Roading: Only Just Beginning
by cinderfalling
Email: cinderfallingsbcglobal.net
Website: The road to Toei in a nutshell: heat, banter, owies, temple-worshippers, navel-gazing, partial redemption via etiquette, and a big mug of mystery tea. Also featuring Ferio, the psycho chicken.
Notes: Slight AU due to a modified conversation with Rapunzel, Ishuca still believes he is nutritionally sound and that Blood will eventually eat him.
----

Ishuca twisted in his saddle to look at Blood, who was walking along beside him. It was still a little strange to be the only one riding all the time. "No hurry," Blood had said hours before. "Only a few more hick towns until Toei, which..." An aggravated sigh. "Is another hick town for all its overbearing shit about being the 'first North.' But at least there's a decent inn there."

After all the time Blood had spent encased in ice, it seemed like he had come to relish the creature comforts civilization had to offer: warm beds and hot food and easy companionship. Wasn't it a good thing that Ishuca could offer two out of the three? He'd promised that he would be of some use to Blood. Some use. As of now, some use consisted of trying his grandmother's recipes on Blood and keeping himself from being a bother.

But later... Later, Ishuca hoped to be of some more help to Blood: his life would rejuvenate Blood's, and Blood would not be disappointed that he'd let a boy tag along with him on his journey.

But for now?

Toei. Toei was excitement and adventure and being with Blood. Toei was not just a location Wild had commissioned Blood to; it was a place of wonder. Couldn't Blood understand the importance the "first North" had to Ishuca?

But there really was no hurry to get to Toei. Actually, they were actually already in Toei, if only technically. They were within the territory's borders, but wouldn't reach the actual town of Toei for a couple more days. Aside from any "unforeseen circumstances - that is, bad shit," he and Blood would reach Toei in four days, a week at the outside. Ishuca couldn't wait to see how Blood would extract the gemstones once they got there. He wondered if Blood's hair would grow long again when he performed the spell...

"That stringy piece of crap you call jerky probably isn't too good for you humans day after day. We'll stop in Emjord for the night; get some food, give the horse a rest."

"That's the town we're heading to?"

Blood nodded his assent, hair swinging slightly into his face. "Wouldn't do it normally - the whole lot of them are temple-worshippers. They're real close with the temple. Or used to be, anyway." His face twisted. "As if that'd save them from a more powerful demon."

Ishuca frowned. He knew that Blood wouldn't really hurt anyone, but talismans and people from the temple made Blood act unpleasant. It stemmed from being captured and held against his will for about seventy years...which could make anyone grumpy, Ishuca supposed.

Ishuca wasn't about to be picky. A town was a town, and a kitchen was a kitchen. He looked forward to feeding Blood the first decent meal in days. Maybe something warm and spicy like spaghetti. Grandmother had left an excellent red sauce recipe that Ishuca couldn't wait to try out on Blood. Some rolls and... Blood would probably enjoy something sweet for dessert... Blood was still enjoying the novelty of "cooking."

Would Blood cook him when the time came...? Maybe he would start teaching Blood about different kinds of herbs and spices.

"Hm." Blood dropped the reigns for a moment to stretch lazily. Heat didn't bother Blood, but it did make him sleepy. Like a big cat, Ishuca thought fondly. Blood's shorn hair gleamed in the harsh sunlight.

"Pretty..."

Ishuca quickly glanced over at Blood, but he didn't seem to have heard. It was flattering that Blood trusted him enough to not dissect every move he made, Ishuca supposed. He was pretty sure that Blood had the ability to hear anything he wanted to hear - but didn't, (didn't have to?) with Ishuca.

(Because he was food?)

Or maybe he'd heard and was just pretending not to have heard.

Though sometimes it seemed like he'd known Blood for forever, Ishuca just couldn't figure some things out about him. Like... Ishuca just couldn't help thinking that Blood played with him sometimes. Like Blood had a private entertainment with Ishuca, who just couldn't figure out the rules to the game.

For example, Blood could casually say, "So, Ishuca. What was it you were saying about me earlier? That I was pretty?" without blinking, when it was pretty obvious that he'd heard every word that had come out of Ishuca's mouth.

Okay, so maybe not in those exact words, but Ishuca knew that Blood would smile. He sighed. He could just be imagining things, though. But then again...

"I can hear the blood rushing underneath the surface of your face. Hot?" Blood asked carelessly. Blood never could pass up a chance to brag about the advantages a demon had over a human. It was cute, like a little kid trying to brag subtly about his new toy. Blood pushed back his hair carelessly, but the light still caught its platinum shine. It was really very pretty. Ishuca wondered what it would feel like under his fingers. Cool and smooth, but warmer near the skin as he watched his fingers weave the strands into a braid--

"-shuca. Ishuca. Are you even pretending to be alive?"

"Oh well. Your hair's really pretty. When it's shiny. Not that it's not pretty when it's not shiny - it's usually always shiny and you know. Why won't you grow it out? What do you think of braided hair?"

Blood had the strangest glint in his eyes. He seemed to have got something caught in his throat, because he was coughing more than a demon should. Did demons get the flu? Because, because that would be bad - Ishuca had no idea how his "talent" could help for internal injuries, and he didn't know if healers really had expertise with demon physiology, not to mention... Blood doubled over, but waved Ishuca off as he scrabbled to get down from the horse. Ishuca stood back, uncertain of what he should do in a situation like this when Blood finally raised his head. He seemed fine... He was smiling. He was beautiful.

"You're so...!" He gave a short laugh before giving up on speaking. Quickly stepping towards Ishuca, Blood effortlessly picked him up, and placed him gently back in the saddle. Ishuca was too surprised to do much more than blink.

"I just think you have pretty. Hair."

A pause. And then. "I have pretty hair, huh?" A slow stretch of a smile and Ishuca backpedaled quickly.

"Never mind. Just." A quick glance, embarrassed, from underneath a covering of hair. "Forget I said anything...?" Blood grinned, the way he'd grinned when Ishuca agreed to heal (Not just heal: lick-kiss-suck) Blood when he was awake instead of doing it while he was asleep.

"Forget that you said I had pretty hair?"

"Yes!" Please.

Blood laughed - laughed! and signaled the horse to continue. Ishuca gave protest as a sinking feeling in his stomach signaled that something had flown over his head again.

"Blood, Blood, wait! What? What?"

They were in a small oasis town, obviously prosperous from the clear fresh-water river running a few miles south. Fresh fish and good trade gave the town a lush, content feel about it. The town smelled fresh and golden; the late afternoon sun slanting its light gave the town a bronzed effect. The villagers that were out enjoying the last bits of warmth glanced at Blood a bit curiously before moving on. Ishuca noted curiously that there were a lot of women in this town: the longer they stood there, the more women there seemed to be, milling around and giggling, eventually seeming to outnumber the men a good three to one.

"This is Emjord?"

"Yeah. This would probably be my cue to go into its historic background, but. Later." Blood's face was inscrutable. "All right?" Ishuca wanted to ask further about it, but he just nodded. Blood looked like he didn't have a very good relationship with this town.

"Mhm. Okay. It doesn't seem that bad; the people seem nice."

"You haven't even met any of them yet." Blood seemed amused more than anything.

"The atmosphere of the place - especially the buildings - seem nice, so the people must be, too," Ishuca said earnestly. "I don't think they'd try to run us out of town or anything."

"Don't count on it. Temple-thumpers, the lot of them," he muttered sullenly. "Are you ready?"

"Mhmm. Just a minute."

Ishuca turned around on his seat to see if he'd need anything for the night. He and Blood would be eating in tonight, so he'd need some of the spices... (Oregano, dried; it wasn't the season for fresh.) They could buy what they didn't have (tomatoes, spaghetti noodles; Ishuca had a slight craving for peaches...). What would Blood like for dessert? He made a mean peach cobbler, and it was just the right season for peaches...

He closed the flap on his bag and looked down. Blood was watching Ishuca patiently, waiting for him to finish collecting his thoughts. Ishuca smiled a little sheepishly and got ready to get down. Blood offered a steady arm. Ishuca smiled and shook his head. He could do this himself.

A raucous bunch of children suddenly burst past them, weaving in and out of people's legs and throwing twigs at one another. At that moment, the world - for just a fraction of a second - seemed to lose its focus, its defining edge. Ishuca's hands automatically started to reach for his glasses when just as suddenly, Ishuca's stomach lurched as he was upheaved from his seat. Too late - too late to do anything.

"Shit!"

He saw sky, heard Blood mutter another wicked curse - spell? Then the ground rushed up to meet his face, and he knew nothing more.

The next thing Ishuca was aware of was pain. It radiated out from his head all the way to the tips of his hair. He was thankful that his eyes were closed because he was sure that if they were open, the pain would have magnified a hundred-fold, to the extent that a mad rooster pecking out his hair would feel like goldfish nibbling at his fingers. And a rooster robbing his head of hair hurt. He should know.

It was muttered, but Ishuca heard the relief in the voice. "You're awake." Although he was grateful that he wasn't worrying Blood, Ishuca still felt considerably worse than when he'd woken up after the bout of "experimentation" with a few shots of brandy. What had Blood called it? A jump-over? Hold-over? That seemed closer to what he'd been seeking... Anyway, it hadn't been fun.

"Ishuca?" Blood sounded a bit strange. "Open your eyes."

"...Hi." His voice was a bit cracked and weak, but it did the job. Ishuca could feel the thin pallet he was lying on rustle with the weight settling on it.

"A few more minutes," Ishuca begged, but slowly blinked open his eyes anyway. He heard a slight, amused exhalation of breath from Blood. It seemed like he was remembering the lazy mornings, too. Sleeping was just so nice, Ishuca thought idly.

"What happened?" Ishuca dredged up images of an extended hand, a cacophony of children screeching, the nausea-inducing vertigo of falling head over feet. Should Ishuca be remembering the horse suddenly moving against his center of gravity, or the fumbling slip of Blood's hands against his clothes? But Blood doesn't slip, he thought blankly. And Ishuca had had such a steady grip on himself... He didn't understand how the accident could have happened.

"There was a hex on the saddle. Powerful, not malicious; it used most of its power to just stay well hidden. A simple thing. It must have been set in place right before you got back on the saddle. Three hours ago." Blood looked like he was blaming himself for the accident. He abruptly got to his feet and reached the door in one long stride.

"Blood, it wasn't your fault," Ishuca said quickly. Blood paused to look at him. "There was that...hex, right? It wasn't anyone's fault," Ishuca repeated coaxingly. Blood gradually pulled away from the screen door.

"It was the hexer's fault," Blood said slowly, deliberately. "And mine. It was a stupidly simple spell. Even a human could have done it. I just didn't catch it in time." There was a still silence, before he said quietly, "I broke you."

Humans aren't dolls, Ishuca would have told him. If Ishuca could have gotten the words out of his constricted throat. Don't worry, he would have said. I won't get broken, though I can get a pretty strong "hold-over."

But all he said aloud was, "Humans can cast spells?" No! That hadn't been what he wanted to say! Later, I'll tell him later, he thought. But why couldn't he tell Blood now? Because... It was easier to ask him this now.

"Humans... Talented ones, to a certain degree. Or ones that have sold their essences to the Dark. Like Wild."

Ishuca's eyes widened. Wild...?

The silence ran a bit longer before Blood stood up and collected the money pouch from the forlorn journey pack left in the corner of the room. Ishuca noticed for the first time.

"I'm going to go finish getting our stuff together; I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to. The hag here's a." A disgusted pause. "temple-sister. Who knows what kind of filthy wards she has in this house."

"Blood, you shouldn't say that to--" Ishuca started to object, but Blood waved him off with a sardonic grin.

"Another one of those 'human etiquette' things?"

"Yeah. We're going to go over it. It's rude to say things like that to your hostess! Especially when she's putting me up like this. She's being very kind. And it's not just human - it's universal," Ishuca replied primly. One of Grandmother's answers - he got to use it! Ishuca smiled up at Blood happily. Blood's shoulders relaxed slightly; he didn't seem as coiled as he'd been when Ishuca'd just woken up.

"Fine. Rest a little while longer. I'll be back soon." Blood reached down as if to touch him, but his hand stopped in mid-air. All Ishuca felt the slightest brush of displaced air on his face. Then it was gone.

Swift air, slide and shut of a door, and Ishuca was alone.

Ishuca was kicking himself for not reassuring Blood earlier. Was it so hard to, to - reassure? But he'd been a little nervous at Blood's tone...

I broke you.

It wasn't anything he could pinpoint exactly, but it was something that made Ishuca want to draw back. Backpedal as quickly as possible. And he knew Blood was hurt from him doing that, even as he knew Blood would never admit to it. He'd have to make up for doing that. Say what he'd meant to say, or at least explain why he hadn't (but how could he explain if he didn't understand why himself?).

Blood shouldn't have sounded so worried in the first place. Ishuca was perfectly all right. And he was not broken. He'd know if he was broken, wouldn't he? He just had a bump on his head, and maybe a concession? No - concussion. He remembered when he had fallen off Mrs. Marmie Parkson's roof, trying to clean out the muck that had piled up there. (There had been that cross-eyed rooster and that flock of - that had somehow... He shuddered; Ishuca didn't like thinking of that incident much) And this wasn't nearly as bad, really.

Nearly as bad or not, Ishuca very much disliked being ill. He didn't want to worry anyone - didn't want anyone to feel bad just because Ishuca had been his usual clumsy self. Especially Blood. Before, he'd had no one to worry, but now that he had Blood, he had to be especially careful. Ishuca had Blood and he had to take care not to annoy his friend with the stupid things Ishuca had in the back of his mind.

He sighed. He was in bed at a temple-worshipper's house in a strange town, lying helpless, and draining Blood's funds while he was at it.

...was he destined to be always helpless?

Weak.

Help. Less. Less than helpful. Going off and making Blood deal with someone that would for sure hurt him. Make Blood waste his time and money on him. For all the good his new power could do, couldn't it have helped him just this once? But then, it wasn't like he could lick a concussion away... It probably wasn't even a concussion, really.

Stop. He had to stop wallowing. Ishuca tried not to brood when he could help it. Nobody liked being around a grumpy person. Stop.

Thinking hurt. (So don't think, think of the dinner he was going to make. Blood would love the spaghetti, he was sure of it. And he'd have to stop Blood from sneaking bites of the spiced peaches, ready for the oven. Well, maybe he'd let Blood take just one bite. Just one. Shouldn't spoil his appetite, after all.)

And then maybe a mini-lesson on what kinds of herbs and spices complemented meat.

"Hurry the...up," Ishuca heard Blood mutter from out in the hall. There was an unheard, or you'll regret it tagged onto the end of those words. Ishuca sighed silently. He'd definitely have to talk to Blood about the functions of etiquette. Maybe when his head stopped hurting so much. And then maybe Blood would answer those trivia questions on 'Greetings' he'd made up last time. And he could make up another category for "General Etiquette," too. Ishuca started to get excited. The Ishuca Sierra Vics Ell Trivia Game. It'd be fun! Or maybe he'd just shorten the name to Ishuca's Etiquette Game...

The door opened, and someone slid to the floor beside him. Careful not to jar his body, the woman placed a cool hand on his forehead.

"How are ye feeling?" She asked soothingly. She sounded nice. She had an accent he'd never heard before - a hodgepodge of melodic rollings of the tongue, which Ishuca thought sounded pretty. "Ye must hae' a pretty large headache judgin' from that bump ye've taken. We'll get ye some tea, then. Te' lessen the pain, yeh?" She bustled out of the room without waiting for an answer. Ishuca felt absurdly grateful to not having to talk, though it was rude of him not to even say a 'thank you' for the healer's endeavors.

He took in a small breath - his ribs felt a little sore, too. He made to sit up, but was barred by Blood's restraining arm.

"Broken humans should rest," he said firmly.

"Blood, I'm not broken," Ishuca protested. Blood simply gave him that look.

"I'm not," Ishuca insisted. An idea of how to assure Blood came to him. "Blood, you trust me, right?" There was a long pause.

"...why?"

"I mean. As a human, I'd know if I was 'broken' or not, right?"

Blood had his "I see where you're going with this, and I'm not buying it" look. Ishuca tried again, a slightly different route this time.

"So you should trust me, as a human, to decide for myself if I was broken or not. Right now I'm only a little scraped. And my head doesn't even hurt that much anymore. It must have been headrush." Blood stayed perfectly still, cocking his head to one side as he contemplated Ishuca. Ishuca was pretty sure that if Blood had wolf ears, they'd be drooping right about now.

Ishuca felt every second pass by in a surreal blur that was punctuated by the lack of his beating heart. There was no reply from Blood. But he allowed Ishuca to sit up for himself this time. A bit reluctantly, though, and he stayed where he was even when the temple-worshipping lady slid open the open again. She slid to her knees and held out a mug of hot tea. "Drink up," she said briskly to Ishuca. Ishuca held up the mug and sipped it silently. It was spiced, but soothing. He smiled at the healer. "Good boy," she said approvingly. "Ye'll be fine once you get a meal into ye. Ah, I forgot. Ye'll need a pinch of yew to take with ye - for health." She bustled out of the room again.

Ishuca continued to sip as he watched Blood continue to keep his distance. Which Ishuca found to be...a not nice feeling. 'Stop it,' he wanted to say. 'Don't worry about me; it was just a stupid accident. I'm sorry. Don't worry. Come over and sit by me, really sit by me, so I can tell you how I fell off Mrs. Parkson's roof in the first place, and maybe you can laugh at me and tell me how I woke up from the dead. That'd be a funny story to tell. And why you cut your hair. Please. I don't understand this.'

Ishuca prepared to shift closer to Blood expecting -

No pain?

In fact, his entire body felt more loose and almost relaxed. He stared blankly at the ceiling for a minute, before Blood gingerly moved into his range of view. That tea was really amazing. (Or was it his demon physiology...?) In any case, Ishuca vowed to get the recipe.

"Ishuca?"

"Blood. Uhm." What could he say? "I really didn't mean--"

"--I trust you," Blood said quietly. Ishuca's eyes flew up to Blood's face; he looked unbearably solemn until Ishuca started a tremulous smile. Then a small smile spread across Blood's face like a tiny but tremendous light blinking on.

Everything was going to be all right.

"...I don't have the healing arts," Blood said almost hesitantly. "I was telling the truth when I said not many people possess a gift for it. But I tried to prevent you from getting brok - scraped. I did a quick spell, binding the air and leashing the earth. Reflex. Just in case. Just in case something prevented me from reaching you."

"Wow, that's so cool. How do you bind air? And leashing something like the ground seems kinda dangerous." Ishuca sat up fully on the thin pallet and leaned further against the wall. He stared quizzically at Blood, who was looking more than a little frustrated. Which frustrated Ishuca, because he wasn't trying to be dense... It was just that he'd rather talk about the magic that Blood was so good at. And besides, Blood never talked about this at any other time, unless Ishuca kept asking him to explain.

Blood accommodated him.

"Not dangerous if you know what you're doing. The earth is more stubborn than the air, that's all. And air is too fickle sometimes. It all depends on the balance you put your summons in, and how 'in tune' with the elements you are. But this time. It backfired in my - our - face. Instead of buoying you up and cushioning your weight like it was supposed to do, the components of the spell reversed themselves."

"Was the hex that serious? And what do you mean by 'reverse'?"

"The hex itself... It was just cleverly hidden, and had only two functions. To make you severely unbalanced and to misfire spells cast in a three feet radius."

"That doesn't sound very simple to me..." Ishuca murmured. He finished off the last of the tea and laid it down absently. The tea seemed really very therapeutic. He could get the recipe and then share it with Rapunzel when they got back.

"Demons have a lot more gruesome hexes. This is baby stuff compared to those."

"So by misfiring your spell..."

"The earth pulled you down and the air bounced you off."

"I got thrown like in one of those wrestling moves, huh?"

"'Wrestling'?"

"Oh, you know. Two naked men get together and grapple, trying to get the other to the floor. It's a game, a sport. A lot of villages participate. It was pretty popular in my town. I've never wrestled, though."

"....."

"...Blood?"

"This was a very heavily warded area," Blood said tightly a few seconds later. His face looked a little flushed. "Who knows what stupid talismans these people use? It probably contributed to your fall. It's all probably temple-sanctioned, end-of-days magic. But I'm going to find the one that did this. The one who placed the hex on you." It sounded like a promise. It sounded like a threat.

"Can't you just. Can't you just let it go?"

"He hurt you. And he could hurt more people."

"Blood, don't... You shouldn't sink to that person's level." Ishuca held Blood's eyes.

"Don't worry about it. We'll leave in the morning. We'll use the inn for tonight."

"I could say the same for you," Ishuca said. "Don't worry about it. It's not your fault, okay?"

Blood nodded silently, but with a small smile.

"Okay," Ishuca agreed. He shifted a little on his pallet, and Blood helped Ishuca sit up more comfortably, so that the weight of his body wasn't as much on his tailbone.

The door opened, and the woman was smiling broadly.

"I feel a lot better. Can we go now?" Ishuca asked.

"Sure ye can, dearie. S'much betta now, eh?" She came in and picked up the empty mug of tea. "Here's the yew," she said, handing Ishuca a small cloth bag. "Just keep it around ye to ward off the bad luck."

"Thank you very much for your care," Ishuca said. "Your tea was wonderful!"

"Ye're welcome to the recipe. In fact, I writ it down...here." She laid the thin piece of paper on the floor and added, "It's a good thing your friend here agreed to bring ye. Ye woulda' suffered a might bigger headache, else."

"Thank you," Ishuca said gratefully, but turned a puzzled face toward Blood when the door slid shut again. He'd thought that someone had insisted Blood bring him here. "Blood, why did you bring me here? I thought, you know, with all the talismans..."

"I would have just left," Blood shrugged. "But what did I know about humans? I thought you were broken and I could have put you together wrong or something." Blood frowned and finished unhappily, "...And that woman said 'please.'"

A delighted smile spread across Ishuca's face. He was - happy. Blood looked happy, too. Well, didn't look happy exactly, since he was still frowning, but Ishuca knew. And then a thought struck him.

"Hey, Blood?"

Blood cocked his head at him. "Yeah?"

"Have I ever told you the story of the time I went on top of Mrs. Marmie Parkson's roof and her trained pet chicken Ferio thought I was a fox? It managed to round up the hens and knock me down from the roof, then he tried pluck out my hair... For Ferio's nest, you know. But it was all right, because we had peach cobbler afterwards. That'd be good for dinner tonight, don't you think? I make a mean peach cobbler."

It took Blood a moment to digest.

"...Yeah. Sure. That sounds good."

A pause.

"...what's a cobbler? You eat that, right?"