A/N: . . *Throws epilogue up into the air and scurries away*
This has not been beta'ed, since it's been such a long time since the last chapter.
Disclaimer: Still daydreaming about the adventures of a red-headed Rurouni, but he doesn't belong to me.
Epilogue: Six Seasons On
There's something that I can't quite explain
I'm so in love with you
You'll never take that away
And if I said a hundred times before
Expect a thousand more
You never take that away
-Calling You, Blue October
The sun was high, and summer was high, and Sanosuke Sagara had found the perfect shady place for a well-deserved nap. Dappled sun broke through the heavy foliage overhead in golden and green discs of light, playing gently over the reclining hybrid. The oak that sheltered him grew in a lazy bend of the river, a good distance from the crowded den. (Once, being so far out without someone around to point his nose toward home would have resulted in Sano becoming lost in distressingly short order—but now, as he was fond of saying, he knew even the expanded territory like the back of his paw. At which point the fox lady would promptly ask which of his hind paws was brown and which was white—which wasn't fair, because clearly he had meant his front paws, and it really wasn't fair that all of her paws matched perfectly.)
At least, the tree was a good distance from the new den. One late winter day Kaoru had stopped in her tracks on the way to the den under the hazel tree and declared that her life-long home was both too small and too close to town. As this was a massive turnaround for the she-wolf who had formerly verbally decapitated her pack-mates for even the suggestion that there was something wrong with the den Sano and Yahiko had been instantly suspicious of some sort of tricky female trap meant to get them into trouble.
Thank the stars for Kenshin—levelheaded and sweet-natured as ever, helping his mate track down a new location that met her exacting standards. (When Sano had asked Megumi if this was some weird female thing, the normally poised black fox had sat back on her haunches and howled with laughter.) Of course, shortly after that it had been apparent just why Kaoru was anxious to move, and suddenly Sano had charge of a twitchy ex-hitokiri, ex-Rurouni red wolf vibrating with nerves and unable to enact either of his usual strategies for dealing with stress (killing the problem or running away. For such a complicated guy Kenshin could be surprisingly simple at times.)
It had been two full seasons since then, but Sano would still argue that he deserved this nap. The drone of brightly colored dragonflies hovered closer, providing a counterpoint to his own deep, rhythmic breaths. He deserved this.
Yahiko wasn't sure what he had done to deserve this. He couldn't ever remember being this difficult when he was a puppy—but Kenshin and Kaoru had somehow produced… offspring was too kind, spawn, they had produced spawn, that, while seeming sweet and tractable around their parents, had all of Kaoru's impulsive energy and Kenshin's positive gift for figuring out how to do things that seemed impossible.
Eventually the young dog had little choice but to offer them a lesson in stalking in attempt to hold their attention for more than a few minutes. "Uncle" Sano could forgive him or not, at this point Yahiko didn't care, annoyed that the older canine had dodged babysitting duty for a nap in the shade. Not fair, especially when Yahiko could have been showing Tsubame the tiny cache of delicate white and yellow blossoms hidden in the lee of several jagged boulders—even if they wound up not being useful to her as Megumi's apprentice, they would have made the pretty young fox smile, just for him.
That, Yahiko thought darkly, eyeing Sano's form through the dense underbrush, was what the lazy Beta had cost him. The Akita-mix pulled back his head to survey his troops—not standing in any sort of order whatsoever.
Kenji, his red fur bearing a striking resemblance to his father's, was scuffling with dark-furred Kamen, his younger brother's amber eyes burning with anger as the older puppy moved to pin him. Right on cue Kemuri, looking like an oddly tiny Kaoru, threw herself on Kenji to give Kamen a chance to regain his footing. Yahiko let his suspicious eye fall on the last two puppies, Hatsu, gray and white with Rurouni-purple eyes wouldn't be trouble on purpose, but his sister Kiri, mostly white with black socks and striking red markings was trouble at any time, for any reason. If Yahiko hadn't known for a fact that she was Kenshin and Kaoru's daughter he would have guessed her to be some long lost relative of Misao's. Still, at least all five were accounted for, even if they were being ridiculously noisy for a stalking lesson.
"Quiet," the babysitter hissed at the three still brawling, "you're going to wake him up."
Kiri got to her feet with a catlike stretch and an evil grin as she moved over toward her other siblings, "I thought that waking Uncle Sano up was the point," her innocent tone did not at all match her words, and Yahiko shook his head despairingly. Kamen disentangled himself from Kenji and Kemuri to scowl at his sister.
"Not before we get to practice," he growled, then shot Yahiko a look that was almost pleading, "We didn't wake him up, did we?"
Kemuri stood, shaking herself to get her fur to lay more or less flat again, "Uncle Sano sleeps really deeply. Aunt Megumi is always yelling at him for it."
Kenji had wound up on his back, white belly in the air, but he rolled over with casual good humor in is bright blue eyes. "I thought he was just ignoring her because he likes when she's mad."
"That's because Sano is crazy," Yahiko muttered under his breath, "Ok, let's see if we can't get into position…"
The dragonfly that had been investigation his nose lifted off and buzzed away lazily, the receding sound barely making Sano's triangular ear twitch in acknowledgement—what garnered a stronger reaction was the sudden sharp bark of "NOW!" that immediately presaged four small furry bodies pounding into his own with surprising force for such small beings.
The former fighter-for-hire's eyes flew open even as his breath gusted out in a sharp exhale at the impact. Turning to look, he found himself being swarmed by puppies, the offspring of his best friends squirming in excitement as they mock-attacked his larger form. And coming out of the bushes, chuckling evilly was the no-longer-little Yahiko, wholly unrepentant at spoiling a perfectly good summer's nap.
"Ack! Murder! Assault! Robbery!" Sano yelped playfully, flailing feebly as if trying to shed the little bodies. Kemuri stopped where she had pinned down one of his huge front paws (they were both white, thank you very much Megumi), cocking her head to one side with curious gold eyes searching his own.
"What did we steal, Uncle Sano?"
Sanosuke nudged her gently with his nose, bowling her over with exaggerated care, "My beauty sleep kid, so it's going to be all your fault if I end up looking as ugly as Yahiko here." And suddenly he had a much larger body attempting to chew on his ears. Some things never did change.
"Yahiko, did we do it right?" Ah, at least Kamen was distracting the ear biter. It was mildly distressing that Yahiko had grown to be roughly Sano's size, as he no longer had to leap to reach his favorite targets. Reluctantly it seemed Yahiko relented and turned to address his charges.
"And girls!" Kiri piped up in mock indignation, her red tipped tail wagging and proving that she wasn't really annoyed.
"And girls," Yahiko corrected himself with a long-suffering sigh, "did great. Your mom and dad are going to be really impressed with all of you."
Kiri grinned, displaying a few baby teeth alongside her single adult fang, giving the smile a crooked appearance. "I know who mom won't be happy with," the little troublemaker announce smugly. Yahiko felt his heart stop and begin a ponderous journey down toward his toes. There was Kiri, there was Kamen, half-draped over Sano's "evil" marking, there was Kemuri, resting her head on the leg that she had formerly claimed, there was Kenji, looking at him askance as if he couldn't believe that his adopted brother had let his baby sister do this to him again… and nowhere to be seen…
"Hatsu wandered off ages ago."
Kenshin allowed his stride to lengthen just slightly, though he did not break into a true lope, it was simply too nice of a day to walk the territory, and he couldn't deny the appeal of finishing his patrol early to reunite with his… family. The word still sent a shock of surprised wonder through him, though that paled in comparison to the heartrending joy of knowing that family included five little souls who looked up at him as if he had howled the moon into the sky, as if the blood of another wolf had never touched his crimson pelt. Of knowing there were five little souls who called him "Dad."
He had never truly dreamed such a thing might be possible, not even with Tomoe who had at least given him hope that a future beyond the war might exist—it was Kaoru, his Miss Kaoru, who had grabbed him and dragged him into a future far brighter than his wounded soul had ever believed that he deserved… And yet it was the future she had wanted, a future with him, and Kenshin had long grown comfortable with the realization that he couldn't deny her anything, not the smoke-hued wolf who had stolen his heart.
The crimson wolf glanced skyward, marking the sun's position overhead. Kaoru ought to be done with her errand by now, delivering yet another lost dog back to the town it had come from—if he hurried, he would reach the den just as she arrived, would get to see her face soften all over again when she saw him, saw the children and knew that they were all home again and safe. Surely, cutting the patrol a little short would be worth it to see that again—it had been seasons since there had been any serious incursion on the pack's expanded territory… but even as the former wanderer prepared to turn to home, his keen nose caught a familiar scent and drew him back out towards the border.
This time he didn't hold back the lope, though there was no sign of a struggle or of any other scent at all. Hatsu again, the youngest puppy seemed to have inherited a full portion of the wanderlust spirit that had led Kenshin to claim the title of Rurouni. The gray puppy's trail wound a path northwards, meandering around obstacles and onto side-trails where he had apparently been distracted by something in the wind or the grass.
Kenshin slowed back to a walk as his son came into view, sitting on a rocky overhang with an unobstructed view of the lands before him, the ground sloping downward in green velvet rolls of vibrant canopy before rising into foothills in the distance and the beginnings of rocky peaks with tiny pockets of snow held safe against the summer sun by virtue of their proximity to the heavens.
Hatsu sat perfectly straight, his tail lying flat behind him, tiny triangle ears perked toward the land beyond the boundary.
"You've come out quite a long way, that you have," Kenshin called gently, as he approached, not wanting to startle the puppy. He needn't have worried, Hatsu leapt to his feet and spun around to face his father with a wagging tail and a bright smile.
"Dad! Have you seen this view?"
"Yes, Hatsu, I have," Kenshin smiled in return, "though this one has never seen you out here."
Hatsu hesitated, then squinted, scandalized at his father. "You said 'this one' again. Mom's going to send you to bed without dinner."
"Do you think so?" Kenshin claimed the seat next to his son, "Perhaps if we apologized…"
The puppy seemed to mouth the word apologize, looking confused, before abruptly looking around himself with fresh eyes. "I didn't mean to wander off dad, it's just, everyone was going to jump on Uncle Sano, and I was going to, but I saw this really cool red dragonfly and then…" the puppy trailed off helplessly, his ears lowering in dejection.
"Hmm, well, it did not end badly this time, but you know that you aren't yet old enough to walk the territory alone, that you aren't." Kenshin reminded gently, Hatsu shuffled unhappily,
"I know, I just…" small purple eyes turned back out to the view wistfully. "What's out there?" he half-whispered in plain longing. Kenshin felt his customary smile tugging at his muzzle.
"Well, if you walked and walked and walked into those low hills, you would find a sheep farm with several collies guarding the flocks and sleeping in the barn, and if you minded your manners, they might even invite you inside.
"If you passed there, you would find forests of evergreen and the way through the mountains. Beyond that…" the crimson wolf trailed off, only to be prompted by his son,
Kenshin continued with a smile, "Beyond that lies the North lands, the home of snow and ice. Aoshi and Misao live up there."
"When can I meet them?"
"Not just yet, it would be a long journey," Kenshin shook his head ruefully.
"I can take long trips," Hatsu insisted, "I can walk all day without getting tired!"
Kenshin eyed his young son, "I'm sure that's true," and it indeed, it was truer for Hatsu than the others, almost since he first began walking Hatsu had been wandering off to explore the territory, managing truly impressive distances before being found and returned to the den. "But I don't know that your brothers and sisters would take the trip as well as you might, and surely you wouldn't want to leave them behind."
"No… I guess not," the puppy sighed wistfully, "I just want to see."
"See what?" Kenshin asked, faintly curious. Hatsu's eyes drank in the distant scenery like cool clear water.
"You are still very young, that you are. There will be time to see everything." Kenshin promised with a soft smile, "For now, would you like to see your mother?"
The puppy yawned hugely before nodding agreement, his purple eyes growing heavy despite the assertion that he could walk all day. Carefully, Kenshin lifted his small offspring by the scruff and turned to make his way back home.
On reaching the den, Kenshin released his precious burden as Kiri ran up to them eagerly, telling all about how much trouble Yahiko had gotten into, and what great fun it had been to watch Mom chase their big brother around he clearing, forgetting her weekly promise to be a good example for her children and mind her temper.
Yahiko was sulking, ears flat against his head as he sat a little ways away from Kaoru—who was now berating a disgruntled-looking Sano.
"I thought you were going to help him watch them!"
Sano tried for an easy grin, "Aw, Missy, the kid seemed like he had it under control—"
"There are five puppies Sano!" Kaoru broke in hotly, "how many do you see here?"
"We're home, that we are," Kenshin called before Sano could scrape together an answer for the understandably upset mother. The look of pure gratitude that he Beta shot the crimson wolf's way was lost on him as Kaoru turned and caught sight of them. Kenshin could see the tension easing off her taut frame, the relief that instantly swamped her.
"You found him," it was a breath, a sigh more than words and Kenshin felt his expression shift to a reassuring smile on instinct.
"Yes," he agreed, coming alongside the tanuki to give her a comforting brush with his muzzle, "and he's fine." Kenshin shot his son a prompting look, and Hatsu fumbled his way through extracting himself from the pile his siblings had made on him as soon as they realized he was back.
He looked up into Kaoru's dark masked face earnestly, ears flattened slightly in remorse. "I'm sorry for going off alone, I didn't mean to," he apologized, shamefaced. Kenshin felt his mate sigh before lowering her head to nuzzle the small puppy gently,
"I'm sure you didn't, but we worry when we can't find you."
"I know…" the answer was an unhappy whine more than words.
"The next time you want to go on a walk, tell one of us," Kenshin suggested, "so an adult can go with you."
The puppy sighed heavily, obviously not enthused at the idea of making his ramblings wait, but he ducked his head in a nod. "Okay."
Perhaps sensing that the serious part of the discussion was over, the other four immediately set upon their sibling again, distracting him from the gloom of having gotten into trouble.
Kaoru sighed, burying her face into the white fur of Kenshin's chest. "They told me they were sure that you were going to cross his path and they needed to get the others back to the den, but…"
Kenshin ducked his head to rest his muzzle on the back of her neck soothingly, "I know, it is still frightening, that it is." And it was, for both of them, they loved their children so fiercely, so strongly, that it seemed if anything were to happen to them it would shatter the parents under the recoil.
"He was looking out north," Kenshin continued, to ease away the black thoughts of what might have been, "I may have promised him a trip in the future to go meet Aoshi and Misao."
Kaoru snorted in sudden laughter, stepping back to look at him with those brilliant sky blue eyes. "And Hiko?" her face crinkled in mirth, "I can't wait to see you try to explain to him that you had children."
Kenshin felt his own face contort into something that was not really amusement thinking of the often-pointed advice his old master had given regarding his barely-begun relationship with Kaoru the last time they had met—and suddenly he was quite grateful that the puppies were still too small to make the journey. The smug superiority of Hiko was enough to drive him mad even without dragging his personal life into it.
Still, those things, seeing Aoshi and Misao, trying to avoid Saito and watching his children ignore Hiko's boundaries to climb all over him and call him Grandpa, all those things were in the future and for now it was quite enough to be home.
A/N: So, funny story. If you reviewed the last chapter (2 years ago…) and asked if I was going to do an epilogue or a sequel, I told you no, no I wasn't. (I'm still not doing an epilogue, I'm perfectly happy to leave the Kenshin group perfectly happy). In large part this was because by the time I "finished" Amber Forest I was so burned out on writing that I couldn't write anything to save my life. Then two days ago, I got a review that Fanfiction wouldn't let me read until I had gone into the actual review page one the site, and I got to see all of my lovely old reviewers (I wonder how many of you still had this story on your alerts?) reactions to the last chapter. And the reaction that stuck out to me the most was that I had finished it too quickly.
On some level I knew this, it's a reoccurring problem that I have, when I get so wrapped up in just being done with a story that I don't take the time to enjoy the end the way that I should, but honestly I hadn't thought much about it for this story, and that just didn't seem fair. So, two years late, an epilogue that I hope rounds out the story a little better. And I'm pretty sure that the other reason I wrote this (aside from getting a review that made me look back) is that I'm actually thinking of writing again. I have what I think is a pretty cool idea for a world to stick Kenshin and co. into, and I've enjoyed doing some research on the logistics of how things would work… I just need an actual framing story so I can get started.
And now, back to me being a dork and pointing things out that I wrote .
The bit about Sano's paws is me poking fun at myself, since Sano never wound up with an "official" character sheet the way that Kenshin, Kaoru and Yahiko did, and the color of his paws (specifically the length of his white socks) can and does change from picture to picture. Some particularly early versions had one of his rear paws solid brown, or almost solid brown with only white toes.
Kenshin and Kaoru's puppies (ack, I did a Babies Ever After Epilogue…) have their own character sheets on my DeviantART account, username is still ignesfatuis. I did change up the age order from what I originally posted there, so that Hatsu is now the youngest rather than Kamen. (I didn't mention it, but Kiri is the smallest of the five.)
Name meanings and full descriptions!
Kenji: Apparently means something like "Second son," but I kind of had to keep it because, well, it's Kenji. Kenji has red fur like his father with a white underbelly and legs, though the darker red patterns on his pelt mimic his mom's markings, with dark stripes ringing his tail and a mask across his face. He has blue eyes.
Kemuri: Smoke. Kemuri looks the most like Kaoru, with her gray pelt complete with the dark gray rings on her tail. Unlike Kaoru she does not have a mask, but has some small red markings underneath her eyes and her underbelly is white with no dark stockings on her feet. Her eyes are amber.
Kiri: Mist. Kiri looks like neither of her parents, mostly white, with dark socks on her paws, and red tips on her tail, her ears and markings around her eyes. She has violet eyes.
Kamen: Mask. Kamen has very dark gray fur with a white underbelly, a dark red stripe runs the length of his back, and he has a black mask across his face. His eyes are amber.
Hatsu: New. Hatsu is a gray puppy with a white underbelly and one black sock on his left front foot. He has red markings across his shoulders and hips like his dad, but the ones on his hips bleed down into ring-like markings like Kaoru's. He has white tipped ears and violet eyes.