Chapter 4- Bad Dog
I keep on screaming but
There’s really nothing left to say
So get away, just get away!
I keep on fighting but
I can't keep going on this way
-Hollywood Undead, Sell Your Soul
A piercing yelp rent the night, the pounding paws that sounded frantic retreat a staccato beat against the hard-packed earth. The hunter’s moon lit the scene as clearly as noonday sun, but with far less warmth.
A snarl sounded, followed by a rumbling growl as a white dog with brown-black splotches threw itself into the roiling fray.
The impromptu battleground was littered with human refuse and the footprints of dogs that had fled the fight, as well as the whining bodies of the dogs who hadn’t been able to run.
The splotchy stray yelped as it was thrown clear of the brawl, coming to an abrupt halt as he fetched up against a discarded tire. Silence fell heavily on the clearing except for the groaning breaths of injured dogs.
A loud snort blew human-garbage scented dust away from a fleshy brown nose and the white dog, still conscious and staring at the challenger through one horror-filled brown eye (the other glued shut from the blood sluggishly oozing from the gash in his brow) tried to back up, pressing himself more firmly against the black tire.
The tall challenger of the junkyard dogs shook himself, unruly spiky fur swaying before settling back to the half-erect position it enjoyed on his lanky frame. Mismatched brown and white paws took a step forward— too close to the beaten white dog for him to feel comfortable.
“You win!” the bloodied dog groveled, scrabbling against the ground to push itself closer to the tire, further away from the strange dog that had so easily wandered into his territory and defeated all his packmates with hardly an injury to show for it. The stranger paused; brown eyes underlined by creamy fur lighting on his foe in something like surprise.
“Well, yeah,” the brash voice was insulting, but the white dog was not about to throw himself back into a fight with that monster. “I kinda figured. Ché,” he snorted again, as if the smell of the battleground disgusted him. He raised his head to stare up at the full moon, glaring balefully down at him, spotlighting the curious black marking on his back, which meant Evil in one of the human languages. “Aren’t there any tough guys around here? This fight was so Boring.”
“Boring.” Yahiko yawned theatrically, watching from the corner of his eye as Kaoru’s lip curled just one millimeter further. Another three comments and she’d snap. The female who was, by now impatiently, trying to show him the borders of their territory (hers and Kenshin’s anyway,) had a hair trigger temper, which Yahiko took great pains to purposefully set off at least once a day.
Kenshin was harder to read, a smiling warm adult who didn’t get mad, and actually made the puppy want to wrangle a complement out of that scarred face. It was weird.
Better to stick with familiar, predictable anger.
Better to make sure that even when Kaoru snapped, he wasn’t really in danger.
“Who cares where the boundary is?”
Kaoru’s movements had taken on a jerky, uneven rhythm, quite unlike the lithe grace that she had encouraged the puppy to emulate when moving through the forest.
“Because,” the she wolf gritted, “anything that lives in our territory belongs to us to hunt. If another pack comes in and hunts here, they’re stealing our food.”
“I still don’t see why it matters,” the spike-furred puppy shrugged. “You let strays wander through all the time.”
“That’s different…” Kaoru shot a look at Kenshin, the crimson-furred rearguard who had seemed quite content to let Kaoru take on the role of teaching their new charge.
“Not every territory is as lenient as this one, Yahiko,” the Rurouni chimed in obligingly. “Most packs are larger than ours and must guard their food jealously. If a pack can take over another’s territory, they will do so.” Violet eyes were grave, “Trespassing in another pack’s land is a serious offense; it has been the death of many lone wolves as well as young ones who didn’t realize the danger. That is why it is important that you recognize the boundaries and never cross them unless Miss Kaoru or myself is with you.”
Kaoru shuddered a little, gray fur rising and falling in a ripple. Yahiko frowned, glancing at the female, then back to the placid Kenshin.
“Were you ever a lone wolf, Kenshin?”
The frown deepened. “If it’s so dangerous, how did you get through other wolves territories?” Memory flashed, a scarlet blur decimating the Suhei Syndicate, but Yahiko shoved it aside. Kenshin might be a good (an absolutely amazing) fighter, but the syndicate weren’t the toughest guys out there. Kenshin gave a wry chuckle.
“Well, if one is quite sneaky and very fast, sometimes it is possible to make it through.”
It was apparent by the unmoving frown that Yahiko wasn’t entirely convinced.
“… And just walking around lets them know this is our territory.”
“Among other things,” the red wolf agreed, stepping nimbly around a fallen branch. Kaoru took up the instruction again, striped tail cutting a swaying arc in the midday air.
“Patrolling the boundaries like this lays down our pack-scent, and gives warning that this place is occupied.”
“Our… pack scent?”
Dark gray ears bobbed as Kaoru nodded, moving steadily forward. “Yeah. We each have an individual scent, but when we come together and start living in the same place we rub off on each other. That mingled scent becomes the pack scent.”
“Gross! That means I have to smell like you?” Not that Kaoru smelled bad exactly. At least, not bad like Gasuke or Tomo, but it was going to be hard convincing enemies that he was tough if he walked around smelling like he’d just had a roll in summer grass-flowers.
“I do not stink!” Kaoru snapped back, ears flattened as she glared at him, offended and angry all at once. Oh, Yahiko realized, That was three comments, wasn’t it…
And now Kaoru was looming in the way that the puppy had come to realize meant that she was going to bowl him over and pin him again. Fat chance!
No fool, Yahiko darted off into the forest, hearing the faintly sweet-smelling female charge after him like a juggernaut.
Over the half-buried rock, through a pile of fallen leaves, Yahiko left all plans behind in his headlong rush, trusting to adapting instincts to keep him from crashing, as he had the first few times Kaoru had chased him. The very first time he hadn’t realized quick enough that he ought to run away when the tanuki got mad. She’d knocked him over in a rough (but gentle compared to the yakuza) buffet.
The small pack would never know what she had intended to do next, as the puppy had launched himself into a fight with the female. After a scuffle, in which Kaoru still didn’t hurt him, even though he bit down really hard on her foot, Yahiko was subdued and life went on. Just like that.
It was beyond bizarre, knowing that even when Kaoru and Kenshin were mad, were fighting with him, he wasn’t going to get hurt. Too bizarre, and who knew how long it was going to last? Better to run. He was definitely getting better at running.
Skid around the base of this wide oak to slingshot in another direction and- Yahiko’s plan crumpled in an impact of furry body on furry body, and he fell in a tangle of limbs with the yowling cat that he had careened into.
Kaoru came up behind them in half a heartbeat’s space.
“Tae! Are you all right?”
Is she all right? Yahiko thought indignantly, feeling a prickle of claws through his thick fur and holding very still as the bobcat picked her way free of their tumble.
“Kaoru?” the spotted feline answered her friend, finally clearing herself from the brown and white puppy.
Yahiko scrambled to his feet quickly, keeping the bobcat between him and Kaoru, though the tanuki seemed to have forgotten her desire to smear him across the fallen leaves.
She was glaring at him, a little, tailtip twitching in a way that said he’d forgotten something and if he didn’t remember soon she’d educate him. And Tae looked a little miffed as she licked pale fur on her chest flat.
“Sorry,” Yahiko mumbled, his mother’s lessons nudging at him. “Wasn’t looking where I was going.”
And that was it. Tae nodded amiably at him and then turned back to the adults. No rubbing his face in it, just acceptance.
“I was looking for you, Kaoru.” Tae told her friend cheerfully. “I was wondering if you wanted to try the deer trick, the herd’s moving through.”
“The deer trick?” Kenshin echoed, a curious tilt to his head. Kaoru nodded briskly.
“Sometimes Tae and I will share a kill. In the deer trick, we find the herd, plan a route and Tae sets up an ambush.”
Tae grinned, whiskered twitching. “Kaoru is so stubborn— she just runs a deer over to where I’m waiting and,” she shrugged, examining a pawful of claws, “death comes from above.”
“You chase deer?” Yahiko’s eyes bugged out of his head. “They’re huge!”
The yakuza had never gone after anything bigger than they were. When they had bothered to go after anything at all. Kaoru rolled her eyes, but Kenshin answered first, almost blandly.
“Elk are larger yet, and moose are monstrous, but it is possible to bring down either.”
The dog and tanuki stared at the wolf, who smiled in a way that wasn’t quite oblivious. Kaoru shook herself and looked doubtfully at Yahiko.
“The deer trick might be a good idea.” The puppy couldn’t tell if Kaoru still thought he needed feeding or didn’t think he would be able to keep up with the adults on a hunt. Either option was condescending, so he made sure that Kaoru caught his scowl.
“Sessha would be interested to see your hunting methods,” Kenshin remarked thoughtfully. “There is always something new to learn.”
Kaoru’s ears tilted back just a little; surprised that Kenshin hadn’t volunteered to help. Though now that she thought about it, it would be pretty dangerous to attempt a hunt like this without first seeing what the other was likely to do. Koshijiro had always said that learning to know what a partner would do without worrying about speech or watching your back was the most important part of a hunt.
Besides, someone would need to keep an eye on Yahiko, and Tae still seemed to be under the impression that the Rurouni was an affable puppy. Strong enough to fight off small dog-packs with Kaoru, but certainly not an exceptional fighter.
“Okay,” Kaoru agreed, feeling anticipation of the hunt shivering up her spine like clear moonlight. “Where did you see the herd, Tae?”
Kenshin kept a dark red ear on the sulking puppy trailing along behind him. Yahiko had been told in no uncertain terms by all of the adults that he was to stay out of the way and stick with Kenshin.
The Rurouni did feel a certain sympathy for his reluctant charge, feeling like the most useless pack-member was never easy, but the wolf had clear memory of sharp black hooves that could deal deadly damage to an untrained hunter.
“Here should be fine, Yahiko.” Kenshin eased into some thick undergrowth, which had a clear view of the gnarled old tree that Tae had chosen to launch her attack from. The spotted feline was well camouflaged in the upper boughs, sinking into the quiet calm of the predator who must catch their prey by surprise.
Yahiko surveyed Kenshin’s chosen concealment moodily, Chocolate-brown ears flat against his head in irritation.
“I don’t see why Kaoru should get to go alone.”
Kenshin grabbed the worry that wanted to drag him off after the female by the scruff and gave it a firm shake to quiet it.
“Miss Kaoru knows what she’s doing, that she does,” the red wolf replied patiently. “And until we’ve gotten a little more used to each other, it would be unwise to hunt something so dangerous.”
Yahiko frowned at that, red-brown eyes thoughtful— but aggressively so. Yahiko, Kenshin had learned, didn’t do much peacefully—even think.
“More used to each other? How long have you and Kaoru known each other?”
“Less than a moon.” Kenshin trained his senses on the copse of trees that shielded the herd from view, hoping that Yahiko wouldn’t press the issue. He wouldn’t lie to the puppy, but as of yet only Kaoru knew about the past that he had fled, and something told him that life would be simpler the longer that he could keep it that way. Yahiko was opening his mouth to ask the Rurouni about it when the red wolf silenced him with a violet glance, signaling the puppy to get down and stay quiet.
It gratified the wolf immensely to see his wayward charge comply almost instantly, focusing his own untrained senses on the copse that Kenshin had been observing.
For the next few heartbeats, anyway.
After about a minute of no apparent change in the forest around them, Yahiko turned to the adult again, opening his mouth once more, ears now back in annoyance at having been brushed off the first time.
A pale brown form burst from the trees, a small-seeming silver-gray shadow tight to its heels. Yahiko reeled back in shock and Kenshin tensed.
The doe seemed young and strong— never a good choice for a wolf. Kaoru seemed to know that though, running out of range of the delicate-seeming legs and the wicked hooves that ended them. When the dark-eyed beast veered to the right or the left Kaoru picked up her pace to run alongside the creature and make it leap away, herding it to force it to pass beneath the tree.
It was a technique that Kenshin had seen before, but never implemented with only one wolf to drive the prey and a bobcat of all things lying in wait.
Wild-eyed the deer passed below the twisted tree and Tae landed with enviable precision on the narrow back, claws outstretched to keep her on top of things. The doe convulsed, flanks shuddering, as it seemed to go berserk. The deer leaped and twisted, bucked and charged blindly about the woods in the desperate attempt to dislodge its furry attacker. Kaoru ducked around its heels, trying to keep the doe from getting away— but by now the deer was beyond caring about the sooty predator at its feet. Kaoru had to scramble aside to avoid being trampled, and the deer charged off.
Straight toward Kenshin and Yahiko’s hiding place. The Rurouni felt the puppy go rigid beside him, and a quick glance confirmed that the youngster was paralyzed, all thought of flight lost in the face of the oncoming giant.
Another glance confirmed that Tae was still in no position for a killing blow and that Kaoru, realizing where the deer was heading, was already beginning to move in closer than was safe.
The red wolf burst from concealment in a concentrated leap, the frightened doe’s head came up instinctively as it fought to slow or change directions. The white patch of fur where the neck connected to the jaw was a target that he couldn’t miss.
Kaoru came to an abrupt halt, coming just short of flying into the crazy tangle of limbs that was Kenshin and Tae. The red wolf and frazzled bobcat tried to extract themselves from their tangle in flurries of movement that only seemed to add to the problem.
Kaoru had seen, in that crystal-clear moment when she had known that the doe was heading for her pack (for an untested pup) and the familiar red and white arc of Kenshin had burst from concealment. With cool clarity the tanuki had seen Tae’s claws lose their grip with the deer’s sudden deceleration and the calculation in the typically inscrutable Rurouni’s eyes, as a slight shift of his lithe body in the air carried him into Tae’s path. Yahiko stood on the sidelines of the scuffle, unruly fur standing out just a little more stiffly than usual. But his eyes were regaining focus, coming back to the present with a jolt. Though with a ruckus like the one laid at his paws, it would be hard for anyone to stay in dreamland.
“Miss Tae! Your claws!” Kenshin yelped as the aforementioned weapons scraped down his side.
“Hold still!” the bobcat yowled back, fur bushed impressively and her bobtail a thick bristle. With whimpered “oro’s” of distress, the red wolf managed to stop his comical squirming long enough for Tae to get clear. The cat did so with a leap, turning at once as she landed to try and lay to rest the spotted fur on her shoulders.
“Never,” she managed between licks, “want to do that again.”
“Yahiko slow down!” Kaoru scolded. “It’s not going to go anywhere!”
Yahiko, Kenshin noted, wasn’t heading the warning in the slightest, ripping large mouthfuls out of their hard-won meal and hardly swallowing before going back in for another bite.
“Yahiko, you’re going to-” Kenshin took up the warning, “-choke.” Too late. The puppy coughed, small sides heaving for a moment as Kaoru hovered nervously by his side before he visibly swallowed and raised his head in a weak glare at Kaoru’s “we tried to tell you!”
The already-familiar bickering faded into the background as Kenshin let himself relax. Their adopted charge was still unused enough to the prospect of ready food to keep this squabble from escalating into anything that the Rurouni would need to concern himself with.
Surreptitiously violent eyes scanned the slight frame. One week since they had dragged Yahiko home, literally by the scruff of his neck. Thanks to careful feeding, the curly-tailed dog had grown some, another inch and a scattered few pounds ensuring that he couldn’t be carried in the undignified puppy-hold for any length of time. But that extra inch also meant that the scattered pounds weren’t showing up as well as any of the three would like. His ribs were no longer visible, but his flanks were still too lean for a growing puppy, and his shoulder blades had a tendency to jut out at sharp angles.
Sure enough the young wolf and dog soon turned away from each other in a huff, the latter falling back on his meal with only slightly reduced gusto while Kaoru hesitated a moment, looking off to the west, where her bobcat friend had gone.
Tae had eaten with the small pack for a little while, forcing down jumpy instincts at allowing other predators near her food before calling it quits. Kenshin had helped the feline pull free a leg for her to eat in the solitude and safety of her trees, with a standing invitation to return to the kill whenever she liked.
Kaoru’s charcoal gray ears flicked back and forth a few times before she turned back to the meal once more. The two wolves and the dogs ate in partial silence, disturbed only by the repeated admonishment to “slow down, Yahiko!”
Kenshin, predictably, was the first to hear it. Moving slowly so as not to alarm his companions, the red wolf raised his muzzle from the food and almost idly licked his chops, as though merely taking a break from eating. Kaoru was the next to notice, sharp blue eyes taking in the Rurouni’s fixed stance, ears and nose angled toward something upwind. Brow furrowed, the tanuki copied his pose until she could hear what had caught his attention.
Yahiko, busily eating, jumped when he heard the quiet mutterings nearby, red-brown eyes turning almost instinctively to the adults. Kenshin was already moving forward on completely silent white paws. As the Rurouni approached, the muttering grew more distinct.
“Jerk. Didn’t have to run me all the way out to the middle of nowhere. I just got in town! Can’t a guy catch some honest sleep anymore?”
The voice and the scent that accompanied it on the light breeze were male and young, but still an adult. Definitely more Kaoru’s age than Yahiko’s.
“Gah, getting angry makes me hungry. Gotta be something to eat around here.”
Kenshin could see the young interloper now, a lanky beast whose tall gangly frame told the tale of one who hadn’t received adequate nutrition in his early seasons to fill out as his frame would suggest, but the muscle on that frame gave testimony that such starvation was a thing of the past.
The stranger had honey-brown fur with dirty white socks on all four paws and an underbelly of the same. A funny black marking spread across his back, and his brown eyes were alert despite his careless demeanor.
Wolf? Or dog? Kenshin caught the thought as the stranger came to an abrupt halt, shaking his head as if to clear it.
“Gotta make sure you aren’t on anybody’s territory Sagara!” he chided himself, with a roll of his eyes he sat back on his haunches in a careless movement. “Guess I better check where the local pack is and where the boundaries are.” He lifted his head, sucking in a breath that swelled his ribcage impressively and exposed a creamy white underjaw.
Kenshin stepped forward smoothly. “The pack boundary is quite a distance behind you,” he offered cheerfully as the stranger staggered in surprise, gathered air expelled forcefully as brown eyes bulged. “And the pack is here.”
“Don’t do that!” the stranger griped, shaking himself to resettle fur that was almost as spiky as Yahiko’s.
“One would apologize for startling you, that he would.” Kenshin offered, hearing Kaoru step out to stand alongside him, Yahiko a reluctant shadow. The puppy wrinkled his nose at the newcomer.
“Who do you think you are, anyway?”
Kenshin spared a moment to wonder if the rudeness could be excused— the three of them did have a rather valuable meal mere steps away after all, but swiftly decided that the question was moot anyway, as Kaoru instantly took the offending puppy to task.
“S’alright missy,” the stranger shrugged again, this time lazily, his tail thumping the ground. “I’m a trespasser an’ all. Name’s Sanosuke Sagara. Folks mostly call me Sano.”
“I’m Kamiya Kaoru, that’s Kenshin, and the rude fluffball at my feet is Yahiko.”
“Fluffball!” Yahiko yelped. “You-you ugly broke-faced mutt!”
Kenshin stepped neatly between the two before it could come to blows, and smiled at the mildly interested newcomer.
“So, Sanosuke, what brings you to our territory?”
Kenshin heard Yahiko settle back on his haunches with an annoyed snort.
And this is why he will never think trespassing is serious, the red wolf acknowledged ruefully. Because Miss Kaoru and this one never treat it that way.
The hazel-hued canine shrugged black marked shoulders carelessly.
“Ran into some humans back in town who wanted to cram me into a crate. Gave ‘em the slip but…” brown eyes flickered between Kaoru’s and Kenshin’s, completely passing over the puppy glaring from between them. “No offense, but all these trees look the same.”
Kenshin could almost see Kaoru mentally assigning Sagara the label of “town dog,” but it didn’t seem to fit. Sano sat, towering above the wolves with a lazy, contented air, none of the nervous excitement or panic that city-bred dogs usually showed when outside of their concrete haven. Sano had been in the woods before…
“Your sense of direction must suck.” Yahiko turned his nose up. The spike-furred stranger bristled slightly, ears flattening.
“Look,” Sano said, trying not to glower and loosing the battle, “being a puppy buys you some leeway kid, but it’s a bad idea to mouth off so much even with your folks around to back you up.”
“I’m not his mother!”
“What part of me looks related to them?!” Kaoru and Yahiko snarled— more, Kenshin guessed from the apparent insult of it being suggested that they were family than actual anger at Sanosuke.
“It’s okay,” the red wolf soothed his irritable companions, watching how their guest had stiffened from the corner of his eye. Keeping his most innocent smile firmly in place he red wolf turned to face the brown dog again. “We are a rather unusual pack, that we are.”
“’m beginning to see that,” Sanosuke muttered under his breath, Kenshin pretended not to hear.
“This one believes that earlier you were complaining of
hunger, that you were. If it is acceptable we have a meal that we might share
What?!” Yahiko yelped, yelped again as Kaoru trod deliberately on his footpaw.
“I don’t mind if you don’t, Kenshin.”
“I mind!” Yahiko insisted, but a toothy grin was already spreading across the stranger’s face.
“You had me at meal. I’m starving.”
While starving didn’t seem to apply to Sano, ravenous certainly did. Yahiko circled the remains of the deer nervously, unwilling to continue eating next to Sano’s never-stilling maw, but Kenshin and Kaoru ate a few bites more to be polite. Sano didn’t seem to mind.
Settling himself back on his haunches, the lean dog licked his chops with a contented sigh.
“Now that’s a meal. That’s the worst of sticking it out with the townies— anything you get is half-rotted even when it’s fresh.”
“How would you know the difference?” Yahiko sniped, glowering at the remains of their once-impressive meal. Sano pinned his ears back, but Kaoru snapped off a response first.
“So help me Yahiko, if you’re rude one more time I will let Sanosuke go after you, and you’ll deserve it!”
Sano chuckled, “Look out there half-pint, big sis isn’t going to watch out for you any more!”
“I already said we aren’t related stupid! They’re wolves, I’m a dog, how would that have even happened?!”
Brown fur rippled in a shrug, the black marking on Sano’s back dancing as the hairs that comprised it shifted.
“Didn’t say anything about blood, kid. Sisters is sisters and brothers is brothers. It’s written all over the pair of you.” A white-socked hindpaw rose to dig at an itch on the side of Sano’s head. “But speaking of wolves and dogs, what did you think I was?”
“A dog obviously.” Red-brown eyes flicked to his hero, then back at the interloper. “Kenshin aside, I’ve never seen a wolf that wasn’t gray.”
“Only half right on both counts.” Sano dug a little harder for a second, then shook himself.
“A hybrid?” Kenshin supplied with faint interest.
“The same,” Sano agreed, “Wolf father, dog mother, mixed up kids.”
“I’ve never met one before,” Kaoru admitted. “Though I think Tae knew one or two at her old place.”
“We’re kinda scarce in the wild,” Sano nodded, “but really not all that special. Just more likely to get taken for some tame mutt and chased around by humans.”
“So are you new to this area then, Sanosuke?”
“Yeah, wandered in two nights ago, I’ve been living in the junkyard, looking for a decent fight.”
“For a… what?” Kaoru blinked. Sano grinned, displaying all of his teeth.
“A fight, a tussle, a scrape. I wander around looking for anybody tough enough to be a challenge.”
“Why?” Kenshin asked, perplexed. Sano shook his head in an abortive movement.
“It’s just what I do. I like an honest fight with no hard feelings, but any kind’ll do. I really just can’t stand to see injustice you know? Rubs me the wrong way, like seeing a bird underwater or something.” Sano’s eyes glinted, turning hard in the late afternoon light, “Only trouble is most bullies can’t fight worth anything.”
“That does seem to be the way of it,” Kenshin agreed ruefully. Sano’s ears perked up instantly.
“You’re a fighter, Kenshin?”
The red-furred wolf retreated a subtle half-step with a smile. “Oh no, this one’s skills are nothing to speak of.”
Yahiko frowned, ears tilted back. “What are you talking about Kenshin?”
Kaoru jumped in, quickly moving between Sano and Kenshin, her striped tail bristling.
“Kenshin doesn’t believe in fighting for no reason,” she insisted firmly, stance daring the lanky fighter to press the issue. Sanosuke smiled, but his ears had lowered a fraction.
“All right missy, all right! Don’t suppose you want a fight
Kaoru snorted, but relaxed. “There’s no point in it.”
“Like I said, no hard feelings. I know I’m a fighting fool and most folks aren’t.” The hybrid pushed himself to his feet in an easy motion, towering over his companions. “If you ever change your mind though, you can always find me over in the junkyard. I’m not planning on wandering off for a spell.”
Kenshin smiled, but made no comment on the offer. “Well, would you like this one to guide you back to the town, Sano?”
The hybrid shook his head, “Nah, I’ll make it back if you just point me in the right direction.”
Kenshin had doubts about that, but did as requested and gave Sagara some brief directions. With a jaunty farewell, the visitor left them at an easy peace.
“What a weirdo,” Yahiko muttered derisively.
Sano set an easy pace for himself, a jaunty stride that made his plumy tail sway idly from side to side. There was no particular hurry to get back to town, and the weight of a full stomach was a comfortable incentive to keep a steady pace. It was nice, the lanky hybrid reflected, to be on friendly terms with a local pack for a change. If two wolves and a dog made a pack…
It was a shame that Kenshin’d turned down the chance for a scuffle— anybody with a scar like that across his face had to be some kind of fighter. Most brawlers, you got that close to their throat, they were as good as dead, that Himura wasn’t implied that the red wolf was something… special.
Sano let his tongue curl in an impressive yawn, shaking himself. It had been a long time since he’d had a real challenge, he might just be projecting on that Kenshin guy.
A hideous yowl split the air and Sano winced, ears flat to his head as he looked around. Nothing amiss was visible, but he could hear hissings and spittings coming from somewhere to his left.
Catfight… the brown hybrid deduced, none of my business.
At least, it wasn’t until his sensitive ears caught the growling of dogs from the same place. Almost wistfully he eyed the path that would lead him back to town, aware that once he left it, his chances of finding it again were slim at best.
But between a fight and trotting on back to the junkyard, there was no real contest.
It was easy to find the scuffle, in their anger the contenders had become quite vocal. Four dogs surrounded a squalling bobcat. The cat’s fur was disheveled, standing on end to double her size as wide eyes stared with animosity at her tormenters. A nearby tree had deep gouge marks, testimony to the cat’s attempt at escape.
She didn’t seem injured, the dogs who circled her were keeping a healthy distance from the slashing claws, bleeding lines on the flanks of those who had gotten too close a stinging incentive to keep back. The cat was in a panic, hyper aware of all that was around her, and was the first to notice Sano taking stock of the situation. Despair swamped her features, sure that the stranger was here to help he mongrels that tormented her. As if the hybrid had needed another reason to interfere in he uneven fight.
“Oi,” he said, annoyed. The four dogs looked over at him in surprise. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Mind your own business, mutt,” a dog who looked like some sort of hound advised, irritated at having to split his attention between the cat and the interloper.
Subtly, Sano shifted his weight, easing brown and white paws into a position that would allow him to spring forward with devastating force.
“You see, it’s kinda funny. I met the local pack, I know I’m still in their territory, and they didn’t mention you. I’m getting a pretty convincing hunch that you don’t belong here.”
“You got a long snout in our business,” the spoke-hound growled. He jerked his head in command at a shaggy tan dog on his left. “Get him.”
Sano was moving forward to meet him almost before his chosen opponent had broken from the circle. Shaggy tan tried to go in low; most dogs did when trying to fight the tall hybrid. With a feral, fanged grin, Sano turned, bulling a muscular shoulder into his opponent’s charge, deflecting teeth from their intended target and seizing his attacker’s neck between his own teeth. The other dog froze in consternation, with a muffled evil chuckle Sano slung him away, watching with amusement as he fetched up against a tree with a yelp.
“That wasn’t very nice of you,” the fighter observed with a roguish grin. “Sending your guy after me all on his lonesome.” The brown and white hybrid cocked his head to one side, “If you’re going to stand a chance, you gotta come all at once.”
“Nishiwaki…” one of the other dogs muttered, glancing between the leader hound, the still-spitting bobcat and Sanosuke’s fanged grin. Nishiwaki hesitated, then straightened with a show of bravado.
“Last chance to leave, stranger.”
Sano rolled his eyes. “Are we gonna do this thing or not?”
With bad grace Nishiwaki and his two remaining dogs stepped away from the bobcat, who was up a tree and peering down from her chosen limb in seconds. Sano paced forward to meet the dogs.
“Well, I was spoiling for a fight. Guess beggars can’t be choosers.” The hybrid launched himself into the brawl with reckless abandon, adrenaline and euphoria wiping out conscious thought and leaving behind pure action and reaction. Nishiwaki moved to attack Sanosuke’s flank, trusting his cohorts to keep the fighter busy. Sanosuke took the punishing bite to his shoulder without even a wince, a thick ruff of fur protecting him from the worst of the damage. With an almost disappointed sigh, Sano turned his head and closed his jaws around the back of Nishiwaki’s neck. Maintaining his grip, the half-breed pivoted the rest of his body, prying Nishiwaki’s jaws loose from its hold. The hound put aside for a moment, his cronies fell swiftly. Under Sano’s undivided attention, Nishiwaki followed suit.
Sano rolled his shoulder blades, trying to ignore the bad taste in his mouth that always came after a boring fight.
“Now,” the hybrid said meaningfully, “try to keep out of other folk’s territories.”
Nishiwaki was struggling back to his feet, none of the dogs were seriously injured, all should be able to stumble away.
“Who are you?”
A hard glint came into warm brown eyes, “My fight name is Zanza. I’ll take any comers over in the junkyard if you want to have another go.”
Silence bit down on the defeated thugs, ignoring them, Sano looked up the cat in the tree. His ears twitched slightly as they left, but, defeated, they no longer held any interest for him. “You okay, miss?”
“Fine,” the cat managed after a moment, the bite of her claws in the tree suggesting that she had no plans of coming down. Sano didn’t particularly blame her.
The fear-raised fur was lowering now as the feline began to relax. “Thank you so much for your help!”
Sanosuke grinned, “No trouble, I was in the area anyway. Any idea why those jokers were hassling you?”
Tawny spotted fur rippled in a shrug, “I’m friends with someone who embarrassed them recently.”
“With guys like that, it must not have been too hard.” The brown hybrid cocked his head to one side, “I’ll let you get on with your day ma’am, but do you think you could point me in the direction of town?”
It took Sano an inordinately long time to make his way out of the woods and back to the junkyard. The bobcat he’d rescued had been kind enough to point him in the right direction but, as often happened to the fighter, the right direction quickly became lost amid the myriad of other directions.
The sun had gone down as he walked, and brisk wind heralded coming winter as it prodded the wolf-dog, raising the thick ruff of fur on Sano’s neck to block the chill. The moon had risen hours ago, but with the retreat of its brighter brother it now shone strongly, illuminating the already-familiar contours of human refuse and cluttered desolation.
Sano sighed, trusting his keen senses to warn him if any dog planned an ambush of revenge, and picked his way through the rubble. He already knew his way around here; towns were easy, in their sleazy, grimy way. One smell always meant the same thing, everything was disgusting, but in being so, was predictable. The forest was pure, sickeningly pure. He’d never be able to find his way through a place like that again.
Locating the tattered couch the alpha junkyard dog had used as a personal bed, Sano leapt up and sprawled out, sinking into the broken cushions and yellow padding. Brown eyes surveyed his conquered land briefly, before closing.
Fickle fortune had left Gohei’s side. A moon ago, he and his followers would have been living like lords off of his vast territory, secure, strong and well-fed. Now the former leader of a rapidly-dwindling pack gnawed on the sparse remains of roadkill. Reduced to carrion— and not even identifiable carrion. The crippled mutt glowered at indiscriminate fur and crushed bones.
Crushed, the way that his forepaw had been crushed by a tiny warrior, crushed, like the control that he had once enjoyed over his land. If he stayed here, the pack would only continue to dwindle, dogs who had once flocked to him for his strength felt no terror in abandoning him now. It was clear to Goehi that there was only one thing to be done— go back and kill that arrogant red-furred bastard and the Kamiya girl, take back the territory that he had rightfully stolen to begin with. But none of what was left of his pack were willing to fight the wolves again.
They’ve all lost their nerve. But with any luck taking out that kitty-cat Kamiya was always talking to would snap them out of it. It was a simple enough thing, simple enough that Gohei saw no need to go personally. Let the whelps enjoy a kill on their own and remember the good old days, they would come trotting back to his leadership with wagging tails.
Having removed everything he could from his “meal,” Gohei turned and walked back from the side of the road, into the long grasses. His heavy frame rocked in uneven rhythms as he moved, the front paw that Battousai had savaged refusing to properly take its share of weight. The big dog made it back to his temporary hideout, some almost-overgrown long-forgotten culvert, and settled lazily on the cool concrete, intent on a nap in the fading heat of the day.
The dry crackle of snapping grass woke him, and Gohei growled in irritation. From the loud rustlings emerged faithful Nishiwaki, flanked by only two other dogs. The growl deepened; the hound had left with four. Desertions were coming thick and fast since Gohei’s defeat.
“Nishiwaki,” he acknowledged his lieutenant, voice carrying the anger that had been in the growl. “Where are Han and Paco?” Nishiwaki, it seemed, was too tired to even flinch back from his master’s tone. “We ran into some trouble.”
Gohei’s ochre eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, you ran into trouble? I sent you out to make trouble. Are you telling me you couldn’t even do that right?”
The dog on Nishiwaki’s right, a dark gray creature with short curly fur who answered to Jack, bristled.
“Someone picked a fight with us! How were we supposed to know that one mutt would be that good?”
Gohei laughed in derision, and Nishiwaki flattened his floppy ears at the sound. “A new guy, boss, and tough. Fought off the three of us at once.” Tactfully, Nishiwaki didn’t bring up the pack members that had deserted on the way to, and coming back from the forest. “He said his name was Zanza.”
The laughter slowed, stopped altogether as Gohei’s dark brown brow furrowed in thought. “Zanza…” his ears stood straight up as a slow grin split his muzzle to display prominent teeth. “This is perfect.”
“Boss,” Nishiwaki shook his head so hard his ears slapped the sides of his skull, “he’s on their side!” Awkwardly, Gohei pushed himself to his feet, favoring his crippled paw.
“Zanza,” he growled in satisfaction, “is on no one’s side. Now, where is he?”
It was cold, not death-cold but scared-cold because everything had gone gray and blurry so that he couldn’t see where he was. And he was alone. The warmth of the man-den with his parents and those curiously-shaped gentle paws the humans had but didn’t walk on was gone. But he knew why it was gone and he wouldn’t be going back.
If only he could see where he was so he might know where he was going— but everything had run together and was indistinct in that murky sea of grays. Out of that fog stepped something— something warm and real with sharply defined patterns of black and white that touched but did not mingle. And a quiet smile that made the rioting grays surrounding him settle so that he could see where he was and where he was going, where they were going, because surely now he wasn’t going to be alone again…
A loud –crack- of angry thunder escaping from a cylindrical prison, and the world dissolved into a chaos of grays again.
The brown hybrid woke with a violent twitch, the misused springs of the ancient couch groaning in dismay at the motion. Damn dreams… he growled quietly, resettling himself on the sparse cushions.
That fight earlier hadn’t been anything like enough. Not enough to enjoy, not enough to exhaust, not enough to evade the damn dreams that haunted his nights. I didn’t want to move on so early, but if I can’t find a worthwhile fight soon… Sano felt his lips curl back a hair, threatening to expose sharp teeth. Physical fights were his forte, the twisted depths of his subconscious was something he preferred to avoid altogether. Moodily, the fighter allowed his eyes to close again, though his mind was far from sleep. He didn’t want to see the junkyard right now, just the same as any of the other junkyards or alleyways or culverts he had slept in for the majority of his life.
It was the smell that alerted him first, Sano kept his eyes closed, but felt his spiky pelt begin to bristle as powerful muscles were pulled taut. Apparently, the dogs from before hadn’t taken the time to invest in brains since their defeat.
Sano tracked their progress with his ears, trying to keep his face relaxed and smirk-free as the dogs entered the yard and picked their way toward his couch.
It was a little contrived, pausing for dramatic effect before allowing his eyes to snap open and pin the interlopers with a glare, but Sano saw no harm in standing by the classics. His brown gaze raked two dogs staring down at the lanky figure sprawled on the broken sofa and a third’s hindquarters as he abandoned the other two with all haste.
Two on one. Not good odds. A nasty sort of smile was hovering around Sano’s muzzle. For them.
“Oi,” the fighter growled almost lethargically, “it’s rude to wake folks, you know?” He stretched, observing his “guests.” One was the hound dog he had tangled with earlier, dismay clear on his chestnut-marked face and the nervous shifting of his white pawas giving loud testimony to the dog’s desire to be anywhere else.
The other dog was bigger, covered in thick dark fur with a tail that curled up over his back. An experienced, fighter, Sano quickly noted the left forepaw the dark dog held limply off the ground.
Disgust soured his mouth. “If you’re here to buy a fight, I’ll have to refuse. I don’t fight cripples.”
Dark doggie bared his teeth in a snarl, but quickly composed himself. “Nishiwaki tells me that you’re Zanza.”
“What’s it to you?” There was something devilishly delightful about being outside of a pack hierarchy. Tall dark and lame was just about grinding his molars at the disrespect he was being shown, but there was really nothing that he could do about it.
Nishiwaki shifted again, easing back a step. Sano watched the retreat with one eye, but the dark dog appeared oblivious, his attention centered on Zanza.
“My name is Gohei, and I have a proposition for you.”
Nishiwaki turned and fled. Sano watched with a cocked brow as Gohei turned with a snarled “Coward!” and stumbled on his bad leg, winding up shoving dirt with his snout.
“Look buddy,” Sano drawled, finally seeing fit to jump down from his couch. “I’m not going to handle your internal disputes for you.”
Gohei shoved himself back to his feet with a move he’d gotten far too much practice at in the last few weeks.
“Hear me out,” it was almost amusing to hear that impotent rage simmering in Goehi’s voice as he struggled to control his temper.
Hiruma took a moment to breathe through his nose, forcing his thoughts to resettle so he could carry on with his plan. It wouldn’t do to antagonize Zanza, the half-breed was notorious for his rude bearing and unwillingness to submit to authority—anyone’s authority. As no one Gohei had ever heard of had beaten the young fighter in a quest to teach him respect, it seemed unlikely that this would change.
“I want to let you know about a fight opportunity.” Torn between the instinct for a dramatic pause to build suspense, and speaking quickly so that Zanza wouldn’t lose interest, Gohei wound up taking a short, sharp breath. “One that will challenge even you.”
The grin slid off the fighter-for-hire’s face, the wolfish lines of his face showing through as he stilled. “I’m listening.”
“I used to lead a pack of dogs in the forest near here.” Gohei’s face darkened with the memory. “Then that no-good wolf showed up and took over the territory.” He gritted his teeth in effort to force out the hated words, “Bastard defeated my entire pack at the same time.”
“And you want me to do… what, exactly?” Sano’s eyes had narrowed dangerously, but Gohei plowed on ahead.
“I want you to make the woods run red with the blood of Kenshin Himura.”
Sano’s ears flattened and the fur along his spine began to bristle, “Don’t get yourself confused, pal. I’m no hired murderer. I do clean fights— it’s up to the opponent whether they live or die.”
Gohei’s tongue ran over his chops nervously, “Of course not. All I want is that Himura guy put in his place.” The crippled leader’s ears flattened pathetically, “He can’t come around trashing established packs for the heck of it.” Shaking himself, Sano looked sidelong at the mutt who had invaded his junkyard.
“You know, I’ve met Himura. Of the two of you, he seems a helluva lot more trustworthy.”
Gohei seethed, grinding his teeth together, “He may play at the harmless wanderer, but it’s just a ploy. That wolf has no honor. But then,” Gohei sighed, head lowering, eyes surreptitiously locked on Sano’s expression. “You wouldn’t expect a fair fight from Battousai the Manslayer.”
Despite having watched for it, Gohei was unprepared for the ferocity of Sano’s response. The hybrid snarled, ears pinned flat against his head and wrinkled muzzle displaying all of his sharp teeth. Gohei was bowled ears over tail in a swift move from the lanky fighter, trapped with his chestnut underbelly exposed and lethal fangs inches from his eye.
“If you’re lying to me, I swear I’ll kill you!”
Gohei tried to press himself into the ground, “I’m not! I swear it! That crazy fighting pet killed one of my pack!”
Sanosuke growled, backing away from the dog to pace restlessly. Gohei lost no time in regaining his feet, eyeing the hostile warrior appreciatively. There was the fighter at last, always lurking just below the surface, ready for any challenge. If anyone could cripple that damn wolf, Zanza could.
Sano fought back a growl as he bulled through the underbrush into the Battousai’s territory. Alone, he had stressed to his “employer.” This fight was for Zanza alone, not for some power-grubbing dog to cheapen by his presence. For two bits Sano would gladly thrash Gohei and leave him sobbing… like he had thrashed the dog?
Battousai, the growl ripped through his chest at full force. He should have paid attention to what his instincts had been trying to say earlier. A red wolf with a cross-shaped scar on his left cheek, absently commenting on the nature of opponents in fights. Battousai the manslayer, the monster who fought his own kind for the human’s profit, living in the forest like he deserved to be here.
Sano didn’t know quite where he was heading, but that didn’t bother him, his feet could always lead him to a fight.
Kenshin paused in his last patrol, red ears turning to better catch the forest sounds. Kaoru had taken Yahiko back to the den.
While the puppy might deny it (and would, given any opportunity) he needed his sleep at this stage in his life.
Dragging his thoughts back from their foray into the den, Kenshin prodded them back towards the task at hand. There was a wild crashing and crackling of low plants being trampled and brushed aside as something (probably a predator, prey animals tried not to make so much noise) moved through the forest without concern for stealth.
A quick check of the informative evening breeze made Kenshin’s brow crease in slight unease. That was Sano, but the smell, and Kenshin could think of only two reasons for the hybrid to be barreling through the territory.
The first was that he had never found his way out in the first place, which was possible, but unlikely.
The second was that he had come back for some errand, and the reckless abandon with which the brown dog threw himself through the trees suggested that it was not an amiable one.
With silent thanks that Kaoru and Yahiko were out of the way for this— whatever it was, Kenshin ghosted through the trees toward the sound of vegetation in distress.
The fighter was easy to find.
“Sanosuke,” Kenshin called, halting his acquaintance’s rough passage through the outskirts of a small bush. The fighter’s abrupt stop brought an eerie silence to the wood. Kenshin found himself shifting into a deceptively harmless stance that would allow him to react quickly to any move that Sano might make.
The hybrid turned slowly to face the wolf that had come up behind him. “Kenshin,” his voice was tight with anger, his hazel-brown eyes hard. “I’ve come to fight with you.”
Kenshin frowned, feeling his own eyes narrow fractionally in response to Sano’s challenge. “One has already told you he does not desire to fight.”
“Afraid I can’t take that answer today, Kenshin.” Sano paused, “Or rather, Battousai.”
The red wolf stiffened slightly, the fur on his shoulders beginning to bristle as muscles tensed. Sanosuke gave a low mirthless chuckle.
“You know, I gotta admit, that’s a good disguise. Even a fighting fool like me didn’t see through your act.”
“This one does not act, that he does not.” Kenshin’s voice was level, his face immobile as he stared at the intruder. “But one does wonder whether you are acting, Sanosuke.”
Sano snorted, “Cut the word-games, Battousai. I’ve come to fight with you.”
“Then allow this one a question, Sanosuke.” Kenshin didn’t wait for an acknowledgement of his request. “What grievance brings you against this one?”
“I guess I can answer that. Not sure you’ll like it though.” Zanza rolled his shoulders back, loosening his frame. “Fellow named Gohei told me who you were. He thinks I’m doing this fight for him.”
“I have my own reasons,” Sano’s face was closed, hinting that the conversation was as well. “All I care about right now is defeating Battousai the Manslayer.”