ignoring the glare. Kaoru shook her head.

“It’d be a lot faster to point out who’s on our side. Kenshin and Saito,” she nodded down the slope where the two fighters had gone, “went that way to try and cut a path to Shishio.”

Sano growled, “I don’t like the idea of helping Saito with anything.”

“Nobody does,” Kaoru swallowed her answering growl, internalizing her irritation to use later on some unsuspecting foe. “But he’s one of the only allies we have. The rest of us are attacking Shishio’s lieutenants to give them a chance to get close. Hiko is going to work on keeping the patrols Shishio might call in off our backs so we don’t wind up surrounded.”

“Who’s Hiko?”

“Kenshin’s old master, apparently,” Kaoru explained rapidly. “Keep an eye out for him—big wolf, brown fur, horrible attitude. Don’t attack him, please.”

“Got it. Anyone else I should put on the no-pummeling list?”

“Just Aoshi and Misao.”

A tremor rippled through Megumi and her head snapped back around to stare at Kaoru in horror.

“Aoshi Shinomori?” Sano questioned, shifting on his paws slightly. “Kanryuu’s Aoshi?”

“The same,” Kaoru admitted. “Apparently Shishio killed the pack-members he was holding hostage—Aoshi and Misao are the only ones left now.” She turned to Megumi, lowering her voice, “He won’t hurt you, Miss Megumi. He and Misao are dedicated to getting revenge on Shishio.”

Sano shook himself, taking a searching glance at Megumi’s inscrutable expression before continuing grimly. “So, who’s Misao?”

“Little silver coyote,” Kaoru smiled fondly. “More energy than Yahiko and a hair-trigger temper to match. Kenshin told me she’s been looking for Aoshi for a long time—I don’t think she’s let him out of her sight since finding him again.” She glanced downslope again. “We really have to go—the Juppongatana have numbers on their side.”

“Or they did until I showed up,” Sano grinned, but nodded and rushed off towards the promise of battle.


“Wait up you idiot!” Sano faltered a step, looking over his shoulder to see a sleek black fox in his wake like a shadow, trying to keep pace.

“Megumi?” Surprise momentarily drove away his customary nicknames. “What are you doing here?”

The fox’s scowling expression tightened, “Where do you suggest I go?”

You could wait—the reply tangled itself in his tongue, never quite making it past his teeth. They had only just arrived and plainly everyone else was planning to fight. Still, she could stay where we met up with the Missy— But there was something in that tight expression, something he hadn’t seen there for a long time…

“You’re scared,” Sano blurted, only just realizing the fact. Megumi growled at the comment, her dark expression reminding the fighter just how familiar she was with poisons. Why wouldn’t she be scared? The thoughts raced like his paws across the snow-covered ground. She had a pretty normal life before Kanryuu scooped her up—living by herself, occasionally treating patients, when suddenly this jerk with a horde of killers abducts her and tells her all about how he works for someone even worse, and that she’ll never get away. It’s amazing that she came at all. And completely unsurprising that the healer would have no wish to be alone here.

Though why she latched on to me instead of high-tailing it over to Kenshin… Sano rolled his eyes. Clue, Sagara. Kenshin’s going to be, oh, about way-too-close-to-Shishio that way, and he doesn’t even know she’s here. The doc’s not stupid. No, that was his job in their little rag-tag pack.

“Stay in sight,” he called back to her rather than share any of his thoughts, “but keep back when I’m fighting. I don’t want you pulled in.”

“I know how to take care of myself, fleabrain!” Megumi sniped back, but when Sano slowed fractionally she pulled up alongside him and kept so close to his flank that their pelts nearly brushed.

Shishio’s followers approached in a thundering line, racing to meet Kenshin’s forces as they charged. Up ahead Sano could see Kenshin, closely followed by Saito, slipping past the front line in a blur. From the corner of his eye the hybrid saw a dark shadow lift itself from the snow to snap at the Missy, saw Yahiko throw himself to one side as an enemy came after him—but there was no time to worry about them because he was facing down his own adversary.

What the heck is that thing? The question rose unbidden in the fighter’s mind—he had always considered it funny when wolves or dogs had difficulty identifying him as a hybrid, but this creature must laugh at the world. He looked like nothing so much as a red fox whose legs had been stretched to impossible lengths, easily the tallest canine Sano had ever encountered—even without taking into consideration the mane-like ridge of yellow fur that ran from the crown of his head to his shoulders. His tail seemed almost unusually short in comparison to his over-long legs, the white tip barely reaching his hocks.

But if the creature was unfamiliar, the fanged smile as it approached Sano certainly wasn’t. A tight-lipped smirk of his own rose to answer that manic grin—this was another fight-loving fool. Someone up there must like me.

The pair skidded to a stop, kicking up plumes of snow before they crashed into one another.

“Hello there!” the stranger howled, the grin never wavering. “We didn’t hear about you in Henya’s report.” He craned his neck at an awkward angle to get a look behind Sano and winked one blue eye, “Or you, beautiful.”

Megumi gave a growl of displeasure at being addressed and Sanosuke found himself stepping in on her behalf.

“Hey buddy, eyes off the lady, huh?”

The stranger sighed melodramatically, “I’m hurt—I mean really, what’s the world coming to when a guy can’t even chat with a lady in his own territory?” Despite his professed injured feelings his expression morphed into a grin as he shot Megumi another wink. “The name’s Cho if you ever decide to ditch the deadweight, sweetheart.”

“Yeah? Well we’re here to settle a little dispute about this being your territory, and it’s been weeks since I had a good fight.” Sano growled around a rigid smile. Despite being another fighting idiot, Sano was starting to find himself disliking this guy the longer he talked. Best to get the fight started before he really worked himself into a mood.

“Wish I could say I thought this was gonna be a good one,” Cho sighed. “But you obviously don’t know what you’re up against, spiky.”

Sano’s head shot up indignantly. “Spiky? You’re one to talk longshanks!” A displeased snarl was his answer; apparently Cho agreed that the pleasantries were over and it was past time for the fighting to begin. Sano didn’t disagree.

The hybrid turned his head slightly to address Megumi while keeping an eye on his unusual opponent. “Stay back, doc.” The fox didn’t answer, but Sano thought he caught a flicker of motion in his peripheral view as if she had nodded. He was given no opportunity to turn and check this supposition as Cho launched himself forward with a snarl that contrasted strangely with the delighted gleam in his blue eyes.

Sano snapped his head back around to fully face the charge, throwing his weight to one side to avoid the first attack. The hybrid wasn’t stupid—he might be able to take a bruising better than just about anybody he knew, but there was no reason to take a hit so early when he had just recovered from his injuries. There was also the added worry that Cho’s height mean all of the Juppongatana’s attacks would be in a perfect position to rain down blows on Sano’s spine. Despite the fox’s worrying, Sano did know how to look out for himself. A guy who loved picking fights like he did would never have survived on his own if he hadn’t figured out how much his body could take.

Cho followed Sano’s movement, long limbs moving around each other gracefully as he pivoted, his maned head approaching rapidly. Sano backpedaled, annoyed that he was on the defensive so early in the fight—especially since he didn’t like defense on the best of days. On his next recoil Sanosuke rested his weight on his hind legs for a second before leaping forward, crashing into a startled Cho.

Despite the Juppongatana’s greater height, he didn’t weigh much more than Megumi. The pair went down in a snarling heap. Cho’s teeth closed shallowly on the skin and fur of Sano’s ruff and he growled as he tried to get better purchase and deal more damage. Sano trusted to his thick fur to keep him safe and pressed his attack, biting down hard on Cho’s shoulder and ripping loose a chunk of orange fur in the aftermath. Cho’s growl became something like a bark of protest and he finally regained his feet, shedding Sano like a duck shedding water.

The hybrid allowed himself to tumble free, using the added momentum to roll clear of a retaliatory bite. Despite his bleeding shoulder, the grin was back in Cho’s eyes.

“Maybe this will be a fight,” he allowed. “But you still shouldn’t dream of winning.”

“Lines like that sound a lot better when you aren’t the one getting blood everywhere,” Sano pointed out. Despite the bravado in his voice the fighter remained wary—the injury to Cho’s shoulder shouldn’t hamper the creature unduly. And Cho’s answering smile hadn’t lost any of its confidence.

“Come on.”

This time when Cho attacked Sano moved to meet him. It was a bit odd, fighting someone so tall, Sano felt he finally knew how all those opponents had felt fighting him. The temptation to go for the legs was overwhelming—but Cho had to be just as used to that tactic as he was.

The taller fighter seemed to taunt Sano with his movements, deliberately offering parts of himself as targets, leaving them open to attack as he darted, snapping at Sano with curved fangs he had to work to keep from finding their mark. Grimly, Sanosuke admitted to himself that before meeting Kenshin (before realizing that brute strength couldn’t win every fight) he probably would have latched on to one of the limbs, counting on his ability to break it before Cho’s retaliation. But now he could plainly see that was what the Juppongatana wanted. Attacking Cho’s main body ran the risk of exposing himself to attack—but what was a fight without some risk?

Sano lunged, ignoring Cho’s legs to close his jaws on the Juppongatana’s tail—not a damaging bite, except to pride. The orange-furred menace twisted, long front paws coming up to shove Sano away, his fangs slipping through the silky-fine fur of Cho’s tailtip. The hybrid stumbled slightly, locking the joints in his legs to keep from losing his balance as he lost purchase—this was the only thing that saved him from crumpling to the ground as weight crashed into him from above.

Cho had jumped and come down on Sano’s back, and was now using his position to savagely tear into the muscles that protected his spine. Panic-laced irritation surged within the brown hybrid, lending extra strength to his movements as he twisted and bucked, trying to throw the other fighter off, or at least keep him from latching onto the back of Sano’s neck. A sound like sniggering came from his opponent, and Sano fought back an aggravated growl as the maned creature ripped another deep gash into his back. Blood spattered the churned-up snow of their battleground, and Sano was no longer sure if it was his or Cho’s.

The fighter twisted from side to side, trying to get at an angle where he could snap one of Cho’s long legs, but the Juppongatana blocked his every move with ease. Sano couldn’t turn, go forward or backward, above him was Cho, his narrow chest pressing into Sano’s spine, long limbs meaning that the hybrid fit neatly beneath him. Sano thought quickly even as he continued to struggle. That left going down, a position of submission, although maybe it would let him get loose of Cho’s hold, maybe even give him a chance to tangle up Cho’s legs.

An uneasy feeling, a prickle in the ridge of fur along his spine as it tried to rise kept Sano from doing this. Cho was experienced, that was easy to see, and giving him another chance to attack, maybe even to pin Sano on the ground… No. Not going to happen.

Which left the wolf-dog exactly where he had been before—with nowhere to go.

Or maybe…The hybrid got an idea. A fairly awful idea, and it was going to hurt like anything, but with any luck it would hurt Cho too.

Moving quickly, Sano allowed his legs to cave, just a little, as if he was going to enact his first plan, and dropped his head until his nose nearly brushed the snow. He felt more than heard Cho’s gleeful lunge toward this bowed target and forced every ounce of strength he had left into his legs and neck. Sano’s skull snapped up, crashing into Cho’s approaching maw with a flash of pain and a mind-numbing thunk of bone on bone.

The Juppongatana reeled, his mouth a sudden hive of agony, and Sano reared up on his hind legs, continuing his earlier motion. Cho was forced up with him and over-balanced, crashing backwards into the snow—Sano didn’t even try to stop his own fall—he dropped onto Cho back-first and rolled off. Cho twisted, trying to regain his feet before Sano could take advantage of his vulnerability, but it was too late, a flash of fangs and one of the long legs bleeding onto the snow, though Sano didn’t take the time to break the bone.

Another flash and Cho’s earlier wound to the shoulder gaped wide—then Sano’s heavy paw came down on Cho’s throat, stopping his struggles.

Sano panted as he looked down at his foe—his back ached like fire and he could feel the thick fur of his ruff clumping as blood matted it together. He blinked as something tickled at his eye and realized that the throbbing in his skull wasn’t just from being used as a battering ram (again)—apparently Cho’s teeth had done some answering damage and blood was now trickling through the short fine fur of his face.

The hybrid ran his tongue over his chops before speaking. “We can keep going if you want,” he told his captive, “but we both know what happens next if you do.”

The fox-like face snarled up at him. “So you beat me. Big deal. There’s other Juppongatana, and lord Shishio—”

“But one way or another, you’re out of the fight.” Sano cut him off ruthlessly. “You can either clear out now or I’ll wipe you out.”

“This is my place!” Cho bared his fangs, his eyes blazing, “The first place that I’ve belonged.”

“I know a bit about that,” Sano answered grimly, “about finding a place to belong, and about losing it too. But I’ve learned that the world is an awful big place, and if you just keep on walking eventually there’ll be another place to belong, another pack to call yours.”

Cho snarled, clearly not ready for such advice, but that was okay. He would be someday.

“You should get out of here. My buddy over there,” he nodded to where Kenshin had disappeared, “is gonna make sure Shishio’s reign ends today.”

Cho snorted in disbelief. “Your buddy is a dead wolf. Lord Shishio doesn’t lose to anyone.”

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