Ali watched Hiei leave through her bedroom window and disappear into the dark. The chill air that poured in after him did not cool her anger. She slammed it shut and locked it. He would not be coming in without her permission anymore.
After drawing the curtains she set to removing her jewelry and slipped out of her dress. She hopped in the shower for a quick rinse. A full shower could wait until the morning, but she would sleep better with some of the sweat from the party washed off her. She needed to wash her face at the very least.
Feeling refreshed and comfortable in sweats and a hoodie, she lay in bed half an hour later staring at the ceiling in the dark. She had been a little nervous leading up to the party, feeding off Koenma’s poorly concealed anxieties, but it had passed without incident and she met new people and even made a few new friends. She also got to see Hiei in a suit. That alone was worth it.
She rolled on to her side and stared at the window. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so short with him. He was just doing his job, after all. She just wished she knew why he kept her at arm’s length. The others had all long embraced her as friend and ally, but he was still resistant.
There had almost been something of a breakthrough with him before the holidays began. At least, she felt like the gap might be closing and they could talk about things other than training or her meditation. Like she could with Yuki.
It really had been fortuitous that she had fallen into his lap, despite her initial embarrassment. He had been so easy to talk to, like an old friend picking up where they had left off. She blushed, thinking about their conversations and the promise of a reunion in less than a day.
The sun warmed her face as she awoke on Christmas morning, fully rested after a blessedly dreamless night. A knock at her door shook the last of the sleep from her body. She wasn’t expecting anyone so early.
“Atsuko?” Ali blinked back her surprise as she opened the door to find Yusuke’s mother standing there. Her first thought was that the woman had forgotten which apartment was hers, but Ali didn’t smell an overabundance of alcohol on her. “Is everything ok?”
“I wondered if you wanted to join Yusuke and me for breakfast? I meant to remind him to ask you last night but it slipped my mind.” She grinned and Ali recalled seeing her heading to the bar fairly early in the afternoon the previous day.
Ali smiled. “I’d love to. I’ll be over as soon as I shower.”
“Yay! See you soon!” Atsuko waved and danced back to her own door.
A short while later Ali was in Yusuke’s apartment setting a table for breakfast. Atsuko had found a festive hat and was singing carols in the kitchen as she worked at the stove. Yusuke protested her musical selection but she only sang louder. Ali joined in and he shook his head in defeat.
“I’m so glad Yusuke’s made another female friend,” Atsuko sighed with her post-meal cigarette. “Between you and Keiko at his side, I think he’s really calmed down this year.”
Yusuke ground his teeth. “I’m sitting right here.”
“I’m lucky to have met him,” Ali replied, ignoring him. “And Keiko and all the others. They really make me feel like I have a place to call home again.”
Atsuko threw herself across the table and wrapped her arms around Ali. “You can always call us your home!” she cried.
Ali giggled as Yusuke pulled his mother off her. “Woman, don’t get up in people’s personal space! How many mimosas have you had? Get ahold of yourself!”
“Yusuke! Don’t be so mean!” Atsuko whined.
They bickered for a bit, but it was all light-hearted banter. Ali sipped her tea and goaded Atsuko from time to time. Yusuke frowned at her when she did. “Oh not you too,” he groaned.
She made it up to him by helping clean the dishes and getting his mother back to bed. Yusuke may have been embarrassed by Atsuko’s exuberance, but Ali was a touch envious.
“She really does love you,” she told him as they locked up the apartment. “She’s trying to make up for all the years she wasn’t there for you.”
His ears turned pink and he avoided her gaze. “I know that,” he muttered. “It’s just weird having her be there all the time.”
“I don’t remember my mom,” she confessed. Yusuke flinched as if struck and opened his mouth to apologize. “It’s ok,” she said, cutting him off. “I can still relate to being raised by a single parent. We’re both lucky to have had someone who loved us enough to want us in the world.”
They changed the subject as they left the complex. They talked about their plans for the rest of the day. He was surprised to hear that she was meeting with Yuki after spending the afternoon at Kurama’s, but was happy she was branching out. “I know our company is the best,” he teased, “but it’s good to make other friends from time to time.”
He bid her good luck as he reached the junction that would take him to Keiko’s parents’ restaurant. She only had a few more blocks to go before she would be in Kurama’s neighborhood so they parted ways there.
She noted with renewed annoyance from the previous night that Hiei had tailed them from the park, and he was still following her. Yusuke had to have noticed him too, and that must have been why he was comfortable leaving her the last couple blocks without an escort. As if she couldn’t take care of herself.
“Merry Christmas!” she greeted the Minamino’s upon arrival.
“Ali! Merry Christmas! So glad you could join us!” Shiori wrapped her in a warm embrace. “When Shuichi said you had no family to celebrate with, I could not abide that.”
“Mother, please, give her some room to breathe,” Kurama chuckled.
“Of course, of course,” she said, releasing Ali and giving her shoulders a light squeeze. “I’ll go put on the tea then.”
They made their way to the smaller sitting room where Ali had spent much of the previous evening chatting with Yuki. Her heart fluttered as she thought of her afternoon plans. “Did you enjoy yourself last night?” Kurama’s question brought her back to earth.
“Yes! I had never been to such a large party before, but it was really fun. How on earth did you get Hiei into a suit?”
He winked at her. “Never underestimate the cunning of a fox.” She giggled. He leaned an elbow on the arm of the high backed chair. “He would have looked incredibly out of place in his usual garb, and I had requested his observational skills.” He toyed with a small gift box on the side table, pushing it gently with one finger. “Luckily for us, it seems there was no danger last night.”
Ali leaned her head back against her own high-back. “You know, I’m beginning to feel neglected by all these groups that are supposedly interested in me. It’s enough to make a girl think she’s unlikeable.” She smirked.
“I’d say you were pretty popular last night,” he grinned. “Speaking of which, it would seem Yuki got you home in one piece after all.”
“And he was the perfect gentleman the whole way. We have a date this afternoon,” she added with a wink of her own.
“My, now that’s exciting.” He was better than the others at hiding his emotions from her, but even he struggled to keep his elation buried. He, too, was pleased she was branching out. “I hope he treats you to a lovely time.”
“If he doesn’t, I’ll just beat him up,” she laughed.
“You wouldn’t beat anyone up,” Shiori chided as she returned to the room with a tray of hot tea. “That’s what you have strong male friends for.” She winked at Kurama and he chuckled.
“Mother, please, you know I would never-“
“Shuichi, I am not a fool. I know that dark haired friend of yours from last night would leap to her side if someone so much as looked at her the wrong way.”
Ali and Kurama exchanged quizzical glances. “You think Yusuke would fight someone for Ali?” he asked.
His mother tapped her chin with a thoughtful finger. “He was the one with the brunette, wasn’t he? No, I mean the short one. What was his name? Hide?”
“Hiei?” Ali almost barked a laugh.
“That’s the one!” Shiori nodded as if she hadn’t just claimed the sun could rise in the west. “He was very skeptical of everyone most of the night, but he livened up when Ali was in the room.”
The teens exchanged another set of looks as she divvied up the sandwiches. They couldn’t very well explain to her that they were all Ali’s bodyguards and Hiei was just doing his job. They dropped the subject for more pleasant topics of conversation. Like how school was going. How was Ali getting along living by herself? How was she acclimating to city life? Did she eat enough? Did she need anything?
Ali did her best to assure Shiori that she was perfectly acclimated and that she had more than enough. She was happy because she had such great friends in Shuichi and the others. This seemed to satisfy the woman, and she halted their protests as she collected the dishes. “It’s just the three of us,” she insisted. “Shuichi did all the cleanup after the party last night, so he deserves a break for one afternoon.” She kissed his cheek and left them alone in the parlor.
Kurama smiled fondly as she departed and again Ali was overwhelmed by a feeling of familial love. He had almost sacrificed his own life to save Shiori’s once. Yusuke had intervened and saved them both. That was the beginning of a friendship that would one day lead to her. How strangely their lives had been connected.
“I am no telepath like you or Hiei, but your smile makes me think you are remembering something pleasant,” he said. “Is it a recent memory perhaps?”
Ali nodded. He harbored a secret hope that, just maybe, more of her old memories were returning to her. She couldn’t tell him the truth about those memories, that they frightened her. “I was just thinking about how we met,” she said. “How you and Yusuke were the first strangers to approach me with kindness since I’d awoken in this world, with no memory of who or what I was.” She pulled one leg up into the chair and hugged it to her chest. “Aside from my father, at least.”
“The hunter,” Kurama confirmed. Ali nodded, her head resting on her knee. “I am sorry he is no longer in this world for you. But I am grateful that he raised you as much as he did and that you knew love, however brief. We are all happy you were born into this world, Ali.”
She fought tears off with laughter. “C’mon now, big bro,” she said mockingly. “Don’t go getting all mushy on me now.”
He smirked and handed her the small box on the table. “Only if you promise not to punch me for this.” She narrowed her eyes at him, unsure of his intentions. He had fortified his mental defenses since his comment about her telepathy. “It’s from all of us, not just me, so there’s no need for such skepticism,” he chuckled. “I’m just the delivery boy.”
Ali tugged at the pretty blue ribbon and removed it from the silver box. She took off the lid and removed the top layer of tissue paper. In the center of the box was a square, silver locket. She looked at him pleadingly. “Kurama, this is too much.”
“I promise you, it’s not that fancy.” He held his palms out toward her in surrender. “We all pitched in for it. Go on, open it.” She gave him a disapproving frown that did not have her heart in it. It opened into three sections. A triptych photograph of all her friends spread across all three. Even Hiei was in it. “So we’re always with you, even if we aren’t.”
Her heart swelled in her chest. “It’s wonderful,” she whispered. “I don’t deserve you all.”
“That remains to be seen,” he said, chuckling. “But I do hope you’ll have us all the same.”
“Of course,” she said, closing the locket and fastening the clasp about her neck. “I know it’s only been a few months, but I am so lucky to have all of you at my side.”
Botan came calling a short while later. She had forgotten to give Kurama his gift during the party and was mortified to be interrupting his afternoon with Ali. “It’s alright, Botan,” Ali laughed. “I’ve got to be going anyway. Yuki is picking me up at my apartment in a little while. We’re going to a movie!”
“Oh my, a date?” Botan’s eyes lit up like the bulbs on the Christmas tree. “Don’t you move quickly,” she grinned slyly behind her hand.
Ali let the taunt hang there as she bid them goodbye. “I’ll catch up with you guys later!” she cried from the street. She was in good spirits as she walked back to her apartment in the crisp air. It felt like snow.
At the edge of her awareness was a presence. It didn’t threaten her, so she paid it no mind; she knew it to be Hiei. She wanted to ask him what happened to his vacation, but she also wasn’t ready to reconcile their argument from the previous night. He fell off her radar as she got closer to home anyway, near the park he liked to lounge in. She walked a little more briskly back to her apartment. No use letting him sour her mood before Yuki arrived.
She was finishing up her makeup when the knock came on her door an hour later. She turned her wrist to see the face of her watch. Four o’clock on the dot. Punctual. She grinned as she announced she would be right there. She put her things away and skipped to the foyer, donning her coat for the second time that day.
“Merry Christmas, Ali!” Yuki had a small bouquet of seasonal flowers for her.
“Well aren’t you just the gentleman,” she teased as she accepted his gift. She took it into her apartment before taking his arm in hers and heading to town.
While they were in line for the ticket booth, another familiar voice called out to her. “Is that Ali and Yuki?” Keiko was grinning from ear to ear at Yusuke’s side.
“Hey guys! Are you seeing the movie too?” Ali’s eyes flickered from Yusuke to Keiko. She could still feel Hiei not too far off and began to wonder if this was a setup to keep a guard on her.
Keiko nodded. “I wanted to do something as a couple for once and he was tired of staring down my father so I suggested we go see a film.” She giggled and Ali’s skepticism faded. Yusuke could hardly say no to Keiko.
“You guys should sit with us!” Yuki offered. “A spontaneous double date!”
“Oh yes,” Keiko agreed. “That would be really fun!”
Yusuke shrugged. “Ali’s probably sick of my ugly mug by now but if she wants to, I’ll do it.”
He knew her pretty well, she realized with a small feeling of shame. At least enough to know she was thinking he was just here to watch her. But he wasn’t just her bodyguard. He was her friend. And she was treating him poorly by assuming he thought of her as anything less. Hiei really was too much in her head.
“I’d love that,” she said. “And if we’re still hungry afterwards, maybe we can grab a bite to eat at that café up the road?”
Keiko nodded enthusiastically. “They have a great soup and salad menu! And delicious tea!”
The boys exchanged looks of shared suffering. “Whatever you ladies like!” Yuki said.
The movie was entertaining, though a few scenes frightened Keiko so much Ali thought Yusuke’s arm would break from her grip. Yuki was impressed at how cool and collected she herself had been through those scenes. She couldn’t rightly tell him that she had known monsters like the ones in the film, nor that she technically qualified as one herself. Hiei was still nearby, after all. What was his problem anyway?
At dinner they talked about school and hobbies. It turned out that Yuki was an amateur photographer and for staying fit, he liked to box. That impressed Yusuke, who promptly asked for a fight, which Yuki smartly declined as the girls glared daggers at them. Keiko because Yusuke was always getting into fights, and Ali because he knew better than to pick fights with regular people.
Yusuke nodded to her. “Yeah we better not. Ali would kick both our asses before we even got out of these chairs, and then Keiko would take my scraps home for fish food,” he laughed.
“Ali wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Yuki said. “You’re not a fighter, are you?”
She sighed. She didn’t really want to talk about fighting in front of Yuki. Normal girls didn’t fight dangerous battles like she fought, didn’t train with other elite fighters every day to stay sharp like she did. How would he ever see her as a normal girl if he knew the things she could do, if he knew the sort of people she had protecting her despite the things she could do?
“She kicks my ass on the regular,” Yusuke went on.
“Maybe you’re just not that good,” she snidely replied. Keiko took a pointed sip of her tea. She had seen his fights in the Dark Tournament. She knew just how powerful Yusuke was.
Yuki was staring at Ali in awe and wonder. “Is there anything you can’t do?” he asked.
Remember my own past? she thought wryly. Out loud she said “Haven’t tried everything yet, so the jury’s still out on that.” Everyone laughed.
Dinner finished, they all headed home together. At the split where Keiko’s house was, she and Yusuke said their goodbyes to Ali and Yuki. “You better see to it she gets home safe tonight, too,” Yusuke teased.
Yuki saluted him and gave his promise that he would do just that. Keiko gave her an amused glance and Ali couldn’t stifle a giggle. She waved them goodbye as they headed up the other street. There were still a few blocks to go to her place. A few blocks and the park, she thought with a twinge of annoyance.
“I had a great time today,” Yuki said as they walked up the stairs to her apartment. “I feel like it’s been forever since I made friends outside of my school.”
Ali nodded agreement. “I certainly haven’t branched out a while myself. I think Shuichi was glad to hear I was going to spend time with someone new, though I also secretly suspect he thinks I don’t need another guy in my life.”
“He does seem the protective sort,” Yuki mused as they arrived at her door. “I hope he’ll let you see me again,” he added, coyly.
Ali tossed her head. “He’s not my keeper.” Then she gave him a sly look. “And I’ll decide for myself if I want to see you again.” She clutched her sides in laughter as Yuki began to stammer an apology. “I’m just teasing you,” she said when she regained control of herself.
He mock frowned at her. “That’s not very nice.”
“No, I suppose it’s not.” She clapped her hands in front of her face and half bowed toward him. “Can you ever forgive me, senpai?”
His ears turned pink. “Now that’s just cruel,” he said, avoiding her gaze. There was something endearing about the way he rubbed his nose in embarrassment.
“Okay, okay,” she said. “I’m sorry for teasing you. Can I make it up to you?”
In a flash his demeanor changed and she realized he’d played her. He leaned down so his face was inches from hers. “You can let me take you on another date,” he said coolly.
She grinned. “And you say I’m the unfair one.” He smirked and she shrugged. “I guess we’ll just have to see, won’t we?” She wasn’t done playing coy with him.
Yuki chuckled and stepped away from her. “I guess so.”
She thanked him for his company for the day and bid him goodnight with a vague promise that she would call him in a few days. It had been a busy week and she was looking forward to some alone time. He understood and graciously accepted her proposal, looking forward to her call.
She stood in her doorway for a while after Yuki left. It had been such a wonderful day. She’d felt like a normal girl for the first time in as long as she could remember. But there was one shadow that darkened her perfect day, and she was going to have to deal with it before she could enjoy another day. Hiei had been tailing her all day so she was certain he was still nearby. She left her apartment and headed for her cliff.