Fai skidded to a stop in the center of the camp near the fire pit, scowling as he scanned the area.
"Saori!" he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify the sound.
She hadn't come to find them after putting up the first aid bag, as she said she was going to. After waiting almost an hour, he'd come back to see what was holding her up, but she was nowhere to be seen . . .
'Damn it . . .'
Lifting his chin, sniffing the air, Fai's frown deepened.
'She's nowhere nearby,' his youkai-voice said.
Scowl darkening since he'd already figured out as much, he strode forward, drawing in lungfuls of breath as he struggled to find any lingering trace of her scent.
Where the hell was she?
"Did you find her?"
Glancing over his shoulder when Dmitri and the children wandered back into the camp, Fai shook his head. "No."
Dmitri wandered over to him, draping his hands on his hips as he, too, slowly looked around. "It's not like her to just disappear," he said as though Fai hadn't already realized as much. Then he sighed. "I'm sure she's around. Maybe she just needed a little bit of time to herself."
Fai snorted loudly. Even if that were the case, she'd been gone too long, hadn't she? "It doesn't feel right," he insisted, slowly shaking his head. "I can't sense her anywhere near."
"You can feel her presence?"
"Not now, I can't," Fai growled. "Damn it . . ."
A subtle shift in the wind made his eyes flare wide, made him stop where he stood for only a moment before dashing off in that direction. "I'm going to go look for her," he called back over his shoulder. "Take the pups back to the home!"
Dmitri hollered after him, but he didn't really hear or care as he bounded off toward the trees.
'Saori . . . Where are you . . .?'
Her scent led him into the trees, accompanied by the scent of a stranger—someone he didn't recognize. Erupting in a low growl, he trailed them deeper into the forest, a sense of cloying urgency wrapping around his stomach as he tried to hurry without losing the trail. He didn't know where she was, and he didn't know how long of a head start they had, but he knew—knew—that she wouldn't have just taken off, wouldn't have gone anywhere without telling someone. If nothing else, she never would have been careless enough to just up and abandon the children in her care.
But why would someone have taken off with her? The home was poor, the children didn't come from families of any real means. It wouldn't be worth it for anyone to try to gain anything from kidnapping anyone associated with it . . .
'As if anyone would need a reason to grab her,' his youkai scoffed. 'She's smart, she's gorgeous, she's funny, she's quirky . . . What more reason do they need . . .?'
'I'll kill them,' he growled to himself. 'If they so much as touch a hair on her head, I'll—'
Stopping dead in his tracks, Fai whipped around, eyes flaring wide as Yerik stepped out of the trees to the left. The younger Demyanov looked almost as shocked as Fai was as he hurried over, throwing his arms around his brother. "Y-Yerik?"
Yerik finally stepped back, giving Fai a very thorough once-over as he slowly shook his head. "I've been looking for you!" Yerik exclaimed. "Who took you? Where is she?"
"She? You know about her?" Fai asked, ignoring Yerik's question.
Yerik snorted. "A couple of convenience stores I stopped in . . . Some of the staff remembered you and said you were with a woman. So, who is she?"
Fai gritted his teeth at the reminder of what he had just been doing. "We've got to find her," he said, turning on his heel, setting off after the stranger's scent—after Saori's scent—once more.
"Find who?" Yerik demanded, falling into step beside Fai. "We've got to get you home. You've been missing for—"
"They took Saori," Fai growled, quickening his pace. "I don't know who, but when I figure it out, they're going to die . . ."
"Die? They? What are you talking about?" Yerik demanded. "Who's Saori?"
"She's the one who kidnapped me," Fai snapped, veering off to the right. "This way! Move it, Yerik!"
"Okay, but if this Saori kidnapped you, then why do you want to save her? How do you know she didn't take off willingly with whoever she's with? What makes you think—?"
"She didn't really kidnap me," he corrected, the air of exasperation thick in his tone. "More like . . . she appropriated me."
He could feel Yerik's probing gaze, but he didn't turn to verify it. "She . . . what?"
Waving a hand, Fai kept moving. "Never mind," he grumbled. "Anyway, she'd never have taken off with anyone else without telling someone first, no matter who it was."
"Why are you defending some crazed woman who kidnap—Fai?"
". . . How did she kidnap you?"
Fai grunted. "It was a misunderstanding," he said. "She knocked me out with the van door, and then—"
"Knocked you out? And just how did she manage that?"
"Way to get stuck on the details," Fai grumbled.
Yerik snorted. "Okay, so, you want to go in and rescue the same woman who kidnapped you—"
Yerik rolled his eyes. "Kidnapped you, and then, what?"
That earned him a rather droll scowl, as though he ought to know the answer to that question. "And then, I'll kill whoever thought to take her, in the first place."
"Fai . . ."
"Move it, Yerik! More running, less talking," Fai blasted.
To his relief, his brother actually complied that time. Weaving through the trees, Fai concentrated on Saori's scent. 'She'd better be all right when I get there,' he thought as he pushed himself faster. 'If she isn't . . .'
Scowl darkening as he ground his teeth together, his body a blur of motion, he couldn't control the rage that built, higher and thicker, inside. If they'd hurt her . . .?
'I'll kill them,' he thought. 'Dead.'
"I think that'll do it," Saori said as she peeled off the rubber gloves and pushed her bangs back out of her face.
"And he'll be all right?" Nikolai asked, peering over her shoulder at his unconscious cousin.
She nodded. "The problem was that a bit of the bullet had chipped off and lodged itself against the vein, so his body wasn't able to properly close the wound until it was cleaned out, so, that's why he was bleeding so much for so long. I was able to remove it, so he should be fine now."
Nikolai didn't look entirely convinced, but he did appear to be a little more calm than he had been.
Rubbing her forehead, she sighed when her cell phone chimed. She wasn't surprised to see the text from her uncle, asking her if everything was okay. He had suggested looking for debris that was inhibiting the healing process—anything that didn't look like it belonged there. Between video chatting, pictures, Kichiro-oji-chan's explanations, and a couple Google searches, she'd been able to clean the wound properly. Now, it was up to Pavel's body to regenerate the blood he'd lost and to close the damaged flesh.
She took a minute to text him back, to let him know that it all looked good, before slipping the device into her pocket once more before changing out the gauze pad that she'd covered Pavel's shoulder with. She hadn't taped it into place, though, since she wanted to allow the wound to drain a bit first . . .
Satisfied that he was set, at least for the moment, she turned to face Nikolai with a frown. "Do you know who shot him?" she asked. It was the first time she'd had a chance to do so since he'd explained everything and had brought her here to treat his cousin.
Nikolai dug a beaten-up silver flask from his pocket and downed a healthy swallow before offering it to her. "Who else? Those Kyranyovitch bastards; that's who. Stooping to using guns . . ."
"The Kyranyovitches? And you two are Bershetoyevs . . . "
Nikolai nodded. "They will pay for this. If they want an all-out war, then that's what they'll get."
She frowned since she distinctly remembered Fai mentioning that the two didn't use guns at all . . .
Nikolai jiggled the flask in her direction.
She started to raise a hand to wave him off, but thought better of it. Tipping the flask, she choked and sputtered, shoving it back at him as she wiped her mouth with the back of her free hand. "That's not good," she rasped out, slapping her hand against her chest a few times to chase the liquor down.
"Sorry," he said, though he didn't actually sound sorry, at all.
Saori stared at him for several moments before reaching out, plucking the flask out of Nikolai's slack grip. This time, however, she carefully poured a good shot of it into the wound, ignoring the wolf-youkai's protests. Then she handed it back and frowned as she repacked the area.
"I thought that your feud never involved guns," she said, pushing herself back to her feet, dusting off her hands as she turned her attention to Nikolai once more.
"It never has before," he said, rubbing his hands over his face. "Things have been worse lately, though, so maybe it was just a matter of time . . ."
"Worse?" she echoed, frowning as she crossed her arms over her chest. "How so?"
He shot her a dark scowl. "None of your business," he replied curtly. "Thank you for helping Pavel, but you're an outsider."
She nodded. She supposed she could understand that well enough. Though her family tended to be pretty open with information, there were things—certain things—that no one really talked about. It wasn't that they were forbidden, per se, just kind of avoided simply because of the subject matter.
Flipping her wrist to check her watch, she stifled a sigh as she looked around, scanning the area carefully. They were near a tall rock cliff—sort of a makeshift shelter—where Nikolai had told her he'd left Pavel when the younger wolf couldn't go on. Then he'd set out to try to find some help, but it was just plain, dumb luck that had led him to their campsite. He'd seen her treat Sasha's ankle, and that was why he'd brought her here.
'Yeah, well, that aside, we need to think about getting out of here. They're probably all looking for you now, and no one knows where you are or that you were abducted, in the first place.'
Saori made a face. 'I wasn't abducted, really . . . It's just that he didn't have time to stop and explain everything beforehand; that's all.'
'No, Saori, you were most certainly abducted or do you not remember him, hefting you off your feet, covering your mouth, and racing away with you?'
'He wasn't trying to harm me,' she argued evenly. 'He was just concerned about his cousin, and that's actually pretty admirable.'
Which was true. He'd told her what he needed as he'd sped with her through the forest, but he must have thought that he could move faster than her because he didn't bother to set her down until they were back at the place where Pavel was resting.
Now that the immediate danger had passed, however, she had to get back, and soon—if they hadn't already realized she was missing, and that was a very good possibility.
"If I leave you with gauze and stuff, can you change out the dressing in a couple hours? I really need to get back, and—"
"Can't you stay here till then?" Nikolai asked, turning his formidable scowl on her once more. "What if he starts bleeding again? What if—?"
"He's fine now," Saori said calmly. He should wake up soon. My uncle said that he's unconscious now to let his body heal, to let it regenerate itself. When he wakes up, make sure he drinks water, maybe find something for him to eat."
She started to turn, to leave, but Nikolai caught her arm and yanked her back. "You're not leaving until he wakes up—until I know that he's okay."
Saori bit her lip, stared at his hand, wrapped around her wrist, and she stifled a sigh. Sure, she could probably get away from him without too much of a problem. Too bad she understood completely, just how worried he was about his cousin. Digging her phone out of her pocket once more, she fired a text off to Dmitri, explaining where she was and that she'd be back soon . . .
"The Bershetoyevs!" Fai growled, starting to shoot to his feet from where he and Yerik were hunkered down behind a hedge of bushes where they'd opted to observe the situation for a few minutes. They were far enough away that they were avoiding drawing any notice thus far, and it appeared to be calm enough. Even so, when the wolf-youkai reached out, yanked Saori back over to him again, it was all he could do to not bust right on in and knock the errant man right onto his ass for it.
'Entirely untrue, Fai. You wanted to bust on in there, all guns blazing. Yerik, however, seems to be in possession of far more brains than you are, at the moment.'
'. . . Shut up.'
His youkai snorted in answer.
Yerik grabbed Fai's arm and yanked him back down once more, pinning his brother with a darkened scowl. "What are you doing? You can't just go, charging in there yet. We need to make sure there's no more of them first—need to be sure what we're up against."
"What do you mean? It's a couple of those damned Bershetoyevs—that's who we're up against!" Fai hissed.
Yerik rolled his eyes, shook his head. "Since when do you do anything this hastily?" he countered. "Just what's gotten into you, Fai?"
Fai glowered at his brother, ready to snap at him. "You know, Yerik, the only reason you're with me right now is—"
"Calm down," Yerik hissed, sparing a glance at the people they were trying to hide from. Suddenly, though, he shook his head. "I can't see how that little girl kidnapped you."
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Fai grunted. "I told you, she walloped me with the van hatch, and when I was unconscious, she loaded me into the rickety old van and took off—Did you see the van on your way here? A white one—a white one covered in rust."
"Can't say I did," Yerik replied. "So, she smacked you with the van door? Okay, but why are you still with her, then? And she needs to be behind bars, not running around, scot-free, and certainly not being rescued by the tai-youkai . . ."
"She just wanted me to come here, to meet the children. She wanted to convince me not to defund the orphanage."
"You're going to defund the orphanage? Mother's orphanage? Fai—"
"Not anymore, I'm not," Fai growled. "They're going to reduce staff, and . . . and I'm going to look into trying to find placements for any of the children that I can. Anyway, she was never intending to hurt me."
"So, as long as someone isn't intending harm, then it's all fine?" Yerik challenged.
"Leave it alone, Yerik," Fai stated. "I'm going to go get her back."
"Wait!" Yerik hissed, yanking Fai back once more. "Let's at least take a minute to check the perimeter—make sure there's no one else out here before we go in there."
Fai didn't look like he wanted to agree. Finally, though, he rolled his eyes and nodded curtly. "I'll go this way. You go that way. We'll meet up on that cliff," he said, pointing to indicate the rock formation behind Saori and the Bershetoyevs.
Skirting the central area, Fai ground his teeth together as he carefully vaulted into a high tree to better scan the area.
He sighed. As far as he could tell—as far as he could sense, there were only the two Bershetoyevs and Saori. From his vantage point, however, he could see the one, stretched out on the ground, apparently unconscious. Beside him stood the huge red canvas bag—Saori's first aid kit. The other Bershetoyev was stalking around restlessly, and even across the distance, he could sense the man's nerves, his upset.
And he could smell blood.
It wasn't fresh blood, and it wasn't Saori's. It was, however, enough to give him pause as he narrowed his gaze, trying to make sense of just what was going on.
Launching himself to the next tree, he made himself keep moving. The only real way that he was going to get any answers was to confront them . . .
It didn't take long to finish sweeping his half of the area, but even so, Yerik was already waiting for him at the base of the rock formation, and Fai grimaced as he dropped to the ground. "Well?"
Yerik shrugged. "No one. I take it your side was the same?"
Fai grunted. "Let's go."
"Wait," Yerik said, grabbing Fai's shoulder before the tai-youkai could make his way to the top of the cliff.
Yerik frowned. "Tell me why you're so anxious to rescue this woman."
"We don't have time to—"
"She's fine at the moment. That guy doesn't seem at all interested in hurting her," Yerik pointed out calmly, crossing his arms over his chest to emphasize his point. "We've got time for you to answer me."
Scowling at his brother in such a way that would usually dissuade pursuance of the topic at hand with anyone else, Fai stifled a frustrated growl. Yerik was the only being alive who would dare to ask him something like that, and there was a good chance that the younger Demyanov knew it, too. "I . . . I don't know," he admitted, raking his hands through his hair as he glowered at his sibling.
For some reason, Yerik didn't actually look surprised. "I see."
"You see? What do you see?" Fai challenged.
Yerik didn't smile, but he looked like he might be tempted, and he flicked a hand in blatant dismissal. "Okay, Fai. Let's go save your Saori."
"All right. Now, I think—She's not 'my' anything," he growled, narrowing his glower on his brother.
Yerik did smile. "I apologize, Fai."
Rolling his eyes since Yerik actually sounded like he was just humoring Fai, the tai-youkai ignored him as he scaled the rocks and scooted closer to the edge, peering down at the unsuspecting people below.
By the time Yerik edged in beside him, Fai had decided that the best course might well be to drop down between the pacing youkai and the one who still seemed to be unconscious. "You drop over there," Fai said in a whisper as he leaned toward Yerik and pointed. "I'll go there, and if that one attacks, you grab Saori and get back. Understand?"
Yerik looked like he wanted to argue, but Fai wasn't waiting to debate the plan. A moment later, both of them hopped down, lighting on the ground, moments before Saori's soft gasp echoed in the woods.
He shot her a look that really ought to have quelled her overall enthusiasm. It didn't. with a sharp yelp, she literally threw herself into his arms.
Bershetoyev growled and lunged at him. Fai started to spin to the side, away from the wolf's outstretched claws, but Yerik was faster, shooting forward, grasping the youkai's arm, yanking him forward as his arm stretched out, snapping him in the center of the chest, sending the wolf's body flying back, only to smack hard into the base of a thick fir tree that shuddered and groaned. The impact knocked out Bershetoyev, and he crumpled to the ground with a sudden whoosh of breath.
Saori gasped, her arms dropping away from Fai as she spun on her heel to run over to the fallen wolf. Fai caught her hand and held her back as she spared him a chagrined sort of scowl. "He hurt him!" she exclaimed indignantly.
"Yeah, and he meant to," Fai growled back, late fear, all the worry he'd felt in the last few hours, erupting in a menacing display. "What the hell are you doing here, Saori?"
"His cousin was shot," she blasted back. "He needed help! That's all! And now—"
"He was trying to attack the tai-youkai," Yerik stated. "I don't think—"
"And just who are you?" she snarled, head snapping to the side as she pinned Yerik with a very fierce glower.
Yerik wasn't impressed. "Yerik Demyanov," he said. "You're the one who kidnapped my brother?"
"Appropriated," both she and Fai snapped in unison. Saori's eyebrows shot up as she shifted her gaze back to Fai once more. Fai, for the most part, just grunted and stared at the fallen wolf who still had yet to move.
Yerik rolled his eyes. "Whatever you want to call it," he grumbled as he stomped past them to check on the wolf.
"He wanted me to help his cousin," she repeated with a sigh. "He was shot, like I said. He saw me treat Sasha, so he thought I could help."
"And you didn't have time to let me know this?" Fai growled.
"Well, it kind of happened pretty fast, and he didn't really ask so much as demand . . ."
"He kidnapped you?" Fai demanded.
Saori made a face. "Not really," she said. "I mean, he was just worried about his brother, and I would have helped, either way . . ."
"You really don't have any commons sense at all, do you? I told you this area was dangerous. I told you what was going on around here, and you just go, wandering off with some stranger that you don't even know from Adam, and then—"
"Well, I didn't actually know you from Adam to start with," she pointed out.
He wasn't in the mood for her flip answers, and the narrowed-eyed look he gave her should have told her as much. The infuriating woman smiled at him instead. "We're getting out of here. Yerik!"
"Wait," she blurted, tugging against his hold when he started to stomp away.
She grimaced. "Nikolai wanted me to change Pavel's bandaging," she said. "Just let me—"
"Absolutely not," Fai growled, yanking her back when she tried to head toward the still-unconscious one—Pavel, he guessed.
"It'll just take a minute, and—"
"And I said no!" he thundered.
She gasped, her mouth snapping closed as her eyes flared wide, and just for a moment, she seemed almost—almost—frightened of him, and he gritted his teeth. Hard.
"Just let me check him once more," she said, her tone losing much of the intensity that she'd had as she slowly shook her head, as she cast him what could only be described as an imploring kind of look. "Please."
Against his better judgment, he let go of her, though he did follow her over to the fallen youkai. She made quick work of changing his bandages, in cleaning the wound that looked like it was closing up well enough, and she nodded to herself as she cleaned and redressed it. When she finished that, she took the bag, started to head past him to check on the other, he supposed. He caught her hand and stopped her. "He tried to attack me. He can deal with the headache," Fai insisted.
She looked like she wanted to argue with him, but Yerik strode over before she could. "He's fine. He's breathing. He'll wake up soon enough."
Fai intercepted Saori's look and shook his head. "You heard him. He'll be fine. Now we're getting out of here, so move."
She uttered a sound that was caught somewhere between a growl and a sigh, but she fell into step beside him.
"How did you get out here?" Fai asked over her head.
Yerik dragged his questioning gaze off of Saori to meet his brother's eyes. "I drove. The car's not far from here."
"Good," Fai said.
They continued along in silence for awhile, each of them trying to look at one another without being blatantly obvious about it. Fai intercepted a few rather confused looks from Yerik, but he narrowed his eyes to discourage whatever his brother wanted to say, and this time, it mercifully worked, too, since the very last thing he wanted was to be inundated by the questions that he knew would be forthcoming sooner or later.
"You . . . You came to rescue me . . .?" Saori murmured softly, without looking up at him, breaking the uncomfortable quiet that had fallen. Fai still held onto her hand, but she didn't seem to notice any more than he did.
"Of course, I did," he said with a sigh. "You didn't think I would?"
She shrugged. "I didn't know," she admitted. "I'm sorry to have put you to that trouble. I would have come back when I was finished, though. They . . . They weren't actually dangerous . . ."
"They could have been," Fai told her, but his tone had lost much of his prior irritation. "You could have been in danger—especially you."
Fai snorted, and just for a moment, he forgot that his brother was walking along beside them. "You're a beautiful woman, Saori. That's more than reason enough."
He heard her gasp, but thought nothing of it, increasing his gait as they made their way through the woods . . .