Story 9: The Tempest
The Malamute had really hit it off with Kisaragi after the incidents with Dengen and Masahiro had come and gone, and had seemed to come to terms with what had happened with his father. Gin was very glad that his friend had managed to pull himself out of the emotional abyss he had been stuck in ever since Morioka, and could tell that the rest of the group silently shared this sentiment as well. That their newfound good morale had lasted past their departure was a nice change of pace for the young Ohu leader, and as they approached the next phase of their trip, it seemed to be contagious. Almost every member of the small pack had taken to being more playful and lighthearted than they normally were, and even John and Akame had toned back their gruff leadership attitudes for more jovial ones. In fact, the only thing that didn't mirror their heightened spirits was the weather.
It had been overcast and rainy for much of the day, and though he had tried to ignore it, Gin was a little annoyed that they couldn't have nicer conditions in which to visit their northernmost neighbor: Hakuro of Hokkaido. He had wondered for months how the Siberian Husky and his clan were doing, as they hadn't seen or heard from him since the end of the wolf war, and Gin could safely say that he was looking forward to reuniting with him. If nothing else, he knew, it would be interesting to see how much time had changed the brash Hokkaido leader…if it had at all. Snapping out of his thoughts, the Akita turned back to the path ahead of them, hearing John and Akame flanking him on either side. All three walked in relative silence, appearing relaxed as they listened to the friendly disagreement that was going on behind them.
"How is he supposed to come to us with only three legs?" Chutora was asking, looking askance at Smith. "It's not like it's easy to get from there to here, you know."
"He's got options." the Spaniel retorted. "He should've come to us and we all could've had our little reunion in Mutsu."
"He's got a family now," John joined in, not even bothering to glance back at them. "What do you want him to do, Smith? Leave 'em there just cause you're too lazy to take a little swim?"
The Spaniel snorted incredulously.
"Him too?" he replied and then rolled his eyes. "God, did everybody just go out and get laid after the war ended? I must've missed a pack meeting somewhere!"
Gin shook his head as Akame shot the long-eared dog a dirty look.
"Smith…" he said disapprovingly. "My god."
The Kai brothers both laughed at this, but next to them, Zach had a frown on his face.
"Wait." he said, looking confused. "Swim? What swim?"
Gin blinked in surprise as he heard this, hearing Kurotora turn to the Malamute with a frown of his own.
"What do you mean, 'what swim'?" he asked with a look that seemed to say 'Are you an idiot?'. "What do you expect to do, walk there?"
Zach didn't respond, looking truly lost, and Gin raised an eyebrow at him as he glanced back over his shoulder.
"Zach," he said. "You do know we're going to Hokkaido, right?"
The Malamute's eyes widened.
"Hokkaido?" he barked. "But I thought – "
Then he trailed off and the Akita saw a look of realization come over his face, one that was quickly replaced by indignant annoyance as he turned his glare onto the dog at Gin's left. Following his gaze, Gin found himself looking right at John, and saw a mischievous smirk plastered on his best friend's face as the Shepherd glanced back at him. Snorting in amusement as he realized what was going on, the Akita shook his head again and continued forward with a smile, hearing John slow up to fall back alongside the Malamute. Once he had, the Shepherd shot him a cocky, mocking grin.
"What's the matter, Zach?" he said in a smug voice. "Don't like water?"
The younger male fixed him with an accusing look.
"You lying little bastard!" he spat. "You told me this Hakuro of yours lived near the ocean, not across it!
"Hokkaido is near the ocean, dipshit." John replied teasingly, licking his fangs. "Or didn't you know that?"
Before the Malamute could answer, they exited the trees they had been walking in and found themselves on a sandy beach, a wide, calm sea laid out in front of them like a great blue wall blocking their path. In the distance, more land was easily visible, but it would clearly take a great effort to reach it from where they were, having no bridges or boats nearby to use to cross. Zach's jaw dropped slightly in surprise upon seeing it's sheer size and John snorted.
"Tch!" he scoffed. "And here I thought you were smart. 'Mastermind' indeed."
The younger dog gave him an evil look.
"You're hilarious, you asshole." he said and Gin laughed.
"Don't worry," he said reassuringly. "I'm sure it's not as bad as it looks. Besides, if Hakuro can cross it, we can."
Then he turned to look at their destination, adding:
"Hopefully he's expecting us when we get there though. I'm not exactly sure where on Hokkaido he lives."
Akame turned to him, looking calm but alert.
"If we're going to go, leader," he said. "We should do it now before the tide comes in."
Gin nodded in agreement and behind him, Kurotora did the same.
"I second that." he said in his gravelly voice. "I don't think we wanna get caught out there when that gets here."
The Akita knew immediately where he was looking and sighed in silent agreement. A large cluster of nearly jet-black storm clouds was building on the far reaches of the horizon, a clear culmination of all the rotten weather they'd been having, and seemed to be creeping closer by the minute. Gin turned back to the Kai dog moments later.
"In that case," he said. "Let's do this!"
Then he glanced over at Zach.
"You can swim, right?" he asked warily and the Malamute nodded instantly.
"Just because I didn't know about this doesn't mean I can't swim." he replied. "2 days hunting duty says I beat you all there."
"Oh, you're on!" Kurotora said immediately and Gin nodded in satisfaction.
Then he turned and they all began making their way down to the waterline, feeling the soft sand sliding around their paws as they did. Moments later, they were on their way, and Gin began to set a quick pace, using his bear dog training and nearly boundless energy to help him cut through the frigid ocean like it wasn't even there. Behind him, Akame, John, and the others kept up easily, staying close just in case, and much to his surprise, Zach did as well. True to his word, the Malamute was actually a talented swimmer, and Gin watched in mild fascination as the other dog passed him in the water, Kurotora trying to break even with him as he did. The Akita would've chuckled at his friends' playfulness, but the distance of this swim was even greater than that of the one to Shikoku, and he wisely chose to conserve his strength for the way ahead. As it turned out, this was a smart idea.
Nearly 20 minutes passed before they got anywhere near the opposite shore, and finally, after what felt like forever, the exhausted group began to reach their destination. Up ahead of them, Zach had just reached the shore himself, a clearly tired Kurotora not far behind, and Gin made a mental note to himself to never underestimate the Malamute's abilities again. As if on cue, Zach turned to them, a satisfied look on his face as the rest of his friends finally felt ground beneath their paws in the water.
"See?" he called, sounding very pleased with himself through his exhausted panting. "I can swim fine! Next time though, a little warning would be great!"
Suddenly, before any of them could answer him, something shot out from behind a rock to his right, moving quickly as it cut the distance between them. The Malamute let out a yelp of surprise as he was hit hard in the side, and the group could only watch as he was tackled to the ground and pinned firmly by his attacker, a puff of sand going up as they landed in a heap. It was another dog, Gin and the others could see, and soon two more joined him, grabbing Zach's hind legs with their jaws and effectively immobilizing him.
"Zach!" Chutora shouted and began swimming faster, making to rush to his aid.
Gin, however, had seen something he hadn't.
"Wait, Chutora!" he said, calling him back as he felt a grin spread over his muzzle. "He's in no danger."
The elder Kai looked puzzled, but then examined his friend's attacker more closely from where he was and let out a snort of amusement moments later. Standing over Zach, his beady eyes wide with excitement as he flaunted his dominating posture, was a large, three-legged Husky, his black and white fur ruffling and blowing in the ocean breeze as he moved. Zach, for his part, felt a pair of strong jaws clamped firmly around his throat, and growled in confusion as he hugged the other dog's head to him tightly to prevent him from jerking backwards and tearing it out. Then, however, the Husky spoke.
"So you thought you'd invade Hokkaido, huh?" he said loudly in a smooth, brash voice that dripped with self-confidence. "Well, I bet you didn't expect to meet me, did you? Hakuro of Hokkaido has arrived!"
"Hakuro!" Gin called, stepping onto the beach and shaking the water out of his fur as he did. "It's okay! He's with us!"
The Husky's head shot up immediately, bringing Zach's head with it as he kept his grip firm on the Malamute's neck.
"Huh?" he said at the sudden voice, and then a look of recognition spread over his face as he saw who had spoken. "Gin! Everyone!"
Then his eyes narrowed slightly.
"About time you showed up." he said. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever end up out my way. I thought you'd given up entirely on coming."
Gin shook his head, walking up with the others at his side.
"Of course not," he said with a respectful bow. "We're just a little behind schedule, that's all."
Hakuro nodded, a pleased look on his face as he took in each of the Ohu soldiers one by one. Then he glanced down at Zach again and looked back at the Akita moments later.
"So this guy's yours?" he asked and Zach growled from under him.
"Yes, this guy's theirs!" he snapped. "Get off me!"
Hakuro snorted, releasing his grip and taking a step back as his subordinates did the same. As soon as he had, Zach rolled back to his paws with a glare, retreating back to Akame's side moments later with his hackles standing high. Hakuro seemed completely unperturbed.
"Well," the Hokkaido leader said, ignoring the amused, knowing look that Gin and the others were giving at the exchange. "In that case, I welcome you too. What'd you think of my greeting?"
The Malamute's eyes widened in annoyed surprise.
"That was a greeting?" he said and Hakuro grinned, a few of his subordinates stepping up closer behind him.
"Ha ha ha!" he laughed, his tongue lolling out. "Of course! A Hokkaido greeting! Trust me, pal, if I had actually tried to do you real harm, we'd be comparing stumps right now."
He held out his what was left of his right front leg, a short, rounded forelimb that ended at where his knee should've been, the result of a fight with a wolf a number of years before. Zach eyed it carefully and then nodded, giving a little bow of his own as he did.
"I'll take your word for it." he said, his anger evaporating as his attitude returned to normal. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise." Hakuro responded and then turned to Gin and gestured over his shoulder. "Come on. Let's head back to my base. My hunters should just be getting back with some food."
"Only if you swear there's no trouble we have to help you deal with." Kurotora replied and the Husky shook his head.
"All quiet on the northern front." he said and Gin felt any lingering concern leave him.
"In that case," he said happily, stepping up beside his friend. "Lead the way."
With that, the whole group of them set off inland, following Hakuro as he led them away from the shorelines of Hokkaido.
As it turned out, the main base of the Hokkaido clan was only a few miles away, resting comfortably amongst the rolling hills and valleys that made up their island home. In the distance, looming almost threateningly in the mists caused by the rapidly dampening weather, were dozens of sharp-peaked mountains, hidden volcanoes that served as constant reminders of the potential instability of the area. Despite this though, the landscape around them was very nice, and Gin found himself greatly impressed with Hakuro's territory. The Husky and his pack lived in a hilly area near some train tracks and a cliff-like rock formation, one that rose steeply out of the ground as the land ascended and provided caves for the dogs to sleep in. Most of their time though they spent on the plains that rested nearby, training younger soldiers and play fighting with each other while their packmates solved quarrels around the area and hunted for food, as was their duty by pack law.
Hakuro himself seemed quite proud of his home, and as he and his new guests approached it, his mood remained upbeat, the Husky's loud, confident laugh echoing around the area as he and the Kai brothers joked around near the front of the group. Gin smiled, feeling very relaxed. This was the kind of day they fought their wars to obtain, and he realized how grateful he was for it just as they crested a hill and came across a group of dogs, some 40 strong, resting comfortably amongst the grasses of the plain they were on. It was the Hokkaido pack. As they approached, a few of them began to notice, and soon a brown-furred Kishu mix trotted up expectantly.
"Boss," he said, "Any trouble down by the shore?"
"No," Hakuro answered bluntly, glancing around as if ensuring that the rest of his clan was still intact. "Just some old comrades come for a visit. Are Ashikaga and his hunters back yet?"
"Not yet, sir," the other dog answered, turning to walk with them. "But they should be soon."
"Good." the Husky answered. "Take your group and make a sweep of the borders. If anyone tries to pull something now that they're here, I want some warning."
He gestured back at Gin and the others as he said this, and the Kishu mix nodded dutifully.
"Yes, sir!" he said and bounded away, calling loudly to a few other large males idling nearby, all of them looking as though they were itching for some action.
Hakuro, however, paid no further attention to them, and headed instead for the caves that served as his actual home, Gin and his friends close behind. As soon as they approached it, a beautiful female husky and four small, hyperactive pups came striding out the entrance, the former smiling at her mate as he approached.
"Hakuro, dear," she said in a kind, yet strong voice. "You're back."
The Hokkaido leader simply nodded and turned to Gin and the others.
"This is my mate, Kazumi." he said, watching in approval as the Ohu dogs nodded respectfully at her. "And these are – "
Before he could finish, his pups suddenly interrupted him, leaping around excitedly and clamping their small jaws down on the legs of anyone they came to, letting out little growls as they did. One, a grayish-blue male, made a leaping snap at his father's leg stump, making the older Husky bat him away lightly in mild annoyance. The pup was undeterred.
"Dad," he said, panting faster than Gin knew was possible. "You beat the enemy, right? Down by the ocean? You won the fight, right?"
"Calm down, Suzaku." Hakuro said, the patience of a father in his voice. "It was barely anything. The next time I fight for real, you'll be the first to know."
The pup looked vaguely disappointed and Kazumi looked at her mate.
"Are you sure it's safe, Hakuro?" she asked. "Those beaches have a lot of places to hide."
The Husky smiled reassuringly at her, but to Gin's surprise, it looked very forced.
"Yeah," he said in a stiff voice that made the Akita frown in mild concern. "It's fine. No enemies today. Just a new acquaintance I had to rough up a little for fun."
Near the back of the group, Zach rolled his eyes as Kazumi gave the Hokkaido leader an exasperated look and stepped forward to them.
"I apologize to whichever one of you it was." she said in a tone that suggested she had done this a thousand times before. "Hakuro doesn't know when to stop himself sometimes."
"Oh, muzzle it, you fussy female." came the answer and then the Husky turned to Gin. "Come on, let's go talk inside. Byakko, don't even try it!"
Another of the pups had tried to bite at Gin's tail with his little teeth and shrank back guiltily as he saw the stern look his father gave him. The Akita and Smith both grinned at this and then followed their friend inside, the others tailing them closely. With those smiles though, came a feeling of wariness. The black clouds from the horizon were now nearly overhead, and Gin was beginning to feel great unease slowly building in him, though he couldn't explain why. After all, he had seen storms before. Why was this one any different? One glance over at Akame told him that the ninja-dog was feeling the same thing, and his calm red orbs eyed the dark sky suspiciously, as if expecting an enemy to suddenly plummet out of it and attack them. Neither said a word though, and soon enough, they were in the caves. The moment they entered, another dog came bounding in behind them, flanked by a few others, all of them carrying dead animals in their mouths.
"Boss," the lead one said, dropping a large dead rabbit on the ground. "Here."
"Ah! Ashikaga!" Hakuro said, sounding like his normal self again, "Good work! Bring in as much as you can."
Then he turned as the other dog left and gave John a cocky grin.
"All we need now is a good fight to entertain us." he said, and the Shepherd dipped his head in agreement. "Feel free to use any of my males if you want. I'm sure they'd appreciate the action."
"Oh, I think I got all I need right here." John replied, licking his chops as he looked over at his friends challengingly. "Right, Kurotora? Zach, I'd invite you to try your luck but, I like my fights to be challenging."
The two males looked up from where they had lain down and the younger Kai dog snorted.
"Any time you wanna make a move, John," he said, his mouth full of rabbit. "Be my guest."
The Shepherd smirked but said nothing as Kurotora went back to eating, turning his gaze towards Zach instead as the Malamute rested back on his haunches with a smile.
"Sorry," he said in a thoroughly mocking voice. "I've got this thing about fighting inferior breeds. Besides, it'd be awfully hard to live together if I embarrassed you in front of your friends, wouldn't it John?"
Smith nearly choked on his food at this and John shot to his paws with an indignant look, his hackles raised.
"Inferior?" he growled. "Stand and fight you little bastard! I'll break you in two!"
Everyone burst out laughing and Gin did as well, taking a bite out of his own kill as he did and watching as Hakuro did the same beside him.
"Ha ha!" the Hokkaido leader laughed. "That's more like it! Now it feels like old times. You should tell me all about – "
Suddenly, there was a massive clap of thunder and the whole group of them jumped visibly, their heads turning quickly towards the sound as the conversation stopped abruptly. His mirth fading as quickly as it had come, Hakuro stood and walked over to the cave entrance, looking up at the sky as a few of his subordinates barked out orders to others still outside. Seeing this, Gin did the same, striding up beside him as his friends lowered their voices and continued talking quietly amongst themselves behind them.
"Seems like heaven's angry today." Hakuro remarked, glancing at him. "What danger did you bring my way this time?"
"I do seem to have a knack for attracting it, don't I?" the Akita agreed, looking at the ground as soon as he had. "Hakuro, can I ask you something?"
"Is everything all right with you and your family?"
The Husky shifted uncomfortably.
"What do you mean?" he asked with a frown and Gin tilted his head a little.
"You sounded…bothered earlier." he said. "I know it's none of my business, but I wanted to make sure that – "
"Everything's fine, Gin." came the blunt answer, a respectful note behind its curtness.
The Akita was thoroughly unconvinced, but nodded anyway and backed off, realizing that his friend didn't want to talk about whatever it was and knowing where to draw the line. As it turned out, it wouldn't have mattered, for at that moment, the wind began to pick up again, and the Husky turned to his guests.
"I'm gonna go bring the rest of my pack back in." he said. "This damn weather's getting worse, and I don't want them out in it. After that, I'll be in the other cave for the night with Kazumi. We'll talk tomorrow."
"Of course." Gin said with a nod and Akame did the same from behind him, both of them watching as their three-legged friend dashed out into the rain, which had begun falling in torrents.
The two exchanged a look, and Gin knew that the Kishu had noticed the slight change in Hakuro's behavior as well.
"It's not our place to pry." Akame said and Gin nodded with a small sigh.
"You're right." he agreed reluctantly. "I guess we should get some sleep ourselves."
The ninja dog returned the nod dutifully and they both padded back over to their friends without another word, Gin lying down next to John as Akame pushed in beside both of them. Then, a few minutes later, they drifted off to sleep.
Gin's eyes shot open as he felt it, a sudden vibration that jolted him out of a dead sleep. He raised his head in confusion, yawning widely as he looked around him. Outside the cave, it was still raining hard and the wind had picked up significantly, the grasses of the plain sweeping back and forth violently as if being shaken to death by an unseen hand. Despite this though, for a moment he saw nothing, and wondered if he had imagined what he felt; a dream that had seemed more real than it really was perhaps. Then though, he felt it again, a faint rumble that seemed to come from underneath him. The Akita stood up, seeing a white shape do the same beside him and realizing that Akame had awoken as well. Both dogs looked at each other with wary frowns, and then Smith's voice sounded from behind them.
"Wh-What is it?" the Spaniel asked sleepily. "What's going on? Where are you going?"
Gin saw Zach walk up on his other side, striding past him moments later.
"Shh!" the Malamute said, shushing his friend. "Did you feel that?"
"You felt it too, Zach?" Akame asked, stepping up beside him, and the Malamute nodded.
"Sounded almost like a landslide." he said and walked slowly to the entrance of the cave, Gin and Akame following him as the others began to awaken behind them.
"No." Gin said, listening closely for any sign of trouble. "There can't be any landslides from here."
Then, to their right, Hakuro walked out of his cave as well, an annoyed but suspicious look on his face. Behind him, his pups bounded out into the dim light of morning, their excited bouncing taking them further out onto the grassy plain than their father clearly liked.
"Oi!" Hakuro barked sternly at them. "Get back here, now! This storm might be dangerous!"
None of the four listened, and they continued to tussle and tumble over each other while the adults listened behind them for any sign of trouble. Then Akame turned to Gin.
"I'll check it out." he said, and ran out across the field to the tall trees waiting beyond it, ones tall enough to get a good view of what was happening in the area.
Once he reached it, he leaped up into the nearest one's branches with more difficulty than normal, and dug his claws tightly into its bark as he reached the top. Then he scanned his keen gaze over the landscape for any sign of trouble. Suddenly, as he looked around carefully, feeling the wind trying to knock him off his perch, the ninja dog saw a curious sight. Though the light was still dim and rain was stinging his eyes, he could see clearly that the beach they had landed on when they came over from the mainland was gone. Instead, the ocean seemed much closer than he remembered, and Akame frowned, his senses screaming 'DANGER' in every pore of his body.
'What the hell…?' he thought, stepping forward to get a closer look.
What he saw made his blood run cold with terror. The water was moving. The reason it had seemed closer to them was a good one…it was closer to them, and moving quickly closer by the minute. The storm overhead was much larger, and more intense than they had thought it would be, and right then, Akame understood what was going on. It was a storm surge…and it was a massive one. Leaping down quickly from the tree, the ninja dog nearly tripped over his own legs as he tried desperately to run back to the others. Back by the caves, Gin saw him coming.
"Get to higher ground!" the Kishu shouted hoarsely, his distance making him sound faint. "NOW! Get out of there!"
He didn't say what the danger was, but one look in his frightened eyes told Gin everything he needed to know. They needed to run. He turned quickly to Hakuro.
"Hakuro," he barked urgently. "Get the rest of your pack and move them to the mountains! We need to go now!"
The Husky nodded, turning and half-shoving Kazumi with his head towards the Ohu soldiers.
"Go with them!" he said. "I'll get Ashikaga and the others!"
"But Hakuro," she protested. "You – "
"Don't argue with me!" he snapped fiercely. "Just go!"
Then suddenly, as dogs began streaming out of the caves and following their departing comrades, the Hokkaido leader got a terrified look on his face. Whirling around in fear, he looked out at the plains, and the four small dots that were moving ever farther away from them.
"Suzaku!" he bellowed. "Byakko! Get your asses back here NOW!"
The pups' heads shot up in confusion, all of them looking hurt from having been yelled at.
"Damn it!" the Husky snarled. "All of you come to me! Right now!"
None of them moved, and the four small forms looked at each other as if asking what they had done to make their father so angry. Swearing to himself, Hakuro dashed forward, feeling the rumble from the approaching water growing louder as he tried to get to his children before any harm befell them. Suddenly, Zach ran and cut him off, looking back at him with a glare that wasn't teasing or humorous in any way.
"I'll get them." he said quickly. "You get your pack out of here!"
Then he turned and shot off across the field towards them, leaving the Husky looking almost angry behind him.
"Hey!" he shouted. "I'm their father! I don't need help to – "
Before he could finish though, Kurotora ran past him as well, his quick stride allowing him to easily gain ground on Zach as he dashed to the pups' aid too. Hakuro growled, turning back quickly towards any of his clan that still remained.
"All of you," he ordered. "Follow Gin and the others! Head for the mountains!"
Kazumi looked as though she wanted to protest, but Smith turned and pushed her roughly towards the front of the group, letting Ashikaga begin directing them out of the area as he and Chutora waited behind for the pups. Moments later, Zach and Kurotora raced back, carrying Genbu and Seiriyuu in their mouths. Depositing them at their father's feet, they turned immediately and ran back for the other two, not looking back as Hakuro and John grabbed the young dogs and handed them to Smith and Chutora. Then suddenly, right as they reached the last two pups, who sat quaking amongst the grasses of the field beneath them, the wall of water crashed through the trees on the borders of the plain. It rushed towards them with a whooshing roar, sounding almost angry as they all looked up at it in terror. Over in the middle of the plain, Zach and Kurotora had almost no time to react. Moving quickly, the Malamute and the Kai turned and covered the tiny, yelping forms with their bodies as much as they could, and everyone else could only watch helplessly as the raging storm surge slammed into them hard, and all four vanished beneath the waves.
"NO!" Hakuro howled in desperate fear, and Gin silently echoed his terror, feeling his stomach fall to his feet as his two friends were suddenly gone right before his eyes.
Then John's voice broke him out of his stupor.
"Gin!" the Shepherd yelled. "Don't lose your head!"
Nodding as he realized that they themselves were still in danger, he bounded up to the higher ledge where Chutora and Smith were, the former being restrained from leaping into the water after his brother. Gin gestured wildly at them with his muzzle.
"Go!" he said commandingly. "Get Hakuro's pack out of here! We're right behind you!"
Both seemed to pause for a moment, as if uncertain whether to leave their friends behind, but soon gave in and bounded off towards the mountains, vanishing from the Akita's sights almost as soon as they had. Momentarily satisfied, Gin turned back to his remaining companions…and almost instantly realized that they wouldn't be following them after all. Off to his right, John rushed to meet Akame as the ninja dog made a desperate leap towards the ledge, and the Shepherd grabbed his friend's paw in his jaws right as the water reached them. Then though, as if it were a cruel game, the ground beneath him gave way and both males plunged down into the surge as well, getting swept away as soon as they had. Hakuro joined them moments later, getting knocked off the rocks as he was climbing up to meet Gin and soon, before he even realized it had happened, the Akita was all alone.
Not even pausing to think, Gin dove into the water after his friends, his legs kicking madly as currents and debris pelted him from every side and threatened to pull him under. Clenching his jaws together tightly in concentration, the Ohu leader fought against them, wincing as he reached Hakuro and a large branch smashed into his hip, making it go numb with pain as a result. The Husky was spinning end over end in the torrent, trying as hard as he could to right himself but to no avail. Reaching out with his head, Gin grabbed his friend by the scruff of the neck and threw him over his back, feeling himself sink a little in the water as a result.
"G-Gin – " Hakuro sputtered. "Wh-what –?"
The Akita didn't answer and kept swimming, trying to stay afloat as the scenery rushed past them and the mountains further inland grew ever closer. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the water around them began to dissipate, and soon the two drenched dogs tumbled to a halt, struggling to catch their breath as they righted themselves. Panting as he stood up, Gin shook himself hard as Hakuro spit water out of his muzzle a few feet over, the Husky's normally brash, fun-loving demeanor now nowhere to be seen. Gin walked up to him almost immediately.
"Hakuro," he said. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." came the blunt answer. "I'm fine."
The Akita raised his head and looked around. He didn't recognize anything.
"Where are we?" he asked, and Hakuro shook his head.
"I don't know." he admitted. "Most of the trees are gone. We'll have to use guesswork to find our way back…when this damn water recedes that is. SUZAKU! BYAKKO!"
There was no answer and Gin turned to him again, a look of wary concern on his face.
"Where did all that come from?" he asked, shivering as he felt a strong gust of wind send a chill through his wet fur.
Hakuro glanced over at him seriously, seemingly barely holding himself together emotionally.
"The ocean." he responded. "That was a storm surge. They're rare, but they do happen. This is the first time I've ever seen one that big. My father used to tell me about them when I was a pup. They can be extremely deadly. None of that matters right now, though! I've gotta find my pups!"
Gin sniffed at the air worriedly.
"This storm's not over." he said. "Something else could happen if we wander off. We need to head for the mountains."
"They won't survive out in this without protection!" Hakuro shot back. "I'm not leaving them here."
"Zach and Kurotora are with them." Gin said, trying to keep his tone calm. "They'll protect them, Hakuro. Us wandering around getting even more lost isn't going to help them. Did you see where John and Akame got swept to?"
"Towards Hakodate I think." the Husky said almost dismissively. "It's a human city that's nearby. Gin, please, if they die, I'll never be able to live with myself!"
The Ohu leader looked at his friend comfortingly.
"Hakuro," he said. "I know you're worried about your family, but you need to trust me. Your pups are in good hands. Everyone is going to head for the mountains, including them. We need to as well."
The Husky's ears reversed on his head.
"Good hands?" he repeated skeptically. "They might not be in any hands at all! Honestly, if Kurotora and that Malamute friend of yours are even still alive it'll be a miracle. They got hit full force by that water."
Gin was not to be swayed.
"I trust them." he said in a determined voice, then after a pause added: "I have faith in them. Kuro's too stubborn to die, and Zach's…an impressive male. If I've learned anything from being their leader, it's to never count either one of them out."
Hakuro seemed to study him for a moment, but then sighed deeply and nodded in defeat, nearly smirking despite himself as he did.
"Fine." he said, conceding defeat. "We'll do things your way."
Then he turned and started walking slowly off to the West, adding over his shoulder:
"But we better get moving. I think you may be right about this storm not being over."
Gin nodded silently and followed him, hoping that he was doing right thing.
'John…' he thought. 'Akame…Kurotora…Zach… Wherever you are, please…be safe.'
Then the two males sped up their pace, and were gone.
"…weather has been unusually bad as of late, particularly in the Northern Prefectures, where disaster is narrowly being averted as Typhoon Kujira sweeps by just offshore, causing flooding and winds in excess of over 300 km per hour…"
Nobuo scowled at the television, taking another swig of his saké as he did. He'd always hated excess background noise, and this annoying machine was definitely getting on his nerves. Not that he could do anything about it, of course, as the rest of Hakodate was no better. It was bad enough that he was low on funds again, but now that he couldn't even get some drinks without having his calm ruined by technology, things just seemed to be getting worse and worse. He glared up at the screen.
'Yeah? Just wait 'til I find the controller and hit the 'mute' button. That'll give you a disaster of your own, you fucking thing.' he thought in annoyance.
"…not improving the situation are reports of a massive storm surge striking the southern coast of Hokkaido, the result of the storm's low pressure, and increased winds in that area."
Nobuo looked up at that, and he watched as a map popped up on the screen. What did it just say?
"At this time there are no further reports, but residents of the affected areas are advised to stay inland and indoors until the typhoon passes by and the weather is back to normal. For Tokyo News, I'm Arisa Hanai…"
'So that storm finally decided to stop messing around, huh?' he thought. 'Well now, this has possibilities!'
Standing up from his seat, the young man moved further down the bar to the far end, stroking his goatee silently as he did. Moments later, he sat down beside another young man, this one thin and clean-shaven, who was busy counting how much money he had on him.
"Masato," Nobuo said. "We gotta talk."
"So," the other man said disinterestedly, "Talk."
"Look, man." Masato said, turning to him. "If you wanna say something, just come out and – "
"Okay, fine!" Nobuo rolled his eyes. "Listen, did you hear about all this shit this storm is causing?"
"You mean that big-ass wave that ended up practically on our doorstep?" Masato said, taking a drink. "Obviously. You're probably the last one to find out about it. Why?"
"Cause it's a golden opportunity, my friend."
Masato looked at him as though he was crazy, turning completely to face him.
"You're not serious."
"I'm dead serious."
"You wanna hunt?" he said with an incredulous note in his voice. "In this?"
"Think about it, man." he said. "We could get a good number of dogs today. They're probably all out running around anyway cause of this chaos. All we gotta do is catch 'em."
"OK," Masato said, rubbing his temple with a finger. "Never mind, first of all, that dog hunting around here is illegal. This typhoon is nearly at the peak of its power. And you wanna go out in it?"
Nobuo waved him off.
"No one'll catch us." he said. "They'll be too busy helping everybody else out. And we'll be in and out before anything can happen."
Matsuo looked unsure, and the other man leaned in closer.
"Come on, man." he said bitingly. "Don't puss out on me now. I need this money. All we need are a couple of these mutts and we can sell 'em to labs around here. Dog-fighting rings are always looking for new meat. We can use my father's tranquilizer gun. It's really powerful, and he'll never miss it. This is the best time to go, trust me."
Matsuo glared over at him, looking as though he were contemplating his options carefully. Finally, he turned back to the counter.
"Damn it." he swore, downing the last of his drink.
Then he turned to Nobuo.
"Fine." he said. "But we do this fast. And we cannot get caught!"
The bearded man held out his hands to either side in what looked like a shrug.
"Who's gonna catch us?" he said as if he were talking to an idiot and Matsuo shook his head.
"All right." he said, grabbing his coat from the seat next to him. "Let's do it."
Nobuo nodded, smirking as he did, and tossed some money at the bartender. Then they turned, walked to the entrance, and were gone.
John gritted his teeth as once again no one answered, the cuts across his chest stinging as salt water from his wet fur dripped into them. Over to his right, Akame was standing atop a pile of fallen trees, seeing if he could find anything useful with his keen vision.
Silence again. The Shepherd swore under his breath and walked back over to his white-furred friend, who leapt down to meet him as he approached.
"Anything?" John asked, and Akame shook his head.
"No." he answered gravely. "And I have no idea where we are to top it off."
John scowled, a look of mild surprise on his face as he tried to mentally push back his concern over his best friend's safety.
"Terrific." he said sarcastically. "Well, in that case we'll just have to head for where the others went won't we? Meet up with Chutora and Smith at the mountains."
"Mmm." Akame agreed with a nod. "That's definitely what Gin's going to do. It makes sense for us to as well. And what was that look for?"
"You seemed surprised." the ninja dog answered, then cocked his head. "Why?"
"I dunno." he said, shaking some lingering drops of water off his fur. "I guess I'm just used to you knowing everything, Akame. I expect too much of you I guess."
The Kishu snorted in mild amusement.
"Oh really?" he replied. "Well, I'll have to work on that, won't I? Meanwhile, you can work on not falling behind. I plan to move at a fast pace."
John let out a bark-like laugh.
"You're doubting me now?" he asked almost incredulously. "John? Huh. And here I thought you knew me."
"I guess you'll just have to impress me all over again." Akame said, licking his fangs as he looked back and forth at the landscape. "We should get moving."
"I agree." he said. "We shouldn't waste any more time."
Satisfied, the Kishu turned and made to dash off towards their destination, John right behind him as he did. Suddenly though, a clap of thunder sounded loudly overhead, making both dogs stop and glance up at the sky warily.
"God damn, weather." John growled lightly, then seemed to clench his jaws together again. "What about Zach and Kurotora? Think we should look for them first?"
Akame began padding forward again and the Shepherd mirrored his movement.
"Once we find Gin." he said seriously. "As leader, he's more important. In the meantime, we'll just have to have to hope that they're okay."
Then he seemed to get a teasing twinkle in his normally stoic eyes.
"Why?" he asked. "You worried about Zach?"
John grunted in surprise, wrinkling his muzzle irritatedly at the older male.
"I'm worried about both of them." he replied pointedly. "And what the hell is that look supposed to mean? There something you wanna say, Akame?"
The Kishu shrugged good-naturedly.
"Just that in all the time I've known you, I've never seen you tease someone as much as him." he said. "It's interesting to me."
"Feh! Don't get too fascinated." John snorted dismissively. "He's an easy target and he fights back. I like that. It keeps me in battle mode so I won't stagnate or something. That way I'm ready when there's fang work to be done."
"You don't have to explain yourself to me, John." Akame said coolly, stepping over a large broken branch. "We're both the same rank. It's really none of my business anyway."
The ninja dog sniffed at the ground, turning a moment later to begin heading East, and gesturing at John to follow him as he did. Then he smiled almost benignly over at his friend.
"Besides," he added before dashing off across the landscape. "You two go well together."
Akame chuckled under his breath, hearing the Shepherd chasing after him furiously as he kept running. Deep down though, despite his rare display of humor, he was worried as well, and hoped that Gin and the others had survived the flood intact.
'We'll find out soon,' he thought. 'No matter what the result. One way or another…we'll find out soon.'
Gin squinted into the rain as it continued to fall in torrents, occasional lulls allowing him moments of peace before it renewed its assault and he was forced to endure it again. Beside him, Hakuro was doing the same, mumbling occasional swear words to himself under his breath as the wind changed the downpour's direction constantly and hit him from multiple sides at once. Up ahead of them, the mountains of Hokkaido loomed ever closer, and Gin was eager to get there as soon as possible to make sure that the others had made it out safely.
"How much further?" he asked, not looking at Hakuro as he did.
"We've got a ways to go." came the answer. "The caves Ashikaga took my pack to are an emergency base of ours. They're pretty high up, just in case."
The Akita nodded, resigning himself to the fact that they had no choice but to keep weathering the storm until they reached their destination. Suddenly, Hakuro stopped right as they entered a clearing. Turning to him, Gin opened his mouth to ask why.
The Akita looked towards the sudden voice as soon as it made itself known, and he saw a large group of dogs come striding out of the trees to their right, all of them looking surprised by their unexpected meeting.
"Hakuro!" the one at the front, a Dalmatian, barked. "I thought you would've been long gone by now. Doesn't your pack have a base in the mountains for days like this?"
"We're going there now." came the Husky's answer. "What are you doing here, Shuji?"
The Dalmatian trotted up to him, the rest of his group at his sides.
"Looking for shelter." he said. "We've gathered a couple other packs together as well. This is pretty much everyone that's left from around this area. Now that you're here though, you can take over and get us the hell out of here."
Hakuro let out a humorless laugh.
"Of course I can!" he said. "Can't just leave you lot here, can I?"
"The hell he can!" came a new voice, and Gin panned his gaze to its owner immediately. "Shuji, this is stupid! We're heading inland, and we're going ourselves!"
It was a large Mastiff who had spoken, and Shuji looked over at him crossly.
"We talked about this, Sadao." he said in a strangely patient voice. "I make decisions for my own pack. Feel free to do what you will with yours, but mine is off limits."
"So you're trusting your safety to this cripple has-been?" Sadao scoffed angrily. "It's no wonder your clan is always losing members!"
The whole clearing went silent at that, and Gin felt a sudden rush of anger shoot through him. How dare this dog insult a boss like that in his own territory, and a friend of his no less! Before he could say or do anything though, his eyes panned over to Hakuro, and he stopped where he was. The Hokkaido leader had gone stock-still, a deadly look on his face, and Gin saw not a trace of the arrogant, brash mirth he was known for present at all. The Husky took a step towards the other male threateningly.
"What did you just call me?" he asked in a near growl of a voice.
Sadao didn't back down for a moment, even as dogs nearby retreated a few steps away from him, recognizing a fight in the making when they saw one.
"Your time is over, Hakuro!" he snapped. "You can't even defend yourself anymore, let alone an entire territory! If we're gonna survive this storm, someone competent needs to take command! So I'm volunteering myself for the position. As of right now, I'm Hokkaido's new grand leader. If you don't like that…tough."
Then he turned to the other dogs.
"All of you," he called. "Follow me! We're heading inland!"
Right as he turned to walk away though, Hakuro's voice echoed through the clearing as well.
"No one move!"
All the dogs who had begun to follow Sadao's lead stopped dead and looked at each other, confused over what course to take. Sadao himself, meanwhile, turned angrily back to the Husky.
"You're time's done, Hakuro!" he repeated. "Don't make me kill you!"
"Kill me?" Hakuro replied, a ferocity in his voice that Gin hadn't heard since the final battle against Akakabuto. "I'm Hakuro "The Brown Bear Slayer" you fucking idiot! Did you think they called me that for no reason? I don't lose…ever. You think I'm useless without my front leg, then feel free to prove it to me! I'll send you straight down to swim in a different kind of water."
The Mastiff looked both livid and confused until Hakuro looked him straight in the eyes, his hackles standing up, and added:
"They call it the River Styx."
That was the last straw. With a hideous snarl, Sadao launched himself at the Husky, and Hakuro, never being one for dodging and weaving, did the same. The two males met in midair moments later in a snarling clash of fangs, biting and tearing viciously at any part of each other they could reach. Gin stepped back into the circle that had formed around them, knowing better than to interfere with a leader's battle, and watched as Hakuro ducked a bite from Sadao and jammed his paw hard into the Mastiff's throat. Sadao stumbled instantly, gasping for air as his windpipe was stunned, and Hakuro wasted no further time. Biting down hard with his razor sharp fangs, the Husky grabbed his opponent's cheek in his jaws and tore half of it off with a sickening ripping sound, a jet of blood following in its wake. Sadao screamed loudly in pain as he felt it and then immediately went on the offensive. Lunging forward, he barreled into the Husky in a sudden berserker attack, knocking the Hokkaido leader over onto his back and leaving him open for a deathblow. Moments later, Sadao tried to do just that, snarling savagely as he went straight for Hakuro's throat, making Gin tense in nervous preparation. It didn't at all go how he had expected though.
Before Sadao could reach his target, Hakuro kicked his hind legs out hard and sunk them deep into the other male's stomach, winding him yet again and sending him stumbling off to the left. Then he rolled to his paws and in one fluid series of motions, knocked Sadao over, grabbed him by the throat, and tore it out in an explosion of tendons and blood. The Mastiff let out a gargling whine and coughed up blood for a moment, his body twitching slightly as life left it. Then he went limp and lay still, his eyes open wide in a death stare, clearly shocked at the last thing they had seen. The clearing went silent again, and Hakuro turned to the rest of them, blood coating the edges of his mouth as he took a few steps forward.
"Now then," he said, his eyes burning angrily. "Anyone else have a problem with me?"
No one answered, but a number of dogs shook their head quickly, fearful perhaps of inciting the Hokkaido leader's wrath if they didn't. Then Gin turned to them.
"Gather up the rest of your group." he said. "There's nothing else to see here. We leave shortly."
The dogs slowly did what he said, a wave of mumbling rippling through them as they did, and Gin turned to look at Hakuro. To his surprise, the Husky had already begun walking off away from them, his head hanging a little bit lower than the Akita was used to seeing. Gin frowned. Hakuro had been acting somewhat strangely for quite a while now, from his apprehension around his family to the scene that had just played out before him, and he was determined to finally get to the bottom of it. Taking a deep breath, the Ohu leader trotted after his friend, catching up to him in moments as he followed him into the trees and out of earshot of their new companions. Hakuro glanced over at him as soon as he did.
"Gin," he said in a low, un-Hakuro-like voice. "Could you give me a minute?"
"I'm not sure I should." the Akita answered. "Hakuro, we need to talk."
"No we don't."
"Oh yes we do." Gin shot back calmly. "You haven't been acting like the Hakuro I know ever since we arrived. What's going on?"
"Gin," the other male said crossly. "I don't want to talk about it. Back off!"
The Akita stared at him for a moment, and then sat down defiantly.
"Hakuro," he said. "I know this is your territory, and we're your guests. But you're my friend, and something's wrong, and I'm not going anywhere until you talk to me."
The Husky scowled at him and Gin smirked gently.
"And don't think I'll be a pushover like he was." he said, nodding back over towards where the fight had taken place.
Hakuro smiled momentarily as well, but then his expression fell once more. After a long pause, he spoke.
"I can't protect them."
Gin frowned in confusion.
"What?" he said.
"My family," Hakuro said more forcefully, "I can't protect them! Don't you know what it's like, Gin? My pups look at me like I'm a god, like I could do anything, because they don't understand that I can't do anything anymore. I can't…"
His voice fell to a soft mumble.
"I see it every time I look in Kazumi's eyes." he said, his ears reversing sadly. "I'm not Hakuro "The Brown Bear Slayer" anymore. I'm not the great Hakuro who fought against Akakabuto. Now I'm just…Hakuro "The Cripple"."
He shook his head.
"I need those kids to look up to me, to see me as a male they want to be when they grow up…not as some useless has-been with a crazy laugh. I can't live with being useless."
For a long time, Gin was silent, feeling the wind still teasing at his fur. Then he sighed and moved around to Hakuro's front, forcing the Husky to look up at him as he did.
"Is one leg really all you are?" he asked.
Hakuro frowned slightly.
"Was Hakuro "The Brown Bear Slayer" the male he was simply because of his right front leg?" Gin repeated. "Is that really the way you see it?"
"I'm not as good as I – "
"You seem to be doing just fine to me." Gin said. "You haven't lost a thing on the battlefield, you're still a great leader, and deep down you seem to be the same old Hakuro I remember. So what exactly have you lost?"
"I couldn't get to them." came the answer. "Suzaku and Byakko. I couldn't even try to save them."
"Neither could I." the Akita retorted. "And I've always been faster than you, even before your injury. Hakuro, losing your leg means nothing. You'll always be a great male. You haven't lost a thing in my eyes. In fact, you've actually gained something."
"Oh yeah? What's that?"
"A story to tell your kids when they grow up."
The Husky looked at him for a moment and then smiled warmly, clearly grateful for his friend's words. Gin smirked.
"Besides," he said with a snort. "You think you're the only one with problems? I live with 'em every day! Hell, Zach's practically a monument to them!"
Hakuro laughed loudly, regaining some of his usual fire as he did. Then he stood back up to his full height and nodded at the Ohu leader.
"I'll keep that in mind." he said amusedly. "In the meantime, what say we get the hell out of here and make it back to Smith, Chutora and the others?"
"Sounds like a plan." Gin answered with a smile and the two dogs quickly ran back to the waiting group, intending to leave immediately as soon as they had.
John grimaced, keeping his head low as he was bombarded by fierce gusts of wind, his claws digging deeply into the damp ground beneath him so he wouldn't get blown backwards. The course he and Akame had taken had led them to a series of high hills that paralleled a river canyon, one that John suspected had been cut by water streaming down from the high mountains nearby. On any other day, he would've liked looking at it, as high places always gave him a sense of superiority. Today though, in this weather, he was not grateful for its presence at all. Suddenly, as he continued to push purposefully forward, he heard a loud crack and looked up in time to see a large branch flying straight at his face. Though he had no time to react, Akame did, and the ninja dog quickly yanked him to the ground beside him, releasing him as soon as the danger was past. The Shepherd turned to him.
"Thanks." he grunted and the Kishu gave a quick nod. "This is stupid! We've gotta get away from this ledge!"
"It's the quickest route to the mountains!" Akame yelled back, struggling to make his voice be heard over the howling of the wind. "We'll have to endure it!"
"It isn't safe!" John retorted. "We're gonna get blown off the edge if this fucking wind keeps going!"
Akame shook his head, standing slowly as he did.
"Can't be helped." he said. "Otherwise we – "
Suddenly, a strong gust caught his lithe body and sent him stumbling backwards towards the edge, tossing him over it moments later with a bark of alarm. John leapt into action immediately and grabbed his friend's tail in his jaws, using all the strength he possessed to pull him backwards to safety as soon as he had. Then, as Akame looked at him in stunned surprise, John inclined his head at him, an 'I-told-you-so' look plastered on his face.
"See what I mean?" he barked and Akame turned to where they were going, an annoyed, serious frown on his muzzle.
"You're right." he conceded. "We'll head back down the slope a little before – "
Then he was interrupted again as something landed in the ground at John's feet with an almost insignificant 'THUD', making both males look down at it in surprise.
"…the hell?" John said, scowling as Akame sniffed at the object that now lay in front of him.
It was small and cylindrical and seemed to be a dart of some kind, and though John had no idea what it was, Akame apparently did.
"John," he barked urgently, "Get down!"
The Kishu threw himself at his friend instantly, the resulting collision sending the Shepherd flying back to the ground and nearly making him roll down the hill. As soon as he had landed, John looked up at his comrade angrily.
"What are you doing, Akame?" he barked crossly. "Have you lost your mind?"
When John's gaze fixed on his friend though, he saw immediately that something was wrong. Another of the small darts was jutting firmly out of Akame's shoulder, and the ninja-dog looked at him in silent alarm.
"John…" he said, his words slurred as he spoke. "Tranq….lizer…run…"
Then the Kishu's legs gave way beneath him and he slumped to the ground…and didn't move. John felt fear shoot through him.
"Akame!" he shouted, and another of the darts whizzed past his head.
"Got 'im!" Nobuo exclaimed victoriously, loading another dart as Masato swore under his breath beside him.
"God damn this wind!" he muttered, then looked at the other man. "Nobuo, this is impossible! Your shot was dumb luck! Let's get the hell out of here!"
"Not 'til we get those mutts!" the bearded man replied stubbornly. "Just keep shooting! Shit, he's running for it!"
John raced into action as the humans' scent finally came to his nose, and he grabbed Akame by the neck immediately, tossing his friend's limp form over his back as soon as he had. Then he turned and ran full speed towards the mountains, ignoring the debris that was pelting him from disintegrating trees as he did. The rain that came with it stung his eyes, and he struggled to see as he reached a steep incline that had suddenly popped up in front of them. Then, another dart nearly hit him squarely in the back of the head.
'Shit!' John thought desperately and leapt up onto the rocky wall in front of him, making a series of miraculous jumps and scrambling over the top as soon as he had reached it.
Once he safely on top, the Shepherd whipped his head back and forth and looked around, silently deciding which way to go as he heard his human pursuers begin scaling the incline behind him. Growling loudly in frustration, John made a split second decision and ran straight once more, feeling Akame's muscular bulk weighing him down. One way or another, he knew, he needed to lose them. Humans were not to be trifled with, and never traveled with just one gun.
'Gin,' he thought, 'Wherever you are, I hope you're doing better than we are…"
Nobuo felt his pulse race as his foot slipped again, the rain-slickened stone making for treacherous climbing as he and Matsuo struggled to pursue their wounded quarry. Finally, with one last long reach, he got his hand on the grassy top and began to hoist himself over, very pleased with himself for doing so. At least, he was pleased until he felt something slip from around his shoulder. The bearded young man grabbed desperately at the tranquilizer gun as it slipped out of his reach and plummeted back down the hillside, landing at the bottom with a 'THUD' moments later. Then, as if God were laughing at him, a strong gust of wind toppled a large tree nearby and his weapon disappeared under a sea of splintered wood and dislodged leaves. That was the last straw for Matsuo.
"Fuck this!" the other man yelled fearfully, looking up at his friend almost apologetically. "You're on your own, man!"
Then he descended quickly back down the side of the cliff, and before even waiting for an answer, sprinted back the way they'd come, ignoring Nobuo's shouts and running like he was in the Olympic finals. Nobuo could've punched somebody.
"Damn it!" he screamed, looking down at the remains of his ruined gun.
Once he had, he turned towards where the two dogs they'd been pursuing had disappeared to, their paw prints in the mud giving away their trail. An infuriated look passed over his face.
"All right then," he seethed out loud. "Fine. You wanna do this the hard way you smelly beasts? Let's go. I've got a little gift for ya."
Then the young hunter pulled out a double-barreled shotgun, which he had kept as a backup to ward off bears, and continued on his way.
Gin leapt up onto the boulder as he passed it, looking nothing short of majestic as he scanned the group that was tailing them and made sure that they were all still there. They had made good time since Hakuro's leadership fight, and were now nearly to the Hokkaido leader's secondary base, ragged and tired though they were. There had still been no sign of any of Gin's comrades, but instead of getting more worried, he was holding out hope that they had made it back on their own and were waiting patiently for him to arrive. Over to his right, Hakuro looked back at Shuji and the others with a confident glare, a far cry from more the depressed version of himself that Gin had seen only an hour or two before.
"Hurry up!" he barked. "We're almost there! Get a move on, all of you!"
"Hakuro-san!" one of Shuji's dog's complained. "This wind is getting worse! We can't move any faster!"
"Ah, suck it up!" the Husky snorted with a slightly mocking grin. "We're males of Hokkaido! We can handle a little breeze, right? Ha ha ha!"
Gin shook his head in silent amusement, looking around some more as he did. Suddenly, right as he was about to start moving forward again, he saw a shape run out of the trees a few hundred yards to their left, moving as though the devil himself was hot on his heels. A few strides later, he recognized him. The Akita's eyes widened.
"John!" he called in excited relief, rushing to meet his friend. "You're alive!"
Then, however, he saw what was slumped over the Shepherd's back and felt his body go numb with fear.
"Akame?" the Akita said weakly. "What happened?"
John panted, looking tired but happy to see him. Then he nodded over his shoulder.
"They happened." he answered.
At that moment, Gin felt something whiz by his ear with a sinister squeal and one of Shuji's packmates slumped to the ground lifeless, blood exploding out of the back of his head as he did. When Gin turned to look where it had come from, he saw a young male human walking deliberately towards them, an angry look on his face as he reloaded a large gun that was clutched in his hands. The Akita turned to Hakuro and the others quickly.
"RUN!" he shouted, and the whole group of dogs did just that, Gin and John sprinting after them as soon as they had.
As it turned out, they didn't have much further to go. Through the trees in front of them, a small clearing appeared and then ended at a steep rock face, the result of the mountain's continued ascent. At the bottom of it though were another series of caves, and standing in front of them like watchdogs, seemingly waiting for them to arrive, were two dogs that Gin recognized instantly.
"Gin!" Smith yelled delightedly as he saw them. "John! We were worried sick about you guys!"
"What took you all so long?" Chutora added, running up as well.
Gin, however, had no time to chat.
"We'll greet each other later!" he yelled, half shoving the Kai dog with his head. "Get in the cave now!"
The two looked confused but didn't argue, and turned to run with them as they sprinted past, another of Shuji's group dropping dead behind them.
"Get over here!" came an angry human voice from further back, and Gin didn't even turn to look as he and the others darted immediately into the nearest cave, being greeted by Kazumi as they did.
"Hakuro!" she cried happily, Genbu and Seiriyuu at her feet. "You're back!"
The husky half tackled her to the cave floor.
"Get behind me!" he growled, and joined Gin and the others as they lined up protectively near the front of the cave.
Suddenly, the human appeared in the entrance, a triumphant look on his face, and the line of dogs snarled warningly at him. He paid them no heed.
"Got ya!" he said, cocking the shotgun. "You're not getting away from me this time!"
Then though, the heavens spoke again. Right in front of Gin's eyes, a large black funnel suddenly descended from the sky in a flash of lightning, and touched down only a few hundred feet away, whirling like a murderous top as soon as it did. It was a tornado. Turning with all of his speed, Gin rushed to join the others as they huddled into a group at the far back of the cave, joining John and Hakuro as they tried to shield the smaller dogs with their bodies. In the cave entrance, Nobuo of Hakodate turned with a scream and tried desperately to grab onto the rocks of the cliff wall, dropping his gun as he did. The endeavor proved fruitless. Unable to get a good grip, the young human was yanked off his feet and disappeared into the deadly funnel moments later, his shotgun following suit right behind him. Gin clenched his jaws tightly, feeling the wind pulling at him viciously as he pressed his head into Smith's flank and struggled to keep his grip on the ground. After that, the minutes seemed pass like days, and it seemed like forever before the storm's onslaught started to let up. Then, as quickly as it had come, the twister disappeared, vanishing back into the sky before anyone could say a word.
Gin slowly raised his head, seeing leaves and broken branches raining down outside the cave as he did. Then he stood and walked over to the entrance, Hakuro and the others right behind him. He could immediately see that things had settled down significantly. The sky above them was clearer than before, the rain had come to an abrupt halt, and Gin wondered hopefully if the storm had finally breathed its last. Then the Akita heard a low groan behind him and turned in time to see Akame begin waking up, blinking sleep out of his eyes as Ashikaga pulled the dart out of his shoulder and helped him into a sitting position.
"Akame!" Gin said concernedly. "How are you feeling?"
The Kishu grimaced for a moment, then nodded.
"I've had better days." he said weakly. "But I'm alive apparently."
Then he glanced at John.
"Thanks to you, I'm assuming." he said with a smile. "Thank you."
"And you doubted me." he teased, making Akame snort amusedly as he laid his head back down, waiting for the tranquilizer's effects to wear off completely.
Suddenly, another voice came to Gin's ears. He stood up straighter. This one sounded fainter, but definitely close, and he exchanged confused glances with Chutora as he turned towards where it seemed to be coming from. Straining to listen, he perked his ears forward.
"Was that it?" the voice, which was clearly male, shouted. "That's all you got for me? That was nothing! You're pathetic! You give other storms a bad fucking name!"
"Don't provoke it, you lunatic." came another voice, and Gin could tell that they were getting closer. "I've had enough for one lifetime."
"Pfft!" came the first voice again. "This is what we Kais live for! You could learn a thing or two."
"Yeah, I'll bet." the second one responded sarcastically, and Gin felt a wide smile spread over his face as he trotted outside to get a better look, the others right beside him.
Sure enough, Zach and Kurotora came striding over the hill to their left a few moments later, and he breathed a heavy sigh of relief that they were all right. Like them, the pair looked tired and ragged, but still in one piece, and from each of their jaws dangled a tiny form Gin recognized as Hakuro's pups Suzako and Byakko. To the Akita's right, Hakuro himself looked overjoyed that his children were still alive, and rushed to meet the pair at the same time Gin and the others did. They could see the pups squirming restlessly as they approached.
"Aww, Zach-san!" Suzaku complained, still dangling by the scruff of his neck from the Malamute's jaws. "I wanted to see it! It was cool!"
"Yeah?" the older dog replied, a weary look on his face that only babysitters wore. "Well, next time I'll toss you in and you can get a closer look. How's that?"
Gin couldn't help but laugh at this, and heard the others join in beside him as he did, the look of great relief on Hakuro's face a welcome sight to his eyes. He smiled at the two of them.
"We were worried about you two." he said concernedly. "Are you all right?"
Zach snorted, handing Suzaku to his father as Kurotora did the same with Byakko.
"Aside from a broken tail, I'm fine." he said sarcastically and Gin saw him looking accusingly at Kurotora.
The Kai dog ran his tongue over his fangs with a smirk.
"Hey," he said defensively. "It was either die in that water or grab you by the ass. I chose the lesser of two evils."
Zach shot him an annoyed look and Gin chuckled again, seeing Kazumi step up to them from behind Hakuro.
"Thank you for saving our pups!" she said gratefully, and gave each male a lick on the cheek, making them both pull back a little in surprised embarrassment.
Kurotora cleared his throat, exchanging glances with Zach as he nodded at them.
"You're a lucky male, Hakuro." he said and the Husky grinned.
"So I've been told." he replied, and then turned to Gin.
"Gin," he said. "This storm may circle back around, so if you all need to keep going forward, you may wanna cross back to the mainland today…before it does and you get stuck here."
"I agree leader." Akame said, walking slowly up behind them. "We should probably go."
"I was thinking the same thing." he said, looking at each of his comrades one by one.
Then he locked gazes with Hakuro once more.
"Let's head for the beach." he said.
The water of Hokkaido's coast was choppier than the Ohu dogs had remembered it, and as they stood there taking the sight in, the same salty odor from before assaulted their noses relentlessly, reminding them of how it had been when they first arrived. The beach itself had gotten smaller because of the storm, and Gin knew that it would take all the energy they had left to make it back to the other side. The Akita turned to Hakuro with a warm smile as the Husky trotted to a halt beside them, both of them hearing a distant clap of thunder as the storm moved away out to sea.
"Hakuro," he said. "It was an honor to see you."
The Husky shook his head emphatically.
"No, no." he replied. "The honor was all mine. As always, Gin."
This done, he nodded at each of the Ohu soldiers in turn, stopping on Zach once he reached him. Then Hakuro straightened up slightly.
"Gin was right about you." he said, as the Malamute's ears perked up. "You're an impressive male."
Then he dipped his head once more.
"Nice to have known you, Zach." he said.
For a moment, the Malamute stood there and didn't reply. Then, however, he quickly lunged forward and knocked the Husky onto his back, the latter letting out a small yelp of surprise as he landed. A few seconds later, as Gin and the others looked on in confusion, Zach stepped off of him with a grin, meeting his gaze almost playfully.
"An Ibaraki goodbye." he said. "Take it easy, Hakuro."
The Husky stood quickly, shaking sand out of his fur as he did. Then he opened his muzzle and laughed loudly, and Gin knew that that was their cue to go. Running forward purposefully, he and his friends dove into the water as fast as they could, staying together this time instead of breaking up into groups like before. Back on the beach, Hakuro shouted after them.
"I look forward to when we meet again, Gin!" the Husky yelled. "Things are always more exciting when you're around!"
"Glad we could be of help, Hakuro!" the Akita called back. "I'll definitely see you again! Be careful on that island of yours!"
"Be careful?" the Hokkaido leader whooped. "Ha! No storm can defeat Hakuro of Hokkaido! It would take an invasion, Gin! It would take an invading fucking army! Ha ha!"
Then he turned and, with one last howl of farewell, disappeared back into the trees, leaving Gin and the others to keep swimming to the other side, a feat they completed less than 20 minutes later. Once they were safely there, Gin turned to them, panting to catch his breath.
"Let's go." he said. "We've got a long walk ahead of us."
The tired group nodded at their leader respectfully and began to move off together, Zach turning cheekily to John as they did.
"So," he said. "John…Did you miss me while I was away?"
The Shepherd wrinkled his nose at him.
"Pfft!" he snorted. "Don't flatter yourself, kid."
Zach grinned as the older male increased his speed and moved up beside Akame instead, and Gin could tell that this was the answer he'd been expecting.
"That's what I thought." the Malamute said quietly and Gin was certain that only he had heard it.
Smiling to himself, the Akita sped up as well, and as he reached the front of the group he held himself a little bit higher, his stance befitting a boss dog commanding his pack.
'Here we come, Moss.' he thought, looking forward at the path ahead of them. 'Here we come.'