Amber Forest

Chapter 8- Vixen

You can't quit until you try
You can't live until you die
You can't learn to tell the truth
Until you learn to lie…

-SIXX A.M, Life is Beautiful

Sunlight burst through the fading green foliage, setting the riot of yellows, oranges, and reds that replaced them ablaze with color. Below the treetops, the forest floor was a steadily thickening blanket of the multicolored leaves, a visual reminder of the turning of the seasons.

All of this meant that Sano had to be extra careful as he made his way through the gently whispering trees. The former fighter-for-hire scowled into the pleasant breeze ghosting through the fine fur on his face. He'd been coming this way for two weeks, and damned if he was going to get lost on the last trip!

But it really wasn't fair when the forest kept changing, leaves conspiring to fall and mask the game trail he usually followed.

The light overhead faltered, stuttering through trees that refused to change with the seasons. The hybrid eyed the thickening evergreens, looked over his shoulder at the sunlit forest behind, then ahead to the twilight-at-midday of his destination.

Trust Kenshin to pick the gloomiest part of the forest to camp out in. But after Jineh, well, he wouldn't come back to the den, wouldn't even stay nearby. The fighter was willing to admit that it'd probably been the smart thing to do, but it'd been murder on the Missy and the kid.

Which meant it was murder on Sano too, with two overly-aggressive packmates and a distinct lack of red-furred Rurouni to keep them from each other's throats. Or Sano's throat.

Yeesh, and Kenshin gripes about me coming to check on him being dangerous…. Not hardly, especially since it was only right after one of Sano's checkups that the Missy unwound long enough to sleep. If she'd thought Kenshin'd let her, Kaoru would definitely have been the one dropping by to make sure the red wolf was still breathing and non-foamy. But she didn't, and Kenshin definitely wouldn't.

Sano made his way further into the pines, grateful that the lightly-worn track he used was visible now, as the piles of leaves on the forest floor thinned.

"Oi, Kenshin!" The fighter called, large pointed ears swiveling as they cast about for a response from the self-appointed exile.

Silence probably couldn't technically be considered a response.

"Kenshin, get out here before I drag you out!"

"Over here, Sano." The red wolf appeared from the shadows of the trees, as if he'd been waiting in some dark dimension rather than moving through the woods like an ordinary wolf.

"Geez," Sano complained, moving toward the approaching wolf. "You ready to drop the doom'n'gloom outlook Kenshin? Been two weeks and you're still sane…" Sano grinned, "well, sane-ish."

Kenshin chuckled quietly at Sano's dig before violet eyes fell into shadow once more. Sanosuke sighed, he'd hoped that today Kenshin'd be better, have shaken off the depression that had haunted him since that moonwashed night two weeks ago. Seemed like he hadn't.

But, Sano reflected, he can't send me off this time, so maybe I can get what the problem is out of him before we get back to the Missy and the kid. "Come on," he told the other wolf, "Missy and lil' Yahiko are waiting."

"Yes…" the crimson wolf moved fluidly to walk beside his friend.

One good thing about those two weeks, Sano eyed Kenshin's shoulder, I think those injuries are about healed. "So," Sano plunged ahead, stoutly ignoring the melancholic aura on his right flank. "You gonna tell me what's been eatin' ya?"

"Sano, wolves don't have predators."

Yikes, that was dry. No 'oro' either. Hmm… "You know what I mean," the former fighter-for-hire sent the ex-hitokiri a sharp look, "Something's bugging you and I'd rather have it out here than back at the den."

"It is… nothing. Old thoughts."

"Yeah?" Sano cocked a brow, "like old, I-used-to-be-hitokiri thoughts? Or old what-are-they-gonna-think-of-me thoughts?"

Violet eyes crept a few shades nearer to blue as the Rurouni cut a glance at Sano. "… Among others."

Others, heck. Sano could almost see the ghost of Kurogasa sliding along in Kenshin's wake, grinning maw the portal to a deep void. "Is this about Jineh?"

Kenshin did not freeze, he very deliberately stopped, eyes serious. "It should not have come to that." His voice was controlled, the emotions roiling within his words on so tight a leash that Sano couldn't quite make out what they were. Anger? Guilt?

"This one…" Kenshin continued, "this one should never have put Miss Kaoru in that danger."

"Kenshin… danger kinda happens around here." Sano pointed out, watching his friend carefully. "You didn't put her in any, and she's fine."

"You don't understand," Kenshin whispered, his violet eyes haunted by blood spilled under moonlight. "This one… I was… glad she was there."

"Okay…" Sano looked at the Rurouni skeptically, "might wanna clue her in on that little detail, 'cause the Missy's under the impression she's been causing you problems."

Kenshin sighed, avoiding the demand for an explanation, now, that was poking at him from the hybrid's brown eyes.

"Kenshin…." The slow drawl was harder to avoid. A sigh. "You gonna tell me why you were glad she was there? From what she said, she didn't do much."

"More than she knows." A whisper so quiet Sano couldn't be sure he hadn't made it up. "What did she tell you about how Jineh met his end?"

Sano shrugged, "Nothing to tell—at the end you were standing and he wasn't."

Kenshin kept walking, moving soundlessly through the woods for so long a moment, Sano thought that was all he was ever going to know about the situation. "Jineh… succeeded in threatening Miss Kaoru. And this one…" a quiet sigh, "this one no longer cared about what was right or wrong… only that Jineh had hurt someone who—someone, and that he should die."

Sano raised a brow, wondering just what Kenshin had been planning on saying there. "Um, not to sound dumb or anythin' Kenshin, but wasn't the plan to kill Jineh from the start?"

It was the wrong thing to say. The crimson wolf seemed to shrink in on himself before Sanosuke's eyes, retreating from the questions.

"A point came where this one could have ended the fight. Jineh was no longer a threat, barely able to stand, and so lost in the foaming-sickness that he would have been dead within days. He was down and without escape or defense. This one," Kenshin breathed carefully, violet eyes searching out Sano's and holding his gaze implacably, "did not care.

"If Miss Kaoru had not stopped Sessha from killing a defenseless Jineh," Kenshin sighed, eyes closing in a century's worth of weariness, "The madness of Battousai would have fallen on this one once more."

And what the hell, Sano wondered, am I supposed to say to that?

"Hey, you'd been fighting the guy for a while already, and he just kept pushing your buttons. Everybody gets mad, Kenshin." The crimson wolf wasn't buying it, and his defense sounded thin even to his own ears.

The former fighter-for-hire stifled a sigh of relief as the pair came to the edge of the pine enclave and sunlight streaked through flame colored leaves. Glancing to one side, he could see pretty easily that Kenshin wasn't allowing the change in scenery to lighten his mood. He tried again.

"Look, Kenshin," brown eyes sought inspiration in the foliage overhead, "maybe the point isn't that you were mad enough to kill the guy, but that you were able to stop, huh?" That one sat a little easier with him, a band around his chest loosening as he allowed that it was probably the best he was going to be able to manage.

Kenshin shot a look at the hybrid from the corner of his eye, appearing to contemplate that.

Damn straight, Sano nodded to himself, he'd be willing to bet that Kenshin wasn't the type of guy who dwelt on what he'd accomplished, or even noticed when he'd succeeded. He was more the type to obsess over the one mistake that nobody else had even noticed.

"Come on," he urged, "Missy and the kid have been going nuts waiting for you to come back."

A wry smile broke the pensive expression, the wolf doubtless picturing just what the two younger pack members had been up to in his absence.

All right, Sano coached himself, hiding a smile, keep him focused on the guys waiting for him, a few more quips, some annoyed grumbling at their behavior and we should have one cheered up Rurouni… Aw, hell…

Kenshin had stopped dead, ears pricked toward something that Sano couldn't hear yet. But whatever it was, the hybrid fighter was willing to bet that it wasn't going to be simple, it wasn't going to cheer up the red wolf at his side and that Kaoru was going to be royally pissed if it kept the pair of them from getting back to the den before she really started freaking out. It never goes smooth. Why does it never go smooth?!

"Kenshin?" Sano's low voice murmured through the suddenly-taut atmosphere. The crimson wolf glanced at Sano, then back to the right. "What—"

But now Sano could hear it too, a labored gasping, a rustle of foliage and a hostile snarls that were pure canine.

What in— but the chase was upon them, a lithe dark shape burst into a view so suddenly that for a moment Sano had trouble seeing what it was. But at the sight of the two pack members the figure froze, trembling on slender legs, narrow white chest heaving for oxygen. Sano stared, his thoughts locking up in some weird fog.

Beautiful… really… damn. He shook himself angrily, ridding himself of the clinging fog and staring hard at the new arrival. The creature was a black vixen about Kenshin's size, and almost impossibly beautiful. The only thing that kept that beauty from being completely unreal was the disarray of her fur, snagged and snarled from her flight, and the wordless terror in her deep wine-hued eyes.

Trouble. Sano thought grimly, feeling himself instinctively shift to a more stable stance. That is trouble.

The fox's large triangular ears were pressed back, moving nervously at the sounds of approaching pursuit, wine eyes raked Sano's form unseeingly, glanced at Kenshin, came back for a second look, hovering on the crimson wolf's face. No, not his face… his… scar?

Black paws trembled, then leaped forward, depositing the vixen gracefully in a gesture of courtly submission as female eyes gazed up at the smaller of the two wolves.

"Please, help me!" Damn.

Kenshin fought against the urge to step back, feeling one white hindpaw slide away from the prostrate vixen.

"Oro?" He was aware of Sano's disgruntled grumblings to his left, the sounds of pursuit that were almost upon them, and the vixen who'd thrown herself, without warning, on to his mercy. If Master ever hears about this, he'll laugh this one off the mountain.

A delicately-shaped vulpine head lifted so that the disconcertingly enchanting creature could meet his eyes. Red-violet stared up into eyes the color of twilight, and Kenshin felt something else tense, suddenly expecting an attack on his back. Oh, the owner of those eyes was scared, wide, wavering fear that masked any deeper motive, but at the edges of that fear, peering out in the gaps between waves—calculation, pure quicksilver, fickle and changing and impossible to hold. Sano already knows, the Rurouni knew, the fighter-for-hire's bad temper a low-level vibration in the air. Good. This one needs to be watched.

"Please," the fox continued, trembling with exhaustion, "I know I don't have any claim, but please…"

"You can't run forever, Megumi!" a harsh curse broke the air, Kenshin shifted, mindful of the still-prone fox at his paws as the pursuers broke through the underbrush. The first was some brown mutt with a lean body and long snout that spoke of a sight-hound somewhere back in the family tree. The sight-hound drew up short as he saw Kenshin and Sano, quick eyes scanning the fox's prone position and Sano's irritated form.

A thin thing like him, Kenshin mused, Fighting's not his forte. Maybe we can resolve this—

The second dog that broke into the clearing was obviously the muscle of the outfit, a black and tan mixed breed with a tail that had been chopped half off at some point. The newcomer stepped forward to join the uneasy stare-down, eyes hard and scornful.

"This isn't any of your business, fleabags," he warned as his thin partner sniggered, long pink tongue darting out to lick his chops. "Leave the broad to us."

Sano stretched and yawned impressively, showing off his teeth. "Couple 'a dogs out after a fox? That's a little weird. Couple 'a dogs crossing a pack boundary to chase a fox…" the hybrid grinned, "now that's just rude."

"You fool!" The sight-dog had an odd nasally voice, coming as it did from his long muzzle. "You don't even know who she is! If defy us, you defy Kanryuu Takaeda," the mutt snarled, "You have no idea what it means to cross him!" Sano twitched minutely at the name.

"Kanryuu Takaeda?" Kenshin asked the younger canine in an undertone, keeping steady violet eyes on the two dogs. Sano's lip curled, as if the name was a stench in his nostrils and exposed a white fang.

"Heard of him in the last town I stopped over at. Supposed to be some super-brain type who's got a lot of dogs doing what he wants. And what he wants ain't all that pleasant." The hybrid looked askance at the black vixen, "How'd you get mixed up with a guy like him?"

The vixen shook her head, frame shivering with fine tremors that were far more genuine than her wide-eyed answer, "I don't know, I don't have anything to do with this!"

"Lyin' vixen!" The brawny dog snarled at the female, switched his brown glare to Sano. "Enough wasting time, give her over!"

"This one sees quite plainly that the lady does not wish to go with you. Sessha would suggest that you respect her wish and leave peaceably, that he does." Kenshin said quietly.

Sano snorted, throwing his own opinion out, "Kanryuu's name doesn't carry any weight over here, kids. You want something done?" a toothy smile, "Stop chasing your tails and get it done."

Really, Kenshin sighed to himself as the enraged dogs leaped to attack, Sanosuke, was that reallynecessary?

Although, it wasn't enough of a fight to get upset over. The sight-hound went after Kenshin, being the lighter of the two, while the black and tan dog thundered toward a madly-grinning Sanosuke. A few simple moves left one dog nursing a torn ear and counting stars bursting in his vision while his companion stared up into a cross-marred face from the flat of his back.

"Now," the Rurouni spoke gently but firmly, "you are trespassing and have threatened one under our protection," one crimson ear twitched toward Sano's protest. "This one gives you this chance. Leave. Forget you ever followed the fox here." Slowly Kenshin moved back, allowing his opponent to rise, wary of another assault. He needn't have bothered. The brown dog scrambled to his feet and took off back the way he had come, trailing a slower, probably concussed, companion cursing after him.

"That was a lame excuse for a fight," Sano groused, his bad-tempered eye falling on the ebony vixen. "So who're you? How're you involved with Kanryuu? And don't lie this time."

The fox shook her head again. "Megumi Takani, but I really don't know what this is about! They just started chasing me and—"

"Tsk tsk, didn't anyone ever teach you not to lie, Megumi Takani?" A nasally voice intoned from somewhere above. The black vixen froze, terror returning in full force. "Just think of the example you're setting."

"The hell?!" Sano stared up into the trees, the fur along his spine standing straight up. Kenshin scanned the thinning foliage—there.

The speaker was a phenomenally ugly cat. Unlike Tae, this cat wasn't a bobcat or any other sort of wild species at all; he was exactly the variety that might turn up in any human settlement. The creature was brown, but in a style completely uncharacteristic to the rest of his kind the cat had obviously long given up on grooming itself. His fur stuck out in spikes, particularly on the top of his head and down his spine— a spine that ended rather abruptly in an absurd tuft of fur where the cat's tail appeared to have been bitten off.

Recovering herself, Megumi glared up at the observer, deadly but somehow brittle, splintering, like a toxic plant wilting. "You tell him," she snapped, "he'll listen to one of his precious Oniwabanshuu—tell Kanryuu that I'll run away from him forever!"

The alley-cat yawned, displaying curved canines and blinked lantern-yellow eyes at the vixen, his scraggly whiskers twitching into a smile.

"What makes you think you can run, foxy? One of the Oniwaban is always with you. Wherever, whenever, forever. You really think even one little fox can get past us? We both know I'm more than enough to bring you back, Takani."

The vixen flinched, and Kenshin stepped toward the tree. "Miss Megumi has already stated her preference on this matter." He said firmly, staring up at the scrawny cat. "She does not wish to return to Kanryuu, and this one will defend that decision."

Sano swore colorfully under his breath, the Rurouni could make out a pattern between the profanity—something about females, and trouble, and rest, and things never going smooth. But the fighter sighed and shook himself, glaring up halfheartedly at the feline intruder.

"Just buzz off willya? Been bad enough fighting those two klutzes, and my mood has gotten a lot worse."

The cat stretched, sinking long claws into his branch. "Talk as big as you want, mutt. We both know you can't reach me. I can follow you idiots wherever I like, or wait her for Kanryuu's pack to come, and they will come, and you can't do a thing about it—"

This one thinks not. With a concentrated spring, Kenshin moved into the air, the world seeming to slow as he ascended. The puny cat closing its eyes in smug self-satisfaction as it continued to lecture, a little further and the crimson wolf's muzzle closed almost gently on the startled cat's torso and tugged him off his branch and to the ground.

The taste and smell were rather awful, about what you'd expect from an unwashed cat but… there was something else, a subtle scent buried under layers of ammonia and dried blood.

Then white paws touched earth, and Kenshin slung the squalling cat across the clearing, where it skidded, raking the earth with wickedly long claws, unsheathed too late, in an effort to remain on its feet.

"As you have identified yourself with a pack, you are under pack law," Kenshin intoned softly, eyes locked on the cat whose thin flanks were heaving with panicked breaths. "Therefore, you are trespassing. This is your warning. Leave. Now."

The cat began backing slowly into the underbrush, lambent eyes fixing on Megumi in pure hate. "This isn't over, Megumi Takani! Hide all you like, but know that my claws will find your fox's hide!"

Sano lunged forward with an open mouth, closing it with a snap on the angry yowl the cat left behind as he turned and ran. The hybrid shook his head and blew a sharp breath out his nose.

"Phwah! That thing reeks."

"Beshimi doesn't bathe," Megumi said softly, eyes unfocused and staring toward where the cat had made his departure, "he can't, it…" the fox blinked, returning to herself with a snap. "Oh, goodness, I look an absolute fright!"

Ignoring Sano's incredulous stare, the vixen ducked her head and began licking down the white fur on her chest.

Sano goggled. "Hold on a second, you! Explanations, here, now! You knew who that guy was—what do you have to do with Kanryuu?!"

The ebony fox stopped her grooming long enough to look down her nose at Sano. "Only thoughtless males pry into a lady's past.

"I don't see any Lady—"

"Easy, Sano," Kenshin interrupted with a nervous smile, watching his friend's obvious agitation. "It will be all right, that it will."

Megumi left off grooming completely—already looking—Kenshin was a little uncomfortable to note, beautifully sleek and refined, not at all as if she had been running in absolute terror earlier.

The fox sidled closer to Kenshin, pressing her dark pelt up against his bright one, white-tipped tail weaving almost catlike behind her. The Rurouni stiffened, eyes going wide.

Oro, oro, oro, oro…

"See?" Megumi peered up at him with wine-colored eyes, a vulpine smile on her muzzle. The fox glanced over at Sano, "Now there's a male a girl could get behind. Easy on the eyes and on the mind."

OroOroOro- ORO!

"You're strong, aren't you? What do you say; will you help me escape from Kanryuu?"

Sano was glowering, eyes daring his friend to say no, to give the answer the hybrid knew that the Rurouni would never say. He turned to being moving toward the heart of the territory, calling over one evil-marked shoulder.

"Fine. You get to explain to the little Missy."

… Oro isn't going to cut it.

Kaoru had woken early, moving to full alertness in the space of a second as Sano moved quietly out of the den. She had lain still, aware of Yahiko's warm bulk pressed to her side, allowing the hybrid to think he'd slipped out. She knew she'd been hard (nearly impossible) to live with these past two weeks, and this morning… well, it wouldn't be fair to Sano to make him go through another of her episodes. Especially since if she got up then Yahiko definitely would, and he'd been just as vocal about Kenshin's absence as she had.

But all of that was behind them now, the tanuki had firmly reminded herself with a thrill of relieved joy that made going back to sleep impossible, because Kenshin was coming back today.

When Yahiko had finally woken Kaoru steamrolled over any grumpy protests about Sano's quiet departure with a strict plan for the day. The plan was to wear both herself and Yahiko out so that there wouldn't be time for nervous-energy sparked arguments. To achieve this, the tanuki and the puppy did a running-patrol of the western-most border, the female setting a pace that Yahiko couldn't keep up with and still talk. She called a halt as the pair slid from the western border along to the southern and ran into the river.

It would be nice, she'd decided, if the pack could all have meal together when Sano and Kenshin got back. Frankly, she didn't trust Kenshin to feed himself properly; she still remembered his protruding ribs when he'd first appeared.

Strange, that it hadn't been that long ago, yet already she couldn't imagine life without Kenshin, without Yahiko or even Sano. It felt like the males had always been with her. Like their weird pack was meant to be together, filling some void she hadn't been able to put a name to, but had silently felt all her life.

Putting such thoughts aside, Kaoru had instructed Yahiko in a new type of hunting—fishing, trusting that the struggle of applying new technique would keep the akita-mix busy, distracted. Kaoru herself found it harder to ignore, thinking about what time it was and whether Kenshin and Sano were back at the den yet. Finally, the pair had managed four fish that would make decent meals and set off toward the den at breakneck speed, only to find it still deserted.

Moodily Yahiko flopped down by the concealing hazel-tree, releasing the two fish he'd been carrying by the tails. His still semi-damp stomach fur attracted dirt to itself, turning white into clumpy brown, but the puppy didn't seem to notice.

"They're not back yet? Geez, I bet Sano got lost again."

Kaoru deposited her own pair of fish, sitting down as she did so. "Maybe not, I mean, they could have…" Kenshin could have left and Sano just doesn't want to tell us… the thought came, sudden and nasty as a viper's bite. Kaoru refused to say it aloud. "… They could have run into Tae on the way back and gotten stuck talking."

Yahiko rolled his eyes, stretching out oversized paws. "Yeah, right. What's so special about her that they would drop everything and waste time?"

"Yahiko!" Though the puppy had a point. If Sano had, for some reason, decided to delay (even though he knew Kaoru and Yahiko were going mad with waiting), Tae knew enough of the situation that she'd never let the two males stop to chat—walk and gossip maybe, but definitely not stop. It had been a long shot from the beginning, but Yahiko still didn't need to talk about her friend that way.

Kaoru was just about to lecture Yahiko on Tae's behalf when she heard it, a gentle rustle of underbrush and the steady grumble of Sano's voice. Completely forgetting her irritation of just a few seconds before, the tanuki turned toward the sound, a relieved smile stretching across her muzzle.

"Kensh—" the greeting died halfway spoken. There was her red-furred wanderer, Rurouni's smile a thin veneer over something very similar to panic. And there was Sano, the fight-seeking hybrid ignoring everyone to examine the surrounding forest with lackluster interest. And standing between them… "Kenshin, who is this?"

It was not, Kaoru was aware, one of her reasonable tones. Actually, it was quite hostile. But between Kenshin and Sano was the loveliest black vixen Kaoru had ever seen, a vixen who seemed to find it the most wonderful kind of amusing to attempt to twine her tail with Kenshin's. Kaoru didn't really care much about her tone right now.

Kenshin's ears were flat to his skull, and his tail, already drooping to avoid the fox's, sunk a little lower, his smile was forced.

"Ah… Miss Kaoru, this is Miss Megumi," the red wolf sidled an unsuccessful step away from the fox. "She was chased into the territory by some rather persistent dogs."

"Moderately persistent," Sano corrected, seeing fit to actually look at the others, giving Kenshin a toothy grin. "They ran fast enough."

"But bold Sir Ken so heroically fought them off," the Megumi-fox sighed, actually batting her eyes at the extremely uncomfortable Rurouni.

Kaoru choked on a breath, working to get past the angry obstruction in her throat. By her side, Yahiko openly stared at the beautiful creature terrifying his hero.

"Guess it's pretty easy to put the moves on somebody you just saved," the puppy mused with a confused mix of admiration and sarcasm. The obstruction cleared, resolved itself into words:

"Hey! Get off him!"

Megumi paused, dark eyes looking sidelong at Kaoru, judging the silvery female. "And who are you to say who gets close to Sir Ken? Surely a male as skilled as he can speak for himself…" the vixen gave a delicate sigh, "And what relationship could you possibly have that would dictate who Sir Ken spends time with? A half-grown female who doesn't even know how to groom herself properly can't possibly be what Sir Ken would look for in a companion."

Kaoru was grateful that Sano and Yahiko didn't glance her way at the statement, ready to weigh her own scruffy fur against the sleek ebony of the vixen. No, the spiky-furred duo (speaking of ungroomed) were staring at Megumi, who was now sitting her with fluffy tail curled neatly around to hide her dainty paws, a victorious smirk hovering around her muzzle. Kenshin wasn't looking at anyone, and had taken the opportunity provided to put a healthy distance between himself and Megumi.

Kaoru blinked, the anger that she should have been feeling, should have had her launching forward to teach a certain fox a few lessons on etiquette to pack-leaders, instead bouncing around her head in a lonely howl.

She had tried so hard.

She had been patient (for her) for two weeks, without more than a self-proclaimed scoundrel and layabout's word that Kenshin was still here, still sane, that he hadn't slipped away into the night for destinations unknown.

She had suffered through days and long nights of uncertainty and self-doubt, because if she hadn't been there, Jineh would never have been able to drive Kenshin so far, drive him to the amber-eyed stranger she had kept secret from Yahiko, from Sano.

And today, she had just wanted to welcome him home, to show Kenshin that he had an important place in their lives, that he was cared for and missed… She still couldn't so much as catch his scent, endless wind and autumn's last leaves masked by the clinging scent of the fox, a mixture of cold sharp mint and other herbs she couldn't recognize.

The clearing was still quiet, Sano and Yahiko looking to Kaoru now for a response, the tanuki didn't want to look at Kenshin.

Moving slowly, Kaoru turned and very deliberately walked away into the woods.

"What's your problem?!" Yahiko exploded at an openly-smirking Megumi, "The hell did you do to Kaoru?"

Kenshin stared after where Kaoru had gone, frowning. That wasn't like her…

"Take it easy on the Missy, vixen," Sano said baldly, a lazy eye on the fox who'd bristled at his tone. "She's still pretty pure minded, not all conniving like some other females I could mention." Megumi huffed, nose in the air. The fighter swung his gaze toward Kenshin, "You'd better go after her or she's gonna come back pissed. She's been looking forward to today and it's been shot all to hell."

"We caught lunch," Yahiko muttered gloomily, pawing at a silvery fish, "and she made me clean the den. It wasn't even dirty."

Kenshin winced, possibly imagining Kaoru's likely mood when he caught up with her.

"Sano, Yahiko, please watch over Miss Megumi. This one does not believe we were followed, yet…"

"Yeah, yeah," Sano agreed, moving to investigate one of the fish, "get going, Kenshin."

Ducking his head, the red wolf set off after Kaoru.

Megumi shook herself, jet fur rising to fall perfectly back into place. "So much fuss over one small tantrum," she remarked airily, "perhaps she's even more of a puppy than she appears."

"Hey!" Yahiko started, Sano cut him off, lazily gathering up a fish and lying down.

"That little miss you're set on alienating is pretty important to all of us," he remarked nonchalantly, "and it wasn't a good idea to tick her off since she's the one who decides if you get to stay." It was delivered so casually Megumi couldn't be sure if it was a threat.

"But this is Sir Ken's territory." She narrowed her eyes, she did know pack law, for all that she was exempt from it based on species, and territory always went to the strongest couple. Kenshin and that ratty thing that had fled were definitely not a couple.

"Sorta," Sano shrugged, "thing is, Kenshin considers this territory to be Kaoru's. Which gives her the final say."

Yahiko settled to a fish of his own, unsure if he should offer the fox one of the remaining two. The manners he'd been learning at Kaoru's insistence said he should—but Kaoru wasn't here to enforce them because this weird female had upset her. The puppy stared and chewed thoughtfully, unsure.

Kaoru had made her way to one of her favorite thinking-spots, an old haunt from puppyhood that her father had once mentioned as being a favorite of her mother's. It was down by the river, a natural pool where the waters stilled in a small inlet, overlooked by a smooth boulder that held the sun's warmth. Sitting on the boulder, she could make out her reflection in the water almost perfectly if the current cooperated.

Kaoru sat and stared, wondering at her scruffy appearance. It wasn't as bad as Sano's or Yahiko's, it was better even than Kenshin's, but having seen Megumi…

Just how much were females supposed to groom themselves? Tae groomed all day, but Kaoru was pretty sure that was just because her friend was a cat. Guess that's something mom should have taught me… the tanuki made a face at the masked reflection in the water, started licking at the fur of her shoulder experimentally, trying to get unruly fur to lie flat. It fought her ministrations, conspiring to be even worse than before.

Kaoru paused to scowl at her reflection, the river's whim holding the water still for a moment. A flicker of red—

"I know you're there, Kenshin." No she didn't, not really, but if he was there then this would be a nice trick.

"Miss Kaoru…" So that was him. Kaoru's dark ears lowered a fraction.

"I'm being silly." Perhaps realizing the trap, the Rurouni said nothing. Reluctantly Kaoru turned around.

Kenshin hadn't come up on the boulder with her; instead he stood a little further back under the thinning cover of two oaks whose leaves had turned a deep crimson. Probably what she had seen reflected in the water.

"I'm sorry." The words were out before she had really realized that she was going to say them. Kenshin looked surprised.

"For what, Miss Kaoru?"

"Miss Megumi," Kaoru's ears were flat to her skull, "I may have over… reacted."

"She is quite a shock," the Rurouni noted dryly, shooting an unreadable look over his shoulder towards the den.

She was not going to giggle, even if relief at Kenshin's response had shot a warm fizz of giddy emotion down to bounce around in her stomach.

"Why is she here?" Kaoru moved off her boulder to sit closer to Kenshin, head cocked to one side expectantly. "I know you must have had a reason for bringing her back." It was just a bonus that moving closer allowed Kaoru to easily breathe in her friend's scent, which sent that fizz of relief on a riotous trip through the rest of her body, even the thought of Megumi was having trouble working its way through the warmth to annoy her.

Kenshin sighed, sitting as well and looking comfortable enough to suggest that he was quite content to be away from the den for now. "She was frightened," violet eyes searched hers, frank. "She was hunted, and she was frightened. She's still frightened, for all she's hiding it. And-" the crimson wolf hesitated, "the one chasing her…"

"Bad news?" Kaoru guessed.

Kenshin shrugged, "This one doesn't know," he admitted. "Sano has heard of him, but nothing more than vague rumors, and Miss Megumi," his tone went dry again, "insists that it is quite rude to ask her anything about herself."


"As the proverbial trout," Kenshin agreed absently. "But even if this Kanryuu isn't a threat… one of her pursuers mentioned a group I may have heard of before." He met her gaze again. "Sheltering Miss Megumi may be dangerous."

Kaoru shrugged, getting to her feet. "But we're going to do it anyway," she pointed out. Even if I don't like her, if Kenshin thinks something bad is after her I wouldn't be able to sleep nights if I chased her off, the tanuki thought sourly. "Besides," she gave Kenshin a small smile, "it's not like we're not used to danger."

The Rurouni winced, his eyes catching and holding her when the tanuki would have started moving back toward the den. "It should not be so," he said quietly, pained. "Miss Kaoru, sessha would like to apologize for what transpired with Jineh."

Kaoru felt an instinctual shudder start down her spine at the mention of the mad wolf's name, felt it die stillborn at the look on her Rurouni's face.

"Sessha allowed you to be placed in great danger, but such a thing will not happen again Miss Kaoru." His face was as serious as if he were swearing fealty, "This one will be sure to protect you."

Kaoru was finding it just a little hard to breathe up against that determination, solemn as a sunrise. But she couldn't let Kenshin take the blame.

"It wasn't your fault, Kenshin." She shook her head, breaking eye contact, "If I'd been faster, or had gone anywhere else—"

"You are not at fault Miss Kaoru," Kenshin insisted, "You made the best choice under the circumstances. If you had kept running Jineh would surely have tired of the chase and caught you."

Kaoru rolled her eyes, deliberately irreverent, trying to break through Rurouni-seriousness. "So I say you're not to blame, and you say I'm not to blame. The only one that leaves is Jineh. Think we can agree to blame him?"

Kenshin nodded, but the look on his face said he didn't agree, wouldn't let go of his guilt so easily. Kaoru sighed, and, daring, brushed by him, allowing to very tips of her fur to touch his as she passed. It wasn't anything like the way Miss Megumi had been plastering herself to Kenshin's side, but it was as close as she could comfortably come, and even this much was making the tips of her ears go uncomfortably warm.

"Come on," she looked back at Kenshin, "let's get back to the others before Yahiko eats all of the food."

"Of course, Miss Kaoru."

"And Kenshin?" she wasn't quite looking him in the eye anymore. "I'm glad you're back."

A slow smile spread across her Rurouni's face, "This one is pleased to be so."

With a flick of her ringed tail Kaoru started off, trying to keep her very-warm ears from going completely flat with delighted embarrassment, and began muttering to herself about the need to pick up some more food on the way back to the den, to feed the extra mouth.

A messy brown feline ran. Terrified flight had long since given way to trained agility, allowing the cat to cover the distance from the oddly-defended territory, past the two clumsy hounds that had collapsed, quivering at the edge of a very different territory to the northeast.

It was more of a camp than a territory, rings of other dogs, (puling, posturing puppies more like) arranged around a comfortable den. Beshimi slipped past the guards, not bothering to check his pace. There was no need. None of Kanryuu's followers would dare delay one of the Oniwaban in a hurry—even if it had taken some of the cat's more… esoteric talents to ensure that some of them got the idea. Or rather, their friends. The ones who'd challenged the only cat in the bizarre pack were far beyond help.

Beshimi arrowed through the camp, heading for a circle of close-growing pines where his leader had made their headquarters. The Okashira would never admit to such things, but the evergreens reminded the five Oniwaban of the cold north—and home.

The unkempt cat resisted the urge to hiss at a shepherd dog that didn't quite get out of his way fast enough. The luckless mongrels who served Kanryuu would doubtless take the news of the thrice-blasted fox straight to Kanryuu in the den at the true center of the camp, but for the Oniwaban, for any true Oniwaban, there was only one Leader.

Beshimi slipped between tall, prickly trunks into the perpetual gloom of the Okashira's sanctuary. Coming to a precise halt, the cat sat and licked his lips nervously.


A whisper of sound, as if shadow could touch shadow, and icy teal eyes stared back at him from a face as dark as the shadows it courted.

"Beshimi," the leader's voice, appropriately cold, "report."

The cat extended claws to grip the earth below his paws, released it slowly. The Okashira made him nervous. "I trailed Megumi Takani as instructed,"

"You were instructed," the voice noted, utterly without emotion, "to bring her back."

Beshimi winced, half-crouching as if to avoid a blow. "My apologies for my failure, Okashira. There was," he hesitated, "interference."

Impassive teal regarded him from a barely-discernible lupine face. "Explain."

Rage burned up through Beshimi's being, straightening the spine still bent to his leader's displeasure. How dare that vixen escape…

"Megumi Takani has entered a territory to the southwest, Okashira. She there encountered two fighters who gave her aid." A low hiss pulled from his throat before he could fight it back. "Representatives of the local pack. They seemed unaware of Kanryuu's… reputation, and willing to grant the vixen sanctuary." Another hiss, remembering how the crimson one had plucked him from his perch as easily as one might pluck the wings from an insect.

"Two, and you were deterred."

Beshimi winced. "Takani's escape caught me unprepared, Okashira," the cat apologized, touching his forehead to the dirt between his front paws, trembling. "I fear my weapons were… limited."

Silence from his leader, the strange wolf that had earned the cat's loyalty more seasons back than the feline could recall. In this posture, the Okashira could kill him for his failure before Beshimi could move.

"Hannya." The leader's voice, speaking over his head, ignoring his apology for now. "Were you able to trail them?"

He was following me?! Beshimi almost sputtered, but it wouldn't do any good. Hannya was Aoshi's trusted right paw, with skills that far outshone Beshimi's meager contribution to the group. If Hannya didn't want to be seen, he wouldn't be. And if he was ordered to follow even one of his own pack, well, for the Okashira, he would. Any of them would.

Hannya's voice wasn't as cold as the Leader's, but it didn't sound right either, more… gravelly. Which was appropriate considering the master spy had once had his throat torn half out.

"It was difficult." The specter's voice came from the gloom, shape even less visible than the Okashira's night-dark pelt. "One of the two was quite skilled in detecting shadows, but the pack Takani shelters with is a small one."

"Beshimi," the cat dared to raise yellow eyes to the wolf he served above all others, "You will take Hannya and Hyottoko to reacquire Megumi Takani." Icy eyes narrowed. "A second failure will not be tolerated."

Beshimi gulped, anxiety crushing his ribcage.

"I shall strive for perfection in this matter, Okashira."

The dark wolf gave a brisk nod, acknowledging his subordinate's promise and dismissing him. The cat slunk away into the gloom.

"You will not accompany us, Leader?" The question was carefully neutral; both knew how much importance Kanryuu placed on his vixen. The Okashira shook his head only slightly, wasting no movement.

"You and Hyottoko should suffice. Shikijou will remain to guard and I will explain matters to Kanryuu." The Okashira couldn't see the bowed head that would signify Hannya's respect to his leader's decisions, but the dark wolf could hear it.

"The… other matter is settled then?"

"The situation is in flux." Ice eyes fixed on the exact spot where Hannya lurked, "the outcome will depend upon the success of your mission."

Hannya bowed his head again, half-ruined voice grim with determination.

"Then we will not fail, Okashira."

ettled then?"

"The situation is in flux." Ice eyes fixed on the exact spot where Hannya lurked, "the outcome will depend upon the success of your mission."

Hannya bowed his head again, half-ruined voice grim with determination.

"Then we will not fail, Okashira."

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