Chapter 24- Finish
Underneath my nails
And the wind will rise up
To fill my sails
So you can doubt
And you can hate
But I know
No matter what it takes
I’m coming home
I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home
I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming…
-Coming Home Part 2, Skylar Grey
When, exactly, had her life gone so absolutely nuts? The reflexive answer was, of course, when she had met Kenshin—life before him seemed so distant and vague, a dull blur, but it didn’t feel quite true. She was the one who had tried to hold a territory by herself after the death of her father and the arrival of a new pack. She was the one so desperate for companionship that she had befriended a bobcat and cajoled and bullied a wanderer into the putting down roots. Was my life always so nuts, and I just never noticed? Still it had to be acknowledged that Kenshin’s crazy life experiences were on a whole new level.
Case in point, the psychotic white wolf talking about making Kenshin suffer. Kaoru lowered her head slightly, the fur along her back bristling uneasily. He can’t. Enishi doesn’t know how… broken Kenshin has been. Oh, but her heart did, with a pang it flung to the forefront of her memory all those stolen moments when the Rurouni façade had slipped and grieving pain had creased the red wolf’s features. And, last in that long line, the moment only last night when he had finally broken both his silence concerning Tomoe and his mask, no longer even trying to hide his guilt and lingering shame at the she-wolf’s death. Kenshin’s suffered enough; he doesn’t get to make him suffer more!
“Although I imagine that my introduction is still a bit lacking,” the white wolf’s voice interrupted her thoughts, his face the very picture of courtesy. “That blame you may also lay at the Battousai’s feet, for never telling you… You may also,” he cocked his head to one side, the black patches around his eyes stark against the white, giving his face almost the appearance of a skull, “blame him for getting close to you and putting you in danger.”
“I know who you are,” the words slipped out angrily—even though Kaoru was frantically running through her options and finding them pitifully few. “Kenshin told me about Tomoe.”
A spasm of emotion contorted Enishi’s face distorting the polite mask into a ghastly snarl of rage. “He dares to speak her name after what he—” The wolf cut himself off, swallowing back words like bile with an obvious effort. “So he told you of his crime, and you chose to stay with him anyway.” Kaoru half expected censure to accompany this statement, but the white wolf sighed as if resigned. “You are not the first to be ensnared by his façade.”
“You accuse Kenshin of hiding his face while you were walking around in disguise? Under an alias?” I’ve got to keep him talking as long as I can, distract him, buy time. The others didn’t hear me answer them so they’ll be worried.
Kenshin would be worried, and Enishi planned to make him suffer… Kaoru pushed the thought aside ruthlessly. She would not be used as part of a plant to hurt Kenshin. Not now, not ever.
“A necessary subterfuge, and one that served me well. Battousai has come prepared for war, not vengeance, a far more bitter blow… and that he never saw it coming will torment him all the more.”
Kaoru shook her head sharply in negation, regretting the motion as a wave of dizziness assailed her. But she couldn’t let the weakness show. “But you couldn’t have known that Kenshin would be involved when you joined Shishio as Hoji—that would have been before he even escaped from the pens!”
Enishi smiled slyly, an expression that seemed almost feline in its utter self-satisfaction. “You’re right, of course… when I joined Shishio there was little chance of getting to strike at the Battousai directly—but I could reach his territory, the land he had fought over, the place he slaughtered my sister and left her to bleed out on the snow. It might take seasons, but eventually word would come to the murderer that the thing he fought for was a corrupted wasteland, a place of blood and bones befitting a devil like Shishio. And he would find his way here, to see if even his legacy, his legend had been taken from him… and I would be waiting. I did not expect the murderer to come so soon.” The smile turned brittle and cold, warning of a malice that turned malevolent eyes toward her, “Or that he would bring along his replacement for my sister.”
“I’m not a replacement for anyone,” Kaoru insisted tightly, acutely feeling her peril. Stall, stall, stall! Every minute she could keep Enishi talking was another minute for help to find her.
Enishi shrugged, as if her opinion did not matter much either way, not when he was so convinced of his own words. “Either way, all I had to do was wait and let the Battousai exhaust himself.”
“You’re a scavenger!” Fury ripped the words from her throat. “You couldn’t face Kenshin on his own so you waited until after he had to fight Shishio!”
“Not a scavenger,” Enishi corrected coolly, “I’ve merely used my assets to their fullest. Revenge doesn’t need to be fair, it only needs to succeed.”
I have to signal the others, help them find me… but the minute she did that the game would be up and Enishi would attack in earnest. “You call Kenshin a murderer—how many have died while you helped Shishio take the North?”
“If you’re going to kill a demon, you had better be on good terms with the devil.” Enishi said softly, and then cocked his head to one side. “If Battousai hadn’t been so tied to this place, they might have been allowed to live. I know that you are stalling me,” he continued conversationally—blood like ice sluiced through Kaoru’s veins in dread. “It’s quite alright,” the white wolf reassured her, “the shorter the interval between your death and the Battousai’s arrival, the greater his pain. To have just missed saving you… there is no greater torment.”
She couldn’t help it, couldn’t stay, a roaring sound building in her ears, trying to drown out the frantic tempo of her only thought—Have to stay alive, stay alive, stay alive. I won’t hurt Kenshin, I won’t! Her speed was greatly hampered by her injuries, but the suddenness of her flight had gained some precious distance between herself and the white wolf. A cry bubbled from behind her teeth, half-howl, half words, Help! And she could only hope that someone heard.
An angry snarl from behind her told her that Enishi was not quite as ready to face Kenshin as he had said if he was threatened by her call, but the feeling of victory this thought evoked was short-lived. Teeth clamped down on her hind leg, arresting her limping sprint with a hideous jerk, her paws lost traction on the slick snow, forcing her body to follow a curving arc as Enishi yanked at her.
She scrabbled for balance against the pain, the numbness in her limbs, but her tired body was slow to respond. Enishi bit at her again, piercing the flank that had already been scored by Kamatari’s claws. With a wordless snarl Kaoru forced herself to turn, snapping at the white wolf—she missed his face, striking a glancing blow on the muscles protecting his throat.
Enishi released her anyway, though the motion was clearly not a reaction to her attack, rather it was to create space between them, allowing the wolf to slam into her again. The world grayed and her limbs gave up trying to hold her. No, dammit, no! She had promised Kenshin she would stay alive. She had promised! Enishi was standing over her now, head lowering with almost delicate precision.
“It’s not your fault,” his reassuring words were anything but, “you need not suffer long.”
Furious, Kaoru forced her body to react, muscles tensing in preparation—she would go for the throat again, would rip it out even as he sought hers—
“Kaoru!” an anguished howl, a voice that she could not ignore.
The pair that had been locked in combat only seconds before turned simultaneously to the source of the cry, drawn irresistibly by opposing emotions. Kenshin, he was there, sides heaving as a body that needed more than oxygen was pushed to do without even enough of that. Blood marred his already crimson form and there was a fine trembling in his limbs that matched the desperation in his eyes. He looked closer to death than Kaoru had ever seen him. A swooping sensation of dread took the bottom out of her relief. Kenshin…
Saito, Aoshi and Misao came behind him, the coyote cursing breathlessly—though whether it was for Kenshin charging about while injured or the sight that greeted them Kaoru couldn’t spare the attention to determine.
“Battousai,” Enishi’s greeting was half-breath… as if his subconscious knew that this was a dangerous, dangerous game he played, but his mind still thought itself in control. Recognition kindled in Kenshin’s gaze, bringing an added element of horror to his expression. “Welcome,” Enishi continued, a smile tightening the skin across his muzzle, and turning deliberately back towards Kaoru. “Although you are a little early, I’ll be with you in a moment—”
The sentence went unfinished—Kenshin slammed bodily into the white wolf, knocking him away from Kaoru in an unexpected and uncharacteristic attack, unconcerned with anything but getting the wolf away from Kaoru. Words didn’t matter. So focused was the red wolf on his goal that he neglected even to bite at his opponent.
Kaoru staggered to her feet, her limbs opting to function now that the immediate danger was past.
Her name, again, but Kenshin was the one in danger now—Sano, Yahiko and Megumi came up from the opposite direction, the young dog supported by the adults on either side in case he faltered. Yahiko’s hurt? But Kenshin was hurt too, hurt badly and Enishi was not—
The white wolf twisted, regaining his balance to slide away from the Rurouni’s charge. Kenshin stumbled at the sudden loss of resistance and Enishi bid down on the red wolf’s tattered scruff, slinging him back with a powerful twist of his head. Kaoru’s limbs still felt clumsy beneath her, but willing to move now with Kenshin so near. She scrambled forward, using her own body to intercept Kenshin’s arc, angling her shoulder to support him, keeping him on his feet. The eyes that met hers were wide and worried—and blazing amber.
“Kaoru?” Her name was a question, a breath, unheard by any but her. The eyes might be amber, but it was still Kenshin. The female summoned up a shaky smile even as her throat tried to close around her heart.
“I’m all right, Kenshin,” the reassurance was for her as much as for him. “I’m okay.” She could feel his shuddering exhale at her words, could see the panic in his eyes clear somewhat, allowing him to think again.
“Enishi…” he shook his head, seemingly the only way he could convince his eyes to leave Kaoru’s. The white wolf stood impassively, observing the ring of fighters that had formed around the three wolves with faint displeasure. His white pelt had gained a few reddish streaks—but it was Kenshin’s blood not his own. “What are you doing here?” the red wolf’s question was tired, emotions unreadable under a thick cloak of exhaustion.
“He was working with Shishio,” Kaoru supplied quickly, “as Hoji of the Juppongatana.”
“What am I doing here?” Enishi ignored Kaoru’s interjection, his good-humored politeness a thin veneer over vicious and unrelenting hatred. “From the day you killed my sister there has only been one purpose to my existence. I want you to suffer—there is nothing I would not do to achieve that. Shishio thought me his follower, when in truth he served my purposes.” Enishi’s lip curled, displaying white fangs against black gums, “This is about justice, Battousai—”
“You have got to be kidding me!” The words burst from a bristling Sano with the force of an oath. “You gave up any chance of a one-on-one when you went after the Missy!” A chorus of growls echoed the sentiment, but Enishi hardly twitched in acknowledgement.
“This is not what Tomoe would have wanted.” Kenshin didn’t acknowledge Sano’s words either as he straightened, taking responsibility for his own weight once more.
He’s going to fight by himself anyway, Kaoru realized, even with all of us here, even with everything that’s happened, he’s going to do it alone.
Because Kenshin always fought alone, from the first time she met him and realized that she couldn’t keep up and years before that, when the alpha of the Isshin Shishi had chosen to make use of the wolf’s deadly skills—without ever including him as part of the pack. Kenshin didn’t know how to fight alongside anyone else, and didn’t expect help.
“Don’t tell me what my sister would have wanted!” Enishi snarled, “If you dare say her name again I will soak this land in so much blood that nothing will grow here for a hundred years, before sending you to hell with the knowledge that it is all your fault.”
“This one says again that your sister would not have wanted this.”
Enishi’s lip curled in contempt. “And you knew her heart so well? You who didn’t even know that she was a Bakufu spy?” The white wolf shook his head, glaring darkly at the battered Rurouni. “No, Battousai. Blood calls for blood—and the best way to wound your heart is not through your chest.”
Sano shifted, clearly preparing to leave Megumi with the bulk of Yahiko’s weight to attack the vengeful wolf.
“Don’t, Sano.” Kenshin’s amber gaze had grown harder and harder as Enishi spoke, even if the body that had supported it was sorely wounded. “This is between us, please don’t interfere.”
Sanosuke didn’t bother to choke back his snarl of displeasure, “Dammit Kenshin! You’re two breaths from being flat on your back!”
“Please, Sir Ken,” Megumi added her own entreaty to Sano’s rougher one—but the red wolf only shook his head again.
“This reckoning has been put off for too long already.”
“You know he put you in this position on purpose, don’t you, Red?” Misao implored, bristling from her position beside Aoshi. “Bastard was just waiting until you were chewed up by Soujiro and Shishio and thought it was all over!” Aoshi himself did not venture comment. Does he agree with Kenshin? It was possible, the Okashira knew both the driving force of revenge and the responsibility a leader had to those who followed him. With the threats Enishi was making… if he wasn’t stopped here and now, many lives would be at risk. And Kenshin would never ask others to do something he wouldn’t do himself—especially something as personal as this.
“Justice deferred is justice denied,” Saito’s abrasive voice mused, and Kaoru started in surprise. Somehow she had not expected the Shinsengumi to still be here now that Shishio was gone. “Is that your thinking as well, Battousai?”
Kenshin’s head dipped fractionally to acknowledge the other wolf’s words, but his gaze was drawn like a lodestone to Enishi’s. “We will put an end to this, Enishi,” the red wolf said sternly, shifting from his position of loose readiness to a crouch of charged potential.
Enishi likewise shifted, “That is all I have wanted for years.”
A signal, something unseen but felt nevertheless and Enishi and Kenshin sprang towards each other, fangs bared in fast-realized promise. Enishi came in lower than Kaoru would have expected, crouching to keep his head below Kenshin’s. The red wolf had to be exhausted, but was drawing on some hitherto unknown reserve of strength to keep moving, though his customary speed was conspicuously absent.
The two collided, snapping and snarling before breaking away in hasty arcs, each wheeling for the opportunity to catch the other off guard. Kenshin broke to the left, putting the ghastly injury to his shoulder as far from Enishi as he could. It made sense, Kaoru had been expecting it, even Enishi had probably been expecting it. What he was not expecting was for Kaoru to silently and ferociously throw herself on the white wolf. This would be her only free shot, while Enishi was focused only on Kenshin—she had to make it count. Teeth closed down on Enishi’s hind leg—she felt him startle, instinctively trying to move away from the source of pain. Ligaments caught and tore, not all the way through, but enough—he wouldn’t be running circles around the red wolf now. As quickly as she could convince her own battered body to move, Kaoru disengaged and retreated.
“Kaoru!” the tanuki had never seen quite that expression on the Rurouni before—she couldn’t help but wonder if half of it was utter bewilderment. Her ears were pressed flat to her skull in instinctive protest as she answered,
“This involves me too—I’m the one he tried to kill Kenshin, don’t tell me I’m not involved!” Don’t tell me not to help you! Though this couldn’t have been her first choice of fights to finally stand by his side during. Not when Enishi had already come so close to his goal.
“But it’s too dangerous—” Kenshin began, cutting himself off with a snarl as Enishi took advantage of his apparent distraction and he had to dodge.
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.” Kaoru answered grimly. Enishi took the time Kenshin used to retreat to send a look of pure venom at Kaoru. She was getting in the way of his plans, still alive after he had decided she should die, and now drawing his focus away from Kenshin in the moment he had been imagining since he first came upon his sister’s body, abandoned on bloody snow.
The look only lasted a fraction of a second before returning to Kenshin, and Kaoru growled lightly, moving to join the fight. She would not be intimidated. Kenshin shifted, changing his motion abruptly from retreat to a leap that carried him over the white wolf to land without his customary grace on the other side, his foreleg unwilling to bear much of his weight for long.
Enishi wheeled, low and swift as a striking snake, catching the red wolf’s back leg as he recovered from his maneuver and moved to put some distance between them. The subsequent yank as Kenshin’s body tried to carry through with his earlier intention jerked Enishi forward a few inches on the snow, but the anchor of his weight allowed his bite to deal more damage. Kaoru fought against the urge to scramble forward without a plan, even if her instincts were screaming to force Enishi to let go of Kenshin right now.
Instead she came in an arc, looking for an angle that would offer her a good target without presenting one. Kenshin twisted as his attempted retreat failed, trying to turn along his own body to get a shot at Enishi, who was awkwardly positioned for any retaliatory bite. The white wolf shifted, keeping himself out of Kenshin’ range while the muscles tensed along his jaw.
The fear that he would break Kenshin’s leg, leaving the red wolf all but crippled for the duration of the fight lent speed to Kaoru’s own struggling body. She slammed into the white wolf with all of the force she could muster, multicolored stars exploding in her vision as her nerves screamed in a sensory overload of pain. Blindly she bit out at whatever she could reach while the world tilted, yawing threateningly on its axis.
Vision cleared reluctantly, Enishi had staggered, almost crashing to the ground with Kaoru in a tangle of limbs and fangs, but he recovered, his resistance lending stability to the tanuki while she found her own. She had bitten down on his shoulder, and now had a unique view as the white wolf released Kenshin’s leg, his black-ringed eye visible as he looked over his shoulder to the little female that had dared to interrupt him again.
Moving would be good. Moving with speed would be better, but her body’s steady groan as she released her enemy and tried to step back was her only answer on that front. Enishi was faster—he whirled and fangs came slicing down—Kaoru had a split second to instinctively duck her head against the attack, taking the blow on the back of her neck rather than across her face.
Pain, and the searing heat of her own blood exposed to the cold air bloomed across her neck. The white wolf bit down harder, grinding through muscle towards bone, shaking his head from side to side like a terrier with a rat. Kaoru scrabbled against the snow, trying to find purchase to get away—an angry yowl of pain brought relief from the crushing grip and Kaoru bolted, getting clear before turning to look.
Enishi’s left flank had been laid open in a bloody gash that might have even reached the bone. Kenshin moved to stand beside her, the blazing amber eyes that once made her almost sick with worry and dread now a relief.
“Are you all right?” he didn’t quite look at her as he asked this, catching her nod out of his peripheral vision as Enishi considered the pair for bare seconds, choosing his next target. “Please, be careful.” The words were half-reprimand, half-plea as the red wolf moved away again, hoping, Kaoru was sure, to draw Enishi’s next attack away from her.
But the white wolf hesitated, the more serious injury jarring him free of his almost-thoughtless quest for revenge. It was two on one, and whichever he attacked, the other would retaliate. The obvious goal would be to reduce the number of combatants, but Kaoru wasn’t sure how the revenge-crazed wolf meant to achieve that.
Kenshin had no desire to wait and let Enishi plan his next move. When the white wolf hesitated, the red one attacked. He came in at what was probably his top speed in his injured state, keeping low. Enishi snarled and jumped back a pace, curving in the air to avoid the Battousai’s bite. Kaoru rushed forward, arcing for Enishi’s other flank, forcing him to split his attention.
“Coward!” Enishi snapped, forced to a twisting retreat to avoid harrying bites from either side. “You’re afraid to face me without your precious pack!”
“Maybe we’re just using our assets to their fullest.” Kaoru threw Enishi’s words back in his face before Kenshin could respond. “I thought it was fine to use others to achieve your goals!”
Incensed, the white wolf used his latest twisting evasion to face Kaoru more fully, snapping at her in a rage. The tanuki faltered a step, pulling back instinctively as her injury throbbed a warning in anticipation of fresh pain. Enishi took full advantage of his momentary breathing room, a tight smile making it plain that he was still scheming, not merely reacting in rage. He twisted toward Kenshin, angling to meet the red wolf that had not faltered in his own attack. He had little time to correct, to find a vital target, but Kenshin was so injured at this point that it would almost be harder for Enishi to land his attack somewhere not torn and bleeding.
Kenshin bit down on his opponent’s shoulder, but Enishi bulled forward, insensible to the pain and his jaws closed on the side of Kenshin’s neck. There was a keening noise, harsh and distraught, that Kaoru didn’t—couldn’t realize was coming from her. Damaged skin tore further as she pushed herself, beyond caring about such petty things as pain.
The she-wolf dove in for Enishi’s face, going for his eyes in desperation. The white wolf flinched instinctively, trying to protect his vision, releasing Kenshin as he did so. The red wolf shook on his paws, amber eyes glazed with pain and exhaustion, his body pushed beyond all reasonable limits—but he blinked it away, shoving it back to where it could be dealt with later. If there was a later.
Kaoru continued to harry Enishi across the snow, driving him back, but it wouldn’t last long. As soon as she had seen Kenshin able to stay on his feet her mind had cleared, and soon Enishi would strike back against the little female trying to drive him away. She just wanted this to be over! Sure enough, the white wolf’s stance shifted and he dove forward, snapping, forcing Kaoru back. The tanuki stayed low, not trusting her body to make any leaps or twists on demand. Enishi stayed high—he actually stretched himself, as if aiming for the deep bloody bite on the back of her neck to finish the job.
Kaoru flattened herself until her belly almost brushed the snow, increasing the distance between herself and the oncoming attack—and Kenshin was there, as she had somehow expected him to be, sliding into the space she had left as the she wolf let herself drop completely and roll to one side to get clear.
He came in low, fast and focused—Enishi reared back a little in surprise at the crimson menace, a fatal mistake. Kenshin followed the motion, surging upwards and his jaws found the soft place under Enishi’s jaw where the throat began. Blood burst against white fur.
“No more.” Kenshin released his hold, standing firm as the white wolf teetered, his eyes wide with fear and fury, surrounded by their black rings. His mouth opened to curse Kenshin’s existence, but no words came out, only crimson bubbles, betraying him as his body took on the hue of his hated foe. He stepped backwards a pace, one, two, three, shaking his head, not seeming to notice how it moved erratically side to side, tilting and dipping as he lost motor control. White legs crumpled beneath him and he twitched before lying still, vacant eyes staring accusingly at the wolf who had spilled his sister’s blood on this land so long ago.
Enishi was gone.
Kaoru got back to her feet with an effort; she only had eyes for one red-furred Rurouni now. Kenshin wavered, almost like a mirage when approached, then folded onto the snow, his eyes sliding shut with eerie finality. Kenshin… the world seemed distant and dreamlike as Kaoru made her way over to the red wolf. Sensation was leeching away, the cold, the sounds of her friends breaking their circle, their worried voices a faint murmur. Kaoru was somewhat gratified that she was able to make it to Kenshin’s side before she too fell, resting her head on the back of his neck. Vision was blurring now, black creeping in at the edges in plain warning of her own coming unconsciousness.
There had been something she wanted to say, hadn’t there? Something important that hadn’t been said before.
Her voice was quiet… it was probably a good thing she was so close… “I love you, Kenshin.” Kaoru paused, half expecting a reply, but darkness swept over her before she could hear any answer.
Something was tickling her nose, something soft and fine and barely noticeable except it was the only sensation that was registering at the moment. Inhale, and tickle, exhale and gone, inhale, and there it was again.
Other sensation slowly built around this first one—her head was on something soft and warm, which tickled her when she breathed. The breaths brought scents… most of which could wait to be deciphered, but one which needed no thought to identify. Kenshin.
Why was she-? Oh, that’s right. She had followed him out onto the mountain and spent the night curled into his side. Except… that wasn’t right, was it? Kaoru thought that she remembered waking up, so how could she be waking up again? Her nose teased her, trying to offer the answers if only she would focus. Kenshin’s scent, yes, she knew that one, and… blood.
Her eyes tried to open instinctively in panic, but the blackness of unconsciousness was slow to recede. Shishio’s pack, a snarling mountain lion, blood. Enishi. Kenshin. Blood. A shiver ran down her frame, bringing feeling in its wake. She hurt, but it was dull now, her wounds willing to stop complaining as long as she stopped moving. Kenshin’s body was warm beneath her head, and as she held her breath in hope, his sides gently rose and fell in regular breaths. Alive. He was alive.
Another shiver and her eyes cracked open against the bright world. Was the sun still up? She could have sworn from her stiffness that she had been lying motionless for hours. With an effort, Kaoru shifted her head—one of Kenshin’s injuries fell into her line of sight and she blinked at it stupidly.
There was… stuff on it. Plant stuff. Oh, right. Megumi. Trust a catty healer-fox to find the tools of her trade even in winter. And now the green scent of the herbs was in her nose too, identified after the fact. Something entered her field of vision, and she focused on it, blinking again. Now she had no answers. A strange gray she-wolf observed her with gentle eyes the color of a fawn. A stranger? Or a hallucination? Which was more likely at this point?
“I think she’s awake.” Well, the hallucination was speaking to someone, and she didn’t think it was her. There was a mad scramble from somewhere out of sight and raised voices.
“Is she awake? Let me see!”
And overriding them all, the imperious voice of Megumi. “Stay back, all of you, and give me some room to work.” The healer herself followed this statement, stepping into view with an authoritative flick of her plush tail. It was nearly the only thing about her that still looked elegant, she seemed harried and ruffled, and her eyes were tired too.
Well what do you know… I finally get to see Megumi looking scruffy and I still look worse. Somehow it just didn’t seem fair.
“How are you feeling?” The tired eyes assessed her with determined practice, checking over her various injuries. Kaoru had to work the muscles in her throat for a minute to respond, and the voice she managed to coax out was faint and tired.
“I’m okay…” Megumi fixed her with a distinctly unimpressed look and Kaoru amended her statement. “Hurts a little.”
“Do any of the injuries feel warm, or hot? Do you remember receiving your injuries?” The fox launched a series of questions, Kaoru answering yes and no as Megumi prodded at some of her deeper wounds. “Do you—”
“How is Kenshin?” Kaoru interrupted unconsciously pressing her body closer to his. It felt strange to be asking about him when he was so close.
Megumi’s ears went back a little, apparently in annoyance at being interrupted, but her expression softened. “His injuries are much worse than yours, even before fighting Enishi. I honestly thought we were going to lose him—but he’s held on and his breathing is stable. The bleeding has stopped and as long as nothing else happens and he gets plenty of rest…” A tired smile finished out the sentence and Kaoru closed her eyes in relief. He would be okay, he had to be.
“Now,” Megumi cleared her throat and her expression with a cough, sliding back into tired professionalism, “do you feel up to eating something?”
Kaoru took stock of herself, wondering if it was possible to move. Yes, came the grudging consensus, swiftly followed by the addendum that such a thing was not desirable. “Do I have to move?” If her voice was a little stronger, it might have been a whine, fortunately not sounding quite like herself meant that the question was only tired and pitiable.
“If you can,” Megumi arched her brow as if she heard the whine anyway. “It’ll be easier to look after Sir Ken without you hovering over him.”
Ow. Well, okay, that was probably true. Still not what she wanted to hear, but true. With a grumble and slightly more effort than her body had led her to expect was needed Kaoru shifted, shakily transferring her weight to her paws and ordering it to stay there. Megumi stood close on her uninjured side, offering support to her patient as she hobbled a few token steps away from Kenshin.
The rest of the pack hovered in various uneasy positions around the clearing where the two wolves had fallen. Sano sat nearby, scanning the area with a scowl, apparently on guard against further attacks, but he smiled at her when she caught his eye. Misao nosed around a rabbit—apparently meant for Kaoru—in restless worry while Aoshi quietly conversed with Hiko and Saito (that bastard was still here?) some distance away. And Yahiko was… covered in puppies?
Kaoru blinked, wondering if she was hallucinating again but… okay, two puppies probably didn’t qualify as being covered. Though they were rather effectively keeping the young dog from moving. They were wolf puppies, but young ones, just barely growing out of fuzzy brown puppy-fur and currently sleeping—one sprawled bonelessly across Yahiko’s foreleg, the other plastered so close against his side that its head was practically underneath the dog. Yahiko himself was scowling as if he wanted to get up—but there was another dog, a German Shepherd about his age watching him with rapt attention lest he disturb the pups. Um. What happened while I was out?
Megumi must have noticed the fine tremble that went through Kaoru’s frame as she lost focus and decided they had gone far enough. Lying down was easier than getting up had been, though the black fox checked over Kaoru’s injuries once more to be sure none had reopened. With that done she scurried back over to Kenshin, ready to examine the wounds that had been blocked by Kaoru’s body.
Misao snatched up the rabbit she had been pushing and practically bounced forward, her eyes bright with worry as she almost dropped the meal on Kaoru’s head in her haste to speak.
“Kaoru! I’m so glad you’re awake!”
Kaoru wondered if it would be rude to forgo conversation in the interest of getting rid of the hollow feeling in her stomach—but the relief in the little Oniwaban’s voice was so sincere it didn’t feel fair to ignore it. “I’m glad too. How long was I out? What’s happened?”
Misao’s eyes were still worried. “Two days.”
That explained the ravening beast where her stomach had once been. Though worry bit down hard on her too—Kenshin had lost so much blood—he needed to eat to get back some of his strength, so he had to wake up.
“Oi, Misao,” Sano called, looking over to the two females, “the Missy still has to eat you know!” He sent a comfortable wink at Kaoru, his own version of relief no doubt. “She doesn’t know your appetite like we do, right kid?”
Yahiko snorted, then froze as the motion caused one of the pups to squirm. “At least we aren’t trying to feed you, famine face.” His red-brown eyes sought out hers almost anxiously. “I told them you’d probably rather have fish, but they wouldn’t let me go catch any.”
Kaoru couldn’t help but be touched. “Thank you Yahiko, this is fine, but,” she repeated, “what’s happened?”
Misao sat, “You eat, and I’ll talk.” This arrangement seemed perfectly acceptable to Kaoru so she didn’t waste any more time. “After you and Himura finished with that Enishi guy you both passed out and everybody freaked.” She paused, glancing around at the assembly and modified her statement, “Well, almost everybody freaked.” Well, yeah. Kaoru had a really hard time picturing Aoshi, Saito or Hiko “freaking.” Like, impossible even. “So,” Misao continued, “the Megumi-fox-lady—”
“Hey,” Sano corrected, “It’s Megumi, or fox-lady or vixen.”
Misao rolled her eyes, continuing, “Anyway she jumped on the pair of you, working to keep you both… alive, I guess. But it was tricky ’cause it’s winter and most of her supplies aren’t growing anymore.” The coyote darted a glance toward Aoshi and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “So Aoshi-sama asks Saito if he’s going to help his allies or not, and Saito says that Battousai’s not his ally, they just had the same enemy for a while. Then Hiko comes up and says if Saito’s going to use his apprentice to clear out the neighborhood he’d damn well better clean up after himself, and I thought everybody was going to get into a fight—but apparently Megumi heard some of it and latched on to the idea that Saito could help. She begged him to, even said that if Saito still regarded Himura as an enemy at least he could help you. And Aoshi said something about it not being honorable to ignore those who had helped you, and Saito left.” Misao drew in a breath before continuing her speedy recital.
“I thought he’d just left—got sick of everyone telling him what to do and left. But that night he came back with them,” she nodded toward the puppies and dog holding Yahiko captive and then back over towards Kenshin, where Megumi… and the apparently-not-a-hallucination wolf were working quietly. “That’s Tokio, his mate.” Misao’s ears quivered as if to say—are you still freaked out by this? Because I’m still really freaked out by this.
“Apparently she’s something of a healer too, and had a stockpile of stuff to use.”
“And… the puppies?” Kaoru managed to ask around a mouthful of rabbit she couldn’t really taste. Saito has offspring? And they aren’t demon’s spawn? Not to say that they couldn’t be demon-spawn, but right now, asleep, they just looked cute. Misao’s ears quivered more enthusiastically still.
“The Shepherd is Eiji, Himura and I met him on the way in. The little ones are Tsutomu and Tsuyoshi. When Tokio saw that Yahiko wouldn’t stay still long enough to heal, she told her kids that he really wanted to cuddle, and told Eiji to make sure he didn’t wake them up.”
“It’s been surprisingly effective,” Sano put in, tail beating the ground lazily. Yahiko scowled, but the effect was largely mitigated by one of the pups shifting and yawning hugely in his sleep. Kaoru managed to smile, but her gaze kept straying over to Kenshin, the red wolf seeming small and abandoned on the snow.
“He’ll be okay,” Yahiko interrupted her thoughts, speaking forcefully, as if by his words he could make it so.
“Megumi says it probably saved his life—you helping him against Enishi.” Misao’s voice went quieter still, and her own eyes flicked to Kenshin’s still form uneasily. Enishi, Kaoru shuddered, and surreptitiously looked around for the body.
It was gone.
A bubble of panic rose in her throat instinctively—no, he was dead, she knew he was dead—and she forced it down, staring at the spot where he had been until her eyes could make out the trail in the snow.
“Where is Enishi?”
“We dragged him off and buried him,” Sano answered, brow furrowed in targetless wrath. “Didn’t want to give him that much respect, but also didn’t want you and Kenshin to have to look at him.”
Kaoru let out the breath she had held and forced herself to relax, something her lingering exhaustion welcomed all too readily. Her eyes strayed back toward Kenshin, only to find Tokio was approaching.
“It’s good to meet you, Miss Kaoru,” the wolf’s voice was soft and pleasant with a sweet smile. “Hajime says that you’re brave.”
Kaoru was smiling her way through her own polite hello when her brain caught up. Hajime. Hajime Saito. Saito. Erk. I’ve died. I’ve died or I’m still asleep and having some sort of psychotic dream. Tokio laughed at Kaoru’s expression, taking a modicum of pity on the flabbergasted tanuki.
“He does say nice things occasionally; you just have to listen around the growling.”
“I, um, I’ll take your word for it?” Kaoru responded weakly, not sure she wanted any further information. “How’s Kenshin?” Okay, it had only been a few minutes since she last asked, but she was willing to bet that everyone wanted to know.
Tokio shrugged gently. “He’s still sleeping, we’ve treated the injuries we couldn’t get to before, but other than that not much has changed. He might wake later today or tomorrow.”
Kaoru wondered ruefully if she started belly-crawling back to Kenshin’s side if anyone would notice. Her stomach was full, and she was already tired again. If she had to go to sleep, she would prefer to do it where she could feel Kenshin’s breathing and know he was still alive. It was, perhaps, a bit much to expect though.
“Will you let me know when he wakes up?” She might need to sleep again, but the sooner she saw Kenshin with his eyes open the sooner that sleep would actually become restful.
“Of course we will!” Misao’s answer was emphatic enough to disturb the three wolves still in conference.
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Hiko’s answering grumble made the female jump in surprise, the thick-coated wolf had turned his head away from the Shinsengumi and the Okashira to look over toward the others. “Just put her back where she was. She’s the first thing that idiot’s going to look for anyway, and if you don’t want him undoing all that herb craft you’ve done on him, she’d better be nearby.”
Kaoru blinked in surprise—not so much at what had been said as who had said it, and looked toward Megumi, instinctively feeling that objections would come from there. Megumi, however, had finished examining Kenshin and was apparently doing a run-through of the other injuries in the impromptu camp.
To one side of the others Sano grumbled at Megumi as she circled him critically, cataloguing his injuries with a tone of scolding that was audible, even if her words weren’t. A particularly loud exclamation from Sano was cut off abruptly as the fox began to lick the top of his head where he had been bleeding, his ears going flat.
“Come on,” Tokio said gently, nodding for Misao to get up as well. “We’ll help you over.”
The trip back to Kenshin seemed much shorter than the trip away had been. It must be because I got to eat something, a wry smile tugged at Kaoru’s muzzle. Yeah that must be it. Not the fact that she was back at Kenshin’s side. The tanuki curled up against the Rurouni’s side, trying to avoid blocking access to his injuries while still maintaining close contact. He was warm, and real, and this time losing consciousness seemed much gentler.
There were words, important words, but they hovered just out of reach, mocking senses that had long been attuned to even the quietest of whispers. But perhaps it was only to be expected. Kenshin had pushed his body so far, demanded so much that it was no surprise that it had given up the moment he relaxed.
The words echoed through his subconscious, teasing him by remaining nebulous. Wake up, they seemed to taunt, wake up, and maybe you’ll remember us. But Kenshin wasn’t sure he really wanted to wake up. He was tired, and he was quite sure that pain, along with memory, waited on the other side of consciousness. Surely the world could get by without him for a little longer… and there was an odd, bone-deep certainty that the words would be waiting for him no matter when he woke.
Kenshin drifted, not dreaming or thinking or remembering, and it was surprisingly peaceful. Perhaps even… too peaceful? The words taunted him again, and he felt quite sure that their origin was not a peaceful one... but that somehow that was the way he liked it. Because if the origin of the words went silent, he would never know peace again.
Perhaps it was time to rejoin the world after all. It took time, his resolution having little immediate effect on the blackness around him, but with the decision to try little things came trickling back. Memory and pain returned one after the other… the sensation allowing him to register physical discomfort unfortunately not giving him control over the body it pertained to as of yet. Still, the pain wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as fortunately consciousness was not a requirement for a body to begin putting itself back together. Even if there was a lot to put back together again.
Soujiro, Shishio and Enishi, one after the other after the other… he was lucky to still be breathing, so he really couldn’t complain about a little pain. More sensation filtered through, surprising in its messages. He knew both from memory and sensation that he was out in the open, exposed to both the elements and whoever of Shishio’s followers might still be around. What was surprising was that he didn’t feel at all concerned about it, long years of survival instincts not even twitching at his vulnerable state. He was safe, and somehow, everything was okay.
Waking up came slowly and even when Kenshin opened his eyes he couldn’t help but wonder if he was dreaming. His friends crowded around him as his eyes opened, relieved and happy. Yahiko and Misao trying to talk at the same time while Megumi scolded and Sano complained about having been left out of the “real” fighting. His answering smile was tired, but genuine, letting the voices wash over him.
“Kenshin,” her voice broke through the gentle haze enfolding him. Kenshin turned his head, following the sound to find Kaoru curled up against him with a smile of her own.
“Hi,” it wasn’t at all what he wanted to say, but that didn’t seem to matter much. The red wolf rested his head on Kaoru’s back and closed his eyes again, content. She was here, everyone was here and safe and it was over. The words were here, but their meaning was what mattered most, and all was finally well.
Kenshin slept a long time, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness where a concerned Megumi made him eat something and, as he improved, move around some. Kaoru stayed close to his side throughout the process, healing from her own injuries. But as time passed the periods of wakefulness grew longer and conversations progressed from, “How are you feeling,” and “what’s been going on,” to “what happens now?”
For some, the answer was obvious.
As Kenshin grew stronger and stronger, Saito displayed an growing irritability, along with an as-yet unspoken desire to move his clan back to their secret den. Kaoru thought privately that one reason for this might be that Saito’s sons, Tsutomu, Tsuyoshi and Eiji (who, as it turned out, was an official adoptee of the wolf family) had all grown rather attached to Yahiko. Though the affection showed itself in different ways—Tsutomu and Tsuyoshi wanted to play and bother their often-grumpy babysitter, while Eiji and Yahiko bickered as much if not more so than he and Sano had ever done, and the akita-mix’s injuries healed the arguments frequently evolved into spirited fights.
Of course, Saito could also be grumpy because Tsutomu and Tsuyoshi seemed just as attached to Kenshin as they were to Yahiko. The red wolf tactfully did not go out of his way to rub in Saito’s face that his sons were coming to view the Shinsengumi’s longtime rival as a surrogate uncle, but it was still painfully obvious that Saito was ready for life to go back to normal in the North.
Hiko also loudly complained of being “crowded” but noticeably had not returned to his mountain territory as of yet. And that was two of the Northern alphas accounted for. Aoshi and Misao were rather more obvious in their attachment to Kenshin’s small pack—or rather; Misao was obviously attached for the both of them. It was nice, really, really nice to interact with a young female who had no designs on Kenshin and showed a similar outlook to Kaoru herself.
“I’m going to really miss you,” the tanuki told the little kunoichi one day late in the convalescence, after the joined packs had finished eating.
Misao’s ears drooped pitifully low, her eyes large and sad as she all but wailed, “You’re leaving? Why? The North is plenty big; you guys could stay up here!”
It was nothing Kaoru hadn’t thought of herself off and on, usually when her aching body reminded her just how long of a walk it was back to the den hidden by the hazel tree. But the North wasn’t home… and she worried about Kenshin living in a place that not only held so many ghosts for him, but also had Saito as a close neighbor.
“We can’t stay up here,” Yahiko broke in, looking alarmed and leaving off surreptitiously sneaking Eiji’s bone away from him. “What about Tsubame?” Sano snorted in amusement and the dog rushed to continue, “And Tae? They’re waiting for us to come back.”
“But I’ll miss you guys,” Misao blinked hard, trying to dispel the moisture that seemed set on accumulating in her cool green eyes. “Even that idiot.” She jerked her head toward Sano, who bristled indignantly at the insult.
“We’ll come back and visit,” this promise came from Kenshin, smoothing over the potential argument before it could really begin. “This one will be looking forward to seeing how the North will change under its new leadership.”
Well, cooperative leadership, anyway, Kaoru supposed was a little closer to the truth. Aoshi, Saito and Hiko had conferred together repeatedly trying to work out the future of the snowy land. Hiko, by definition, had no interest in either joining a pack or starting one and refused to cede his mountain to anyone. Similarly Aoshi and Saito refused to join the other’s pack, and likely would not have wanted the other in their pack despite being on fairly cordial terms. The three had, with Hiko acting as an impartial if acerbic party, worked out territories for the Oniwaban and Shinsengumi that would allow both good access to natural resources and game. The three had further recognized a need for closer cooperation to avoid a mess like Shishio cropping up again and pledged to learn from their predecessors mistakes by regularly sharing intelligence.
Still… “We might be back sooner than you think,” Kaoru shared her private worry with rueful cheerfulness. “I left Sano and Megumi to watch the territory, and they followed us up here.”
Sano paused mid-scratch to look over at the little female. “Hey,” he objected for the second time in as many minutes, “give me some credit! I left instructions for the territory to be watched.”
“By who? Tae and Tsubame?” Kaoru just shook her head. Tsubame was probably the least confrontational creature she had ever met, and while Tae could typically defend herself it was not in her nature to defend a territory against anything but her own kind.
“No, I called Katsu,” Sano corrected, scratching his ear in earnest once more.
“You left Katsu with the territory?” Kaoru tried to quash the dismay in her voice, but there was a lot of it. One dog to guard the borders, and a town dog at that? She knew how hard it was to hold a territory on her own and, well, she had never seen Sano’s old friend fight before. And she was trying not to be petty, because a territory didn’t matter as much as the beings living in it, and most of her family was here now, but still…
The hybrid answered her with a lazy grin. “I’m guessing you don’t realize just how popular you are in town, Missy. Soon as I asked him Katsu called up some of his buddies and had them spread the word. Apparently there are a lot of folks you led back to town or helped on their way when they were passing through. Not to mention that we’ve pretty well cleared out trouble-makers from the area and the folks left behind are pretty grateful. Trust me, he has plenty of help.” He grinned, “The territory will be waiting for you when we get back.”
“When are we going back?” Yahiko wondered aloud. Assessing gazes turned toward Kenshin and Kaoru as the two had been the most injured of the group it would be their recovery that dictated a departure time.
“This one believes,” Kenshin began, only to be cut off by a bristling Megumi—
“That you will take it easy for another week before you even think of gallivanting off on a rigorous cross-country trek!”
“It wasn’t that rigorous,” Kaoru protested half-heartedly, she wanted to go home, to fulfill the promise made with Kenshin, never far from her thoughts, but she didn’t want to rush the red wolf’s recovery.
“No.” Megumi’s response was flat as her ears, unamused and daring anyone else to gainsay her expertise. The most anyone ventured was an aggrieved sigh, and that came from Saito.
Still Megumi’s prescribed week passed, and at its conclusion the doctor had to admit that Kaoru and Kenshin—specifically Kenshin, was no worse off than Sano had been when he cajoled her into making the trek. Though she was quick to point out that there was no need to rush themselves on the journey as “that hard-headed spiky-furred idiot” had done. Regardless, it was definitely time for goodbyes.
The Saito clan pre-empted this process by leaving early in the day for their own den, the adult wolves and juvenile dog shepherding the two wolf pups along. Tokio had told Megumi about a few hidden places in the land where healing herbs could be found sometimes in winter as a parting gift, and Yahiko had extracted the promise of a proper fight from Eiji when next the two dogs met.
Saito ignored Sano when the former fighter-for-hire made similar noises about a rematch, but he and Kenshin did exchange civil nods before the gray wolf led his family out of sight in the wintry North. Kaoru supposed that it was the closest to friendly that the two wolves would ever come.
“Oi, idiot,” Hiko’s voice interrupted Kaoru’s protracted farewell with Misao, and Kenshin reflexively looked toward his master, apparently resigned to the unflattering name. “Come here.”
The conversation between the two wolves was not audible, although everyone else stayed suspiciously quiet in an effort to overhear the pair. The only thing that greeted their snooping ears was Kenshin’s aggravated, “Master!” followed by a loud brash laugh from Hiko. Without bothering to call a further farewell to anyone else the northern wolf turned imperiously and strode away toward the mountain looming over the North.
“You have to come visit soon,” Misao repeated her plaintive and frequent entreaty. Kaoru managed a laugh.
“We will, Misao! But give us a chance to get settled before we turn around and come right back!”
“Then we’ll come visit you! We can visit them, can’t we Aoshi-sama?” The dark wolf this was directed toward dipped his head in acknowledgement of the question, but did not verbally respond. By now Kenshin had made his way back over to the two packs, his smile was somewhat frayed and his ears were flat against his head. Despite whatever Hiko had used to tease him this time, the smile was genuine.
“You and Miss Misao would be welcome indeed whenever you choose to visit.”
Aoshi inclined his head again, and some previously imperceptible tension left his frame. “Understood.”
“If we’re going to go, we’d better get,” Sano observed, “Winter’s only getting stronger and we’re burning daylight.”
Misao grumbled at the fresh reminder but apparently didn’t want them to leave with the fresh memory of a fight. The small group set off, Misao calling farewells as the southern pack walked away, Sano and Megumi bickering about direction in the front, with the occasional interjection by Yahiko on the route that he and Kaoru had taken.
Kaoru herself brought up the rear with Kenshin, and soon the coyote and Okashira faded from earshot and the North was silent, watching them leave.
Kaoru couldn’t help but inhale deeply as the pack finally crossed the invisible boundary on the last leg of their journey. They were back. They had all made it back. She breathed in again, almost giddy with relief.
We’re home. And everyone seemed to know it. Sano jostled roughly against Megumi and sidestepped when she turned to snap at him, initiating an impromptu chase that was less about irritation and more about the sheer energy of joy, a chase which roped in Yahiko too with fairly little effort. The tanuki laughed at their antics, stealing a quick glance toward Kenshin, by her side as he had been the entire week-long trip.
He was looking at her. Heat flushed through Kaoru’s body in nervous embarrassment, but there was joy in the midst of that too, twisty and complicated and inextricably caught up in the wolf at her side.
“I love you, Kenshin.” Her fainting confession came out strongly now, no chance of going unheard or being misunderstood.
Kenshin smiled. “This one had hoped that was not a dream.”
Kaoru rolled her eyes in mock-annoyance, “If you remembered you could have said something!” Okay, maybe not entirely mock-annoyance. But she was teasing. Mostly.
“This one fears he is not so brave as you, Miss Kaoru.” The she-wolf opened her mouth to instinctively protest this, “But this one does love you, Kaoru.”
Kaoru’s mouth snapped shut, her half-planned words fading away to nothing. Kenshin’s smile was not doing good things to her ability to form new ones either.
What eventually came out was a rather mangled word that might have been, “Good,” before she buried her face against Kenshin’s shoulder. His quiet chuckle vibrated through her, and his head dropped to rest on the back of hers. Somehow, Kaoru found the ability to pull away from the warm embrace, just moving enough that she could smile up into Kenshin’s face, because there was just one more thing left to say.
“Welcome home, Kenshin.”
The red wolf smiled, nuzzling her head with his. “This one was home the minute you found me again.”
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