Chapter 21- Switchback
You gave us some place to go.
I never said thank you for that.
I thought I might get one more chance.
What would you think of me now,
So lucky, so strong, so proud?
I never said thank you for that,
- Jimmy Eat World, Hear You Me
I made a choice that I regret
Now what I see is what I get
It's too late to look back
I've got no way to switchback
It's too late to look back
Ain't okay, I've got no way to switchback
- Celldweller, Switchback
“It’s a monster, a monster!” The terrified wail rose above the infernal din of growls and snarls, desperate gasps and choked-off yelps.
Damn, it’s noisy. And crowded.
Hiko moved bad-temperedly through the horde of wolves and dogs that thronged him. The creatures that had yet to face him surged to get at the lone wolf from the mountain, while the wise and those who had already seen his fangs up close took flight as best they could in any direction they could, so long as it was away from the earth-toned wolf.
“‘Don’t worry, Master,’ he says,” Hiko grumbled, seizing a fleeing wolf by one hind leg and slinging him ingloriously into his snarling compatriots, eager to try their luck. “‘I’ll take care of Shishio,’ he says.” A well-placed bite to some sheepdog mutt cut short an attack angling for his throat. “Idiot.”
But really, that was nothing new—Kenshin had always been an idiot. An unlucky idiot. And if this was his student’s best hope of ridding the North of Shishio (of driving out some of the crowds that irked Hiko with their presence), then something was bound to go wrong. Potentially very wrong, if the North decided to notice the little blue-eyed female following Kenshin and decided to reenact history once more as a welcome-home present.
The least Hiko could do was to get rid of Shishio’s followers, to stop numbers from doing what even skill might not and slowing down his slow-witted apprentice. He was grown, of course, and his battles were his own, but no one would dare begrudge Hiko some much-needed spring cleaning.
Probably could have done this before, the earthy wolf acknowledged as he buried his teeth in the muscle of a snarling dog. But it hadn’t been on his mountain and he had no love for the packs that lived in the valley, as he referred to all of the lands at the base of his mountain, so it hadn’t been his problem. Heh, first time I’ve come down since…
Well, the last time had been the idiot’s fault too. Hiko could still remember it clearly, that winter day long seasons gone. Noisy seasons, loud with the company he hadn’t looked for—then quiet again, quieter than before, despite the war in the valley, when his solitude was returned to him.
That day had been a dark one, the wind half-howling like a spectral wolf pack of cold as it whipped fat snowflakes along, driving them across the mountain face as the heavy clouds overhead poured them forth. Hiko had thought that the howls were more of the wind, groping its way along the treetops—until the scent of blood came to him. The North had been treacherous even then, though the Isshin Shishi and the Bakufu packs had yet to fully form, and Hiko would have turned away from the smell and the noise had not a dark suspicion grown in his mind that whatever was happening was going to cross into his territory.
So he had moved down the slope of his mountain, chasing the voices in the wind and the blood in the air. It hadn’t been long before he realized that the fight wasn’t in his territory proper—really it was barely to the edge, but by then he had been curious. Curious, but morbidly so. What new violence were the valley wolves wreaking on each other now? The answer had been dismaying, but hardly new.
Across the invisible line of his territory had stood seven males, most of them scruffy and young. Destructive influences most likely, even in these dark times there were wolves darker still and unwelcome in family-packs. These had likely left the packs they were born in to form up a group of bachelors. In the blood stained snow at their feet were the torn forms of three small females. Strangers, even more than the valley wolves usually were to him. Hiko had surmised that the three females had been traveling and had run afoul of the bachelor-pack. The males would have wanted them to join—and must have grown violent when the females refused.
But it was good that he had come down—a rough pack like this might easily decide to try and steal his territory—as short and foolish a theft that would have been. As short and foolish their lives were. The rogues sealed their fate when the one who fancied himself an alpha had crossed the invisible boundary to attack Hiko. They had all fallen rather quickly after that. Still, he had paused in the gruesome place. It was a shame about the three little females, they looked young and terrified, even in death terrified, the usual peace that came at the end of a life curiously absent. But then, Hiko had supposed, scanning the remnants of the battleground, it was a very bloody death. The bitter tang of it clogged Hiko’s nose and painted whorls of red against the white snow.
Something small and crimson moved. Hiko had supposed it to be just one more bloodstained snowdrift, but the shape shivered and shifted. A young wolf pup sat up amidst the devastation, red as the blood spattered around him, shivering against the biting, howling wind.
“You’re an unlucky one.” Hiko had told the small pup, seeing little need to soften his words any more than he usually did. “I came too late to save your family, but I have avenged them for you.”
Violet eyes, serious and grieving had darted to look at his face before sliding back down to the still forms of the females. “They weren’t this one’s family.” The answering voice had been quiet, barely heard over the wind. “Miss Kasumi, Miss Akane and Miss Sakura found this one after this one’s parents died and took him away to live.”
And when this lot came along with their offers for the girls, they turned them down because they were already caring for a pup, thought Hiko. And bachelor packs have no use for pups that aren’t theirs. The puppy stood while saying the names, and staggered through the deepening snow to the nearest female, who looked as though her fur might have a copper tint to it under the stain of blood. “They wouldn’t let them kill this one, and they wouldn’t let this one fight. This one had wanted to protect them, at least.” A big goal for a little scrap of a wolf. But still…
“What’s your name?” The question echoed in Hiko’s memory. He had known even as he asked it that he was going to break his solitude for a scrawny, shivering little pile of fur with eyes that were too old for a pup.
Hiko snorted. “That’s a weak name. You’ll never survive your bad luck with a name that weak. From now on, you’re Kenshin. If you come with me now, I will be your master. I will teach you how to survive despite your ill-luck.” Kenshin had stared at him, but hadn’t argued.
He hadn’t argued much during those early seasons, only as he had gotten older, had gotten more foolish and listened more closely to the howls of the valley-wolves had that happened. Idiot.
Hiko shook off the memories along with a wolf trying to pierce his thick ruff. Kenshin wasn’t lucky, never really had been, just small and too stubborn to die. The North had robbed him of Kasumi, Akane and Sakura as he entered it, and that other wolf, the one Hiko had never met, as he left it.
Kenshin wasn’t lucky, and the North was cruel.
Hiko told himself that he wasn’t worried for the idiot, but his efforts against Shishio’s pack grew ever more furious.
It probably hadn’t been the best of ideas, taunting Saito just before battle. Kenshin could and did admit that freely. That didn’t mean the vicious curses fading away behind him didn’t put an extra spring into his stride. Starting a battle by annoying an old enemy seemed like a good beginning. That he had caught Saito off guard just made it all the sweeter.
The ground raced beneath his paws, the distance between himself and the shadowy edge of the wood falling away steadily. If he strained his ears behind him, Kenshin could hear the sounds of the others, sprinting through the snow, growling curses and panting in the chill air. But the majority of Kenshin’s focus lay to the front, where the enemy lurked.
Forms slipped out of the forest, moving to attack those following the crimson wolf. A streak of gold like a stray shaft of dawn sunlight came across the snow towards him. Fast. Very fast. The creature was near enough to distinguish features within seconds of seeing it. The approaching creature was slight of frame and small for a wolf, standing only as high as Kenshin himself. His fur was a pale tan that glinted gold where the sun struck it, a white underbelly and a half-collar of silvery gray fur on the back of his neck broke the blaze of gold. His eyes were startling slate blue in a smiling face.
He smiles. Misao’s voice chimed in his memory, Like, even more than you.
His slight build was another clue—if Kenshin remembered correctly then the smiling Juppongatana was half coyote and half wolf, a hybridization not generally looked on with favor in the North.
Shishio’s follower slowed to a trot, his smile as friendly and open as though Kenshin were some dear relative, long absent. It seemed to be the simplest thing in the world to carry on past the cheerful creature to the woods and Shishio, and yet… Kenshin slowed, then stopped, ears pricked toward the enemy and a frown creasing his brow. Where he should have been able to read intent there was… emptiness.
An uncomfortable prickle told him that the fur was rising on the back of his neck. He reminds this one of the pens, Kenshin realized, of the dogs that had been emptied of all but hate, who could only bare their fangs at the world. Only he seems to have lost all but… amusement. Where the angry dogs had been easy to predict, this hybrid was impossible to read.
“Hello,” the Juppongatana’s voice was as cheerful as his smile, and far too polite for a battlefield. “I assume that you are the Mister Himura Battousai who challenged Master Shishio.”
“And you are Soujiro of the Juppongatana.” Kenshin’s reply lacked any semblance of Rurouni-cheerfulness. “Shishio’s beta.”
Soujiro blinked as though surprised, but the emotion seemed stilted, feigned somehow, as if his face no longer remembered how to properly form other expressions. “How did you know?”
Kenshin inclined his head slightly to one side, the memory of Misao bringing just a touch of his own amusement. “The smile gave you away. One of this one’s friends described you.”
“Ah,” the smile took hold of the features once more, “That’s right, Hoji did say that the little Oniwaban coyote was working with you now. Well, I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter.” Silver fur rippled against gold as he shrugged, “Not when all of you are going to die here.”
This is perhaps the first time this one has been told he will die with a smile. Somehow the expression made the statement that much more unnerving. Still…
“This one’s quarrel is with Shishio, and would prefer not to fight you, Soujiro. Will you not stand down?”
“Ah, no, sorry.” The Juppongatana’s plumy tail waved gently through the air, “You see, Miss Yumi is quite worried about your fighting Mister Shishio, and she can get quite unpleasant when she’s fretting, even if there’s no real reason to worry.”
“You seem very sure that this one will lose.”
“Well of course.” Soujiro looked at him quizzically, uncertain of why he had to explain his reasoning. “Master Shishio is strong, those who stand with him are strong and his plans are filled with that strength. You stand on the side of the weak, Mister Himura.” Soujiro shook his head, smile serene once again. “Weakness cannot win against strength.”
“Some would argue that it is the purpose of the strong to defend the weak.”
Soujiro beamed at this reply, “That’s just silly, Mister Himura. The strong live and the weak die. That is the truth.” The last words were spoken with a strange cadence that lent them the weight of a chant.
Further conversation choked in Kenshin’s throat as the young beta moved, fast, very fast, and seeming faster still when no hint of his intentions leaked past his cheerful mask to telegraph his intentions in lean muscle and sinew. Kenshin pulled back from the lightning attack, pushing unsaid words to the back of his mind. Fighting the one Shishio had deemed strong enough to be his beta demanded the wolf’s full attention.
He withdrew a little further, watching for the moment when Soujiro would overreach himself, falter and change his stance and stride as his attack changed from a short-range charge to a longer chase. But if the moment came he missed it, hidden under the oncoming placid smile along with who-knew-what else.
Soujiro arced, a loping turn that obliged Kenshin to move in kind or run the risk of being caught on the flank. The red wolf pivoted to face the new direction, very aware that only his own small size granted him the maneuverability he needed to adjust his course at such speed. He moved for an attack of his own, rushing to meet Soujiro’s oncoming charge.
Kenshin meant to land a testing blow, to more accurately gauge Soujiro’s abilities while still affording himself opportunity to pull back if necessary. It was fortunate that he did not fully commit to the attack. Soujiro flowed bonelessly away from Kenshin’s questing fangs, avoiding injury by a scant but decisive fraction.
The Juppongatana turned, he must have, though his speed made it difficult to see the maneuver. Teeth sank into Kenshin’s flank, pulling at the healed scars of his fight with Saito, catching slightly on the thicker tissue. The beta’s attack faltered, as if surprised, and Kenshin twisted away, bleeding from a shallow bite, the line of fur that ran along his spine tingling with the knowledge that it could have been much worse.
Soujiro’s ears were angled in a show of solicitude that sorted oddly with the stinging bite. “My, but you are quick, Mister Himura. It seems I will have to try harder.”
Gold flashed across the snow towards Kenshin like a line of pale fire—at the last moment the crimson wolf leapt into the air, angling to land in the place where Soujiro’s attack would have connected. There was a frozen moment in the winter afternoon, the crescent shape of the red wolf looking down, the gold-white shape of Soujiro staring up, slate blue eyes locking with serious violet.
The moment fractured, gravity resumed. Kenshin arced down with all the extra force it could lend him—Soujiro blurred away, disappearing in a plume of snow raised by his passing and enhanced by Kenshin’s forceful landing.
This time the bite was so quick that the pain which should have accompanied it was absent for long moments, long enough for the smiling beta to withdraw once again. Only now he wasn’t smiling, a line of confusion written in the wrinkle of his brow and the set of his ears.
Blood dripped freely from Kenshin’s shoulder, the site of the new injury, the price of his missed attack. Still, it wasn’t what he had expected.
Ruthless, he seemed to recall Miss Misao saying of this hybrid, yet twice now Soujiro had stopped short of delivering a fatal injury. It might only be that pressing his attacks would have left him open to a dangerous counterattack, something Kenshin admitted he would use to great effect given the opportunity. Yet…
“I’m afraid I haven’t been taking you seriously enough even now, Mister Himura,” Soujiro apologized, breaking into the Rurouni’s thoughts. “Allow me to fix that. This time I’ll be serious.”
Mister Himura’s surprise was almost comical, understated though it was, as Soujiro moved easily into another attack, using the speed that was his hallmark. It must be quite disconcerting for the wolf, Soujiro supposed, to no longer be the fastest creature in the North. He really shouldn’t have come back; the Battousai’s time was over.
The coyote-wolf hybrid arced in on the left as Mister Himura’s head turned toward the right, tracking where Soujiro had been. Sharp fangs cut a line of crimson against scarlet fur, scoring the Battousai’s flank. It was bit unkind to whittle away at the legendary wolf like this—really Soujiro ought to move quickly and finish the fight…
Not yet. Something within him snarled, an alien, almost frantic sensation. He needs to see he was wrong. Soujiro’s smile faltered.
Mister Himura moved away from the origin of the injury with no more than a sharp intake of breath to give away the pain he was surely feeling. His ears twitched constantly, flicking this way and that seemingly at random. Soujiro angled for another pass—but Himura sidestepped at just the right moment, facing completely the wrong way to have seen the attack coming.
“Oh, I see, Mister Himura,” Soujiro called without slowing down, seeing how the ears followed him, “very clever, listening for me rather than looking.” And impressive, to fight using his ears as a primary source of information. Admirable even. Not something a weak creature would be capable of.
But Mister Himura used to be strong, before he gave it up to defend the weak. The growling of his mind returned, a little louder, and Soujiro winced. This needed to end.
“This one found as a hitokiri that your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them. The ears are harder to trick.”
“You were strong then, Mister Himura. You should have stayed that way.”
“This one has strength enough to do what is necessary.”
But not enough to react to my attack if I speed up. Even if you can hear it, you’ll never turn in time. Still the coyote shied away from going all-out. Not yet, not until he had no other choice. I need him to see he was wrong, I can’t end this too quickly or he’ll die without knowing anything.
Mister Himura cocked his head slightly, apparently the better to hear, and seemed to subconsciously curve his body to keep his injured flank away from further attack by putting it on the inside of his curl. But his other side was wide open.
“I don’t understand you, Mister Himura. If the strong are really meant to protect the weak, then back then someone should have…” The words slipped from Soujiro before he realized it and he shook his head sharply to drive them away. The angry voice in his head rising to a sharp cry.
This is what protecting the weak gets you!
The red wolf wheeled, a wave of motion, the reaching pull of a cyclone wind, fangs flashing where an unguarded flank had been mere seconds before. Strength, where Soujiro had seen only weakness.
It cut into him, but he was fast, fast like his mother had been and strong, stronger than the father he had survived. The unwitting memory cut into him deeper than Battousai’s fangs had, and Soujiro increased his speed to its utmost. He was nothing now, only burning lungs and straining legs, a glint of gold on the snow, there and gone like a half-glimpsed dream. But his mind was racing too, racing to keep pace as his composure slipped.
How dare he be so weak and so strong? It doesn’t make sense, he doesn’t make sense! The snarling voice in his mind broke through to the real world.
“You’re wrong!” Soujiro howled as he moved, weaving a dizzying dance around the red wolf. “If the strong protect the weak then where were you? Why didn’t you save me? No one saved me!” His eyes were stinging from the wind, it must be from the wind, he didn’t cry, if you cried they knew you were hurt—but his vision was clear enough to do what was necessary. Attack from the back and the left, there—where the jaw meets the neck and the flesh is soft, grip and tear and be done with it. Be done with him. The strong live and the weak die. I’m strong. I’m strong!
Soujiro curved in for the attack, the fastest he had moved yet, it would all be over soon. He could go back, back to Master Shishio, who understood the world so much better than he did, and back to Miss Yumi, who took care of him and who was… weak? The beta flinched at the thought, the twinge of uncertainty he had felt swept into the angry tide formed by fighting the red wolf.
The Battousai turned, impossibly, those searching violet eyes locked onto the Juppongatana, the target now out of reach. Soujiro balked, remembered pain stopping him some distance away from Himura, watching the other fighter warily. He shouldn’t have been able to predict Soujiro’s attack, not with the way the fight had been going until now. And this was… wrong. Mister Himura was just standing there, watching him, the red wolf not pressing the advantage at all.
“This one cannot remember the incident you’re referring to,” the Rurouni’s voice came, regretful.
That’s because you weren’t there! I needed someone and you weren’t there!
Soujiro laughed, half-startled at the manic sound of it. “Nothing unusual, not for my kind, not for here.” The dim ghosts of that night were clawing their way forward now, out of the darkness he had consigned their memories to. “Someone thought I was weak, but I wanted to live, so I became strong.” It had been his own father, large and gray, shaggy from the lean winter. He had incited the pack against his offspring, the half-blooded product of a dalliance with a coyote.
It had been dark that night and Soujiro had dropped his guard, thinking that the shadows would hide him as he returned from caring for the burned wolf that had wandered into the territory, half-dead, but lethal. It had been foolish to think he could keep Master Shishio a secret in the cramped territory, feeding him Soujiro’s own small portion of what the pack managed to hunt, which wasn’t much to begin with.
His father had cornered him in the den, furious and snarling while the rest of the pack watched with wicked gleams in their eyes and on their fangs. How dare Soujiro give their precious food to a stranger? The little upstart was no better than his coyote mother, no true wolf, no true member of the pack. They had needed little else to decide to kill him.
Soujiro didn’t think he had said any of this out loud, but Mister Himura grimaced, as if he could see the tangled web, the mess of Soujiro’s early life and the lightning-studded night he had severed his ties. It had never been easy in his father’s pack, he was the lowest of the low there, a convenient source of stress relief when there was no prey to be had and another inconvenient mouth to feed when there was. It was easier to simply grin and bear it back then, as snarls or yelps invariably dragged out the torture. The smile he had learned to put on back then had stayed with him ever since.
Except he wasn’t wearing it now. His features felt foreign, stretched and bunched in unfamiliar ways as if his face were no longer his own. Fighting Mister Himura was wrong, it was making him feel strange… almost desperate. Soujiro wanted to shut up the wolf, half-terrified of what he would say, while some other part pricked its ears in rapt attention, hanging on his every word.
“It occurs to this one that you have been made to defend yourself for a very long time, alone.” The red wolf took a step forward, “This one doesn’t know what events began this path for you Soujiro, but…
“…If you saw such a thing,” Himura’s voice slipped through the haze of memory. “If you saw what happened to you happening again—who would you want to be?”
Soujiro snarled reflexively, tossing his head in an effort to shake loose the memories the manslayer’s voice brought screaming out of the darkness back to life. If I saw—
A crowd of large, angry wolves taking up all of the space for the air he needed to breathe. The walls of the den tight and dark around him; he couldn’t get out, they were going to kill him…
Who would you want to be?
The world tilted, shaking him loose from the place of the terrified young half-breed, submissively pleading for his father to stop. Soujiro could see with a clarity had hadn’t known back then, the focus he had only learned through battles at Master Shishio’s side. The moment had frozen, a crystalized place in time while the red wolf’s question echoed in the stillness. Looking into the face of his father hurt, lines of twisted fury and blazing eyes, spurred on by scarcity of prey to turn a shame-filled dislike of his progeny to murderous intent. The rest of the pack were shadows of satisfaction that twisted in his stomach even now.
Who would you want to be?
What did it matter? It was over and he had survived.
The echoes of a different question started, a different voice.
Soujiro startled at the internal sound, twitching away from the wolves of his memory, his slate-blue eyes alert for threats. Lightning had frozen as it flashed outside the cave, an impossibility of motion in the frozen memory, white light forcing the scene into sharp contrast even as Soujiro’s gaze darted toward its source and the distant entrance. There was a figure there, silhouetted against the wind and rain, still as the wolves threatening a half-grown half-breed. Soujiro drifted towards it, hardly aware of what he was doing, stepping past the pack as though they didn’t exist even in memory.
The figure was tall to his eyes, but misshapen, his outline not smoothed by thick fur. His ears were ravaged stumps, barely distinguishable from his skull.
Why didn’t you—
Soujiro froze, trembling. Slowly he turned his head to look back the way he had come. A young hybrid cowered, blue eyes wide and terrified and pleading—Soujiro followed that gaze, his own gaze seasons gone, buried in the furthest recesses of memory, back to the cave entrance to red eyes that almost glowed in intensity, but not with sympathy or any promise of rescue.
WHY DIDN’T YOU SAVE ME?
The question he had snarled at Himura howled through the world of memory, splintering it with the lightning that crashed through the world outside.
Who would you want to be?
Memory fragmented, shifted, he could see Himura again, the red wolf staring at him in concern—but he seemed to be standing next to the memory of Master Shishio. The wolf who hadn’t saved him and the wolf who had never had the chance.
“I—” Soujiro gulped, eyes wild and throat dry. “I…” his head was pounding, trapped in the rhythm of terror and death all around him and he couldn’t get away.
The strong live and the weak die. Was that Shishio’s voice or his own? Be strong, kill him! Kill him and live! “I…” Soujiro retreated, shaking his head, trying to rid himself of the crowding images and voices crippling him.
If you saw such a thing, who would you want to be?
Who did he want to be? Not who it was logical to be, or who Master Shishio needed him to be—“I would want to save them.”
The world of memory shattered around him, blood and tears and a desperate smile, silently begging the world to get better, to believe that he wasn’t weak, wasn’t crying in the rain, because he wanted to live.
Himura was wide-eyed with sympathy, the memory of Master Shishio swept away as the present came flooding back in. Soujiro staggered, caught off balance in the sudden blaze of afternoon sun gilding snow frosted pines. The snarl on his face felt so alien, he was supposed to be smiling, wasn’t he? He had to be smiling or the world would think he was weak, and he wanted to live, and Shishio said only the strong lived.
The beta launched himself at a startled Himura—but I don’t want to kill anyone. Is being weak… is it really such a bad thing?
His legs folded limply, unable to summon their customary grace and speed. The snow was a shock of cold against his face as he collapsed, dropping to earth without landing another blow. “I don’t want to kill anyone.” It was a whisper against the cold flakes, a shame he hadn’t dared to voice in all his seasons at Master Shishio’s side.
“Then don’t.” Himura’s voice as gentle as he approached the fallen hybrid. “You are very strong, Soujiro. Strong enough, this one thinks, to find a way to live without killing.”
Strong enough… to be weak.
A paradox of thinking… but in a strange way that explained Himura. Strong enough that he could afford to be weak.
“You don’t make sense,” Soujiro felt a weak smile tug at his muzzle even as hot tears streamed down it from either side to drop into the snow.
Kenshin hesitated, his breath coming in pants of plumy white into the cold air. Soujiro remained where he had fallen, the once-smiling muzzle twisted by an old, old misery, tears carving a wet trail down the fine fur of his face. There would be no more fighting from the beta.
Not for Shishio. Not today.
Still the red wolf hesitated, it seemed wrong to simply leave the young hybrid in the snow, even with Shishio and the final battle so near…
“You are strong, Soujiro,” the words picked their way cautiously across the cold air to the Juppongatana. “Whatever else Shishio told you, that much is true. Strong enough, this one thinks, to have survived your unlucky past… and strong enough perhaps, to decide how you want to use that strength in the future.” The crimson wolf shook himself, feeling the lingering ache as the motion pulled at his injuries. This one has spent too much time with Master of late… “Whatever you choose, Soujiro, this one wishes you well.”
With nothing further to say Kenshin turned and headed for the fringe of trees, the faint scent of old smoke and blood.