Yukina put her fork down and said, "I need a job."
Keiko paused with her cup halfway to her lips; then she glanced toward Shizuru, who sat in a slant of light, her cigarette dangled loosely away from the table. They were at their favorite coffee shop, squeezed into a booth near a window to rest their feet and take a break from the cold and intermittent but persistent flurries of snow. Yukina had been taking tiny bites out of a small, brightly colored fruit tart; Keiko was drinking orange-ginger tea; Shizuru was smoking, lazy eyes on the people passing by and the traffic of the street.
When Shizuru failed to stir, Keiko looked back at Yukina. "Why?"
"It's in the brochure Botan gave me about assimilating into human society." Yukina took it out of her sleeve and unfolded it for everyone to see.
She was wearing a heavy winter kimono, even though the cold was a friend to her. The cloth was an icy blue with snowflake details embroidered along the hem. She liked it, but it felt odd to hide from the snow. She had nearly worn her lightest outfit, so better to feel the icy wind. Though she had been living in the human world for nearly a year she still made mistakes, which worried her. When she had said as much to Botan, the ferry girl had taken it upon herself to try and help the best way she knew how.
(Outside of taking Yukina with her on her appointed rounds and asking the newly dead about their lives. That had been her first suggestion.)
Botan's Tips for Living in Human Society was written in the ferry girl's impeccable calligraphy and illustrated with crayon stick figures. The figure beneath "Work at a Human Business" was wearing a blue triangle skirt and holding up an uneven green rectangle with a wide, happy smile on its misshapen head. Keiko took the sheet from Yukina carefully, as if worried it might try to bite her, and looked it over.
"Why don't you just ask Kurama?" Kazuma asked, leaning in from the other table where the boys had been banished. Yuusuke was stuffing an éclair the size of his forearm down his throat.
Shizuru stabbed a finger in her brother's direction. "Boys don’t talk on Girls' Day Out."
"Ghoda tod o dat beefo you ingvit us," Yuusuke said.
“You’re here to carry things,” Shizuru said, though whether she had interpreted Yuusuke’s garbled sentence or was just making a fact known to the general public, Yukina wasn't sure.
"Swallow," Keiko said, handing him a napkin. "Then speak."
Yuusuke wiped his mouth vigorously, revealing a grin beneath a smear of chocolate. "That's what she said."
Keiko made a swatting gesture at him with the hand holding Botan's informational pamphlet. "See, this is why we revoked your word allowance."
"Oh…Well." Yukina rescued the paper from Keiko and held it close to her chest. "I was thinking, maybe, I'd just work at Shizuru's place."
Kazuma made a choking sound. "Uh, Yukina-san…"
"Not a good idea." Shizuru stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray and began to immediately dig in her pocket for a replacement. "Best call Kurama."
Yukina looked down at Botan's cheerful illustrations, then folded the paper carefully and put it back in her sleeve. "Okay."
Later, at the Kuwabara household, Kazuma dialed Kurama from the landline and waited as it rang. Then he snickered. Yukina shot him a curious look, but he shook his head. She heard Kurama pick up.
“Hey, Kurama, it’s me. Yuusuke get to your phone again? Your ringback tone is…yeah, anyway. I have Yukina here. She wants to ask you…oh yeah? Who told you? How did he know? Never mind, I don’t care. Here, talk to her.”
He handed the phone to her and gave her a thumbs-up for encouragement before wandering off toward the kitchen to give her some privacy.
Kurama was surprisingly open to the whole idea. "I think I have just the job for you. We'll have to flub some of the paperwork, but that's pretty standard around here."
"Do you employ a lot of demons?"
"As many as I can. Few companies can or will make the adjustments needed to hire people who have no traceable experience and no official citizenship."
Yukina twisted and untwisted the curly phone cord around her finger. "Do you think that's why Shizuru-san wouldn't hire me?"
There was only the slightest hesitation before Kurama said, "I'm sure it is." Which, of course, meant no. "This is a little sudden, but do you want to come in tomorrow for orientation? I don't have anything on the schedule until the afternoon, so we could do this in the morning."
"I think I would like that."
"See you tomorrow, then."
She hung up and tried not to worry. Though he had never been anything but kind to her, Kurama made her nervous, and not just because he was powerful enough to make her head hurt if she stood close to him for too long. Kurama had always seemed a little heart-cold, in ways that reminded her of a place she’d fled long ago.
At dinner, she asked, "What should I wear?"
Shizuru wasn't at the table because she was at work, but Kazuma and Kuwabara-dad stopped mid-sport's argument and looked at her. Nearly a year of living in the Kuwabara household and sometimes the males of the Kuwabara family still got tongue-tied when she spoke.
"Something nice but a little formal, I guess," Kazuma said after a moment. "Kurama's company is a pretty big deal so I guess they'd be kinda conservative."
After dinner, she went to her bedroom with a cup of tea that she put on her windowsill.
"Wish me luck," she said to the darkness outside.
An eyeblink later the cup was empty of tea, but something rattled it its confines as it wobbled on the sill. Upon investigation, she found a little wooden disc, flat and round like a coin, with the kanji for luck seared into one side and courage on the other. It still smelled like smoke and youki and was warm in her palm. She smiled and put it under her pillow to give her good dreams.
Sleeping was not a habit that came easily. Demons rarely needed rest unless they were wounded. Yukina lay on her back under blankets she didn’t need and stared at her ceiling, her hands folded on her stomach. The wind howled winter’s song. The moonlight stretched slowly across the darkness, dragging dark shadows across the walls.
Shizuru came home. Normally, Yukina would meet her at the door with a cup of tea and a simple offering of fruit and they would sit together at the kitchen table until the sun rose, talking of nothing. This time, Yukina pulled the blankets closer to her chin and held still. She told herself it was because she had work tomorrow and didn’t want to be late on her first day.
Shizuru’s keys were a familiar jangle that broke the silence of the house. Shizuru’s footsteps were a familiar tread as they trudged up the stairs. Shizuru’s scent was a familiar mix of cigarette smoke and apple blossom shampoo as she paused outside Yukina’s door, and then moved down the hall toward the bathroom.
Yukina breathed out, a completely unfamiliar feeling making her chest ache.
When she concentrated, she could key her senses down to human level, pulling away from the murmured conversation in the house two rows over, letting the words blur until they were indistinct, then disappeared all together. The cars outside became the hum of wheels on tarmac instead of the clash of pistons and radio feedback, the heartbeat of each passenger. Kazuma was paying video games in his bedroom. Shizuru moved in the bathroom with the soft rustle of clothes, a faint crackle of static. The swish of her hair against the skin of her shoulder blades almost drowned out as she turned on the shower.
The sound of rushing water pulled Yukina into sleep.
The tap tap tap of Botan at the window woke her just as the sun began to touch the sky with long, pale fingers. She hopped up to let the ferry girl in and they began the long process of dressing.
Two hours later, she was finished. Her formal kimono shimmered with blues and greens and tiny, detailed embroidery in patterns of leaves. Her pale green hair was done up in lacquered pins Shizuru had purchased for Yukina one Christmas and finished with a hair stick that had a fluttering fall of tiny paper snowflakes Keiko had crafted herself.
Botan cooed over her and then offered to give her a lift, since taking the subway would ruin all the careful folding and tying they'd done to get the kimono to lay just right. That seemed like a good idea, though Yukina couldn't expect Botan to do this every day, and so would eventually have to find her own transport, but for now she was glad for the support.
Botan dropped her off in the lobby of a shining skyscraper. They popped into existence behind a small, indoor forest--well tended, with touches of youki that tickled Yukina's fingertips--where the humans wouldn't notice them materialize out of thin air. Botan gave her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek to send her on her way.
Yukina walked across an expanse of well-polished marble, hearing the wooden clop of her shoes, so different than the clip clip of the more modern shoes all the other women were wearing. The tiny steps she took to accommodate her kimono made the space of the lobby seem even more vast.
The guard at the large round desk that guarded the row of elevators was a low-level demon, looking human enough except for the small fangs visible on his lower teeth and an overbite. He was having the slow trickle of people entering the building check in before another demon-guard scanned them with a hand-held metal detector, both of them working in a rhythm that said everything was by route.
But when she walked up, they stopped and stared at her, eyes going wide.
"Yukina," she said. "Here to see Kurama."
"Er, yeah," said the first one. Yukina waited to see if he'd check his clipboard for her name, but he didn't take his eyes off of her. "Go ahead. Top floor."
She hesitated, then walked past, feeling eyes on her the whole way. The elevators had golden doors, so polished that she could see her own reflection—a small and brightly colored girl, standing amidst a group of drably-dressed humans. Perhaps she should have asked Kazuma-kun to elaborate on "formal" attire for humans, but it was too late, now.
When the doors opened, she stepped into the elevator and only one other person was brave enough to follow her, though there were a group that stood and stared as the doors slowly shut.
The man next to her was tall, dark hair slicked back in a style that reminded her of Yuusuke-kun. He was wearing a short-sleeved white button down and a paisley tie.
He glanced at her a few times, then at his watch, then twitched the plastic badge clipped to his front pocket like it needed to be adjusted.
She folded her hands and held herself still. One of the things she liked best about clothing with this many layers was that it was difficult to be quiet, so it became a game to see how little sound she could make.
"First day?" he asked.
"Going to see the boss?"
There was a tiny symphony playing somewhere. Yukina didn't know enough about music to identify the composer, but she liked the song.
The doors opened with a ding. "Well, good luck," he said, and exited several levels before she was meant to get off.
The rest of the way she had no company but the quiet background of little violins and cellos. When the doors dinged open again, Yukina stepped out into a carpeted hallway.
The floor was a maze of offices, long tables circled by large windows like a huge fish bowl, expensive art highlighted by tasteful lighting, and almost no one appeared to be working on this floor. It took her several wrong turns before she found someone to ask for directions. Kurama's office was barred by heavy wooden doors that looked intimidating enough to give her pause. She didn't sense Kurama within, but perhaps he was shielding. Should she knock?
What few people were in the office seemed to be gathering behind her, near the water tank alcove. She knew they were there to stare at her because she could hear them making excuses to get a drink and then not going back to their desks.
She had resolved to kick the doors in just as Kurama arrived. She felt him before she saw him, and heard the scramble of people returning to work as she turned to see him sweep around a corner, a paper cup in one hand and a clear plastic cup in the other. He looked crisp and put-together in a charcoal woolen coat and green scarf. Yukina recognized it from the group Keiko had knitted on Yukina's first winter in the human world. He smiled at her and looked human.
He showed her past the doors with a, "Good morning; sorry I'm late."
Beyond the doors was a small, undecorated room with a desk to one side and several chairs lined up along the other. The two areas--one for work and one for waiting, she guessed--were divided by a length of carpet that led straight to another set of doors. The second set opened into Kurama's inner office.
Kurama's work space was expansive and almost completly hidden by stacks of papers. One entire wall was floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over Tokyo. Yukina took a few steps toward the sight, pulled by the beauty of the dawn. Kurama crossed her path, bringing the scent of frost, forest and coffee. He kicked at a pile of papers until it fell over and cleared a chair, then gestured for her to sit. She did. Her feet didn't touch the ground.
"How was your morning? Did the guards give you any trouble?"
She shook her head. "I think I'm wearing the wrong clothes."
He handed her one of his cups--the clear plastic one with a straw. "You look fabulous."
She took a sip and smiled when an icy combination of fruit flavors hit her tongue.
"Now," said Kurama. "Let's get to work."
It turned out what Kurama needed was a personal assistant. Someone to keep track of his schedule and to help organize the comers-and-goers that meandered in and out of his office, and to begin transcribing all of his step-father's paperwork into the computer system. When Kurama'd taken control of the company it'd been very close to bankruptcy. Now it was an international, multi-billion yen business, but he hadn't had time to transfer Hatanaka's bookkeeping into a more updated format.
Her first day was filled with paperwork. Kurama handed her a binder filled to bursting, declaring it the Employee Handbook and stated that she had to read it.
"The whole thing?" She felt her eyes go wide.
"This is the extended guide I made up for demons in my company. It covers some additional basics like--don't challenge your co-workers to physical combat to settle your differences, don't give the humans demon alcohol, don't drink the coffee…"
"The coffee? Is it dangerous?"
"It's just not very good. That's why I get mine from the shop across the street."
"Wouldn't it make sense to just buy your own machine?"
"And have more reason for people to walk in and interrupt my work? No, thank you."
Yukina opened to the first page, feeling a little overwhelmed already.
"Don't look like that. I'll start sorting these papers while you read. We can listen to music--do you have a preference?"
"I liked what was playing in the elevator."
"You like…elevator music?"
She looked at him. "Is that bad?"
"No, it's just…I don't have that music so…how about some Christmas songs?"
"Christmas songs are good."
So she sat with the Employee Handbook on her lap and Kurama walked through his office, picking up stacks of papers and sorting though them, assigning them to one in a line of boxes that had been shoved up against the longest wall.
It turned out the Handbook also had specific rules about the various members of Team Urameshi.
Do not call Yuusuke "Sir," not even if he asks you to. We do not encourage him around here.
Do not sacrifice Kuwabara just because he is the human one.
Do not give Hiei candy and offer to find his "mommy or daddy." Just don't.
She smiled. "Does Hiei come around often?"
"When he has an assignment for me. That'll be the other part of the job--you'll have to cover for me when I'm gone on Reikai business."
"Cover for you?"
"Make excuses for my sporadic absences. I'll try to come up with some in advance, but Koenma has the worst timing. You'd think that was one of his powers as a god."
Yukina let her eyes drift around the office--at the bare, wood-paneled walls, at the mountains of paperwork that Kurama was working his way through at a quick-steady pace. She remembered thinking that he'd looked human when she'd first seen him walking down the hall, and realized that was just because he looked like a lot of people she watched scurry past her outside the window of her favorite coffee shop--harried, strung-out. Tired.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
He paused, a file folder in either hand. "What?"
"Life as a human."
He gave her a wane smile. "It has its moments."
"But not this one?"
"Well, you're here."
She gave him a steady look. He sighed.
"But, no, this is not a particularly red letter day."
She didn't know the idiom, but she understood the basic meaning. "Then why are you here?"
He answered a lot faster than she expected. "For my family, first of all. And also…" Then came the hesitation she'd anticipated. "And also, because being a demon felt like a thousand years of destroying things, ruining everything I touched--with style, panache; I reveled in it. But this is the only time it's felt like I am building something."
She thought about the cold wasteland of her birth and the fury that had wanted to bring the world to its knees when she'd found out how terrible her people could be. She thought about the soft touch Genkai had taught her to use, about knitting bones for the first time; about Kazuma's bright, warm smile, like he thought she was the most perfect thing he had ever seen.
"I understand," she said.
Kurama walked her out as the sun dipped below the Tokyo skyline. Shizuru was smoking just outside the building, below a streetlight, wearing a brown leather jacket and wrapped in her own Keiko-made scarf.
"Shizuru-san!" Yukina hurried over to her as quickly as her kimono skirt would allow, then stopping before she got too close, knowing her proximity would only make Shizuru colder. "You'll freeze!"
"It's not that bad," Shizuru said, and pointed up. "He's been keeping me warm."
Yukina followed her gesture to see Hiei standing on top of the lamp post. "Hiei-san!"
Kurama stepped up beside her. "Hiei, please come down from there."
"What are you two doing here?"
"I don't know about Hiei, but I'm waiting for you. Botan seemed to think you'd need an escort." Shizuru looked her over as Hiei dropped to the ground. "And I think I know why."
Yukina looked down. "It's a little too much, I know."
"No, it's…" Shizuru cleared her throat. "It looks good. You look good."
"I didn't get her killed," Kurama was saying to Hiei. "You can stop worrying."
"We weren't worried," Botan said, popping into existence. "Just, you know. Being supportive." Then she hugged Yukina, murmuring in her ear. "He wasn't mean to you, was he?"
"You know I can hear you," Kurama said.
"No, he was quite ni--"
"No of course not!" Botan declared loudly to the world with a big smile in Kurama's direction that said she never believed otherwise. "Because our Kurama is reformed and on the path of goodness and righteousness, now!"
Kurama's expression was flat and unbelieving. "Is anyone else going to show up?"
"No, just me. And, well." Botan pointed down the street. "Them."
Keiko, Yuusuke and Kazuma-kun quickly tried to look very nonchalant, window shopping at buildings that were clearly not stores. When Keiko noticed everyone looking at them, she gave a sheepish wave.
After that, it became a bit of a tradition for someone to be waiting for Yukina when she got off of work. Most days it was Shizuru or Botan, but sometimes it was Keiko or Kazuma-kun. Sometimes, rarely, it was Hiei.
So her days fell into a routine, which she found both comforting and monotonous. The workers at her office lived for routines. She wasn't sure if the humans moreso than the demons. Kurama's workforce was almost half demonic. The non-human half seemed to think she was his concubine or sacrificial tribute, by turns viewing her with pity or contempt. The humans seemed to believe she was Kurama's long lost fiancé, or very eccentric pop star-girlfriend and by turns viewed her with awe or contempt.
"Do you want me to talk to them?" Kurama asked.
"No," she said. "This is part of it, isn't it? Living in the human world."
Gossip was a form of battle for humans. She had not sat in a ki-warded room for untold years wishing death on her captors without learning a little about passive-aggressive combat.
As it turned out, the offices of the worst offenders had a tendency to be at least ten degrees colder than the rest of the building. The demons began to recognize the pattern. The humans just grew frustrated with the building's maintenance crew.
By the first week, she had mastered filing, though not without argument.
"But why can't we file by species?"
"Because we're trying to be discreet about our demon clientele. If we file Warazushi-san under ogre, subspecies red that's going to make things rather obvious."
That week was the first time she stayed late to work with Kurama. It was completely dark outside when she poked her head in to see if he needed anything.
"You can go home," he said.
"I'm going to keep working." His fingers were rapid and nimble on his keyboard. She wanted to learn how to do that, but hadn't figured out how to ask.
"The office was rather empty, today."
"It's Christmas Eve. Everyone went home early to be with their families."
"Shouldn't you do that?"
"My family's on a cruise." It sounded like something someone should be upset about missing, but Kurama grinned. "Parents are on their second honeymoon. Shuichi-kun got dragged along--much to his dismay. He says he doesn't want to sit around watching them be sappy. I paid for it."
"They deserve it."
She took a step inside. "I'll stay, too."
He looked surprised. "You don't have to."
"I have no family. None that will acknowledge me, anyway."
He gave her a sharp look, and she wondered if he would ask, but he didn't and she continued.
"If you want, you can show me how to type like you do. Then we'll be even."
He grinned. "Deal."
By the second week, she had mastered the phones, though not without aggravation.
"But what if I don't want to hold for an important message?"
That was the week a fellow demon spoke to her directly for the first time.
"Is it true?" A little lizard-demon asked as she stood outside Kurama's inner office, waiting for her meeting. She had difficultly hiding the spines behind her ears, but she'd mastered disguising her tail. She was wearing a gray suit and responsible pumps, her hair tied back.
Yukina stopped typing. Learning qwerty fingering had been much easier once she'd decided to tie her sleeves back. "True?"
"That Ice Maidens don't have hearts? That they have a chunk of glacier where their emotions should be?"
The lizard-demon was summoned into the office before Yukina could think of a reply. By the end of the day, she still didn't have an answer.
That week was also the first time she saw Hiei inside the office. A snap of displaced air and he was waiting near the second double doors one afternoon with a sour, impatient look. "It's warded against me."
"Kurama-san has a lot of security around the building."
"It's warded against me," he said, glaring at her like she'd had something to do with it personally, but she'd never been intimidated by Hiei, not even at his most foul.
"Well, there are quite a lot of flammable things in his office."
"I am not incapable of control!"
His ire set her pencils on fire.
"HIEI!" Kurama's voice was a whipcrack, audible through the heavy doors of his office.
Yukina canceled the flames out with a wave of her hand. "It's okay, Kurama-san."
"You're a godsend, Yukina-san." Kurama had stuck his head out to give her a sweet smile, and then turn a dark look on Hiei. "Get in here and don't touch anything."
Hiei said nothing, but stepped into the office with wary precision, not even allowing his coat flaps to brush against the doors. Yukina smiled to herself and readied an excuse for Kurama to be absent.
By the third week, she had mastered. Well. She could use a computer without killing it or herself.
"Are you willing the computer to work with the power of your mind?"
"I have hit control-alt-delete and am giving it thirty more seconds to comply. If it doesn't, I'm going to turn it into an ice sculpture and leave it outside to gather bird droppings."
It turned out that whatever had happened to her computer required technical support. Technical support turned out to be someone who was actually familiar--the man with slick-backed hair and paisley ties. He often rode the elevator with her, though he never got off at the same floor.
"Hey there," he said. He was friendly, but had trouble maintaining eye contact, and he kept glancing toward Kurama’s office like he was afraid of what might come bursting through the doors at any minute.
"Something wrong with your computer?"
"It stopped working."
"Let's see what I can do."
He moved closer and she scooted out of the way. He smelled like antiseptic cream and ozone.
"Are you wounded?" she asked.
He started. "Beg pardon?"
"You smell…" She paused, suddenly aware of how odd that might sound to a non-demon.
"I...smell?" A pinched look around his eyes tightened his expression.
"No, that's not--! I just…I can maybe help you if…."
"Uh, thanks but that's…I'm fine."
"Okay," she said, and folded her hands in her lap.
He began pulling wires, wiggling the mouse, tapping the keyboard, and she decided that she should try again.
"I'm Yukina," she said.
He glanced at her, and then offered a smile, a little strained, but she was heartened by the attempt. "Tanabi Daichi."
"Tanabi-san, thank you for all your hard work."
"Yeah, you too."
He seemed much more interested in his job than talking, and she had run out of polite things to say, so the rest of the time he was working on her computer was spent in silence.
Some days, she wasn't sure she would ever be able to completely breach the distance between herself and other people.
"Do you really need to?" Shizuru asked as she walked Yukina home that night. "A lot of people are not worth knowing."
"I think, maybe, more are than you might believe."
"Being alone can be good. It clears the head. Keeps you focused."
"It can make you removed from the day-to-day, so much that it gets difficult to function," Yukina countered. "It can make you cruel." She thought of the Ice Maidens' isolated island. How had she ever believed Kurama to be similar? He had love for many people. The Ice Maidens had cared for no one.
"Maybe," Shizuru said. "Along those lines, here." She handed Yukina a scrap of paper.
"What's this?" she asked as she unfolded it.
"Directions to my new place. And a train ticket. It's only a few stops down from Dad's but…You know, in case you want to come visit."
Yukina held the scraps of paper, such small things to represent something huge, in her hands carefully. "When do you move out?"
"Almost done already. Should finish up today, if you want to help."
So they went back to the Kuwabaras, which was mostly empty now that Kazuma had returned to college and Shizuru's things were in boxes, and Yukina helped pack things like it didn't matter. Like Shizuru could leave and the hole her absence created would have no impact on Yukina's life.
That night, she lay in bed not-sleeping and listening to the song of winter turn colder.
At work, some days were good days.
"Well," said Tsumi-san as he stood up, rolling his shoulder a bit. His human form needed a little work. He was just a touch too large to be anything but youkai, though he hid his horns well. "I look forward to doing business with you."
He shook Kurama's hand, engulfing it with thick fingers.
"Thank you, Tsumi-san," Kurama murmured.
"And to you, Miss," Tsumi-san continued, turning toward Yukina. "It's good to see one of your kind involved in the world. Thanks for the healing." He touched his shoulder. "Hasn't felt this good in centuries."
Some days were bad days.
"I understand that your mother was unmarried when she had you? Raised you on her own?" Hatsuma-san sipped tea precisely, looking down his thin nose, the tilt of his head lending a shine to the lenses of his glasses. His contempt was aimed at Kurama. "I'm not sure I want to do business with the offspring of such a loose woman. Who knows how many men she took to her bed?"
Yukina rarely saw anger, true anger, on Kurama's face. She memorized his expression now, to be sure not to invoke it herself, ever.
"But Hatsuma-san," she said, trying to reason the man down from his pedestal before Kurama did it forcibly by removing his knee caps, "surely you can't be that opposed to the idea, since your own wife is currently sleeping with more men than just you."
It was only after Hatsuma-san's wife had gone white and Hatsuma-san had gone red and the shouting started that it occurred to Yukina that humans might be blind to these things. The business at hand never got resolved, but Kurama's hard little smile said he didn't really care.
Some days half the office was destroyed in a demon attack.
Yukina felt all the air go out of the room a second before one whole side of the office exploded, every window shattering simultaneously.
Distantly, she heard, "YUKINA!"
And then she was falling.
But she didn't have far to fall before someone caught her, someone whose ki synched with hers, a matching rhythm and she was being set on her feet, ruby red eyes the same as hers looking her over for damage.
"I'm fine," she said. "Hello, Hiei."
A fireball lit the sky behind him, further away than she expected, and when she looked around she realized that she was a good half-mile from the office on the roof of another building.
"Kurama!" she gasped, running to the edge and looking out over the city. She saw the place she'd spent the better part of four months begin to vanish under a black fog. She couldn't tell what type of attack it was, but even so, she could feel the acidic burn of poisonous magic in the air. There was no sign of Kurama.
Hiei glanced back toward the battle. "He'll be all right."
"You don't know that!"
He shrugged. His defensive stance meant he was still guarding her.
"He can hold them until help gets here."
Yes, of course that's true, she thought. Kurama was a fighter, one of Koenma's trusted soldiers. It made sense that Hiei would leave Kurama in danger to protect her. Kurama would understand.
"Is it true that Ice Maidens don't have hearts?"
"Go help him," she said, fighting against reason, fighting against sense. Ice Maidens were known for being pragmatic, as cold and deliberating as an ice age, and just as terrible. "I'll be okay!"
"That they have a chunk of glacier where their emotions should be?"
"Hiei-san." She looked at him. Their matching eyes met. Sometimes we need to care for things outside of each other. She didn't know why this was important, but in that moment it simply was. Hiei didn't make a habit of reading her thoughts. Yukina knew this because every time his mind touched hers, she could see just as clearly into his. It was probably why he had stopped trying.
He didn't read her mind, but he went.
The battle was brutal. At this distance, with a cloak of darkness smoldering up the building and in the streets between them, Yukina couldn't see much of it, but she felt it. Insight came to her in brief moments of lightning-quick pain crackling down her nerves whenever Hiei's mental shield was breeched. Hiei's control was usually iron-clad. There was power so thick in the air that it was getting difficult to breathe.
It's Golden Week, she reminded herself. No one is here, besides us. No one will be hurt.
But she still longed to be on the ground or at least closer to the battle, where her healing powers might be of some use. She winced as Hiei's Black Dragon sliced another section of building away from the structure. Then half the block erupted in a forest of towering, hungry Makai trees.
After the dust had settled, Kurama picked his way through the charred ruins of his office, turning over an intact chair and a bit of table. She stood beside him, kimono getting dirtied by the soot.
"Is there anything left?"
"How did they get past all the wards?"
"Might have been an inside job. We'll deal with it later."
"Thank goodness no one else was here."
He poured her a drink, having found the crystal decanter of whiskey and glasses that he'd always had for show untouched in the wreckage. At least she had assumed they were for show, since she'd never seen him use them up until this moment.
"I don't drink," she said.
"You do today."
She looked at the golden alcohol in its sparkling glass. "How do I…?"
"Just knock it back." He demonstrated.
She followed suite and almost coughed it back up again. Kurama poured her another glass with a grim smile.
"Second one goes down easier."
"Is this really appropriate?"
"Yukina, let me explain the grand human tradition of getting completely wasted. Normally, it's not looked kindly upon in polite society, but there are two exceptions: on a really good day, or a really bad one."
He did not have to say which one today had been.
She gulped what he gave her and found that he was right--it did get easier.
Later, much later, she lay curled on her side on the ash-covered floor of what used to be Kurama's office, staring at all the pretty lights of the city and wondering why no one ever noticed when entire buildings went up in demonfire. The wind was a storm-song, damp with the promise of rain. She heard soft steps and felt a flutter of cloth. A pitch black cloak that smelled of charcoal and woodsmoke settled on top of her. A familiar hand lifted the glass out of her grip.
She blinked, and that blink must have lasted longer than she intended because the next thing she saw was Hiei standing beside Kurama, who'd passed out over what was left of his desk. As she watched, Hiei reached out and tucked a stray piece of red hair--turned almost gray by the soot--behind Kurama's ear.
She sat up, or tried to. She managed to lift herself up on one elbow, which she decided was close enough. Hiei looked over at her, and his expression was bleak.
"Don't worry, niisan," she said, words tumbling and slightly slurred. "I think we both have hearts."
"I know I have a heart," he said, and she could feel his words like a touch of heat in her head. "Because you're in it." He took a step forward. "And sometimes I worry that there isn't room for anyone else."
"Hearts are an infinite space," she said, thinking fuzzily of a game Kazuma-kun used to play that he'd once tried to explain to her. She didn't know why she would think of it now, except Kazuma-kun reminded her of affection freely given. He made it look so easy. "Like a Bag of Holding. They look small, but inside is enough room for as much as you want."
"But I'm also right. And you don't get to talk to me of hearts. You won't even let me call you 'brother' to your face."
"You just did."
"When I'm not drunk."
Then he was beside her, kneeling on the blackened floor. Flecks of charred paper spun toward him, as if even the ghost of fire answered his call. "Though I have never said it out loud, I have always done my best to treat you like the family you are."
It sounded formal. It felt sentimental. It rang like a goodbye.
Yukina hitched a little higher on her elbow, aiming for upright, trying to see the fire demon's face clearly. "Hiei?"
Then she blinked and he was gone.
They moved the office into a different building and routine reinstated itself. She filed; she fielded questions about Kurama's absence. She scheduled appointments. She re-scheduled appointments when it was clear Kurama would not be back for a while.
Keiko gave her a stress ball. Shizuru gave her chamomile tea. Kurama gave her a cell phone.
"Inter-dimensional. Good in any place, at any time. All of our numbers are pre-programmed.
On a day she was feeling particularly bold--and lonely--she hit Hiei's call button.
"Hello," said the automated answering service, "you have reached: 'Kurama, this is stupid. I'm not going to tell this thing my na--'. If you would like to leave a message, please wait for the beep."
She didn't leave a message, but it did cheer her up.
Occasionally, she got stuck in the elevator with Awkward Guy.
"How's it going?" he asked.
"Yes." She was a little embarrassed to realize that she'd forgotten his name.
"That's good." Flutes twittered in the quiet. "Nice weather."
"Crazy about that localized earthquake."
Which had been Koenma's cover story for the destruction of the old building. Gods were predictable; they blamed everything on earthquakes.
"Yes, it was."
"Well, this is my stop."
He got off at a different floor each time. The IT department must have access to all areas. Kurama had given her a tour, once. There were places that only special keycards or special ki would open.
Spring gave way to an oppressively hot summer. The floor where Yukina worked was always pleasantly cool, except for the select few whose air conditioners seemed to be on permanent bust. It was possible they were also the people who had nasty things to say about Yukina or Kurama, but no one mentioned it if they noticed at all. Everything was normal, but for their oft missing commander-in-chief.
"Demon hunters," Kurama said when Yukina finally asked. "We've been tracking them. They've been stalking us. I don't want to lead them back here, so I've been steering clear, if I can. Forward everything that might be important to my phone. I'll try to take care of it on the road."
He looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. Stubble shadowed his cheeks and exhaustion his eyes.
When Keiko and Shizuru showed up to walk her home that night, they ended up in their favorite coffee shop, instead. Yukina learned that both Yuusuke-san and Kazuma-kun were also gone for long stretches. Shizuru smoked more aggressively than usual. Keiko only drank half her tea. Yukina poked at her fruit tart, stomach twisted in knots of worry for all of them. Outside, the leaves were beginning to turn brilliant shades of red and orange.
When her cell phone rang, all three of them jumped. Someone had changed her ringtone to a crescendo of elevator music. Keiko gave a little nervous laugh. Yukina picked up the phone.
"Yukina." It was Kurama. "Come to Genkai's temple. Hurry."
Yukina clicked the phone shut and jumped to her feet, not caring about who might be looking. "Botan!"
The ferry girl got them to Genkai's in record time, even for a dimension-hopping spirit being. Kurama looked bloodied and charred, standing on the white gravel path that led into the temple. Kazuma and Yuusuke were slumped on the stairs behind him.
"Hiei?" Yukina said, her voice climbing into panic. Why hadn't she sensed anything? Hiei usually shielded so tightly against her that reading him was impossible, but she had always been sure she would've felt something major happen.
Kurama said nothing, just turned and lead the way.
Hiei was scribed with wards which were cut directly into his skin, sealing his powers. No, Yukina realized, draining them. He was pale, barely breathing, laid out on a sleeping palate, his complexion nearly as white as the cotton. Yukina dropped to her knees and put her hands over Hiei's chest, as if she could hold his life in him by will alone. Kurama knelt at Hiei's head and gave her a look that said, please.
"How did this happen?" she asked, the rising song of her own power almost blotting out the answer.
"Went after a Hunters' nest all by himself." That was Yuusuke, somewhere behind her. "But someone's got to be feeding them information. They were ready for him. He nearly killed them all, anyway, but…"
Then there was no more time for talking. Botan and Genkai knelt across from her, their own power blending with hers. She looked at Hiei, at the clumsy-cruel slashes in his skin, at the bruises of exhaustion under his eyes. Physically, he looked surprisingly whole, but his ki was a broken mess, bleeding out before her eyes.
Here is your heart, she thought. Then she reached out and grabbed Kurama's wrist. He looked startled for a moment, before turning his fingers to grasp hers. And here is your heart, also. You will not leave. You will return to us.
She felt the seals give as she threw power against them. She was not human. She had been trained to heal, but what she excelled at, what came to her as easily as breathing, was destruction. That was the demon way. With a growl that she felt through her whole body, she shredded the wards that bound her brother.
Then she passed out.
When she came to, it was dark but for a candle someone had left burning near her head. She was curled on her side, sleeve caught awkwardly underneath her. It smelled like cigarette smoke, though Shizuru and Kazuma would know better than to leave any evidence of their habit in Genkai's temple.
There was a demon in the corner, with eyes very similar to her own.
She sat up carefully, but found there were no aches or pains. Aside from being a little tired, she was none the worse for wear.
"How do you feel?" she asked the shadow with red eyes.
She nodded, and then, because he still seemed to be hovering anxiously--or, as close to it as Hiei ever got, she said, "I'm alive, too."
He nodded. They stared at each other for a while. The candle sputtered and flared.
"I'm glad," Hiei said, finally, and for all that it was monotone, she still heard the sincerity.
She smiled. "So am I, niisan."
For a moment, just an instant so small that a human might have missed it, Hiei's eyes flickered with a sort of panic. Then he made a small, shrugging gesture like he did when settling his cloak around him and the fear in his eyes faded to nothing.
And that was that.
The next day she felt drained but triumphant. It was a combination that served to give her a light buzz, not unlike being slightly drunk. Nothing could dim it, not even when Awkward Guy got on the elevator with her.
"Hello," she said, struggling, once again, to remember his name.
"How's the boss?"
"He's been taking a lot of time off."
"He's been away on business." There was probably no need to defend Kurama, but she wanted to, anyway.
"Mm. You planning anything for Christmas? Got family around this time of year?"
He probably did not understand the huge smile she flashed in his direction. He looked a little stunned to be on the receiving end. "Yes."
"Good luck with that, then," he said, turning back toward the doors as the elevator slowed, which seemed an odd goodbye.
Then she took a deeper breath and the gears to the elevator ground to a stop. The doors had only opened an inch. The lights flickered.
"What about you?" she asked. "Any holiday plans? What about Golden Week? Did you do anything this year?"
He turned toward her.
"I stayed here. It was exciting," she continued. "And I'm sure you had fun, too."
He took a step back, but there really wasn't anywhere to go.
"You probably already know that I'm a demon," she said. "What you may not know is that I am also a healer. One of the advantages of that power is that I can sense when a person is wounded. I can also figure out what kind of wound it is, if I concentrate."
He breathed out, sharply. His breath frosted. Ice climbed the walls of the elevator around them.
"I'd know a demon fire wound anywhere, even if you cover it up with long sleeves. You're human, so no one suspected you. Have you used some charm to make yourself less noticeable? Is that why I can't remember your name?"
"I won't tell you anything."
Yukina thought of Hiei and his ability to pull thoughts from a person's head. "I don't think I actually need to you do any talking."
He moved like he was going to body slam her, but his shoes were frozen to the ground. He wobbled, went down on one knee.
"Kurama is a very dangerous person," she said. "So it would make sense that you would want to avoid him." She could feel herself smiling, and it wasn't a terribly pleasant expression. "But as it turns out, I'm dangerous, too."
Shizuru ended her shift at the Pretty Kitty Klub counting money and headed out to the bar to help put up stools and mop the floor. The first thing she saw was Yukina, chatting happily with the bar tender, bedecked in pink boas and someone's very red lipstick.
"Hi, Shizuru-san!" She waved and flashed gaudy rings with huge, fake jewels. "Your co-workers are nice."
Taku-kun gave Shizuru wide, innocent eyes and made scarce. Shizuru leaned casually near Yukina and lit a cigarette, eyeing the drink near the ice maiden's elbow.
"Is there any alcohol in that?"
"Maybe." She nudged it closer. "Try it!"
Shizuru took a sip, made a face at the too-sweet cola and then slid it back.
"I like your job," Yukina said.
"It's a strip club."
Shizuru thought about this for a moment, then shrugged. It had seemed like such a big deal, right up until she'd seen Yukina wearing fake nails and happily kicking her feet against a bar stool as Taku-kun tried very hard to look like he was doing something work-related near enough to eavesdrop.
Ferry girls were the worst secret-keepers ever.
"I miss you," Yukina said.
Smoke curled sinuous on Shizuru's tongue. It was almost certain that Yukina was drunk. At least slightly tipsy. "Do you?"
"Of course! I mean, I've done all this for you."
Shizuru blinked, exhaled smoke. "You have?"
"Yes! I tried to be more human, but I don't think I am very good at it."
Yukina was most definitely drunk. Shizuru would have to have words with Taku-kun. She ignored the small curl of warmth that was trying to spread through her at the thought of Yukina doing something just for her, and the small curl of worry that tried to wrap itself around her stomach and squeeze at the thought of Yukina making herself unhappy just to please Shizuru.
"You didn't have to be more human for me."
"I know. I figured that part out. All on my own, I might add. You were no help at all."
Shizuru lifted her cigarette to her lips to cover a smile. "Sorry."
"And I think maybe you're right. Maybe I don't need to like everyone. Maybe I can just like a few people more." She gave Shizuru the most unsubtle significant look ever. "A lot more. More than anyone else."
Shizuru felt her body shift, leaning in toward that look, close enough that the lazy draft of cool air that always surrounded Yukina raised goose bumps on Shizuru's arms. "What about Kazuma?"
"Kazuma-kun?" Yukina parroted like she'd never heard the name before.
"I know who he is. Why does it matter?"
"He likes you."
She shook her head. "He likes you and me equally--the same. Well, maybe me a little more, but that's because you hit him all the time."
Shizuru blinked. "You're sure?"
"Very. We talked about it."
Kazuma had failed to mention that to her, but it would explain those amused, knowing grins he kept flashing her way every time she caught herself staring too long or too hard at their resident Ice Maiden. Truth be told, it was almost half the reason she'd decided she needed her own place. That and it was just sad to still be living at home at her age.
Kazuma was going to regret his lapse in judgment. But that was for another time. At the moment, Yukina was still talking.
"I've had a good day," Yukina said, earnestly. "So you owe me a drink."
Shizuru signaled Taku-kun. "Can you hold your liquor?"
"Kurama taught me!"
That reminded her. "Don't you have work tomorrow?"
"I quit!" Yukina beamed.
"Yes. I've realized that a corporate job just isn't for me. I did it because I thought I needed it in order to understand people but…I think it's more important that I understand myself. I've applied to the coffee shop. I think that might suite me better. Plus, then I can get employee discounts! And don't worry about Kurama. Hiei's helping him."
Shizuru blinked. "I give them a month before they burn the place down."
"Oh, no. I helped set up the flame retardant wards. If he so much as thinks about fire he'll be an ice cube."
Shizuru winced; then she looked down at the bottle by her hand, then at Hiei's lovely, beloved sister. Yukina was staring at her glass expectantly, as if magical liqueur would just appear if she thought about it hard enough.
"Is Hiei going to kill me for this?"
Yukina shook her head. "I'm secretly very scary."
Shizuru pulled a stool closer with her foot and finally took a seat with a slight smile. "I'll drink to that."