Disclaimer: Yadda, yadda, yadda.... If these characters WERE mine, by Yiminy, I'd sure be a lot richer than I am. They were actually created by Kazuhiro Fujito, who should make a lot of money off of them if there's any justice. Ummmmm, anyway.... please REVIEW! This is my first fic in SEVENTEEN YEARS (Really! except for my fansub songfics, also on this archive, which (hint, hint) could ALSO do with a review or two. How can you call yourselves Otakutachi without reviewing? Be Ashamed! You are but Mere Fanboys). I need the critiques! To me, this is a series that should've gone more places than it did; my story happens about two years after Ushio freed Tora. He's about seventeen now. So, without further ado...........

Ushio & Tora: The Jaws That Bite, the Claws That Catch
Chapter 1 of 5
By Ysabet

Cut to the chase: A wild run across rooftops, pursuing something with scales and more legs than anything should have. Wild mane streaming across his back, wild shadow streaking beneath him in a broken sketch of speed, he scrabbled for a hold on the roof-slates, the tiles shattering beneath his claws-----

His... claws....... ?

---- and Ushio awoke, heart slamming against his ribs in terror. He could feel a cold sheen of sweat covering his skin like a slick of ice; as his pulse slowly calmed, he realized that he had thrown the covers off during his nightmare. *Idiot*, he thought, *no wonder you're cold.* Shivering, he pulled the sheet up over his bare chest and lay there, staring at the ceiling above his bed.

Three times now. Three times he had woken up shaking from the same dream, or at least one pretty much like it; in the last one, Ushio hadn't been running-he'd been flying. But the basics were the same: hunting in the shape of a monster....... Ushio sighed as his muscles began to relax at last-he'd been knotted up like a rope. Shit; he was going to start the day feeling like he hadn't slept at all. He stretched like a cat, curling his toes at the end of the bed in a habit he had never been able to break; growing up a little shorter than his friends had always made him wish for a little more height (and though he knew stretching wouldn't help, well.....). His knuckles brushed against the spear leaning against the side of his bed; without looking, he wrapped his fingers around the haft and felt the warm, faint rush of power running through his weapon. *That* feeling the temple boy was very familiar with, like the sensation you got when you held onto a pipe with water passing swiftly through it-the Kemono No Yari was a lot more than it seemed to be. He sighed.... so was he, and that was the problem. The dreams had him worried. So, being Ushio, he decided abruptly to make the matter better by not thinking about it anymore. Summer break, no school, and *no worries*, right? Right.

Breakfast. He stretched one more time, then hauled his butt into the kitchen in search of something to eat.

"Dad?" Ushio asked the empty room. Oh yeah-he'd said something late last night about going to visit some old temple buddies over by Atsugi. Typical, really. He mooched around the kitchen, poking into cabinets and the fridge, settling for a mixed batch of yesterday's leftover pizza and some sweet bean-paste buns that his dad had somehow missed. *Nothing like a balanced meal* thought Ushio-and, yeah, this was *definitely* 'nothing like a balanced meal'. Oh well. He put a pot of coffee on and plopped down on a cushion by the window to eat and stare out at the morning, wondering idly all the while where Tora was. Even after two years of-well, Ushio supposed you could call it "partnership"-he still wasn't sure just where the bakemono slept. Or even how *much* he slept; maybe 500 years of enforced darkness and silence had filled up his sleep quota, or something like that? There HAD been that time that Tora had rolled off the roof in the middle of the night, demolishing the stairs..... So he did sleep sometimes; Ushio had even offered the living room rug to him once or twice, but the monster seemed uneasy with walls around him. That trapped-under-a-temple thing again, maybe. Two years of mutual monster-fighting hadn't given Ushio many insights into Tora's history-the one sure way to rouse the bakemono's fury was to ask *any* question about his past, or about the Kemono No Yari's, or (for that matter) anything to do with the whole Famous-Samurai-Ancestor-And-Beast-Spear thingamajig at all. Ask just one question and the sparks would *really* fly-not just figuratively, either. When a bakemono can throw lighting, pissing it off could be considered a BAD idea......

Speak of the devil-a large burnt-orange hand reached swiftly through the open window and speared a bean-paste bun with a single claw, snatching it back just in time to miss getting stabbed by a chopstick. The bakemono's bark of laughter startled the birds from off the rafters, sending shadows across the great, striped face just to one side of the window. "Stupid brat-if I'd been an oni, I could have gutted you like a fish" Tora growled, tossing the bun into his jaws and swallowing it in a single bite. The monster watched the flight of the birds for a moment, then caught the scent of the coffee that was just now finishing brewing in the kitchen. Tora LOVED coffee; it was one of the few modern inventions that he wholeheartedly approved of (in his own snarling way). With a single leap he slipped through the substance of the wall as if it were mist, passing his 'partner' and heading into the kitchen. Ushio watched resignedly as the bakemono upended the pot, drinking his breakfast black, bitter and boiling hot straight from the coffeemaker. Ugh. Ushio had never really been able to develop any kind of fondness for coffee-just as well, under the circumstances. The monster sighed in contentment and then turned his silver, pupil-less eyes back towards the bean-paste buns..... or where they had been a moment ago, anyway; Ushio was quick, too.

"Hey, brat-why the Spear? Planning to kill monsters before breakfast?" the bakemono asked in his deep, raspy voice. Licking his fingers, Ushio stared at him-and only then realized that he had brought the Spear with him from his bedroom. "Uhhhhh....." Maybe he needed some of that coffee too. The Spear was leaning against the wall beside him; Ushio had no memory of bringing it in, but there it was, all seven feet of it. The bakemono stared back, then looked at the Spear, and then back at him, and said nothing. In fact, he said nothing so *loudly* that Ushio began to worry-if there was one thing he had learned in the last few years, it was that most bakemonotachi seemed to be universally mouthy. "What's the problem? I guess I just carried it in with me. So?" he snorted. He reached across to the Spear and pulled it down across his lap for a quick inspection; it looked pretty much as it always had, long and sharp and oddly lightweight, with no appreciable balance-point at all. You could grasp it just about anywhere-or at least you could if you were Ushio. No-one else seemed to have much chance of using it effectively; he was the Bearer of the Beast Spear, and that was that.

Tora stared for a moment more, then settled down against the couch in a great sprawl; the springs creaked against his weight. He glanced sidelong once more at Ushio and growled softly to himself; there were words in the growl, but the temple boy couldn't quite make them out. The bakemono spoke a number of languages (including a variant of the local dialect that was so old and odd that probably *no-one* still living could understand it) and could curse fluently in each one; he was hard enough to understand at the best of times, and this did NOT help. Ushio ignored him as best he could, stretched one last time, and headed out to the yard to do a little practice. Carrying the Spear, of course. Behind him, he heard Tora yawn a huge, feline yawn.

He was resting on one of the benches in the shade of the practice yard, sticky with sweat. Sunlight fell in slanting rays to illuminate the patches of scrubby grass and bare dirt that made up the yard before him; motes of dust danced in the morning light and made hypnotic patterns through Ushio's half-closed eyes. So warm.... so easy to just close the eyes and drift for a few minutes. The practice session had been strenuous and he could take it easy for a bit; he really hadn't slept well lately, what with those damn dreams...damned dream.... and, dreaming, Ushio watched the great, black beast as it slipped through the long meadow grass down by the river with its silver claws glinting as it padded softly towards where he stood on the opposite bank. It stepped into the shallows with a faint splash and paused, glancing up at him through slanting golden eyes..... His eyes shot open; he was gripping the spear so hard it hurt. "What the hell was THAT?" he said out loud. Ushio rubbed sweat out of his eyes and a hot breath blew against his face smelling of musk and coffee. Tora crouched to one side of the bench, staring, staring, his silver eyes half-lidded like the beast in the temple boy's dream. He sat very still, a huge demon-statue close enough to touch-should you be so foolish as to try; tendrils of his mane drifted around him in the faint breeze. Ushio froze; he and Tora had worked out their "difficulties" (the ones dealing with Tora's constant urge to eat him alive, anyway) long enough ago that he was no longer afraid to be so close to the monster, but there was still that constraint between the two of them borne of the gap between human and bakemono. Sometimes, when the power of the Spear held him, the gap disappeared entirely-what Ushio became while bound to the Kemono No Yari was hardly human, after all. But sitting here, with that great, grim face so close to his own, and with the dream so fresh in his mind-----

Tora reached out with a clawed forefinger and touched Ushio's forehead, just above the eyes; he drew the claw upwards to his hairline, barely touching the skin. The temple boy did not dare to move.... Those claws were nearly as long as one of his own fingers. The monster sat back on his haunches and dropped his hand to his side. "That'll be white..." Tora hissed softly. For a moment, the boy and the ancient monster were utterly still; then Tora blinked once, turned away and leaped upwards to land on his favorite perch: the old temple's rooftop.

Released from his brief paralysis, Ushio shot to his feet. He had had *enough*. "WHAT?" he shouted. "WHAT'L be white?!? What are you TALKING about, Tora?... You're PISSING ME OFF!" But the bakemono (most uncharacteristically) only looked away, out over the treetops towards the mountains. "Hrrrrrrrrrrr. Watch it, brat. You're getting close." That was too much. Stiff-legged, Ushio stalked back inside the house to *his* favorite perch: the windowsill of his bedroom. He needed to think. Unnoticed, his knuckles clenched white around the haft of the Spear; unnoticed, Tora watched him go, eyes slitted against the sun.

Sketches and half-finished watercolors fluttered in the slight breeze blowing through the open window as Ushio contemplated the morning's odd events. For Tora to show even the slightest concern for his 'partner' in any fashion could only be considered bizaare in the extreme. Oh, yeah, they fought together against common enemies, they had saved each other's asses multiple times; they even managed to live in the same place without one being eaten or the other impaled. But (thought Ushio, sitting in the angle of his bedroom window), you couldn't actually call the two of them the best of friends, could you? Comrades, maybe. He, after all, was a human being, most of the time anyway, and the Bearer of the Beast Spear the rest of the time; his business was hunting and killing monsters. Tora was-well, Tora was Tora: A self-professed (former) eater of humans, a monstrous clawed-and-fanged carnivore with barely a scrap of conscience and a truly horrible temper, matching his love of destruction and utter, ruthless delight in battle.

Sometimes Ushio wondered just what Tora had done to become something so terrible.

And that led to further thoughts, about the dreams, and why he was having them. The obvious answer (too much monster-chasing, co-habitation with a bakemono, and the normal hormones of a 17-year-old male) just didn't seem to fit. And what the hell was that all about with the Spear? He really couldn't seem to put it down for long; even now, here it was, clasped against the crook of his shoulder. He smoothed the ragged red silk of its streamers between his fingers; ancient as they were, they never seemed to show bloodstains or any other signs of wear. For that matter, the haft never took a scratch, the point never needed sharpening; the Kemo No Yari seemed to be suspended within the essential shape of a single moment in time. It could not be broken, blunted or destroyed; a pity the same couldn't be said for its Bearer. Hmmmm. Absently Ushio ran his hands up the length of either forearm, feeling the slight ridges of scar tissue... *Let's see: those were from that guy Hyou's knives, and that burn scar came from that fire-oni's whip... the knot on my left elbow was from when I slid off Tora's back and landed on my butt on the rocks- dammit; he got a good laugh at my expense there, didn't he?* The bakemono had been a lot more savage then, and the phrase "my meal" had cropped up fairly often in regards to Ushio's ultimate fate. *Fat chance of that-* he thought. Ushio ran his thumb across the side of his throat. That scar there, that was from the bite of some sort of... fish-demon, wasn't it? And of course, there was the thin line across his forehead; Tora had almost gotten him-that was from the first few minutes of their first encounter below the old temple. *Stupid bakemono-if he had killed me, who would've pulled out the Spear?* But if the monster had been just a little quicker.... Ushio could still remember the look of naked murder in his eyes.

He ran his thumb across the faint scar again. You had to give Tora credit for one thing, though: After that first meeting he had never tried to lie to Ushio again-if he meant harm, you knew it. But that first time, the bakemono had been desperate for freedom and would've said anything, done anything to break away from the pain of the Spear and the darkness of his prison. And, thought Ushio, he had, really - hadn't he? The beast had hardly been inclined to help a human in any way, at least at first; but now..... A bakemono was a bakemono--- but, Ushio thought to himself, maybe Tora wasn't really so bad. His fingers brushed against another scar, running beneath the skin from just above his eyes back onto his scalp. That one, now-- Ushio couldn't really remember the moment he got the wound, but he knew that Death had surely placed a hand on his shoulder that day. He had been battling a sickle-weasle, who had split his skull wide open. Why had he lived at all? That had been Tora's doing, much to his shock; the beast had bargained with another of the kamaitachi for his life. And that was the strangest thing of all..... He supposed that it was then that things had started to change between the ancient monster and the temple boy, and the 'partnership' between them had truly begun. Things had slowly settled down under a cautious truce, which had gradually become something more permanent and stable. Maybe even.... Comfortable? Good? There had been moments........... Sometimes it was enough to have someone around with the same common ground and frame of reference as yourself. After all, he couldn't exactly talk about this side of his life with his sempai at school, could he? Tora.... was his only sempai.

His fingers froze as they brushed the ridge of scar again; just what had Tora said? *"That'll be white"*..... The bakemono's claw had traced the mark very precisely. What the hell did he mean? Shit. White? It wasn't really visible - the healing ointment that had saved Ushio's life had erased all outward traces of the wound. Only the calcerous line remained to remind him of a moment when his life had lain in Tora's hands. White?

Too much thinking. Time to go for a walk. He thumped down the stairs and was out the door and across the yard in a few moments. From the roof Tora watched him go, tail twitching. The bakemono flexed his claws, stood and stretched his length across the warm tiles. Then (like the Cheshire Cat but without the grin) he faded from sight.

The river was running high today. From the embankment where Ushio walked he could see the bridge nearby, lines of cars rushing back and forth like small, beeping toys. A few early sunbathers were out, and he spent a few pleasant minutes admiring the view. This led to even more pleasant reveries about how Asako had changed over the past year or so from a thin slip of a girl to willowy grace (and a few more curves than Ushio had ever believed possible). Changes... Mayuko had grown a little too; slighter even than Asako, she would never be, well, voluptuous. But her face was now that of a young woman, not a child, and those huge young-old eyes had been drawing their own share of admirers. Not Ushio, though; Mayuko was too close, too much like a sister for that sort of thing. Asako, now...... *She sure looks better in a bathing suit than she used to* he thought, watching the water ripple past. *Wonder how she'd look without one......* She'd sure pop him one if he said *that* in front of her face! She had been a little nicer to him lately, though, much to her father's glee -- one of these days the old man was going to make one smart-assed crack too many and Asako was going to put him into the hospital. Ushio considered the prospect and grinned to himself; he had to admit it, the guy was right about his daughter's looks. Asako was really turning out to be something. Yeah. Not too bad at all-and she knew about Tora, too. Mayuko had been the first of the two girls to meet him back during that fight with the Gamin, but it had not been too long afterwards when Asako had encountered the bakemono too. All in all (thought Ushio, tossing a pebble into the water) she had taken it pretty well. The monster had seemed to be amused by her fierceness. On the other hand, it had been several days before she had stopped being angry at the temple boy for not telling her about him immediately. "Idiot" he said out loud, earning a startled look from a lone passerby.

He turned a little to one side of the path and slid down the embankment towards the river. The bushes below parted to show a thin, narrow path; this went back a little ways to his own secret place, a small clearing at the river's edge just made for thinking about things, or about nothing. Just - his place, that was all. A boulder on the shore made a fine seat, and he propped the Spear against it as he sat down. .......DAMmit!! He had brought the Spear along AGAIN- and he hadn't even noticed! Maybe that was why that guy he had just passed had looked at him so strangely.

Fine. Enough. Angrily, Ushio slid off the boulder and tossed the Kemon No Yari across the clearing; it landed point-down on the riverbank a few yards away. "You-what's your problem?" he addressed the weapon. "Isn't it enough that you change my life, make me into a killer, and even turn me into sort of an animal? Now you've got to be with me ALL the time? Hai, Spear, that's too much!" He looked away, a little embarrassed to be talking to a stick with a pointy end. "If I have to carry you like this, at least let me know why...." And Ushio stepped forward, reaching out to place his hands on the haft. The Spear never spoke in words, exactly - but its bearer understood well enough whatever it wanted to say. He usually addressed it with a certain amount of respect and circumspection. It was very old, had saved his and Tora's skin many times, and had an air of "presence" about it that could not be ignored. But... He was annoyed. This was ridiculous!

His fingers slid around the haft, and he felt the warm, spreading rush of the Spear's aura beginning to permeate his mind and body. A great stillness seemed to flow outwards directly from the ancient wood into his thoughts, bearing with it a sense of age and - affection? He could never quite make up his mind about that.... Ushio sighed as his anger ebbed away. From the spirit that now brushed lightly across his soul he caught a faint feeling of curiosity and concern; something was wrong... but something was right, too, correct and in its proper place. The Bearer and the Spear should be together, should be one; that was the way of things under heaven. Weapon and warrior were the same, warring together against claw and fang, dancers partnering each other in a dance of bladeflash and spilled blood..... But, thought Ushio, why *all* of the time? And what about his future? Would he do this, just this, for the rest of his life? Probably, however long that might be. His ancestor's war had ended when he took down Tora/Nagitobimaru, and he had then settled down and sired offspring to carry on the line. Ushio hadn't really thought much beyond the moment (he was, after all, only seventeen), but he supposed that he might someday want to do something other than kill bakemonotachi. But the Spear responded: this was his life. The hunt, the battle, the victory...... even Tora was part of it, a necessary counterweight in the balance of Spear and Spearbearer. The rush of power through the ancient weapon intensified; Ushio shivered. Sometimes the spirit within the Kemono No Yari was too strong, way too strong - it didn't have to deal with anything but being a spear, after all; he had too many hands on his time. He had to be a student, his father's son, a growing young man, a friend to his friends, a maybe-friend to a man-eating monster as well as some sort of Mystical Samurai Animal too. Being a 2,000-year-old living weapon was simple in comparison. His hands slid up, gripping tightly; he leaned into the haft, resting his forehead against the wood... Let it go, whispered the soul within the Spear.... Don't fear the dreams, they aren't real, don't fight the changes that come, the real ones, the necessary ones. It's time; just let it happen..... Ushio closed his eyes. He could feel the comfort flowing from the Spear, encircling his spirit, wrapping him in peace; sometimes it was like this. Inevitability, a sense of fate, of patterns developing - it infused his soul and soothed the restlessness. He sighed.

----- and his eyes shot open in shock as something grabbed his ankle and yanked HARD! His hands lost their grip on the Spear as he slid on the slippery grass and landed, wham! on the damp riverbank. The cold grip pulled him halfway into the river before he could begin to catch hold of anything better than a bush; Ushio flailed about for a handhold, as mud, weeds and water obscured his view of his assailant. He scraped painfully across the rocks at the river's edge, managing to heave a fist-sized chunk towards the direction of his feet; an angry hiss told him that his aim had been at least partially true, and he got his first glimpse of his attacker.

Slimy green, fish-belly white - a skeletal face dominated by pale, bulging eyes and lipless teeth, overhung with pallid vines of hair.... But it was STRONG! The creature latched onto both of his ankles this time with long-fingered hands, digging its claws into his flesh. He shouted in pain and anger and lashed out at the slimy thing, battering it with his fists as hard as he could- but to no avail. If anything, it dug in harder; water and mud splashed around them both as they rolled at the river's edge. As blood from his lacerations began to spatter the weeds, Ushio changed tactics and clawed at the creature's face, stabbing with stiffened fingers into its left eye. It screamed, high and thin--- its grip loosened--- and then the strong, skeletal fingers slipped a little from one ankle! Ushio began to bludgeon its chest and face with his feet, like a cat kicking a rat to death. Still sliding down the bank, he scrabbled behind him for a grip; and then he *reached*, with both mind and his one free hand for the Spear, the Spear, the SPEAR----

It came to him, smacking into his outstretched hand eagerly as any warrior out for blood, and then the Change took him:

*****Almost-pain blotting out reality for a timeless moment of lightning! along the spine/hard, strong, animal rush of adrenaline burning without consuming/fire through slitted beast-eyes glowing/ghost-shadows of other Spearbearers' memories colliding with Ushio-that-was to remake him into Ushio-Spearbearer-that-is/form melding with the Shape, yes the Shape from the past, the *real* Shape/long hair flowing, sharp-toothed weapon-body unsheathed..... Almost it hurt too much to bear, almost he could bear it too much for it to hurt-----*****

----- done; with a roar he swept the Spear around in a foreshortened arc to stab at the creature's face (knowing, as always, that the endless moments of the Change had really only lasted a second or so. Just as well, too). The slimy thing yowled and ducked; Ushio shouted again and brought the butt of the Spear around against its head. It rocked with his blow, releasing its grip at last; with one hand clapped against the remains of its eye, it screamed in fury and fear into his face, then slid backwards away into the river. Ushio bared his sharp teeth and loudly snarled his own wordless comment at the sight of The Prey getting away; he lunged forward into the water and grabbed at the creature's slippery torso, and registered an interesting fact: This Was A Female. His eyes widened at the sight of the ugly, raddled dugs on his opponents's chest--- and it/she took that moment of surprise to backhand him across his face, THWACK!!. Stunned, he fell back with a splash, wiping his soaked mass of hair from his eyes and looking up only to see the *swiftly* approaching sight of a large rock coming into view; Ushio ducked, and-------- lights out........


End of Chapter 1 of 5