Amber Forest

Chapter 5- The Origin of the Evil

And I’ll survive, paranoid

I have lost the will to change

And I’m not proud, cold-blooded, fake

I will shut the world away

Fall!

-Breaking Benjamin, I Will Not Bow

Yahiko glared at the obstruction in his path. The obstacle appeared unfazed by the heat of the puppy’s gaze. Kaoru didn’t budge from where she sat blocking the exit of the den.

“I thought you guys were supposed to be showing me around. How is making me stay in here helping me figure out where the territory ends?” Yahiko growled, settling back on his haunches. Kaoru was bristling slightly; fur raised in response to the irritation of arguing with her young charge the whole way back to the den.

“I don’t particularly feel like dragging you back here by the scruff because you wound up too tired to walk! Kenshin’ll be back in a little while, he’s just doing a quick run-through.”

The akita-mix puppy made a show of rolling his eyes in disgust, stalking over to the patch of bare earth that he had staked out as “his.” He would never admit it aloud, but lying down and letting his body curl into itself to avoid the light chill that came with night felt good, the weariness that had been haunting his bones ebbing to a dull whisper.

“Pah, like you could drag me back anyway,” Yahiko muttered, eyes half-closed. It was worth the comment to hear Kaoru’s quiet and quickly suppressed growl.

It wouldn’t do to let her think that she was getting the last word on the subject after all. The puppy watched as Kaoru allowed herself to grumble about his contrary nature for another half-minute before standing with a stretch that sent her ringed tail in a lazy arc over her back.

“I swear-” her voice was no louder than the growl had been as she moved away from her guard-dog position at the entrance. Yahiko would never know what she planned to follow that with.

Kaoru froze, head turned slightly back toward the entrance with a frown etching itself with deep lines into the features of her face. Yahiko felt his ears straighten from their half-relaxed position, angling toward the entrance to see if they couldn’t catch whatever was disturbing Kaoru. Was Kenshin coming back already? He must have been moving pretty fast to have finished so early. That or he hadn’t done a complete patrol, but Yahiko didn’t think that was the case. Kenshin was a pretty thorough guy.

Slowly, Kaoru turned to face the entrance, inhaling deep breaths through her nose to see what the scents coming from the outside could tell her.

Her summer-sky eyes widened, every muscle in her slight frame suddenly tense, even her ever-twitching tailtip immobile.

Yahiko could hear what she’d been hearing now, a steady crunch of forest detritus underpaw, along with the odd sound of something dragging or scraping along what the creature stepped on.

The she-wolf moved in a shadow-hued blur, placing herself squarely in front of Yahiko, facing the entrance with a growl rumbling through her throat. The puppy was scrambling to get to his feet when the stranger made it into the den.

“Gohei,” the name pried itself free from Kaoru’s throat in the form of a snarl.

Gohei grinned, carelessly displaying all of the teeth he could manage. “Kamiya.”

Yahiko had seen the former owner of Kenshin and Kaoru’s territory before, once, when the forest dog had visited with Tanishi. He hadn’t seen the former leader since his encounter with the two wolves that had adopted him, however. Gohei practically reeked of human refuse and roadkill, his frame a few pounds lighter than it had been, giving testament to his new status as scavenger. And the left paw that he held off the ground, begrimed with the dirt of the forest floor, was definitely new.

“You were beaten, Gohei!” Kaoru warned, “Leave this territory now!

Yahiko was faced with the sudden uncomfortable realization that if not for his presence, Kaoru would have already thrown herself into battle with the larger dog.

“Peh,” Gohei’s lips peeled back to display his gums and the fangs rooted in them. “I don’t remember getting chased out by any female. And that wanderer isn’t coming to save you.”

“What makes you think I need his help to clear out a cripple like you?” Kaoru threw back quickly, shooting a glare at Yahiko as the puppy inched to stand beside her rather than behind. Sure he didn’t really like Kaoru, of course he didn’t, but Gohei probably wouldn’t think twice about trying to kill him.

“We both know the truth,” Gohei moved forward slowly with that peculiar gait of his, “we both know that you’ve never had the guts to face me.” The dark head turned slightly, so that Hiruma regarded the pair with one malice-filled eye, and gave them an excellent view of his teeth. “Hope you like this hole, Kamiya. You and the brat will never see the outside again.”

“We’ll see about that!” Yahiko snapped, launching himself toward the intruder.

He was entirely unprepared for the sharp tug as his scruff was caught by pointed teeth and he was hauled back. The world moved dizzily for a moment, there were massive fangs before him, closing on the air where he would have been in a spine-breaking chomp, but there were teeth behind him too, wrenching the puppy away from the danger.

Kaoru pivoted, slinging Yahiko back behind her and pushing at him with her head in frantic movements— desperate to get him out of harm’s way and to face Gohei once more.

The tanuki shoved him back, cramming Yahiko into a tight space that smelled of stale earth and his own fear. The tanuki whirled, blocking the collapsed exit, turning to face the intruder and taking a solid stance. Every line of her silvery gray body screamed it— she was not going to move. No one was getting to Yahiko.

The puppy shuddered, already spiky fur standing on end.

Kanbi had stood like that only twice in his life. It was his first real memory, still hazy on the edges, like viewing the human settlement through mist. He had been very young, lying exhausted in a fuzzy puppy-pile with his siblings, eyes that had just recently cracked open against the summer sun and tiny triangle ears still deaf to sound.

But he could see, and smell. Could see his mother stiffen, staring into the summer grasses that sheltered her family from view, could smell the sudden fear.

Kanbi stood over her puppies in an eerily silent world, braced for an attack she couldn’t see. Memory that far back was tricky— but Yahiko thought he remembered a strange dog finding them, and leaving quickly. That hadn’t been important. What was important was the feeling of safety that had wrapped around him, the awe he’d felt at the strength that he’d seen on his mother.

But it had been an illusion.

The day that the yakuza had come Kanbi took the stance once more. Yahiko was still young enough, still grieving over the loss of Ronin and Shinai enough, that he had cowered behind his mother’s legs rather than facing the strangers like the guard dogs he was descended from.

Gasuke was there, as Tanishi spoke to his mother about safety and food. The Doberman had prowled their small home as the other dogs trampled the concealing grass flat in their carelessness, leaving their small home naked on a hostile plain. Gasuke had circled, and circled, and finally just brushed Kanbi’s shoulder with his. The stance was broken in an instant.

In the place of a hostile mother-dog was a cowering former pet who had never been in a fight, and who was already ill from starvation.

That stance seemed to promise protection, but…

The mental image of his gray-and-white mother shifted to a silver-and-gray Kaoru falling. And red, so much red… red—Kenshin!

Yahiko squirmed around in the niche Kaoru had shoved him into. According to the tanuki, this used to be a secondary exit from the den. The puppy attacked the pile of earth and loose stone between him and the open air with white paws, scrabbling desperately.

He could hear the sounds of the fight starting behind him, he wanted to turn and watch, but he had to see what he was doing, he had to go get Kenshin.

A pained yelp rent the air and the accompanying burst of furious energy saw dark earth crumble beneath Yahiko’s digging. There was an opening. Small, oh so painfully small, and twisty with old tree roots rupturing the tunnel ceiling and floor, but there was an opening, and Yahiko could smell fresh air tricking through the darkness.

With a last look backward at the confused jumble of silvery-gray and brown-black fur, Yahiko wormed his way into the opening, for once blessing the small stature that allowed him to pass with difficulty instead of barring his way.

Panic was a staccato beat in his chest, he could hear the snarls and growls of the fight he’d left behind, but ahead there was nothing but darkness. Twice Yahiko rammed his nose into the dirt when the ground rose unexpectedly and he was crawling on collapsed tunnel ceiling rather than compacted tunnel floor. Three times he bounced his head off of the roots snaking down from the ceiling, the last time he was convinced that it was not a root at all, but rather a nasty hard rock.

It should have been slow going, but Yahiko crawled forward with reckless abandon, dislodged dirt trickling down warningly onto his back, and every now and then a dislodged rock thudded down behind him, followed by a shower of the earth that had held it in place.

But the puppy didn’t slow down, he couldn’t, because he couldn’t hear the fight anymore and that was more terrible than he could bear. What if he was already too late?

The tunnel terminated as a small hole— so small that Yahiko could barely scrape himself past it into the cool night air. In the open again, the puppy wanted to collapse from sheer relief but didn’t dare. Kenshin, he had to find Kenshin.

For the first time the puppy wished that he’d paid better attention to the territory lessons Kaoru’d been trying to pound into his skull. He had emerged at the base of an old elm tree, probably the owner of the roots that had so assaulted him on his journey. Over his shoulder, he could just see the hazel leaves that hid the den from around the base of another tree. With as long as the tunnel-journey had seemed to take, he had been sure that he would emerge somewhere far from the den, rather than just a stones-throw away.

Gotta find Kenshin… which way did he go? The panic beating at his narrow chest was urging Yahiko to just pick a direction and start running, yelping all the while for help! He struggled with the impulse, pushing it aside with difficulty, as if he wrestled with flesh and blood rather than his own panic. He didn’t know which way Kenshin had gone, and the territory was big enough that just picking a direction would almost certainly not lead him to help. Kaoru needed him to be smart right now, not some stupid scared puppy.

Yahiko forced himself to hold still long enough to take a deep steadying breath through his nose. As he did so, a faint scent tugged at him. The smell of endless wind over the last warm day in autumn. Kenshin!

Yahiko took off after the elusive scent, willing it to get stronger, to lead him to its owner as he careened through the forest. Kenshin!!


Ever since Sano had mentioned the name of Battousai, Kenshin’s face had shut down. The self-deprecating humor that the red wolf wore like a second skin had vanished, and the cheery violet eyes were guarded, assessing.

Sanosuke shifted his weight, sliding his paws into a stance that allowed him to react quickly. This wouldn’t be a fight like other fights, the hybrid allowed himself a grim smile, this was going to be a challenge.

Kenshin hadn’t visibly shifted his position from the guarded stance that he had opened the conversation with. The fighter-for-hire waited two heartbeats longer before realizing with a surge of annoyance that Kenshin wasn’t going to start the attack.

A low growl reverberated in his chest and he tensed. Great, now I look like the bad guy. Well, he’d played the villain before, but he hadn’t expected that it would be necessary when facing a fiend like the Battousai.

The brown hybrid rushed forward, expecting to slam into the red-furred killer and bowl him over. The impact never came. Light as autumn leaves on the breeze, his opponent leapt over his headlong rush to land almost delicately behind Zanza.

Sano whirled, paws skidding on the rough loam of the forest floor, cutting an arc that brought the red wolf into view once more. The bastard didn’t even look smug.

So headlong rushes were out of the question— that almost neutralized the advantage the hybrid had with his larger size and weight. Moving slower to get close would give him a greater chance to hit— but with far less force.

Sano moved in a series of quick steps to close the distance, snarling in annoyance when Kenshin moved to the left, keeping the space between the two combatants constant without retreating directly.

“Fight me!”

“There is no reason to-” Kenshin broke off, his posture shifting from evasive to alert. He raised his head, eyes scanning the forest to their right, his ears pricked forward and nose twitching slightly as he inhaled with the deep breaths characteristic of picking out a scent.

Okay… so I could attack him now…If I wanted to feel sleazy for the next three weeks. Sano grumbled, the chain of thought breaking off as his ears caught what Himura’s obviously had.

The reckless snap of abused greenery as something charged through it, the sobbing breaths of a creature pushed past endurance, moving by will alone.

The puppy from earlier, Yahiko, burst into view through the undergrowth. His chocolate-brown ears were flat against his skull, red-brown eyes wide and terrified as he sucked in gasping breaths. The young dog cried out as he saw the red wolf, what was probably supposed to be a name, but his oxygen-starved lungs didn’t let him finish. Going too fast to come to any sort of graceful stop, the puppy went into an undignified skid, fetching up against Kenshin’s white forelegs before stubbornly pushing himself back onto his trembling paws.

The kid looked up at the Battousai as if he were the last hope of the world, and something about that churned in Sano’s stomach.

“Yahiko? What happened?”

Yahiko sucked air twice more before he could answer. “K-kaoru!” he managed, gasping, “Gotta help Kaoru! Gohei… in the den… gonna kill her!”

Kenshin swore, a word that had Sano reflexively looking at the puppy for a reaction. Yahiko’s legs had given out again, and he’d given up talking in favor of trying once more to catch his breath.

Kenshin looked down at his young charge, out at the forest from whence he had come, and over to Sano in quick movements, purple eyes filled with calculation.

“This will have to wait, Sano.” There was no room for argument in that voice. Not that Sano was planning on arguing. He hadn’t been hired to kill anybody, whatever Gohei might think. Much less a female.

Battousai glanced at the puppy at his feet again, gauging the likelihood of Yahiko keeping up. Slim, Sano knew, very slim.

“Go on, Battousai,” Sano said gruffly, jerking his head towards the woods, “I’ll keep an eye on the kid.”

Kenshin flinched visibly, darting a glance down at Yahiko, who was suddenly staring at the wolf as though he’d grown two heads that could breathe fire.

Oops, looks like somebody didn’t know… Hard not to feel guilty for spilling the beans with expressions like those.

Kenshin shook himself free of the paralysis first. “This one will explain later, Yahiko.” Without a backward glance, the red wolf vanished into the undergrowth. Sano sat back on his haunches, impressed despite himself at the speed and silence Battousai had moved with, the leaves had barely trembled at his passing.

Guess that’s why he didn’t worry about leaving the kid with somebody who was trying to fight him earlier. It was hard to argue with speed like that.

Yahiko was struggling again, white legs shaking with strain as he forced himself to stand once more and took a few stumbling steps after Kenshin. Sano rolled his shoulder blades as he got back to his feet.

“You gonna be able to make it, kid?”

The glare that Yahiko shot him was positively withering. Heh, get some height and weight on him and we’ve got ourselves a professional death glare…

“Of course I can!” the puppy snapped, letting the momentum from a stumble carry him forward another step.

“Good,” Zanza caught up in a few easy steps, standing beside his self-imposed charge, obviously waiting for the kid to keep moving before he started off. “Because I don’t want to carry you. So lead the way, kid. And while you’re at it, tell me everything you know about Kenshin.”


Dark brown moved toward her in a half-controlled lunge, seeking to bowl her over—and she couldn’t doge because Yahiko was right behind her in the laughable shelter of the collapsed tunnel. Kaoru set her feet a little more firmly and tried to angle her head so that Gohei couldn’t get at her neck with his fangs.

The impact drove the breath from her lungs, her slender legs folding like brittle sticks with the force of Gohei’s body being propelled into her own. She could feel the dark dog bite down hard at the loose skin of her shoulder, fought back a yelp of pain as his teeth tore through her flesh. It’s a superficial wound! The chastisement forced her to swallow the cry of pain.

Kaoru scrabbled to get her feet back under her; no sooner than she felt the compacted earth of her den beneath her paws she sprang forward at Gohei, mirroring his bite to her shoulder with one of her own. With a grunt of annoyance the massive dog threw his weight to one side, pinning Kaoru against the wall. She was unable to stop the surprised yelp as her breath left her body for the second time in so many minutes.

This was madness, she was smaller, lighter and much faster than Gohei, but all of those were liabilities, not advantages in this confined space. Unable to move freely, she was left facing an opponent twice her size and strength.

If only she could get him to follow her outside the den, where his strengths would be turned into weaknesses! But she didn’t dare, not with Yahiko still in the den. It would be too easy for an enraged Gohei, rather than following her, to turn and kill the brave pup.

Gohei’s weight shifted, trying to angle his ungainly body so that he could deliver a crippling bite, but the shift gave Kaoru enough wiggle-room to squirm free in a sudden burst of smoky silver. Turning, Gohei snapped at the tip of her ringed tail as she went by, just missing it.

Not bothering to slow down Kaoru raked Gohei’s side with her teeth, careful not to make the mistake of stopping or slowing this time. With a sharp growl of rage Gohei turned ponderously, his lame paw dictating his speed. If only they were outside! Speed was Kaoru’s ally, but she couldn’t’ get up enough of it in this tiny den!

Dimly, he female realized that she wasn’t as afraid, not quite as afraid as she’d always assumed she’d be when fighting Gohei. Most of her concern was for Yahiko. I guess it’s harder to be scared of them when you’ve seen them lose.

Kaoru wheeled for another attack, even if the glancing blows wouldn’t bring the behemoth down, they would at least make him bleed. With Gohei turning the wrong way, Kaoru was confident that her new attack would connect.

The yelp that tore itself from her throat was equal parts pain and surprise as, despite turning the wrong way, Gohei managed to his head around quick enough to catch her back leg. Not, she was sure, what he was aiming for, but no small prize either.

The blunt claws on her front paws scrabbled at the ground as Gohei, with a tremendous heave, slung the female across the den.

The force of the impact with the earth wall made Kaoru’s vision go dark for a moment, as abused lungs sent a sharp reprimand to the rest of her body. Gritting her teeth, the she-wolf pushed herself back to her feet, shaking her head to rid it of the lingering blackness.

She had landed almost on top of Yahiko’s hiding place. Taking her focus off Gohei for a moment, she risked a quick glance inside. The puppy wasn’t there.

NotThereNotThereNotThere.

Unseeing, Kaoru turned back to the approaching Gohei. Where had the puppy gone? Obviously not back out into the den. Through the exit? It had collapsed years ago but… He got out. And since he hadn’t come through the front entrance to try a suicidal attack on Gohei’s flank… he went to get Kenshin.

Relief nearly turned her bones to water, resolve strengthened them again. With Yahiko no longer trapped, there was nothing to keep her fighting in this confined space.

Kaoru felt a fanged smile part her lips as she sneered at Gohei, “Is that all? I should have kicked you and your goons out when you first started sniffing around my home!”

Gohei growled, still approaching with his three-legged hobble. Feeling lighter than she had since she’d chased Yahiko that morning, Kaoru danced easily to the side of Gohei’s approach, fighting back the urge to nip playfully at the hulking dog’s heels. She made up for squashing this impulse by jumping up to grab the tail that always curled up over Gohei’s back and yanking hard.

The surprised yelp was worth it.

Releasing her prize, Kaoru turned and pelted for the entrance.

“I’ll kill that brat of yours, Kamiya!”

Irrational fear nearly made her turn around. Wwhat if Yahiko hadn’t really gotten out?

But Gohei’s wordless roar of fury as he discovered Yahiko’s disappearance reassured her. Then she was squeezing through the dirt, brushing past the hazel branches concealing the entrance.

Cool night air was a welcome relief from the rancid stench of Gohei polluting her den.

Kaoru pivoted, allowing the suddenness of her motion to make her skid as she spun to face the half-concealed hole.

They were in the open now.

“You’re mine, Gohei.”

The large dog emerged from the shadowy recesses of the earth to face the silvery wolf in the moonlight.

“Kenshin’s already on his way,” Kaoru informed the other canine, flexing the tense muscles in her back as she settled into a reactive stance. “But I think I’ll finish you before he gets here.”

Gohei snorted. “Zanza won’t let his prey go so easily.” A toothy smile, “So many in this world who want revenge on the Battousai.”

With an effort of will, Kaoru pushed all other considerations out of her mind. She would be no help to anyone if she didn’t deal with Gohei here and now.

Stepping lightly, the tanuki began a careful fighter’s circle counter-clockwise around Gohei. Her opponent turned with her in brief controlled stumbles, his good leg able to lead the turns. Kaoru picked up her pace to a slow trot, keeping her gaze fixed on the prey in the center of her circle.

Snarling, Gohei increased his own speed. The tanuki waited until he was committed to the new pace before turning abruptly to go the opposite way. Gohei stumbled, nearly fell as he tried to compensate, suddenly stuck with his near-useless leg on the inside of his turn, unable to support his weight. He glared at the slim female, but it was fight to follow Kaoru’s circle or leave his back exposed to the she-wolf.

It’s not going to matter in a minute, Kaoru knew, I can go faster, he really can’t. She kept the increase slow, trying to keep it unnoticeable so Gohei wouldn’t just snap and lunge at her. As long as he thought he could keep up this circle-game he wouldn’t directly attack, not when he knew it would be child’s play to avoid a lunge out here in the open. No, he would try to keep her close as long as he could, try to get her close enough to connect. Kaoru increased her speed the barest fraction more.

And wait, and wait, and— Gohei stumbled again, attention shifting for a crucial moment from the tanuki to his own treacherous paws, trying to find a stable footing.

Now!

Pelting forward Kaoru launched herself into a headlong attack, teeth closed over muscles and fur, Gohei roared his fury and the world dissolved into dark brown fur and flashes of silver. Gohei shifted, trying to pin the female under his weight, but Kaoru released her hold on the dog and melted away, reappearing on his strong side to savage it as the fighter struggled to regain his balance.

“Give.” Kaoru dodged a half-wild snap in her direction, darted back in for another punishing assault. “It. Up. You. Bastard!”

And there was opportunity, and jaws closed hard on a dark hind leg, yanking it out from under the dog. Gohei went down in an undignified heap, swearing, struggling to get up.

Kaoru stood over him, a clear, strange light in her eyes. “Give it up Gohei. You can’t win.”

Gohei swore again, then froze, looking at something over Kaoru’s shoulder.

Three guesses as to who… Yep. Kenshin.

The red wolf assessed the situation quickly, relaxing minutely when he took in Kaoru’s victorious position.

“Well, it seems this one need not have hurried.”

“Kenshin…” Kaoru blinked, taking in the distinct lack of loudmouth puppy at the Rurouni’s side. “Where’s Yahiko?”

“He is safe, that he is,” Kenshin reassured, gaze sliding past Kaoru to land on Gohei. With a guilty start, the tanuki realized she had stopped paying attention to the former leader as soon as Kenshin showed up.

“Gohei,” the red wolf moved forward to stand beside Kaoru. “Have you seen now how pointless this is? Whether or not this one is here, Miss Kaoru is more than capable of defending this territory.”

The words sent a bolt of warmth straight through Kaoru, tingling straight down to her toes. Gohei snarled soundlessly, regaining his feet but unwilling to attack when the Battousai was present.

“Get out of here,” Kaoru said to the defeated intruder, “don’t let me catch you in our territory again.”

Gohei was forced to slink away under the watchful gaze of the wolves.


Yahiko was a closemouthed kid, Sano was forced to admit. The fighter was reduced to an exchange of sorts in order to get the kid to say anything at all about his life. Not that Sano could really blame him. Yahiko was a bundle of exhausted nervousness, answering Sano’s questions in short sentences, distracted by the urge to race ahead to Kenshin and Kaoru. Sano debated picking the stumbling puppy up a few times, each time remembering the fierce determination in those red-brown eyes, setting out after Kenshin without stopping to rest.

He could sacrifice his own impatience for his interrupted fight to spare the kid a little dignity. As a former tag-along puppy himself, Sano would rather have walked himself into the ground than suffer being carried like a newborn.

“How much farther?”

“Halfway there,” Yahiko answered, half-panting.

Nice to know where you’re going. The thought echoed wryly through Sano’s mind, noting the steady passage of trees and already concluding that he was pretty lost. But Yahiko seemed to know where he was headed.

“They should be this way, Miss Kaoru.” Battousai’s voice, coming in faintly through the underbrush. Yahiko’s dark brown ears sat up straight and his head came up sharply.

“Kenshin!”

“Yahiko!” That was the little Missy’s voice answering, shortly followed by the silvery form running into view, tailed by a red shadow. Yahiko broke into a shuffling run himself, too tired to hide his relief that his surrogate sister was all right. Closing the distance between them, the puppy buried his head in the fur of her chest. Kaoru seemed surprised for a moment, then bent her head to rest her chin on the puppy’s head with a faint smile.

“Battousai,” Sano greeted. The cat was already out of the bag, right? No need to mince words. Kaoru flinched at the name, but not in surprise, Sano noted, her blue gaze darting instead to Yahiko for the pup’s reaction.

Battousai didn’t react at all, either to accept or refuse the title.

“Now that you’ve got that little business over with, I’d like to get our business over with.”

“One has said it before, Sanosuke, this one has no desire to fight with you.”

Sano’s patience was worn thin, unruly brown fur beginning to stand up in a ridge along the hybrid’s spine. “You don’t get to duck out this time, Battousai.” The words were a growl, “You turn away and I’ll go after your back.”

Not his usual style, but if the Battousai was half the fighter rumor said, cheap tricks like that wouldn’t work anyway.

Kaoru snarled, the puppy glued to her side openly staring at the hybrid in shock. “You coward!”

“This doesn’t concern you or the kid, Missy. I’m not fighting for your territory or any crap like that,” Sano cut her off before the female could work herself into attacking, hazel eyes burning into still violet, “I’m just here for the legendary Battousai the manslayer.”

“Kenshin-” Kaoru tried again, quieted when the red wolf shook his head slowly.

“I don’t understand you, Sanosuke. You are a creature of honor. What has twisted your nature so much that you would seek violence?”

Ghostly gray eyes flashed in Sano’s mind, making him toss his head to jar the image loose, shove it back into the darkness.

“Sappy stories aren’t meant to be told before fights,” he heard himself say distantly, “Right now I only want to defeat the Battousai, the wolf said to be the strongest of the human’s pets!”

The wolf finally reacted to that, violet eyes darkening as he paced a few subtle steps away from Yahiko and Kaoru, distancing them from the fight to come.

As if I’d go after females and pups. But that didn’t matter, finally, Battousai had acknowledged that there would be a fight.

Finally.

Sanosuke charged forward, ready for an attack but keeping a close eye on the Battousai’s posture, alert for the shifting muscles that would serve as warning of another leap. Even watching for it Sano nearly missed it.

The wolf’s slight frame shifted, gathering itself, and then the killer was in the air again. Sano scrambled to get himself around so he could face where Battousai would land. It was ungraceful and uncoordinated next to the red wolf’s effortless leap, but it got the job done.

“Could see you that time, Battousai.” The fighter warned, “Your little trick ain’t gonna work much longer.” Which wasn’t necessarily true, seeing was a long way from catching, as any empty stomach could attest.

Sano didn’t wait for a response before springing forward again. This time he leapt when Battousai did, trying to collide with the smaller wolf in midair. It should have worked, there was no reason for it not to work.

He left the ground just after the Battousai did, rising into the air to try and meet the wolf intent on evading him. Battousai rose higher. Up and over Sano’s charging leap, letting the brown hybrid pass beneath him, snapping wildly at white footpaws just out of reach.

Sano landed heavily, balance thrown off by his wild attempt to attack in midair. Snarling, he turned to face the Battousai, but the red wolf wasn’t there.

A tingling on the back of his neck, guard hairs standing up in alarm was the fighter’s only warning to look up. In the bare second before the attack Sano’s mind registered the red wolf over him like the shadow of death, posture oddly similar to that of a pouncing fox, and then down, with more force than he would have expected from that tiny frame and a shoulder laid open to the bone so cleanly that it almost didn’t hurt.

The ground met the fighter, the anvil to the Battousai’s hammer.

The red wolf landed quietly to one side, still looking fresh and unwearied. A cheer started from the bystanders that Sano had forgotten about, faded away as the fighter pushed himself to his feet without more than a bare grimace.

For the first time since the fight began, Battousai smiled. “It would seem that one blow won’t work on you.”

Sano couldn’t help the answering grin. “You kidding? My strong point’s my stamina.” That, and the stubborn nature that had him pelting forward once again.

This time Battousai didn’t leap away, in a move that took Sano completely by surprise, the red wolf charged to meet him.

The distance between the narrowed, vanished, Sano bulled straight ahead, aiming for an impact that would daze the smaller wolf, knock him off-course and leave him vulnerable. Instead, at the last possible second Battousai swerved, and fangs raked a line down Sano’s flank as red wolf passed him by. The fighter turned, ignoring the sharp pain of his shoulder as the movement stressed it, Battousai had enough advantages without Sano leaving his back open.

The red wolf was still moving, swinging in a tight arc that brought him toward Sano again. There was no time for more than a step in the Battousai’s direction before another searing line appeared on the hybrid’s other flank.

Then another coming from the other way, and another.

Sano was the center of a bizarre wheel, stuck pivoting to meet the Battousai’s lightning attacks as the red wolf continually wheeled and hit from a new direction. Blood oozed from a dozen shallow gashes, a stinging reminder of Sano’s position in this fight.

Not one of them was near the hybrid’s throat.

“Bastard,” the insult came out as a whisper, whirling once more, Sano repeated it as a roar, “BASTARD! I will not lose!”

An oncoming lupine face masked in crimson, narrowed blue eyes and a damning white X across his left cheek. Sano braced himself for another injury, frantically searching for a way to turn the Manslayer’s charge to his advantage. Too late he realized that Battousai wasn’t going to shear off to one side.

One red furred skull connected solidly with one brown furred skull and stars exploded behind Sano’s eyes. His legs crumpled beneath him and the world slid nauseatingly in and out of focus.

Conversation around him sounded distant and tinny, as though he heard it through one of the human’s pipes.

“Are you alright, Kenshin?”

“Yes.”

“Damn,” that was the kid’s voice, “That Sano guy wasn’t kidding. The Sekihotai are serious business.”

“The Sekihotai?” Battousai’s voice went sharp, knowing. Shouldn’t have mentioned that name to the kid…

Captain Sagara…


“We’re very fortunate, Sano,” spoke the gentle voice out of memory. “Our kind is often mistrusted, or taken advantage of-”

“But with the Sekihotai, we’re all pack!” Sano finished eagerly, looking up at his hero.

Souzou Sagara (stubbornly referred to as “Captain” by most of the Sekihotai) was like him, a hybrid. In a bizarre clash of ideologies, the captain was half wolf, half border collie. Unlike true wolves, his marking didn’t fade into white or intermingle, the black on his shoulders and back was solidly black, the white on his chest and legs utterly white, and his right ear, rather than standing erect, flopped forward to half-cover one gray eye.

Captain Sagara laughed at the puppy’s enthusiasm.

“I already know I’m lucky, Captain.” Sano’s tail beat the ground, stirring dirt from the ridge on which he sat, overlooking the clearing where the rest of the Sekihotai rested. According to Sanosuke, he was he luckiest puppy alive. Born as part of the human’s quest to earn money through breeding and selling hybrids, Sano had escaped to the woods. It was luck that he had wandered onto Sekihotai land and met the unusual pack’s charismatic leader.

The Sekihotai was a band of misfits, dogs that had become lost, been abandoned or been born feral, hybrids that had occurred naturally or, like Sano, found their way to the wild, and one or two true-wolves looking for an accepting place to call home. None of the members were actually related, as with wolf packs. To Sano’s young mind, it was paradise. Captain Sagara was friendly and wise, even the local wolf-packs were coming to accept the strange band as equals.

Sano stretched, tongue curling in a huge yawn. “Captain? After this spring, we’ll have families, right?”

Souzou glanced over to where Iris and Ginjo lay making eyes at each other and smiled. “It certainly looks that way, Sano.”

“Oh.” The puppy paused. “Then I guess everybody’s gonna have a family name, huh.”

Captain Sagara nodded gravely, his show of seriousness belied by the amused twinkle in his visible eye. “I suppose so.”

“I don’t have a family name.”

A repressed smile pulled at the corners of the border collie/wolf’s muzzle at the dejected tone, hunched shoulders and flattened ears of his young charge.

“You could pick one,” the elder hybrid suggested, “like your friend Katsu.”

A brief frown wrinkled Sano’s face, cleared faster than morning mist in direct sunlight. “What about your name, Captain? Could I use your name?”

“Sanosuke Captain? Sounds a little weird, don’t you think?” Souzou laughed as Sano pounced on him, trying to instigate a session of play-wrestling.

“Captain! I meant Sagara!”

“Sanosuke Sagara. Still pretty weird…” Souzou stood, easily shaking off the playing puppy and watching him sprawl bonelessly on the ground before collecting himself once more with a shake. “But it’ll do.”

A huge grin split Sano’s features, seeming even bigger because of the larger adult teeth he had gained only last week. “Wait’ll Katsu hears about this! What kind of last name is ‘Tsukioka’ anyway?!” With a whoop of elation, Sano pelted down the rise and into the main Sekihotai camp to look for his friend.

“Captain! Captain!” a hoarse voice brought Sano’s dash to a halt, and he looked back to see a thin dog of indiscriminate breed haul himself up the Captain’s ridge. Souzou turned to face the messenger, his black and white tail trailing behind him in a half-lash.

“Shindo?”

Sano recognized the name, if not the dog it belonged to. The other Sekihotai talked about him sometimes, the arrogant well-muscled dog that had vanished a scant month before Sano came to join them.

“Got to move,” the emaciated dog panted, “humans’re coming!”

Captain Sagara swore. “And you’ve led them to us.”

A fanged smile, the toothy grin of famine, split Shindo’s muzzle. “That doesn’t change what has to happen.”

“Everyone!” Sagara barked out, thin the silence following the call the noises of approaching humans was too audible. “Scatter! Hide! With luck, we will meet again!”

The crack of a gunshot broke the air, an over-eager twolegger firing off a shot before he had the range.

The Sekihotai broke, scattering in every direction. The world dissolved into confused images as Sano stood rooted in fear. Shindo, streaking away from the Captain for the safety of dense forest, Iris and Ginjo running side-by-side, stubbornly refusing to separate, CRACK, Ginjo fell. Sano couldn’t see if he got up again as one of the feral dogs tripped over him, knocking the puppy flat. The adult kicked himself free of Sano with a snarl, sprang for the trees and fell with another world-shattering crack.

Sano stayed down, dazed. Where was Katsu? Where was the Captain? He thought he saw the dark puppy he called friend for a moment, hiding under a shadowy shrub, but when he looked again there was nothing there.

“Sano!” the Captain! The older hybrid was at Sano’s side, scanning the puppy for injuries. “Get up, Sanosuke!”

Another crack, Sano stumbled to his feet.

“Follow me!” And the world narrowed to keeping up with the black-and-white figure in front of him.

They had waited too long, he had waited too long, missing the mass-exodus of dogs and therefore remaining anonymous, but the humans couldn’t really keep up on their spindly legs, couldn’t easily find a path through the woods for the noisy machines that carried them through the woods at greater speed. And the Captain couldn’t run as fast as he normally would, not without leaving the puppy running all out beside him.

“Why’re they chasing us, Captain?” Sano gasped, his own memories of warm, caring humans at severe odds with the reality of the hunters behind him.

“Just run, Sanosuke!”

“But we weren’t doing anything wrong!”

“Sano!” heeding the urgency in his leader’s voice, the puppy shut up and kept running, grateful for the need to suck down the oxygen fueling his flight, keeping him from giving voice to the heart-rending whines pushing at his ribcage. The sounds of the pursuing two-leggers dropped farther and farther behind, but refused to disappear entirely.

Sano was stumbling with exhaustion, wishing his Captain would stop and pick a place to hide when the border collie mix changed directions abruptly.

“Captain?” Sano panted out, trying to fit a wealth of questions into the word, all he could manage at the moment.

“They won’t expect us to go to a human settlement,” The Captain’s voice was grim. “We can hide there for a time.”

Sano’s pointed ears lay flat against his skull—the human settlement? He hated that place, it was noisy and smelly and too easy to get lost. But if the Captain thought it best…

Under the cover of a moonless sky, the pair of hybrids skulked past the outskirts of the city and into the town proper. Captain Sagara led the way to an empty culvert, allowing his stumbling charge to curl up for a few fitful hours of sleep. The Sekihotai leader stayed awake a while longer, black and white face turned towards the wilderness from whence they had come.

“Easy now,” the voice was low, distorted almost to the point of being unintelligible. Sano grumbled a little in protest, nosing his face a little further into the Captain’s shoulder. “We don’t want to spook them.”

Spook who? And why were they talking about it so loudly? He was trying to sleep.

Bleary hazel-brown eyes opened, blinking away the sleep-dirt that had accumulated in the corners. Sano was quite ready to tell off whoever was muttering so nearby when there were two tired Sekihotai right there.

Shapes resolved themselves slowly, strange in the pseudo-twilight of the concrete culvert. There were the slim black shoulders of the Captain, his face relaxed in repose, there was the yellow sunlight-framed entrance of their temporary den, noon sunlight blocked by twin pillars of shadow. Sano squinted at the anomaly for a moment, wondering who had awoken him. Then the two pillars moved, resolving themselves into two humans with noose-capped metal poles in their hands.

A sharp yelp of alarm reverberated down the tunnel into blackness and Captain Sagara came awake with a start. Taking in the situation at a glance the Sekihotai leader jumped to his feet, a growl reverberating through his frame as he stood in front of his young charge.

“Crap,” one of the humans muttered, catch pole wavering in the face of Souzou’s bared teeth. The other shot a sideways glare at his companion before switching back to Sagara.

“Easy…” his voice soothed, “no one’s going to hurt you…” Contrary to his words, the catch pole in his hands shifted, trying to loop the enlarged noose over the Captain’s head. The Sekihotai bit at the twisted metal with a snarl, the other catch pole moving forward to encircle the leader’s extended throat. Captain Sagara fought, backing up and tossing his head violently back and forth.

“Sano, run!”

“But, Captain!”

“Go!”

With a backwards glance Sano disappeared into the pitiless depths of the culvert, chased by the human’s curses and his Captain’s struggle.

It was a little tricky to find where they’d taken the Captain, but, alone, Sano found he had nothing but time.

Deeper within the city was a squat compound of concrete called Animal Control. It was here Sano found his leader.

Memories skipped, because a confused jumble as Sanosuke was aware of lying on the forest floor and sneaking around the concrete prison at the same time.

The Captain’s anger that Sanosuke had put himself at risk to find his hero, the sight of dogs in cages, barking madly at the small intruder but kept from touching him by chain-link metal.

The Captain’s order to leave, go back to the woods. The first command he had not obeyed.

Skulking in shadows for over a week, dropping by after dark to reassure himself that Souzou was still alive. The men who came to look at the dogs, saw the Captain and broke into excited whispers. The head of the canine prison, unsure but unable to keep a hostile dog when there was someone who wanted it. Captain Sagara loaded into a crate and put in the back of a truck. The difficulty Sano’d had in finding it, following it, because now there wasn’t any time, though he was no less alone.

His final meeting with Captain Sagara, his leader’s calm deliberation and quiet order that Sano was Not. To. Watch. The last order disobeyed.

Confusion as the Captain was thrown into a pen with another dog. Shocked rage as the men ordered them to fight one another.

Fierce pride as the Captain refused to fight a fellow canine for the human’s pleasure. Numbing horror as the men who had taken him called the Captain a cur and…


Sano groaned, memories slipping back into their usual dull pain rather than the fresh agony he’d relived while unconscious. Apparently he hadn’t been out quite long enough though…

“The Sekihotai?”

“A unique pack of feral dogs unrelated by blood, intensely loyal to their leader. Six seasons ago there was some sort of treachery and the leader was lost. The Sekihotai never regrouped from the tragedy.” Battousai’s voice, grim, the bastard. As if he cared anything for the Captain!

“Kenshin,” that was the Missy, “how did…?”

“He became a legend among those of us made to fight,” the red wolf’s voice was distant, as if his eyes focused not on the forest around them, but dust and pain and iron bars. “The story of his courage in refusing to fight their battles was often repeated.”

“Like—” Sano coughed, bloodshot eyes opening to glare at the red wolf, “like you know anything about him, Battousai. Human’s pet, drenched in the blood of dogs.”

Shaking, Sano pushed himself to his feet to glare down at the smaller wolf, who stared back impassively. “You were all cowards!” The hybrid continued, hardly aware of what he was saying anymore, the black bile he’d stored in his heart for so long coming up at last. “If you’d refused to fight, if all of you refused to fight…”

Battousai tipped his head to one side, as if watching the final pieces of a puzzle slide into place. “So. This is the reason you fight.”

“You’re no better than the humans!” Kaoru sputtered, “Going around picking fights for the fun of it!”

You think I don’t know that? But fighting, fighting is the only way I can forget…

“The reasons why we must fight are not always clear, Miss Kaoru.” Kenshin-Battousai’s voice still calm, defending him. “I recognize your claim, Sanosuke,” the red wolf paced forward, leaving behind a thunderstruck female and pup, “We will settle this now.”

Finally…It was almost calming.

All finesse had fled Sano’s already rowdy fighting style, all plans driven away by the fierce ache of his skull, the dull weeping of his injured flank and the all-consuming burn of rage in his heart. If he didn’t lash out, it would destroy him, he knew it would.

Kenshin-Battousai dodged around Sano’s wild lunges like an autumn leaf evading the clumsy jaws of a puppy. I’ve got to hit, just one hit. When did he stop worrying about winning and just think about a hit? But still… Just one!

Battousai swerved to avoid another charge, desperate, Sano managed to turn with him, and finally red fur was just—in—reach… Vanished from before his eyes and a startlingly gentle pressure of teeth gripped his throat from below.

Not piercing, not even bruising, just there.

Sano froze, trying to angle his head to that he could see— but all he could make out was the top of a blood-red head.

Slowly the fangs slid free, and Kenshin stood before him once more, another unreadable expression settling over his features.

“Why didn’t you finish it?” Sano rasped, unable to shake the feeling that his throat should be hurting.

Kenshin shook his head slowly, “This one has no reason to wish you dead, Sanosuke.”

“And the ones you killed for your human masters?” Sano growled, “Did you have a reason to kill them?

A quiet sigh, violet eyes that bore the sadness of the world. “Sessha was a tool for destruction long before such as they took me. The human who held me was shrewd. He would not kill me. When this one refused to fight. When this one lost purposefully.” Violet eyes closed, shutting off that window to inner agony. “Sessha wearied. Seeing opponents killed in grotesque ways for losing, seeing victors torn apart in battles they had not recovered for. And this one… this one already knew the weight of sin.”

Sano blinked, I’m not sure that lets him off the hook…the fighter wondered doubtfully, wavering.

“This one is sorry for what happened to your leader, Sanosuke. As with any who fought, this one holds a share in the blame. If my life would bring you peace, it would be given.” Kenshin shook his head. “But this one knows that it would not. All that is left for those that still live is to remember how loved ones lived, and died.”

“Pretty words.” Sano eased gingerly to a sitting position. Now that the adrenaline was seeping away exhaustion was clawing its way up his bones. Distantly the fighter wondered if they would mind very much if he just lay down here.

“They aren’t just words!” Kaoru was shouting, but didn’t seem to be really angry anymore… just upset. Weird.

“You come here griping ‘Battousai’ this and ‘murderer’ that, but you don’t know a thing about Kenshin! He’s an idiot who’s always putting himself into harms way to save others.” She paused, “To save me. He doesn’t want to fight! Don’t forget that you’re the one who started this!”

“He saved me too,” Yahiko’s voice came quietly, fiercely. The puppy stepped forward, ears pinned, voice rising to a shout, “Kenshin saved me when there was nothing in it for him, and if you still don’t understand that he’s just trying to help then I’m gonna have to fight you and straighten you out myself!”

The kid was really serious, so Sano tried not to laugh. It was easier than he thought it’d be, darkness was creeping in at the corners of his vision, but he still had something to say.

“We’ll see. I wanna…” the forest was going distant, sounds hollow and thin. “I wanna see for myself. Just how you live.”

The last thing he could make out was a shadowy smile on a red-and-white muzzle, and, like a ghostly echo, the same smile on a black-and-white muzzle. Captain Sagara?


Kaoru watched the fighter fall, his unfocused eyes sliding shut. Is he still alive? She didn’t want to ask it, she really didn’t want to ask but she wanted to know…

“Is he dead?” Yahiko’s voice broke the stillness in a hushed tone. Yahiko!

“No, Yahiko,” Kenshin had padded over to the downed fighter, his expression still graver than Kaoru liked. “Just exhausted. This one had to deal with him pretty harshly.”

Which sounded a little strange since Kenshin hadn’t been trying to kill the hybrid, but then, Kaoru knew it was a lot harder to fight someone you weren’t trying to hurt when they were actively trying to hurt you.

Yahiko moved closer to the fighter on wobbly legs, his face near the body so he could sniff at the unconscious fighter. “Think he’s gonna want to fight again when he gets up?”

Kenshin sighed, “This one would hope not, but it is possible.”

“Guess this stuff happens a lot huh? With you being Battousai.” Yahiko was very carefully not looking at either of the adults.

Kenshin winced, “Yahiko, this one’s intent was not to deceive…”

The spike-furred puppy shook himself, as if brushing off damp leaves that had clung to his back. “It’s okay. I’d,” a massive yawn had his tongue curling in the middle of his sentence, “I’d probably keep something like that quiet too, if it were me. But it’s nice to know there’s a reason why you’re strong as a demon.”

Kaoru felt a yawn of her own split her muzzle, the excitement of fighting was gone now, and she was exhausted. Considering, she eyed San’s immobile fame.

“What are we going to do with him? We shouldn’t just leave him here.”

Especially not with the smell of his blood permeating the area. Kenshin smiled, not quite a Rurouni smile, but moving slowly away from the blue-eyed grimness he had held to during the fight.

“Why don’t you take Yahiko back to the den and get some rest, Miss Kaoru? This one will keep watch over Sanosuke.”

Yahiko snorted, sitting heavily next to Sano. “Are you kidding? That whole place reeks of Gohei.” Rich brown eyes rolled in exasperation, “No way I’ll be able to sleep in that stench!”

I’m going to be nice to you. Kaoru resolved, hiding a grin, grateful for the excuse to stay. With an unconcerned stretch, she walked over to Yahiko and lay down with her back to his. “Looks like we’re staying out here with you, Kenshin.”


The first thing Sano was aware of was a splitting headache. Really, really splitting. Like some human had grabbed his ears and was yanking them as far as they could away from each other, the rest of his head in shrieking pursuit.

Ow.

The thought staggered through the hybrid’s brain sluggishly, trailing waves of pain.

After a few minutes of trying not to think the pain settled into a dull ache, grumbling but ignorable. The rest of him reported in slowly, aching itchiness that meant the wounds on his flanks had scabbed over but were still tender, a cleanness to the air that meant he wasn’t in the human settlement. Still in the forest.

Hazel eyes opened warily, ready to slam shut should the headache reappear.

The little missy and the kid were curled up next to, but not touching him. Kaoru’s silvery frame wrapped around Yahiko’s earthy one. Cute. Which meant that Kenshin…

The fighter turned his head, unsurprised to find that violet eyes were awake and watching him.

“Sanosuke,” came the wary greeting.

Sano groaned. “I think you broke my skull.”

Kenshin grinned wryly, “This one has quite a headache as well.”

“Keh.”

Hesitation, then, “Sanosuke…”

“Might as well call me Sano,” the hybrid rolled over Kenshin’s start. “I’m gonna be hanging around for a while.”

“Oh?”

“Talk is cheap,” Sano said bluntly, “All these words about you being such a good guy… I’m gonna see for myself just what you’re living for.”

A heavy yawn interrupted him, and Sano let his head droop back down onto his paws. “So, guess you can’t go off somewhere without my say-so, huh, Kenshin?”

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