Amber Forest

Chapter 7- I Will Kill You

When we start killing

It all will be falling down

From the Hell that we're in

All we are is fading away

When we start killing…

-Within Temptation, The Howling

Fear, a strong scent all around her, the overpowering musk of alien fur overlaying the milk-and-warmth that was her mother, the warmth-and-different-sameness of her littermates. It was heavy, cloying, pressing against her delicate nose, hardly leaving room in her tiny lungs for air. And weaving through it like a poisonous vine, the coppery tang of blood.

And she couldn't hear her siblings crying anymore.

Kaoru pressed herself further back into the backdoor of the den, small legs trembling. Should she run? Would the intruder hear her if she did? And what of mother?

Shuddering, the tanuki puppy peered out into the den, straining blue eyes for a hint of a familiar shape, coal-colored ears pricked for the reassuring murmurs of her mother. The musk was overpowering, a too-large shape shifted in the shadows, and Kaoru yelped in terror as a massive clawed paw shot into her hiding place, raking the narrow tunnel as it reached for her. Dirt shifted ominously as it missed the puppy, gouging at the tunnel walls and floor with claws the length of Kaoru's muzzle.

An alien yowl vibrated through the air, unfamiliar as the musk, unintelligible to the petrified puppy. The paw withdrew, and for a moment Kaoru saw a strange face staring back at her with pale yellow eyes in a flat tawny face. The sloped muzzle wrinkled as the angry yowl repeated at the sight of her, and the claws returned.

Kaoru only had time to see-to smell- the blood on those large paws before she backpedaled furiously. The sharp claws sank into an exposed root, furiously ripping the subterranean wood from its earthy home. There was an ominous creaking, a shifting of earth—Blackness.

Kaoru woke with a start, straightening out of her half-curl in a jerk of overwrought muscles, looking wildly around the den for a moment.

No cougar.

Kaoru tried to force herself to relax, but couldn't keep from looking around the den again—particularly at the half-excavated back door. Those were old dreams; old nightmares that had woken her shaking and whimpering into her father's smoky pelt for weeks and weeks after it happened. Digging through that old earth must have brought it back.

Father gone on a hunt. Mother, the vaguely remembered warmth-and-milk presence watching her brood. Deciding to hide from her littermates, to see how long it would take her sisters and brother to notice she was gone.

Thunderous noise, her mother's angry bark, sharp cry of pain. Whimpers of fear from her sisters and brother, then that hideous, hideous silence.

The cougar had collapsed the back door, trying to get to the last pup, blackness, buried alive, hurting all over, but safe from those murderous claws. Father's return, his frantic search, his desperate plea for even one of his family to still be alive. The tiny whine she'd managed, drawing his attention to dig her out.

After that, they'd been alone.

Fallen into disuse, the back tunnel began to break down as Father worked to make the front entrance smaller, less noticeable. Kaoru'd thought he was mad when he dragged the uprooted hazel sapling to the entrance, dug a hole, and reburied it.

"It'll never grow!"

"It'll grow. I'll make it grow." It had, her father's crazy hazel tree, masking the home they had refused to leave. Old memories.

Kaoru inhaled slowly through her nose, taking in the woodsy scent of Yahiko at her back, missing the already-fading scents of Sano and Kenshin.

They hadn't returned yet from searching out that monster, Jineh. Kaoru shuddered, the image of mad black and teal eyes looming large in her mind above a maw of foam-slicked fangs.

I wish… that Jineh had never come, that Sano, that Kenshin were here, safe in the den, the four scents mixing and mingling into a pack-scent, binding them together, a reassurance that she wouldn't be left alone again. Not alone again…

Yahiko twitched against her back, picking up on her unease. Kaoru made another conscious effort to relax, but it was too late, the puppy was already waking up.

"Kaoru?" he yawned, still tired from all of the earlier digging. "'re Sano 'n Kenshin back yet?" his voice was still a little sleep-muddled, not awake enough for insults.

"Not yet. I'm sure they'll be back soon though."

The puppy's eyes widened, sleepiness falling away. "How long were we asleep?"

"I don't know," Kaoru tried to keep her voice calm, a bulwark against Yahiko's mounting anxiety. "I only just woke up myself. But it can't have been long." Actually, she had no idea how long it'd been.

Yahiko shifted restlessly, pulling away from the contact they only shared peaceably when one or both was sleeping. Agitated, he got to his feet and paced the circumference of the den, pausing by the back door. "I can't believe we did all that work and only unblocked the entrance."

"It's harder to dig things out than to bury them," Kaoru pointed out, resting her head on her sooty forepaws as she watched the puppy continue his patrol.

Passing close to the front he stopped, head cocked to listen. "Hey, I think they're back."

Kaoru didn't really remember getting to her feet and moving to stand beside the akita-mix puppy, but that was where she was when the smell of the wolf outside the den hit both of them, stiffening spines and causing every hair on a silvery-gray and a brown and white pelt to stand straight on end.

Old blood, rotting carrion and the sickly-sweet tang of sickness. Jineh. Sound told the pair that the rabid wolf was moving back and forth in the small clearing by the entrance. Hunting for the way in.

Kaoru caught Yahiko's eye, backed up very slowly. The puppy followed her until they reached the far end of the small den.

"We've gotta get out of here!"

"I know!" Kaoru kept the reprimand low, trying to avoid drawing the attention of the killer outside. He still hadn't found the way in. The tanuki eyed the half-excavated back door, shook her head sharply in self-rebuke for wasting time. "Yahiko, go out the back. Find Sano or Kenshin and tell them what's going on."

The puppy gaped at her, then anger suffused his expression. "I'm not leaving you here alone, we both go!"

"Yahiko, I won't fit through the back, we haven't finished clearing it yet."

"But you can't-"

Kaoru cut off the puppy before he could forget himself and start shouting. "We can't stay in here, he'll trap us. But he hasn't found the entrance yet and I've got surprise on my side. If I go now I should be able to get past him."

"Then I'll go with you!"

"No!" Kaoru had to clamp her muzzle shut hard, teeth clicking together to hold in the shout she'd wanted to voice. "Yahiko, no, it's easier to catch two than one, I'm not putting you in that danger!"

"What about yourself?"

"This is the only way for me to get out. Sooner or later, he is going to find the entrance. We cannot be in here when he does."

"Kaoru…" Yahiko had half-wilted, ears flat against his skull and curled tail coming down from its natural position over his back. On impulse, Kaoru nuzzled the top of his head with hers.

"Go, Yahiko. Find Kenshin."

A stricken look, then the puppy was working himself into the tunnel again.

He's grown, Kaoru noted distantly, padding over to the exit, another week and he probably wouldn't fit either. The stench of blood and sickness trickled down into the den, warning her of the threat outside. The tanuki closed her eyes, locking out the dark tunnel, the scent of madness, focusing on the noise of motion.

Right… left… Kurogasa paced the clearing, searching, right… left… closer now, which way would she break when she darted out? right… left…left led to the human town eventually, right to… right… left… now!

Kaoru knew if she'd paused to count before leaping she'd have never moved from her hole. She burst out through the tunnel, the concealing hazel in a desperate scramble, peeling away to the right.

She could feel the air pass over her hind leg, mimicking the jaws that closed with a hard snap just behind her. Jineh.

"Run little prey!" a mad laugh, turning the blood in her veins to the fierce chill of snowmelt. "Run!"

No time to turn and talk, fire back a retort, the murderer was crashing through the underbrush behind her with his larger frame.

Females are faster than males, Kaoru reminded herself, gulping down oxygen, usually. She tried not to think of the rest, that some males (Kenshin, at least) were faster, and that males had more stamina.

If she didn't get out of reach soon, it wouldn't matter how fast she could run.

The forest here was familiar, helping her, there was the old oak deadfall with the badger's den on the other side, meaning you had to leap further than you'd expect. Here was the stand of thorny gooseberry bushes, and her careful path through them, a route impassable for larger creatures. On and on, drawing further and further away from the den, approaching the boundary.

But Jineh was always just behind her, his laugh a ringing in her ears, phantom fangs nipping at her heels, and she didn't dare look back.

One last trick to play.

Past the birch-split boulder, the river would be close now, not the gentle downstream by the rabbit-warren, but the riotous upstream where still-fierce water spoke of a mountain heritage and cut a path through the land in a steep ravine. Her lungs were burning now, paws hot and painful with overuse and too many incautious landings, but she couldn't slow down, not now.

The ravine hove into view, a craggy gash in the land, too deep to jump into, too wide to leap across. But that was okay, that wasn't her plan.

There, the half-fallen elm, dead for seasons, lifeless roots wrapped around anchoring boulders, keeping the weathered trunk from falling into the abyss it stretched over. Kaoru couldn't climb trees, of course, but this one didn't need to be climbed, the angle of its trunk steep but not vertical.

With a last burst of speed, Kaoru came to the trunk and leapt up, claws scrabbling for purchase on round, rough bark as the tree groaned, slipping bare inches closer to falling. Kaoru shot forward before she really had her balance, up and up to where the branches creaked ominously over rushing water below, sagging under her slight weight. When the branches ahead wouldn't hold her weight anymore the tanuki stopped and turned around.

Jineh stood by the exposed base of the tree, plumy tail moving back and forth slowly as he grinned at her. I knew it! The tree can't hold us both, he won't follow. And even if he did she could leap into the river below and maybe survive.


If she was very, very lucky.

"Such a clever little prey, hiding up a tree,"

Bastard wasn't even breathing hard. He… let me get here? The chill that ran down Kaoru's spine had nothing to do with the temperature.

Why..? Soft paws meeting hard earth, moving blindly into the night. Why? A sting in his eyes, a watery blur that distorted shadowy edges into a dark tunnel, and he couldn't even pretend that they weren't tears. Why am I always the one who has to run away? The ground came up to meet the puppy and he didn't even know why he'd fallen.

Harsh breathing from abused lungs filled the still night air, clogging Yahiko's ears with the sound of his own life.

His own cowardly life.

"No!" The akita-mix pushed himself up to shaky paws, a steady burn of over-used muscles screaming at him to go back down. The darkness mocked him, mocked his weakness, daring the puppy to try and get his bearings. I can't…

And somewhere behind him in the blackness was a den that was empty by now, its inhabitants scattered across the territory. Territory… Scattered… the thoughts circled slowly, dancing around a point of clarity that he couldn't quite reach…

"Howling travels a long way," Kaoru's words, explaining why the group had dropped out of the ground-eating lope that had been eating his stamina and into a brisk trot. "They may not be as near as they sounded."

Howling, calling. Solidarity. Pack-voice-as-one… Pack-together.

Instinct raised Yahiko's head, filled his aching lungs.

Help. Danger. Kurogasa. Safe place broken. The puppy half-flinched at the sound of his own voice giving cry to the ancient way of speaking, his ears twitching closer to his skull. Distantly it bothered him that his voice was higher than he'd expected. Then he flinched again, stumbling over how to call Kaoru.

Smokefur. He tried, Flower-hunter. Packmate. Sister. That one rang true somehow, as the others had not. Kurogasa hunting Sister.

His lungs emptied, Yahiko had to stop to fill them and repeat his message. And again, and again. Fear was a pressure at the base of his skull, dim and distant, a fear that Kurogasa would turn and hunt down the howling dog; another fear, near and roaring that no one would hear him, that Sano and Kenshin would wander the territory for hours, until the sun rose, when it would be too late for Kaoru.

The night air filled his lungs a fifth time, the message spilling out in an eerie wail.

"Oi, kid! What's going on?"

Yahiko choked on his own air and coughed, trying to get his voice back. "Sano!" The hybrid stepped into view with only a light rustle of leaves to accompany the movement. "Where's Kenshin?"

"We split up," the fighter frowned, "What happened? Why are you out here?"

No Kenshin… the world went a little gray at the edges, angrily the puppy shook himself, spiky fur swaying on his loose ruff. So what? It'll be okay. Sano and I… Sano and I can save her!

"Kurogasa found the den!" the almost-debilitating terror was leeching away now, chased off by warm anger slowly stirring in his veins, "Kaoru tried to lead him away but I don't know…"

"Damn," Sano hissed out a breath between his teeth. "We didn't think about him finding you guys, not when he made it so clear he was after Kenshin."

Yahiko shook his head impatiently, "We gotta go find her!" he insisted, "She's been out there too long already!"

Sano gave the woods around them a cursory look, not really seeing the trees. "Yeah. I guess Kenshin either heard you or he didn't, we can't wait for him either way." The fighter turned to Yahiko.

"We start at the den and trail them from there. Think you can keep up, kid?"

Red-brown eyes glared into experienced hazel. "Don't ask stupid questions, let's go!"

Old wood creaked a warning under Kaoru's feet, forcing the she-wolf to stop her slow retreat. That left a space that still felt too small between her and opaque teal eyes.

"I don't know what you hope to gain from this," Kaoru snarled, a little surprised at the strength of her own voice, furious in the silence. Jineh stretched luxuriously, settling back on his haunches on the safety of solid ground.

"Rage… seeing you in danger will make the Battousai angry, and the legendary hitokiri will return because of that anger."

"You're insane," Kaoru breathed, before strengthening her voice again, "Kenshin doesn't even know I'm here!"

Kurogasa chuckled, "You underestimate him. In seasons past the mere name of Battousai was enough to make the most fearless warriors tremble like newborns." Blood-blackened eyes looked beyond this night, into a time past.

Kaoru snorted, trying to ignore the sensation of her heart turning to cold stone within her chest, "And what makes you think that I'm the key to all this? I'm not that important to Kenshin." Not like Sano, who was already a trusted friend and respected fighter, not like Yahiko, who soaked up everything the red wolf had to teach him and seemed to lighten Kenshin's spirit with his mere presence.

Jineh laughed, and the female bristled instinctively. "It's obvious, isn't it? Who do you think the Battousai moved to protect earlier?"

The tanuki gaped at Kurogasa. But that's… he didn't… Memory played over and over in slow motion. Jineh's careless words on a blood-soaked plateau, and Kenshin's swift, almost instinctual move, blocking her from view. Just her, that time. I can't be… that important…

Kenshin paused by the riverbank, eying the calm, almost sluggish current. Downstream and upstream both became violent, making this small area the only safe crossing for miles. Still, it was unlikely that Jineh had crossed the river. In its final stages, the madness often wrought an unnatural fear of water into its victims.

Jineh doesn't move as a victim of the disease, that he does not, Kenshin thought grimly, turning to trot parallel to the bank, moving upstream, he acts more as a hunt-partner to it.

Dark musings, probably brought on by his fruitless search. It was now the deepest part of the night, the full moon directly overhead seeming cold and distant, bathing the world in faint light without a hint of benevolence.

The red wolf shook himself with a sigh; another fifteen minutes and he would call Sano. The pair had been trading updates the better part of the night, each as negative as the last. Sessha doesn't like that Sano's out here as well, the Rurouni mused for the thirtieth time that night, the risk is too great. But Sano was under strict instructions to howl if he found anything, and the fun-loving fighter certainly had no desire to end his days locked in the foaming forever-heat of the madness.

At least Miss Kaoru and Yahiko were safely in the den, looking at the she-wolf's expression, Kenshin had been anticipating an explosive argument about his decision, but Kaoru, Miss Kaoru, was always surprising him. Still, he felt better knowing that half of the pack was out of harm's way. Small favors, on a night like tonight.

The ground beneath his paws began to slowly rise, becoming rockier as the river fell away to his left, the banks slowly becoming steeper, before a particularly dense patch of trees forced the wolf further inland again.

The sudden influx of scent stopped the crimson wolf dead in his tracks. The scent he'd been seeking (hunting… darker instincts insisted,) blood and the tang of illness swamped with mad glee cut a reckless swathe through the territory.

Fainter, hidden under the vile scent, one that he couldn't ignore, had never thought to find out here. It screamed to him, sending cold dread unfurling in a malevolent spiral through his stomach. Kaoru.

Kaoru terrified.

Jineh, you bastard!

The red wolf was hardly aware of beginning to move again, the world had narrowed to the scent-trail, instincts and memories that had been humming in the back of his mind all night had gained strength to a deafening roar.

The ragged pack that had formed around Kaoru had never thought about it, and Kenshin had never wanted them to. The odd ragtag bunch that denned together thought they knew the worst of him, the great secret that he'd once fought in the pens.

They might wonder where he came from before, but none of them knew.

Knew the thing he worked so hard to keep hidden, knew the bloody history that had come down from the north to threaten him with its existence.

The doom that Jineh had called for. Hitokiri wa hikokiri.

Where others might lose this trail, become lost in the twists and turns Kaoru had taken to shake off her pursuer, wolves like Kenshin, wolves like Jineh never would.

Wolves that knew how to hunt other wolves.

Kaoru was keeping every sense on high alert, searching for the distraction that would let her get away. It was a futile effort, and she knew it, but the she-wolf was having a hard time staying treed like a good little prey.

Jineh still heard it first. The large wolf rose smoothly to his feet with an ecstatic sigh.

"It's the beginning of a beautiful moment," he addressed the silent woods. Kaoru frowned, there was no one there. Had Jineh gone crazy…er?

"I sense a pleasing desire to kill from you. Are you angry?"

"Yeah," a soft voice from the darkness, taut with controlled rage. "Angry at you for bringing Miss Kaoru into this, and angry at myself for not being able to stop you." Kenshin stepped out of the gloom, separating from shadows that relinquished him reluctantly. Kaoru hadn't detected his presence at all.

Under cold moonlight, he looked like a different wolf. A tense, assertive posture replacing his stance of loose deference, ears canted forward, toward his foe rather than tilted back in self-deprecation, a muzzle closed and tense, devoid of smiles and eyes that had shifted from sweet-natured violet to that cold steel-blue. But still, it was…

"Kenshin…" Kaoru breathed, moving forward a step before she could really think about it. Blue eyes cut to hers; a red-furred head shook imperceptibly and returned to Jineh. Kaoru eased back, retreating from the step she'd taken. Kenshin hadn't said anything but his meaning had been clear. Don't move. Not at all like the usual Kenshin.

Jineh observed his opponent, eyes looking into that time that Kaoru couldn't see, a time that Kenshin saw all too clearly.

"The revolution's Battousai," Jineh grinned.

Kenshin's eyes narrowed a little further, "Shut up."

The red wolf raced forward, a blur of red coming on to meet Jineh's exuberant lunge. A clash of fur and fury that Kaoru could barely comprehend, steel blue eyes in a cross-scarred face, a foam-flecked muzzle split to bite at red fur that twitched just out of reach, just barely out of reach.


Kenshin kept his gaze on the crazed wolf before him, denying the instinct that insisted that just a glimpse of reassurance wasn't enough; he had to make sure Kaoru was alright now. He couldn't afford to split his attention and look, had to rely on ears that were filled with the sounds of snarling laughter, Jineh alternating between murderous rage and homicidal glee as the madness shifted in his psyche like sand.

Fighting Jineh wasn't like fighting any of the dogs he'd faced in the arena, or since. The best fighters didn't telegraph their movements, without a clear focus they would appear to appear and disappear at will. Jineh wasn't quite that good, the madness toying with the finely tuned instincts the mad wolf had perfected in the cold snow of the north. If he paid close attention he could just make out the hitokiri's next move.

A power lunge, meant to bowl over. Easily dodged, a lithe red frame slipping to one side.

A side snap. Again, easily avoided, half-wild bite at open air to try and catch the Rurouni as Kurogasa brought himself out of his charge.

Now, a quick turn. The best place to throw him off! Jineh's muscled frame moved to pivot and face the smaller wolf, teeth bared, Kenshin stepped in close, throwing his weight into Jineh's at an angle, forcing the hitokiri's forepaws off the ground. Now! To aim the bite that would end the fight, a bite at the creamy throat of Jineh, exposed by his stumble. Except…

Bending at an angle that Kenshin would have sworn to be impossible, Kurogasa moved his head around, gaping maw enclosing the shoulder that had been wounded earlier. Pain, scissoring through tissue, fang to meet fang as blood that had finally dried wept crimson rivulets once more.

Kenshin's left leg crumpled under the abuse, the red wolf crashing to the ground with a wince. Jineh stared down at the wolf, all traces of amusement gone.

"Not yet, you're not there yet. I still haven't met the Battousai yet." Kurogasa snorted, "As much as you want to kill me, you still refuse to face me as hitokiri."

An ominous groan interrupted the mad wolf's deliberation. Gritting his teeth, Kenshin raised his head to see what had caught Jineh's attention.

Kaoru had moved closer to the combatants again, though the tanuki now stood frozen, wide eyes locked not on the crazed wolf observing her, but on the roots of the tree. Roots that were ever so slowly peeling free of the boulders that anchored them.

"Miss Kaoru!"

"Ah, that's right," Jineh breathed, the smile returning as the elm slipped a little further. "Such a good little prey!"

A blast of cold air rocked the world, and Kaoru stood frozen on the trunk, frame wracked with fine tremors as she struggled to move, and failed.


"That's better," Jineh observed, plumy tail cutting a lazy arc through the night air. "It's no fun if they try to run, right, Battousai?"

That is it. The thought felt strange, a cold cloud, shards of diamond-hard ice in midnight mist enveloping him. That is absolutely it.

Jineh was laughing again, the more fool he, to welcome the death that moved to claim him this night.

"How long will she last, I wonder," the mad wolf surveyed the groaning roots with a mockery of concern, "Unable to move as the ground falls from beneath her."

Kaoru stood frozen in the boughs of the shifting tree, all except her eyes, luminous blue against the dark mask of her face.

"And you know, Battousai," Kurogasa continued, "the only way that female will move is if the Shi No Ippou is broken." The crazed wolf surveyed the immobile Kaoru, "Will that girl do it on her own? Hah, I think not. And the only other way to break it… is for the one who cast it to die." Jineh grinned mockingly. "But I still feel healthy."

Kenshin shuddered, eyes closed, brow furrowed and muzzle wrinkling into a snarl.

A low rumble, like the first boulders shaking loose for an avalanche, started in the red-furred wolf's chest, a sound that Kaoru had never heard from the Rurouni.

Fangs bared, Kenshin opened his eyes to glare at Jineh.

Twin pools of wildfire blazed out from where gentle amethyst usually resided, deadly amber looking oddly unnatural in that scarred face. Seeing those eyes, Kaoru quickly realized two things, she had never seen Kenshin truly angry before, and Kenshin was furious.

Every muscle on the red wolf fell under a flawless control, strength of purpose shining out as he moved. Right now, there was only one goal toward which he worked. To kill his opponent.

Kenshin had only stood, but Kaoru could feel the murderous intent radiating off the crimson wolf. Some part of her mind was gibbering in terror like a prey-animal, that here was death, and it was faster than her, and stronger than her. And it was far too late to run.

But Jineh didn't appear to fear the death standing before him. The black-eyed wolf grinned, the feeble moonlight distorting his teeth, until it looked as though the murderer had a mouth full of fangs.

"And so the true battle finally begins," Jineh sighed in ecstasy, his gaze locked on the slight red figure that stood braced against possible attack, shoulder bleeding sluggishly and head lowered so that the burning gaze was visible only as a glint of amber.

Kaoru had seen Kenshin move fast before, had seen him fight, but she'd never seen him just vanish from a standstill.

Is that really… The red wolf reappeared, jaws clamped around Jineh's muzzle, using the momentum of the leap no one had seen him take to drag the deranged wolf's head back, back, flipping him onto his black-patterned back as Battousai released him.

Kenshin looked down on his enemy, amber eyes merciless as wildfire.

"What's wrong? Get up."

Is that really… Kenshin? Kaoru had been denying it from the first, denying that her violet-eyed Rurouni could be such a killer but… scent, sound and her own eyes swore that the red wolf was Kenshin, but his eyes… It's like he's someone else entirely. Some deep instinct was racing around her skull.

That was Kenshin, but it wasn't.

That was Kenshin, but it wasn't her Rurouni.

That was Kenshin, but that was… this is… Battousai the manslayer.

"Perfect!" Jineh crowed, standing with little difficulty, blood drenching his muzzle from deep puncture wounds. "This is the pitiless murder I've longed to meet!"

The tree moaned piteously under Kaoru's smoky paws, shaking from her blocked attempt to rebalance herself. One crimson ear turned away from the fight to train on the female, though the scarred head did not turn.

"The time for talk is over, Jineh. If you truly long for death feel free to attack," amber eyes smoldered with rage, and a usually cheerful voice dropped to an almost subliminal rumble, "Though whether you long for it or not, it will find you this night."

"If I long for death…?" Kurogasa looked at Kenshin, and appeared for a moment to recognize the hell he had unleashed. But fear swirled together with madness, lost in a bloody foam-flecked grin and soulless teal-on black eyes.

"Here I come, Battousai!" Jineh crowed as he charged, combining the fluidity of the skilled murderer with the raw power of his larger form. Battousai waited, amber eyes mantled by crimson fur, expressionless in the face of approaching death.

Move, Kenshin! An almost ironic thought, because shouldn't she be worrying about moving herself? The tree groaned pathetically under her slight weight, tiny -snaps!- giving testimony to season-rotted wood giving way to gravity's insistent pull. I don't think it's going to last five minutes…

Kenshin held his ground against Jineh's charge, held it as the wolf came closer, and closer. The air tingled with something sharp and acrid charging the clearing like the ground before a lightning strike. Still Kenshin didn't move amber eyes locked on Jineh's unnatural ones. Unnatural eyes that flickered in confusion, then honest terror as the larger wolf broke off the attack, swerving at the last minute to skid to a halt on Battousai's left flank, well back from the crimson fighter.

Slowly, Kenshin's head turned to regard his mad opponent. "What's wrong?"

Jineh chuckled weakly, "Truly, a wolf of legends. You're a different creature when you're ready to kill."

"I told you to be prepared." Molten eyes flicked to Kaoru, searing her with their touch through the chill gripping her frame. The contact only lasted a moment, intense amber swinging back to Jineh. "If you wish to avoid death, release Kaoru."

The mad wolf shook his head ,the heavy ruff on the back of his neck swaying with the motion.

"Even if I could, I wouldn't. Deny the murder one last kill?" Jineh chuckled darkly, "Not likely." A smirk revealed his fangs, "All that holds her now is her own fear."

My own… fear… Oh, she was afraid, a wild roaring in her soul that raged back and forth, drowning out other considerations. I'm… afraid.

Afraid of the death that awaited her.

Afraid of Jineh.

Afraid that Jineh would win.

Afraid of this stranger Kenshin had become.

Afraid that Battousai would win.

Afraid, and hung in an endless moment of fear, suspended above some sort of spiritual abyss far deeper than the one she teetered over now.

Jineh was babbling something now, words droning like bees in her ears. Something about power, and madness and bloodlust. And wasn't that everything Kurogasa had said? Power, madness and bloodlust.

Kaoru couldn't even shake her head to clear it, and some tiny part of her was convinced that that if she could just do that she would dislodge the roaring, she could get out of this and everything would be okay. The tree jerked under her feet, paws staying planted by some miracle as the trunk shifted to a straight horizontal plane.

The muscles on Battousai's face twitched, eyes shooting back to the little female under his protection.

Jineh charged, intending to take advantage of his opponent's momentary lapse to bring the fight to a brutal end. Kenshin!

The red wolf looked back to his opponent, even as his body turned in a half-arc away, as if Battousai invited an attack on his flank. Familiar, so familiar, had she seen it before? A red crescent moon to illuminate the end of the fight in blood-hued light.

Not held in merciless amber this time, Jineh came on, slavering maw open, heavily furred torso and forelegs rising from the ground to attack, not Kenshin's already-mangled shoulder, but the tempting curve of the spine in his neck.

Kaoru could almost see it this time, a sudden tensing in Battousai's legs, a gathering of muscles that swung him back around in a deadly arc, fangs aimed for his opponent.

Jineh tried to backpedal, bizarre moves on two back legs as he contorted his body to avoid oncoming death, front paws pushing uselessly against the air. White fangs flashed in fading moonlight, a sickening crunch and the sound of something wet giving way to superior force. Kurogasa crashed to the ground while Kenshin tossed his head, displaying a spray of his opponent's blood that had stained his normally white chest as crimson as the rest of him.

"You will not recover from that injury in the time the disease has left you with," Battousai's voice was clinical, observing his fallen foe as one might a pebble in his path. "Here ends your life as hitokiri, Jineh. And here ends," his voice dropped to a gravelly rumble, "your life."

No! Kaoru trembled against her invisible bonds, instincts rising up in protest. This was wrong, was different. Killing the mad wolf in a fight was one thing, was expected and honorable, to kill the opponent when they were already down, defeated, defenseless… Kenshin, no! If you kill him like this, you really will…

Past and future rose before Kaoru's vision, the one irreconcilable with the other. The past, warm crimson fur and a smiling purple gaze, feet that backed away from fighting and violence, but raced to protect. A broken voice, apologizing to one killed for not learning his name. Kenshin, her Kenshin, the Kenshin who would stay.

The future she could see in clear amber, a murder under a setting moon, bloodstained soul damning itself to hell once more for her sake, a soul that would drive off her Rurouni, would drive off Kenshin to some remote place, to die alone in some snowbound wasteland. No…

"No!" her voice burned and broke as it ripped free of her throat, her body suddenly sagging with fatigue as it lost the force holding her up.

Kenshin's head whipped around to face her, eyes still amber, but wide in shock. But for the color, they could have been the eyes of her Rurouni.

"Kenshin, don't," Kaoru gasped out, trying to force air into lungs no longer constricted by terror.

The elm trembled below her paws, with a muttered curse Kaoru made a mad dash for solid ground. Whether because the shock of her running across it was too much, or whether the tree had meant to tall at that moment, the result was the same. Kaoru's paws scrabbled around on the boulder that had been the tree's anchor, gaining purchase long enough to throw herself forward, collapsing in the dirt as the tree gave one last groan and toppled into the ravine.

"Kaoru!" Kenshin's voice, and the familiar sound of endless wind, the regular motions of running almost an afterthought as the red wolf raced to her side. Shaking her head, the tanuki raised her head to look up into the face of her rescuer.

"Kenshin," Kaoru breathed, relieved to see concerned violet looking back at her.

"Miss Kaoru…"

"I'm alright, Kenshin," the female reassured the shaken Rurouni, still trembling herself from her spot on solid land.

"To think…" a low growl, sending every hair along Kaoru's spine standing straight up in a chill rush, "to think my Shi No Ippou could be defeated by a little female…" Kaoru's eyes widened, Jineh was standing despite his ruined leg, the pupiless gaze fixed on her, ignoring the crimson wolf between them. "My last victim…" came the ecstatic whisper as he lunged, not at Kenshin, but at the female behind him.

The tanuki caught the barest glimpse of an amber flash as Kenshin turned, low and lithe, deadly fangs burying themselves deep into the thick ruff of fur around Jineh's throat, an unmistakable crunch testimony that they'd found their target.

Kurogasa stumbled back, sank to the ground as Kaoru shrank from his fallen form. "Hu… hu… hu…" he laughed around the horrible rattle of a crushed windpipe, "hu… hu… hitokiri…"

Kenshin tensed, staring down at his dying adversary, braced against the final taunt Jineh was sure to deliver. But apparently that was all the wolf had wanted. With a final shudder, Jineh lay still, crazed eyes unfocused and a bloody tongue lolling from his muzzle.

"Hitokiri... wa hitokiri."

Kenshin may have whispered the phrase, but it seemed as though it had risen from the bloodstained earth, from the timid breeze ghosting across Kaoru's fur, from the hollow of Jineh's still-smiling mouth.

"Kenshin…" Kaoru pushed herself to shaky paws, trying to ignore the tremors that urged her to lie down and close her eyes, to pretend that this centuries-long night never happened. The red wolf didn't turn to her, still standing over his fallen foe, head lowered. The living wolf as motionless as the one lying dead.

The tanuki moved slowly to stand alongside the crimson fighter, trying not to be obvious about trying to see his face. Who was she standing beside? The wanderer, or the killer? The tell-tale eyes were hidden from view.

"Kenshin…?" She tried again. Red-furred shoulders twitched and the cross-scarred face turned to look at her.

Violet. Weary, heartsore and faded, but violet.

Relief and guilt warred in the pit of Koaru's stomach, relief that she couldn't see her face reflected in the burning gaze of unquenchable rage, guilt because Kenshin looked wounded to his core, and it was her fault, and how dare she be relieved?

"Miss Kaoru," Kenshin blinked, leaving the tanuki with a sense of retreating, despite the fact that the wolf hadn't moved. He's going to leave!

"Thank you, Kenshin," she blurted in a rush, words tumbling over themselves in a jumbled mess.

"Oro?" Not the best of responses, but he wasn't running away, just looking at her wide-eyed.

"For saving me," Kaoru explained, feeling a knot of worry between her shoulder blades loosen slightly as she allowed her words to slow, to become softer. "Thank you very much, Kenshin."

The Rurouni shook his head, a hint of… wonder? lurking in his gaze. "If thanks are due Miss Kaoru, surely they go to you."

"To me?" Sooty ears lowered in confusion and Kaoru felt her head tilt to one side as she regarded her reluctant packmate. "But I didn't do anything, Kenshin."

Another shake of a scarred head. "More than you know." She might have imagined the words; they were so quiet, except that Kenshin was avoiding her gaze. But I didn't… do anything…

"Well," the almost-cheerfulness of the Rurouni's voice fractured the stillness, "this one believes it would be best if you went back to the den, that he does. Sanosuke and Yahiko are probably very worried about you indeed."

Kaoru's turquoise eyes narrowed dangerously, bright against the dark mask of her face. "What do you mean I should go back to the den, Kenshin? You're coming with me."

Kenshin sighed, "This one… cannot."

The world whited out in panic, came back in a rush of red fury, "Kenshin, so help me, if your next words have anything to do with leaving or unworthy, when you just saved my life again, I swear I will throw you off the ravine!"

"Oro…" Violet eyes glanced nervously at the ravine over a bleeding shoulder, "No no Miss Kaoru, it's not that."

Kaoru's ringed tail-tip twitched back and forth like an angry cat's. "Then what is it?"

"This one has been exposed to the foaming sickness."

Kaoru frowned, "But you said you couldn't catch it."

Kenshin shook his head, "It's harder," he allowed, "and indeed unlikely, but this one hesitates to trust the workings of man. Regardless, you, or Yahiko, or Sano might catch it from this one."

"So… what?"

Crimson fur shrugged, the wolf wincing as the motion pulled on his injuries. "This one will remain separate from you for a time, until the danger of either this one having the sickness or of spreading it to you has passed."

"So… how long?" Kaoru could feel her ears drooping, her tail sinking lower and lower. It's not fair! He won the fight, but he doesn't even get to come home!

"Two weeks should be enough time," Kenshin assured gently, violet eyes soft. It's also not fair for him to look so… cuddly when I'm not allowed to touch him.

"You're sure you can't come back to the den?" Kaoru hoped that she didn't sound like she was whining, but she might have been.

A rueful smile twitched at the corners of a red and white muzzle, "This one is sure."

"But, you will come back," Kaoru's voice was so timid she scarcely recognized it as hers, "You won't forget about us and wander off, will you?"

For the fourth time, Kenshin's eyes widened in surprise. Turning to face her fully, the red wolf gave the first real smile Kaoru had seen all night, sending a bolt of warmth straight through her to tingle in her toes.

"This one will be sure to return, that he will," Kenshin answered gently, that sunrise of a smile hovering still around his muzzle.

"Okay," Kaoru tried out a smile of her own, felt it, wavery and tired but honest reflecting back at the Rurouni. "Then, Kenshin…"

"It's this way!" a brash voice broke through the air and Kaoru stumbled a little, raising her head to scan for the voice's owner with active ears.

"We've already gone that way you nincompoop!" Yahiko's voice that time, meaning the other was…

"Then explain the tracks!" Sano.

"Those are ours!" The akita's voice was a frazzled mess of annoyance and exhaustion, serving only to make him more irritable.

"Huh, guess they could be." Sano's voice was quieter, more reflective, musing over whatever trail they'd found.

"While we're wasting time, Jineh could be eating Kaoru!"

"Not a chance," Sano scoffed, "Kenshin was patrolling over this way." A pause. "I think."

"If she's even over here!"

Kaoru bit back a snort of laughter and exchanged a look with Kenshin. "Should we call them over or just leave it alone, I wonder?"

Kenshin chuckled, "This one does suppose the den would be much quieter without them."

The tanuki sighed, "Until they stumbled in at dawn, anyway." With rueful humor, the female raised her voice, "Sano! Yahiko! Over here!"

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