This one is for Sekihara Tae.
And yet another wolf story! Written in about two week as a gift fic. This is part 1 of 2, and it's finished. So the rest of it should be out in a few days.
Hope you like it!
Notes: Yes, yes I realize the names are still Japanese while they are living in Norway. We're just going to put it down to Pack Magic that no one notices. And any mistake about landscapes/culture/environment are mine. Google apparently only does so much.
The air was so cold Kaoru's nose ached with it. Shivering in the cold, she wished for a moment that she dared prance around in her fur instead of skin. But changing left a distinct scent – more so than her usual 'wolf' smell – and she was running low on supplies. By not changing, she was hopefully increasing the chances of the pack no picking up on her presence. Still, the walk to her garage would have been that much more bearable, and quicker, if she had dared. Putting in a garage that attached to the house was going on the list of things to do once she had cash. Shivering, she shoved her hands a little more firmly into her pockets and wished fervently that the unclaimed places that could hide her kind weren't frozen blocks of ice for most of the year.
Shoving her keys into the ignition, Kaoru huddled in her seat and shivered while the engine warmed up. Even in the cold, she realized her palms were starting to sweat. Curling her fingers into fists, she worked to stifle the nerves dancing along her stomach like butterflies. It had been six months since the new pack had moved in. Six months of hiding as carefully as she could, avoiding the places they hunted and keeping her trips into town to a minimum. They hadn't noticed her yet, for which she was thankful, but it wasn't going to last. It never did.
And even after three years, she didn't have the collateral to pick up and move.
Besides, she had finally started to like it here. Even with the blasted cold.
She'd tried to find out what she could about their alpha. But that was near impossible with the amount of time she allowed herself to spend in time. She had names and faces, but not ranks, and was unwilling to get close enough to challenge for dominance.
Shinomori Aoshi was a possibility; he was the only who appeared to be mated – but the tall, thin man didn't seem to have the openness to the others needed to connect to the pack. He wouldn't be the first alpha lacking that ability, and it was possible that she was wrong, but she hadn't gotten that sense of uncertainty that usually followed disconnect between members. Sanosuke Sagara was another possible candidate; there was an air of unwanted responsibility clinging to his shoulders, but the relationships he had seemed to be based on a mutual hobby of verbal abuse. She doubted any self-respecting wolf would bend their knees to the cheerful, if slightly vexing personality without it having been proven. Her wolf didn't sense that kind of depth.
There were two males who she had ranked as being submissive. She hadn't caught more than a glimpse of them but they were obviously interested in each other more than their surroundings. She thought it would have been interesting if they were in charge, but they weren't dominant and there was a wariness to them that might have come from being new to the pack.
Which left her with the only other option: Kenshin Himura was the only other male old enough to hold the title of alpha and he was by far the most perplexing. For starters, he was almost as short as she was, and while there was an air of patient authority that clung to his shoulders… he just didn't fit the mold of any alpha that she had ever seen. Then there was the unexpected way her wolf had sat up and taken notice. She had seen him once or twice on the street and there had been a sharp awareness to him as he watched the streets that had made her sweat. But even under the uneasiness about possibly being found out, there was a lingering curiosity and interest that puzzled her.
Himura seemed to be in charge of the small store the pack had bought and then added a restaurant onto. They seemed to specialize in local game and to be willing to pay a fair price to anyone who brought meat in. She hadn't dared do more than ask polite, curious questions as she visited other places especially since she was suspicious that Himura was the one doing the cooking behind the counter.
Willing the heater in her jeep to warm up quicker than it was, Kaoru drove slowly into town. She had hoped to dig up some background on the pack and find out what she was getting into, but it was like they had disappeared out of all the public records or buried themselves so deep she couldn't find them. And she wasn't sure what the pack's policy was for rogue wolves, even if she was a female and had a prior claim to the territory. Her threat to them was limited, but experience had taught her enough of how packs tended to absorb female members with or without their permission. There was the occasional exception, and they would have to work to hold her against her will, but if the numbers were big enough they could manage it.
From what she could tell, the pack had moved into the area with the intention of settling down. She had chosen this town because it was close to the Børgefjell National Park. It was also just large enough that while everyone knew everyone, there was enough happening that the occasional loner was accepted. Part of that was were magic – she was dominant enough to have it at her disposal without a pack.
Her fingers curled in frustration around her steering wheel. One reason for her choice to disappear into the sparsely populated, frozen landscape was the lack of competition for the territory. Most packs were interested in finding a place that they could dominate while building a steady income. Out here, you lived carefully. Resources weren't limited – the park was a fantastic place to run without the fear of humans – but the usual economic domination wasn't possible. Very few packs were willing to give up the luxury of the bigger cities, especially when those cities were in warmer climates.
So why had this one?
And why did they have to pick her town to do it? To think, six months ago her biggest worry had been building her nest egg and pondering the schematics behind installing a hot tub on the back of her wraparound porch. Shaking those thoughts off, she pulled into town.
It took her a bit longer than she thought it would to find everything she needed. The sheer amount of canned goods in her cart earned her some amused looks, but she ignored them in favor of the knowledge that she wasn't in the mood to buy another fire extinguisher.
The passenger seat was filled with bags when she was finished loading. Awareness sparked at the edge of her senses and she took a deep breath before relaxing at the familiar sense. Tae Sekihara was bustling down the street, her face practically hidden beneath the thick scarf wrapped around her nose. Kaoru still didn't know why she reacted to Tae as she did, Tae was very human, but she had yet to register her as a threat.
Tae had been a friend since she had moved into the frozen town, and had been more than willing to let her eat over while Kaoru had been going through her learning phase with the gas stove top. The slightly round woman bustled over, her eyes shining behind her scarf.
"Where have you been hiding?"
Kaoru winced a little, but kept her smile firmly in place.
"I've been buried under work." It was a half truth. Work had been strangely busy the last few months as she worked on her contracts. "In fact, the only reason I managed to break away from my current project is that I ran out of food." She moved her hand to indicate the stuffed condition of her jeep, and Tae sighed.
"I was afraid of that. Are you sure you don't at least have time to catch a fast lunch?"
"I wish I could."
That was the truth. Tae was always up on the gossip of the town, and she really wanted to know what was going on with the new pack. Maybe Tae would know something. It really was unfortunate her friend was completely human. On the other hand, the idea of Tae as something other was terrifying.
"Why don't you plan on coming over tomorrow," Kaoru offered. "I have some salted pork from the butcher, and it makes a good sandwich."
"I'll bring lunch," Tae said firmly. "You keep that… sandwich fodder for yourself."
Kaoru laughed. "It isn't that bad!"
"Only if you don't have taste buds killed from years of microwaveable meals." Tae returned with a frown. "I'll even spring for some of Kenshin's ribs."
"You really haven't been in town for some time."
She tried to smile and failed.
"Kenshin Himura; he runs the new shop in town. I know you haven't missed it, no matter how deeply you have your nose buried in work. I'm just surprised you haven't made it in there yourself, considering your love affair with the local butcher."
Kaoru flushed. "Tae!"
Tae waved her hand. "It perks up his week to see you. Considering he has four grandchildren and another on the way, I can't decide if it's you that perks up his day or the amount of goods you buy."
Kaoru shook her head. "I'm not rehashing this conversation with you. But I won't complain if you do show up with ribs tomorrow. It's too damn cold to grill outside myself and I'm half terrified if I tried, I'd blow something up."
Tae winced. "Please don't. Just, don't. I'll bring ribs and you just provide the dishes, okay?"
Kaoru shook her head and opened the door to her truck. "I promise not to cook anything. Want me to meet you at the road?"
"There's not enough snow to worry about getting stuck. I'll see you tomorrow!"
Kenshin hummed to himself as he finished packaging a pound of smoked meat for a customer. The new cook was working out very well, with only a few mishaps over the past few days. While he enjoyed doing the cooking himself, he was needed up front of handle the customers. Aoshi was determined to be behind the scenes, and Misao's bustling personality was best served waiting tables handling the customers that Sano couldn't. Sano was good at running the actual shop, but the taller man was squeamish about the idea of packaging meat. Shaking his head at his beta's ridiculous fear of human's food, he rang up the ticket.
Things were working out here better than he had anticipated. Moving away from the over-populated territories in the US had done wonders for the pack. Aoshi and Misao were as relaxed as he had ever seen them, and while Cho and Kamatari were still jumpy, it was starting to ease at the edges. Yahiko was struggling to find his place, but he would manage. A slow smile curled along his mouth. He rather thought that the young witch who lived above Yahiko's apartment and worked at the local movie shop was going to go a long ways towards helping Yahiko adjust to the change. Sano… well, nothing besides a shortage of good alcohol would get his beta's personality down.
The only difficulty he could see in the lack of were-population was a chance for the unmatched to find mates. Well, Yahiko was clearly smitten and they'd see where that relationship went. Sano had never been particularly picky about his woman anyway. Having a type would have meant he was interested in more than just fun and Kenshin was fairly certain that would give his beta a case of hives.
Peeling off the latex gloves he wore when handling raw meat, he sighed. If he was honest, he seemed to be the only one feeling the bite of loneliness. It was a bit frustrating, as his pack filled his life in ways he had never expected, but there it was. It would have been nice to have an alpha female to help look after things, to share with, but Misao and the pups should have been enough to handle. Rolling his shoulders, he studied the chaotic bustle of the room in front of him, eyes scanning the customers. He had a job he enjoyed; a home that was comfortable even in harsh winter and his pack was safe and adjusting. The few enemies that remained were not going to look here and it gave them time to lick their wounds and mourn their losses.
Breathing in deeply he checked the air, a habit bred from those months of chaos and suspicion and he frowned. Narrowing his eyes, he took another deep, careful breath, sorting each scent individually. There. Wolf. An unfamiliar wolf whose scent was hidden beneath the faintest touch of jasmine and the heavy scent of spiced meat… an indirect transfer, then. When he took another breath, the illusive scent was gone.
Nodding to Sano, he pulled off his apron and moved towards the back room. How had Aoshi missed another wolf in their territory? They had been there for nearly a year and they hadn't seen hide or hair of a wolf in this territory. It could be a rogue moving in, attempting to stake out the competition…
The Regional Pack was particular about who they let into the country. If Kenshin hadn't already had ties with the Alpha, he doubted they would have managed the move. He cursed under his breath. They needed to find the strange were and deal with any potential problems and they needed to do it soon. He wouldn't allow anyone to interfere with his pack's safety, not this time.
There was a figure huddling on her deck when Kaoru pulled into her drive. Her inner wolf tensed and she let out just enough of the change to sharpen her eyes. It was possible that the person on the deck was just a decoy… Her breath left her lungs in a whoosh as she recognized the figure. Megumi.
Kaoru hadn't seen Megumi Tanuki in ten years. Leaving her groceries alone, she almost fell out of her jeep as she hurried to her friend. Megumi wasn't wearing a jacket. The way her lips were turning blue said that she should have shifted to wolf hours ago and there were large, dark circles under her eyes.
"What are you doing here? Where is your jacket? Why didn't you change? You can still freeze to death, you idiot!"
Megumi blinked at her and shivered. Kaoru ripped off her jacket and threw it around her shoulders before bodily hauling her to feet. Cursing freely, she fumbled with her keys and pushed the door open with her shoulder. Pulling her into the living room, she shoved her onto the rug next to the banked coals before pulling the afghan from the back of her couch and tucking it around Megumi's shaking shoulders.
It took her a moment to get the fire restarted before she made sure the central heating was turned up. Grabbing the extra blankets out of her hall closet, she moved back into the living room. Only once Megumi was well and thoroughly tucked in did she sit back and stare at her friend. Megumi was shivering hard enough to rattle her teeth, but at least the blue tinge to her lips was starting to fade. The blue had worried her, but the healer had at least had the strength to protect herself from frostbite.
"It looks like you're going to be okay." Kaoru said finally, moving to put on another log. The crackle of the fire was comforting even if it was going to be sweltering later on. Her unspoken questions hung between them – why was Megumi here; why had a healer let herself almost freeze to death; why did she look like she was being hunted? Megumi had been the closest she had ever come to have a pack member that wasn't blood family and her wolf was highly agitated to find her in this state.
Megumi squeezed her fingers around the blanket and then nodded. Kaoru sighed.
"I'll get the tea."
Megumi winced, but didn't complain. Lips quirking in a faintly amused smile, Kaoru moved into the kitchen. It didn't take long to turn the heated water into something passable as tea, and as an afterthought she grabbed the container of honey.
"What are you doing here, Megumi?" Kaoru asked quietly as she poured tea into two mugs. "When we split up ten years ago, you were headed to the U.S to track your family."
"I found them."
Kaoru blinked, surprised. "Then why are you here?"
Reaching out with one long fingered hand, Megumi carefully wrapped her fingers around the mug. Pulling as far back into the blankets as she could without spilling the tea, she sighed.
"My pack had re-located, as we thought. It wasn't nearly as difficult to find them as I had expected. They were working for a trader of sorts, a man named Kanryu. Human, for all accounts and purposes – he had apparently attempted the change at one point in his life but was unable to complete it. Some humans have that built in immunity to were magic…"
Kaoru frowned. "But most humans die from the infection if they can't change."
Megumi nodded and took a careful sip of her tea, before making a face and reaching for the honey. "Apparently, my grandfather prevented his death. But that doesn't matter… the point is, he survived and while he is clearly aging, he has dealings in pack business. I checked everything out as best I could. You know I did my research before I even contacted my family's Alpha."
Kaoru frowned at the pained desperation in her normally unshakeable friend. Megumi would have looked into the pack. After all the trouble they had gotten into in their dealings in Europe, both of them had learned to be a great deal more cautious when approaching a pack for possible membership. Kaoru had always been too dominant to be easily subdued and Megumi was a healer, which put her outside pack structure. It hadn't always saved them – they both had scars – but they had always managed to extract themselves from the worst of it.
"At first it was fine. I enrolled in the local Medical Program, because I wanted something concrete to back my healing. Not long after I graduated, Kanryu approached me. He said that since he had paid my way through my courses that I owed him. I was surprised, because I had thought most of the schooling had been funded through the pack, but he had the paperwork…" She curled her fingers tightly together and for a moment, Kaoru was worried the mug would shatter.
"It was drugs; mostly wolfsbane and opium. I knew the pack was bringing in a sizeable income, but I never imagined… once I was conscripted, I was never let out of anyone's sight. Kanryu was determined to force me to make a more potent drug and I refused." Her eyes squeezed shut. "But for five years I was forced to make other drugs. I managed to avoid creating anything too potent but…"
Kaoru closed her eyes. She knew better than most the kind of position a woman could be put into in a pack – knew exactly what kind of leverage they would have used to hold Megumi. Her claws broke skin and she curled them into her palms, the sharp bite of pain holding her to her human skin.
"So you came here."
"I didn't know where else to go. I didn't know if you were still planning on settling in this country." Megumi whispered. "I didn't even have time to plan, not really. I found myself alone for the first time in five years and I just… ran."
Kaoru picked up her mug of tea and tried to think. "Olso has a strong pack that runs regional matters. It's probable that Kanryu will start there. Norway is sparsely populated in enough areas that he would have a hard time tracking you alone…"
"I… I managed to break the pack bond, but it slowed me down. Then I just… Once I landed in Norway, I just knew how to find you. But I can't say if I was followed – Kanryu won't let me go easily. I did my best but…. Does the Regional Pack know about you?"
"No." Kaoru grimaced. It was extremely likely that Megumi was followed as far as Oslo, and it was likely that she might have managed to shake the trail after that. On the other hand, if Kanryu had access to enough funds, then someone would pick up her trail.
Kaoru sighed. "I'm not the only wolf here, Megumi."
Brows tucked together. "What do you mean? I didn't sense anyone else near here when I…"
"I know." There was a tinge of frustration in Kaoru's voice. "I don't think they have noticed me yet, but I've noticed them. They are definitely a wolf pack, although I'm not sure of the exact size. I haven't been able to pick out the alpha, must less the beta. Since I didn't bother registering with the Regional Pack, I can't contact them to find out who this pack is."
Megumi swallowed. "What are our odds of using them as cover?"
Kaoru shook her head. "I don't know. But someone is coming over tomorrow and I might be able to find something out."
Megumi's features were pinched. "If Kanryu manages to buy the Regional Pack off, a small pack here wouldn't have the muscle to say no."
"I don't know what the Regional Pack will do when Kanryu approaches them. Most packs here are strict about the drug trade and most don't tolerate it in their territories. That will work for us, but I doubt Kanryu will be honest about why he is looking for you. Any idea about the kind of muscle he will be sending?"
"No. There was an old bloodline he had working for him some ten years back, but they left without explanation. From what I understand, outside of my family, he has been forced to cobble together rogues and other unwanted enforcers. At least in the were populations. His human ties are heavily influenced by the mob."
Kaoru nodded. "Well, nothing to do but find out what I can from Tae tomorrow and go from there. You need to rest. The guest bedroom has a bed, but I don't have any clean sheets for it. Take my room. I'll take the couch."
Megumi frowned. "Kaoru…"
Kaoru shook her head. "Hot shower and then bed; we'll get the other room sorted in the morning. Towels are in the cabinet in the bathroom. Clothes might be an issue, but I've got some oversized sweat pants and large t-shirts that will work for tonight."
Once Megumi disappeared around the corner, Kaoru reached up and rubbed her temples. Life had just gotten exceedingly more complicated. After her conversation with Tae she was going to have to do her own research into this Kanryu and maybe go on a run.
Despite all the trouble Megumi had brought with her, the chance to run with Megumi lifted her spirits. Her wolf was in complete agreement. Old friends were gifts, especially those who were pack in all the ways that mattered.
It was with a feeling of contentedness that she headed outside to collect her supplies.
"Whew, the wind today is just unnecessary," Tae huffed as she shifted the large picnic basket to the floor before shoving her bangs out of her eyes. "It just cuts you down to bone."
Kaoru pointed to the fire. "Go warm up; I'll get this laid out in the kitchen. Then we can eat."
"I won't argue with that. The ribs should be good at the temperature they're at. Everything else is served cold."
"Not taking the chance that I'd blow something up?" Kaoru asked as she moved into the kitchen.
"Of course not, dear; I just thought I'd save us both the work."
Kaoru snorted. Tae hadn't been around for the great grease fire in her kitchen, but she'd see the damage to the ceiling before Kaoru had repainted. Since then she'd been a tad over cautious when it came to visiting at meal times.
"Kaoru, if I'd known you had a guest I would have brought an extra serving."
Pausing, she turned and faced the living room, her brows tucking together. Tae was staring at the master bedroom, her expression not exactly uneasy, but there was a knowing there that Kaoru hadn't seen before.
Tae turned and then blinked at the confusion on Kaoru's face. "Oh… oh dear. I apologize, but I thought you knew."
"I'm a witch." Her mouthed curved a little at the edges at Kaoru's startled expression. "Honestly Kaoru, you didn't think something was odd about someone of Japanese decent being in the middle of this landscape? Granted, it's more common now than it was when my mother moved here but…"
Kaoru made a face. "I hadn't thought about it. I have wolf magic, so it wasn't something I was worried about having it pointed out. As for you, I guess I wrote it off as having to do with the number of Japanese tourists that filters through."
"My mother was only half-Japanese. Full blooded witch. After she married my father, they traveled to Norway on vacation and it called to her. So they moved here a few years after I was born. There is a quite a community of those with other blood that live here – I think it's the wildness of this country that calls us."
"Well, that explains a lot." Kaoru muttered. She hadn't really gone out of her way to look for anyone else who was other. She supposed that had been a little stupid on her part. Still, witches were even less likely to settle out in the middle of nowhere than wolves – most earned their trade through skills of hire. Most of the bigger families worked as mercenaries. She studied Tae and considered.
"So I take it you know about me, then?"
"That you're an alpha female without a pack? It's not exactly advertised, but those of us who have a little of the other sense know."
Kaoru's brain blanked out at the word alpha. "What?"
Now Tae looked confused. "So you have a pack? We haven't seen anyone else… and surely Kenshin would have noticed."
"What? No. But what makes you think I'm alpha?" Kaoru asked, hand waving around to convey the extent of her confusion. "I mean… what? I'm a rogue, yes, and dominant, but hardly what I would consider alpha."
Tae frowned a little. "Maybe I'm a little confused on the issue – outside of this year my experience has been a little limited – but do any females who aren't alpha manage to make it to rogue status?"
Kaoru frowned, considering the question. She could understand Tae's confusion. For the most part, wolves fell within three distinctions: alpha, dominant, or submissive. While it was true that most of the wolves that ended up wandering were male or occasionally a female alpha, she hadn't really bothered to check and see if her circumstances were unusual. She was wolf, she was dominant, and she was without a pack. It had to happen elsewhere. She had just gone longer than some before she found a pack to resettle with.
"I'm not certain; I haven't ever looked into it. But dominant isn't necessarily alpha and while I am certainly one it doesn't make me the other." She fiddled with the hem of her shirt and sighed. "Or at least I don't believe it does. Alpha takes something… more."
"And you don't believe you have it," Tae asked, dark eyes considering. "Well, I suppose we shall agree to disagree on that point, for now. I suppose that also explains why you have been avoiding Kenshin and his pack? This… rogue status?"
Kaoru grimaced and picked up a rib. "Something like that, yes. Packs aren't always…" she strove for the correct wording and sighed. "I have a history and it isn't always nice. Until I'm certain how this pack felt about having a rogue in their territory, I'm not willing to chance a confrontation."
Something like disappointment flickered across Tae's face and then was gone. "So you're not interested in joining their pack?"
"Not by force."
Tae blinked. "Force?"
Kaoru shrugged and took a bite of rib. Then she chewed slowly, because they really were good. Once she swallowed she sighed. "Part of what makes a rogue, well, rogue is their unwillingness to submit. Being part of a pack… when it's good, it's good. When it's bad, it just gets worse. I'm not against being part of a pack, but I'm also being practical – my wolf doesn't like to bend to anyone."
Tae arched a brow. "And you deny being alpha."
Kaoru shook her head. "I hear it's like that for a lot of dominant wolves. Female or male dominants, doesn't matter. Difference is, is that sometimes, the pack is strong enough to hold a female even if they want to be free."
"And you think… that Kenshin's pack might try to force you?" Tae said slowly.
"I counted six adult males and one adult female." Kaoru said with a shrug after she finished off her second rib. Six could be enough to force a member into their ranks if they had enough strength between them. She thought this pack might. "It's possible there are juvenile members that I haven't seen. I've made a point to stay out of their range. It's a small pack, but there is power there."
Tae pursed her lips. "Alright… and your houseguest? I can… sense wolf, I suppose, but not gender."
Kaoru shifted forward and picked up another handful of ribs. "What about my houseguest?"
"So, not a male then," Tae muttered before she daintily picked up a rib. "I suppose you agreed to have me over to pick me over about what I know about the new pack?"
Kaoru eyed her but Tae didn't seem included to poke her about Megumi. "You seem to be on first name basis with them."
Tae grinned. "You've eaten half a rack of ribs. Do you honestly think I'd not cultivate a friendship with someone who can cook like this? Even better, it's take out! And Tsubame will eat it! What I didn't understand was why you hadn't become good and close friends if just for the food."
Kaoru rolled her eyes even as she sneaked the last rib off the plate. "Tae, while I realize that was part of it, spill the real reason."
Tae considered her and shrugged. "I was curious as to why a pack was moving into a territory previously claimed by someone who I was under the assumption was acting alpha."
"So you decided to… what? Integrate yourself as a spy?'
Tae smiled brightly. Kaoru closed her eyes and wondered if she started banging her head against the wall if it would make a difference. Reaching up, she rubbed the bridge of her nose.
"Oh hush, it was fun. Besides, it's a group worth looking at. I can tell you that Kenshin Himura is the alpha and his beta is Sanosuke Sagara. The others fall in a range of ranks, but clearly my ranking sense is off if you are not, in fact, an alpha."
Kaoru pointed a bone at her. "Drop it."
"Anyway, they seem to be settled in for the long haul. A regional wolf showed up once a month for the first three months, but then stopped visiting. Is that normal?"
"I don't know. I never bother to check in with the regional packs."
Tae seemed to be struggling with something, probably laughter, so Kaoru left her to it and polished off her ribs. While Tae gathered her composure, Kaoru considered bringing up Megumi's situation but decided against it. She needed to hash a few things out with Megumi first. Then she could talk to Tae.
"So other than the new pack, what gossip have I missed out on?"
Tae gave her a look that said she knew what Kaoru was doing, but she cheerfully went through her mental list of Things That Had Happened anyway, so Kaoru didn't complain. She listened a lot more carefully than she usually did, paying attention for any sign of a new arrival or someone moving into the area in the last week. If Megumi was followed, someone might have guessed where she was going and sent someone ahead, but that didn't appear to be the case. If Megumi kept her head down, then they might skate out of this relatively painlessly.
Tae looked at her watch and sighed. "Tsubame will be getting home soon and I should be there. She's been dating one of the local boys. I try to make sure I'm around afterward in case she wants to talk."
Kaoru nodded. "Tell her I said hello."
"Will do…" Tae paused and seemed to ponder her words for a moment. "I can't say I fully understand packs, Kaoru… but I have gotten to know Kenshin. I like him."
Kaoru tilted her head. "Tae?"
"You can't hide forever. If you need me, you know how to get in touch!"
Kaoru grimaced. She was aware that she couldn't hide forever. And if Megumi was going to stay with her for any extent of time, her ability to hide became even smaller. She glared at the pile of rib bones on her counter and sighed. She wondered if this Kenshin was the one who cooked.
Then she winced, because that kind of thinking told her that her wolf was curious. Curiosity had a way of biting her in the ass. It really didn't help that if she looked past his height and that head of hair – she found him attractive. And none of that would mean anything the minute he tried to force her or Megumi into his pack.
Kaoru shook her head and worked to clean up the mess that was her kitchen before Megumi was up and moving. Stretching, she considered her options. Tip-toeing to her room, she cracked open the door and considered the lump in her bed. Megumi had gotten up a little that morning but had been shooed back to bed when Kaoru had caught sight of the circles under her eyes. Odds were she'd sleep for a couple more hours.
The conversation with Tae had made her antsy and she needed to run. Megumi would be safe enough here. Padding on silent feet to her back door, she headed to out for a quick run to soothe her wolf.
Stretching her legs was the sort of meditative exercise that Kaoru needed after talking with Tae. Thankfully the wind had died down. She lived far enough from town – and on the opposite end from the other pack – that she wasn't worried about being found out just yet. Still, it didn't hurt to be careful, so she stuck to paths she knew. If anything had disturbed the area recently, she'd know. And she was careful. The wind was slight, hardly existent this afternoon but that was no reason to run close enough to town that her scent might have carried.
Fortunately, she still had several miles of leeway.
The sudden, sharp metallic scent of blood was almost a shock. Skidding to a stop, she went still and quiet, stretching her senses as far as she could – the forest was quiet, but not un-normally so for when a wolf was running. Feeling uneasy, she carefully picked her way through unruffled snow, following her nose. It was possible that it was nothing – there were other, non-were predators in the forest. But the scent was getting stronger the closer she drew and it was heavy enough that it had to be something large – they had red and roe deer and the occasional herd of wild reindeer, but the reindeer were rarely this close to the town.
Her heart started to hammer in her chest when she caught the unmistakable smell of werewolf.
She found him in snow that was untouched by footprints, a mangled body that was somehow still breathing. She shifted forms and gasped at the cold of the snow that bit into her unprotected feet and the bite against naked skin even as she scrambled forward. Her wolf senses told her there was nothing she could use to track whoever had done this. She had spent ten years traveling the world with Megumi, so every trained instinct she had screamed not to touch. If she had the time, she would have ran back and gotten Megumi so not to chance hurting him worse but she didn't think she had that kind of time.
Teenager. His face had been left untouched by whoever had hurt him but it was clear he was losing blood too fast. That might not kill him on its own, but his injuries would cripple him if she didn't get him to Megumi and fast. She was a mile or so out from her place and even werewolves weren't completely immune to frostbite. She'd have to hurry. A fireman's carry was risky, because she didn't know the extent of his internal injuries. On the other hand, it was the only way she'd manage to carry him when he had several inches on her; it'd also let her own magic hide both of them if this was indeed a Witch Trap. Good thing she was already going to have to call Tae.
She'd never have managed to get him on her back if she wasn't a wolf. Taking a deep, centering breath to block out how cold of a run this was going to be she took off in a dead run towards her cabin, trying not to count each jarring impact. She'd done the best she could do for him without someone who knew more than field medicine.
By the time her cabin came into view, her teeth were chattering and she was thankful she had the magic to cushion the areas of her body that needed it from the biting cold. The door banged open as she started up the stairs and Kaoru barely had the time to realize that Megumi had known she was needed before the body was being lifted off her shoulders and onto a cot – where? – in front of the fire.
"Dry off," Megumi snapped even as she started to examine the unconscious wolf. "The pot on the table is hot chocolate. Drink it after you're under those blankets – I shouldn't have to tell you to wrap up in the electric one first? Eat the trail mix. You looked fine for frostbite but I want you warm."
Orders given, she went to work.
Kaoru moved quickly, yanking on dry socks before tightly cocooning herself. Megumi was right, there was no sign of frostbite and she was just over-chilled; it wouldn't take long for her warm up. It would have been faster if she changed into wolf but Megumi would need the extra energy Kaoru could provide and changing wouldn't limit that, per se, but it would be easier to give as a human. Taking handful of the trail mix, she ate slowly – the sugar would give her something to burn for heat.
Kaoru had always known her friend was good. Megumi had been a naturally talented fifteen-year-old the first time Kaoru had met her. That meeting had gone badly – twelve-year-old Kaoru was in the system with parents recently buried and Megumi was an orphan who had somehow been misplaced by her pack during an emergency evacuation some six years earlier. That two were had ended up in the same foster home, somehow slipping through the cracks of the packs around them –it had been both baffling and fortuitous. Two years later they had faked their ages and papers and taken off to explore the world and hunt down Megumi's family. It might have been better had they stayed in the United States, but the idea of adventure had appealed to both of them and there were other, wilder places that had seemed more exciting.
Twenty years later and the dominance issues their human foster parents hadn't been able to explain had settled and an easy, abiding friendship was in its place instead. Ten years without a word between them and somehow they had settled back into old places. Kaoru frowned. How had Megumi known she was coming and Kaoru needed her help? Any pack bonds they might have formed should've broken when Megumi rejoined her family and a-day-an- a-half should not have been enough to rebuild them.
Kaoru grimaced at what she knew Tae would say if she asked.
Megumi sat back and sighed, her face a little pale in the firelight. "He's stable."
Kaoru had stopped shivering so she didn't feel guilty that she hadn't touched the cocoa. "Something mauled him."
"Mauled is the appropriate word. I haven't seen someone this badly torn up since those dominance fights in Venice fifteen years back. I'd put him around sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. He isn't quite adult but he's losing the feeling of a juvenile." Megumi turned and studied her before nodding. "You're okay."
"Figured I would be; it was only about a mile run. Thought I'd better risk it for the kid. Couldn't figure out a way to carry him as a wolf."
Megumi nodded. "He's going to need several more healing sessions and I'm worried about the damage done to his left leg, but it should heal okay if he doesn't tax it."
Kaoru rubbed her hands over her face. "Good. That's good."
"Who is he, Kaoru?"
Kaoru shook her head. "I haven't seen him before, but I can guess. I better make a few calls before someone tracks him here."
Megumi looked alarmed. "Someone might track him?"
"Meadow was wiped clean where I found him. Not even a damn deer print. Sound like anything you know?"
"Exactly," Kaoru agreed. "Good news is we happen to have a witch that can help with this little clean up. Bad news is we've got to out ourselves to the pack that's moved in. I've got a feeling this is one of theirs."
Megumi bit her lip. "You think this was done by an enemy of the pack?"
"I don't know." Kaoru took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It would make some sort of sense, but my gut doesn't like it. I think, somehow, Kanryu tracked you as far as the town. Something messed up his trackers ability to find you after that – probably the pack."
"I don't know." She motioned with one hand towards the injured teenager. "But the best way to bring a healer out of hiding? Lure them out. Let's just hope they didn't have that field set to track me. I didn't sense any spells, but I can't be sure. If we're lucky, whatever they're planning hasn't managed to be put into place yet and we can explain things to the pack before things get complicated."
Megumi closed her eyes wearily. "I think things are already complicated."
Kaoru shrugged before grinning faintly. "Just like old times, eh?"
"May the moon have mercy on us," Megumi replied. "Because I'm not sure anyone else will."
When Tsubame had called, worried because Yahiko had missed their date, Kenshin had been concerned and sent Kamatari off to see what had kept him, but hadn't worried excessively. Yahiko had been moody lately and his wolf had seemed agitated about something more than just the usual teenage shift from juvenile to adult and the change of dominance that came with it. But even with all that, Yahiko hadn't missed a date before this one with the cute witch who he seemed to be seriously interested in. When Kamatari showed up three hours later without any sign of him, Kenshin had put out a pack alert.
That had been two hours ago.
Five hours and one of his pack had disappeared around the same time he had caught the scent of a strange were. Now his wolf was agitated and the pack was combing their territory for any sign of trouble. Shinomori had cancelled his dinner meeting with some foreign businessman looking at some hunting rights for the land they owned. So far, they were coming up short; everything was starting to look too clean. Instinct itched at him and he was pulling his cell phone free of his belt to call Tae – this clean stunk of Witch – when an unfamiliar number popped up on his caller I.D.
There was a pause before a female voice echoed down the line. "My name is Kaoru. I believe I have one of your pack members."
Kenshin went hunting-still. "Do you?"
Some of the wolf must have bled through his voice because when she spoke again, her voice held bite. "He's alive and recovering from a severe mauling. You can stop snarling at me, since I'm the one who saved his life. Tae Sekihara gave me your number; she'll speak for me if you would prefer to have an outside opinion on the matter."
Inexplicably, the temper in her tone eased his. Taking a deep breath, he chose his next words carefully. "I thank you for Yahiko's life. How badly is he hurt?"
"The worst of the injuries have been treated. My roommate is a doctor. It would be best if you came and collected him; Tae says you are strong enough as a pack to accelerate his healing when in close proximity."
Kenshin considered that. Whoever this Kaoru was – he thought he'd learned the names of everyone in the small town – she clearly had some sort of connection to others, or at least Tae trusted her explicitly. He grimaced. If she had stumbled upon a wolf attack she would have had to have been told to take precautions. That Yahiko hadn't hurt her or her doctor friend – again, he wasn't aware of a doctor he didn't know… – spoke to the severity of his injuries.
"We would be happy to take him. Where do you live?"
Another of those pauses that made him wonder. "Tae will be driving out here shortly. You may follow her."
The sound of the line disconnecting made him blink. Shaking off his curiosity and the lack of wolf-irritation at her rudeness, he went to find Sano and Misao. He could handle the move on his own, but it never hurt to have extra pack members on hand when one of their own was injured. Aoshi would be interested in tracking down the attacker as soon as they had more information, so there was no point in making the trip out to Kaoru's and then back into town to his office.
Tae was waiting for them by the time they showed up outside her shop. Her car was nowhere to be seen and she looked preoccupied, a frown line between her brows as she let Sano help her into the pack jeep. Kenshin didn't blame her. If he was right, there was at least one witch who had been involved in the attack on Yahiko, not to mention the strange wolf he had scented earlier yesterday. Somehow, two others had managed to hide from all of them and it made him cranky. He felt itchy and the need to bite at something was growing the longer it was taking to get Yahiko and make him safe.
"Why didn't you tell us there were humans who knew about the were community?" Misao asked once they were out of the town and moving down a narrow road. Kenshin was relieved at the sudden conversation – the tension was starting to become palpable.
Tae seemed to choke on air.
Sano turned around in his seat and frowned at her. "You okay?"
She waved him off and swallowed several times before trying to speak. "Human?"
Misao tilted her head, eyes curious. "Kaoru? She knew awful lot for someone who wasn't an other, so we figured you had let her in on some of it when she called."
"I told her your pack could sustain the healing energy required to help mend Yahiko, but I don't understand…" her face took on a bewildered look. "Who is human? It's a left here, Kenshin. It's the last place on the left, right before the road runs out."
Misao brightened. "Oh, she's a witch then? Well that explains how she managed to help patch up Yahiko, even if her friend is a doctor. I was wondering how they found him."
Tae opened her mouth and then shut it. Something like anticipation crossed her face as Kenshin eased into the driveway. "Kaoru isn't a witch, but she is part of the local community. She's lived here about three years now but she's shy. Doesn't really like a lot of contact with outsiders."
Tae seemed to be in a hurry to get of the Jeep. Kenshin watched her bound up the stairs, puzzled. Tae wasn't usually this bothered by the cold. He took a moment to calm himself before following. There was no need to let his wolf out and scare this new witch; it certainly didn't make the wolf any happier that he now had two witches he had somehow not identified. Once Yahiko was tucked into his own bed Kenshin knew he would calm down considerably, although he'd still be on edge until they'd caught and dismembered whoever had attacked his pack.
"Kaoru darling, you could have at least warned them."
Kenshin frowned at the laughter in the witch's tone. There was something tugging at his senses but the scent of blood was too heavy to get a good grasp on what it was. It wasn't until he stepped inside that he realized what he was feeling wasn't witch magic – but wolf. The air was heavy with wolf healing magic. His eyes narrowed as his wolf violently pushed to the surface and he realized exactly why Tae had been so flabbergasted in the car.
This Kaoru was wolf.
Three years. Tae said she had lived in the area for three years, which meant she had kept under the radar of his pack and the Regional Pack. Before he could start asking the questions that needed to be answered very soon, his gaze finally landed on the dark haired woman standing partially in front of the cot that held Yahiko.
And as his gaze met hers – dark blue threaded with lighter wolf-blue – he felt the punch of her in his gut and wondered how he could have missed her at all.