Chapter 2- Those Who Wander
Calling calming silence
Accompanied only by the full moon
Howling of a night wolf
And the earth under my bare feet...
Kaoru Kamiya wasn’t having a good day. The little tanuki-marked wolf had been hunting since dawn took over the sky, with only one hastily-gulped mouse to show for her pains.
Muttering dire imprecations against small furry prey-animals Kaoru worked her way toward the tall elm tree that was her friend Tae’s noontime haunt. The silvery-gray wolf peered up into the branches, blue eyes searching.
“Tae?” she called, “Tae, are you there?”
A muffled sound of protest filtered down from the leaves, then sleepy brown eyes looked down at her.
“Kaoru?” the bobcat shifted, crawling out onto a more visible branch, “I was sleeping.”
Kaoru grinned at her unusual friend. They had met seasons ago, when a then-new to the area Tae had wandered into Kaoru’s den. Both were keenly aware that if Kaoru’s family had still been alive, or if either of them had been expecting young, that first meeting would have been violent and short.
Instead, the two females had sensed the presence of another who shared their pain, the pain of something-that-was-supposed-to-be-there gone, and had fallen in together. It helped that, as far as bobcats went, Tae was very unusual, and sociable.
Now Tae lived in the area, frequenting the elm tree as a favorite place to sleep, although her den was elsewhere. When all else failed, one female would find the other for help on the hunt. Tae had an uncanny ability to know-or guess- where prey would be, and Kaoru had the sheer tenacity necessary to chase down some of the longer-winded animals that made up their food supply.
“Sorry, Tae,” Kaoru apologized, the darker mask-shaped fur around her eyes bunching slightly, “I haven’t been able to find much today- any suggestions?”
Tae sighed, regarding her stubborn young friend with warm brown eyes. It was no secret that the reason Kaoru tried harder for prey was because she was so miserable at finding any. Her family had died before she could be taught any refined techniques, leaving her relying on instinct that was good enough, usually.
“I heard the pack scaring rabbits earlier,” Tae said neutrally- no one liked the local pack, she was almost as glad as her friend that the tanuki-marked wolf wasn’t a part of it. “Chased them out into the south meadow- idiots,” she spat, eyes narrowing, “the pack cleared out hours ago- the rabbits should be working up the courage to head back to their holes by now.”
Kaoru bobbed her head in a short nod and flashed a toothy smile at her friend, “Thanks Tae.”
“Come back when you catch something,” the bobcat ordered, “I’ve got some new gossip for you.”
The tip of Kaoru’s striped tail twitched, “You know there’s only so much I’ll listen to about how dumb the pack is,” she warned, turning to go on her way.
Tae waved a spotted tawny paw, “No, no, no,” she corrected, “I’ve heard rumor that Battousai the manslayer escaped.”
Kaoru paused, looking back at her friend. In the territory Tae had come from before she’d known a dog called Wraith. Wraith was an abandoned fight-dog who told stories of a strange wolf that didn’t fight the way the others did. When the humans had come into Tae’s territory and stayed, leveling trees and constructing strange monuments, the bobcat had fled, losing track of Wraith in the process, but had kept up with stories of the strange fighter, who had become something of a popular legend.
But… “Manslayer?” Kaoru echoed, ears tilting back uncertainly. Her own ears leaning slightly toward her skull, Tae nodded.
“It seems he killed five humans when he escaped- the newest member of the pack was talking about it.”
Kaoru shook her head- another new pack-member? Gohei couldn’t possibly expect to support them all on this land, but the way that he accepted any big male who wandered into the area…
With another word of thanks to her friend, Kaoru set off at a trot through the trees. As she drew closer to where the trunks thinned out into open meadow, Kaoru slowed, casting about for a clear scent, straining her ears for any hint of noise- it was this that prepared her, turning to look just as a small brown-gray form burst from concealing undergrowth, long ears flat against its back and dark eyes wide in terror. Kaoru caught the rabbit in mid-leap, ending the poor thing’s fear quickly. Lunch dangling from her jaws, Kaoru looked in the direction the rabbit had come from. She couldn’t really smell much- but that was probably the fault of the rabbit just below her nose.
But she could almost hear… straining her ears, she heard clearly for a moment- a labored breath, the rustle of attempted movement. It was quick work to find a place for her prize to hide- there was no way that she was going to risk losing the opportunity for a full belly just to satisfy her admittedly overactive curiosity. Moving carefully, the gray she-wolf stepped through the undergrowth, always listening, always smelling, looking last of all, determined that if what lay ahead was a threat, she could turn and run before it got more than a vague impression that she was even there.
The trees thinned a little further, and Kaoru slowed her pace a little more, scenting the air for a direction when the sounds quieted. The faint scent of unfamiliar wet fur came back to her and the tanuki hesitated- would this be another member of the pack? Just because she couldn’t smell the pack’s scent didn’t mean it wasn’t there… With steps even more cautious than before, the female picked her way forward, the scent growing stronger as she did.
Exhaustion, she tasted in the air, the bitter tang and labored breaths of one who could not run anymore, and then she could see him low in the undergrowth. A… dog? He can’t be any bigger than I am, Kaoru realized. The maybe-dog breathed deeply where he lay on his stomach, resting a white muzzle on white paws. The dog, a funny red color with a white underbelly, had backed himself into a V where roots split from the trunk of a forest giant to plunge into the earth. Protecting his back…?
The strange dog, if he was a dog, lay with closed eyes, but his ears were still more or less erect, twitching to pick up small sounds. For a moment Kaoru forgot her caution, was he asleep?
The step forward that she hadn’t planned made a rustle so quiet she barely heard it, but the male by the tree jerked as if bitten, wide violet eyes opening to find Kaoru, every muscle under his oddly-colored pelt suddenly tense. And looking at that pelt… He’s soaked to the skin, the tanuki realized with some surprise.
“Hey, are you okay?” Did he swim the river?
Tired purple blinked at her, and the strange dog tried to rise, white legs shaking with effort. I was right- he’s only a little taller than me and… Kaoru tried not to be obvious in her dismay- but… he’s starved. I can see his ribs. Wet fur stuck up at odd angles, but the shape of the body was still clear- bones just a little too sharply defined- perhaps not truly starved, but definitely malnourished.
“This one is fine,” Kaoru shook herself as he spoke, a low tired voice that tried to be cheerful, but couldn’t quite manage without more energy. “This one only thought to rest…”
“You must not be from around here,” Kaoru mused with thinly-veiled curiosity, this one? No one around here uses that to refer to themselves. The river had been a pack-boundary in the old days, and it was still a good step from here. How had he managed to get from there to here still wet enough to look as though he’d been dunked fifteen minutes ago instead of an hour? “You’re on pack-land, it’s not safe to rest out in the open.”
“This one is a Rurouni,” the strange dog explained, a tired smile hovering around his muzzle, “sessha did not realize that he had wandered onto claimed land.”
You didn’t realize… but you’re still being careful, Kaoru thought, having your back to a tree, jumping at the slightest noise… Rurouni, huh… are you wandering away from something specific, I wonder? Sympathy warred with common sense, considered damp red fur and tired purple eyes. He may be a stranger, but he’s completely exhausted- even if he does attack, I’m sure he’s not expecting someone like me to know how to fight back.
“Well, Rurouni, you’ve been on pack-land since before you crossed the river, and I honestly doubt you’d make it across a second time.”
The violet eyes were noncommittal, ears a darker red than the rest of his fur twitched slightly, in what Kaoru was pretty sure was not agreement.
“Perhaps this one could petition your pack-”
“They’re not my pack,” Kaoru growled quickly, “And Gohei would never listen to a dog.”
An exasperated sigh permeated the air, ears flicking peevishly back toward the skull, “This one is a wolf, that he is.”
Kaoru blinked in surprise, “But you’re so little!”
The stranger closed violet eyes, muzzle drooping slightly with the air of one repeating something for the hundredth time. “Yes, one is a small wolf.”
And so are you, the tanuki scolded herself, “Well, even if you are a wolf, there isn’t much chance that Gohei will listen to you, especially if you don’t want any trouble.”
Crimson shoulders shrugged, fur tugged into small spikes by the motion, “Then this one would appear to have no choice but the river.”
“No,” Kaoru shook her head quickly, ears anticipating her coming embarrassment and angling themselves back, “You can stay at my den until you’re rested enough to move on.”
Shock pinned the Rurouni’s ears back, opened violet eyes wide, amusement trickled through Kaoru- she’d asked a variety of creatures to stay with her since her father’s death, but this was the first who had reacted with utter bewilderment.
“How can you possibly be so trusting of one you have just met?”
Gray fur made a shrugging motion, nonchalance, Kaoru had long learned, often had a better effect than earnestness.
“It’s not the first time I’ve sheltered a stray. It probably won’t be the last- and I can take care of myself,”
“Be that as it may,” the Rurouni began, having to stop as he staggered, trembling legs trying to fold beneath him. The tanuki marked wolf was by his side quickly, small furry warmth supporting him on one flank.
This close, her deep sky blue eyes burned into him, daring the scarlet-furred beast to refuse her help again.
“This one is sorry to be a bother Miss.”
“Kaoru,” the female corrected, “Kamiya Kaoru, and it’s no trouble.”
“Thank you, Miss Kaoru,” the Rurouni noticed an annoyed glint in his new friend’s eye when he failed to abandon the ‘Miss’, but went on anyway, “your offer of hospitality is greatly appreciated.”
With careful steps the wolves made their way through the woods, only turning aside from their path for Kaoru to hurriedly retrieve the rabbit, which would not be enough for two creatures of their size, but that was blessedly already caught.
The whole way back to her home, Kaoru was on high alert, half expecting Gohei or one of his cronies to catch them before they made it to the relative safety of the den. When the hazel branches that masked the entrance came into view, the tanuki would have sagged in relief if she hadn’t felt that to do so would drop her guest.
She left the Rurouni’s side long enough to lead the way through the whippy twigs into the hollowed-out earth beneath. The den was too large for one wolf- when Kaoru’s father had taken the abandoned fox den and enlarged it he had not counted on only one member of the litter surviving.
Head low to avoid brushing the dirt ceiling overhead, Kaoru gave a tentative sniff at the back door of the den- no one had used it since her mother died when she was still a pup, it had caved in enough that even for a small wolf like the tanuki, passage was difficult at best, a time-consuming endeavor which would include copious amounts of digging. Her nose assured her that no one had passed through, and the gray female turned to regard the odd wolf stepping into her den.
“You work on that,” Kaoru ordered, slinging the body of the rabbit at the red-furred wanderer, who had abandoned the effort of remaining upright in favor of laying down before his legs gave out. Purple eyes regarded the meal with something like bewildered curiosity. “I’m going to see what else I can find,” the tanuki continued over her shoulder as she stepped to the entrance and wormed her way out of the earth and through the supple branches once more.
In her absence, the Rurouni eyed the rabbit, stomach giving a pleading sort of rumble. But if he ate the rabbit, then what would his host eat? There was never any guarantee that a wolf would find prey when she needed it. With an unhappy sigh he lowered his muzzle to rest on the dirt floor, inhaling the she-wolf’s home-scent and breathing it out again, causing grains of soil to skitter away from his nose. Maybe after he rested for a bit he would be strong enough to hunt again.
It took great effort for Kamiya to keep from charging to the rabbit warren- she was still hungry and her new guest looked as if he could eat three rabbits before there would be any difference in his starved expression. Still, rushing would only scare off any chance of dinner.
She had almost made it there when a sharp crackle in the trees caught her attention, just in time to avoid getting a face full of tawny-spotted fur as Tae leapt from her tree to land just in front of her canine friend.
The cat’s eyes were wide and worried, whiskers quivered as her bobbed tail made an effort to lash back and forth.
“Where have you been?!” the bobcat demanded, “You never came back- I thought that Gohei’d tried to force the issue- I was looking everywhere for you-”
“Tae!” Kaoru broke in quickly, knowing from experience that if she waited for her friend to stop before explaining, the cat would only work herself into hysterics. Some of the frenzied light dulled in the feline’s eyes, enough that Kaoru felt she could venture to rest a furred cheek against Tae’s for a moment- brief contact to reassure the cat that she was not alone.
Tae was quite peculiar for a bobcat- most of them were very solitary- avoiding even others of their species with extreme prejudice, but Tae had been raised by humans. From the time she was a wobbling fluff ball with milk teeth, the bobcat had been kept close to her human family, until the need for social contact was definitely overdeveloped. This wouldn’t have been a problem, but the family had abandoned her- packing up and moving away from the semi-forested area where they had always lived. Less than half a season later other humans came with strange beings that belched black smoke and destroyed all of the trees- Tae had fled in a panic. As a consequence, the bobcat held a deep-rooted fear that those she cared for might disappear.
“I’m all right Tae,” Kaoru continued, “and I’m sorry I worried you- I’ve picked up a stray.”
“Another one?” Tae’s ears twitched in something approaching amusement as the last vestiges of terror leeched away, relaxing enough to delicately sniff at the scent hanging around her friend.
“He’s starved,” Kaoru continued, ignoring her friend’s expression at the idea of a strange male in the tanuki’s den. “He’s just passing through- and don’t worry, at the moment I don’t think he’s strong enough to survive an attacking butterfly, let alone cause trouble.”
The bobcat snorted at this assessment,
“So you’re hunting again.”
“Yes,” Kaoru agreed, burying her instinctive irritation at her friend’s tone- she wasn’t that bad of a hunter.
“I could help,” Tae suggested, “we could try the deer trick again.” The gray wolf hesitated, then shook her head,
“No… if we got one the Rurouni would have to leave the den to get to it, and Goehi’s pack might catch us in the open. We’re better off sticking to prey we can carry.” Tae’s ears twitched in silent agreement and the two set off for the rabbit warren once more.
Even with Tae’s help, it took several failed attempts before Kaoru could get her jaws around a furry dinner- it was torture to her poor shrunken stomach to lay it aside to help Tae get one- but fair was fair.
At last the females had what they had come for, and Tae retreated up a tree to get started on hers, opting out of meeting the Rurouni until he was better settled- no need to startle the creature. Moving in a slinking, start and stop brisk walk, Kaoru began to cover the distance back to her den. She had learned early that if she wasn’t careful with her meals, she was likely to lose them; a lone female wasn’t enough to make the pack think twice. Even if Kaoru could defend herself, the food was invariably gone by the time she had space to lick her wounds.
Pausing a moment in the cool shade of a moss-covered boulder, Kaoru listened hard, laying the rabbit down to clear her nose to try and get a fix on the scents around her. They warned her just in time to get her back well up against the boulder, plant herself firmly over her kill and not start in surprise as the pack appeared from the trees around her.
Her muzzle wrinkled, but the tanuki held back the flash of teeth that would make it a true snarl, looked like all the jokers were here- or all the ones who counted anyway.
Nagasawa, one of the few true wolves in the pack, his expression not quite a lustful smirk- everyone remembered what had happened to Kihei- but close enough that Kaoru’s hackles were rising with the need to remind the rangy male just what no meant. Watanabe, the other wolf, acting as Nagasawa’s lighter colored shadow with the bored expression he’d had ever since he’d wandered into these parts. Nishiwaki, the right-hand hound of the surviving Hiruma brother, cowering in his leader’s shadow.
And that leader… Gohei.
Unconsciously, Kaoru set her stance a little more firmly. Gohei Hiruma was a dog, though not one of any recognizable breed. He was big, dark brown and thick-furred, with a tail that arched in a proud curl over his back, setting all of Kaoru’s independent instincts on edge. It had never come to a true fight between them, though the tanuki admitted that was as much luck as anything- the others might think Gohei wanted one of the only females who had dared to stay in the area to join him- Kaoru knew better. He wanted her dead.
“Well, well, well, the Kamiya whelp,” Gohei said with menacing humor, the tan fur surrounding his eyes bunching in equal parts mirth and hostility. Kaoru bristled, biting back a retort that would have certainly gotten her into deeper trouble. There were three others out there besides the ones that she could put names to- Gohei’s control over his pack wasn’t good enough to warrant the unprovoked slaughter of a breeding-age female, but insult would get her killed.
Nishiwaki sniggered, quailed slightly under a glare from his dark-furred boss.
“What do you want, Gohei?” Kaoru bit out into the silence following that chuckle, ears twitching to keep track of the pack members, ready to explode out of her waiting stance if any entered her range.
“What do we always want?” Nagasawa stretched, stopping just shy of her range, his posture as loose as a contented housecat, “You could still join up with us,”
“I’d rather sniff a porcupine’s tail,” Kaoru snapped back, aching to get over there and start breaking bones. Nagasawa looked slightly hurt, gray ears flattening slightly- though more likely it was annoyance, Kaoru had lost track of the times that she’d spurned the wolf’s advances. Watanabe was chuckling to the side, ignoring any glares sent his way with careless ease.
“The offer won’t last much longer, Tanuki.” Gohei said, finality coating his every word, “soon, this forest will be ours, and those who aren’t with us, will be against us.”
I’ve been against you from the start idiot, Kaoru snarled mentally, allowing white fangs to show in response to the threat, and you know it too.
“Enjoy running around the forest while you still can.”
Keeping her jaw tightly clenched, Kamiya allowed the parting shot, watching intently as the pack slowly made their way back through the trees. It might go against her nature to allow scum like that to say what they pleased- but she had someone depending on her to make it back to the den.
Of course, she spat scathingly at herself as she picked up the rabbit and set off again at a quicker pace, it couldn’t be that you’re scared- that you managed to get one of them, but that you’re too terrified to fight all of them at once. Angrily, she shook herself to get rid of the thought. Her father hadn’t raised a coward, or an idiot. She’d had no choice with Kihei, and maybe her father could have taken on seven large canines, but she was fairly sure that she couldn’t, and didn’t want to try while she could still talk her way out of it. Though she would die before she groveled.
Her mood sour, the gray wolf pushed her way through the hazel. Within the den, the red-furred Rurouni awoke from his doze and violet eyes watched his host enter, ears pricked for any stray noises. He supposed that the growl that bubbled in her throat when she saw the uneaten carcass on the floor might count as a stray noise.
Then again, he thought, suddenly looking up into a face full of irritated blue eyes surrounded by dark gray fur, this might be fairly common.
Kaoru struggled to rein in the growl that had already been thwarted at least twice today, opting to unclench her jaw and allow the rabbit to drop to the dirt floor of the den. The quiet thud was very loud in the growl-deprived stillness. The tanuki took a moment to breathe, trying without much success to ease the tension that had every hair on her back standing on end in the primal response to annoyance. The scent of the den helped some, smelling as it always did of cool earth and the last time that Tae had visited. Her guest’s scent was a thin veneer over the familiar, a hint of wet fur still clinging to the air, though the Rurouni was by now completely dry. Wet fur and… wind. Endless wind, the smell of having run so long and so far that who you were was stripped away into the endless motion of air against fine facial fur and cold nose.
How far had he traveled?
And why the hell hadn’t he eaten anything yet?
Because right there, in the middle of what should have been calming scents, was the unmistakable odor of meat.
“You didn’t eat anything,” her tone, Kaoru noticed with pleasure, was calm and detached, almost friendly. Dark red ears angled back toward the Rurouni’s skull, wary purple eyes watched her. “Why?”
“It would have been rude,” the Rurouni’s voice came back, sounding better than it had when they’d met, even if he hadn’t eaten, the she-wolf decided, he must have slept.
But this was a peripheral note, most of Kaoru’s mind locked on her irritation, and she’d never been very good at suppressing her irritation.
“Look you here you dumb- argh!” she broke off in a snarl, pacing the length of the den, “Idiot! I said to go ahead and eat it- do you have any idea how many of your ribs I can see?” Not as many as before, thanks to thick fur having dried out but still… “I don’t know how long its been since you ate or what was so important that you couldn’t take the time to find something to eat, but you,” she was leaning back into his face now, hardly noticing his instinctive retreat from the wrinkled muzzle before him, “are going to eat that rabbit. Now.” Turning with an agitated flick of her striped tail, the tanuki-marked wolf snagged one of the rabbits on the floor and stalked over to her accustomed spot, lying down to glower at her guest.
For his part, he seemed surprised by her outburst, hesitantly, violet eyes trained on his watchful host, he picked up the rabbit and brought it close.
Kaoru sighed, dropping her attention to her own meal, feeling the niggling edges of embarrassment beginning to worm their way through irritation.
That had certainly been well-handled. First running into the Pack and now… she shook herself. The forest might not be safe, she might run into the any member of the Pack at any time, but this was her place. No one came into her den if she didn’t want them to.
“Did you have trouble?” the Rurouni’s politely curious voice distracted Kaoru and she looked up, scrutinizing that red and white face.
“Are you saying that I take too long?” Irritation still peppered her voice like an overspiced dish, and she turned back to her meal, knowing that she was being horrible company.
“No, no, of course not.” The Rurouni assured quickly, he sounded like he meant it too, which made the tanuki feel worse. “This one was just wondering if you had perhaps run into the pack you were so insistent that sessha avoid.”
Kaoru froze, gaping at her guest in stunned disbelief.
“How did…” she was sure none of the pack had gotten near enough for their scents to linger around her. Purple eyes were placid, even as red-furred ears twitched in something that had to be relief.
“This one did not know, it was merely a guess,” a definite relieved smile wreathed the wolf’s muzzle, “sessha was merely hoping that he was not the only reason you were upset.”
The tanuki opened and closed her mouth several times before she surprised herself by laughing.
“Sorry,” she shook her head contritely, “Father used to say I could give a grouchy bear lessons in hostility any day of the week.”
A snort of easy laughter from her companion was her answer, and Kaoru relaxed a little- he obviously hadn’t taken it personally.
“He sounds like a loving parent indeed.”
“He was,” Kaoru agreed, feeling that familiar ache that came whenever she thought of her father, with a steadying breath, she forced herself to answer the unspoken question, “he died four seasons ago.”
Sympathy and knowledge of the grief a lost parent caused looked at her from across the den.
“And that was when you started taking in strays?”
A shake of a gray-furred head, “No, we were doing it long before that. There’s a human place less than a day’s run from here, so from time to time we get lost dogs wandering through the area.” She shrugged, a ripple of fur following the motion of her shoulders, “some of them I direct back to the town, some of them just pass through.”
“Some join Gohei?” the question was as quiet and calm as anything he’d said to her. Kaoru flattened dark gray ears against her skull, feeling a snarl trying to pull at her lips…
“Some do.” She gritted out, “But if I think that they’re going to join up with that slime I never bring them here.”
Surprise and no small amount of skepticism crossed the Rurouni’s face, “Does he not know where you den?”
“Oh, he knows,” Kamiya said, glaring at the entrance, “he’s just not fool enough to pester me here. At least,” she amended, remembering her earlier confrontation, “not yet. But there’s no need to bring someone I don’t trust into my home.” The Rurouni blinked as the female returned huffily to the scant remainder of her meal. What on earth would have elicited trust in him…?
“So,” Kaoru started, putting some interest in her voice, “are you wandering anywhere in particular?” the Rurouni shook his head, “Looking for someone?” Kaoru tried again. Another shake, at the tanuki’s annoyed glance, the red wolf elaborated,
“No, sessha left his pack long ago. This one does not think that they would be pleased to see him again.”
“So you’re…” the tanuki trailed off, ears leaning back; the red-furred wolf smiled again, this one just tinged with sadness, his voice a study of unshakable calm.
“A lone wolf, Miss Kaoru. One without pack, traveling without destination. A Rurouni.”
Kaoru fought back her instinctive flinch at the words and the feelings of desolation they evoked. It was something that she had never been comfortable with- she had no pack, but she stubbornly refused the claim of lone wolf- those cast out by their packs or those who hadn’t yet succeeded in starting one- that sadness wasn’t hers. Orphan she could, and did claim. But…
“I’m almost a lone wolf myself,” she admitted into the silence following the Rurouni’s statement, surprising herself, but answering his honesty with honesty. “I’m lucky though- I have a good friend and the occasional stray to look after. It’s not a pack but… it’s something.”
Something that feels more and more like nothing, she thought glumly to herself. Kaoru had never been in a pack in the truest sense of the word- the large family groups that lived and hunted together. For a long time the only one beside her had been her father. But she could feel that deep ache in her bones- an ache that for all Tae’s friendliness, the bobcat didn’t understand. Kaoru was supposed to live among others of her kind, and every day that she didn’t the ache of instinct unfulfilled shifted a little closer to painful grief. Maybe, she hoped, glancing at the wolf across the den, then back down to the earth between her forepaws, maybe someday one of the strays will stay. And I won’t be alone anymore.
A rustle from outside the den startled both of the wolves, Kaoru noting absently that the Rurouni was already on his feet as she rose, ears pricked toward the opening of the den. It sounded like…
“…completely uncivilized, can’t believe the nerve of those, those, puppies! One on one- ooohh I’d send those lap dogs back to their mothers before they’d ever heard me coming…”
The tanuki relaxed, shaking her
head with a smile at the uneasy red wolf. Glancing back at the entrance, she
raised her voice,
“We can hear you Tae!”
“Well that’s the point isn’t it?” the bobcat retorted archly, emerging from the short tunnel and immediately turning to clean the dirt from her fur. Kenshin stared at the spotted feline in open curiosity. Kaoru fought-and lost- a short battle with her amusement. It was amazing how wide purple eyes could go.
“Rurouni, this is my friend, Sekihara Tae. Tae, this is the Rurouni.”
The red furred wolf blinked. Tae left off cleaning to move into a liquid stretch, retractable claws digging into the floor. Turning, she regarded the other visitor,
“So you’re Kaoru’s latest stray. I’m her friend, Tae- and in case you’re thinking of trying anything, let me tell you that you do not want to fight a bobcat.”
Kaoru groaned as the other wolf blinked again, sitting down and observing the feline with a head tilted slightly to the side.
“One has no interest in fighting you Miss Sekihara, or Miss Kaoru. Sessha is merely passing through, that he is.”
Tae stared hard at the canine, expression unreadable, then rounded on Kaoru.
“You said he wouldn’t cause trouble,” she accused,” You didn’t say he looked like a lost puppy!”
Kaoru managed to look at the small, red furred wolf for a moment, took in the cocked head, the ruffled fur, the confused tilt to the ears and the large perplexed purple eyes- it was the eyes that sent her over the edge into laughter.
“So Kaoru, did you want to hear the latest?” Tae asked, whiskers twitching in anticipation. Kaoru shrugged, directing her gaze toward her other guest.
“Have you heard of the Battousai, Rurouni?” the red furred wolf blinked in surprise.
“I can tell the whole thing again,” Tae cut in, “I don’t mind.”
Kaoru shook her head, dark ears giving a small amused twitch, she addressed the Rurouni once more. “Battousai’s a wolf who’s a pretty famous fighter in some circles. Tae’s been listening for gossip about him for seasons and seasons.”
“You have too,” the cat scolded, eyes narrowed in annoyance, “heaven knows there’s nothing else to talk about with the pack ruining the territory the way they’ve been doing.”
“It’s something to do,” Kaoru agreed, nodding to her friend. “Go ahead, Tae.”
“Well,” the cat began, annoyance forgotten and whiskers a-twitch with excitement, “it begins in a far away place. To the north lies a land with long harsh winters, where wolves rule by the fang.
“In this land there was a pack besieged by other packs, blood flowed so often that the snow seemed permanently red. Numbers dwindled daily, as unworthy wolves fled their noble leaders. All seemed lost. It was then that a new wolf joined the battered pack- a wolf that seemed as though he had risen from the bloodstained ground. A male with no history or pack. He swept over the pack’s enemies like a divine wind- and the beleaguered pack began to not only hold its own, but expand and triumph. The wolf was called Battousai. It was a name whispered from creature to creature in awe and fear- until at last it came to the ears of the humans. A dark man heard of Battousai, and coveted.
“Through base trickery, he captured the wolf and gave him a new arena for his skills. He became a legend among even the men, for his ferocity, for never leaving an opponent alive. But Battousai was no pet, no toy, and he plotted and schemed- with the knowledge that he could- that he would- break free. And on a moonless night, with the wind shrieking warning, Battousai turned on his captors- and engaged in high crime- he killed men. His fury at being held was such that the none of those who had so much as seen him caged were left alive. Then, after the grisly work was done, he walked into the darkness and vanished without a trace.”
“That’s not how you told it before,” Kaoru pointed out with a roll of her eyes, “You just said he was angry at being kept.”
“And I’m sure he was! But it makes a much better story now that he’s escaped.”
The tanuki snorted good-humouredly, “And that’s not even taking into account his supposed appearance.” She pointed out, “It’d be pretty hard to miss a huge wolf with eyes like fire.”
Tae’s ears flattened a little, “You’re taking all the fun out of it!” the cat accused, “if you think about how rumors twist things then… the story is probably boring in real life…”
“Probably,” Kaoru agreed, glancing over at her guest. The Rurouni lay still, dusky eyes placid in a crimson face. Noticing Kaoru’s questioning glance, the Rurouni smiled a little.
“A curious story,” he allowed quietly, voice betraying neither interest nor boredom.
“Had you heard it before?”
The wolf shook his head, “Sessha does not believe so.”
“That’s strange,” Tae commented, “it’s a fairly popular rumor- I was still able to keep up with it here, and I first heard it at my old home.”
Red fur rippled in a shrug, the wolf’s expression faintly sheepish, but not offering a defense.
“It’s not so surprising,” Kaoru countered for her silent guest, “after all- I didn’t know about it until you told me.”
“That,” Tae informed archly, “is because you don’t know how to ask your strays the right questions.”
Kaoru rolled her eyes at the cat, fighting back a yawn. It was nice to have food in her belly again. The soporific sensation filling her veins was far from the compelling tide brought on by the few times that she and Tae had brought down a deer, but she still felt drowsy. Glancing over at her guest once more Kaoru twitched in sympathy. While the stranger had been attentive to their conversation, his head had now sunk to touch the ground and his shadowed eyes were half-lidded in exhaustion. Apparently the earlier nap hadn’t been enough.
Tae had noticed, shooting Kaoru a look, she inclined her head toward the exit. Taking the hint the Tanuki reluctantly stood and followed her friend outside, stepping quietly to avoid disturbing the Rurouni, who had apparently settled into a doze.
Outside the cat turned to face Kaoru, normally smiling face serious. “Is he sick?”
The tanuki hesitated, “He doesn’t smell like it,” she answered slowly, “but he might get that way if he keeps pushing himself as hard as he must have been. I think he just needs rest,” memory of protruding ribs mocked her, and Kaoru frowned, “And food. Lots of food.”
“Peace, quiet and a few good meals,” Tae agreed quietly, large eyes turning to survey the woods. “I’m not saying that I don’t think you want to but…” the cat shook her head, a pawful of claws appearing to clench in the dirt, “Kaoru, it’s not safe!”
“He won’t-” Kaoru began angrily, was cut off by an aggrieved yowl,
“I know he won’t Kaoru! What about Gohei? If he finds out there’s a rogue male in his territory being sheltered by the only female in the area, don’t you think he’ll try something?”
“I’m just worried! I know you want to help him- I do too, but drawing Gohei’s attention to him would be a death sentence- for him at least, maybe you too.”
Kaoru growled, her posture straightening and her head coming up to glare at her friend. “I will not allow fear of that addle-pated mutt to keep me from doing what’s right!” Glancing back at the den, she lowered her voice, which had risen more than she would have liked, “The Rurouni can stay as long as he wants to, I’m not going to drive him off the way he is now, if I did, I would be no better than Gohei.”
Tae sighed, ears flattening slightly, “I’m not your enemy, Kaoru.” It was a mild reproof and Kaoru felt a flash of guilt, Tae wouldn’t want to send the Rurouni off in his current state either.
“I know…” the tanuki sighed, feeling her ears incline back, “I know that you’re only worried… but…” she looked at the entrance again, “I have to help. It’s…”
“Your instinct,” Tae allowed, her face still in the aloof cast she wore when her feelings had been hurt. “You’ve never stopped looking for a pack.”
The gray-furred canine shrugged moodily, “Maybe,” she allowed, bringing her face forward to brush cheeks with her friend. Her spirits lifted a little when Tae brushed back, letting the wolf know that she was forgiven. “I’m going to get some sleep. You keep safe, all right?”
Tae shook her head, “You keep safe.”
Then the cat was gone, vanished into the trees, and Kaoru turned back to her own den with a sigh. The Rurouni lay where they’d left him, eyes closed and form relaxed in sleep. Shaking her head, the tanuki made her way to the opposite wall of the den and curled up, she thought for a moment, just as she was closing her eyes, that she’d seen a glint of violet from the eyes of her guest. But sleep was insistent, and claimed her quickly.
Gohei glared with narrowed eyes at his followers. Nishiwaki sensed his displeasure and his tail was jammed firmly between his legs, Nagasawa didn’t appear to notice and Watanabe just plain didn’t care, eyes closed as if he were sleeping again. Lazy wolf, the massive dog thought in disgust, eye roving among the other members of his pack, they’re all lazy. Proof of that fact glared up at him from the hazel-green eyes of the newest challenger.
The pit bull stood strong in the forest clearing where they’d found him on the edge of their territory. His muzzle was red from the lifeblood of one of Gohei’s malcontents, a mutt that lay prone at his conqueror’s feet. Short dark fur covered the fighter’s muscular frame, and clipped ears stood skinny and straight on his powerful skull.
I could take him, Gohei assured himself, dog’s probably used to humans pulling a fight apart before any real damage gets done.
That the dog had been owned by humans was without a doubt- a thick black collar encircled his neck and he was far too well-fed to be feral. Still, Gohei couldn’t ignore the slain dog at the intruder’s feet.
“What’s your name, stranger?” he growled, keeping his stare on the newcomer. The dog straightened, a white patch on his throat becoming visible as he lifted his head.
“Caesar.” Hazel eyes scanned the pack, “Who are you?” Growls echoed among the nine remaining canines at Caesar’s disrespectful tone. Gohei pushed himself to his feet, braced by the reaction of his followers.
“I am Gohei. I rule this land, this is my pack.” The black and tan dog paced forward, eyes fixed on the pit bull, “We will give you a choice, stranger.” Gohei could hear his pack, even the apathetic Watanabe move to encircle the dog. “I am impressed by your skill. You can join us if you want. We have good game and a large territory. If you just obey me, these things can be yours as well. If you will not…” Gohei bared powerful white fangs at the smaller dog, “you will die here.”
Caesar’s expression didn’t change, but Gohei could almost see him weighing his chances, himself against the nine of the pack and Gohei. For a tense moment, the mutt wondered if they would have to rush the former pet after all- then the head moved in an accepting nod and the tension seeped out of his shoulders.
“Agreed.” Tails among the pack began to cautiously wag and wet noses leaned forward for a closer sniff of the newcomer, who ignored them to maintain eye contact with Gohei.
“Where are you from, Caesar?” the pit bull glared back at a dog who had sniffed too close to his back leg- the mutt backed off.
“South.” Hazel eyes looked back the way he had come. “My person was a warrior who trained me well,” tactfully he did not mention or even look at the corpse at his feet. “We had gone to compete in a fight, I was to fight the Battousai.” Caesar lifted his head in fierce pride, “Among those of us with wit remaining, Battousai is a legend. To fight him- to kill him, would be the highest honor.” The fangs he bared in the macabre smile evoked by this thought made Gohei’s fur bristle along his spine.
“And who is Battousai?”
“A wolf, they say. I saw him that night, stained in the blood of the first dog to fight him, a wicked cross-shaped scar on his cheek and eyes like twin flame.” Caesar’s eyes were half shut, his gaze distant. “This was a week ago. The night that I was to face him he escaped, killing the human who had owned him and setting the ring ablaze. Some died in that fire. I was separated from my person.”
“Hmph,” Gohei snorted speculatively, “so there’s a wolf on the loose somewhere.”
“Somewhere nearby,” Caesar corrected, his face tense with anticipation, “I was trailing him. Seems that he crossed into your territory a day ago.”
“Did he now…” Gohei rumbled quietly, “I think its time we met this Battousai. Nishiwaki!” the foxhound stepped forward, “Get Caesar to show you the trail.”
The two dogs peeled off from the group, noses to the ground. There were a few tense moments of casting about, then Caesar found it, and Nishiwaki took it up.
Not long after the pack came to the river that had been the pack boundary in the days of Koshijiro Kamiya. Without preamble, the pitbull stepped into the current and battled his way across. Gohei felt a stab of annoyance as his followers milled about on the shore, reluctant to enter the water since there was a dry ford upstream which the pack always used when crossing.
Snapping at the reluctant Nishiwaki’s heels, the black and tan mongrel drove his follower into the river, barked a command at those still hanging back, and plunged into the cold wet.
The current wasn’t terribly strong here, a slow, insistent push that picked up downstream to a headlong race, dashing itself against the smooth heads of boulders. It was a matter of moments before his pack joined him on the other side, everyone shaking and spraying their comrades with water. The sun was beginning to set when the foxhound and Caesar led them to a patch of ferns, and stopped.
“Boss…” the hound began hesitantly as the pit bull snorted, raising his head.
Shouldering his way between his two subordinates, Gohei put his nose to the ground and inhaled. The growl built in seconds.
“Kamiya. It’s time we dealt with that little brat.” The big dog had started off again before he realized that he wasn’t being followed, his pack looking at one another nervously. “Cowards!” he barked, “There’s only one of her and eleven of us! She stands no chance!”
Faced with their boss’ ire, the group began to move forward again.
“No one wants to go,” Watanabe noted quietly to Nagasawa, pacing easily beside him at the back of the line.
“Well yeah,” the slightly darker wolf cocked an ear at his companion, “Before, maybe, any female’s a good one. But who knew she would fight that well?”
Watanabe shrugged, dull amber eyes unreflective.
“I knew she would.”
Snow fell on red, paused a moment, purity surrounded by savagery, and then was gone. The world skewed crazily, and white fell on black… stayed… stayed… more and more white, covering that infinite, oddly precious, oddly empty black. Snow fell on black- and purity vanished in a blaze of accusing crimson.
The Rurouni started, a violent twitch, silently rising half to his feet before his mind could catch up and remind him of where he was. With a deep breath, he stood all the way, scent of homey earth and his host- feet twitching in slumber, slowing his racing heart. No blood.
With a frown, the Rurouni surveyed Miss Kaoru. It had been foolhardy of him to accept her offer of sanctuary- especially when he knew her precarious position of being packless in claimed land. If discovered together, anyone he could think of in the days before the ring would have believed they were foolishly trying to establish their own pack in already-claimed land. But the degree of worry her friend Miss Tae had shown… there was something more going on here, some situation that his presence could only exacerbate. Well, he sighed, stepping noiselessly toward the entrance, it would be poor gratitude indeed to bring harm down on Miss Kaoru’s head.
Things would be better if they weren’t associated.
Paws met the ground in a curiously muffled sensation as the forest, a hazy green in the darkness, moved around her. Kaoru slowed her pace as she approached her den, unspeakably nervous. Two of Gohei’s minions had spotted her as she patrolled the edge of the territory she still thought of as her father’s. She didn’t dare stick around and wait for them to call the rest of the pack; flight had seemed the best option. Hazel branches swayed in the wind, rustling of home. She carried on toward the entrance, head low as her shame caught up to her. Shouldn’t she have been able to fight the invaders? Her father had raised no coward or weakling, and it hurt to think he might be disappointed in her. One wolf can’t hold this territory, she reminded herself, and no one would go up against the full weight of a pack alone.
“Slinking back home with your tail between your legs?”
A voice (how had she not noticed someone so close?) sniggered nearby. Kaoru whirled, panic raising the fur on her hackles. A dog about her height, with thick brown and white fur stood from his position lying among the ferns. Kihei Hirmua. The smile he graced her with was slimy as the trail of a slug. “Koshijiro would weep.”
Kaoru flinched back at the name of her father, at the voice of her private fear.
“Out alone again?” Kihei shook his head in mock concern, “Oh Kaoru, Kaoru, it must be so lonely to be without a pack.” Time jumped, the world shuddering under her gaze, and the unpleasant dog was right beside her, fur brushing against her side as he circled- and how had he gotten so close? “But you could join a pack, little Kaoru, we would welcome you. You wouldn’t be alone.”
The gray wolf sprang away from the dog, a bristling snarl rising from her throat.
“Leave me alone you pervert!”
Kihei bared a fang at her, “Females shouldn’t talk so loud!” Kaoru didn’t answer, except for the growl rumbling from her chest. Kihei snorted, and made as if to walk by her- feinting a bite at her shoulder as he did so.
Kaoru did not feint- low to the ground; she lunged and snapped, catching the dog’s front leg in a grip that could have crushed the bone, but instead only savaged flesh.
“Warn first,” her father’s voice echoed in memory, “sensible creatures will retreat rather than attack. Always give them the chance. Life is sacred.”
Kihei gave a screaming yelp, tearing his bloody paw from the tanuki’s teeth. Kaoru kept her mouth open after releasing the foot, not wanting to trap the taste of the dog’s blood on her tongue.
“Leave. Me. Alone.” She repeated, soundless snarl pulling at the flesh of her muzzle, ears pricked toward the danger before her. Kihei had murder in his eyes, with a vile curse he launched himself at the wolf.
The brown dog may have been short, but he was stocky, and his charge bowled Kaoru over in a frenzied tangle of legs and striped tail. The tanuki didn’t fight the motion, instead throwing herself into it, back rushing to meet the ground, hitting with bruising force, away from the bared teeth of her opponent, who had expected her to instinctively fight being forced into the vulnerable subordinate position.
Rather than trying to squirm to the side, the young female kicked out her legs, holding Kihei back from her soft belly and exposed throat. Her forelegs she held stiff, while the back legs kicked relentlessly at her opponent.
Kihei snarled, his own paws scrabbling at her face. Kaoru winced as blunt claws dragged down her cheek; her legs shook with the strain of holding back the muscled mass crushing downward. White paws reached to dig at her face again, and the tanuki snapped, biting down full force on her attacker’s foot, feeling slender bones give way with snap after satisfying snap. Kihei drew back with a sharp whimper, useless paw cradled close to his chest.
With the absence of his weight above her, Kaoru surged to her feet- barely having time to brace herself before heavy muscle slammed into her again. But not so forcefully as the first attack, Kihei being unable to get up any real momentum with his injury. Fangs closed on the loose skin of her scruff, a shallow bite that Kaoru realized with a chill, had been meant to snap her spine. She tore away from the hold, funneling the pain of tearing flesh and ripping fur into speed, turning she lunged low.
A flash of white fur with red splashes, then she was below the jaw and buried her teeth in her opponents neck.
“All life is sacred,” she remembered, “including your own. You have the right to defend your own existence. Sometimes we must kill to survive. It’s what we are.”
Kihei reared, both forepaws, even the ruined one, coming to push at the gray wolf crushing his windpipe. He angled his head, shorter muzzle snapping, trying to find purchase on the smooth skull of his opponent. Kaoru hung on grimly, ears pressed flat.
The struggles grew more frantic, and the tanuki-marked wolf tightened her hold- they had come back down to all fours now, the dying dog trying to push her away with one leg around her shoulders as his world grew dark at the edges. Darker… and darker…
Kaoru panted, shaking next to the small-seeming body of a brown and white dog, whose small brown eyes stared at nothing, a black spotted pink tongue lolling out of the slack mouth. The female’s legs trembled beneath her shuddering frame, her ringed tail clung to her back legs. Trying to fight back the fear that pressed down on her like a tangible thing, she looked around.
A pale gray wolf sat quietly in the shade of a nearby tree. Watching her.
Terror rose in a roaring bile as she recognized the silvery pelt- Watanabe. The apathetic wolf rose from his position quietly, and Kaoru crouched in a defensive snarl, every hair on her body standing on end.
“What a mess,” the wolf commented tonelessly, not moving any closer to Kaoru and the fallen Kihei, his expression mild as though he faced a mud puddle. Dull amber eyes caught wide blue. “What are you going to do now?”
With a jolt Kaoru awoke, panting against the remembered fear beating at her subconscious. Putting her head down she closed her eyes and forced her breath to even out, wondering wearily how long the nightmare was going to keep plaguing her. After a moment, she settled once more, her thoughts finally branching out from the ruthless cycle of what-could-have-been to wonder if her violent awakening had disturbed her guest. A thoughtful inhalation brought her the answer even before her head jerked up to look frantically where he had been lying.
The Rurouni was gone.
Kaoru surged to her feet, thoughts like startled mourning doves whirling with tempestuous wings. Where, when, why? Had he stepped out to hunt? Was he still hungry? Or had the Rurouni decided to leave? Without telling me?
Either way, she had to follow, if the pack caught him… He should have let me know! I could have guided him to the closest boundary!
Ears tilted back with worry, the tanuki scrambled out of her den in a frenzied rush, skidding to an abrupt halt in the open. Her nose and ears belatedly warned her of what her eyes had already discovered. The pack was here. All of them. The eleven dogs and wolves stood in a loose semicircle around the entrance to Kaoru’s den. Cornering her.
Panic bloomed in the small female’s chest and she froze, the knowledge of fight warring with the cry for flight. There would be a fight- she couldn’t break their circle, and even if she did, the she-wolf knew that while she might outpace the two wolves in Gohei’s employ, they could outdistance her. That left choosing the battleground. Either out here, in the open where she could dodge and use her nimble limbs to their full advantage- but also where the pack could easily surround her and attack from all sides. Or she could retreat to the hazel-shrouded entrance of her den, sacrificing her mobility, but protecting her flanks.
Decision made, Kaoru retreated a slow step, before whirling to dive for her den entrance, coming to a halt as she met the grinning face of one of Gohei’s mongrel followers, a shaggy-furred dog she’d never gotten the name of.
She’d taken too long to decide, and now the field was chosen. Kaoru turned again, looking into the haughty face of Gohei once more, hoping that none of his followers would attack without his order.
“Running away Kamiya? Anyone would think you didn’t want to see me.” Gohei chuckled mirthlessly as a pitbull Kaoru didn’t recognize shifted his weight restlessly beside the large dog.
“What do you want Gohei?” annoyance masked the apprehension in her voice as Kaoru settled into a defensive crouch. “I’ve said it before, I’m not joining your pack.”
“That’s right…” Gohei bared his teeth, “Trying to start one, aren’t you?”
“What?” the blue-eyed wolf asked with a panicked jolt. He knows about the Rurouni, I hope that idiot really did leave!
“Don’t play cute Kamiya, it doesn’t suit you.”
“Enough of this,” the pit bull growled, stepping forward menacingly.
“Caesar!” Gohei snapped, furious, there was a silent battle of wills between the two males. Kaoru felt sure that in a moment they would leap on each other in a fury, and she could slip away in the confusion. The tanuki was just tensing to run when a sharp pained yelp split the air. The would-be combatants jerked apart, swerving to look at the culprit. Kaoru sagged slightly, fighting back despair at her lost opportunity. Watanabe, the source of the loud cry, was busily pulling something from between his toes with his teeth. Getting out what appeared to be a stone, he let it drop, and looked up to meet the stares of those around him. Shrugging off their curiosity, the wolf sat down with a long, theatrical yawn.
Gohei scowled impressively at his subordinate, then shook his ruff bad-temperedly. “This is pointless. Where is the Battousai, Kamiya?”
“Battousai?” Kaoru didn’t have to feign her surprise, “You think I was sheltering the Battousai?” A laugh bubbled up, and the tanuki just managed to cut it off before it turned hysterical, “It wasn’t the Battousai, just a wanderer passing through.”
The dark pit bull snarled at her, “It was him! I know the scent of that wolf!”
The Rurouni? Battousai? He doesn’t look like he’s ever been in a fight… the memory of a stark cross-shaped scar marring the left side of a red-furred face blossomed in her memory, … in his life. It can’t be right… Kaoru shook herself, bristling,
“And I know that the wolf who stayed with me was a good one, not some legendary lover of slaughter.”
Gohei growled. “I’ve lost my patience, Kamiya.” His dark eyes locked on hers, “Kill her.”
The world dissolved into a vortex of heat and fur. Kaoru spun, ducking under the shaggy-furred dog that had lunged, trying to take her from behind. In a fluid movement she reached up to snag his hind leg as it passed overhead. A quick twist helped him on his way to the ground, then there was another dog charging her, low and swift. Steeling herself, Kaoru met the charge head on, both canines rising to their hind legs in a deadly parody of a human’s dance.
The dog’s sheer weight was forcing her back even as she tried to push away, should have dodged! Was her frenzied thought as the shaggy dog she had tripped seconds before took a lesson from her book and seized her hind leg in his teeth, yanking the crucial support out from under her.
The world tilted as she lost her balance, her fall feeling oddly slow, Kaoru could see the dog she had wrestled with following her motion, and turned her head to keep her neck out of reach of those jaws for a moment more. She could see Gohei, standing off to the side, waiting for his pack to bring her down before coming in to avenge his brother’s death. The other dogs were thick on either side- Kaoru hit the dirt, squirming to avoid the dog bearing down on her and kicking out with her free foot to try and dislodge the hound still holding her other leg captive. Another set of jaws clamped down on the struggling leg and panic rose in a steady crescendo. The dogs closed in around her- Kaoru couldn’t see the woods anymore, she could feel the heat from their breath, stifling her and her eyes closed in an involuntary wince.
“Release Miss Kaoru.”
It wasn’t a loud demand, but something in that calm, faintly angry tone hinted that ignoring the speaker would be a fatal mistake. Kaoru’s eyes shot open, face to face with a set of white fangs that had halted far too close to her neck for comfort. The dogs surrounding her were turning to look- and she couldn’t see through the press of bodies, but that had sounded like the Rurouni, and what was that idiot doing back here?
Annoyed at her poor visibility, Kaoru pushed herself up on her forepaws and turned to bare her fangs at the two dogs holding her back legs captive.
“Let go.” The two startled dogs looked at her, then at each other, before gingerly opening their jaws. Barely resisting the urge to kick the pair in the face, the tanuki scrambled to her feet.
The dogs who stood around her in a loose circle, six of the eleven were all looking to Gohei who stood a little way off, Caesar on his left side and Nishiwaki on his right. Nagasawa and Watanabe were still under their tree, Nagasawa slightly confused, while his lighter companion looked mildly interested. These five were all staring in the same direction. To the north, there was a natural rise to the land, and at the top of this rise stood a red wolf, looking taller than Kaoru had supposed, his merry violet eyes strangely grave. And like a damning brand, that cross-slash of white fur on the left side of his face.
“Rurouni…?” Kaoru was only aware that she had whispered it when those dark eyes turned to her, and his grave expression softened, just noticeably.
“Are you all right, Miss Kaoru?”
Not trusting her voice, the she-wolf nodded, trapped in the bizarre standoff.
“That’s the Battousai?” Gohei laughed, throwing back his head in his mirth, “It’s a shrimp!”
The pitbull on his left was inching slowly forward; head low to the ground, “Battousai…”
Kaoru searched her wanderer’s face for a refusal of the title, felt her gut clench when she saw none.
“You will leave Miss Kaoru alone, that you will,” the wolf instructed, “any quarrel over my presence here should be taken up with me.” Slow steps brought him down the gentle incline, the impression of height receding as he did so. Gohei gave a choked-off snarl,
“You think you can tell me how to run my territory?” Fury shook his voice, and Kaoru realized that he’d probably never faced a challenge like this to his authority before. “Kill him,” the order was a low rumble, “make him die slowly!”
Kaoru tensed as the dogs around her fanned out, attention riveted on the red-furred newcomer. The Rurouni’s face was impassive, the tip of his tail twitched before lying still.
“Those of you wishing to avoid injury should leave now.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Nishiwaki laughed, moving away from his master’s side to approach the motionless opponent, “You’re the one who’s going to end up in pieces!”
The hound lunged for his opponent, his pack-mates following in a concerted rush upon the wolf. The Rurouni, the Battousai… moved in a red blur, and Kaoru found herself standing stock-still, all thought of helping him with his foes banished from her mind. That speed was impossible, what if she got in the way of his strike and he couldn’t compensate? Yelps of pain and snarls of fury rose from the melee, and Kaoru only had glimpse of a few images at a time in the press of bodies- red fur whirling in a tight circle to face a threat on his rear, a swift lunge upward that displayed the white underbelly, but dragged a hapless dog along for the ride by the neck. The dog was tossed aside, landing with a skid outside of the vortex, and twitched, getting back to its feet shakily. As another dog in the mess dropped, the detached dog ran away, giving the plaintive whimpering call that puppies sounded when they’d been hurt. The next dog to be thrown aside was Nishiwaki, then another, and another… with shock Kaoru realized that the Rurouni didn’t need any help. He was going to win.
As Nishiwaki fled, Gohei snapped. With a howl of,
“You worthless bunch of weaklings!” the large dog threw himself into the fray. Nagasawa finally abandoned his post by Watanabe (who showed no intention of fighting,) and joined Hiruma. The other dogs had now abandoned the fight, scattering in every direction- one of them nearly colliding with Kaoru in his haste.
The Rurouni ignored the oncoming wolf, cool eyes following the thundering Gohei. The red wolf turned slightly, presenting his flank to the furious dog in what seemed to be an insulting taunt. What happened next took Kaoru a precious moment to work out.
The Rurouni had held his position to mere seconds from the punishing weight of Gohei slamming into him, then allowed one foreleg to bend to the ground and thrown himself sideways into Gohei’s lunge, causing the doge to stumble- the mutt then rolled across the incline created by the red wolf’s back to land in a confused tangle of his own limbs on the other side. All of this happened very quickly, and by the time that Kaoru had worked it out, the Rurouni was already turning to deal with Nagasawa, who was coming in low and fast. A clean jump carried the red wolf gracefully up and over his opponent, landing; he seized the gray wolf by the scruff as he passed, the movement seeming almost languid. Pivoting his entire body, he slung the gray wolf aside. Nagasawa snarled and made to get up, only to be blocked by Watanabe, who stood over his friend with a warning shake of his head.
Kaoru tore her gaze away from the disbelieving look of Nagasawa to turn back to the ongoing fight. Gohei had scrambled back to his feet, now moving in for a punishing bite. The Rurouni seemed to give a resigned sigh, and red blurred into motion again.
Gohei gave a howl of pain as blood splattered the ground. For a moment, Kaoru thought that the wolf had killed him as the dog succumbed to gravity’s insatiable pull. But it was simpler than that- a deep wound had appeared on his left foreleg, which was crumpled and limp beneath the dog’s heavy frame.
“Leave this territory,” the red wolf said quietly, looking down on the crippled Gohei, who was snarling and trying to regain his footing.
“I wouldn’t, Gohei,” Watanabe’s voice was calm and disdainful, “You’ve never understood wolves. One who acknowledges when he is beaten we will not kill, but those who attack in futility and pride will be cut down without mercy.”
“Watanabe,” Nagasawa started, his expression mulish, his friend cut him off with a hint of annoyance,
“I don’t like it here, I never have. This was not a pack. I don’t care if you aren’t done moping over Hatsumi, I want to go home.” The wolf stepped away from his friend, allowing him to rise. Nagasawa cocked his head at the lighter colored wolf as though he wanted to say something, then shook himself and began to slink away. Watanabe followed with a civil nod to the tanuki and red-furred wolf, his bearing erect and oddly focused. Both wolves ignored the cursing Gohei, who pushed himself to his feet, his slashed leg dangling uselessly as he began to hobble away.
“Finally,” with a shock, Kaoru realized that the pit bull, Caesar, hadn’t participated in any of the previous fighting. Now he stood in eagerness, cropped ears erect and quivering with anticipation. “The preliminaries are over, Battousai.”
“If you seek neither this territory, nor to bring harm to Miss Kaoru, we have no cause to fight.” The Rurouni said quietly, watching Caesar, his posture not relaxing.
Bared teeth were his answer, “I will not miss my chance to fight,” Caesar snarled, “I won’t let you run away again!”
The dog and wolf began to circle one another; both experienced enough to realize that a straightforward charge would be useless in this fight. Caesar feinted, Battousai didn’t react, didn’t instigate, simply kept up his easy trot around his opponent. Snarling, the pit bull darted close again, this time slamming his muscular frame up against the Rurouni, mouth open for a wounding bite. The Rurouni melted back from the pressure; his own long muzzle becoming decorated with spots of red as he scored a minor hit on the dog’s shoulder. Furious, Caesar turned again, moving in low to the ground, arcing up for a shot at the red wolf’s throat. Tempting white fur moved back as a matter of course, and powerful paws pushed against the ground to send the wolf into the air, landing lightly out of immediate reach.
“Coward! Come back and face me!”
“This one has no desire to kill you.” The Rurouni shook his head remorsefully. “Will you not turn back?”
“I’m no cur,” the pitbull spat, eyes narrowed with hate, “Once a fight begins, I don’t run away!”
“Then you leave me no choice…” the Rurouni whispered in true regret, eyes never leaving his opponent. It happened quickly, after that. Caesar dove in low once more, perhaps trying for the neck again, perhaps hoping to trap the wolf’s leg and reduce his mobility. The red wolf moved in a leap again, and the pit bull spun to find the place where the wolf would land. Powerful jaws from above closed with unerring accuracy upon his neck, snapping shut with full force. A loud pop sounded through the trees, then silence, as the dog collapsed. The Rurouni stepped to the side, purple eyes almost heartbroken as he bent his head to the body, nose almost touching the sluggishly bleeding shoulder.
“You deserved better than this life,” he paused, “sessha is sorry, for not learning your name.”
“Gohei called him Caesar.” Kaoru supplied quietly, moving with slow steps to stand beside her guest. Weak gratitude lit his eyes for a moment, then vanished into the crushing sorrow that met the tanuki every night. “So…” Kaoru ventured, trying awkwardly to break the silence.
“Sessha is sorry to have brought such trouble to your door, Miss Kaoru.”
The tanuki shrugged, “You didn’t. Gohei’s been looking for an excuse to come after me since his brother…” she trailed off, looking down at the corpse. “You know, it’s funny. I didn’t expect you to be the Battousai,” she slanted a gaze at him, watched as his ears flattened slightly in what seemed to be chagrin.
“It is not something sessha wishes to remember,” the Rurouni mumbled, “This one did not mean to hide the truth from you.”
Kaoru shook off the apology with a toss of her head, “Everyone has something that they don’t want to talk about. So,” she sat, ringed tail laying out beside her, “what are you going to do with your new territory?”
“Oh, come on, you just drove out the local pack all on your lonesome. The land is yours, you know that.”
“Sessha didn’t think of that,” the beleaguered wolf replied, eyes more than a bit confused, “the territory belongs to you Miss Kaoru.”
The tanuki snorted, “And we’ve seen how well that works out,” she pointed out acidly, ears tilting back in annoyance. “I can’t hold a space this big all on my own, I need help. Yours, maybe.” Brash confidence failed her, and she couldn’t meet his eyes as her ears pinned themselves to her skull in embarrassment, “if you wanted to stay, that is. I wouldn’t mind.”
Silence met her request, and after a moment, Kaoru stood and turned away. “Before you leave, could you at least tell me your name? It feels silly to keep calling you wanderer, and Battousai isn’t much of a name.”
Even though her ears hadn’t informed her of his departure, the tanuki had to restrain herself from turning back around to be sure that the red-furred wolf hadn’t simply slipped away like smoke through the trees when she’d turned her back.
“Kenshin Himura.” His voice was quiet, reflective and maybe a touch… glad? How long had it been, Kaoru wondered, since the wolf had gone by his name?
“Well, Kenshin. Thank you for saving me.”
There was a rustle of movement, and Kaoru let her head droop in defeat. He had to be gone.
“The day may come when sessha cannot but choose to wander again, Miss Kaoru,” came a voice from directly behind her, and the tanuki turned to see a sunny smile on the furry face of Kenshin, “but if you will allow him, sessha would stay here awhile.”
It wasn’t a promise to never leave, but at the moment, Kaoru didn’t care, relief washing over her body in a tangible wave- she wouldn’t be alone anymore.
“You are welcome here, Kenshin,” she assured the wolf with a smile, already planning on showing her guest the boundaries of the territory. Something occurred to her, even through her relief, and she turned to glare at the wolf.
“You better not think this is going to be a regular thing.”
“I mean it!” Kaoru snapped, “I’m not some pampered housepet who can’t defend herself, so don’t expect to come rescue me all the time!”