Lilacs in the Morning or the Harmonixer Blues

AN: Okay folks. A dumb little treat for Easter ... and I promise, not a bunny in sight. Legal stuff: Don't own 'em, wish I did, especially ...

"She always smells so good," the young man said, once more sniffing the night air.

"Yes, lilac. Alice smells of lilac," the older man said with a wistful smile on his wizened features. Li Zhuzhen stretched sore and tired muscles as he settled near the fire, coaxing the coals into flickers of light and heat. "I don't know what's worse, the cold weather, or the cold weather and my old bones," he said.

The young man across from him smirked, his Eurasian features crinkling in humor. "Yer just an old fart, Zhuzhen. You should be home resting those decrepit bones o' yers."

The ancient looked up and frowned. "Yuri Hyuga," he said with short, clipped tones, "drop dead."

Yuri laughed. "Already did, an' Alice brought me back."

Zhuzhen snorted. "Sad but true," he responded and poked once more at the fire.

"Say Zhuzhen, how come you know so much about flowers and such?" Yuri asked.

The old sage poked silently at the fire, stirring up sparks into the cold March air before answering.

"With age comes wisdom, Yuri. Flowers, herbs, magic; they're all related in the world."

"Yeah, but you know so much … I mean, like what Alice wears and all."

Zhuzhen squinted the eye wearing the glass monocle. "What is your point, Yuri?"

The young man raised his arm and rubbed the back of his neck, refusing to look up at the elder. "N-nothing. Not really. Nothing."

Zhuzhen snorted again and grinned. "Would you like to learn some of it, so you can woo your young lady?"

Yuri's head snapped up and he looked at the tent across the small clearing in the forest. Inside Alice lay sleeping.

"N-no, no, it's not like that," Yuri stammered then, turning back to Zhuzhen he saw the look of amusement in the old sage's eyes and huffed. "Well, all right, it is. But you gotta keep it hush, ya know. If Margie finds out, I'll take great delight in skinnin' yer old hide."

Zhuzhen adjusted his robes and ignored Yuri's snide remark. He thought for a moment, remembering all the little secrets that Taoists knew about herbs and perfumes and instantly negated bringing those to Yuri's attention. 'The last thing that randy young man needs is an aphrodisiac.'

"Come on, Zhuzhen, I ain't gettin' any younger over here," Yuri cajoled.

"Well, let me see," Zhuzhen began, taking out his monocle and rubbing it gently on his robes. He looked through the glass then repositioned it before speaking again.

"Yer driving me crazy, old man," growled the young fighter. "If you don't start talkin' I'm gonna start pokin'," and he gestured, pretending he was wearing his long fighting claws.

"Well, as you know, Alice is wearing lilac; now some perfumes are delicate, and some are heavy. Ambergris, which is really not a perfume but whale spit, has a surprisingly sweet scent."

"What? Whale spit? What are you on about?" Yuri interrupted.

"Carnations, white ones, are sacred and are used primarily by those seeking a religious avocation; while red one's are for those who are… shall we say, larger than life; exaggerators," and the ancient sage looked askance at Yuri, sitting across the fire, tapping his toes and shaking his knees in nervousness. For his part, Yuri simply frowned, thinking as he listened to the descriptions.

"Cherry blossoms are for those with easy going natures, while cypress, sandalwood, and vervain are for those of curious natures. I myself use sandalwood, in case you were wondering."

Yuri sniffed in the general direction of the old sage. "I thought you just needed a bath," he muttered.

Zhuzhen stopped and looked askance at the young harmonixer, his monocle'd eye as piercing as that of a hawk.

Yuri chuckled. "Okay, okay."

"Now honeysuckle is a perfume that is for agile people, those with versatile minds, while hyacinth is for those of more rash natures, like yourself."

"Hey! I don't wear flowers."

"You should, it might improve relations if you didn't smell so ripe," Zhuzhen said, then continued. "Lavender and rosemary are for those of calm and wise perspectives. My own master Xifa wore rosemary, you may recall."

"He stunk like pasta," Yuri muttered.

"Mint - I heard that, Yuri - mint is for the very active, while musk if for those inclined to be argumentative. And red rose is for those who are passionate and loving."

"Ah, so I should give her rose oil or something?"

Zhuzhen blinked. "Well, I suppose you could. But it's more complicated than that. If you wish to woo your young lady, you first must learn to clean yourself… pig."

Yuri lifted one trench coat wearing arm and sniffed. "I bathed," he said.

"Yes? When?"

Yuri frowned and bent to pick up a loose pebble, lobbing it into the forest trees. "Shanghai."

Zhuzhen snorted. "That was over six months ago!"

"So?"

"Oh for God's sake," Zhuzhen exclaimed. "I'm going to bed. And you are not sleeping next to me you smelly dog," he exclaimed and rising to his feet, retreated to the tent.

"But you never said about Alice's perfume ya old fart," Yuri called after him but received no response. Yuri waited at the fire for a few minutes before deciding he'd go check on their watchman, Keith. Keith Valentine liked taking the night watch, especially as he was a vampire and didn't really need the sleep. But Yuri, who had spent a month in Keith's castle in Bistritz as an unwelcome guest, loved to annoy Keith, trying desperately at times to fluster the usually calm, collected, and unemotional vampire. So far he had been unsuccessful in his harassment. Keith was just past the clearing, a shadow amongst shadows in the deep forest. Tall, blond, and royally handsome, the 400 year old vampire was leaning against an equally regal pine, invisible, when Yuri poked around the trees looking for him.

"Good evening, Yuri," a cultured voice spoke from the darkness, and Yuri stopped, scowling at a tree.

"Is that you Keith? You've become a tree now? An' how did you know it was me?"

The air in front of the tree blurred a moment, and Keith appeared. "I could smell you," the noble vampire replied calmly.

Yuri's scowl threatened his hairline. "I do not stink," he growled.

"Actually you don't; you passed stink a month ago."

Yuri opened his mouth to reply, but hesitated, thinking over Keith's rejoinder. "I only met you a month ago, sorta."

"Yes, and your odor is what awoke me, Yuri," the vampire replied.

"You liar! You said my aura woke you," was Yuri's indignant response.

Keith's lips curled back in a vampiric smile, fangs glistening in the pale moonlight.

Yuri snorted. "Fine then, I'll wash." He looked around the forest, casting his gaze into the darkness beneath the trees. "Know where there's a river?"

"Some miles away I'm afraid. You'll have to walk."

Yuri scowled, realizing that Keith was taking great delight in Yuri's discomfort. "Fuck you, Keith," he said and stomped away.

The forest that night was treated to an unusual sight. Its first ever raging bull as Yuri, infuriated and feeling very much put upon, pounded through the forest, punching at offending branches, which punched back and sent him into an even hotter rage. He kicked one tree which dropped a load of pinecones, stinging him with their sharp points and setting not a few squirrels to chittering in their nests. He picked up a few of the cones, lobbing them back at the retreating aerial rodents and proceeded to tell the forest exactly and in no uncertain terms what he thought of the whole thing, punctuating it with language that would have made a stevedore blush. Then, with a parting kick at the tree roots he continued on, tripping over the roots, tumbling down into the one muddy spot beneath the tree and rolling over onto a pile of deer pellets, mashing them thoroughly. His trench coat now reeked worse than the Aegean Stables.

Face flushed, the now beyond furious harmonixer climbed to his feet again and stomped off, muttered curses, and deprecations, titillating the forest denizens into a frenzy of chitters. Yuri looked up to see movement in the tree limbs overhead and froze in his steps. The forest ceiling was alive with movement that had nothing to do with any breeze and, scratching at the encrusted mud and other matter stuck to his face, Yuri wondered what was going on with those stupid animals. When the first nuts and twigs bonked him in the head, he understood and started running, and his steps were dogged by bouncing acorns, flittering twigs and occasionally other things that Yuri didn't want to know about. His legs pumped like mad and he jumped over the nearby roots before they could grab his feet, rolling on the needle-strewn forest floor and coming up with a grin on his face. This was fun! This was surviving against all odds, mano a mano against nature. This was living! White teeth showing in a grimy brown face, Yuri ran on into the night and—

The cliff was invisible; a dip in the earth really, surrounded by bushes and scree, which when Yuri crashed through all un-heeding, he discovered he suddenly had a twenty foot drop beneath his feet. Down he plummeted, seeing the darkness at the bottom rising to meet him with painful consequences, and so sudden inspiration moved him to fuse. Reaching in to grasp whatever soul he had at hand, he clutched with a death grip onto his winged fusion, Tornado. His body warped and twisted mid-plunge, his legs bent and grew talons and his head changed to a more avian form that increased his eyesight, and his arms elongated and sprouted smooth brown feathers. With a few frantic flaps of those wings, he landed at the bottom of the gully and sank to his knees in sticky black mud. Sharp avian eyes investigated the black ooze with a tilt of a feathered head and Tornado attempted to pull one taloned foot from the mire with little success. He flapped his wings, trying to take off once more, but the thick, glue-like goop held him snugly to the ground and, in trying harder, Tornado over balanced and fell to one side, left wing hitting the mud with a plop and now the fusionist found himself well and truly stuck as the wing sunk into the gooey mess, holding him firmly in its sticky grasp.

Keith leaned against the royal pine and listened as the young harmonixer crashed his way through the woods; that boy could not go anywhere quietly! Keith wondered for a moment is he should accompany the young hot-head, and then thought better of it – his job was watching over and protecting the camp with Zhuzhen and Alice sleeping, not haring after a brash and irresponsible young male. Thoughts of the trouble that same young male could get into alone and unsupervised, worried at the back of the vampire's mind, but he shook it off with a setting of his shoulders and a decision to walk about the camp to check for disturbances other than Yuri.

The night remained quiet around the camp site and the when the sun came peeping up in the east, surrounded by grey clouds and threats of more rain, Keith returned to the camp and stirred up the fire in the pit, setting on the water to boil and pulling out the food rolls that they had brought with them to warm by the fire. He could hear Alice stirring in her tent and smiled, glad for the grace of her feminine company. In another few minutes the young exorcist pushed open her tent flap and joined him at the fire, her hands busy setting her braids to rights behind her and pulling tight the blue ribbon, frayed but yet still beautiful.

"Keith, good morning," Alice said and set out to make the morning tea, stirring the leaves into the pot.

"Good morning to you, Alice. Did you sleep well?"

The exorcist nodded as she sat on a nearby rock, letting her booted feet warm at the fire. "Mm, yes," she said, and then looked around. "I didn't hear Yuri snoring when I got up; is he up already?"

Keith shrugged. "I do not believe he has returned yet, Alice."

"Returned? He left somewhere?" Alice asked in alarm, rising suddenly from her perch by the fire and scanning the nearby forest with more than just her eyes.

"I'm sure he's fine, Alice," Keith said, rising and offering his hand to steady the excited young exorcist. But Alice shook her head again and ran across the small clearing to Zhuzhen's tent and, calling out, pulled open the flap.

"Zhuzhen – oh, Zhuzhen, he's missing. Yuri's missing again!" she cried, flinging herself into the small tent and shaking the elder adept by his shoulder. The old man grumbled and turned over, his braid and beard mussed and squinted at the girl.

"Alice, I'm sure Yuri can take care of himself. He's a grown man for pity sake. And I'm an old one – stop shaking me!"

Alice released the handful of blanket and shoulder that she had been threatening to dislocate and moved back to sit on her heels.

"But Zhuzhen, he left last night and he hasn't returned. What if something happened to him?"

The look of concern and fear on Alice's face convinced the elder sage to rise from his bed. Shooing her out, he joined them at the fire after a few minutes.

"Now what is this about Yuri missing?" he asked Keith as he sat to drink his morning cup of tea.

Keith nodded and waved a negligent hand in the direction of the nearby woods.

"Yes, Yuri went off late last night looking for a river. I imagine it was to wash... he was in serious need of it, you must admit."

Zhuzhen nodded, a wizened smirk appearing on his face.

"Indeed he did. Well," the older man said, drinking the last of his tea. "I wouldn't worry about him. He can use his fusion to get out of trouble, you know."

"Or get into it," Alice replied.

The morning sun finally appeared streaking through the clouds and illumined the shocked expressions of one old sage and one older vampire. Keith quickly stood and swept dirt on the fire.

"We should follow him at once," he said.

The trio were deep in the woods before long and following a trail of destruction. Keith tsked about the violent passage of one human being through the woods, while Alice was slowly and quietly working herself into a severe case of nerves. Finally, just around noon, they called a halt and Zhuzhen prepared one of his Taoist brews for Alice who was shaking like a leaf, her hands twittering and flicking at every nervous thought that crossed her mind. Considering each thought was of Yuri that was a lot of nervous twittering.

"Alice, please, calm down," Zhuzhen said as he held her hands so she could drink. "I'm sure everything will be fine."

Alice smiled and her eyes sparkled blue in the afternoon light. "I know, Master. But he's so… so…" Zhuzhen pushed the cup to her lips, forcing her to drink.

"Reckless comes to mind," Keith responded with a smile playing across his usually calm features.

"You hush, vampire," Zhuzhen said crossly. "You're enjoying this far too much."

"This is the most fun I've had in 400 years," he exclaimed and turned his back on the pair to hide his continued grinning enjoyment.

After a while, the trio continued their trek through the forest. The day, while chilly, was clear, the clouds having scudded their way over the nearby mountains. They reached the river in another hour, and scanned the banks for Yuri. But after searching up and down the brambly riverside, Alice insisted Keith go search for him. With a nod, he changed into a bat and flew away, his silver tipped wings glinting in the afternoon sun.

"He's got to be nearby," Alice said, "Oh please, please let him be all right." Her hands were clasped at her chest, her eyes closed in prayer, and Zhuzhen didn't have the heart to disturb her. Instead, he ambled away. Crossing a deer path and seeing scuff marks that could have been Yuri, he followed the path, seeing bits and pieces of destruction even as he went and then finally a piece of torn trench coat. Shaking his head, he called out to Alice.

"Alice! This way," and continued to walk the deer trail.

At Zhuzhen's call, Alice's eyes snapped open and she ran down the trail, her heart beating hard in excitement.

In a few minutes, she caught up with Zhuzhen's ambling pace. He had stopped at a nearby tree and was studying the detritus that seemed oddly piled around the tree, acorns, bits of twig and other stuff was around the tree and a few left the trail into the nearby shrubs. Pointing with his staff he moved on, Alice following him.

Tornado was well and truly stuck. The mud had sucked his wings and feathers and now his left wing was completely mired in the muck. He tried pulling on it, but pain shot through his shoulder, threatening to break the delicate bones. Yuri cursed silently and squawked loudly as Tornado's bird-like vocal chords accommodated his curses. He struggled to get his feet under him but they too sank deeper and Yuri realized that if he didn't do something soon, he'd end up as fossil fuel.

Assessing his situation Yuri decided to change his fusion to something more useful. Forron came to mind as the idea of burning something, ANYthing to a charred ash, was appealing to his violent sensibilities. But on second thought, the idea of turning cold mud into steaming molten mud wherein he'd not only be stuck but cooked alive left him chilled. And speaking of chilled, he thought, why is this mud so cold? His eyes focused on the clear sky and he remembered that, although it was spring, it was closer to winter yet in these mountains and it had rained this morning. Ah rain, he thought.

A moment of blurring motion and Tornado's winged and twisted form was replaced by a blue-skinned lizard with a very long tail. Dragner was also sinking in the mud, and as he weighed more than Tornado, he was sinking faster. His left arm was stuck to the shoulder now, and his legs were so deeply buried that the cold muck was threatening to chill his privates and their reigning captain. With a grunt, the fusion raised his right arm over his head and concentrated on his magic, calling forth shimmering ice to cascade down in a rimy frost that crisped the air and froze the soggy mud solid.

His breath fogging the air in front of him, Dragner flexed sinewy muscles and pulled, cracking the frozen soil that had trapped his left arm. With a snap, the ice broke and his arm came free and he shook frozen bits of mud from his sleekly muscled flesh. Now for his legs.

Fists clenched, he slammed them down onto the frozen mud, cracking the ice and freeing his legs. He jumped up, stood on the frozen pond, and shook himself, his tail whipping back and forth in satisfaction. Now for that bath!

With a waive of his arms, Dragner again summoned water magic and the air misted around him, fogging and filtering the light to a near milky white before crystallizing into a brilliant rainbow. Then Life Dew began to rain down from above and Yuri quickly reverted to his human form, pulling off his clothes and letting the hard-pouring water rinse them clean before tossing them up to the cliff top. He'd fly up later to retrieve them, but for now he wanted to clean his own body, and this he did with a gusto, rubbing all over himself with his hands, washing away mud and grime and odor with the sweet-smelling water. Finally, the Dew magic receded and Yuri stood on the yet frozen pond, his naked body glistening in health and cleanliness and he shook out his wet hair, running his fingers through to loosen a few tangles and snags.

Zhuzhen stopped at a copse of close-growing shrubbery and pointed down for Alice. The ground showed boot-prints where Yuri had passed and the bushes had broken branches and a scattering of leaves and twigs by their roots.

"He came this way, Alice."

Alice, clutching her hands to her breasts, looked at the wreck of the bushes.

"Oh, please let him be all right," she prayed and her lower lip quivered.

"I'll go through and open the bushes for you, all right, Alice," the old sage said and when Alice nodded her agreement, he used his staff to part the prickly shrubs, pushing his way through. Then he turned and held the bushes open for the young exorcist who skipped quickly through and kept going. A few feet on she stopped, her heart pounding loudly in her ears. At her feet was Yuri's clothing. Rumpled and wet and piled together, Alice could only think he'd been eaten by a bear and left his clothes as a marker of the deed.

"Master, oh, Zhuzhen," she cried, "he's been here. He's hurt, he's..."

Zhuzhen had taken a different direction and was across the copse from her, but heard her voice raised in a squeak of despair.

"Alice?" he called.

"Oh, Yuri, Yuri," Alice cried and tears stained her perfect blue eyes.

Below, standing on the frozen pond, Yuri could hear voices and looked up at the cliff top. The bushes along the edge were rustling and shivering as if someone were moving amongst them and he heard a deep voice calling.

Ah, he thought. It's Zhuzhen. "Hey, Zhuzhen!" he called up, his hands cupped to his mouth. "Zhuzhen! Did you bring a towel?"

Alice heard Yuri's voice echoing in the woods and turned toward it; it seemed to come from just ahead. She pushed through the bushes and stopped at a cliff edge, jagged and broken. It fell straight down into a frozen over pond and, standing on the pond, was Yuri.

"N-no, I don't have a towel," she said without thinking as her eyes gazed in shock and approval on the naked fusionist. Her mind was rapidly spinning on thoughts of his nakedness, her seeing his nakedness, her legs not moving and her hands frozen on the nearby bushes. She knew she should move, but somehow the sight of this man she had so recently saved from inner darkness, bathed and cleansed and sparkling in the afternoon light...

"Alice?" Yuri cried as Alice stepped from the bushes above and gazed down on him. He looked around quickly for something to cover himself then remember his clothing above on the path. Oh well, she'd have to see him sometime, he thought and put his hands on his hips.

"Say Alice? You gonna stare all day, or can I get a towel?" he called.

"Oh!" Alice exclaimed, snapping back to reality, her mind telling her what she was staring at and her hands flew off the bushes and covered her eyes, her lips moving in babbled prayers against the sin.

Below, naked and getting cold in the icy air, Yuri looked up at Alice and sighed.

"Uh, Alice? Are you exorcising me or something? Cuz I'm really getting cold down here," he paused and looked down at himself, shivering slightly. "For God's sake, I'm getting blue balls!"

Warmed by the fire and his belly full of stew and tea, Yuri sat with his boots near the stones circling their fire pit. He was clean and dry as were his clothes and, showing her true character, Alice had forgiven him for being naked in front of her, so he was back in her good graces and all was right with his world. Zhuzhen had gone on to bed and Keith had returned and was once again keeping watch and now, sitting wrapped in a blanket, Yuri sat staring at the fire, the dancing flickers an hypnotic dance that reminded him of dancing girls in Shanghai. He silently wished one of those flickers was Alice and so was surprised when the lady of his thoughts joined him.

"May I sit down, Yuri?" she asked, her usually pink complexion turning shades of white and blue and she was shivering.

Ever the gentleman, Yuri opened his blanket and gestured for her to sit next to him even as he swallowed his randy grin.

"It's cold out here an' yer half dressed as always," he said and once Alice had sat down next to him and he wrapped the blanket around her, "Not that I think you should change yer outfit or nothin," he finished.

Alice remained silent, knowing full well that he had said what he meant and he did indeed wish she'd change her clothes: to something more revealing. Yuri's mind was an open book with few words on the page. She snuggled close to him, her legs pulled close, and Yuri had his arm around her. She could feel his strong muscles close to her cheek, his arms and his chest so well developed from his years of fighting. Now if only he'd spent as much time in school...

Yuri put his chin on top of Alice's head, breathing in her clean scent with only the vaguest touch of flowers. He'd gotten her wet this afternoon too when he'd fused to Tornado again and launched himself toward the cliff. He'd landed next to her and shook his wings, not realizing how much water he was bringing with him; he'd soaked her as well. She had graciously forgiven him that too – she was the soul of kindness, he thought. She never said a cross word or anything. He turned his head slightly and pressed his lips to her hair.

"Thanks Alice," he said.

Alice smiled and leaned closer, feeling the heat of him warming her, his hot breath on her hair, his left hand resting on her shoulder holding the blanket, his right hand...

"Yuri."

"Yeah?" he said

"Please take your hand out from under my dress."

Yuri chuckled breathily and slowly removed his hand, letting his fingers pause at the lacy ruffles.

"I ever tell ya I think you smell nice," he said.

Alice thought about it, waiting for the fingers to move on but when they didn't she moved her own hand down to flick them aside.

"Yuri—"

The harmonixer's hand captured hers as she tried to flick his aside and he drew it up out of the blanket.

"Ah, looky what I caught," he said with a low laugh and shifted slightly to look down into her blue eyes. "Now what should I do with these, hum?" he asked with a twinkle in his tree sap eyes. Alice looked chagrined that he'd caught her, and a little pleased as well.

"You could keep your hands to yourself, Yuri," she suggested.

"Yeah, but that's no fun," he said with a grin then bent slightly to kiss her palm. It was warm and soft and smelled slightly of soap. He let his lips linger on her hand and he could feel her tremble slightly next to him. "I don't bite," muttered. "Much."

"That's what worries me, - oh!" she said and realized she'd let slip her thoughts. "Sorry Yuri, I didn't mean..."

The fusionist pulled her hand close to him, holding it tightly to his chest. With her fingers pressed hard against him she could feel his heart beating like thunder and looking up into his burning eyes, she knew darned well he would bite. Sudden trepidation made her pulse flutter and Yuri could feel it in her wrist beneath his fingers.

"I worry you," he said softly. "You think I'd take you into the woods and have my way with you," he said and his eyes dared her to deny it.

Alice shook her head. "N-no, no I don't think that."

He let her hand go and used that hand now to lift her chin, presenting her lips to his. He leaned closer and ever so slowly, delicately, and tenderly, kissed her. A moment later his face was burning and the camp site was ringing to the sound of Alice's slap.

"Oh! Yuri!" she exclaimed, suddenly covering her face with her hands. "I am so sorry. It was instinct." She peeked through her long fingers at the red mark on the young fighter's face and quickly swallowed her grin. "I didn't mean..."

"Yeah, you did, but that's okay," Yuri said and Alice had to peek through her fingers again to see what he would do. He'd dropped the blanket and was rubbing his cheek with one hand while he slowly climbed to his feet. She looked up then, her hands prepared to ward him off should he decide to slap her back, but the harmonixer simply stepped away from the fire.

"You think I'm a monster, a sex crazed beast that would rip your clothes from your body and have my way with your soft, delectable virgin flesh," he accused.

"No- no that's not true," Alice denied, scooting back closer to the fire.

"Well fine," he said. "Be that way. I'll show you what kind of a monster I can be," and this last was followed by a grunt as he summoned a fusion and let his body change. Suddenly he was wrapped in darkness, a miasma of evil oozing from every pour. Tall, muscular and very, very dangerous, Czernabog stood before the pale young exorcist in all his evil glory.

He stepped closer and Alice jumped to her feet, her hands reaching for her bible only to remember it was in her tent.

"Y-Yuri, please, don't," she said, her voice shivering with the beginnings of fear. This was a new fusion, one she had not seen and it reeked of evil.

Czernabog took another step closer and Alice skipped back, her hands trembling, wondering if she could summon her Blessed Light without her bible. Perhaps, if she prayed really, really hard.

The darkness fusion did not give her the chance. His wings suddenly flicked open and he launched himself at her, catching her by her waist and carrying her into the sky, each down stroke taking them farther and farther from the campsite. The cold night air chilled her as they flew farther away and she struggled in the fusion's grip, but the strong claws would not let her go. After a few minutes they descended into the deep woods and Czernabog set her down, letting her scurry away like a frightened mouse. The fusion grinned.

He watched her move aside, her hands working to summon her defensive magicks, and he wrapped his dark wings around himself in preparation of his own dark spell.

A wave of dark magic formed quickly around the monster as he rose again into the cold air to hover a few feet above ground. A moment he hovered then his wings flicked open, and in Yuri's voice, guttural but clearly his, uttered the spell.

"Revelation!"

With a crack of thunder dark light rose up from the monster's feet, spiraling over his limbs and up his chest, twisting around his arms before finally exploding over his head. Suddenly Yuri dropped the few feet to the forest floor, his clothes gone, his body clearly revealed to the young exorcist's eyes. And there was one thing she could not avoid seeing...

"eeep!"

"I told you!" Yuri yelled and sprinted across the clearing. "Now, run rabbit, cuz' I'm gonna get ya!"

"eeep!" Alice exclaimed again, her spell forgotten as she bolted into the woods, the naked harmonixer crashing his way after her.

Early morning mists rose through the forest trees, catching on leaf and branch like wispy cotton. The sun rose but was quickly covered in grey clouds and Keith looked up from his spot by a huge pine and noted the change of weather. If they didn't get an early start today, they ran the risk of getting soaked. He returned to camp and flipped up the tent flap, giving Zhuzhen a quick shake.

"Come on, old timer," he said with a grin. "Time to rise or the rain will fall on you. I'll get the others up if you get up and get breakfast."

Grumpy, stiff and cold, Zhuzhen muttered, growled, then groaned as he rolled out of his bedroll and stretched.

"When do we get to sleep in an inn?" he complained aloud and then hurried to dress in the cold morning air. Keith ignored him and went to awaken Alice. He called before pulling open the flap but then paused as his sharp vision caught sight of the inside and he pulled the flap closed again. He turned to the fire pit instead and stirred up the embers. A moment later Zhuzhen joined him.

"Where's the youngsters," he asked.

Keith, reticent to remark, nodded at the other tent. Zhuzhen's monocle fell from his eye.

"Together?"

Keith nodded, shrugged, then nodded again, poking the wood with a stick and sending sparks into the cold air.

"Well, I'll be damned," muttered Zhuzhen, picking up his monocle and, rubbing it on his robes, put it back on.

"It's not what you think," Keith remarked and bent to put the kettle on the fire.

Zhuzhen settled himself on a rock and prepared the morning cereal, pouring the grains into a pot and setting it on a rock in the fire.

"And just how is it then," he finally asked.

Keith shook his head. "I've never seen the like."

"Of a man and woman sleeping together?" the old sage queried.

"Oh, well of course, that I've seen. No, it's the... well..." Keith hesitated and looked across at the other tent, the picture in his mind once more. "It's just so unnatural," he finished.

Zhuzhen blinked, then snorted. "Well, then" he said, "this I'll have to see." He rose unsteadily to his feet, gave the cereal pot a quick stir, then walked to Alice's tent. Carefully he pulled back the flap and looked in.

There, in the tent lay Alice, a blanket tucked around her, her face sweet in repose. She lay on – Zhuzhen blinked, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly – on a tail... a long blue tail. And the tail was tucked neatly between two long, deadly clawed arms. A monstrous head was snuggled close to Alice's face, blue faceted eyes dim in sleep and the tip of the tail twitched slowly in dreams. Zhuzhen closed the flap and, heart racing, returned to the fire.

"You're right, Keith. That is unnatural. I didn't think the kid could hold a fusion while he slept."