Hiei had no trouble passing through the barrier around Koenma’s estate. He had thought it would be a simple ward to keep demons out, a miniature scale version of the spirit barrier separating the Ningenkai from the Makai. Glaring at the boundary, he supposed it could still be similar in its discrimination of class level. He didn’t think of himself as a lower class of demon. If others of his level could get through Koenma’s paltry spirit fence, that girl would be no safer here than on her own in the forest they found her in.
Sticking to the shadows, he ran along the branches of the trees near the house. He settled on a branch near the corner room and watched her for a while. She hummed to herself as she sorted her new clothes into the closet and dresser.
“Admiring the view, are we?” a quiet voice spoke from below.
Hiei clenched his jaw. Kurama leapt up into the tree next to him. “What are you doing here, Kurama?”
The kitsune shrugged. “I might ask you the same question.”
“My job,” he shot back, then muttered “whether I like it or not.”
“You didn’t seem to care much about it this morning.” He folded his arms and leaned against the trunk of the tree. Hiei ignored the amused look on Kurama’s face.
Hiei jerked his head toward the window. “There’s something off about that girl, Kurama. I warned you the other day not to underestimate her, and I’m sure there’s more to her than either she or Koenma are letting on.”
“So you sense it too.” Kurama chuckled. “Still, I don’t believe there’s anything sinister about her.”
Hiei struggled to keep from raising his voice. “She’s not just some human with special abilities like Yusuke or that idiot.” He stared his friend down. “Even if she is ignorant of her own power, I don’t believe for a second that Koenma doesn’t know who or what she is.”
Kurama frowned. He knew Hiei had a point. Koenma rarely did anything without purpose and never with any sort of directness. He glanced back at the window just as Ali pulled on her nightshirt. He was relieved he had been distracted long enough to not accidentally peep, but even seeing the flash of her bare back embarrassed him. Hiei rolled his eyes. Humans could be such prudes.
Kurama cleared his throat to talk again, but Ali turned around at the sound. She walked over to the window and peered out of it briefly, eyes scanning the ground searching for the source of the noise. Finding nothing, she shrugged and climbed into her bed and shut off the light.
Kurama was careful to not sigh his relief too loudly. He returned his attention to Hiei. “Is that the only reason you’re here?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
Hiei stood and turned back towards the darkness of the woods. “There’s a foul stench in the air.”
Kurama peered into the darkness but sensed nothing out of the ordinary. He looked back to the darkened room where their new friend lay sleeping. What was her power capable of that drew danger toward her?
Hiei dropped to the ground. “She’s not our friend, Kurama. She’s our mission.” He started to walk away, then stopped and turned to meet the man’s eyes. “Don’t forget that. Don’t get attached.” Hiei left Kurama and scouted around the perimeter.
Koenma’s patrolling security forces didn’t even notice him. In normal circumstances, he would take pride in that, but their incompetence angered him. If he had no trouble sneaking around the estate, he doubted anyone who meant harm to the residents would have any trouble either.
Despite his instincts putting his body on full alert, he found no sign of any potential threats. Cursing, he returned to the tree outside Ali’s bedroom. Kurama had gone inside. He knew the redhead had also noticed all the scars on her body in his brief glimpse. Hiei didn’t care about how she had come by them, but he figured Koenma would be displeased if she acquired any more. Settling into the crook of the branch and the trunk, he pulled his sword to his chest and set to waiting.
To his chagrin, the night passed without incident. Kurama paused to bid him farewell early the following morning. “Ali is usually an early riser but it seems she’s still asleep,” he said as though Hiei should find it interesting. “I was hoping to have breakfast with her, but I do need to get to school.” Hiei kept his face expressionless as he stared the other man down. He was certainly not going to dine with the girl. He’d been up most of the night playing sentry. If anything, he wanted a nap. Blessedly, Kurama gave up. “I’ll see you this afternoon,” he called as he walked away. “Don’t do anything foolish while I’m gone.”
Hiei bit his cheek. The only foolish thing he’d do would be to run far away from this place and let the pieces fall where they may. But as he’d grown accustomed to a particular sort of lifestyle, he stood his ground and remained in Koenma’s service.
The sun was well into its climb by the time he heard her get up. He was still unable to breach her mind, but he could tell she was fatigued. He heard her jaw pop with a long, drawn out yawn. It reminded him how tired he was and he had to stifle a yawn of his own. He wondered if she had been restless during the night because she sensed him watching or if she had sensed the same vague danger that had caused him to stand guard all night.
She left the room and did not return for a while. He dozed off and was woken some time later as she passed underneath him. She made no indication she knew he was there. He didn’t offer greeting in any case. He debated following her, but one of the sentries caught up to her.
“Good morning ma’am. Out for a stroll?” he asked.
Hiei rolled his eyes. No, she’s off to find the wizard. Where did Koenma find these people?
Ali smiled at the guard, her eyes gleaming in the sun. “Just getting a little exercise!”
The guard nodded. “Just don’t wander too far. Wouldn’t want you to get lost now.”
“I promise I’ll stay close,” she said, her smile dripping with honey. The guard tipped his helmet to her and turned to continue his patrol. As soon as his back was turned, her face fell and she rolled her eyes, sticking her tongue out at his head.
Hiei smirked before he caught himself. He could be as disdainful of the guards as he liked; she should at least show some respect to the people protecting her. He decided to follow her after all. Someone had to be competent around here.
For a while he thought she really was just going to wander about the estate. She greeted several of the guards, taunting behind backs the ones that gave her a hard time about being out alone. Hiei almost turned around to go back to his tree instead when she leapt into the canopy at the edge of the estate. He followed her trail a ways before he realized her cleverness.
She hadn’t just greeted every guard she saw. She had gone out of her way to greet every guard on patrol. They all had seen her walking around the estate. They would likely assume she had returned to the house once her circuit was done.
She wasn’t running away, though. Just getting away from the people. He could understand that feeling. He found her resting in a tree that looked out over the ocean. If peace had a face, it was her drowsing in the sun while the ocean breeze tousled her hair.
Hiei turned to return to the estate. He decided to follow her lead and take a nap as well. He was certain she would return after she was rested.
The sun had crossed its zenith when he was jerked awake by a demonic energy headed straight towards the coast where he had left her alone. Cursing his folly for not staying close to her, Hiei scrambled from his nest and sprinted as fast as he could. A second energy surged and just as quickly both vanished. Koenma would have their hides if he was too late.
Blood pounding in his ears, he arrived at the scene moments later to find Ali alive and breathing. Relaxing his grip on his sword, he scanned the ground. The remains of an impish demon lay prostrate in a growing pool of its own blood. Its head was gone. “What happened here?”
She jumped and spun around to face him, bringing her fists up to her head ready to defend herself. She squeaked and dropped them to her stomach as soon as she recognized him. “Hiei!” She glanced back at the newly departed demon so quickly he almost missed it. “I, uh, it was an accident.”
Her lip quivered and her hands were shaking. “It startled me,” her voice cracked. “I was dozing when I felt it coming at me and barely had time to dodge it.” He glanced behind her again at the dead demon and raised his eyebrow. “It followed me to the ground after I fell,” she explained. “It tried to grab me and I kicked at it to keep it away.”
“You… kicked it?”
She paled and he began to wonder if her legs would continue to support her. “I didn’t mean to,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
Hiei frowned. “What are you apologizing for?”
She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. The trembling of her body slowed, though her hands still shook as she gripped them tight. “I shouldn’t have left the estate,” she said more in control of her voice. “It was stupid and foolish, but I was restless.”
He relaxed his stance, taking his hand away from his sword as he considered her. ”My job is to keep you alive, not tell you where you can and can’t go.”
She exhaled as though she’d been holding her breath for hours, her arms falling to her sides as her chin lifted towards the sky in palpable relief. Inhaling deeply, she rested her hands on her waist and brought her face back to him with a smile. “Thank you,” she said.
He gave a non-committal grunt and looked out over the ocean. Her eyes still made him uncomfortable. Watching her from the corner of his eye he asked, “What were you doing out here anyway?”
“I didn’t sleep well. Thought maybe getting some fresh ocean air would help.” She shrugged and gripped one arm with the other hand. “Plus, it’s been getting stronger,” she answered, “this power within me.” She chewed her lower lip. “I’d been meditating almost daily to keep it under control before Koenma sent Yusuke and Kurama to me, but with all the excitement of the past few days I’d neglected it.”
Hiei closed his eyes and shook his head before turning to gape at her. “So, if you had been keeping up with your meditation that demon would have caught you?”
“No, I still could have fought it off!” she said. “Just, with more finesse and less making myself a giant beacon alerting more of them.” She frowned as she realized this last. “Once Koenma gets wind of this I’ll never be allowed out of the mansion and I can’t properly meditate in there.”
Hiei resisted the urge to massage his temple. “How long?”
He tried not to snarl. “How long do you need?”
“Oh.” She brought her finger to her lips as her mind worked on the details. After a moment she met his gaze again, her silver-blue eyes piercing. “At least an hour, maybe a bit more given I haven’t meditated in a few days.”
“An hour,” he agreed, turning away from her to avoid the stare that unnerved him so. “After that you go back to the estate.”
She didn’t respond right away and he glanced back to see if he had upset her. She had tears in her eyes but she was smiling. “Thank you, Hiei,” she said softly. “You’re really not all that bad are you?”
He glowered at her. “One hour. I’ll stay nearby, but as soon as the hour is up you’re on your own.” She nodded and lithely leapt up into the lowest branch of the nearest tree, leaping from branch to branch until she was well into the canopy. She did that with too much ease for an ordinary human.
Hiei knelt next to the creature she had dispatched and noted the trail of blood spatter away from its neck. Following the trajectory, he found its head a hundred meters away in a bush at the edge of the forest. This was what she could do defensively with her power. He glanced up to the canopy. What would she be capable of if she wielded it as a weapon?
He reconnoitered the area in a one kilometer arc. There was no sign of any follow up attack so he worked his way back toward her, taking up a post in the branches of the tree adjacent to her. The minutes ticked by slowly. He really hoped she could finish suppressing her power in a mere hour; he was already growing tired of spending all his time watching her.
The longer he spent near her, the more he felt inexplicably drawn to her. He had always been drawn to power, had sought powerful enemies to test his own strengths against, but this was different. She wasn’t an opponent and it wasn’t her power that pulled his body against his will.
He was sure it had something to do with why her mind was blocked to him. Even the most powerful psychics couldn’t keep him out if he persisted. He could remember only one giving him so much trouble, but that had been a lifetime ago and the memory was hazy.
He sensed someone approaching and the thought evaporated like mist. Couldn’t they go an hour without being ambushed? Swallowing a snarl, he dropped to the ground and pulled his sword. His swing was stopped. In his frustration he hadn’t noticed whether it was foe or ally. “Kurama?”
Kurama had thrown his hand up to block the sword and gently pushed it away from his supple neck. “Quite the greeting,” he replied.
“What are you doing here?” Hiei demanded as he sheathed his sword, ignoring the other man’s raised eyebrow.
“Ali wasn’t at the house,” he answered with a shrug and thrust his hands in his pockets. “Couldn’t find you either, but figured I’d follow my nose and here your scents lead me.” He scanned the area, eyes falling on the corpse behind Hiei. “What happened?”
“She says it attacked her while she was napping and she defended herself,” Hiei explained, folding his arms across his chest and glaring at the body. “Claims she kicked it.”
Kurama turned to face him. “You don’t believe her?”
His scowl deepened. “I’m not sure what to believe about her, Kurama. I don’t like anything about this.” He narrowed his eyes at the dead demon. “Everything about that estate is superficial. The guards, the barrier, they’re all for show.”
“True, they aren’t very good at their jobs,” Kurama mused.
Hiei shook his head. “It’s not that. They don’t actually do their jobs. That barrier couldn’t keep me out. What makes Koenma think it’ll keep out the demons who are after her?”
Kurama thought he was being prideful. Hiei suppressed the urge to snarl at his closest ally. “Hiei, that barrier isn’t to keep demons out,” the other man chuckled. “It’s to prevent unknowing humans from accidentally wandering in.”
Putting aside the small hit to his ego, he scoffed. “Well then how is that place any safer than the mountain you found her on?”
“It has us.” Hiei bit his tongue. He was the only one who had been around for the better part of the past 24 hours. Where were Yusuke and Kuwabara? Kurama inspected the decapitated demon, noting, as Hiei had, where the head had fallen. He looked up at the canopy. “What is she doing?”
Hiei threw his arms behind his head and flopped on the ground at the base of the tree. “Meditating.”
“Oh?” Kurama stood and leaned against the next tree over, glancing back up to where she was hiding.
“Says she needs to in order to control her power. I told her I’d stand by for an hour and then she would go back.” Again Kurama turned his gaze to Hiei with an eyebrow raised. Really, the man could be so skeptical. “Honestly I’d rather leave now that you’re here, but I’m not certain how she’d react to find someone else awaiting her when she wakes.” He tipped his head toward the corpse. “Last one that surprised her lost his head.”
Kurama chuckled and nodded agreement. He elected to stay regardless. He wanted to talk with her and Hiei really wanted to be relieved of babysitting duty.
The rest of the hour passed without incident. Blessedly, Kurama didn’t try to engage in further small talk. He made his speculations silently.
Ali didn’t come down right away. Hiei frowned, wondering if she was even keeping track of the time and if she would know her hour was up without being interrupted. He wasn’t keen on finding out what would happen if she was interrupted, but an hour was what she had agreed to and he was ready to leave.
He signaled to Kurama to wait on the ground as he leapt up into the canopy. He stayed in the next tree over as he climbed up to where she was. She had found a thick branch wide enough to sit cross legged with her back straight against the trunk. Her hands rested lazily on her knees and she was so still he couldn’t tell if she was breathing. “Oy, girl.”
Her eyes fluttered open and she jerked her head towards the sound of his voice. “Hiei,” she breathed, placing a hand on her chest as though she had been startled.
“Time’s up,” he said. “Kurama’s down below waiting to escort you back.”
Her shoulders tightened. “Why?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Because I’m done babysitting you today and he apparently enjoys your company.”
“Really?” Her cheeks tinged pink.
He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “Come on.” He dropped down to the ground and waited for her to follow a second later.
She landed less gracefully than he expected, one knee and both hands on the ground. Kurama took a step toward her to help but she waved him off as she stood up, her legs wobbly. “I’m ok, just tired,” she breathed, gracing him with a smile.
“We should probably get you something to eat,” Kurama returned her smile. It was the same smile Hiei had seen him give to his mother and brother. He gritted his teeth. He had warned the man not to get attached but he was already thinking of her as family.
They turned to walk back to Koenma’s. Hiei was about to leave going anywhere else but from the corner of his eye he saw the color drain from her face. Her eyes glassed over as they stared out at the trail. He didn’t sense any imminent threat but something in her wide-eyed gaze set off alarm bells in his head.
It lasted only a heartbeat before her eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body crumpled to the ground. Hiei was at her side to catch her before her head could crack on the ground. Kurama spun, startled by the sudden turn of events. “What…”
Hiei glared at him. His anger wasn’t with the fox demon; Hiei just hated useless questions. He looked back at the girl, startled to find her in his arms. He stood and handed her to Kurama. “Get her back to the mansion. If she wakes up, do not let her out of your sight.”
Kurama nodded, receiving his light burden tenderly. Her arm hung limp over Kurama’s, as he cradled her head in his chest. What had spooked her so? His inability to penetrate her mind left him feeling blind. “Where are you going?” Kurama called after him as he leapt to the canopy to leave.
“To get some goddamn answers.”