((DISCLAIMER: I don't own Ushio, Tora, or any of the other wonderful characters of the Ushio & Tora universe--they all belong to Kazuhiro Fujito himself. Original characters created here do belong to me, so please don't take them without permission!))

Secret of the Beast Spear
by Becky Tailweaver

Chapter 8: Damage Control

It was so quiet.

The rain pattered down on her cheek, cold through her clothes, stinging on her cuts. After the violent, continuous din of the fight, the night seemed hollow and silent with just the drenching rain to fill it. Without that tumult, her own heartbeat was loud in her ears, her own breaths rasping through her throat--and she could hear another's breathing, deep panting breaths almost as rapid as her own. It almost sounded like Ushio.

Get up, Asako, she ordered herself, just barely beginning to move. Whether or not that's Ushio, whether or not that thing is dead, you can't lie here on the side of the road for the rest of the night. So get up. Now.

It hurt appalingly to move; her ribs felt as if a horse had kicked her and her left arm didn't want to work. It took a lot of effort, drained of adrenaline as she was, but she pressed to her knees, gasping, then wobbled to her feet. The night tilted around her dangerously, but she held her ground, keeping her footing through sheer determination, though her head felt like it was spinning in a slow circle. She felt shaky and almost hysterical, light-headed and strangely alert, like she'd just stepped off a wild roller coaster--or just walked away from a horrible car wreck...

Flash. She started, almost losing her feet; the one by the corpse was looking at her, eyes reflecting the lightning tenfold, brilliantly indistinct--she couldn't see fast enough to capture details, but the eyes made her catch her breath.

She was shaking hard--cold, fear, shock, or maybe a combination of the three. But her mind was strangely quiet despite what she'd been through, as if she'd suffered so much terror that she'd come clear out the other side--beyond fear, into shock, until all she could feel was numbness and a strange, dreamlike focus.

And that focus narrowed until the one who had saved her dominated her thoughts. Like a dream, like a waking nightmare, she remembered--

Footsteps, so quiet she almost didn't catch them through the rain--coming closer, coming toward her over the asphalt and gravel. She flinched, stepping back until she hit grass and the footing became unstable; the footfalls stopped, somewhere near but how close she couldn't tell through the rain--her eyes were starting to adjust again, maybe she could make out...a shadow and two dim points of light--?

Flash. She jerked back, gasping--he was right in front of her, little more than two meters away, and she could see him clearly in that single instant the world lit up. She knew it was him; it was his face, his mouth, his clothes, his hands, his eyes--but those weren't his eyes, no way, not that shape, not that color, and that wasn't his hair either--


Oh God, that's his voice...! The thunder drowned out her audible gasp. The world was bathed in darkness again and she couldn't see him any more, but where he was standing those two points of light remained, soft lambent purple in the dimness--and as her skin prickled with goosebumps she realized that those were his eyes, lit from within and shining through the rainy night. Her heart was pounding as if trying to beat its way out of her chest; she stared wide-eyed at the dim shadow, trembling as those glowing eyes pierced into hers.

"Asako...are you alright?"

His voice--it's his voice-- Once again her eyes fought to push aside the darkness, and with his nearness she could just begin make out a rough sketch of his figure--the paleness of his shirt, the contrast between his skin and his hair.

But it was his voice--a voice so familiar, a voice she would know anywhere, had known since before she could remember...and it was his voice that cut through the fog of shock and confusion, bringing her around like a beacon in the dark. "U-Ushio...? Just...just what the hell are you?"

The words just popped out, abrupt and unthinking; the immediate danger seemed to have passed, and Asako Nakamura's best defense was always a good offense--she preferred anger to fear, because fear made her feel weak. She couldn't be weak, not now, not with adrenaline and terror buoying her up...

There was a long pause, and she couldn't hear anything but rain. Then he drew a breath, his voice quiet and level. "To be honest...I don't even know. It's a long story."

"Long sto--but--then what--how--?" Her voice was high, she realized distantly, and louder than she'd intended.

A step on the gravel, and she sensed a shift of weight. Ushio's voice came again, curt and urgent. "This isn't the time, Asako--it's pouring rain, it's late, and we can't stay here; there might be more of--"

"More of that?" she demanded, her voice cracking shrill with what she might've realized, had she been more clear-headed, was incipient hysteria focused by confused fury. "God, what was that thing? What's going on?"

He was impatient this time, his voice clipped. "It's a bakemono, but--look, we have to--"

"That's a...a bakemono? Why'd it try to get me--was it trying to eat me? How did you know--why were you here anyway?" Her questions came faster and faster, her voice rising higher as she swayed on her feet, dizzy with a new kind of terror. "And what happened to you? Why are--why are you like this? Who did this to you--?"

"Dammit Asako--!" There was a snarling snap in his voice--a completely new growly undertone, something that had never been there before--and with a squeaky gasp, sudden fear closed her throat as swiftly as a noose. But then his tone changed again...and it was just Ushio talking once more. "Sorry--I'm sorry--I didn't mean to...aw...shit, this is just..."

She was trembling--shaking so hard she didn't know if her bruised leg could continue to support her. Something had suddenly upset him, making him stumble over his own words. It could've been the look on her face; she had no idea what it was just then. She didn't know how he knew; she couldn't even see a shadow of his expression--unless those eyes did more than just glow in the dark.

Flash. In one abrupt instant, she saw him again. He was different than before--the face across from her seemed less fearsome, more anxious. He looked worried, regretful, apologetic, nervous. Then the night closed in--the thunder's peal was delayed this time, moving away--and all she could see were those two haunting lights.

Shivering, she closed her eyes. In the dark, he seemed more like Ushio--less like that familiar stranger she'd seen in the bath of lightning. In the dark, with her eyes shut, she couldn't see that dim purple glow...

"I...I just want to know...what's going on," she croaked, unable to put any more strength in her suddenly-wavering voice. "Who are you...really? Are you...?"

She heard him sigh, a sound full of such weariness that her throat hitched. "Baka, I'm--still me. Don't be like that."

God, he sounded so...tired? Sad? Afraid? What was he afraid of? Wasn't she the one standing there with who knew how many injuries, having just been almost killed by some monster and no way to defend herself? Wasn't she the one standing here wondering if he was really who he was supposed to be, when she barely recognized him? It was so hard to think straight--hard to stand, too. "But what happened to you? What's...?"

"Idiot...we're standing here in a goddamn thunderstorm--and you want to know what's going on? Can't it wait, baka? At least until I find out if you're going to live!"

"Ushio...!" He sounded so much like his irate old self, so much like he did when they were having a silly argument... Her throat tightened with half a sob of relief. "It's...it's really you isn't it? You're...you're really Ushio...?"

"Of course I am!" he snorted. "Come on--quit being stupid and let me help you. We can't stay here--I've got to get you home." She heard his footsteps approaching again, and tensed as she saw the glowing eyes grow nearer.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" she asked--a dumb question, of course he'd come to save her from the monster--

The footsteps paused, and the glowing eyes blinked. "Actually...I, uh, brought you an umbrella..."

An umbrella...? A sudden tiny little smile tugged at her lips; she was in shock and hysterical and some part of her knew it, but he just sounded so much like Ushio again--like her stupid, sweet, rude, kind-hearted Ushio--and she felt like she wanted to sob but she just couldn't let herself.

"Damn, I think I dropped it around here somewhere..." Leaving her standing alone in the dark, the pair of eyes disappeared along with his shadowy form, and the footfalls jogged rapidly away across the gravel and asphalt. Seconds later, so quick she jumped when it happened, he just landed beside her with barely a crunch of gravel, as if he'd leaped there--and in a moment, she heard the foomp of an umbrella opening. Finally, the cold pouring rain was gone, and she heard it pattering on the fabric above her.

He was close to her--close enough to touch, this time, and when he did touch her she flinched only a little. But his hand still felt the same, still warm and gentle against her shoulder, stopping at her arm, as if by touching her he could tell where it hurt. His skin was much warmer than the rainwater, and under his very human touch she felt her muscles begin to loosen in subconscious relief--this was Ushio, really Ushio, and she was safe now. The release of tension made her knees wobble under her, threatening to give out, but he moved quickly to support her, holding her close against him with his free arm to keep her from toppling. The warmth and solidness of his body made her blush, made her wonder if he'd thought first before he hurried to brace her up.

Lightning flashed again; the strange/familiar face so close to her own startled her, making her jerk--but this time she didn't pull away. In that moment, behind the brilliant eyes, sharp features, and sodden locks of long black hair, she saw the concerned face of her lifelong best friend, the boy she'd known since babyhood. His face was different--keen, intense, angular--but he was still Ushio; perhaps even more like Ushio, all the unnecessary parts planed away. His expression was somehow more vivid, more direct; gentle, fierce, alert, protective, anxious--and most of all, worried. For her.

And he was blushing, too.

It was all so clear on his new face that even in that brief moment she could see it all. In an instant she was plunged into blackness once again, losing what little progress her eyes had made on adjusting to the night--but she knew what she had seen. And from the intensity of it--she knew he could feel her shaking...but he took it the wrong way.

"Dammit...I never wanted..." His muttering was soft but she could barely make it out, something about not wanting to scare her. The arm about her shifted slightly, and she felt his fingers brush her ribs--his voice grew rough once more. "Shit...he hit you hard. Bastard..."

"I...I don't think anything's broken," she offered, still shaky, fighting down the pain she felt when his hand touched her side.

"How the hell should I know? You look like he chewed you up and spit you out--God I wish I'd gotten here sooner--" His voice broke off with that little growl again, something that she could even feel now that she was pressed against him. It came from deep in his body, and made her tingle with a peculiar warmth inside. "I've gotta get you outta here," he announced. "I can't fight another one with you in the way."

"I am not in the way," she protested weakly, just for the sake of protesting.

"The hell you're not," he grumbled--and she could hear him swallow rather loudly, his arm loosening. "Think you can walk?"

"I can if you can," she retorted, her voice hoarse. "I'm not that weak, you know. Let me go and I'll show you!" She tugged, but his arm was as inexhorable as an iron bar. The immovable strength she felt surprised her anew, despite everything she'd already seen.

"Yeah, right," he snorted, at last gently releasing her, steadying her with one arm as she slowly regained her balance. "I'd just like to save myself the trouble of picking you up off your butt. So don't complain."

"You...you baka--!" She could feel him watching her as she limped along beside him--but her voice cut off as she realized he was leading her back to the corpse in the road.

It was, to her surprise, rapidly disintegrating. She could see it even in the darkness, melting and crumbling like an old banana left in the sun. She watched him reach out to the pole-thing still embedded in the body, gripping it and pulling it clear of the dead flesh with a wet sucking sound. She gulped, seeing the rainshine glint off the long, lethal blade.

"...won't let go again...dammit, wasn't even touching it..." he murmured indistinctly, turning the pole up so that she could clearly see the elongated triangle of the head; indeed, it looked like a real spear--the old kind, like those in some of her father's martial arts history books. A multi-purpose weapon, made long-bladed and light-hafted so that a warrior could easily switch between close combat with foot soldiers or greater reach to take down a mounted samurai. The blade itself was blackish and silvery, smooth and sharp and probably made of iron; the haft was some sort of dark, polished wood, satiny and glistening in the rainshine. Something fluttery was tied around the base of the blade--something ragged like a scrap from an ancient banner.


"This is the Beast Spear," he answered simply, softly.

"Beast Spear...?" At that name, a million memories poured in on her--a million recollections of Aotsuki-ojisan and the stories Ushio yawned about, the legend of the Spear trapping a bakemono in the Shrine cellar that she had always taken for a myth and a joke. But now she was gazing upon the fabled weapon itself, the very heart of all those memories--all those legends...

Ushio was descended from the Samurai in the stories--and now he too was a monster-killing warrior like the famous ancestor she had heard about. And she had just witnessed a real battle.

He started walking, slowly so that she could keep up and stay out of the rain. "That's--that's the one--from all those things Ojisan said--"

Ushio gave a snort, and she couldn't tell if it was amusement, derision, or irony. "That's the one."

Limping alonside him, she stared at the glinting metal for long moments, speechless with the weight of implication. "The legends...the bakemono..."

"It's all true. Everything." Ushio's voice was growing clipped and impatient--and she had the distinct impression that he was closing down again. Something about this...was hurting him--something was wrong--

Her intake of breath made those lambent eyes lock on to her. "This has to do with...with that--with what's been wrong with you--! If this is what's made you so...so...!" She couldn't help but look straight at him, couldn't help but shiver looking into those suddenly-sharp eyes. "God, Ushio, why didn't you tell me--?"

"And just what was I supposed to tell you, huh?" he demanded, turning his eerie eyes away--whether out of anger at her demand, chagrin at startling her, or just avoiding her eyes, she couldn't tell. "I'm just supposed to walk up and blurt out that I have a new job as the city's bakemono hunter? Shit, Asako, you'd've laughed your head off--then freaked like you did just now..."

"You...you could have told me about this...!" She was growing angrier again, both at his lack of faith in her and at his argumentative tones now. "And this is something to freak over--this is serious! God...I didn't even believe things like this existed--I thought they were just stories that Ojisan tells--"

"You and me both...I wasn't ever expecting this to happen--it was all just a damn accident..."



Gritting her teeth against her anger and the pain in her abused leg, she repeated herself. "When did this all start? How long have you known? If you've been keeping this--"

"Damn it, Asako..." He paused, silent for long moments. "Since that thing with Ishikui--you remember that? The monster in the stone samurai armor? It was a little before that, I guess."

"I do remember," Asako replied, frowning as she stumbled slightly. "Something happened, and that thing was going to eat us...and then when I woke up again I saw--" She broke off, startled, glancing up at averted glowing eyes. "I saw you."


"But that was--" Asako's temper abruptly boiled when realization came. "That was months ago! This has been going on for that long and you haven't told anybody but Mayuko? You stupid, stupid...baka...!"

"I didn't even want to tell Mayuko!" he shot back, his voice almost beginning to growl again. "I wasn't gonna tell anybody! It was just an accident in the first place!"

"You idiot! How could you keep something like this--?" Anger made her lose her concentration, and willpower alone was what was keeping her feet moving. She stumbled as gravel roadside turned to sidewalk--somehow they'd reached the bottom of the hill, and the edges of suburbia lay just ahead--and Ushio all but threw down the umbrella to reach for her. He caught her, and she regained her balance against him--and for an instant they froze again, startled by the nearness.

As quickly as she safely could, Asako stood up again...then looked up at the sky in disbelief. "The rain..."

"Yeah...it sorta stopped." He picked up the lost umbrella and folded it, gazing up at the sky along with her.

It was still drizzling fat drops here and there, but the majority of the downpour had ended, leaving them damp and bedraggled in the cool, cloudy night air. With the rain gone, thunder roiling only distantly, it was like a weight had lifted; one less thing to worry about.

Asako looked back at him, then found herself startled to be looking at him, not just the glow of his eyes. The street lamp just down the road lit him dimly with a faint wash of color, allowing her to actually make out a little of his face.

"What're you looking at?" he grumbled.

She realized she was staring and blinked, glancing down. "I just...I couldn't...really see you before..."

"I can sure see you. And you look like--"

"I can imagine, thanks," she broke in, blushing faintly when the urge to keep staring at him wouldn't go away. "But it's not fair--you can see me but I can't see you."

He gave her a look, indistinct in the dimness. "Not fair--? Why do you--damn...aw, hell with it...you'll hafta see it sometime anyway..."

She squeaked involuntarily when he grasped her by the wrist and pulled her along the sidewalk, marching resolutely toward the streetlight. Beneath the lamp, haloed by the faint lingering raindrops, he dropped her hand and stepped to the center of the light, whirling to face her.

"There," he snapped, his voice rough with almost-anger and something she guessed could be--nervousness? "Stare all you want. Take a good long look."

She was too startled not to look at first--and by the time she realized that her eyes were wide and staring at him again, she couldn't tear her gaze away.

She could study it now--the face she'd only seen in lightning-moments of clarity. It was all feral lines--harsh planes, sharp angles, angry brows, and jutting jaws. His hand, gripping the haft of that legendary Spear--rawboned and long-fingered as always, but seemingly more so now, set with thicker, sharper nails. His eyes, almost too large in his face, still brilliant even in the light--intense and acute, the color of amethysts, catlike ebony pupils splitting the violet and still contracting to slits even as she watched. His hair, silky wet and utterly straight, glimmering solid deep black--less like hair and more like a mane--and so long, an inky cascade down past his knees, unruly locks falling loose into his face.

All different...but still somehow the same--as if everything that made up Ushio had simply been remodeled into something wild, something predatory and savage; he quivered under her gaze as if he could hardly bear to stand still for her scrutiny, but the set of his jaw told her he was determined to see this through. He seemed rugged, untamed, rough...but there was an elegance to him, too--a keen simplicity of form and almost fine-boned facial features blending into fierce, dangerous beauty, like a fey creature from a fairy tale.

"You done yet?" he muttered crossly, the sudden petulant frown abruptly shifting the image from mythical being back to Ushio again. Startled out of her thoughts, Asako took a step back, arms wrapped around herself, gathering the will to speak.


He snorted, red about the cheeks as he turned to lead the way onward, pausing to wait for her to regain her powers of movement. She followed obediently, uncharacteristically silent, trying to think of the right words to say. She knew somehow that if she said the wrong thing...he would be terribly hurt.

What he looks like...he's different, but that doesn't matter. Baka Asako, he's still Ushio under there, right?

"You look...kinda neat," she said rather suddenly, surprising herself with her honesty.

He glanced back at her, almost startled. But the flash of relief in his eyes was hidden by a quick mask of indifference as he turned away again, giving a surly grunt in response.

Asako glared briefly at the back of his head, upset at his grouchiness. "So what's your problem?" she demanded, limping a little faster to pull abreast of him. "What is it? You think you're ugly or something?"

"I don't exactly spend a lot of time in front of mirrors like this," he gritted in reply. "But I know I'm enough of a freak that people flip out when they see me. Some jerks even called me a monster..." His voice trailed off with that same growl, and as his lips pulled back--

Oh God... Asako paled and looked away, struck--she really should've expected that, too, but she hadn't; despite everything she'd been through, the sight of his teeth still shocked her. Long, white, sharp fangs, a whole mouthful of them, gleaming in the dimness of the streetlights...

"What's your problem now?"

His voice startled her, and she glanced up at him; those startling teeth were once more invisible behind his lips, though she imagined she could see the tips of his canines if she looked close enough--or maybe it wasn't her imagination... "Nothing."

With another start, she realized they were going the wrong way. "Ushio...Ushio, wait--my house is that way..."

"I know," he replied, but kept walking.

"But I have to go home! Where are we going?" Her leg hurt, and he was walking so fast--resolute, almost hurried. "Dammit--baka, what's the matter with you? Slow down, for God's sake! You jerk--!"

Ushio glanced back at her, startling her to silence with those still-unfamiliar catlike eyes--but he slowed his pace, something chagrined behind his glare. "We're going to Mayuko's," he replied, looking away. "You've got questions, and I don't have time to answer you--I've got to go see what's up with that bakemono that jumped you. There might be more..."

Asako gulped, imagining some other innocent young girl getting attacked by another ugly brute like that, someone who wasn't lucky enough to be best friends with a monster-hunter--as she had recently discovered that she was.

"And besides," Ushio went on, his tone changing from impatience to faint embarassment, "you've got a lot of things you want to ask, and I'm no good at talking. Mayuko's better at it. She can explain it to you so you won't get mad. She knows nearly everything anyways."

Asako scowled at him. "Are you sure you're not just passing the buck because you're afraid?"

"Who's afraid?" he snapped, his voice a rough snarl. It actually frightened her when those inhuman violet eyes lit up from within, his lips pulling back over glistening fangs again--this time, all directed at her. It startled her so badly she stumbled and froze, her own eyes going impossibly wide.

Then, just as abruptly as before, Ushio replaced the dangerous creature next to her, suddenly upset and contrite--and just as suddenly, she remembered that it really was him, her best friend, and she didn't have to be afraid--she shouldn't be afraid.

"Shit! God, I'm sorry--dammit, I'm too friggin' used to that blockhead Tora always..." He trailed off as some of her color seemed to come back--and some of her anger as well.

"You baka! What are you snarling at me for, huh?" She gathered momentum as a portion of her courage returned, though she swayed on her feet from her injuries. "Just because I want you to tell me the truth? You don't have the right to put all this off on Mayuko's shoulders! It isn't fair--it's your--!"

"Would you just shut up and listen, idiot?" Ushio interrupted, not snarling this time but still angry. "Look, this isn't about what's fair--my life stopped being fair when I got stuck with this damn Spear!" He shook the aforementioned weapon with an angry jerk, making the strips of tattered red silk flutter limply. "This is about making sure you stay alive. I'm taking you to Mayuko's, and she'll patch you up and explain everything. Got it? I have to go make sure there's not more of those bastards out looking for you!"

Asako stayed silent for long moments, flatly surprised by his sheer authority. This wasn't the Ushio she knew--not the argumentative, indecisive, thoughtless boy she'd grown up with, gone to school with, fought with. He sounded almost...adult...like somehow he'd grown older and she'd completely missed it...

If he battled monsters every night like this, making life-or-death decisions, saving lives and fighting for his very existence...then she probably had completely missed it.

And, to her own irritation, she couldn't argue back at him any more. He was so imposing, and she was still just a little bit afraid of him like this...so the words stuck in her throat and she couldn't force them out. Besides the fact that he made utter sense for once, dammit--his plan of action was sound and logical, even if it wasn't what she wanted to do. She was the one on new ground, here; he had probably dealt with such situations many times--so she had to concede that he was right.

"Fine," she muttered, dropping her eyes to the concrete. She would make it completely clear that she didn't like his plan, whether he was right or not. Sometimes it was just a matter of principle.

His little breath of relief didn't go unnoticed; clearly, he'd been expecting a bigger fight. But she was tired and hurting--and deep down, terrified--and she just wanted to go get warm and dry somewhere as quickly as possible. She started walking again, still limping heavily, in the direction of Mayuko's home; without looking she could tell he was walking with her, right at her shoulder.

They didn't say anything until they reached Mayuko's apartment building.

Once there, and seeing things not going according to plan once again, Asako had to speak up. "Ushio--Mayuko's place is--"

"Sixth floor, I know," he replied, still heading for the alley between Mayuko's building and the next.

"But...the door is--"

"The lobby's locked by now, and besides, we'd wake her mom if we went that way." Ushio stopped at the back of the structure, craning his head to peer up into the cloudy darkness at something she couldn't make out.

"Don't tell me we're climbing the drainpipe," Asako stated rather disgustedly.

"Okay, we're not climbing the drainpipe," Ushio replied, glancing at her with just the smallest hint of his old smile in the dim lights from the street. "C'mere."

When he held out an arm and beckoned, warning lights began to flash in Asako's brain. She stood where she was, almost on the verge of backing away, some instinct cautioning her that he was up to yet another something that was going to shock her. And she had a feeling...

The deer-in-the-headlights look must've been visible to him; he shook his head with a snort and began to walk toward her. She took a single step back, quickly throwing up her shield of anger. "Just what are you doing?"

"Unless you really want to climb the drainpipe yourself, I'm gonna hafta carry you up there," Ushio replied, stopping less than an arm's length away to lean on the Spear. He still looked a bit hesitant, but there was something almost shyly eager in the depths of his eyes. He was covering his own fear with teasing, and it was almost as if he wanted to show her... "C'mon, don't tell me you're scared."

That was a challenge she had no choice but to rise to. "Who are you calling scared? Baka!" Giving him her most thunderous scowl possible under the circumstances, she took the last step, putting herself within range of his grasp--putting him in control.

"I'm gonna pick you up now," he announced rather lamely, giving her fair warning. Still, she stiffened when he scooped her up as easily as if she were a child--one arm around her shoulders, the other under her knees, and the Spear tucked close at his side.

"Just watch your hands, Aotsuki," Asako muttered, blushing, as she relaxed a bit in his grasp. It felt strange and new...but somehow good. Since they were close to the same size such a thing normally would've been nearly impossible, but he moved like she weighed nothing, striding back toward the building as smoothly as if she were no more than a doll.

"Hold on," he said softly, causing her to reflexivly tighten her grip around his neck. "And don't strangle me either!"

"How do you propose to climb up there and hold on to me at the same time?" Asako demanded, a little softer than she'd intended.

"Stupid! Just let me worry about that," he replied shortly, looking upwards again. "I've done this a couple times before. Just...not with a passenger..."

"Ushio...just what are you--?"

"Here we go--oh...uh, try not to scream."

"Whaddya mean, try not to screeeeeeaaaaah!"

In retrospect, it wasn't really a scream. More like an involuntary cry of pure terror as the world suddenly dropped away in a rush of wind--and it was just too dark to see and it seemed like everything disappeared all at once, everything but the cold sting of raindrops and the warmth of his arms--

--until with a light jostle, everything stopped.

With her heart hammering in her throat, all she could do was gasp for breath and cling to him, suddenly shaking all over again. She gradually realized that it was darker than it should be because her eyes were screwed shut; she fluttered them open with an effort, only to see the paleness of the T-shirt her cheek was pressed against, and the arching shadow above that which was probably the curve of Ushio's throat--around which her arms were wrapped fairly tightly.

"Idiot. Loosen up," he grumbled softly. "I won't drop you."

They were bathed in faint golden light from some kind of lamp, and as Asako lifted her head a little to look around, she realized that the large sliding glass door ahead of them was the source of the light, which filtered out from behind the curtains. They were outside someone's balcony door.

Then she glanced down--and gasped as vertigo suddenly flooded her. Ushio was perched squatting on the rail of the balcony, though which floor she could barely tell--the ground was so far away, and she got dizzy before she could count the floors below. At first, she was too scared by the height and the precariousness to think properly, but as her head began to clear and she began to realize that Ushio had simply jumped up the side of a building...

"Ready?" he whispered, keeping his voice down so as not to disturb whoever lived here. "Going up."

We're not there yet--? Her arms tightened again, and she found herself clinging much closer to him that she would've intended. She felt the tense and bunch of his muscles and braced herself--and then he leaped, but this time all she did was gasp as her breath was torn away by the wind. The inertia pressed her into his arms and she didn't resist it, holding her breath and holding him tight until the world stopped rushing and she felt him touch down again.

He was crouched on another balcony, but this time he hopped down to the deck. This door was darkened, and nothing stirred within.

When Ushio set her down, her knees wobbled like she'd just gotten off a wild amusement park ride. He kept a steadying hand on her shoulder as she regained her balance, the new influx of adrenaline making her head hurt and her bruises throb. She swayed like a drunkard as she walked with him to the sliding door.

Without preamble, Ushio rapped on the glass with his knuckles. It was loud, and made her jump. "Come on, Mayuko..." he muttered impatiently, unconsciously supporting more and more of Asako's weight as she sagged from exhaustion.

A second knock...and then a third. Finally, a dim light came on from within, and a sleepy face pulled the curtain aside to peer out. Mayuko's drowsy eyes caught sight of the two of them and sharpened instantly. There was a click, and then the door slid back--and Mayuko stood regarding her two best friends, her hands most uncharacteristically set on her hips. She took in Asako's battered, wearied condition, leaning against Ushio--looked over Ushio's transformed state and the Beast Spear held ready in his free hand; both of them were soaked and muddy and scratched, with the rain pattering down around them. She then pursed her lips, coming as close to upset as Mayuko Inoue could ever look.

"So," she began quietly, sternly, her eyes fixing Ushio with a steady, reproachful gaze. "I take it Asako found out. The hard way."

Despite the fierceness of his face, in the warm light of Mayuko's lamp Ushio somehow managed to look rather guilty. His eyes dropped, unable to meet her unwavering gaze, and he covered his feelings with ire and impatience. "Listen, Inoue, I don't have time for this. Asako got attacked and there might be more of those things out there. I need you to clean her up so I can go make sure nothing else is after her."

"Yes, Tora said--"

Asako scowled when Mayuko stopped, eyes flicking to her. "What?" she demanded. "More secrets, Mayuko? Ushio owes me an explanation, but he's leaving that to you."

Mayuko sighed--a long-suffering sigh if she ever heard one, not that she'd ever expect one from Mayuko of all people. "I figured as much. It's alright, Asako, I'll tell you all that I know."

Asako flicked an annoyed glance at Ushio. "I'd much rather hear it from him--"

"I haven't got all night!" Ushio growled, looking away from both of them. "Take her, Mayuko--she's barely standing up any more. And watch out, she's heavy."

"Why you--!" Asako rounded on him for that, but Mayuko was already taking her other arm, steadying her as Ushio stepped away. With his warm presence gone from her side, Asako suddenly felt cold, almost lonely, and weak without him supporting her. Mayuko didn't feel so strong and so safe.

"Stay alert," Ushio admonished them, his eyes flicking to Mayuko's again. "I'm pretty sure nothing would think to look at your house, but if there is something out there after Asako, they might be able to track us here. I'll be back to check on you."

"Be careful, Aotsuki-kun," Mayuko said softly.

Asako didn't say anything. She was still caught somewhere between anger and the sudden worry that had sprung up at the thought of Ushio going out alone to face another thing like that. Even though he'd proven he was perfectly able to protect himself...it was still hard to think of him as anything but the ordinary schoolboy she'd always known.

Suddenly, both Mayuko and Ushio looked straight up, toward the roof of the apartment building, as if there was some sound that only they could hear. Asako frowned, glancing between them, but she could hear nothing.

"The cavalry's here," Ushio announced, barely glancing at her. "I'm going. You two watch your backs. Mayuko, I'm counting on you."

"Don't worry, Aotsuki-kun," Mayuko replied, suddenly more cheerful than before, as if she could somehow reassure him by her brightness alone. "I'll take good care of her!"

Asako was watching him the entire time, but when Ushio glanced at her she caught something softening in that brilliant violet gaze, something that glimmered when his eyes met hers--and it wasn't just that eerie night-glow. She caught her breath, speechless for a moment at what she saw.

He was on the balcony rail in one hop, gathering for a leap, his eyes turned upwards to something beyond her sight. "Ushio--" she called out, whispery-breathless--but he was already launching himself skyward in a dark blur, vanishing from her sight.

For a moment, there was silence. Then Mayuko took a deep breath and spoke. "Well, they're off. Don't worry about him, Asako. Tora-chan will always look after him when they're out doing dangerous things. Come on, I've got to get you cleaned up and warm or Ushio will be mad--"

"I want to hear everything, Mayuko," Asako broke in in a low, quiet voice. "Everything. From beginning to end--and don't hide anything from me."

Mayuko nodded solemnly, helping her friend back into the house and sliding the door shut behind them. "I understand. Let's get you out of those clothes, and I'll tell you everything I know."

* * * * *

Ushio made the edge of the roof in a single bound, grasping the top of the rim and using his momentum to flip himself over and land on the level tiles, crouched and ready.

"About time, Brat!" Tora growled, suddenly standing over him, looming in the darkness.

"What's going on?" Ushio demanded, standing upright. "Why'd you come here?"

"The priest left the Shrine right after you did," Tora bit out tersely. "He went after that shadow-bastard. Something's happening--I can't tell what, but it isn't good."

"Oyaji went--?" Ushio's teeth were bared in an angry, disbelieving grimace. "What the hell is he doing going after a thing like that? Why's he even after a monster in the first place? Dammit--!"

"Save it! Let's move, Brat!"

Ushio didn't spare another breath, vaulting to Tora's back as the bakemono lifted from the roof. In an instant the two of them were streaking across the sky, heading for the place where they could both sense a black smudge of power and the raw essence of conflict.

To be continued...