Wow; I didn't expect this story to be the one I updated next. I had been alternating between this and Braving the Storm, which seemed to be progressing well, yet somehow I ended up finishing this chapter… Anyway. :P Not much to mention this time; still incredibly busy, and not really doing all that well, but otherwise things are the same as they've been the last few times. So… With that, I think it's a good time for the review replies. ;)

WindGoddess Rune: Thank you. It's alright, though; right now, at least health-wise, I'm doing pretty well, I think. :) Thanks. :D Me, too; I love writing interactions between those two. :D But there will definitely be more of Shu and Noi to come (perhaps even this chapter). ;)

Prince of Tennis' Shaman: Thanks! :) Good to hear; I'm not used to writing that way, so I wasn't really sure how well I'd do. Wow, Shu, too? *blushes* Thank you. :D Ah… *further blushing* Thanks, An! :D (And good luck with your homework; I know it's been hard, but keep hanging in there! :))

And review replies are done! :) Like before, there's not really much to mention… And there aren't any disclaimers or chapter titles, so… Read on!

My eyes are drooping. I can't really place what it is, but something about Shu's footsteps, the rhythmic sound of them, is making me feel kind of sleepy. Maybe the events of the day are just finally catching up with me.

"Easy," Shu shifts his hold underneath my knee; I can tell from the way he moves that it's because his shoulder is strained. He doesn't even say anything about it. I feel a little guilty. "It shouldn't be too much longer-"

"Well, it's about time! Where have you been?"

The voice that cuts through the air is young, female and furious.

Shu's back goes as stiff as a board. He mutters under his breath; he thinks it's too quiet for me to make it out, but my hearing is better than most humans, so I still hear him swear colorfully.

I look up when I hear the loud stomping, which I realize has actually been going on for a while - a girl is a short distance away, with three seemingly younger boys behind her. I recognize the trio as the kids who I saw with Shu earlier.

The girl stops a few feet away from Shu and I, hands placed firmly on her hips; from the space between herself and her curved arms, I see her yellow waistcloth fluttering in the light breeze. Her knuckles are ruffling the pink fabric of her dress. Her hair is a light brown, framing the right side of her face (her right, I should say; it looks like the left for me), done in a ponytail held together by an intricately tied yellow ribbon. Her eyes are green, greener than even mine or Hildegard's. They're the kind of eyes that pierce you through. "So? What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Um... Hi." Shu says the word like he's posing a question. I feel bad from him. This girl means business.

Her eyes narrow dangerously. "'Hi' yourself. Do you even remember what today is?"

Being so close to him, I can hear Shu swallow. "No."

"Well? How about you three?" She gives each of the boys behind her an accusing glance; they accordingly hang their heads in shame. "All of you just happen to conveniently forget, is that it?"

Shu sighs. "Come on, Kluke, what's the big deal?"

She turns to him with a withering stare. "The big deal?" Quick as flash, she's striding towards him, and then, she's directly in front of him, her pointing finger stabbing at his chest. "The big deal is that the choir was singing today, I had the solo, you promised me you would be there, and you weren't!" The last word is almost a cry. If nothing else, it's pain-filled.

Shu blanches. "I... I thought it was tomorrow. Wednesday."

"Tuesday, Shu! It was Tuesday, and you promised!" She crosses her arms across her chest. "Do you have any idea how terrified I was, going up there to sing in front of practically the entire village, knowing that none of you were in the audience? Do you, Shu?"

Shu looks down. "Kluke, I..."

She lets out a gusty breath. "You know, Shu, I've-" She cuts off, eyes wide with surprise. She's finally noticed the thing that she hadn't notice before. Me. "Who...?"

Shu lifts his head again. His expression is brighter as he looks at me over his shoulder. "This is Noi. I found him in the forest; his foot was tangled up in a Bramble Bush." He frowns in Kluke's direction. "I think his foot is sprained, though."

"Oh..." She tucks some hair behind her ear. She seems abashed. "Hi, there. I... I'm sorry this is the first thing you saw coming into the village. It's just kind of... bad timing. Shu is very forgetful, but it's not all his fault," she lowers her eyes, and I can see from the widening pairs of eyes behind her that the trio of boys are surprised. "I have a really bad temper."

Shu rushes in before she has a chance to say anything else, "I'm sorry, Kluke. All of this was my fault anyway..."

She shakes her head. "It's okay, Shu. Besides, we should talk in a little while," Kluke nods at me. "First, we need to get this kid some help."

I can't help it. "I'm not a kid!" Kluke's head jerks back from my yell, and Shu yelps because I screamed right in his ear. I'll feel bad about that later, probably, once I'm not angry and can think calmly.

Kluke shakes off her surprise. "Sheesh, you're worse than Shu. Come on, guys," she turns and gestures for everyone to follow. "Let's get back to the village."

When Shu starts walking, I say in a low voice, "I take it that this is the girl you mentioned earlier?"

A grim nod. "Yep."

I sigh a little. "Tough luck."

"You have no idea."

Talta, I soon discover, is both bustling and quiet, all sandy ground and houses sporting wooden porches that are almost platforms with thin stairs. I'm not sure what to think of it yet, except for feeling a vague excitement, because it's unlike anything I've ever seen. Still, that would go for most of the things on this planet, anyway.

"So, this is our home." Shu tells me, trying to be conversational to avoid silence.

"It's..." I search for a word, deciding on, "...interesting."

Shu laughs. "That's one way to put it, I guess."

"Aniki thinks it's boring, though." The smallest boy says; I start at the name, because I can't find any familial resemblance between them.

"Hibiki!" Shu scolds him.

"The two of you are brothers?" I question Shu, incredulous. I'm still trying to search for similarities, but I'm not finding any.

"Not by blood, no," Shu explains before grinning over at the trio. I can see it in his eyes; a kind of warm affection. "But, to Hibiki, Tsubasa, and Taichi, I'm their big brother in all the ways that matter."

Hibiki gives a cheerful nod. "Aniki is Aniki!"

I'm suddenly struck with something, a sudden emptiness. These boys... In human years, I'm probably around their age, yet I'm more powerful than them by far. But they have a brother, even if he isn't actually related to them, who loves and cares about them. In my whole life, I've had no relation who's given me an inkling of the care that Shu has given to them. And even though I've never had it, I still feel the loss of it, a painful weight that's heavy in my chest.

"Noi?" Shu sounds worried, probably noticing how my arms and hands have rather abruptly tightened around him. "Are you okay?"

I answer with a question. "... Are we almost there?"

"Soon." He shifts his grip on me, and his pace increases. "Hang on. I'll hurry."

I let my forehead fall against his shoulder, and once again curse myself for my stupidity when I slipped off that cliff.

The house we enter is like the other ones we passed by, but it's the first time I'm seeing the inside of one. Its walls are clay, the floors wooden. Sunlight is streaming in from round windows, but it isn't terribly bright otherwise. I wrinkle my nose; it smells like wood and dust. I'm still deciding if it's a good smell or a bad one. Either way, it could probably be considered unusual (at least for an outsider like me).

"Toyodeh!" Kluke calls down the hallway. "Toyodeh, are you here?"

After a moment, a woman's voice echoes from down the hallway. "... In my room."

Kluke looks over her shoulder, gestures for us to follow. The boys are right behind her, but Shu stops for a minute, shifting me around quickly. I realize suddenly that the reason for his speed is so that I couldn't stop him - I find myself held in front of him, his arms under my head and knees.

"I'm sorry," he says before I can say anything, and I stop, because he sounds genuinely apologetic. "I'll need to put you on a bed, so..."

I sigh. "Fine. Go ahead."

When we've caught up to the others, right before we go inside the now open doorway, I hear Kluke in the room ahead, "Shu found a little boy that hurt his foot, and we were wondering if you could help..."

When we go inside, I see that she'd been talking to an old woman, shortened by age, an orange shawl draped over her head and shoulders, partially obscuring the blue-violet shirt she wears. The skirt she has on, matching the shawl, brushes across the floor as she approaches Shu and I, her cane tapping decisively against the floorboards. She squints past Shu, at me. "This boy, hm?"

"Yeah," Shu nods, crossing the room in a few steps before laying me down on a bed against the wall. The quilt is soft, and against my will, I sink into it slightly. "He fell from pretty high; got tangled in a Bramble Bush. I'm not sure how bad it is, but..."

The woman interrupts. "Pointy ears," she waves her cane at me. "Not human."

My lips twist downward as I clutch at the quilt. Why couldn't Shu have left me where I was?

"So what if he's not human?" Shu says sharply, and I realize, with a jolt, that he's angry, and just barely holding it back. "He's still hurt."

"Yes, yes, of course he is." The words are almost dismissive, but I get the impression this is aimed more at Shu than at me. She leans towards Hibiki, murmurs something to him, and without another word, he hurries out of the room. "Kluke, dear, get some bandages for me, will you?"

"Sure." Kluke walks over to some shelves. I hear some kind of glass moved around, most likely bottles, before she pulls down a white box, coming back over and handing it to Toyodeh.

After a quick nod and word of thanks, the old woman makes her way over to me and sits on the bed. "Now," her voice is surprisingly gentle, considering how blunt she had been before, and I think maybe I might have judged her too soon as she continues, "let's see if we can get you fixed up."

I move my wrapped foot awkwardly. I've never had a bandage on before, and it feels strange. But even stranger is that herbal balm (I found out that's what Hibiki had gone to get) she put on before the white cloth; it still feels slippery, and still smells strongly of plants and something earthy.

I'm feeling a bit bored at the moment. All of the boys, including Shu, were shooed out of the room when Toyodeh started the process of getting my foot bandaged. And after it was done, she and Kluke left the room so all of them could talk outside. I have no idea what about, but I can still hear their voices.

I stare at the ceiling. Toyodeh. Taichi. Tsubasa. Hibiki. Kluke. Shu. Six people that I've met, all in one day. I'm not supposed to be meeting anyone. When he finds out, Rudolf will be furious.

But I can't really say I'm all that worried. I should be, but I'm not. Maybe some of my self-preservation deserted me after I fell.

I like it here, though. It's surprising, to me more than anyone, but I do. There's a certain warmth in this place, in these people, that comes from more than just the sun above (which is especially hot here, I might add).

I know that eventually, I'll have to leave. But, for now, I'd like to try to make the best of it.

The door opens, and Shu steps inside. My eyes dart towards him as he closes the door behind him, and he offers a sheepish grin.

He comes and sits on the bed next to me. "How's it feeling?" He gestures to my foot.

"Strange," I answer. "But not necessarily bad."

He nods, then hesitates. When he speaks again, I think I understand why. "You won't be able to stand on it for a while, and it'll have to be bandaged regularly."

I wait for a minute, hoping that he'll suddenly say he's joking. When he doesn't, I sit up rapidly, leaning on my elbows. "What?"

"Toyodeh doesn't think that it's broken, but it's a pretty bad twist," he pulls at the quilt threads. "If we had more than herbs and bandages, it might heal okay, but..." He gives a small shrug, and his smile is strangely sad. "That's what happens when your village doctor has been dead for eight years, and the only other people with medical experience either have strictly herbal knowledge or are just rare doctors passing through."

My flash of anger gives away to curiosity. "What happened to the village doctor?"

Shu looks surprised for a moment, then seems nervous. "I think... it would be better if you asked Kluke."

I furrow my eyebrows. "Why?"

He looks away from me. "The village doctor was her father."

"Oh." The word leaves me in a surprised breath.

"But, yeah," he turns his head toward me again. "That's why it's better if you ask her. Anyway, Toyodeh says that if you prefer, as long as I carry you there, you can come and stay at my house. Kluke and the boys alternate living here and with me, otherwise you could've stayed with them if you wanted. That's beside the point, though; it's up to you where you want to stay while you're healing up. It's fine with us either way."

I fidget on the bed. "I don't want to be a burden."

"You won't be," he grins widely. "I promise."

"So..." I fight down the embarrassment I feel bubbling up. "It's alright if I stay with you, then?"

"Sure thing." He chuckles, "It'll probably give Grandpa one heck of a surprise, but he won't mind." He stands up; the quilt is still ruffled from where he sat. "In that case, I'll go let everyone know, and after that, we'll head out."

"Head out?" I ask, as he starts toward the door.

"Yep. My house is on the village outskirts. Grandpa likes the quiet; he says it helps him work." With a hand on the door, he gives a short wave. "See you in a minute."

After the door thuds behind him, I gaze at the ceiling again. Grandpa. Seven. Rudolf won't just be furious; he'll be positively enraged.

And yet, I still can't bring myself to care.

The walk to Shu's house is nice. The trees filter the sun so it's not hot, just comfortably warm, and the way the light threads through the leaves and onto the path makes for a pleasant scene.

Shu carries me like he did before, on his back, moving neither fast nor slow. Kluke walks at his side, chatting quietly yet genially with the boys. I catch bits of their conversation every once and a while, but I'm not really listening, being once again slightly drowsy from the sun's warmth and the day's excitement.

I snap out of it a bit when we finally arrive. The house is in a clearing, and looks much like Toyodeh's and the others, except that it has more wood and no porch.

"We're here," Shu smiles at me from over his shoulder, "home."

I relax fully as the realization hits me, about that warmth from everyone and everything that I wasn't able to truly define.

But I know what it is now. It's the feeling of home, and the sense of peace and safety that comes along with it.

And I think, then, of how fortunate Shu and his friends are. They have something truly wonderful, even if they don't know it.

Chapter 1 done! :) I could've made it a bit longer, but I thought that would be a good place to end it. I'm afraid that maybe it's going too slow, but I'll let you guys be the ones to decide that. ;) So… If you can, please review and let me know what you thought of it! :) I'm aiming to update this after 10 hits, but what decides that will mostly be the poll on my profile. The poll results will be cleared, so please remember to vote again/for the first time! :) And… I believe that's everything I needed to mention. See you soon! :D