Lair of the Beasts

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The Houshi's Unusual Companion

 

Disclaimer: I don't own Shigure, Asako, Ushio Aoutsuki, or any other character from the show. They belong to Kazuhiro Fujito, A.D. Vision and it's associates. So don't sue me, you wouldn't have much of a case. The hellhound, Ranno Hera Birmagnum, is mine however, use her without my permission and I will send my Dogs of War after you. (And they don't play around. *evil laughter*)

Author's Notes: 1) This is out of continuity with my other 'Hellbeast' fic ('Personal Demons' on FanFiction.net) and a tad A/U, but there are a few certain scene references. I've tried to keep all the characters in character, but if there's a change then it's for a reason. Also, Shigure's a little younger than he's shown in the series, and only starting to go really gray. (If he was actually as old as he looks, then I just couldn't imagine him having kids, so I made him younger for the beginning of this story.) Other than that, he's the same old guy.

That's all.

Enjoy the story.

What is now proved was once only imagin'd.

--William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

He was part of my dream, of coursebut then I was part of his dreams, too.

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.

 

 

Shigure Aoutsuki was enjoying his later years immensely. After leaving the Aoutsuki shrine in the capable hands of his son, Ushio, and his wife Asako, he had retired and moved to America in search of new challenges. He had taken up an easy occupation as a professor of Japanese culture and history at a middle-sized University. There, he taught the beautiful traditions and old way of life of Japan in pleasant contentment.

He was a tall, lean man, with a sharp smile and an even sharper mind. He had a narrow, distinguished face, a noble nose, a thick head of ebony-black hair that was in the process of going completely gray and a pair of dark eyes that always seemed to look a little deeper than they were meant to. His students and colleagues were quite fond of him; in a generous sort of way.

And today, one sunny afternoon, this particular Professor Aoutsuki found himself visiting his first American Zoological Garden.

I am willing to bet that you are wondering how the good ex-houshi found himself at a zoo on such a day. Well, it came about in this way: His son and daughter-in-law had come for a visit from Japan to stay with him on a vacation for two weeks. They had brought with them, much to Shigure's amusement, their two children. Shigure's granddaughter and grandson. One eleven-year-old Sayuri and her seven-year-old brother Yoshi.

Both children were stubborn and hardheaded, much like their father and grandfather, but were both quite pleasant to be around. So when his son had approached him to spend one of his free afternoons with the two while he and Asako went off to try and remember what had made them marry in the first place, Shigure graciously accepted.

Besides, the children had very much wanted to see the exotic, not-so-wild life that most American zoos proudly boasted.

"It would be my pleasure," their grandfather cheerfully announced. "Just as soon as I find out where one is." He consulted with one of his friends from the University. A thin, petite, good-natured professor of Anthropology named Veronica Yin, a second-generation Chinese-American. She had become friends with him both quickly and easily when he first arrived at the campus. Shigure had her draw out for him an elaborate map of the route to the nearest zoo, with very precise directions beneath it, and make several photocopies of it in case the original should be damaged or destroyed. Thus directed, and accompanied by the two youngsters, they set off for the zoo on a bright, sunny afternoon. Professor Aoutsuki quoting choice poetry for their benefit as they went on their way.

Both children enjoyed the poems, and complemented Shigure so, making the older man's chest puff with something like pride. They reached the zoo without incident, all due, of course, Shigure mentally praised, to Professor Yin's wonderful mapmaking skills. Shigure bought the children something sweet and sticky he knew their parents would give him grief about later on. Around the third hour and at the canine pens, Shigure told the children to come to him when they were done looking at the wolves, African jackals and New Guinea Singing Dogs, while he went to take a seat on a bench beneath the canopy of a flowering Flamboyan tree. The tree was in full bloom, and there was a constant scattering of scarlet red blossoms whenever a gust of wind blew. It reminded Shigure very much of the cherry blossom festivals he used to attend back in Japan, he smiled softly. When the children came back to him, they reported that all of the 'big dogs' had been very polite and well mannered but for one. "There was one big gray one who kept giving us the bad eye." Sayuri disgustedly said. "She was probably just a tourist or something. She wasn't polite to us at all."

Shigure was still surprised at the amount of disdain that the little girl had packed into the word tourist, when two things abruptly happened: First, little Yoshi looked up at the red-hued tree; smiled, a little gap in his top teeth showing; pointed with one chubby little finger and said in a delighted little voice, "Look, another dog, a big, pretty, red one." Second, Shigure heard a different voice chuckle from slightly behind him, and say, "What very nice grandchildren you have houshi, very nice It's good to see you again." The voice was feminine, in the pitch of an alto-contralto; it had excellent enunciation and only a very slight Cajun-French accent.

Shigure turned and looked around quickly. Half-expecting to see the young sorceress he had met years ago, when she and Ushio had both only been children themselves and was vaguely embarrassed that, knowing her, she had been following them for some time in plain sight, waiting for him to recognize her. Such matters of overlooking people were entirely too common with him these days in his preoccupied life. His friend, Veronica Yin, once remarked, "We see each other every day, Shigure and I still wonder whether or not you actually see me most of the time. All I'd have to do to hide from you is put my hair up."

Sayuri's petulant complaint of, "I can't see anything." Pulled Shigure out of his thoughts and back to the present. He didn't see anyone at all behind him.

"Up here, Shigure." The voice directed him.

Looking up, Shigure now saw the fiery-red and snow-white shape of a very familiar acquaintance of his, perched complacently on one thick tree limb. It had been years since they had been together to talk, but even if it had been centuries, he never would have forgotten her. How could he forget her odd colored eyes, one blue, the other red; her unusual, yet wickedly sharp sense of humor; the odd taste she had in tea; her beautiful speaking voice? How could he forget what she truly was?

Indeed, the acquaintance Shigure was looking at could have already been considered old when he had been but a boy himself and would probably outlive the next 250 generations of his family, after little Yoshi, with ease.

Because Shigure's acquaintance was none other than the pyrohound, Jisrahu Ranno Hera Birmagnum.

There is no need, I believe, to go into detail about how Shigure gasped, paled and stuttered a, 'Hello'. But I think it is worth mentioning that Shigure did not bother to blurt out the mandatory prattle any lesser man might've: "My God, I'm either dreaming, drunk or going crazy." If he was indeed becoming as absent-minded as he was afraid he was and everyone who knew him agreed, he was also more of a realist than many of them suspected. This is generally true of men of his philosophic nature; they tend to be on mutual, respectable terms with the impossible and the improbable. Therefore, under the current circumstances, he did the only thing proper. He introduced his grandchildren to the lounging yasha.

Yoshi was all a'grin at the introduction and was more than happy to bow politely at the hellhound, who dipped her head politely back. Sayuri still complained that she didn't see what they were making such a fuss about, it was only a tree after all, nothing more. But for all her virtues, she was not a philosopher and was remarkably down-to-earth for a child of her age. She simply could not see the somnolent demon or hear her genial greeting. But then, one must remember, that she was eleven-years-old, and that any well brought-up eleven-year-old has absolutely no difficulty in believing that a tree is able to talk or that their might possibly be an invisible creature hidden in that tree doing the talking; nor in accepting that only certain people can hear tree/invisible animal speech and most people cannot. She politely bowed to the tree in the general direction her brother had bowed and excused herself to go look at the African jackals again.

Ranno looked the children over with a sleepy-blue eye and conversationally complemented, "What polite little monsters you have. I don't see very many like them, these days." She lightly rolled off of her perch and landed gently on the bench, the wood and wrought iron structure didn't even squeak a protest. "You look a lot like your father." She candidly said, peering closely into Yoshi's face. The boy simply wriggled in delight at the complement and timidly reached out to pat a 'thank you' on the back of the yasha's hand, knowing full well she wouldn't appreciate him to be so forward as to pat her on her head.

Ranno flicked one tapering ear forward as she looked at the boy in a mixture of surprise and mirth. She lifted her head up the look at Shigure out of one eye, "I take that back, you have a very polite little boy here. Very well mannered as well." She turned her head down to the boy again, and blew some warm air gently at him. "You go run along and keep an eye on your sister now, okay? I need to talk to your grandfather."

"Hai." Was Yoshi's delighted squeak, and he scurried off to his older sibling, who was currently off trying to make small talk with a dingo.

His mouth dry, Shigure watched the boy go off, and his voice shaky but contained he carefully asked, "Tell me, how have you been R-Ranno?" He furiously wished he had thought to bring his voice recorder with him.

"Hmm So-so, I think, is a good way to put it. I've been so-so. What about you Shi'gure?" She absently said, using her old nickname for him.

"Very well. You-you shouldn't be here you know. How did you find me? You can't have tracked me here, could you?" Shigure stammered, unsure why he suddenly felt so nervous. But then he rationalized something to himself. Though Ranno was considered a runt in her race, being barely half the size she should be; she was still very large compared to a human and more than capable of simply looking dangerous, even when aggression was the last thing on her mind.

Apparently he had stumped Ranno as well by his behavior and question, for she simply shrugged and mused. "I am here, you are here, that is all. There is no proof that I've been 'tracking' you. But, then again, proof is not necessarily truth. I might have been." She cocked her head to one side and grinned slightly.

"You're being very confusing now, do you know that?" Shigure bluntly said.

"Am I?" Was the unruffled response.

"Yes. You are."

"I don't think I am being confusing."

"Well, you were."

"So I'm not confusing now?" She asked, intrigued.

"Yes-no, wait.ehh" Shigure sighed, realizing just how easily he had fallen into her word trap. He smirked, "It's nice to talk to you too Ranno."

"Of course." She smiled, pleased that he had untangled himself so quickly. "It's starting to get late. Their mother will worry, you know." She said matter-of-factly. "I'll see you around then. 'Till then, Shigure." She slipped into invisibility.

"We never finished our game either." A disembodied voice said.

"Wait!" He cried, but she was already gone.

* * *

Another hour later Shigure and the children were on their way home, the children dozing contentedly in the back seat of the car. So they appeared. Yoshi took it upon himself to cross-examine his grandfather about the pretty, red dog from earlier that afternoon. "Who was that? Is she a friend of yours Jii-san?" He abruptly asked, out of the blue, and startled his grandfather.

Shigure smiled and answered. "She is indeed a friend of mine. I've known her for a very long time, actually. She takes a little getting used too, but she makes for very good company. I hadn't even seen her for years until this afternoon." He had a thought and added softly to the two children. "I would appreciate it if you two didn't say anything about her again when we get home. She wouldn't like having too many people know about her, crowds make her nervous."

Both children agreed, though Sayuri was still under the impression that she was simply humoring her male companions.

Once out of the car, the two children immediately began an argument about whether or not dogs could climb trees. Leaving their parents to raise eyebrows at their grandfather as they walked back into the house. Professor Aoutsuki sighed, and heavily said. "Please don't ask. We had a wonderful time out." And Ushio and Asako, finally having mastered tact, wisely left it at that.

Later on, as he had predicted, Shigure found himself being lectured about spoiling his grandchildren.

The rest of the vacation was markedly run of the mill after that. The professor went to work according to his schedule, while his son and family explored the sights, practiced their English to the point where they were nearly all perfectly fluent, and cooked traditional Japanese specialties to surprise him when he came home. The children never asked to go to the zoo again nor did they ever mention how their grandfather had spent part of their outing formally introducing them (supposedly in Sayuri's opinion) to a giant, talking, red dog and sitting on a bench arguing with it. Shigure was rather sorry when they left, a fact that surprised him. He had never known himself to really miss people before, or ever thought too much of someone who was not actually around at the time.

It rained on the evening Shigure had made his final good-byes at the airport. Returning home alone, he was quite startled to see large, muddy paw and handprints on his walkway and front steps. They were, as he managed to make out before the rain washed them away, the paw-prints of a giant dog and odd three-fingered handprints of a giant person. The hands were delicately boned and tipped with claws, he observed, the marks on the ground were slender and had a sort of balanced grace to them. The paw-prints put to shame that of any mere dog; a Great Dane's paw would have easily been able to hide inside the one track. The door was locked and bolted, as he left it out of habit, and there were no signs of anyone trying to break in. Shigure hesitated, looked quickly around, unlocked and unbolted his door and stepped inside.

There was a large, furry shape sprawled peacefully a top some tatami mats, in front of his fireplace- which he noticed was lit, something he rarely ever did- and snoozing like a very big dog. The shape opened one blue eye as he entered and removed his damp coat and greeted him cordially. "Welcome home, Shi'gure. You will excuse me if I do not rise to greet you, I just got the room right."

Shigure's knees abruptly grew weak beneath him and he carefully crossed from the door to his living room, and sat down a ways in front of the hellhound. He managed to ask, "How-how did you get in here?"

"The same way I get into everything," came the wry response. "I would have come sooner, but your son and I are not on the best of terms and with your entire family here, I thought my presence would make things here more crowded than they needed to be. Their departure went well, I hope?" She lowered her head and groomed some of the fur on one of her arms. She paused and smiled up at him, her toothy grin reassuring in it's fierceness. "An excellent fireplace you have. It heats well," she closed her eyes and lowered her chin until it rested firmly by one of her black-taloned hands. "I think I'll make a point of sleeping here every night. Yes. That sounds like a good plan to me." She opened one eye, her red one this time, and looked up at him. "You should change out of those clothes Shigure. I wouldn't want you to catch a cold."

And then she was asleep, her breath rustling faintly on the mats. The fire crackled merrily and it was quite a while before Shigure could stop staring and make it to the phone in the kitchen.

* * *

Veronica Yin came over early the next morning, as she had promised several times before professor Shigure would let her off the phone. She took one look at the older man and coolly said, "Well, what ever invited itself over, you look like you gave it the bed and you slept on the living room floor."

"I didn't sleep at all." Shigure informed her tersely. "Follow me please, Veronica, and you will see why."

Ranno was not in front of the fireplace where Shigure had left her, still dozing, when he had gone to answer the door. He looked around for her, becoming increasingly frantic as she failed to show. "I'm serious, she was just here. She was right in the middle of the floor when I went to get the door. Veronica, sit down a moment and make yourself comfortable. I'll show you."

Shigure suddenly heard a rustle upstairs. He rushed up the curving staircase (his real-estate agent had called his house, "old with Victorian design".) and burst into his study. There he found Ranno sitting up on her haunches, blissfully leaning against a bookshelf, her posture affecting nothing but contentment, carefully held in one clawed hand was a book of European philosophy. 'Schopenhauer, if I remember that one correctly.' Shigure mused for a moment. There were several other books lying on the floor beside her, partially obscured by the fluffy length of tail she had curled protectively around them.

Ranno looked up and smiled genially at the human. "Good morning, Shigure." She greeted him. "I never knew you had such an interest in philosophy, I myself have only dabbled a little, but we could have some very good discussions."

"How did you get up here so quickly?" He thundered, he rarely thundered and it was giving him a headache. "I never heard you on the stairs!"

"I did not wish to disturb you," Ranno mildly replied. "Hellhounds can move very quietly if they wish."

Shigure could not refute that knowledge but he grumbled nevertheless. "Fine. Stay put here, I want to show you to someone."

He spun on his heel and all but ran downstairs to meet a rather curious Ms. Yin at the bottom. "What was all that about?" She asked. "I heard you yelling andyou're absolutely pink, it's rather sweet-looking actually. Are you all right, Shigure?"

"Yes, now come with me," the professor seized the other by her wrist and practically hauled her upstairs and into his study where there was absolutely no sign of the hellhound. The books on the floor had been replaced into the shelf with the outmost care, the room smelled vaguely of singed fur. Shigure stood, jaw hanging, in the doorway. "But-but she was right here, reading philosophy. I told her specifically to stay here."

"You told who to stay here?" Veronica asked.

Shigure took a long, deep breath to compose himself and turned to face her. "That old acquaintance of mine I was telling you about. She is a hellhound. I have not seen her for nearly two decades, not until she dropped by to complement me on my grandchildren at the zoo. She disappeared then and then reappeared last night after I took Ushio and his family to the airport." Veronica's mouth opened but she couldn't say a word; and Shigure ruefully said that often heard phrase that most parents are, unfortunately, familiar with when their children bring home something they should not have: "She followed me home."

Providentially for Shigure, Veronica Yin was no more interested with the blurting of denials than was Shigure Aoutsuki himself. She closed her mouth, took a breath and said, "Anyone who can get though the kind of traffic you did on the way from an airport, would take the time to complement you on your grandchildren, stay the evening, likes philosophy and would then tidy up afterwards is something special, hellhound or not." She took him by his elbow, turned him away from the study and began to lead him down the stairs. "I don't care if it is only five o'clock in the morning, you and I are getting into the sake now."

Shigure told Veronica of his visit to the zoo with Yoshi and Sayuri, even mentioning that Yoshi had also seen the yasha as she lounged in the tree, and everything else that had happened afterwards. The sake calmed him to some extent and made him feel a little more coherent, but it didn't clear his lingering doubts. "I don't know how she found me, I don't know why she decided to find me after all these years, and I'm not even sure how she got into my house or why she's avoiding everyone but me"

"She sounds like Harvey the rabbit," Veronica said.

"Who?" Was the only thing Shigure could say.

"Harvey. It was a movie about a man who had a six-foot tall, white, invisible rabbit as a companion. No one believed that he had it either because only the man could see him."

"Well, Ranno can become invisible when she wishes. But others can see her, Yoshi saw her, Sayuri couldn't though, that's very strange"

"I see," Veronica nodded. "Well I didn't see her, but I believe something was in that room, I felt something there, I hope I will see her someday. Anyway, I've got to go lecture a class today and I need to finish preparing and so do you today, I believe. Do you want more sake before I leave?" She asked.

Shigure shook his head. "No thank you, I need to keep my wits about me. We're discussing the Warring States period today. Thank you for coming, Veronica. You are truly a gem. Perhaps I'm just having delusions, I have rather missed her over the years. Maybe I'm just seeing things."

"I should hope not." Veronica sharply said, earning her a startled look from Shigure. "I'm going to see this friend of yours, if it's the last thing I do." She walked over to the door and took her coat off the rack. "You're the only gentleman I've ever known Shigure, and I don't know what I'd do without your company. Even if you do think you're seeing things."

On her way to her car Veronica paused and looked back towards her friend's house with the odd feeling of "you know you're being watched" shivering up her spine. She didn't see anything at first but suddenly, there, lazily perched like a gargoyle was a large, oddly proportioned, red and white dog. The dog looked down at her, winked, and then vanished into thin air.

Veronica had a lot to think about on her drive to the University.

* * *

Shigure was early to his lecture. There was no one in the hall when he entered. except for a rather familiar furry, red shape casually examining the notes of a previous lesson left on the board.

"What are you doing here?!" Shigure roared. This couldn't be happening to him, an often-invisible creature that seemed to enjoy making him make a fool of himself whenever he tried to introduce someone to her was stalking him and loving every second of it.

"I came to listen to your lecture." Ranno coolly replied, turning her head from the board to look at him. "I'm most interested in learning things I don't know, Japanese history and culture is one of those things. I promise not to say a word."

Shigure spluttered uncontrollably for a moment and had opened his mouth to order the capricious demon out of his lecture hall and life, when two of his students stepped into the room. The professor closed his mouth, swallowed convulsively and began to review his lecture notes, mumbling professional-type mumbles to himself. While Ranno, who remained unnoticed, set herself up in front of the first row and calmly waited for the rest of the class to arrive. True to her word, she remained in thoughtful silence all through the lecture, though Shigure had the unnerving sense that she was gathering herself for a heated debate when several of his students questioned the ruling methods of feudal lords. Shigure was so desperate not to catch Ranno's eye that he never noticed that she had left until the very last of his students filed out of the doorway. None of them had commented at her presence either, though one or two had seemed to give her an odd glance, looking as though they thought they were seeing something but knew they shouldn't be. Other than that, there was no indication that she had ever been there.

Professor Aoutsuki drove slowly home in a divided state of mind.

Part of him wondered when exactly she had left the hall and wished she had stayed; the other hoping devoutly that she would have grown weary of her visit and left, leaving him to his peaceful life. Shigure put his wildly altering feelings about Ranno up to the fact that he had a bit of an attraction to her; he liked the way her mind worked and, in his own opinion, felt he had found a kindred spirit in her. Not really knowing what to do in that sort of situation, he found he tended to lose his temper over the littlest things and generally be rather capricious. Shaking himself out of such deep mental thought, he focused on driving again and pondered what she might have thought of his discussion. "Did she like my summary of the Warring States period? She was alive at that time, she told me that once, did she agree with what I said?" He said aloud to himself. "Or maybe she didn't like my version of the events that made up the time frame. I'll admit that I don't have first-hand knowledge of what things were like back then, but I don't recall saying anything that I would have deemed incorrect." Thus he continued thinking the rest of his drive home.

Ranno was just nodding off in her usual place in front of the fire, but perked up in an instant and sat up with a pleased smile when Shigure stepped into the living room. "Bravo my good houshi, bravo!" She exclaimed, with very obvious enthusiasm. "I loved it. I honestly didn't realize that each territory held by a different lord actually thought itself a different country entirely, your seminar was most thought-provoking!"

Shigure cursed himself for blushing; yet it was rather impossible to ignore such praise. There was nothing for him to do but reply, "Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it." Ranno was clearly waiting for something more and, as Miss Yin had said earlier, being a gentleman he added. "You are welcome to come to the class again if you like. We shall be examining the topic in more detail in the next classes, and then proceed to the later periods."

"I won't have to turn in any assignments will I?" Ranno meditatively asked.

The wistful, musing quality of the hellhound's question struck Shigure as so funny that he couldn't help but find himself warming towards her again. Still all formalities, he asked, "Would you like something to drink? Some tea, perhaps?"

"Tea would be nice, do you happen to have any Earl Gray?" She answered. Shigure did not and Ranno told him not to worry about any tea then. She settled back down, stretching her ten-foot form out along the mats before the fire; Shigure drew up an overstuffed chair. Ranno looked back up at him and with a faint smile said, "I must admit that I never thought I'd see you as a professor, Shigure. But you do it well. I do wish that you would give a course on World History, though. At least from the 14th century until today. That's really my period, I missed out on quite a bit of it though, with being sealed and all."

"I'm going to be giving a course on that next year." The professor said a little bashfully. "It is mostly to be a series of lectures from the religious point of view, Christian to be exact. I find them rather biased, actually. You are welcome to come."

The hellhound's obvious delight at the invitation touched Shigure very deeply somewhere, something that surprised him immensely. Even Professor Yin, who Shigure knew dropped in on his discussions every so often, came only out of affection for him, and not for any real interest in his class. He was beginning to wonder whether or not Ranno would appreciate some of the more expensive wines he had tucked away for more valuable company, when Ranno chuckled. "I would imagine so as well. In many ways they were actually worse than the other religions they were claiming to reform. That is why I've found myself rather fond of Buddhism. Your worship to the teachings of that one man seem a lot more real to me than offering words and rituals to a faceless, invisible deity who lives in the sky. Most other religions are at least able to come to terms that creatures such as I could actually exist, and that we are not all evil, Christianity could never do that and was never willing to try. Circle peg in spiral hole, no?"

Shigure had never been fully on terms with that issue either and nodded. He was an honest man, nearly all of the time,-- only among thinkers of his calling is this truly considered a necessary job descriptionso he felt it his duty to say. "While I respect your intelligence and your obvious intellectual faculties, none of this answers why you wouldn't allow Veronica to meet you. That was rather ill-mannered, you know."

Ranno took the implied insult in good-humor, lightly saying. "We will agree to disagree on that particular subject. I'm not considered an actual creature anymore Shigure, if in reality I ever was. I am very particular in who I allow to see me, your friend has already, I made sure of that. She believed she was seeing things. With that frame of mind it is better if I do not do it again, but I let her know that you were not delusional. If indeed you are not."

As had happened before, and would continue to happen every now and then, Shigure could not be completely sure if she was joking or being serious. Dismissing the subject when he noticed the tension starting to build in the room, he went on to ask his guest about other things that they both could relate upon. They were up until nearly four in the morning and it was the hellhound who started to nod off first.

* * *

The question of Ranno's departure never crossed Shigure's mind again. She made it her point to sleep in front of the fireplace at night, though sometimes the professor caught her dozing along the tops of bookshelves or in sunny windows during the day in her 'Hera' aspect; a tiny, slender, delicate-looking, nine-month-old-kitten sized animal, that looked like a cross between a jackal and a housecat. Shigure never learned where she got her food from, but he did run across her drinking out of the kitchen tap on occasion. She didn't lap, as he assumed she would, given her outer resemblance to a canine, but rather tended to hold her mouth open and allow water or whatever other liquid it was to run down her throat, aided every so often with a swallow; or, if she were above her source, she dipped her chin into the fluid and sucked it up with a combination of movements from tongue, lips and cheeks, much the way a human would draw up a drink with a straw. All Shigure knew, and greatly appreciated, was that her drinking habits were completely noiseless and never left a spatter, where, he remembered, he had slipped a number of times in a dog's messy remains and could hear them from quite a distance away.

He also never found out how she managed the toilet facilities, a reserved man himself he respected reticence in others and never asked. As a houseguest, the hellhound's only serious faults were her love of lengthy baths and the unwavering habit she had of lighting the fireplace every night (He did manage to get her to temporarily pause during the summer months, though.). However, Shigure didn't complain, because she always cleaned up after herself (particularly the hair-trap) and the fireplace kept the entire house a very comfortable, cozy temperature. It is also safe to say that none of any other visitors that Shigure had-- even the rare ones that spent a night or two under his roofever suspected that they were sharing quarters with a large, deep-thinking Dog of War. All in all she was the perfect guest, discreet, modest and above all wonderful company that was very difficult to get tired of, for she always had something new to say or discuss.

* * *

Shigure did not have many friends, apart from Veronica, not truly being the socializing type. He also had no one he could call upon in moments of calamity, as he called them. He tended to avoid social or academic gatherings that he could and, as a consequence, his evenings were generally lonely ones, though he didn't call them that himself. Even if he had admitted to call them lonely he would have insisted that there was nothing wrong with loneliness. "I believe," he had often said to Miss Yin when she asked. "That there are people for which thinking is their company, their entertainment. Others, those who abhor loneliness, they will never believe that. For them, they need the world."

"You're right," Veronica had said. "That's one of the things that I like about you Shigure, when you're right, you're really right."

These days, however, Shigure could hardly wait for the time of day when, after a small dinner, he would pour himself a glass of sake or wine and sit down in his living room to discuss the topics of his day with one red and white demon that always smelled a little like fire and singed fur. Looking forward to anything at the end of the day was something Shigure had never expected when he moved to America, but having found company in the hellhound, he enjoyed it more and more each day. It was the same, it seemed, for Ranno.

* * *

Shigure grew calmly old with his hellhound, though the later never looked a moment past the day they had first met, a good thirty years ago. Though it will be granted that Professor Aoutsuki was not the most observant of people's ages, or the most sensitive to change, except when he was being threatened with it. Nor was he the least ambitious, to him, promotions and pay raises happened when they happened. The company of his most unusual companion, while it was becoming his truest delight, was also becoming as much of a reassuring habit as his classes, his office hours, the occasional diner and movie or simple excursion with Veronica Yin.

"I don't know what exceptional means to you, Shigure or to anyone else," Veronica stubbornly said. "To me it means being unique or one of a kind and that, without a doubt, is what you are, Shigure. I never thought you belonged in this town, this University or even this century. But I'm glad you decided to join us."

Once in a while she asked him how his hellhound was doing these days. Shigure, who had long since accepted that Ranno was invisible to all unless she wished to be seen, as per usual rose to the bait, "She's as stubborn as always." He would then sip his tea in mild indignation and added. "We will never see eye to eye on the matters of religion, or the logical progression of events in history. But she is a most conservative creature, in many ways. We did come to a truce about the different meanings of morals the other night, so I guess I would have to say that we are still getting along quite wonderfully."

Veronica rarely pressed him further. Solitary, clever and profoundly flippant, it was only with Professor Shigure Aoutsuki that she bothered to leave things alone. Most times she would bring out her worn ocarina and play one or two of his favorite tunes. Shigure once mentioned that his hellhound had a fondness for 'Taps'. Veronica pretended not to hear him.

* * *

As all things must happen, the University awarded Shigure Aoutsuki his retirement with much formal ceremony, and was attended by, among others: Veronica Yin, his son Ushio, all the way from Japan for the event, and Ranno Hera Birmagnumthe later having spent all day working on herself in anxious preparations, even going so far as to pick out some of her best gilded trappings from her hoard, though only Shigure saw her to know so. All of them assured him, separately, that he looked very distinguished in his new rank of emeritus, which allowed him to lecture as much as four times a year, and to be available to counsel promising graduates whenever he saw fit. In addition, he received a special chair that was reserved specifically for his use at the Faculty Club. He was very proud and took great delight in never once using it.

"It's strange, how much a celebrity I seem to have become." He thoughtfully mused to Ranno a few days after the ceremony. "You should see it. Now when I stalk across the campus the students all line up to watch me. I can hear them whisper, 'Here he comes!' or 'There he goes!', what really strikes it as funny to me is, they're exactly the same ones who couldn't stand to hear my lectures and cut class, because I bored them!"

"Fickle is the crowd." Ranno sagely said. "Enjoy it as what you deserve. You were entitled to their respect before but didn't have it. Now that you do have it, bask in it, even if you do find it a tad misplaced and late."

She always did make sense in matters like these; Shigure smiled wryly, and shook his head. "I am like a star, but do you know what kind of star I am like? One of those old ones, that died a long time ago, and only it's last light is reaching us now. They go cold and dark; those old stars do, even though we think we are only seeing them now. That is how I would be if it weren't for you, Ranno."

"Madam Yin and I, you mean." Ranno gently corrected.

* * *

Truth be told, Shigure found little difficulty in making peace with his age and his retirement. His needs were simple, his savings and pension were quite adequate to meet his needs, and his health was as solid as the generations of Japanese before him could make it. For the most part, he lived as he always had, the only difference being that he had more time for study and could stay up as late as he wanted arguing about modern philosophy with his hellhound, or listening to Veronica read off her latest reports and theorems about the evolution of man and his behavior.

At first, though, he had attended every single conference on history or foreign cultures to which he had been invited, feeling a certain obligation to keep ahead of any new thoughts in his chosen fields. This phase passed quickly, nevertheless, and soon he was perfectly satisfied to have as little as possible to do with the academic life, except when he felt the compulsion to raid a library. Veronica once met him there for lunch to find him riffling through pages of Grecian history like there was no tomorrow. "We were debating the pros and cons of the ancient government structures of Greece during the reign of Tiberius," he explained, "and the ridiculous creature went off in a fit involving Plato and Socrates and the way they were connected to the history of it all." He looked up at her apologetically, pushing a pair of reading glasses back on his nose. "I'm truly sorry Veronica, but I might be here for a while." Veronica lunched alone that day.

* * *

Ushio and Asako died much younger than they should have. Shigure grieved much for them, for even in his gruffness he had dearly loved his son and daughter-in-law, but took much comfort that Sayuri and Yoshi never failed to visit him whenever they could. The last few times Sayuri had stopped by she had brought along a gentleman with her, her fiancÚ, an oddly effeminate-looking man by the name of Kikuei. As Yoshi was still in school finishing off his degrees, it was mostly up to his sister to sweep their grandfather off of his feet for the evening; and it was on one such occasion after they had brought him home and said their good-byes and their car rounded the corner and disappeared that the mugging had occurred

Shigure was never completely sure of what had happened in those few crucial minutes. All he remembered was a light scrape of footfalls against the pavement, as sudden savage blow on the side of his head, and then another impact as his cheek and forehead hit the ground. There were hands clawing through his pockets and voices so distorted by sadistic viciousness that Shigure lost his grasp of English completely, becoming, for the first time in nearly twenty-five years, a helpless immigrant again, unable to cry out for help in this new and dreadful place. A faceless shape slithered around him, grabbing and yanking him up by his collar, mouthing words he could not understand. It was brandishing something menacingly in it's free hand.

Shigure, in blind panic, reached out at the only thing he could think of, in his head and out of his mouth he screamed one word, "Ranno!!"

The figure in front of him vanished in a blur of fire-red and ermine-white, a roar of deathless hatred shook the sidewalk and was the last clear memory that Shigure had as he slipped into unconsciousness. He woke up again in a strange bed, with Veronica, Sayuri and several policemen bending over him. The next day's newspapers printed the remarkable story of a retired Japanese professor, properly aging, not only fighting off a pair of muggers but beating them so badly that both had to be kept in intensive care until they could be prosecuted. Veronica impishly kept the incident in the front pages by confiding to reporters that Shigure Aoutsuki was a master of a long unknown martial-art discipline that was rarely practiced in Japan.

"It was simply me hogging the spotlight for you," she said, by way of apology, after all the fuss had died down. "It was self-indulgence to the extreme, I'm sorry Shigure."

"Do not be," Shigure simply replied. "If we were to tell them the truth we would both be placed in a mental institution." He looked sideways at his friend.

"What? About your hellhound saving you? I won't say a word, I swear!"

"Veronica-san, those boys were mauled, one of them had a crushed chest and the other broken legs, I saw them, do you really think I could so something like that?"

"You're forgetting Shigure, that I've seen your wrath." Veronica answered gaily and untruthfully. But she had, in fact, seen one of the giant paw-prints that had been left at the scene of the attack, it had been unnoticeable unless one knew, specifically, to look for a dog's print, but there it had been, bigger than the palm of her hand. She sighed and asked, "Shigure, how old am I?"

Shigure's response was off by a few years. Veronica smiled, then sighed, "You've frozen me at a certain age, Shigure. Fine, I happen to be that way about that damn hound of yours. There a few things I just don't want to know about her. If that's all right with you."

"Yes, Veronica," Shigure nodded at her, "that is perfectly alright with me."

Ranno herself had very little to say about the entire episode. "I happened to be coming back from a stroll with my girl, you remember her, right? Cy?" She chuckled. "It's hard for me to get her out to roam these days; she's got a fiancÚ now and he doesn't like to let her out of his sight for very long. He loves her with all his heart, so no one complains, though I don't personally care for him and I wish he would let her off such a short leash. Anyway, I was about to set the fire up and I heard you call my name." Past that point, she danced around any other questions, meaningfully concerning herself only with Shigure's recovery from his injuries and shock. As the case was, the good professor recovered much faster and better than a gentleman of his years ought. The doctor commented on that; Ranno simply said that hellhounds could be very therapeutic when they wished to be.

The incident made Professor Aoutsuki even more of an icon at the campus that he had previously been before; and as a direct result, he spent even less time there than he did before; the only exceptions being when he and his hellhound got into another argument that sent him hunting in search of a book to prove her wrong (Though most times she ended up being proved right.). Sayuri, writing from Japan, never stopped trying to convince her grandfather to take in a housemate, for both company and safety, but she and her brother both would have been very thunderstruck if he did. "I swear, something looks out for Jii-san. But I don't have a clue as to what it could be." Sayuri once said to her brother; Yoshi merely shrugged and said, with a knowing smirk, "I bet I know what it is: something big, furry, red-white and beautiful." Sayuri made a point of frowning and ignoring her younger brother for quite some time after that.

* * *

Despite Shigure's best efforts, Veronica Yin did grow old. The University threw her a retirement ceremony as well, but she never showed up. "It would have been too damn depressing," she told Shigure as he held her coat for her, in proper gentlemanly fashion, in preparation for their Thursday excursion to the museum. "It doesn't bother you, Shigure, you'll last forever. Me? I drink, I smoke, I eat all the things they say you're not supposed to. My circulation works like worn-out car and even my arthritis has arthritis. The only reason I lasted this long is because I love what I do, teaching the beautiful workings of man to a bunch of idiots who only want the credit for taking the course. Now I'm done with that, and I'm on my last leg."

"That's sheer idiocy, Veronica," Shigure assured her. "You've always told me that you were too mean and spiteful to die. I intend to hold you to that."

"Sour pickles only last so long," Veronica replied. "One good thing to look forward to thoughit'll be the heart that gets me. It always is in my family. I'm grateful for that. I wouldn't be able to handle anything less. Cancer would be a shameless, an accident disgraceful, and old age has absolutely no dignity at all. I'm really grateful that it'll be the heart."

Shigure was very quiet as they went on with their museum excursion. When they reached the apartment complex where Veronica called home, he suddenly spun her around, gripped her by her arms, kissed her right between her eyes and sternly said. "Yours is the best heart I have ever known. I will not allow anything to happen to that heart."

Veronica was slightly taken aback by the old man's action, and ruefully said, "Go home Shigure, just go home." She shook her head. "Crist, wouldn't it just be my luck to get the most sentimental Jap in world? Go home Shi."

* * *

Shigure woke up a little before the call came, as sometimes happens in these kinds of situations. He had been napping in his favorite easy chair after a minor, absurd skirmish with Ranno over the different appeal factors between traditional Japanese cuisine and Creole cooking. The hellhound in question was sprawled in her accustomed spot, as she was wont to do these days, with her nose buried in a book about samurai. The kitchen phone rang, rousing Shigure. He picked it up and slowly, Veronica's barely audible voice whispered from the other side. "I told you Shi, the heartlike it always is" He heard the receiver slip from her hand and clatter onto the floor.

He had no memory of running outside, coatless, let alone finding himself before his car parked out on the streethe was just suddenly standing before it, his hands trembling so badly that he couldn't fit his keys into the slots that would unlock the doors and instead, ended up dropping them into the gutter. How long he fumbled in the darkness he never knew, before he suddenly noticed a comforting warmth over him. On his hands and knees he looked up to see the lively, two-toned eyes of Ranno looking evenly at him.

She turned to the side and dipped her shoulder and forequarters to him. "Get on," she said, nothing more and nothing less. Shigure, who was well known for not looking gift demons in the mouth, had no sooner balanced himself behind her thick-furred shoulders before there was a great surge like the very earth beneath him moved as the hellhound lunged forward.

He would have expected, if he had been in the state of mind to expect anything, that he would be jolted back and forth by Ranno's strides. Her arms were rather short compared to how long her hind legs were. Her body, he thought, was built more along the lines of a human's than a dog's and it was then that Shigure decided to stop looking for her canine qualities because she had never had any to begin with. Shigure, perched up on her back like a racehorse jockey, felt as though he was flying, truly flying, the flying only young children can know. Flowing into the night sky, the crisp air reddening his cheeks, his body melting into the wind, sounds rumbled through him, some so deep he felt them in his bones, others mere bird chirps in his head. If any of Ranno's claws touched the ground he never felt them: nothing existed here or had ever existed here, only a sure rush of living energy, 'Where am I?' He wondered. The world around him twisted with colors running through all sides of the spectrum. He was himself and he was no one, he was alone with only Ranno and he was not alone but surrounded by the countless consciousness' of those before him. The bodiless power that he had become, his eyes glowed with light, and he let himself forget everything and enjoyed the power that raced though him. He even forgot Veronica Yin, if only for a moment, only for the few seconds it took Ranno to arrive at their destination.

And then he was standing in the courtyard before her apartment complex, shouting and banging upon the door, pressing every button under his fingertips. Ranno was nowhere to be seen, but he felt her nearness, urging him on, to not give up. The building door finally buzzed open and Shigure leapt up the stairs like he was a young man again, the energy from before still coursing through him, calling Veronica's name. Her door was unlocked; as she so often absentmindedly left it, no matter how many times he scolded her for it. She was in her bedroom, half-wedged between the side of her bed and her nightstand, the telephone receiver lay where it had fallen, beside her hand. Shigure gently touched her cheek and felt the fading warmth.

"Oh, Veronica," he said. "Veronica." Veronica was not a lightweight anymore, but somehow it was very easy for Shigure to lift her onto her bed and make a place for her among the paper and books that lined her quilt, as they always did. He found her ocarina on the nightstand and closed her fingers around it. When there was nothing more for him to do he sat beside her, still holding her hand, until the room started to grow light. At last he said aloud, "No, your sentimental Jap won't cry Veronica." He picked up the receiver and made one phone call.

* * *

Ranno did not return for a few weeks after Veronica's death. Shigure missed her greatly, when he thought about her at all, but it was hardly a confused and strange time for him. He stayed at home, hardly eating, sleeping on his feet. He never answered his telephone or did anything stimulating. Sometimes he wandered aimlessly upstairs and though every room in his house; sometimes he stood at his window and watched nothing at all for hours at a time. Occasionally the doorbell rang, and worried voices outside called his name. It was early winter and the house sometimes grew cold at night without Ranno's ritual fire to hold it back. Shigure Aoutsuki was perfectly aware of all these things, and of others, but did nothing for any of them.

* * *

One evening, or perhaps, one early morning Shigure heard the sound of water running in the bathtub upstairs. He remembered that sound fondly and presently he walked up his flight of stairs to sit outside his bathroom door. A little while later the water stopped, the door slipped open and a pair of odd-shaded eyes watched him with gentle concern. A trickle of steam curled along the floor by one black-taloned hand. A silky smooth voice said, "I thought you might appreciate being run a hot bath. Come, you'll feel better afterwards." Shigure, obliging the voice, exchanged places with the red figure and stepped into the steaming room.

Afterwards, when he was finished, he found a loose kimono had been left out for him; he smiled at the hellhound's thoughtfulness and changed in the bathroom. Descending the stairs again, he felt rather than saw that the fireplace had been stoked and the flames were gradually driving the cold from the room. Settling down in his favorite easy chair and as the hellhound had said he would, did feel better, he closed his eyes. The voice softly spoke up again, from a distance this time. "Do you feel better?".

"Yes, I do. Thank you." And then, for the first time in a long while, he fell completely asleep.

"I aim to please, Shigure. I always aim to please." The hellhound smiled.

~

Shigure woke up again feeling much better than he had before, even after taking his bath. The fire had died down considerably, the embers glowing a light red-orange, the room was dark, and Shigure guessed it to be night. But strangely he didn't feel as though the room were any cooler, it felt pleasant in a detached sort of way. A little ways away he saw Ranno watching him calmly with her eternally unusual gaze.

"I wondered where you had gone." He quietly said.

"Hellhounds mourn those they care for alone, I didn't leave you when your son and daughter-in-law died. I wished to make up for that breach. I apologize if I worried you." She replied, sounding suitably contrite.

"Ah," he nodded in understanding. "You always were very considerate. Thank you."

He said nothing further, but sat gently staring into the darkened room, Ranno watched him a while longer, then with elegant, graceful steps she walked over to him and sat down before him, the ermine-white fur of her throat brushing one of his hands lightly. "We were going to discuss Robert Frost's poetry tonight."

Shigure did not answer. Ranno went on, "I remember first hearing about him from Cy's English courses, and many of his works I have greatly enjoyed. He had a very crisp, vivid way of writing. I would take pleasure in hearing what you have to say."

"I don't think I can, to tell the truth." He finally said. "I'm feeling rather tired all of a sudden."

Ranno cocked her head to one side a looked at him. It seemed to Shigure that her eyes had somehow become much brighter than he remembered before, her blue eye shining with magical light. "I see. If that is the case, perhaps we should be going."

"Going?" Shigure asked. He felt oddly content to stay put in his chair. Ranno smiled softly at him, and for the first time in Shigure's memory she touched him, laying her head down on his leg and looking up at him in cool friendliness. In response, he reached and lightly scratched the short fur underneath her eye, knowing intuitively that was where she liked to be touched best, her fur was as thick as a rabbit's pelt but had the texture of the finest silk, it slipped as smooth as warm water beneath his fingers.

Ranno sighed softly and leaned into the caress, before lifting her head slightly and looking up at him. "I have lived in your house for a long time." She said at length. "We have talked together, for days and nights without end, about the many ways to live in this world, the ways of considering it, the ways of imagining ourselves as part of some greater imagination and we have both loved every moment of it. Now is the right time for silence I think." She paused and lifted her head to look directly into his eyes, Shigure's hand following the movement. "You've been feeling tired," Ranno said, "but I think I can do something about that. I would like you to come and meet my family now. They would love to have you, and I'm sure you would enjoy their company as well."

"Your family?" He asked, pausing in his stroking for a moment. "I thought you said they were all gone."

She smiled, "I found my family again, it took me a very long time but I found them again. I'm sure they would love to meet you; my father and mother would especially love to talk to you, and my brothers would love to hear your stories."

He looked down at her, his expression neutral, then he smiled shyly and said, "I would love nothing better."

Ranno stepped back as Shigure got up from his chair, he walked towards his door, his step springier than it had been in many years; Ranno a crimson and snow shadow beside him. He kept on hand upon the arch of her curving neck all the way outside. Then they were outside, on the sidewalk, in the late evening night, a trickle of rosy sunlight was just beginning to bleed over the horizon. Shigure had forgotten to don his coat, but he was not at all cold and felt strangely warm despite the brisk weather. He and Ranno continued on their way, his hand sliding down to her shoulder as they went. He paused and turned to look back at his house and noticed, rather amused, that they were already rather far from it. He asked of his companion, "What is your family like?"

"You will like them," she answered. "You will like my father, he has a love of history and culture as you do, and my mother enjoys philosophy greatly. My brothers will simply love being in your presence and listening to what you have to say. They are an unusual group, my family, but I'm sure that they will love you. In time perhaps almost as much as I do."

"I see, thank you, Ranno." He stopped talking for a moment, and then suddenly said, "You are walking a little too rapidly for me, may I ride on your back once more?"

Ranno halted immediately, saying, "By all means, I forgot you have much shorter legs than my own." Shigure found it much easier to seat himself than it had been that first and heretofore only time he had ever ridden a hellhound. She waited until he was comfortable and then started again briskly, though not at the thunderous pace that had sped them to Veronica Yin's former place of residence.

And then suddenly, they were back in that space, the spectrums of light and color bent around him, the wind streaked though his hair, filling him with that extraordinary sense of strength and life again. He leaned forward and whispered into Ranno's tapering ear, "I think I should tell you that I had long ago come to the conclusion that I love you as well. I hope that won't change the relationship we already have."

Ranno chuckled, the light rippled in response. "Mother always told me never to love a human, they're bound to leave you in the end. But she never said what to do if your soul mate was one." She looked sad for a moment and looked back at him from over her shoulder. "I can't join you yet, I still have a long time left in my life to live before I can go with you, run with you. Until then, you will have my family with whom to run. Will you wait for me?"

"Of course!" Was his immediate response, he felt just like a young man again as the limitless energy of his surroundings filled him with something akin to joy. His hair trailed like a raven-black shadow behind him, reaching down to his waist, riding the winds. "You are a most unusual companion, my dear Ranno. I would not give you up for anything. Besides, we were to talk about Robert Frost."

She laughed, the wind carrying her rippling voice, "Thank you Shi'gure. I aim to please." Her voice was all around him them, everywhere and nowhere. "After all, what's a hellhound for?"

He was running beside her, and subconsciously he felt the others come and join them, Ranno laughed again and Shigure felt and saw something soft, silky and red-white brush his cheek then disappear, and he, with the four other hounds, slipped away, passing effortlessly into the wind.

Finis.