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Wolf & Dragon

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Chapter 2.1

“Rose! Rose!” Ai shouted as she shook the sleeping Rose. “Where’s papa? Where is he?”

“Eh.” Rose mumbled and waved her arms as she turned over, throwing out a small jet of fire. Ai jumped back but continued shouting.

“Wake up, papa’s missing.” Ai said.

“What?” Rose rubbed her eyes as she sat up. “What?”

“I can’t find papa.” Ai said. “We were waiting for the deadline together, he sent me to check something, and when I got back he was gone.”

“What deadline?” Rose asked.

“To meet with Onyx.” Ai said. “He said we should, should…” Ai stopped as she saw Rose’s expression go from half-asleep to awake and serious. Her hands clasped together.

“About me?” Rose asked. Ai nodded. “Was he threatening you?” Ai nodded again.

“Did he… did papago on his own?” Ai asked. Logically she knew Rose wouldn’t know the answer, but Ai was desperate for an answer. “He’s not a real Breaker, he’s not even that athletic. That’s suicide.” Ai said.

“For you? For both of us? Even if he’s thief…” Rose stared at her hands. “This is all my fault.” Rose and Ai looked at each other. Seconds ticked away. They both spoke at the same time.

“We need to go.”

OOOOO

Onyx watched as his bodyguards patted Furumori down, only pulling out a wallet and car keys from his pockets.

“As you can see I’m unarmed.” Furumori said. The guards let Furumori into the penthouse proper, and he observed the wealth and artistry on display around Onyx. Behind Onyx the secretary, Kai consulted with a pocket watch.

“I also see you don’t have my fiance with you.” Onyx said.

“Rose is safe.” Furumori said. He tucked his hands into his pockets. “I’m simply here to complete negotiations.”

“There were never negotiations in the first place.” Onyx said. “Kai simply said what ants should do if they wanted to avoid being stepped on.”

“Rather, I would advise you to stop threatening my daughters if you want to live.” Furumori said. He smiled.

“Daughters, other than that wolf-girl who runs errands for you?” Onyx asked.

“Sorry, excuse my turn of phrase.” Furumori said. “I’ve just been growing fond of Rose.” Onyx narrowed his eyes and took a step forward, black wings spreading from his back.

“Take those words back, filthy cur.” he said. “The likes of you can never come close to the bloodline of a dragon.”

“Don’t act like you care about her.” Furumori said. “I’ve had the suspicion since we first met. Rose confused me a little, but seeing you again has made up my mind. It’s not a dragon thing, it’s just you.” Furumori pulled his hands out and spread them out. “You don’t feel love, do you? Even animal lust would be too human for you. You don’t care about anything other than money and power.”

Onyx pointed his left hand forward.

“Bold words from a petty thief,” he said. “I’ve studied your work, and I’m not impressed. You’re just wildly lashing out at everything, aren’t you? I think you haven’t even touched half the Preciouses you’ve stolen.”

“I act because of love.” Furumori said. “And it is love that drives me to seek justice. Someone like you could never understand me.”

“I don’t need to understand an ant.” Onyx snapped his fingers, and a stream of darkness poured forth. Furumori swiped his hand and the air shrieked as the stream of darkness curved, flowing past Furumori’s face and piercing a wall behind them. A second later Furumori’s sleeve split open, revealing an arm covered by a green tattoo. Onyx tilted his head and smiled.

“I see.” he said. “Last time I thought your Preciouses were just hidden jewelry, but I get it now. Those tattoos… you fused a Precious with your flesh, didn’t you? And that wolf girl, she has a tattoo as well. A prototype?”

“The successful one.” Furumori said. The guards behind him raised their weapons. For a second Furumori started to worry.

OOOOO

“Papa!” Ai roared as she threw open the doors to Onyx’s penthouse, her wolfen traits fully expressed.

“Onyx!” Rose followed behind Ai, her scarf left behind to show her golden collar. Behind both of them guards were scattered around on the floor, covered in bruises and burnt clothes.

The bodyguards turned as Ai entered and she leapt, kicking off one guard and then the other and knocking both to the groundRose ran through the door as Ai landed on the ground.

“Rose, how good to finally meet you.” Onyx relaxed and spread his arms wide. Rose roared and Onyx smirked even as he leaned back.

“You want me.” Rose said, pointing at herself for emphasis. “Leave them alone.”

“Don’t.” Furumori yelled at Rose. Onyx flicked his arm and threw out a wave of darkness. Ai leapt forward, pulling her father with her as she narrowly dodged Onyx’s attack. She held out an arm to stop herself against one wall, and pulled Furumori closer to soften the blow on him.

“This isn’t about you anymore.” Onyx said. He looked away from Furumori and move towards Rose. Ai’s knees bent. “This is a matter between dragons now.” Rose growled.

“Your development has been a little strange, I’ll admit.” Onyx said. “But once you’ve gotten to live as a proper dragon I’m sure you’ll come to understand things better. As a partner for Engaging, there are none superior to me.”

“I don’t want you.” Rose yelled. “I want Ryuji. Why is everyone hiding him from me?”

Onyx frowned. He pointed his arm at Rose.

“This ‘Ryuji’... is he a human?” he asked.

“Yes.” Rose said.

“Then forget him right now.” Onyx said. “Dragons and humans can’t live together. Trying will only bring you sadness.”

“I won’t.” Rose said. She stomped the ground, cracking the tiles below her. “I want Ryuji. I want to talk again.”

“Then I’ll have to make you see reason first.” Onyx said. He snapped his fingers and launched another stream of darkness forward. Rose swung up her hand and released tongues of flame, rocking back as her flames collided with Onyx’s darkness. The two dragons each took a step back as their magic continued to collide, releasing shockwaves throughout the room. Ai had to brace herself and Furumori against a wall, while she saw Kai retreating towards the balcony.

“Stop.” Rose yelled. “Stop it.” She moved her free hand to brace her outstretched arm.

“Do you feel your blood stirring? Do you feel the power flowing through you?” Onyx asked as he stepped forward, forcing Rose back as his darkness pushed against her flames. “You could kill that boy with a wave of your hand, that’s how different you are.”

“I don’t care.” Rose put one foot behind her, using the floor to support herself.

“Do you think you’re the first? Do you think your special?” Onyx said. “Don’t throw your life away for a human.”

“Go away.” Rose said. “Go away.”

Ai set Furumori down, giving him time to brace himself against the raging wind filling the room.

“Stay here.” she whispered.

“You can’t-”

“I just need to distract him. Then we’re getting out of here.” Ai patted her father’s shoulder. This was how things should be. It was a little selfish, but she liked the idea of being Rose’s beloved sister. And her father… couldn’t fight, despite the sounds she had overheard from behind the door. He only had the abilities of a level 3 Breaker, perfectly average as people went, and he only ever used the simplest Preciouses. Onyx must have missed. Her father must have bluffed. She hadn’t heard clearly anyways. Ai tried hard not to look at the green tattoo curling around Furumori’s exposed arm.

“Be careful.” Furumori said. Ai nodded then turned to look at the clash between Onyx’s and Rose’s magic. Onyx’s wings looked powerful and hard to damage, and he himself was standing casually despite the immense forces released from the collision of fire and darkness. But Ai was fast, and she only needed a small opening.

Ai kicked off the wall, sprinting towards Onyx. He flicked his wing and sent a small wave of darkness at Ai, giving her the opening she was waiting for. Ai kicked off the ground, leaping over the wave as it cut into the ground, and she flipped to plant her feet on the ceiling. Ai kicked off again, launching herself like a rocket towards Onyx. He pulled back his wing to defend his body, but it was not enough. Ai flew past his wing and grabbed onto his outstretched hand, pulling it with all the force and mass she had. Ai felt her arms strain as she came to a dead stop, Onyx’s arm barely shifting. But that shift was enough.

The stream of darkness Onyx was creating went wild as his arm shifted, gouging a line through the wall behind Rose. At the same time, Rose’s flames continued forward without interruption, washing over Onyx’s unprotected body. The instant she felt the heat of Rose’s flames Ai let go and ran to Rose. Rose yelped as Ai scooped her under one arm and leapt, springing over to Furumori in one jump. Ai ducked as a black disk flew over her head and cut through the wall. Kai caught the disk in one hand and pulled her arm back.

Ai grimaced, grabbed her father, and ran to the balcony. Kai flicked her arm and sent the black disk spinning through the air. Ai weaved right and left, barely avoiding the disk’s zig-zagging path as she ran past Kai and through the balcony door. Behind her Ai could hear Onyx laughing through the crackle of flames. Ai leapt onto the balcony’s rail and grunted as she started running down the side of the spire.

Ai knew she was going to crash. If she was alone, if she had one person, if she could just change Rose and Furumori’s position, she could use one hand to slow her fall. With just her feet open she was barely controlling her descent. The base of the spire was close, wind was slamming into Ai’s face. She closed her eyes and screamed.

The impact never came.

Ai felt wind rushing below her. She slowly opened her eyes to find herself hovering a meter above the base’s roof. Rose was staring at the roof with a blank expression. Her father’s arms were outstretched, both of them bare and covered in glowing green tattoos. His eyes met Ai’s. He relaxed his arms and the wind slowly subsided, giving all three a chance to gently land on their feet.

“What was that?” Ai asked. She shook her head. “I mean how did you-”

“I’m surprised myself.” Furumori said. He examined the tattoos on his arms. “I didn’t expect much from this, but it seems to have responded to my prayers. And by prayers I mean desperate screaming.” he chuckled and tucked his arms into his pockets. Ai nodded at the sensible answer. Logically, the power output and precision needed to slow the fall of three people would register as an A class Precious, and the control needed to pull off such a feat required the wielder to have a high Breaker level. Ai nodded again, confirming the information. The only possible explanation is that a miracle occured.

Ai’s wolf ears twitched as she heard elevators descending inside the spire.

“We need to leave.” she said. “Fast.”

OOOOO

“You sure Odd Eye is local?” Eriko asked. Ryuji was standing behind her, watching her scroll through pictures of Japanese Society members and associates on her laptop. “I mean, being related to the Society is an easy guess, but that’s too many people to search. But even if we narrow it down this much I don’t think it will help.” It was deep into the night, and empty coffee mugs littered the apartments table. The guard captain was sleeping in a chair, while another guard was consulting with a radio. Apparently something had prompted Onyx to leave the spire.

“You remember the reports from when she broke in to headquarters?” Ryuji asked. “No camera footage. No detectors tripped. She must have been familiar with the- wait go back.”

“Are you sure this time?” Eriko asked. She grumbled but still scrolled back to the previous picture. Ryuji pointed at the party scene being displayed.

“That girl, hiding behind the man.” Ryuji said. Eriko leaned in to take a closer look. “The hair, the build, it’s all the same. I’m sure this time. It has to be her.” Eriko looked back at Ryuji.

“Her ‘build’, huh?” she said. Ryuji wanted to be mad at Eriko for making jokes, but he was half asleep as it was. He couldn’t stop himself from blushing.

“I meant, like, her height and stuff.” he mumbled. Eriko sighed.

“I’ll check.” she said. Furumori moved through the Society’s member database, looking for the people listed as being in the photo. “No hits for the girl, checking the man she was with… Mr. Furumori.” Eriko said. She blinked. “I think I met him in America. Small time collector. Says here he has a daughter who’s not involved with the Society.” Ryuji gripped the back of her chair.

“Were there any thefts in America at the same time he was there?” he asked.

“None attributed to Odd Eye.” Eriko said. “I mean, there was that time someone beat me to some earrings I was investigating, but that’s… not…” she leaned forward and pulled up a listing of confirmed thefts by Odd Eye.

“What is it?” Ryuji asked.

“A woman with wolf features.” Eriko said. “Very flashy when she wants to be. But a youth doesn’t show up on a lot of the Society’s records. And would you look at that, Furumori reported being robbed whenever there’s been a dense spree. The perfect way to avoid suspicion.” she looked back. “The Furumori’s are definitely suspicious but I’m not sure-”

“Hey, wake up!” Ryuji was already shaking the guard captain.

“I take it we’re going.” Eriko said.

Chapter 2.2

“Once we get through this, we’re not stealing anything ever again.” Ai said. She leaned back in the seat of a car that was, ironically, stolen. Furumori’s car had already been surrounded by thugs by the time they were leaving. Ai’s wolfen features disappeared as she took the chance to relax while her father drove. Rose was seated next to Ai, contemplating her hands silently, increasing Ai’s discomfort. Rose had only mustered the smallest protests when Ai hot-wired the car, and seemed more focused on the spire than Ai or Furumori.

“Excuse me?” Furumori said. Ai bit her tongue. She had mostly meant it as a joke. Mostly.

“I mean, we at least need to keep or heads down after this.” Ai said. “I think we’ve made pretty much everyone our enemy at this point.”

“They were already our enemies.” Furumori said. Ai flinched. Why was he being so hostile? She hugged herself.

Calm down. She told herself. Don’t make papa angry.

“We’ll definitely need new identities.” Furumori said. “And I believe there are Russian collector groups that operate separately from the Society. If we’re lucky Fang will focus on punishing the Society for us.” Ai sucked in her breath.

“Yes, papa.” she said. Rose looked up from her hands.

“Thank you for understanding.” Furumori said. “I know it’s been hard on you.”

“Thank you, papa.” Ai whispered. Rose looked at Ai and scrunched her face.

“Is there anything you want to see in-”

“Stop it!” Rose yelled, loud enough that Ai involuntarily covered her ears. Furumori slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a halt on the side of an unlit road. He turned to look at Rose.

“What did you say?” he asked. His tone sounded the same, but Ai shivered all the same.

“Stop hurting Ai.” Rose shouted. “She doesn’t want to go. Don’t you care about her?” Furumori glared at her.

“Rose, its okay,” Ai said gently, tugging Rose’s shoulder. “You don’t have to-”

“It’s not okay.” Rose said. She gestured between Ai and Furumori. “This is wrong. Families don’t act like this.”

“Rose, I already explained this to you.” Furumori said. “There’s a reason for what we do.”

“I don’t care.” Rose said. She stomped her foot on the car floor. “You’re hurting Ai. You keep hurting her.”

“It’s okay, Rose.” Ai said again. “I’m used to this.” Rose pushed Ai away.

“I don’t care.” Rose said again. Her eyes seemed to be pleading. “Please stop fighting. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to be lonely again. I want the real you back.” Ai blinked.

What did Rose mean by that? She thought. Was that a metaphor? What does Rose think the ‘real me’ even is? Ai thought back on the times she and Rose had interacted, thinking about how Ai had tried to display herself. But this is always how things have been for me. Always.

“Rose, step out of the car.” Furumori said. Ai felt her hands twitch. Dozens of questions raced through her mind. He opened the driver side door. “We need to-”

“How am I a prototype?” Ai shouted. Now the question was in words. There was no going back. Furumori slowly turned to look at her. He smiled.

“A poor choice of words, I’ll admit.” he said. “I suppose ‘inspiration’ would have been better choice.” Any other time Ai might have accepted the excuse. But she couldn’t help but think of everything connected to the question.

“Then what the hell is a failed ‘inspiration’ supposed to be.” Ai shouted. Or rather, what made her the ‘successful’ one? She expressed her wolfen ears and grabbed at the red pattern that appeared on her shoulder. “If your so weak, how can you control the Precious that’s inside your body? Why did I have to be the one fighting if you could do that? And what about Onyx? He was the dragon you met, wasn’t he? You knew about him from the beginning, didn’t you?” Furumori frowned.

“I-”

“Stop lying to me!” Ai yelled. Tears were streaming from her eyes. “Stop it already.” Ai leaned forward, panting as she tried to catch her breath. Her life was over. Ai knew that her father was about to leave her, just like her real family had. But can I even be sure about that? Ai thought. Furumori let out a long sigh.

“Ai, do you remember all those times you said you trusted me?” he asked. “That you love me?”

“Yeah.” Ai said. I meant it all. That’s why this hurts so much.

“Why did you lie to me?” Furumori grabbed his seat and leaned forward. Ai flinched back.

“W-what?”

“Why did you lie to me?” Furumori asked again. “Why can’t you trust me? You wanted to use those earrings, didn’t you? I saw you had been wearing them.”

“I didn’t want to.” Ai said. “I wanted to believe you but-”

“But that was too hard,” he said. “You chose to be selfish instead.”

“No.” Ai said. She felt tears flowing from her eyes. “Please papa, just tell me the truth. I don’t want to lose you, I just want to know the-” Furumori pulled himself forward, making Ai shrink back.

“Truth?” he said. “Do you know what’s strange? That in a society that makes people wear false faces, only a mask can show your true face.” Ai watched as the love spots under Furumori’s eyes seemed to melt, rolling down his face until they looked like a pair of tear-drop tattoos. Furumori extended his arm towards Ai. She froze as she saw her father’s arm reaching towards her neck.

Then Rose grabbed Ai’s arm and pulled down. Ai yelped and scrambled, using Rose to pull herself away from Furumori.

“Stop it.” Ai squeezed past Rose and pressed herself flat against the car door. She stared in horror as her father slowly turned to look at her. Why won’t he listen to me? “Please.” she begged.

“You’re a liar.” Furumori said. His lips barely moved, and his face was turning pasty white. “Another liar I have to punish.” He reached towards Ai again.

Ai cried out, making Furumori flinch and Rose cover her ears. Ai rocked forward and kicked herself backwards as hard as possible, flinging the car door open so hard it snapped its hinges. Ai grabbed Rose and pulled her out of the car. Ai felt grass and dew clinging to her as she stood up and pulled Rose to her feet. Ai backed away from the car, hoping her father would take the chance to calm down.

Instead a spout of water tore the roof of the car off and Furumori stood up on the driver’s seat. One foot was placed on the top of the seat, showing the scraps of his footwear and a blue tattoo on the top of the foot. Furumori looked down on Ai and Rose with a face that looked like it was made from white plastic and painted with black teardrops.

Ai banished conscious thoughts from her mind. She pulled Rose into her arms and ran, only risking a single glance behind her. Ai watched her father step down from the car and begin walking behind her. Then Ai faced forward and continued to run.

OOOOO

Ai fell to one knee in front of her home, finally letting Rose down. Too much. Everything she had done in the past few days, then the fight at the spire, then running who knows how many kilometers home. She had simply done too much in one night. Ai closed her eyes as she caught her breath. When she opened them again she was lying on a couch with Rose standing over her. The lights were off and it was still nighttime, but the moonlight was enough for Ai to see with.

“Are you okay?” Rose asked. Ai pulled herself up.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Ai said. She rubbed her head. “How long was I out?” Rose frowned and mimed a small distance with her fingers. “Okay.” Ai covered her face with her hands. She breathed in and then out. “Okay. That wasn’t papa. That must have been a Precious talking. He has at least two… no, three including the thing with his face. He must have lost control to one.” Ai forced herself not to think about how her father would have connected with such a Precious to begin with. “We just need to get papa back.” Rose stared at her and frowned.

“Don’t. Don’t go.” Rose said. “He lied to you.” Ai nodded

“You’re right. You’re right.” Ai said. “We get papa back, then we talk to him.”

“What about Ryuji?” Rose asked. Ai sighed and placed her hands on her knees. She got off the couch and kneeled in front of Rose.

“Rose…” Ai started slow, giving herself time to frame the words. Rose backed away, shaking her head.

“You too?” she whispered. Ai shook her head.

“Forget Onyx, forget papa.” Ai said. She stood back up. “Yes, I have met Ryuji.” Rose hugged herself. “But I’ve also read his past, everything that happened after he met you. Ryuji is a bad person, Rose, do you understand?” Rose started shaking her head. Ai could see tears leaking from Rose’s eyes. “He might be as bad as Onyx. I can’t… I can’t let him hurt you.” Ai reached out to Rose.

“No!” Rose screamed and ran, leaving the room. A few seconds later Ai heard the front door open and close. Ai balled her outstretched hand into a fist and let it fall to her side. She pressed her fingernails into her palm as hard as possible. Food. Eat to live. Ai forced herself to take one step forward, then another, slowly shuffling to the kitchen. No time for cooking. Eat it raw. Ai grabbed a wedge of cheese from the refrigerator and half a loaf of bread off the counter, eating each a mouthful at a time. Ai concentrated hard on the process of chewing food. As the last of it slid down her throat she filled a pitcher of water and then guzzled it in one go, not caring when it spilled out of her mouth.

Ai set the pitcher down and fell back in a chair. Her stomach full, Ai forced her concentration to move onto her surroundings. Even though this was the same kitchen she had spent all her life growing up in, Ai let herself examine each detail anew. When a stray thought about being alone entered her mind Ai shook her head and stabbed her palm with her fingernails again. Ai opened her eyes again, and noticed a paper coffee cup sitting on the table. She didn’t drink coffee. Rose didn’t drink coffee. Her father rarely drank coffee, and never got it from a cafe.

Ai’s mind spun as she tried to discern the source of the cup. She stood up and began running through the house, looking for the intruder. She threw open the doors to the library and found a generic-looking middle school boy examining one of the Preciouses stored at the far end of the library. He spun around as he heard the doors open. Ai nearly bit her tongue. Of course it’s Ryuji. Why would my luck change? Ai felt a surge of anger and she grabbed at her shoulder, feeling the red pattern appear on her skin as the rest of her wolfen features grew. Was it a birthmark? Was it a tattoo? Ai didn’t know anymore.

“Odd Eye.” Ryuji stated. He slowly drew the blade sheathed at his hip and pointed it at Ai. “Or should I say Ai Furumori?”

“What do you want?” Ai asked. She felt her wolfen claws digging into her shoulder. She felt like she could rip out the red pattern at any second.

“I’m looking for Rose. You know, the girl you took?” Ryuji said. He took a step forward, keeping his eyes locked with Ai. Ai herself moved closer to a bookshelf, hoping to hide if Ryuji chose to swing his blade. “It’s one thing to steal Preciouses, but I can’t forgive you taking a living person.”

“Shut up.” Ai said. She crouched slightly and grabbed the edge of the book shelf with her free hand. Against a human she had an undeniable advantage in speed, and it wouldn’t take much to put a young boy like Ryuji down. “I’m not letting you have her.”

“That girl has suffered enough.” Ryuji said. He lifted the point of his blade up as he reached the end of the shelves, stepping over to keep as much of Ai in view as possible. “I need to-”

“You killed somebody!” Ai shouted. She refused to accept anything Ryuji was saying. Ryuji stumbled back when he heard her shout. “You killed somebody and got away with it because your parents are rich.” Ai felt good shouting out Ryuji’s crimes. No matter what her father had done, it didn’t change what kind of people ran the Society. It didn’t change what was right and wrong. Ryuji chuckled, then started laughing madly. “What’s so funny?” Ai shouted.

OOOOO

Rose was crying as she ran from the western house. Dew-soaked grass licked at her ankles as she approached the ring of trees. Rose covered her face as engines roared and dozens of lights flashed at her. When she uncovered her face she found herself surrounded by men with suits and guns. Rose flicked her head back and forth, trying to find some sign of comfort.

“Be careful.” one of the men said. “We don’t want to hurt her.”

“Ryuji.” Rose said the only thing on her mind. Everything else had fallen apart. “Where’s Ryuji?” One of the men glanced at a companion.

“Who’s Ryuji?”

A second later a swarm of glowing butterflies flowed over the men and circled around Rose. The phantasmal butterflies sung a discordant song as they flew around Rose, and she heard the men screaming and collapsing. Then the butterflies dispersed, leaving a woman with a stage wand standing over the collapsed men. Rose blinked. The woman slightly resembled Ai, but was taller and a little more feminine, even with a SMG hanging behind her on a shoulder sling.

“Who?” Rose asked.

“My name’s Eriko.” the woman said. She waved her hand and another crowd of men with guns ran out of the woods, restraining the collapsed men with handcuffs and zipties. Eriko and Rose watched from the side, far enough they couldn’t be heard. “So,” Eriko said. “You remember Ryuji.” Rose blinked and looked up at Eriko. In the distance she could hear sporadic gunfire and the occasional stranger noise. People were fighting all around Ai’s home.

“You know Ryuji?” Rose asked. Eriko scratched the back of her head.

“That’s why I’m here, honestly.” Eriko said.

“Can I meet him?” Rose asked. After everything she had gone through, she was shocked to find any kind of connection to her past.

“Funny story,” Eriko said. She chuckled dryly. “Ryuji’s already in the house. Rest of us got tangled up when Fang showed up.”

“Is…” Rose stopped. She wanted the world to be simple. She wanted to talk again. But…

“What?” Eriko asked.

“Is Ryuji… a bad person?” Rose asked. She didn’t believe that Ai would lie to her.

OOOOO

“You’re right.” Ryuji said. He lowered his blade as he laughed in a way that sounded a little too strained. Ai snarled from the opposite end of the row of bookshelves. Whats so funny about being a murder? “I found this weird mask, and the next thing I knew was finally trying to kill my stupid cousin. The store owner got caught up in the struggle and apparently…” Ryuji’s laughter faded, and he started to speak a little slower. “Apparently his heart couldn’t handle the shock. Anyone else would’ve been locked up, but my parents couldn’t let me embarrass them. Blamed it on the cursed Precious instead.”

“We both know that’s not how it works.” Ai said. “That kind of reaction, your mind has to be similar to the Precious’. You can’t just blame it on some mask.” Ryuji’s face went back to a neutral, almost emotionless expression.

“That’s right.” Ryuji said. He raised his blade again to point it at Ai. “And after that I didn’t want to see a Precious ever again, but I made an exception for Rose.”

“So what, you met when you were kids so you deserve to have her?” Ai asked. “You’re-”

“Of course not.” Ryuji said. Ai flinched. “I don’t know where she’ll go after this. Honestly It’ll be easier for me if she just finds some normal dragons to live with.”

Ai howled. Ryuji stumbled back and flicked his blade, launching a shockwave through the air. Ai leapt up, over the shockwave and above the bookshelves.

“You!” Ai shouted.

OOOOO

Eriko took a deep breath as she considered Rose’s question. Of all the things she expected from a young dragon, questions about Ryuji’s morality hadn’t even entered her mind. But now that it had been asked, Eriko knew she should have thought about it more.

“Ryuji isn’t…” Eriko started talking then shook her head. No excuses. You can’t pamper him too much. “Ryuji’s done some bad things.” Eriko said. “And he’s done something really bad.” She looked at Rose, who remained silent as she stared at Eriko. For a second, Rose’s eyes looked like those of a beast. “I’m sorry Rose. Ryuji lost control one day. Couldn’t hold it in anymore. Somebody got killed because of him. He…” Eriko paused. “He tried to kill me.” she whispered.

“Why?” Rose asked. She had learned that people would fight each other sometimes. She had done so herself. She hoped that Ryuji could possibly have some moral reason for attacking Eriko, a woman who looked so innocent.

“He always hated us. He hated following his parents, he hated being left with my family, he hated working with Preciouses.” Eriko said. She shook her head. “When that mask had him, he just kept calling me a liar. I think… I think that was the first time I saw the real him.” Eriko sighed. “You’ve been waiting for him for a long time, haven’t you? Must suck to learn what he’s really like.” Rose shook her head.

“I still want to meet him.” Rose said. “Take me.”

“Are you sure?” Eriko said.

“Yes.” Rose said. “Take me to Ryuji.”

OOOOO

Ai howled in pain and rage as her fist smashed apart the wooden floor of the library. Ryuji had leapt back at the last second, dodging her by mere centimeters. Ryuji swung his blade wildly and Ai leaned back, feeling the shockwave fly past her chin. Ai flung herself forward and slammed her fist into Ryuji’s chest. It was a glancing blow but it sent him tumbling across the floor until he hit the far end of the library.

“Why?” Ai said as she stood up straight. She took a step forward as Ryuji pulled himself up. “Why did Rose ever care about someone like you?” Ryuji swung his blade vertically. Ai tilted her head and let the shockwave fly past her. “Why did you bother coming back?” Ryuji swung horizontally and Ai backflipped away as the shockwave cut a gouge where she had been standing. “Why?” Ai shouted. She pulled on the wolf blood inside her as her rage climbed higher. She didn’t have anything left. Rose had left her for this pathetic rat. Her father had gone mad. Ai was finished being a half-wolf. She didn’t want to be human at all anymore.

Ai threw back her head and howled. Then she felt her blood stop. Her wolfen features disappeared all at once, the physical shock making Ai collapse to the ground. She felt like some part of her soul had split off, unable to connect with her anymore. Ai grabbed at her shoulder, where the red pattern should be. Now it felt like it was holding a second soul inside her body. Just like a Precious. A prototype. A Precious fused with human flesh. Her father had lied to her from her youngest days; she had never been a wolf. Maybe her parents had normal reasons for abandoning her. Maybe they never existed.

Ryuji charged. Ai’s arms trembled as she pushed herself up. Ryuji drew close, readying his blade. Ai placed one foot behind her and raise her arms. Ryuji swung his blade. Ai caught his arm with one hand, twisted it, and punched his gut once, twice, three times with her off hand. Ryuji gasped and collapsed on the ground. Ai looked down at him.

“How can you just throw someone away?” she asked. Ryuji put one hand on the ground to push himself up, coughed, and collapsed again. His eyes turned to look at Ai.

“I was…” his voice was slurred as he trailed off. Ai spit on him. She turned and left him behind, her mind racing with plans for living on her own. Everything she had ever done had been for nothing, and if her father couldn’t love her then Ai had no future. Just as Ai started to enter the kitchen again, a pillar of darkness tore through the ceiling and the entire house shook.

Chapter 2.3

Something had wrecked the house. The front half of the library had completely collapsed, transformed into a pile of rubble and books. Moonlight streamed in through the gash where walls and a roof should have been. Ryuji was lucky that his half of the library was still standing, albeit with shards of glass scattered on the ground. Ryuji closed his eyes as he heard footsteps and shifting rubble. Eriko had told him Fang had attacked the house. If he was lucky Eriko or someone else from the Society might rescue him, but odds were Onyx was already attacking. Ryuji knew his odds of survival were slim. No point fighting any longer.

“Ryuji?”

Ryuji twitched. Was that a girl’s voice? He thought

“Ryuji.”

The voice was familiar, like a dream that had comforted Ryuji so many times in the past. His heart stung. He didn’t want to be disappointed anymore. Life was better without false hopes.

“Hey, Ryuji!”

A hard shoe kicked him in the stomach. Ryuji coughed and quickly opened his eyes. Standing above him was a beautiful young girl his age, with blonde hair and shining blue eyes. A golden collar wrapped around her neck, both adding and taking away from her image at the same time.

“Rose.” Ryuji whispered. Rose smiled as she looked at him.

“I knew we’d talk again.” she said. “You were the first person I ever talked to.”

And you were the only person I ever liked. Ryuji thought. Even at the time… Even that mask couldn’t make me hate you.

“Not worth it.” Ryuji said. He coughed and looked away from her. Her kind of enthusiasm was the same as the time they first met, and it made Ryuji feel ugly inside. “We only met by chance. It wasn’t anything special.” he said. Rose shook her head.

“I’m happy it was you.” Rose said. She knelt down beside Ryuji. “I’ve met so many people since then. We’ve talked and talked, but none of them were like you. I was lonely for so long, Ryuji. And you were lonely when I met you. And you’re still lonely now.”

“That’s my fault.” Ryuji said. He’d known it for a long time, but had never wanted to say it. “Odd Eye, I mean Ai… she was right. I’ve pushed away everyone who loved me.” His parents, his uncle, the cousin who had always stood behind him… He had always blamed them for everything. “I even killed a-” Ryuji lost his breath as Rose wrapped her arms around him. How long had it been since another person touched him?

“It’s okay, Ryuji.” Rose said. “I won’t let you push me away. We don’t have to be lonely ever again.” Ryuji coughed. He couldn’t stop the tears welling in his eyes. Rose knew all his sins and yet she was forgiving him. Ryuji started sobbing. For what seemed like forever he simply cried, not caring who heard his pathetic complaints.

“I’m sorry.” Ryuji finally said. “I’m so sorry.”

The house shook again. A cry of pain rang out. Rose gave Ryuji one last squeeze before letting go and standing up.

“I have to go.” Rose said. She turned to face the ruins of the central house. “Ai and Eriko are fighting Onyx. They can’t win.”

“Wait.” Ryuji said. He scrunched his face in pain as he pushed himself off the ground. He picked up Slash Breath from where it had fallen and ever so carefully pointed it at Rose. Ryuji sucked in his breath and carefully cut through the golden collar around Rose’s neck. They both watched as the collar fell, cracking and losing its shine before it even hit the ground. “I’m coming.” Ryuji said.

Rose smiled.

OOOOO

Ai tumbled away as a stream of darkness cut through the ground. She felt splinters and stones dig into her bare arms as she rolled across the ruins of her home.

“What’s wrong, ant?” Onyx called out to her from atop a mountain of rubble. “Lost your Precious? I thought it was part of you?” Onyx pointed his hand at her and started to summon another stream of darkness only for a cloud of glowing butterflies enveloped him. Ai desperately scrambled to her feet, backpedaling when she saw Onyx disintegrate the butterflies with a burst of darkness. Across from Ai she saw Eriko unsling an SMG from behind her and open fire. Onyx stretched a wing, blocking the hail of bullets without a scratch.

“Really?” Onyx said. He laughed as he flicked the wing and launched a wave of darkness that knocked Eriko down.

Ai charged. She wanted to run. She was tired, and angry, and scared, but she knew she couldn’t escape. And even if Eriko was an enemy, neither one could fight Onyx on their own. They were barely surviving as it was.

Ai crouched low and pulled at Onyx’s leg. Without her wolf blood… No, without her Precious she couldn’t even budge it. Onyx wasn’t even trying to resist and Ai couldn’t budge his leg from the ground. Onyx kicked his leg back and knocked Ai down with a single blow.

“Thank you for walking over.” Onyx said. He reached down and hoisted Ai up by her neck, gripping just tight enough that Ai could barely breathe. “You’re first on my list for punishment.” Ai gasped and flailed her limbs, grabbing at Onyx’s arm. “It’s you and your master’s fault that Rose’s head is filled with ridiculous notions.”

Onyx threw Ai away, watching as she hit the rubble. Ai coughed and grabbed her bruised neck. She knew Onyx could have killed her then and there. She looked over to see Onyx raising his hand again.

“Once I’ve dealt with all of you,” Onyx said. “I can make sure Rose learns how to be a proper dragon.” Darkness gathered around his hand. Ai grit her teeth and forced herself to stand. She might die alone, but at the very least she wanted to die standing. Onyx snapped his fingers. Ai flinched as she saw the darkness expanding.

Then tongues of flames filled Ai’s vision.

The flames mixed with the darkness and then they exploded, covering the rubble with a cloud of black sand.

“Rose?” Ai said. She watched as Rose ran in front of Ai, red-scaled hand aimed at Onyx.

“Oh, still playing around?” Onyx asked. “If you really want a pet you could ask me.” Rose roared and shot tongues of flame at Onyx. Onyx covered himself with his wings, chuckling as the flames splashed off his wing’s black scales. “Oh, you must be fond of her. If that’s the case you need to learn how to discipline your-”

A shockwave cut through the clouds of sand and hit Onyx square in the back. His eyes widened and he yelled, spreading his wings to blow away Rose’s flames and the sand clouds in an explosion of darkness. Ai found herself grabbing Rose’s shoulders just to stay standing. Onyx turned around, showing a line of black blood on his back, and past him Ai saw Ryuji and Eriko standing with their Preciouses at the ready. Ai grit her teeth.

“I’m sorry, Ai.” Rose whispered. Ai blinked in shock, unconsciously letting go of Rose. In front of them Onyx was defending against a bombardment of shockwaves and glowing butterflies. “Let’s talk. After this.” Rose glanced at Ai, but Ai couldn’t muster a response. Rose fixed her face into an expression of determination and then turned back to Onyx. Rose shot another tongue of flames, then she and Ai dodged in opposite directions as Onyx launched a stream of darkness through where they had been standing.

Ai circled around Onyx, watching as Rose did the same on the other side. Ryuji charged and swung his blade at point blank range, and Onyx rocked back even as one of his wings blocked the blow. Onyx swung his arm to swat Ryuji, but the boy managed to roll away towards Rose as she shot tongues of flame that forced Onyx to defend again.

Ai saw Eriko summon another swarm of butterflies, covering Onyx for a few precious seconds. At the moment, Ai realized she could run. Onyx was distracted, and Ai wasn’t going to be any help without the Precious she had always treated as her own body. As things were she wasn’t even sure Rose and Ryuji could win. But those seconds of hesitation were enough to kill her chance. Onyx spread his wings and released another explosion of darkness, disintegrating the butterflies and forcing everyone to brace themselves against the shockwaves.

“It’s useless.” Onyx yelled. “Just submit and let me kill your mistakes, Rose.”

Ai tried to keep her breathing quiet. Onyx was focused on where Rose and Ryuji were standing together, but he was keeping Eriko in the corner of his eye. Ai was safely behind him, but Ai knew she was the weakest link in the fight at the moment. No one attacked, simply observing each other as they all circled around Onyx.

“Onyx.” Rose said. “You want to Engage with me, right? Only that?” Onyx relaxed his stance slightly.

“Are you saying you can leave these ants behind?” Onyx asked. From behind, Ai thought he looked a little more subdued. Sad possibly, if Ai didn’t know Onyx better. “If you’re really attached to them, I can even let them die on their own time.”

“And what is ‘Engage’ really? Tell me.” Rose asked. She put herself in front of Ryuji. Ai saw Eriko tensing. Onyx nodded, straightening into a casual stance.

“It is a bond of trust.” Onyx said. “A bond showing the kind of mutual trust dragons only find once in a lifetime. And that bond lets the dragons share their power, going beyond their limits.” Rose smiled and nodded. “Does that mean you’ll abandon this foolish escapade?”

“Rose?” Ryuji was whispering. The battlefield was quiet enough that Ai could just barely hear him. She realized how much she had grown used to having a wolf’s senses. Rose glanced back at him.

“Do you believe in me, Ryuji?” she asked, loud enough for anyone to hear. Ai noticed Onyx’s arms tensing, readying to attack. She grit her teeth and crouched down. She wondered what Ryuji, what that murderer was going to say next. Would he throw Rose away to save his own skin? Would he make some selfish demand? Ryuji gulped.

“I want you to be happy.” he said. Onyx tilted his head. Ai wondered if she had misheard. “I want you to be happy!” Ryuji shouted. Rose turned around and seemed to leap back to Ryuji, wrapping her hands around the same hand he held Slash Breath with.

“You stupid brat.” Onyx yelled. Ai charged towards him as he raised his arm. She realized why she had fought so hard against Onyx already. Eriko summoned another swarm of glowing butterflies, forcing Onyx to avert his hand and blow it apart with a stream of darkness. Ai continued running, balancing all the love she was used to being given with what she had given in return. She saw Rose’s scales glowing, a blue circle glowing on Ryuji’s hand, and fire surrounding them. Ai wondered why she had to spend so long fearing her father would abandon her.

Onyx was gathering darkness around his hand, more than Ai had seen him gather for any other attack, and he returned his aim to Rose and Ryuji. Ai remembered all the times she had carried Rose, how light she had felt in her arms.

“Die.” Onyx shouted. “Die, die, die!”

Ai ducked under his wings and popped back up, pressing the top of Onyx’s arm with her shoulder and grabbing his wrist with her hand. Onyx’s arm stayed stiff as steel, and Ai couldn’t help but be thankful.

“I won’t,” Ai shouted, gathering all the strength left in her human body. Onyx averted his attention to Ai for less than a second. She saw Rose and Ryuji raising Slash Breath together, flames coating the blade. Then Ai bent forward and pulled Onyx’s arm with her. “Let you!” Ai roared as she lifted the rest of Onyx’s weight with her back.

He was heavier than he looked, but not even as heavy as some humans Ai had encountered. With barely any resistance Onyx lifted off the ground, his own strength turning his arm into a perfect lever for Ai to use.

Ai bent until she hit her own knee, feeling Onyx’s weight fade as he passed over her and hit the ground. Onyx tugged on Ai’s arm, twisting her knees as she was forced flat on the ground. Ai lashed out at Onyx’s face, but he batted her strike away with his free arm and then struck her in the face. Ai vision blurred from the blow’s shock, and she grabbed at her head, feeling like her brain would spill out. She watched Onyx clamber up and turn away from her, raising his arm to attack Rose again. Ai panicked. Had she bought enough time?

“Engage!”

Rose and Ryuji yelled as one, and Ai saw a flaming shockwave cut Onyx’s body in half. Blood trickled down her face, and Ai’s vision finally gave out.

OOOOO

“If we weren’t technically trying to keep this stuff secret, I’d try to enter that judo match of yours for a world record.” Eriko said. Ai’s vision was still blurry, and she couldn’t quite remember anything after Onyx’s death. Looking around Ai realized she was on the back of an ambulance with suspiciously generic markings. “Of course the part where you got a concussion was a little sloppy, but you did your best.” Ai grabbed at her head, feeling the bandages wrapped around it. Eriko slapped her hand away. “Don’t touch it. Your body needs time to heal itself.

Furumori had once said the same thing. Ai started laughing, and then she remembered what had happened with her father. She shifted her hand to her shoulder and sighed.

“At least Onyx is dead.” Ai said. “The rest of Fang shouldn’t bother us after that.”

“Yeah, about that…” Eriko said.

“What?” Ai asked. “I saw him get cut in half. Even a dragon couldn’t survive that.” Eriko sighed.

“I guess you don’t remember, then.” Eriko said. “Some secretary chick with a death frisbee swooped in and snagged the upper half. And I swear Onyx was glaring at us.” Ai hung her head. “Look on the bright side. The eggheads think he’ll be down for a while if he needed someone else to save him. And the next time he makes a move we’ll be ready for him.”

“What about Rose?” Ai asked. Around her she saw medics, security guards, and other personnel from the Society wandering the ruins of her home. Some of them were gathering injured people, some of them were forcing agents of Fang to a police truck, and some were digging up the Preciouses that Furumori had kept in the house. Ai herself wondered when the Society would start asking her about the other stashes her father had set up. “And, you know, Ryuji?”

“They’re off somewhere talking.” Eriko said. “Or rather, staring at each other awkwardly given how they were when I left. I guess it was easier to talk in the heat of the moment.” Ai grit her teeth. She couldn’t help but think about what Ryuji had done to his own cousin.

“Will Ryuji-” she asked. Eriko coughed and rubbed the back of her head.

“Ryuji will do his best.” Eriko said. “And I’ll try to help him.” Ai glared at her. “And keep an eye on him.”

“I know what he did.” Ai said.

“And I was there.” Eriko said. Ai squinted. Was Eriko really the same relative Ryuji was said to have attacked? And she was still willing to be in the same country as Ryuji? “Please, trust me.”

“Fine.” Ai grumbled. It was hard to argue after that. “What about me? I’m sure the Society can’t wait to figure out what papa- I mean, what Mr. Furumori did to me.”

“I blinded the first person to breathe a word about it.” Eriko said. Ai studied her face for signs of a joke, but Eriko looked dead serious. “Least I could do for saving us.” Ai smiled and nodded.

“Thank you.” Ai said. Eriko smiled back.

“Now get in the ambulance.” Eriko said. “You’ve done enough for one night.

OOOOO

The sun was rising by the time Furumori reached his home. He wasn’t surprised: He had been walking the whole way. His legs were tired, but his mind felt wide awake. Somehow, the fact that his daughters were liars was making him feel comfortable. It would make his next meeting with them much simpler. Furumori shook his head and started examining the rubble of his home. The tree line had been littered with bullet holes, the yard was covered in muddy tire tracks, and the house itself was essentially gone.

He walked among the rubble. From the damage, he could guess that Onyx and Rose had fought. From the pair of rapidly dissolving legs he found, he could guess that Rose somehow won. He kept walking, confirming that the Society had already looted all the treasure he had spent so long saving from their greedy hands. He had other safe houses, but now that Ai was a liar she was probably ready to turn them over to the Society. He’d have to be ready to abandon them.

Furumori dusted off a slab of roofing and sat down, taking the time to watch the sun rise. It reminded him of the last time he had lost everything, but he wasn’t going to cry. With the distractions gone, he could look forward to properly fulfilling his life.

OOOOO

“Ai, wait for me.” Rose yelled. Ai paused in the hospital door, looking behind her to see Rose hurrying over to her. Ai had covered the bandages on her head with a baseball cap, and had a backpack with a few meager possessions slung over her back. Most of its content had come from the hospital store, but Eriko had managed to return a few trinkets from Furumori’s house, including a yo-yo and a necklace. Rose herself was wearing a dress Ai didn’t recognize and had a full suitcase hanging from her shoulder. As Ai looked the younger girl over, she was surprised to see small scratches and blemishes dotting Rose’s arms and face.

“What do you need?” Ai asked. A half second later she remembered to smile.

“I want to talk.” Rose said. As she reached Ai she scooped up Ai’s hand in her own and started to lead her out of the hospital. “I promised, remember?” Ai chuckled.

“You did say that.” Ai said. “What about Ryuji? You just got to meet him.” Rose looked away from Ai and focused on the sidewalk in front of them.

“We can talk again later.” Rose said. She briefly glanced back at Ai. “He’s kinda shy.”

Not when I met him. Ai thought. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Where are you going?” Rose asked. “Eriko said-”

“Maybe later.” Ai said quick as possible. She shook Rose’s hands loose but continued to follow her. Eriko had made a generous offer of employment, tempting Ai with all the Society contacts she’d need to figure out the truth about herself and none of the usual obligations to the Society. It was the best choice for Ai logically, but Ai wasn’t emotionally ready to work with someone else again. Ai frowned. It was also mean working with Ryuji.

“Where do you want to go?” Rose asked. She started skipping from panel to panel of the sidewalk.

“First I need to see how much money I still have.” Ai said. The Society had leaked Furumori’s information to the mundane police, and Ai had the ugly suspicion that more of Furumori’s accounts were illegitimate than she had originally known. “Then I’ll need someplace to stay. I’ll need a job in the long run, but other than that…” Ai looked up at the sun. “Well, I’ve always kind of wanted to try out school life.”