I Of The Beholder - Epilogue The last downhill bit, to allow our heros to cool off.... Ysabet

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Epilogue: Closing the Circle
By Ysabet



Dawn bloomed like a flower, its petals wet and shining; it filled the world with the wild, sweet scent of rain and thunder.

Three exhausted figures sprawled on the miraculously-undamaged (and relatively dry) front porch of the Asako home; it was the only building that had not been scorched, blasted or otherwise bludgeoned over the previous night. Around them the early light showed up every raw-wood scar, every tendril of smoke without mercy.

Drip. Drip. Drip..... The rain had stopped at last, but tiny rivulets of water still made their way in a crystalline curtain from the roof's edge to the ground. The Spearbearer stretched his weary limbs out and pillowed his head on one bent arm, wincing as an acid-burn along the back of his thigh snagged against a floorboard. He grinned up at the pale gray sky; *Man, what a beautiful morning.....*

*We're alive. We're all alive, and the Seki Donshoku Mono's dead.* The boy stretched again, a long, satisfied stretch; and he grinned a rather feral grin. *It's a good morning to be alive.....*

Still lying flat, Ushio turned his head to look at Asako. The girl was leaning back against a post, her tangled, drying hair fluttering around her head in the light breeze. Her eyes were closed, her face calm and relaxed; he could see a pulse beating in her pale throat.

Beside her, Shigure took a deep swallow from an oversized western-style mug of coffee and sighed deeply in contentment; his son winced inwardly at his father's bedraggled condition. Of them all, Shigure had fared the worst--- the priest had given his outer robe to Asako, had been bitten and acid-scorched deeply along one calf, and had lost a large chunk of his gray hair to a gout of flame that had shot up unexpectedly from the underground room when he had set everything ablaze. But his lined face wore its usual expression of sardonic gentleness, and his eyes were serene in the dim, pearly light.

He hadn't been quite so serene when his son had confronted him regarding Asako's ACTUAL role as bait a little while earlier.... Ushio had thought when the priest had mentioned her as a lure for the monster that she had been simply going to show herself briefly, just enough to draw it in--- he had NEVER thought that she would.....

Screw that. He simply hadn't thought at all. Even now he could see the necessity of what she had done. But he'd be damned if he ever *agreed* with anybody on it.....

*Out loud, anyway. But so help me, if Dad EVER tries something like that again, I'm gonna put the Spear where the sun doesn't shine.*

Ushio sighed, wriggling his aching shoulders against the surface of the porch. *Shit, I've got bruises on top of my bruises--- A shower and clean clothes for the three humans had worked wonders, but only time would set things completely right. He glanced around the porch and frowned a little. *Hey; I wonder where Tora is?* He'd have to go and check on the bakemono, make sure everything was alright and all that.

He blinked at movement beside him. Asako had slid down from her place against the post and now lay supine across the boards, head resting comfortably on her clasped hands. She opened one eye and glanced sideways at him; something in his face must have reassured her, for she smiled a little to herself and closed the eye again.

The Spearbearer watched her for a few moments, an unconscious smile tugging at his lips. She looked..... he didn't really know how to say what she looked like to him. She looked..... she was..... Well, hell. He'd figure it out later. Maybe the words didn't matter, anyway; maybe the feeling was enough. More than enough.

He sighed again, a rather rueful sound; it made his father look up at him, an inscrutable expression on his face. This 'growing up' business was..... difficult; hard on him, hard on her too. But it looked to be worth the trouble, somehow.

Rubbing at a particularly painful graze, Ushio clambered to his feet to go in search of his partner. Behind him, his father sat on the porch beside the drowsing girl, smiling at nothing in particular.

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"Tora-----?" Ushio's voice rang hollowly off the blackened stone walls.

Silence. Then: ".....down here, Brat....."

Of all the places that he had looked, Ushio would *never* have expected to find the bakemono sitting quietly in the room below the old shrine. In the very few instances that mention of his old prison had come up between the two of them, Tora had cut the conversation off sharply; it was obvious that he hated the room with a fierceness that was nearly beyond human comprehension. *Of course,* mused Ushio, *if I had spent five hundred years stuck down here in the dark, I'd probably feel the same.* He shook his head briefly; he was getting a little punchy with exhaustion.

The Spearbearer trudged slowly down the scorched wooden steps, one slightly scorched hand scrabbling through his newly-shortened hair. It felt odd to be human again----- there had been only a handful of times when he had spent more than a few hours in his inhuman form; he kept brushing back hair that wasn't there away from his face.

The room was a mess. Blackened kerosene residue stained the stones underfoot, and the heavy scent of burned stone and fuel-smoke hung in the air. The boy shifted the Kemono no Yari to his shoulder and craned his head back; a thrill of horror quivered through him as he saw how the fire had even managed to scorch the ceiling above-----

*Asako..... Asako, if you hadn't had that wet robe over you, and that 'mirror'... you'd've been toast. And you knew that, didn't you?*

He closed his eyes and shuddered for a long moment, then opened them.

Tora sat catlike in the center of the room, tail twitching in fast, nervous flicks. His attention was focused on one single place, one stone in particular: a large, oddly irregular chunk that stuck out from the wall a bit, darkly stained, a single break in the stone glaring like a slitted eye. One might almost think that the stains were blood or something similar.....

Ushio was silent, watching. Come to think of it, *he* hadn't come down here since----- well----- *Huh. Since then, in fact. Wow.*

Very slowly the bakemono stood, stepping hesitantly forward; he reached out with a single taloned finger to trace the stained fissure. Then he glanced back towards Ushio, his eyes feral, shining coin-silver in the shadowy half-light.....

(For a moment it was as if the intervening span of time had never happened; for a moment a human boy was facing a terrible, newly-freed monster for the first time, Spear in hand, afraid but ready to fight----- for a moment-----)

And then the monster laughed softly, and the moment passed as both looked away. And if the laugh was a trifle forced, neither boy nor bakemono felt like mentioning it.

Ushio sat down on the smoky steps, Spear resting across his knees. "So..... what brought you down here again, Furball? Dad just made some coffee, if you want some....." Tora had an appallingly strong fondness for coffee.

The ancient bakemono shrugged. "I..... felt like seeing it again. I have been--- reluctant--- to come Down Here since I was freed; but....." and he glanced up again, an odd almost-smile on his face. ".....But enough of this place. Coffee!" He rumbled contentedly at the thought, and Ushio rolled his eyes. The boy climbed to his feet and started up the stairs, only to pause at the top, waiting. "Hey--- you coming, Monster?"

The bakemono had stopped at the foot of the stairs, looking back at the wall. "You know, Brat..... there was a moment when the Donshoku had me, back when we were fighting outside the new shrine....."

The boy nodded, hefting his weapon back onto his shoulder. "Yeah, I remember; I--- think it got to me and Asako at about the same time. Uhmmmm..... it made us dream, showed us things we wanted; offered them to us. But it didn't catch us--- we both saw through the dreams." He quirked one eyebrow and frowned down at the bakemono's face, the fur striped and barred with early sunlight. "So, did it offer you something too, Tora? What did you-----"

"What did I dream of?" asked the monster, softly. The silver eyes stared up at the Spearbearer, unblinking.

At last he grinned, teeth flashing white against his face. "I dreamed a dream that I had dreamed a thousand, thousand times before Down Here; a dream of being freed, and of killing that bastard Samurai who trapped me." He paused, and Ushio felt a shiver trying to work its way up from his spine to his skin. He waited, suppressing the reaction; if he wasn't *fairly* sure of Tora by now.....

The bakemono held up a clawed forefinger. "BUT..... I was already free; there was no temptation. And besides---" and he paused to grin slyly up at the face above him, "--- the Donshoku made a TERRIBLE Samurai! Not tasty-looking at all; much too thin, with little meat on the bones." The wooden stairs creaked under Tora's feet as he emerged from the stone room.

Ushio rolled his eyes again as they began moving back towards the house. "Idiot....." The monster just snorted, raising his head and sniffing at the fresh, rain-scented wind. He arched his back once, stretching cat-wise across the wet ground, tail lashing.

As they walked away, the boy glanced behind him; the stairway entrance yawned black and empty, a hole filled with shadows and old memories of pain. He looked away. Beside him the bakemono grunted with satisfaction. "Hhrrrrh. Do you know, Ushio-Brat, that's the one thing that could be better this morning?"

The Spearbearer avoided a puddle. "Huh? What?"

"There was nothing left of the Donshoku afterwards to eat."

Ushio grimaced, glancing sideways at the monster that padded along beside him. "Tora----- Even for you, that's....." he trailed off. "Eeeewww....." Beside him the monster shrugged again. "It was a rough night; we fought hard, we destroyed our enemy..... and I'm hungry." The great striped face wrinkled as he yawned, silver eyes slitting at the rays of early sunlight.

"Heh..... It's a good morning to be alive, isn't it, Brat?"

The Spearbearer eyed his partner curiously for a moment, then laughed wryly. Monsters would be monsters, he supposed. "Yeah, it is. It really is."

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When they arrived back at the porch, they found Asako alone; the girl sat cross-legged, a steaming mug of coffee in her hands. A second mug--- and a full pot--- rested beside her on the porch; Tora wasted no time in snatching up the pot, downing the contents in a few huge gulps. With a heartfelt sigh the monster sat back on his haunches, cradling the warm pot in his huge hands; his claws clinked softly on the glass.

Ushio settled himself down beside the girl--- not too close, but not too far away either. As he sipped at his own mug (tea, he noted thankfully--- he *hated* coffee), he could feel Asako watching him and smiled to himself; it was a good feeling..... even though he could also feel his cheekbones beginning to burn a little. He bent his head, flushing as he ran one hand along the length of the Spear's haft where it lay beside him.

He felt oddly shy around Asako; it had been easier, somehow, to be open during the terror and fury of the night before. Why was that, he wondered? What was he supposed to do now, act like nothing had happened or pick up where they had left off? That *last* option was the most attractive, without a doubt..... but how the hell did you go about that sort of thing?

Oh well; he supposed they'd muddle through somehow. He took another swallow of his tea.

The wooden porch-planks creaked as Tora stretched his full length out one more time, the vertebrae in his spine popping audibly. Flattened out across the boards with his eyes closed, he looked for all the world like some sort of huge bakemono-rug. Opening one eye, he focused on Asako. "More coffee?" he grunted, the words less a question than a command.

Asako snorted in answer; her tone was remarkably similar to his. "You could learn to make it yourself, you know....." But she took the empty pot and climbed to her feet.

Ushio finished his cup in one swallow and grimaced. "Oh, he can make it himself, if you don't mind coffee grounds all over the place and half-a-dozen filters with holes punched through them on the floor. Claws and coffeemakers don't mix very well." Water ran in the kitchen as she filled the pot, and he could hear the soft rattle of grounds against paper. After a moment the rich scent of brewing coffee drifted on the clean air of morning; the bakemono rumbled softly, a contented sound.

Ushio lay back again; the sun was beginning to warm the damp boards, and a faint breath of steamed wood mixed with the bittersweet coffee-scent. "Where's Dad?" he wondered aloud. A gentle, rising wind carried his words across the yard and made the Spear's streamers flutter.

Asako came back out onto the porch and leaned against the post beside him, arms crossed. "Down past the gate; one of your neighbors smelled the smoke from last night and drove up to see if everything was alright. Oji-san said he was going to borrow the guy's cellphone and call my parents and the insurance company----- I think he has some sort of story about me being stuck here because of the storm last night to tell them, and I guess the insurance people are going to hear about some really big lightning strikes....." Her voice trailed off as she surveyed the yard. The remains of the blown-apart almond tree had stopped smoking long ago, but blackened chunks lay scattered in all directions. The broken wall at the front of the main shrine would be a bit harder to explain, but somehow they both felt sure that Shigure would manage. For a priest, the man managed to be a very competent liar.

A death-rattling gurgle from the kitchen signified the completion of the coffeemaker's task; Ushio looked up to find Asako looking down at him, smiling slightly. She gestured towards his cup. "Want some more tea?"

The boy smiled. "Nahh..... thanks, though." He passed the empty cup up, and their fingers brushed briefly; the girl paused for half a second before turning towards the doorway.

She looked so tired; faint, bluish shadows underlaid her eyes, and her face had the pallor of extreme exhaustion. But she looked so, well, so *Asako*----- the real Asako, not the fake dream-Asako that the Donshoku had tried to snare him with. He knew this girl, knew that she was cranky in the morning, hated being bossed around, got angry at the drop of a hat about the stupidest things.....

.....knew that she would go through hell for the right reason; would pass through terror for a friend; would die if she had to, just so you didn't.....

*Asako.*

"Hey, Brat." Ushio jumped. He hadn't realized that he had been staring after Asako until Tora's voice brought him back to the world. "Yeah?" he muttered, embarrassed. He could hear her footsteps coming up towards the doorway---

The bakemono had rolled onto his side and lay regarding the Spearbearer, chin propped on one hand. "When does the Girl move in?"

".....WHAT?!?" Ushio stared, not quite allowing himself to comprehend the monster's words.

Tora inclined his shaggy head towards the kitchen. "That one--- when does she move in?" The monster chuckled deep in his chest. "You are obviously pre-mates..... Courting usually leads to humans pairing up, and that means the Girl will be moving in here. So when?" The bakemono leaned forward on his elbow, grinning slyly.

The boy opened and closed his mouth, feeling simultaneously outraged and embarrassed beyond belief. "!!!" Beet-red, he scrabbled beside him for the Spear.....

.....which was, to his horror, not there.

*WHACKK!!!*

Tora lay sprawled on his face, both huge hands clasped across his aching skull; over him stood Asako, Spear in hand, assuming a position reminiscent of some legendary Amazon of ancient Greece. Her face mirrored Ushio's outrage, and the monster *flinched* as she stomped one foot right beside his nose.

"YOU can keep your ideas to yourself, Tora!!... We'll manage just fine without you and your suggestions---" Her face looked as red as Ushio's felt. For a moment she stared down angrily at the quivering monster, who rolled one eye up and looked at her through his hair..... and then her gaze dropped to the weapon she held in both hands. With a startled expression Asako dropped the Spear as if it were red-hot; it landed with a clatter beside the chastened Tora, who flinched a second time at the noise.

Ushio watched her stomp off into the yard towards the gate, limping slightly. Later, he would swear that she had been *growling.*

"Thanks a *lot,* shithead!!" he hissed angrily. Tora just muttered something under his breath. The monster stared after the departing young woman, then looked back at the Spearbearer. After a moment he looked again towards Asako, and then slowly swung his gaze again towards Ushio..... and began to laugh.

And laugh, and laugh, and laugh. The huge, rude guffaws shook the swallows from the trees, scattered echoes across the morning.

Ushio snorted hard. "What the hell are you laughing at, Furball? You just screwed things up with me and Asako--- " He stopped, ears burning.

But the bakemono just rolled back onto his side and propped his chin up again, still laughing uproariously. He pointed a clawed finger after the girl's angry figure, then at the Spearbearer. "Ohhhh, Brat----- poor, poor Brat; you know nothing about females, do you??" And he began to laugh all over again.

Grabbing up the Spear, Ushio stumbled down off the porch and hurried away after Asako, leaving the monster and his amusement behind.

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Shigure was leaning against the wall a little ways down the road, talking animatedly to Mr. Muneaki, the Aotsuki's nearest neighbor. The priest looked somewhat less exhausted now that the worrying phone calls to Asako's parents and the insurance company had been taken care of; he smiled at a comment made by the older man and glanced towards the gate.

".....Yes, I suppose we were lucky, all things considered. We haven't checked on all the damage as yet----- the power is still out at the shrine and will be until the lines are repaired, I suppose; it's a good thing that the house was on a separate line." He sighed as he caught sight of the drooping branches of the tall trees in front of the older shrine; their bedraggled condition could be seen fairly clearly above the walls. "We'll have to remove a few of the trees though; that's a shame."

Mr. Muneaki harrumped in sympathy; then he followed the direction of Shigure's gaze. "Now, who's that? Isn't that the Nakamura's daughter? She's grown a bit, hasn't she?"

The priest smiled a little thinly. "So she has; children have a way of doing that--- mostly while your back is turned. Time passes for us all....." He watched the young woman stomp towards him angrily, her face set in an annoyed frown. "Asako-chan?"

She looked up. "Oh--- Oji-san..... Ahhh, good morning, Muneaki-san. Umm, Oji-san--- did you reach my parents?" Her anger seemed to fade a little.

He nodded reassuringly. "They were worried, but they understood. Besides, the lights went out for a few hours there as well, and your father apparently stumbled over a chair in the dark. Your mother has had her hands full with him for the last few hours....." At her expression of concern, he quickly continued: "Oh, nothing too serious! Just a sprained ankle, from the sound of it." Shigure laughed. "You Nakamuras are a strong lot, are you not?" Then his smile faded a little as he recalled the previous night and the sight of a brave, frightened young woman darting past him into the dark, expecting fire to follow.....

After a moment she laughed too, her expression easing a little. "Well--- I need to get home." She looked at him, really *looked* at him for a long moment----- and smiled, her eyes shining. "Thank you, Oji-san..... for taking care of me." Stepping forward, Asako hugged the priest tightly. He smiled, stroking her hair with one scratched hand. "Yes....." he said softly into her brown hair; ".....and thank you as well, child. Such a strong one....." He gently let her go; then, as she turned to walk away, he looked at her back inquisitively. "Er--- Asako-chan? Why don't you ask my son to walk you back?"

She stiffened, her shoulders squaring up for a second; then she relaxed a trifle, glancing back over her shoulder with an unladylike snort. "If he wants to walk me back, he'll just have to hurry. That's his business, if he wants to; I'm going home now. Abayo, Oji-san!" And she marched on, her slender figure gradually dissapearing around the curve.

The two men watched her leave. "Well..... so that's what's up between your son and the Nakamura girl, is it?" chuckled the older man. "You're right; they *do* grow up behind one's back. I remember when she was just a tiny slip of a child....."

"So do I" said Shigure, softly, remembering another child, a wild and rebellious boy. He smiled to himself, hearing hurried footsteps approaching from the gate. Right on cue..... Without turning around he called out: "RUN, boy!"

From behind him, faintly, he could hear Tora's laughter.

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He sprinted; she had to be just around the curve, she couldn't have gotten too far yet-----

----- and, in fact, she hadn't. She was leaning against a signpost, watching Ushio as he faltered to a halt with the Spear bouncing on his shoulder, panting.

"What kept you? I've been waiting....." said Asako, smiling.

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Well, it's done....... Sigh. I always feel a little sorry when I finish something; there's a gap until the next story starts up. But that'll be soon, believe me. I hope you enjoyed this one--- I didn't intend for the Epilogue to be as long as a *chapter,* but it just grew that way. So did you like the story? Review and let me know, okay?!? Bye!............... Ysabet