The Jaws That Bite, the Claws That Catch
Chapter VI of VI
By Ysabet


Imagine a bell made of iron ringing inside spheres of fractured crystal; imagine that tone shivering its way up through flesh and bone, through the living lightning-storm of nerve and synapse. Imagine the Kemono No Yari calling to its bearer.

The wind whispered across the marsh grass, rippling the brackish water of the canals; every bird was silent--- no other sound broke the quiet that had settled over the afternoon landscape but the scrape of reed against reed.

Except one: If you listened carefully, you could hear the faint sound of flies buzzing on the stained earth behind two bakemonotachi and one human woman.

Ushio stood rooted to the spot; Tora was staring past him with teeth ever-so-slightly bared, sharp tips showing. His silver eyes narrowed against the westering sun and his tail twitched in quick, nervous flicks; however, when he spoke, the monster's tone was at its most casual.

"Ahhhhhhrrrrrrrr......... we arrived to find the mistress of the house gone. Should we come back some other time, then?"

Ushio turned slowly, slowly in place; behind him, no more than eight or nine meters away, crouched the water youkai in a stand of reeds. If possible, she was uglier than he remembered her to be: unselfconsciously naked, slimy green-white, her withered dugs hanging like empty leather sacks against her skinny ribs. One eyelid was shrunken in her pallid face but the other eye shone like a baleful moon deep in its socket. She brought long talons up to comb through the wet tendrils of her scraggly hair, smiling and displaying a disturbing number of needle-like yellowed teeth; the motion drew the Spearbearer's eyes.

Those talons had killed his human self. Or very nearly.

And now that he got a better look at them, he could see why. They hooked back onto themselves, like edged fish-hooks or jointing knives. No wonder they had torn-------- *Oh, God........*

He could feel Mayuko flattening herself against his back as instinct took over, the instinct of prey confronted with a predator. His own instincts were a little confused; after all, he had *been* prey, but now..... The water-youkai's scent, though; that wasn't confusing at all: blood and fishscales, cold water and carrion--- it made the Spearbearer's lips draw back, made his own talons twitch and curl inwards to press against his black palms untile the blood ran.

She answered Tora then, and her voice was cold and hissing. "Sssssooooo..... At lassst sssome of the localsss have deigned to visssit. Sssshould I have provided refressshhments, Creature? Or have you brought your own? How very nicssssssse." She laughed, single eye flashing cold; if a snake could laugh, thought Ushio, it would sound like that. Her words were oddly accented, all loose and liquid with rolling consonants and slurred vowels.

Mayuko was shaking; Ushio could hardly blame her. He could feel a tremor arising from deep within his own body as well, but not from fear, not really. It had something to do with the faint red mist that was slowly ghosting across his vision, something to do with the way his fur was beginning to bristle and how his heart was beginning to pound.....

Tora moved up, stepping carefully on the bloodstained mud to stand (rather casually) beside Ushio. "Ahhhh, no, this one is not for eating. Not today, anyway. She is something of a pet for myself and my kin. Useful; humans can be that way on occasion." He spoke calmly, indeed courteously for Tora. *Kin?..... I guess he means me* thought Ushio grimly, turning a little to one side so that Mayuko was behind both of their backs. She cautiously slid down to rest her feet on the mud, still gripping Ushio's black mane tightly for comfort.

"A..... *pet*? The water-youkai said the word curiously and without much comprehension. She stepped from the brackish water to the shore, dragging something limp behind her.

A child.

And either unconscious or dead. A little boy, perhaps eight years old or so from what Ushio could see. His black hair hung dripping and disheveled over a pale, scratched face and his clothes were torn and muddy. One hand lay outstretched pathetically beside his attacker's feet, fingers curled. *Ohhhh.... shit....*

It could've been any little boy, he thought numbly; it could've been him.

The river-hag dropped her toy to the mud and stepped a little closer, eyeing what she could see of Mayuko speculatively with her one good eye. "I have eaten young maidensss before, but thisssss" and she waved towards the still form at her feet "is my chosssen food. But I have never been ssso delicate that I would turn down sssuch an offering." She chuckled thinly; the sound was enough to make Ushio's teeth clench...... Ohhhh, *how* he ached to sink those teeth into her! Human reason seemed very far away right now--- and he found that he really didn't care, hell no, not at all. Not if he could just reach her with his teeth..... and his claws.....

Tora edged a little closer; now his shoulder brushed against the Spearbearer's. "Ahhhr. An interesting choice of words..... 'an offering.' Are you a goddess or a demon, to have been given offerings in the past?" His eyes narrowed a little; Tora seemed to be thinking hard.

The hag grinned at them, a death's-head grin full of needles. "And how persssceptive you are, Creature! Yesssss..... Oncssse upon a time I wasss called a goddesssss...... and humansssss fed me my chosssen meat! They threw fat animalssss and tender children to me in my river, back in old Eire where I lived then. But... the river isss foul now, too foul even for me; ssso I have traveled about. I have hunted for a sssuitable territory for myssself." She waved a handful of knives towards the canals. "Thissssss placssssse..... It will do."

"Or--- do you have a *difficulty* with that, Creature?" And she hissed long and low between sharp teeth, still smiling.

Tora simply looked at her; but Ushio could feel him beginning to crouch a little lower, feel the great body beginning to coil and tense where it brushed against his. Again, though, when he spoke his voice was mild. "Of territory there is plenty in this land; the humans no longer think such as we real anymore--- would you believe it? Hhhrrrrrhh, but bakemonotachi here are not..... fond of sharing territory with others. You would be wise to seek another place." And his claws unsheathed, slowly, slowly.....

The water-youkai spat on the mud. I do NOT choossssse to look elsssewhere! I take sssuch asss I find, asss I will! Little Creature....." she looked disdainfully up at Tora's huge bulk, ".....you are nothing to me, nor isss you litter-mate there....." and she flicked cold eyes towards Ushio, who was breathing a little harder. The hag stopped for a moment, a shade of annoyance passing across her pallid face.

"Sssssssss..... Now that I get a better look at you both, there isss sssomething *familiar* about you each and all. I wonder now, Creature..... Did you *attack* me the other night? I recall sssomething like you whossse meal I nearly ate, back on the river'sss bank; foolisssh as *you* it wasss, to fight me in my element."

"And *you*, Black One. Jussst what isss that thing, there on your back? Ssssss. It ssstinksss of blood and pain for lessssssser youkai than I." She was staring narrowly at the Spear.

The Kemono No Yari's cry was ringing painfully through Ushio's blood; he slipped the Spear down from its temporary sheath and smiled at the river-hag with all of his teeth. "Would you like to see it? I can..... *show* you, if you'd like." His own voice seemed oddly distant in his ears, absurdly calm. As the Spear rested in his grip, he began to feel..... something strange, coming on like the passing of wind through his fur..... something familiar.....

Oh. he hadn't considered what the Change would be like NOW-----

**********and it began, rushing cold as rivers, hot as fire in his flesh/ flesh into blood into bone, roaring through/ a breath of chill lightning crackling from claw to brow/ from sharp tooth to tail-tip/ and the soul within the Spear whispering Change? Change? Already Changed/ already changed/ wait/ wait/ wait.....**********

.......... and Ushio could feel the thunder of power within the Spear hesitating, holding back, holding, biding its time.

(For an appalled second, he thought that it was because of his new state; but no, not that. There was still that same caress of energy that always came with the Change, that moment of maybe-affection, still there; the Spear hadn't forsaken him).

In the meantime..... Ushio dropped the Spear low and held it at an angle, haft against his body and butt braced against the mud. He grinned again at the water-youkai, teeth shining. "C'mere; I'll show you what this is, and what it can *do*....."

She watched the point as it dropped, following it with a baleful glare. "Sss. I think not. That thing----- that isss an *abomination* to sssuch as we. It ssssshinessssssssss-----" her words trailed off into a lizard-like hiss, and Ushio felt the fur along his spine rising, his tail lashing back and forth. Beside him Tora said very softly "..... This one is more dangerous than I had thought..... She will die, but she may die hard....."

"Torrrraaaaaa------" the Spearbearer snarled (he was finding it hard to keep language; a growl seemed to be getting in the way). "----- she owes me, she *killed* me and I'm going to GET herrrrrrrr-----"

The orange bakemono grinned sideways at him, eyes on fire, fur bristling; "RRRrrrrrrrrrrr. Yesssssss..... But Brat----- be bakemono, not human. Remember, Brat! Remember!!"

And he turned back to the water-youkai, who was regarding them both coldly. "You, water-bitch. This is OUR territory. I have spoken to you with my voice; shall I speak with my teeth?"

Her answer was hissing laughter; she crouched low and sprang.
***************************

Mayuko stumbled back away from her companions as they both roared with one terrible voice and leaped forward like a charge of lions; this was no place for her to be in, she wasn't a fighter! What was she doing here, anyway? Why had she wanted to come with Ushio-kun so badly?!? God, she was so stupid---! She had to get away, get safe----- WHY had she so wanted to come?!?

.....and then she saw the hand of the pathetic little child-body twitch, and she knew: the boy was still alive.

That was why she had to be here.

She tripped backwards over a bush, stumbled, recovered; crouching in the little cover it offered, Mayuko watched horrified as the green, slimy woman sprang past her two friends, claws tearing; God, she was so fast!! Smaller, so much smaller, you wouldn't think she had a chance, but she was mercury-quick and reached back to slash across Tora's shoulder as she passed him; he snarled in pain and snapped with wide jaws, just missing a finger. Ushio-kun spun in his charge, mane wild in a black arc about him----- he threw himself towards her, Spear and claws ready to rend! But the youkai ducked the Spear's thrust, just missing his face with a swipe of living knives. The sound of frustrated rage the Spearbearer made was terrible to hear.

But Mayuko couldn't think about that; she would have to trust that her two friends would take care of themselves. She had to reach the boy..... He was lying a little behind the fearful storm of claws and long limbs, a heap of mud and pale skin; maybe if she crept around to the side..... But she would have to pass behind that gruesome, noxious nest, through the bones and tatters of cloth. Mayuko swallowed and hoped she wouldn't throw up.

She began to circle around, slipping back towards the stench of bone and decayed flesh; a crackle under her feet made her look down--- she stared frozen for a second, then looked deliberately up at the whirlwind of claws and blood before her. Only the greenish tinge to the young woman's set face betrayed the sick feeling washing through her. She could be ill later--- other things were more important just now.

A howl of anger from the black bakemono before her told her that the river-hag had struck home somewhere; Ushio-kun was crouched down low, bleeding from a half-dozen shallow slashes. Tora had drawn back a little and reared up onto his hind legs; he was laughing deep in his throat, every teeth bared and horrifically white. Snarling something in a dialect that she couldn't quite understand, he spread his claws wide, crackling with electrical fire----- it grew wilder, grew brighter, freezing Mayuko in her tracks----- WHAM!!!

Something hard caught her, scooped her up, threw her to land with a crash among the bushes to her right!!! Mayuko's scream of terror came out as a muffled "eeefph!!!" as she landed on her stomach, and she saw that Ushio-kun was crouching between her and the battle as the lightning crackled hotter, crackled higher-----

CRACK-A-BOOOOOOOMMMM!!!!!!! The world was blotted out, ringing and stinking of ozone.....

..... and then it was raining mud and grass and less identifyable things; the water-youkai was nowhere to be seen. Dead?!? *Oh, please...* she prayed; no, there it was, leaping in towards Tora with a shriek, colliding feet-first with his head and knocking him off-balance. God, God it was so fast!!! Ushio-kun was springing away from her, roaring; there was nothing human in the sound!! She saw him gather himself in the air, rise impossibly a little higher, bring the Spear around, screaming-----

----- and Mayuko realized that she was not lying among bushes; she was in the nest of bones. In the larder.

*Out, out, don't think, just get out and move and run towards the boy-----* She was running now, terrible rattling things and crunching things and rolling things underfoot (she would remember the sound long years later, waking trembling and terrified from sleep)..... He was ahead, poor half-dead child, so small and wet, but more than dried bones and rags of cloth, something she could save. Mayuko's heart pounded with her feet: thud, thud, thud, thud, no-time-for-subtlety, thud-thud-thud!! And she was on him, and she scooped him up (such a leggy bundle, long and dangling) to run even faster down the bank!!! Behind her the battle went on, screams and howls and roars mingling in a terrible harmony.....
******************************

Lightning wrapped Tora, cracking from claw to claw; his eyes blazed with it, it dripped and sparked from every tooth and tipped every strand of fur in a corona of death. The water-hag hissed like a dying fire, talons spread wide, waiting for him.

And Ushio was waiting too. He had seen Mayuko sieze her chance and run, though he hadn't realized that she was trying to get the boy too. Good, though; well and good and gone. This was no place for her..... she was just meat for monsters here. The two bakemonotachi were both bleeding and torn by the youkai-bitch's claws (GodDAMMIT she was fast!!!)--- he was missing a chunk of muscle from his right hind-leg where she had fastened her teeth for a fortunately brief moment. But so far, they had both gotten a few blows in too--- the bitch had a long arc of burn down her ribs on one side, and Ushio had (for one precious moment) managed to fasten his teeth in *her* shoulder. Pity it hadn't been for longer.

He licked his lips; her blood was distinctly fishy, cool rather than cold. Ushio decided that he liked it. "More....." he whispered to himself, laughing softly despite his wounds.

He brought the Spear around. Tora was still crackling with a firework's worth of lightning, keeping their foe back from the river; for the last few minutes of the fight she had been trying to work towards the water, where her advantage would be greater. They had to keep her back, they needed a plan-----

The hell with plans. Ushio wanted her *blood*! He sprang forward again, Spear point stabbing, trying to take her like a fisherman with a gaff-----

But the goddam thing just wouldn't cooperate, would she? There she went, darting like a lizard to the side, down the trail-----

*No---* down the trail towards Mayuko and the boy----- *NO---*

"TORRRRAAAAHHHH!!!" Ushio screamed, leaping after her. No way, no way, she was *not* getting his friend!!! Behind him a little ways he could feel the thunderstorm of Tora in his rage as he flew, crackling through the early evening air-----

And Mayuko was a whitefaced figure just ahead of them, child in her arms; the water-bitch was howling towards them, claws outstretched, but Ushio was close, close, close; he could just grab her foot and with a jerk pull her hard!! towards him into an embrace, close as death----- the Spear fell from his grasp, landing behind him in a tangle of branches-----

----- but she was spinning in his arms, raking him from throat to belly with hooked knives, tearing and rending and ripping---- AAAARRRRRHHHhhhhhhhhh!!!!! It hurt, it hurt-----

Blood was running hot between them both as she fought to escape, as he fought to hold her, despite the pain; *Not again, not this time, you won't kill anyone else-----*

******** and then..... there was a moment, just a moment, when it seemed that Ushio could see everything from outside..... How curious it all looked: Tora, racing forward like the lightning incarnate (but he would be too late, too late); Mayuko and the child in a frightened heap; himself and the water-youkai spinning in the air, dancing in a shower of his blood (so much blood), the Spear gleaming behind him, propped point up against a fallen treetrunk, firmly braced-----********

And Ushio knew what he had to do. In that moment of clarity, all the bloodlust, all the burning hate and longing for revenge seemed to drain away and distil down into a single point of resolve and intent: he was there, she was thus, and the Spear, the Spear was right there, yes, like that---- no other way.......

(***Yes, whispered the Spear, dammed-up power beginning to build, to crest like a wave.... yes, now.....***)

.......no other way.......

*----- please.... don't let it hurt as much as before-----*

----- and still clutching his foe in an almost loving embrace, Ushio, Spearbearer and bakemono, threw himself backwards..... onto the Spear. His aim was perfect.

***It went right through them both.***

There wasn't enough breath in Ushio to even allow a scream, but the water-youkai's shriek of agony made up for that.

********COLD-PAIN-COLD-PAIN-COLD********

And darkness. No lightning this time. No, not this time.
*********************************

..... but there was something else, something shining before him. Aotsuki Ushio floated in the numbing dark, facing the bright thing that called to him, called in a voice of iron bells inside crystal spheres. Behind him was another brightness shining: pain-then-peace, an end to the fighting, rest; before him was pain-then-home, and then more pain.

But..... he understood pain by now, didn't he? It was a part of him, of his life and of Tora's life; and in the darkness it seemed that he could see home, with Mayuko and Asako and his dad and something huge and terrible..... Tora, as bloodied as himself but part of home nonetheless.

Ushio hung there in that brief and endless moment, a mote of air and darkness. And then he chose, and gathered the brightness of pain-then-home to himself. But as his spirit fell into the silver splinter of light that was the Spear he asked it: *Please? Please, just for a little while?!?*----- and there was no more time, and the light wrapped itself around him, claiming him again, chaining his soul once more with crystal and iron and the cutting edge of fate-------
**********************************

Darkness, laced with a glitter of silver. Wet, too; droplets on his face, in his eyes, cold. He was lying on something soft that shifted beneath him, something warm and damp beneath his naked skin. Something else was lying across him, holding him firmly down, resting against his chest, warm and fragrant and familiar-----

Oh. Stars above, a spatter of mist drifting down. Tora's back, soft mane. Always so soft, but he had never said that to Tora; wouldn't, couldn't. Bakemono. Wouldn't know how to take it, couldn't say it anyway. Wanted to sometimes, though. Familiar scent? Oh yeah, Mayuko, her head resting on his chest, hair in his face, her arms holding him down, grasping Tora's mane.....

As coherant thought slowly returned, Ushio realized that he was lying draped across Tora's back with Mayuko lying across him, her eyes closed. They were soaring through a night sky thick with stars, and the Spear was resting between them.

".....Mayuko?"

"Shhhhh. Just rest. Just..... rest. You're alright now, you're OK. We're all OK......"

"Mayuko?"

"What? Shhhhh. Please, just rest......"

"Why won't you open your eyes?"

She shifted a little. "Because you are *naked*, Ushio-kun."

"Oh. Mayuko.....? Am I..... human again?"

"Yes."

"Oh. I thought so....." His head lolled back loosely.

"Ushio? Ushio---? Are you awake? Ushio, have you fainted---? Ushio-kun?"

They flew on. Beneath them, Tora rumbled with contentment, holding the unconscious child and occasionally licking his jaws.
************************************

Ushio awoke the next time in his bed, feeling stranger than he could ever recall. Well, except for one time maybe..... He lay there for a few moments, feeling oddly newborn; this was the second occasion he could recall waking up when he thought he should be in agony and wasn't. The last time he had thought he was dead. This time, he knew he was alive. Again, he remembered *everything.*

It was morning, he could tell; the birds were singing on the eves, that particular we're-awake-and-we're-loud song that he had heard each day since his birth; he could see by the light slanting across his bed that it couldn't be too long past dawn. Clattering noises and the scent of coffee from the kitchen below told him that someone was making breakfast; who---? Oh; that was Mayuko's voice, singing softly to herself over the sound of the tap running. And out the window he could make out Tora, lying like a lion across the tiles of the old temple's roof, tail a-twitch. And, lastly, there was the Kemono No Yari, leaning in its accustomed place against the headboard of the bed.

Save for Mayuko's voice, all was blessedly, absurdly normal.

Except, of course, for the scars crossing his chest..... white lines, clawmarks spidering from side to side, up and down in a gameboard of whitened tissue; and centering them all like the jewel in the lotus, a single white line, faintly diamond-shaped and exactly as wide as the blade of the Spear.

(.....right through them...... his aim had been perfect.)

Ushio closed his eyes again. Dear God.

And then he opened them and began a rather frenzied self-inspection, making absolutely positively *certain* that he had not one speck of black fur or a single silver talon and not the least sign of a tail. Among other things. And if Tora was watching through the window, or Mayuko, or his entire assembly of classmates, well----- Aotsuki Ushio did not give a damn.
**************************

When he made his way carefully down the stairs a little later, both Mayuko and Tora were waiting for him. Ushio was wearing his bathrobe; his legs were a little too weak and unsteady as yet to really be up to the chore of dressing. Not important. Silently Mayuko handed him a plate; barely tasting what was before him, Ushio watched his hands (*human fingers--- so small!*) as he ate. Tora was watching him too, equally silent; the bakemono's face held an expression that was very hard to interpret. Silver eyes, sometimes so eloquent in their fury and fierceness, sometimes so very noncommittal..... Ushio sighed and reached for the mug of hot coffee that had been set down beside him; it smelled wonderful even to what he now considered a truly pitiful sense of smell. Expecting his former reaction of dislike, he found himself sipping the hot liquid with appreciation; huh. Maybe some things remained behind, after all.

"Ushio? How--- do you feel now?" Mayuko's blue-grey eyes were fixed on his face.

He stretched carefully. ".... Wierd. Really wierd. Everything seems so..... big. Larger. Back to normal, I guess. Everything but me. I feel human again, outside anyway. Inside? ...... I wasn't very human, there at the end. All I wanted was that bitch's blood." Tora grunted in approval; there was the faintest hint of a smile on the great, grim face as his silver eyes closed half-slitted.

"That was OK, I think..... I did what was... necessary... anyway. But I wonder if the part of me that was bakemono will *ever* go away?" He shifted restlessly, drinking down the rest of his coffee. Mayuko sat back, stirring hers with a spoon. Ushio saw thankfully that she had done a little picking up of the chaos that the kitchen had become over the last few days; all the coffee-grounds had been swept up, the broken crockery thrown out. Nothing much could be done about the holes in the ceiling and wall, though, or the broken hinges, or the cabinet he had pulled half apart while looking for clean dishes..... Oh well. Small things. Dad would just have to understand.

Tora stirred from his usual sprawl across the couch; springs squeaked. "You are what you are; human and bakemono and Spearbearer. And the foreigner is what she is: very, very dead. Tasty...." and he licked his chops, grinning. Ushio found himself remembering the taste of cool, fishy blood; somehow it was *still* very satisfying. Maybe Tora was right; he was..... what he was.

And the Spear was what it was, too. He had carried it down with him; big surprise there. Slowly he brought it up and around from where he had placed it on the floor, standing it upright before him. To Ushio's astonishment Tora did not flinch back from it this time, but sat regarding it with a cool gaze. Mayuko simply watched as he leaned forward, resting his head against the smooth wood. "I..... need to ask the Spear something. Wait......" and he closed his eyes.

*****Like sinking into cool water, like being enveloped in silver, like falling forever without motion: darkness and darkness and darkness, with unseen eyes watching him, always watching him..... always. Soft brush of spirit like a hand across his brow, recognition in the shadows, braille of soul branding him with his name: Aotsuki Ushio Spearbearer. And then the question, springing from his heart, asking, asking, asking, a single voice calling out into the sky: What's going to happen now?.......... and the answer, just this once in words, or in one word: *** respite *** and then, that brush of spirit like gentle wings, a caress of ghosts, warm with approval, tempered with power and time.....*****

Ushio came back to himself, still sitting there on the couch. Tora had moved; he sat beside the door, gazing out into the morning. Mayuko was still sitting beside him, cold coffee in her hands. She sat the cup down and fixed a tired but curious gaze on his face. "..... What did it say?"

He sat back. "Just one word: respite. A break? Time off? I..... guess I don't have to worry about changing permanently now, do I?" Ushio closed his eyes and sighed. Human again; but..... he would miss certain things about being bakemono. The strength, the retractable claws----- flight-----! That, most of all.

"Hhhhhrrrrrrr. I wouldn't be so certain, whelp." Startled, Ushio looked up.

Tora was still sitting there, mane drifting around him in the morning breeze. A scatter of swallows outside the door sent their shadows across his face in gentle punctuation to his words. "What do you mean?"

The bakemono stretched his length across the floor, claws dragging and scraping the wood. "Is not 'respite' a word for a *temporary* pause? Once the Spear has someone, it does not let go. I would not count on a future as anything but the Spearbearer, Brat." In the silence that followed, he slipped ghostlike through the wall out into the yard.

Ushio and Mayuko looked at each other; yes, but...... "Oh, shit." And neither one could say later who had said it. The young woman slumped back and rubbed her eyes. She was wearing one of Ushio's loose t-shirts and sets of drawstring pants, he saw. Quietly he asked "Did the kid make it?" She looked up and smiled wanely. "I don't know; all I could do was ask Tora-chan to let me drop him off in front of the nearest hospital and leave him there; I threw a rock through a window and we flew away. I hope he'll be alright; he was breathing....." she sighed and looked down at her lap. "I wanted to stay with him, but..... Ushio, at first I didn't know what was happening to you; you and that monster went backwards and the Spear went, went r-right through you----" Mayuko paused and took a deep breath. "And then everything went so bright, the Spear was crackling just like Tora--- it was beautiful in a way, like his lightning--- and that youkai was screaming and screaming, and Tora just reached out and pulled you both off the Spear and then yanked her up to his teeth and, and........" she stopped, face white.

Ushio was silent. *So he got to find out if she tasted like fish, anyway* he thought slowly.

Mayuko went on. "..... and then everything went so still, and so quiet--- and you fell down to the ground and you were human. You had all these white scars all over your chest---" (her eyes strayed to where his robe hung a little open) "--- and you seemed OK, though you were breathing so slowly. Tora-----" She glanced towards the door; the orange bakemono was back up on the old temple roof.

"Tora just sat there for a little while, looking down at you with the strangest expression. I guess he was thinking about what had just happened; it's hard to tell sometimes. Then he told me to pick up the Spear and he put you on his back---- and, well, we left." She flushed and looked down again. "I, um, tried not to look at you too much...... You didn't have anything on....."

There was an awkward silence; then a peculiar noise made Mayuko look up. Ushio had his hands over his mouth, trying to hold something back; his face was red and his eyes were wide. He snorted, choked, then broke up into helpless laughter that had more than a little of hysteria in it...... His friend stared, then began to giggle uncontrollably; the two eventually ended up holding each other as laughter died away into chokes and gasps, and perhaps.... a few tears on either side.
**********************
Outside, Tora watched from his rooftop. A bird sailed over, catching his attention for a moment; he considered going hunting, but his heart wasn't really in it. Enough hunting lately. With a pair of careful talons he picked a few strands of long black mane from his coat and then sat there for a moment, twisting and rolling them between his fingers. Carefully he wrapped them around themselves in an intricate knot, storing the strands in his private cache behind a little loose tilework. *After all,* thought the bakemono, smiling to himself, *they might be useful..... someday.*

He stepped off into the air, landing gently beside the house. Inside, his two humans were still talking. The Hamburger Girl seemed to be planning on sending a note to the local city guards to tell them about the water-youkai's larder; Tora couldn't see why she should bother, but whatever..... Ushio-Brat looked so much smaller; he had made a good bakemono. A pity; in the depths of his heart of hearts, Tora could admit that he would miss the companionship of another of his kind.

But the other bakemono wasn't really gone, was he? It was as Tora himself had said: when one becomes a monster, that is what one usually stays, sharp claws or not. Over the ages he had known many a human who were monsters at heart, and quite a few bakemonotachi that could have passed in their souls for human. He shrugged; it made little difference. One was what one was, and not all the worry in the world could change that.

Perhaps things would be a little..... easier for him now; the Spearbearer had tasted something that few others before him had. But Tora would still miss the black bakemono.

Eh, well..... There was always tomorrow. And tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.....
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Ushio sat on the stones beside the shrine gate; morning sunlight flickered like gentle fire down through the branches of the almond trees, patterning skin and clothing with shining warmth. He ran his fingers along the haft of the Spear, unconciously tracing woodgrain with his nails; a touch on his shoulder made him look up.

Mayuko stood there before him, a bag containing her filthy clothes in hand. She would have to sneak in to her home to change (unless she wanted her parents jumping to conclusions that *really* didn't bear thinking about); God only knew what she was going to tell them about the previous day's abscence. Maybe she could get Asako to cover for her. But that would take possibly a little more disclosure than either Mayuko or Ushio wanted to offer....... She sighed, brushing her tawney hair back a little from her face. "Ushio-kun, will you be OK now? If I don't get home soon, my parents will send out the police....."

"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just going to take a little getting used to, being human again." Not for anything in the world could Ushio tell her that what he was really doing was mourning for what he had lost; no matter how difficult and terrible it had been at first, he had fully accepted what he had become, and now it was gone.

It was a little like mourning the dead.

Mayuko smiled down at her friend; he was pale, he looked a little distraught, but he was Ushio again. She wished that there was some way she could tell him the truth: That, really, there had been nothing in the black bakemono that had not been in her friend Ushio-kun to begin with. At heart, she thought, we are all beasts and all angels; it's the balance that makes us what we are to others.

But she couldn't say that.

As the young woman turned to go, she paused a moment. "---- Oh; I almost forgot to give you this. It's kind of a souvenir, I guess....." she rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a small object: black, black strands wrapped around a bit of stick. It lay in her palm like an omen. Slowly Ushio reached out to pick it up-----

Only to be stopped by a large, striped hand. "I would not, Brat. I would not indeed. Not unless you wish to be back where you were......" Tora had slipped quietly into sight sitting there on the stone wall beside him; his amber talons gripped Ushio's fingers.

The temple boy frowned. "What? Tora, what are you talking about?" The black strands gleamed dully in Mayuko's palm.

Tora dropped his hand and leaned back, a little of his mane drifting around him in the light breeze. "That is part of what you were; touch it, and you will be so again. Take it and keep it, but wrap it in silk and do not lay a finger on it....... unless your humanity becomes too much to bear. Who knows? Perhaps you will find it necessary someday." The bakemono looked over towards the old temple; the doors had never been repaired and the daylight filtered softly in to illuminate an opening in the floor and a staircase leading down..... "It is always good to have an escape, is it not?"

Ushio started to speak, then stopped and swallowed the knot that had formed in the back of his throat. He stared down at the temptation lying in Mayuko's hand: flight, freedom, wildness..... lonliness, fear, sorrow..... He closed her fingers over the strands, careful not to touch. "You keep it, Mayuko. Tell Asako everything." Ushio winced a little at the thought, but--- "She should know about it too. Like Tora says, who knows?" And he turned away to look with the ancient bakemono towards the old shrine. "Abayo, Mayuko-kun..... Domou Arigatou, my very good friend...."

She slipped the small object back into her bag, hesitated, and smiled back. He could hear her footsteps diminish as she walked away down the road.

Swallows twittered and dived around them in the sweet air of morning; Ushio followed their flight with his eyes, resisting the temptation to try and catch one out of the air (it wouldn't work now, after all; his hands were too small----- and besides, no claws). The Spear rested lightly between his palms; maybe it wasn't so terrible a thing after all, what was coming; he had withstood worse, hadn't he?

At least he'd be standing on only two feet this time. No shedding, either.

Tora was watching him sidelong out of half-closed silver eyes, silent, his expression a little mocking. "So..... Ushio-brat. Won't you miss being bakemono, even a little? Large, fearful..... so much better than *this* weak little body....." and he poked his partner in the ribs with a sharp claw; Ushio swore and swatted at him with the Spear, landing a flat blow on the top of the bakemono's head. Tora yelped and cursed.

"Miss it? Yeah, sure; I'm going to miss clawing myself every time I have to scratch, not being able to fit into the bathroom (and NO, I don't want to know how you manage it!), all that kind of shit..... What do you think, stupid?" There was silence for a few minutes or so; two sets of eyes followed the flight of swallows, dark brown and silver. "Well......."

"I might miss a few things. The flying was fun....... and I liked my claws, they were pretty cool......"

Tora snorted. "Not as good as mine, though. Come......." and he grinned. "Spar with me again, Brat, and I'll show you claws!" Eyes and sharp teeth glinted in the sun; for a moment Ushio flashed back to the first moment that he had seen those teeth, those eyes: down in the darkness below the old temple. The bakemono looked no less terrifying now than he had then, but.....

Well, hell, who gave a damn anyway? Lots of things were terrifying. So what?

"Sure. And I'll show you what happens when I put the Spear through your tail......" and, dodging a blow from a handful of claws, Ushio caught up the Kemono No Yari and headed back towards the yard in front of his home, still laughing. Tora followed after, threatening imminent destruction (as usual); his shadow blended with Ushio's like a gray afterthought, stretching behind them both all the way to the open gate.

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AUTHOR'S NOTES: Whew! Finished! Man, that was fun....... Please, y'all--- review; write me! I just finished working through the collected manga tankoubon volumes 1 through 15, and I've got about 17 more to go (Oh eeeeww, you wouldn't BELIEVE how the Kemono No Yari was made! Gruesome in the extreme.....) If I use this material as a background, it'll go way beyond the stuff in the anime; so I'm in a quandry. What do you think? And would you read it? Is my stuff worth reading? If you don't review, I won't know..... Sigh. I sure need to work on my Japanese...... Anyway, thanks for reading, thanks for reviewing, and I'll write lots more (whether you want me to or not!! Nyahh, nyahhh!!!). Abayo! ------- Ysabet (ysamingo@aol.com or sbarnesdpr@hotmail.com) ..... That was So Much FUN.......... =^_^=