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Nightmares

NIGHTMARES

a Devilman novella -- all characters except Risa belong to Go Nagai.
----

I realized today that I have lost track of the miles.

To hell with the miles.  I've lost track of the days.

I counted back silently as I pulled the makings of lunch out of my backpack. The last of the bread hadn't gone crunchy or moldy yet, so the last stop couldn't have been more than a couple of days ago.  I would have liked to skirt around towns, but I have also grown very sick of instant ramen, morning, day, and night.  When I could, I peeked into a town, made a stop at the nearest market, and left as soon as possible.  My life had narrowed to walking, avoiding people, and tearing apart the occasional demon.

I might try to avoid people by being this far out into the rural, but it was impossible to avoid hearing that more demons had begun to appear, especially after that party of college students had been torn apart.  It had been the first real massacre by demons.   Only one person had survived; a female gaijin found among the carnage of both human and demon.

I told them that I didn't remember how I escaped being slaughtered, or what actually had happened.  I'd really rather continue to pretend that I don't remember that night.

My nightmares remember clearly enough.

I might try to avoid people, but winter, however, was another matter.  I could already smell the promise of snow in the air.  The cold didn't bother me much anymore, but I couldn't sleep comfortably in wet snow all winter. Sooner or later, I'd have to figure out what to do when the snows came.

I finished off the sandwich.  Later.  I'd worry about it later.

I made another sandwich to eat as I walked, and fastened the flap of the backpack down, tying the straps to the metal frame and tugging at them gently to make sure the knots would hold.  I had been careless my first week out; the strings had come undone, and I had lost a week's worth of food between lunch and camp.  I noticed another worn spot in the pack and made a mental note to line it with duct tape that night after making camp.  The pack had gone with me to college, then later overseas when I decided to study in Japan.  It was probably time to get a new one, but food was more important, and there just wasn't enough for both

I slid down the embankment to the creek and scooped up a mug of water. My reflection distracted me for a moment, a whirl of red mane surrounding dark-rimmed, haunted eyes distorted by the water, and I snarled at it, flashing my fangs.  I quickly turned away and downed the water, then climbed back up to my pack, shaking drops of water from the metal cup as I went.

God, how long have I been on the road?  Weeks?  Months?  That party had been just before the beginning of the fall semester.  Months, then.  Maybe I should get a pocket calendar and start crossing off days.  But it was easier to just ignore it.  The blending of the days into a mass of unrecognized time seemed to make the time pass easier.

A few hours later, at the dawning edge of dusk, my danger-sense went off. The first few times this had happened, I had ignored it and had quickly learned how much I needed to trust it.  I backed up against a tree and eased my pack off, straining to hear in the sudden silence.  No birds, no wind, nothing -- not even the gurgling of the stream I had been following since breaking camp this morning.  I crouched down, listening, sniffing the air.

The demon stepped out of the bushes downwind of me.  I willed myself not to move, hoping against past experience that it wouldn't notice me.  Of course, it did -- I had never been able to avoid this.  They always noticed me, which was one reason I had taken to the road.  It let out a soft whuf of surprise, then moved towards me, eyes grinning redly.

It was big, bigger than any I had yet seen.  Hopefully, all I'd have to avoid were its claws, three times as long as its fingers, and the set of horns curving up from its skull.  Some demons had powers other than physical strength, and I hadn't yet figured out if I did, too.

The demon charged, and I sensed its surprise at my speed as I ducked and rolled out of the way of the horns.  A normal human would have been gutted before being able to react.  It swung around, slashing at me again, but I flipped back out of its reach, and the claws tore a foot deep into the sod where I had been standing.  It recovered faster than I had calculated and whirled to catch my ankle before I could dodge.  I caught up a small boulder and brought it down on its wrist as hard as I could, before it could pull me closer.  Something in its arm cracked, and its grip loosened enough for me to yank my foot away, leaving my boot and layers of skin behind in its claws.

In movies, fights always seemed to take the last half hour of the film.  Less than five seconds into this fight, and I know I didn't have a chance of winning.  It was much stronger than I was, and if it caught me again, I wouldn't be able to get away.  I couldn't see that it had wings, though, and I put everything towards escaping, snarling at it wordlessly.  Its eyes widened in confusion at my fangs, but I was already leaping for the sky, my wings shredding my clothes as they folded out and caught at the air, my mane whipping around my face, my body changing...

I almost made it.

Somehow, it jumped high enough to reach me, the strength in its huge legs making up for its lack of wings.  It caught my leg, claws biting deeply through fur and skin into muscle.  I screamed, the noise traveling from throat into a chest roar, and turned in mid-flight, tearing at its hand with my teeth.  It grunted and flung me against a tree trunk as it landed.  One of my wings snapped behind me, and I felt a rib break inside as well.  I screamed again and clawed at its fingers as it picked me up again and threw me hard against the ground.

Where do demons go when we die? I found myself wondering.   And further behind that was At least it will be over.

Something grabbed the demon from behind, a huge arm appearing and wrapping around its throat.  I caught a quick glimpse of another demon, even bigger than the first, ripping it away from me.  My leg was still in its fist, and it cracked as I was dragged along.  I reared up while it was distracted, and bit through its arm at the wrist.  The other demon tore into its throat, blood and foam spurting, then threw the twitching body away.

I launched myself into the air again, desperate to get away from this other demon.  My broken wing whistled uselessly through the air, and I landed back on the ground even harder than I had been thrown.  The demon, huge and human-shaped, with leathery, bat-like wings, and furred from the waist down, stalked over to me, and I rolled up to all fours, trying to scrabble away into the brush.  A name whispered to me in the silvery other-voice that I often heard in the background of my thoughts:  Amon.  My leg caught on something and wrenched painfully; at the same time something broken stabbed deep inside.  I gasped in sudden sharp pain and felt myself shifting back to human-form.

And you couldn't even give him a decent challenge, I snorted to myself.  I rolled over and hissed in a useless gesture.

The demon had stopped, staring down at me in wide-eyed surprise.  "You're human?" he asked in Japanese.

In Japanese.

"I won't hurt you," he quickly added.  "Watch."  He began to shrink down to human size, his wings folding away like mine, his black headpiece ruffling into dark hair.

His eyes were black-rimmed, just like mine, and I could see the tips of fangs when he grinned encouragingly to me.  "I'm human, too."  He came up to me and quickly knelt down, catching my chin and lifting my face up to the light.  "We didn't know there was anyone else."

I still hadn't said anything, and his face suddenly creased in concern.  "Do you understand me?  Do you speak Japanese?" he asked in careful English.  

I nodded.  "Hai.  Who are you?"

"Fudo Akira."  Then, after a pause, "Devilman."

"How did you know...?  I mean..."  I pointed at the body of the other demon.

He shrugged.  "Saw the fight."

"How did you know which one to kill?"

"Ryo told me," he said simply, as if that explained it all.  It probably did, to him.  "You're hurt, aren't you?"  He looked off towards the woods.  "Ryo! Hurry!"

I shrugged.  "I'll heal."  I looked at my ankle, where the claw marks were already folding and healing.  "Won't I?" I added bitterly.

He lifted my chin again and studied me thoughtfully for a moment. "Yeah," he said softly.  "You'll heal.  We always do."

I heard the pound of running feet and tensed again, too tired for another fight, but it was a human who came up, blond and slightly taller than me. He stopped short when he saw me, and I got the immediate impression that this was someone who was rarely surprised, and didn't like it at all when he was.

Akira looked up at him in delight.  "She's human, Ryo."

"So I see," he answered shortly, then quickly shrugged off his long coat and handed it over to me.  Akira promptly took it away and wrapped it around me himself with a protective air.
I wasn't doing very well with talking.  I pointed at Akira.  "You... how...?"

"The gattai?" and then when he saw that I didn't understand the word, he repeated it in English.  "Fusion, of demon and human."  I nodded, and he went on excitedly.  "You see, Ryo had this idea --"

"Let's save this for another time," Ryo interrupted sharply.  "She's hurt."

"Right.  Of course."  Akira ducked his head in apology.  "Can you walk?"

"Of course I can," I answered and clawed my way to my feet.  I took a step, but when I brought the broken leg forward, it felt like there was nothing there, and I lost my balance.

Ryo was the closest, and he automatically caught me before I fell. "Obviously not," he said in a dry tone.  "And stop struggling before you hurt yourself worse."

My temper flared, but there was not strength enough to support it, and it was infinitely easier to swallow my pride and let him carry me.  I think I was asleep before he had gone more than a few steps.

     *

Someone shook me awake an eternity later.  I fought it, trying to curl back into the comforting swirl of darkness, but the person kept shaking me.  I snarled something unintelligible and batted their hands away, but the person caught me by the shoulders and propped me up, firmly trying to spoon something warm into my mouth.

"G'way," I managed to get out before a spoon popped in my mouth, and I had to swallow the liquid or choke.

"Maybe you should let her sleep, Ryo," I heard someone say.

"She needs the food more.  No, dammit, you are not going back to sleep until you finish this."

"Don't like ramen."  But I only got another spoonful of the stuff.

"It's not ramen, it's soup, and you are going to eat it."

I opened my eyes blearily.  "Not hungry."

The blond sighed wearily.  "You are.  You just haven't realized it yet.  Now, are you going to eat on your own, or do I have to keep feeding it to you?"

"Too tired t'eat."  I tried to lay back down, but somehow he had cornered me up against the wall.  Not a problem. I leaned my head back against the wall and closed my eyes again.  Ryo swore under his breath and went back to shaking me.  It occurred to me that his voice was familiar somehow, both young and old at the same time.  The other-voice, however, was gone in the fatigue and wouldn't help me with a name.

"She's not as strong as you are," he went on to Akira, as if he had been in the middle of explaining something and had been interrupted.  "She won't heal as quickly.  Much faster than normal humans, of course, but not as fast as you do.  Her body's burning up protein faster than she can make it.  If we don't feed her, she may starve while she sleeps."

I started to struggle back out of the haze.  "I think I'm hungry."

Ryo quickly shoved the bowl into my hands with obvious relief.  "Good. Here's some bread.  If you're too tired to chew it, soak it in the soup."  He stood up and turned back to Akira.  "She's probably never been hurt this badly before."

"Haven't," I agreed, somewhat amazed to find out that I had already eaten half the bread and finished the bowl of soup.  I tried to hold out the bowl and failed.  "More?"

Akira immediately brought a full bowl and swapped it for the empty one.  I drained it just as quickly and went through another before I slowed down.  "Can I go back to sleep now?' I asked plaintatively.  

"One more bowl," Ryo ordered.  The aching fatigue came back in a rush, and this time I abandoned the spoon and drank the soup straight from the bowl, already half asleep.  Someone took the bowl away just as I let it drop, and pulled the blanket up to my chin as I fell back to the pillow.  A hand stopped on my forehead, feeling for fever, but I was asleep again before it pulled away.

     *

The next time I woke, I wasn't nearly as musty-headed.  I was ravenously hungry, though, and I sat up quickly, startling the girl who had been reading over in the corner of the cabin.  She jumped out of her chair with a screech, and I instinctively plastered myself up against the wall.  Had the girl not been between me and the nearest window, I probably would have dived out of it before thinking.

We eyed each other warily from across the room, then slowly relaxed and started to laugh at the same time.

"I'm sorry," she apologized once she had caught her breath.  "It was just so quiet, and you sat up so quickly.  Are you feeling better?  Akira-kun left a note saying something about a camping accident."

"Um... yeah."  I was nervous about playing questions-and-answers when I didn't know the rules we were playing by, and pulled a change of subject. "I'm hungry, though."

She nodded.  "He said you might be.  There's some sandwich makings in the cupboard.  I'm Makumura Miki."

"Risa."  Last name?  Traceable?  Do I need to worry about that?  I deliberately misunderstood her look of confusion and looked around for a piece of paper.  There was a pad on the table, and I glanced at the note on the cover sheet.  I couldn't read it; the handwriting abbreviated the kanji too much.  I folded it over and scribbled the kana for my nickname on the next sheet.  "It's short for Teresa, but no one except for my grandmother ever called me that."  I handed the note over and noticed she was looking at me warily.  "What is it?"

"Why," she asked carefully, "are you wearing one of my boyfriend's shirts?"



"Because I lost my pack?" I shot back rather hopefully.

She cocked her head, considering that.  "Must have been a pretty bad accident.  What happened?"

I fell back on the usual lie.  "I don't really remember."  By that time, I had eaten half of one sandwich, had another one made, and was working on a third.  Miki was watching the growing pile with wide eyes.  "I'm really very hungry," I added in a small voice.

She laughed a little, shaking her head in amazement, then waved at a door further back in the small cabin.  "There's a bath in there, if you want one. Akira-kun said they'd be back later tonight."  She began to settle back with her book, a high school text.

"Akira's your boyfriend?"

"Of course," she said, as if surprised I should even ask.  I thought about it for a moment, then realized she hasn't even referred to Ryo, and shrugged.  I carried the stack of sandwiches into the bathroom with me.

Oh, thank you, Lord, they have a shower!  One of the things I missed most from being on the road so much was a complete wash everyday, and the occasional times when I did stay at an inn, they had baths.  It had been ages since I had had an actual shower.

I stayed in for about an hour.  It felt so glorious to be clean, especially my hair.  I ferociously towel-dried my mane and combed it out until it flew around my face with static.




Curiosity got the better of me, and I peeked through the other doorway into the bedroom.  I was impressed at its size; it was about as big as the outer room and the kitchenette combined.  A Western-style cabin this size meant some money, especially since this was obviously a vacation home.

A clean shirt and a pair of slippers had appeared just inside the door.  I pulled them on, picked up the last sandwich, (which had gone rather soggy from the steam), and padded back out into the main room.

It smelled wonderfully of roasting meat.  Akira and Miki were sitting and eating on the couch, which had apparently been folded out into the bed that I had woken up in.  Ryo was being rather obvious about being in the kitchenette away from them.  He shoved a plate at me.  "Rabbit."

Meat!  Not sandwiches, not ramen, meat!  I leaned over his shoulder and peered into the pots eagerly.  "How did you get them?"

He pointed wordlessly over to the sawed-off shotgun propped up against the wall by the door, and started filling my plate with rice mixed with chunks of meat.  For lack of a more convenient place to sit, I hopped up onto the counter and began attacking the food.  "When will I stop being so hungry?" I wailed between mouthfuls.

Ryo smiled slightly, but it didn't meet his eyes.  "When you've finished healing."

"How are you feeling?" Akira asked anxiously.  I noticed he was putting away an enormous amount of food too, and I wondered if he had been in a fight lately as well, or if he just needed more food to keep up such a large amount of strength and power.

I swallowed my mouthful.  "Stiff."  I slowly stretched my leg out straight and wiggled my toes.  "It doesn't hurt, but it doesn't really want to work, either."

"You'll need to keep exercising it.  Start going for walks tomorrow."  Ryo finished his own dinner and slid his plate into the sink.  Miki started to say something, and he deliberately turned away from her to Akira.  "Why don't you and your girlfriend go off someplace?  After all, you're the one who wanted her up here, and I want to talk to Risa for a while."

Miki looked at me with respect,  "You've impressed him," she said sarcastically.  "I've never seen Asuka Ryo interested in anyone other than himself."

Ryo's jaws clenched, and he started to turn angrily to her, but Akira deftly stepped between them.  He draped his arm around Miki's shoulders and guided her into the other room smoothly enough that I assumed this happened often.

Ryo continued to glower toward the door after it had closed behind them. Feeling uncomfortable, I slipped off the counter and began collecting the other plates.  I stacked them in the sink and had just started to wash them, when a hand came over my shoulder and slammed the faucet off.

"Never mind that."  He steered me over to sit on the couch, then pulled a chair over and draped himself over it.

I gestured toward the closed door.  "You don't like her very much, do you?" His eyebrows raised, and I shrugged.  "I was never known for being very tactful."

He flicked his fingers dismissively.  "Neither am I.  She's a distraction, but Akira can't see that."  He regarded me for a long moment, until I nervously toed the slippers off and tucked my feet up underneath me.

"Tell me how it happened," he finally prompted.  "The gattai."

"I don't remember," I recited.

He gave me a skeptical look.  "You're lying," he said evenly.  "You don't forget something like that."

"And you've been through it?" I challenged, angry at him for being right.  "I don't want to talk about it."

He sighed angrily, the breath whistling through his teeth, eyes sparking with impatience.  I wasn't easily intimidated by a glare, so I glared back.  He snorted and threw his hands up in the air.  "All right, we'll start somewhere else.  What's the demon's name?  Do you know that?"

"No," I said uncertainly.  I always tried to ignore that other-voice. "Sometimes, I think I do, in dreams, but not when I'm awake."  He brooded, and I mimicked his skeptical look of a few minutes ago.  "Do you think you know everything about demons?"

"My father researched the subject," he explained tightly.  "Plus, I've been collecting information on my own for a while now."

"I was teasing."

He blinked.  "Oh.  Well... don't.  This is important."

I got the impression that he usually was able to intimidate whatever he wanted out of people, and I was amused when he was uneasy when it didn't work with me.  Toying with people had never been very appealing, but I had grown to like it more than a bit since the fusion.  And truth to tell, he bothered me.  He knew much more about this than I did, and I envied his confidence.  

Plus, I knew that he was hiding things in multi-layers behind his cool exterior, and I was quite sure that I didn't want to know what was at the core of it.  And I was afraid I couldn't find out what I needed to know without learning what I definitely did not want to.

"You dream often?" he asked.  "Nightmares?"

My stomach clenched and the temperature of the room plummeted.   "Yeah," I said softly, fighting to keep the fear away.  Breathing was hard.  "Two, three times a week."

"Do they seem familiar?  Like memories?"

My mouth had gone dry.  I jerked my head in a nod and pulled my knees up to my chest, burying my face against them.

"What about?" he pressed.

"I don't want to talk about them!" I shrilled.  My fists were clenched, and I was shaking hard.  For a second, the cabin was gone, and I was falling deep into the memories that weren't mine.  I felt my hair start to swirl into the mane, claws growing...

Fingers bit deep into my shoulders, and Ryo shook me sharply once, snapping my head back to look straight up at him.  I gasped in air that was knife-sharp cold, then the cabin slowly faded back in from the mist.


"Are you back?" he asked.

I nodded, pulling away from him, then shuddered and buried my face back against my knees.  He let go and left to go rummage around the kitchenette. A few minutes later, I began to smell tea brewing.  He came up to me and pressed a warm mug against my arm.  I took the tea and sipped it slowly, grimacing a bit at the strength.

The chair squeaked a little as he sat down, but he didn't say anything until I had finished the tea and looked up to glare at him, daring him to be scornful.

Instead, he was tapping a finger thoughtfully against the arm of the chair. After a long silence, he pulled away from his thoughts and met my gaze again.  "I think your strong will is the only thing saving you.  At least, it must be strong because I have never heard of anyone surviving a gattai without first being aware of it happening and knowing how to win control over it.  You battled wills with the demon and won, but you don't really have control.  Probably the only times you've even changed forms are when you are being attacked, and you change back only when you've exhausted your energy, right?  You probably fight shifting each time you're scared or angry, too?"


"Too stubborn for my own damn good," I muttered shakily.  "You're a pretty good psychiatrist, Asuka-sensei."

He ignored that.  "Unless you gain that control, the gattai will kill you.  I'm really not sure how you've managed to survive it this far, without any help."

I matched his gaze evenly, and he snatched my cup away and went to put it in the sink.  "I don't have the time to coach you."  He turned on the water and began swiping a cloth at a plate.

"Because you're too busy coaching Akira?"  I wandered over and found a towel.  When he finished rinsing the plate, I took it from him and dried it.

"Exactly.  You are not strong enough to be much of a help, and I can't afford to have my attention divided."  He handed me the next plate.  "On the other hand, Akira is so delighted to find someone else in a gattai who's not busy trying to kill him, that he'd be angry at me if I sent you away, and I can't afford that, either.  Nor can I afford having you around and out of control." He stopped scrubbing for a moment and thought, then snarled and took some of his frustration out on the plate.  I quietly mopped up the widening puddles he was creating.  He slowed his attack on the plate, but when I reached out to ease it away from him, he caught my arm, forcing me to look at him.  "It would be easier if you just left on your own."

"And if I don't, would you kill me?" I taunted, easing up on my tenuous control enough to send my hair swirling.  I didn't have much to lose in angering him, and I had flirted with death too often to fear it.

He let me go with a shove and picked up the last plate.  "I've killed stronger demons than you.  I think I could easily convince Akira that you had been planning to kill him the first chance you got."

"Tell me how to get rid of this gattai, and I'm out of here."

He snorted in disgust, and I lost my patience.  I was stronger than him, so wrenching him around and shoving him up against the counter was easy. "Dammit, I didn't want this," I hissed.  My hair swirled faster.  "You may have convinced Akira that this was what he wanted, but I had no such choice.  Tell me how I can get rid of this, or I'll rip your arm off."

He didn't flinch.  Death didn't scare me, but Asuka Ryo was beginning to. He stood very still and very carefully did not move.  "I don't know of a way that won't kill you in the process."

"That's not good enough."  I tightened my grip.  The skin of his arm under my fingers went white.  My claws began to grow, pressing deeper into his skin.  

He turned paler, but if anything, his voice only grew quieter.  "The reason why demons can take over humans is because the humans don't realize what is happening to them.  Even if they did, it takes a very large amount of strength and a pure heart to win."  His eyes didn't leave mine.  Or maybe it was mine not leaving his.  "Akira won because he knew what was going to happen.  He was aware, and he allowed it to happen.  And he is strong enough to keep control.  You lose your control, you lose the gattai, and the demon will take over and kill you in doing so.  It wants to live, too."

I let him go.  He stepped to one side, away from me, gently massaging his arm.  The marks of my fingers were already darkening into bruises, and I realized that I had hurt him without even caring.  I stared at him for a long moment, then slid numbly to the floor.  "There's no way to get rid of it?"  My voice shook.

"Not unless you want the demon to kill you.  Or I could take you outside and do it myself.  It would probably be quicker and a lot less painful."

"Are you always this cold-hearted?" I spat through my teeth, glaring up at him through my curtain of hair.

For a quick second, he looked very old, but it was gone so fast that it was easier to believe that it hadn't been there.  He looked down at me with contempt, then turned his back on me and began to put the plates away.  

"Made a decision yet?" he asked as he closed the cupboard door after the last plate.  When I didn't say anything, he picked up his coat and threw it over one arm, then picked up his shotgun.  He came back to stand over me for a second, then held out a hand to help me up.  "Is this what you want?"

I may not be afraid of death, but that doesn't mean that I long for it.  I lashed out with one foot and kicked Ryo's legs out from under him.  He fell and landed hard on the wooden floor.  The shotgun bounced away, skittering out of his reach.  I caught his shirt and pulled him closer to me.

"What I want," I growled, "is a second opinion."  I let him go.  "Until then, I'll wait and see what happens."


He gathered his feet under him and leaned forward, his nose almost touching mine.  I glared back.

He tapped my nose with his finger.  "I think," he said pleasantly, "that you might just be strong enough to survive after all."  He stood up and collected his gun and coat and put them next to the door, humming under his breath.

I sputtered for a few moments, feeling like I had been manipulated into something I had wanted all along.  "Are you always so smug?" I demanded, at a loss for any other come-back.  "You're worse than a damn cat."

Ryo laughed, and it sounded genuine.  "Look who's talking!"  He began unfolding the couch-bed again.  "Get some more sleep.  You've aged in the last couple of hours."

"I wonder why?" I murmured sarcastically, just loud enough to be overheard. He smirked and shook out a sheet over the bed.

"We found your pack a few days ago.  Some animals had gotten to it first, and your things were scattered around, but I think we found everything but the food."  At my shocked look, he stopped spreading blankets.  "You've been asleep for a several days," he added softly.  "We woke you a few times for food, but you might not remember."

I was feeling numb again and quickly sat down on the bed.  That long?  "No, I don't... wait.  Maybe once.  You were forcing soup down my throat."

"I don't have a very patient bedside manner."

"Are you kidding?" I spoke automatically, not really feeling connected to what I was saying.  "I'll bet the reason Akira heals so fast is because he's terrified of your nursing."

He threw a pillow at me, and I caught it easily.  "Go to sleep," he said gruffly and headed for the bathroom door.  He stopped short halfway there.

"What is it?" I asked tensely, wondering if he had heard something outside.

He hesitated for a long moment, watching the door.  "The spare fouton is in the bedroom."  He turned back, and I was surprised to see him uncertain. "Have... have you heard any voices from there lately?"

"I wasn't listening."  He looked disapproving, and I took a mental note at the rebuke.  "Maybe you can slip in there without waking them up."

"But... what if they're not sleeping?"

I almost laughed, then I saw that he really was uncomfortable and realized that he was much younger than he acted -- just out of high school, if that. Somewhere behind the coldly smooth personality that was at home with dealing with demons and death, was a kid who did not know how to relate to Akira's relationship with Miki.  And quite probably did not want to.  "Do you want me to sneak in?"

"No!"  He was horrified at the idea and quickly stepped between me and the door as if I might go ahead and do it anyway.  "Just give me a blanket."  He started toward one of the chairs.

"Baka," I said mildly.  "You won't sleep at all in a wooden chair.  You take the bed.  I'm used to sleeping on the ground."

"I'm fine," he snapped, quickly growing annoyed with himself and the situation.  "You need the sleep."

"Then we'll both take the bed.  It's more than big enough for two.  I'll stay on my side if you stay on yours."

He hesitated again.  "I don't bite," I added in amusement.  I was beginning to enjoy having control.  "At least, not humans."

"That's not very comforting, coming from someone who threatened to tear my arm off a few minutes ago."

"Well, you threatened to kill me!" I cried defensively.

We glared at each other from across the bed.

I sighed suddenly in exasperation and rolled under the covers, keeping well over to one side of the bed.  "Fine.  Sleep uncomfortably.  Make us all want to drop you off a cliff tomorrow because of your grouchiness.  See if we care!  I'm going to sleep."

"Oh, shut up," he snapped and stalked into the bathroom.  He came out a few minutes later in pajamas and snapped the light off, still moving in quick, angry movements.  He poked the fire down to glowing embers, then paced the room for a few more minutes, before finally giving up the argument with himself and coming back to the bed and laying down.  He grumbled under his breath for a few more minutes, tugging the blankets a little further in his direction every so often, then rolled over away from me, taking the rest of the blankets with him.

"Oh, joy," I muttered in English and yanked them back.  "I won't bite," I warned, switching back to Japanese, "but if you kick me during the night, I'll kick back."

He muttered something that I couldn't understand and probably didn't want to.  I chuckled softly under my breath and went to sleep.

     *

Tell me how it happened.  The gattai.

I don't remember.

You're lying.  You don't forget something like that.

The ground falls out from beneath me.  Darkness, nothing but darkness, falling.  No feeling, no sound, no smell, nothing.  Can't feel myself, hear myself breathe.  Screaming, over and over again, no sound.  Falling.  A bottom, there had to be a bottom somewhere.  Is this dying?  God, please let me find the bottom!

I hit the ground hard and at the same time am hit with bursts upon bursts, worse than electricity, worse then anything imaginable.  Something pushing inside my brain, demanding entrance.  I try to curl up in a ball.  Go away! Leave me alone!  It pushes harder.  Suddenly, I can hear again, something pounding.  My heart?  I can't be dead, then.  I grab onto that sound, focusing all my energy on that pulse.  The thing trying to get inside seems to hesitate, and I grab it, to destroy it while I have a chance.  Instead, it welcomes the embrace and spreads inside me, accepting the confines I allow it, and I suddenly feel more alive, stronger, more powerful than I've ever felt in my life.  My screams of fear turn into exultant roaring.

Nothing has ever felt this good.

The blackness fades away, and I am back in a room that is suddenly smaller, filled with blood, and screams, and beings that I barely recognize, human and demon.  The smell of blood is hot and maddening; I reach out and pull something living toward me.  It squeals piercingly until I tear its throat out, revelling in the warm taste of its blood.  I laugh and toss the body away. The room fills with screams again, human and demon, but loudest by far is my laughter as I catch something else in my claws to kill.

It has my face.

     *

And I shot up, strangling and choking for air.  Dream?  Oh, please, God, all of it, just a dream?  Something moved beside me abruptly, and I clawed to get away, scrambling back --

-- and off the bed.  I landed hard on my tailbone, knocking breath and reality into me, and tears of surprise and confusion came to my eyes.

A dream?  My tongue felt the sharpness of fangs, and the other-voice was whispering something silvery far back in my mind.

And I was shaking, drenched with sweat.  The palms of my hands stung, and I knew they'd be bleeding from where my nails dug in and tore the skin apart.  Just as I knew the scars would be gone by morning.

I don't think I screamed.  Not out loud, anyway.  I gasped for breath.

A blond, tousled head appeared over the edge of the bed above me.  False-dawn flashed off ice-colored eyes and a knife blade.

His eyes were awake, but his voice wasn't quite working yet.  "Whazza ma'r?"

I shook my head frantically.  "Nothing.  Go back to sleep."

Ryo gazed at me for a long moment, as if undecided whether or not to kill me anyway for waking him.  Then he dropped the knife to the floor, and his head fell to rest on his arms.  "Mmmrph."

Embarrassed, I crawled the couple of feet to the fireplace and added pieces of wood and poked at the embers until the fire built up again and was crackling comfortably.

"Dreams?"

I didn't answer, and Ryo rolled over and was quiet for a moment, as if hoping that he would fall asleep before he could decide whether or not to get up.  Then he sighed and lunged up out of the bed, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders as he made his way across to the kitchen.

The smell of tea wafted by, and soon he had come back with two steaming mugs.  I took the one he handed out to me and automatically began sipping. He sat down next to me, grumbling softly, then noticed I was still shivering. He clawed out towards the bed until he caught the corner of another blanket and pulled it towards him.  He shoved it at me, ignoring my protests. "You're cold and damp, sitting next to a warm fire, and the last thing I need if for you to get sick.  And probably give it to me."

"Do demons get sick?"

He didn't answer, and I wondered if it was because the question was too stupid to merit an answer or because he didn't know.  Instead, he rubbed ferociously at his eyes.  "It's bad enough," he lectured to the fire, "that Akira calls me in the middle of the night, two or three times a week about nightmares, and now I get this."

I quietly drank my tea, trying to will myself invisible.

Ryo bundled himself deeper inside the blanket.  "It's late, it's cold, and I want very much to go back to sleep, so this will be short.  You're seeing the demon's memories.  It's to be expected from the gattai.  You're catching up on a second life.  The sooner you accept it, the easier it will be."

I set my mug down on the hearth much harder than I had intended, and it shattered, embedding slivers in my hand.  "I don't want to accept it.  Haven't you heard anything I've been telling you?"

He carefully placed his mug next to the fragments of mine; an obvious comparison between control and lack of.  "Then you'll have nightmares.  If you accept the gattai, you'll still live the memories.  You can't avoid that. It's part of the blend.  But they won't seem like nightmares any longer. They'll just be memories, like any normal dreams."

I refused to say anything.  Instead, I turned my hand to the firelight and concentrated on picking a piece of the mug out of it.

He shrugged.  "Your choice."  He crawled back into the bed.

I stayed where I was.

There was a moment of silence, then a sigh.  "Risa, come back to bed."

"Not tired."

"Are you still hungry?  Then you need the sleep."

"Do you always manage to be right about everything?"

"Of course."

I threw my pillow at him.  He took it and added it on top of his own.

"Hey!"  I bounced back on the bed.  "Give it back!"

"You gave it up.  You sleep without it."

"But... but... but..."  I sputtered for a few moments.  "Aw... come on.  Give it back."  I inched closer and poked at the lump of blankets.  "Are you ticklish...?"

""No."  His voice was cold steel, quiet and deadly, and I rocked back on my heels so fast that I almost fell off the bed again.  I watched him for a long silent moment, then very quietly slid under the covers and watched the flames dance in the fireplace until I fell asleep.

     *

Habit made me wake up with the sun, but I stretched lazily with the luxury of rolling over and going back to sleep.  Sleeping in was also something I had grown to miss.  It was more comfortable to walk in the early morning before the sun and humidity grew intense.  Lazy weekend mornings, breakfast in bed in front of a television, long showers, sneakers instead of heavy hiking boots, a solid roof over my head when it rained -- things like that I missed.

So burying myself back under the blankets was a luxury I hadn't hoped for in months.  With any more encouragement, I'd be purring.

The bedroom door clicked open, and there was the sound of whispering voices and tiptoes making their way for the kitchenette.  Ryo groaned softly and sandwiched his head between the two pillows.

There was a giggle that had to come from Miki.  "Quiet, or you'll wake them," Akira's deeper voice warned.  

"But look!" she said in delight.  "They're in the same bed!"

The lump of blankets that was Ryo abruptly stopped trying to bury himself further from the sunlight.  "Oh, no..." he groaned.

"So?" Akira asked, then I could hear the lightbulb go on over his head. "Ohhh!"  He started chuckling.

Ryo sat bolt upright.  "Wait a minute," he protested, but Miki had already bounced over to perch at the foot of my side of the bed.  "We thought we heard voices late through the night," she teased.  "Some strange noises, too. But I certainly didn't think there was anyone who could win Asuka-san's attentions!"


Ryo glowered at her coldly.  "It's not what you think."   I smirked at the cliche, but choked it off when he turned the glare on me.

Miki pouted at him in mock disappointment and poked at the blankets. "Aww, does hat mean you're wearing clothes under that?"

Ryo lunged out of the bed and towered over her.  She pouted again mischievously when she saw his pajamas, and Akira quickly dodged between them.  "What about breakfast, Miki-chan?"  He began steering Miki toward the kitchenette, just as Ryo slammed the bathroom door behind him.  He was in only long enough to change clothes, then stormed out to pick up his coat and gun and leave, slamming that door too.

While Akira and Miki were staring at the still-vibrating door, (Miki in amusement and Akira in concern), I snagged clothes from my pack and disappeared for another long shower.  When I finally came out, Akira brought out a folding table and began to set it up while Miki started to bring out dishes.  I realized that they had waited breakfast for me, and I started to lavish apologies, but Miki waved them off until I promised to wash the dishes afterwards.  She kept up a lively stream of chatter through breakfast, asking questions that had me nervous until I realized that she was more interested in my life back in the States than she was in my life here in Japan.  I relaxed then, and told her about my high school, my best friend who had started me learning Japanese when we were kids and encouraged me to continue throughout high school, my family, what I did on weekends, and on and on until I began to wonder if she ever did stop talking.

Then she did pause and abruptly leaned forward, lacing her fingers together and resting her chin on them.  Her eyes danced impishly.  "So you really like Asuka-san?"

Akira coughed and looked rather like he wished he could disappear.  I sputtered for a few seconds, trying to think of words that would dissuade her of the notion, but she took that for embarrassment and clapped her hands in delight.  "Oh, I'm so glad!  It's just what he needs!  I never see him with anyone but Akira, and I never see him smile.  He's such a..."  She hesitated for a moment, searching for the right description.

"Iceberg?" I supplied weakly.

"Exactly."  She beamed slyly.  "But I'll bet you can warm him up!"

Fair skin usually comes with red hair, and blushes come easily to fair skin. And of course, the minute someone notices I'm blushing, I blush even more fiercely.  I started snagging dishes and made a run for the sink.

Akira came to my rescue.  "Miki, didn't you say you had some studying to do today?"

She made a face and stuck her tongue out at him.  "He's right, though.  Just because there's a vacation doesn't mean they let up on the homework."  She made shooing motions.  "Go on, get out of here for a while, so I can concentrate."  She grinned at me wickedly.  "And I don't even have to worry about you trying to seduce my boyfriend!"

I groaned under my breath and went to dig my sneakers out of my pack. One of my boots had gotten munched by that demon, and I had no idea where the other one had disappeared to.  The lighter footwear felt strange after the weight of the boots, and I felt as if the gloom I had been wandering in had been lightened, too.  I was in a mess of a situation, but soap opera-type messes were much less cumbersome than demonic messes. More normal.

Once outside, Akira started to apologize for Miki's teasing, but I waved it off.  "After all, Ryo does rather ask for it."

"Ryo doesn't have much of a sense of humor," he agreed.  "But Miki does push a bit too far, sometimes."  He smiled fondly.

"Does she know about...?" and I made a ferocious face, curling my fingers into claws.


He laughed, as if in spite of himself.  "No.  She doesn't know anything about it.  She just thinks that I've finally become more assertive."  At my raised eyebrows, he explained, "She used to have to save me from bullies."

"Mmm.  Glad I asked.  It would have made things rather difficult if I had asked her how she handles a demon for a boyfriend."

He looked a little panicked at the thought, and I laughed.  He smiled, ducking his head a little self-consciously, glancing over his shoulder.  There was a large tangle of trees between us and the cabin by then, and he grinned at me a little more wildly, fangs showing.  "Let's stretch our wings a bit, shall we?"

I grinned back and stretched catlike, each muscle singing.  This was so different.  I was with someone else who was in the same unbelievable situation I was in, and he was comfortable with it.  I didn't have to hide, and it felt good for the first time.  Akira was already pulling off his shirt, then stopped when he realized I was about to do the same.  He blushed lobster-red.  "Eh... ano... eto...  I think I'll... be right over... there."  He pointed a ways further down the path, very carefully not looking at me.  "Yes.  I'll be... down there.  Right."  He fled.

I finished undressing, neatly folding my clothes into a nice little pile.  I stretched again, shifting forms as I did, noticing that the stiffness in my leg and wing was almost gone.  When the rustling in the trees where Akira had disappeared became significantly louder, I scooped up my clothes and went off to find him.  Further down the path, I hesitated, suddenly very nervous and self-conscious.  To have someone else see me in this form was acknowledging that the change was real and not some hallucination of my own.  I suddenly wanted to change back to the protective camouflage of my human body, or to run back to my isolation.

Before I could decide, he came around the bend, carrying his own bundle of clothes.  He looked very pleased with himself, not noticing that I was on the verge of bolting.  "The red pelt suits you."

I smoothed the fur on my arm nervously.  "I've wondered if the demon was originally red, or if my hair was an influence."  My tail was swishing, and I felt like I was blushing.  Awkwardly, I held out my clothes.  "What should we do with these?"

"Miki coming along and finding our clothes without us in them would not be good," he agreed.  He placed him up in a tree about eye-level to him, but far above Miki's head, and stowed mine there as well.  "Is your wing strong enough for flight?"

I unfurled them and carefully moved the one that had been broken.  "It feels all right."  I craned my neck to look up at him shyly.  I wasn't much taller in this form than in my human, but he was at least a couple of heads taller than me.  "What do I call you?  Are you still Akira, or are you Amon, now."

"Neither, really," he said.  "I'm Devilman.  And you?"

"Risa," I said firmly.

He folded his arms and regarded me thoughtfully.  "It's easier if you accept the gattai."

"That's what Ryo said," I muttered resentfully.  My tail swished again, but indignantly this time.

"Because he knows.  And besides," and he grinned widely, all of his teeth showing.  "It's fun."  And he leapt up, his wings unfolding and scooping at the air.  Natural instinct was to chase, and I did.  I had never flown at my full speed, but I never passed up a challenge.  What surprised me was that I was not only keeping up, but I was starting to pull forward.

Then he suddenly swept his wings forward, breaking and using the momentum to slingshoot in the other direction.  I somersaulted down and under in midair and pulled even with him again.  He dove down, hovered next to a tree, then ripped it up and tossed it to me.  I caught it, wings straining back to counterbalance for its weight, and heaved it back to him. Realizing it was too heavy for me, he knocked it aside with his forearm and found a smaller one.  We relayed it back and forth for a while, then improvised a few other games, until he noticed that I was starting to lag behind.  He waited until I caught up again.  "Why didn't you say your wing was bothering you?" he asked sternly.

I hovered in front of him, sheepishly.

"You're not going to do yourself any good if it gives out and you fall. There's a lake up over that rise.  We'll rest there."

"I'll rest, you mean.  You're not even winded," I snorted, breathing heavily, feeling like a housecat looking up at a tiger.

"I'm stronger.  More endurance."

"Boastful, too."

His fangs flashed at me again.  "You're faster, though.  Ready?"

I nodded, and he whirled on his tail and shot away.  He pulled in over the lake and landed on a large rock outcropping jutting over the water, his wings folding back into his shoulders.  I hovered gently over the surface of the water, carefully flicking my wings into my back, before I let myself plummet into the water.  I sank until I touched the lake bottom, then sprang back up again, shaking water and mane away from my eyes.  I dove a few more times, playing happily, then swam over to the outcropping.

Devilman was watching with amusement.  "I thought cats didn't like water."

"But I'm human, and this human does."  I splashed him playfully, and he quickly backed out of range.  "Why is it that girls have this fascination with water?" he asked, scowling distastefully.

"It's not the water.  It's the clean."  I glided up onto the rock, seal-like.  I spent a few minutes using the edge of my hand to sheet the excess water from my pelt, then stretched out contentedly in the sun.  I could now sun all year round if I wanted; the cold in the air didn't affect me.

"See, it's not all that bad, is it?" he asked, just as I was beginning to doze off.

"What isn't?" I murmured sleepily.

"The demon gattai."

I woke up, my contentment shattered.  I rolled over to rest my weight on my elbows.  "Is that what this was all about? To show me how much fun this is?"

He frowned.  "Actually, it was the exercise Ryo told you to get.  But, yes, I thought you probably had only seen the worst side of this.  How did you feel when you were flying?"

Reluctantly, I relieved the wind whistling my mane back, the powered spurts with each wingbeat, the scorn toward anything landbound.  It was, beyond any sliver of doubt, the greatest, most incredible, most addictive thing ever.

I slowly sat up, crossing my legs beneath me.  "When I came back to myself, that first time..."  I began clawing absently at the rock, scratching fragments off.  I was fighting to not remember, to not force myself to voice the memories, and at the same time, fighting to make him understand.  "I came back aware, and all around me were pieces of what had been my friends."  I looked up at him, and his expression was still passive.  In frustration, I slammed my fists down on the rock, and it creaked ominously in protest. "Don't you see?  I don't know if I was the one who killed them or not.  How do I know that I won't go on a killing spree the next time I change?"


"You were blindly scared," he pointed out.  "Have you ever lost that much control again?"

I went back to picking at the rock.  "No..."

He nodded thoughtfully.  "I think you are too much human.  You worry too much about what you won't let happen.  Demons don't."

I shook my head in disgust and started to stand, but he caught my wrist, making me sit down again.  "The same thing happened to me the first time.  I thought I had killed Ryo without realizing it.  I had dropped a demon on him.  Since then, I've concentrated only on killing demons, and not on what might or might not happen."

"And did it work?" I challenged.

He shrugged.  "I haven't dropped anything on Ryo since.  There are humans who die during the fights, but there would be a lot more people dying if I wasn't fighting."

It made sense, but I just didn't feel comfortable with it.  I leaned over the edge of the rock and stared into the rippling water, trying to sort emotions and instinct.  "How bad do you think this invasion is going to get?"

He thought for a moment.  "Bad," he finally said.  "And there's a lot more of them."

"So you think it's worth everything you gave up?"

"I think so."

"And everything you might lose?"

"I'd go mad if I always thought of that," he answered.  "It's easier to go by the demon instinct instead of the human worry."

A long shape glimmered down in the water, and my hand shot down and flipped the fish up on the rock next to me.  "Dinner," I said in explanation and settled down to watch for more.  "I'm not convinced," I finally said after another long silence.  "But, as Ryo was quite blunt about pointing out, I'm not going to be much help anyway, so you don't have to try too hard to convince me."

"Sooner or later, you'll run up against something stronger than you," he conceded.  "So will I, for that matter.  I nearly lost the last big fight.  The only reason I'm still alive is because she died before she could strike a last blow.  But I'm not going to sit and hide in fear of that happening again. There are too many demons that I could be hunting down instead, like the ones that are killing children caught out after dark.  Like the ones who think that humans are gourmet dinners, all nicely packaged up to go.  This was why I accepted the gattai in the first place, to prevent these deaths. And I think Ryo's wrong about you not being helpful.  He probably doesn't want you out fighting because he's worried you'll get hurt.  Once you're more healed, I intend to get you to spar with me.  That's one thing Ryo can't help with.  I've done well enough in discovering Amon's powers so far, but I'd rather have the lesson instead of going directly to the exams.  That's why we come out here every so often, where there's enough space to practice."

I truthfully didn't think Ryo cared much one way or another about me getting hurt.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he hoped I'd get munched, taking away a thorn in his side.  But I let myself be distracted by another fish.  

We didn't say much more until I reluctantly decided that I had enough fish to feed the four of us.  "Can we come back again?"

He looked surprised.  "Of course.  I'll show you how to get here, so you can come on your own, too."

"But it'll be all iced over soon, " I said in disappointment.  "I won't be able to swim."

He looked at me oddly.  "Risa, you can always break the ice."

"But it will be too thick...  Oh."  I was sure I was blushing under the fur. "That's right.  I forgot."

"I think you can break the ice with Ryo, too."  

I caught my tail in embarrassment, and he ruffled my fur rather affectionately.  "I'll race you back."

     *

Ryo didn't come back until very late that night.  Miki and Akira had already disappeared into the bedroom, disappointed, I believe, at not seeing more of the two of us together.  I had spent most of the evening going through what was left in my pack and washing clothes.  It was something that always needed doing and rarely got done until I was on the Emergency Last Set of Underwear.  I hadn't gotten that desperate this time, but I wanted to take advantage of the roof over my head and fireplace to dry the wet clothes by.  I had turned off all the lights and was working by the firelight.  One thing I had noticed; my night vision was much more acute than my day vision, and bright lights tended to hurt my eyes more.  I had never been good at keeping track of sunglasses, and now that I needed them, I was forever losing and replacing them.  I was much more comfortable by the firelight, and my clothes hanging around on every hangablesurface made wavy little shadows throughout the cabin.

I had dumped the rest of the pack's contents into a pile on the floor in front of me and was working on reinforcing the worn spots of the pack with duct tape.  There is little in the world that can't be fixed with duct tape, and a good deal of my camp items also had a few layers of the grey sticky stuff. Eventually, I had to get a new pack, preferably before mine was completely grey-covered, but I simply couldn't afford that much.  Food was one thing; the first thing I had done after leaving the hospital was to empty my bank account before someone thought to freeze it, so I had enough to last me for a while.  After that... well, I wasn't too sure what I was going to do, but I suppose there was always someone on the farms I passed who needed odd jobs done.  But there simply wasn't enough now for a new pack, so I kept patching the old and hoping it would hold together for a while longer.

I was still working on that when Ryo came in.  In fact, I was trying to patch a spot on the very bottom inside the pack and had half crawled inside to reach it, fighting the metal frame.  It took me a few seconds to claw my way out, spitting out curses in both languages as the tape stuck to my fingers and the pack turned inside-out in an effort to follow me.  I finally got loose, got the pack under control, and sat back on my heels, blowing tangles of hair out of my eyes impatiently.

Ryo was watching me, one eyebrow raised, obviously enjoying the show.  "Think you've beaten it into submission?"

"You never know about these backpacks," I answered with mock seriousness. "They tend to turn on you if you don't watch it.  Adding duct tape is only an invitation for open mutiny and rebellion."  I pulled the pack back to me and glared inside it.  "And I still haven't gotten that patch right."  I fished the pair of scissors out of my sewing kit and set about trimming the now-twisted and useless piece of duct tape away.  "Where've you been all day?" I asked, my voice muffled by the nylon of the pack.

"Miss me?"  He set down the bag that he had been carrying and began to take off his boots.

I pulled my head back out of the pack, gave him a skeptical look, then ducked back in the pack.  "Actually, I cooked dinner and was a touch proud of the result."

"Any left?"

"No.  When you didn't show up, we ate your share, too."

"Oh."  He sounded miffed.

I set the roll of tape aside and began poking experimentally at the patch to see if it would hold.  "It was pan-fried fish.  It wouldn't have rewarmed well."

"I've eaten, anyway."  He began to empty the bag, storing cartons of food in cupboards and the refrigerator.  "I hiked down to the car and drove into the nearest town.  I figured with Miki here, Akira would want time with her, and that's difficult with me around and our tendency to argue.  Besides, we've been up here just over a week, and I wanted newspapers.  We can't get radio or television reception well, so I tend to feel stranded when we've been here too long."

"City kid?"  I decided to leave that patch alone and started to work on another one.

"Actually, no, but I like to keep track of the news."  He threw the bag at me, and I automatically dropped the pack to catch it.  It was heavier than I thought it would be, and I cocked my head at him curiously.  "New boots," he said.  "Knew you'd need them."

I was already pulling them out and trying them on.  "How did you know what size to get?"

"I know everything.  Hasn't Akira told you that yet?"  I looked at him in alarm, and he laughed softly.  "Actually, we found one of your boots.  I took it down with me and found a pair that matched."  I feigned disappointment, and he laughed again, a little louder.

"Well, at least you're in a better mood," I commented, lacing the boots.  I stood and walked around the room.

"I don't like being picked on, and I only tolerate Miki because of Akira," he said shortly, then bent to check where my toes were in the boots.  "Do they fit all right?"

"Perfectly."  I bounced around on my toes.  "Excellent support, too."  Then I hesitated and began sorting through the pile of junk for my wallet.  "How much do I owe you?"  I was hoping I'd have enough.

"I have money.  Don't worry about it."

My pride kicked in, and I began to protest, but he cut me off.  "Did you think I was going to carry you down off this mountain?"

"I have sneakers," I said weakly, sitting to take the boots off.  They were much better quality than I ever could afford to buy, and I was feeling very guilty.

"And it's snowing out.  Your sneakers would have done a lot of good soaking wet."

"Snowing?" I squealed and ran outside.  The world had a powdering of white all over it, and it was difficult to distinguish stars from snowflakes.  I reached out off the porch and caught some in the palm of my hand, felt more melting in my hair.

Ryo wrapped his coat around his shoulders again and came outside, shutting the door firmly behind him against the cold.  "It started on my way back.  We'll have six or seven inches by morning."

"It's beautiful," I breathed, still leaning out into it, but I was also dismayed. "Will we be snowed in?"

"No.  It's just an early snowfall.  It will get warm again in a few days, and we can hike out then.  It won't get really bad for a couple of weeks yet."

I had no idea what I was going to do then, once it started snowing and icing too much to walk.  I had been deliberately not thinking about this, pushing it out of my mind whenever it wandered in.  Now I had to think of something, not in a few weeks, but in a few days.  Maybe I could work at one of the farms or in a town during the winter, but that meant staying in one place for a long time.

"Beautiful, yes," Ryo said suddenly, breaking into my thoughts, "but cold, and I've been out in it enough today.  It may not bother you and Akira," and he glanced at my bare legs under my night shirt, "but I don't like cold.  I'm going in."

"I'm coming," I said softly.  I caught the door he held open for me and went back to mending my pack.  He disappeared into the bathroom and came out again with a towel.  He leaned up against the wall, drying his hair, until I realized there wasn't any place to sit that wasn't covered by my clothes.  I dashed around quickly, snatching up what was dry and moving what wasn't closer to the fire to clear one of the chairs.  "How long ago did they go to sleep?" he asked as he sat down.

"A couple of hours.  I didn't think I could sleep yet, considering how much I've slept lately, so I thought I'd get this stuff done."  I glared at the pack, daring it to fall apart, and started repacking.

"I don't suppose you thought to bring the fouton out first?"

Annoyed, I tossed my cup up in the air and let it fall in my lap.  "Never thought of it."  He looked displeased, and I got defensive.  "Why didn't you get it out this morning, if you knew you were going to be out late?  Don't blame it on me!"

"I didn't know I'd get back this late, and I forgot this morning," he shot back, his good temper disappearing.  "Have you joined Miki in playing matchmaker?"

"Not bloody likely," I snarled, my Japanese deserting me, but I was sure he'd get the meaning.  He probably spoke English better than I did, anyway.  I switched back to Japanese in any case.  "I certainly don't need to add you to my list of troubles.  I've got enough as it is."

"And I don't need your distraction!"  He sank a little lower in his chair and brooded.  "I also don't need the matchmaking.  I was sure Miki would send you after me this morning."

"I was a little surprised when neither of them suggested it."  I put the last of my things in the pack and left it open to add the rest of the clothes when they dried.

Ryo looked startled.  "Them?  You mean Akira is in on this as well?"

"He seems to be just as pleased with the idea."

"Why?"

"How the hell should I know?" I asked tiredly, getting thoroughly sick of the whole subject.  "Maybe he just expects it.  He wants me to stick around, you and I are both uninvolved, we're all tied up in this demon mess.  Maybe us as a couple is the end of the equation to him."

"Are you staying?"  His expression had closed off, and I couldn't tell what he was thinking.  I shrugged.  "I don't know.  I still don't like any of this.  Plus there's more mundane things to think about, like a place to stay, food to eat, things like that."

"There is that," he agreed, looking relieved.  "I doubt the Makimuras would take in another foundling.  I'm tired.  I'm going to bed."  He picked up his pajamas and went into the bathroom to change, then came out and unfolded the bed.  I very stubbornly stayed where I was and didn't help him with the blankets and sheets.  He was the one making a big fuss out of all this; he could cope with it on his own.

"Try not to dream and wake me up again," he said as he laid down.,  "I nearly killed you last night before I remembered you were supposed to be there."

"Try not to steal the blankets again," I answered back sweetly, crawling onto my side.  "I might forget and use my claws to pull them back, before I remember you're supposed to be there."

He grunted and didn't say anything more.

     *

As it was, I couldn't sleep and ended up staring at the patterns the snowflakes made through the moonlight coming through one of the windows. Insomnia had been a natural response to the nightmares.  Normally I made myself stay awake until it was utterly impossible, something going for days with very little sleep.  I suppose that was as much responsible for my quick temper as the gattai.  The nightmares together with so many days' worth of sleep was bound to keep me awake most of the night.  I finally managed to get a book out of my pack without waking Ryo and read.  When the fire died down, I added another piece of wood and kept reading.

Nightmares seemed to run rampant through our group.  Ryo kept tossing and turning, cringing in the throes of whatever was haunting him.  I kept thinking he would come to his own rescue and wake up, but it grew worse, until I put my book aside and rolled over to rub his shoulder gently, hoping either to wake him or ease him into a better dream.

He shot bolt upright just before I touched him.  "No!" he gasped out. "Akira!!"

I caught his hand as it flailed past my face, and it was like ice.  "Ryo!  It was just a dream."

He looked at me wildly.  "No, I killed him, I... I..."  He caught his breath.  "A dream?" he asked, almost voiceless.

I touched his face gently.  "A dream, Ryo.  Akira is fine.  He's sleeping in the other room."

He pulled away from me and stumbled across the room.  I followed him quickly as he ran into the bathroom and threw open the bedroom door.

Akira was sound asleep, one arm curled protectively around Miki.  I slipped an arm around Ryo's waist, reaching past him to ease his hand off the doorknob.  "You see," I whispered.  "He's right there.  He's all right.  Come on, before we wake him."

Ryo let me shut the door and lead him back to the bed.  His eyes were still wide and haunted, and he was shaking hard.  I wrapped him in all the blankets, then went and poked up the fire until it was burning hard enough to banish most of the shadows from the room and to bring a sheen of sweat to my face.  I crawled back up on the bed.  Ryo was staring blankly at nothing, huddled up tightly against the arm of the couch.

"Have you dreamt this before?"  I knew how reoccuring nightmares would eat away at me, and Ryo's reaction went beyond a common-type bad dream.

His head moved in the barest of nods.  "Yes," he said hoarsely.  "A couple of times.  Never so vividly, though.  It gets more and more real."

At a complete loss of what to do and wary of his temper, I reached out and pulled him into my arms, stroking his hair and humming tunelessly.  It was what I had always wanted somebody to do for me after my nightmares.  Ryo automatically began to resist, then gave up tiredly and rested his head on my shoulder, closing his eyes sleepily.  "Poor Ryo," I murmured into his hair as his breathing gradually became deeper and more regular.  "You spend all your energy being strong for Akira, but who's being strong for you?"  I lightly kissed his neck, just below his jaw.

He flared awake, eyes blazing into mine.  "Don't," he said sharply.  He took my hands from his shoulders and placed them in my lap.  "Don't," he repeated and turned away from me, laying back down and huddling in a tight ball of blankets, angry and alone.

     *

"Ryo?"  I nudged him gently, then said his name a bit louder, gradually working up to a normal speaking level.

His eyes cracked open, and his hand went up to shield them from the bright sunlight streaming through the room.  "Whaazzit?"

I dropped my armload of snow directly on his face.

He bellowed and lunged out of bed.  A giggling Miki and Akira wisely scattered out of the way as I streaked out the door a second ahead of him.  I had never expected a human to run so fast, even when he caught me around the waist and flung me into the snow.  He pinned me down before I could get up, held open the neck of my nightshirt, and shoved a fistful of snow in. I squealed, knocked him over, and took great pleasure in washing his face with snow.


He stopped struggling and wiped the snow from his face.  I couldn't tell if he was angry or not, and I suddenly began to regret this impulse.  I let him sit up, and he glared at me.  "I hope you realize," he began severely, "that if the mattress is wet, you're sleeping on that side tonight."

"Oh."  I stood up quickly.  "i hadn't thought of that."

"Why did you do it in the first place?" he inquired evenly.  I still couldn't tell how angry he was.

"Because no one else was brave enough to," I answered and started back for the cabin.

His snowball caught me directly between my shoulder blades.

It was a several more minutes before we went inside.

We ate breakfast sitting in front of the fireplace, all wrapped up in towels (the snowball fight between Akira and Miki was what had pulled me out of bed in the first place).  Miki was trying to comb Akira's hair and get it to lie properly, but just as she thought she had a lock tamed, it would spring out.  Akira was enduring it patiently and rather sheepishly, but finally was able to snitch the comb away when she wasn't looking.  She tried to wrestle it back from him, but when he fended her off easily, she flounced into the bathroom to change into dry clothes.  

Ryo was sitting on the couch, slightly apart from us, but I sensed a lighter mood from him and decided that his sulk was just for show to keep up his reputation.  The minute the door closed behind Miki, he was up and fishing through the pile of newspapers he had brought in yesterday until he found a certain one.  He paged through it until he found the article he was looking for, folded the paper open to that spot, and tossed it to Akira.  "Read this."

Akira did, his face turning darker and angrier.  I went to look over his shoulder, but the kanji in the article was too intimidating.  Not wanting to disturb Akira, I went to sit on the floor at Ryo's feet and tugged at his still-damp pajama leg.  "What is it?"

"They're finding pieces of mutilated bodies in the city back home," he answered.  "Demons, leaving calling cards.  Akira!"  He reached out and tapped the paper, and Akira reluctantly put it down.  "I made some calls while I was out yesterday.  I've got some more names."  I tugged at his pajama leg again, and he sighed impatiently.  "I've been having people collect names of anyone with an abrupt change of personality, who stopped coming into work without an explanation, anything like that."

"It must be difficult, coming up with a list like that."  In a spurt of mischievousness, I rested my head against his leg.

"Not if you have the right amount of money," he said uneasily.  He tried to shift away, but he was up against the arm of the couch and couldn't move any further.  I looked up at Akira, and his eyes danced at me, before he switched his attention to Ryo.

"Time to go back to work?" he asked, the tips of his fangs showing as he grinned.

Ryo's eyes gleamed eagerly.

The thrill of this was eluding me.

Miki came back in, and Akira unobtrusively folded the newspaper and put it aside.  She stopped and beamed at Ryo and me.  "They make a perfect couple, don't they?  Fire and ice."

Ryo make a choking noise, grabbed a pile of clothes, and fled to the bathroom.  I tried very hard to keep from giggling, then sobered as I wondered what I was doing.  I really didn't like Asuka Ryo, did I?  Granted, he was one of those people I enjoyed watching, but he scared me.  On the other hand, it was so much fun getting a rise out of him.  He tried so hard to be unflippable, that sometimes I just had to flip him, just to remind him that he was human.

Then I remembered kissing him last night and quickly began to sort clothes out of my pack to stop thinking about it further.

Akira was looking mournfully at his empty plate.  He sighed longingly and started for the kitchen.  He stopped short a few steps from the window and backtracked to look out, frowning.

Miki was still chattering away, but I went over to stand next to him.  "What is it?"

"Just a shadow... maybe," he said softly.  "Something moved over by the edge of the trees.  Look, there it is again!"  A form flitted from the shadow of one tree to another, but I saw light reflecting off of claws.  "Demon," I whispered.

Miki crowded between us.  "What are you looking at?"

"Never mind," Akira said in the same soft tone.  "Just get your coat on.  Ryo!"

"I'll be out in a minute," Ryo called back.

"Hurry, Miki-chan."  Akira pushed her towards the pile of coats next to the fireplace.

Another shape moved, then something dark shifted in the treetops.  "Akira, there's more of them."  I gripped the widow sill, my nails growing longer and biting deep into the wood.  He noticed and covered my hands with his.  "Not yet.  Ryo, get out here, now!" he bellowed.

The bathroom door flew open, and Ryo dove for his shotgun, still pulling on a sweater.  "How many?"

"At least three."  I ran to my pack and started throwing the rest of my things in.  Miki still hadn't moved, and Akira caught up her coat and bundled her in it himself.  "Get them to the car and out of there, Ryo!" he ordered.

"Akira-kun!" she protested, frightened now.  "Tell me what's wrong!"

"Demons," Ryo said shortly.  He shrugged his own coat on and filled his pockets with shotgun shells, then pulled on his boots.  He didn't stop to lace them, just pulled the laces tight and tucked them inside the boot.  "Just like in the newspapers.  Risa, leave that and let's get out of here."

Everything I own is in there," I began, but he caught my arm and pushed me to the door.

It burst open, the demon looming through the shattered frame.  Miki screamed, and Ryo's shotgun went off twice.  In the next instant, he had reloaded and fired both rounds.  The demon shuddered, spurting blood and shrieking, and staggered back outside.  "Get them out of here!" Akira roared and ran out.

"Akira-kun!" Miki screamed and started to dart after him, but I snagged her wrist and yanked her through the bathroom and into the bedroom.  I let go of her long enough to put one fist through the glass window and use the other to break the shattered glass out of the frame.  The wind plastered my damp nightshirt against me.  Miki started to run back out, but Ryo was right behind me and blocked her way.  I climbed through the window, feeling a piece of glass slice into my bare knee.  Ryo quickly slung the gun over his shoulder, scooped Miki up, and handed her through the window to me.  I heard a loud roar and crashing noises coming from out front, and both Miki and I started towards it, but Ryo vaulted out through the window and caught both of us.  "Akira can take care of himself," he told Miki, but he shot a look at me as well that told me to keep out of the fight.  "Come on." He gave Miki a push to start her.  "The car's at the bottom of the hill."

I matched his pace stride for stride.  "The car will be snowed in!"

Ryo cursed and glanced wildly over his shoulder.  "Four-wheel drive.  If I can get it started, it'll make it out."

Miki stumbled in the deep snow and almost fell.  I ran to her and helped her to her feet.  Her eyes were wide with fear, but I felt it was more for Akira.  "I'll go ahead of you and break a path.  Step in my footprints."

"You're barefoot," she said between gasps for breath.  "Let Ryo do it."

Impressed that she was thinking rationally, I shook my head.  "Trust me, I'll move faster than him."  I darted off and started to zig-zag a path, trying to give them more of a foothold and to keep from falling at the same time.  A demon stepped out from the trees and swiped at me with long talons.  I fell backwards and landed against Miki.  She let out a small shriek, falling hard, and I heard her head crack against something solid.  I heard a loud roar from above and caught sight of Devilman in the air, heading toward us.  A huge hand reached up from a treetop and caught his ankle, pulling him down among the trees.  

Ryo's gun barked twice, and I launched myself at the demon in front of us. My wings gave me a short spurt of speed that drove my claws into its face. It backed away, shaking its muzzle, and I clawed through its gut, catching organs and pulling them out.  It fell, its blood steaming from the snow.  I roared victory, my blood pounding in my ears.  For a brief second, that was all I could hear, and I looked around for something else to kill.  My gaze settled on the two humans, one of them lying motionless on the ground. Growling, I took a step towards them, eyes glowing.

"Risa!" the human who was still standing shouted, and I hesitated a moment. The word called to something deeper inside me than the lust to kill, and I shook my head in confusion.  I didn't like confusion.  I took another step forward, and the human raised its gun to me.  "I'm Ryo, remember?  Risa, I'll shoot you if you don't stop!"

Risa.

I remembered.  

"Ryo?" I asked weakly, lowering my claws.  "Ryo?  Oh, God, I'm sorry!"

He lowered the gun in obvious relief.  "Help me get her to the car."

I started to kneel next to Miki when something hit me and sliced my back open from just under my right shoulder to my hip.  The world spiraled off in a red haze, and I screamed in agony and anger.  I spun around to face the other demon, but it ripped my other shoulder open to the bone, the swung up to crack my head back. Everything went silent, and I crumpled in the snow next to Miki.

I don't want to die yet.  Not when I've just found someone to give me the answers.  Please, God, not yet.

I could feel the energy leaking out of me as quickly as the blood flowing from my back.  I tried to stand up, but I fell again, my head resting on forearms that were streaked with blood and no longer furred.  Please!  It's too soon!  Not yet...

I wondered if God even listened to demons.

A booted foot came down on either side of me, and my hearing returned with the roar of a shotgun.  I rolled over and saw Ryo's knife clipped to his belt, and I levered myself up enough to grab it.  The last of all my strength went into the throw.  The knife sunk deep into the demon's eye, just before Ryo's next shot ripped half of its face away.  Then Devilman was there, his huge size dwarfing the demon, and he effortlessly tore its head off and crushed it between the fingers of one hand.

The rest of the world faded into the mist, and I fell back in the snow. Careful fingers touched my back, my shoulder.  As usual, there wasn't much pain past the first instant, but the weakness kept growing and growing, and for once, the smell of blood made me feel sick.

"Get Miki in the car."  Ryo's voice floated someplace above me.

"What about Risa?"  It was Akira's voice, and not the deeper, rougher voice of Devilman.

"Just get Miki in the car."

"You're not just going to leave her?"

"It's a thought," Ryo muttered softly.

There was a split second of silence, then someone leaned over me and there was the sound of fabric being grabbed.  Ryo grunted.

"She saved Miki's life," Akira said slowly and deadly clear.  "We will not leave her."

There was another period of silence, then Ryo let out a long sigh.  "I just said it was a thought.  Get the first aid bag from the car.  No, I've got her. You worry about your girlfriend.  If Miki wakes up in my arms, she'll scream rape and punch me in the eye."  Arms lifted me gently, cradling me. I clung closer as sound melted away to the same place my sight had gone.

     *

The first thing I was aware of was of being covered with several heavy quilts.  My first response was to bury myself deeper, leaving a passageway open for air.  I had always loved being wrapped in lots of blankets; the surrounding warmth and heaviness was like being hugged.

The second thing I was aware of was the smell of soup and being hungry.  I poked my head out from under the covers.  "Ryo, don't you ever feed hurt demons anything other than soup?"

Ryo appeared with a bowl and knelt next to the fouton I was resting in. "Actually, yes.  Ramen."

"Aww, Ryo..." I groaned, but quickly took the bowl and chopsticks and began stuffing noodles into my mouth.  After my initial hunger had passed, I began to look around at the room I was in.  "Where am I?"

He sighed wearily.  "My apartment.  We knew the Makimuras wouldn't take in someone else, especially someone they didn't know.  We couldn't very well take you to a hospital, and that left only my place."

"Under protest, I'm sure," I teased.  "I always seem to be waking up in your bed."

He frowned and took the empty bowl.  "Akira was insistent on your staying. I'm still not sure it wasn't part of a larger matchmaking plot."

I turned serious.  "How is Miki?"

"Oh, she's fine.  A slight concussion, but she was awake and nagging by the time I drove them home.  She wanted to know what the demons were, what Akira thought he was doing charging off to fight them like that, where you were, and on and on, she never stops talking."  He was mimicking her cadence of speech very well.  He brought another bowl, and I made a face.  "If you're still hungry when you finish this bowl, I'll get you something else," he promised.  "How are you feeling?"

"Much better than last time," I said with relief.  "No broken bones?"

"Only a few deep flesh wounds, some shredded muscles, exposed bones, things like that.  Nothing to worry about," he said nonchalantly.

"And Akira said you didn't have a sense of humor," I scoffed.

"A morbid sense, maybe," he conceded.  "I want to take a look under those bandages when you're done eating."

I set the bowl aside and gave him a flirtatious look, and he glared. "Stop that.  Would you rather have bled to death?"  My shoulders were still too stiff to get my shirt off easily, and he moved to help.  "They were almost healed when I checked last night.  I just put enough bandages on for protection.  You probably won't need any this time around."

"How long have I been asleep?"  I couldn't tell what time of day it was.

"About a day and a half."  He glanced up at the window.  "I think it's mid-morning."

"You think?"

"I've been reading."  He placed the unwrapped bandages on the floor next to him, and I tried not to look at them.  "I picked up that list of names last night.  The people who may be demons?  I've been looking through them almost all night.  I think we will go ahead and leave the bandages off. There's just scars, and they probably will fade in a day or two.  Do they itch?"

"Now that you mention it..."  I reached back to scratch one shoulder, and he slapped my hand away.

"Leave it alone, or you'll tear it open again.  The itching means it's healing, but the scar tissue is still fragile."  He handed me the shirt I had been wearing.  "Do you need help getting that back on?"

"Aw..."  I pouted again and ran a finger down his arm suggestively.  He caught my hand immediately and pulled away.  He spent a long moment just watching me without any expression, and I began to fidget, wishing that I could go back and stop myself before I had made the invitation.  But I had made it, without really realizing I had been going to make it, and certainly without thinking forward to his reaction.

"Look," he said coldly, and I started to say something, to take it back, but he overrode me, not by the volume of his voice, but by the intensity.  "Listen to me.  You've been working towards this, and probably would have even without Miki's coaxing.  If you gloss away from it this time, you'll only come back to it another, so it will be dealt with now.  I do not love you.  I do not want to fall in love with you, and I certainly have no intention to.  And if you decide to carry this farther, wanting only the physical, you'd better remember that and remind yourself of that each time you touch me, because I will not change or give up anything for you.  Do you understand?"

"Perfectly," I hissed back.  "Damn you, Asuka."  And I surprised myself even more by kissing him.


     *

What am I doing?

What have I done?

And what the hell am I going to do?

I didn't want this to happen.

Did I?

I curled up in a miserable little ball, very much aware of Ryo's back against mine.  He had turned away almost immediately afterwards, and I had wondered briefly if that had been deliberate, then decided that Ryo never did anything that wasn't deliberate.  He was always very much aware of what he was doing.

Which was a lot more than I could say for myself.

Everything in me screamed to pack up and leave.  Except that I didn't have anything to pack, or anything to pack it in if I did.  I lost everything back at the cabin.

But it was more than that.  The only chance I had of surviving the gattai was to learn how to control it, and the only chance I had of that was staying here, and the only ones who could teach me were Akira... and Ryo.

And I was simply too scared to leave.

I buried my face in the corner of the quilt and fiercely told myself that I was not going to cry.  I hadn't cried since this whole thing began, and I certainly wasn't about to start now.  Besides, it would give Ryo too much of an edge over me.

Ryo cried out in his sleep and rolled over, his arm flinging out and smacking my head.  "Ice... so cold..." he moaned.  "Akira..."

Nightmares.  I turned over and wrapped my arms around him, stroked his face gently.  His face relaxed and he sighed, drifting into an easier dream.

At least he could sleep.  I pressed my face against his chest and went back to being miserable.

     *

Ryo started waking up a few hours later.  I could feel him tense as he realized how close I was to him, then slowly relax as he remembered.  I could feel him studying me, and he finally let out a long discontented sigh.

I wondered if he really believed I was asleep.

After a quiet moment that seemed to last forever, he carefully disentangled himself from my arms and sat up.  "Wake up, Risa."

I debated doing that, but instead, said something like "I don' wanna," and rolled away from him.

His lips suddenly brushed my ear.  "Having regrets?" he purred mockingly.

I kept forgetting that Ryo was faster than any human I'd ever seen.  He was up and across the room before my fist hit where he had been laying.  I blew the hair out of my eyes and glared hatred at him as he chuckled smugly.  "I figured that would get you up."

"It isn't a very healthy method," I warned in a low voice.  "I really wouldn't try it again."

"This situation was your idea," he reminded me as he dressed.  He rummaged around in the closet until he came up with a pair of pants and shirt and tossed them to me.  "Try these on for size.  We are about the same height, and you're not much in the hips department, so they should fit."

"I want a bath first."  I wrapped a sheet around me and stalked for the bathroom.  He stepped on the trailing edge of the sheet as I went by, and it jerked me to a stop.  "When we come back," he said.  "I didn't intend for us to sleep the afternoon away, and there's something I want us to do before it gets much later."

"I want a bath," I repeated, raising my voice.

"And I said later," he snapped back just as loudly, his eyes flashing.

We glared at each other.

It was becoming a familiar scenario.  

I was torn between rising to his challenge, and ending this before my anger got out of control.  Or his did.  I wasn't sure whose tantrum would be worse.  "Compromise," I said tiredly.  "Feed me something first, and I'll go with you."

"There's food in the cupboard over there," he said just as wearily.  "You've got five minutes, and we leave."  I tugged expectantly on the sheet, and he stepped off it.   "This must be why the human race is in such bad shape," he muttered.  "The women are too damn stubborn."

"And I always thought it was because of the men," I shot back smoothly, poking through the cupboard.

"Four minutes."

I grabbed a packet of cookies for my pocket, pulled the clothes on, and was waiting at the door with three minutes to spare.  

"Show-off," he muttered under his breath as he swept out the door, four and a half minutes later.

I did my best to look smug.

Obviously, wherever we were heading wasn't very far.  Instead of going for his car, he strode down the street, ignoring the glances and stares his golden hair and my red attracted.  Completely lost after several maze-like turns, I trotted a few steps behind him, munching on the cookies and enjoying the city lights against the silhouettes in the evening sky.

About half an hour later, we had turned into a less crowded area, and Ryo suddenly stopped and steered me into a small coffee shop and sat me down at one of the tables by the window.  "Go ahead and order something," he said.  "I'm sure you're still hungry.  Just be ready to leave the minute I say."

"I'm not in the middle of a Friday the 13th movie; I'm in a bad crime drama," I muttered, but happily ordered a piece of imported coffee cake. Ryo didn't even bat an eye at the price, which made me wonder again just how wealthy his family was.

I was about two thirds of the way done with the cake, when he stood up. "Now.  Let's go."  He snagged the rest of my cake and popped it in his mouth. I started to protest, but his hand clamped down on my wrist, and he pulled me out of the shop and down the sidewalk.

"Do you see the man about half a block ahead of us?" he asked softly.  "The one who looks like a college student?"

"Yeah."  I gave him a wary look.  "What about him?"

"He's a demon."

I almost stopped walking in surprise, but Ryo still had ahold of my wrist and gave it a quick yank that pulled me in step with him again.  "How can you tell?" I hissed.

"His name was on the list.  I came here yesterday evening and followed him home just to make sure.  But when you get close enough, you'll smell demon on him."

"Demons have a smell?"

"Haven't you noticed anything?" he asked with exasperation.  "How did you manage to survive this long?  Of course they have a scent.  I can smell it on you, on Akira, on those demons up at the cabin, and you'll notice it on this one when you kill him."

"Kill him?  Me?"  I tried to stop again, twisting my wrist against his thumb to break his grip, but he let go of my wrist first and slipped his arm tightly around my waist, forcing me to match his pace.  "Damn it, Asuka, stop this," I ordered, scared now.

He bent his head next to mine, speaking softly into my ear.  I'm sure to anyone else on the street, we looked like any couple out on an evening together, except that his arm was around me tight enough to hurt.  "Look, you plan to stay with us, you earn your keep.  You take the same risks that we do, you fight with us, and you might learn enough to keep yourself alive."

"What if he's not a demon?"  My voice squeaked.

"His classmates have been disappearing one by one.  His family suddenly went on vacation, but they aren't where he claims they went."

"Maybe something else happened to them."

"I'll tell you what happened to them," Ryo bit out.  "Don't you know that demons consider human flesh a delicacy?  He'll probably keep going until things start to look suspicious in his direction, and then he'll be the next to disappear, but only to find better feeding grounds.

I was shaking.  "Ryo, I really don't want to do this."

"Is that what you're going to tell his next victim?  Or the victim's family? Wake up, Risa.  We're trying to save people's lives, and if you're not willing to help, then we're not going to help you.  Now, his house is right around that corner.  There's an alley that goes around behind it, and you can get through a window there without being seen.  I'll meet you back home.  Do you remember the address?"

"Alone?  I have to do it alone?"

"I have something else to do.  It's time you grew up, anyway."  We turned the corner, and I saw the man going up the walk to his small house.

I stopped walking to clutch at Ryo's arm, pleading.  "Ryo, please don't make me do this."

Still in the guise of the perfect couple, he kissed my forehead.  "Risa, either kill him, or don't come back."  He turned on his heel and walked away without another look.


Near tears, I helplessly watched him disappear around the corner.  Not knowing what else to do, I went to look for the alley.

     *

I landed on the porch outside Ryo's apartment about half an hour later.  I folded my wings in and shifted back to human form before I slid the door open and went in.

Ryo was sitting at the table, reading from a pile of papers into the phone. He didn't even bother looking up, and I assumed he recognized my smell.  I had noticed what he had meant by the demon smell; it was deeper and somewhat more earthy than human scents.  Now that I knew it, it would be impossible to miss it.  Still, Ryo's sense of smell had to be sharply acute.

I went to the table and bent over it, deliberately planting both of my hands on the page Ryo was reading from.  They left a thick smear of drying blood. He looked up and met my gaze, then nodded slowly.  "Just a minute, Akira," he said into the phone, then covered the mouthpiece to say something to me, but I turned away and went into the bathroom without listening.  I spent an hour scrubbing myself, long after the last traces of blood had washed away. I scrubbed until my skin went past red and beaded with my own blood and stung fiercely with the soap and water.

I had enjoyed the killing entirely too much.

When I had reached the point where I was numb again, I wrapped a towel around myself and went back into the room.  Ryo was off the phone that time, waiting expectantly for me.  "It went well?  You're not hurt?  Tell me about it."

"No," I said shortly, reaching for the shirt I had been using to sleep in.

He was suddenly behind me, arms around my waist.  "What, no celebration?" he asked mockingly and nipped my shoulder.  I twisted away, and he laughed softly.  "Tired of your new game already?"

That time, I was the faster one.  I remembered at the last moment to pull my punch, and so the palm of my hand was all that hit his face and not my fist or claws, but it was still hard enough to rock him backwards.  He flared back, pale with rage, and hit me back.  The blow rolled off me easily, even though he hadn't bothered to soften his punch.  His anger hit me harder than his fist had, and I didn't know how to hurt him in return.  "I hate you," I shrilled, falling back on the defense that all children use.

"Good," Ryo answered softly and left.  I picked up a book from on the bed and flung it at the door as it closed behind him.  It rebounded off and landed opened on the floor, pages creased.

I stared at it for a long time.  At last I pulled on the night shirt and took the cover blanket from the bed.  I didn't see where he had stored the fouton I had been sleeping in, and there was no way I'd been in his bed when he returned.  I wrapped myself in the blanket and curled up uncomfortably in the easy chair in front of the television.  I turned the set on to keep from thinking, but ended up staring at it blankly.

Hours later, Ryo came back in and immediately tripped over the book I had never picked up.  He spent several minutes spewing out curses, most of which I couldn't understand.  He smelled of demon, and I wondered if he had gone on a killing spree of his own.  The thought of a human going up against a demon by himself, willingly, was frightening, and I curled up in a tighter ball, hoping he would think I was asleep.  I heard him turn the television off, then pace through the room for a while.  He stopped, and I could feel him studying me.  Finally, he made a vocal equivalent of a shrug, turned the lights off, and went to bed.

I listened to his breathing as it grew deeper and more relaxed.  When I was sure he was asleep, I began to shift around, fighting to get comfortable.

If there was anything I missed the most, it was being able to sleep.

     *

I finally did fall asleep, which I guess wasn't too surprising.  I was still healing and was emotionally exhausted as well as physically.  I didn't even wake up until someone knocked on the door.

Ryo must have been awake for awhile already, for he answered the door almost before the knock died away.  It was Akira, and apparently unexpected, from the surprise in Ryo's voice.  Not an unwelcome surprise; Ryo sounded more pleasant than he had been in days.

"I just brought over some things for --"  Akira was saying as he walked in, then stopped short when he saw the edges of the blanket and my foot poking out from the chair.

"Ryo," he asked cautiously.  "Why is she sleeping in a chair?"

"She was there when I came back last night."  Ryo's good temper had suddenly evaporated into sullenness.

"But I was talking to you on the phone when she came in.  You were pleased because she had killed --"

"I left again," Ryo interrupted angrily.  "Now, are you going to stand there and talk about her all day, or shall we hunt?"

"Well, actually, I came to give these to..."  Akira's voice trailed off awkwardly.

There was an icy silence.  "I see," Ryo said tightly, and a few seconds later, the door slammed.

I wondered if the neighbors ever got tired of hearing this door slam, or if Ryo only did it when I was around.

"Now what the hell's gotten into him?" Akira murmured.

I peeked over the back of the chair.  "Is he gone?"

Akira jumped slightly, nearly dropping the bag he was carrying.  "I thought you were asleep," he accused reproachfully.

I pointed at the door.  "Would you admit to being awake with that prowling around?"

He was looking very bewildered.  "What happened?"

I climbed stiffly out of the chair.  "We had a slight disagreement.  Nothing major."

Bewilderment turned to wariness.  "His face was bruised."

I moaned, leaning back on the arm of the chair.  "I didn't think I had hit him that hard."

Akira dropped the bag in shock.  "You hit Ryo?" he asked incredulously.  He thought about that for a second, then added, "And you're still alive?"

"Well, he did hit me back," I admitted.

Akira leaned against the table, stunned.  "I don't believe it.  They're just alike."

"Of course, we aren't," I snapped.

"Why'd you hit -- never mind."  Akira shook his head.  "I really think I'd rather not know."  His eyes fell on the bag, and he quickly seized it in relief. "Miki-chan sent these over for you.  She knew you wouldn't have been able to get out and buy clothes yet.  So here are a couple of blouses."  He pulled them out and set them on the table.  "And a sweater, and a skirt that's too long on her, so she thought it would be just about right on you.  And some --" He pulled out a package of underpants and turned red.  "Some... um... some of these... um..."

I rescued him and took the pile.  All of the clothes had tags on them still, and I was touched that Miki would go to some much effort for me.  "I'll have to thank her.  This was so sweet of her."

Akira shrugged, looking rather proud of his girlfriend.  "She'd like the four of us to get together and go out and do something."  His face creased in concern.  "I was going to talk to Ryo about it, but if you two are arguing --"

"We'll be fine," I interrupted, more sharply than I had intended, and I immediately apologized.  "We just had a difference of opinion, and it blew out of proportion."

"Ryo can be good at that," he agreed.  "Maybe we shouldn't have had you stay here."

I mumbled something and began removing tags from the clothes.

"Or is that not all that's bothering you?" he asked gently.  "Did the hunt go badly last night?"

"No..." I answered reluctantly.  "In fact, it was easy.  I just... don't like..."  I began stammering and not making any sense at all, but Akira simply listened patiently.  "I mean, I'm fine when it actually comes down to it, and I know it should be done, and I even enjoy it, but it... just doesn't feel right.  I feel trapped."  And I went back to picking at the tags miserably.

Akira took the pile of clothes away from me and steered me to sit down in the chair.  He perched on the arm of it and put a brotherly arm around my shoulders.  "If you knew someone was killing people, and only you could stop it, would you simply ignore it and walk away?"

"You're confusing me!" I wailed.

"How?"

"By making sense!"

Akira gazed at me blankly for a moment, then laughed softly, shaking his head.  "Get dressed.  We're going out."

"When Ryo said that last night, he made me go kill a demon," I said warily.

"We can't make a demon hunter out of you overnight, no matter how hard Ryo pushes you.  Now, go get dressed."  He gave me a gentle push towards the bathroom.  I started to go, but he called me back.  I turned around, still unhappy with the situation.  "What?"

He tossed the pile of clothes at me.  "These might help?"

I caught them, feeling very stupid.  "Oh.  Yes, you're right.  They would, wouldn't they?"

He gave a long-suffering sigh.  "I think I know how Ryo must feel."

I stuck my tongue out at him and went into the bathroom.

     *

It surprised me that it was already growing dusk.  "I didn't realize I had slept so long.  My whole timeclock has been flopped around!" I complained.

"It happens," Akira said tolerantly.  "You'll get it straightened around eventually.  Are you hungry?"

"Have you known me when I wasn't?"

"Point taken.  Want anything in particular?"

I took a deep breath of cold winter air.  "Ice cream!"

He shot me a sidelong glance.

"Well, we won't have to worry about it melting," I defended.

"True."  He took me to the nearest ice cream shop, and we deliberated flavors.  "Do you mind eating as we walk?" he asked as he handed me my cone.

"Not at all,  Got a particular place in mind?"

"Kind of.  There's a park a few blocks from here.  I thought we might hang out there for a while."

"Dammit, the stuff melts even in winter."  I lapped ferociously at the cone for a moment.  "Akira, you're transparent.  Who's been disappearing from the park?"

He ducked his head, embarrassed.  I like the moments when, in spite of the gattai, bits of the shy, quiet boy he had been peeked through.  "Well, actually this is one of my own leads that I'm following up.  It wasn't on one of Ryo's lists, but he'll probably read the same article in today's paper that I did. Last night, a child disappeared.  She had been playing in this park.  She's the third one in the last two weeks."

I sighed heavily.  "You would do this to me."

Some of his patience slipped.  "She was only six years old, Risa."

Ouch.  I shut up.

He let the silence grow uncomfortable, then rescued it.  "Anyway, I thought we might go sniff around."

I finished my cone and waved at him to wait while I threw the napkins away in a nearby bin.  "There're more and more of them showing up, aren't there?" I asked when I came back.

"Yeah."  He nodded slowly.

"How can we fight them all?  I mean, there are only two of us, and while you're very strong, I'm not.  Look how badly I get hurt each time."

"Not each.  You were fine last night.  And you probably would have been fine up at the cabin, had you not been distracted by Miki getting hurt."

I didn't mention that I had almost lost control of the gattai.  "That's not what I'm getting at.  There's two of us, Akira, and how many of them?"

"I've been thinking about that, too."  Akira jammed his fists deep in the pockets of his coat.  "The two of us can't stop all of them, but maybe if we had more on our side...  I've been playing around with an idea ever since we met you.  Look, first there was just me.  Then we found you.  So maybe there are more humans in gattai somewhere, and we just don't know it yet.  After all, it's not something one broadcasts to all his friends.  Maybe we can find these others, maybe convince some other people to accept a gattai.  Maybe we can build an army or something."

I shuddered.  The thought of a war that magnitude...  What scared me even more was that I didn't see any way of avoiding it.

"Are you cold?"  He started to shrug out of his coat.  "Here, take this."

"No," I murmured, placing my hand on his arm.  "It's not that type of cold."

"Oh.  Yeah."  He was quiet for a long time, head down, studying the sidewalk.  We had reached the park by this time, and I wandered over to the swings and sat on one, drifting back and forth slightly.  Akira leaned up against one of the supports.

"There are so many people I care about, and they're all targets now," he said suddenly.  "I don't know which is safer, keeping them near me where I can at least protect them, or sending them away where they might be safer, but where I couldn't protect them."  He let out a long breath, and I knew he was thinking especially of Miki.  "Do you have any family back in the States?" he asked abruptly, changing the subject.

I studied the ground, drawing in the dust with the toe of my shoe.  "Yes... but I don't think they know I'm alive."  Akira looked over at me, and I shrugged indifferently.  "They would have been at the hospital if they had.  The doctors kept saying that I could call them, but not right now.  I couldn't have any visitors.  I wasn't well enough for that, they kept saying.  Maybe in a few days.  Well, I had already healed by that time, so I knew they were just feeding me a line.  Tests.  They were always running tests."  I nervously pushed my mane back from my face.  "I'm not even sure it was really a hospital.  It felt too wrong, more like studying you being sick than trying to get you well.  So I just left.  There wasn't any way they could keep me in, not really.  I figure they told my parents that I had died with the rest of my friends."

"And you haven't tried to contact them since?"

"No."  I shrugged again at his look of surprise.  "They wouldn't deal with this very well.  And it would be too difficult to keep the secret from them. Besides, they aren't a direct target now.  They would be, if I went home. This way is better."

"Are you sure?"

"Hey, I thought you wanted me to stick around," I teased, trying to cover that no, I wasn't sure.  Not at all.

The group of children playing on the merry-go-round divided, and most of them left the park.  The two that stayed gave up trying to push the heavy thing by themselves and went for the slide.  "Keep an eye open," Akira instructed.  "If he strikes tonight, he'll do it where there are only a few around."

We let the subject of families drift away, and I rested my head against the chain of the swing.  "Have you mentioned your idea of an army to Ryo?"

"Not yet."  He frowned.  "He hasn't been acting... right lately."

I snorted.  "I'm sure having me dropped in his lap hasn't helped his mood much."

"No, I started noticing this before you came along.  I thought he was just having a hard time about his father's death."  He shifted uncomfortably, debating, then went ahead and told me.  "His father was a demon researcher that got too close to the subject.  He couldn't control his gattai.  One night, he tried to kill Ryo, then ran outside, poured gasoline over himself, and lit a match."

"Jesus," I whispered in horror.

"So, I could understand Ryo being a bit... strained afterwards, but --"  He broke off as we both smelled demon at the same time.

"The children..."  I started forward, but Akira stopped me before I had done more than shift my weight.

"Hold a minute more," he cautioned.  "Wait until he comes forward."

"Are you serious?" I shrilled under my breath.  "Are you going to wait until he kills one of those kids?"

He gave me a withering look.  "Can you tell exactly where he is?  Move too quickly, and you'll blow the whole thing."

"I know exactly where he is," I retorted.  "My night vision is much better than my day."

He started to answer back, but at that moment, the figure parted from the shadow of the trees and walked forward to the children.  As it grew close to them, it shifted into demon form.  The children screamed and ran, and the demon lunged for the nearest one, claws reaching.

But I had launched myself from the swing, wings unfurling, the moment I had seen the demon move, and darted between it and the children, slashing its claws away with my own.  The demon drew back its bleeding hand, screeching in confusion.  It tried to circle around me, and Akira reached out from the darkness behind it, caught it by the shoulders, and smashed it against the steel of the slide.  I caught the child up, folding my wings over her protectively, readying to shift completely to demon form if I had to, but really preferring to leave the fight to Akira.

Who was enjoying himself immensely.  Even in human form, he was faster than the other demon and danced away from its wild slashes.  He abruptly grew bored with the game and broke the demon's spine.  He stood over the twitching body for a few seconds, then laughed shortly and walked back over to me.

He wasn't even scratched.  "You're disgusting, you know that?" I complained.

Akira grinned toothily, his eyes still wild.  The girl in my arms suddenly caught her breath and began to cry.  Akira looked at me anxiously.  "Now what?"

I glared at him, then shifted the girl's weight a bit to hold her closer, rocking her and whispering to her comfortingly.  She wrapped her arms chokingly tight around my neck, buried her face in my mane, and shrieked tears.  I stroked her hair gently, and eventually the tears began to die down. "Akira?"  I met his eyes over her head.  "I'm in.  You've got a member in your army."

A man came running up, and the girl reached out her arms.  "Papa!"

He stopped short when he saw two strangers with his child.  I stepped forward, holding my wings around me and hoping they would pass for a winter cloak.  "We saw someone chasing her," I said quickly, holding her out to her father, who immediately snatched her up in his arms.  "My boyfriend chased him, but he ducked away somewhere."

We led the man away from the playground before he could see the body of the demon under the slide.  He bowed thanks many times gratefully, before Akira eased me away from the scene.

When we were back in the darkness of the trees, Akira took off his coat and handed it to me.  He was very careful to not look at me as I folded my wings in and pulled the coat on.  "Good thing you didn't change completely," he commented.  "That might have been difficult to explain.

"Good thing adults rarely believe kids about monsters."

"Actually, I was thinking more about bringing you back to Ryo wearing nothing but my coat."

"He's smart.  I think he'd figure out what happened."

"You don't think he'd get jealous?" Akira teased.

I considered that for a moment.  "More like torn between being relieved that I wasn't chasing after him and angry at me for stealing your attention away from him, like he is of Miki.  Come to think of it, I'd be more scared of Miki's reaction."

Akira looked hesitant, really wanting to ask something, but fighting years of enforced politeness.  He really was transparent sometimes.  I leaned over and nudged him with my shoulder as we walked.  "Out with it, Akira."

He studied the ground intently.  "Then... what's between you and Ryo.  It's not serious?"

"Oh, there's some serious emotion there, but it's not love, from either of us. And I certainly don't think it will grow into it."  I laughed sharply.  "We'd kill each other first."

"Fire and ice," Akira quoted Miki.

"Something like that."

"Pity," Akira sighed wistfully.  "I was looking forward to being the best man at the wedding."

I slugged his shoulder hard enough to fall an ox, but he simply laughed and tugged playfully at my hair.  By that time, we were outside the apartment complex, and I swiped at Akira just as playfully and raced up the stairs, Akira charging after.

We quieted down when we reached the door.  Akira knocked and called out his name.  There was a muffled answer from inside, and Akira opened the door and held it open for me.

Ryo was snapping impatiently through channels on the television.  He tried to retain his huff, but gave it up when Akira began pointing out the newspaper article on the disappearing children and telling him about our hunt.  

I sidled around Ryo gingerly and snagged another blouse from the pile of clothes Miki had sent.  To save poor Akira's modesty, and my nervousness about being around Ryo, I escaped to the bathroom.  I came out a few minutes later, wearing the blouse, and handed Akira his coat, thanking him quietly.

Ryo studied me in the new outfit, obviously trying not to burst out in loud laughter.  "What?" I demanded, hands on my hips.

He waved me away.  "Nothing."  He smirked again, and quickly changed the subject.  "A devilman army, Akira?  How do you plan on putting it together?"

"We were going to ask you that," Akira said hopefully.

Ryo leaned up against the wall and pondered on that for a moment.  Since no one had taken the chair between them, I claimed it, tucking my feet up underneath me.  The room grew silent, and I nibbled on one fingernail nervously.  

Ryo reached out and took my hand away from my mouth.

I glared at him and deliberately started chewing the nail again, daring him. He snatched my hand away again, slamming it down on the arm of the chair hard enough for it to sting.  "I can keep this up as long as you can," he warned.  

"I think I'll come back another time."  Akira quickly headed for the door.

"No!" Ryo and I both chorused in panic, then looked at each other in surprise.  Ryo snorted and went back to thinking.  Akira came and sat on the arm of the chair, resting one arm around my shoulders comfortingly.

"Let me think on this army idea a bit,"  Ryo said, bringing the subject back around.  "I want to check on a few things.  We might be able to use telepathy somehow, like what's between you and me, Akira.  Remember when I knew you needed help when you were fighting Shiren?  Maybe we can use that to more of an advantage."
"Do you think it will work?" Akira asked eagerly.

Ryo shrugged.  "Might.  Might not."  But his face was shadowed from Akira's view, and I could see that he didn't think it would.  "I'll think on it, Akira," he started to say, then noticed Akira's arm around me and the ease with which I was leaning back against him.  His eyes hardened to blue ice.  "Don't you have one already, Akira?"

Akira's brown eyes went wide with hurt and confusion, then glanced down to look at his arm draped over my shoulders.  He jumped off the chair and backed away.  "Ryo, I'm sorry.  I didn't think --"

"No, you don't," Ryo bit out.

Akira wilted.  "I'm sorry, Ryo," he murmured unhappily and backed to the door.  He had just opened it when Ryo's eyes went agonized.  "Akira, wait," he called and went to pull Akira just outside the door.  He came back in after a long moment of murmured voices, looking disgusted with himself, but relieved.

"That was a cruel thing to say to him," I pointed out.

He stopped and slowly turned to look at me with cold anger.  "And what were you doing?" he inquired icily.  "Did you decide I wasn't worth the effort and went in search for bigger game?"

I was on my feet, eyes blazing.  "Damn you, Asuka, don't you ever stop to consider anyone but yourself?   Or do you really enjoy hurting my feelings?"

"Did you ever consider mine?" he asked softly.  "Even once, through all this?"

It was ice water thrown in my face.  My breath caught in my throat as several images flashed though my mind; Ryo's discomfort at my flirting, him moving further away from me on the couch when I rested my head on his leg, his reluctance at accepting me in this group.  And I still had pushed him, ignoring everything he had given me as warnings.

I didn't like the picture it was painting of me.  "Obviously, I didn't," I whispered miserably, then gestured at the bed.  "Why'd you go through with... yesterday, then, if you didn't..."

Ryo shrugged.  The anger had melted away, but there was no other expression left behind it.  "I don't know.  Maybe because... there isn't much between me and what's out there.  Maybe because you're here.  Maybe because you keep the nightmares away."

I couldn't bear being under his impassive gaze any longer and moved away from it to stand in front of the porch door.  I pressed my face against the coldness of the glass.   "I wasn't dumping you for Akira," I said after a long silence.

"I know."

"I don't even know why I'm with you."

His reflection appeared next to mine in the glass, all silver and golds and blacks.  It made him achingly beautiful.  "Maybe because I'm here."

"And there's nothing between me and what's out there."  I shook my head.  "I was so happy before the gattai.  I really liked my life.  And it'll never be like that again."

His hand brushed my hair feather-light.

"I'm scared, Ryo."

"I know."  He sighed.  "You aren't the only one."

"And Akira and Miki are so happy."

"And neither you or I will ever be that happy, right?" he said wryly.

The silence stretched again, until I finally moved away, intending to go soak the pain away in another bath, but Ryo's hand tightened in my hair, gently pulling me back.  "No," he said roughly.  "Let's go to bed.  It's not what Akira and Miki have..."

"But it's as close as we'll get," I finished softly.

     *

"It snowed!" I squealed and jumped onto the bed.

Ryo jolted awake as he bounced several inches into the air, clawing for the shotgun.  "What!  Where!"

"About an inch.  Outside."

He stared at me as his mind did an instant replay, then groaned and dropped the gun back onto the floor by the bed.  "Are you going to insist on reacting this way every time it snows?"

"Comes from living where it never did."  I poked him.  "Come look.  It's beautiful."

He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow.  "I've seen it every winter of my life.  I don't like winter.  Go and enjoy it, by all means, but do it by yourself.  And quietly."

"Aww..." I pouted, but went back over and slipped out the porch door.  I scooped up a handful of snow from the railing and went inside, tiptoeing towards Ryo's bare shoulder.

"Don't.  You.  Dare," he warned without even looking up, his voice past cold and on the way towards iced steel.

I debated his rage against my satisfaction.

Satisfaction won.

I made it out onto the porch a split second before he did, and it was an obvious battle between the lust for revenge and hatred for the cold, before he suddenly slid the door shut between us with a malicious grin and clicked the lock closed.  I pressed my nose up pitifully against the glass and looked mournful.

"It's not going to work," he told me and went back to bed, rolling over to face the other direction.

I stayed squashed up against the glass in the hope that he might relent, then sighed and started making tiny little snow figurines on the railing and flipping them off with a claw and watching them plunge down to the street below.

Five minutes later, I had done just about everything there was to do with an inch of snow and was bored out of my mind.  I went back to the door and sat down next to it.  Breaking the glass was out of the question and would probably get me shot.  I extended a claw and began tapping on the glass.

Ryo pulled the blankets up over his head.

I kept tapping.

Twenty minutes later, he threw the blankets to one side and stormed over. He slid the door open so hard that it rebounded back halfway, and hauled me in by my nightshirt, slamming the door shut and cornering me up against the wall.  "Why do you insist on annoying me like this?" he snarled.

Undaunted, I threw my arms around his neck.  "Because you react so wonderfully," I said sweetly and kissed his nose.  He closed his eyes, fighting an apparently very real urge to strangle me, and I ducked away before he decided it was worth the effort and went ahead and did it.  "Besides, didn't you say you wanted to get up at a more normal hour today?"

"I've changed my mind," he informed me, heading back for the bed.  He had just pulled the covers up to his chin and closed his eyes, when the phone rang.  He tried to ignore it, but on the fifth ring, he ordered from between clenched teeth for me to get it.

I padded over and picked up the handset.  "Hai, Asuka desu."

"Not with that voice," Akira joked.  "Put him on, would you?"

"Just a minute."  I brought the phone over to the bundle of blankets and held it out.  "It's Akira," I said, trying very hard not to laugh.

Ryo groaned and clawed his way out from under the blankets again to take the phone.  "You two are ganging up against me, aren't you?" he asked in a very falsely pleasant voice into the mouthpiece.

I lost it and laughed until I couldn't breath.  Ryo took great pleasure in pounding my back until I stopped choking.  By that time, I had missed the conversation and hung the phone up for him when he handed the handset back to me.  "Dammit, now I'm awake," he complained.  I sat down on the bed next to him, and he glared up at me.  "Are all women this irritating, or did I just get lucky?"

"We have our useful moments, too."  I leaned over and began massaging his shoulders and chest.  He closed his eyes and sighted contentedly, but a few minutes later, he shivered slightly and pulled the blankets up.  "Cold."

I slid under the blankets with him.  He pressed up against my warmth, and I squeaked as his hands slipped under my nightshirt.  "You are cold!"

"You did drop snow on me," he grumbled.

"That was half an hour ago.  I know.  I spent most of it locked outside."

"Mmmm.   You deserved it."  He buried his face against my throat.  "It's not fair.  Cold doesn't bother you, and you're always warm anyway."

I chuckled under my breath and played with a few strands of his hair, enjoying the way my firey mane spilled over and mingled among his golden. "What did Akira want?"

"To apologize again for last night," Ryo said reluctantly, then hurried on with "and something about his school's winter carnival.  And Miki signing him up when he wasn't looking to help set up today after classes.  He wanted us to meet them  tomorrow at the carnival.

I sat up, delighted.  "That sounds like fun!"

He grunted and pulled me down again, nestling back against my warmth.  "I was trying to figure out a way to be busy."

"You would!" I retorted.  "You know, you might even have fun."

He gave me a skeptical look.  "Don't know the meaning of the word."

"That's not what you said last night," I teased.

"Last night was a distraction," he said huffily, but he ran his fingernails lightly down my back, and I purred deep in my throat.  "All right, I'll call Akira back tonight and tell him we'll meet him there."

"You don't think his idea of an army will work, do you?"

He tensed and moved away enough to look at me defensively.  "I never said that."

"Your face did it for you last night."

Ryo muttered something under his breath in disgust, but I think it was more at himself than me.  The quiet spell had been broken, and he got up and began dressing.  

I sat up, not intending to let him get away with brooding.  "Why won't it work?"

"Oh, it might," he said airily.  "I guess by that time, it won't make much of a difference anyway."

My stomach tightened.  "What won't?  Are you hiding something from us?"

He glanced up, as if I had distracted him.  "What?  Oh, nothing, that's not it." He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, studying me as if trying to make up his mind, then decided with a sudden move to to catch my hand.  He pulled me out of the bed and to the porch door.  "Come look at this."  He slid the door open, then swore softly at the rush of cold air.  "I really hate winter," he muttered.  "Just a second."  He ducked back in and apparently caught up the first thing he saw, for he came out wrapping himself in the cover blanket from the bed.  As if an afterthought, he pulled me into its warmth as well.  "Look out there," he instructed.  "What do you see?"

"Where?"

"Anywhere, everywhere.  You can't miss it."

I craned my neck to look back at him curiously.  "Go ahead," he urged.

"Lights," I began reciting.  "Buildings, homes, people --"

"Exactly," Ryo interrupted.  "Everywhere you look, there's some sign of what humans have done to this world.  They taint everything they touch.  Can you imagine how beautiful this must have been before the humans' technology wiped it out?"

I leaned against him, but for once, he didn't seem to notice.  Maybe we had reached a neutral understanding last night?  Or was he simply so caught up in what he was trying to say that he didn't notice?  I wasn't sure.  "There are some cities in the States," I said thoughtfully, "that have black surrounding them.  The sky, the buildings, everything.  There's just this thick layer of black, so that it looks like dusk, even in mid-afternoon.  Is that what you mean, pollution?"

He considered.  "What I was talking about was humanity as a whole, not just specific examples, but you're close.  But what I really mean," he said softly, "is something like this really worth saving?"

I sorted through a lot of responses, the strongest and most tempting of which was to pick Ryo up and throw him through the glass door.  He didn't add anything else, just waited for me to decide what to say.

I decided not to agree or disagree, but to circumnavigate.  "You realize you're condemning us along with everyone else."

Ryo shrugged dismissively.  "If you and Akira survive the battles, you'll survive the world that's left."  He suddenly deserted me and the blanket and went inside.

I followed, trying to keep from stepping on the trailing edge of the blanket and falling flat on my face.  "But what about you?  You're human."

"That's the flaw in that," he agreed thoughtfully.  "Maybe I'll gattai.  I wonder if I'd survive that?"

"'Strong willed, young, pure of heart,'" I quoted him, counting off on my fingers.  "You're the most stubborn person I know.  I know you're younger than I am, but please don't tell me by how much, or I'll feel strange about it, or old, or something silly like that."

Ryo chuckled at that.  "Two out of three isn't bad, I suppose.  It's the 'pure of heart' that will probably get me."

"I don't think I want you to go into a detailed description on why," I decided. "In fact, I'm very sure of that."

He smiled.  "Get Akira to tell you sometime how I attracted the demons when he went through his gattai."

"I'll pass on that, thank you."

His smile turned into a wicked grin.  "Are you sure?"

"Damn, now I'm curious," I muttered.

He sat down and went into lecture mode.  "Demons are attracted to a specific --"

I leaned over and covered his mouth with my hand.  "No.  Don't tell me.  I'll have nightmares."

He bit my hand, and I swore, drawing it back and shaking it.  "Damn it, Asuka, you drew blood."

"You can handle the blood loss."

I watched the skin fold and heal, the teeth marks fading.  "Well, I suppose I should be glad you're only biting me, and not slitting my throat as I sleep."

Ryo blinked in surprise.  "Did you expect me to?"

"Yesterday, sure."

He considered that, then stretched and yawned lazily.  "No, Akira wants his army and you in it.  According to him, you aren't nearly as much of a hinderance as I expected you to be.  If having you around keeps him alive that much longer, then I guess I can put up with you."

"Am I that much of a trial to you?" I asked impulsively, then immediately decided I didn't want to hear the answer.  I moved behind him to nuzzle his ear, nibbling gently on the earlobe.  As I had intended, it took the serious feel out of the conversation, and he tilted his head slightly to give me a better angle.  

"Akira wants you to stay, so you stay," he said lightly.

"Just for Akira's sake?" I murmured, throwing the rest of my caution away for the moment.  "What if I decided to leave?"

Ryo turned around and caught my face, gently cupping my chin in his hand. "Oh, I think I could convince you to stay," he said, gazing at me intensely. He ran his fingers gently down my throat, and I shivered at the vulnerability, yet liked it too much to move away.  His fingers paused at the top button of my nightshirt.  "For Akira's sake, of course," he said softly.

I moved closer to him.  "For Akira's sake," I repeated in a whisper.

He chuckled softly, touched my face briefly, and moved away.  "I usually get what I want," he said in a more normal tone of voice and draped himself in his chair.

Neutral agreement, hell!  I clenched my teeth, knowing my face was growing red.  "I hope someday that backfires on you," I hissed back.

He rested his head back on the chair, closing his eyes and looking very tired and old.  "It might yet."

The anger deserted me, and I stared at him helplessly.  'You know," I said softly, "just when I really begin to like you, you say or do something to me that makes me furious enough to kill you, then you say something that makes me like you all over again."  Angry at myself, I turned on my heel and went out on the porch again.

After a moment, Ryo wandered out and leaned over the railing.  He nodded out over the city.  "The demons may even have something to do with the balance in nature, keeping the humans in check with everything else.  If that's so, do you think all this is worth it?"

The conversation had gone full circle.  "I don't know," I said, feeling tiny and lost.  "I just don't know anymore."

"Neither do I," he sighed.  "I knew once, but something seems to have changed it all."  He took another deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out, his breath swirling in front of us in the cold air.  "At least you heard me through.  Akira nearly threw me out of the hospital bed."  He shook his head in amused memory.

"You think a lot of Akira's opinion, don't you?" I asked in a sudden reversal of subject.

He shot me a sidelong glance.  "I think a lot of Akira."

"It shows."

He blinked at that, taken aback.  "How?" he asked carefully.

I thought a moment.  "You treat him like a person, and not like someone to be endured, like Miki and I.  I haven't seen you treat anyone else like that."

He mulled that over for a moment, then nodded.  "All right."

"Why'd you get him in this, if you care so much about him?"

"It's your day for questions, isn't it?" he returned uncomfortably.

"You started this," I reminded him.

"And you'll keep after me until you get an answer."

"Of course.  I got that from you."

He rested his forehead against the railing.  "You would pick that up. Because as a human, Akira didn't stand a chance of surviving what's coming up.  As a demon, he does."

"And was that your original idea, and not saving the humans?"

He looked up and met my gaze.  "That's one of the things I don't know anymore."

After a moment, I looked away and back out over the city.  

"Any other questions, or have you run out?"

"Not yet.  Why did you want us to get up earlier today?"

"We're going shopping."  Ryo began to laugh.  "Last night, you looked like a version of Miki that didn't quite make it.  Akira, at least, has gained a sense of style throughout this.  Looks like I'll have to teach you that, too."

"Oh, joy," I muttered.

     *

Akira came by later that afternoon and found me sitting on the bed, staring mournfully at bags of clothes.  He gave me an appreciative whistle, and I stood up to twirl around, showing off the red blouse and black pants and vest I was wearing.  "You look great!  New clothes?"

"Better curb that look," I teased.  "Miki will get jealous."

"Not to mention Ryo," he agreed ruefully.  "I prefer to be careful.  After all, he's the one with the gun."

I laughed outright.  "You wouldn't be hurt by that pea-shooter, and you know it."

"Let's not tempt fate," he answered wryly.  "But you do look great."

I collapsed on the bed with a long sigh.  "What do I do, Akira?  I can't pay all this back!"

"Did he ask you to?"

"Well... no..."

"Was this your idea or his?"

"He said my choice of wardrobe was embarrassing him."

"And if I know Ryo, you never got a choice in the matter."

"Not really..."

Akira threw his hands in the air.  "Then give up.  Ryo does only what Ryo wants to do, and there's not a single thing you can do to get him to change his mind once he's made it.  Besides, have you ever heard him complain about expenses?  He won't even miss the money."

I brushed at the slacks nervously.  "The first time I go out in this, I'll spill something on it, and he'll kill me.  Never go shopping with him, Akira.  I was afraid he'd dictate his choices right down to my underwear."

Akira looked very much like he wanted to laugh, but didn't dare.  Instead, he glanced behind him, then backtracked to the door.  "I want you to meet someone."  He brought in a young woman, who looked young enough to be his age, but her eyes looked centuries older, and she smelled of demon.  "This is Puffurle.  She's one of us.  A devilman."  He grinned openly at my surprise, putting a finger under my jaw and easing it back up to the "closed" position.  "She's come to help us."

"How did you find...?"  I was having a hard time taking all this in.

"I didn't.  She found me."

"Telepathy," Puffurle said quietly.  "I know of a few others, as well.  When we heard that Amon was among us, we knew that there might be some hope of winning against the demons."  She spoke very formally and somewhat distantly, and I felt clumsy and awkward in comparison.  I did suddenly realize how impolite I was being and rushed forth apologies, bringing the chair forward for her to sit in.  She refused my offer of something to drink, and I sat down on the floor in front of her, hanging onto each word she said. It was the same feeling I had when I first saw Akira and realized that I wasn't alone.  Akira had the same expression.

"There are some of the demons, as well, who would hope to live in peace with humans," Puffurle went on.  "There are some, also, who do not care about the issue over humans, but who are loyal to their hero Amon and would follow him into battle."

Akira was looking immensely proud of himself.  "I brought her by to meet you and Ryo.  He isn't here?"

I automatically glanced around the room, as if it wasn't obvious.  "No, he said something about errands and left almost as soon as we got back."

"I've got to go back for classes," Akira said with disappointment.  "Lunch period is almost over.  Puffurle, if you'd like, you could stay here and meet Ryo when he gets back.  He's really the brains behind all this."

"I think that I shall wait for another time, when you are here to introduce me," she answered without hesitation and stood up.  She bowed respectfully to me and left with Akira, who flashed another grin over his shoulder to me before closing the door behind him.  I remembered the carnival at the last moment, and ran out in the hall to shout to Akira that we'd meet him there tomorrow.  He waved in answer, and I went back in.

This was a lot to think about as I slowly started to take clothes out of bags and hang them up.  Ryo came in just as I was hanging up the last, a long full skirt the soft tan color of deer hide.  Normally I avoided skirts like the plague, but the more I looked at this one, the more I liked it, and I was considering wearing it to the carnival.  Ryo caught me standing on my toes in the bathroom, trying to see how the skirt would look from the tiny mirror over the sink.  "So you actually like some of what I picked?"

"All of it," I sighed reluctantly.

"Thought you might."  He went back into the main room, and I followed, sniffing appreciatively at the smells of dinner.  

"Yeah, but you don't have to be so damn smug about it."  

"I also see you've been taking over my closet as the well as the rest of my life," he said lightly.  

I shrugged.  "Well, I could just leave them in the bags, but they'd get all wrinkled, and wouldn't that be counter-productive?"

"I suppose it's a good thing most of my clothes are still at home."

"The cabin?"

"No, my father had a place out in the county.  I'd take you there, but it's infested with demons."  He slapped my hands away when I began opening bags of food, and made me wait patiently until he handed out cartons.

"Akira was here," I said after a few mouthfuls.  "I told him that we'd be at the carnival."

He grunted in displeasure.  "You wouldn't let me forget, would you?"

"Of course not.  The next member of our army found him today."

Ryo's eyebrow went up at that, but he didn't say anything, while I told him about Puffurle.  As usual, I couldn't tell what he was thinking.  We finished the rest of our dinner in silence, and he gathered the cartons and threw them away.  "Oh, the package on the bed is yours, too.  It's a backpack and another pair of boots,  I bought it a few days ago, meaning it to be a loud hint, but I suppose it's useless now.  It's been sitting in the trunk since then.  I just kept forgetting to bring it in."

"You?  Forget something?" I scoffed, and his face darkened.  "I was only teasing," I added quickly.

"Then, don't," he said firmly.  "I may have to put up with it from Miki, but I don't from you."

I started to answer back hotly, then abruptly reconsidered.  After all, if the request had come from anyone else, I would have apologized and backed off immediately.  Just because Ryo could be an annoying bastard, didn't mean that I should be one in return.  I thought about that for a moment, then apologized.

He blinked in surprise, having been expecting a return volley, then started sorting newspapers from the pile he had brought it.  "Just when I think I have you figured out," he began muttering, then suddenly stopped, dropping the papers to the floor, eyes wide with alarm.  "Akira..."

I quickly crossed the room.  "What is it?"

"Something's wrong with Akira," he said softly, puzzled, then caught his breath and spun away.  He had his shotgun and shoulder harness strapped into place by the time he had reached the door and was pulling on his coat as he ran down the hall.  I slammed the door behind me and tore after him. I caught the car door just as he was revving the motor and dove in just as he pulled out of the parking space.

Flying was fun and exhilarating.  Ryo's driving tended towards an experience in sheer terror.  I sometimes think he overdid it just to see my claws dig into the armrest and dashboard.  It was worse when he was in a serious hurry to get somewhere.  "You're going to get us killed someday doing that, Asuka."  I gripped the dashboard as he spun the car around the corner.  He nearly ran head-on into an oncoming car when he passed the slower one ahead of us.  I closed my eyes, fighting back a yelp of panic, then decided that the ride was much more terrifying when I couldn't see and opened then again, wedging myself in the seat with my knees propped up against the dashboard.  "How do you know Akira's in trouble?"

"I just do," he said impatiently, driving out of the city.  "Didn't you say he was with a demon?"

"A devilman," I corrected.

"Or so Akira thought."

"No," I said hesitantly.  "She was a devilman."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."  I wasn't sure how I knew, but I did, beyond a doubt.

Ryo obviously wasn't convinced, but he didn't argue the point further. When the road widened, he floored it, and I cringed back into my seat again as we shot down the road.  

Something caught Ryo's eye in the rear-view mirror, and he cursed.  

"What is it?"

He handed me the shotgun.  "Ever use one of these?"

"Never."

"Another one," he grumbled in annoyance.  "It works just like in the movies. You pull the safety back, aim, and pull the trigger.  You've got two shots before you have to reload, so make them count.  Now, when that demon pulls level to us, shoot it."

I gave him a wide-eyed look, then frantically twisted to look out the rear window.  "Ryo, there's a demon out there!" I pointed out intelligently.

If there had been time, I have no doubt that Ryo would have delightedly pushed me out of the car, quite probably without bothering to stop first. Instead, he hauled me over by my collar.  "Never mind.  Just drive."  With that, he took the gun and leaned out the window.  I shrieked, the car swerved, Ryo yelled, and I won the battle against gravity trying to push me back in my seat and managed to slip in behind the wheel.  Ryo sat in the window, aiming the gun over the roof, and quickly squeezed off both shots. There was a loud screech, and from the mirror, I saw something rebound off the road and back into the air again, this time heading specifically for the car.

One of these days, I should take notes from Ryo's cursing.  I wasn't even sure I recognized the language this time.  "You had to go and attract its attention, didn't you?" I screeched.

"Can you do any better?" he shouted back, fumbling in his pocket for two more shells.  I gathered trying to load a gun while trying not to fall out of the window of a speeding car was not something he practiced often.

Anger took over, along with a reckless desire to prove that I wasn't a total nitwit under pressure.  I pulled Ryo back in.  "Drive," I snarled, kicking my boots off, and went out my window, crawling up on top of the car.  I dug my claws into the roof, promising myself that I'd bounce Ryo off the nearest wall later if he dared complain about the paint job.  I did have to give him a lot of credit; he kept the car running as straight and as smooth as one possibly could under the circumstances.

The demon saw me and screamed in challenge, and I gleefully screamed back in answer.  It swooped down at me, swiping out with the talon that served as its hand.  I dodged, clinging onto the speeding car with my hind claws as I caught the demon's wrist just above the talon.

My original plan -- if I could actually call it a plan and not a suicide attempt, but I'd think about that later -- was to jump off the car, bring the demon to the ground, and kill it where I had as much freedom to move as it did now.  I could always catch up to Ryo later.  But when I saw the tunnel coming up, I abruptly changed my mind, and dug my hind claws into the car as firmly as I could.  The demon's eyes widened in realization as it saw the tunnel, and tried to pull away.  I held on for all I was worth, bashing it in the face with it tried to bite my hand off at the wrist.  At the last moment, I let go and ducked, hugging the car roof tightly.  There was a wet splatting sound and, craning my neck around, I could see the body of the demon fall to the ground.  It wasn't moving.  


I carefully slipped back into the car.  It would be real embarrassing if, after going through that entire stunt, I fell off now.

Ryo's knuckles were white on the steering wheel.  "And you say I'm crazy? I'm never letting you complain about my driving again."

"It looks a lot easier in the movies," I agreed.  Reaction was setting in, and I didn't bother to try to hide that my hands were shaking.

Ryo slowed the car down a bit, then suddenly slammed on the brakes as we approached a dirt road.  The car skidded, I clenched my teeth hard to keep from screaming, Ryo cursed, spinning the wheel, and we rocketed onto the dirt road.

"You're not going to do Akira any good by driving off a cliff!" I yipped, and Ryo coasted to a lower speed.

"We're almost there, anyway," he said, leaning forward on the wheel to scan the road ahead of us.  "He's just over that ridge somewhere.  I'm just trying to find a way to get there."   He slammed on the brakes again, and I caught myself against the dashboard before I smacked my head against the windshield.  "This could take forever," he snapped impatiently.  "We'll get there faster hiking it in."  

He was already out and around to my side of the car before I could gather my wits together enough to wrestle the door open.  I leaned over the seats long enough to grab the ever-present first-aid kit and ran to catch up to Ryo as he skidded down the small ravine and began to climb up the adjacent incline.  We could hear the roarings of a fight by then, and Ryo brought out his shotgun, using it to bat away low-hanging tree branches.  Occasionally, he'd remember to hold them back for me, but as he tried to hurry faster, he forgot.  After getting switched in the face several times, I moved away and fought a trail up beside Ryo, rather than behind him.

We reached the top of the incline and stopped for a second to catch our breath, then Ryo plunged down toward the battle that was going on down below.  

It would have been spectacular at the onset, but now it was just a circle of carnage with Devilman in the center.  He had a huge chunk torn out of his side, but it didn't stop him from disemboweling one of the five demons left. Ryo burst out from the trees and unloaded both shotgun rounds into the mouth of the demon nearest to him.  I rocketed past him, shrieking excitedly as I shifted forms, and landed on the next closest demon.  I bit into its throat, bracing my feet against its chest and ripping down and outwards through its gut with my hind claws.  Another demon whirled to face me, but I danced behind it, catching it by the shoulders and snapping its spine. Devilman grabbed the arms of the last one and ripped it in half.

We gathered near each other, glancing frantically around at the trees that surrounded us, in case any more would appear.  After a moment, Ryo lowered the gun, and Akira and I shifted to our human forms.  Akira's side was still bleeding heavily, and he abruptly decided to sit down.

Ryo pressed the car keys into my hand.  "Inside the trunk, there's a couple of blankets and a change of clothes."  He knelt beside Akira, gently examining the wound.

"I'm all right," Akira said, a little oozily.  "Just let me rest a minute."

"You'll rest more than a minute," I heard Ryo answer.  I picked up the first-aid kit I had dropped on my charge out and tossed it over, then scrambled to the car for the blankets and clothes.  I snitched the shirt for myself and found another bag of bandages and decided to bring it along as well.

When I got back, Akira was still protesting that he was fine, but it was only halfheartedly, and Ryo was obviously not buying it.  The bandages around Akira's side were already staining through, but it looked like it was beginning to slow down.  Ryo helped him on with his clothes.  "What happened?"

Akira looked disgusted.  "They weren't even that strong.  It's just that there was a lot of them.  I smelled demon on this guy on the way back to school and decided to sidetrack a bit.  He led me on a merry chase before shifting to his true form and leading me on a flight out here."  He touched the bandages gingerly.  "About thirty of them jumped me before I even realized they were there."

"You've got to be more careful than that," Ryo reprimanded, and Akira hung his head like a scolded child.

"And I've missed another day of classes," he complained.  "The school will be calling the Makimuras if this keeps up."

"They won't," Ryo soothed, wrapping one of the blankets around Akira, who kept insisting that he was fine, he was supposed to be helping at the carnival, Miki would be waiting for him, and she'd be angry.  He kept protesting right up until the moment he fell asleep, using Ryo's leg as a pillow.  "Rest well, Akira," Ryo said softly, brushing a lock of hair away from Akira's face.

I suddenly felt like an outsider, then was angry at myself for wishing that Ryo would treat me with some of the affection that he showed Akira.  Then I realized I was jealous, and anger seeped away to embarrassment.  I awkwardly shook out the other blanket and knelt to tuck it around Akira, but Ryo stopped me.  "The cold won't bother him much, except to maybe slow the bleeding more," he said.  "I, on the other hand, do not have a demon's body, and I'm cold.  Give me the blanket."

I handed it over, and he draped it around his shoulders, careful not to wake Akira.  He held one end of it open.  "Come on.  I'm sure you're generating more heat than I am, and you're wasting it by standing out there."

From anyone else, it would have been an invitation, but Ryo had returned to barely enduring my presence.  I sat down next to him anyway, slipping an arm around his waist and wrapping the other end of the blanket around my shoulders as well.  He drew his other leg up to his chest and rested his head and arms on it, his eyes not leaving Akira's face, until he drifted off asleep as well.  I felt guilty, believing that I was the reason Ryo wasn't getting enough sleep, then reasoned it by telling myself that his nightmares probably wouldn't allow him much more sleep.  I hooked my chin over his shoulder and kept watch over them both.

     *

We dropped Akira off a few blocks from the carnival later that afternoon. His side was already almost healed, making me envious.  Something like that would have taken me a few days' sleep to heal.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" I asked for the uptenth time.  "Maybe you shouldn't be setting up booths and things like that."

"I'm fine," he insisted, and by this time, he looked it.

"If you're sure..."  I started gnawing uncertainly on my fingernail.  Ryo glared daggers, and I stopped.  "What are you going to tell Miki?"

Akira frowned.  "I haven't thought that far ahead, yet.  I'll come up with something by the time I get there."  He shut the car door, patting the hood as he walked away.  I tumbled over into the front seat he had just vacated. "Will he be okay?"

Ryo pulled out into the street.  "Why wouldn't he be?"

"I don't know..."  I leaned my head back against the headrest.  "I just over-worry, I suppose."

"I'd know if anything was wrong."

I looked across the seat at him.  "You're that close?"

"Yes."  He cut the word off abruptly, and I took the hint not to ask any further.

I made a bee-line for the bath the minute we got back to the apartment and soaked the feel of the fight away.  One thing I did love about Japanese baths was that they were deep enough to almost submerge in, and I could lean back until only my nose was above water.  My hair rippled out around my face, and my muscles slowly relaxed until I almost fell asleep and woke up only when I breathed in enough water to make me cough and sit up.

Ryo was draped across his chair, brooding at the blank television screen when I came out.  He glanced up at me, then back at the set.  I touched his hair gently.  "Still tired?"

"A bit," he answered shortly.  I started to massage his shoulders, but he pushed my hands away.  "Do me a favor, will you?  Get out for a while.  Go to a movie, go get something to eat, I don't care what you do.  Just go away for a few hours."

"All right," I said softly, hurt and trying not to let him know, and quickly dressed.  

Once outside, I wasn't sure what to do.  I really didn't feel in the mood for a movie, but managed to find a bookstore that had an English section. Reading something without the aid of a dictionary was another thing I missed, and I browsed contentedly until I found something that would keep me going for the next few days.  After that, I found a coffee shop and read and munched until they closed.  I headed home, hoping that Ryo would let me in by now.

A few blocks from home, the sidewalk under my foot gave way, and I sank in up to my knees, falling forward and dropping my book.  The cement swirled up around my forearms.  I snarled and pulled my arms up and out of the goop, then drove my claws deep inside the demon.  Ichor fountained, and the demon disintegrated into a puddle, soaking through the mud and broken cement.


"Better pay more attention to your nose next time," I growled and picked up my book, brushing dirt off the cover.

Ryo was already asleep when I slipped through the door.  The hurt went a little deeper when I noticed he was wearing his pajamas, something he hadn't done since I moved in, and I took that hint as well.  I leaned up against the door for a long time, watching him, alternating from hurting to being angry at myself for letting him hurt me.  I quickly grew tired of this and pushed myself away from the door.  I lugged the chair over next to the porch door and curled up in it, pushing the curtain aside enough to let the moonlight splash onto the book.  I tried to lose myself back in the plot.

"Are you going to read the rest of the night?"

Apparently it had worked better than I had hoped, because when Ryo spoke, my heart tried to leap out of my throat.  I yelped and rocked backwards. The chair went over, and I rolled over in a somersault, thwacking my head painfully on the wooden floor.  "Ow, dammit!!"

Ryo had been leaning up on one elbow, but he fell back to the bed, laughing. "What's so funny?" I demanded, but with more surprise than anger.  Ryo very rarely laughed outright.  "I thought you were asleep," I accused, then wondered if he had been watching me watching him.  I could tell my face was starting to turn red, and I hid it by setting the chair back upright and tracking down my book.  It had travelled several feet across the room when I had gone over backwards.

"I was."  He sat up and stretched, another of his lazy, cat-like moves that I loved watching.  "I went to bed a couple of hours after you left and woke up about an hour before you came back.  What did you do?"

I held up the book.  "Read.  What time is it?"

Ryo glanced down for the alarm clock he kept on the floor by the bed, but sometime or another, it had gotten kicked under the bed, and he had to fish it out by the cord.  "Coming up four."

I squeaked.  "I thought it was only about two or three."

He got up and padded away to get a drink of water.  "I'm sure it was when you came in," he called out from the bathroom.  "But you've been sitting there reading for a long time."

"And you just watched me."  I sat down again and flipped the book open.

"Nothing better to do.  Couldn't get back to sleep."  He came back out to perch on the arm of the chair.  He flipped the book closed to scan the title, then shrugged absently.

"Nightmares?"

He nodded, sipping at the water.  "I really do think you keep the nightmares away."

I poked his leg teasingly.  "Aww, you're just too tired after sex to dream."

He gave me a look I didn't even try to comprehend, then shook his head. "Then why do you still have nightmares?"

I frowned in concern.  "Have I been keeping you awake?"  I had been trying to hide the fact that I still woke up from dreams every night.

"Every night, but I enjoy the sex."  Ryo chucked in amusement at my expression, and I swatted him lightly with the book.  He took it away from me and dropped it to the floor.  "No, occasionally you wake me up, but I've noticed more that you hardly ever sleep."

"I try to avoid it," I admitted.

"No wonder you sleep so much when you get hurt," he murmured.  "You never sleep otherwise."  He thought a minute.  "I'd stuff you with sleeping pills, but irony would have it that demons would break in here that night, and you'd sleep through being killed."

"Well, I wish I knew whatever it is that keeps you dreamless.  I'd bottle it for the rest of us."

He fought back a yawn, looking longingly at the bed, but his eyes were still haunted.  "What do you dream about?" I whispered, leaning my head against his arm.

"What do you dream about?" he countered.

We looked at each other for a long moment, then looked away when neither of us answered.  I gave him a gentle shove.  "Go to bed.  I'll guard your sleep."

"While you don't?"

"Something like that."

     *

Despite all of Miki's teasing and anything Ryo said about her, I genuinely liked her and hadn't seen her since the days up at the cabin.  When we caught sight of each other at the carnival, we hurried over, squealing and exclaiming about our outfits, while Ryo rolled his eyes at Akira in disgust. "Will they insist on doing this every time they see each other?"

"Probably," Akira sighed, and Miki swatted his shoulder.

"Does this go for all women or did we just get lucky?"

Akira carefully sidled out of Miki's reach.  "What do you think?"

"I think you'd better keep your mouth shut, Akira-kun," Miki warned, waving a playful fist, and he threw a helpless look at Ryo and shrugged.

"That's what I thought," Ryo muttered.

It was rather amusing to watch Ryo and Miki vying for Akira's attention throughout the afternoon, with Akira between them, blissfully unaware of the quiet battle being waged around him.  They always managed to back off just before digressing into out-and-out fighting, but then would start up again over the next subject.  Miki seemed to be enjoying taunting Ryo, but I caught sight of Ryo's eyes once.  He wasn't playing.

So I remained somewhat outside of the conversations, contributing when I thought it was safe, or when everyone was distracted by a certain booth or exhibit.  A few booths were games, and Miki coaxed Akira into trying to win her a stuffed toy.  He went without too much protest, and I gave Ryo an amused sidelong glance.

"Don't you dare," he threatened.

"Wouldn't think of it," I said innocently.  "But aren't you glad?"

Ryo started to answer back, but Akira and Miki had just wandered back within earshot, and he smirked at Akira's embarrassed expression at Miki's fuss over the stuffed bear.  "Definitely."

"Definitely what?" Miki asked, having just caught the last bit.

"Nothing," we chorused, and Akira shot us a suspicious look, not believing us for a second.

Miki glanced at her watch.  "We just have time to get something to eat, then Akira and I are signed up to man one of the booths."

"We are?"  

"I had to juggle timeslots around, when you didn't show up yesterday afternoon."  She glared.  "You never did explain that."

"Hot dogs!" I exclaimed.

They all looked at me, and I blushed sheepishly.  "Um... I smell hot dogs."

Miki snapped her fingers.  "Right!   There are some American exchange students who put together a booth selling hot dogs."

"Where?" I demanded hungrily.

"Come on."  She started off, and I caught Ryo's sleeve, dragging him along with me.  Akira fell in step with us.  "Thanks," he said.  "I haven't really come up with a story yet.  I just keep changing the subject."

I chuckled.  "No problem."

"Hot dogs?" Ryo asked, raising an eyebrow skeptically.

I nodded, feeling defensive.  "I miss them.  They're kind of the American ramen-equivalent."

"I thought that was hamburgers."

I reconsidered.  "All right, so they're the second ramen-equivalent.  Actually, I never even ate them that often back home, but I'm suddenly homesick."  I grew dreamy.  "And milk shakes.  I miss milk shakes.  Hell, I miss milk!"

"You can get milk at any grocery store," Ryo pointed out.

"Yeah, but it tastes different."  I sighed forlornly, and Akira patted my shoulder consolingly.

"By the way, Ryo, you're supposed to be doing this part," he instructed.

"You deal with your girlfriend!" Ryo barked, pointing ahead to where Miki was waiting.  Akira chuckled and hurried to catch up to her.  "And no comments from you, either," Ryo muttered to me.

Occasionally, I know when to keep my mouth shut.

It felt good to talk to someone in rapid-fire English after speaking Japanese for so long.  Both of the students working were girls from New York, and from the way they kept shooting quips back and forth at each other, it was obvious that they had known each other before the exchange program.  The tall blond came forward from behind the grill, where she had been studiously turning hot dogs with a set of chopsticks.  She leaned over on the counter and grinned at me.  "We've been hearing about two great looking gaijin at the carnival," she teased.  She tossed her hair back out of her eyes with a flirtatious look at Ryo.  "We were wondering when someone would steer you this way."

I went bright red, and Ryo snickered.  He was more than used to the stares we attracted, but it was still new enough to me to make me uncomfortable, especially after having spent the months since the gattai trying to blend into backgrounds .

The petite brunette, her hair gathered in twin ponytails, handed one of the hot dogs to me, and Ryo broke a bite off one end, tasting it skeptically before nodding at the students to hand him one too.  Not to be outdone, Akira and Miki decided they wanted to try them too, and the next few minutes were spent juggling sodas, hot dogs, and money.

"The buns are sliced wrong," I noticed, and the brunette shrugged.

"Couldn't get them any other way," she explained, then shrieked as a puff of smoke wafted over from the grill and frantically shooed her friend back to work.

We went and found a bench slightly away from the bustle.  By that time, I had already finished my hot dog and snitched half of Akira's extra one when he wasn't looking.  He saw me just as I put the other half back and started to protest, but threw his hands up in the air helplessly when Miki reached over and snagged it for herself.  She and I looked at each other and giggled.

Akira started to rant a tirade of being-put-upon, but Miki distracted him when she held a piece of hot dog out near the ground and began to make mewing noises.  A big white cat detached herself from the hedge by the school building and trotted over.  Miki fed her the piece of meat, and the cat nibbled it, rumbling happily.  "She lives near here," Miki explained.  "She's always around about mealtimes getting handouts."


I promptly held out the last of my hot dog, and the cat wandered over to eat it and rub her head affectionately against my fingers.  Ryo shook his head. "You're going to regret that."

"Why?"

He looked at me pointedly.  "First you feel sorry for stray cats.  They follow you home, you let them in from the cold, then you feed them, and they never leave."  His eyes suddenly glinted, and he glanced at Akira, who was just finishing off the last of his soda.  "Even if they do make good bedwarmers," he added slyly.

It was, beyond a doubt, the best spit-take I have ever seen.  The cat streaked off, while Akira spent several minutes sputtering and choking, with Miki pounding on his back.  "What happened?" she asked when he finally could get enough breath to say something.

Akira glared past her at Ryo, who blinked at him impassively.  "It went down the wrong way."

Miki sighed with exasperation.  "Well, next time swallow instead of inhaling."  She brushed at his sleeve in dismay.  "Now we have to get you cleaned up, and we're going to be late.  They'll think we aren't going to show up.  Again!"  She pulled him off the bench, waving at us as she steered him into the building.

Ryo's shoulder were shaking from the effort not to laugh.  "You're a real bastard," I said, my own voice quivering with laughter.

"So I've been told," he admitted, and I gave up and laughed.  'Have you seen enough, or can we leave now?" he asked almost plaintatively.

"We can go," I told him and stood up, still laughing.  "Remind me never to drink soda around you."

I should have realized long before this that there would never again be a quiet period in my life for very long.  I think it had been in the back of my mind, but I had been trying to ignore it.  This was the first time that it really sank in.  For the first couple of months after my gattai, I might go a week without seeing a demon.  Now I couldn't even go an afternoon.

The screams started before we had reached the edge of the school grounds.  We both spun around at the first, but for a moment, I couldn't even see anything wrong, until one of the booths suddenly flew across the field.  I saw the head of a demon tower above everything else, then another, then more than I could count.  Then the tide of people running away hit us.  I caught sight of Ryo's golden hair once, then he was lost in the crowd.  I tried to fight my way to him, but the wave of people kept pushing me in the other direction.  I couldn't even hear my own voice over the screams, and I was suddenly more frightened than I had been even during the seconds before my gattai.  I hadn't known what was happening then.  This time, I knew.

The carnival hadn't been very big, however, and I suddenly emerged in an area with fewer people.  By that time, I realized looking back, the mob had reached the school fence, and I was terrified that Ryo would be caught in the frantic pushing for the gates.  Then I saw spurts of blood fountaining from within the crowd.  The demons had traveled the same tide the people had.

The man in front of me tripped.  He began to scramble to his feet, then suddenly arched his neck back, screaming in pain and fear as his head began to elongate.  I didn't even have time to react before the gattai was complete, and the demon loomed over me.  I was the nearest thing to it, and it turned to me, eyes glittering.  I dimly heard the bark of a gun less than a second later, and its head exploded in a shower of blood and bone.

A hand clamped down on mine, and I knew without looking that it was Ryo. "Come on," he said briefly and tugged me in the opposite direction from the slaughter at the gates.

I pulled back, digging the heels of my boots in the snowy mud.  "We can't just run!  What about all those people?"

He yanked my arm hard enough to make me lose my balance, and I lurched forward.  "You'd never survive against so many."

"But Akira's out there somewhere!" I screeched.

"Whose first thought will be to get Miki to safety," he said, the eye of calmness in the storm.  A man came scrambling up, screaming in such panicked Japanese that all I could make out was "children."  He clawed for Ryo's shotgun, and Ryo calmly swung out with the gun, the barrel connecting with the man's jaw.  It snapped, and the man fell back.

In that instant, Ryo was distracted, and I wrenched away.  He cursed and caught out at me, but I was already gone.  The first thing I saw was a student pinned by a collapsed booth, and I skidded to my knees next to her, clawing at the beam that had trapped her ankle.  Her screaming abruptly cut off with a strangled gulp, and she clapped her hands to her face.  The fingers were lengthening into claws.

"No," I moaned and caught at her wrists.  Her eyes rolled white with fear. "Fight it, you can fight it," I chanted, but she wailed in despair, the sound rising to a shriek of triumph, and Ryo's knife slashed down from behind me and across her throat.

I lunged to my feet and backhanded him back across the next booth.  "Why?" I shrieked.

"She was already dead."  He dabbed briefly at the trickle of blood from his mouth.  "Whatever you do, don't shift forms."

"Don't tell me what to do!"  My hair was swirling, almost blinding me, reducing Ryo to a blur.

Ryo flashed out and caught my shoulders, shaking me.  "Damn it, listen," he hissed, and for the first time, I heard the sirens and gun shots.  "You shift forms, and you'll be killed by the people you're trying to protect."

A cloud of smoke rolled over us.  A fire had started, perhaps an overturned grill from one of the food booths, and the wooden booths had caught easily. I coughed on the rough scent, and Ryo took that instant to catch my wrist again and pull me out of the field to behind one of the buildings.

"What if Akira's out there?" I asked as soon as I got the coughing back under control.  "What if he changes?"

"He's smart enough not to," Ryo replied softly, but there was a flicker of concern in his eyes, and he leaned back out around the corner of the building to watch the mass of panic and slaughter by the fences.  "Stupid people," he muttered.  "Like panicked sheep.  Any of them could have saved themselves by going away from the mob, but instead half of them die from being crushed against the fence."  He spun around to face me, and the flames from the fire silhouetted his face darkly, echoed in his eyes.  "What's the use in saving people so stupid, they can't even try to help themselves?"

I stared at him in horror.  "You're enjoying this..."

He stepped closer to me, and the fire slid from his face.  His eyes were confused, and he stared to say something, but I wasn't listening.  I tried to streak past him, but he caught me around my waist as I flashed by and slung me around and up against the cement wall.  "Don't be an idiot, Risa."

"Get out of the way," I growled softly and launched myself away from the building.  As fast as I was, he was faster still and reversed the shotgun, ramming the butt into my stomach.  I went down hard, choking for air and not getting it.  My sight went hazy, and my claws scraped on gravel.

If I could have drawn a breath, I would have killed him.

"Going out there would be suicide," he said softly.  "And I'm not going to let you die that way."  I heard his boots crunch on gravel as he moved back to his vantage point at the corner.

My stomach slowly began to unclench, and I could get tiny gasps of air through.  I pressed my face against the rough cement of the wall, trying not to hear the screams or the crackling of the fire.  With everything in me, I wished I was back at the lake,  I curled up in a ball, focusing on the view of it my memory had.  Somewhere near me, I heard Akira's voice, harsh with anger, and Ryo's smoother one answering.  I concentrated harder.



"Risa, no!" Ryo suddenly shouted.  "Wait, don't--"

The sounds of the killing abruptly vanished and were replaced by the soft sound of wind through trees and the gentle lap of water against rocks.  I slowly uncurled and opened my eyes and saw the peace of the lake in front of me.

     *

With the bathroom door replacing the one the demon had shattered, the wind stopped howling through the cabin.  As an afterthought, I took one of the blankets and tacked it on the splintering doorframe as a second shield against the weather.  The absence of the wind made lighting the fire possible, and I brought in an adequate pile of wood from the supply on the porch, where it had kept dry from the snow and ice.

The contents of my pack had been scattered across the cabin floor, and most of the cloth items were gone, probably lining some furry critters' winter nests.  Some animal had dragged the new boots away as well, enjoying the taste of the leather, I assumed.  I wished them well.  I did find my wallet, however, with its supply of yen notes, and most of my camping equipment, and carefully packed them in my old and battered pack.

Sometime after that, I realized how little was actually left of the skirt and sweater I had on.  Obviously such material was not up to demonic invasion and emergency teleportation, not to mention basic carpentry.  I wandered into the bedroom, which was as bitterly cold as the outer room had been, and I paused long enough to tack a few more blankets over the glass-less window. It wouldn't keep the cold out completely, but there was still a door between this room and the outer one, and I had no intention of sleeping this far away from the fire anyway.

Once that was done, I poked through drawers and came up with one that still had clothes in it.  I pulled one of the shirts out, a warm button-down long-sleeved one that smelled comfortingly of Ryo.  For a second, I buried my face in it, brushing my cheek against the soft fabric, then mechanically pulled off the sweater and skirt and slipped the shirt on. I didn't bother looking for jeans; I had always been comfortable padding about in a long shirt, and I was in desperate need for any comfort I could find.  If I couldn't accept Ryo, I'd accept his shirt.

Everything I did was mechanical, automatic through a hazy fog.  I hadn't even stopped to wonder why I could teleport or how I did it.  I just acknowledged that I could and left it at that.  It was easier.

The fire was burning more brightly now, bathing the room with soft flickering light, and I stood in front of it for a long time, captivated by the dancing flames.  As long as I lost myself to such fascinations, I didn't have to think.  It was easier.

After a timeless moment, I let my gaze be drawn around the room, but it couldn't find anything else to focus on.  I pulled out the bed and wrapped myself deep in blankets, without even leaving my customary air passageway. The shaking started then, and I fought it until I realized that the struggle not to shake was only making it worse, and I gave in to it.

The moment I relaxed, the tremors died away.  I was suddenly exhausted to the bone and let my mind drift.  Something was nudging me back where my dreams had been, before they all shifted to nightmares.  It wasn't an annoying nudge, but comforting, as if someone was humming a lullaby to me.  I followed it until I realized that it was the silvery other-voice.  I had kept it out for so long that I had not even recognized it, and now I tentatively reached a hand out to it.  It took it eagerly, not threateningly, but rather delighted to be acknowledged after being ignored for so long.  It surrounded me soothingly in a hug, and I let it comfort me while I cried on its shoulder.  Sleep slipped around me eventually, and I skimmed through dreams until I paused in one at Ryo's apartment. Akira was pacing, but suddenly stopped and spun around to face Ryo. "Where would she go?"

Ryo leaned back in his chair, eyes closed.  He held up his hands, then wordlessly let them drop back to the arm rests.

Akira ran his hand distractedly through his hair, making it even more tousled than ever.  I giggled soundlessly.  Miki would throw a fit.  "She could even be back in the States!"

"No money," Ryo stated.  "I don't think she's strong enough to teleport that far."  He sighed wearily.  "And I don't think she's foolish enough to try flying."

Akira's eyes suddenly flamed.  "What the hell did you say to her, anyway? What'd you do?"

Ryo opened his eyes and stared expressionlessly at Akira for a long moment, then closed his eyes again.  "I kept her from charging off into the midst of that slaughter."  His voice was as emotionless as his eyes had been, and I couldn't tell if he was worried or angry at my throwing another distraction in his way.  Or relieved that I was gone.  "She would have been ripped apart. You know that."

Akira's anger died as abruptly as it had come, and he went back to pacing. "What if she's gotten hurt?" he agonized.  "You said she could starve, if she was hurt badly enough not to wake up to eat.  She could die."  He did another circuit from wall to wall before speaking again.  "You know how she hates the gattai.  She might have gotten hurt and crawled off to die."

"You're letting yourself panic."

Akira stopped pacing and whirled to face him.  "Do something, Ryo!"

"What?"  Ryo snapped, sitting up to glare at him, eyes blazing.  "I'm open to suggestions."

Akira glanced away.  "I'm sorry," he mumbled, studying his feet, hands stuffed in his pockets like a scolded schoolboy.  "It's just that... you always know what's going on."

"Not this time."  Ryo stood and walked over to glare out the porch door, arms folded angrily.  "Stupid kid.  She's probably just sulking somewhere."

"But where?"

I felt Ryo's mind touch on the cabin, but I reached out and gently brushed him away from the thought.  It occurred to me that I could possibly slip in deeper, find out what he was truly feeling, but fear made me back away.  I didn't want to find out.  I caressed him softly, whispering to him silently, toyed with the idea of giving him a good swift kick.  A log shifted in the fire back at the cabin, and I felt myself flowing back into my burrow of blankets.  The log finished rolling with a last spark, and I drifted awake.

It was still dark outside, but my body had taken all the sleep it was used to and was reluctant to stay in bed.  I wandered around the room, poking into drawers and cupboards to keep my body busy, but my mind was bemusedly following the other-voice.  It was so delighted just to be heard that I felt pangs of guilt for having locked it away for so long, and it rushed to rub up against me affectionately. Restrictions were forgiven.  Ryo had been right; it just wanted to live, too.

My body had found a drawer filled with desk-type stuff, and the other-voice leapt eagerly when I brought out a blank notebook with unlined paper. Before long, it had me sitting at the table filling page after page with a combination of its memory and mine.  Mine was obviously the stronger one, as sketches of people and places I knew outnumbered the ones that I didn't. The memories were mine, but the talent for drawing wasn't, and I shyly watched the drawings take form.

Hours later --or maybe minutes; I couldn't tell which until I realized that there was more light from the sun than from the fire -- I had gone past hungry and on to fending my stomach away from eating me alive.  I reluctantly put the pencil aside and knuckled my eyes in an automatic response to the world still being hazy.  I felt like I was still dreaming, but didn't feel any urge to fight it.  I rummaged through the kitchenette, but couldn't find anything that hadn't been munched on already by critters wandering through the open cabin.

I pulled the shirt off and folded it carefully, leaving it at the foot of the bed, and sent outside, unfurling my wings.  I had intended to go to the lake and slap up enough fish for a meal or two, but a few steps out onto the porch, and a rabbit streaked out from the woodpile.

The other-voice eagerly seized onto the chase, and I glided after the rabbit, letting the other-voice dictate my moves.  I batted at the rabbit playfully just as it had almost reached the safety of the trees, and it squealed in terror and ran in the other direction.  It wasn't running as fast; my claws had left marks on its haunch.  I caught up to it again, batting it a little harder, and it tumbled head-over-fluffy-little-tail through the air.  I caught it before it hit the ground, and it screamed once more before I ripped its head off.

The other-voice was very pleased.  

I drifted back to the cabin, so lost in the other-voice's chiming laugh that I didn't realize I was already munching on the rabbit raw until I had gone through a few bites.  I hovered a moment, carefully chewing the rest of my mouthful and distantly wondering if I was going to be sick.  The other-voice told me not to be silly, and I swallowed and landed on the porch step.  I abruptly bent over in giggles a second later.  Good God, I'm going feral, I thought rather hysterically and went inside to cook the rest of the rabbit.

Akira blinked in over the lake that afternoon.  So he can do it, too, drifted through my mind as I slowly slipped the pencil through the spiral binding of the notebook.  I wasn't surprised that he could.  If I was surprised at all, it was because they hadn't found me before this.  Then I remembered the dream and wondered how much of it had really been a dream.  Still, Ryo was sharper than that.  Or maybe he just didn't want to find me.

I was letting myself wander lost in that train of thought, when I realized Akira was standing in front of me.  Somewhere, I had lost the time it had taken from when he had appeared to when he had flown in.  He was in human form, and he flipped his wings into his back while I focused on the knees of his jeans.  After a moment without either of us speaking, he knelt down in front of me and used one finger under my chin to tilt my head up to look at him.  "'Lo Akira," I said vaguely and went back to concentrating on his knees.

He started to say something, then stopped, at a loss for words.  A few eyeblinks went by, then I pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my head on them.  "I've been getting to know someone," I finally said and tapped my head with one finger.  "It was a meeting long overdue."

"Yes, it was," he agreed softly and gently scooped me up in his arms.  "Let's go home, little sister."


     *

We blinked in in the middle of Ryo's apartment.  Ryo had caught up the ever-present shotgun before his mind registered that it was us.  Akira instinctively wrapped his wings around me protectively, and Ryo slowly put the gun down.  I slid down from Akira's arms, waved solemnly at Ryo, and walked past him to curl up in a ball on the bed.

There was a moment of complete silence, then Akira sighed and let my pack fall to the floor.  It made a comforting thump-jingle.  It had always made comforting thump-jingles, and the older and more worn it got, the more comforting were its thump-jingles, and I would miss that in a new pack.

"What's that all about?" Ryo asked, sounding peeved.  Come to think of it, it was understandable that he would be peeved.

"I haven't been able to get more than a couple of words out of her," Akira said softly.  "I think she's finally accepting the gattai."

"It's about time," Ryo said at a normal volume, but it sounded much louder in comparison to Akira's murmur, and I cringed.  "But you didn't go off and sulk after yours."

"But I had agreed to it beforehand."

Ryo made a "humph"-type noise and stalked over to tower over the foot of the bed.  I looked at him from between wisps of my mane, blinked, then deliberately closed my eyes.  I heard him inhale for a tirade, but Akira distracted him.  "Come look at this, Ryo."

Ryo let his breath out in a huff and went back over to Akira, who was flipping through pages of what had to be my sketchbook.  "She did all of these since yesterday.  Isn't she incredible?"

Ryo "humph"ed again.  

"There's a really fantastic one of me and Miki.  I want to ask if I can get a photocopy of it," Akira went on.  "I think she caught us perfectly.  There it is."

I was beginning to wonder if all Ryo could say was "humph," but he suddenly raised his voice a bit more.  "Why didn't you tell us you could do this, Risa?"

I wondered fuzzily if I should answer him and took too long in the wondering.  I was also a bit embarrassed, because it would be obvious by now that most of the drawings were of Ryo.  By the time I had almost decided to feign sleep, they had already decided that I wasn't going to answer.  "She had never done anything like this before," Akira was saying for me.  "She thinks it's part of the gattai."

"Entirely possible," Ryo commented.  "Demons have talents, too.  They don't just live for ripping humans apart, Akira.  They simply live."

"You sound as if you admire them."

"In a way, yes," he answered slowly.  "I'm very envious of the strength and speed you and Risa have.  And I'm very aware that a blow that you would laugh off would quite likely kill me."

"I've told you to leave the dangerous stuff to me," Akira grumbled.

"That's a discussion for another time."  I heard the book close, and there was another long silence, before Ryo sighed.  "Why don't you go home, Akira?  I don't think there's anything more you can do here."

"I don't know..."

"I'm not going to eat her alive, Akira," Ryo said in one of the most gentle tones I had heard him use yet, but I wasn't sure if I should believe him or not.  Neither was Akira, apparently, but Ryo's tome shifted to one of obvious dismissal, and Akira was used to obeying him.  "Go home and assure your girlfriend that you're still alive.  She's been calling here every half hour looking for you, and if I hear her voice again today, I'm going to throw the phone across the room."

Akira chuckled in spite of himself, and I heard him shrugging his coat on. He stopped by the bed to stroke my hair gently, then I heard the door open and close behind him.

Which left Ryo and I alone again.  I was really beginning to dread these moments.  Especially when I was fairly certain he knew I wasn't asleep.

He sat down on the bed and nudged me.  "Come on, Risa.  Talk to me."

I ignored him.  He nudged a little harder.  "It's not going to work this time."

See.  I told you he knew I was faking.

I told myself rather emphatically to shut up.

"I'm going to shove you out of the damn bed in a moment."

Try it.

Instead, he moved away, and I smirked into the bed cover, until a glass of ice-cold water splashed me in the face.  I bolted upright, sputtering, and got it with another glassful.  The other-voice and I snarled in unison, intending to launch at him, claws unsheathed, but he moved faster than I did, and caught my shoulders, giving me one sharp shake.

It had always worked before.  The world suddenly cleared from the mist that had been surrounding me for the last few days.  I had lost track of how many by this time.  I caught my breath, water still dripping down my face from wet tendrils of mane.  The mist was reluctant to give me up, reaching out to drag me back under.  In a complete panic, I caught at Ryo and kissed him hard, not even realizing that my tooth had caught his lip until I tasted the salt of blood.  I started to cringe back, afraid of his anger, but he roughly kissed me back, then buried his face in the open neck of my shirt and bit my shoulder equally as hard.  I stopped thinking at that point, almost relishing more in the absence of thought than the physical.  There was no control in it, I didn't want any control, control meant that I would have to think, to be human and rational, and it wasn't until the physical took over the non-thinking that I could feel Ryo against me again, his fingers gripped in my hair, and I pulled him to me to kiss him again.  Not alone, I'm not alone! It was like the rush of flying and I never wanted it to end, because I would be alone again.  And then I came, and I cried out not in release, but in dismay, because there was the wrenching of being in clarity again, and I buried my face against his throat and screamed, the sound muffled against him.  No mist.  Just reality.

I didn't even know I was crying until Ryo's fingers touched my face.  He was shaking, and I realized that he had been in about as much control as I had been.  I had never seen him lose control, and I was suddenly scared.

He slowly settled around me and awkwardly stroked my hair, neither comforting nor condemning.  His lips suddenly brushed my ear.  "You really can be a hellion in bed, when you want to be, can't you?"

I giggled weakly, which was exactly what he intended.  He left long enough to dampen a washcloth and came back, shoving it into my hand.  "Warn me before you do this next time.  I'll be better prepared for it."

"The sex or the tears?" I asked weakly, rubbing at my face with the cold cloth.

"The sex.  I've been wondering when the tears were going to come.  You've been keeping them back ever since the gattai, haven't you?"

I nodded silently, then realized that the fog in my mind was completely gone.  With a sharp pang of fear, I reached out to the other-voice, and it answered back with a swirl of emotions.  I let my breath out in relief.  Now that I knew it, I was afraid of losing it.  It was the only thing that kept me from being entirely alone.

I opened my eyes again, and Ryo was watching me thoughtfully.  "Sometimes you and Akira scare the hell out of me," he said slowly.  "But sometimes, I wish I knew what it was like."

I picked nervously at the blanket, concentrating on my fingers.   "Loosing the gattai would be like killing half of me," I murmured.  

"That's what I thought."  And I couldn't tell if he was wistful, envious, or relieved.  I gently touched his lip, which was bruising and starting to swell.  "If you put some ice on that, the swelling will go down."

He didn't say anything, but he brushed his fingertips over my shoulder, and I could feel the material of the shirt stick from blood.  I shrugged his hand away.  "It'll heal."  I still couldn't keep the sarcasm out of my voice, and I abruptly turned away from Ryo and crawled under the blankets.

After a moment, he slipped under the blankets and lay on his side, watching me, I knew it, with that damnedably calm, cat-like expression, waiting for me to say something.  I tried very hard not to give in, but as the silence stretched, I couldn't stand it and blurted out, "I'll leave tomorrow."

After another long moment, he calmly asked, "Why?"

I was back to picking miserably at the corner of the blanket.  "Don't you want me to?"  I noticed for the first time that all my nails were chewn down to the quick.  I balled my hands into fists before Ryo could notice, but the quick movement drew his attention.  He caught my hand in his and ran his fingers along my ragged nails thoughtfully.  "It depends on why you want to leave.  If you're fishing for me to give you a string of flowery reasons why I can't live without you, you're being childish and silly.  I've told you that I am not and will not fall in love with you.  Now tell me why you're leaving, and I'll answer your question."

I didn't say anything, and he released my hand with a careless shrug.  "Fine. I assume you're fishing for responses.  I'll drive you to the train station first thing in the morning."

"I thought you'd be glad if I went," I said in a tiny voice.  "You hate me, remember?"

"Did I ever say that?" he pointed out quietly.

I rolled over to look at him in surprise.  "I thought you didn't want me here."

"That's different."  He rolled over on his back, hands behind his head.  "You invaded my privacy, and I do resent that.  You were dropped in my lap, and I wasn't prepared for it."

"Your lap doesn't seem to mind too much," I said before I could stop myself.

He tugged a lock of my hair.  "However, you're here, and you're rather useful to have around."  He shot me a sidelong glance.  "Besides warming the bed, I mean."  I giggled again, and he went on, studying me carefully.  "I know beyond a doubt, no matter how much you and I are fighting, that you'll die guarding my back.  And I honestly don't understand why, since you can't possibly know for certain that I'd do the same for you. I don't even know if I would.

I traced his arm with my finger.  "Maybe that's why you don't have nightmares when I'm here.  You know you don't have to be on guard, because you know I'll do it for you."

"Entirely possible," he considered.  "And probable.  Look, if you want to stay, I won't stop you.  Neither will I beg you to stay if you decide to leave. It's your decision, and I'm not going to make it for you.  Akira wants you for his devilman army, but I've decided that's between you and Akira."  He didn't add it out loud but it floated between us, that he didn't think the army would work in the end.

"You don't hate me?" I ventured in the same tiny voice.

He chuckled softly and pulled me over closer to him.  He reached out to snap the light off and nestled his face in the curve of my throat.  "Go to sleep, cat.  Let me guard your sleep for once."  He suddenly studied the shirt I was wearing.  "Damn it, you're still wearing my clothes."

I laughed, even though I had noticed that he hadn't answered my question any of the times I had asked it.

     *

I slept the night through dreamless, but still woke up before Ryo.  I debated burying myself back under the blankets and going back to sleep, but my body had already decided against that.  I tried to reason with it, but it insisted that it was really bored and wanted to find something else to do.  I finally gave up the battle and slipped out of the bed, trying not to wake up Ryo.  He "murph"ed at me sleepily, and one hand stretched out from the burrow of blankets to snag my pillow and use it to sandwich his eyes against the light streaming in through the glass door.

I absently padded around the room, looking for the book I had been in the middle of, but couldn't see it anywhere.  I made another circuit and ended up sitting at the talbe, the sketch book open to an empty page.  I nibbled on the end of the pencil for a moment.

"You mean you're actually getting up?" drifted from the bed.

I chuckled.  "You really aren't a morning person, are you?"

"Not when I spend the nights hunting demons."

"Makes sense."  I was letting the pencil glide across the paper, not really paying attention to what it was doing.  "Do we have any specific reason to be up this morning?"

"There'd better not be."

"Then why don't you go back to sleep?"

There was a long sigh.  "I've been asking myself the same question.  I'm not getting an answer, though."  He pushed the blankets aside and leaned over the edge of the bed, fishing under it for a second and coming up with my book.  He lay on his side, propped up on one elbow, and opened the book.

"So that's where it went!"

He lifted his other shoulder in a shrug.  "Wondered what was so good about it that you'd spend all night reading."

I watched him read for a few minutes, until he looked back up, annoyed. "Yes?"

"You're not using a dictionary, are you?" I complained.  "After all this time I've spent studying Japanese, I still have trouble reading a damned newspaper without a dictionary, and you apparently have none of the same trouble with English.  You're disgusting."

He smiled smugly and went back to reading.  I quenched the urge to hit him with the chair and decided to go back to concentrating on drawing.  At least that was one thing he couldn't better me at.  That I knew of.

The drawing was still in a rough sketch form, still with lots of pencil swirls that would eventually be smoothed out and detailed.  Still, it was obviously of Ryo, and it promised to be a good one.  Contented, I started to darken in some of the lines, erasing some of the others.  But some of the swirls demanded to be left alone and, after fighting them for a few minutes and losing, I sat back and tried to figure out what the swirls were.  If I didn't know better, I would swear they were trying to be wings.

The other-voice screamed in panic.  My hands suddenly felt numb, and the pencil slipped from my fingers.  The other-voice screamed again, and my stomach lurched.  I pushed back away from the table so fast that the chair went over backwards, and I made it to the bathroom just in time to throw up.

Ryo was there almost instantly, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. He pushed a glass of water in my hands, telling me to sip it slowly, then rested his hand on my forehead, checking for fever.

"Don't touch me!" I screeched, pushing him away with the same hand that held the glass.  It flew out of my grip and shattered on the tile floor.  Ryo caught his balance and stared at me in startled surprise.  I was terrified of him without knowing why, and the other-voice was still in too much of a panic to supply me with an answer.  All I knew was that if Ryo touched me again, I'd attack him.

He must have seen that in my eyes, for he slowly backed out of the bathroom.  I watched him warily as he uprighted the chair, then looked at the sketch.  He went a shade pale and looked frightened.  I had never seen Asuka Ryo scared before, and I went past panic and into terror.

He gestured shakily at the sketch book.  "What is this?"

All I could do was shake my head.

He looked at me again, his expression lost and confused.  "I've never told you about the dreams --"  He cut himself off abruptly, and took a step towards me.  Before I could stop myself, I scrambled backwards across the floor until I ran up against the wall.  He stopped instantly and looked back at the sketch.  He quickly closed the book, backing away from the table. Without another word or glance at me, he dressed and left.

My mind began screaming questions that the other-voice refused to answer. All I could get from it was an overwhelmingly strong feeling of fear and dread.  And anything that was strong enough to scare Ryo...  My hands were shaking hard, ice cold.  For a long time, I could do nothing but shiver, in spite of the blanket.

After an eternity of this, I finally crawled to my feet and lurched out into the room.  The comfort of the other-voice was gone, and I gnawed at the remains of a fingernail.  I finally shook myself back to attention.  I had done without the other-voice before.  I firmly pushed away the worry that it wouldn't come back at all.

I dug around in the closet until I found a pair of jeans.  I pulled them on and tucked in the tails of the shirt I was wearing.  Then I turned my old pack upside-down and unceremoniously dumped everything out in a pile on the bed.  I found the package that held the new pack under the bed and began stuffing my things in it, not being the slightest bit careful, or paying attention to what went where.  I'd sort it out later.

There was a knock at the door, and I fought a stab of fear that Ryo had come back.  Then rationality took over, and I realized that Ryo wouldn't have knocked.  I ignored it, but the knock came again.  On an impulse, I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind, like I had in my dream, and lightly brushed upon Akira's thoughts.  "It's open," I called and started rolling up the blankets that made up my bed roll.

Akira peeked around the door, then came in.  His cheerful grin died as he looked at the pile on the bed, then at the pack, then at me.  "What are you doing?"

I didn't answer and went to the closet to pick out the more durable of the new clothes.

"You're not leaving, are you?"

I still couldn't think of anything to say, so I went on not answering.  I started to roll the clothes and stow them away in the pack, but as soon as I put them in, Akira would promptly take them out again.  After a few minutes of this, I realized that he was unpacking faster than I was packing and sat down at the bed to look at him helplessly.

He finished emptying the pack by turning it over and dumping everything out with a triumphant look.  He stepped to stand between me and the door, crossing his arms across his chest.  "You aren't leaving."

Anger seeped in through the still-lingering fear, and I reined it in tightly. "Are you going to stop me?" I asked very softly.

Akira heard the threat in my voice and immediately relaxed his posture with a helpless expression of his own.  "Why?"

I struggled to find words to explain the fear that I didn't understand myself. All I knew was that the haven that I had discovered had suddenly turned darker than what I had been running from.  Akira sat down next to me and gently brushed my mane away from my face, tucking the wisps behind my ear.  "Did you and Ryo fight?"

I shook my head fiercely, which only made my hair cascade around my face.  He patiently pushed it back.  "Look, if you're afraid of what we're up against, talk to us.  We'll work something out, together."

I shook my head again and started to cram everything into the pack.

"Risa, don't run away from us, too," he pleaded.

The door clicked open, and Akira sighed in relief.  "Ryo, you talk to her. She wants to leave."

I turned.  Ryo's gaze slowly traveled from Akira, to me, to the pack, then back to me again.  His eyes were frozen, not letting anything through.  The iceberg.

"Ryo, say something," Akira urged.  "She'll leave if you don't."

Ryo blinked, breaking our gaze.  "It doesn't matter," he said and walked out.

"Doesn't matter?  Ryo!"  Akira started for the door, but I gently rested my fingers on his arm, and it halted him as if I had physically wrenched him back.  He started to protest, but I shook my head, and he wilted, sitting back down on the edge of the bed.  "He needs you," he said weakly.

"Ryo's never needed anyone in his life, and you know that."

"If you didn't have a fight, then why are you leaving?"

I still hadn't found an answer to that and flipped through the pages of the sketchbook instead, until I found the one of Akira and Miki.  This was one that I was proud of; Akira was lounging on a park bench, Miki happily leaning over his shoulder, arms around his neck and fingers up in a V symbol.  I carefully tore it out and handed it to him.  Akira looked at it for a long moment.  "I need you," he said softly.  "For the army.  I need you there."

I sat on the floor at his feet and rested my head against his leg.  "Akira, Puffurle is much more capable than I am.  She knows what's going on, and I'm only just learning.  She'll be a much better support for you."  I closed my eyes, to avoid giving away that I didn't think it would be enough in any case, even if I was there.  The new dread was too strong.

"Will you come back?"

My heart wrenched at his wistful tone, and I nodded.  "I think so," I said lightly.  "When you need me.  Just give me a chance to learn a little more."

"It's nothing you can learn from us?"

"No."

Akira looked back down at the drawing in his hands, his fingers tracing the edge of the paper.  "How will you know when to come back?"

I touched his mind with mine.  I'll know, Akira.  Just as you'll know how to call me.

He slid down to the floor to throw his arms around me in a rough hug.  I'll miss you, little sister, he answered in the same way, and I hid my face in his shoulder.

Don't be angry at Ryo, I begged.  This was my choice.  He couldn't have stopped me.  I wasn't sure if this was true or not, but Akira needed Ryo too much to let this alienate their partnership.  Akira hesitated, then nodded. He hugged me again, then tousled my hair gently, got up, and left.  I finished packing and locked the door behind me when I went out.

     *

I didn't make a fire that night.  I didn't need the warmth, and the sky was so crystal clear that the stars provided the light I needed to empty and repack my pack as it should have been done that morning.

Deep in one of the pockets, I found a roll of yen notes, wrapped around a bank card to an account under my name and a note in English written in disgustingly neat handwriting:  "Use when you need to.  Don't starve just to make me feel guilty."

Besides, it wouldn't work, I finished for him.  Damn it, Asuka, can't I ever out-guess you?  I tossed the roll back in the same pocket and stretched out to watch the stars, whistling.

I suddenly snorted.  I had never been able to whistle before.

The other-voice chuckled, and I shrugged.

It didn't matter.







Ashes.

They sifted through the air, making it difficult to breath.  I'd never get the gritty feel of them off my skin, out of my hair.  They irritated my eyes and made it hard to see.  Not that there was much to see, anyway, other than ashes.

I rubbed at the brass nameplate that had been on the outside of the house.  It was all that was left, other than ashes.  The brass was streaked and warped from heat, but the ashes were ingrained in the letters, making them still legible.

Makimura.

Oh, Miki...

I dropped my pack to the ground, raising a cloud of ashes.  I coughed, waving the plate to try and clear the air, but I gave up when it only stirred the dust more.  I sat down on the pack, balancing the plaque on my knees, then rested my forehead against the cool surface.

I hard someone walk up and I tensed, before I recognized the scent and the swirl of thoughts, and eased my guard down a tingle.  "I thought you might be here," Akira's voice said, and I looked up.

Dear God, he's aged.  There wasn't a hint of the boyish enthusiasm left.  His eyes were tight with pain that hadn't bothered to pause at grief, that instead went on towards a rage that was tearing away at him in giant bites.  I wouldn't have even recognized him, had it not been for the familiar touch of his mind.  Wordlessly, I held out the plaque.  I couldn't say anything, and tried to let my eyes and my thoughts say everything for me.

If he accepted the rush of feelings, he didn't show it; he didn't look at my eyes.  He crouched on his heels next to me and took the plaque.  "I didn't get back in time.  I promised her I would, and I didn't.  The Demon Task Force killed her parents, and a mob killed her.  Because of me."  He tossed the plaque away.  "Everyone's dead."  He stood up, dusting his hands.  "Come on.  You're tired.  I'll take you someplace where you can rest."

I touched his arm gently.  "Ryo?"

Akira still wouldn't look at me, but the muscles at his jaw and temple clenched.  "After you rest, Risa.  I'll tell you whatever you want to know then."

"Is he dead?"  It was easier to say than to believe.  

"Later, Risa."

I stepped in front of him, gripping both of his arms.  I wanted him to tousle my hair and tell me everything would be all right, just like he had always done.

He didn't, but he did finally meet my eyes, and hatred burned deep in them, strong enough to make me back away, afraid of him.  "He's Satan."

I took another step back, feeling like he had punched me in the stomach. The air was suddenly thicker, even harder to breath than before, and I went ice cold.  "Akira..."

"God of the demons," he finished bitterly.  Ashes flew faster around me, choking me, dimming my sight to grey.  My legs disappeared, and I never remembered reaching the ground.  My last thought was that I hoped I wouldn't have to wake up again.

     *

I woke to someone bathing my face with a damp cloth.  I reacted before I thought, grabbing the wrist and twisting it with one hand, the other hand clawed and raised to slash.

Someone else caught that wrist, and I summoned energy as I turned, snarling out a challenge.  My hair swirled.

And I was looking directly into Akira's dark eyes.  I closed mine and slowly forced myself to relax inch by inch.  "Your reflexes have improved," he noted wryly.

I matched my tome to his.  "Practice.  I've had lots of it."

He eased my hand away from the girl's wrist and handed her the cloth she had dropped.  "Sorry about that, Trollg.  I should have seen that coming."

The girl nodded nervously, her eyes still wide and spooked, and she backed out of the room.

Akira watched her go.  "She was one of the first devilmen.  The Demon Task Force experimented on her to find weapons that would hurt us."  He met my gaze again.  "She's a good kid.  Do me a favor and apologize to her later."

I nodded, wishing she had left the damp cloth behind.  My skin felt parched from the dust and ashes.  Akira seemed to understand that and handed me a glass of water.  It was tepid-warm, but I drank it anyway, grateful for the moisture.  "I came as soon as I could," I said, once my tongue could work again.  I didn't mention that his scream of anguish had hit me hard enough to nearly knock me unconscious.  That must have been when Miki was killed. Nothing else could have hurt him that much.

"I figured if you were still alive, you'd show up soon."  Akira leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.  He shuddered and opened them again almost immediately.  I wondered when had been the last time he had slept.  "I guess I should have broken that to you a little more gently."  He didn't offer anything else in apology.

I looked helplessly down at the glass, tracing the rim with my fingertip. Moving faster than thought, he caught my hand, forcing me to look at him.  "Why did you leave?  Did you know about Ryo?"

His voice was a harsh growl.  I wrenched away, ignoring the streaks of blood his claws left on my wrist.  My pack was leaning against the foot of the cot, and I pawed through it until I found the sketch book.  I had never opened it again.  The pencil was still clipped to that page, and I flipped the book open to it and handed it over to Akira without looking at it.  I now understood the terror I had felt when I had seen the sketch of Ryo framed with pencil swirlings of wings.  I never wanted to see it again.

Akira glanced at the rough swirls, his forehead creased with confusion, then he drew in a sharp breath as the swirls formed a picture in his mind.  "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know."

He brandished the book at me.  "You expect me to believe that, after seeing this?"  He threw the book to the floor, raising still more dust.

I flashed to my feet, my eyes blazing.  "I didn't know!" I shouted at him. "The folklore I grew up with had Satan with horns, spiked tail, and carrying a pitchfork.  They never said that he'd be beautiful, that he'd look like -- like --"  My breath caught painfully, and I choked off the sob before it could fully form.  I spun around and hurled the glass against the wall.  It shattered, spraying glass around me.  I gasped to catch my breath, the sound loud in the instant hush of the murmuring voices from out in the other room.  I hadn't even realized their voices were there until they weren't.

Akira picked up the sketch book and brushed it off, carefully unfolding pages that had been creased.  He closed it and placed it on the bed, each move careful and deliberate.  I made no move to reclaim it.  "All this time..." He hesitated, then started again.  "All this time, I've been wondering if you were with him.  If you had betrayed me, too."

That son of a bitch!"  My voice cracked with the overwhelming urge to hit or break something, but there was nothing at ready hand, and the walls had enough cracks in them to make me wary of their stability.  I clenched my fists helplessly, feeling the claws part the skin.

"It wouldn't have surprised me," Akira added softly.  "I don't have a very good view of human nature anymore.  It was humans who killed everything I loved.  Not demons."

"I'm not quite human."

Akira stood up.  "Neither am I."

Anger won.  My foot lashed out and shattered a small table that had been at the foot of the cot.  "All he said.  Everything.  They were all lies."

There was a long silence, then a sigh.  "No.  The only thing I can say in his defense is that he didn't know any more than we did.  He had his memory blanked or something.  Did you see the interview he did on tv?"

"Heard about it.  I tried to call, but your phone had already been disconnected."

"The house was probably gone by then.  Anyway, he disappeared a week before that.  Something happened then, I guess, to jar his memory back.  I don't know.  I don't care."

I glanced over my shoulder at him.  "Where is he?"

Akira shrugged.  "I have no idea where he stays.  He can teleport.  He could be anywhere."

I got two steps closer to the door before he blocked my way.  "Get out of my way, Akira," I said from between clenched teeth.

Akira roughly pushed me back into the room.  "Don't be stupid.  That's not Ryo.  He'll kill you.  You're naive if you think he won't."

"And you're naive if you think I'll live through this war,"  I lashed back.  He automatically started to protest, then stopped and lowered his gaze, knowing I was right.  I took a deep breath and pushed my hair out of my eyes.  "None of what you said is real to me yet.  I haven't seen it happening.  I have to find out for myself, or I won't believe it.  And you don't need my indecision behind you."

"She is right," said a soft voice from the door.  It was Puffurle.  She nodded at me, and I could see a flicker of respect in her eyes.  "Let her go."

"I had already decided that, Puffurle," Akira said heavily.  "Be careful, Risa."

"I usually am."

"I can think of several times when you weren't."  He wasn't convinced, but he didn't move to stop me when I went past.  Neither did he raise his eyes to meet mine again.  I wondered if he already considered me dead.

     *

Not knowing where else to go, I wandered towards the apartment building where Ryo had lived.  Not surprisingly, there wasn't much of it left standing.  I kicked through a couple of pieces of rubble, then abruptly lost my energy, and I plopped down on a large piece of wall.  Akira had been right. I should have rested first.  I hadn't stopped to sleep since I heard Akira's scream, and now I honestly didn't know how long ago that was.  It was just a blur of walking.  My whole life had narrowed back down to a blur of walking.

I smirked ruefully.  At least I didn't have to worry about people anymore.  I could travel an entire day without seeing more than a couple.  The combination of fear and hungry, triumphant demons had done its job well.

I stretched out on the chunk of concrete, throwing one arm over my eyes to block out the sunlight.  The weather was just getting back to the point where the days were starting to grow longer, but the air was still capable of nipping.  The sun's warmth, however, had baked into the concrete, and I let the soothing warmth seep into my body.

A shadow fell across me.  I rolled off the cement slab instantly and dropped lightly to the ground, hands clawed.

A familiar golden head appeared over the rubble I had just launched off of. "Your reflexes have improved."

Deja vu.  Akira had said the same thing.  I gave the same answer.  "Practice. I've had lots of it."

"I suppose so."  He picked his way down to the ground.  "I thought you might be here."

"Everybody knows what I'm going to do before I do," I complained.  He chuckled and took another step towards me, but I had decided that he was close enough and backed away further, flexing my claws nervously.

He stopped at the motion.  "You've seen Akira."

It wasn't a question, but I nodded anyway.  There was movement up higher in the rubble, and I glanced back and forth from the new figure, silhouetted by the sun, and... oh what the hell do I call him now?

Ryo, my mind supplied helpfully, and I gave it the mental equivalent of a slap.  Big help you are.

Ryo didn't bother follow my gaze.  "I told you to stay up there, Psychojenni."

The demon, all face and fluffy hair, didn't answer, but perched protectively on the rubble behind him.  I snorted.  "You hardly need a bodyguard, do you?  You could probably kill me by sneezing."

"You've definitely talked to Akira, then."  He took another step forward, and I countered it with another step backward.  He held his hands out, showing me that they were empty, then sat on a piece of rubble.

 If the movement was meant to comfort me, it fell several miles short of working. "Were you ever going to tell me about this little identity problem?"

"I didn't even know it myself, until a short time ago."

I really did not want to hear how he found out.  In face, I didn't want to hear anything more he said and went on in a stream of babble.   "Actually, I think I'm rather glad Akira was the one who told me.  This way, I took my anger out on the furniture instead of you, which probably would have gotten me killed.  Which would have been embarrassing enough, but not anywhere near as embarrassing as realizing that I had been sleeping with Satan.  That's not the type of thing you want people to find out about.  I'm sure it would get me banned from all the social circles."  I realized how nervously I was ranting and ran my claws through my mane in scared frustration.

He laughed, and I noticed he was less guarded about showing emotions.  His eyes no longer had that tightness of keeping his expression impassive.  "As sarcastic as always.  That hasn't changed."

"But you have," I pointed out.  "Look, this was a real bad idea.  If you'll excuse me, I'll just be on my way."

"Aren't you going to ask me why?"

"I don't want to know," I said firmly.

"But I want you to."

"Does it make a difference?" I asked desperately.  

"It does when you make your decision on what side to be on.  You won't be able to stay impartial on this one, Risa.  And you can't run from it."

"I've already decided."

"Have you?" he asked softly, and in my mind, I heard an echo of his voice saying to me, I think I can convince you to stay.  I usually get what I want.

"This was definitely a bad idea," I decided and whirled to vault away over the rubble behind me, but the fluffy-haired demon suddenly blinked in in front of me.  I spun in the other direction, but she was there, too.  She didn't make a move to touch me, but she made it clear that she wasn't going to let me pass, either.

Fear had been creeping in my stomach the whole time, but now it swept forward in a tidal wave.  And the worst of it was that I was not afraid of dying.  I was afraid of seeing what Ryo was capable of now.  "I should have listened to Akira," I whispered, not intending to say it out loud.

"Stop panicking," Ryo said mildly.  "You always do something stupid when you panic.  Just calm down and listen to me."

"You're not giving me much of a choice."

"No," he agreed.  "But it will be more pleasant if you just talk with me.  Even as angry as Akira is, he at least heard me out one last time."

"Was that before you killed Miki?" I burst out.

He lifted his shoulder in a casual shrug.  "She always got in the way."

Teleport.  I could teleport out of here.  Could he follow me?  He seemed to know what I was going to do before I even thought of it.  Or was that just because he knew me so well, and not because he was reading my mind?  I raked my claws through my tangle of a mane again.

"Have you noticed how much cleaner the air is?"

The non sequitur caught my attention in spite of the situation, and I barked a laugh.  "What, are you going to list how the world is better without humans?"

"I asked you that once before," he reminded me mildly.  "You never answered.  Maybe you should now."

I swallowed, shaking my mane down over my eyes.  I never heard him, never saw him move, but suddenly he was in front of me, brushing my hair from my face, in the familiar gesture.  "Could you really kill me?"

My laugh was weaker this time.  "I can't hope to stand up against half the demons out there.  I'd never be able to kill you."

"But would you try?" he asked softly, slipping an arm around my waist and pulling me closer to him.  I closed my eyes leaning against his shoulder.  His familiar scent comforted and terrified me at the same time.  I think I can convince you to stay.  This was what he had meant.  Dammit, Ryo, how did I ever let you get thus much control over me?  How could I give you this much of me and not realize it?  His hand tilted my face towards his, and his lips brushed mine.  My hands slipped up around his neck of their own accord, running through the golden hair.  I touched his cheek gently, then ran my fingers down along his jaw line, traced the line of his throat.  He leaned back just enough to kiss my forehead.  "I didn't think so," he murmured, resting his head on my hair.  "Wait till you see what the world will be, Risa. It will be beautiful."

I clawed.

But he simply wasn't there.  As fast as I was, he had always been faster.  His hand hit my face.  It wasn't a hard blow, but a shock of energy traveled through his fingers, and I flew backwards several yards, hitting a wall somewhere behind me hard.   I crumpled to the ground, the taste of blood thick in my mouth.

Psychojenni stepped forward, her eyes blazing, but he lifted his hand, and she fell back again obediently, her eyes smouldering with threats to me.

He walked over to me.  I didn't bother moving.  It was too useless, anyway. He crouched in front of me and brushed the hair out of my eyes again.  "No, not now," he said.  "It will be soon enough as it is."

I didn't meet his gaze.  Not from fear of his anger; I was afraid to see if the echoes of sorrow in his voice would be in his eyes.  I was afraid I'd soften if I saw them.  "Why not?' I spat out bitterly, trying to hurt both of us.  "You never cared about me before, did you?"

His hand touched my face gently.  "There are things I love more," he said softly.

Then he was gone, and I never saw or heard him leave.

I watched the shadows grow longer across the ground.  I could tell I wasn't hurt badly, but the last of my energy had finally disappeared, and I wanted nothing more than to go to sleep.  I didn't even move when I heard the rustle of light footsteps near me, and I found myself hoping that Psychojenni would finish the job so I could finally rest.  God, I'm tired...

A light hand touched my arm, and I opened my eyes to see the girl... Trollg?... who had been bathing my face at Akira's... headquarters, I guess it was. I smiled weakly.  "Pretty stupid, wasn't I?"

"I don't know," she whispered.  "I think you were pretty brave."

"There isn't much of a line between the two," I told her and tried to sit up.  I made it, but my body complained loudly all the way.

"Do you need some help getting back?"

"That might be a real good idea."

Akira was talking to Puffurle when we got in, but his face thunder-clouded when he saw me.  "He hurt you!"

"But he easily could have killed me."  Trollg helped me back to the cot.  I was sure I weighed half again as much as she did, and I was leaning most of it on her.  I was grateful she was a devilman and was strong enough to take the weight; I was honestly too tired to make it in on my own.

Akira followed us in, his face still dark.  "Dammit, Risa, don't try to make excuses for him!"

"I'm not," I snapped back.  "This was just a warning."

"She tried to kill him," Trollg said, and I could tell I was a hero in her eyes.

Akira's protective anger backed off to gruffness.  "Then she was being stupid."

I looked at the girl.  "See?  Fine line."

She grinned, and Akira sent her off to get bandages.  I didn't have the energy to say anything more, and he didn't question me until there was a brace of bandages around my rib cage and the others had left.  Akira washed the dust off my face, and I let him, feeling like a child again.  It was a comforting feeling, and I suddenly sighed and leaned against his shoulder.

He stroked my hair soothingly.  "It helps if you cry."

"Like you did?" I challenged, knowing he had done no such thing.  His body tensed.  "Do you know what it's like to see him with someone else's eyes looking back?" I added absently, then immediately felt more stupid than I ever had and cursed.  "Damn, I'm sorry Akira," I choked out, throwing my arms around him before he could stand up.  He had lost so much more than I had.

Akira had started to pull away angrily, then made himself relax with the hug, then returned it.  "Rest, little sister," he said softly, and he tucked a blanket up around my chin when I laid down.  "You'll need it."

I was asleep before he left the room.

     *

And the days passed, still in a blur, but one that had changed from one of walking to a restless one of battles and wounds and deaths and more battles. Being one of the weaker of the devilmen, I was supposed to stay farther back in the ranks, away from the heaviest of the fighting, but I never did.  If anyone objected to my fighting in Akira's shadow, no one ever told me.  Somehow, I managed to stay alive.

I thought I had grown numb to it all.  I watched most of the devilmen die and took refuge in the blur.  Until the day when the girl, Trollg, who had become my own shadow, didn't come back from battle.  I found her body, torn apart, and it wrenched away the numbness.

Akira found me crouched on the blood-soaked field, screaming out tears, not caring if I was found or killed.  He took me home, still crying, and stayed with me, not saying a word, until I cried myself asleep.

The next day, we went on.

I never saw Akira sleep.

And there finally came the time when I didn't move fast enough, and claws tore my stomach out.  A second later, the body of the same demon fell to the ground beside me, and I absently watched its blood mingle with mine in puddles as the battle passed over and away from me.  Sunlight glinted off the blood, and I closed my eyes against the glare.

A shadow fell across my face, and a cool hand pushed my hair back.  I recognized the touch before I even opened my eyes and saw the ice-blue eyes and golden hair.  "No ramen this time?" I murmured sleepily.

"You hated the stuff anyway," he answered.  "Are you in pain?"

"No.  I can't feel anything.  Except cold."  I looked up at him.  "I'm cold, Ryo."

He glanced at the pool of sunlight around us, then blew on my hands in a useless
attempt to warm them.  "I'm not sure I should move you."

I started to laugh, but it came out choked, and I stopped before I could start coughing.  That would probably hurt.  "I don't think it's going to make a difference," I said quietly.  ""There are parts of me spread all across the field, aren't there?"

"You won't die.  You're too determined to interfere in my life, remember?" He spoke lightly, his eyes not leaving mine, but we both knew better.

"You're going to have to kill him to win," I said softly.

He stared out over me, and I was surprised to see tears glint on his face.  I had never seen Ryo cry.

But this wasn't Ryo.

He started to gather me up, but I squirmed weakly.  "Just let me sleep, Ryo. I'm tired."

"I've lost Akira," he whispered, "everything, in the winning."  His eyes were haunted, then hardened with determination.  "You're too stubborn for this, cat.  I'll keep you out of the fighting, if that's what you want, but I didn't keep you alive all those other times to let you die now."

I usually get what I want.

I hope that backfires on you someday.

I brushed at the tears, my fingers leaving a light smear of blood on his face. I usually get what I want.  "Not this time," I said softly and slit my throat with my claws.  His expression froze, impassive again, and he backed away out of my line of vision.  I closed my eyes and went to sleep for the last time, to the fading sound of rustling wings, and the hope that I wouldn't dream.

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