An Amusing Interlude: Part 19: Chess - In which a last battle is waged and an ending is reached.
By
Deborah (Kosagi) Brown

Hunter X Hunter is copyright Yoshihiro Togashi. Quoll and Kurapika aren't mineā€¦ more's the pity.

Note: All author's notes are being made in my LiveJournal, under the name KosagiNoLegion. I'd put the URL here, but Fanfiction Net in its infinite wisdom regards such as a sin against their coding. Just search for me by the above name and all will be well.


KURAPIKA:

"How is he doing?"

"The same."

"When is he going to wake up?"

"I don't know."

"Why not?"

"Because."

"Because, why?"

"Because I don't."

"WHAT KIND OF ANSWER IS THAT?"

I get out of my chair. Fling open the door and glare at the two men in the other room. "Nobunaga? Father?" Two pairs of eyes turn to me and I very carefully continue, "Would the two of you please stop arguing about Quoll before I let Feitan do what he's been wanting to do to the two of you for the last half hour?" I close the door as quietly as possible as they get identical expressions of panic on their faces.

As he takes the thermometer from Quoll's lips and examines it, Feitan remarks, "I'm fairly sure I can't drop kick them to the moon."

"They don't have to know that. How is he?"

There's a moment's pause as Feitan eyes me, a look of humor crossing his narrow features and I don't really need him to say, "Do I need to drop kick you, too?" to know what he's thinking.

Grimacing, I go over to the sink in the bathroom and soak another towel. "You just took his temperature," I point out and he nods. "So?" It took me over a week to recover from my overuse of the Eyes. It's been twice that and the fever has only dropped to normal today. I sit across from Feitan and exchange the towel on his forehead for the new, wet one, in my hand.

"It's still normal," Feitan tells me, putting the thermometer away and stretching. "No sign of reaction though." He eyes me and I know what he's thinking. We've been discussing my using the link, off and on, for the last hour or so. I don't want to do it. Not just because I don't like fiddling around in someone else's head but because I'm very worried about what I'm going to find inside Quoll's. Given the way things were going just before he lost consciousness, the mess in his mind could be entirely out of control. And beyond my ability to stop.

I look at my brother and sigh. Pale, a bit drawn, the usually sardonic expression wiped away, he looks younger than I do. Oddly, though, aside from that he doesn't look all that different from normal. Now that the fever has broken, he just looks like he's lazing about. Which is, when I think about it, a very typical state of affairs for Quoll. There's something very essentially lazy in my brother. A dislike of hard work that probably has a lot to do with his methods and attitudes.

And it's high time I kicked him back into motion.

.oOo.

QUOLL:

It's a stalemate. They stand around me, blocking my escape, unable to approach and entirely unwilling to let me go. My father's tribe. My victims. The minds that I have stolen, each and every one filled with hatred for me and ready to destroy if they had the power.

They don't. Destroy me and they destroy themselves. They've tried that before, attacking my mind from within when I'd first taken them. Only the realization that as they killed me they were destroying themselves made them stop. That and my one ally in this madness, Shizuku, are my only defenses. A small piece of her mind is bound to mine and she has long protected me from their efforts to break me. Even as she guards my back from them now.

I gaze at the crowd, at dozens of Ruby Eyes glaring at me. "None of us have to rest," the old man who I know to be Kurapika's and my grandfather tells me. "This can go on until your body is too weak to ever wake up."

I gaze at him as levelly as I can. "True enough. Grandfather. Just one question, though. What happens to all of you when I die?" He clenches his fist, stepping towards me, only to stop at the edge of the 'force field' my mind has created to protect its central Self. Here in this place one is only limited by one's imagination. And I have quite a bit of that. "I don't have to rest in here anymore than you do. And while I'm outnumbered, this body, this mind belongs to me first and foremost. So what do you propose to do, when I can do this?"

The shift in our reality is startling, even though I both expected and intended it. We stand amid the stars themselves, no up, no down. Flashes of his lightning combine with flares of light that surround us all. Back and forth the images twist and change. Light from his hand tries to lance its way past my barrier. Darkness tries to swallow him up, only to be blasted away. He growls a curse, still stymied by my defenses, struggling to impose his own will on my mental landscape. A thick fog surrounds us, its odor sickening and I have to quickly shift a wind to push it aside, revealing what he'd hidden beneath. Bodies surround us, long dead and rotting, each one missing its eyes.

"YOUR FAULT, ABOMINATION! YOUR FAULT!"

Somewhere, someone screams, a child's cry, and I start, turning to look in that direction. Three have remained aloof from our battle, an old woman, a younger woman whose resemblance to Kurapika is such that I know whom she must be, and, finally a little boy who is pressing his face into his mother's gown. Kurapika's little brother Jurik. And mine. The realization shakes me. He looks so small and scared that the only thing I feel is rage at the one who frightened him.

Angrily, I grasp for control and find it, forcing the landscape into something much more innocent. A sunny clearing surrounded by trees and filled with soft breezes. Not the sort of place I like, but I know it from Kurapika's thoughts and am sure that it will calm my littlest brother's fears for the moment. It works, I can hear him sobbing a bit, but it's just the quiet sobs of a child being calmed. "Enough," I growl, stepping forward until I'm practically nose to nose with the old man. "That is quite enough."

"I agree." The old woman walks forward, her fellow Kurota making way for her, her expression so like Kurapika's when he's particularly out of sorts with me that it's a bit of a shock to realize its aimed not at me but at my Grandfather. "Old man, you go entirely too far. What is the point of this battle? What do you expect to accomplish. Destroy his mind and we are lost as well."

"Old woman." He draws himself up and glares at her, "What would you have us do? He is our killer. He deserves..."

"To die? For what? For being born? For having sought us out when it's in our blood to do so? For being unable to control the Opal Eyes?" Her words echo my own internal rage and I'm afraid I cannot help but gape at her in astonishment. Kurapika was able to come to that understanding, yes, but she is one of the ones I killed. Understanding from one of my actual victims is something I am not ready for. She turns on me then, "As for you, for all your vaunted intelligence, Lucifer Quoll, you would have been wiser to learn the lay of the land before you presented yourself to us."

I bow my head, acknowledging the justice of that accusation. I should have. Had I come to the Kurota for any other reason than to seek out my blood I would have found out everything I could about them first. Would have learned every detail of their culture I could. I certainly did so when I stole the secrets of nen from the Zoldyk family all those years ago. I've cursed my stupidity a thousand times. "Yes, Grandmother."

"Don't play the fool, boy." Once more she returns her attention to my Grandfather. "So, old man? What exactly have you accomplished with this? The situation remains unchanged. What good are you going to do by destroying his mind? Do you think we can take over? You know it's not possible." His eyes demand she be silent, but she continues. "We depend on him for our existence. So make up your mind, old man. Find a way to come to terms. And quickly, because if his body dies, we all die."

The old man gives me a long, considering look. "We could toss a coin," he offers sourly. "Winner takes all."

Returning the look, with interest, I shake my head. "If that's the only way you're willing to go," I tell him, "Then I refuse to base it on luck. Besides, you'd just claim I cheated and made the coin go the way I wanted." From his expression I'm right. He only made the suggestion to see how I would react to it - or possibly even to see if I'd think of it. I cock my head at him. "I don't suppose you play chess?"

.oOo.

KURAPIKA:

I'm not sure how long it takes for me to make my way along the link between Quoll and myself. Things are different this time. His mind isn't even remotely aware of mine and he isn't projecting the chaos of his nightmares on me in the process. The trail isn't difficult to follow, though. Having walked it before, I know the way. Oh, it doesn't look the same, but I know it anyway, can feel traces of my previous passage. I'd be relieved at the lack of reaction from Quoll, if it didn't mean he might be in trouble.

At last I step into a strangely familiar clearing. It takes me a minute to recognize it but when I do, it's something of a shock. There's a large tree at the center, twin to the one destroyed when Quoll saved me from those androids. Sunlight streams thru the branches of that tree and the sound of birds echo softly. There's a pleasant scent from the small flowering bushes surrounding the area and a soft breeze ruffling my hair.

At the center of the clearing are people. Dozens of them, all sitting and gazing at a small building, a kind of gazebo whose filmy curtains partially conceal two figures facing each other. I'm distracted from wondering about this as I realize who these people are. My tribe, each and every one of them. The ones I buried, so long ago. All apparently alive and well.

I can't help but stand and stare. I'm stunned beyond measure and more than a bit angry at Quoll for creating this image. Then I realize that he isn't, that what he and I had both thought were just memories stolen as his mind killed our kinfolk were something more. Is it just their minds or their very souls within this place? And can one truly separate the two?

A dark haired figure, small and very fast on his feet, whams into me then and distracts me from my confusion. "Jurik?" My arms go around him automatically and for a moment I'm grasped in a hug so tight that I can barely breathe, or whatever it is that one does when one is existing within someone else's mental landscape. I finally detach him and gaze into his face. So young, so very young. Exactly the same as he was the day I left home for my training. His eyes, as wide and dark as Quoll's, gaze up at me worriedly and I touch his face, having trouble believing what I'm seeing. "Little brother. It's good to see you."

He squeezes me again, then manages a worried grin. "Big brother, I'm so glad you're here. I've missed you so much." At my nod, he continues, "Mama's over here. Come on!" His hand drags me forward and the next thing I know she's there, holding me.

I could stay this way forever, I think. Bury myself in the comfort of my mother's love and never ever come up for air again. Except I'm a big boy now and I can't. Still, I indulge myself somewhat, allowing her to hold me close for several minutes before I finally straighten. "What's going on? Why are all of you here?" I hesitate to ask where Quoll is. I don't want to cause my people pain, nor send them into a fit of rage that neither Quoll nor I would survive.

Mother smiles, sadly. "Your brother is with your Grandfather," she tells me. "In there. As for why we're here, I think you know the answer to that already."

"They're fighting on the board with the funny men, big brother," Jurik tells me. "I'm scared. If Biggest brother wins, will he throw us all out? What happens to us?" The question scares me. I've just found them again, even if these are just pale shadows, ghosts who should be allowed to rest, I don't want to lose them. I pick Jurik up and carry him to the building, stepping thru the curtains and into a softly lit room where Quoll and Grandfather are bent over a chessboard. My mother has followed us and standing across from us is my Grandmother. All my family is here, except my father.

Grandmother gives me a warning look and I nod, handing Jurik back to our mother. I'm not sure exactly what's going on but I have a feeling I would be making a mistake to interfere. Instead I watch the game, puzzled over the situation but willing to wait and see. Looking at the two men, I am unsurprised to note Quoll's apparent disinterest, if not positive boredom with the game, compared with my Grandfather's intensity.

Watching the two play is something of an education for me. I've played chess, I even like the game, but this game is like nothing I've ever seen before. Quoll's moves are unexpected, made with an almost lackadaisical casualness. He spends little time contemplating, simply shifts his men from square to square in what seems like a random pattern. With anyone else, I'd think he was just being stupid. Having come up against his tactics before, I know he isn't.

At the same time Grandfather plays aggressively. His pieces thrust and parry in an intricate but controlled fashion that is easier for me to understand. He's attacking the stronger points in order to weaken them, trying to put Quoll on the defensive. It's a tactic that appears to be working. His chessmen are scattered everywhere and while they make half-hearted attempts to block my Grandfather's moves Quoll seems to much prefer to keep them on the move.

Over and over again Grandfather comes close to putting Quoll in check, only to have my brother slip easily out of the net. Over and over again Quoll shifts his men, his king included, all over the board. That last is particularly odd. I'm relatively sure one isn't supposed to use the king as a threat, that one is supposed to keep the king guarded throughout the game. It hits me, though, that this is very much in character for Quoll. No pieces in his game is more important than another and each serves a purpose. At one point he sacrifices the queen, only to restore her with a pawn that has managed to make its way across the battlefield.

Then Grandfather straightens and smiles coldly into my brother's face. "Check," he says, triumphantly and I realize that there are only a few limited moves Quoll can make to protect himself. Moves that will, almost certainly, still lead to checkmate.

Except there's one move I've missed. Putting Quoll into check has opened up a single chink in Grandfather's defense. A chink that Quoll takes immediate and swift advantage of as his queen both blocks the check on his piece and, disastrously for my Grandfather, puts his king in danger. A danger I suddenly realize he can't escape, because Quoll's knight is lying in wait, just at the borders of Grandfather's defense.

"And checkmate," Quoll answers, quietly.

.oOo.

QUOLL:

The old man stares down at the chessboard, expression disbelieving. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure I believe it myself. We've been playing for what seems like hours, Grandmother watching us as if it were a matter of life and death. Which it is, in a way.

"You cheated," he accuses and I shake my head. "Then how?"

"You're Kurapika's grandfather. You and he share certain traits." I eye him, watchful for signs that he will react badly, half expecting it. Knowing him for a real person has shifted balance of power inside my head and if I am not careful it will be the end of me. Had I realized that the minds I'd stolen were more than mere collections of memories I would have taken action much sooner, worked harder to rid myself of them. Or would I?

He frowns, puzzling over that and finally, as if the words are forced from him, "What does that mean?"

Now that's funny. Does he really expect me to explain myself? He's been in my head for a while now, watching, angrily trying to make his way past my one loyal guard, and I would have thought, at least somewhat aware of how I think. Not to mention the things I do not do. He seems to realize the futility of asking and leans back, eyeing me with the same considering gaze that I sometimes see on Kurapika's face. Then he turns his gaze back towards the board and I can see him analyzing the game, thinking over where he might have gone wrong.

"Your defense was... unusual," he says finally. "No. It was non-existent. I didn't expect you to bring your king out into the field in that manner." His eyes rise to meet mine. "You counted on my anger at you to drive my play. You put your king in danger simply to draw that anger out and force me into foolish actions." He considers the matter further. "A trick that will only work once."

I shrug. "I don't recall this being a question of more than once," I tell him. "Are you asking for best two out of three?" If he is, I will have to - regretfully - decline. On one hand, I enjoy a good game of chess. On the other, I see no reason to risk a loss if I don't need to. "The agreement was one game and one game only. I win and you lose." The bargain goes further than that and I should be claiming my victory, my head cleared of these other minds, yet somehow I can't bring myself to do so. What is wrong with me?

My grandfather considers the board again. "If my play was like Kurapika's then yours explains quite a bit as well." Now I shift uncomfortably, not at all sure what he's getting at and absolutely sure I don't want him analyzing me thru the game. "You use all your men carefully, block where you can, take where you have to. You sneak around the board, shifting focus without regard to a piece's traditional purpose. You sneak up on your opponent in as many different directions as you can and you place yourself in danger simply to focus attention away from your other pieces. You make an advance look like a retreat. You used my own moves against me and made me think I had you on the run throughout the game." He counts the number of pieces I've lost versus his. "You avoid taking when it's not necessary. Even when I deliberately offered pawns to sacrifice, you refused to take the bait. I think that you abhor waste, both of time and energy. Possibly even of lives - if they may be of use to you later. You trapped my King with my own men."

Carefully, I avoid allowing any of what I'm feeling or thinking to show on my face. Despite - or perhaps, because of - this he nods. "You're your father's son. Had I known that, I think I would have taken greater care with you when you put yourself in my path."

The question is unavoidable. "Greater care in killing me? Or greater care in dealing with me as I am?" From his expression, I know the answer and I cannot help but say, bitterly, "Haven't you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

"And what, pray tell, could we have done differently? Allowed our tribe to be destroyed?"

A new voice speaks. "Why don't you ask the Kal that, grandfather?" I raise my head, startled by the interruption and realize that we have company. Kurapika.

.oOo.

KURAPIKA:

Both men look at me, Quoll with a look that shifts from a moment of surprise to a kind of wry amusement. Grandfather's expression is harder to recognize. He's had years of practice in hiding his opinions and I never have been able to read him. It occurs to me that all of them, from Grandfather to Arissen to Quoll, are given to a kind of twist in the thoughts that constantly analyzes, constantly finds the best advantage to a situation and uses it without hesitation. Honesty forces me to admit that there is much of that in myself for that matter. I would not sacrifice my friends to gain the advantage but in many ways I am the same.

"The Kal," Grandfather repeats. "What of them? They sacrificed their very nature in order to avoid the prophecy."

"And survived because of it, old man." This is my grandmother speaking and in her I see a great similarity with the old woman who leads the Kal. Her hand caresses my cheek gently as she looks up at me. "You've gotten big, boy. And strong. It's good to see you."

"Is that the best you can say, old woman?" Grandfather demands. "The boy is siding with this..." Words fail him momentarily but the look he shoots Quoll would have sent me hiding under my bed when I was a child. Quoll is probably more used to such looks, however, and leans back in his chair with an insouciant and insolent air that is guaranteed to anger our Grandfather all the more.

I glare at my brother as well, annoyed at his deliberate effort to push our grandfather's buttons. . Beside me, Jurik squeezes my hand, looking up at me nervously. "Brother? Are we going to have to go away then?"

Our brother has the grace to look embarrassed when I turn and look at him, raising an eyebrow. "Well?" he asks, "What am I supposed to do? Make them a spa in here?" He gestures outside at the clearing and all the Kurota watching us, "It was one thing when I thought they were just memories. Quite another to know there are other people in here. I don't need this. I don't need them in my head, watching everything I do, hating me and tangling my thoughts with that hate."

Eying my Grandfather, I notice him shifting nervously at Quoll's words and it occurs to me that he is well aware that Quoll is not the only one at fault here. "You have to grant," I tell him, "that they didn't ask to be stuck in here. Any more than you intended to stick them." For a moment his eyes meet mine, then fall away. He knows as well as I do that this isn't a situation anyone specifically asked for. "You have to come to terms. Not play stupid chess games so you can figure out which of you is sneakier."

.oOo.

QUOLL:

The expression on our Grandfather's face is, I suspect, similar to my own. Surprise, mixed with chagrin, that Kurapika has managed to figure out what's really going on beneath the surface. "At least he isn't accusing us of trying to prove who has more in their pants," I mutter and our Grandfather nods ruefully. For a moment I feel a greater kinship with him.

"It really is time for the two of you to stop playing," Grandmother says finally. "Quoll can't stay like this for very much longer. If we are to come to terms it must be now."

Kurapika nods agreement. "I'm sure the game helped you to get to know each other." I blink at that and shoot a sharp look at our Grandmother, seeing bland innocence that I cannot entirely trust. So that's what this was about. I'm not sure I'm pleased at the thought. I don't like people knowing too much of how I think. Kurapika ignores my reaction, continuing, "Now it's time to start thinking about how to make this work. Before I drop kick both of you to the moon."

Grandfather stares at my brother as if he's gone mad. I realize Kurapika had gotten that particular phrase from Feitan. He only uses it when particularly aggravated and I wonder what's going on outside my head to annoy my compatriot. "Nobunaga?" I ask, because it usually is.

"Nobunaga." Kurapika leans on the railing around the porch, the little boy I know must be our younger brother imitating him in a way that makes me feel strangely fond of both. "Now. Talk it out."

I sigh, the problem is that I have no idea what to do. To be honest, even if I really truly wanted to throw them out of my head, I couldn't do it because I don't know how. And Jurik is right to be afraid. What happens to them if I do send them away? Where do they go? It's a question I can't answer and I say as much. "If you were just memories I could just wipe you away. At the same time, I can't... no, I will not let you control my life."

"None of us want to control you."

"Then what do you want?" The sudden question seems to startle him and I shrug, rather relieved that he hadn't expected the reaction. "My cards on the table, Grandfather. I want peace of mind. I want to be able to think about what I did to you without your minds raging at me and sending me berserk. I want to live without having to be constantly in control of not just my Eyes but of every thought I have, of every emotion I feel. Just once I'd like to blow up at Nobunaga without being afraid of turning his brains to mush. I'm willing to make concessions to get those things. What are you willing to do for what you want?"

Grandfather's mouth opens and closes a few times before he finally says, "What if what we want is your death?" His tone is more curious than accusatory, though and I refuse to take offense.

"Not part of the package, Grandfather," I tell him. "And if that was your real desire, you would have killed me long ago, when this first happened." They'd had the chance in those first few days between my murder of the tribe and my regaining control of my mind. If they'd really, truly, wanted to destroy me that would have been the time. If they'd been just memories they could not, of course, have acted. They weren't and because they weren't, I know they had to have made a conscious choice to let me live. Even if they also made the choice to make me as miserable as possible in the process.

He considers my answer then sighs. "Some of us don't want to be here and are more than willing to be allowed to go. Others... What will you give for those things you ask for?"

Now it's my turn to hesitate, reminded of Grandmother's description of the Opal Eyes. "I don't know how to let them go," I say softly. "I can't do it without help. As for what I'll give... I'm not even sure I can give anything." I'd bargain for a better deal but I'm beginning to realize that any deal I offer is going to be limited by my lack of skills in this area.

Fortunately, Kurapika has more sense than I do on the matter. "You've made this place," he says quietly. "You don't have to make it a spa, but if you made it a reasonably comfortable place to 'live'..." He glances at Grandmother, questioningly. "Can't he? Will that be enough?"

She nods and suggests quietly, "Allow some of us interaction with the outside world, once in a while." I realize that - if I accept - I'm going to be agreeing to a kind of multi-personality disorder. Something of my reaction must show in my face because she adds, "At your convenience, not ours."

"Don't coddle the boy," Grandfather growls and she shakes her head. "This isn't a game."

"Oh yes, and play games of chess with this annoying old man to keep him out of my hair." She gives me a direct look, ignoring her husband's grumbles. "If you fear to trust, you need not. I think you know that you can harm all of us far more readily than we can harm you. Though it might cost you your sanity to try."

I can't help asking, "And how do you know you can trust me? I'm not entirely sure I can lay claim to sanity. What's to stop me from trying to destroy you the hard way?"

She shakes her head. "Lucifer, your own actions here prove that we need not fear that. You have every reason to be angry with us. Little reason to accept us. Yet you have not truly fought to destroy us. Even when you thought we were only memories you desired merely to be at peace with us, not wipe us out of existence." She reaches out and takes Jurik into her arms. "Then there is this one. In a moment of danger, when we fought you, this one's fear made you stop."

I blink at her as she continues, "You have always sought a family, Lucifer. You hold onto us because, in the depths of your Self, that is still your greatest desire. That is why I trust you and why I believe you won't seek to destroy us." She cocks her head at me and I'm surprised to recognize the gesture as my own. "So, grandson. Is it a deal?"

I smile ruefully, sensing that, in a lot of ways I've been manipulated to this point. Or, perhaps, I've been manipulating things this way as well. It's hard to tell, as tangled up as everything's become. Still, there's not much else I can say except, "Yes. It's a deal."

.oOo.

KURAPIKA:

The children are playing. Five smalls and three large. Rather to my amusement, the larger ones are having trouble keeping up with the little ones. Though I suspect that's deliberate. There's no way they'd be able to outrun Feitan unless he's letting them. A ball bounces our way and I kick it back to Quoll. He gives me a quick grin and returns to the fray, only to be taken down by three of our small kinfolk.

"You know," I say to the man sitting beside me, "Two months ago I would have broken somebody's nose for suggesting that I'd be watching Quoll Lucifer and two of his Ryodan playing with Kurota children and enjoying it." Of course, there's a fair amount I wouldn't have believed, two months ago. Traveling with the murderer of my people, discovering him to be one of my own kind, to be my own brother? Those alone had been shock enough. Now I have a father again, and small cousins who - if not born in a natural way - are as normal a set of three year olds as one might wish for.

Arissen smiles wryly at my comment. "It is strange," he agrees. "The question is, what do we do now? Those children will have to be protected, and I'm afraid Doctor Jones isn't in a position to do so. Not just herself and one automaton."

Doctor Jones looks up from a technical manual. "I'd be offended if it weren't for the fact that I fear you're right. At this point, the children will be safer as far from me as possible. The question is, where should they go?"

There's no need to think hard about the answer. "We'll take them to the Kal. Then get away from them ourselves. Since they're children, the Kal will be able to train them properly. After that," I eye my brother as he somersaults over Nobunaga and kicks the ball into the goal. "Someone else needs training. We can't depend on his mental guests to keep his Eyes under control. Father? Will you help us with that?"

Arissen nods agreement. "It's high time I did something more than be the one providing you and Lucifer's genes." He considers the matter. "We'll find someplace remote for that, I think. The less chance of interference, the better."

The decision made, I rise from my chair. We'll have to get moving soon, but for now I'm content to let my brother and the rest of my young kinfolk enjoy themselves. Not to mention myself, I add as I leap over the fence into the play yard and join the game.

.oOo.

QUOLL:

"No. I'm not going to go back to Star City." My tone is flat and final. As firm as I can make it because it's the only way to make Nobunaga listen.

"But..."

"I'm going to be training with Kurapika and Arissen, Nobunaga. That means that my Eyes might put anyone in the area at risk. Do you want to be just as brainless as Shizuku?" A voice in my head protests and I sigh. "Yes, I know. It's not brainlessness. Be quiet, Shizuku." I'm almost getting used to the voices in my head but it can get aggravating at times. Particularly since the most guilty party is my own ally. "Besides, I don't want Hisoka to find out I'm free of the Judgment chain until I'm good and ready for him. I go back to Star City for any length of time he's going to figure out that there's something screwy going on."

"Besides," Feitan adds, as he slings his backpack over his shoulder and prepares to head off in his own direction, "Since when do we hang out with each other when there isn't a job?"

Nobunaga mutters a few choice words at us all, giving my brother a particularly hard glare. He's never likely to forgive him for killing Ubo. I wonder if he realizes that Kurapika doesn't mind his hatred because he blames himself for that death as well. Even if he doesn't admit it, I know that the memory pains him. That it reminds him of his own mistakes. That he realizes now that his greatest error was in thinking he could take blind vengeance and pay the price for doing so without regret.

Kurapika's eyes meets Nobunaga's though, their expression dead serious. "Quoll will be all right with me. He's my brother. A very irritating and aggravating brother but my brother. I won't let him come to harm."

"Well, at least we agree on the irritating and aggravating part," Nobunaga grumbles and I blink at him, deliberately letting my jaw drop in amazement at the way they're treating me. They both ignore me, though and Nobunaga resettles his katana. "See that you don't, then," he tells Kurapika as he picks up his pack.

I sigh. It's about time for us to separate and while a large part of me doesn't want to go, it's very much time. Doctor Jones left us days ago with her automatons. We've dropped the children off with the Kal, much to their leaders' bemusement and now we have to separate. I look at Feitan. "I'm worried about those Chimera Ants. We destroyed that one nest. If there's more, or if anything escaped..."

"I'll tell the others and make sure we all keep our eyes and ears open. If more show up, we'll know about it." Feitan agrees. "We'll keep in touch the usual ways. Good luck with that training." Then he's gone, headed up the road and disappearing into the distance so quickly that I barely have time to draw a breath. Nobunaga watches him go, shakes his head and shoulders his pack. Without a word, the swordsman walks the other way. It'll take him longer to get where he's going but I think he likes it like that.

With another sigh, I settle into our car's passenger seat. Arissen has volunteered to drive the first third of the day, a fact that I'd appreciate more if it weren't for his deplorable taste in music. Kurapika's classical tastes may be dull and repetitive and mine simple brain candy but I still can't believe my own father is a country music fan. For that matter, I'm not sure how he's getting the station in. We're in the middle of nowhere, on an entirely different continent from the one where country music developed and we're still getting a rendition of someone complaining about his achy breaky heart.

Behind me, Kurapika makes an odd noise and I look over my shoulder at him. "Hmmm?"

"Something just occurred to me. You were telling me how you escaped the chimera ants' prison this morning?" I nod. We'd been slowly discussing our various adventures, mostly Arissen's over the last few years, and had reached our escape this morning. Kurapika continues. "You said you used a skill that let you use your hair as a lock pick."

Again I nod, puzzled at Kurapika's expression. It's both aggravated and amused, a look I have a feeling I'm going to be seeing quite a bit of in the future. He continues, "It just hit me, Quoll. You have stolen a nen talent that lets you scratch the back of your head without lifting a finger." I blink at the thought and suddenly grin in response. I didn't steal it for that use but I certainly could do so if I wanted. Kurapika shakes his head. "You are incredibly lazy, Quoll. I can see we're going to have a tough time getting you into shape with the Eyes."

In the back of my mind, our Grandfather snorts and I lift an eyebrow. It's getting easier to deal with their presence in there but it can still be disconcerting to have them interject commentary more and more often. We are going to have to work out a way to keep them from distracting me, but for now I'm inclined to let them be, as long as they don't make me miserable in the process.

"Well," I tell Kurapika, "Sometimes there's a fine line between laziness and efficiency and I like to think I walk that line quite well." I smile sweetly at him. "Besides, there's absolutely nothing wrong with conserving one's energies for the important things in life."

"Just as long as you remember that there are some important things in life," my brother tells me. "Especially when training time comes around."

I just lean back and closing my eyes. "In that case, little brother. I'm going to get all the rest I can get. Before you and father start working me to a mere shadow of my former self."

I'm treated to a whole series of snorts, both from outside my head and within. I ignore them, though, in favor of letting my mind drift off, a luxury I've not permitted myself for many years now. The next few weeks, possibly months, are probably going to consist of the hardest work I've had to do since I first learned to control my nen. Yet it's also something I'm looking forward to.

I drift off to sleep, ignoring the voice of the singer telling the tale of Kalu in the mountains, and I smile. Some things are inevitable. Some are chosen.

And some things are a gift to be treasured.

The End