Honor Thy Masters 6

Author's Notes: Well, originally I was planning on going back to In Flight. Chapter 35 was literally almost finished before real world issues caused me to have to take a brief break again and I went to HTM to get my juices flowing again, and I thought it would be a quick work to get it done and out. However, as is the case whenever I get the penultimate chapter of a fic done, I just couldn't leave the last chapter of Honor Thy Masters hanging.

Thus, here it is, the conclusion.

Not really much in the way for spoilers to worry about. Mostly, this chapter deals with a couple themes that have always stuck out for me.

One of the things I really like about Nisio Isin is the heavy emphasis he puts on consequences in his works. So much of his stories seem to really come alive due to how much detail he goes into on the negative aspects of the events that happens. Like in Medaka Box where Zenkichi muses about how forgiveness isn't always the best course, or how Medaka was so perfect she became wrong. The Monogatari series does the same, with Kizumonogatari's emphasis on how the only ending Koyomi can find is one where everyone is unhappy, or how Black Hanekawa is the result of Hanekwa's inability to deal with the stress in her life causes her to lash out. They've recently started translating Kabukimonogatari, which I have been desperately waiting for I might add, and there is a fascinating bit at the beginning where Koyomi muses on how even if tragedy can result in something good, it doesn't change the fact that tragedy is at its core something bad happening to you.

Consequentially, the conclusion of HTM is much in the same vein. I wanted a way to show the results of Kenichi's dedication, the price he had to pay to accomplish his inhuman act, and the consequences not just on him but on those around him as well. I had several reviews comment on the epic nature of Kenichi's resolve, and this is meant to show that epic or not, what he did had negative repercussions as well.

Not much more to add to that. With this, I only really have In Flight and a few of my old Kim Possible fics that I might even get around to finishing (so you reviewers who constantly demands more Ruinous, know that the story isn't abandoned, just on really long hiatus), and after that I'll hopefully have settled those last few real world issues which are keeping me from just sitting down and writing my own work.

So, read on to the conclusion of Honor Thy Master, where the ripples of Kenichi's actions make themselves known, 'Wicked Blossom' is finally completely explained, and I prove that not all my horror stories end in completely screwed up fashions.

*Story Start*

It was the dreams which eventually brought me back to the land of the living.

I knew that I was sleeping. In the way that a person can sometimes stir in the middle of sleep, I would find myself half waking, just starting to pull free from my resting state, only to realize that I was still tired and let myself fall back.

It was a deep sleep, beyond that. The kind of sleep that could only come after someone had truly exhausted themselves, had been up for far too long or attempted something way too strenuous.

During those half moments where I could muster not quite thoughts but at least impressions, I was pretty sure that I had done both.

For the most part, my consciousness was simply off, a dreamless state of rest. But sometimes, just sometimes, during those moments when I started to wake up only to decide not to, I would rest light enough to dream.

Though time had no real meaning for me at the moment, I remember one of those earlier dreams.

It took place at Ryouzanpaku. I could see it, not from any particular view point but more like I was watching from above, an aerial perspective that would change at my whim. There was quite a gathering present, in this particular dream. In the actual dojo area, all of the Masters of Ryouzanpaku had gathered lining themselves up along one side of the room. Sitting off to the side, a bit separate from them, was Shinobu. And directly opposite the members of Ryouzanpaku was Kushinada and her Disciple Chikage.

Well, I thought to myself with dreamy amusement, this promises to be an interesting scene.

"My, my," Kushinada murmured, one hand coming up to cover up a portion of her mouth in a demure move. She used the damaged hand to do so, as though to better display just how ravaged her body had become. Across from her, the Elder frowned slightly, his eyes seemingly involuntarily taking in the scars. Beside him, I saw Ma flinch, and it looked like the old Chinese man was about to cry. "Is this the way Ryouzanpaku treats its guests? How boorish, Hayate!"

"Ruined," I heard Ma whisper in despair, though I doubt anyone else did. "It's so rare to find perfect breasts in this world, and right there, a set lie ruined."

It looked like Ma still had his priorities straight, even if those priorities were horribly askew. And somehow, that observation made me giggle a little.

"Now, now," the Elder responded to the Bewitching fist, though he gave Ma an amused look which seemed to indicate that he had caught what the little pervert had said anyway. "Surely you must admit that the situation is unusual enough for some precautions to be taken."

"Oh? Precautions?" Kushinada drawled in that cultured tone of hers. "But wasn't it you of Ryouzanpaku that called for this meeting? First you seek favor with your enemy, and then you fail to grant them proper courtesy? Oh, why did I allow myself to respond to the provocations of the Katsujin Ken?" It sounded as though she was really enjoying taking the opportunity to make pot shots at the Elder. I wondered if maybe Sakaki might have been onto something, him always calling Kushinada the 'old man's old squeeze' and all.

"I don't know," as though prompted by my thoughts, the hundred dan brawler spoke up. Sakaki was situated near the door leading to the courtyard, leaning back against a frame with his hands up in a casual way over his head as one leg sprawled in front of him and the other was bent. It was a casual position, but Sakaki wasn't wearing his casual expression. His eyes were narrowed, and his jaw set. He didn't quite look as murderous as I've seen him in the past, but he definitely wasn't happy at the moment. "Why did you?"

"If I were to guess, I would have to say she came because she too had the same concerns that we all share," Akisame noted. The philosopher doctor was kneeling in polite seiza, and despite the tenseness of many in the room, he was at least acting the proper host. He had a tea set prepared nearby, and even as he spoke he was preparing several cups. Even as he offered one to Kushinada, he continued. "From what Shigure has shared with us, she as well has an interest in Kenichi-kun's safety. Isn't that right, Kushinada-dono?"

"Tsk," the Miko gave a brief lowering of her eyebrows at the other man's direct question, but accepted the tea anyway. "What an impatient child. You had been doing so well too, before you started acting with undignified haste." Despite her chiding words, she took a measured sip of the tea, before responding with a courteous, "Delicious."

"Ah, my apologies, Kushinada-dono," Akisame seemed to take no offense at Kushinada's harsh words, accepting them politely, even as he offered a second cup of tea to Chikage. The young girl was also seated in seiza as well, her expression typical of when she was on Yami business. She didn't seem uncomfortable despite the fact that she was currently in the middle of enemy territory for her.

"Delicious," the Disciple also repeated after sipping her tea, before placing the cup to the side and resuming a rigid and unresponsive posture. Akisame noted her reaction, and while Kushinada's words didn't get a response the sight of such a young girl behaving so fiercely made his eyebrow twitch once. I could recognize his distaste for having such a young innocence tainted by the Satsujin Ken.

"Now, now," the Elder broke in again, repeating his earlier attempt at placating their unusual guest. "I'm sure that we can all agree to get along for the moment. Mikumo did agree to meet with us, after all, and even agreed to do so on unfavorable terrain. If that isn't a sign of her willingness to assist us, than I don't know what is."

"Hmph," Kushinada gave a brief, feminine snort, her eyes narrowing briefly as the Elder casually used her first name without honorific. "You are mistaken though," she murmured, still giving that miniscule glare at her old enemy. "It was not for the purpose of meeting you of Ryouzanpaku that I agreed to this." Her eyes turned to the other figure in the room not associated with the Katsujin Ken. "It is a pleasure to meet you at last, Lady Kiss Shot Acerola Orion Hearts Under Blade," the tone she used to address Shinobu was one of absolute courteousness.

"Eh?" Shinobu grunted, not even bothering to look up from her portable game console. The blond vampire was laying on her stomach, kicking her legs in the air behind her like she was a school girl laying on her bed. Shinobu was still looking to be in her mid-teenage years, no sign of the usual regression to the body of a nine year old present. She had somehow managed to find, or maybe just create for herself off hand, an outfit consisting of leggings, a knee length pleated skirt, a denim jacket, and a shirt which proudly displayed the Mr. Donut logo on it. "What do you want, brat?"

Kushinada did not seem at all injured at the casual way Shinobu was addressing her. Instead the Miko seemed pleased to have gotten a response at all. Many of the members of Ryouzanpaku shifted at hearing Shinobu so casually speaking to the older woman. Akisame, Ma, and the Elder in particular seemed worried. On the other hand, several of Ryouzanpaku had a different reaction.

Sakaki, still leaning against the edge of the dojo gave the vampire a harsh look, his body tensing dangerously as he watched the little vampire with cautious eyes. Miu, who had been kneeling beside her grandfather fidgeted briefly, though the looks she was shooting looked more angry than cautious. The other Disciple would start to narrow her eyes at the insolent vampire, only to apparently catch herself and look away quickly. Shigure, who had as was her norm, perched herself on a roof beam, had positioned herself directly above the vampire, crouched on all fours much like a cat would right before they pounced, and was unabashedly staring at the laying form of Shinobu beneath her. The weapon mistress was the only one in the room which wasn't displaying any tension at having Shinobu around.

Except for Apachai. The gentle giant was apparently too distracted by Sakaki's beer nuts, which even now were being left unguarded by the normally territorial karate Master. I guess Sakaki really was upset if he wasn't making a big deal of it.

Then I realized that there was a second bowl of nuts, placed out of sight of Apachai and near a six pack of beer that was placed just off the edge of the veranda on the ground nearby.

"I have heard many things about you, Lady Hearts Under Blade," Kushinada continued politely, speaking as though she were addressing a clear superior. I didn't think that the proud woman had anyone she actually considered to be a superior, but she managed to use the language quite well. I suppose it was just her dedication to courtesy and the old ways which had prompted her to train in that particular grammar. The Miko bowed, leaning forward at her waist until she could place her hands on the ground in front of her, Chikage echoing the motion. Such a clear show of respect seemed to surprise many of Ryouzanpaku as Kushinada continued. "I pray that it is not too forward that I have brought a gift to commemorate this meeting."

As she finished speaking, both her and Chikage straightened, and Kushinada indicated towards a large lacquered box that I hadn't noticed sitting beside the Disciple earlier.

"Oh?" Shinobu yawned again, one hand slipping away from her game to pick at her ear briefly. She brought it back down and pushed herself up onto her elbows as she resumed playing. Ma seemed to twitch as the ending position helped display the vampires newly returned bosoms. "Thou may put it over there, somewhere," Shinobu waved briefly with the console, indicating a position behind her. She did not seem at all impressed with Kushinada's gift.

"Very well," Kushinada again showed no reaction to the vampire's rudeness. "First, allow me to display the gift properly, and then I shall have it placed at your leisure." With a nod to her Disciple, Chikage seemed to know what to do. The young girl began to open the drawers of the box, displaying what was inside properly.

Shinobu seemed annoyed at the Miko's insistence, her eyes narrowing as a series of beeps started to come from her console, and she lifted her head to glare at the two for apparently causing her death, when quite suddenly she froze, before her elbows went out from beneath her, causing her upper body to fall to the ground without warning and her head to clunk against the floorboards audibly.

"Oi," Sakaki muttered, stiffening at the sudden movement, body tense as he tried to determine just what the vampire was up to.

"Tis…" Shinobu's voice was muffled by the floor, her tone slow and dangerous. "Tis this true?"

"Yes, Hearts Under Blade," Kushinada confirmed, still maddeningly polite in the face of Shinobu's antics. It was enough to cause the floor bound blonde to push herself up, launching herself to her feet using just the force of her arms.

"Tis the legendary twenty kilograms of doughnuts!" Shinobu crowed, taking in the sight of row upon row of the pastries that Chikage was revealing. I'm not sure if that was the actual weight, but there certainly were a lot of the sweets somehow packed into the impromptu lunch box. "I had thought it naught but a myth, and yet here it is!" Shinobu was spinning around, hands waiving around her like a child as she literally began to drool. "Ka, ka, ka! At last! That I have lived long enough to bear witness to this event is truly a blessing indeed!"

"Douh… nuts?" Shigure repeated slowly, still hovering over the excited newcomer. She sounded more curious about Shinobu's reaction than anything else, unlike much of the rest of the room.

"We've been trying to get her to do more than just sit around for days, and you're saying all we needed was doughnuts?" Ma muttered softly to the Elder, though the little pervert diligently kept his eyes locked on the bouncing Shinobu. It seemed that maybe she had been right to be so excited about her breasts return, seeing as just about every other male she's come across had noticed them.

"I had been informed that this gift would be well received," Kushinada still didn't seem at all disturbed by the silliness of the prancing vampire. "It is a relief to see that my information was correct. Would you like me to place these somewhere, or…"

"Nay," Shinobu cut off the Miko, finally adopting a more regal stance, hands on her hips as she glared coolly down at the still kneeling woman. I'm not sure if she was attempting to honestly look dignified for once, but the image was marred by the fact that she was still visibly drooling. "A gift as fine as this should be enjoyed immediately! I shall have to ration myself, though," she continued in a mumble. "Perhaps only five kilograms for now, and another five later?"

"Whatever you think is proper," Kushinada capitulated, and with another nod Chikage began to back away from the now open box which now vaguely resembled the display case at a pastry shop. Shinobu skipped over, not paying any attention to the much decreased distance between her and the two priestesses, and flopped down gracelessly.

"Ka, ka, ka," Shinobu cackled again, already rubbing her hands evilly as she prepared to glut herself. "Ka, ka, ka!"

"She can't really be such a glutton, can she?" Miu managed to lean over to her grandfather's ears, her whispered question filled with distaste as she glared at the vampire who appeared much the same age as she did.

"Girl likes her doughnuts, I guess," Sakaki muttered, though he didn't appear as disturbed as the younger girl did. He looked marginally more relaxed now though, and as though Shinobu's indulgence was the event he was waiting for the brawler reached out to snag one of his beers, slicing the top off with one quick move of his hand before taking a pull at it. Then his eyes narrowed. "Apachai, no!"

"Apapapa," the gentle giant flinched, pulling back from where he had begun to crawl on all fours towards the treasure trove of pastries. "Apachai is hungry!"

"Don't get in her way," Sakaki warned fiercely, pulling his other bowl of beer nuts and slamming them down in front of the other man. "Here," Sakaki bluntly declared, sacrificing his sacred drinking food for his friend. "Just keep eating these."

"Apapapa!" The gesture seemed to cheer Apachai up, but the big man continued to give longing looks to where Shinobu had indeed started digging in to her allowed five kilograms.

"If it pleases you, Hearts Under Blades," Kushinada ignored the shenanigans of the gathered Katsujin Ken members, instead remaining focused on the gorging vampire. "I was hoping that you might answer a question of mine."

"Of course!" Shinobu announced, her voice made muffled by the large bite of doughnut she was currently chewing on. "Thou would be most welcome in my Master's harem!" She swallowed, a massive ball of food visibly distending her throat as she did so. "There art still positions open," she mused, scratching her head openly as she seemed to contemplate the dynamics of my so called harem. "Perhaps thou could be the 'Onee-chan' role, or maybe the 'Shotacon'."

Ma made a choking noise, freezing entirely and a goofy looking smile appearing on his face as he contemplated the concept of Kushinada being combined with the concept of a harem. The Elder twitched as well, though it looked like he was doing more to try and cover a smile as Kushinada finally paused, unable to completely suppress a small sign of discomfort at the vampire's direct offer.

"While I appreciate the gesture," Kushinada ventured cautiously, eventually mastering her calm, "I had instead hoped to hear more about young Shirahama Kenichi's condition. Is the boya well?"

"My Master?" Shinobu didn't seem at all disturbed by the question, already turning her attention away from the Miko and back to the doughnuts. "Oh, he's just sleeping for a while."

"Sleeping?" Sakaki repeated, pausing from his beer as he turned incredulous eyes on the vampire. "Sleeping? We saw what you did, with your shadow, and you're saying he's just sleeping?"

"Of course!" Shinobu shrugged, unconcerned by the disbelief being sent her way. She answered the brawler's question just as easily as she had Kushinada's. Apparently, once she had been fully appealed by doughnuts she no longer made any distinction between who was asking questions when she answered. The factions gathered here were irrelevant, all humans being equal in her eyes. "Where else would he sleep?"

"At home," Miu muttered, still giving the vampire a baleful eye. "In his bed. With his friends and family around to keep him safe."

"Huh," Shinobu grunted at Miu's suggestion, pausing to give the ground a curious looks as she thought about the option. "Verily, I have never considered such a thing," she admitted easily, shrugging before she returned to snacking. "What an abysmal concept."

"Abysmal…" Miu began starting to narrow her eyes in anger at the dismissal, before the Elder's hand on her head caused her to pause. With a guilty look to her grandfather, Miu closed her eyes and appeared to begin meditating.

"Where Kenichi-kun is resting aside," Akisame began, cutting in to the conversation with a reasonable tone. "The question remains how long will he be sleeping? It has been several days already. How much longer before we can expect our Disciple to wake up?"

If Shinobu heard the possessive tone of the doctor, she gave it no heed. "Oh, a year or two," she shrugged easily as she rattled off an estimate. "Perhaps five at the most."

The bottle in Sakaki's hand shattered as his fist clenched at the bleak proposal. "Five years?" the brawler demanded, not even noticing the way his beer was soaking his leg, or the way he was grinding glass into dust with his bare hands.

"At the most," Shinobu nodded in confirmation.

"Is he in some kind of coma?" Akisame prompted, now definite worry in his tone. "If so, then perhaps Ma-sensei, or myself might be able to help. We are accomplished doctors, after all." I couldn't tell for sure, but I think the offer for treatment might have had more to do with convincing Shinobu to let me out of her shadow than to actually treat me.

"Doctors?" Shinobu repeated, giving the jujitsu user a brief look. Then her eyes trailed over to Ma, who had managed to arrange himself in a dignified way for the inspection.

Then Shinobu gave a little snort of amusement, and turned back to her doughnuts. Ma wilted at the dismissal, though Akisame bristled slightly.

It didn't surprise me that Shinobu would turn them down. Those two had barely been welcomed into the Nightworld, and had no idea what existed therein. They probably thought that it was just regular injuries which were keeping me asleep. The very thought was ridiculous for a vampire. Their bodies just didn't hold injuries, after all. What was wrong with me was most likely my power, the long and dangerous over use having strained me in some way. In Shinobu's shadow, basking in her power much like she used to do the same with me, I was probably receiving more aid than anything the two of them could do in a dozen years.

"So a year at the latest," Kushinada murmured to herself, a hand coming up once more to conceal her lips. She at least seemed to find the news satisfying. "It would be disappointing if the boya were to return without my knowledge," she continued, once more addressing the gorging vampire. "With your permission, Lady Hearts Under Blades, may I call upon you again in a few months to check on your Master's recovery?"

"Hmmm," Shinobu began, giving the Miko a shy look. "My time is quite valuable. I am not certain I would be able to spare so much of it…"

"Of course, I will again return bearing gifts," Kushinada assured her, and Shinobu grinned triumphantly at the obvious bribery.

"Very well! I shall await thy return eagerly!" she declared, holding up one of her doughnuts as though in salute.

Kushinada bowed again, and was making as though she was about to stand when the Elder spoke up. "Well, Shinobu-chan, wasn't it?" the older man began, addressing the vampire with a grandfatherly air. Sakaki and Shigure both tensed, and I didn't blame them when Shinobu's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Why I'm certain you're enjoying your snack," he continued, "are you certain you should be allowing those two so much access to Kenichi-chan?" His eyes remained focused on Kushinada, who allowed an irritated twitch of her lips as her old rival interfered with her business. "Though she is rather polite, Mikumo has tried to harm Kenichi-chan in the past."

"How petty, Hayate," Kushinada muttered to herself at the Elder's obvious attempt to put a break on the developing relationship between the Bewitching Fist and the Kai Killer.

"Hmm?" Shinobu hummed to herself, before shrugging carelessly. "It does not seem important. If they did indeed attempt to harm my Master, I would simply tear both their heads off before tracking down their god and making a snack of it." She paused, tapping her lips in thought. "Tis been a while since I supped on god," she noted idly to herself. "Perhaps t'would make a good change of diet."

Kushinada, Sakaki, and Shigure all went very still at the declaration, and Chikage shivered while Miu's eyes narrowed as well. While the rest of the room seemed to dismiss Shinobu's blunt claim, Ma even going so far as to shake his head in amusement and Akisame chuckling lightly, those five at least understood that when Shinobu made such a claim, she was not just joking around.

"Though perhaps thy council is not without merit," Shinobu allowed a moment later before turning to point at Kushinada. "You, brat. What are thy intentions towards my Master?"

For a moment, Kushinada was still, and I wondered if maybe she was trying to think of a way to get out of this situation without any more of Shinobu's attention, before finally the Miko smiled slightly.

"I want him," Kushinada declared simply. Reactions were mixed at the declaration.

"Oh!" Shinobu grinned at that. "So it is the harem option after all!"

"How does the boy do it?" Ma mumbled to himself, also interpreting the Miko's declaration in the obvious way. "Has the Disciple truly surpassed the Master?"

"Another… rival?" Shigure chimed in, though she sounded more curious than anything else. It reminded me that for everything else that had happened when I was awake, Shigure had made her intentions quite clear about what her feelings towards me were. If I wasn't dreaming, I might just blush at the thought.

"Mikumo," the Elder began, also sounding surprised at his long time rival's declaration. "Have you truly sunken so low?" His eyes narrowed as he continued. "Why would you want Kenichi-chan, anyway? He's not well suited for the Kushinada style of Jujitsu. Your current Disciple is a much better match for your style." It seemed that the Elder at least had a separate interpretation of what Kushinada had meant.

"Oh? What a dirty mind you have, Hayate," Kushinada chided the Elder, one hand coming up to conceal a smile. "I did not say I want him for myself, or for my style. I want him for my shrine."

"Your shrine?" Akisame's strange eyebrows furrowed as he tried to understand what the Miko was saying.

"Shirahama-kun is well on his way to being the premiere specialist in Japan," Kushinada elaborated, still concealing her lips with one scarred hand. "Already, at such a young age, he supasses all but a few others of the trade in this country. In a few years, with a bit more study and experience, he might reach the same status in the rest of the world as well." Such a direct and blunt appraisal of my abilities as a Kai specialist seemed to take the Elder aback, though Akisame instead seemed intrigued.

"And you wanna get that kind of talent for Yami," Sakaki declared bluntly, eyes narrowing as he finished his current beer, jerkily reaching for a third and opening it in the same way as the first. It was a logical assumption, so when Kushinada shook her head in the negative the brawler paused halfway through his first sip.

"What would Yami want with a specialist?" Kushinada seemed amused at how quickly the assumption had been made. "Yami is an organization dedicated to Martial Arts, not magic or superstition. Even I, one of the Nine Shadow One Fist, never truly considered my shrine to be anything else but a traditional establishment. I only ever saw to its upkeep as a form of training in the old ways. Until, that is, I was attacked by a goddess."

"A goddess?" the Elder frowned, looking surprised. "I didn't take you for one to believe in such things, Mikumo."

Again, Shinobu gave the Elder an irritated look, and this time both Sakaki and Shigure also had their own glances for the Master. Even Miu looked uncomfortable, giving Shinobu a quick glance that wasn't angry for once.

It looked like they finally understood just why I had been so reluctant to bring Ryouzanpaku into the Nightworld. Even with their testimonies, even with one of his most trusted enemies agreeing, even with a freaking vampire scarfing doughnuts in front of him, the Elder still didn't truly believe in the Kai. It had taken seeing me absorbing a building and watching me regrow my entire body before Sakaki or Miu had truly believed, after all.

"Hmhmhm," Kushinada chuckled softly, already understanding that her old foe was still stuck in denial and finding it amusing it seemed. "Oh, why shouldn't I? After Shirahama-kun gave me such excellent advice, I was finally able to advance as a Miko, as well as a Martial Artist. And now, my shrine isn't just an empty shell anymore." Her hand dipped slightly, revealing the sharp smile beneath. It truly was a ghastly sight to see on such ruined flash. "The Kushinda style once more is in the service of a god."

"And just what kind of god might that be?" the Elder seemed ready to engage in what was likely a flight of fancy for him, but his attempt only seemed to amuse Kushinada more. I could figure out why. She had told me what sorts of prayers were granted at her shrine, after all.

"An Aragami, of course," she revealed with immense satisfaction. "A god of war that promises glorious death in battle. And my god is quite fond of Shirahama-kun. The boya has already earned his approval, twice over now."

That too, made sense I suppose. I had died in battle twice now. Yes, I suppose that I would definitely catch the eye of something like that.

"I had always thought that your shrine was meant to be kept in your family," the Elder noted, brow furrowing at the reminder of just how many times the Disciple of Ryouzanpaku had fallen.

"Well," Kushinada's hand came back up to her lips. "That can be arranged still. My Disciple is quite fond of yours, after all."

It took a second for the implication to hit, but once it dead, Ma snorted, turning a wide eye to Chikage, just as much of the room did. Miu's stare was particularly disbelieving. Under the combined weight of so many Masters' stares, Chikage managed to maintain an admirable demeanor, though her cheeks did redden slightly as her crush was revealed.

"Another… rival," Shigure sighed, sounding aggrieved at yet more competition.

"Hmm," Shinobu hummed, studying the younger girl closely as she did so. The vampire was currently munching on an éclair of some kind, while idly twirling three other doughnuts by their holes around one of her fingers. "Master never did have anything against lolis, I suppose. He did keep that snail girl around, after all."

"Snail girl?" Miu repeated, eyes narrowing as she did so. "Lolis?"

"Ka, ka, ka!" Shinobu laughed, and if this wasn't a dream I would have face palmed at the way the vampire was shamelessly stirring up trouble for me. That, and reminded her that she used to be a loli too, for that matter.

"A loli?" Kushinada also repeated, sounding amused. "Well, for now. But she is approaching the age when she should begin growing, and when she does the secondary aspect of the Kushinada youth techniques should start developing as well."

"Secondary…" Ma repeated, before his eyes widened. Without an ounce of shame, his eyes locked on Kushinada's impressive albeit scarred bust, before switching with a movement that should have been accompanied by a 'locking on' sound effect to the still blushing Chikage. "Please, Kushinada-san! You need to reveal these secrets to the rest of the world," Ma announced, launching himself to his feet, eyes alight with the power of etchi. "Such a thing must not be kept hidden!"

"Contemptible little man," Kushinada snorted, before ignoring the China man completely. "So, Lady Hearts Under Blades," she continued, giving the still curious vampire an expectant look, "if you say that a year or two is necessary for Shirahama-kun to recover that is fine. It certainly allows me time to better prepare my own camp, in the end."

"I'm sure my Master will thank me for increasing his harem later," Shinobu agreed, shrugging as she dismissed the rest of the implications completely and turned back to her doughnuts. "Just see to it that she does not become a tsundere. Master already has one in his harem, after all."

It actually took Sakaki a moment to understand what Shinobu's nod towards him indicated, and when he did he spat out his beer.

"I'm not in the damn midget's harem!" he roared, slapping his palm against his head. "I'm his Master, his instructor, not a goddamn love interest!" He paused, and also continued, in an even louder tone. "And I'm not a damn tsundere!"

"Oh?" Shinobu's grin turned cunning. "The last time I had come to Japan, twas the fashion of the time. I suppose things might have changed."

"Mikumo," the Elder continued to address his old enemy, his voice unusually solemn as he ignored the degenerating squabble between the member of his dojo and the blonde interloper. "There is something which has been concerning me for a while. Since you are being so open at the moment, perhaps I could run my concerns by you."

"Hmph," the Miko gave a lady like snort. "It has been a long time since I have been a confident of yours, Hayate." Kushinada didn't seem particularly inclined to grant the Elder's request. The only reason she had been so open so far was that she was trying to get information out of Shinobu, after all. It didn't seem likely that she would offer much that wouldn't advance her position with the vampire.

"You see, it concerns Junazard, and how he came to know about Miu's parentage," the Elder continued anyway, and that was enough to set the rest of Ryouzanpaku on edge. Sakaki, who had been really starting to warm up to the argument with Shinobu over his status in my so called harem froze, his eyes narrowing as the glass in his hand began to creak dangerously from the pressure it was being put under again. Ma's eyes sharpened, gaining some edge as they returned from the etchi place. Akisame paused momentarily in his preparation of tea before he resumed, and Shigure seemed to stiffen in her perch above Shinobu.

Surprisingly, even Apachai paused, the normally oblivious giant starting to pay attention. When it came to Miu's encounter with the Demon God Fist, there was still very little in the way of playfulness in Ryouzanpaku.

"There were very few who knew of Miu's ancestery," the Elder continued, voice still firm. "The number of people who might have told Junazard is small. And of those who know, there are only two in Yami. One of them I know would never reveal the fact. That just leaves…"

I could do the math as the Elder trailed off. If memory served, one of the two members of the Yami that might know was none other than Miu's father. If what the Elder was implying was true, than it looked like the one responsible for Miu's painful encounter with the Demon God Fist was right here, kneeling politely in front of the one she had nearly killed.

"Oh?" Kushinada did not seem at all disturbed by the accusation. She smiled again, this time not bothering to conceal her lips. It really was disturbing what the motion did two her ruined flesh. "Are you going somewhere with this, Hayate?"

"I suppose my greatest concern would be 'why'?" the Elder continued softly. He looked so relaxed, so unconcerned by what he was speaking about that it would have set me on edge if this hadn't all been a dream. Beside him, Miu also seemed to understand the precipice her grandfather was standing before, and seemed to shrink in on herself briefly before reaching out to lightly clutch the Elder's kimono. I wasn't certain if it was to comfort herself or to try and restrain him, but it seemed to relax the Elder briefly.

"I suppose if someone were to reveal something like that," Kushinada finally ventured after a moment, sounding as though she were treating the whole thing as a hypothetical situation, "then that person might have been trying to set the Invincible Superman against the Demon God in order to get rid of one of them."

Sakaki's scowl grew fiercer as the Bewitching fist as much as admitted to being the force behind Miu's pain, and Ma scowled as well. They were the two most obvious in their reaction, as Akisame, Shigure, Apachai, and even the Elder managed to master their reactions a little bitter.

"I would believe something like that," the Elder acknowledged, shaking his head slightly, "if someone hadn't just revealed that they had an interest in the other Disciple as well."

"Hmhmhm," Kushinada chuckled darkly, and I realized that the Elder had been right, that he had somehow managed to detect that there was even more to the plot than just the removal of a rival or a fellow Master. "If this train of thought was true, than perhaps the death of the girl might have had a reaction on the other Disciple as well. Perhaps he would simply remove himself from the Underworld entirely, maybe seeking a more secular life, perhaps at a shrine that would have been made available for him. Or perhaps he would have sought vengeance, even going so far as to seek the Satsujin Ken for himself. Even if he was ill suited for particular styles, there are those among Yami quite fond of raising Disciples, in the end. Instruction from one of them might have been arranged. So long as the Disciple grew closer, there were many options."

Okay. I had always known that Kushinada was terrifying. This should be nothing new to me.

Still, to hear that the plot which had nearly destroyed Miu's soul and sanity, had literally killed me, might have been aimed in part at me…

I was glad I was dreaming. This would have been too much to deal with awake.

"Wow," Shinobu whistled, speaking normally as she selected yet another doughnut from her treasure trove. "Thou art a conniving bitch, art thou not?"

"Hmhmhm," Kushinada gave a demure laugh. "This is all nothing but speculation, in the end. Or do you have some sort of proof of your accusations, Hayate?"

"No," the Elder murmured softly, still far too calm for someone in his situation. "No, there is not."

"Well then," Kushinada made as though to stand, an action echoed by the still silent Chikage. "If there is nothing else, it seems our business here is done…"

"I have… a question," it was Shigure who spoke up, interrupting the Bewitching Fist as she began to make her departure. She was the only one from Ryouzanpaku that seemed capable of speaking at the moment, the rest too busy dealing with the fact that the one responsible for so much of our pain was right here in front of them, laughing as she made her escape.

"And what is it this time?" Kushinada sounded honestly exasperated at the interruption.

"Not… for you," Shigure said, causing Kushinada to pause. "For… you." The slow speaking Master pointed at Shinobu instead.

"For me?" Shinobu repeated, raising one eyebrow in curiosity. "Why should I care about your concerns?" she demanded, again sounding bored as she kept working her way through her doughnuts. I was not a judge of pastry weight, but I was pretty sure that by this point she had already passed her allotted five kilograms.

"He…re?" Shigure said slowly, and with a quick motion she let something drop from the rafter.

"What is this?" Shinobu blinked in confusion as she took in what had appeared before her. It took me a second to realize that Shigure had somehow attached a bag boasting the Mister Doughnut logo to a string, which she had lowered down as though she was fishing until it rested directly in front of the confused vampire. I had a moment to wonder just where she had gotten the bag from, before I caught sight of the same thing that had apparently confused Shinobu.

"Chiu!" Touchumaru declared, saluting cheerfully as the mouse introduced himself to the vampire. I would have blinked, if I had eyes. Why did the mouse have Mister Donuts? Did Shigure actually send him out to get some after Kushinada revealed Shinobu's weakness? And if so, how had the mouse made the trip so quickly? Actually, how had the mouse actually made an order at all?

"Tis most bizarre," Shinobu muttered, still eyeing the mouse even as she reached for the back being offered. Her confusion vanished once she opened the package. "Golden Delights!" she crowed, not even seeming to care that she already had twenty kilograms right beside her. For Shinobu, more doughnuts were always better, no matter how many she already had.

"It… works," Shigure nodded, apparently having been trying to test the hypothesis that doughnuts were the only sure fire way to get Shinobu to cooperate.

"So what is it thou desire to know?" Shinobu went on to definitely prove Shigure right. Kushinada rolled her eyes slightly, and was turning to leave, apparently not concerned just what Shigure was trying to find out, preferring to take her leave now that her own questions had been answered.

"What does… Wicked Blossom mean?" Shigure's question caused Kushinada to stop, pausing as the weapon mistress actually managed to find something that even the Bewitching Fist apparently was unaware of.

"Oh?" Shinobu drawled out her response. A wicked grin appeared on her face. "My Master's first title? Tis almost cause for celebration. But why dost thou profess confusion? The title is most simple."

"What is… it then?" Shigure prompted, ignoring Shinobu's attempt to draw out her answer.

"Wicked Blossom?" Akisame repeated, turning to Sakaki in confusion as he heard the title for the first time. The brawler had sat up straight, and was apparently just as interested in the answer as Shigure and Kushinada were.

"It was what the other vampire and the midget called himself," Sakaki muttered back, giving the philosopher some context. "I thought it had something to do with Kenichi's weed impression myself."

"Ka, ka, ka," Shinobu released her ghoulish laugh. "Not quite so simple, tsundere," she declared, and Sakaki bristled at the title again. "The title is more meaningful than something so simple!" Shinobu lounged backwards, apparently enjoying the chance to lord over the gathered mortals. "Tell me," she began mischievously. "What type of fruit does a cherry blossom bring forth? Cherries of course. As do the orange blossom bring forth oranges and the apple blossoms bring forth apples. So, ask thyself, what sort of fruit does a wicked blossom bring forth?" Shinobu grinned maliciously. "Why, evil fruit of course."

"What do you mean by that?" Miu demanded the other girl bristling as she interpreted the vampire's words as an attack on my character. "Kenichi-san would never do anything evil!"

"Oh?" Shinobu drawled. "But he brought forth me, did he not?" she pointed out, still grinning. "With tender malice and intimate cruelty, he deliberately hurt himself and others, to the point of near death for many, all in order to bring me back into the world. I had surely died, three years ago. Nay, I had died many years before that," she corrected herself, "but I had continued to live on past my death, as a vampire. And yet, when I finally destroyed myself even as that, when I had unmade myself to my very core, then did my Master bring me back. Like a flower blossoming, he forced his very body open. Like a gardener, he pollinated that blossom with his own blood. His shadow grew as a bud would, and from it he created the seed of my rebirth. His produce was me, a vampire which has slain thousands, which tens of thousands lived in fear of. What other title could fit my Master, save that of a Wicked Blossom to bear Evil Fruit into the world?"

"That's… that's not true," Miu began, though she was shivering at the bleak appraisal Shinobu had given my actions. If I wasn't dreaming, perhaps I would have shivered too.

It was true, after all. There was nothing noble about what I had done, either now or so long ago. Shinobu was a vampire, one who was well over five hundred years old. As a vampire she had never been very gluttonous, but even with restrained eating habits she had to have killed and eaten around one person a month to survive. At twelve months a year, five hundred years amounted to over six thousand that had died at her fangs. That was greater than the population of some towns.

Add in those she had killed in battles, and the number only increased. As the oldest and greatest of her kind, she had been in a lot of fights, after all. And Shinobu hadn't earned a title like 'Hot blooded, Cold blooded, Iron blooded' by showing a lot of mercy in those fights. With those calculated in, I wouldn't be surprised if the vampire so casually swirling a doughnut around her pointer finger had a kill count well into the tens of thousands at this point.

And I had saved her life, three times at this point. The first when I gave my life for hers, the second when I had refused to kill her and let her live on in my shadow, and again just a few days ago when I had pulled her back out of it. If Shinobu could be considered the enemy of humanity, than as the one who had saved her so often, there was little doubt I too should bear that title.

The Wicked Blossom which bore Evil Fruit was a fitting term for something like me.

"The boya is wasted on the Katsujin Ken," Kushinada murmured, apparently very pleased with the answer Shinobu had provided. Others in the room were less so, judging from the worried looks that Akisame and Ma were sharing. Even the Elder seemed uncomfortable with Shinobu's gloating revelation.

"Now, now," as though to alleviate his discomfort, the Elder stood, moving toward Shinobu with a smile. As though to calm everyone down, he reached to put a big hand on the smaller girl's shoulder. "I'm sure things aren't as…"

It was as far as he got before he made contact with Shinobu. The vampire's expression instantly settled into glare, and her face whipped in his direction, her eyes literally flashing for a moment.

There was no other motion, simply the flash, and then the Elder was flying backwards, his massive frame driving through the dojo wall, across the courtyard, and impacting into the walls of Ryouzanpaku with enough force to sink the man half way into the thick bricks. If it had been anyone else but a Master, maybe even anyone else then the Elder, I think they would have been flattened completely by the strike.

"Insolent brat," Shinobu snorted into the shocked silence, her eyes still flashing. "Did I give thee permission to approach me so casually?"

"Grandfather!" Miu cried, shock at the sudden assault on the infamously invincible fighter.

"Shit," Sakaki swore, the bottle in his hand again no longer capable of withstanding the force of his fingers as it shattered.

"What on earth was that?" Akisame demanded, also going ridged at the suddenness of the attack. "An air throw of some kind?" he speculated, thinking of the jujitsu throws which relied on feints and ki strikes to cause a person to effectively throw themselves into dodges.

"Mystic eyes," it was Chikage who spoke up, supplying the answer. Kushinada gave her a mild glance, listening to her Disciple in this matter. "Band-Aid-onii-chan mentioned the power to destroy things with their sight while listing a vampire's powers," she continued.

Wait, when did Chikage start tagging an 'onii-chan' onto my nickname?

"T'was not just my bosoms that returned on my awakening," Shinobu leered, acknowledging Chikage's speculation. It appeared that with her increase in age, some more of her powers might have returned to her as well. That did not bode well for the immediate future.

"You are… wrong," it was Shigure who spoke next, interrupting the growing excitement as she continued to lock stony gaze on the vampire below her. Shinobu glanced back to find that the weapon mistress had swung over the beam and was once more doing her lavender bat impression. Shinobu raised an eyebrow at the display, but appeared unimpressed.

"Oh?" she drawled, giving the closer Master a withering look. "And what might I be mistaken about, kuudere?"

"Kuudere?" Sakaki repeated, blinking as someone beside him got labeled with a relationship stereotype for a title as well.

"You are not… evil," Shigure continued, still talking directly to the vampire. Shinobu blinked, looking taken aback at the declaration.

"And what makes thou think that?" Shinobu demanded, affronted at the implication that she didn't deserve her wicked title.

"Because Kenichi… likes you," Shigure nodded. "And Kenichi wouldn't… like an evil person." It was Shinobu's turn to blink in surprise at the logic. Shigure really did have a touch of the inhuman in her, if she truly could think like that. "Let's be… friends."

"Friends?" Shinobu repeated, sounding absolutely astonished at the offer. It didn't surprise me. Shinobu was of the Kai, and the Kai were not the type to befriend humans, or even others of their own species. Still, it seemed that the offer had drawn the vampire's attention. "Thou, kuudere," Shinobu finally spoke after a moment. "What was thy name?"

"Shigure… Kousaka," the Master introduced herself to the vampire.

"Shigure," Shinobu repeated, not bothering to add honorifics as she repeated the name. "Thou art a fool, Shigure," she finally decided. "It seems my Master's harem is often replete with such things.

I don't think anyone else in the room realized just how momentous the occasion was. Shinobu didn't use names. Ever. Even I was only ever referred to as 'Master' by her. For her to voluntarily use another's…

This was kind of groundbreaking here.

"Kenichi's… harem," Shigure repeated, and again if I was awake my jaw would probably have hit the ground as the weapon mistress began to blush lightly. "Let's… get along."

Shinobu grunted, and began to open her mouth to no doubt say something derogatory, but then she froze going rigid with her mouth still open. The rest of the room tensed, wondering just what it was that she was about to do, and then her head whipped around to stare directly at my point of view.

"Oh?" Shinobu murmured, and I blinked. Wow, this dream was getting weird.

Maybe it was time to dream about something else?

Even as my vision began to fade, Shinobu turned to give her shadow a speculative look. The last thing I heard before I sank back into dreamless slumber was her.

"Well, I suppose not yet," Shinobu decided, sounding amused by something.

Darkness retook me completely, and I slept.

*Scene Break*

Time has no meaning, when you're sleeping. Still, even in the deepest sleep, sometimes the sleeper will get restless. I wasn't certain how long it had been, but it was as though the great tiredness that I had been harboring had lessened, and with its diminishing more and more I found myself dreaming.

Another memorable dream also took place in the dojo of Ryouzanpaku.

"Would you two get down from there?" Sakaki muttered, looking towards the ceiling. The brawler was again perched on the edge of the dojo, a six pack of beer and a bowl of nuts nearby. The man looked pensive about something, alternating between glancing outside at the courtyard and up, to the two he had just spoken too.

"Verily?" Shinobu cocked her head to the side, curiosity in her features. "Why should I do that?"

"It is a… good view," Shigure agreed.

The two were perched above eye sight, just like Shigure normally did. The weapon mistress had chosen to sit on a beam again, Touchumaru nearby practicing a circus routine of all things as the two relaxed.

Shinobu had chosen to disregard the beam, and was instead laying in a half hazard position on the ceiling itself. In defiance of gravity, her hair was laying perfectly flat, as though it was normal to drape upwards rather than down. Sometimes, Shigure also walked along the ceiling, though when she did she used her toes to grab cracks and her hair would hang around her. Shinobu had chosen the very center of a ceiling tile and was idly kicking her feat, no part of her body that could grasp in contact with the ceiling itself.

Also, another box of doughnuts similar to the one Kushinada had given her before was next to her. All the drawers were open, and despite the fact that they were upside down gravity seemed to be nowhere in sight.

It's the kind of thing which would be very disturbing to the uninitiated, but Sakaki and Shigure didn't seem to mind at all. If anything, the two were ignoring it with the ease of long practice.

Interestingly enough, both Shigure and Shinobu were holding portable game systems in this dream. Judging from the way both of them were so intent, I had the impression that they might be playing something together via wireless connections.

"Che," Sakaki clicked his tongue, before he turned back to the courtyard again, his expression drifting back to pensive. "Still, to think that something like this would happen…"

Curious as to what had gotten to my Master, my view changed in my dream until I too could see what the brawler was looking at. In my dream, it gave me quite a shock when I realized that the sight before him was none other than Miu and, of all people, my sister Hanako, both in the courtyard. Akisame was standing nearby, watching vigilantly, as Miu and Hanako engaged in what was apparently sparring.

"We both knew that Kenichi… was stubborn," Shigure pointed out slowly. "Why wouldn't his sister… be too?"

"It's still weird," Sakaki muttered, grumbling as he did so. "How am I supposed to train a girl?" he complained as though to the air. "I mean, it was easy to hit Kenichi," he continued, killing a small part of my soul with the casual confession, "but Hanako is just so… so tiny."

"It helps that… Hanako actually has talent," Shigure pointed out. "Unlike… Kenichi."

And there went another part of my soul as well. Why were my Masters so mean to me, even in my dreams!

"The girl has chosen a foolish goal though," Shinobu pointed out, sounding bored by the conversation. "The loli seem too lofty a height to set gaze upon."

"Hey, a good rival can help drive a Disciple a lot faster than any Master can," Sakaki moved to defend Hanako almost instinctively. Then he snorted, apparently amused at something. "Even if the reason for the rivalry is silly as all hell."

"She's at a good… age for learning," Shigure pointed out as well, before her system started to beep at her angrily. I was able to judge the expression she turned on Shinobu as a pout.

"Ka, ka, ka!" Shinobu declared smirking at the other woman. "Victory is mine again!" The vampire reached out to pluck a doughnut from the box next to her, biting into it triumphantly.

"Victory?" Akisame asked, having apparently left the Miu and Hanako alone in the courtyard for the moment. He gave the suspended vampire and the box of doughnuts a cautious look, at least having the grace to be unnerved at the unnatural before he continued. "Ah," he hummed to himself. "I see Chikage-chan has already been here." He gave a soft sigh. "To think, it's already been a year."

"I did say that my Master would sleep at least as long," Shinobu pointed out, a cocky smile on her face. "Thou should have listened to the tsundere about my judgment."

"It's been a freaking year already," Sakaki muttered, angrily sipping at his beer. "When will you freaking give it a rest? I'm not in the boy's goddamn harem." He grabbed a handful of nuts and began popping them into his mouth grumpily. "Why are you so freaking set on the theory anyway?"

"Hmm?" Shinobu cocked her head to the side, apparently actually giving the idea thought. "Well, perhaps times have changed," she admitted casually. "When first I arrived in these lands, twas popular for Masters and pupils to engage in such things. Wasn't love between warriors a sacred tryst?"

"Well," Akisame noted, sounding contemplative. "During the era of Bushido, homosexual relations between samurai were common," he admitted. Sakaki growled and gave the jujitsu user a glare.

"Wasn't that like two hundred years ago?" he demanded, throwing a hand in the air in frustration.

"Yes," Shinobu nodded immediately. "T'was about the time I first came to this land."

An awkward silence settled over the three humans, Sakaki and Akisame exchanging an uncomfortable look as Shigure blinked once before returning to her game system.

"Just when you start to think of her as almost normal," Sakaki finally muttered, shaking his head.

"Truly," Akisame muttered as well, mostly to himself. "To have been able to witness those times for oneself. What wonders must have existed back then?" It looked like even though Akisame was still uncomfortable in Shinobu's presence, he had at least come to accept the reality of her existence.

"Twas far more killing," Shinobu answered easily, though Akisame had meant no one to hear his statement. "And far smellier. These ages are far easier on the senses. There were more in the way of Kai then too," she went on to add, sounding thoughtful. "Many of them were delicious. I wonder, it has been a while since I've had kitsune…"

"Ye…s," Shigure nodded at the statement. "They are quite… tasty."

"Is she going on again about vampire things?" It was Miu who spoke up this time, leading Hanako as the two apparently took a break. Miu looked older now, though not by much. She was only a bit taller, and her hair was longer, but beyond that the age showed in her cheek bones and frame. She looked lither then before, but where her muscles pressed against her usual armored spandex they looked even tighter than before.

"I thought that wannabe vampires wore more black and spoke in bad accents," Hanako chimed in cheerfully. My sister looked older as well, though the changes were more obvious in her than in Miu. Hanako had been about ready for the age where puberty began to really work at her, and I realized that in my dream she had grown nearly an inch, and judging from the swell of her douji she was beginning to develop in other areas as well.

"Oh?" Shinobu cocked her head to the side, giving my sister a brief look. "Did the morsel say something?"

Shinobu used the term easily, probably having decided on it as the nickname for my sister, but from the nervous glances Miu was giving the vampire it looked like my fellow Disciple wasn't quite certain whether or not she should be taking the vampire seriously. Miu began to open her mouth, but was interrupted as Hanako seemed to notice something.

"Ah!" my sister gasped, pointing at the doughnuts. Her eyes narrowed in childish anger. "Has that dull eyed girl been here?"

"Oh?" Akisame put a finger to his mouth in feigned thought. "You mean Chikage-chan? I do believe that she might have been here earlier…"

"The nerve of that girl!" Hanako declared, stomping her feet angrily. "Saying she's going to marry onii-chan and asking if she can call me 'imouto' too! She's even younger than I am!"

Hanako stormed out of the dojo, and I couldn't help but wonder just what had happened between my sister and Chikage in this dream world to prompt such a response. Sakaki watched the girl go, looking highly amused about something.

"Well, I'll give the super midget this much," he grinned. "When she makes a move, she sure makes a move."

"A dangerous… rival," Shigure admitted, shaking her head slowly.

"You shouldn't call her that," Miu ignored the other Masters, turning instead to level a glare at Shinobu instead. "It's not her name, and even thinking about eating Kenichi-san's sister is…"

"Why should I care what her name is?" Shinobu interrupted, ignoring Miu's glare with what looked like long ease. "A morsel is a morsel," she continued, "and it is not like she is any sister of mine."

"You know," Sakaki began, giving the vampire a dry look as well. "I have a name too. Would it kill you to use it instead of that other one?"

"Oh?" Shinobu raised an eyebrow, a wicked leer appearing. "I see! Well, I suppose it would be no effort to do so, Sakakaki."

"Finally!" Sakaki cheered, before pausing. "Hey, didn't you add an extra 'ka' in there?" he pointed out suspiciously.

"I stuttered," Shinobu told him bluntly, and I felt amusement at the dream. That had always been Mayoi's favorite little dig. I found myself wondering what ever happened to the little ghost. I hadn't seen much of her, after the rest died. She just suddenly stopped appearing back then. I had thought that it was because I had left the Nightworld, and hadn't bothered to look.

Maybe when I woke up, I could see about tracking her down, if she hadn't moved on by now…

"Still," Akisame spoke up, caution in his tone. "Though you have agreed to refrain from killing while in this dojo," he continued, and I wondered when that had happened. My dream sure wasn't making sense. "It still makes those of the Katsujin Ken nervous when a vampire begins talking about people like food."

"Ka, ka, ka!" Shinobu laughed at the oblique warning Akisame was attempting to give. "Behold!" she declared proudly. "It has been nigh five years since the last time I have devoured one of you humans! Rejoice at my leniency!"

Akisame seemed relieved at the number, though he did grimace at the implication that before those five years had begun the young looking vampire had indeed killed. If he had any idea of the sheer number of deaths that could be attributed to Shinobu, I wonder just how he would react.

"What kind of vampire doesn't drink blood?" Miu pointed out, eyes still narrowed as she gave Shinobu a dirty look. I realized that pretty much every time in my dreams Miu interacted with Shinobu, the Disciple seemed unable to completely conceal distaste for the vampire.

"Who knows?" Shinobu shrugged casually. "Perhaps I am a vampire no longer?"

"Wait," Sakaki perked up, giving Shinobu a cautious look. "What do you mean by that?"

"Well, Sakakakakaki," Shinobu began, and Sakaki scowled.

"Just 'Sakaki'," he snapped, and Shinobu gave him another leer.

"I bit my tongue," she told him, before dismissing the sputtering brawler. "And what I meant, is that it is possible that neither I nor my Master are vampires at all anymore."

"Oh?" Akisame perked up at that, definitely looking interested in the bomb that Shinobu had just dropped. The rest of the room also seemed surprised, but it was the jujitsu user that pressed. "And what do you mean by that, Hearts Under Blades-san?"

"What my Master did was unheard of, when he denied himself humanity," Shinobu shrugged again, leaning back as she began to fire her game back up. Shigure perked a second later, and began hitting buttons again too. "Though many Subordinates have tried, they either fail and die at their Master's hands, or they succeed and become human entirely once more. To stop at the last moment, to live as the two of us have," she shrugged again, "tis unheard of."

"Is that what Kenichi-san meant when he said the two of you were 'Kizumono'?" Miu spoke up, for once not looking hostile to the other vampire.

"Tis a dramatic title, but not entirely untrue," Shinobu admitted, looking more focused on the game than on the conversation. "Though it is not entirely true as well. Though we might be strange now, as Kai we are not unique. There are very few new Kai that have no roots in the older ones." Shinobu gave the girl a twisted little grin. "Though, that might have been the case before my Master resurrected me."

"And how does that change things?" Sakaki broke in, idly cracking open a new bottle and taking a contemplative sip.

"My Master went on to feed on others, enhancing his own powers, Sakakakakakaki," Shinobu continued, and Sakaki gave her an irritated glance as more 'ka's began to join his name. "And he did so in his only partial state. How might such power affect one that is mostly human? Or one who twas naught even a shadow at the time? We were strange enough before such a thing was added. And then my Master went on to change himself in so deviant a manner." Shinobu shrugged again. "At this point, it is possible my Master has more in common with a jubokko or a jinmenju."

"Ju-what now?" Sakaki muttered, obviously having no idea just what Shinobu was talking about.

"A jubokko is a tree that grows from a battlefield," Akisame's eyes narrowed as he took in what the vampire was inferring. "It drinks so much blood from the battlefield that it learns to drink from humans. They say if you cut it, blood comes out. The jinmenju is a tree which bears fruit with human faces on it."

"Yeah," Sakaki shuddered, remembering my time in the school no doubt. "Either of those would work just fine." He gave Shinobu a cautious look. "Than what about you then?"

"Well, more of a mononoke than an oni," she shrugged. If she no longer needed blood, then she would definitely lean towards a mononoke, the word for mischievous spirits of undetermined origin. Then she began to grin that ghastly little smile of hers. "Though I could be called a kubikajari, or even a hakutaku!"

"The kubikajari is a female spirit that eats corpses," Akisame's eyes narrowed, already explaining the myths to the rest of the room at large. Miiu shuddered slightly at the implication that the thing above her actually ate bodies. It made sense, in a way. Devouring the corpses was the traditional method vampires used to keep more of their kind from appearing. The only time they didn't eat the bodies was when they were making their victims a subordinate, like what happened to me. "As for the hakutaku," here Akisame seemed amused despite himself. "It was the legendary creature which appeared before the emperor of China and told him knowledge of all the demons and myths of the world."

"Ka, ka, ka!" Shinobu cackled again, no doubt referencing the way it was her being the one whom constantly explaining the Nightworld to the rest of Ryouzanpaku. "Does that answer your question, Sakakakakakaka…"

"That's it!" Sakaki finally snapped, growling as Shinobu began to reach ridiculous levels with his name. "It's Sakaki, you little vampire!"

I honestly had no idea what prompted him to do what he did next. In my dream I honestly thought that he had finally reached the point where he would do something as stupid as actually attacking Shinobu. Instead, the brawler leapt up, and rather than target Shinobu, he instead targeted the box next to her.

"My doughnuts!"Shinobu yelped, dropping her game console as she reached towards the brawler desperately. She didn't make it in time, and Sakaki took a savage bite from the purloined pastry.

"How do you like that?" he growled, voice distorted by the large bite.

"Why you…" Shinobu began to bristle, her hair starting to rustle around her. In my dream I felt worry. Shinobu wasn't the type to take an attack on her doughnuts laying down, and the very real concern that she would not only attack but seriously hurt Sakaki thrummed through me. "Take this!"

Shinobu leapt at the chewing Master, and my heart was in my throat for a moment. However, rather than attack Sakaki directly, she instead aimed to his side.

"Wait!" Sakaki seemed to realize what she was planning too late as the vampire latched onto two of his remaining six pack. With a pop of her thumb she knocked off the tops much like Sakaki opened his them. With a glare, she stuck both of the open bottles into her mouth and began chugging, eyes narrowed as Sakaki tried to stop her.

"I already spent all my beer money!" the Master shouted frantically around the doughnut he was still stuffing down his face. Even as he swiped for them, Shinobu dodged, drinking the beer so fast the levels in the bottles were visibly lowering.

Despite myself, even in my dream, I couldn't help but gawk. The very idea of Shinobu engaging in childish one-upmanship with a mortal was mind boggling. Yet here she was, still dodging as her and Sakaki fought over doughnuts and beer in front of the equally disturbed rest of the onlookers.

Except for Shigure. Instead, she just looked proud as her console began to beep.

"I… won," she declared.

Finally, with no other option, I let myself star to fall back into dreamless sleep. Obviously, this dream was just too ridiculous to continue watching.

Mid fight, Shinobu paused, and again she turned to stare at her shadow. Sakaki paused as well, apparently sensing a change in the mood.

"Oh?" the vampire muttered, spilling beer over her clothes casually. "Again? Well, I suppose it is still early."

With those words, I again submerged myself in the darkness of sleep.

*Scene Break*

More and more I found my slumber growing restless. More and more, the dreams were coming to me. As my consciousness became more common, I found myself sleepily wondering on the dreams. They were so common, so cohesive, that I began to suspect that they weren't dreams at all. Still, even though I watched them, I still found myself unable to keep from slipping back into sleep after each one.

Still, there were some of the dreams which stood out more than others.

One of them, for reasons which had absolutely nothing to do with me being a teenage boy, involved the hot spring of Ryouzanpaku.

Seriously. Nothing to do with hormones. No matter how much Ma and I had tried to peek, this dream had absolutely no etchi connotations.

Even if it did have Shigure, Shinobu, and Miu naked in it.

Anyway, on with what happened in the dream.

The three were lounging in the hot spring. Apparently, Shinobu and Shigure had both been there for a bit and had already finished their washing and were busy soaking. Shigure was kneeling, placidly resting most of her body in the warm water, while Shinobu was laying back, idly kicking her legs as she floated. Miu on the other hand was still sitting at the edge, dousing herself with a bucket of water and cleaning away some suds.

It was the type of sight that Ma would kill for, but even in my slumber I could tell there was something wrong here.

It was Miu and Shigure for the most part that gave away the tension. The fellow Disciple looked older now, more mature than I remembered her being. She had a few scars that I didn't recognize, not that I was too terribly familiar with her naked body in the first place, but these were pretty obvious. She held herself differently now, a kind of quiet tension that was apparent even when just bathing. But more than that, she had a particular tension this time. Her head was lowered, her wet hair falling down to conceal her eyes, but the corner of her lip was still visible, and it looked like she was gnawing on it.

Shigure also seemed unusually tense, though it was only my long practice with her that allowed me to tell. She was kneeling unusually straight as well, and though her expression was mostly unchanged, the way she kept her head from turning towards Miu was noticeable to one as skilled as Shigure watching as I.

I had no idea what the source of this strange tension was until Shinobu decided to speak with her usual blunt lack of concern for the feelings of others.

"So, fighter girl," Shinobu began, giving a pointed leer at the still washing blonde. "How was the date?"

It was obvious that the vampire had been aware of the landmine in her statement, and had triggered it deliberately from the way Miu tensed at the words and Shigure turned away a bit further.

"It was fine," Miu finally said, speaking in a low tone as she resumed washing slowly. "Takeda was a perfect gentleman."

"Ka, ka, ka," Shinobu gave her signature laugh, idly folding a towel so that she could rest it on her forehead. "How boring! Are you sure you wouldn't have preferred otherwise?"

Miu ignored the prodding from the vampire, but the pressure she was chewing on her lips with increased. Shigure shifted, giving the vampire a quick look that I could interpret as 'hostile' but beyond that she made no other move. Despite her lack of obvious reaction, Miu seemed to come to her own conclusion about the movement.

"Is there something you want to say, Shigure-san?" Miu prompted, sounding a little harsh as she did so. "Just like everyone else in the dojo?" she continued afterwards softly, a growl in her tone.

"N…o," Shigure simply shook her head. She even managed to split a word with just two letters. Despite what she said, Miu seemed to draw a bit more from the simple statement then I was able.

"Nothing to add about how he's all wrong for me?" Miu demanded, starting to scrub harder. "About how I should be patient? About how I'm just doing this to get back at the dojo?"

"Or how the dandy boy isn't my Master?" Shinobu added cheerfully to the list Miu was compiling, and again the reaction was instantaneous. Miu shifted, her eyes coming out from behind her hair and revealing a glare so cold it would have sent a chill down my spine if I was there in person. Shigure shifted as well, giving the vampire a blank look that I couldn't quite read. I think 'angry' was probably the best choice, but 'cautious' and 'agreement' also had a place there.

"So what if I'm going out with someone that isn't Kenichi?" Miu demanded, her pitch rising in anger as Shinobu apparently nailed the problem on the head. "Takeda is a good fighter and friend, and loyal, and…"

"And… here," Shigure interrupted in her usual way, and Miu flinched at the pointed words. She seemed to lose some of her steam, and slouched forward on her stool.

"And he's here," Miu agreed softly, before shaking her head and standing quickly. With jerky steps she joined the other two in the hot spring, sliding in and settling back on a rock opposite of Shinobu.

"Oh?" Shinobu continued to press, and I got the impression that she was having far too much fun riling up the other girl. "Oh, what a faithless harem," Shinobu continued, her lament obviously fake, "the Master is gone for a bit, and the members begin to wander! Ka, ka, ka!"

Miu glared at the vampire, some of her fire coming back, and I realized abruptly that Miu really didn't like Shinobu. It should have been obvious from some of the dreams, but maybe it was because of my dream consciousness being dimmed I had never made the connection. It wasn't just not liking the vampire either. Miu had genuine antipathy, honest distaste to the point of maybe even hatred.

That did not bode well for the future, I think.

"Kenichi-san does not have a harem!" Miu snapped, but even as she did Shigure spoke up as well.

"I'm not… wandering," Shigure pointed out, apparently taking Shinobu's dig about unfaithful harem members seriously. Miu turned to give an incredulous look at the Master.

"Shigure-san," she snapped, giving the weapon mistress a disappointed look. "You can't take that vampire seriously. Besides," she continued, bitterness in her tone, "it's been nearly two years. I doubt Kenichi-san is ever coming back."

"Oho?" Shinobu leered again. "Doubting my word? Tis a sorry way to treat a guest!"

"You aren't a guest," Miu growled, and again I was treated to the sight of Miu's fury. I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point Miu had definitely stopped being cute when she was angry. "Guests are welcome and invited. You're just some thing that showed up and never left. The only reason we put up with you at all is because of your hostage!" Miu was shouting now, and it seemed that her rant was something that she had been saving up for a long time. "Why are you even still here?" she continued, and I realized tears were starting to form at the corner of her eyes, a sign of her impotent rage. "Do you just stay around so you can torment us more!"

Miu looked like she was going to continue, but at some point Shinobu's expression had changed. I almost missed it, but the tell tale flash of light behind the vampire's eyes was the only warning before I realized that Shinobu was actually going to attack my fellow Disciple.

Fortunately, Miu seemed to see it too.

The attack was fast, the water of the hot spring frothing and whipping as a gouge was torn through it as something invisible and moving with great force launched itself at the other Disciple. Rather than be caught by it, Miu just moved as well, her hand whipping at speed that I don't think she was capable of the last time I was awake. The force met her hand, and then just as suddenly as it came it disappeared.

I had a moment to wonder what the hell had just happened, when I saw the glint on Miu's hand. Wrapped around her hand like a brass knuckle was a chain of silver. Positioned directly above her knuckles was a small cross of the same metal.

It looked like Miu had taken the time to get herself some protection. Probably a smart move if you were going to be deliberately pissing off a vampire.

"I stay, because my Master loves this place," Shinobu declared softly, her tone firm and unaffected by her thwarted attack. Miu had been prepping herself to move, no doubt anticipating a battle, though Shigure was still sitting calmly, the only affect the attack had on her the way the water was now whipping her hair around her as it settled.

"What?" Miu repeated, the unexpected statement interrupting her anger.

"It is no uncommon thing, for a Master and Subordinate to feel the other's will through their bond," Shinobu shrugged, again dropping casual information about the Nightworld that exorcists and specialists would kill for. "What the Master loves, the Subordinate too cannot help but have affection for. I do not call him my Master for trivial reasons. My Master loves this place, and so I cannot help but be fond of it too."

"And…" Miu seemed frozen, swallowing hard for a moment. "And me?" The anger in her tone was gone, and instead was a sort of helpless curiosity, a desperate need to know the words that we had agreed to wait to speak.

"Of course he loves you," Shinobu snorted, her eyes lidded as she glared at the other Disciple. "If he did not love you," she continued, "then I would have killed you years ago."

Shigure tensed at the casual statement, and it seemed that long exposure to the vampire had helped her understand that when Shinobu said something like that she was dead serious. Miu on the other hand didn't seem to hear the last ominous part of the statement. Instead she sniffed, before sagging to her knees, submerging most of herself in the hot spring. She brought her hands up to her face, covering her eyes as she continued to sniffle.

"Mi…u," Shigure hesitated, still giving Shinobu a cautious look, before concern for the girl she thought of as a sister won over. The quiet Master moved cautiously, putting one hand around the crying girl's shoulder. "It will be… alright."

"No it won't!" Miu snapped, her voice ragged from her tears. "I started college this year," Miu went on. "We had the entrance ceremony last week! And, and I was walking afterwards, through the cherry blossoms, and I couldn't help but think of him! He should have been there with me! We should have been walking together! But he's gone, and that's just one of the things we'll never get to do! Studying, going on class trips, graduating, going on dates… There are all these things I wanted to do together, and now since he wasn't here we never can! It's like…" she had trouble speaking, and had to swallow hard before she could continue. "It's like all those moments were robbed from us, and it's all HER fault!"

The glare Miu sent at Shinobu was positively venomous, but I had trouble focusing on it.

Miu was right, in a way. There was so much that I was going to miss out on, sleeping here in the shadows. There was no way of knowing how I'd be affected when I came out, either. Would I have aged here, in my sleep and in the dark? Would I wake up in a new body, one that was unfamiliar and strange, the marks of my missed years a constant sign of the things I have done?

Or maybe I wouldn't. With so much power in me since I had done my hunting, after having ventured so far from humanity, maybe I wouldn't have aged. Maybe I would come out just as I had went in, a teenage body unchanged whereas all my friends have grown and moved on. Just about everyone I knew at this point would have graduated from high school now. When I recovered, would I go back to school alone, having to watch from behind as they walked further and further away from where I stood?

I didn't know which one I preferred. I couldn't tell which option was worse.

And I didn't care.

I had said that I would tear apart my body and soul for Shinobu, and this was just one more price that I would have to pay. Whatever came next, I would deal with it with my head held high. I hadn't turned my back on the things that others turn from. She lived another day, and so too would I.

"Oh? Is that all?" Shinobu didn't seem to care about Miu's threatening posture. Honestly, I wasn't sure if she should be concerned or not.

On one hand, Miu had obviously taken steps to prepare herself if she ever had to fight the vampire. She was also a powerful fighter, the descendent of a long line of eugenics which had been dedicated to superior and powerful fighters. She was also trained by some of the greatest Martial Artists of the time. It had been two years more at this point. For all I knew, Miu had advanced beyond the title of just 'Disciple' at this point. More than that, Shinobu was still weakened from what she had once been. Even in her apparently more powerful form, she was still incomplete.

On the other hand, Shinobu had been fighting for centuries. Even if she trained for just one month of the year, that would still mean she had years of training behind her with her centuries taken into account. She had been fighting for her life most of those centuries too, and even diminished her power was above that of a normal human, even a normal vampire or Kai. She was a powerful, dangerous creature, something which even the gods feared after all.

Gods, I hoped the two never came to genuine blows. I'm not sure what would happen if they did.

"Is that all?" Miu repeated, swallowing back her tears as she gave a watery glare at the vampire. "What do you mean by that?"

"Oh?" Shinobu's smile turned vicious. "Doest thou really believe that things will be so simple, even when my Master finally awakens?" She stretched, casually flicking her toes through the water as though she didn't have a care in the world. "If thou think thy disappointment will end then, then thou are ill prepared for the future."

"What are you getting at, vampire?" Miu snapped, probably realizing that Shinobu was baiting her, but not able to resist anyway.

"My Master is not human," Shinobu told her bluntly. "He is one who was once a vampire and became something else. His body will reject all marks on it, be those marks wounds, or sickness," Shinobu's grin was sharp, "or even time itself."

"What?" Miu gasped, apparently understanding what Miu was saying, but not able to believe it.

"Indeed," Shinobu put her hands behind her head, leering at Miu. "As time passes, as thy body grows older and infirm, my Master will remain unchanging. He is of my bloodline, after all, and even diminished his body's recovery is unmatched in the world of the Kai. Even before, when he was far closer to human, it was a concern that he would remain unchanging. Now, now that he has come even further to the Nightworld, it is near guaranteed. Who knows how long his life will last now? A century, two, perhaps a dozen?" Shinobu threw her head back, cackling again. "Ka, ka, ka! Oh, what an exciting thought!"

"Why are you so happy about this?" Miu demanded, closing her eyes as tears of impotent fury made their appearance once more. "Are you trying to steal him yourself?"

"Another… rival?" Shigure muttered softly, the swordswoman still supporting Miu but paying close attention anyway.

"I have already propositioned him," Shinobu shrugged. "I was rejected."

"Huh?" Miu froze, apparently not having expected her accusation to have any real truth at all, and shocked when she found it did.

"Tis a common tale," the vampire continued, unconcerned. "As a vampire, I have no desire for a slave, or a servant. I would not have made my Master my Subordinate if I did not desire his companionship. Still, in the end he rejected me, striking me down and stealing my mantle. Still, tis an interesting turn of events, and even if it is not I who is the Master, I still have a companion to walk beside." Her grin turned slightly contemplative, a satisfied expression. "Tis an interesting enough turn of events for me to continue on."

I don't think Shigure or Miu understood that statement, but I did. It explained a lot, actually.

I had first met Shinobu when she was contemplating suicide. Vampires didn't tend to last longer than two centuries before boredom drove them to end their solitary existences. Shinobu was over five hundred when we met. Actually, she had once confessed to me her exact age, and to my surprise she was actually a whopping five hundred and ninety six at the time, though she adamantly refused from rounding up and continued to insist on just five hundred for her age.

Anyway, she was nearly three times the age of a normal vampire, and ready to end it when we had met. Afterwards, when we fought and I usurped the role of Master in our relationship, I had always wondered just why it was she was so willing to continue on, even so weak. Perhaps the reason she was so willing to continue on was because she was weak. If variety and excitement was the key to continuing on as a vampire, than this situation was probably new and unexpected, a fresh lease on life for the aged vampire.

Miu seemed to have no idea how to respond to the revelations that Shinobu had granted her. She was chewing on her lips again, frustration obvious as she gripped her knees so hard her knuckles were white. Shinobu had probably told her this deliberately in an attempt to hurt her. Just because Shinobu wouldn't kill them for my sake, there was no way she was going to lie down and take any attacks on herself without a counter strike either.

"I'm still… going after him."

It was Shigure who interrupted the mental battle between Shinobu and Miu, and the two paused as the weapon mistress interrupted. Miu gave the older woman who was still in the process of comforting her a sideways look, her lips between her teeth again. I had no idea what sort of compromise or decision those two had come to in the years since Shigure confessed, or even if they ever made a decision at all. Whatever the case, Miu seemed uncertain how to react when the Master admitted that she hadn't given up her pursuit of me. Shinobu on the other hand just cocked her head, curiosity obvious in her expression.

"Oh?" the vampire hummed. "Even knowing that he might never return thy affection, that he will not change even if thou spend thy lives together?" Shinobu's grin turned lecherous. "Even if it means that thou must deal with me?"

"I love… Kenichi," Shigure repeated, giving the vampire a blank look. "Why should something like time… or species matter?" The vampire blinked at the statement, obvious not having expected Shigure to dismiss the concerns entirely. "Be…sides," Shigure continued, and I was certain that a blush was starting to form high on her cheeks. "If he never changes it means… he'll always be hot."

"Shigure-san!" Miu yelped, also starting to blush at the swordswoman's words. Shigure gave the Disciple a blank look, one which Miu was apparently able to interpret. "Well, he is cute…" Miu admitted, the blush only growing.

Shinobu also seemed at a loss for words. Finally, she threw back her head for one last ghoulish cackle. "Ka, ka, ka,! Thou, kuudere! Art thou sure thou art human?"

I could understand Shinobu's amusement. What Shigure had said was such a blunt, statement, so obvious, that it sounded like something one of the Kai would say. That Shigure's though process had reached the same conclusion as a Kai said a lot about her ability to live in the Nightworld.

Still, even as the tension in the bath began to relax, I felt the inevitable pull of sleep coming back to me. Even as I did so, I watched as Shinobu tensed, sitting up straight with a splash of water. Again, as it happened on occasion in the past, her eyes locked directly on me before drifting to her shadow.

"Again?" she muttered, grinning as she did so. Shigure and Miu gave each other startled looks, not understanding the sudden change in the vampire. "Now thou art just being lazy! Ka, ka, ka,!" she laughed, grinning over at the other two. "Well, at least thou has received some service, my perverted Master!"

"Wait," Miu suddenly seemed nervous, hands coming up to cover her chest as she continued to blush. "Are you saying he's…."

That was as far as she got before I finished falling out of the dream.

See. Definitely not a perverted dream.

Even if they were naked.

And Shigure and Miu were hugging…

My sleep felt a lot less calm after that dream.

*Scene Break*

I woke up.

I wasn't even certain that I had at first. I was some place dark, someplace comfortable and warm. For a moment I wondered if this was another of the dreams, until I realized that my thoughts were too quick, that instead of being some distant observer it was through my own eyes that I was watching the dim world around me.

I had a moment to wonder just where I was, before I remembered Shinobu's shadow. Then, I had a moment to wonder how I was going to get out before I realized that I already knew that as well.

Like a swimmer escaping a pool, I left the murk.

"Oh?" Shinobu greeted me with a grin. "Finally awake, Master?" The vampire was standing, hands on her hips as she gave me a leer. I'm not sure if she had known I was waking up, or if I had just caught her at the right moment, but her shadow was stretched in front of her so that it rose high up onto the wall.

I pulled free, emerging headfirst from the upper portion of the shadow. It left me a bit above the ground, and I caught myself with a summersault so that I landed on my feet.

"I feel," I began, standing slowly and taking stock of my body. "I feel good," I admitted with a bit of surprise. And I did.

I had always had lingering aches and pains, the result of the training my Masters at Ryouzanpaku put me through. It had made me stronger, and I had gotten used to it, but the pain was always there anyway. Now it was gone. More than that, the last few months before I had slept I had always been so tired, a result of the pressure I was putting myself under to accomplish my insane goals. I had almost forgotten what it was like not to be exhausted. Now, that exhaustion was gone.

"Thou appears to be recovered," Shinobu noted, studying me up and down casually. I followed her gaze, taking in the way my muscles and flesh had returned. The last time I had seen myself I had been wasted and ruined, but now I was once more returned to the shape Ryouzanpaku had carved me into.

I also realized I was naked. Again, it didn't seem to terribly important. Shinobu had used to bathe with me back in the day, after all. There was nothing here she hadn't seen before, and it didn't feel right to be shy in front of her,

"I'm gonna need clothes," I noted, more as an afterthought. I wondered whether I still had some outfits left around here or if they had all been scrapped in my long sleep. Man, it would be useful to have that matter creation skill that Shinobu used whenever she drank my blood and became older.

And then I realized that I did know how to do it, and promptly created an outfit for myself out of thin air. I kept it simple, just a dougi, but still, it caught me by surprise just how easy it was.

"It seems thy instincts are far stronger now," Shinobu noted, and I nodded at her assessment. It made sense in a way. She had come back stronger and older than she used to be. After the things I had done to myself it should be no surprise that inhuman traits would be easier for me as well.

"At least I should be able to keep that under control around humans," I agreed with her. It was so easy to just slip back into our old roles. We hadn't had a real conversation in probably half a decade, but the moment we were both conscious and whole it was as though no time had passed.

"Oh?" Shinobu grinned, giving her cackle. "Ka, ka, ka! Not so easy as you think, Master," she declared, before creating a mirror and holding it up so that I could look into it.

I was still the same age as I had been before I had put myself in a coma, I noted immediately. For a second I wondered just what it was Shinobu was trying to show me, than I caught sight of my eyes.

"Oh dear," I muttered, taking in the bright, nearly luminescent red that lingered there. It wasn't throughout my whole eyes, rather just around the edges with small tendrils seeping towards my iris, but the color was definitely noticeable. "You think that's going to stick around?" I asked nervously, not sure how I'd go about explaining such an obvious trait.

"Who knows?" Shinobu dismissed the concern with a shrug, obviously not even caring. "Thou knows that thou owes me at least twenty kilograms of doughnuts, does thou not?" she continued, already making a play for more of her favorite food. "For forcing me to endure two years of the inane prattling of thy harem?"

"Hasn't Kushinada been keeping you supplied on those?" I grumbled, knowing that my wallet was going to take a hit pretty soon but not really that concerned about it. Shinobu showed no surprise at my knowing about the Miko's bribery, and simply grinned even larger.

"That is that, and this is this," she dismissed with a sniff. "Now," she continued, eying me while she licked her lips. "Tis time I took my own rest," she continued. "It has been too long since I've rested in my favorite bed."

Without another word, she leaned forward, putting her own hand on the wall in my shadow, and began to slip into it with ease. Still, her words made me curious.

"Wait," I began, causing Shinobu to pause and obediently look at me. "My shadow has a bed in it?"

"Ka, ka, ka! Of course!" Shinobu cackled. "I have taken liberties to make thy shadow most comfortable! Still," she paused giving the shadow a glare. "It has been some time since I've cleaned in there. Tis no doubt a sty by this point."

And just like that, while I was contemplating the necessity of spring cleaning my shadow, she was gone back to her usual place.

It felt like something that had been wrong for so long was finally right again.

"You're… back," the voice that came from above me caused me to jump and let loose a startled shriek reminiscent of a little girl. One hand came up to clutch my chest as I looked above me to find Shigure patiently perched on one of the rafter.

"Shigure-san!" I yelped, trying to calm myself down. I was a creature close to demonhood, a member of the Kai, and a rather accomplished martial arts, and I should not be surprised so easily. However, in my defense, it was Shigure. "How long were you there?"

"Since before… you came out," she told me bluntly, and I couldn't help but wonder at the tone of her voice. She sounded just a little off for some reason.

Then I saw the small grin, and the even smaller blush, and I felt like blushing myself.

"You saw me naked, didn't you," it wasn't a question, and I that blush started forming on its own.

"Of… course," Shigure admitted shamelessly, before she leaned forward. With a summersault of her own, she landed in front of me. She looked up at me, reminding me that she was still shorter than me, before she reached up to touch the corner of my eye gently. Her fingers lingered there for a second, and I felt my blush grow, before she finally nodded.

"Welcome… back," she told me, before surprising me by stepping up until she was chest to chest with me and putting her hands around my waist in a hug. Awkwardly, I lifted my hands to put them around her shoulders.

"It's good to be back," I gave the customary response, and then it didn't feel awkward at all. In fact, it felt good.

I was back. Finally, I was back!

We stayed like that for nearly a minute, and I had to sniffle a bit as the emotion of finally returning, of having done all that I have intended to do and still managed to return here, to my family and friends, brought tears to my eyes.

Then I paused.

"Shigure-san," I began nervously, looking down again to find the blank gaze looking up at me expectantly. "What are you doing?"

"Rubbing my chest… against you," she told me bluntly, and she squeezed again as she once more squashed her breasts against my chest. "It feels… good."

"Shigure-san!" I yelped, trying to free myself from the suddenly slightly perverted hold of my Master. She pouted, and gave me one last squeeze, before letting me go.

My earlier thoughts about the difficulties of having someone like Shigure loving me returned, and I couldn't help but swallow nervously. I had no idea what I was in for, and quite frankly it made me very nervous.

Still, after she separated Shigure seemed content to just stand near me, watching me expectantly. If it was anyone else, they would be demanding answers, asking questions, trying to find out anything they could about my return. Shigure though, she just stood patiently. She made no mention of my absence, or made any comment on her confession.

I smiled. It was such a Shigure reaction.

"Dinner must have gotten cold," I remarked idly, and she nodded once. "I guess we should go find the others," I finally ventured, and she nodded again. When she made no move towards the exit, I finally took the first step myself. She fell into step beside me easily.

Shinobu must have been able to tell I was waking up, because she had made sure I was in the sleeping area of the dojo. It was a brief walk through the hallway connecting the dorm and the dojo, and Shigure and I passed it in silence. It was only a minute before we found ourselves stepping into the dojo proper.

Most of the Masters of Ryouzanpaku had assembled, though they were hovering around the exit to the courtyard rather than in the dojo itself. Apachai and Akisame were hovering over a game of Go, the philosopher looking unusually intent as the gentle giant continued to display his childish prowess of the game. Ma was slouched near the Elder, the smaller man with a new porn book and the taller one sipping on some tea. Sakaki was also slouched, beer in hand as he looked out on the courtyard.

Outside, I could see my sister Hanako and Miu sparring. It looked like my sister really had started to walk the path of the Martial Artist, and I couldn't help but hope she found more peace there than I had. She looked older, no doubt firmly in the midst of a growing spurt as puberty made itself known to her. It made me wonder just how much Chikage had grown as well, and whether Kushinada's slightly ominous report about the secondary effects of the Kushinada immortality techniques were a bluff or some form of ominous foreshadowing.

And there was Miu.

She was older too, taller, looking more mature. She would be well into her first, maybe even starting her second, year of college at this point, and she looked it. She was as graceful and beautiful as ever, the girl, no, the woman who moved like an assassin.

I felt my heart twinge at the thought.

Just like she had said before, in my dreams, it felt like some part of my life had been robbed from me. What would it have been like, seeing her grow and being there with her? Just what had I missed in my coma? I didn't regret my actions, but I did mourn the loss of what could have been. I remembered the dream, and thought of walking through those cherry blossoms together.

I started as I felt Shigure reach out to take my hand gently. I glanced over, and found her giving me a soft, for her, look. I gave her a brief smile back, accepting her comfort.

"What the?" It was Sakaki's voice that brought me back to the present. I glanced up to find the brawler leaning out, giving the courtyard a strange look. "Oi, old man. What's up with your bonsai?"

"Oh?" The Elder began, before he paused. "What on earth?"

"Oh! Cherry blossoms!" Hanako had apparently seen the same thing which was gathering the rest of the dojo's attention. "Pretty!"

"What the?" Sakaki muttered again, before scowling. "If this is another freaking Kai, I swear, I'm gonna hit it so hard…"

It took me a moment to figure out what was happening. The Elder had a bonsai, though unlike the traditional method of raising one, he had gone a little overboard. Most bonsai were carefully cultured to remain small. The Elder once admitted that he liked to let his own little tree grow, and now the thing was nearly twenty feet tall. The fact that he still kept it in a potting bowl was ridiculous at this point.

And somehow, despite the impossibility of it, that very same bonsai had managed to sprout the blossoms of a completely different species, in the matter of moments, and was even now reigning down delicate pink blossoms on the courtyard out of season.

For a moment I wondered just why this strange event was happening, and then, just like with matter creation and shadow possession, I realized that I DID know why it was doing it. It felt my discomfort, and the well-meaning kid had tried to help in the only way it could.

Maybe Shinobu was on to something. I remembered from the dream how she mentioned that she wasn't certain either of us really counted as vampires anymore. I had never heard of a vampire that could influence plants like I apparently did. Maybe I really had become something new, or at the very least something different.

"Kenichi-san," Miu's voice pulled me back from my thoughts, and I glanced up to find that while the rest of Ryouzanpaku was still studying the Elder's bonsai, the blonde had frozen in the courtyard, and was staring directly at me. Her eyes were wide, and disbelief and relief warred on her face.

"You think the midget had something to do with this?" Sakaki muttered, misunderstanding Miu's words. "Think we should go find that little brat of a vampire?"

"Kenichi-san," Miu just repeated, before she blinked, and shook her head. When she looked back at me, her eyes were wet with budding tears, and a smile had grown on her face. "Kenichi-san!" she said one last time, her voice rising as she shook herself from her frozen state and charged me with speed which were a little frightening to contemplate.

"Whoa!" Sakaki just happened to have been in her way, and dodged hastily, nearly spilling his beer as he did so. "Just what are you- Midget!" he started in a scolding tone but ended in something like a yelp as he realized that I was standing right behind them. "You're up!"

"Oof!" I grunted, the only response I could give as Miu's tackle hug literally knocked me to the ground and sent the two of us skidding across the dojo to thump into one of the wall with what should have been bruising force. "Yo?" I gasped, not able to breathe properly .

As the rest of the Masters of Ryouzanpaku started to gather, each showing their joy at my return in their own way, I couldn't help but feel I was wrong earlier.

Now I was back.

I wasn't certain what the future would hold for me. Kushinada would no doubt have her plans, and Yami was still out there. Besides the Underworld, there was the Nightworld as well. In my present state, there was no doubt that I would have little chance to avoid the Kai forever either. I had no idea how my parents would react to me coming back unchanged after two years, or even what story they had been told to explain my absence. I had no idea what my friends had been up to, how things had changed with them. I had no idea how to deal with my own new and unexpected appearance and abilities, or what it would be like to have so many people know about Shinobu, the vampire that dwelt in my shadow.

And you know what? I didn't care.

Whatever would happen would happen, and I'd deal with it then.

For now, all that mattered was that I was back.