Amber Forest

Chapter 3- Kids Today...

And if I make it through today

Will tomorrow be the same?

Am I just running in place?

If I stumble and I fall,

Will I get up and carry on?

Will it all just be the same?

Good Charlotte- Young and Hopeless

“Move slowly,” the whispered instruction barely tickled her ear, and Kaoru fought the urge to flick it to get rid of the sensation, “slide your paw forward as you set it down— remember, you have all the time in the world.” Carefully following the advice, the tanuki eased another agonizing half-step closer to the grouse. For its part, the woodland hen seemed oblivious to its hungry stalker, small head bobbing as it searched for food among the grass.

Kaoru exhaled quietly, ears completely trained on her prey. She had never been so close to one of the easily startled birds before. The tanuki shot a glance at the completely-relaxed red wolf at her side. Last week, after a particularly bad day of hunting, Kaoru had loudly wailed that she didn’t know why she had so much trouble. After cajoling, a reluctant Kenshin had suggested that she couldn’t stay under cover long enough to get close to her faster prey. He hadn’t said it quite that way of course, but since then the wolf had been teaching her the finer points of stalking. Another scooting step forward brought Kaoru to the edge of the concealing undergrowth; an encouraging nod from Kenshin braced her.

The bird moved slightly, turning away from the wolves, head cocked in curiosity as it displayed a mottled brown back to the concealed predator. Muscles surged and Kaoru broke from cover, feet pounding the ground in loud alarm. The bird looked back at the oncoming gray death and with a warbling cry flapped its wings, bringing it a little way off the ground- Kaoru met it in the air, teeth closing down hard as she carried it back down from her leap. Dark gray paws impacted the ground as the avian died, small head lolling to one side.

Gingerly, Kaoru laid down her prize, trying to get dusty feathers out of her mouth and turning with a tail that couldn’t help but wag to Kenshin, who was smiling and stepping out from cover.

A rustle alerted the female, Kenshin’s purple eyes widened in perplexed surprise and Kaoru spun back around. A small brown and white shape broke from the undergrowth on the other side of the small clearing in a headlong sprint- the tanuki had an impression of wild fur and paws too large for the small frame as the racing animal passed right in front of her, snapping up her kill as it did so and taking off again, noticeably slowed and looking absurd, the bird almost as big as the creature carrying it, and the wings dragging uselessly on the ground.

“Hey!” Kaoru yelped, taking off after the little thing running off with her dinner, “Bring that back, thief!” A few quick strides brought her alongside the little bandit, and a calculated shove bowled him over. White paws that were oversized in comparison to the rest of the scrawny body flailed ridiculously as he went head over heels, releasing the filched fowl with a cry of alarm.

Moving quickly, Kaoru used a paw to drag her meal away from the cursing pile of fur, that secured, she stood over the diminutive marauder. It was a puppy, she saw now, its messy brown and white fur stuck out in ungroomed spikes, and a tail that curled up over his back told Kaoru definitively (if the color had not) that the pup was a dog. Blazing brown eyes glared up at her from beneath a furrowed forehead and pointed brown ears.

“Let me go you ugly!” the puppy growled, white paws shoving against her face to push it away. Ire snapped at the female’s heels,

“Who are you calling ugly you dirty little runt!?”

“The ugly hag in my face!” the puppy snarled, wriggling in attempt to get loose. Annoyed, Kaoru planted a dark gray paw on the white stomach below, pressing to keep her captive in place. A muffled yelp escaped the small canine before he could stifle it, and Kaoru frowned.

“Miss Kaoru?” Kenshin’s voice brought her back from her thoughts.

“It’s a puppy,” Kaoru answered the Rurouni, turning to face him but careful to keep pressure on the dog she’d pinned. The part of her mind not still seething with annoyed rage (the very small part, concerned with such things as breathing and forming understandable sentences) noted a concerning lack of fat to cushion her paw- she felt fur, skin and bone. A puppy ought to be chubby.

“What is a young one like yourself doing so deep in the woods?” Kenshin sounded vaguely surprised as he approached.

“I am not a puppy!” the small body under her paw squirmed in indignation, fiery brown eyes blazing with impotent rage, “I’m not a young one either! And it’s none of your business where I go!”

“When you’re in our territory stealing our food it is my business!” Kaoru snarled irritably.

A bark of laughter split the puppy’s muzzle in a mocking grin.

“Your territory? A mangy wolf and a scrawny dog can hold a territory now?”

“Mangy?!” Kaoru growled as Kenshin sighed again,

“This one is a wolf…”

The pup rolled his eyes expressively in response, “Suuurre. I wasn’t born yesterday you know,”

“Oh, really?” the tanuki cut in snidely, the dog glared.

“I know what scrawny is when I see it, I also know that you’re going to be in big trouble if Gohei catches you claiming his land.” The puppy smirked, a small fang showing from beneath a slightly curled lip, “I’m sure you know him, big fella, eats shrimps like you for breakfast.”

The tanuki snorted with self-satisfaction, “Oh yeah? And what does that make you? Gohei cleared out of here last week. Now,” the she-wolf leaned forward, shifting her weight to press down a little harder with her forepaw, “Maybe you can give me a straight response. Why’d you try to steal my prey?”

“Hungry, perhaps young one?” Kenshin suggested after a moment’s stubborn silence saw the smirk vanish.

“No I wasn’t!” came the angry refusal, “and for the last time I am not a young one so stop calling me that!”

Kaoru didn’t know where Kenshin was finding the patience to smile apologetically to her captive, but she was beginning to wish she’d let the red wolf handle the capture and interrogation from the beginning, especially since the tanuki seemed to be making such a mess of it.

“Perhaps if sessha might know your name then…” Kenshin offered with that same cheerful calm.

“Yahiko Myogin,” the puppy snapped out, “I’m the son of Samurai, so watch who you’re pushing, ugly!”

Kaoru was only able to splutter incoherently in the face of the insult while Kenshin plied another question to the spiky-furred pup.

“Well, Yahiko-kun, are you lost? Miss Kaoru and sessha would be happy to escort you home.”

The puppy growled all the more fiercely, “What- do you think I’m some kind of belly-dragging housepet? Do I really look like the kind of dog that needs a human to look after me? I’m not lost, I’m not hungry, and unless you’ve got something for me, I’m not sticking around here any longer!”

The tirade lost any credibility it may have had with the dubious adults when it was followed by the grumbling whine of a stomach that had been empty for a long time.

“All right then, Yahiko-kun,” Kenshin’s voice was gentle, with a quick turn he picked up the almost-forgotten bird and laid it alongside the still-pinned Yahiko, both wolves taking note of the ravenous expression lurking behind canine arrogance. “We seem to have insulted you most grievously, please take this by way of apology, and if you should ever be truly hungry, Miss Kaoru or this one would be glad to show you how to catch your own.” Sensing her cue, Kaoru removed her paw; within a blink the scruffy dog had rolled to his feet- then hesitated, gaunt frame tense as he examined the proffered fowl. After a moment the thin chest puffed out and the spiky-furred head lifted, chocolate-brown ears canted back as smoldering eyes spoke of disdain.

“You think I need handouts from mutts like you? Huh, I was just picking on you for being soooo excited,” Yahiko snorted down his short nose in derision, “Who’d want that thing anyway? It’s half feathers!”

“There’s nothing wrong with it!” Kaoru snapped, leaning over her kill possessively.

“It would appear that we may do nothing but insult you,” Kenshin observed with a self deprecating smile, Yahiko paused, half turned to flee from Kaoru’s sudden motion, his frame tense as he stared at the red wolf. The Rurouni’s smile widened, purple eyes holding angry brown in their gaze, “Take care, and hold tight to that pride of yours.”

With an uncertain look, the scrawny dog took off in a headlong rush in the direction of the human settlement, glancing behind him to be sure that the odd duo weren’t chasing him.

“I don’t’ know about humans,” Kaoru found herself remarking, “But someone ought to be looking out for that pup, if only to teach him some manners.”

“Indeed,” Kenshin agreed, ears still pricked forward as though he could still hear the pup already beyond the range of Kaoru’s ears, “he certainly wasn’t lacking in fighting spirit. What could have happened, one wonders, that would have left him so alone.”

The tanuki shook her head, staring moodily at her once-prized catch, no longer feeling very hungry or accomplished.

“Maybe Tae will want it.”

Yahiko slowed as he left the trees, risking a long look over his shoulder as he slunk out of the cover of the forest. No sign of the weird pair following him, but the nervous puppy didn’t relax, picking his way through long grass and shrubby weeds that the humans mowed down every moon or so, he berated himself for his failure.

“Don’t lose that pride of yours,” he mocked, dark ears flat against his head and voice a low scornful mutter. “Yeah, real smart Yahiko- pride’s good enough to live off of, right? All a nose in the air ever did for anybody was make the meat taste sour and get folks killed.” That bird had tasted all right before his capture, the smell of fresh meat cruelly tempting a stomach that had long since driven the puppy to eat grass.

But after that strange red wolf (who’d ever heard of a red wolf anyway?) had started talking to him, even the thought of that tender carcass had made his shrunken stomach churn warningly. “Well, you’re screwed, Myogin.” The puppy snorted harshly to himself, moving at a brisk trot through the exposed space, grass and prickly weeds bending reluctantly for his passage. “Better hope that you find something to bring back, or they’ll take it outta your hide.”

The grass was shorter now, sparser from shod feet trampling it down for impromptu games of baseball and soccer, so Yahiko picked up his pace again, heading for the concrete world of the humans only a few feet away.

Soon his claws were clicking rhythmically on the sidewalk as the young dog moved in a quick, slinking sort of motion, every sense alert for an approaching threat or possible food-source. When Gasuke sent him out on a food run, he expected that food would be brought back. Of course that didn’t mean that ‘the runt’ as he had been maliciously dubbed, would be getting anything like a fair share.

Damn Yakuza thugs…he growled quietly to himself, turning aside a moment to investigate a trashcan that smelled tempting- but the humans had put a rock on the lid to discourage any scavengers. Greedy jerks. Not like they want it any more anyway…After circling the trashcan once more, and deciding that it would be a waste of energy to try toppling it, the puppy slunk away once more. Gasuke wouldn’t be pleased if he brought back trash again, the hostile Doberman making a pointed “request” for a change in menu that had prompted Yahiko’s desperate trip into the forest.

And subsequent humiliation.

It was too late now, he knew- it had taken him the better part of the day to slowly work himself into the forest, cautiously at first, unsettled (never frightened) by his new surroundings. And he had tried to hunt on his own. The puppy simply didn’t know how, and the idea of asking for instruction from any one of the gang members who held him in highest contempt was laughable. Desperation, and the knowledge that the day was wearing short had brought him almost face to face with a daft-looking bird, which had quickly become a dead bird.

Yahiko had seen wolves before, when Gohei had visited with “Boss” Tanishi and brought three of his lieutenants. The two he’d interrupted had been similar in build but vastly different in color and… purer? Than the wolves that had traveled with Gohei. More wild, maybe.

A feral being at heart, Yahiko prided himself on being able to tell when an animal was tame. And those two… hadn’t been. Which meant that it had been more than foolish to try and steal their prey out from under their noses- it had been suicidal.

With a growl, the puppy shook off that line of thinking, peering with concern (never anxiety because that implied fear) at the sky beginning to take on the blush of dusk. He would be expected back soon, and he didn’t have a flea-bitten thing for the syndicate.

Something that smelled vaguely appealing and disgustingly human bounced on the ground in front of his nose, and Yahiko came to an abrupt stop, staring at the little food pellet on the sidewalk. He considered it a bad sign that he was hungry enough to want to eat it- regardless of where it came from.

“That’s all I can spare for a mutt like you,” came a condescending voice- a little too nasal to pull off the superiority with any threatening overtone, and definitely too young. Yahiko glared up at the puppy behind the fence,

“And what makes you think I’d ever be desperate enough to eat your dusty leftovers, Yutaro?”

Yutaro, a purebred akita, scowled at the hungry dog on the other side of the fence, the dark brown spot around his eye bunching as he did so.

“And what makes you think I’d care if you starved you little brat!”

Yahiko rolled his eyes and made a show of stretching nonchalantly, “You’re just sore because you’re stuck in that little patch of grass.”

“Oh yeah? Like you’re doing so hot out there- what happened to that big catch you were supposed to make?” the mostly-white pet jeered, jerking his head to indicate the forest back the way his sometimes-friend had come. The stray fought back a telling wince, shrugging off his failure with a show of bravado.

“Bah, nothing but skinny featherbrained birds in there- not worth my time, especially with all the wolves.” He grinned daringly at the other puppy, white teeth bright in the fading light, “Stole a bird from them, just to prove I could, but they were so pitiful I let them have it back.”

“You sure that they didn’t catch you and take it back?” Yutaro scoffed, Yahiko lowered into a ready-crouch as he snapped back his reply,

“Like they could! Anyway, are you brain-dead? If wolves catch you on their land they won’t waste time, they’ll just kill you. Actually,” he cocked his head to one side, “they’d probably eat a fat fusspot like you- I’ve seen deer that didn’t have so much meat on them!”

“Stuff it, brat,” Yutaro growled threateningly for a moment, but there wasn’t much heart in it. Both puppies knew that of the two of them, Yutaro was the healthy one, Yahiko on the constant brink of starvation. With a sigh and a frown, the purebred akita shook off the light irritation of teasing,

“So what are you going to do? You don’t have anything to take back to the others, right?”

Yahiko felt his lip curl in response, instinctively looking toward the Yakuza’s hangout,

“Who cares? It’s high time they take care of themselves anyway.” The flat statement was bitter and hopeless, the words meant to convey carelessness, but the tone breaking the image.

Yutaro shrugged a little, and sighed, “I keep telling you that if you just showed yourself to some humans and looked pathetic- not that it would be hard for you- you’d get fixed up with food and a decent place to sleep. It worked for Ronin and Shinai, didn’t it?”

Yahiko glared at his friend, brown eyes smoldering dangerously, “It wasn’t like that,” he growled, voice tight with anger, “they didn’t decide to leave, the humans stole them.”

Nobody brought up his lost siblings, nobody.

“Yahiko,” Yutaro sighed, trying to reason with his friend.

“Can it Yutaro,” the puppy growled, looking over his shoulder toward the overpass by the river.

“What are you going to do?” the housepet went back to the problem, “You don’t have anything for them, right?” Silence was the only reply, and Yutaro felt a snarl pull at his muzzle, “Don’t go back to them.” The puppy wasn’t sure if he was advising or pleading, “There are other ways to stay alive.”

“Around here?” Yahiko responded scornfully, “No there’s not. Besides, I’m not some cur that’ll run away with my tail tucked while I still have debts to pay.”

Yutaro bit back a scathing reply about strays not needing pride. He’d known Yahiko’s mother after all, and after a week of pestering he’d gotten the scrawny puppy to explain what had happened.

The purebred akita sighed theatrically, settling back on his haunches. “Be careful then little Yahiko, if those guys even stepped on you, you probably wouldn’t survive.”

“Watch who you’re calling little, puppy.” Yahiko retorted, bristling on instinct, sensitive as ever to the small size caused by poor nutrition that he seemed cursed with.

“Watch who you’re calling puppy, idiot,” Yutaro growled back, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Maybe later, when his friend wasn’t facing at least a ‘punishment’ and at worst his own death, Yutaro would be able to bicker whole-heartedly once more.

Yahiko rolled his expressive brown eyes, “You’re slipping,” he informed the other archly, “You might want to practice before I get back.”

And on that jaunty note, the little akita-husky mix loped off down the street, heading faithfully (and foolishly, in Yutaro’s opinion) for the overpass.

Tae was dutifully impressed with Kaoru’s catch, enough that the young wolf relented and settled down to eat her bird, Kenshin declining her offer to share in favor of relating their strange tale to the cat half-napping in the tree above them.

“Sounds like the Suhei syndicate is at it again,” the bobcat offered at the conclusion, her ears slightly flattened and expression pensive.

“Suhei syndicate?” Kaoru repeated, trying to remember if she’d ever heard the name before. Tae caught her eye and shook her head,

“It’s a pack of yakuza dogs on the south side of the human settlement, they usually don’t venture into the woods.”

“How did I miss hearing about them though?”

Tae’s spotted fur rippled over her shoulders in a shrug, “I go much closer to the town than you do for my gossip,” the bobcat pointed out, “You only go there when you have a stray to return,”

“What do you know about them Miss Tae?” Kenshin inquired calmly, diverting what could quickly become an argument between the two females. Tae stretched a little, balancing expertly on her branch despite the somewhat precarious movement.

“There’s not much to tell. The Suhei Syndicate is a pack of dogs living on the outskirts of the human settlement. Pretty violent fellows, but they don’t usually come into the forest. They cause some trouble for the folks in the town, hunting livestock, terrorizing pets… normal wild animal behavior… except,” she hesitated, “I heard a rumor about them saying that they’ll find stray puppies and make them go around stealing, dangerous stuff usually, dog food from the store, human food from campsites, until they get killed, one way or the other.”

“So that kid…” Kaoru muttered in horror,

“Was sent on a suicide mission,” Tae finished grimly. Kaoru boiled to her feet, brown feathers fluttering away from her soot-colored paws in the wind raised by the motion.

“We can’t let this go on!”

“I don’t know that we could stop it altogether Miss Kaoru,” Kenshin’s voice was hesitant and regretful. “Even if this one puppy were to be saved, to change the habits of an entire pack-”

Kaoru shook her head furiously, dark ears pinned back, “That’s the excuse of someone who doesn’t want to help! I can’t believe you! Well I can’t leave that puppy alone in a situation like this!” ignoring Kenshin’s surprised look, the seething tanuki sped off in the direction of the town, ringed tail disappearing rapidly from view.

Tae shrugged carelessly, smiling sympathetically at the flabbergasted Rurouni, “Kaoru does that sometimes. She doesn’t mean it, she just gets excited, and unless you tell her that you are going to do it and explain that you want to plan… all she’ll do is run off without thinking things through.”

Kaoru’s paws ate ground quickly, carrying her in the direction of the town. Tae had said that the Syndicate was to the south of the humans, but she had also said Battousai had eyes of twin amber flame, and the tanuki had yet to see Kenshin with any color other than violet. Not that she had gloated about this to Tae. The Rurouni hadn’t told Kaoru not to tell Tae of his other name, but he hadn’t told her that she could either. It was his secret, she’d finally decided. Let him worry about whether he wanted to tell the gossipy feline or not.

So far, judging by Tae’s complete lack of trying to pry his life story out from behind clenched fangs, Kaoru was betting on not.

The tanuki didn’t slacken her pace until she reached the edge of the trees and what she supposed was the pack boundary- with neither Kenshin nor herself rigorously protecting the boundaries against “invasion” it was getting tricky to remember where they were. Still, the sparse trees marked the end of her easy concealment. The gray female peered out to the grassy and devoted plain and smiled tightly. The sun was going down, casting fiery orange hues on the sky, and deepening shadows on the ground. With a fluid motion the she-wolf slipped from the tree line, her gray fur seeming to soak up the shadows that she was now traveling in, exchanging one kind of concealment for another.

The human settlement was impossible to miss by any of her senses, sickly yellow lights flickered on, casting jagged black shadows, murmuring voices melted with the humming of machinery, echoing endlessly in her sensitive ears, and the smell… A smell of things burning, things wholesome as well as spoiled, appetizing and disgusting mixing in the all-encompassing cloud that was the scent of the humans themselves. The assault on Kaoru’s senses was a distraction, but one that she’d learned quickly to push aside. While the town didn’t feel quite real in the way that the forest did, death or discovery could come quickly for any creature not paying enough attention.

The warm colors of the sky were still the vibrant fiery hue of sunset as Kaoru made her way into the town, moving low to the ground and sticking to shadows.

Despite her tendency to shelter strays, Kaoru rarely ventured into the settlement herself, usually only taking her lost wards to the field that bordered the woods, where they were confident of showing themselves to a human and being returned to their homes. Sometimes however, a dog was unsure, and Kaoru would venture into the town alongside them, wandering until the lost one recognized some incomprehensible landmark and sped off with joyous barks and wagging tails. Town dogs…

No such landmarks guided the tanuki, just a halting, cautious journey south under streetlights buzzing to eerie life.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” a young accusatory bark perforated the dimness and Kaoru froze, looking with annoyance for the cause of the sound. Pale in the encroaching gloom a brown-spotted white puppy with a tiny curled tail resting on his back glared at her from the other side of a chain-link fence. The tanuki paused, regarding the little thing, then moved closer to his yard.

The puppy-about the same age as Yahiko- seemed surprised at her approach, clearly he’d been unable to see her clearly when he sounded his first alarm. It wasn’t as though she were huge or anything, but Kaoru knew that even among wolves, her looks were outlandish.

Blue eyes stared down at him, and the well-fed puppy braced his legs more firmly to strengthen his stance.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded again, but couldn’t seem to get up the same aggressive volume as before. “This is my place.”

Kaoru instinctively surveyed the puppy’s tiny yard and snorted.

“Then I’m not bothering your place, am I?” she pointed out. “I’m looking for someone- a little skin-sack your age that calls itself Yahiko. Seen him?”

The puppy bristled impressively and backed up a pace, staring at the invader suspiciously with flattened ears,

“Who wants to know? What do you want with Yahiko?”

“Kaoru. And as far as what I want with him- I figure that someone ought to tell him that those precious Yakuza he’s playing pet for are planning to kill him.”

The puppy cursed, something Kaoru was almost sure he had picked up from his street friend. “That moron! I told him not to go back- the syndicate hangs out at the human’s road-bridge on the south side of town by the river. If you hurry, you might catch him, but he’s probably there by now. I’m Yutaro, I don’t know if my name will help any, but at least he’ll know I sent you!”

Kaoru acknowledged the directions with a nod, and was halfway down the block by the time the puppy had made it around to his name, as she crossed the street he howled after her, forepaws braced on the quivering fence, “Tell him to stop being so damn proud!”

Yahiko scowled at the river’s edge, the concrete construct of the overpass lurking in his peripheral vision. It was one thing to act brave in front of Yutaro, who’d never been beyond that tiny grass-patch called a yard without a human. Out here, he was ashamed to admit, it was hard to make himself go back.

The puppy sat with frustrated misery on the bank, shoulders hunched forward and staring moodily into the tepid water, lit gold by the dying sunlight. He knew he was too proud; he always had been, even though he was aware that he no longer had anything to be proud of. Debt or no debt, he didn’t want to steal for the yakuza anymore and he snarled against the thought that the red wolf’s words had influenced him- this was his decision.

And it made sense, sooner or later he was going to get caught in his thieving- and he would be killed. Better to get out of that now and find some other way of paying back Tanishi. Maybe he could figure out how to hunt the cunning, vicious rats that crept out of the drainage pipes at night…Because there was that pride again. Leaving a debt unpaid? Aside from what Gasuke and the others would do to him, the thought of running away turned his empty stomach.

“There he is! Hey Runt! You forget where you live?!” Yahiko fought off the flinch that threatened to send him toppling forward into the water and stayed where he was, every underfed muscle on his frame going taut. That sounded like Tomo, the court jester of sorts, but he was too much of a wimp to ever pick on Yahiko by himself so… Clearing his mind the way he’d taught himself, Yahiko took a long breath in through his nose.

Yeah. Gasuke was back there too.

Tomo was pacing toward the motionless puppy, big paws thudding against the ground with tell-tale whumphs. “Runt, we’re talking to you! Did the ickle puppy forget where home is? We’ve been waiting for you!” It took every scrap of self-control Yahiko had (and some that he was pretty sure that he had borrowed two years in advance) not to whirl around and yell right back at Tomo that the smelly cold place under the human’s noisy road was not his home. Home had been with his mother, in the sweet-smelling dirt of the east side of town. But he stayed put, this was going to be bad enough as it was. Tomo was at his side now and made a show of sniffing around the puppy with his short amber snout, and pawed him with one of his clodhopper feet. “Hey Yahiko, where’s dinner. You did find something to bring back, right?” the puppy didn’t have to look to know that the hazel eyes were gleaming in anticipation.

Tomo was a court jester all right- and all of the humor in this court revolved around pain.

“I don’t have anything for you!” Yahiko finally snapped, glaring sideways up into that face, aware that Gasuke, the really dangerous one, had yet to say anything. “I’m sick of going around stealing stuff for you bum-lickers!”

That, Yahiko realized as Gasuke bowled him over from behind to roll feet over tail, desperately trying to avoid falling in the river, probably could have been worded better.

Gasuke, a powerfully built Doberman with cropped ears and docked tail seized the errant puppy by his back leg and yanked hard- Yahiko swallowed a yelp, managed to turn it into a grunt that he assured himself sounded very adult as the skin parted under sharp teeth and he was flung skidding across the grass-spattered ground.

Tomo looked almost comically surprised over to one side, not quite daring to interrupt the black and tan dog as he again walked up to the puppy, this time grabbing hold of the loose skin of his back and lifting. This time the little akita-mix was unable to stop the pained response from coming out sharply- but it hurt, he was sure that Gasuke’s teeth had almost met in the skin of his back, and he twisted frantically, aware that this made the pain almost unbearable, but desperate to get down.

The Doberman wasn’t having any of it, turning; he flung the puppy again, toward the overpass, where the rest of the gang would be waiting.

The journey was tortuous for Yahiko, every now and again he would manage to get to his feet and stumble in the direction that Gasuke was “herding” him, but Tomo (who had decided to join in on the favorite sport) would knock his legs out from under him again, and it would be time for another game of fetch.

At last the consistency of the ground onto which he was being hurled changed from dirt to dirt-coated concrete, and Yahiko could hear the other members of the Syndicate stirring from where they’d been lying in various states of sloth past the ringing of pain in his ears.

“Well, it’s the runt,” Asano yawned lazily, the bird dog stretching up and out from where he’d been lying on an abandoned tire, “did he try to run away?”

“I’m more interested in where he thinks the Boss’ dinner is,” Gasuke growled, planting a black paw on Yahiko’s head to keep his face in the dirt. “You want to share what you told me with the rest of the family Yahiko?”

The puppy struggled with the effort of lifting his head high enough to open his mouth- the black and tan dog above him wasn’t easing up. “I told you,” he managed to grind out, almost shouting to be sure of being heard, “I’m not stealing for you any more!”

Gasuke shook his head, dark eyes pitiless, voice dripping with concern that a child could see through, “See boys? See how bad our pet is being?”

Asano gave a low chuckle and fell in alongside Tomo as the jester and the third dog of their pack, Chijin, a gray mutt of unidentifiable breed, began circling Gasuke and his pinned captive.

“We can’t have that, can we?” the bird dog’s words were almost regretful, the toothy smile on his face entirely insincere. Tomo sniggered, unable to keep his comments to himself,

“Gotta punish the kid, right Gasuke? Never grow up right if they don’t know who’s boss.”

Well that’s definitely not you. The puppy bit back the retort. It wasn’t hard, speaking had been a real challenge earlier.

With a deliberate motion, Gasuke withdrew his paw and stepped back to join the now-halted circle. Yahiko sprang to his feet instantly, hackles rising at the laughter emanating from behind him, he fought the urge to turn and kept his gaze locked on Gasuke.

This is going about how I expected. The puppy thought grimly, trying to block out the throbbing ache of the bite on his back and whining protests of his mistreated legs. His only chance would be to explain himself now before the Yakuza had thrown themselves into their favorite pastime.

“Listen,” the puppy began, refusing to back down, “I’ve decided-”

Yahiko!” the brown and white puppy jerked, breaking eye contact to stare incredulously up the concrete incline that led to the road. It was that ugly female!

Ignoring the dogs surrounding the puppy, the oddly-marked wolf came down the incline in a quick trot, “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” her voice was accusing, and Yahiko felt his ears flattening in embarrassment before he could stop them- because she sounded just like Kanbi had whenever she was especially annoyed with him.

“Hey! Who are you?” Asano growled out, the closest in the little circle to the rapidly-approaching female. Angry eyes the color of summer sky fixed on the speckled bird-dog dismissively,

“I’m not here to talk to you,” she growled out, and Yahiko was sure that the whole group knew that she was talking to all of them, “I came to talk to Yahiko.”

The puppy could only watch in dumb silence with a shocked expression that he knew looked silly as Kaoru came to a stop in the empty space between Gasuke and Asano, prudently standing a little farther back than the Yakuza dogs.

“Yahiko,” she sternly addressed the bloodied scrap of fur that stood frozen in the middle of the circle, his ears were completely flattened in surprise and apprehension now, and even that high curly tail had come down from his back- though it wasn’t tucked between his legs, always, the puppy would have his pride. “If you keep stealing stuff for these thugs, you’re going to either die or turn into them,” she bit out quickly, ears angled to pick up on any movement that the adult dogs might make as she focused her gaze on the nonplussed puppy.

Yahiko blinked expressive brown eyes, then glanced from side to side at the faces of Gasuke and Asano, unable to help himself. “Do you even know where you are, crazy lady?” he muttered, not liking the way that Gasuke was almost smiling.

Kaoru bristled at the quiet insult, but was stopped from saying anything by the muscular Doberman shifting to look at her, head cocked in a manner that was almost friendly.

“And who are you, miss?”

Yahiko shuddered in horror as he recognized that expression, and the movement released muscles that had been locked up. Quickly, he slipped from the circle and skidded to a halt in front of Kaoru, the motion kicking up dirt into her face and causing the female to shake her head in annoyance, but the puppy was already wheeling to face the four dogs again.

“She’s nobody! Just some crazy wolf that I met in the woods!”

Gasuke had lowered his head a little, as if trying to talk to Yahiko on his own level, but the tense nature of his frame revealed the truth of his preparation to attack, “I think the lady can answer for herself Ya.Hi.Ko.” the puppy had time to think that he really hated the way that Gasuke said his name before he was seized around the scruff by Asano.

Probably, the bird dog had intended to throw the puppy again, but Kaoru was having none of it.

With a growl that seemed too large for her smoky frame, the tanuki launched herself forward and latched onto the bird-dog’s floppy ear with punishing sharp teeth. Asano yelped, Yahiko tumbling from his open mouth to land in an awkward heap on the ground. Kaoru released the bird dog to raise a brow at the little puppy,

“You okay?”

Yahiko glared and didn’t respond, opting instead to barrel forward at the incensed Asano, who was coming at Kaoru as she ignored him. His weight was puny as he threw himself headfirst into Asano’s chest, his teeth too small to be very effectual as he tried to latch onto the bigger dog’s shoulder, and Yahiko knew that now he was in for it no matter what he said.

Why oh why had that stupid girl come?

Gasuke let out a sharp bark of command as Yahiko sunk his tiny fangs into Asano’s shoulder, trying to find a good grip before…

Jaws closed around his midsection with bruising force and yanked to drag him from his opponent. As the world swung crazily, Yahiko could see the birddog he’d bitten straightening with a snarl, bleeding from the right ear and shoulder. Tomo was coming toward the puppy, held captive by Chijin. Gasuke was standing with an amused expression as the wolf snarled at him, running toward the Doberman with hostile intent blazing in her blue eyes.

Chijin tightened his jaws a little further and the puppy couldn’t help the sharp whine that spilled from him. Asano was up and Tomo was there, their adult frames blocking his view of the world- but only for a minute. Kaoru descended on Tomo like an avenging whirlwind, her sharp muzzle finding the skin beneath his shaggy brown fur and ripping open his shoulder. As the mutt yelped, leg crumpling under the force of the injury, the captured puppy could see past him again for the briefest instant to Gasuke, still standing where he’d been with a malicious smirk exposing his fangs.

Kaoru had never reached the dog, distracted by the sound of Yahiko’s distress.

The she-wolf moved past Tomo as he tottered unsteadily, turning to snap at her without quite knowing where the female was. Chijin stepped nervously back from the threat bearing down on him, unable to defend himself with Yahiko still in his mouth. Kaoru seemed quite determined to fix that problem, however.

In a gray blur she caught up to the slow-moving dog, jaws that could snap a deer’s leg closed with extreme prejudice on Chijin’s ratty gray tail.

The instant yelp of pain- so much more piercing than anything that Yahiko had let slip, was almost comical. The gray mouth opened reflexively, and the puppy tumbled, landing on the ground half-winded but staggering to his feet as soon as he could manage.

Kaoru was in the thick of things now, Asano and Tomo leaping on her with snapping growls, the female snarled her own reply and did her best to avoid the slavering jaws aimed her way, trying to back up so she was no longer in the middle of three angry males.

Yahiko could see through the rapidly-shifting legs of the dueling adults with a numbing horror that Gasuke was pacing steadily toward the knot of furious fur now.

“Yahiko!” Kaoru snarled, and the pup jerked in surprise, he’d only been distracted for a minute, but now Tomo, instead of snapping at the Tanuki’s heels, had turned to go after the akita-husky mix, the gory mess over his left eye giving testament to why he’d chosen to go after a softer target.

A growl built rapidly in the puppy’s chest and he launched himself forward at the onrushing muzzle. In a move that was pure instinct the young dog latched onto the soft, fleshy black nose of his would-be attacker. Tomo gave a piercing howl as small sharp teeth easily penetrated the tender skin, shaking his head from side to side in an effort to dislodge the puppy, who was growing quite tired of being flung around like a litter-mate’s plaything. Still wagging his head from side to side, the older mutt raised a paw to try and scrape his hanger-on loose. Yahiko barely had time to register the painful pressure of blunt claws dragging down his form before sharp teeth closing on a hind leg overwhelmed his senses.

Without regard for the state of his comrade, Gasuke yanked, welling red from the patch of missing skin still held by Yahiko’s stubborn fangs appearing on what was left of Tomo’s nose as the puppy was pulled clear of his opponent. For a sickening moment, the akita-mix was suspended by one hind leg, his entire body screaming in distress, but with a painful wrench Gasuke tossed him again, and the puppy slid across the concrete, stopping at the very edge of the manmade material, where composite stone ended at the river began.

Revolted, the puppy gagged out the chunk of dog’s flesh that was in his mouth. It was much harder this time to stagger back to his feet, trembling limbs shot never-ending pain up to his body and the puppy could feel his fur beginning to clump together, each strand bound by blood to the strands that surrounded it.

A sharp yelp pierced the heavy air, followed by an angry snarl. In revenge for his own wounded tail, Chijin had bit down on Kaoru’s. The furious tanuki left the bites she was inflicting on Asano’s neck and shoulders to round on the gray mutt gamely clinging to striped fur. Rearing up on her hind legs, the storm-colored wolf brought her forepaws down on Chijin’s back, holding her in place for the deep bite she quickly administered to that back. Again, Chijin released what he held with a howl and the tanuki slipped like mist through the rest of the pack to stand beside Yahiko on the riverbank.

“Ready to go now, kid?” the wolf panted out after a moment, fighting back a feral light in her blue eyes with effort, though she didn’t turn to address the wounded life propped on trembling legs beside her. The puppy bristled angrily, fur standing up sharply in red-matted spikes,

“Who asked you to stick your nose in you ugly girl! I had everything under control!”

Kaoru’s expression had left annoyance in the dust three days ago, eyes snapping with renewed blue fire.

“Don’t you get it? You’ll die if you stay here!”

“Don’t you get it,” Yahiko snarled back with equal force, “I’m not leaving!”

The tanuki’s ears twitched and she took a deep breath, preparing to lay into the puppy again.

“Would your refusal to leave have something to do with the debt these dogs lay at your feet?”

Kaoru gave a start of surprise and looked back over to the incline that she had descended mere moments before. Kenshin was coming down at a steady pace, red fur glowing like the embers of a fire where the fading sunlight touched him, his calm question reverberating through the air to the small puppy that watched his approach with wide eyes.

The yakuza dogs shifted, still turned toward the female and pup, but their heads inclining toward the newcomer, who they watched with suspicion.

“My-” the puppy swallowed against that weak word that had slipped from him, calling on anger to strengthen his voice, “My debt is none of your business!” his small brown and white frame was vibrating with conflicting emotions.

He had to stay standing; he just wanted to lie down

He had to be ready to fight; he didn’t want to get hurt anymore

He must stay where he was; he wanted to run...

He wanted nothing more to do with any of these damn adults; he just wanted to go home!

“Kenshin,” the tanuki at Yahiko’s side started, taking a step toward her friend, only to stop with a scowl as the dogs that lay between them sent up a cacophony of growls at her movement.

“Miss Kaoru,” the Rurouni smiled, “I apologize for my lateness that I do,” the smile turned to self-deprecating humor, “I’m afraid that this one is not well acquainted with the town. However,” he continued, violet eyes finding Yahiko again, “One did meet a puppy called Yutaro who was able to give guidance.”

The little akita-mix felt heat rush into his ears, that little rat! He should never have told the overbred pet about his debt!

“Was he right in telling this one,” Kenshin went on as the sun finally dipped below the horizon, drawing warmth along with it like a final breath, “ that this debt concerns your mother?”

Yahiko shook his head against the burning sensation that hovered around his eyes and clogged his throat with babyish whines, “So what if it does?” Yahiko bit out, recognizing with horror that his voice was beginning to crack, anger not enough to hold it steady anymore, “The yakuza took care of her before she died.” The puppy turned to look at Gasuke, who stood untouched next to his bloodied companions, the beginnings of a toothy smile stretching across his muzzle, “And I’m going to pay it back,” the puppy howled, “but I’m sick of stealing! I’ll hunt the game down myself!”

Gasuke burst into sharp barks of laughter, throwing back his head to expose his chestnut-marked neck as he lost himself in gales of humor. Tomo, Asano and Chijin were chuckling now too, quivering slightly on their weakened legs, but gamely laughing on.

“Why are you laughing?!” Yahiko snarled wildly, “I will!”

“What’s all this racket been?” a grumpy voice cut through the laughter, and the four dogs subsided, looking expectantly to a vague shelter in the shadowy recesses of the overpass. Out from the gloom came a low figure, an English bulldog, stumbling heavily from the shelter of piled refuse where he had been sleeping.

Gasuke watched Tanishi’s approach with condescending patience. While things in the pack might be done in the bulldog’s name, he rarely took part in any activity with his subordinates anymore, and it was well known to everyone but Tanishi himself that Gasuke was jockeying for the position of lead dog. The bulldog fixed watery eyes in a smushed face on Yahiko.

“You’re saying that you don’t want to steal anymore, Yahiko?” wrinkles shifted as he shook his bulky head, “Yahiko, even you must realize that surviving isn’t about pride. A puppy as small as you should only worry about doing what we tell you, and let bigger things come later.”

The puppy bared his teeth; “I’m not doing it anymore!”

“Geh,” Tanishi scoffed in a wuffing motion that sent the wrinkles on his muzzle flying back and then forward. “I don’t know where you got the idea that you could walk out on us kid, but you’re crazy. Gasuke,” he ordered, the Doberman slinking forward on confident paws. Yahiko felt Kaoru tense beside him, but every muscle on his own tiny body was already wound tighter than he would have believed possible.

“I’m not running out on my debt!” The puppy insisted, seeing Kenshin perform an oddly fluid movement that seemed to lower the crimson wolf’s center of gravity. “I’ll pay back everything I owe!”

Gasuke laughed again, shaking his head from side to side as he advanced on the female and the pup, “Your debt, little Yahiko? Don’t tell me you actually believed that story that we fed you about taking care of your mother. What use is a sick female to anyone? It would have been a waste of food to fatten up someone who was obviously going to die.”

The puppy felt as though the tightly wound muscles that made up his body had reached their breaking point- why else would he be shaking all over, why else wouldn’t his eyes focus on anything, only stare with horror out into the distance beyond Gasuke?

Kanbi, Mother, Mom…Kanbi of the silver fur and curled tail, Mother of the ice-blue eyes and patient smile, mom… the one thing that had held his world together after he lost his siblings.

And she died because these bastards pretended to try and save her. She died because I believed that they would try and save her.

It was the loud howl rumbling its way through his chest and ripping itself out of his throat that alerted Yahiko to the fact that he was moving, barreling toward the madly grinning Gasuke. Time was moving strangely, the beginning of Kaoru’s warning bark came only as he was two strides from his hated foe, as if the world had slowed down- but he was moving so fast, he could feel it in the burning pain of his abused legs as he forced them to move faster still. A red blur flashed in the corner of his eye as the puppy reached the Doberman and launched himself at that long pointed face, soaring past the left eye, which followed him with some surprise as the powerful jaws snapped down on the air where the puppy had been. Yahiko bit down on Gasuke’s erect left ear with extreme prejudice and held on, grinding his jaws to try and tear through the tender skin and cartilage.

The world had dissolved into maddening chaos- flashes of silver-gray fur furiously fighting with amber-brown and speckled, glimpses of scarlet burning through the fabric of the world, and the black and tan of Gasuke, the gangster so close, his rank stench filling the puppy’s nose.

The yakuza Doberman howled his pain in a guttural roar, shaking his head from side to side, Yahiko’s brown and white body flopping like a fish out of water, anchored in place only by his deathgrip on the other dog’s ear. With an impossible twist of his head, Gasuke managed to seize the puppy’s right hind leg- but Yahiko refused to yelp and loose his hold. Disgusting blood was filling his mouth, but he had finally perforated the ear completely.

Clenching down to secure his own grip on the white limb, Gasuke gave a strong yank, in a bizarre slingshot motion; Yahiko was ripped away from the Doberman’s skull.

The young dog however, did not leave without a trophy; a bloodied stump remained where a once proud ear had stood.

Yahiko had made a mark. Gasuke would never be able to forget him.

Gotcha, you bastard, the puppy thought feebly as the tattered remnants of the ear fell from his slack jaws. Gasuke was slinging him again, throwing him to skid across the concrete. Wonder if he meant to do that, Yahiko wondered a little sardonically as he hit the unforgiving ground and rolled to a skidding stop, not sure if his time he would be able to force himself to his feet. Would’ve been smarter to break my leg, drop me, and kill me.

But that was the last thought that the beleaguered puppy had time for as now, he finally got a glimpse of the fight that had been going on without him.

Chijin had a crushed paw, which he cradled to himself as the dark gray dog slunk away from the fight, eyes full of fear that he would not be allowed to retreat- but he wasn’t the only one. Tomo still had use of all four legs, but his shoulders and haunches were liberally peppered with painful-looking bites, bleeding freely as he took off as fast as his four paws would carry him.

Asano was on the ground, twitching, probably not even conscious anymore, one floppy ear half-gone and a deep gash above his eyes busily staining his face a familiar red.

Kaoru had managed to bowl over Tanishi somehow, despite the bulldog’s lower center of gravity and was snarling down her long sharp muzzle into his short blunt one. A rank smell of urine was emanating from the downed leader.

For a moment, Yahiko didn’t see Kenshin, then some instinct that he couldn’t explain compelled deep brown eyes to look up.

The red wolf hung in the sky like the inverted crescent of an eclipsed moon, impossibly high, but streaming back down to earth in an incredibly graceful expression of speed and power. The hapless Doberman below the wolf never knew what hit him, one moment the dark yakuza was stalking toward the prone Yahiko, the next he had been seized by the neck and hurled bodily into the river.

The splash was terrific, the sight of the dog struggling against the current that pulled him downstream even more so.

With a final growl of some choice words for his pack’s idea of fun, Kaoru let up Tanishi, and the bow-legged dog took off after his followers.

And then there were only the wolves and the puppy.

“I wasn’t sure if you were going to come, Kenshin,” that ugly female was telling the red wolf, but her voice sounded a little distant, a little cloudy, even though she wasn’t standing all that far away from Yahiko.

“This one never said that he did not wish to help Miss Kaoru. One was only pointing out the difficulties in doing so.”

Peh, grownups… talk a thing to death if you let them… with a low groan, Yahiko forced his legs to cooperate, shoving against the pain even harder than he had to push against gravity to try and regain his feet.

“Are you okay kid?” Kenshin was at his side now in worry, offering a solid red and white shoulder to lean on, crouching to be of service. Yahiko snapped at the proffered assistance,

“I’m fine!” he growled, holding wobbling legs straight by sheer determination, brown eyes focused on the tilting ground, and therefore missing the concerned gazes that met over his head.

“We’d better get him to some help,” Kenshin was saying to Kaoru now, talking about him like he wasn’t even there!

The female hesitated, looking at the beat-up scrap of fur that heaved out ragged breaths, her ears pinned back.

“It might be best to get him to some humans for help.”

Kenshin’s voice was thoughtful; “Yutaro told me that his family is moving away soon, to a place with more room for him. They might take one more…”

“NO!” Yahiko howled in annoyance, glaring up at his rescuers. How dare they make the suggestion of placing him with those furless fleshpiles! These wolves didn’t understand!

Humans had murdered his father Samurai when he wasn’t needed anymore. They’d trained the proud Akita to be a guard dog, to be ruthless to intruders, then had him killed when the company moved on, convinced he would be too hostile to ever go into a normal family.

Humans had planned to drown his mother’s puppies (drown him) when they’d realized she was pregnant. Only Kanbi’s swift escape had saved the lives of her offspring. Only because of his mother’s courage had Yahiko even been born.

Humans were the ones who took Ronin and Shinai away, and without the help of his siblings, Yahiko hadn’t been able to take care of their mother when she’d needed it most. In a way he was glad he didn’t know where his older brother was- having mom die was bad enough, admitting to Ronin that he’d failed to save her was unthinkable.

“Yahiko!” Kaoru scolded, visibly restraining herself from touching the injured puppy- and likely sending him toppling over, “it’s what’s best for you. You need someone to take care of you!”

“I’m not a pet!”

“Well you can’t go out there alone!”

“Perhaps he should stay with us, Miss Kaoru.” Kenshin remarked thoughtfully, a smile tugging at his mouth as he regarded the fiery-eyed duo.

“WHAT?!” Two heads, one gray and masked, the other brown and bloodied, turned as one to stare at the Rurouni. Kaoru’s mouth was working but no sound was coming out, Yahiko, however, never seemed to be at a loss for words.

“Who would want to go and live with you two mangy bums! Nobody asked for your help!”

Kenshin ignored him, focusing on the female that he regarded as the rightful owner of their territory, “We’ve agreed that someone needs to look out for him,” he pointed out calmly, “and you said that you were in the habit of picking up strays.”

Kaoru snorted expressively down her nose, then sighed, “Oh, all right, Kenshin. We can see how it goes.”

The red-furred Rurouni turned with a smile to the puppy,

“So you see, kid, it’s all worked out.”

Yahiko snarled in his face again, “I don’t want to go with you! And I’m not a kid!”

Kenshin gave a heavy sigh, “This one can’t seem to help but insulting you. Perhaps one day you will forgive.”

And in a move that completely shocked the puppy, the red wolf reached over and grabbed Yahiko by the scruff, the way that his mother used to carry him when he’d done something especially stupid, and started walking down the river toward the beckoning darkness of the forest.

The first stars shone through the city gloom, as the sound of the puppy’s curses filled the air.

It was really pretty lucky that Yahiko was so small- being held by the scruff had become uncomfortable since he last time his mother had done it. Likely if he’d been fed properly, it wouldn’t have been a good idea. Of course, the puppy didn’t feel that it was a good idea anyway. He’d finally stopped squirming a few minutes ago, when Kaoru had run back to town to let Yutaro know that his friend was all right.

The puppy could admit that it was nice of the wolves to think that the pet might be worried, but Yahiko had flatly refused to see the smug Akita while being carried.

The red wolf holding his scruff in gentle teeth plodded along, the inviting wood (inviting for the wolf anyway, the akita-mix qualified sourly,) drawing closer with each step.

The silence was growing oppressive, and Yahiko fought to keep back the steadily building unease. He couldn’t see the wolf carrying him; those teeth already near his throat… Stupid! He shoved the fear back again, why would they go to all of the trouble of rescuing me just to kill me themselves! He caught the thought only after it had slipped past. Not that I needed their help!

“Hey, you,” the puppy finally called back in exasperation, wishing he could twist to see Kenshin’s face. “Can you put me down now? I can walk.”

The quiet steps continued onward, and Yahiko was sure that he was being ignored. But, impossibly, the wolf slowed and lowered his head, allowing the akita-mix to get the earth under his paws before releasing his furry scruff. Despite his claims of being fine, Yahiko had to stagger a few steps before he caught his balance again.

“The den is this way,” the red wolf commented, tactfully overlooking the puppy’s bumbling attempts to keep his feet and walking more slowly than he had been, one purple eye trained on his young charge.

Yahiko didn’t budge an inch, until finally, the Rurouni was forced to stop and look questioningly into those blazing brown eyes.

“Why are you doing this? Whatever you think you’re going to get from me, you’re not!”

Kenshin cocked his head to one side, regarding the angry puppy with an almost quizzical expression.

“Miss Kaoru and this one are not trying to get anything from you, Yahiko.”

The puppy snorted, “Yeah, sure. You’re just helping me out of the goodness of your hearts.” The tone was scathing, and for a moment Kenshin only blinked in response, then a slow smile twitched at the corners of his muzzle.

“That sounds about right, Yahiko. One can’t speak for Miss Kaoru of course, but this one does know what it is to be alone in a hostile world. With luck, such a fate will not be accorded to you.”

Half-formed sarcastic comebacks died unsaid in the puppy’s throat as he looked at that peaceful smile, a smile that seemed almost to invite the brown akita-mix to vent his ire on that face. A twinge of pain pushing its way insistently through Yahiko’s body was what finally made him decide to step forward.

It wasn’t as if he was going to stay forever or anything, he didn’t owe these wolves a thing after all, if things got too weird, or they started treating him like a moving target, he’d split. Take off somewhere over the horizon where nobody knew him, and maybe he’d be strong, as strong as Kenshin had been when he arced through the air to send Gasuke, the immovable Gasuke, tumbling into the river.

So maybe he’d stay for a bit, maybe he could learn to be strong. Gritting his teeth against the complaints of his body, Yahiko began to follow the red wolf.

With an exaggerated yawn the red wolf flopped down in his customary spot, head angled so that his nose pointed to the door. Stretching a bit, Kaoru moved to her position on the other side of the den and curled up, ringed tailtip just touching her nose, she kept her eyes half open.

Yahiko stood where they’d left him, still in the middle of the den, looking back and forth at the adults in slight confusion. Then, with that brash confidence that made her so want to pin him, the bony white chest puffed out, the tousle-furred head came up, and he proudly walked over to a spot in between them and laid down.

It didn’t take the tanuki long to notice that the puppy was having a hard time getting comfortable. He tossed and turned, getting up twice to change his position entirely. Kaoru was about two seconds from grabbing him by the scruff and shaking him silly when she heard the low whine. She raised her head, fixing the puppy with alert blue eyes, noting peripherally that Kenshin had turned one ear to their new charge.

The whine had been quiet, and obviously not something the young dog had wanted his rescuers to hear- an unconscious exhalation. He was now curled up, laying still, every muscle stiff under his spiky coat and his eyes screwed shut with such force that it had to be contrived.

And abruptly, it clicked, and Kaoru could have snapped at her own heels for not realizing it before. Moving quietly, she stood and padded over to the puppy. She knew that Yahiko knew exactly who was there and how close they were- his tiny chest was moving up and down with rapid breaths and his ears twitched constantly. Aware of a certain silent Rurouni’s scrutiny, she lay down, pressing her back up against the small quivering mass of fur and closed her eyes.

One, two, three.. she counted grimly to herself, aware that if she had miscalculated, Yahiko would at any second be leaping up and demanding to know what she was doing. But if she was right, and what they had here was a case of a puppy severely missing the contact of his mother… slowly, she felt the stiffness go out of the figure she’d pressed up against, and soft puppy warmth molded itself bonelessly against her spine.

When Kenshin awoke later, it was to the sight of Yahiko curled into Kaoru’s stomach, while the wolf wrapped around him in a shape like a crescent moon.

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