2: After the Rain

    "Sir!" The woman saluted smartly, heels clicking together as she faced her lord with a straight back and a serious face. "We have news from your brother."
    "Really." Pale fingers played over the yellow glass orb set decoratively on the large oak desk. The voice of the speaker was as cold and beautiful as his face. "Report."
    "Sir." The soldier nodded, holding up a rolled parchment. "A page arrived with this. He says it's urgent."
    "Good work, Hilde. Leave it on my desk. Dismissed."
    "Yes, sir." The young woman placed the parchment on the desk and exited quickly, blowing irate deep violet bangs from her eyes as she nodded curtly to the guard that reached out to shut the door behind her.
    Boots clicking as she hurried down the stairs, she attracted the attention of a nearby soldier lounging against the wall. He grinned suggestively as she neared, pushing himself away from the stone wall. "Hey, beautiful, what's up?" he jeered. "Runnin' more errands for the boss?"
    "Move aside, soldier," the woman said in clipped tones, brushing past. "Why aren't you on your post?"
    "I was relieved," he drawled, side-stepping so that he was blocking her path. "Where ya off to? Can't you spare a moment?" His tone was suggestive.
    Her hand was on the hilt of her sword in an instant, dark eyes narrowed in impatience. "I don't have time for you, Warrens. Get the hell out of my way or the Baron has one less mouth to feed."
    "Whoa, honey, don't be so violent!" he protested, holding up his hands in quick defense. "I ain't gonna hurt ya."
    "You're the one who's going to be hurting, buddy."
    "Now that's not very nice..."
    "Move it or lose it. And I don't mean your neck." She glanced meaningfully downwards, and he made a face at her.
    "Whoa, now," he said hastily, taking a few cautious steps back. "No need to be like that."
    "Glad you see it my way," she said airily, striding past. This time, he didn't follow.
    A commotion from outside caught her attention, and she walked hurriedly to a window, leaning out slightly and craning her neck until she spotted the cause. Three soldiers were dragging a thrashing, wriggling girl through the gates, her loud indignant curses bouncing off the solid stone walls. Hilde blinked, taking a closer look as the definite male timbre to the voice registered. It was a boy. How strange. With his long ragged rope of braided hair and his lean form, she had immediately mistaken him for female. Her eyebrows rose as he suddenly managed to twist away from one guard, dealing the one on his right a vicious kick to the abdomen and the one before him a solid punch that threw the howling man to the ground. Ducking away from the third guard, he made a mad dash for freedom.
    Immediately half a dozen soldiers leapt to intercept him, grabbing his arms, his dark clothes, and even his braid, ignoring his infuriated squawks as they dragged him down.
    "You there!" Hilde shouted down to one of the guards picking himself off the ground, touching his nose gingerly. "What has this boy done?"
    He turned and squinted up at her before saluting quickly. "Cap'n Hilde, we caught the little street rat stealing from a vender. We'll throw him in the dungeon to cool of his heels."
    She headed downstairs, arriving in the front hall just as the guards dragged the struggling boy inside.
    "Lemmie go, you dumbasses!! You got the wrong guy, I tell ya! You want my twin-looks just like me, but maybe not so good-looking. A real pushover-hey!! Don't touch the hair, mac!"
    Hilde blinked, vaguely amused in spite of herself. She strode over to intercept them. The guards immediately halted, their grips tightening on the spitting boy to keep him away from their captain.
    "What is your name, boy?" she demanded, and raised an eyebrow when he jerked his chin up to look her boldly in the face, violet eyes sparking with indignation and frustration. Violet eyes...
    Just like..
    "Who wants to know? Hey, lady, do a guy a favor and help him out, eh?" his defensive tone turned wheedling. "I'm just an honest peasant, I ain't no thief!"
    "Oh really?" one guard growled, digging a handful of fruit from the boy's pockets. "And where did these come from?"
    Hilde sighed, stepping aside. It was just a street rat. Nothing more. Perhaps eyes like that were more common than she'd previously thought. "Take him to the dungeon," she said wearily, waving them on.
    "Hey! Some friend you are! Knock it off, you fat tub of lard! Don't grab so tight! Ow!! Don't you understand English?!"
    The boy continued to rant as he was hauled off, his furious voice fading as he was escorted further into the fort.
    Hilde shook her head, turning away. She almost smacked into a taller man, yelping before strong hands gently seized her shoulders to support her.
    "Quite an entertaining brat, isn't he?" a deep voice rumbled.
    "Zechs." Hilde offered the tall man a slight smile. "You're the one who brought him in?"
    The man tossed his white-blond hair over his shoulder, eyes drifting in the direction the thief had gone. "Yes, actually. I was patrolling the streets when one of my men spotted him trying to sneak a few pears." He bent to pick up a fruit a guard had dropped in his struggle with the boy. "Looks like he succeeded in his thievery, but failed miserably in his retreat. It's about time I caught that slippery little street urchin."
    "You know him?" Hilde arched a brow, taking the apple away and dusting it on her shirtfront.
    "Oh, yes, I'd recognize that long rope of hair anywhere," the handsome man said with an amused snort, following the younger girl as she headed outside. "He's managed to slip through the guards on several occasions in his little robberies in the streets. He's a good thief, but not good enough, evidently."
    Hilde took a bite of the apple, but immediately spat it out upon coming face to face with half a worm. She flung the ruined fruit from her in disgust. "Pcah! What's the use of stealing garbage like that ??"
    "Sometimes it's all they have," Zechs said quietly, letting his calm blue gaze wander along the walls as he checked on his guards. "The surrounding countryside is not a rich one. The peasants have to scrabble for a living. I'm not surprised this boy turned to thievery; it's not uncommon. I'm just surprised it took me this long to finally nab him."
    Hilde smirked at the older man. "He hurt your pride, did he?"
    He offered a mildly offended look. "I beg your pardon?"
    "Not now, Zechsy, I have to run." She waved him off airily, motioning to a nearby stable boy. "I'm going for a ride. I'm sick of being cooped up."
    "Very well." The blond squinted up at the murky sky. "You'd better hope it doesn't storm again like last night."
    "Yeah, did you see the lightening? It lit up the whole sky," Hilde agreed, reaching for the reins of the horse the stable boy was pulling towards her. "Hallo, Gundam," she greeted the mare affectionately, patting its neck. It gazed at her with liquid eyes, and she smiled at it before leaping nimbly into the saddle. "Feel up to a ride?"
    "Gundam," Zechs scoffed, looking up at her blandly. "Such a stupid name for a horse."
    "And Zechs is any better?" she asked primly. The handsome man frowned at her.
    "See ya!" she called cheekily, digging in her heels and pulling the reins sharply to the side so that her mount reared-forcing the man to scramble back in an undignified manner-before it galloped out of the gates into the streets.
    The tall soldier sighed loudly, crossing his arms over his chest and shaking his head. "Little tomboy," he muttered, turning to stride inside.
~*~        "Get back here, you damned little shrimp!!"
     "Hn." Flickering through the trees like a black shadow, the petite demon flicked a scornful glance over his shoulder. "I don't have time for this, bounty hunter."
     "Will you stop already?!" The boy racing after him on the ground was panting harshly as he glared upwards, frantically trying to keep up with the swift youkai. "Fight me like a man!"
     "Grrr..dammit... Shotgun!!"
     The dark demon leapt quickly to the ground as multiple blazing blue lights slammed into the tree he had been in a moment before, wood splintering and limbs cracking. He whirled to face his foe, eyes narrowing in impatience, hand flying to the katana in his sash. "Filthy human," he growled.
     The boy before him grinned cockily, chest heaving from the chase, forefingers still pointed at the decimated tree. "Hah! Scared, are ya?" he panted. "Right, I'm takin' you in, shorty."
     "Ch'.." the smaller boy lowered his head determinedly, blood-red eyes boring into his adversary. "It will cost you your life," he said quietly.
     He leapt without warning, katana flashing as he drew it, his movements too quick to follow with the ordinary human eye.
     But his opponent was no ordinary human.
     Yelping, the boy rolled to the side, barely escaping in time, cloth shredding as the demon's sword slashed the air to his left.
     "You're a quick one." The demon gazed sideways at him menacingly. "Not quick enough."
     The boy leapt back for safety, running a hand quickly through his slicked-back hair as it started to fall into his face from all the movement. "You don't know who you're dealing with, demon," he stated proudly. "I'm Urameshi Yuusuke-best bounty hunter in these parts! Now either you come along quietly or-"
     The demon didn't give him the chance to finish, swinging his blade in a deadly arc, forcing the hunter to duck hurriedly.
     "I'm not impressed," the smaller boy said in a dead-pan voice, looking bored. "I would kill you, but I have other business to attend to." He held up a flashing medallion, fangs glittering in a slight smile. "Thank your employer for the trinket, ningen."
     "Hey, you thief!! Give that back!"
     "Sayonara, human." He was gone in a black blur, disappearing swiftly into the treetops once more.
     "Rrrr.. oh no you don't.." Yuusuke grit his teeth in determination, starting after him.
     An enormous thorn that looked more like a spear slammed deeply into the ground before him, halting him in his tracks-or rather, throwing him on his back as he leapt back frantically with a yell of terror. "Hey!! What's the big idea?!"
     "I'm afraid I can't let you follow him," a cool voice interrupted. A tall demon stepped from the bushes, silvery hair framing a beautiful face, sultry lips curved in a cold, mocking smile. The fox tail behind him swayed gently. "My friend and I have business to attend to, and you're being an awful nuisance by standing in the way. We don't like to be delayed, you see."
     The boy on the ground gaped for a moment before scrambling quickly to his feet. "Move it, buster, unless you want to be brought in, too," he threatened.
     "Oh, really." The kitsune pricked his ears at this, grin faintly amused. "Since I'm the one who planned the robbery, that would make me an accomplice, no?"
     "Either get out of my way or put up your dukes, furry. Or are you too much of a coward to fight without your big freaking thorns?"
     One white eyebrow arched coolly at the challenge. "A coward, am I? Very well, ningen..we'll see how big you talk when I tear your vocal cords from your throat."
     "Stop talking and fight!!" Yuusuke yelled, leaping forward and driving his fist downward.
     The kitsune flicked to the side swiftly, rocks and soil flying as the bounty hunter's fist slammed into the ground, creating a mini-crater. The fox's hand slashed downwards in a mortal blow, eyes hooded. "How dull.."
     Yuusuke reached up quickly, catching the slender hand by the wrist, halting the blow just barely, struggling to hold back the claws that suddenly flashed in his face.
     The beautiful demon's eyebrows rose again, this time in mild surprise and interest. "Hmm.. you aren't like the others... Could it be you are more than merely human?"
     "Get..off.. me!!"
     The kitsune grunted in surprise as a foot slammed unexpectedly into his gut, causing him to stagger back.
     Yuusuke got to his feet, wiping sweat from his brow. "I'm not so easy to defeat, youko!"
     "Oh really?" The taller demon flexed his claws, eyes narrowing. "Allow me to make an example out of you for all your kind. You'll never capture another demon again!" He lunged.
     "Stop it, no da!!"
     The youko barely managed to avoid the staff that flew through the air and buried itself in the ground mere centimeters from the tip of his nose, efficiently cutting his rush short and keeping him from his prey. "Who-" he snarled, whirling along with the startled hunter to see who had interrupted.
     A strange young man with a swirly-patterned cloak and strange blue bangs stepped forward, closed eyes turned towards the kitsune. "What is a demon doing in these parts, no da? You don't belong so close to the village, no da!"
     "Who the bloody hell are you??" Yuusuke demanded as the Youko took a step back, eyes narrowing in recognition.
     "You, monk...what do you think you're doing?" he growled softly. "Stick to exorcisms, little man."
     "That's not very nice, no da."
    "I'm not very nice, monk." He straightened, his face calm once more. "However, I don't have time to dawdle with you weaklings. I have a bauble to sell." Winking slyly at the enraged bounty hunter, he, too, disappeared into the treetops with a mighty bound.
     "Get back here, dammit!!" Yuusuke howled, running over to the tree and slamming the sides of his fists against the trunk in frustration, causing it to shudder with the strength of the blow.
     The monk behind him sweatdropped, quickly retrieving his staff and waiting nervously for the other man to calm down. Once he had caught his breath, Yuusuke whirled to face him, glaring furiously.
     "Good going, mac! You let him get away!!"
     The man cocked his head, looking contrite. "Gomen ne no da. But-"
     "Who the hell do you think you are?"
     The blue-haired monk perked up, bobbing his head politely. "Chichiri no da! Pleased to meet you no da."
     "And why the hell do you keep saying 'no da'?!"
     "Oro no da?"


     "That was quite a storm last night, ne, Tasuki-chan?"
     "No shit. And don't call me that."
     "Whatever you say, Tasuki-chan."
     "Do you want to go without sex that badly?"
     Trowa ignored the bickering lovers, holding the reins of the carthorse loosely in one hand while reaching up with the other to pull the brim of his straw hat down lower, squinting against the harsh sunlight. The weather this morning was more than making up for the storm. As the gypsy wagon bumped and rumbled along, swaying a little from side to side, the three friends sat easily on the front bench, swapping the reins every couple of hours, careful to keep up with the rest of the caravan.
     "Jeeee-sus, it's hot out here," Tasuki complained, reaching for the canteen once more. Nuriko snatched it easily from his calloused hands.
     "Not so fast there, big-mouth. You're gonna drink all the water!"
     "Look who's talking!"
     "Mm?" Trowa straightened, shielding his eyes with his hand as he spotted darkness on the horizon of the dusty plain. "That looks like the beginnings of a forest," he said quietly, catching his companions' attention immediately.
     "Hey, he speaks!"
     "Shut up, Tasuki. Ne, where, Trowa?"
     The slim boy pointed silently, and his friend whooped happily. "Great! That means more water and..."
     "Shade!" his lover cackled gleefully. "Man oh man, it's about time!"
     Trowa grunted, flicking the reins a little to speed up the horse. He could go for a little shade himself.
    "Hold up a minute, Tro," Tasuki suddenly said, reaching out to put a hand on the other's wiry arm and pointing to the side. "Lookit!"
    The other two craned their necks to see what had the gypsy so intrigued.
    "Hey, it's a boy," Nuriko said, looking surprised. "What's he doin' out in the middle of bum-fucked Egypt?"
    "Oi, kid!" Tasuki waved to get the small form's attention, and the cart pulled closer. "What're you doin' out here?"
    Deep blue eyes turned warily upwards, slitted to block out the sunlight, a thin arm raising to provide a small shadow across his brow, dragging a jacket by the sleeve with his other hand, thin chest heaving. "I'm going to the forest," he called up. "I'm all right."
    Nuriko glanced apprehensively at his lover. "Are you crazy, kid? It's hotter'n' hell out here! Don't you have a horse or some supplies or something?"
    "Bandits." The boy's voice was raspy from lack of water, but full of wounded pride and indignation. "Too many of 'em..they attacked me last night during the storm."
    Trowa flicked a sideways glance towards his friends. Tasuki made a face, but sighed at the beseeching look Nuriko gave him. Leaning over, he offered a tanned, brawny arm, offering a cocky smile. "Need a lift?"

    "Just what are you doing traveling on your own, anyway, kid?" Nuriko asked, carefully dabbing at the dried blood above the boy's eye with a damp cloth.
    The smaller boy winced slightly, but remained still. "I'm on a quest. I'm looking for something."
    "And just what would this 'something' be?" Tasuki demanded, pulling his canteen from the spring and taking a swig before handing it to their 'guest'.
    A stubborn blue gaze met his. "It's a secret."
    "Oh-ho, ain't we the mysterious one," the redhead sneered.
    "Leave him alone, Tasuki," Nuriko chided, frowning at him. Putting the cloth aside, he allowed the boy to lift the canteen eagerly to his mouth, but put a finger on the edge of it when his patient tried to gulp the lifesaving liquid. "Whoa, there, sonny. You'll make yourself sick if you drink too much too quick. I don't want you barfing on me."
    The boy reluctantly obeyed, handing the canteen over to Tasuki once more when Nuriko deemed he'd had enough. "So what's your name? I can't just call you 'kid' all the time, can I?" Nuriko offered a friendly grin, rummaging through his pack. "I'm Nuriko, by the way. That dope over there who hauled you into the cart earlier is Tasuki, and O Silent One tending to the horses is Trowa. He's the animal person. And Mr. Flexibility." He shrugged. "We're gypsies, as you've probably noticed, but we ain't robbers."
    The boy looked around silently, eyes wide as he took in the sights and sounds of the gypsy troupe setting up by the woodland creek, roasting fresh-caught meat over fires, gathering water into canteens and barrels, washing their clothes and dishes, and talking in a relaxed manner as they enjoyed their lunch stop.
    "Um..Pleased to meet you," he murmured. "My name's O-er, Heero."
    "Heero, eh? I like it." Nuriko winked at the small blond. "You can stick with us for a little while if you want. Wouldn't want any bandits attackin' you again, would we?"
    The boy made a wry face, touching the crossbow hanging from his back. "I can look after myself. I just wasn't expecting a five-man ambush in the middle of a storm." He shook his head in disgust at himself. "I shouldn't have let them catch me off guard like that. They took all that I had. I managed to take one out and injure two others, but..there were too many of them. I guess I spent too much time at..at home."
    Nuriko ruffled the boy's hair comfortingly. "Aw, don't sweat it." He smiled. "I believe ya. You'd hafta be crazy to carry one of those contraptions," he indicated the weapon, "without knowing how to use it. And I saw the knife in your boot. Did someone train you, kid?"
    He nodded. "Un. I had a great teacher."
    "What was his name? Maybe Trowa knew 'im. Oi, Tro!"
    Trowa glanced over impassively, stroking the neck of the carthorse. "Nani?"
    "C'mere and meet our new friend. Quit being so rude."
    "I-I don't mind," Heero stammered, but Trowa came over without complaint.
    "This is Heero," Nuriko announced. "Heero, Trowa."
    "Pleased to meet you." The smaller boy smiled sunnily, while Trowa merely nodded in acknowledgement.
    Tasuki guffawed. "Well ain't he the polite one?"
    "Unlike some," Nuriko muttered under his breath.
    "I heard that!"
    "Geez, what don't you hear..?"

To be continued...

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Ch. 9