"Trust me, Neon-han." assured her fellow Uruha in his heavy kansai accent. He tipped his headgear slightly to get a better view of the forest before him. Which unfortunately looked the same in all directions. All gigantic trees looming over them, with vines hanging like thick ropes and all sorts of unrecognizable flora covering anything that might have resembled a pathway. Much as Joker wanted to believe what he said, he couldn't convince himself. Much less a very angry Neon.
"That's what you said two hours ago." accused the red-haired assassin as she finally gave up on her dress and just tore the edge. "I told you we should've taken the Western area...but nooooo...you had to insist a shortcut." She shoved him out of the way and tried to get a view of anything possibly ahead. "Like this is anything but short."
Joker chose to keep his trap shut. Arguing with Neon would be pointless. She was as stubborn as they come. I should've just left her back at the mansion, he sighed inwardly. But Kurei's orders were for the two of them to finish a very important task. Joker had insisted he could do it by himself, yet his Master was more insistent. Not that Neon was a pain in the behind. She was good at what she does. And she had been a great help to their task. It was just during scenarios like this that he knew he could do without her.
They were heading home from the mission Kurei had sent them on. They had taken a speedboat then. They were forced to change direction when a storm loomed ahead. It was during this change of ways when they had begun debating on which direction to take.
"Where do you think you're headed off to?" Neon had asked him earlier.
"Eastward." he answered confidently, manuevering the steering wheel to his chosen direction.
"The way home is West." she said.
"Neon-han, I know what I am doing. The way home is East. We'd take West if we were on the same course a while ago. But we changed because of the weather. So now it's East." he explained confidently.
"If we took the earlier path it would be East. We turned around, so I say we go West." she reasoned.
"We did not turn around." Joker argued. "We turned a little left. I should know. I'm driving this thing. Besides, East is a shorter way."
They went about like that for over half an hour before Joker finally turned the boat and went his way, much to Neon's dismay. By that time, the storm had also taken a reroute and they almost ran into it. The large waves violently rocked their motorboat and Joker decided to dock on one of the smaller islands they found lest they get swept and crash against the humungous rocks that loomed among the island shores. By that time, the tail of the incoming storm had made its way to the island and they had rushed to the forest for cover when the downpour began.
That was two hours ago. Now they find themselves in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a forest as thick as the Amazon, with trees as tall as buildings and whose wide branches shielded any view of the sky. The thunderstorm had stopped an hour ago. They remained relatively dry because of the shield the trees had given. They had debated on whether to stay put or walk on, with Neon insisting on staying and Joker persisted on going. The latter had won.
"Whew," Joker said. He had not wanted to stay in one particular place, as he felt unsafe with the surrounding territory. He had wanted to go looking for any possible protective shelter, like a cave or better yet, a civilized dwelling. Based on the look of things now, it appeared there wasn't any safe area at all. They had been walking seemingly forever, and not a trace of any human endeavor at all could they find.
"I should've thought of this sooner." Neon said, drawing her flute. "Cover your ears." she instructed her companion who complied. She began playing the tune to activate her Fukyo Waon. The power from her madugou caused the covered earth before her to rumble, and in no time, an explosion occured, blowing all the thorned bushes in all directions and clearing the path.
A sideward smile appeared on Joker's lips, "Very clever, Neon-han." he clapped his hands in approval. "Very resourceful indeed."
"Hmph." Neon ignored him and went on her way. This time she led, and Joker followed. They had been walking for less than five minutes when they came upon what seemed to be a clearing.
"Yes!" Neon exclaimed, running towards a small, clear lake that lay in the middle of an open-aired area. This part of the forest had a view of the ominous-looking sky. The clouds were dark, gray and heavy, seemingly filled with rain that was threatening to fall any minute. Neon did not seem to care though, as she rushed to fill her dry throat with the fresh water before her. Joker scanned the area and found a cave not too far away. He went over to check it out while his fellow Uruha took her fill. He returned a few minutes later.
"There's a cave nearby." he told her. "It looks safe, and its dry. We can stay there until this storm lets up."
Neon agreed. She let Joker take his turn at drinking before they trekked the way to the said cave. It was roomy and dry. A few stalactites hung over the inside, and moss covered the walls. Otherwise, it was clean and it appeared relatively harmless. Neon took a seat on one of the rocks, removing her boots and removing the pebbles from them. She stretched and leaned on the cave wall. Joker rested on a rock near the cave entrance. He removed his headgear and the upper part of his armour.
"What do you think you're doing?" Neon asked stiffly. Her body ached from all that walking, and she felt her lids getting heavy from exhaustion.
"Getting comfortable." Joker replied, as he took the rest of his armour off, revealing a shirt and tights underneath. "You're not conscious, are you?" a naughty smile appeared on his lips. "Well I do know how irresistable...owww!!!" he touched his forehead that had been pelted with a rock.
"Airhead." she accused, trying to fight off the drowsiness coming upon her unsuccessfully. She was about to lay on the floor to get some shut eye when he held her arm. "What now?" she grumbled.
"It's not too comfortable sleeping on a cold, stone floor." he reasoned. Joker took his long cape and spread it on the floor of the cave as a blanket.
A smirk appeared on Neon's lips. "Sometimes you surprise me, Joker."
"Being a gentleman is just one of my numerous, unrecognized attributes." he beamed proudly. But Neon could no longer retort as exhaustion took over her being. She curled into a semi-fetal position and closed her eyes, falling into a light slumber.
Joker watched as the downpour began, falling mercilessly like a waterfall from the sky. At this rate, we'll probably get home tomorrow he thought. Though he didn't fancy spending the rest of the night in a dark, unfurnished cave with Neon and her sharp tongue, there seemed to be little choice. He was exhausted as well and there was hardly, if any, chance that there would be any more suitable dwelling that the cave they were in. He just hoped that his companion would sleep it off until daybreak. The moment she wakes up she'll be bound to start complaining about food. He leaned back and sighed. He was aware he shouldn't fall asleep, lest some wild animals come along and decided the two of them would make a suitable rainy day feast. But his eyes were getting heavy as well, and he couldn't help himself.
"Oiya, hey there...are you alright?"
Joker slowly opened his eyes. His immediate reflex was to grab his Taishaku Kaiten, aiming it at the one before him whose image was now clearly coming into view. It was a tiny old woman, assumingly no bigger nor older than Genjuroh. But this benign appearance did cause him to let his guard down, as he knew that one should never take things at face value.
The old woman backed slightly away seeing the weapon aimed at her, a look of fear registered on her face. Feeling a little bit guilty, Joker pulled back his weapon.
"My apologies, Madame." he said, scrutinizing the old woman fully behind his bangs. "I was a little surprised."
The old woman smiled, bowing her head. "I didn't mean to scare you. Gomen." She was around 60, he guessed. Petite and fine-boned with long, silky, white hair that was tied in a knot behind her head. She was dressed in a lovely blue kimono with white cherry blossoms decorating it. From her face one could tell she was a beauty in her youth. He wondered what a finely-dressed old lady was doing in a creepy jungle like this one?
"What's all the ruckus about?" a newly-awakened Neon spoke up, rubbing her eyes. "Joker, how dare you assault a defenseless little woman!" she accused.
"It's nothing." the old lady defended, smiling. "I just shocked your husband a little I guess..."
"Husband!!!! Why I..." Neon exclaimed, now fully aroused.
"What would you you be doing in a place like this, Madame?" Joker asked, interrupting Neon's protest.
"I live here." the elderly woman spoke, causing the two Uruha assassins eyes to pop out.
"In this....jungle?" Neon asked.
"Not here...." the woman laughed, she motioned to a wooded area about a stone's throw from where they were. "Over there. My house is just beyond those trees."
Joker and Neon exchanged suspicious glances, which did not escape the old woman's eye.
"I know you may think its ludicrous. But please, come with me and see for yourselves." she invited. "Follow me."
They followed the old woman who went through a clump of tall bushes. They walked slowly, their eyes taking note of the way they were going. A man-made stone path was revealed and it led the way to another clearing. This one was bigger than where they had come from. It was an open field where a moderate-sized, old-fashioned house stood in the middle. A little shrine was at the left and a small pond was at the right. The house was lighted and smoke was coming from the back. The air smelled wonderfully of a hot soup brewing.
"Would you kids like to join me for dinner?" she asked. "I'm afraid I don't have much to offer, but I do make some good sakura tea."
Neon looked at her companion, "May we be excused for a little while, Madame?" she politely asked permission, to which the old woman nodded.
"I don't trust her, Neon-han." Joker vocalized his thoughts.
"Neither do I." Neon agreed. "But then...what do we have to lose?" she reasoned. "If we take her offer, we could get some decent shelter for the night, and maybe something to eat too."
"If she turns out to be some kind of whacko..."
"Then we'll send her to Kingdom Come." Neon said finally. She then turned back to the old woman, "Yes...thank you very much for your offer. We'd be honored to join you for dinner."
"Then follow me."
They walked over to the old-fashioned house which was bigger close up. The old woman pushed the door to let them in. A young girl, around ten years of age greeted them and ushered them to the house. It was an antique house with the furniture dating back to a much older era. It was like a small museum rather than a house in the middle of nowhere. The two Uruha assassins were shown to the guest quarters by the young girl who had introduced herself as Hiroshi. It was a large room beautifully furnished with the same kind of antiques the rest of the house seemed to be decorated with. A king-sized bed was at the middle of the room and on top of it lay towels, bathrobes and neatly-folded kimonos for changing.
"Would you like some hot water for bathing, Neon-sama?" Hiroshi asked.
"Oh I would, thank you." Neon said. The young girl bowed before leaving the room. Joker set his armor aside and plopped lazily on the bed, resting his head on folded arms and whistling a tune. "Oi, get off my bed you moron."
"What do you mean your bed?" Joker querried. "This is our bed."
"Our bed?" Neon's eyebrows shot up in question, "I wouldn't share a bed with you in a second lifetime...or even a third. Now get off." she tried in vain to push Joker off his lazy recline unsuccessfully.
"Neon-han, it's rather obvious we were meant to be in this room together...I mean, little Hiroshi didn't show me to another place to stay in, did she now?" he asked as-a-matter-of-factly, though this did not prevent a smile from wandering to his lips. "Besides, aren't you flattered to be sharing a room with an incredible specimen of manhood such as my...umphhhh!" he muttered as Neon tried to cut the air to his lungs by stuffing his face with one of the pillows.
"Here is your hot water, Neon-sama." Hiroshi announced after knocking gently, making Neon withdraw from her murder attempt of her arrogant companion. Joker was nearly blue and choking when she got off him, but Hiroshi thankfully didn't notice. When the young girl left, Neon picked up the robe, towels and soap on the bed and headed off to the bathroom located at the end of the hallway.
"I'm giving you ten minutes to find a room for yourself." Neon announced. "Or else..."
"I'm giving you ten minutes to find a room for yourself or else..." Joker mimicked in Neon's low, dangerous tone as his fellow Uruha shot darts at him with a gaze. He didn't move an inch from his position as she proceeded to take a warm bath.
Half an hour later, the old woman called for dinner. Neon entered the dining room wearing the dark red, silk kimono provided to her by Hiroshi. The dress was decorated with an intricately designed floral pattern in gold. Her hair was tied in a knot at the back of her head. Under the pale yellow light given off by the lamp, her skin glowed a faint pink and she smelled of fresh spring blossoms. The red of the dress and her hair glowed like fire in the night.
"You look quite like the fire bird, the Phoenix." complimented the old lady, to which Hiroshi agreed.
Phoenix. Fire Bird. Like Kurei-sama's flame...only of a different color, Neon thought as she thanked the two hostesses for their generosity.
"You look very fetching, Neon-han." Joker commented from behind her. And he was telling the truth. While he always regarded her as a fellow assassin, Joker acknowledged the fact that Neon was a beautiful woman. Now dressed immaculately in a kimono that made her look fragile, vulnerable, almost...untouchable he had to admit she took the breath out of him.
Neon was a little surprised out of the compliment he had given her, as she was used to hearing him compliment mostly himself. And subconsciously, she found herself blushing at his remark. "Thank you."
Joker himself wasn't quite the man she knew. He had also been given a kimono, this one in velvety black. He had taken his braids off to dry his hair, and it hung loosely on his shoulders, falling like a black cascade of waterfall on his back. His fine bangs still covered his eyes and his fanged smile showed through. Neon found herself staring at him despite herself.
"Let's have dinner, shall we?" the old woman spoke at last, breaking the strange silence. The two Uruhas took opposite seats while Hiroshi and the old woman sat across each other at the table ends. Hiroshi poured sakura tea in their cups while the old lady passed around the steaming hot soba for everyone's enjoyment. The two guests ate in silence as their elderly hostess introduced herself and spoke of her secluded dwellings.
"I am Akamatsu Yukiko." she introduced, "You both know Hiroshi here," she motioned to the young girl. "She is my adopted granddaughter. An orphan. Her parents died in an accident when she was just an infant."
Yukiko had lived all her life on this uncharted island. She had been born and raised in this old house. She had been living alone for the past 40 years after the rest of her family died in an epidemic. She goes to town every once a week to buy supplies. Leaving the house was out of the question since it had been in the family for centuries, surviving wars, disasters and man-made holocausts. Her nearest neighbor was a good two miles away, and the town she spoke of was five more miles from there.
"Don't you ever get scared here, Yukiko-sama?" Neon asked curiously. She wondered how anybody could last that long with hardly any company, much less protection.
"There is nothing to fear." she smiled mysteriously, "The spirits of my ancestors watch over me all the time."
Her facial expression and manner of speaking caused Joker's hairs to stand on end. This is getting creepy, he thought. It's like a scene on one of those cheap horror flicks Mokouren loves to watch so much. He shuddered, and recieved a curious glance from Neon who sat opposite him. "I'm a little cold." he offered lamely which Neon obviously did not accept.
"As we all are." Yukiko said, "I'm afraid I can't stay up and tell you any more stories about this household much as I'd love to," she gently rose up from her sitting position. "I'm a little bit tired." she smiled at the two guests, "Perhaps tomorrow we can continue. I would like to know more about you two. for now, I bid you good night. Sleep well." she bowed and turned about after they had bid her the same. Hiroshi set about cleaning up the table. Neon offered to help but the young girl refused.
"You are a guest, Neon-sama." Hiroshi reasoned, "Please, I can do this. It is but a simple task. You and Joker-sama may take your rest now. It has been a tiring day for both of you."
The two simply complied and left after wishing Hiroshi a good night. Neon proceeded to her quarters and Joker followed her, silently closing the door behind him.
"Didn't I tell you I am NOT going to share a bed with you?" Neon asked irritably. "Either you find a bed of your own or you spend the night on the floor."
Joker smiled, his fangs showing, "Oh come on now Neon-han. It isn't very doting of you to let your 'husband' sleep on the cold floor while you doze off comfortably on your more-than-adequately-sized bed?"
Whomp! A pair of pillows found their target on Joker's face. "In your dreams," Neon snarled, "Not now, not ever."
Neon pulled back the covers and snugged comfortably in between the immaculate white sheets. She pulled the pins off her hair, spreading the silken strands on the pillow like a red tide. She almost bounced off when Joker plopped beside her.
"Shhhh...." the fanged Uruha put a finger to her lips. He looked around before speaking in a hushed voice. "We don't want to wake up the entire household, Neon-han." And when the latter realized that there was another reason for Joker acting as such, she propped herself up on her elbows.
"This place gives me the creeps." Neon admitted anxiously "It's too...strange. I mean, an old lady and a little girl alone in the middle of nowhere with a house filled with a fortune in antiques and no one to protect them." she shrugged, "It sounds like a plot on one of those dumb B movies with plastered play-doh effects to pass off as monsters."
"You're not afraid of a few zombies are you?" Joker asked, "We've faced much stronger adversaries than that."
"Yeah well, I don't think the Fukyo Waon or even your Taihatsu Kaiten will do us any good if we're fighting supernatural forces." she retorted.
A moment of silence followed as neither of them knew what to say. The dark clouds had faded, giving way to the full moon whose bright beams entered the bedroom window, illuminating the otherwise dark surroundings. There even appeared a handful of stars. There was hardly any trace of the storm that has come earlier.
Joker stood up from the bed and proceeded to the other side of the room. He pulled out a clean mattress from one of the closet doors and laid it on the floor. He had found this one in the closet earlier while waiting for Neon to finish using the bathroom. He spread clean sheets over it and slid in comfortably. It wasn't as soft as the king-sized bed but it was certainly better than the hard wooden floor. He turned his back to Neon and took his madougu that was leaningon the wall. He laid it next to him in bed.
"There's no sense in borrowing trouble, Neon-han." he spoke. "I think we should be thankful for Yukiko-han's generosity. It's probably just coincidental that she lives in such a place. If there is no sign of trouble, then let's not look for one." he paused, turning his head to Neon. "If there is something that's more than meets the eye here, we'll be ready for it." a glint appeared in his eye. He smiled. "I'm not staying here for any other perverted reason, Neon-han. I just think it would be safer for us Uruha to stick together." He then turned his back again. "You would have no worry with me. I just want to be here in case anything happens....and besides..." he laughed, "You're not my type."
Through his drowsy state, Joker could hear Neon calling him all the synonyms for arrogant in her multilingual vocabulary. He merely snickered through it all. He drew his madougu closer, closed his eyes and left off for dreamland. Neon followed suit within five minutes. The room lay perfectly silently still for about a few hours. The antique clock in the living room then announced that it was two in the morning.
The door of the guest quarters then quitely opened.
"Are you ready, Hiro-chan?"
The little girl nodded.
"Then it is time."