Chapter 20- To Be Not Alone
This is how it feels when you finally fight back
When life pushes me I push harder
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger
- Skillet, Not Gonna Die
Kaoru’s nose was her first warning, the keen sense housed there sending a cry of alarm, of remembered fear through her system. Her other senses took that fear and used it to sharpen themselves to hyper-awareness even as Kaoru struggled to place the memory tied to the feeling.
A rustle high in the trees above her was the second warning, and the tanuki brought herself to an abrupt halt as a powerful force landed squarely where she would have been. The sight of her attacker slotted the memory back into place easily. Tan fur, lean muscles, heavier on the front paws to hint at the powerful blows he was capable of, a long black-tipped tail that lashed the air and an alien face, features flat and distinctly not canine. A cougar.
Memory tugged frantically at her—an empty place where her mother once stood, the scent of blood in what should have been a safe place—with an effort the female put it aside. The past had done its job in warning her, but to pay it further attention would put her in danger. Well, in more danger anyway.
“Oh!” the big cat’s voice sounded cheerful in its surprise, the tone reminding her strongly of Tae. “You are a quick little thing aren’t you? I didn’t expect you to get away so fast.” Kaoru shifted uneasily, trying to prepare herself to dodge again. The cougar’s whiskers twitched in a smile. “No need to be so shy,” he purred, “I’m the last face you’ll ever see, so we might as well be friendly.”
The muscles in Kaoru’s jaw clenched in an involuntary response—she was not going to die here. Certainly not at the fang of the same species that had half-orphaned her as a pup. A cougar didn’t kill me then, and it won’t kill me now, as if the seasons spanning the two encounters were inconsequential, as if her death by mountain lion attack was an immutable fact.
“I am Kaoru Kamiya,” the strength of her own voice surprised her in the face of the feline’s smile. “And I will not die here.”
The whiskers twitched again. “Kamatari of the Juppongatana,” the cougar returned cordially, “and I say that you will.”
He charged, an oncoming nightmare of tawny fur and displaced snow. Kaoru snarled, anger rising to give her a surge of energy,
“So I’m supposed to give up just because you say so?!” She moved swiftly, paws drawing her away from the cougar’s attack. Kamatari was grinning as he turned to follow her movement.
“Of course not! That wouldn’t be any fun!”
Kaoru didn’t waste her breath on further dialogue as she was forced to leap backwards to avoid the heavy paw tipped with vicious claws arcing towards her face. The cougar immediately followed the stretching motion of his attack with a bite, the second attack flowing seamlessly in the wake of the first. Kaoru faltered—after the apex of the cougar’s swing had passed she had begun to lunge forward for an attack of her own—motion that now brought her directly into Kamatari’s line of attack. It was too late to pull back; instead the tanuki threw her weight forward, curving so her right shoulder would take the brunt of the blow, sacrificing it to shield her neck.
Thick fangs tore into flesh and muscle—black crept into the edges of Kaoru’s vision, shock and pain threatening her with an unconsciousness she could not afford. A sudden motion from Kamatari jarred her, bringing her back from the edge even as fresh agony throbbed up her shoulder. The big cat was shifting, raising a paw to rake at her captive form—and now Kaoru really remembered the danger of cats whether great or small—while a wolf might attack with its fangs alone, felines had another weapon on which to rely. She couldn’t let those claws get a grip on her; once they did Kamatari could reposition his fangs freely in a far more lethal place.
The paw came nearer between rapid pulses of pain. Ears flat to her skull in rigid preparation, for she couldn’t afford to clench her jaw against the coming pain, Kaoru turned to meet the blow as much as she was able. Kamatari’s grip was too strong and too deep to twist free of, but the female was able to get her head pointed in the direction of the attack without causing much more damage to her shoulder than had already been done. With savage desperation Kaoru ducked her head under the curving claws and then angled her muzzle up to bite down on the central pad of the cougar’s paw.
Claws raked her scalp as the paw half-closed in startled reflex, thin lines of pain that trickled crimson into her snowy world. Kamatari yowled, shaking his paw to try and dislodge Kaoru—and opening his mouth to give vent to his spleen. The she-wolf slipped away like snowmelt on a mountain stream, coming to a shaking stop a short distance away.
Kamatari’s muzzle was now tinged by her blood as well as his amused smile. “Well aren’t you the clever one,” he purred again. Words were locked away somewhere behind the frantic pulse of Kaoru’s heartbeat and the far more regular beat of pain throbbing through her shoulder and tingling along her scalp. The tanuki realized that she was holding her right forepaw off the snow in an attempt to avoid damaging herself further with her own slight weight. The fight had barely begun and already her speed had been severely hampered. And despite her desperate attack, Kamatari was largely uninjured.
She would never win this way.
The thought sluiced down her spine like ice, clearing her mind even as dread tried to take hold. She would never win this way. She couldn’t afford to take another hit or she might not be able to move. But there’s no rule against changing the rules, and I have every reason to survive. Kaoru needed a distraction, something to change the odds and give her a sorely needed edge.
Warily she began to circle the great cat; he turned lazily to follow her motion without much concern. The tanuki limped heavily, keeping weight off of her front right side as much as she could—perhaps if she played up the injury Kamatari would underestimate her capabilities. It couldn’t hurt to hold a little surprise in reserve… unfortunately it didn’t seem to be much of a stretch. Still, watching Kenshin time and again had proven that even the space of a whisker could be the distance between victory and defeat.
“I’m surprised,” the cougar was saying now, seeming to be in no great hurry to finish her off. “Most don’t last long enough to need a second blow. Especially not little females.” Reflexive anger stiffened Kaoru’s spine, bringing with it an accompanying protest from her injuries—and Kaoru almost stopped in surprise as an idea took hold.
It had served her once already by getting her free of Kamatari’s teeth, but perhaps it would help her again.
“I’m surprised too,” she forced the words from a throat that rather preferred to be closed just now, thanks. “I didn’t expect to see a mountain lion in a wolf pack.” A stray memory whispered a suggestion and Kaoru took it, hoping desperately that her mind wasn’t playing tricks and confusing cougars with bobcats under stress and blood loss. “Aren’t your kind solitary?”
A hint of a snarl banished the good humor from Kamatari’s face. “Lord Shishio isn’t as judgmental as the rest of your kind, little female.”
“In other words,” Kaoru’s voice was coming easier now despite the danger, “he sees a use for you and so he lets you stick around.”
The answering snarl was more than just hinted at—it was an angry noise accompanied by a sudden feint across their paced circle with outstretched claws. Kaoru dodged hastily back, forgetting to try and mask the severity of her injury as her body wailed in alarm at the approach of the thing that had hurt it. Her heart picked up its frantic pace—still; this was good, it was very lucky that she had happened on something that irritated the cat so quickly. I suppose I must thank Yahiko for all of that constant bickering. He seems to have sharpened my ability to annoy creatures. Though I’m not sure that’s such a good thing. A little smile at the thought teased Kaoru’s muzzle, the cougar saw it and seemed about as amused by her smile as she had been by his.
“Don’t talk about what you don’t understand!” Kamatari spat, his pale eyes flat and angry in his strange face.
“What’s to understand?” Kaoru countered, recovering her footing and picking up her pace. “As power-hungry as Shishio is, he has to have made the decision to keep you around based on how useful you would be to him.”
“And what if he did? So what if I’m useful? It’s not like little Yumi is much use to anyone. And why shouldn’t Lord Shishio value strength?”
Kamatari stopped circling as he spoke heatedly, long tail lashing the air at his sides in a wide arc. Kaoru darted in as the cat slowed to make his point. Distraction delayed his reaction; his brain noted the oncoming threat and tried to wrench itself away from the argument, but too slowly. The wolf bit down hard and fast on a heavy foreleg. The cougar shifted to counter attack as she leapt free, landing with a stumble and a scrabble for her bad side to reestablish a safe distance. The cougar lowered his center of gravity, readying himself to spring—
“There’s nothing wrong with strength,” Kaoru said hurriedly, “but that’s not all there is. Packs are about friendship, about family, and if that isn’t why Shishio let you in, you aren’t really in, are you?”
“What do you know about it? Nothing! They are my friends!”
“Are they?” Kaoru countered, still holding herself tense in case the cat chose to spring. “Even this Yumi you insult so casually?”
“I don’t need someone like her for a friend,” Kamatari glowered, almost seeming to sulk in spite of his rage.
“Don’t you? I wonder if she says the same about you.”
“You think I don’t see what you’re getting at? That I’m the odd one out, the cougar, that I don’t belong?”
Something in the cougar’s wail stopped Kaoru short—a flash of pity, of the remembered pain of loneliness and of her first awkward conversations with Tae. Destined to never truly know the company of her own kin, as bobcats were solitary, and stuck in an in-between state of being part of Kaoru’s pack and yet, not.
It struck Kaoru too that Tae was older than this mountain lion, more cheerful and better adjusted to her own warring nature by seasons spent carving out a place for herself that gave her both the solitude she craved and the companionship she so enjoyed. Kamatari was young still, awkwardly looking for that place and thinking he had found it among Shishio’s followers.
Well, he’s angry now. And for good reason, if his confidence in the place he’s found is so fragile. Kaoru winced slightly, but there wasn’t much point in it. Whatever she knew or guessed about Kamatari’s intentions, he still stood between her and a safe return home with her pack.
“I know what you have to say!” the giant cat snarled, his face contorted in fury and pain, “That different species can never be friends—you don’t understand!” None of which Kaoru had actually said, but then, the implications had been planted, and Kamatari’s personal fears and experiences had likely taken them to a conclusion the large cat was well-acquainted with.
“Back home I have a friend, Tae,” Kaoru interjected quietly into the brief silence following the snarl, holding herself in a deceptively relaxed stance. “She’s a bobcat. I think you should meet her—you two are a lot alike. I’m not fighting you because you’re a mountain lion. I’m not fighting you because you want to protect your friends. I’m fighting you because you are threatening my family.”
Kamatari didn’t answer her with words, instead launching himself forward in that same attack that had pinned her so effectively earlier. He said he hardly ever needs a second blow… maybe he hasn’t learned how to change his attacks effectively yet.
“You say I don’t understand, but I do,” Kaoru shouted, twisting to avoid the heavy paw that crashed toward her. “You feel alone, so terribly alone that every second of every day it gnaws away at your bones until you’re just a shadow. And when someone sees you, when someone stays with you, or takes you with them, it feels like they saved you from a fate worse than death. I know.”
Kamatari snarled at her, his alien face twisted in fury and fear. A twinge of sympathy made itself felt, Kaoru accepted the sensation, folding it firmly into her determination. “I know Shishio was that for you, so you’ll never stop fighting for him. But Kenshin was that for me. So I won’t lose. I’ll see him again.”
“You can see him when you’re both dead!” Kamatari reached out with his claws again, grasping for her face, her throat, any part of her he could catch to force her into silence. Kaoru summoned up the last vestiges of her speed to arc around those claws, past the raging fangs which safeguarded Kamatari’s throat and along his long body to the hindquarters. Her own attack landed on one of the cougar’s hind legs, she bit down hard and pulled—she would never be able to throw him off balance, the difference in their weight and her own handicapped leg would see to that—but the space of skin and muscle her teeth had separated from the greater bulk of the cougar parted with each other to give way before her tug.
Kamatari yowled at the attack, his heavy body turning towards her along its own length. Kaoru didn’t wait for him—she scrambled along the outside of his curve, away from where his teeth chased her, and back up along his undefended side. Of course the great cat realized his mistake, turning his head to fight the momentum his speed had pledged to his previous motion. Black was creeping back into Kaoru’s vision as the snow was splashed with drops of red underfoot, her injury strained by the motion she demanded of her body and exacting its own bitter price. But she was there, and bit down on the cougar’s neck with the last of her strength.
His head tossed and she let the motion carry her, dragging limp paws back and forth across the snow. One set of claws came around, scrabbling for a hold, raking down her side, but seemed unable to get a real grip on her to tear her away. She held on.
I am going to live. I am going home with Kenshin and the others, and I am going to pin down that red-furred Rurouni on exactly what he feels for me. The thoughts were stubborn and clear against the darkness threatening to overtake the world. Still, the snarls that battered against her ears seemed fainter; the questing claws less frequent, until they faded away.
This puzzled her, and it was some time later that Kaoru realized she was now lying on the snow with her jaw still locked into warm fur and Kamatari lying beside her. Careful, don’t want to kill him… Gingerly she released her hold, pushing herself shakily to her feet. …Did I kill him? She didn’t want to, she didn’t want to kill someone who reminded her so painfully of Tae… Hesitantly, she nosed his form, his head moved slackly on his injured neck, but slow shallow breaths from a pink nose sent tiny snowflakes scurrying away from his muzzle.
Only unconscious then. Good. Kaoru hadn’t been really sure that her attack would work, restricting the airflow in his windpipe without crushing it, but it had been all she could think of at the time. Likely it had only worked due to her own weakened state.
With an effort and a sigh the tanuki raised her head to look through the thin trees on the forest edge. As much as she hated to admit it, she wasn’t in much shape to encounter any more of Shishio’s goons, and more could easily be lurking in the deeper woods. She would have to work her way back towards the more open spaces. She had last seen Yahiko and Sanosuke back that way as well, and it seemed high time to give safety in numbers a try.
Her eyes rested on the fallen cougar for a moment before she turned away to limp back towards her friends.
“I’m not alone anymore. And as long as you’re alive, you can find someone to ease your loneliness as well, Kamatari.” The cougar didn’t answer, and she doubted he would have said anything worthwhile even if he had been awake to hear it. She shook her head, trying to clear out some of the dimness. Blood loss is not a pleasant thing…
From her place under the shadows of the snow-bound trees Yumi had had an excellent view of the ridge as the Battousai’s small group came pouring down it into the valley. Anxiety had racked her nerves, tensing her usually relaxed frame. A streak of red had been far in front of the oncoming rabble, like a dart of flame let loose from a careless spark and drawn inexorably toward the blaze of Lord Shishio.
Battousai… The husky had tried to reassure herself that there didn’t seem to be many of the attackers, and as the Juppongatana saw the attack and moved to meet it she was able to relax, if only a little. Lord Shishio now paced the edge of the trees as if they were iron bars holding him back from his prey. He had, at length, been persuaded by Hoji and Yumi to remain withdrawn from the battle until the Battousai’s companions were dealt with. For, however noble a duel between the two might seem in theory (as if an acknowledged murderer could hold to such a hazy concept as honor), Battousai’s companions included at least two wolves with known grudges against the Northern Alpha. Yumi would not put it past either the Oniwaban or the Shinsengumi survivors to attack by surprise while her mate was distracted by the fight with the Battousai.
Yumi herself sat a little farther back in the trees, out of Shishio’s way, but not so far that she could not see what was going on. Soujiro, the dear boy, had lingered by her side as a calming presence with his soothing smile and unshakable faith in Lord Shishio. But, as his master’s best lieutenant, he had eventually dashed off towards the intruders, his golden-tan pelt clashing with an oncoming crimson one. He was probably getting himself all mussed about, and would come trotting sheepishly back after all was done, good-naturedly disgraced in the face of Yumi’s future scolding.
Fights are such messy things… the husky thought quietly, eyes drawn to her mate. Messy indeed, and horribly bloody, but useful. Useful to Lord Shishio. “I am one of the Juppongatana, aren’t I?”
The question was soft in the snow-covered stillness, she didn’t want Lord Shishio to hear and be distracted from the oncoming battle. She could at least do that much…
“Certainly, Lady Yumi.” The answer was unexpected and the red husky jumped before turning with a frown to see Hoji’s patchwork coat materializing out of the forest’s gloom. She frowned, ears tilting back uncertainly.
Why isn’t Hoji fighting with the others? He’s capable isn’t he? She paused, frown deepening further. Is he? Or is he… like me? Only fit to serve Lord Shishio’s health or oversee his pack.
Hoji continued, ignoring her frown to sit by her side. “One might even say that you are the first among us, for it is you who lies closest to Lord Shishio’s heart.”
“For all the use that is,” Yumi’s words were bitter, echoes of a life lived pampered and preened and useless among the humans threading through them like a thorny vine. Had her life changed so little, for all it had changed so much?
Hoji’s dark gaze remained fixed on her, although his ears twitched and strained towards the sounds of battle. His attention, divided though it was, prompted the husky to continue. “We are before the greatest battle Lord Shishio will ever face, and I must sit in the shadows, useless.” She heaved a frustrated sigh. “If I knew how to fight—”
“But you don’t,” Hoji pointed out, cutting off her thought before she could fully verbalize it. “And it is an ugly, ugly thing when those who don’t or can’t fight interfere with them.” The words were, surprisingly, almost kind. Yumi had never had much to do with Hoji if she could help it, as she disliked his multi-layered schemes almost as much as Kamatari’s needy attention-seeking ways or Usui’s obvious bloodthirst.
“Still…” she faltered on, “I just wish I could be with him, could help him.”
Hoji seemed to hesitate, a gleam coming slowly into his gray eyes. “Yes,” he said, almost to himself, “yes, that is the way of things, isn’t it? Perhaps you should be there.” Those eyes, ringed by black fur, fixed on hers once more, “After all, you are the one closest to him.”
The red husky’s gaze was drawn back to the burned form of her lord Shishio. He had stopped now, staring down at the whirling fight between the Battousai and Soujiro with impatient anticipation. “At the very least I should be there,” she was unaware that the agreement slipped from her, for it was the heartbeat of her soul. “I swore never to be parted from him, to always be at his side. Now more than ever I should remain.”
“Truly, you are a faithful follower,” Hoji murmured, ducking his head slightly and drawing Yumi’s attention back to him, but his own seemed to have turned inward, likely diverted by one of his endlessly forming and unfolding plans. Slowly he rose, shaking himself briskly, his heavy coat swaying with the motion. “I must go,” he told her, ears still straining towards the distant fight. “I ought to spy out how our Juppongatana fare.”
Then he was gone, leaving only a patch of dirty snow where he had been sitting.
“More faithful than you, at any rate,” Yumi muttered, coming to her own dainty paws and closing the distance between herself and Lord Shishio. She was certainly no fighter, but that didn’t mean she could do nothing—even if it only amounted to witnessing the triumph of her mate. For Shishio never lost.