The shocked faces in Koenma’s office irritated Hiei. The dog woman especially; she definitely had it out for him, though he couldn’t fathom why. His irritation was nothing new, though. He’d felt it itching at him since Sayuri’s declaration to him that morning.
“I need to return to Makai,” she had begun the conversation over breakfast. “I have it on good authority that Rin has been spotted there and I need to convene with my forces on the best way to handle her.”
He had given her no indication that Ali had gone to the demon realm, but he was unsurprised to learn Sai had lines of communication there to learn the truth on her own. “You could always leave her there and live as she tried to live here,” he offered feebly.
She laughed in his face. “Live as a human? Why in the worlds would I ever want to do that?” He was running out of reasons to make her stay, and that had been the flimsiest excuse by far. She took his hands in hers, looked up at him through long lashes. “Come with me,” she murmured. Her voice held notes of promise, something that would have enticed him in the past but which only irritated him now. He would not be manipulated so easily.
He pushed her to arm’s length. “I can’t.”
That had surprised her, to say the least. Absently, he wondered how long it had been since anyone had stood up to her and told her “no.” She scowled at him. “Can’t? Or won’t?”
“Both.” Technically, he wasn’t supposed to leave the human world. And he would not betray Ali to the point of fighting against her. If it came to that, he would lay down his life. “This is between you and your sister,” he said. “If you come out victorious, you can destroy the barrier and I can come back to you.”
Sayuri stared at him with thinly veiled contempt. “’If’ I win?”
He returned her stare just as coolly. “Don’t lose.” Let her make of that what she wanted.
Somehow it softened her, if a steel blade could be considered soft, and she smiled at him. “Never,” she whispered in his ear. Then she kissed him so deeply he almost changed his mind about letting her go without him. “It seems I still have to remind you why you were mine before,” she smirked. As if he could forget, watching her walk away from him with her dark hair swaying in a sinuous tail down her back.
When he first met her, she had wanted to burn the world for the hand it had dealt her, and he had understood that rage. He had wanted to burn it with her. Now, though, he had grown vaguely fond of the world. He would go on living in it, no matter how it changed, but he harbored a small hope that Ali could find the strength to beat Sayuri and keep it from being scorched.
He saw that same hope on the faces of his allies in Koenma’s office. His annoyance stewed.
“How can you say that, Hiei?” Kuwabara actually sounded hurt.
Yusuke’s disapproving frown irked him further. “I thought you might actually have a heart underneath all that frozen exterior the way you watched after Ali. Your ex shows up and suddenly you don’t care what happens to either of them anymore?”
That caught him off guard. He opened his mouth to deny it, but his past with Sayuri had already been explained, however briefly, and Yusuke was no fool. Kurama’s hand upon his shoulder startled him. “You might be the only one who can stop them,” he said, voice strained with a confusing blend of sadness and anger that Hiei couldn’t begin to dissect. “You have to help us, to talk to Sayuri and convince her of her foolishness.”
Hiei’s anger reached a boiling point and he jerked his shoulder free of Kurama’s grasp. “Don’t you think I’ve tried?” he snarled. “She believes the Prophecy must be fulfilled now. I can’t reach her anymore.”
The fear that had been eating away at him from the shadows was finally out in the light. The unease he had felt since she was thrust back into his life had a name; grief. She was not the woman he had known before that fateful day. That woman had died and the Sayuri of this age was nothing more than a phantom. Or perhaps he was the phantom, drifting about aimlessly, searching for the place of his final rest. They had both changed, and they no longer walked the same path.
“We can still reach Ali though,” Yusuke said. Hiei jerked his head in Yusuke’s direction.
Of course. Ali hadn’t changed. Her name and form had perhaps, but she and Rin were still the same at the core. Kuwabara had painted her perfectly, not that Hiei would ever acknowledge it or publicly agree with the buffoon. Ali might stand the best chance at getting through to Sayuri, too.
His hand went to his pocket involuntarily. Take care of Sayuri and Kurama for me, she had said. Hn. Take care of them yourself, he thought with a self-satisfied grin. He was done taking orders from wolf demonesses. He nodded to Yusuke. “And she’s gonna need all the help she can get.”
Nikkie finally stopped glowering at him. She turned to Koenma. “I have an idea of where she’s being kept. Can you get us close?”
The prince nodded. “I have already made the preparations.” He pressed several buttons on his desk and a new doorway appeared off to the side of the room. He gave them a self-deprecating grin. “Go save the world, guys.”
Kurama nodded, his aura changing as the demonic energy from the other side of the portal filled him. His body flickered and suddenly Youko towered in the room with them. Nikkie shrieked in glee, flinging herself about his neck. “You really are alive!”
The silver-tailed fox embraced her tightly before setting her down. “As I said, we have a lot of catching up to do.” His rumbling voice sent chills through his comrades, though Hiei would never admit it. He still wished to duel the man one day. “But first, we’ve got to bring our troublesome sister home.”
Nikkie laughed, the first joyful noise she had made since her arrival. “I am going to give her such a piece of my mind when we find her.” They vanished through the door together, completely unaware of anyone else. Yusuke and Kuwabara recovered from their shock and raced through the door after them.
Before Hiei could chase after them, Koenma called out to him. “You are going to help Ali, right?”
Hiei hesitated. If he went through that door, he was choosing a side. Her locket weighed down his cloak instead of sinking to the bottom of the sea. He had made his choice the night she left it with him, even if he hadn’t known it then. “I’m off to save the worlds,” he grinned and he, too, disappeared through the portal.
* * *
Rin’s head throbbed as she opened her eyes in a moon-dark cell. No, that was wrong. Her name was Ali. She would have shaken her head, but she feared the motion would toss her stomach. Ali. She repeated it like a mantra, forcing it to stick. Her father had given her that name. She had loved her father. He had taught her to use a bow, how to hunt and survive on the land. He was human and she was his daughter.
The cold seeped into her bones from the floor. She was the hunter’s daughter, but she was not human. Ali had tried to live as a human, had succeeded for almost sixteen years. Demons had tracked her down, killed her father. They wanted Rin.
Rin wanted nothing to do with demons or power. They caused nothing but pain. That was why she became Ali. Part of why. The rest was still taboo. Terrible, blood soaked memories Rin had buried that Ali had no desire to dig up.
Ali sighed. It was difficult to reconcile the two halves of her soul. She would not let go of either part of herself, but the demon heart regarded the human one with some disdain. The human heart wanted desperately to heal the demon one. And the longer she spent in Makai, the stronger the demon in her grew.
The Sanctuary had been a torrent of Rin’s memories. Those had been compounded when she found Nikkie in the house. Her relief at seeing Nikkie alive nearly overwhelmed her. Nikkie knew nothing of Ali of course, but she welcomed Rin with open arms and racking sobs. Despite the difference in her appearance, Nikkie still knew her.
They reminisced about the old days, and Nikkie filled her in on her life since Rin’s disappearance. “It was the strangest thing,” she said, sipping a cool glass of iced tea as they sat under the willow tree, dipping their feet in the river. “When I came to, I was all alone. I was covered in scrapes and bruises, and my shoulder was dislocated, but I had no idea where I was or how I had gotten there.
“I came back here, came home.” She frowned. “That had seemed wrong, though, like something was missing. There were three rooms, but I couldn’t remember anyone else living here. It made me uneasy. As soon as my wounds were healed, I left. I hunted for treasures great and small, traveled all across the world, fought battles I shouldn’t have, but always that missing piece drew me back here.”
She looked up at the sunlight glittering in the branches, her smile only a little pained. “I was afraid this beautiful place would disappear if I didn’t return somewhat regularly. It was a good thing I did,” she giggled.
Ali wasn’t entirely sure of the how, but she knew that her Sanctuary would remain hidden so long as someone called it “home.” No one could enter except those who knew it was there. What would have happened to it if no one was alive who remembered it? Had Nikkie’s memories hung on despite Rin’s reset or had she purposefully left those memories within reach? She smiled at her best friend. “A good thing, indeed!”
Nikkie then told her how her memories came back a few weeks ago. That feeling of a missing piece that had dulled over the years was sharp and forceful now. Grief overwhelmed her as she realized her loss. She still wasn’t convinced Rin was alive and speaking to her. “Your scent confused me,” she explained. “It didn’t seem possible that a human could have wandered so deep into Makai and yet there you were, smelling both human and demon in a place you could not conceivably know existed.” Nikkie reached up and took a strand of Ali’s hair in her hand, twirling it around her finger. “As much as I loved the silver, this brown also suits you.”
Ali touched that strand. She hadn’t remembered how to turn it back to silver, or even how to reach her true demon form again, and yet someone had recognized her while she was out rediscovering the world around her home. The Manawydans had agents all over, it seemed, and they were not done with her yet.
A silent rustling came from the cell next to hers, alerting her to the fact that she was not as alone as she thought. Her heart pounded in her ears. Had they captured Nikkie too? She crept to the edge of the cage and peered into the next one. Nikkie’s scent was faint, embedded into Ali’s clothes from the parting embrace she had given her friend with the promise that she would be careful. Whoever was in there, it wasn’t Nikkie.
It was a man, one whose scent was vaguely familiar. Curiously, she also smelled a wolf. She wrinkled her nose. It had been a long time since she used her full sensory abilities. The demon world air had to be throwing her off. If she didn’t know better, she would have said it was…
“Yuki?!” The blond boy she had spent so many nights with in human realm, Kurama’s classmate, had shuffled into the pale light. “What are you doing here? What have they done to you?” she added in a horrified whisper.
He squinted at her through the bars. His eyes were sunken in their sockets and his hair was matted to one side of his head. His gaunt face bore little resemblance to the hale boy she had been to the movies with just a few weeks ago. His arms and legs were thin from malnourishment. How long had he been here? When was the last time she had seen him? She’d been so caught up with Sayuri that she hadn’t even called him.
Bloodshot eyes turned shiny with tears as he reached a skeletal arm through the bars to grasp her hand. “Ancestors be praised,” his voice was a wisp. “Rin!” He wept.
It took Ali several long seconds to process that name. Yuki never knew Rin. Hesitantly, she reached out with her mind and plunged into his. She only touched it for a moment—it was so fragile she almost feared her touch would break him—before diving back out. He was the real deal, not a Manawydan, which just raised more questions than it answered.
“You know Rin?” she asked hesitantly.
His feeble grip on her hand slackened. His mouth twitched, like he couldn’t decide if he was about to laugh or sob. “You are Rin, aren’t you?” His voice came out a whimper.
She couldn’t let the light of hope die from his eyes. “I was,” she said. “I haven’t been for a very long time though, and I don’t remember much of anything from before.”
“You remembered me though,” he said weakly.
“I remember a human boy with your name and face,” she said. A human whose voice she had never had to silence in her mind, now that she thought of it. She tried not to shiver as that realization washed over her. “But you are not human, are you.” Tears welled up in his eyes again as he shook his head. She took his face in her hands. “You are not human, but you are someone important to me. Otherwise they would have used someone else.” She wiped the tears away with her thumbs. “I am sorry.”
She let him cry with the iron bars between them. It was more comfort than crying alone anyway. She did not judge him for his tears. She didn’t know how long he’d been in his cage, but she suspected it had been years. This was probably the first personal contact he’d had in a long while.
When he had cried himself out, he fell asleep against the bars, hands holding hers for all the life in him. Ali stroked his hair, partially to soothe him, partially to distract herself. She had so many questions. There would be time for those when he awoke, though. It wasn’t like they were going anywhere. She even dozed off herself.
Yuki shook her awake a short while later before sliding away from the edge of his cage and sitting squarely in the middle. Before she could raise a question, a pair of demons came sauntering up to her cage. “If it isn’t sleeping beauty,” the shorter one said, banging on the bars.
“You gave us a lot of trouble, you know,” the other snarled. “Almost ruined everything.”
Ali realized she couldn’t bend their mental barriers in the slightest and knew them for Manawydans. A small measure of defiance spread through her and she grinned. They should have killed her when they first fought her. Their tricks would prove no use to them now. “You’ve still lost,” she sneered. “Sayuri is far away, safe from you!”
One of them turned into Sai and twisted her face in a rictus grin. “Oh don’t you worry, sister dearest. I will be joining you soon enough.”
The other became Hiei and grinned at her with just as much malice. Fakes or no, the demons’ expressions still unnerved Ali. Hiei’s face tugged at her more than Sayuri’s. She expected her sister to be angry with her, but she hadn’t done anything to Hiei to warrant such disdain from him, had she? There were still many gaps in her memories, and she couldn’t be sure of their past interactions.
The pair jeered her a few more times before slinking away arm-in-arm. Sayuri and Hiei, turning their backs on Ali and leaving her alone. She would not let the tears fall. Hiei would keep Sai safe. He had to; he as much as promised Ali he would.
Yuki was at her side again, staring off into the dark where their captors had disappeared. “Who was that man?”
Who, indeed. “He was Sayuri’s partner back before everything went to hell. And for the past year, or at least close to it, he has been my…protector.” She didn’t know what else to call him at this point. She forced a smile at Yuki. “He’s back in the human world now, protecting Sayuri for me.”
Yuki squeezed her hand gently, his grip stronger than it had been before. He was still gazing out into the dungeon. “They like to taunt me with your faces. They beat me with your hands, and tell me how much my suffering should be laid at the feet that kick me. It made no sense. You were dead. You both were.”
“Yuki,” she said his name softly, “how long have they had you here?”
His eyes drifted to his lap. However long it had been, it had been long enough. “It feels like an eternity,” he whispered. “It was probably only a handful of years after you vanished when they found me. I stopped keeping track after the first few years.”
At least a decade confined to a cage, perhaps more. Ali’s blood boiled with the emotions he no longer seemed to be able to touch. A low growl filled the cage and she was startled to discover it was coming from her own throat. “I don’t understand,” she muttered. “Why keep you alive? Don’t they want to eradicate our race?”
He shook his head. “Just you, I think,” he said solemnly. “Sayuri too. They feared you would become too powerful.”
“Then who was slaughtering us?” she snarled. The words were pulled from her throat by an invisible hand. Where had they originated? That wasn’t her memory. It couldn’t have been. The Wolf Slayer was a boogey man Rin had buried with the rest of her memories.
“That was what I wanted to know too,” Sayuri’s voice came from the darkness. Yuki yelped and jumped to the middle of his cage.
Ali sighed. She was tired of the charades. “Can’t you be more original?” she groaned.
Sayuri’s face appeared at the edge of the darkness. Her furious scent tickled Ali’s nose. She could smell blood, too. “I assure you, Ali, I am the original.”
The name was enough to convince her, even though she frantically had to push the other woman’s murderous emotions out of her head. The liquid rage was enough to gag Ali, but the sight of her sister in Makai with blood on her shoes sank Ali’s heart into her stomach. “What are you doing here?” she rasped in a barely audible whisper. “You were supposed to stay with Hiei!” she added in a slightly stronger voice.
“Hiei will come to me when I’ve dealt with you,” she leered. “I would have been able to kill you sooner, and without involving him at all, but you just had to bring him to “save” me from my own rescue.” Ali sat frozen to the concrete floor of the cage. The Manawydans had been rescuing Sayuri?
Sai stared down her nose at Ali. “It seems they had not forgotten their oaths despite the interference you caused when you bent reality to run away from your own wretched problems. They sought me all those years, even if they didn’t quite know what they were looking for. They knew the War was not over. There were wolf demons to find and a traitor to kill.”
“The War was over!” Ali protested. “We were gone, and the world was free to move on. We didn’t need to fight each other in a pointless battle to the death and our people, however few remained, would be able to survive!”
It was then that she noticed the blade in Sayuri’s hand. It was already dripping with blood. Her twin raised her blade and ran her tongue along the edge. “They are all dead,” she said flatly. Her eyes flickered to Yuki. “Or they will be.” She raised her sword arm and swung at the bars holding Yuki.
Ali howled, her demon energy filling her and flowing out of her as she barreled through the bars to protect Yuki from Sayuri’s blow. The sheer force Sai had put behind it pushed them both to the back of the cage along the wall. Ali tasted blood and stood to face her sister on wobbly legs. “I won’t let you touch him,” she snarled.
A memory came back to her in that moment. They were children, Rin and Sai and Yuki. One of the other kids was bullying Yuki and Rin; she thought it was probably Kane but that was irrelevant now. Sayuri had stood between them and knocked Kane off his feet. Rin had been so awed by her back then. “I won’t let you touch them.”
“You can’t defeat me,” Sayuri growled. Ali braced herself as a ball of yoki appeared in Sai’s palm. As the blast filled her vision, blinding her, her only thought was that she couldn’t afford to lose.
A/N: Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!