A wolf in any other clothing . . .1

Part One

Ryo was depressed. The den was dark, the light from the TV the only viable illumination. The low, edgy background music of the game the only sound infiltrating the room. There was a mostly eaten box of donut holes on the couch next to him and a quart of milk on the lamp table. He stared morosely at the antics of Laura Croft as she tried to unsuccessfully negotiate a jump that she had tried at least six straight times successively. He was starting to hate this game.

It wasn't his. It was Rowan's. Rowan loved Laura Croft. Rowan claimed he'd trade Sai for her in a heartbeat. Sai had nothing to say about that, save for the occasional mutterings that Echo the dolphin was by far more enchanting than a globe trotting floozy.

Ryo popped another donut hole and thought hateful things about the floozy in question when she missed the critical jump by a fraction of an inch and plummeted to the water below. Splash and she had to go through the whole series of moves to get back to the annoying ledge.

It was 4:37. AM. He couldn't sleep. He kept dreaming about snakes crawling around the floor of his room. He dreamed about other things that did not stick quite so vividly in his memory. A week past and he hadn't had a decent night's sleep since.

Just reaction, Sai said. Normal reaction after surviving something that had not been at all -- pleasant.

Ryo didn't think it was normal at all. Ryo had survived worse things and had not lost a wink of sleep afterwards. Of course there were other problems that still lurked as a result of this particular experience. Seiji was angry and Seiji wasn't talking much to any of them. And since he wasn't talking, it was left to the imagination as to just what he was angry about, and who he blamed -- if he blamed anyone -- and what the hell he was doing about it. Seiji in a tiff was infuriatingly uncommunicative. Seiji seriously angry, just formed a wall about himself and let nothing and no one in.

Which was damned unfair, considering. Seiji hadn't been the one who had been hurt by the root cause of that anger. Not really hurt. Ryo had and Sai had and neither of them were holding grudges.

There was a rattling at the door through the kitchen. Ryo almost didn't hear it in his divided concentration in game and melancholy. It occurred again, louder. The distinct clattering of the door on its hinges. Then a low, rumbling whine that drifted through the house from just outside.

He sat up, recognizing the pattern of the rattle and the subsequent whine. White Blaze, who had been off on one of his mysterious sojourns since mid-winter. Ryo paused the game and sprang up, padding into the darkened kitchen and through the laundry room to the back door. He unlatched it and a broad, white head shoved its way impatiently through.

"Hey, boy," he crooned, dropping to his knees to welcome an animal that outweighed him four times over and then some. He got flattened against the wall as the tiger pressed against him, sticking his cold, flat nose up against Ryo's cheek, scenting his hair and his skin, then granting his approval of Ryo's smell by swiping the side of his face with a huge, rough tongue.

"Where have you been, boy?" He ran his fingers through thick white fur, luxuriating in the rumbling purr that vibrated through tiger body and into his own. A purr that could set a mind to ease and soothe a bruised soul. He could have sat there indefinitely, with that large warm weight against him, but the tiger's patience was limited.

White Blaze moved past, into the house. Ryo's fingers trailed through his fur as he passed, brushed against something crusty and moist. He absently rubbed his fingers together, held them up in the wan moonlight and drew his breath at the dark stain.

Blood? He scrambled up, hurrying in the tiger's wake, turning on lights as he went.

"Blaze? Wait up, boy." But the cat was making for the den and the rug in front of the woodstove where he liked to sprawl out before the heat. The stove wasn't going now, with the mild weather of late spring. The room was cool with early morning chill. With the light on, there was a very obvious stain of red in the fur of the tiger's flank.

"Ohmygod." Ryo skidded to his knees next to the cat, fingers spreading the fur around the stain. White Blaze growled low, swinging his great head to glare at Ryo's prodding. Ryo ignored him, trusting in an intelligence far removed from the normal, mundane tiger.

There was a wound. A gunshot wound if he was not mistaken. Rifle shot maybe, because there was no scattering of buckshot. A clean, precise entry that had leaked blood down one flank. The ears flattened and he got a hiss as he prodded it. He let off, panicked and scrambled to his feet in a moment of indecision. The tiger shifted, began licking at the wound, which only started the bleeding anew. Ryo's alarm reached a crescendo. He darted for the stairs, calling desperately for the sleeping occupants of the house to rouse.

They did, at intervals. Seiji appeared at the top of the stairs, in the loose silk sleeping pants he preferred, a narrow wary look in his eyes as he sought out the source of the disturbance. Rowan migrated out of Sai's room not long after, considerably more tousled and considerably less fashionably attired in Tasmanian Devil print boxers.

"What the fuck ---?" Rowan didn't like being roused out of sound sleep. It took him a moment to focus. Seiji was already starting down the stair, having already ascertained by Ryo's frantic gestures that something was seriously amiss.

"He's shot. He's shot." Ryo proceeded the both of them into the den, dropping down next to the cat, reflexively stroking the large flat head. They followed him in and Rowan exclaimed softly, crouching down on White Blaze's other side and peering down at the bloody patch.

"Who in hell did that?"

"I don't know." Ryo moaned. "I think the bullet's still in there. We've got to help him."

"What happened?" That was Kento tromping sleepily into the room with Sai on his heels. Ryo ignored the both of them in favor of looking pleadingly up at Seiji.

"Go get Dr. Veska, Seiji. Please. She likes you."

Which was only the purest truth. Women in general tended to fawn over Seiji. The local veterinarian, who had become their supplier of various tiger related necessities was no exception. She'd started drooling over him a few summers ago during the great flea war, when he'd been smart enough to fight the battle from the point of the carrier - a certain exotic and entirely unmundane tiger -- instead of attempting to eliminate an entire countryside full of the little monsters.

Seiji stared at him. At White Blaze. And refrained from pointing out the obvious. That it was before five the morning and that even country vets might not be up at such an hour. He just nodded once and turned on his heel to go upstairs and get dressed.

And was down in short order, pulling on a jacket over an oversized sweater and jeans, which was extremely casual wear for Seiji -- his 'I don't have the time or the inclination to throw together something more aesthetically pleasing' choice of clothing. He stopped at the door and looked back through the doorway to the den, a slight line marring the smooth skin between his brows.

"Keys, Ryo." He requested, sounding just a little put upon and one had to imagine it had more to do with having to use the jeep than the quest he'd agreed to undertake. There had been other distractions this past week that had kept him from seeing about the procurement of a new car.

"Ummm, hook by the door?" Ryo suggested, distracted by White Blaze's low rumbling whine. The tiger was not exactly pleased with the humans clustering around him. Not with a throbbing hurt in his haunch.

"No." Seiji informed him.

"Oh. The bowl on the table?"

That suggestion proved a viable one. Seiji found the keys and left. The others were left to worriedly hover over a cat growing more agitated by the moment at the clustered attention. The tiger growled menacingly at Sai when he tried to part the fur and look at the wound, not quite as ready to take such treatment from anyone buy Ryo. Sai backed off, exchanging worried looks with Ryo.

"I'm going to make some tea." Sai announced to cover the nervousness. T o cover the feeling of helplessness that Ryo felt to the extreme and the others had to have traces of.

"Its not even deer season." Rowan stood by the window, looking out in the wan beginnings of early morning. He wrapped his arms about his bare chest and shivered. "Who the hell is out hunting this time of year?"

"You think they were shooting at him?" Kento made a gesture at the tiger.

One had to wonder. One had to be curious where the animal went when he wasn't making the house and the acres of forest land that belonged to it -- to Mia really -- his own personal territory. One had to make the assumption that the other locals -- a good deal of which were ranchers and had sheep and other livestock to think about -- might become a tad agitated at the sight of a ghostly white tiger skulking about the woods near their livelihood. One had never really thought about what White Blaze found to sustain himself when he was gone for weeks and months at a time. Did he restrict his hunting to wildlife or did he take advantage of fat, docile domesticated food?

A rancher would be within his rights to try and shoot a predator depleting his herd. It would not be an easy problem to solve, were that the case.

It was a long drive into town. At the very least it would take Seiji an hour to get back. Ryo didn't know if he could stand to wait that long. Sai forced a warm mug of tea into his hands and told him to leave the cat alone in no uncertain terms.

"Nobody likes to be prodded when they're not feeling well. He's going to scratch you if you keep at him." Sai predicted, veering around White Blaze to deliver Rowan his cup of tea. Rowan had gone upstairs and donned the warmth of sweatpants and sweat shirt. He moved over to sit on the couch next to Ryo who sat on the floor, using the arm as a backrest.

"I'll go into town tomorrow and ask around to see who shot him."

"And what? Ask them to stop?"

"Something like that." Rowan smiled tightly, a little predator-like himself.

Ryo frowned up at him. "If people hear there's a tiger prowling the woods it won't just be one person. God, Rowan, he's usually so ----- careful. Nobody ever knew he was around before."

Rowan reached down and patted his shoulder. Comfortable and reassuring. Rowan was back to being those things. Back to being not high strung and morose, back to not shooting Ryo looks of blame that he didn't deserve. He had been vastly apologetic not long after they had come back to this realm from the aspect of hell they had been marooned in. Had been - for Rowan - exceptionally distraught.

If you never forgive me, I'll understand. That had been the first thing out of his mouth when he'd finally gotten up the nerve to come and talk to Ryo. Or had finally been harassed into it by Sai. One couldn't be sure. Ryo had just blinked at him, taken back by the earnestness in Rowan's eyes and the nervous movements of his fingers as they pulled at hair, at hem, at the buttons of his shirt. For a moment, Ryo had actually not been able to recall what he was supposed to never forgive Rowan for. Then he had and he'd blushed and Rowan had, and Rowan who never babbled incoherently, went into a jumbled explanation/apology that Ryo got about half of. But he understood the gist. He understood the underlying fear and helplessness that had spawned the blame and the subsequent acting upon it. Sai had been at issue and Sai's hurt and Sai's inability to cope with a senseless violence that all of them had been freaked over. One understood that Rowan and Sai were close. More than physically close. Linked in a way that one intrinsically felt the discord in the other even if they did not always understand what or why. They all had the bond to certain degrees. He could understand Rowan's agitation. He could forgive.

God, he already had long before this. But he supposed Rowan needed to hear it from his lips. So he gave his absolution and Rowan was happy. And Sai was happy, and Kento was happy that the rest of them were at peace. Except for Seiji, who had the same bond the rest of them did and was so much more adept at blocking it than any of them. Except for Seiji who retreated into solitude and meticulously proper decorum when he was around them and shut himself away in his room the rest of the time, doing gods knew what. Meditating maybe. Sulking. Punishing himself for a moment of weakness. Who the hell knew. Seiji certainly wasn't letting clues slip.

It made Ryo want to hit him. Hard. It made his fists clench in agitation. It made him want to scream, only Seiji would just stand there and stare at him as if he were an inmate recently escaped from an asylum and he would end up feeling foolish and childish.

The tea was cold in the mug. He hadn't taken a sip of it. Sai leaned over him and took the ceramic cup from his hands with a disapproving frown a perfectly good tea gone to waste. Rowan was playing Tomb Raider with the sound turned down.

The front door rattled and Ryo started up, half way across the room before Seiji stepped in, holding the door open for a tousle haired, middle aged woman to enter before him. Dr. Veska, who had graying red hair and the thickening hips of middle age seeping up upon her.

"You came. Thank you, thank you." Ryo took her arm, urging her into the den.

"Don't pull, boy." She complained, shifting a hefty black leather bag in her free hand.

"Ryo." Seiji said his name with that calm, slightly reprimanding tone of voice that said calm down and don't embarrass me in public. Ryo let go Dr. Veska's arm and settled for ushering her into the den, and dogging her footsteps to the long white form stretched out before the wood stove.

"Good god." She breathed. "I knew you boys had the creature -- but seeing is something else." With an effort, she dropped to her knees at White Blaze's haunch. The tiger lifted his head to stare at her warily, great nose twitching as he tested her scent. She hesitated in putting her hand on him, gauging those round feline eyes.

"Is he safe?" She asked.

"'Course he is." Ryo assured her, gracefully settling down on White Blaze's other side, immediately plunging his hands into thick fur.

"He's smarter than your average bear." Rowan said, having discarded the game controller to sit forward and observe.

"Yes, he's very people friendly." Sai said.

"He's a tiger." The vet stated flatly. "I don't relish dealing with a wound like this without him being anesthetizes."

"We can't take him into town." Ryo said.

"Don't you have something to knock him out?" Rowan asked. "Y'know, slip him a Mickey or something?"

She held up a thick needle and gave Rowan a pointed stare. "Got a tranq. But I don't like using them."

"It's not dangerous ---?"

"Its always dangerous." She said. "But I'm not cutting into this cat without one."

"But --" Ryo barely got the word out before the needle plunged into the tiger's flank. White Blaze's ears twitched. A low growling emerged from his throat, but other than that, he did not protest. After a few minutes he lay his head back down upon the carpet, lids flickering over his eyes. Dr. Veska tentatively put a hand on his side. Tiger breathing did not change. Steady, slow breathes. She nodded and parted the hair about the shot.

There was more blood when she explored the entry wound. She had to widen the gap to get the pair of long tweezer like tongs into it. White Blaze twitched and Ryo began stroking his fur, murmuring calming things to him.

"There -- I can feel it." She said. "Just need to get ahold of it ---"

She twisted the tongs to get a better angle. A little blood gushed out. The tiger spasmed. Ryo felt the lunge even as the snarl broke past the tiger's jaws. He was not in a position to pit his strength against White Blazes and hold the cat down. With an agile twist and a speed born of a jungle predator, the tiger twisted and lashed out stretched claws towards the source of its pain. The vet didn't even see it coming.

Seiji did. Seiji was marginally quicker than a tranquilized White Blaze. Seiji inserted himself between raking, finger length claws and unprotected doctor. The of ripping flesh was muffled by the thick sweater. Seiji winced, turning a little pale. Ryo cried out and flung himself atop White Blaze's shoulder, using weight and every bit of leverage he could assert to make the cat lie back down. Kento added his considerable strength and between them they pinned a growling, trembling tiger back to the carpet.

"Got it." Dr. Veska said and held up a bloody little chunk of metal. "Just hold the damn thing a moment longer while I sew up the hole."

"Seiji -- are you okay?" Ryo stared at him, wide eyed. Seiji had one hand on his right arm, fingers squeezing tightly. His lips were a tight line. The sweater was too dark to tell if there was much blood, but the stain seeping between Seiji's fingers told another story.

"Oh -- god, Seiji. He didn't mean it." Ryo gasped.

"I -- know."

"Seiji, come into the kitchen. Let me look at that." Sai was hovering. Seiji shook his head, not taking himself from between the dangerous end of the tiger and the doctor until she finished. She did. In record time. Not the prettiest stitches in the world, but with a restless tiger coming quickly out of his tranquilized state, one had to let need overshadow art.

The doctor scooted back quickly, and Rowan helped her to her feet.

"We really should look at that?" she told Seiji. "You ever given him a rabies shot?"

"Who Seiji?" Rowan asked. "Didn't think we needed to. Does he look rabid to you?"

Dr. Veska lifted a brow at Rowan. Seiji glowered silently and climbed with some effort to his feet. He was shaking a little. There was blood on the hand of the injured arm hanging at his side.

Ryo felt sick seeing it. Ryo knelt there with his arms around White Blaze's thick neck and felt like throwing up. Sai and Dr. Veska ushered Seiji into the kitchen where the light was better to see to the scratch.

Now that the pain was gone, White Blaze's breathing was relaxed, his body released of tension. A deep rumbling purr actually vibrated from his throat. Kento sat back, staring at Ryo, who couldn't quite convince himself to move.

"You okay, man?" Kento asked.

Ryo blinked and looked up, seeing concern in Kento's face. Couldn't for the life of him imagine why it was there for him.

"Yeah. Yeah, o'course."

Kento nodded once, and held out a hand. Ryo took it and let Kento haul him to his feet. God, his hands were trembling. He looked down at them in bewilderment.

"He'll be okay, now." Kento assured him and wrapped one big arm about his shoulders for a quick squeeze. "Let's go see if Seiji's gonna bleed out or what?"

"Kento! That's not funny."

"Yeah. Yeah."

There were three deep gashes running diagonally from Seiji's shoulder down along his right biceps. They were bleeding copiously. And the vet was muttering to herself as she tried to staunch the flow, occasionally waving a hand at Sai who wanted very badly to get in her way.

"Should you stitch it up?" Sai wanted to know. "Can you do that to people?"

"Of course I can." She said. "But this really needs looking at by someone qualified. And he needs a tetanus shot if he's not up to date. And maybe a little antibiotic in case of infection. These are deep scratches."

"You do it. If you don't mind." Seiji said quietly, sitting very calmly on a kitchen stool while he was fussed over. But there was a tightness around his eyes that said he was exerting a great deal of effort to maintain the facade of calm. Like White Blaze, he occasionally twitched uncontrollably when he was prodded the wrong way.

"Well, I don't have a local to numb the area." The vet muttered, giving him a wary, uncertain look.

"Why don't you use the tranq you used on White Blaze on him? Maybe it'll work better this time." Was Rowan's suggestion. The vet opened her mouth to retort. Seiji just closed his eyes and said.

"Just do it."

So she sewed him up, admonishing all the while to get into town tomorrow and get it seen to properly. Then Kento took her home and the house resumed something of the peace it had known before White Blaze had come limping home.

Morning light was streaming through the windows, by the time Ryo got up the nerve to go knocking at Seiji's door. There was a long pause. No answer, so he tentatively turned the knob and pushed the door a crack open.

Seiji sat on the thick ledge of the widow, his back to the wall, his knees pulled up close to his chest, the injured arm draped across his stomach. He had put on a loose white shirt, but refrained from buttoning it.

"Seiji? You okay?" Ryo hesitated in the door way, feeling as if he were intruding in this familiar place. Seiji's pale eyes drifted his way, focused on him. Studied him for a moment before he dipped his head, letting a thick wave of golden hair fall down to obscure his eyes.

"Go away, Ryo." He said softly.

Ryo stood there, fingers tightening on the door knob, bewilderment and frustration building to a breaking point.

"Why?" he cried, voice breaking on that one, all important question. "Why are you mad at me, Seiji? What did I do?"

Seiji said nothing. He turned to stare out the window, blocking Ryo out of his vision, out of his thoughts.

"Damnit, Seiji, this isn't fair. And it's not right! At least tell me what I did? If you're gonna hold a grudge against me, then I at least ought to know what for. Is it for something that happened -- in hell? I don't blame you for anything that went on there, so I don't see why you're so upset."

That got reaction. That got a jerk of the head and a hostile glare thrown his way. Seiji came up off the window with much the same defensive violence White Blaze had used and Ryo actually took a step backwards.

"Well, maybe you should! Don't you have the common sense to know when you've been wronged, you imbecile?!"

He stalked forward, pure anger radiating from eyes, from stance, from his very aura and Ryo took another hasty step back when he lifted his arm. But it was only to catch hold of the door and slam it shut. It almost hit Ryo in the face. And he stood there afterwards trembling and shocked, with the vague, blossoming suspicion that Seiji's anger was totally irrational and totally at odds with the Seiji he knew.

"What the hell was that?" Rowan came out of the bathroom, a towel around his shoulders and damp, spiky hair. Ryo blinked at him. Took a cautious step away from Seiji's door and towards Rowan. Another before he got up the momentum to take Rowan's arm and walk him far enough away from that ominous door so as not to be overheard.

"Seiji's mad at me."

"Yeah, I sorta got that idea when he stopped talking to you."

"Seiji's mad at me because I'm not mad at him."

Rowan chewed his lip for a second. "Ooookay. That makes sense in some sort of skewered Seiji-sort of way."

"It does?"

"Sure it does. He's feeling guilty big time and nobody's coming down on him for it. Othern' me clocking him -- and he wasn't even home to appreciate that -- none of us have really cast any blame for what he did."

"But it wasn't him that did any of those things, Rowan." Ryo pointed out in a desperate attempt at reason.

"I know that. You know that. Seiji's another matter. Honor's like a really prickly thing with him. This has got to be eating him up."

"Well, what do I do?"

"I dunno. Hit him? Throw something at him? Cuss at him until he gets that really offended, scandalized look on his face that cracks me up so much."

"I can't do that."

Rowan shrugged. "Then let him stew and get over it himself. Soon as he gets really horny, he'll come lookin' for you, then you can make nice and make up."

Ryo blushed and glared.

"Hey, it works for Sai."

Ryo sniffed and glanced back at Seiji's door. "You're going into town?" he asked to change an uncomfortable subject.

"Yeah. You wanna come?"

"No. I want to stay and watch Blaze."

"Me and Kento'll find out what we can. There's bound to be talk if anyone did realize it was a white tiger they were shooting at."

Ryo nodded. He hoped it were that easy. He hoped if they did find the hunter they could quell the rumors. Make any compensation for possible lost livestock and keep this whole thing from getting out of hand.