It didn’t surprise Hiei when Botan came to find him midmorning. Koenma had more work for them it seemed, and Hiei was certain Ali would be involved somehow. He was in a good mood so he reserved his snark and simply nodded when the ferry girl told him he was expected in Reikai with the others after the school day was done.
He decided to get some rest while he waited since he hadn’t slept much during the night. His rest was as fitful as Ali’s had been. He dreamt of her. Of fighting her. Of fighting faceless enemies to save her. Of fighting to save someone who was not her but who looked like her; the same face, but with raven hair and eyes as deep crimson and thirsty for blood as his own.
The dreams evaporated like mist as he woke up in the warmth of the sun, his good mood mildly tarnished by the sense of unease that came with the inability to recall them. He pushed the small anxiety aside and headed for Reikai. He was becoming far too familiar with that particular journey for his taste, even if this afternoon’s briefing held a touch of intrigue for him.
He waited outside the Gates of Judgment for the others to arrive. He didn’t need to spend any more time alone with Koenma than necessary, and they might as well all arrive as a team. The others all came straight from school, as evidenced by their uniforms. Ali looked surprisingly comfortable in the sailor skirt and blouse. To Hiei, it looked unnatural.
As they approached he overheard them discussing her first day of human classes. Kuwabara was lauding her intelligence and wondered if she wouldn’t mind tutoring him and Yusuke, much to Yusuke’s chagrin.
“I’m not going to do your homework for you,” she chided with a chuckle. “But we can work together if you like.”
“Since when are you so interested in hitting the books, Kuwabara?” Yusuke muttered.
The ginger flipped him the bird. “Some of us have larger ambitions in life than being street thugs,” he announced.
Yusuke appeared to be about to protest, but Ali stalled him. “That’s a wonderful thing to aspire to, Kazuma,” she said sweetly. “I will help you in those ambitions.” Her smile did not waver as she noticed Hiei standing along the wall outside the palace. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she greeted, waving as they jogged toward him.
He shrugged. “It’s about time you all got here. I was growing bored,” he said.
Kurama raised an eyebrow. “It’s not like you to be the first one here, Hiei,” Yusuke noted. “Least, not without Kurama to drag you along.” He smirked.
Hiei let the taunt slide. “Guess I’m slipping. I won’t make it a habit,” he said, turning to enter the castle ahead of them. Let them make of that what they would. He listened to their amicable chatter behind him, Ali’s voice light and airy as she laughed about an incident with another classmate. Hiei didn’t care about the particulars, not that he could focus with Kurama’s gaze boring a hole in his back.
Koenma awaited them in his office, half a dozen chairs in front of his desk for them to sit in. Hiei took his customary post along the side wall as the others took the provided seating. “You know, I’m starting to think maybe we should just move in here,” Yusuke joked.
“There are a hundred reasons that wouldn’t work,” Koenma waved off the jibe. “Plus, this whole mission has been a bit unconventional from the start. I didn’t anticipate calling you here every other day either, you know.”
“Well then why are we here this time?” Yusuke shot back at him. “And why is she here? No offense,” he added with a nod to Ali. She shrugged, taking no umbrage.
Hiei hid his amusement at Yusuke’s insubordination. Koenma frowned, but did not rebuke him as he ought to. “I’ve asked you all here to officially appoint Ali as an honorary member of the team,” he announced. “Starting today, I want you all to begin training together.” He turned his stern gaze on Ali, and Hiei noticed the slight tightening of her shoulders under that stare. “You need to learn to control your power, to be able call on it at will. We cannot risk you accidentally unleashing it or not being able to protect yourself. So, you will train as well.”
A silence fell over the room as Ali’s demeanor changed. Her face was stone as she glared at Koenma, silver eyes flashing dangerously and reminding Hiei of her warpath towards Hitokiri. Many demons had met their end at the hands of the girl with that icy glower.
Her voice when she spoke was as haunting as it had been when she taunted Hitokiri during their fight. “Do you think I’ve just been idle these past few years?” she growled. “You don’t get it. No one gets it. I am in control. Everyone thinks there’s a secret key to unlocking it as if it’s hidden away, but it’s not. It’s always there, right beneath the surface. That’s why I meditate every day to suppress it. I know what I’m capable of. Do you?”
Koenma stood his ground against her tirade. Hiei credited the man for that. He’d never believed the prince to be a brave man, but Hiei did not envy him being the target of her ire. The others watched the exchange, dumbstruck. Yusuke barely contained his astonishment. Kuwabara’s jaw couldn’t drop any lower.
It was Kurama who broke the silence. “You are not human, are you?”
She went rigid. Koenma responded for her, his eyes cautious. “No, she isn’t,” he said calmly. “But then, wolves are masters of deception.” Her eyes fell to the floor and she held her skirt in her fists so tightly her knuckles were white.
“Wait, she’s a wolf?” Unsurprisingly, Kuwabara did not fully grasp the situation.
“Demon actually,” Hiei supplied. “Although as I recall, they’re extinct.” All the color drained from Ali’s face and once again he cursed his inability to read her. Her eyes were wet as she turned towards him.
“As far as I know, she’s the only one still alive,” Koenma said softly.
Yusuke didn’t bother to hide his contempt. “Just how long have you known?” he barked.
“I’ve told you I held suspicions from the start,” he answered calmly. “There are still many things I don’t know,” he added. “Like what happened to the rest of the wolf demons and how she came to be the sole survivor.”
Ali trembled as the tears ran down her cheeks. She leaned forward in her chair and buried her face in her hands as she choked back sobs. Hiei’s jaw tightened as Kuwabara placed a comforting hand on her back. “Hey, don’t worry about it,” he soothed. “You don’t have to tell us right now.”
She swallowed a deep breath of air as she tried to rein in her emotions. “It’s not that I don’t want to explain,” she said between sobs. “I can’t.” She looked at Koenma, her earlier fierceness gone and replaced with despair. “I don’t remember anything from before.”
Koenma nodded. “I had figured as much.”
“You knew about that too?” Yusuke’s anger flared as Hiei suppressed his.
“I did also inform you she might not be aware of her power,” Koenma cut back. “I didn’t think it necessary to explain my reasoning. Not that you would have listened anyway.” The prince’s icy stare cooled him. Yusuke couldn’t really argue with that.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Ali muttered.
“What do you mean?” Kurama asked.
She scrubbed away her tears and wiped her nose on her sleeve, shaking her head. “I should have stayed in hiding. I was a fool for leaving. I can’t have a normal life. Everyone around me is in danger.”
Yusuke’s laugh startled her. “Please, you think our lives are so normal? I saved a kid from being hit by a car and died in the process, but here I am. Alive and kicking.” He grinned and pointed at Kuwabara. “This idiot is so sensitive he can feel spirits a mile away and warn us of an impending natural disaster. Kurama over there is some crazy human-demon hybrid, ex-thieving, momma’s boy. And Hiei…” he trailed off as he met Hiei’s stony glare.
Ali looked at him as if for the first time. “You’re a demon too,” she whispered.
“Yeah. He and Kurama were the first guys I fought as a Spirit Detective,” Yusuke said. “So don’t worry. Danger has a way of finding us, one way or another. We’re pros at this sort of thing.”
Hiei watched the tension melt from her shoulders, as the gentle smiles and encouraging words of her friends reassured her of her place among them. Kurama chided Yusuke for being so harsh in his description of him, but laughed that it wasn’t inaccurate. Ali made him promise to tell her the story.
“You can all get to know each other as you train together,” Koenma reiterated, bringing some semblance of order back to the train wreck of a meeting. “Ali, you may have your power under control, but it won’t remain that way for long if you fall behind on your meditation.” She nodded agreement. “What else can you do?”
This was a test. Hiei had already told Koenma about her spirit bow, but she didn’t know Koenma knew. Ali sighed. “My power is under my control, but there are things that I’m still remembering how to do. Memories come in flashes,” she explained, looking at the team in turns. “When I watched you all fighting, I realized I could also use my spirit energy as a weapon.” She turned back to Koenma. “My father taught me how to use a bow, so that’s what I used.”
“You have a spirit weapon too?” Kuwabara shrieked in excitement.
Ali blushed and nodded. “It’s not particularly helpful in close quarters though. Between learning how to fight from my father, and teaching myself how to use a sword after he was…” her voice broke off for a moment. She smiled sadly again, that same painful smile Hiei had witnessed at the beach. “After he died, I was attacked by some demons. They nearly captured me, but my instincts took over and kept me alive.” She shrugged. “One of them had a sword. I had all the free time in the world so I kept it and practiced with it.”
“We’ve got a couple swordsmen who could see just how good you are with yours,” Yusuke smirked. He was excited about the prospect of a new sparring partner.
“We’ll just have to have a swordfight to find out,” she grinned back at him.
Hiei laughed. “Please, I could beat you with my right arm tied behind my back.”
Ali’s eyes flashed mischievously. “Maybe if I was similarly handicapped, and blindfolded.”
She held his gaze. He smirked. “Is that a challenge?”
“Guys, c’mon, let’s not fight,” Kuwabara tried to intervene.
Ali’s face broke into a wide grin as she turned back to the others. “No, let’s fight! What better way to train?” She turned to Koenma. “Any chance you could send us back to my home in the mountains?”
“I could,” he said slowly. “But why there?”
“It’s a vast secluded area in the middle of nowhere. Why not there?” she grinned.
Koenma still seemed reluctant, but he relented when Kurama reminded him they’d all be together and would only be a few hours. “Very well. I’ll send Botan to retrieve you after.” He brought up a portal for them and waved them through.
The crisp mountain air invigorated everyone. Ali took off running. They gave chase, fearful at first that she was attempting to flee. She allayed that fear when she turned a grin back at them and waved them towards the mountain. “That’s where I used to live!” she announced, leading the way.
They arrived at a wide clearing at the base of the mountain. The charred remains of a small house sat at the end of a trail almost hidden by new growth. Hiei had a feeling that trail would eventually lead back to civilization. There was a small storm-battered shed on their end of the clearing and Ali disappeared into it.
“I will never complain about my mom’s place again,” Yusuke said softly, taking in the sight of the burned building. Only one wall remained upright, despite all odds, while the rest of the house had caved in on top of itself. Behind the ashes, a garden suffocated under weeds and mountain flora trying to reclaim their home. Scattered tools collected rust in the years of disuse. A long handled axe slept in a stump scarred from years of use as a chopping block, the wood handle weathered from exposure to the elements.
Two small towers of stacked stones stood side by side on the far side of the garden. She mentioned her father had died several years ago. The growth in the garden and the house could attest to that timeframe. Humans often placed such markers on the graves of their deceased, but there were two graves, and she was not human.
Ali emerged from the shed looking far more comfortable in athletic capris and a close fitted tank top, her hair tied loosely at the base of her neck. She noticed their stares and followed their gaze to the ruins of her childhood home. “I did that,” she said. They all looked at her with varying degrees of sympathy. She grinned, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I had hoped it would throw my enemies off my trail. When I went on the run, I never stayed in one place for too long. But I keep a cache here, for emergencies.” She hefted a small duffle bag to her shoulder. “Shall we go?”
“We’re not gonna fight here?” Kuwabara asked, a hint of relief in his voice.
“Idiot,” Yusuke muttered.
Ali laughed. “There’s another spot a little bit further on where my father taught me how to fight.” Her smile took on a mischievous slant. “My sword is there too.”
They followed her to another clearing. She seemed to be feeling far more comfortable in surroundings that were familiar to her. She wasn’t quite skipping, but she had a bounce in her gait that came close. The other boys grinned, feeding off her excitement. Hiei refused to let his curiosity distract him, but even he was feeling the exhilaration that came with a new challenge.
Ali dropped the bag to the ground at the base of a wide tree. She leapt up to the lowest branch and peered into the nook where it met the tree. “Oh good, it’s still here,” she beamed, sticking her arm into the hollow and withdrawing a two foot long blade from within.
She dropped back to ground level and held it out triumphantly in front of her. Yusuke and Kuwabara were at her side a moment later, gawking over the weapon. As far as Hiei could tell, it wasn’t anything special. It was certainly well cared for–the blade shone from regular sharpening–but the scabbard was old, signs of wear evident along its scuffed and nocked length.
After inspecting it to her satisfaction, she returned it to its scabbard and turned her gleeful grin to Hiei. “Ready to jump right in?” she asked. He nodded. “Good!” She turned to her bag and pulled out some strips of cloth. “Now, I think we said we’d tie our right hands behind our backs and I would be blindfolded.”
“You were serious about that?” Hiei refrained from laughing aloud as she nodded again. Kurama smirked at him as he took some of the cloth and restricted Hiei’s right arm awkwardly behind his back. His amusement faltered a bit.
Yusuke and Kuwabara were helping Ali with her bindings. There was a split second of panic in her as the cloth was tightened around her waist, a subtle widening of the eyes that was not from pain or tightness, but she laughed as she congratulated them on their work. “Yup, that should hold me.” She caught Hiei watching her and her eyes sharpened.
He turned his attention back to Kurama as the other man tightened Hiei’s binding. He pulled against it to test the resistance. It would do for their mock fight, but it would break easily if he really wanted to get out of it.
“A little tighter, please. I can still see a little,” Ali was saying to Kuwabara. “That’s better, thanks.” He tied off the dark cloth and stood away from her as she knelt to the ground to retrieve her sword. She grasped the scabbard and jerked it toward the sky, releasing her blade and deftly catching the hilt as it flipped back down to earth.
Kuwabara gasped and Ali grinned. “That was lucky,” she laughed. “That could have turned very awkward if I’d missed and sliced off my own arm.”
Hiei doubted she would have missed. She twisted the blade around, loosening her arm and acclimating it to the weight of the blade in her off hand. He unsheathed his own sword and began to do the same.
It felt strange in his left hand, but that was the point. He gave a few practice swings and thrusts to get accustomed to the feel of it. Once he was satisfied, he turned to face his opponent.
She was standing across from him, her stance relaxed as though she were awaiting a friend at the mall, not the start of a battle. Hiei frowned. He didn’t know if she was overconfident or simply mocking him but his annoyance grew regardless. She thought she was skilled with a sword, did she? A few years of solitary self-teaching was nothing compared to the experience his many years had given him. He would put her in her place.
He lunged toward her, expecting to catch her unprepared. Instead, his sword caught only air as she flipped over him, effectively trading positions. Kuwabara muttered something about “unfair” and “should’ve asked if she was ready first” but Hiei ignored it and was already swinging his sword at her waist.
Ali parried with her own blade and chuckled at his efforts as she spun away from another slash of his blade. He cursed internally. He was far too slow with his left hand.
That’s why we’re doing this exercise, he heard her voice in his mind, to improve that.
Snarling, he swung his sword down a touch more forcefully than was warranted in their mock fight. I do not recall giving you permission to read my thoughts, he growled back. He’d thought his mental barriers were sufficient to keep her at bay.
She smirked and blocked another of his strikes. Sorry, she replied, sounding not the least bit apologetic. I can’t see, so I use my telepathy to determine your moves. I’ll stop if you prefer.
Hiei leapt away from her. “Enough of this nonsense,” he said aloud, startling the spectators. “Take off that blindfold and fight me for real. I want to see what you’re truly capable of.” He pulled his arm free of its restraint as he spoke.
Her arm also broke free and she removed the blindfold from her face. “If you insist,” she crooned. Her silver eyes danced with excitement and she bared her teeth. He had never seen her wear such a smile before. There was something animalistic in the way her lips pulled back, in the way her arms rippled as she adjusted her grip on her sword. Here was the wolf, not the girl, ready to strike.
Hiei’s blood pulsed; not from fear–he feared no one–but from excitement, the thrill of a fight of which he could not be certain he would emerge victorious. And yet, he wanted to know–needed to know–just how strong she was.
He had little time to react as Ali went on the offensive this time, appearing at his side in an instant. He brought up his blade in time to save his left arm from her attack, forcing her to leap away from his own swing and try again. He followed her before she could counterattack, but she ducked his swing to her neck and swept her leg to knock him off his feet.
He hadn’t lost his footing in a swordfight since he was a child, but he didn’t have time to moan about it. On his back, Ali had the upper hand. She swung overhead, driving her sword into the earth as he rolled away from her blow and managed to drive the hilt of his sword into her side.
She stumbled sideways with the impact, but turned it into momentum by spinning around and swinging her blade around to strike at his side. He blocked it easily, parrying it with his own sword. He pushed against her, forcing her to step back yet again, and repaid her in kind for knocking him off balance.
Ali fell to her back much as Hiei had not a moment before. His downward strike came much quicker than hers. She had no time to roll away, but a quiet murmur from the spectators alerted him to his folly. Yusuke had muttered an impressed curse, Kuwabara another stunned gasp, and Kurama chuckled softly.
Hiei halted his swing with his blade inches away from her serene, smug face. Her own blade was just as close to his chest. To strike the final blow would be suicide. Her sword was similar to his, but it was older, he realized, and also longer by a couple inches. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to call the draw in their fight.
It was over in a flash, but as their blades had danced, Hiei found he had enjoyed himself. “Guess it’s a tie, huh?” Ali grinned. He nodded, and extended his hand to her. If she was surprised by his offer, it showed only in the second of hesitation before she accepted it. She clasped his hand and stood to her feet with his help.
Her heartbeat only raced a little. She was just as exhilarated from their match as he was, and equally unfazed by the strain. Her blue eyes glimmered, seeming to plead for round two, but then she remembered their company and turned on the others.
She pulled her hand from his and brandished it at their companions. “You guys are supposed to be training too,” she scolded them. “I’ll come join you after another couple rounds with this guy.” She flashed a grin and winked at him as she took up a defensive position across from him again.
Her tone brooked no argument, and they began stretching, throwing taunts at each other as they did so. Hiei paid them no mind as he faced off against her again. They took turns going on the offensive, and cycled through victories and draws.
Most of his own victories, as few as they were, came when she initiated the round. She had power, but her strength lay in her speed and cunning. These were best utilized when she was on defense and why he won so few of the rounds in which he took the lead. He had the power advantage, but she was almost always able to turn it on him when she was defending.
Most of their bouts ended in a draw, although they weren’t exactly keeping score. Still, after a half hour of trading blades, he was confident he had the edge over her on the rounds that did not end in draws. Her weary grin conceded she felt the same.
She sheathed her sword and set it on her bag, stretching her arms over her head as she stood up. “Well I’m warmed up, how about you?” she grinned.
Hiei shrugged. He couldn’t deny he was feeling a little exhilarated from their fight, but he would never admit it aloud. He didn’t really see the point to this training session to begin with; he didn’t believe he needed team training to keep himself in top form, but his curiosity hadn’t been completely sated.
Ali jogged over to where the other boys were grappling on the ground, Kurama standing over them shaking his head. “Mind if I join in?” she laughed.
They scrambled to their feet and glared at each other. Kuwabara tried to protest about fighting her, but she stuffed his objections with a lightning quick fist to his jaw. Yusuke laughed as Kuwabara sailed across the clearing but was cut short as her foot found his hip, sending him into his friend a second later. She was on them as soon as they were back on their feet.
Hiei watched in fascination as Ali took them both on, her movements as fluid and precise as they had been with her sword. Kuwabara tried to focus his offense on Yusuke, his personal code of honor preventing him from outright attacking Ali. This seemed to amuse her, and she ganged up on the poor fool with Yusuke until he agreed to fight back.
Kurama cleared his throat next to Hiei. “Shall we join them?”
“By all means, join them.” Hiei turned to leave. This fighting held no meaning for him and he wanted to run. He had seen enough.
To Kurama’s credit, he didn’t question Hiei, simply giving him a knowing smirk before entering the fray with the others. Without a backward glance, Hiei took off. He didn’t want to waste time pondering over that smirk and give Ali a chance to head him off.
He paused only a second at the burned out husk of her childhood home, sparing only a momentary glance for the grave markers at the edge of the overgrown garden. As he ran he wondered, who were the dead buried there, and who had buried them? The girl, or the wolf demoness?