Chapter 11

Hiei wiped the sweat out of his eyes, shielding them as he considered Yoko. In the three months they’d been together, he’d seen a world he’d never imagined existed. Yoko took his responsibility towards him seriously. There was no leniency, no transgression allowed to slip by unpunished. And while that would have scared away other demons, it made Hiei feel safe.

Being secure in Yoko gave him freedom he’d only dreamed of before. The rules he followed were tough, but achievable and Yoko rewarded as well as he punished. Hiei shivered, turning his attention to the hunt.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been in the human world, but it was the first time he’d visited it without being hunted himself. The world, though not as lush as the forests of the makai, held a certain aesthetic appeal. He understood why Yoko had chosen a demon who’d escaped here as their prey. But he still didn’t like the fact they were hunting a kitsune. It seemed wrong.

Yoko nudged his shoulder. “Follow me,” he whispered, dropping into a crouch.

Hiei copied his Solo and moved behind him. They stealthed through the light brush of the forest where they’d caught scent of their prey. While he didn’t like hunting a kitsune, he wasn’t about to risk disobedience. He’d express his concerns when the opportunity presented itself.

Yoko halted and Hiei swore lightly when he almost fell over the kitsune. “He’s melding,” he said, a note of surprise in his tone.

“Melding?” Hiei asked.

“Not many kitsune can do it. He’s blending his scent with the forest’s smell. We won’t be able to find him until he leaves.”
Hiei settled on his heels. “Why are we hunting him?”

Yoko turned, studying Hiei.

The sudden focus of all Yoko’s attention made it difficult for Hiei to keep from squirming.

“This bothers you,” Yoko said. “Why?”

Hiei flushed. “It’s like hunting family.”

Yoko raised an eyebrow. “It’s not ‘like,’” he said. “He’s my cousin. We are hunting family.”

“That’s worse, Solo.” Hiei said, trying to keep his tone respectful. The lift of Yoko’s brows told him he’d failed. “Every koorime I’ve met has hunted me. It hits close to home.”

Yoko gave a slow nod. “We’ll discuss your disrespect later.”

Hiei swallowed, but didn’t protest. He knew better.

“As for hunting my chasing, we’re doing it so the others after him don’t get him first. It’s bad luck for a kitsune to be caught by someone other than another kitsune.”

“Because of the legend?” Hiei asked. Yoko nodded. “There’s no truth in it, but no one ever believes that. I know kitsunes who’ve been tortured to the edge of death for refusing to grant a wish with power they don’t possess.”

Hiei flushed. He hadn’t even considered the other reasons they might be hunting the kitsune. Eyes downcast, he followed Yoko to the edge of the forest. He’d thought the worst of his Solo. Instincts born from the life he’d lived before Yoko had come back to bite him.

Yoko frowned as he looked at the sky. “It’ll be dark soon,” he said.

Hiei blinked. “Already?” Days in the makai were longer. He stared at the sky, amazed.

“Tell me,” Yoko said, tone low. “Is there a reason you think us being on a hunt makes you exempt from the rules?”

Hiei’s insides froze. “No, Solo,” he whispered.

“Hmm,” Yoko said, eyeing him. “You’re certain?”

Hiei fell to his knees. “Yes, Solo.” He’d broken two rules, both of them about respect. And he’d broken them consecutively. He swallowed and hoped the hunt didn’t get cut short because of him.

“I’m tempted to take you back to basics. Three more months would certainly give me time to figure out how to deal with the other S class.”

The threat sent a shiver down Hiei’s spine. Another three months of micromanagement wasn’t appealing. But he didn’t argue. He knew better.

Yoko paused to sniff, cocking his head to the side. “He’s moving. Let’s go.”

Relief flooded him and Hiei rose into a crouch behind his Solo, not daring to bring his shoulders higher than Yoko’s waist.

Yoko spared him a quick glance. “We’ll finish this later. But Hiei, if you screw up during this Hunt, you’ll be on punishment detail for three weeks.”

“Yes, Solo,” Hiei said, fighting a flinch. He’d had to do it once before, but only for a day. It was exactly like it sounded–he dealt out punishments in Yoko’s stead, but if they were too harsh or too soft for the kitsune’s liking, Hiei got dealt the difference. By the end of the day, he’d earned over 200 strokes. While he’d dealt with that many by bandits in the past, even twenty with Yoko’s whip was difficult to take. The kitsune was merciless.

Hiei followed Yoko, focused intently on what the kitsune was doing. While he wasn’t expected to participate in this hunt and capture mission, he was expected to watch Yoko and learn how the kitsune did things. It was vital he learn how Yoko worked so that he could mesh his style of hunting with his Solo’s.

Yoko stopped and Hiei ground to a halt, sliding into a side stance to keep from knocking the kitsune down. He’d never seen anyone come to a complete stop as fast as Yoko and it kept throwing him off his stride. But if he fell on Yoko, with everything that had already happened today….he shivered.

They were standing in the middle of a clearing at the base of a tree. The only tree for a hundred yards. It seemed odd to him, but maybe it was a human thing. Hiei frowned. “I thought–” he began, voice a low whisper. Hadn’t his Solo said their prey was melding?

Yoko held up a hand, silencing him, and pointed upwards. He mouthed, He’s in the top of the tree.

Hiei arched an eyebrow, but obediently mouthed his words as well. Kinda obvious, isn’t it?

Yoko smiled grimly, but didn’t add a reply. He burst into action instead, vaulting into the tree, melting into his kitsune form mid-leap. Before Hiei could blink, Yoko was back on the ground, a younger single-tailed kitsune held in his mouth. The smaller demon trembled, but made no move towards escape.

Wrapping his paws securely around the smaller demon’s throat, Yoko blended back into his human shape. His paws became hands wrapped around the kitsune’s throat, who was struggling to escape, hoping to use the moment of transformation to his advantage.

“Mayai, cut it out,” Yoko said, tone harsh. “You’re going to hurt yourself. Shift so we can get out of here.”

The small kitsune stilled and shifted, turning into a slender human with small ears. He tilted his face up to look at Yoko. “Cousin?” he asked, confusion rapidly turning to clarity. “Yoko! I haven’t seen you in years! But why were you hunting me?”

Yoko arched an eyebrow. “Your image is all over the bounty hunter’s lair. I couldn’t let them get to you. Not before you give me what you owe me.”

Mayai sighed. “That again? I told you, its-”

“I know it’s fake. It’s realistic enough I can use it as a bribe.”

Hiei raised an eyebrow. This was all over a bauble of some sort? He shook his head. He knew kitsune had an affinity for shiny things, but to go this far seemed ridiculous. “What is it?” he asked, belatedly remembering to add “Solo” at the last second. He didn’t miss the scowl Yoko shot at him and he ducked his head in embarrassed shame. Twice in a day was bad enough. To nearly make it three…he shook with how close he’d come.

“I have an old picture frame that’s a replica of the Watercolor Cage,” Mayai said, off-handedly. He had no interest in the relic. “More importantly, cousin, when did you get a partner? I don’t remember you having one before…” He frowned, concentrating.

“Because Hiei’s the first partner I’ve taken,” Yoko said. “And I’m getting ready to announce him in a couple days.”

“That’s amazing. Congratulations,” Mayai said. “Now can I please go back to my nap?”

“No,” Yoko said. “I’m taking you to Trazi. She’s going to be pissed that you’ve allowed your face to become known.”

Mayai flinched. “You aren’t serious. She’ll kill me.”

Hiei raised an eyebrow. Hadn’t Yoko said this was about family? Still, it wasn’t his place to interfere. Like he had tried to do earlier. Shame rushed through him. This was kitsune business.

“Not for that. For your abysmal melding, on the other hand…”

“Yoko! Not her, please. Anything but Trazi. The last time I had to see her she shaved all my fur! Do you know how embarassing it is to run around as a kitsune with no fur? I still have nightmares.”

Yoko considered the smaller demon for a few minutes. “Okay,” he said. “You can come home with me. After all.” He locked gazes with Hiei. “I need someone around who can help keep my partner out of trouble.”

Hiei snorted. If anything, Mayai would be getting him into trouble. He didn’t buy the innocent good boy act the kitsune was putting on, not at all. But he didn’t protest. Not with the threat of punishment detail hanging over his head. He swallowed and followed the others as they walked.

Chapter 10     Chapter Index     Chapter 12

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