Hiei was fast. It was his most saleable asset, so if Kurama was going to stop him he would have to intervene at the very last moment, giving Hiei no option at all to change course. He bolted in front of Yusuke and let Hiei’s blade pierce through him. Hiei pulled up short, but too late.
“You really have gone insane!”
Kurama gripped the Shadow Sword’s blade, letting it slice through his skin. Then he swung his hand out in a sharp arc. Blood splattered into Hiei’s Jagan eye and he stumbled back, the sword pulling through Kurama’s stomach again and clanging to the warehouse floor. The wound burned, splitting his focus, but he held himself together long enough to explain Hiei’s weaknesses to Yusuke and ensure that the Spirit Detective would not be distracted by the danger Keiko was in. Then he stumbled toward Keiko and Botan and sank to the floor beside them.
“K-Kurama!” Botan stammered.
“I can stop the transformation. Let me do this or it will be too late.” He was clutching at his stomach, blood seeping but not spurting at least. Botan looked fretful and undecided but she’d drawn her hand back from the squinting eye on Keiko’s forehead, so Kurama reached a bloodied hand out in her stead and let his energy flow.
The eye reacted, but it was different from the crackling resistance Botan had received. The energy from the burgeoning eye met the energy pulsing from his palm and the clash kicked up a soft green glow in the space between. The lids eased shut but it remained prominent on the girl’s forehead, and Kurama knew it would open again the moment he pulled back. That was all right, though. Something about the energy he was channeling was easing the pain of his wounds. The burning had subsided and the bleeding had slowed. He could keep this up, he thought, at least for a little while.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long. Yusuke managed to knock Hiei out, grab the sword, and make it to Keiko’s side in a matter of minutes. Kurama immediately moved out of the way, but the moment he’d stopped combating the demon energy from Keiko’s eye, his own wounds flared. He dragged himself away from her and pressed his back to the nearest crate.
“Thanks for all your help, Kurama,” Yusuke was saying. The antidote was in his hand and Kurama could no longer feel Hiei’s energy churning in the girl. It was finally over. “How are you feeling?”
“Good, I guess,” he lied. “I avoided the organs at least.” Convenient, to still be able to draw just slightly on his shape-shifting abilities – enough to minimize the damage points when being stabbed. He hoped the pressing nausea, buzzing in his head, and heat in his stomach were somehow side effects of that. It wasn’t like human bodies were built for such things.
He considered that for a moment then almost laughed. What am I thinking? I know… I know what this is.
Yusuke was explaining his strategy and some part of Kurama’s mind still found the energy to be distraught at the brash excuse for tactics he had employed. This time he did laugh, disbelieving, his head light and his eyes unfocused.
“All the while we’d been thinking you were a brilliant strategist. Really, you’re just a lucky fool.”
“Hey, watch it, fox boy! And what’s that word mean, anyway?”
“A strategist is someone who uses his brain,” Kurama said, tipping his head back with a smile. He was definitely feeling the blood loss now. He’d have to convince them to leave him – to prioritize Keiko’s health and Hiei’s capture – without attempting to stand up.
Fortunately, Botan seemed on board with that plan.
“It’s time to wrap up your case, Yusuke,” she told him. “I need to get the artifacts and Hiei back to Spirit World.”
“And I better get Keiko back home before she wakes up, huh. Will you be okay, Kurama? That wound…”
“It’s of no consequence,” Kurama said. “I’ll be fine by morning.”
“Whoa, seriously? That’s pretty sweet.”
Kurama breathed out another laugh. “Yes, I suppose. Please go on ahead. I’ll make myself scarce before your authorities arrive.”
Yusuke still seemed hesitant but Botan did not. She’d gathered up the artifacts and summoned her oar, hovering low so Yusuke could drape Hiei over the back of it. “No time to waste, Yusuke,” she said. “I’ll take care of all this. You get Keiko home, all right?” She cast one last quick glance back at Kurama as Yusuke picked Keiko up, then ushered him from the warehouse on her oar. Kurama let out a sigh.
“I wonder if she could tell. She could sense it.” He clutched at his uniform and felt blood wring from the fabric, squeezing between his fingers. He could already hear sirens far out in the distance. “Can’t stay here. …Tch.”
Kurama turned against the crate, pressing his shoulder to it as he forced his legs under himself and gradually stood. It was a few steps to the warehouse door and he made them, staggering, and went out into the night. He closed his eyes. He couldn’t really see anymore anyway.
Where? Where can I go?
Ocean. Piers. Crates and warehouses and cranes. Cement. Dead trees, long dead, their smell lost under the salt breeze. Moonlight lost behind clouds. His body was aware of it all, and none of it was what he needed. He needed the trees around him, the grass beneath him. He needed the roots and leaves and seeds, stems and flowers and vines. He wanted the venomous, life-hungry plants of the Makai that bent to his authority and power. He wanted–
Kurama gasped and fell to his knees, arms wrapped tightly around himself. He wouldn’t make it anywhere like this. He’d just have to hide and hold it together until the police came and went. Crawling, he opened his eyes and followed blurry images around a corner so he could drag himself between two massive crates. His breathing had gone ragged and the burning in his stomach had spread up into his chest. His skin felt cold, sweat soaking into his clothes and running down his face.
Give in to it.
Kurama’s eyes flinched closed, the low voice vibrating in his mind.
“No,” Kurama moaned. “This isn’t what I wanted.”
Isn’t it? the voice asked, smug. You can’t say you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into when you jumped in front of that sword. Give in!
“No… I won’t… For Mother.”
Kurama let his consciousness fade.
Kurama came to again abruptly. It was the smell of leaves that brought him out of it – leaves and something else. Something painfully familiar, but from long, long ago. It made the burn in his body flare and thrash in his heart and limbs and head. He cried out, his back arching off the forest floor and his fingers digging into soft, damp dirt.
Kurama’s eyes shot open, a harsh gasp tearing at his throat. A thick canopy of leaves whispered above him and no light filtered through. It was still night, but he could see. He could see everything clearly. He squeezed his eyes shut again.
“No,” he insisted.
“Why are you fighting this?”
A hand settled onto Kurama’s shoulder and he started at how solid it felt. “You are not real,” he said.
“Yoko. You’re bleeding out. If you keep suppressing your demon energy you won’t heal. You’ll die.”
“Not… Yoko,” Kurama gasped. “I’m not.” I’m dying. Is that why he’s here? My human biology. The sword’s poison. My demon energy. It’s all clashing. I can’t keep up.
“Not yet. But you’re close.”
There was a light touch across his face – the faint drag of claws and fingertips – and his bangs shifted away from his fevered forehead.
“I don’t want it,” Kurama growled at the phantom. The hand moved away.
“…I know what you did, Yoko. Even if you allow the change now, it still won’t be permanent. This body can’t heal unless you let it work through the poison first. You need to allow that to happen. Once you’re healed, you’ll revert back. You are bound to your human biology now, like it or not.”
When Kurama let his eyes ease open, they were sharp and golden, focusing easily on the face hovering above his. “Kuronue…” he whispered, his voice rough with pain and anguish. He followed the movement when Kuronue reached out to touch Kurama’s hair, lifting a few locks and letting them slip through his fingers where Kurama could see. The red was streaked with silver. Kurama bit into his lip with dull, human teeth and his eyes melted back to green.
“Yoko,” Kuronue said, frowning over him. “Why are you doing this?”
The look on Kuronue’s face, the sound of his voice, the graze of his fingers against Kurama’s arm as he brought his hand to rest again at his side: it all worked to sharpen Kurama’s eyes just as quickly as they had faded, the color once more edging toward gold. Kuronue smiled.
“I see. It doesn’t matter why. That information is yours to keep for now. All that matters is the life you think is yours to throw away. I’ll steal it from you and do what I like with it.”
Kuronue’s tone had shifted, rich and strong with confidence and intent. Kurama’s pulse throbbed through his whole body at once and he felt another shift, his teeth and nails growing just a little sharper, his hair now silver streaked red rather than red streaked with silver. His hearing was becoming sharper and the ache in his skull suggested it wouldn’t be long before the bone and flesh of his ears shifted too. His spine was on fire and he could no longer move his body even if he’d wanted to.
Kuronue seemed to realize this. He settled from his watchful crouch to sit in the leaves at Kurama’s side, running his fingertips through the blood-soaked dirt.
“What you’re fighting now is instinct, Yoko. There’s no reason you shouldn’t give in to it.”
Kurama closed his eyes and let his head fall to the side, turning away from him as much as he could. His body was trembling now, the pain and blood loss overwhelming, but Kuronue was with him. Kuronue, however, had a goal. And if that goal was getting Kurama to give in to his instincts, Kuronue knew how to do that.
Kurama’s eyes opened again without his permission when he felt a firm weight shift onto his legs. Kuronue was sitting on him, leaning over him in the dark with his hands on Kurama’s shoulders. Immediately Kurama tensed, straining against the hold, and Kuronue encouraged it. He pressed harder, forcing Kurama against the leaves, and saw the last of the red waves in Kurama’s hair bleed out into smooth silver.
“That’s it,” Kuronue breathed over him. “Yoko…”
“No,” Kurama murmured, but his voice was rough and low and his fingers, digging into the soil, were tipped with hard white claws.
“Yoko,” Kuronue insisted, and Kurama arched under him again as another flicker of energy forced his ears to change. When it passed he was left limp and panting, too drained to move. Kuronue released his shoulders and pulled open Kurama’s uniform shirt. “Almost,” he whispered.
The wound in Kurama’s stomach was a smeared mess. Kuronue frowned at it, pressing his hand to the fresh blood still welling there. The ground beneath them was already soft with the sheer volume of it, and it still wasn’t stopping. “Give in,” Kuronue growled. His eyes flickered back to Kurama’s face. Please. Before you bleed to death–
“Never,” Kurama growled back.
“You’d rather die?” The demand came with a shiver of anger and betrayal that Kuronue willed himself to ignore. This was still Yoko, and Kuronue would still save him, even if he didn’t understand why Yoko was fighting this. And if it turned out that Yoko really had thrown away everything of his past – if he was so determined to renounce everything he’d been so he could play at being human – if Kuronue had to kill Yoko after this… Well, he would have plenty of time to decide how he felt about that while he trained to even be capable of such a thing.
In the time it took Kuronue to consider that, Kurama had gathered enough strength to reach up. His claws scraped the back of Kuronue’s neck.
“No,” he answered, and he dragged Kuronue down, crushing their mouths together as another flicker of energy took him over. The full change settled through him, deep into his bones and out again. His clothes changed, his tail twitched experimentally against the forest floor, and he broke away from Kuronue with the taste of blood on his tongue from where his fangs had torn the thin skin of Kuronue’s bottom lip. He lay on the ground, boneless and panting while Kuronue stared. Yoko’s eyes opened slowly then, meeting Kuronue’s with a sly expression.
“I’ll accept the change,” Yoko said. “But I’ll never give in.”
Kuronue blinked down at him for a moment, but then he smirked. The sight was deeply familiar, hot in Yoko’s chest and stomach but wholly different from the burn of the sword’s poison. Kuronue’s hand dragged down Yoko’s skin, pushing aside the folds of the white tunic and exposing the wound again to press gently against it. “Survive, Yoko,” he told him. “Heal and survive.”
Yoko was staring up at him but his vision was starting to blur. The full change, his human biology, the open wound and blood loss – all were still ravaging him, consuming his energy. He was just barely still aware when Kuronue leaned down one last time and touched a fleeting kiss to his lips. Yoko’s eyes fell closed.
When Kurama woke, it was hours later. There was hot afternoon sun piercing through a covering of leaves in a forest he recognized, not far from his home. He had no idea how he’d gotten there.
Kurama sat up slowly. He was a mess, his hair tangled and filthy with sticks and dead leaves caught in the strands. His uniform shirt was torn where the Shadow Sword had pierced it, and it was hanging open, blood smeared all down his torso and staining the leaves he was sitting in. But, though his blood was everywhere, the wound itself was closed. It ached still, certainly, but it was nothing unmanageable. More importantly, he was still alive, and he was himself.
“How… did I make it here?” He staggered to his feet, putting his hand out to steady himself against the nearest tree. Was it just an effect of the sword’s serum that I imagined… Kuronue here with me? He closed his eyes and thought he could still smell him. It was impossible of course. Kuronue was dead. And yet…
Kurama rested a hand over his heart, listening to the wind through the trees. “Kuronue…” he murmured. “Thank you.”
He knew these woods well. He would be able to make it back to his house and through the window of his bedroom without anyone seeing him. His mother would not be home so he could get cleaned up without worrying. All things considered, it could have been much worse.
All the way to the edge of the forest Kurama had the strangely comforting sense that someone was watching over him. He wondered vaguely if his body just hadn’t caught up with the blood loss yet, but he would hear in his dreams that night the soft murmur from the trees as he left the woods.