Chapter 2: Hell is Only Ever Three Steps Away

                Uriko Nonomura considered herself a pretty smart girl.  She did well in all her classes (although she didn't care for … disliked … all right, loathed math), learned quickly, and read often.

                But she couldn't figure out Kenji Oogami for the life of her.

                Because of how the desks were usually arranged, Uriko found herself sitting directly behind Kenji in almost all their shared classes, staring at his thick black hair with the odd little cowlick as he hunched over his desk, fiddling with his pen.  She stared at his back blankly and did the same, resting her chin in her hands and putting her elbow on the desk, while the teacher droned on about some historical event that bored the daylights out of her.  Meanwhile, her mind turned to more … immediate problems.

                Kenji Oogami.  A year ago he'd been so badly brainwashed he wouldn't respond to his own name.  She'd unfortunately come across him as 'Bakuryu', and she'd been sorely beaten.  She'd been so mad … but there was something about him that had seemed so terribly sad …

                Her master had helped her get bandaged up, and it wasn't long after that when she'd come scampering towards Busuzima's labs, intent on kicking (and scratching) the mad scientist into the ground, when the ground shook and the building began to crumble … and out strode a young ninja, a slightly older boxer, and an old military man on their shoulders, declaring the labs and Xien Long's whole operation destroyed.

                That was the first time she'd properly met Kenji.  He was pale, sweating, soft-spoken, and adorably shy.  Could she really have resisted his boyish charm?  Or lack thereof?

                But since that time … he'd become an enigma.  Maybe that was because he was so shy half the time … but then he'd suddenly say something that was unbelievably sweet.  Or insightful.  Or occasionally, completely off the wall.  And then he'd lose interest in the conversation altogether, drifting off into his own quiet little world.  He spent a lot of time thinking, from what she could tell – after all, he didn't pay too much attention to her during lunch, although he'd politely nod his head while staring intently at the table top.  Uriko didn't mind … the first time she'd noticed he wasn't paying attention, she'd stopped talking, embarrassed, and Kenji had abruptly said, "Don't stop … I like your voice.  It's melodic."  He had then returned to eating his sandwich as if he hadn't  just said the sweetest compliment Uriko'd ever heard from someone other than her mother.  Besides, he usually paid attention when it was important.  Usually being the key word …

                Uriko was willing to accept that Kenji, with over ten years of ninjitsu practice under his belt, was more perceptive than herself, and sometimes he did see things that she didn't notice … but when he'd suddenly look over her shoulder and stare, intently, at what appeared to be nothing while she was still talking to him – not chattering, actually talking – it was a little unnerving and a lot frustrating.

                Such were the hazards of befriending a slightly paranoid ninja …

                Because as far as she could tell, that's what he was.  Slightly paranoid.  But who could blame him, after the personal hell he'd been through just a year before?

                "Nonomura-san?"

                Uriko jumped slightly at the teacher's voice and got to her feet, red-faced with embarrassment at the knowledge she was about to be caught daydreaming.  "Yes, sensei?"

                Her teacher raised an eyebrow and smiled at her.  "Class is over, Nonomura-san.  Don't you want to go home?"

                Uriko jumped again, realizing the classroom was empty. "Uwah!  I can't believe I completely missed the bell!" she snatched up her books and her backpack and hurried towards the door, vaulting the last row of desks.

                "Don't forget to read chapter six!" her teacher called after her.

*   *   *

                "Kenji, why didn't you tell me the bell had rung?"
                "… I thought you were right behind me."

                That's just a lie, Uriko thought to herself, frustrated.  But she was pretty sure she wouldn't get a straight answer out of him – it was just one of those things Kenji did once in a while, without explanation or reason.  She'd learned to let go of such things.  "Why don't you come over this afternoon?  We can study for the science test, and you wouldn't have to be alone in your house.  Don't you miss your brother?"

                There was a short pause before Kenji put his hands in his pockets and sighed.  "All the time.  But I couldn't go with him this time because of school.  I hope he does all right with his speech."

                "He'll do fine," Uriko said encouragingly.  She felt a wide smile spread over her face.  "He'll put his confidence as a boxer into his words!"

                She watched with satisfaction as a small smile flickered on Kenji's face.  "Yeah …" he said quietly, his gaze losing focus.

                "So, about my offer?" Uriko asked before he could drift off.  "Will you come over?"

                Kenji glanced at her.  "I need to go home to get my books, but I'd love to come over."  He paused.  "Is Alice-san—"

                "I keep telling you, she likes you, Kenji!" Uriko giggled and put her hands on her hips, pretending to be affronted.

                "She smells wary," Kenji muttered.

                Uriko was used to Kenji making statements about how people smelled by now; he was, after all, a mole.  She herself had terrific night vision, even though she was only a half-beast when she transformed thanks to the Tylon Corporation.  "Well, it doesn't matter, she's at the clinic today.  Anyway … can I expect you to come by soon?"

                "Twenty minutes," Kenji promised, but he broke the words off, focusing sharply on a tree and suddenly standing still.  "… Uriko-san?"

                Uriko sensed that this wasn't the time to protest the suffix.  "What?" she asked, glancing at the tree before looking back at Kenji.

                He was silent for a moment more … and then he was suddenly back to normal.  "Be careful, Uriko-san."

                She half-expected that Kenji's paranoia was talking.  "I will," she promised, the same way she always did when Kenji warned her to be careful.

                But Kenji grabbed her arm sharply, his gaze suddenly piercingly sharp.  "I'm serious, Uriko!"

                Uriko stared into his intense eyes and found she could only nod.  "I … I will," she whispered more emphatically.

                Kenji nodded once, curtly, and relaxed.  "I'll be over as soon as I can," he promised before running towards his house.

                Uriko shook her head slowly and headed for her home, smiling, but she found herself glancing at the shadows more often than she ever had before.

*   *   *

                Something was wrong.

                Kenji sprinted home, but as he put his hand on the doorknob to step in, he thought he sensed another zoanthrope – that sixth sense that all zoanthropes had for one another was definitely bothering him.

Yugo wasn't supposed to be home for another couple of days.

Who could be inside?

Slowly, painstakingly, Kenji unlocked the door of his house and turned the knob, his ear pressed to the door.  He heard nothing …

The blood scent hit him like a wave, and for a horrified moment Kenji was certain his brother had come home and been murdered, but he didn't smell Yugo, so … he relaxed slightly – very slightly – and slinked through the doorway, pressing himself against the wall.

"So, Bakuryu … amusing yourself by protecting the half-beast?"

Kenji's heart immediately set a record pace within his chest as a man whom he'd hoped he'd never see again stepped out of the dining room.

"Xien Long …" he whispered, a hundred bad memories flooding him.

I have completed your task, master; what do you wish of me?

"So you remember all that, Bakuryu?" Xien Long seemed quietly impressed, and he raised his eyebrows slightly.

"Don't call me that," Kenji hissed, forcing his body to relax as he took up a loose fighting posture.  "My name is Kenji Oogami!  What do you want?"

Xien Long ignored him, fingering the lapel of his old-style Chinese clothes.  His serene face was the picture of Xin Long's, but the bloody smell about him was unmistakable.  "Are you enjoying your newfound life?  You seem awfully close to the half-beast …"

"Uriko!" Kenji choked out.  "Our names aren't that hard to remember, you bastard!  Get out of my house!"

"Oh, you don't want me to leave just like that," the Chinese clone said coolly.  "We have things to discuss!"

Kenji's mind was whirling; first and foremost on his thoughts was Uriko.  What was happening at the Nonomura household?  Was Uriko being attacked, too?  But for the discipline of Kato Ryuu, Kenji's thoughts would have been nothing but a jumbled mess of terror.

He took a slow, deep breath, struggling to maintain his calm.  "I have nothing to discuss with you.  Get out of my house, Xien Long."

If Xien Long was having fun, he hid it well as he shook his head, the slightest smile flickering on his face.  "It's all right, Bakuryu … I have no interest in you at this time.  Although it has come to my attention that you were a significant … difficulty for my employees last night."

"It was you, then!" Kenji snapped.  "What do you want with Uriko!?"

"Now you want to talk?  Make up your mind," Xien smirked.  With a sudden movement, he crossed the distance between Kenji and himself and pressed his hand against Kenji's side – his wounded side – grabbing it and rubbing his fingers against it.  "So, it was you," he said in mockery as Kenji gasped and trembled with pain.  "Been roof-hopping these last few nights, mole?  I can't have that …" His fingers dove for Kenji's throat, to jab him there sharply enough to make Kenji gag.

Startled, pained, and caught off-guard, Kenji did the first thing he could think of – the Enmaku Dan, a move so swift that he appeared to teleport from one side of his opponent to the other, leaving a shower of illusionary leaves and a log in his wake.  He lashed out, kicking at Xien Long's back and forcing him to stumble away several paces.  "You touch her, I'll—" Kenji began – but he wasn't exactly sure what he'd do.  He was at a disadvantage with his wounded side, and Xien Long was a formidable opponent even when Kenji was in optimum health.

"You're too late, anyway," Xien Long said, turning and taking up his own relaxed fighting pose as if Kenji hadn't kicked him at all.  "I sent a few of my employees to her home … her style is still incomplete, despite my … brother's teaching.  She won't last long."

Kenji felt a stinging sensation pinprick his eyes, and he wasn't entirely sure why he was driven as far as to tears at the thought of Uriko being taken.  He was almost as upset as he was furious.  "Why!?" he demanded, his voice wavering in a disturbing way.

"…" Xien considered Kenji for a long moment.  "Think about for just a little while … Bakuryu."  He attacked.

Kenji fought through the fog that represented his thoughts and managed another Enmaku Dan, putting him directly in front of the door again.  He yanked the door open and leapt towards the roof, every breath wracking his abused side.

Xien Long could wait; his hint was yet another terrifying confirmation.

Busuzima liked his experiments, but Xien Long liked his subjects.  And if Uriko fell into Xien's hands … she would be brainwashed into a killing machine, just like Bakuryu.

"Do you think you'll escape that easily?" called that awful voice from behind him.

Kenji closed his eyes for an instant, taxing himself to the limit as he ran across the roofs and jumped between them.

He had to get to Uriko … he just hoped he wasn't merely bringing more trouble along with him.

*   *   *

sensei – 'teacher'

Nonomura-san – translates sort of as 'Miss Nonomura'.  Appropriate way to speak to a colleague or an acquaintance.

Author's Notes:  … I am very mean to Kenji.  Bah.  Deal.  *smirk*

Okay, don't hit me over the head for the way that Uriko thinks about Kenji.  Kenji is a wary kid in this story; is it any sort of surprise he seems a little paranoid to a carefree girl like Uriko?  Now mind you, she took his warning very seriously, as you will see in the next chapter … and good thing, too!  *evil cackle*

I don't know what Xien Long is like, but I think of him as excessively evil.  I meant for he and Kenji to have a really cool fight scene in this chapter, but I personally think Kenji's too clever for that when Uriko's at stake.  When they do fight … the prognosis isn't good for Kenji.  *sighs* Don't worry, though, Kenji'll get his chance to whip Xien's sorry butt!

*proud of herself*  Kenji only swore once!  I kept expecting bad words to pop out of his mouth … but it turned out okay.

Um … feedback is Good.

Oh – next chapter—

Uriko comes home to a mess not unlike Kenji's.  Kenji gets to her house, but he might be too late – and who is that, coming in the thick of the battle?  Wait and see …

Reviews, please!  =D

~~Vikki