Ali woke up some time later back in her bed at Koenma’s estate. She bolted upright, startled to find herself there. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows along the walls, dust mites dancing in the beams. There was a faint scent of roses in the room, but she found no flowers as she scanned her purview.
Kurama was sitting poised on the edge of the chaise lounge in the corner and had straightened when she awoke. “How are you feeling?” he asked softly.
She sat stiffly, unsure of what to tell him. Her head was pounding as though a million thoughts were trying to scramble out at once. The room seemed too loud but it was only her own thoughts invading the silence. She decided to evade his question with one of her own. “How did I get here?”
“I carried you back here,” he answered. “You overexerted yourself on an empty stomach and collapsed.” It was a question, though he seemed to think if he spoke it as fact it would be the truth.
Ali let her shoulders relax, though she still remained stiffly upright. “Thank you.” She forced a smile and hoped he would take it as genuine. She hoped he couldn’t sense her terror. “How long was I out?” she inquired, surprised at how steady her voice came out.
He leaned back in the chair, relaxing muscles taut from vigilant watch. “About an hour,” he replied. “I thought about waking you, but I figured you must need the rest.”
She allowed herself a small smile. “I appreciate it. I didn’t get much sleep last night.” There had been a danger lurking in the dark, just out of reach. It was enough to cause her to toss and turn and have strange dreams. She was only able to sleep as much as she did because there was another presence keeping watch. At first she had thought it was Kurama, but Hiei’s appearance at the coast made her reconsider.
“I had wondered about that,” Kurama interrupted her thoughts. “You were still asleep when I came to see if you would join me for breakfast.”
She felt her cheeks flush and wondered if he noticed in the darkening room. “Sorry about that,” she said.
He waved dismissively. “There’s always tomorrow.”
“Yes,” she grinned. The birds chirping in the trees outside her window seemed to sing agreement. She was not as hopeful as they were. She sighed as her stomach betrayed her hunger. “I could really use something to eat now,” she added sheepishly.
He chuckled and rose to his feet. “Shall we head downstairs and forage?”
She nodded. “Absolutely.” Swinging her feet over the side of the bed, she grabbed the arm he offered her for support. “Thank you.” Her legs were still unsteady, but they grew stronger with every step. They were almost to the end of the hall when she halted him. “Actually, I’ll be down in a second. Need to use the ladies room.” She winked and ducked into the nearest bathroom.
He sighed in exasperation. “I can wait,” he said through the door.
She chewed over ideas to get him to leave. Grinning to herself, she mocked his exasperated sigh and announced, “I can’t go if I know you’re standing right there,” as petulantly as she could manage.
She heard him chuckle. “Alright, fine. I’ll see you downstairs in a few minutes.” It didn’t feel right, deceiving him, but she needed the diversion. She listened as his footsteps faded down the stairs.
As soon as he was gone, she crept out of the bathroom and back to her room. She rummaged in her closet for the knapsack she had purchased on her shopping excursion the previous day. She went to the dresser and dug out a couple changes of clothes. She had lived with less before; Koenma could take back the remaining clothes as reparations.
It had been a mistake to accept his offer. She realized that now. No one could keep her safer than she could keep herself. At the very least, no one aside from her could come to harm if she were on her own. If she left, her nightmare couldn’t come true. Those boys wouldn’t have to die.
She wasn’t sure how, but she knew that the vision she had after meditating was the truth. It felt like the air turning just before a storm, a subtle shift, warning her to get to cover even though the skies are still blue. The clouds would roll in soon enough; she didn’t have to see them to know, she just felt it. Then would come the first crack of thunder.
She dropped her bag to the floor and spun on her heel. Kurama was leaning casually in the doorway. She had been so concerned with getting away she hadn’t noticed him arrive. His smile was meant to be encouraging, calming, but his eyes were dark. He was disappointed she had tried to deceive him.
The first drop of rain.
“Kurama, I’m sorry,” she whispered as her vision blurred. She tried to blink the tears away, but she felt their warmth on her cheeks. “It’s not safe here.”
He softened his gaze, but did not move from her doorway. “Ali, it’s perfectly safe here, but we can’t protect you if you run off on your own.”
She shook her head and scrubbed vigorously at her eyes. “You aren’t safe,” she muttered, an image flashing in her mind of crimson rivulets streaking his face like lightning bolts as he lay unmoving in a dark forest.
He stopped leaning against the frame and regarded her more seriously. “Ali,” he repeated her name like a mantra, as if by saying it enough times it would bind her to the space and keep her from fleeing, “you can trust us. We can protect you.”
More lightning, more images of fallen, blood-soaked heroes urging her feet to move, to prevent their fate. She took a deep breath. “I won’t have your blood on my hands,” she whispered, tucking them under her arms.
He moved to comfort her, strong hands gripping her shoulders tenderly, a kindly smile encouraging bravery. “You underestimate us,” he laughed. “I swear to you, we can handle whatever comes our way.”
His confidence bubbled over. He truly believed in their abilities. He didn’t know how wrong he was. She wiped away the tears and smiled up at him. “You have been very kind to me. I’m sorry to be such a burden.”
“You’re not a bur-“ His words were cut off as she buried her fist in his stomach. He coughed once and his eyes fluttered, struggling to stay open, his lips trying to move to convince her to stay.
The rain was coming.
Tears poured down her cheeks as she caught his weight with her shoulder and carried him over to the chair. “I promise I will remember your kindness, Kurama. Give my regards to Yusuke and Botan, the others as well.”
She retrieved her bag and slung it over her shoulder. With one foot on the windowsill, she spared a last glance for him. She whispered another apology. “Farewell.” She leapt to the nearest tree and ran along the branches into the forest.
The thunder in her mind was growing louder. The further she could get from the estate and those boys, the safer they’d be.
* * *
Koenma was finishing up the last of his paperwork when Hiei walked in. He still wasn’t sure why he was bothering; he was hardly the first person the young lord of the Reikai would divulge his secrets to. The toddler prince glanced up from his rhythmic stamping and set the device aside when he recognized his guest. “Hiei, this is a surprise.”
Hiei glared at him. Small talk and pleasantries were an annoyance. Kurama was better suited to deal with their employer, but someone had to watch the girl and Hiei had done more than his fair share. “The real surprise was the attack that girl managed to fend off by herself.”
Koenma’s brows knitted together and he pushed himself to his feet on his desk. “What attack? Is she unharmed? What was she doing alone?”
Hiei kept his voice calm. “You can’t cage a wolf and not expect her to wander,” he said.
Koenma’s eyes narrowed slightly; Hiei almost wasn’t sure he had seen it. “What do you mean by that?”
“Humans are basically animals,” he scoffed. “Corner them, cage them, they get flighty. This one was used to having free roam of an entire mountainside and like the wolves that hunt there, she has claws.”
The child prince nodded. “Tell me what happened.”
“I just did,” Hiei snarled. Talking to the man was useless. “Tell me who is after her and why we don’t just go right to the source and be done with this business.”
“I told you, there are many forces at play, many who would want her power.”
“So let’s kill them all.”
Koenma chuckled. “That’s not how we do things and you know it.” Hiei bit his tongue. “Why are you really here, Hiei? It’s not like you to get so worked up over a mission.”
It wasn’t. That was part of his problem. She threw him off balance. He didn’t want to have anything to do with this mission anymore. “She said the power is getting stronger. That it’s harder for her to control without some bit of meditation.”
“Interesting,” Koenma mused. “Go on.”
“This would be a lot easier if you’d just tell me what you know about her,” he snarled.
Koenma sighed and sat cross-legged on his desk. The memory of Ali in the same pose in the tree came unbidden to his mind. He shook it away. “Everything I know about her is speculation to this point,” Koenma said. “It wouldn’t be helpful. But speaking of helpful, it’s about time you learned how to give a proper mission report.”
Hiei’s shoulders tightened. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, details.”
“Kurama could do it,” he hesitated.
“Kurama isn’t here, you are. And Kurama wasn’t with her all day, you were.”
Hiei eyed him skeptically. “If you know all that then you know what happened.”
“Lucky guess,” he answered. “Now tell me everything.” Koenma grilled him on everything he had seen her do or heard her say. He didn’t remember every little detail, he didn’t care about what she did while she was in the house and only told Koenma about following her to find her napping. “And then you left her there?”
He stiffened again. “Yes.” He expected a rebuke but none came.
“Then what?” He refrained from groaning as he told of the attack and finding her standing over the decapitated body, how she had thrown up her fists like a seasoned fighter to defend herself had he turned out to be another foe, how he agreed to stand guard while she meditated.
“Then Kurama showed up and I let him handle it,” he finished.
“You left her to wake up alone with someone else after what had happened?” Koenma asked, incredulous.
“Of course not,” Hiei snapped. “I stayed until she was finished, had to wake her, and let her know Kurama was going to be her company for the afternoon.”
Koenma stared him down over his pacifier. “And that was it?”
“That’s it.” Hiei had had enough of this game. He wasn’t going to get any answers from Koenma and he was tired of talking. He turned to leave. As Koenma entered his periphery he remembered Ali’s pale face in the same. “Oh, she did go catatonic and faint before I left. Kurama felt she just needed some rest and nourishment.”
Koenma’s face turned as red as the sash on his tunic. “She fainted? And you didn’t think to mention that sooner?”
Hiei smirked. The pint-sized ruler’s tantrum was enough to make up for the excessive talking he’d been coerced into. “Well, you seemed more interested in what she was wearing or eating than anything else.”
“I don’t even know where to begin with you,” Koenma sighed as he reached for the intercom on his desk. “Botan, go fetch Yusuke and Kuwabara. It could be nothing, but I want everyone at the estate tonight.” Hiei suppressed a groan. That was the last place he wanted to be.
“Aye sir,” came the harried reply.
“Hiei, do you know what caused her to faint?”
“I told you I don’t.”
“You told me what Kurama thought,” Koenma retorted. “I’m asking if you sensed anything amiss, if maybe you saw something in her mind that would give us a clue.”
“I can’t read her mind.”
Koenma froze. Hiei kept his expression neutral so that Koenma wouldn’t realize just how smug he felt about the other man’s reaction. “What do you mean you can’t? Because she’s out of your range?”
Hiei frowned. “I haven’t been able to see inside her head since you introduced her to us the other day.”
Koenma wiped a hand down his face. “And you didn’t think to mention that either?”
“I’m not prone to admitting weakness,” he reminded Koenma.
“Hiei, you are one of my strongest fighters and probably my strongest telepath. With all the unknowns with this case, your inability to read her mind should have been a red flag worth mentioning!”
“Why is it important?” Hiei snarled back. “Do you know who or what is capable of blocking me?”
Koenma sighed. “No, I don’t.”
“A psychic strong enough to hinder my Jagan and you have no ideas?” Hiei laughed mirthlessly. “You honestly expect me to believe that?”
Koenma’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be weighing his words. Hiei gritted his teeth. Couldn’t the man just be forthcoming for once? “We keep track of all psychics,” Koenma began in a measured tone, “noting their strengths and monitoring for abnormalities. They are very useful to us, as you know, but there are none alive capable of fully blocking your Jagan.”
Hiei considered him for a moment. That was more information than he had ever expected to get out of Koenma. But the words had been carefully chosen. “Alive?” Hiei repeated.
A grin teased at the corner of the other man’s lips. “Perceptive as always.” Koenma returned to his chair and folded his hands in front of him on his desk. “There was one psychic who was stronger than any we had ever encountered.”
Again with the past tense. Hiei couldn’t help feeling like Koenma was testing him, as if this psychic was a person he should remember. He wasn’t sure how, but he felt the “we” meant to include him, not just Reikai intelligence. “Is that our enemy?”
Koenma chuckled but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “No, that person has been gone a long time.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Anyway, I need you to get back to the estate to meet Yusuke and Kuwabara and fill in Kurama.”
“And what exactly am I telling him?” Hiei snarled.
Koenma raised an eyebrow. “To be vigilant. Don’t let anything happen to our guest.”
“Do you expect another attack so soon?”
“I’d rather be over cautious than not enough,” he shrugged. Hiei turned to leave, not looking forward to overtime babysitting. He hoped his sentence would be shortened once this mission was over. “Oh, and Hiei, let’s keep the psychic between us. Until we know what we’re dealing with.”
He grunted. As if he would remind them he could read their minds anytime he wanted and admit that their ward’s mind was inaccessible to him.
The sun was getting low in the sky as he returned to the estate. He found the tree by the corner of the mansion and checked the room for Ali or Kurama. The bed was wrinkled where she had been sleeping in it but there was no sign of her. Kurama was supposed to stay with her. Maybe they were elsewhere in the house.
Gritting his teeth and steeling himself to go inside, he used the open window as an entrance. Easiest to track them from the room. They couldn’t have been gone long.
He noticed Kurama’s scent first. It wasn’t just a lingering trace, and he heard the man’s haggard breathing a heartbeat later. Hiei was kneeling at his friend’s side in an instant. “Kurama!”
The redhead groaned and coughed, clutching his stomach as he did so. “Hiei?”
Hiei frowned. “What happened?”
“It would seem I have made a slight miscalculation,” he wheezed. Kurama smiled but his eyes flashed dangerously. “I did what you told me not to. I underestimated her.”
“Where did she go?”
Kurama shook his head. “I’m not sure. She was on her way out when I caught her. Whatever she felt out there in the woods, it scared her into running away.”
“How hard did she hit you?” Hiei asked with one eyebrow raised.
“Hard enough,” his friend chuckled, forcing another cough. “Though after seeing what she is capable of, I’m grateful I’m only winded.”
Hiei got back to his feet and looked out the window at the setting sun. “Do you know how long you were out?”
“Not long if the sun is still up. Ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
Hiei nodded. “Koenma sent Botan to fetch Yusuke and Kuwabara. They should be here any minute, and then we should go after her.”
Kurama took several breaths, each one less labored than the previous. He nodded as he regained his ability to breathe properly. “Agreed.” He got to his feet and winced as his abdomen unfolded. “Kuwabara is never going to let me live this down,” he sighed.
Hiei snorted. “If she had hit him that hard, he’d have been hospitalized.”
Kurama laughed, the pain subsiding with every moment that passed. Hiei leapt from the window to the courtyard below. Kurama followed and together they walked to the main gate. The other half of their team arrived with Botan moments later.
“What’s going on?” Yusuke asked. “Where’s Ali?”
Botan’s face fell as she realized Kurama and Hiei were on their own. “Oh no.”
“She gave me the slip,” Kurama admitted. “I caught her trying to run away, tried to convince her to stay, but she knocked me out before taking off.”
Kuwabara laughed. “You’re joking, right? That little girl took you out?”
Hiei rolled his eyes. “Told you,” he muttered.
“I’m serious. And she’s in trouble, we need to go after her.”
“I’ll return to Koenma,” Botan cried.
A sudden wind blew in from the west. It was arid, even for late summer, and carried with it the scent of blood. Kuwabara cursed as it blew his hair backwards and Yusuke gritted his teeth against the gust. “That doesn’t feel normal,” he said.
As suddenly as it whipped up, it ceased. “We need to hurry,” Kurama announced.
“Why? What’s going on?” Kuwabara shouted.
“Fool, couldn’t you sense it?” Hiei barked. “There is a swarm of demons out there and I’m willing to bet they aren’t here sight-seeing.”
Yusuke turned to Botan. “Go, let Koenma know we’re on it!” She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes as she took to the sky on her oar. “Hiei go on ahead, we’ll be right behind you.”
Hiei nodded. He was faster than the rest of them, he could at least get started. “I’ll try to leave you some to play with,” he smirked, not waiting for the cocky reply as he took off. The blood on the wind hadn’t been hers, he told himself. She wasn’t dead yet.