“Your hands are smaller.”
Yomi made the observation while touching the body part in question, trailing up along the length of Kurama’s fingers until their palms were pressed together, his own fingers extending a good inch beyond the tips of Kurama’s. The body tucked close against him made a sound of agreement, resettling slightly, bare skin tacky against his. Yomi found the curve of shoulder nearest him just by the heat and scent radiating off of it, and pressed his lips against warm skin. The scent was different, too. Similar, still, but different.
“Your skin is softer,” he said, rather than remarking on that detail.
“It’s because my body is younger now, you know that,” Kurama huffed, in a voice that was also different: higher, lighter, more feminine. Yomi had only seen Kurama’s new face through his fingertips—plump cheeks, large eyes, long eyelashes, pursed lips. Human ears. Yomi supposed, not being able to see him, that he would always imagine Kurama with his fox ears, twitching towards distant sounds, flicking when he was irritated, flattening entirely when he was really, truly enraged.
The lack of a tail, Yomi didn’t mind so much. But he missed the ears.
He dragged his fingertips up along Kurama’s arm to the shoulder under his lips, assessing the skin there, the small indents his teeth had left several minutes ago when Kurama’s new voice had been better occupied, his new, smaller, softer body shuddering under Yomi’s hands. The way he moved, that had been the same. The way he tasted when Yomi’s tongue dragged against his skin, that was the same. The way his fingers tangled in Yomi’s hair, the little growl in his throat, the tight heat of his body, all of that was the same. Amazingly, incredibly, just as he always remembered.
Yomi dragged his mouth up along the curve of his lover’s neck, until he could feel the hair under his lips where Kurama had bundled it up into a knot—that was the same, too. Hair tucked away safely from stray elbows. In the old days Yomi had enjoyed watching the silver locks slip free, dangling around his neck, clinging to his face with sweat. The loose curls he felt under his lips now were different.
“Your hair is coarser.”
“I’ve been informed,” Kurama said, pulling away from him abruptly. The tone was light, almost teasing, but there was a hard edge to it that sent a chill down Yomi’s spine. It felt like murder.
That hadn't changed, either.
“If you’re going to lie here and catalog all of the ways I’m different I would be happy to turn the tables and remind you of all the ways you are still as insufferable as you always have been.” Kurama was sitting just far enough away to not be touching, back to him from how his voice carried. There was a sound of movement, skin shifting, and Yomi knew Kurama must have raised his arms and let his hair loose, because Yomi could smell it, tumbling down around his shoulders.
Roses. That was definitely the same.
“Come now, I’ve grown up quite a bit in the last thousand years. Even you must be willing to admit as much.”
“You may have finally learned the art of patience in matters of state and strategy, Yomi, but the lesson clearly did not extend to the bedroom.” The quality of Kurama’s voice changed just slightly and Yomi could picture him looking over his shoulder, tips of his silver ears twitching. “You still rush through sex like an adolescent.”
“You wound me.” Yomi shifted onto his back, reclining comfortably against the pillows, refusing to rise to Kurama’s bait. “Anyone would be eager to have their lover back in their bed after a thousand years apart.”
“As though you haven’t taken others since then.” Kurama’s words were biting but his tone was not. Casual, playful. Testing.
Yomi was being used. He was fully aware of this, and chose not to let it sully his enjoyment of Kurama’s presence, in the council chamber or in the bedchamber. There had been an undercurrent of tension between them since his arrival, up until that moment in the cold dungeon cell that held the demon Kurama had hired to blind him, when it finally dissolved. Kurama understood what Yomi wanted at that moment: that Yomi intended to use him, to undermine him, and had immediately begun planning his own betrayal and Yomi’s eventual demise.
It felt good to be conspiring against each other again. It always made the sex that much better.
“As have you, I’m sure. How many human lovers do you have fawning over you?”
“None. I’m not so foolish.”
“You’ve grown up as well, then.” Yomi reached towards where the mattress dipped, hand following Kurama’s warmth until it met skin, the small indent of his spine. His fingers traced down, slowly. “That jaganshi, then. The one Mukuro called for.”
Kurama paused, and Yomi couldn’t tell if it was calculated or borne of actual emotion. “No.”
“Not from any lack of desire. He reminds me of you, as you were back then. Impulsive, stubborn, short-tempered.” Kurama’s voice had taken on a strange quality; his muscles were shifting under Yomi’s touch—arms moving, tugging his hair over his shoulder to comb his fingers through it. Tactile, grooming motions.
Yomi’s younger self would have succumbed to jealously instantly. Would have grabbed his lover and pinned him to the bed, ravished him until he remembered who he belonged to. But Yomi, like Kurama, was not the same—his differences couldn’t be discerned by taste or smell or wandering fingertips, though. They were in thought and discernment; the careful, prideful, calculating patience that this beautiful and vicious creature sitting tangled in Yomi’s bedsheets had tried to teach him a millennia ago.
Older, wiser Yomi filed this information away for safekeeping, a potential weakness yet to be confirmed—that perhaps would be confirmed before long, in the midst of a future tryst if Kurama lost himself and cried out a name other than Yomi’s. Kurama was hard to distract and harder to unsettle, but if his brush with humanity had left him with lingering sentiments Yomi wanted to know what (and for whom) they were. How they could be used against him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Kurama said, although Yomi was sure he hadn’t left the silence to stretch long enough for suspicion. “But I’m not actually enough of a masochist to want more than one of you.”
“I am indeed.” Kurama’s weight left the bed abruptly, air moving swiftly around his body, dispersing the smell of roses. “One of the best.”
“One of the best liars or one of the best masochists?”
Kurama kept moving, somewhere to the side of the bed. Finding his clothes. Dressing. Yomi pushed himself up on his elbows, building a mental image of movement, of the planes and curves of his body. “Come back here.”
“No.” Kurama’s voice was bright and cheery, bare feet padding around the bed towards the door. “I have to go be caught leaving your chamber at an inappropriate hour of the night looking suspiciously disheveled, otherwise your council will never suspect that I’m manipulating you.”
“Kurama,” Yomi said, and the name would always feel the same way on his tongue. Thick and heavy, a solicitation and warning wrapped up in the sound.
He couldn’t see the smile on Kurama’s face but he could feel it, sharp teeth, false sweetness, and couldn’t imagine how it looked on his new face. Probably even more disarming, unsettling on his softer features.
That part was also the same—Kurama leaving him still wanting.
If you’re done playing around and keeping the Gandara king’s bed warm there’s a matter I could use your assistance with. The detective isn’t likely to stay put for much longer. It’s time you stopped being stubborn and threw in your lot with us. Things won’t go well for you otherwise. I can promise that.
As touched as I am by your threats I’m afraid you have matters quite backwards. Should you see the error of your ways and wish to join me in Gandara, I would welcome you open-armed and assure that your change of allegiance would be intimately worthwhile. Until then I intend to continue waiting until Yusuke has made his move.
PS: Yomi’s bed is indeed quite warm. How is Mukuro’s?
Hiei didn’t idolize the legendary thief Youko Kurama in so many words. That is, he listened intently to the tales the bandits told at night around their campfires, words thickened by alcohol, stories warped by passing through time and over too many tongues. He listened and was impressed, but he was never enough of a child to go about playacting as though he were among the heroes of such fantasies. His youth was too full with the sensation of blades cutting flesh, fire and ash and bloodlust.
But he did wonder, sometimes, if the King of Thieves was still about, whether he could be drawn by the hiruiseki. If such a gem would be enough to impress someone whose extensive experience with treasures and rarities was the stuff of legend. If Hiei would be enough of a challenge to face with the gem as a potential prize.
Frivolous thoughts. Idle musings.
Then he made the unfortunate acquaintance of a boy in the human world, a redheaded slip of a human child who was supposedly a demon, who, he grudgingly admitted once that useless menace Eight Hands was thoroughly desiccated, certainly fought like one. So Hiei did something wholly unlike himself, reasoning that the child could be useful, reasoning anything at all other than the whisper in the back of his mind that suggested companionship might not be so bad, and asked for the boy’s name.
Hiei stopped walking, and the boy clearly expected as much because he continued on, calmly carrying the dead weight of that human girl on his back, a smile in his voice that was subtle and dangerous. “No need to be shocked. I’m not lying.”
“Indeed,” Hiei muttered, not pleased that he had to scurry to catch up. “What you say is impossible. The Reikai Special Forces hunted down Youko Kurama years ago.”
“They did. I was shot. It was quite painful.” The boy’s voice was bright and casual, like he was discussing the weather and not his own demise.
Hiei might not have believed he was a demon at all, at first; his power level was pitiful, no better than Hiei’s after recovering from the Jagan implant. But his aura left a cold feeling pooled in Hiei’s stomach, and when his back was turned the boy’s presence seemed to loom, far larger and more ominous than his appearance would ever betray. Hiei’s instincts screamed danger, prickled with fear whenever the boy got too close.
He didn’t have the hiruiseki anymore, and he wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved. Disappointed because if this really was the King of Thieves, Hiei wanted to impress him. To gain approval, perhaps even praise. He’d never wanted such ridiculous things before and was immediately angry at himself.
Relieved because if he did have the hiruiseki, Kurama might want to fight him for it, and if he was certain of any one thing about this boy, legendary thief or not, it was that Hiei did not want to fight him. At all. Ever.
Just thinking about it set off alarm bells in his head. Danger. Death. Hiei usually liked a challenge, but Kurama was different in a way he couldn’t define, that only his instincts seemed to understand.
The idea of cooperation was foreign to Hiei. He’d lived with the bandits for most of his childhood but he felt no loyalty to them, no desire to stay with them beyond the need for food or shelter, and certainly no desire to work together with them to accomplish whatever goal he had. Of course, he’d heard of such things; demons bonding together in pairs or teams to fight or conquer or eke out some sort of living in the Makai, but Hiei had no desire for any such arrangement. Being essentially forced to live with Shigure for a few years had been discomforting enough, even having gained the Jagan and impressive new swordsmanship skills in exchange.
But he suddenly found himself wanting to cooperate with Kurama, and being the sort of demon incapable of expressing things that reflected his true feelings, he opened his mouth and blurted out, “Prove it.”
Kurama looked to the side just slightly, just enough to see Hiei in profile past his own shoulder. “What?”
“Prove that you are who you say you are.”
“How do you propose I do that?”
“Steal something.” After a beat of silence Hiei quickly clarified, “With me.”
Kurama’s face was partially obscured from his perspective, but there might have been a smile on it, something small and curious and amused. “Like what exactly?”
“I don’t know. You’re the thief, or so you say. Don’t you have any ideas?”
“Perhaps.” Kurama stopped looking at him, eyes forward again, and Hiei felt inexplicably irritated. “I’ll let you know when I think of something.”
A stream of minutes passed in silence, something that felt endless and stationary at the same time. They walked, Hiei with his hands in his pockets, Kurama occasionally shifting the unconscious girl’s weight on his back, both looking straight ahead.
Eventually Kurama made a pleasant noise, and it took Hiei a moment to realize it was a laugh. “Do you plan on following me home?”
Hiei jumped, not expecting the noise or the question or the teasing tone it was asked in, shoulders hunched defensively. “No!”
“Are you sure? It might rain tonight. You can sleep on the futon again.”
“I don’t care!”
Hiei’s face felt hot, which was unfamiliar and seemed to be connected to the way his stomach was twisting up because Kurama was laughing at him. He could see it on his face, above and to the side, that smile. Laughing.
He followed Kurama home. He slept on the futon. It was not the first time, and would not be the last.
What drove Hiei crazy was that Kurama had the audacity to grow up.
He got taller—which in itself was insulting when he’d already been taller than Hiei to begin with—but his height was graceful, with slender limbs and lean muscle. He grew his hair out until there were loose curls brushing the center of his back, red locks that trailed over his shoulders and smelled like green things, plants and roses, things Hiei knew were dangerous.
Worst of all, he got pretty.
It was distracting and it pissed Hiei off, and he wasn’t completely convinced Kurama hadn’t done it on purpose, especially when they were sparring and he mercilessly took advantage of each and every unintentional opening. Kurama only trained hand-to-hand with Hiei as his partner, always in some secluded park or forest with plenty of room to move, hide, work in concert with nature and the surrounding terrain. Kurama’s fighting style was fluid and graceful, remarkably difficult to counter even with Hiei’s speed, but even so he could manage gaining the upper hand at least half the time.
That was unless Kurama was wearing a soft white sleeveless top that showed his collarbones and the toned muscles in his arms and shoulders perfectly. For Kurama, displaying that much skin was indecent. Hiei was positive he was doing it on purpose.
And then once in a while, for reasons Hiei couldn’t discern, in the middle of a solid exchange of blows that didn’t land, trying to find even the slightest opening in Kurama’s defense, those alarm bells in his head would start going off and he’d instinctively spring away, putting as much distance between himself and Kurama as possible.
So on a warm summer afternoon that was precisely where Hiei was, crouched a few dozen yards across a sunny meadow from Kurama, who was standing straight and wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, as though he expected the sudden break. Hiei’s nerves were prickling, still anticipating some unforeseen attack, for some terrible plant to emerge suddenly from the ground beneath him to devour him whole.
Kurama’s voice was, as always, blithe and unconcerned. “Another round?”
Hiei pulled up the collar of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his mouth and neck and stood up straight, shrugging off the feeling of being hemmed in, unable to discern any actual danger. He’d considered the possibility—under extreme duress—that he was simply afraid of Kurama, and that was why this kept happening. But it didn’t quite make sense that he could be so fearful of someone he trusted with his life, probably the only person he felt capable of actually defending him if it came to that, since they started working for Koenma and his detective. It just didn’t add up.
He eventually settled on the tenuous but more reasonable conclusion that he responded this way because Kurama was brilliant and unpredictable. Under certain conditions and to certain people, Hiei might be coaxed into admitting that he didn’t always understand how Kurama’s thought process worked in battle, even after fighting at his side for nearly two years. It made sense to be instinctively wary of someone whose mind he couldn’t fathom.
“Once more,” he agreed, and covered the distance between them in a fraction of a second.
Sparring with Kurama wasn’t like going a round with Urameshi—it was more of a dance, rare that a blow actually connected. Occasionally a fist or heel might brush or glance off a shoulder, hip, knee, elbow, but even that seemed calculated, sometimes. A series of tactile sensations meant to direct his attention, muddle his thoughts, keep him from outthinking and outpacing his opponent.
They moved into a thick copse of trees and Hiei dropped to ground level to dodge a kick and suddenly the alarms were ringing full force in his head, all of his muscles coiling taut, nerves demanding that he run, break free, escape. Hiei gritted his teeth and ignored it for the first time, springing up from his crouch for a counterattack instead, and somewhere in the middle of it Kurama made a sound of surprised delight.
It was too late.
Hiei couldn’t recount just how it happened, later, but suddenly Kurama was very close, nose brushing against his, and he tried to jerk out of range but there was also something solid just behind him, an arm around his waist, a hand clutched around his wrist.
Hiei breathed for a count of three before flexing his muscles, testing the limits of how he’d been pinned, mostly just with the weight of Kurama’s body. It wasn’t completely effective—he could free himself, if he wanted to, with some effort.
But there were other things entirely that kept him still—the smell of roses and skin and sweat and the way Kurama was pressed intimately close, the way his breath puffed over Hiei’s mouth when he spoke. Hiei’s skin prickled, buzzing hot everywhere it was in contact with Kurama, and his throat felt dry and sticky, breath unnaturally loud in his ears. And there was an odd, thumping sensation somewhere between them, around the center of his chest.
“You let your guard down,” Kurama observed, voice low and teasing. “You did it on purpose.”
“I wanted to see what would happen,” Hiei grumbled, desperately masking every sensation and uncertainty racing through his body with defiance, because that was familiar and easy.
Kurama’s eyes were inches away, green and sparkling, and his laugh was breathy and pleased and the sound made Hiei’s stomach flip. “Is that so.” The hand holding Hiei’s wrist drew it up, tugging his arm high until it was settled on Kurama’s shoulder and he felt silky hair under his fingers. “And what do you think is going to happen now?”
Under other circumstances, Hiei might have admitted defeat at that point, having discovered just what his instincts had been trying to warn him against, finding that it was nothing like he’d imagined. He’d been foolish enough to let curiosity get the better of him and now his only recourse was to play Kurama’s game and find out what he wanted.
But there was still this infernal thumping against his chest.
“What is that?” Hiei wriggled his free hand between them, pressing against the center of Kurama’s chest, ignoring how the tips of his fingers brushed just above the collar of Kurama’s shirt and met sweat-tacky skin. The thumping was, indeed, coming from there, pulsing against Hiei’s palm.
Kurama’s voice was laced with amusement. “I acquired a human body, after all. Naturally it came with a human heart.”
“Does it always do that?”
“More or less. Not always so fast and hard, the beat just changes in response to things like strenuous exercise, fear, excitement. Being close to certain people…”
Hiei huffed, noting how the pulse under his hand did seem to slow a bit now that Kurama was still. He stared down at his hand, vaguely fascinated by how nothing moved outwardly to betray the constant beating, and after a moment he pulled his hand away and pressed his ear against that spot instead, listening.
What he thought was a single beat turned out to be a steady, rhythmic double-beat, a constant tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump that vibrated just a bit against his cheek. He felt a touch on top of his head, a gentle pressure, and then another just above his ear, fingers carding through his hair and then trailing down, thumb brushing gently over the curve of his cheek.
“Hiei.” Kurama said his name softly and he heard it in an echo through his chest.
How odd, Hiei thought, and realized abruptly that he’d never heard anything like it because he’d never been this close to anyone before—had never been held or touched like this, never felt so content, wrapped in someone else’s warmth. Perhaps, he considered, he’d dropped his guard out of trust, knowing Kurama wouldn’t actually hurt him. Knowing that that trust was mutual, that he was standing here now listening to the most vulnerable part of Kurama’s body with the knowledge that if he were to plunge a blade into the place under his ear it would invariably kill him.
Knowing he would never do such a thing.
The thumb brushing over his cheek moved down to his mouth, traced slowly across his lower lip, and a wash of heat flooded through his body—not the fire he was familiar with but something else, slippery and hungry.
Hiei broke free with one swift shove and ran. Not because there were alarm bells, this time; his instincts were mysteriously silent. But he ran, not because he wanted to, but because he really, really didn’t want to and somehow that was more frightening than anything else.
Apparently this is all a terribly funny joke to you, just like everything always is, so perhaps trying to persuade you to have some sense is simply asking too much. Maybe once Raizen is dead and my King’s armies are descending on you, you’ll be less amused by the notion that your plans might fail. Perhaps you’ll get to meet your fate on the end of my sword after all.
Mukuro preferred not to have unexpected complications in her life. She’d spent enough of it living on the edge of a knife that the cushy, lowkey unpredictability of being the King of roughly a third of the known territory in the Makai was a luxury she guarded jealously. She favored challenges and obstacles that she had the opportunity or foresight to head off; not so much the kind that crept up on her, waiting to spring some compromising trap.
Unless, of course, it was amusing, and this development would most certainly prove to be so.
Her Second stalked into the reception chamber as prickly as a wet cat, and hissed rather like one when she bid him good morning, right before the door slammed shut with an aggravated clang. Hiei was, at his core, a very pretty creature, with slanted eyes and a childish, elfin face, but Mukuro was of the opinion that he was most beautiful when he was angry. Eyes narrow, teeth bared, lips curled in unrestrained contempt, and this was precisely the expression he offered her when she gestured towards a chair, ignoring it entirely in favor of standing in the middle space between it and her, sword drawn, the blood of one of her less fortunate underlings still dripping from the tip.
“What do you want?” he spat. She truly adored him.
“Some deference to your liege, perhaps?”
He grunted and shook the blood from his blade in one swift stroke before sheathing it, as though that was his idea of civility. Mukuro waited for a count of ten, watching his fists fidget at his sides, just to make the point that he would not be rid of her easily.
“Perhaps,” she observed, looking him up and down, “there’s something you’d like to tell me.”
“There’s nothing I have to say to you.”
“Is that so? I think you might have a burning secret.”
“We’re finished here,” he snapped, turning on his heel to stalk back towards the door, boot heels clacking as he went—and Mukuro chuckled, just slightly. Just a hum that made his shoulderblades twitch as she unfolded the paper between her fingers.
“Beloved,” she read, and Hiei froze. “When, honestly, have you ever known my plans to fail? Of course I find the notion laughable—”
“How did you get that?” Hiei turned slowly, and she wasn’t sure if the stricken expression on his face was fear or embarrassment. She blinked and he was in front of her, the force of his momentum fluttering the paper in her hand and he reached to snatch it away. “How!”
Mukuro raised the paper until it was out of range, just to make Hiei lean up on tiptoe, just to see that curl of anger on his mouth again, and she smiled sweetly enough to bare all of her teeth. “Why are you exchanging love letters with the right hand of my political rival?”
“It’s not a love letter!” Hiei made another grab for the paper and she caught his hand halfway—the warded hand, bandages rough against her skin. She curled her fingers around his, thumb pressed against his palm, feeling the wriggle of power underneath where the Dragon was burned into him.
She considered, meeting his stare for a long, unusually silent moment, just what part of her question he’d chosen to deny.
“Stop it,” he hissed, low and dangerous, counterpoint to the panic of a moment before.
“You’ve meddled with my head enough, you don’t need to go back in.”
She tugged on his hand and he stepped closer, almost obedient except for the burning defiance in his eyes. There was no need to pry, really; the redhead had leapt to the forefront of Hiei’s mind instantly, and now Hiei was desperately trying to bottle him back up and hide him away from Mukuro’s mental prodding. She remembered him well enough from her first contact with Hiei’s memory and perhaps less remarkably by reputation; the Youko of legend was somehow not nearly as colorful (nor as terrifying) as his current hybridized reincarnation. But perhaps that was just the gloss that Hiei’s mind painted him with.
When she spoke again her voice was the slightest bit gentler. “Answer my question.”
“Answer mine first.”
“One of the guards intercepted a courier sprite and brought the message it carried directly to me, as he was ordered to.”
“You suspected.” Hiei’s voice was low and rough and he tried to jerk his hand away. “You don’t trust me.”
“It has nothing to do with my trust. Your sense of discretion is terrible; if the officers under your command circumvent you to report to me that you’ve been exchanging messages with an undisclosed source, they are the ones lacking in faith and rightly so when their commander is openly doing something suspicious. It’s their trust you have to earn, not mine.”
Hiei was quiet for a long moment, corners of his mouth twitching like he wanted to argue. His eyes darted to the side for several seconds, and for a terrible instant Mukuro thought he might be fabricating something, that indeed he might have something to hide, but then his stare returned, meeting hers level, and no—he was simply embarrassed.
“I’ve told him nothing,” he said, low and even and she thought, perhaps, just the barest bit vulnerable. “This is a personal matter.”
“Indeed. Attempting to convince Yomi’s Second to abandon his King and take up arms with us so you can have him for yourself? How unlike you to act with such passion in the pursuit of something other than power.”
Hiei made a sound low in his throat, a rumble that wasn’t quite a growl—a warning—and snatched at the letter again with his free hand. She wasn’t prepared to give it up just yet, though; she was still prodding. The needle had gotten under his skin but had yet to pierce a vein, to find whatever current of emotion was fueling all of this.
“If you wanted him so desperately you need only have said so. I’ll capture your precious fox-demon myself, drag him back here and tie him to your bed. Perhaps I’ll even wrap him in a pretty bow as a gift.”
“Stop it.” The words constricted in his throat, but her prodding had the desired effect—that bottle came uncorked in Hiei’s mind and all his thoughts of the pretty redheaded fox came spilling out, memories clear and white, unfulfilled desires muddled with uncertain purple, fears tinted green with envy. Mukuro was surprised to see Yomi so clearly and couldn’t imagine when Hiei would have met him face to face, but there he was, wrapped up intimately with Youko Kurama’s human incarnation.
She knew as well as anyone that Yomi and the thief had been partners previously, lovers most likely, so she didn’t doubt the certainty at the forefront of Hiei’s mind that they were indeed rekindling that old flame. It was the undercurrent of confusion running through Hiei’s thoughts that made Mukuro frown—Hiei couldn’t understand why he felt hurt and angry and guilty all at once. Love was a mystery to him; no surprise when the only person who’d ever shown him tenderness in his life was this maddeningly coy fox-demon.
And her, of course.
“Jealousy is unbecoming on you, Hiei. I prefer rage. It suits you better.” Mukuro kissed the bandages covering his fingers and let him go, flipped the letter in her other hand closed and held it out for him. “I wasn’t teasing; I would happily go and collect him for you if that was your wish.”
“Then at least try to be subtle.”
“That won’t be necessary. I’m ending this now.” Hiei grabbed the paper and crushed it in his fist, turning on his heel to stalk back out of the room.
“You’re prepared to fight him, then?” She asked casually, watching him still, shoulders drawing up. “You’re prepared to face him in battle and cut him down?”
Hiei didn’t move for a few seconds -- then abruptly continued towards the door, boot heels a-clatter as he yanked it open and threw it closed behind him without responding.
Which Mukuro understood implicitly to mean, “No.”
When, honestly, have you ever known my plans to fail? Of course I find the notion laughable. But you are, as always, very cute when you’re stubborn, so I can hardly fault you for your insistence. I’m flattered by your continued attempts to coerce me to come to your side, but I don’t believe for one moment that a bloody exchange on the battlefield is what you truly desire from me.
—And also yours
There is nothing I desire from you.
Kurama had never been short on admirers.
In his previous life they had always managed to find him; long before his name became known in every corner of the Makai they sought him out for beauty alone. Later there were demons with ulterior motives and any or all of them might also intend to wriggle their way into his bed—and depending on a variety of circumstances, he might let them. Leeches who wanted to ride on the coattails of his fame, cloyingly sincere young demons begging to be his disciple, fellow professionals seeking his expertise, starry-eyed fans who just wanted a chance to be near him.
He expected Hiei to be this last sort.
He’d decided early on, once it became clear that he would be staying with his mother and living as a human for the foreseeable future, that he would not entertain any romantic overtures from his human peers. To begin with, they were children to him, and even if he were to participate in their dating rituals just to keep up appearances, the danger of someone getting close enough to discover his secrets was too great. Better to simply avoid it.
Of course, that didn’t rule out romantic entanglements with other demons, but his options in the human world were slim. The demons who managed to get through the Reikai’s barrier were low level, crude and inelegant and not very attractive in manner, form, or personality. A few of them, once they learned who he was, tried to seduce him anyway—he spurned their advances, painfully, and no further attempts were made.
So when Hiei appeared it was like the gods had meant to either answer his prayers or torment him deliberately. Kurama knew him by reputation, of course—powerful and bloodthirsty, an accomplished thief like himself but less interested in treasure than in murder. If the Jagan implant hadn’t stripped him of his power, a demon of Hiei’s caliber wouldn’t have been able to pass through the barrier into the human world.
And of course he was so precisely Kurama’s type that it was almost unfair. Dark haired, hot tempered, easily provoked, everything that had aggravated and enticed him about Yomi and so many others. And the moment Kurama opened his mouth and spoke his own name, he saw those stars light up in Hiei’s eyes.
But in matters of the heart (and the body) Hiei seemed to be lacking in self-awareness. Kurama had been alive for thousands of years, though; a few more with the potential for a very devoted partner in reward for his patience was nothing. So he was satisfied with enjoying Hiei’s company and entertaining himself by learning how to push his buttons while he waited for him to sort his feelings out.
Yusuke was the first to notice, and Kurama wasn’t surprised; the detective was more perceptive than most would give him credit for, but surely Koenma would have known that before giving him the position. At least, one would hope.
“You two have known each other for a while, right?” Yusuke asked, somewhere in the depths of Maze Castle; progress was slow after leaving Byakko, both due to Kuwabara’s injuries and the labyrinth of rooms and stairs and passageways, some teeming with low-level enemies meant more to hamper them than do any real damage. Hiei had taken point, advancing at the front of the group and mowing down whatever was in their way with impunity. Kurama had yet to tire of watching him.
“Yes, a couple of years now, I suppose.” Kurama twirled the rose between his fingers, not really needing it with Hiei not far ahead of them, summarily dealing with a pair of six-armed ogres, Kuwabara picking off some of the small fry lurking at the edges of the dim corridor. “Why do you ask?”
“He talks about you like you’re a celebrity.”
“Well, you could say that I am. Or was.”
“I just didn’t expect him to ever have anything nice to say about anyone, I guess. Heh.” Yusuke grinned enough to show his teeth and thumped Kurama once on the back, hard enough that he stumbled forward. “I’m learning a lot about both of you on this trip. I feel enlightened.”
“By befriending demons?”
“Sure, why not.”
Yusuke was a remarkable person, Kurama thought, and intended to tell him so, but was cut off by Hiei’s voice echoing across the hall. “Kurama!”
Hiei was standing in front of what remained of one of the ogres; the second was bearing down on him from behind, but Hiei didn’t seem to consider it enough of a threat to pay attention. His expression on anyone else’s face might have been described as a pout. “You weren’t looking.”
“Ahh, sorry, I missed it. Could you do it again?”
“I can’t very well dismember something that’s already been dismembered!”
“I’m sorry, Hiei. I’m sure your opponent suffered quite painfully. There is an entire other ogre behind you, though.”
“I know! Watch this time!”
Kurama stopped in place and folded his arms, dutifully watching Hiei flit across the room at top speed and effortlessly decapitate the second ogre. Kuwabara made a strained noise somewhere to the side and Yusuke cursed in some combination of fear and admiration. Hiei lit on the floor a few paces from where the body crashed to the ground and turned to find Kurama, make sure he had all of Kurama’s attention.
“Were you watching?”
“Yes, I especially liked how you made the blood spray up like a fountain. Very elegant.”
Hiei grunted around a pleased smirk and turned on his heel, hopping feather-light over the ogre corpses to continue down the hall. At Kurama’s elbow, Yusuke coughed.
“Learning a lot about demons,” he reiterated, and Kurama laughed.
Don’t insult my intelligence with such baldfaced lies. You could have had me at any time had you only admitted to wanting. You still could. But you will never stoop to such things and that is your own failing, not mine.
And then there was a moment—only the most recent of many—when Kurama was certain that he was about to die.
He was in his old form, which was unexpected but not unpleasant, since his current self remained conscious of his thoughts and actions. His body still felt smaller, but all of his senses were acute, sound and smell and a greatly enhanced visual spectrum, almost overwhelming. He could see the radiant auras around his teammates, the almost blinding gold of their opponent, the way Hiei’s youki crackled red and black like lightning, the way Kuwabara’s was pure and white, shot through with threads of green and gold.
Yusuke wasn’t there, and Kurama both expected and didn’t expect how his heart had shattered, both expected and didn’t expect how Hiei willingly threw himself into a fight he couldn’t win. None of them could win, they all knew it, and, collapsed in the dirt on top of some nameless plateau in the Makai, the smell of home surrounding him, Hiei sitting just within arm’s reach, Kurama accepted the inevitability of death yet again. He felt grateful, watching Hiei give Sensui one last defiant smirk, that at least this time he wasn’t alone.
In the seconds before the final blast hit them, Hiei reached out and grabbed his hand, fingers tangling tight with his.
Of course, they hadn’t died that day. They hadn’t died, but Hiei certainly smelled like death when he woke up from hibernation on Kurama’s futon two days later, like he was saturated in sweat and blood and ash, and Kurama immediately chased him into the bath and seriously considered burning his clothes. Probably would have, if he didn’t think they were the only ones Hiei owned.
So the clothes and the sheets went into the washer and the futon went over the porch railing to air out and when Hiei emerged from the bathroom in Kurama’s old middle school gym clothes there was a bowl of leftover curry waiting for him. And Kurama, with a roll of gauze to wrap his arm in.
Hiei asked after Yusuke and Kuwabara while he ate, and a recount of all that happened after he passed out. Kurama informed him with no lack of amusement that he’d been carried out of the cave on Kuwabara’s back, chuckling when Hiei masked his affection with a scoff and a muttered, “At least that idiot’s good for something.”
He was sitting on the counter, so once the bowl was empty Kurama approached him where he was, pulling a strip from the roll.
“I can do it myself.”
“Let me.” Kurama’s voice was low and gentle and he didn’t expect the tremor in it; apparently Hiei didn’t, either, eyes widening a fraction. A few quiet seconds passed and Hiei’s shoulders relaxed, and he held up his right hand.
Kurama started with his fingers, testing to be sure the gauze didn’t pull too tight or cut off circulation anywhere, steadily moving up. Whenever Kurama accidentally touched the Dragon shocks of energy bit at his skin, drawing a hiss from his teeth and an admonishment from Hiei to be more careful. From him, it was an apology.
By the time Kurama had worked his way up to the elbow Hiei’s head was resting on his shoulder, free arm looped around his back, hair prickly and damp against his cheek. They were closer than was really necessary, almost too close for Kurama to keep winding the gauze up over his bicep until the Dragon was completely hidden, breathing in the smell of Hiei’s skin and his own soap, Hiei’s knees pressing on either side of his waist. Kurama tied off the gauze and leaned both elbows on the counter, boxing Hiei in completely and pressing his nose into the curve of Hiei’s shoulder, exhaling all of the tension of the last few weeks.
Maybe he was getting too old; maybe he’d been human too long to maintain the patience he’d once had. Maybe the encounter with Sensui and his subordinates had stretched his humanity or lack thereof too far, challenged his identity too much, cut his heart too deeply. Maybe he’d finally looked death in the eye one too many times.
Maybe he just really loved the small, obstinate, temperamental fire demon in his arms and didn’t want to play at catching him anymore. Perhaps, for the first time ever, Kurama was tired of games.
Hiei’s skin was warm under his lips, and warmer under his palms when Kurama slid his hands under the soft borrowed t-shirt and over the small of Hiei’s back. He moved up along the line of Hiei’s neck, feeling his body waking under his hands and mouth, feeling Hiei’s fingers curl in his hair, tug at his shoulders. Kurama’s breath came fast, suddenly urgent, pressing kisses along Hiei’s jaw and then finally, finally meeting his lips, tongue brushing between, pressing close and damp for one brief, sweet moment before a hand shoved at his chest and broke them apart.
“Don’t presume,” Hiei growled, or tried to—the hitch in his breath gave the warning less bite. His eyes were wide, though, flickering with something Kurama generously chose to identify as uncertainty rather than fear.
“I didn’t think I was presuming anything,” Kurama whispered back, reassuring with a low purr and fingers brushing gently through Hiei’s hair. He tried to lean in again but that hand stopped him, threatening to close around his neck, and he frowned. Hiei’s youki was telling another story—twining around him, tugging him closer, hungry and wanting, but the rest of him was coiled tense, ready to fight or flee. Completely at odds with himself. Kurama retreated enough to allow some space for comfort, hands resting neutral on the counter. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I know that,” Hiei snapped, reflexive anger to hide the more fragile feelings underneath.
“Then you don’t want me?”
“I didn’t say that either!”
“So what is it?” Kurama’s voice was tight but he drew his expression as neutral as possible, hoping for an honest answer. He lifted one hand, slowly, pausing so Hiei could stop him or object but he didn’t, let Kurama rest his palm against the curve of his jaw. “What do you want?”
Hiei opened and closed his mouth, a progression of conflicting emotions crossing his face, eyes darting away and cautiously meeting Kurama’s again. Finally, though, his stare dropped to somewhere neutral and off to the side, and he mumbled, rather pitifully, “Nothing.”
Kurama lowered his arms, stepped back, and then walked away, back straight and head high.
He spread the laundry out on the drying racks on the porch and otherwise spent the remainder of the day in his room, catching up on the homework that had fallen by the wayside when saving the world from certain destruction was a more immediate problem. Hiei moved to the porch at some point as well, perched in an angle of sunlight and hugging his knees, possibly asleep again, but Kurama didn’t speak to him further. Eventually he noticed that both the drying clothes and Hiei were gone, the borrowed gym clothes folded and left behind on the futon, and he wasn’t surprised.
It was midnight before he even realized dusk had fallen, and by then the unpleasant knot in the pit of his stomach wouldn’t allow him to ignore it anymore, and he crawled into bed only to spend two more sleepless hours feeling miserable.
Kurama had never been short on admirers. He wasn’t used to being rejected.
Your continued silence suggests that I may have struck a nerve! I won’t apologize. I do however invite you to explore those feelings in greater depth and perhaps learn something from them. Should you ever encounter an epiphany, I would dearly love to hear about it from your own lips. Be well.
I’m done with your games. Don’t contact me again.
The first thing Kurama was aware of was a deep resonating pain that permeated every inch of his body.
He didn’t remember going to the infirmary; he’d probably passed out sometime after insisting on watching Hiei’s match regardless of how much blood was leaking out of his body all over the observation deck, and Yusuke or Touya or someone else less bullheaded than him had probably dragged him back here to make sure he didn’t die of bullheadedness. But Kurama had to watch—he figured he owed it to Hiei to watch him fight Mukuro, the King he’d sworn allegiance to, the person who had apparently been able to give Hiei whatever “nothing” he thought he wanted where Kurama could not. He figured that was the most closure he was going to get.
The second thing he was aware of was a shadow looming over him, and the third a sharp jostle of the cot he was laying on that elevated the resonating pain from throbbing to screaming.
“Are you alive?”
Kurama cracked his eyes open, just enough to make out the stinging fluorescent glow backlighting a vaguely familiar figure, that matched the vaguely familiar female voice. “Unless you’re trying to kill me,” he said, voice rough in his throat, and he coughed, “and it feels like you might be, in which case the answer is no.”
“Good.” The figure turned to the side enough that he could make out a rather large burden on her back, which she promptly dumped on top of him. “Here.”
It was heavy and Kurama let out a yell and a curse that would have made Yusuke proud, gritting his teeth through the pain of multitudes of internal injuries aggravated at once and wondering if anyone in the infirmary had actually bothered to heal him or just sealed up the holes he was leaking from and left him to do the rest on his own.
So it took a few minutes before he realized that what Mukuro dropped on top of him smelled like blood and ash and was, in fact, Hiei.
“He’s on mandatory vacation for the next two months. I don’t want to see his face again until that time is up, or I might just kill him myself.” Apparently satisfied, Mukuro turned and walked away, leaving Kurama to squeeze his eyes shut against the light she’d been blocking. “He’s your problem until then.”
Kurama yanked his pillow loose and buried his head in it until it stopped throbbing and he could stand to move, then started trying to arrange himself and Hiei into the least painful position available. The process took a few hours of shifting and rearranging and pausing to grit his teeth through waves of agony, wondering if he had a seed for something stashed in his hair that might knock him out for a few hours… or days.
The cot was too tiny for the end result to be anything other than the two of them tangled up in each other’s limbs, but at least with his head tucked under Hiei’s chin most of the piercing overhead light was blocked, and that was enough relief to allow him to sleep normally for a few hours. When he woke up the pain had receded to a throb and he was able to open his eyes, and he spent an embarrassing amount of time toying with the jewel hanging from Hiei’s neck. A fine treasure, a sparkling clear blue that seemed to glow with its own light. His former self would have greatly coveted such a prize. Admittedly his current self did too, just a bit—but not as much as the demon it belonged to.
Kurama didn’t remember falling asleep again, but the next time he woke there were fingers brushing through his bangs, gently unsticking them from the sweat on his forehead. He hummed involuntarily and Hiei stilled.
“Don’t stop,” he mumbled into Hiei’s chest. His fingers were still curled around the jewel.
“Tell me how I got here, first.” Hiei’s voice was unreadable, and Kurama couldn’t see his face to surmise what he might think about this. Waking up entangled with the person he’d summarily rejected, twice now. Kurama’s imagination vividly supposed displeasure was most likely.
“Mukuro tried to finish me off by dropping your unconscious body on top of me.”
“Sounds like her.”
“She seemed to think she was doing me a favor.”
“Definitely sounds like her.” Hiei made a sound that usually accompanied one of his smirks, and it ruffled the hair on top of Kurama’s head. His fingers resumed their task of rearranging Kurama’s bangs. “What did she say?”
“That you’re my problem for the next two months, and if she sees you before the end of that time she’ll kill you.”
Hiei laughed—not a grunt or a snort but an actual laugh that ruffled Kurama’s hair and vibrated against his cheek. “Fine. I can go back to sleep then.”
“Hiei,” Kurama said, and then found he didn’t know how to continue. The fact that Hiei hadn’t left the moment he woke, that he wasn’t pulling away from him now and didn’t seem to have any desire to—that he seemed pleased, even, with this development—just didn’t make sense. Kurama was sure he had missed something. That something had transpired over the last several months that he couldn’t fathom, that he’d only seen the iceberg tip of during Hiei’s fight with Mukuro.
“Shut up and listen,” Hiei said, arms settling around Kurama’s shoulders, voice filtering down over his forehead in warm puffs of air. “Because I’ll only say this once. I didn’t mean it.” Lips brushed against Kurama’s forehead, pressed against his skin for a long second. “I’ll never be tired of your games, fox.”
Kurama exhaled, feeling the ache of age in his bones. “What if I’m tired of them?”
“All of them?” Hiei sputtered in disbelief.
“No, not all.” Kurama dragged his finger over the surface of the hiruiseki and let it drop back into place on Hiei’s chest. “Just a few. This one, in particular.”
“Does that mean I win?”
Kurama sighed, as though he were very put upon to admit it. “I suppose.”
“It’s an honor.” Hiei’s voice was laced with fatigue but sincere, and in the few minutes of silence that followed Kurama felt the weight of his body settle into sleep.
From Hiei’s mouth, that probably meant I love you.