A/N: Chapter title came from a song lyric that was sort of my basis for how Hiei was in this fic (from the romance point of view): Botan thought he'd be experienced and full of himself for it because he was so confident in other areas of his life, but really he was every bit as inexperienced and unsure as she was.


Chapter 26 – He Stands Alone

"Look lady, the price is four hiruiseki, pay it or get out!"

"I heard you the first time, there's no need to shout, and if you'd been listening to me, you'd have heard me say that I'm offering you two hiruiseki!"

Botan was sure that, if he could see her then, even Captain Ootake would be impressed with her bartering skills. Most of the money she had from spirit world was gone – though that was not her only reason for arguing on price – but she had plenty to show for it: after a night in a nice hotel, a visit to a spa and a prolonged soak in a bath, a visit to a hairdresser to tidy her hair and some extensive clothes shopping, she was at a market attempting to purchase another bag like the one she had lost in Doro. Hiei had not intimated any desire to go on any sort of journey, but, in the back of her mind, Botan had an idea that she might need another such bag in the near future.

"I know you double the price of everything when you see someone like me approaching," she said to the irritated bat demon behind the stall. "So I know this bag is only worth two hiruiseki! Do you even know how hiruiseki are made? Do you have any idea how much emotional torture one poor ice maiden had to endure to create two hirui stones?"

The bat demon smiled then, his sudden change in demeanour making Botan lean back fearfully.

"You're a crazy lady," he said, sounding suddenly friendly. "I like you."

"So…" she began. "You'll let me have it for two hiruiseki?"

"No, the price is still four hiruiseki."

"Why won't you barter with me?"

"I don't need to. I know you really want this. You want this badly enough that you'd pay eight hirui stones for it."

Botan's face dropped.

"You're mean," she said sulkily.

"I'm here to make money, not friends," he replied.

"Three hirui stones and that's my final offer!" she tried.

The bat demon sighed and picked up the bag Botan had been trying to purchase. She watched with increasing panic as he stuffed the bag under the stall out of sight and then stepped back and pretended not to see her.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. "I was going to buy that bag!"

"You've insulted me," he replied. "Offering such a substandard price for such a valuable item."

Botan growled and clenched her fists. Captain Ootake had said to offer half the asking price and never pay more than three quarters of the asking price, but she did really, really want the bag – even more so since the vendor had put it out of her line of sight – and she did still have quite a bit of money left over.

"Four hiruiseki is more than I paid for my haircut," she grumbled.

"Demand has gone up, maybe the price has gone up too," the bat demon said.

"Don't you dare!" Botan yelled at him.

He sighed and recovered the bag, placing it out on top of his stall of goods.

"Since I like you so much, I'll let you have it for four hiruiseki," he said.

"That was the original price," Botan flatly replied. "Don't pretend you're doing me a favour."

"Just pay up."

Botan began searching her sleeves for the sack of hirui stones, glaring at the merchant as she did so. When she failed to locate the money after a thorough search of the sleeves of her newly acquired kimono, she began searching through her bags of shopping before breaking into a panic.

"I've been robbed!" she wailed.

"I'm not giving this bag away for free, lady," the bat demon warned her.

"I'm being perfectly serious here!" Botan snapped at him. "This is not a ruse to make you drop your extortionate price, this is the truth!"

Botan put down her bags and dropped to a crouch, desperately clawing through them.

"Why are you flapping?"

Botan looked up at Hiei, who had joined her by the stall, ready to tell him that she had surely been mugged by a sneaky demon bandit: but when she saw him, all thoughts of her current predicament vanished from her mind.

"Ooh, you look nice!" she said, rising to her feet.

Hiei pretended not to have heard her, but she continued admiring him regardless. It had not occurred to her that he had become as messy as she had in their recent exploits, and so seeing him cleaned up and dressed in new and clean clothing made her realise that he too had suffered.

"Did you just buy more black clothes?" she asked. "You know it's okay to wear colour sometimes. In fact, I know you've worn colours before, I've seen you–"

"I'm still waiting for my money over here."

Botan glared at the merchant angrily for his interruption.

"Are you buying another giant bag?" Hiei asked.

"I've been robbed!" Botan cried as the memory of her predicament returned to her.

"What?" Hiei echoed, his face breaking into an angered sneer.

"Yes, I've been robbed!" Botan said. "I went to pay for the bag, and the money is gone! I was sure I had it up my sleeve, I don't know how someone could have taken it without my knowing!"

"Thieves here are far more sophisticated than thieves in the living world," Hiei replied. "But it shouldn't be difficult to find the perpetrator."

Botan waited as patiently as she could as Hiei took a moment to use his jagan to search for the thief. As he searched the bat demon behind the stall passed a few scathing comments about people with no money trying to cheat him, but Botan ignored him.

"Over there," Hiei concluded, pointing through the crowd of bodies at the market stalls.

Botan looked in the direction he had indicated, seeing nothing out of the ordinary at first: but then she saw a hooded figure trying to frantically dodge through the crowds and she did not hesitate to summon her borrowed oar, leaping onto it and racing after the pickpocket. Through a combination of the crowds slowing down the thief's escape and Botan's determination, she quickly reached her target, leaping from her oar and launching herself at the criminal without a second thought. Botan collided with the hooded figure's back and the two fell to the ground, creating a small gap in the crowded street as passers-by moved aside to avoid their scuffle. Botan grabbed handfuls of the hooded robe and yanked hard, rolling over the body she had floored, gasping in horror as she then found herself face-to-face with a young girl who looked far too delicate to be a resident of demon world.

"You stole my money!" Botan recovered.

The girl looked surprised, but her eyes quickly moved to something over Botan's shoulder. Without thinking that it could have been a deliberate ploy to distract her, Botan turned her head, looking back over her shoulder to see Hiei holding her oar in one hand, his sword in the other, and pinning down a second hooded figure beneath one booted foot.

"No!" the girl in front of Botan wailed. "Please don't hurt my baby!"

"Baby?" Botan echoed.

"Hn, this is hardly a baby," Hiei scoffed. "This is the thief. If he's old enough to steal for you, he's old enough to deal with the consequences."

"No!"

Botan yelped as the little girl somehow managed to shove her aside and dive at Hiei's feet. As Botan scrambled to her feet, the girl skidded along the road on her chest, her hands closing around empty air. Hiei had hoisted the girl's accomplice into the air, and with a shake of his hand, the robe encasing the figure fell loose, revealing a young boy barely bigger than Koenma in size.

Botan and Hiei both paused, the moment only ending when the little boy in Hiei's hand turned large red eyes to him and spoke.

"Are you my father?"

Hiei grunted and threw the boy down. The girl at his feet caught the boy before he hit the ground, clutching him protectively to her chest and glancing back and forth between Hiei and Botan with fearful eyes.

"Give them back their money, Yoshirin," she said.

"He looks just like me," the little boy said.

"Give them back their money!" the girl said urgently.

The boy looked less than pleased, but did produce Botan's velvet sack of hirui stones, throwing them at her feet.

"Now please, let us go," the girl said, focusing her attention on Botan.

Botan looked over at Hiei, noticing then that, despite how angry he looked, he had dropped his sword rather than her oar when he had grabbed up the boy. She then stepped forwards and knelt down in front of the girl.

"Are you from the ice village?" Botan asked her.

The girl stared fearfully back at her, but Botan noticed that she did tighten her hold on the boy. Botan turned to Hiei then.

"Didn't Rui tell us you were the last emiko born in the ice village?" she asked him.

"You're an emiko too?" the girl asked, turning to Hiei.

Hiei bared his teeth and tightened his grip on Botan's oar as though he had forgotten that it was not his sword.

"Is he your son?" Botan asked, turning back to the girl.

She looked terrified, but she nodded regardless.

"So then you are from the ice village," Botan said.

The girl again tightened her hold on her son.

"It's okay," Botan assured her. "We're not your enemies. We can help you."

"What?" Hiei grunted.

"Why were you stealing from us?" Botan asked.

"I'm sorry, I know it's not right," the girl replied. "But we haven't eaten in days, and we need supplies for an important journey we have to make."

Botan turned around, looking about herself. She was surprised that she had remembered to take her bags of shopping with her when she had started after the thieves, but she had unfortunately dropped them all when she had leapt from her oar. She located one with food provisions, picking through broken eggs to a paper bag of bread rolls.

"Here," she said, opening the bag and taking out one of the bread rolls. "You can ha–"

Botan stopped short as the girl snatched the roll from her and pushed it towards her son, who somehow managed to cram the entire thing into his tiny mouth.

"I have plenty," Botan said, taking out another roll. "You don't have to–"

Botan stopped again as again the ice maiden snatched the roll from her, this time eating it hungrily herself.

"Take the whole bag, it's fine," Botan offered.

The little emiko grabbed the bag from her and, together with his mother, they tore open the bag, spilling bread rolls all over the road. Botan tried not to look as disgusted as she felt as they grabbed up and hurriedly ate every last one of the bread rolls and the little boy then began licking the spilled egg yolks off the outside of her shopping bag.

"What are you doing here?" Hiei asked as the ice maiden peered hopefully into the bag her son was cleaning the exterior of. "Don't you know how dangerous it is for you to be in a place like this? There are far too many here who would capture and torture you for your ability to make hiruiseki."

"I'm not staying here," the girl replied, her eyes still on the bag. "We only came here to get supplies for our journey."

"Your journey?" Botan asked. "Where are you going?"

The girl paused, eyeing Botan over warily.

"It's okay, you can tell me!" Botan said cheerfully. "I'm Botan, by the way, and this is my husband Hiei."

Hiei gave a small growl, but otherwise did not move or respond to her introduction.

"And he's from the ice village too?" the ice maiden asked, glancing up at Hiei as she asked the question.

"Yes, just like you and your son!" Botan replied. "But we didn't know there was an emiko younger than Hiei."

The girl looked down at the ground for a moment before answering.

"I didn't have my son in the ice village," she admitted. "I ran away. I knew they would never let me keep him, so, when I found out I was with child, I just never went back."

"Oh," Botan said, nodding eagerly. "That makes sense. Hiei did once say there might be others born that the ice maidens didn't know about for that exact reason!"

"I tried to find Yoshirin's father, but we recently found out he was killed," the ice maiden explained. "And for the last five years, we've been living where we can. We've never found a place to stay, but we heard there is a tribe of demons who would accept us into their group and we could live with them safely."

"Let me guess: the tribe is located about two days walking distance south of this town?" Hiei asked, sounding more sarcastic than Botan had ever heard him sound.

"Yes, that's right," the ice maiden said, turning to him. "You've heard of them?"

Hiei threw down Botan's oar and retrieved his sword, stowing it away. Botan watched him expectantly, but he said nothing.

"Please, if you know where they are or you can tell me anything about them, it would be most appreciated," the ice maiden pleaded. "I don't know exactly where they are or how best to get there."

"I know exactly where they are and I know how best to get there," Hiei muttered. "I'll tell you the way, but I don't ever want to see you again after that."

Botan took a moment to study the ice maiden – who was even smaller than Yukina – noticing how pathetic she actually looked, dressed in a perfectly stitched kimono made of substandard cotton and an equally well-stitched hooded robe made of what appeared to be an old potato sack. Her clothing, hair, face and hands were grubby, particularly so where she had skidded along the dusty road when she had thrown herself down to catch her son as Hiei had dropped him. Her son looked little better, dressed in an outfit compiled of patches of material and a hooded robe the same as his mother's. They looked so small and vulnerable and if they could only survive by stealing then there was little hope for them making it to their destination.

"Why are you stealing from people?" she asked. "You could make your own money."

"It's not that simple," Hiei answered before the ice maiden could. "Apart from anything else, if anyone saw her making hirui stones, she would become a target."

"Of course, yes," Botan said. "Well then, why don't you tell us your name?"

"My name?" the ice maiden asked, looking surprised by the question. "My name is Michi."

"Well, even though we didn't meet under the most pleasant of circumstances Michi, it's nice to meet you anyway," Botan said. "Hiei?"

She turned to Hiei, who still looked as though he had a bad taste in his mouth.

"Let's go."

He frowned.

"We can't let Michi and Yoshirin travel alone," Botan added. "It's obviously too dangerous for them. Since you know where they are heading, we should accompany them there."

"That's ridiculous," Hiei said.

"It's ridiculous not to help!" Botan argued. "Aren't you inspired that Michi put herself through all this trouble to be with her son? After everything you've seen lately, you should be more sympathetic!"

"The problem is not Michi, it's her destination," Hiei growled.

Botan looked at Michi and Yoshirin, checking that they were distracted picking up crumbs before getting to her feet and moving over to Hiei's side.

"What's the problem, Hiei?" she whispered to him. "I think we should help them."

"I don't deny that they need help," Hiei whispered back. "But I will not go back there."

"Back where?" Botan hissed.

"Isn't it obvious?" Hiei asked. "A place to the south of here, a tribe who will accept them – they're going to Inugoya."

"Oh…"

Botan looked down at the ice maiden and her emiko son, memories of her last visit to Inugoya flitting through her mind.

"I will never go back there," Hiei added. "I won't even go close to that area. And there is nothing in any of the three worlds that can change my mind on the matter."


Hiei finally came to a halt at the foot of the wide, flat valley, surrounded by a horseshoe of mountains, the highest of which was straight ahead of him. The sun had risen – he had been travelling all evening and through the night – but the light had yet to reach over the mountaintops and into the valley itself. He turned his head slightly to watch as Botan swooped down at his side, her oar laden with a bag full of crap and a bleary-eyed young ice maiden clinging to the slumbering form of her son. Despite the fact that Botan had surely exerted more energy travelling at speed carrying so much, she still looked lively as she unloaded her oar and banished it.

"Well, this is as far as we can take you," she said.

Hiei almost wanted to sigh in relief at Botan's words.

"This is it?" Michi asked, looking about herself through heavy eyelids.

"Yes, this is it," Botan confirmed.

Hiei looked up at the mountains around them: the range to the left, where he and Botan had left Inugoya after their first visit there and the way by which they had returned the night he had given Yukina back her hiruiseki; the range immediately ahead, where the stinky dog demon village was located; and the range to the right, which had, near the top, the caves that led back through the alleyway of carnivorous flowers. The sunlight finally began to break over the range to the left, light gradually cascading down the right side of the valley.

"It's so big," Michi said.

"Oh no dear, the place you're looking for is at the top of the mountain there," Botan said. "It's not all of this area. It's just a small settlement at the summit."

"Oh, I know that," Michi said. "Thank you so much for taking me here. It would have taken me such a long time to find it myself and I never could have travelled as quickly as you did. And thank you for the food."

"That's alright, we were glad to be of assistance," Botan told her.

Michi accidentally caught Hiei's eye and paused before a slightly awkward look passed over her eyes.

"And thank you for not hurting us after we stole from you," she added.

Hiei nodded and Michi attempted a smile.

"Botan, could you hold Yoshirin for me for a moment?" she said, turning to Botan.

Botan gladly took the sleeping emiko from Michi's arms, cuddling him close to herself in a way Hiei felt like warning her would end in disaster if he woke up during the embrace. She started to lament how "cute" she thought he was, but stopped suddenly, her head tilting to one side. Hiei turned to see what had caught her attention, and saw that Michi had removed her hiruiseki from around her neck and she was, inexplicably, holding it up in the air. Botan stepped forwards and cast Hiei a questioning look, which he returned with a small shake of his head to show that he did not know what was happening either. Together they watched in silent fascination as the little ice maiden stretched up onto her toes and reached her arm up high above her head, finally managing to push the stone on the end of her necklace into the rays of sunlight spilling into the valley. Hiei squinted as the light reflected brilliantly off the stone, creating near-blinding flickers of light. Michi held her position for a few seconds more before dropping onto the flats of her feet again and dropping her arm to her side. She then looked expectantly up at the top of a nearby mountain.

"What are you doing, Michi?" Botan asked.

"This is the signal to let them know I'm coming," Michi replied.

"Signal?" Botan echoed.

"I didn't realise Inukasai had set up a whole system to encourage waifs he can make himself seem impressive to into his village," Hiei grumbled.

"Who is Inukasai?" Michi asked.

"He's the one you're here to see," Botan explained.

"His name is Inukasai?" Michi asked.

"Yes," Botan replied.

"Isn't Inukasai the name of a dog demon?" Michi asked.

"Yes."

Michi looked a little lost and Botan smiled and waved a hand in the air.

"I know it's confusing," she said. "But even though he is an emiko, his name is Inukasai."

"Oh," Michi said. "That is confusing."

She turned and looked up at the mountain again and again Botan gave Hiei a questioning look.

"The place you're looking for is over this way," Hiei offered, pointing towards the highest mountain at the top of the valley.

Michi looked in the direction he was pointing, then gave him a curious look and then returned to watching the mountain to the right, her attention fixed on the point just beyond the entrance to the cave network.

"There's nothing over that way," Hiei told her. "There's nothing here in general, other than the dog demon village."

"Dog demon village?" Michi echoed.

She looked horrified. Apparently whoever had told her about the group awaiting her in the mountains had failed to mention that they were a tribe of dog demons. Hiei drew in a breath to tell her that yes, the saviour she was searching for was in fact a member of the tribe of dog demons: but he stopped short when something caught his eye high in the mountains. Hiei slowly raised his eyes to the brilliant flicker of light, emanating from high in the mountain range to the right of the valley, at a point just beyond the caves – the same point Michi had been looking out towards when she had made the same signal.

"What's that?" Botan asked.

"That's the acknowledgement signal," Michi said, lifting her chain back up over her head. "Thank you again so much for everything you've done for me. Both of you."

She gathered up her son from Botan and turned to leave.

"We'll come with you," Botan blurted out, reaching out a hand towards her.

Michi paused, looking back over her shoulder. Botan turned to Hiei, who was still too confused to react, and – obviously knowing that only too well – Botan took advantage of his temporary lapse of judgment to enforce her own.

"I'll fly us up there, it'll be much faster!" she said enthusiastically.

She summoned her oar and fastened her bag to it again and by the time Hiei had figured out that the flicker of light had come from a plateau close to the summit of one of the mountains, Botan and Michi were back on Botan's oar.

"Come on Hiei, let's go!" Botan said, reaching out a hand towards him.

"This could be a trap," Hiei warned her.

"If you believed that, you'd have used your jagan eye to check on it already," she casually replied. "You're just curious but you're too proud to admit to it. Now are you flying with us or do you want to run?"

Hiei turned his head, looking up at the plateau again. He was curious, but there was no way he would ever admit to it, least of all in front of Michi and her child.

"I'll go ahead to make sure there are no traps," he said.

He heard Botan calling out to him but her voice faded fast as he took off and began scaling the mountain. It was true that he could have looked ahead with his jagan eye, but instinct was telling him that whatever was at the top of the mountain, it was something he would need to see with his own eyes.

By the time Hiei did finally reach his destination, the sun had risen further, illuminating most of the valley below. He was sure Botan could have flown up quicker than he ran, but she was still behind him, and so he stopped at the edge of an opening of flat land, looking about himself cautiously for the first sign of who had answered Michi's signal.

And Hiei did not have to wait long.

At first, he thought he was looking at Inukasai, approaching him from behind a rock. But, as the emiko drew closer, it became apparent that he was not the same one who had stolen into the living world and tried to abduct Hiei's life: he was much older, his face bore a vicious scar over one eye and he was not dressed in quite the same way that Hiei and Inukasai did.

"Greetings," he said.

"Who are you?" Hiei asked him.

"My name is Akio," he replied. "I'm surprised to see you here. How did you find us?"

Hiei found his mind lingering on the word "us", and, as a flicker of movement caught his attention, he took another look around the opening, noticing then that there were countless figures lingering in the shadows watching him.

"What is this place?" Hiei asked, turning his attention back to Akio.

"This is the place I chose for my mission," Akio replied. "It's secluded and generally safe. I've been relatively successful, but there are so many of us now, I can no longer leave this area. That's why I'm surprised to see you here."

"Tell your associates to show themselves," Hiei said.

"Certainly. You can come out, we have a new ally."

At first Hiei was not bothered by the figures stepping out into the light: but as their number increased and as some of them began to take on familiar shapes, he quickly tensed.

"What the hell is this?" he demanded.

"Don't you know?" Akio asked. "You gave the signal, I thought you must know who we are."

Hiei was actually glad when Botan finally caught up to him and landed at his side. She looked as shocked as he felt, but Michi did not hesitate to approach Akio and the moment of confusion was short-lived.

"Are you Akio?" she asked him.

"Yes, I am," he replied.

"My name is Michi," she said. "I heard about your group and I came here to join you. This is my son, Yoshirin."

She placed her son down and he rubbed at his eyes before gasping as he noticed the group of ice maidens standing behind Akio and the startlingly large number of emikos, the smallest of whom was the same size as Yoshirin and the largest of whom was a lanky teenager.

"These are my new friends, Hiei and Botan," Michi continued. "They showed me great kindness and they helped me get here. Without them, I don't think I could have made it. Hiei is an emiko too."

"Yes, I can see that," Akio said. "Hiei you were obviously born in the ice village."

Hiei did not answer, as he was still trying to figure out how it was possible that there was a tribe of eleven ice maidens and fifteen emikos that he had never heard of before.

"As was I," Akio continued. "And like you, I was cast out. The children you see here were all born outside of the ice village. In my travels I encountered many of them individually and eventually I came to realise that something should be done to gather them all together and offer them the protection they needed. It was also my intention to find other emikos like myself, who have been born in the ice village and cast out, but my time is consumed now watching guard over the group here."

"Did you know there's another emiko not far from here who was born in the ice village?" Botan asked, her expression and tone clearly betraying her still lingering dislike of Inukasai.

"I am aware of him, though I've never met him," Akio replied. "Did you just happen upon Michi by chance?"

"Yes," Hiei replied before Botan could tell him the whole story of their meeting.

Akio nodded.

"Well, you are of course welcome here," he said. "You should stay a little while. It will be good for the young ones to be around another grown emiko."

Hiei thought that sounded like the worst idea ever, but before he could excuse himself out of it, Botan had already accepted the offer and starting introducing herself to the others in the group. Hiei sighed and nodded at Akio, who led him on through the rocks to a crude but homely encampment on a barren ledge in the mountainside. Despite not really wanting to, Hiei sat down on a rock and Akio sat down onto another rock facing him.

"I understand your hesitancy," Akio said to him. "It must be surprising for you to see us all like this. It's not so bad for me because I've had so long to get accustomed to it."

"I had no idea there had been so many emikos born outside of the ice village," Hiei admitted.

"Neither had I," Akio replied with a dry smile. "I keep thinking there can't possibly be any more and then another one appears – like just now."

"Quite a life you have, babysitting all these pests," Hiei commented.

"I didn't start out here with the intention of becoming a babysitter, it's just happened this way. It is a hindrance, because I'm no longer able to travel around searching for the others."

"Do you really need any more? And if they are all coming to you anyway, why would you even want to go looking for them?"

"Like I said, I didn't expect there to be so many. I thought there might only be three or four. My primary aim was to find the emikos who had been born in the ice village. Others like you, Hiei."

"Why would you want to do that?"

Akio arched his eyebrows as though he thought Hiei's question was unnecessary: which, Hiei supposed, it was, as he did already have a fair idea as to why Akio was doing what he was. Hiei looked about the others, trying not to let it show just how surprised he was at the sheer number of both ice maidens and emikos present.

"Initially I travelled around looking for them," Akio said as Hiei watched Botan enthusiastically attempting to learn the name and personality of every member of the group. "But I'm so restricted now. It's too dangerous to send one of the girls out to search and the boys are all still too young: not to mention that none of them have the knowledge of demon world locations and customs that a more well-travelled demon would."

"You do know there's another in Inugoya, right?" Hiei asked, meeting Akio's eyes again.

"You mean Inuyusha's son?" Akio asked.

"Hn, so you do know of him," Hiei said.

"I don't care for him."

Hiei felt his face twist despite his better wishes.

"I thought you said you were looking to gather all the emikos born in the ice village?" he said. "Doesn't Inukasai fall into that category?"

"Yes, but he doesn't need our help and we certainly don't need someone so slick complicating things for us," Akio replied.

Hiei nodded.

"I see you know him quite well," he said.

"I've observed him, though never actually met with him," Akio replied. "I don't expect every emiko I encounter to be suitable to join us. I'm primarily looking for those who are lost or need a place to belong. What about you, Hiei?"

"I'm not lost," Hiei replied.

"That's good. Whereabouts in demon world have you been living?"

"I've lived all over demon world."

"Really?"

"Yes. I've always travelled a lot."

Hiei was deliberately being vague – and he was not lying – in the hope of changing the topic of conversation away from himself, but Akio appeared to be getting more and more interested with every ambiguous answer he gave. After giving him a long, scrutinising look, Akio turned to call over one of the ice maidens, whispering something to her that Hiei frustratingly could not hear.

"Would you like some refreshments?"

Hiei turned to the ice maiden at his side, pausing as his eyes landed on her face. Despite her not looking even remotely like Yukina, she reminded Hiei of his sister regardless. It was something about the tone of her voice – more varied and lively than the typical dull tones of her ancestors – and something about the openness of her face – her eyebrows were not set low over her eyes and her mouth was not thinned and tense. Hiei was unsure if the changes came about when an ice maiden left the ice village or if some ice maidens were just born that way. Maybe it was a little of both.

"I'm fine," he said.

"If you need anything, let me know," she offered.

She smiled gently and then moved back over to join the others. Hiei turned back to Akio at the same moment that the ice maiden he had called over returned to him carrying a bundle of papers. She passed them to Akio, who nodded his head at her before holding the papers out towards Hiei.

"What is this?" Hiei asked, making no attempt to accept the offer.

"It's all the leads I have on where the others might be," Akio replied. "I wondered if you could check over them. If you have travelled, you maybe know of some of these places or some of these informants."

Hiei looked down at the papers, noticing maps of areas he was all too familiar with both from his days travelling with Takeo and his duties as part of the border patrol. If he had any interest in helping Akio's cause, he would be well placed to do so, he thought. However, the thought of travelling around demon world deliberately seeking out more Inukasais did not appeal to him in the slightest and so he made to tell Akio exactly that: but before he could, Botan had taken the papers from him and begun sifting through them.

"Hiei is a guard for the border patrol, I bet he knows where all of these places are and all the best ways to get to them," she commented as she scanned over the documents.

"Weren't you busying yourself befriending people you'll probably never see again?" Hiei asked her sarcastically. "Maybe you should go back to doing that."

"You're an officer of the border patrol?" Akio asked, leaning forwards towards Hiei.

"What I do isn't up for discussion," Hiei replied.

"Yes, he is," Botan said.

Hiei glared at her but her attention had shifted to Akio.

"Maybe we could help you, Akio!" she said cheerfully. "We could travel to these places and look for these missing emikos!"

Hiei was on his feet before the thought to stand had even entered his mind.

"Come with me," he said sternly, grabbing one of Botan's long sleeves and promptly dragging her away from the others.

Hiei kept going until he was sure that he would be out of earshot before stopping and turning around to face Botan, growling as he noticed that she was still holding the maps and notes she had taken from Akio.

"What are you doing?" he asked her.

"Hiei, I've been thinking," she replied. "And I've decided that I don't want to be a ferry girl any more. I want to do something more meaningful and this is the most meaningful thing I can think of. If someone had done this for you, you never would have needed to get your jagan eye and you probably wouldn't have spent so long with Takeo. You said you weren't ready to go back to working shifts on the border patrol again, so why not do this for now?"

"This is insane," Hiei flatly replied. "This is, by far, the most absurd thing you've suggested to me: and given the suggestions you've levied at me these past couple of weeks, that really is saying something."

"I know you want to do this, Hiei," Botan insisted. "Did you see how surprised Akio was that we just met Michi and Yoshirin by chance? And he's right! This wasn't just a mere coincidence, it's a sign! It was fate that we met with Michi and Yoshirin when and how we did! This is what we should be doing! We can do this together! We can help them all!"

Hiei leaned to one side to look beyond Botan at the group behind her. Looking at the young emikos only reminded him of all the awkward phases of his own childhood and looking at the ice maidens strangely made him think of his mother. Of his last memory of her. Of his only memory of her. Of how she had pleaded with the elders not to cast him out. Of how she had begged them to give him back. Of how she had been prepared to leave the village – and ultimately had, according to Kuro – to be reunited with him. Of how cheated he had felt when he had stood in the ice village looking at the crude marker the villagers had placed on her gravesite. Of how the ice maidens had buried Hina outside of their sacred burial area, marking her as dirty.

Hiei slowly righted his stance, his eyes lifting to Botan's. She was watching him with such optimism in her eyes, seemingly holding her breath as she waited for his response.

"Hiei?" she eventually said. "What do you think?"

"I think you're crazy," he quietly replied.

Her enthusiasm faded and she began to breathe again.

"And I'm out of my mind."

She stopped breathing again.

Hiei looked over at Akio, raising a hand to him. Akio gave a slight smile and a nod of his head and held up his hand in understanding. Hiei then held out his hand to Botan.

"Let's go."

THE END


A/N: Akio means "glorious hero", ha.

So this is the weird ending. I wanted Hiei and Botan to have another adventure, and while writing them researching Hiei's life, I got caught up in wanting to know what had happened to those other emikos (that I created, does that make me a schizophrenic?!) so I decided their next adventure should be to find the others.