Amber Forest

Chapter 9- Bella Donna, Bane di Wolf

I know some things that you don't
I've done things that you won't
There's nothing like a trail of blood
to find your way back home

-SIXX A.M, Life is Beautiful

Kaoru wasn't sure just what had been going on in her absence, but Megumi's stiff posture and upturned muzzle, as if the very thought of looking at a certain hybrid with a fishbone dangling from grinning jaws was offensive… I knew there was a reason I kept him around.

The wolf-dog looked up at his approaching friends, his lazy tail beating the earth twice in welcome. "So, you found her, and she didn't rip off your tail. Lucky guy."

And that's why I'm going to kick him out, Kaoru thought darkly, glaring at Sano while Kenshin gave out his patient they're-teasing-me-again smile. Yahiko was a suspicious shadow—not quite staying behind Sano as he watched the fox with the mixture of fascination and distrust.

And now Megumi was looking at the two returned wolves from the corner of one unfathomable wine eye, posture turned just a fraction so if the need to bolt arose she could be off in the space between heartbeats.

Kaoru sighed, carefully laying down the extra fish she had insisted that they catch so everyone would have something to eat. "Miss Megumi," she tried to keep her voice decisive. That should be easy, right? The decision was already made. "I've talked to Kenshin and we've decided to let you stay here while this whole business with Kanryuu gets sorted out."

The fox looked up, disbelief wide and lonely in her eyes while her face fought to stay unaffected and vaguely smug. Kaoru frowned, "Don't look at me like that, I'm not completely heartless."

Yahiko coughed under his breath, "Says the hag who nearly chewed off my ears two days ago."

"Your ears?" Sano looked askance at the growing puppy, "I thought she was gonna scalp me."

"Oh, shut up," Kaoru grumbled, bringing a fish over to Megumi as Kenshin sat, talking quietly with the other two males. The she-wolf dropped the fish; glancing carefully over her shoulder to be sure the males weren't paying attention.

"Now listen," she told the fox in an undertone, "I've said you can stay for now, but any more of this plastering yourself to Kenshin crap and I will personally chase you out of here so fast it'll make your pretty little head spin."

The black vixen's eyes narrowed as she inhaled, Kaoru cut her off before the undoubtedly waspish comment could come out. "Think about it for a minute," the tanuki advised. "If you're busy making Kenshin uncomfortable, how well will he be able to protect you?"

"Sano," Kenshin quietly called to his friend, keeping one ear trained on the ruckus caused by two females who might never become very good friends. The fighter-for-hire shifted lazily closer to the wolf, matching him tone for quiet tone.


Kenshin's violet eyes were troubled, his brow ever so slightly creased in a frown. "I want you to ask about Miss Megumi and Kanryuu in town," the crimson wolf instructed, "We don't know enough about what's going on, and this one does not believe that Miss Megumi will tell us."

Sano took in the Rurouni's worried expression, and let his gaze slide over to the ongoing argument. The fox's eyes had lit up like she was winning, but one only had to look at Kaoru to know the fight was far from over, especially since Yahiko was making his way over to the scene.

"Sure," Sano agreed, "I'll see what I can scare up."

"Thank you," Kenshin smiled weakly, probably unhappy with the prospect of staying behind with three squabbling denmates. Sano granted him a toothy grin in return.

Hope he's not outta practice, or they're going to shred him to itty bitty Rurouni pieces trying to go for each other's throats.

Clouds covered the sun, turning the light to silver-gray and making the autumn day feel colder. Sano was unbothered by the change in temperature, thick coat keeping him warm despite the chill breezes swirling about.

Air moved funny in the city, the hybrid decided, wrinkling his nose at the odors it brought. The wind got cocky, not having to weave through trees, started thinking it could shove a body around. But, if he was going to find information on an up-and-coming pack, the town would be the place to go. Kanryuu was a dog, which made him a dog's problem.

Add to that the fact that he didn't know any of the wolf neighbors, except those poor saps Kurogasa had killed, well… yeah, obviously the town.

Though, weirdly enough he seemed to be having a hard time finding his way around, which just wasn't fair. But he'd moved on anyway, talking to folks he met half by accident and trying to figure out which side of town he'd come in on anyway.

Honestly, that went about as well as trying to get information on Kanryuu. The pets hadn't heard of him, or heard much about him. A few of the strays knew about as much as he did, that Kanryuu was a brainy type who'd somehow gotten a bunch of other dogs to follow him. Everybody knew he was into something shady. No one seemed to know what it was.

We'd have more luck trying to get the vixen to talk. Or asking Tae if she'd singed her whiskers on any sizzling rumors. But it would definitely just be rumor; the cat's information didn't tend to be as good as she believed it was. There was also the small matter of Sano owing the feline a woodpigeon. Or two. But hey, what were a few meals between friends?

"Nothing to get worked up over," the hybrid muttered, eying the sky. The sun was still invisible behind its layer of clouds, refusing to give him a hint about the way back. "Aw, hell." It had to be some direction, right? He just had to trust his instincts and pick one.

The fighter looked back and forth, "Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, choose the way that I will go…" There! East-westish. Determined, Sano moved down a side street at a relaxed lope. With any luck all this running around hadn't drawn the notice of the city's dogcatchers.

The road Sano had chosen led to more open spaces, the buildings that had huddled together as if for warmth now holding each other at arm's length. Vaguely familiar though, like maybe he had come through here once before. 'Course, that could be his less-than-stellar sense of direction talking again.

The road stretched on, clearly intent on leaving the town, though whether or not it was the right way remained to be seen. "Let's see, talked to Tobi and Tomi," Sano ran through a quick checklist, "Katsuki and… who's that?"

'That' was a dark dog, some ways ahead of him who slipped quickly across the road and down into the dying grasses on its side. Another turn and the stranger was out of sight behind the last building.

No harm asking him, right? Sano mused and picked up his pace. The dog wasn't in sight as he rounded the building, but his scent (at least, what Sano assumed must be his scent) wound along the side of the building and around some scattered debris. A strange scent. Something that tickled in the back of his mind, something… he could almost recognize.

Intent on following the almost-familiar smell, Sano skirted a rusty dumpster.

"Okay, buddy," came a growl that was anything but friendly, "why're you following me?" The hostile voice came from above, an unfriendly face showing over the edge of the dumpster's lid.

"Would you relax?" Sano cocked a brow at the bristling dog, "Just wanted to ask you something."

The dog was a flat-coated retriever, though obviously one that didn't share the happy nature his breed was noted for. He was solid brown, the color of dark chocolate, with floppy ears hanging limply by his face and angry gray eyes that looked over Sanosuke with something like puzzlement.

Sano frowned back with almost the same expression. Something about those ears…

"Katsu?" It couldn't be, no way, but those surly gray eyes were widening, and he could almost see it.


The hybrid grinned unabashedly, tail beating out a steady rhythm, "It is you."

The dark dog leapt down from his perch and drew near his old friend, "What happened to you? It's been forever!"

"Not quite forever," Sano retorted, "Lost track of you back when the Sekihotai split," Rough fur moved in a shrug, "Never was sure if you made it out."

Katsu snorted, a bitter sound. "Yeah, everybody split and it was hell trying to find anyone. You and the Captain were gone; none of the others could keep the Sekihotai together. Nobody even tried." He paused, gaze sliding beyond Sano, into nothing for a time. "… I heard the Captain was killed."

The old bitterness ate at Sano's gut like maggots in rotted meat as remembered rage shuddered down his spine.

A black and white form, falling, swallowed by red.

"He did," the hybrid's voice sounded thick, choked by a growl, "I was there."

Katsu exhaled slowly, eyes even blacker than his already-dark face. "Who?"

The instinctive answer rose in snarl to Sano's muzzle. Slaves to humans, worthless curs with no honor! If they hadn't fought— the newer memory of a splitting headache and a face of crimson fur sealed into compassionate agony stopped him.

The snarl eased and he allowed his air to hiss out from between his teeth.

"Humans," the answer was truthful, even if it was a truth he hadn't wanted to see. He'd been so angry, wanted to fight back. You couldn't fight two-leggers, you could only avoid them. And the dog that the Captain had refused to fight hadn't killed his mentor.

Katsu growled softly, glaring at the town with the same helpless fury that had nearly driven Sano mad.

"So… why are you here?" Sanosuke offered into the stillness, trying to shift the conversation back from death to life. Katsu studied him,

"Ginjo looked after me for a while, but eventually I struck out on my own. Ended up here and I've been here ever since. What happened to you, after the Captain…?"

Sano sat and used a hind paw to scratch at his ribs uncomfortably. "Got mad, got tough, got a reputation and then I finally got some sense knocked into me. So I hung up Zanza's name and I've been living with the local pack ever since."

Katsu raised his brows, impressed, "Zanza? Fighter-for-hire, dealer of nightmares and crusher of bones? You?"

Sano grinned weakly, "I was mad?" The hybrid frowned, "Wait a minute, you heard about me?"

The retriever gave Sano a patient look, "These ears aren't just for show, you know. I keep them to the ground, keep track of what's going on."

"I thought they were for chewing," Sano replied innocently, "You never stopped me from doing it."

Katsu started to mutter something about a certain fat puppy sitting on him, but the hybrid cut him off.

"But that's good news for me, listen. Have you heard anything about a dog called Kanryuu or a fox called Megumi? Those folks I'm staying with, the ones who knocked some sense into me, are in a little trouble with the guy and want to know how hot the water is."

"Kanryuu Takeda?" Katsu repeated, sitting down hard. "What kind of mess are your friends in? He's…" the dog inhaled slowly, "He's bad news, Sano. I don't like the things I hear about this guy."

"What do you hear?" Sano matched Katsu tone for grim tone.

"He's up-and-coming, but came up a little too fast," Katsu recalled, "Brains, not brawn, but he's got about thirty followers to make up for it. Don't have anything substantial on why they follow him in the first place though," Katsu frowned, "From what I know, Kanryuu's a weasel, not a charmer. He shouldn't have been able to talk his bullies into joining him."

"Anything about some jokers called the Oniwaban pack?"

Katsu shook his head at his friend, "That they're not jokers. Most of their rumors are older; supposedly they're from way up north, where there aren't so many humans. Story goes there was a huge war up there seasons ago, two big packs tearing each other to ribbons. The Oniwaban were a third pack and kept from being overrun by both of the big packs even though they were less than half the size. They're serious business and deadly—if they're with Kanryuu than your friends are in some deep trouble."

And now for the one who put us there…

"What about a fox called Megumi? Megumi Takani?"

Katsu frowned, answering slowly, "I'm not sure. There was a family of foxes called Takani a long time ago that were pretty famous, but they're all dead now. Got caught in some other war."

Damn, guess it was too much to hope for, getting three for three.

Aloud he said, "Well, if Kanryuu's as dangerous as you say, I'd better be getting back there…" he eyed his surroundings doubtfully. "Any chance of pointing me back toward the forest?"

Kenshin was beginning to fear that life intended to block him from his goals again. Despite his resolution to question Miss Megumi more closely about her circumstances, so far the black fox had proved inextricable from a spectacular verbal battle with Kaoru.

He was unsure what Kaoru had said to Miss Megumi when he was making plans with Sano, but the end result was that the fox was behaving, if possible, even cattier than she had been before.

Still, he'd had some hope of the argument dying down—the two females couldn't possibly insult each other over nothing forever—until Yahiko had cautiously joined in.

In a way, the Rurouni knew, this was good. If the puppy was feeling comfortable enough to act like his usual self then he obviously was getting over his initial nervousness about a strange female verbally shredding his adopted sister to bits. It probably helped that the fight had stayed verbal, although the incandescent fury in Miss Kaoru's eyes was a clear beacon to the Rurouni that the tanuki longed to pin the snippy vixen.

Kenshin smiled wryly to himself, recognizing the frustrated flick of a silvery-striped tail. Kaoru was at the edge of her patience, and completely willing to find someone else to take out her aggression on. Assuming her resolve not to hurt Miss Megumi held.

The red wolf exhaled quietly, making himself as still and unnoticeable as possible. Normally, he wouldn't mind allowing himself to be bowled over or scolded, but just now there were other things he had to be doing.

Megumi sniffed at the den entrance, delicate paws stepping back so precisely that it could have been a dance, "What a dank little hole," she remarked, seemingly to no one. "A dismal place covered in weeds, for a dismal territory covered in fleas."

Kaoru seethed, teeth visible as her upper lip curled unconsciously. Yahiko, who'd spend the majority of the fight jumping back and forth between supporting Kaoru and Megumi spoke up before the tanuki could unlock her jaw to speak.

"Hey! She may be ugly, but she doesn't have fleas!" Kenshin fancied that he could hear the -snap- as Kaoru's frayed hold on her temper gave way at the familiar insult.

"I've told you not to call me ugly, you little brat!"

No fool, Yahiko dodged his pack-mate's lunge with a yelp, scrambling to get long limbs untangled and out of the way of the still-coming Kaoru.

Megumi smiled tightly to herself, turning with a flick of her tail and stepping almost-soundlessly away from the squabbling duo. And where does she think she's going, I wonder?

"Miss Megumi?" Kenshin put on his cheeriest harmless-Rurouni voice and smile, noting the way the black fox jumped in surprise at being noticed. "The one would like to talk with you."

Megumi eyed him, her flirtatious expression stretched thin over stubborn nervousness. Kenshin met her eyes with his own relentlessly cheerful ones. "Surely you agree that it would be difficult indeed for this one to protect you without knowing what he is up against."

The fox sniffed, sitting down primly with her white-tipped tail coming around to hide her paws. "Hmph, if you want to talk about his pack, fine, but I won't answer any questions about why I was there." She looked down her sharp nose at Kenshin, one ear turning to where Kaoru had pinned Yahiko and was serving him an impressive lecture on respect.

"Of course not," Kenshin assured the fox. This one does hope that Sano finds something out… "Do you know how many are in Kanryuu's pack?"

Megumi ran her tongue over a delicate paw in thought, "Perhaps… thirty-five dogs? But they aren't anything to be concerned about." The paw touched earth again. "Aside from those mutts is a group of five that Kanryuu trusts with his special missions."

"The Oniwabanshuu?"

Megumi nodded, "They've never failed a mission to my knowledge," she smiled slyly, "except for today. You were able to handle Beshimi so easily, I'm not scared of the Oniwabanshuu at all anymore."

"And it's the Oniwabanshuu who Kanryuu will send after you?"

Takani jumped again, head whipping around to stare at Yahiko, the akita-mix having finished his brief fight with Kaoru. The growing puppy frowned, head tilting ever so slightly to one side.

"Why? What's so important about you that Kanryuu'd want you back that bad?"

Megumi raised her muzzle to sniff scornfully, and doubtless launch into another lecture about the importance of a female's privacy. She stopped. The short sniff turned into a long inhalation, panic creeping back up to choke the calculation out of wine eyes.

"Can't say, kid."

Yahiko jumped and swore as Kenshin and Kaoru whirled to face the intruder, the tanuki's fur standing on end along her spine.

"But I will tell you this for free. Hand over the fox now and nobody has to get dead."

Yahiko's brown eyes were wide, staring. "That's a bear." He finally choked out.

It was. Lumbering into their clearing, surprisingly quiet, was a massive brown bear. Kenshin frowned, trying the wind for any other information, but the bear's musk had trickled in in his wake, heavy, clogging his nose.

Grizzly? Doesn't look big enough. Small favors.

"And you are one of the Oniwaban, I take it?" Yahiko gaped at Kenshin's expression of calm interest.

"That's one of the Oniwaban? I thought they were wolves!"

The Rurouni smiled faintly at his surprise, "The one we met this morning was a cat." He didn't glance at the dirty look the puppy shot him, keeping his focus on the approaching bear.

Now that he was past the initial reaction of brown and big, he could see that the bear's mouth was misshapen; the skin under his nose did not form a proper upper lip, but left his front teeth plainly visible.

"What is it you want with Miss Megumi?"

The bear looked annoyed, "I already told you that I ain't telling ya. But you already know, Takani, if you don't want to come back we're gonna take it out of the kid's hide."

Yahiko bristled, "I am not a kid!" The rebuttal rolled easily off his tongue.

"Oi, berry-breath, it's kinda rude to go ignorin' us and jumping straight to pickin' on the little guy."

Relief trickled slowly down Kenshin's spine, the feeling of at least one worry resolving.

The bear scowled, turning to find the abrasive voice as Sano trotted up with a false show of nonchalance. Yahiko was roundly cursing the hybrid for the quip about his size.

"Sano," Miss Kaoru sounded relieved, but she stayed where she was, shooting a glance at Kenshin. The Rurouni was grateful for her restraint. We're still in trouble. Three-on-one isn't great odds when the one is a bear.

He could vividly remember days from the north when the pack had squared off with a territorial grizzly. Never with less than seven, and they always lost someone to the bear's deceptive speed and the crushing strength of their heavy limbs.

Sano wagged his tail once in lazy salute. "Missy, Kenshin. See babysitting isn't going so great."

Kaoru rolled her eyes, but her retort was cut off by the bear slamming one heavy paw into the ground. "Don't think you can go ignoring Hyottoko of the Oniwaban!" he bellowed, spittle flying from the gap in his lip. "Give the broad over, now!"

Sano looked up into the bear's small, dark eyes. "No," he replied in the same tone, shifting his stance to a more mobile one.

"Miss Kaoru, with me. Yahiko, protect Miss Megumi." Kenshin instructed quietly.

"But, Kenshin—" the puppy began,

"Yahiko." The Rurouni dared to look away from the bear that roared and swung at a nimble Sano. "The Oniwaban are tricksters, Hyottoko may be a distraction. You must look after Miss Megumi; she's in no state to protect herself."

Yahiko swallowed hard and looked up at the black fox trembling beside him with haunted eyes. He looked back to Kenshin and Kaoru and nodded fiercely. "Okay, Kenshin."

The red wolf turned and drew near the battle, aware of Kaoru as a silver shadow on his left and of Yahiko coaxing the black fox back farther from the fight. Sano leapt to one side to avoid a heavy paw and shot a mild glare at the approaching pair.

"Hey, I got this under control, guys. No need to go muscling in on my fight."

Apprehensive vexation laced Kaoru's voice, "And if you don't it'll be a big mess."

Hyottoko roared impressively, sending the canines' ears instinctively flat against their skulls. "Fighting one of the Oniwaban? There'll be nothing left of any of you but smears in the dirt!"

"Which is about all you've managed to hit so far," Kenshin noted, hoping that his own unchanged demeanor would reassure his friends. He did not doubt their courage, but that was a big bear. Chill professionalism noted that he ought to prepare for the likelihood of losing one or both of his comrades. Even the strongest packs would lose fighters to an enraged bear. Kenshin shoved that icy voice back, loss was unacceptable, and they weren't just any pack.

Kenshin found himself grateful that Sanosuke and Miss Kaoru seemed to understand what strategy to use without having to be told. As they approached the bear the tanuki parted company with the wolf to circle around behind the threat. The three packmates now formed a rough triangle with Hyottoko at its center.

The bear seemed unimpressed by their teamwork, the bulk of his concentration still focused on Sanosuke. Although, to be fair, Sano was really good at drawing hostility, and he was deliberately displaying his most provoking grin.

Hyottoko swung a paw at Sano, long claws reaching as the rest of his body moved with deceptive clumsiness to put more speed behind the attack. It wasn't fair that something so graceless could be so fast.

Sano moved back again, but not quite far enough, the tips of blunt yellow claws passing through the spiky white fur of his chest. The grin shrank just noticeably.

Kaoru darted in low and fast to nip at the brown bear's heels—but teeth closed harmlessly on thick shaggy fur, accuracy sacrificed for speed as she pulled out of harm's reach again with an expression of furious disappointment.

Kenshin couldn't fault her for her annoyance, especially when the Oniwaban member began to chuckle. "Hoo hoo," the laughter chuffed out, sounding heavy coming from such a large frame. "Is that it? You'll come nibbling at me from the sidelines, hoping to get through?" The shaggy head shook slowly, "Not a very original plan."

"Maybe you're right," Sanosuke agreed, pacing just out of reach. Kenshin felt a tiny whisper of dread begin to ghost up his spine. Sano had an idea.

Sanosuke paced a wide arc, approaching Kenshin and Kaoru's more fixed positions by turns. Every few steps he feinted inwards before pulling back, gauging the bear's lack of reaction. The attacker had settled on a smug smile that displayed his upper teeth through his split lip prominently.

Kaoru darted in again on her side, this time managing to tear free a tuft of thick brown fur. The bear roused, thick wrinkles forming on his brow as he frowned and turned ponderously toward her. "Do you mean to pluck me like a woodpigeon?"

"Dunno," Sano grinned, "look more like a sitting duck!" The former fighter-for-hire charged recklessly, latching on to the bear's right shoulder for a deep bite.

Sano, no! Again the head turned, and the left arm came around with unreal speed, crushing Sano to the bear's chest as the brown creature lumbered onto his hind legs.

"Thank you," the split-lipped smile was gleefully insincere, "you deliberately stepped into my range." Hyottoko opened his mouth to give a punishing bite of his own to his struggling captive, but Kenshin was already moving.

The red wolf streaked in, low and fast, aiming for the massive hind paws that were still shifting to keep the bear's balance. He slammed into them, turning his body at the last moment to hit them broadside as he sank his fangs into the skin hidden beneath the fur. Hyottoko stumbled, and then Kaoru was there, grabbing the bear's other paw and tugging at it relentlessly, as if she was playing tug-of-war with Yahiko. The bear roared as he toppled backwards, paws flailing to try and keep his balance.

Sanosuke latched onto the shoulder again and rode the bear down, worrying at the wound he had already inflicted. Kaoru, still attached to that left hindpaw, was kicked into the air and landed awkwardly, seemingly afraid to let go and regain her balance.

Hyottoko thrashed, trying to drive off the wolves tearing at him. Kenshin slipped around to the bear's head, placing one forepaw on his fallen enemy's throat as the bear snapped at Sano, cheerfully just out of range.

"Be still." Kenshin didn't want to kill the creature any more than he had wanted to harm the cat of that afternoon, but he was uneasy about the prospect of getting the bear to stop fighting and flee.

Hyottoko growled at him, but quieted at the threatening tone, not willing to risk that Kenshin would be faster and find the throat he now touched again, with his fangs.

Sanosuke released his captive and grinned, tongue lolling. "Glad you caught onto the plan, Kenshin."

The red furred wolf shot him a distinctly unamused look, "That was not a plan."

Sano shrugged and winced, "Worked anyway, but damn that hurt. I feel like one solid bruise."

"I think you're lucky to be solid instead of sliced into ribbons," Kaoru noted dryly.

Megumi exhaled slowly, the action taking less time than it should have. She had been hyperventilating, caught and unsure which way to turn. She had been expecting… death, blood, this odd little family she dragged into her problems staring up at her with empty eyes from ruined bodies.

She hadn't expected to see Hyottoko of the Oniwaban topple, and so quickly. But he had, and was staying down, surrounded by the three creatures who had brought him low. The tomboyish tanuki looked quite at home with the males, teasing that idiot Sanosuke, who was standing gingerly, as if his ribs bothered him. The vixen was no expert at fighting, even if she had seen its effects more often than she wanted to remember, but she was sure that charging into the bear's reach as a distraction had been a boneheaded move. Brave, but boneheaded.

"Who… are you guys?" the question slipped out softly, directed toward three canines too far away to hear her whisper. She had almost forgotten the puppy who reacted so strongly to the 'little' comment was standing beside her. At her question he tore his gaze away from the aftermath of the fight to grin up at her. A grin of brash confidence and utter certainty, of belonging.

"They're my pack," he told her matter-of-factly.

Pack… the vixen let herself taste the shape of the word. It was foreign, a nightmare of baying hounds and delicately worded 'requests,' it was tears and panic and feeling trapped in her own skin… and it was, judging by Yahiko's grin, none of those things. But she couldn't be sure. Foxes didn't live in packs.

"None of us are slouches when it comes to fighting," the akita-mix was saying now, brown eyes watching his friends bicker and try to decide what to do with their fallen foe. " 'Course that goes double for me—" the spiky head swung back around to look at her, include her, and a fierce young gaze looked past her for a moment, surprised. "Down!"

The puppy didn't trust her to obey his hastily-barked command, throwing himself on Megumi to knock the black fox off her feet and into the dirt. Something that reeked of ammonia passed by overhead.

Yahiko extracted himself from the vixen with more speed than she had expected given his gangly limbs, and she could see, not that she needed to. The smell had said it all. Beshimi turned to face them after landing from his pounce, hissing at the puppy who had planted himself firmly between the pungent cat and the fox.

Further away, the rest of the pack noticed the cat's appearance; Sir Ken said something, obviously reluctant to leave the greater threat of Hyottoko free to wreak havoc. But someone had to get over here now because Yahiko was facing off against the cat.

"Move it, brat," Beshimi hissed, vicious yellow eyes sliding past the puppy to fix on Megumi, "I'm not here for you!"

Yahiko swelled his chest, growling as he bared his teeth. "I'm a member of this pack too, Kitty, and we're protecting Megumi!"

Her throat was dry (Must be from the dust, Yahiko pushed me into the dirt, I'm dirty…) and the shakes had started up. Extreme fear, a clinical voice in the back of her mind diagnosed her, and cowardice.

Beshimi didn't blink; his claws slid visibly free of their sheaths. "So be it," he muttered, and threw himself forward.

"Yahiko, DON'T!" the voice she'd thought too dry to use ripped from her throat, but it didn't do any good. The brave puppy ignored her, rushing forward to meet the cat head on, snapping jaws against thorn-sharp claws.

Beshimi dodged the first lunge, twisting in a motion impossible for non-felines to rake his claws down the puppy's side. Megumi smelled blood, heard Yahiko's indignant yelp, more annoyed than hurt, and felt dread turn her bones to jelly.

Where was the rest of the pack?!

Yahiko turned his head to follow the cat's movement, catching the smaller creature by one hind leg. With a savage yank he pulled the Oniwaban away from the damage he was busy inflicting and shook his head briskly.

Something snapped, Beshimi screamed in pain as the puppy flung him away, the abused leg flopping at an unnatural angle.

"Yahiko!" somehow, it was unsurprising that Kaoru had made it back first. The she-wolf made a beeline for the injured pup, ignoring a silent (probably-fainted) Beshimi. "What did you think you were doing? That was reckless!"

Yahiko shrugged her off, the cocky set of his tail screaming his self-satisfaction, "Ah, leave it alone, Kaoru, it wasn't a big deal."

"Don't be a little idiot, you're hurt. Let me see."

"I'm fine," the puppy insisted, "Kenshin told me to protect Megumi so I did." He swayed a little on his feet, turning his head to face the fox and blinking slowly, as if the motion made him dizzy. "You're… alright, right…?"

His legs collapsed from under him.

Dread vanished into familiar urgency.

"Yahiko? Yahiko!" Kaoru approached the puppy nervously, "What's wron—"

"Don't touch him!" Megumi snapped, surprising herself with the strength of her voice as she surged forward, knocking the tanuki away when she would have bent to lick the youngster's wounds.

Blue eyes blazed at her, "Miss Megumi—"

"He's been poisoned," Megumi snarled, "so shut up!" she bent her head near Yahiko, shutting out Kaoru's demanding cries and the approach of one of the males. The angry pack at her back couldn't matter now. All that mattered was the patient. She held her muzzle over Yahiko's wound, nose sifting through the scent of him, his blood and Beshimi's foul odor to find the faint green scent of whatever poison Beshimi had chosen this time…

"Wolfsbane," she announced, turning to look at the pack behind her. Kaoru was still nearby, hovering anxiously, Sano had joined her, looking inscrutable. Further away, Kenshin bent his head to deliver a few short words to his captive. Hyottoko shivered, and when the wolf stepped away, his only action was to collect his fallen comrade in the crook of one shaggy arm and disappear back through the trees.

"But how?" Kaoru demanded, forcing Megumi's attention back to the other female.

"Beshimi shreds poisonous plants with his claws to give him an extra edge," the fox told her bluntly.

"But what do we…" Kaoru trailed off, staring down at Yahiko's form. His pelt twitched sporadically, as if he tried to shrug off a fly. A symptom of the poison, Megumi knew. That he was this bad so fast…. Damn you, Beshimi!

"You let me work," the healer snapped, "stay with him, see if you can keep him conscious, and roll him on his side so he doesn't get any dirt into those scratches. Don't touch them. I'll be right back."

Before she could think twice about it, the black vixen whirled and bounded through the woods she had passed through only that morning. Nimble feet soon took her to the plant she'd noted then. She liked plants; she liked knowing where they were and what they did. Plants didn't change their natures.

This one grew half in shadow, as if smug about its own existence and the secrets behind its leaves and berries.

Tough, Megumi thought, dragging a large fallen leaf to the plant and pawing at it until stubborn black berries rained down, today your secrets are mine.

Two of the berries landed on the leaf, protective skin torn by her blunt claws exposing the juicy interior. It would be enough. One would probably be enough.

Taking a deep breath, Megumi grasped the stem of the leaf in her mouth and lifted it, watching the two round berries roll across its surface as she gingerly carried them back to the den. She made it without incident, and found that in her absence Kaoru had nudged Yahiko to lie on his side and then laid down against his back, feeding him a steady stream of words.

Sanosuke and Kenshin argued quietly nearby, but the red wolf continually glanced at the prone puppy, his attention clearly not on the discussion. The hybrid looked up and saw her approach, his face hard. He looked like even more of a stranger than he really was, missing that careless friendly confidence.

"Why the hell didn't you tell us about that damn cat before!" It was an accusation, for all that it was framed as a question. But she had no time to answer, even if she had been able to open her mouth without dropping her precious cargo.

"Sano, not now," Kenshin's voice came in on her behalf, rebuking his friend.

"She should have told us!" the hybrid argued, paused, sniffing.

Megumi didn't hurry, she couldn't, but she was grateful that she was near enough now to tip the leaf so that the ruptured berries fell onto Yahiko's open wound, their juice sliding its way into his bloodstream.

"Damn you, that's Nightshade! Are you trying to kill him?!"

Free of her burden the vixen whirled to face her accuser, fully expecting to meet a furious attack (and to fall, she was no fighter), but apparently Sanosuke had more self-control than she had supposed. Although he was snarling, he hadn't moved from his position by Kenshin, whose violet eyes were dangerously patient, waiting for an explanation.

"I'm trying to save him!" she snapped, worn past caring about what she gave away with unguarded words. "Wolfsbane kills by slowing the heart, Nightshade forces it to beat faster. If I'm careful, they'll cancel each other out and he'll live, but I need quiet, so I can monitor his heart!" And that was enough, she was shaking and she didn't like the thoughtful look Sir Ken was giving her. The vixen turned back to her patient, settling down beside him with an ear to his chest, listening to his young, brave heart for a sign that the berries could be swept away. If only all poisons could be so easily removed.

It was okay here. Not perfect, because no place was, and not safe, even though Miss Megumi had promised she would be, but it was okay. It was dark in the circle of pine trees, and the darkness felt safe, because she could make herself so small, and pretend that she had disappeared, that she could hide forever.

And… they weren't so bad, really, even if the Oniwaban were just as scary up close as they had been far away. But they hadn't hurt her and (here was the odd part), she didn't think they were going to. Shinomori mostly… well, he didn't ignore her, because he couldn't allow her to run again, but he didn't watch her either. Not the way Kanryuu's dogs had, staring until she was shaking in terror, desperate with the urge to flee.

Hannya avoided her, for which she was desperately grateful; his scarred face had haunted her nightmares for weeks after their first introduction. Beshimi and Hyottoko helped to watch her, but they weren't really scary. The Oniwaban's largest and smallest members were almost… comical. Beshimi was cranky and abrasive, but she could recognize that defense from Miss Megumi. He didn't want to get close to their captive, in case they had to hurt her.

Shikijou watched her most of the time; she wasn't really scared of him anymore. It was hard to be when he was so nice. He told her stories about a young pup who was so much braver and mischievous than she was, and he teased her about how her fur stuck up when she slept on it funny, and he kept her hidden from Kanryuu's dogs, for now, anyway.

Because that was the problem. This couldn't go on.

Kanryuu wanted Miss Megumi back, and the Oniwaban couldn't lie to him forever. Not about this. They'd been very honest about that, from that first terrified moment in the woods when they'd caught her, and the Okashira had looked at her with freezing green eyes, stared like he wasn't seeing her, cowering in the fallen leaves and shaking with exhaustion, at all. And decided to hide her, to try and get Miss Megumi back without using her the way Kanryuu had.

She snuggled in closer to Shikijou's scarred form, shivering.

She hoped Miss Megumi got away, she did, but it was getting so hard to be brave.

Hannya had returned with an injured Beshimi and a defeated Hyottoko. Shikijou knew it would be pointless to ask the strange wolf why he hadn't fought—the reason would be something sneaky, something twisted in that scarred head. So that didn't matter much. What did matter was that that blasted Takani wasn't here and they had warned her…

With an effort the large scarred dog bit back a growl. No need to disturb the little kit sleeping curled against his side. Not yet, anyway. Because that damn vixen had forced their hand, and now they had to tell Kanryuu about the little bargaining chip. Megumi had to come back, even if it meant ruining the little life he'd been watching over for the past few days.

The Okashira was questioning Hannya nearby, Hyottoko and Beshimi left to lick their wounds in disgrace.

"You're sure?" the leader's voice was a perfect volume, easily heard, but one that didn't cause the sleeping kit to so much as twitch. Hannya ducked his head in a nod.

"The descriptions match, and judging what he said to Hyottoko…"

"Battousai the Manslayer," the leader of the Oniwabanshuu said slowly, savoring the famous name. "How did our wayward fox find you?"

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