4: The Ice Maiden
The dark-haired man raised his head, lowering the slim sword he had been polishing. Pushing up his slim glasses with a finger, he gazed calmly at the man stomping towards the campsite, looking ready to kill. He arched one fine eyebrow as a blue-haired man dressed like a monk came hurrying after him, looking worried and a little guilty.
"Yuusuke," he greeted calmly. "Who's your friend?"wacko chased off the demons!" Yuusuke accused, pointing angrily at the sheepish-looking monk. "There were two of them, Crawford. Two!" He yanked at his hair. "You know how much money that would have been?"
"Sorry, no da," the monk said apologetically. "But they have been known to raid our village, no da."
"Listen to this!" Yuusuke dropped to the ground beside the fire grumpily. "He keeps saying 'no da'. How annoying is that?!"
Ignoring his partner, the older man rose gracefully, examining their unexpected guest. "You're a monk, are you?"
"Yes, no da," the young man nodded eagerly, rattling his staff. "You must be demon hunters."
"Bounty hunters," Crawford corrected primly, sliding his rapier into its sheath. "I wasn't aware there was a village around here."
"Heey, if they're being attacked by those demons too, maybe they'll pay us to help 'em out!" Yuusuke cackled, rubbing his hands together in delight. "All right!"
"I'm Chichiri, no da." The monk smiled at the taller man. "Who might you be, no da?"
"Crawford." He inclined his head slightly, eyes devoid of emotion. "So you're from this village, are you?"
"Hai no da."
The taller man rose, a slight, cold smirk upon his thin lips, the sunlight flashing off his glasses. "Then would you be so kind as to lead the way to your home?"
The younger man hesitated, glancing from one man to the other. The first boy seemed raucous and a little crude, but he wasn't threatening, at least. This other man, however.. something about him made the monk a little uneasy. Still, what was the harm in introducing them to the village elder? He could easily lose them on the way should they prove to be dishonest. Shrugging a little, he tilted his staff in the right direction. "I will show you a path that leads to my village, no da. You must be on your best behavior once we are there, however no da." He looked pointedly towards Yuusuke, who looked affronted.
"Oi, what's that supposed to mean??"
"Very well," Crawford agreed breezily, nudging a log in the fire with his toe so that it collapsed, sending sparks everywhere. "Kick dirt over the fire, Urameshi. And do what the monk says."
The boy scowled, but did as he was told.
Chichiri glanced away, reaching out delicately with his Gift, searching the area for demons. None close enough to worry about. Hopefully this would be an uneventful trip. He faced Crawford, tugging his cloak around his throat more snugly. "We will go as soon as you are ready no da. Though don't fully expect to be hired."
"Why?" Yuusuke coughed from the smoke as he kicked loam over the sputtering campfire. "I thought you said they raid your village."
"Yes." The blue-haired man smiled a little. "But that was before I came along, no da."
The youko demon smiled charmingly, running a slender finger delicately along the smaller girl's jaw line, purring in appreciation. "You look lovely as always, Yukina-chan."
The young Ice Maiden blushed prettily, smiling up at the taller demon. "Arigato, Kurama-kun," she said politely. "Did you and my brother have fun today?"
The silver-haired man smirked, running deadly claws gently through aqua-blue hair. "Hai, you could say that. We got what we went looking for, at least." He held up an empty hand, then closed it into a tight fist and turned his hand downwards, opening his hand once more. The charm fell from his palm, swinging on the chain entwined around his middle finger, and the young maiden laughed in delight at the trick. "Oh, what a pretty necklace," she breathed, red eyes shining as she reached out to touch the pure black orb, the sunlight reflecting off its perfectly smooth surface. "What is it?"
"Seventy gold pieces if we play it right," a gruff voice answered, and both demons looked up as their third companion leapt lightly from a tree, narrowed eyes flicking to the grinning youko. "How did you manage to pocket that, fox?" he grunted, crossing lithe arms over his chest. "We agreed I would hold onto it."
His partner offered a sly smile. "Ah, that's a little secret, Hiei-chan."
"Omae.. Don't call me that," the smaller demon growled warningly.
"Hai, hai.." Kurama blew him off, returning his attention to the smiling maiden before him, his smile growing less unpleasant. "Ne, Yukina-chan, would you like to hold onto it before we sell it?"
She turned to him once more, a smile parting her cupid lips, and he slid the chain over her neck, the stone resting lightly against her chest. "It looks lovely on you," the smooth talking youko complimented, running a pale finger along the line of the chain, brushing her neck in the process.
She didn't seem to notice the gesture, taking up the heavy stone in her small palm and gazing down at it in delight. "Arigato, Kurama-kun," she said happily. "It's so pretty!"
Hiei gave the youko a warning look. Keep your grubby paws to yourself, fox.
Mou, don't get so defensive. I'm just admiring a pretty girl.
Admire someone other than my sister, then, you little thief.
The fox laughed in derision, rising to his feet and flicking his gorgeous mane over his shoulders, offering the glaring demon a sultry grin. Try and stop me, Hiei.
I will, fox.
"Do you boys hear something?" Yukina's quiet inquiry halted the mental argument, and both thieves perked their ears, straining for a sound. After a few moments a rustling could be heard.
"I hear something, all right." The youko thief flashed his claws, teeth gleaming in a fierce grin. "Sounds like a spy!"
Hiei leapt for a bush without warning, katana swinging in a precise, deadly arch that sliced several shrubs in half, revealing a startled-looking pony.
"What have we here?" Kurama's eyebrows arched in interest, and he leapt to intercept the frightened animal when it tried to bolt. Hiei seized the dangling reins, tugging sharply and forcing the mare to stop tossing her head and trying to buck.
"Looks pretty fancy," Kurama observed with a leer, keeping a safe distance as his hungry golden gaze took in the fine saddle and the carefully groomed coat and mane. "Think it belongs to a noble or something?"
His partner in crime inspected the reins in his calloused hands, plucking at the golden threads interwoven in the soft rope. "Hn," he grunted in agreement. "Some rich brat's plaything. A noble's son, most likely."
"Oh, poor thing!" Yukina hurried forward before either demon could stop her, reaching out one pale hand to pet the frightened beast's nose. "You're scaring her! Her owner must be wondering where she is.."
Surprisingly, the pony seemed to calm somewhat at her touch, blowing through its nose anxiously and ceasing its nervous movements, ducking its head lower to allow the maid to stroke its neck.
"Ch'." Kurama sniffed disdainfully. "The little gnat was probably thrown or something. I'll bet he's being gobbled by demons as we speak." He grinned wolfishly.
Yukina turned horrified eyes on him, quickly squelching his good humor. "Oh how horrible! Do you really think the owner was thrown? What if he's hurt?? Or worse!"
"I was just joking," the kitsune said a mite meekly, waving a hand lamely. "The dumb thing probably just..escaped from her pen or..something."
Hiei sent him a Look over the pony's back. Smooth, fox.
Shut up, you.
"We have to find her owner," Yukina said firmly, turning big eyes on her brother, who merely blinked dumbly at her, caught off guard by her proclamation. "We have to make sure he's all right. And return his little pony to him, too."
"Are you insane?" Kurama laughed outright. "It belongs to a human, Yukina. I don't deal with humans. I don't help humans. End of story."
Yukina's eyes turned pleading as she looked from one demon to the other, finally settling ruthlessly on the one easiest for her to manipulate, going on the attack with watery gaze and quivering lips. "Hiei-niisan," she said tremulously, "what if it's just a child? You wouldn't just let him die, would you?"
Hiei's eyes widened slightly at the merciless onslaught of little sister cuteness and pleading. "Uhh.."
Hiei sweatdropped, glancing frantically to his companion for help.
Kurama groaned. He knew that trapped look in his friend's eyes. "I don't believe this," he muttered, reaching for the reins and saying the words Yukina wanted to hear that her brother was too proud to say. "Fine, fine..you win, Yukina-chan," he sighed. "We'll look for this precious human child for you."
Her face lit up with joy as she turned to him, a smile lighting up her face. "Honto, Kurama-kun?!"
"Hai hai.." the youko agreed reluctantly, but held up a finger in warning. "But we aren't going to search all over the damn country for him, missy. If we don't find him by tonight-"
"Tomorrow," she corrected quickly.
Kurama hesitated. "By..tomorrow," he corrected unwillingly, "then..that's it. That's all I'll have to do with this ridiculous matter. We sell the horse and goods. Clear?"
"Arigato, Kurama-kun! Arigato, 'niisan!" The ice maiden laughed merrily, clapping her hands. "We'll find him, you'll see!"
Yeh, but what happens when we find this all-important human?
Quit your grumbling and just make her happy, fox.
Trowa looked up from where he was lacing together a set of reins, glancing upwards through his bangs at the hesitant figure before him. As usual, he had chosen to work in peace away from the main group, finding a quiet spot by the creek just out of sight of the caravan where he could relax and keep his thoughts to himself. Even Nuriko usually left him alone when he wandered off, knowing the stoic gypsy liked his solitude. Usually.
But it wasn't the genki purple-haired boy that stood beside him now.
"Oh, it's you." Trowa spoke in a neutral tone, lowering his eyes back to his work, slim fingers deftly moving this leather piece along the other, braiding efficiently and quickly. "What is it?"
The young blond hesitated before crouching before him, watching him work. "Might I ask where this caravan is going? Nuriko said earlier I could stay with the troupe as a, um, hitchiker kind of, but he's busy now.."
The acrobat didn't even look up, reaching out to dip his fingertips in the water and continuing with his work. "We travel towards the closest town or village in whatever direction we're headed. Right now that means the town of Yafuma, and eventually Akda."
"The city Akda?" Heero blinked large blue eyes in surprise, hands propped on his knees as he rocked back on the balls of his feet, sitting on his heels. "I went there once when I was little. But some say it's more of a ghost town, now. Ever since Khardova's king annexed that land. Even..even our queen doesn't deal with that city, now. It was supposed to have been marvelous a long time ago, though. Before I was born, it was like a second capital."
Trowa didn't respond, and the younger boy faltered before smiling again.
"You remind me of my teacher, in a way. He only spoke when he had to. He-"
"And yet you speak so much." Trowa looked up calmly, fingers stilling for an instant as he met the boy's eyes with his own emerald ones. "I told you what you wanted to know. Why are you still here?"
Heero laughed nervously. "You also remind me of a friend.. Wufei speaks as bluntly as you do." His voice trailed off, his eyes sliding from the other's, a sad look stealing across his features. "I miss them.." he said quietly, almost to himself. "I wish I didn't have to.." he stopped, smiling once more, an action Trowa was beginning to suspect was a false way of comforting those around him. "I'm sorry to bother you, though. Thank you for answering my question." He rose.
Trowa looked up at him. "So you'll be staying with us until we reach Khardova?"
The smaller boy hesitated, glancing upstream as if thinking to himself. "I think I might," he said after a few moments. "Perhaps I will find what I'm looking for there."
"You're on some kind of quest," the actor said, but continued before the boy could stammer an excuse. "But since you've avoided certain questions and subjects since we picked you up, I'm to assume this is a secret quest?"
Heero tugged at his shirt sleeves nervously. "Yes..."
"Very well." The older boy returned to his work, lowering his eyes once more to the leather in his hands.
Heero waited for him to say more, but when it was obvious he wasn't going to, he smiled slightly and turned away, heading back towards the rest of the caravan. This trip was going to be more interesting than he had anticipated.
To be continued...
To be continued...
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