Ali didn’t fully grasp how Hiei had saved her, but she knew he would not be there when she opened her eyes. The temptation to remain in the dream, to create a version of him that would stay with her forever, almost seduced her, but her friends were waiting for her. She clung to that thought like a rope to a rescue ship and followed it out of the deepest confines of her mind.
Muffled gasps and stifled sobs greeted her ears as she returned to her body. Her eyes fluttered open and she found them all at her side as Hiei had shown her in her dream. As she expected, he was not among them. She gave the rest a wan smile and raised one hand off the mat. “Hey guys,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “Sorry I worried you.”
Botan threw her arms around Ali’s neck and wept. “Nonsense! We’re just glad you’re back!” Yukina wiped a stray tear from her own cheek and giggled at Botan.
Kurama knelt at her side and grasped the hand she struggled to hold in the air. His eyes shone with relief and he gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Welcome back,” he said softly. Yusuke and Kuwabara had their arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing boisterously at her awakening.
“Alright that’s enough,” Genkai’s gruff voice sounded from somewhere behind her. “She’s no longer in danger of dying so you can all get out of my house. Let the poor girl rest.”
“I’ve been asleep for ages,” she protested weakly. She was racked with a cough as her body tried to acclimate to using her vocal chords again.
The old woman grunted. “You’ve been unconscious for days. That’s not the same as resting.” She came into view with a pitcher and glass. “There will be time for catching up once you have had some real sleep.” She handed the pitcher to Kurama with a nod, then glared at the other two boys. “Well? Go on then, we’ll send her home in a day or two! Make yourselves useful and report to Koenma or something, but get out of my house!”
“Bite me hag,” Yusuke groaned, winking at Ali as he evaded the old woman’s fist.
“Later Ali! We’ll come visit you when you’re home!” Kuwabara waved, chasing after Yusuke. “Bye Yukina! I’ll visit you again soon too!” The ice woman nodded.
Botan was helping Kurama with the pitcher. He smiled at Ali as the ferry girl poured a cup. “This will help suppress any dreams so that you can get some real rest,” he explained, tipping the cup to Ali’s lips.
It was sweet and vaguely minty and it felt immensely refreshing running down her throat. They gave her a second glass of plain water and she drank it thirstily. She wanted to ask for another, but her eyelids grew heavy and the words wouldn’t form. She was asleep in seconds.
The next time she awoke, the sun was shining on the gleaming floorboards of the hallway, casting odd shadows on the paper panels of her sickroom door. Aside from the chirping birds in the trees outside, it was quiet. She was alone.
Ali stared up at the ceiling for a long while. Hiei had pulled her out of the nightmare by telling her she wasn’t alone. That she had friends waiting for her. He had excluded himself from that group. Kept his distance. It had been for the best. They both knew it.
So why did her heart ache so? She clutched her shirt tightly with one hand as the tears fell. Being near him triggered the memories she feared. He was a demon, like her. If he stayed near her, would she become that demon? Become a monster?
She raised herself to a seated position. No. Whoever she used to be, that person could never return. Ali would have to face her, one day, but she would never be able to become her. She had lived another life since losing her demon memories. She would find a way for the two lives to coexist. When the time came.
“Oh good, you’re up.” Genkai slid the door closed behind her. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a fool,” she sighed. The old woman chuckled agreement and Ali went on. “I’m tired of making everyone worry about me all the time. I don’t particularly enjoy having my ass handed to me by these demons over and over either.”
Genkai lit her pipe and sucked a long drag. “If it’s any consolation,” she said as she exhaled a ring of smoke towards the ceiling, “I don’t think anyone else could have stood toe to toe with the monster you faced the other day and lived to tell about it.”
Ali frowned. Hiei had asked her why she was so distraught over killing a monster. He wasn’t referring to the creature that had attacked her; it was how he saw himself. Even in her insanity she had seen that plain as day.
“I am curious,” the old woman said. “Did it really take on Hiei’s form when you fought it?” She could feel Genkai’s eyes on her, studying her, and her heart pounded in her ears. She nodded, afraid what her voice would sound like if she answered. Genkai wouldn’t let her off the hook so easily though. “Why is he so important to you?”
Ali could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. “Who said he was important to me?”
The old woman laughed. “Girl, the Manawydans don’t just attack as strangers. They get to know you, get inside your head. They become someone you care for, someone important to you, someone who could break you in a fight.” Ali blinked in surprise. She hadn’t known that. “Hiei was reticent on the matter, though he claimed ignorance as well. It’s none of my business,” she added, tapping ash into an ornate tray at her side. “As I said, I was just curious.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Ali said, her voice strong and calm. “The mission is over for him. Yusuke and Kuwabara will still be at my side. Kurama too. I’m strong enough to face the Manawydans, now that I know what to expect.”
“You’re a fool if you believe it’s that simple,” Genkai grunted.
“Maybe,” she admitted. “But a fool who still breathes is one who can still fight.”
The old psychic chuckled. “I seem to know many fools who don’t know when to quit.” Her smile was affectionate as she passed Ali a tray of food. When she was satisfied Ali had eaten enough, her face become serious once more. “What do you plan to do now?”
“Plan?” Ali stared intently at the crumbs on her plate. “There are others out there. I’m going to continue on as if they hadn’t almost broken me. I will lure the others to me and crush them.” Her voice sounded cold even to her own ears.
“That will not be easy,” Genkai admitted,” but I think if anyone can pull it off, it would be you.”
Ali turned on the old woman. “What do you mean by that?” she demanded. Did Genkai know something of her past?
“I’ve never known anyone to survive a full on assault by a Manawydan. Your psychic abilities are strong, stronger than any human I know. But you are not human. And you will need your inhuman strength to defeat these enemies.” She sipped her own tea pointedly. “You have to face the demon within you if you want to survive.”
“I know that,” Ali barked, then softly she repeated it. “I know that.” Her hands trembled as they clutched her blankets. How silly it was to fear oneself more than powerful enemies who held a blade to one’s neck. She hardened her gaze as she returned it to the old sage’s face. “I won’t lose anymore.”
Genkai nodded agreement. “Good.” She collected Ali’s dishes and stood to leave. “If you think you can manage now, I’ll send for someone to take you home.”
Kurama helped her into her apartment an hour later. The brief journey had tired her out more than she expected. He made her some tea. “No funny herbs, I promise,” he said as she eyed it skeptically. “I suspect you won’t need any help to fall asleep today.”
She stifled a yawn behind her hand as she accepted the cup and curled up on her couch. “I suspect you’re right about that.” Her eyes strained to remain opened, but she worked on her tea all the same. “Who knew fighting yourself could be so taxing?” she chuckled softly.
“I think we are uniquely qualified to answer that question,” he answered.
Ali stared at him over the edge of her cup as she drank. He sat so nonchalantly in her desk chair and yet he was still poised to strike should any danger present itself. An animal ready to pounce. “How do you do it?” she whispered.
“You struggle, until you can find a way to balance the two halves of your soul.”
She sighed into her mug. “I think the battle with my past is yet to come. And it will be much harder than the battle I just had.” And this time Hiei won’t be there to help you. She gripped her mug tighter as she swallowed her pain at that thought. She hoped it did not show on her face, but she was too exhausted to concentrate on managing her facial expressions.
Kurama regarded her quietly. If he knew her thoughts, he did not comment on them. “We must all face our past at some point or another.” His smile was comforting. “You won’t have to face it alone.” She could feel Yusuke and Kuwabara next door. She allowed herself a smile. No. She was not alone.
* * *
The school year had resumed during Ali’s convalescence and she was already behind on her classes. Keiko had taken notes for her and collected her homework, but she still needed time to recover before she could return to school.
It had been a simple enough matter to explain to the teachers that she had taken severely ill over the holiday. They wished her a speedy recovery but were glad for her not bringing her ailment to the classroom. With Keiko’s help, she would get back on track before she returned. She also had help from outside of her school.
Kurama came by every day to see how she was feeling and to administer various herbal remedies to help her along in her recovery. He also stayed to assist her with her schoolwork. His school was far more prestigious than theirs, and had a reputation for highly intelligent students. Keiko enjoyed picking his brain over their homework and he seemed to enjoy the conversation.
To Ali’s surprise, on one of those days he asked if Yuki could join him. The boy had been feeling dejected after never hearing back from Ali and then became distraught when he learned that her health had been the reason. “I feared I could only hold him at bay for so long,” Kurama explained. “He asks after your health every day and if you’re up to visiting with others.”
In truth, she’d been so preoccupied with her problems, she had forgotten she promised to reach out to him. “A fresh face would be a nice change of pace,” she admitted. “Not that I don’t love your company, Kurama,” she added slyly.
That was how she found herself with a small study group in her tiny apartment one Thursday evening a week after she awoke from her fight with herself. She was almost caught up on the work she had missed thanks to Keiko’s tutoring and Kurama’s assistance.
As Keiko explained a new concept for math, Yuki nodded along appreciatively. He pointed out some tricks to make it easier and Keiko countered with tricks of her own. Ali tried both methods and found another way to solve the problems that worked for her. “Wow, you girls sure are wasted at Sarayashiki. You should be at our school.”
The girls exchanged looks and giggled. There was no way either of them would leave Yusuke and Kuwabara behind. Yuki gaped alternately at them and at Kurama, who was also chuckling behind a fist.
“I think you should be ready for the test next week if you’re feeling ok enough to come to class,” Keiko announced at the end of the evening. “Though I’m sure Sensei would allow you to take it later.”
Ali stretched an arm over her head. She had made it through the whole day with only one short nap. By Monday she would definitely be ready to tackle school again. “I’ve had the best tutors a girl could ask for. If you guys couldn’t help me be ready for it, there’s no hope for me.”
“C’mon Ali, give yourself some credit,” Yuki said. “I’ve seen some of the smartest people in my class at an elite school struggle to grasp the concepts you picked up in a few hours. You’re definitely ready for it.”
She smiled at him. “Well I suppose if nothing else I could go into it with a bit of your confidence and ace it.”
“There, see? Now I know you’re feeling better. If you can taunt me like that without a second thought, I’d say you’re back to normal.”
Kurama chuckled. “He has a point.”
“Is Ali verbally abusing people again?” Yusuke called from the door. He had let himself in as they wrapped up.
“No!” she said as all three of her guests said some variation of “Yes!” She pouted as Keiko packed her things.
“Well that is excellent news,” he laughed. “We’ll be exchanging blows in no time now.”
“I’ve got enough energy to clock you now,” she muttered.
“C’mon Yusuke, be nice. She’s still going to kick your ass on the exams next week,” Keiko said as she jabbed Yusuke in the shoulder.
“Duh. I’m not going to take them.”
“Oh gee, look at the time, I guess we’d better be going!”
Ali, Kurama, and Yuki laughed as Keiko followed Yusuke out the door, chiding him every step of the way. No doubt it would continue all the way to her parent’s restaurant where she would angrily cook him a meal before sending him back home. Old souls, that pair, Ali thought. Aloud she said, “He has never been a match for her.”
“She’s still the only person I know who can subdue him when he gets obstinate like that,” Kurama chuckled.
“I don’t really know them like you two do,” Yuki said, “but they do give me hope for the future.” Ali and Kurama nodded agreement. “Well, you probably need your rest. What say you, Minamino?” He stood up. “Shall we let sleeping beauty here get her beauty sleep?”
“You know, I’ll clock you too,” she growled.
Kurama laughed along with Yuki. “He’s right though, we really have overstayed our welcome. I’ll just brew you up some more tea before we go.”
Ali scowled at his back as he retreated to the kitchen. She had no intention of drinking anything he gave her if he didn’t insist on watching her drink it.
Yuki’s nervous laughter broke her out of her thoughts. “You look as though you expect him to poison you.”
Not exactly. Not that she could explain it to this human. “He likes to slip me medicine when I’m not paying attention,” she said.
“Well if you’re recovering from an illness I don’t exactly see how that’s a bad thing.” She turned her attention to him. He was fidgeting. “Shuichi just looks out for you is all.”
Ali refrained from sighing aloud. She settled for a stern nod and crossed her arms. “He does,” she admitted.
Yuki rubbed the back of his neck. “Listen, I’m worried about you too. They said you haven’t left your apartment since you’ve come home from the hospital. I was wondering if you’d like to get out this weekend? Get some fresh air?” He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “We don’t have to do anything too strenuous. I just think getting out would be good for you, even if it’s only an hour or so.”
It wasn’t entirely true. She had been out since returning from Genkai’s. The others just had no idea. The previous night she had gone out to the overlook alone. She could feel her energy returning and had wanted to test it out. She wanted to see if she could make it that far. She wanted to know if she would not be alone there.
But Hiei didn’t show. She had stood on the precipice looking out over the dark sea, listening to the waves crash on the rocks below, in utter solitude, for close to an hour. For months she had come to that exact spot and been secure in the knowledge that she was not alone, that there was someone watching her back while she did what she had to do. Her silent protector was gone. Hiei really wasn’t going to be there for her anymore.
She had walked through the park on her way back to her apartment, hoping to find him in his usual spot and confront him about the things he had told her in her dreams. But he wasn’t there either. She had thought to ask Kurama about Hiei’s whereabouts, but he had thrown her off balance when he asked if Yuki could accompany him that evening.
Now Yuki was standing in her living room, struggling to not ring his hands as he asked her to join him on Saturday for some merriment. He still thought perhaps her illness was a ruse to keep him from seeing her. An elaborate plot to ghost him. It took all her restraint not to laugh at his internal struggles. But he wasn’t wrong on one count. She needed to get out of her apartment.
She gave him her sweetest smile. “I would very much like that.”
Kurama returned with the kettle and a steaming cup. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said, for all the world appearing to be referring to the hot tea on the tray he carried. Ali knew his ears were sharper than that, though. “I trust you will drink that straight away,” he added with a mischievous glint in his eye. Ali definitely smelled something odd in the tea. “Yuki and I will be taking our leave now so that you can get plenty of rest.”
“Yes, rest! Please!” Yuki admonished. “I’d hate for you to relapse and be too sick to do anything entertaining.”
Ali accepted the tea tray and set it on the ottoman in the center of the room. She would definitely not be drinking that. “I am already feeling much better, promise!” she said. She escorted them to the door and bade them a good night. Kurama repeated his instructions with a stern look but she waved him off with a vague promise.
She returned to her living room, sighing as she tidied up her books and notes. The aroma of the tea teased her nose and she almost reached for it to wet her throat. She shook her head and brought the kettle back to the kitchenette. She would still want to drink it before bed, but she had something to do first.
When Ali was sure she had given Kurama and Yuki enough time to be well on their way home, she changed into warmer clothes and grabbed her coat. She hadn’t heard Yusuke return yet, but just in case he was coming up any minute, she decided to slip out her bedroom window.
She jogged the whole way to the overlook. Once more. Just to prove it to herself. Maybe he was just on another assignment last night. Her mind refused to accept what her heart already knew she would find there.
When she arrived at the lighthouse, two things were apparent. One, Hiei was not there. And two, she was not alone. Leaning against the white monolith, Kurama regarded her with a mix of amusement and disappointment. “I thought I told you to drink that tea.”
She clutched the locket about her neck tightly in her fist. She would not be intimidated by him. “You’re not my mother,” she said.
He chuckled. “Thank goodness for that. A daughter like you would surely turn my hair silver before my time.” Ali imagined him with silver hair and was struck by the idea that it wouldn’t look strange on his face at all. Indeed, there was something comforting in the image even as his smile turned sad on her. “What are you looking for here?”
Ali opened her mouth to answer but shut it immediately. What was she looking for? Chasing after a dream, one that did not want to be found. She had too many questions for him left unresolved. Would she really have to go the rest of her life without knowing? Did he hate her that much?
She clenched her fists at her sides. Her wet cheeks felt icy in the winter air. “Why are you here?”
“You had that look in your eyes that said you were going to run. I’ll admit, I am impressed you resisted the allure I added to your tea.”
So that’s what that sweet smell had been. “How did you know I would come here?”
Kurama straightened off the lighthouse and walked toward her. “This is where you come to meditate, is it not?” She nodded. He certainly had her all figured out, didn’t he. “You mustn’t come so far alone. You know it isn’t safe.”
“I just thought… It’s not like… I hoped…“ she choked off her words as Kurama stopped in front of her. How could she explain feelings she couldn’t understand? “He always came,” she sobbed. “Why isn’t he here? What did I do wrong?” She threw herself into Kurama’s chest, crying into him as he stroked her hair.
“You did nothing wrong,” he assured her. “There is more to Hiei than you know, and for better or worse, he is doing what he believes is right.”
Ali shook her head. He was wrong. She did know Hiei. But how? Who was he to her?
Kurama let her cry herself out before carrying her home. She really was grateful for the tea he brewed her. It kept the dreams away. Tonight, more than ever, she did not want to dream.
* * *
Hiei had long since ceased being surprised when Kurama was able to find him when he was not looking to be found. The ex-thief was a master at finding hidden things. Why would he have any difficulty finding a person? Even Hiei?
What did surprise him was Kurama’s mood when he finally discovered Hiei’s latest hiding spot. He was visibly agitated. Hiei was sure it had nothing to do with the distant locale. “You can’t keep avoiding her, Hiei,” the redhead admonished from the ground below.
Of course it would be about her. Hiei glowered at the man who was closest thing he had to a best friend. “It has nothing to do with me anymore,” he said.
“She thinks you’ve abandoned her. You have to take responsibility for that.”
Hiei dropped to the ground. “Her feelings are something she has to sort out on her own. They are no concern of mine.” He wanted to turn his back on Kurama and walk away, but the other man would not be dissuaded so easily.
Kurama leaned into his face. “For someone who thinks he’s so smart, you really are a fool, Hiei.”
“What?” Kurama was calling him down?
“Honestly I don’t know which of you is the worst offender,” he sighed. He leveled his gaze. “Regardless how you feel about your role in protecting her, it’s obvious that she grew accustomed to a particular routine.”
“I’m beginning to regret ever agreeing to that,” Hiei muttered.
Kurama shook his head and straightened his back. He considered Hiei for a moment. He changed tactics. “What did you tell her when you went inside her mind?”
Hiei hardened his glower. “I don’t see how that’s any of your concern.”
“If you’re going to run away, I need to know what she’s thinking if I am to help her through this.”
“I’m not running away,” Hiei snapped.
Kurama’s emerald eyes flashed amber. “I do not care if you want to lie to yourself, Hiei, but please do not disrespect our friendship by lying to me.” His cold voice nearly sent a chill down Hiei’s spine. Not that Hiei feared Youko. He still hoped he would have the opportunity to test his skills against the demon someday. But if Kurama was this lacking in control of his emotions to let his demon side out, Hiei would have to tread carefully. “Tell me what happened in there.”
Hiei folded his arms in frustration. It wasn’t like he had anything to hide. “She was reliving her battle with the Manawydan. She kept killing “me” over and over. I watched as she gave up. I jumped in before she could be consumed by her own mind and reminded her of her own strength. I showed her all of you, standing about waiting for her to wake. We settled our debt and she sent me out of her mind.”
Kurama frowned. “But what did you tell her about your departure from the mission?”
Hiei turned to leave. He didn’t want Kurama to follow him so he told him the truth before he parted. “She’s better off without someone like me at her side. She has enough monsters to face.” As he ran, he heard Kurama mutter once more that Hiei was a fool.