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The Best Defense

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Ch. 1- Letters

Tokyo in late June usually suffered from heavy rain, as did the rest of Japan, but today it seemed that the unbearable weather of later summer was making an early appearance. The sun blazed high in a blue-white sky, and had long since replaced puddles of last night's rain with glassy heat-mirages. The still air stuck to skin like cobwebs, every breath as thick as syrup.

Hiei dozed on a tree branch, wearing his customary heavy cloak and white scarf, nearly oblivious to the weather. He yawned, letting his mind wander. Yet another sultry, sleepy Ningenkai day. It almost made him want to immolate something. Or spook the hell out of Kuwabara; he hadn't done that for a while. He smirked imperceptibly. He'd go in another few minutes.

A soft hooting distracted him, and he frowned. He cracked open one wine-red eye warily, watching as an owl landed on his branch with a nearly-silent wing flutter, and turned its head to look at him. He moved his foot sharply, since that was the part of him closest to the bird, but it merely hooted again and hopped a bit closer.

Hiei opened his other eye and sat up a bit, a few spiky black wisps of hair falling forward over his headband. Since when did wild birds not take flight when a person got too close? Come to think of it, since when did owls fly during the day? And perhaps most importantly... since when did owls
carry human mail?

His eyes narrowed as the owl hopped even closer on one foot, extending the other with its packet. Visible in neat hiragana was an address:

Mr. H. Jaganshi
3rd Branch Up, The Tallest Oak Tree
Yukimi Park
Tokyo, Japan

Hiei took the letter suspiciously, ignoring the owl as it flew away.  What was the damn fox up to now? This had to be his doing. The only people who knew his second name... which was more of a title than an actual family name... were Kurama and Koenma, and this didn't quite fit the demigod Koenma's twisted sense of humor. With a roll of his eyes, he opened the envelope, pulled out the letter, and (under a Western-style crest and letterhead) read:

Dear Mr. Jaganshi,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted in the
newly-developed international program at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and
Wizardry, Hogsmeade, England. Please find enclosed a list of all neccessary
books and equipment.

Term begins on Sept. 1. We await your owl no later than July 15.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress

The signature was written in a flowing script, repeated with printed roman lettering, and he spent several minutes deciphering the name. Upon discovering it not only wasn't one he was familiar with, but was a human's double name rather than a demon's singular one, Hiei crumpled the parchment in his fist. He raised his power a bit and burnt it, annoyed. Someone-- not Kurama, unless he'd somehow mixed up his demon plants and gotten stoned-- was playing a joke on him, and it was NOT funny. Weird as all hell, yes, but definitely not funny.

He flitted off, intent on making his day pleasant again.

-0-0-0

Somewhat later, a tall youth, wearing a blue school uniform that was far too warm for the weather, walked through the same park. He had orange hair, cut short and combed up into a pompadour, and a rough-hewn face with prominent bones, which was currently scrunched up in a pained expression.

Kuwabara Kazuma was getting one hell of a migraine. For the past two hours, he'd felt random flashes of a strong, unidentifiable power less than 50 feet away from him, but every time he looked there was nothing there. He'd yelled-- well, okay, screamed like a stereotypical girl-- each time for the first hour and a half or so, and gotten a lot of weird looks from passersby for it, but he'd long since developed a tension headache. Yelling now made his brain hurt as badly as a kanji test did. The continuing random psychic flashes didn't help much either.

Damn that shrimp! Hiei was the only one he knew who was powerful enough to generate those flashes, fast enough to get away before Kuwabara could spot him, and stubborn enough to keep it up this long without flat-out killing him. Not that Hiei would kill him, that would upset Yukina...

Yukina! She could help him with this headache, and he'd get to visit her in the process! Suddenly Kuwabara's day was looking up.


-0-0-0

Kuwabara got off the bus, pinching the bridge of his nose in a futile attempt to lessen the throbbing of his head, and sat on the bench at the stop, depressed. He'd forgotten to bring a gift for Yukina. He couldn't even berate himself about it properly since loud noise made his head hurt worse. He deserved it, though, forgetting to bring the sweet, beautiful ice demoness a present! He sunk his face in his hands.

A soft hoot interrupted his brooding. He turned his head a fraction to the left, just enough to see a large owl had settled on the corner of the bench's backrest. Its talons pinned a letter to the painted wood. Kuwabara raised an eyebrow at the address visible on the front of the envelope, and gingerly took the letter from the bird.

Mr. K. Kuwabara
The Bus Stop
Genkai's Temple
Tokyo, Japan

He was puzzled at that... how had they known he'd be here right now? He opened the letter and read it.

"School of WHAT?!"

-0-0-0

In an alley somewhere between the temple and the park, another teen boy in an equally too-warm school uniform, this one green, knocked a man's head against a brick wall. He disdainfully let the unconscious man go, not bothering to watch as he slumped in a heap on the ground, and looked around the alley. Several more men lay where they'd fallen.

Urameshi Yuusuke ran a hand over his black hair, making sure his slicked-back style was still in place. He'd gone easy on this gang, even though it was rather insulting to be targeted as an easy mark.

"Aw, shit!" he muttered. "I'm late!" Keiko was going to throw a fit, he thought as he hurried towards the street.

Suddenly he was blinded by something flapping in his face. He backpedaled with a startled yelp, lost his balance, and fell hard onto his tailbone. "Itai..." he hissed, looking up to see what had attacked him.

A snowy owl stood on the pavement before him, one taloned foot splayed over a letter. As he stared incredulously, the owl hooted and pushed the letter towards him, in a manner he could only think of as deliberate. He picked the letter up, looking at the green-inked hiragana with a mix of
annoyance and confusion.

Mr. Y. Urameshi
The North End
The Alley With the Beat-Up Street Gang
Tokyo, Japan

"Mou, what's this?" he grumbled as he ripped open his mail. "Birds delivering letters now. The twerp should've just sent Botan..." This was obviously Koenma's doing, Yuusuke thought as he unfolded the letter and began reading it. "Hasn't he ever heard of cell... phones...?" The letter wasn't from Koenma. "What the hell?"

-0-0-0

A girl, wearing a powder-blue high school uniform, cheerfully climbed the stairs to the second-story side entrance of her home. She tucked her medium-length, brown hair behind her ear, then fished in her school satchel for her housekey. Wide brown eyes narrowed a bit as she pushed notebooks
aside, only to crinkle in her usual smile as she discovered the errant keys hiding in the bottom corner.

"I'm home!" Yukimura Keiko called, toeing her shoes off in the foyer. There was no answer, and she had not really been expecting one. Her parents would be working in their ramen shop downstairs at this time of day.

She headed to her room and set the satchel on her desk. As she opened her closet to get a change of clothes, she heard a sharp rapping on her window. Keiko glanced at it curiously, seeing nothing. It was probably Yuusuke, since he was supposed to be arriving any minute. But he hadn't come
to her window since they were children, and why on earth would he move away after tapping on the glass? She undid the latch, figuring he might have been trying to be polite (unlikely as that was) if she was changing, and opened the window.

Something large flew through the open window, inches below the top sash, causing her to duck and cover her head instinctively. A low hoot, the hollow 'thwap' of stiff paper hitting a hard surface, and Keiko peeked up through her fingers just in time to see the bird swoop back out. As the seconds ticked away and nothing came back in, Keiko uncurled from her crouch. She shut the window firmly, paused, and turned to slowly approach her desk. She thought the bird had dropped something on it.

An envelope, made of cream-colored parchment, lay flat atop her satchel.

-0-0-0

A knock on the door pulled Keiko's attention away from the strange letter. She'd read it over several times, barely able to believe what it said. She absently picked up the parchment as she went to answer the door, reading it over yet again as she walked down the hall.

Yuusuke grinned cheekily at her. "Yo."

Something clicked in Keiko's mind, and she brandished the parchment in Yuusuke's face. "If this is your idea of a joke..." she began.

"Oh, you got one too?" He pulled his letter from his pocket and unfolded it. Keiko took it, comparing the two as Yuusuke continued. "This owl just flew in my face out of nowhere and delivered the thing..."

"This is too elaborate to be a hoax, isn't it?" Keiko remarked.

Yuusuke paused. "Dunno. I've pissed off some pretty weird people..."

"All the more reason to ask Genkai about it."

"What?" Yuusuke yelped, turning as Keiko swept past him and headed down the stairs. He groaned in resignation as he realized what Keiko was thinking, and followed her, muttering about pushy know-it-all girls and priestesses.

-0-0-0

Throughout the bus ride, Keiko was unresponsive to Yuusuke's attempts to talk with her, and he eventually subsided into grumbling. Keiko barely noticed, and he shortly fell silent as well. This continued until they were nearly to the top of the hillside stairs leading to the temple grounds.

"Now the fun part." Yuusuke said sarcastically. "Trying to find the old hag." Keiko spun, throwing her fist out to knock Yuusuke face-first into the smooth flagstones of the courtyard. He pushed himself up, spitting dirt.

"Hey, what was THAT for?!"

"Must you always call her that?!"

"Yes!" he shot back automatically. Keiko made an exasperated sound and stalked off, leaving Yuusuke to scramble after her as she made her way to the traditionally-styled living quarters.

"Hello?" Keiko called. "Master Genkai? Yukina?"

"Oi!" Yuusuke shouted.

A screen rolled open a short way along the covered porch, and a delicate, sweet-faced girl in pale blue kimono stepped out. Her hair was a soft shade of ice blue, caught low at the nape of her neck, and her eyes were a deep wine red that matched her crystal hair ornaments. "Keiko? Yuusuke?" Yukina greeted them curiously.

Kuwabara left the room in the girl's wake, towering over her with a goofy grin on his face. "Urameshi! Keiko! What're you guys doing here?"

-0-0-0

Shortly after, the four teens were sitting on floor pillows inside, four matching letters lying on the table they were clustered around. Cups of green tea cooled next to the letters, ignored as they listened to Yukina's soft voice.

"And then Kazuma arrived with his letter, and the owl flew away." Yukina finished.

Yuusuke spoke up first. "What's with the owls?" he demanded. "Why would anyone try to send a letter by owl? Seems pretty stupid to me."

"Well, Yuusuke, it obviously works, since we all got these letters by owl." Keiko told him. "Besides, mail delivery isn't what's bothering me."

Kuwabara nodded in agreement, frowning seriously. "Yeah. How the..." He paused with a glance at Yukina. "Er, how on earth did they get the right addresses?"

Keiko put a hand to her forehead. "No, not that either." She tapped the letters. "Who sent them?"

"This "Minabaa" person, of course." Kuwabara answered, mangling the English syllables.

"First off, Western names are reversed." Keiko informed him. "They put the family name last. And second off, we don't know who or what McGonagall is, if that's their real name..."

"I thought you'd decided these letters weren't a hoax." Yuusuke reminded her.

"They aren't!" Keiko sputtered. "But... but... they could be a trap... though there are really much easier ways to make you walk into a trap..."

"Ha!" Yuusuke crowed. "All that school's fried your brain, Keiko!  You're arguing against yourself!"

Yukina picked up one of the letters. "Um... what do we do if they're genuine?" she asked softly, coincidentally stopping the brewing argument. The other three stared at her blankly.

The screen rolled open, and a tiny old woman with faded pink hair entered the room. Her gaze slid across the four who'd turned to look at her, then fell upon the parchment in Yukina's hands.

"I see you've recieved your letters." Genkai said flatly. They blinked in surprise. "I was told they'd arrive in July. No matter. Botan will be here at six."




Ch. 2- Negotiations

At five til six, the alarm wards surrounding Genkai's temple flickered in warning. Thus, by the time the slim teenaged redhead climbing the stairs reached the top, Genkai was in the courtyard to greet him. The boy bowed to the tiny woman.

"Good evening, Master Genkai."

"Your manners never cease to amuse me, fox," Genkai said, taking a drag on her cigarette. Kurama straightened, absently pushing a wayward lock of his long hair out of his face, as Genkai blew the smoke away and led him across the courtyard. "The others are inside." Pausing before the porch, she glanced over her shoulder, past Kurama and into a nearby tree. "You may as well come along now," she told the shadowy branches. "This will concern you."

Kurama held back a chuckle as Hiei leapt silently from his not-so-hidden perch, seeming to materialize from thin air next to the redhead. Hiei flicked a lukewarm glare at them, which they took in stride as they entered the room.

They were greeted by a clamor of voices as Yuusuke and Kuwabara descended on them with greetings and, for Genkai, questions about the letters. From her expression it was clear they'd already asked several times. Kurama and Hiei sidestepped the commotion and approached Yukina. They exchanged greetings, Hiei as always more respectful and kind than he was towards anyone
else.

"Did you recieve letters as well?" Yukina asked.

"Yes," Kurama answered, taking his from his pocket. Hiei grunted noncommitally. "When I telephoned earlier, Genkai said..."

"Botan is here," Genkai interrupted, raising her voice to carry over the din. A tall, beaming girl with a bright blue ponytail and pink kimono floated next to her, sitting sidesaddle on an otherwise ordinary-looking wooden oar. "Come."

-0-0-0

The group stood calmly in the dim blue space between worlds. Thin lasers of a paler blue streaked past them, skittering off the surface of an otherwise invisible bubble surrounding them, and creating the illusion that they were traveling forwards at an incredibly high rate of speed. At the
head of the group, Yuusuke and Kuwabara added to the illusion of speed as they ran full tilt towards an incandescent point of white straight ahead. Despite the number of times they'd been to Reikai, the two had yet to realize that running had no effect on how fast the trip took; that would require spacetime to exist outside the capsule Botan's oar generated for her passengers. No one had tried telling them yet, for various reasons. Kurama found it amusing, Genkai was allowing them to learn to be observant without reminders, Yukina didn't want to embarrass Kuwabara, Hiei didn't care, Botan was occupied with her flying and had never noticed, and Keiko had never been to Reikai before and was staring at the light-streaked tunnel in fascination.

Within minutes, the white spark ahead of them seemed to explode, as it abruptly swelled to engulf their bubble. Their vision flashed white, then they burst through swirling green clouds into the lavender skies of Reikai. Hundreds of meters ahead and slightly below, a river of sickly white something ran through a pale yellow wasteland. It held steady for a moment, then Botan grinned and swooped towards the river, sending the view careening crazily from side to side.

Kurama let out an undignified squawk as arms wrapped around his neck. A quick glance from the corner of his eye identified a pale Keiko as the culprit, and revealed Yukina clutching at Hiei's arm with her eyes screwed shut. He tugged at Keiko's arms, managing to adjust the tight grip just enough that he could breathe.

"Dammit, Botan, would you fly straight?" Yuusuke bellowed. Beside him, Kuwabara was on his knees, moaning piteously.

"Can't a girl have any fun?" But the bubble obediently steadied. Kurama managed to pry Keiko loose as they slipped into a gorge and leveled out five meters above the river.

"Sorry about that." she murmured.

"It's all right," Kurama told her Well, it wasn't all right, but it was forgiveable. Hiei looked like he couldn't decide whether to hit Keiko for half-choking Kurama or smirk at the still-queasy Kuwabara. He settled on the latter.

The bubble settled to the ground before the towering pagoda of the Gates of Judgement and popped. Kuwabara still looked distinctly green, staggering upright only to double over. Yukina released Hiei's arm to hover worriedly near Kuwabara as Botan sent her oar to otherspace and opened the massive doors. Yuusuke paused in the doorway behind Keiko and glanced back, between Kurama and Hiei. The latter followed his gaze.

"Kuwabara, come on!" Yuusuke called.

"We're going to leave you behind," Kurama added teasingly.

"I need a minute," Kuwabara grumbled.

"Sure ya do, now c'mon," Yuusuke said.

Kuwabara shook his head piteously. "You go on ahead, I'll be right
there."

"You don't know the way to Koenma's office," Kurama reminded him. "You'll get lost."

"Just a sec..."

"Ridiculous," Hiei muttered under his breath, just loud enough for Kurama to hear. He glared at the recovering teen and raised his voice to carry. "He's flown enough that a routine flight shouldn't be such a problem. Leave him."

"What?! Teme!" Kuwabara shrieked in outrage, bolting upright. But Hiei was already walking down the dim hallway. He pushed past Yuusuke and Kurama and grabbed Hiei by the scarf, matching the little demon glare-for-glare.

Yuusuke clapped a hand on each of their shoulders, pushing himself between them. "Oi, oi, not now," he said, grinning as he propelled them down the corridor. Hiei glowered and jerked himself out from under Yuusuke's arm.

Kurama followed, falling into step next to Yukina. She glanced up at him, smiling softly at the three boys ahead. "Kazuma's stomachache is gone."

"Aa."

"Hiei's very clever to have distracted him like that."

Kurama coughed. "Er... yeah. He is."

They finally arrived in Koenma's office to find the demigod waiting for them in his energy-conserving toddler form. Before Yuusuke could do more than slap one of the letters on the desk before Koenma, though, he'd taken a remote from one of his desk drawers and turned on the monitor. An image of a teenage boy, a Westerner in black robes of an unfamiliar style,
appeared.

"This is Cedric Diggory, a British wizard of seventeen," Koenma began without preamble. "He was murdered about three days ago, by another human who goes by the name of Voldemort. So normally, this wouldn't be Reikai's concern, except for a few facts." He glanced at his slightly puzzled audience. "One: Cedric's death was unscheduled, but I can't put him back like I did for Yuusuke here last year. The spell used sealed his body from holding a soul, permanently. Two: he wasn't the ultimate target. And three," Here, Koenma made a face. "Kurama, you should be familiar with this. Three: Voldemort was scheduled to die fourteen years ago, though he didn't sneak his soul into a human to be reborn the way you did."

"Get to the point," Yuusuke interrupted. "What's this have to do with owls and weird letters?"

"You've been accepted at Cedric's school."

"We've what?!"

"We've been asked to help. Officially, Reikai can't do anything. Voldemort is not only untraceable-- we've had agents looking for him since he was supposed to die, and we just plain can't find him-- but he's also reportedly regained a fully functional body. We don't have the authority to kill people; we just pick them up after they die. Unofficially, well... we have no authority over Genkai's actions. She has accepted a teaching position at the school Cedric went to." Koenma leaned forward in his chair. "As of now, all seven of you are her students."

"No," Kurama said quietly. Hiei turned on his heel and simply walked out.

"Hiei! Wait a minute!" Koenma hopped over his desk, ignoring Kurama's answer for the moment, and chased Hiei, catching him by the sleeve just outside his office doors. "Yukina's going!" Koenma hissed. Hiei froze and glared chillingly down at Koenma, who hastily added, "It's either she goes with Genkai to Hogwarts, or she returns to Makai. I can *not* afford to let her stay in Ningenkai without Genkai's protection, not after what happened last time. I don't want her to be recaptured any more than you do!"

Hiei slowly turned back. "Fine." He stalked back into the room with Koenma on his heels.

Koenma flinched away from the look in Hiei's eyes, which promised a quick and rather messy death if Koenma ever lost his divinity, and turned to Kurama. "Cedric was learning human magic, at a Western school for wizards.  How many chances do demons of any sort get to even see Western magic?  They're one of the most secretive cultures in Ningenkai; they've been hiding from persecution for centuries. Over a millenia of cultural and magical advancement--!" he moaned dramatically.

"Enough," Kurama murmured, visibly amused at Koenma's appeal to his curiosity. "I will go."

"Great! Now that that's settled..."

"Hey, I never said I would go!" Yuusuke interrupted.

Keiko spoke over Yuusuke's protest. "But why must we go to this boy's school? I mean... he's dead...."

"I said he wasn't the ultimate target," Koenma answered. "Voldemort was supposed to die fourteen years ago using the killing curse on a baby. The child survived." He nodded towards the monitor. "I'd show you a picture, but we can't track him any more than we can track Voldemort, haven't been able to since the curse backfired. But anyway, the boy's fifteen now, and he's
the target."

"So you want us to protect some kid who beat this guy when he was a baby?" Yuusuke asked. "Don't see why he even needs it."

"He doesn't. And you aren't. Hogwarts is full of children who are either innocent bystanders or closet supporters and spies for Voldemort. Your job is to protect students in the first category, and hinder students in the second. Non-lethally, that is." He smiled wickedly. "Of course, if you
do get the opportunity to kill Voldemort..."

"We'll kick his ass," Yuusuke promised, curling his hand into a fist.



Ch. 3- Atypical

It should have been a relatively subdued group of Tantei that returned to Genkai's temple. However, given the temperaments and energy levels of Yuusuke and Kuwabara, to say they were a bit keyed up would have been an understatement.

"We're going to kick some serious ass over there! Those wizards won't even know what hit them!"

"I, Kuwabara Kazuma, intend to be the greatest wizard to ever come from Japan!"

"I wonder if we'll be able to use that magic stuff to beat up on demons?"

Others of the party were considerably less enthused.

"I just started a prestigious high school!" Keiko moaned. "I'm never going to be able to get into a good college with a diploma from a school of magic!"

"But won't it be interesting to learn Western magic?" Yukina tried to distract the taller girl. "Imagine, human magic! In England!"

It was lost on Keiko. "Oh no!" she gasped, thinking of something else. "What am I going to tell my parents?"

"The truth." Genkai said gruffly. "Just like all the other students from non-magical families must." She glanced around at the team as they touched down in the temple courtyard. "Go home. Tell your parents. Get some sleep. We have two months to work out the details."

"Yes, Genkai," Keiko and Yukina chorused.

"Yes, Genkai," Kurama echoed distractedly. As Keiko physically steered Yuusuke and Kuwabara from the courtyard and down the stairs, repeating Genkai's words about working out details later, Kurama absently bid Yukina good night and followed.

At the bottom of the hill, the others turned towards the bus stop. He waved in acknowledgement of their farewells as he went in the other direction, heading home. Turning a corner, he glanced up at a tree overhanging the sidewalk, his gaze becoming less abstracted. Hiei jumped lightly from a high branch to fall into silent step with the redhead. The occasional brush of a hand against another, the barely perceptible ruffle of breath, and the quiet slap of shoes on the pavement was all the company either required at the moment.

They reached Kurama's house as the setting sun's light faded to copper. Kurama gazed pensively up at the modest house, his hands in his pockets, but made no move to leave the sidewalk. Hiei shifted, barely nudging Kurama's arm with his own, and caught the redhead's instinctive glance. He tipped his head towards the house.

"You wouldn't go to such lengths for a typical human," he said gruffly.

Kurama paused, his eyes gentling. Hiei's opinion of humans, despite his recent stay in Ningenkai, was little better than the popular opinion of them held in Makai. The average demon was more heartless and less understanding than the average human, but in Hiei's opinion, not by much. Considering this view, to call Kurama's mother atypical was a reassurance and a compliment. The redhead offered a faint smile. "I wouldn't, would I."

Hiei grunted and looked away, pretending he hadn't just said something remotely kind. "Later," he snapped, flickering away.

Kurama sighed, and entered the house. Automatically toeing off his shoes in the foyer, he called out, "I'm home!"

"Welcome back, Shuiichi," his mother, Shiori, called back in reply. He followed the sound of her voice to the kitchen, finding her washing the last of the dinner dishes. "How is the priestess doing?"

"She's fine, Mom," Kurama answered, hovering in the doorway. He took his letter from his pocket, gazing down at it as he took a seat at the kitchen table. "Mom, I..."

She turned, catching the odd note in his voice. "Yes, Shuiichi?"

He stared at the letter in his hands, tracing the owl-worn edges. "I..." This was ridiculous. His hands were shaking. He was a centuries-old demon and a master thief; he shouldn't be reacting like this!

Shiori sat down next to him, putting a hand over his to still them. "I haven't seen parchment since your father died," she murmured. As Kurama gaped at her, she shifted her fingers to the letter and continued, "Is this what's wrong? May I?"

Kurama allowed her to take the envelope from his lax grip, sitting dumbly and trying to will himself to stop trembling as she read the single sheet of parchment inside. Human woman. She is a mere human woman! I'm grateful to her and that's it! I am not scared. I'm not.

"Oh, Shuiichi..." she breathed.

"I'm sorry!" he blurted out. It was her turn to be taken aback as he clenched his fists in his lap and bowed his head. "I'm so sorry... I hid it so long... I didn't--"

"It's all right." She ruffled his hair. "You've probably been trying to protect your old Muggle mother, not telling me. But Shuiichi, England? Aren't you being taught here in Japan?"

"I..." This wasn't how it was supposed to go. "I... yes..." What was the cover story? "My sensei's taken a teaching position in England. She wants us to go with her, to broaden our horizons. It would be a wonderful learning opportunity; Westerners are so secretive about this...!" He caught himself leaning forward almost pleadingly, and knew his eyes were shining. Inari, he was acting like a human teenager! But he was supposed to be one...

His mother straightened. "But Shuiichi, England is Voldemort's base of operations," she said, pained. "You can't go."

Damn, that was why they were going in the first place, to kill Voldemort again. "Volde... Mom, he's dead." She paled, and Kurama felt a familiar twinge of guilt. Well, Voldemort had been dead to the public until about three days ago. Close enough. "How do you know all this?"

"Your father was a wizard," she answered weakly, absently. "He's dead? He's really dead?" Kurama nodded, eyes flying wide as he abruptly found himself with an armful of crying Shiori.

"Thank the gods... oh thank the gods..." she sobbed into his shoulder.

"Mom?" He felt his face heat up, and knew it was probably burning a brilliant shade of red. He patted her back helplessly, feeling ridiculous. Nothing in his several hundred years' experience had quite prepared him for this sort of reaction. She'd never succumbed to tears in front of him when she was in the hospital. Why on earth was she doing so now? "Mom, please!"

"I'm sorry. It's... something of a shock." She collected herself, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief Kurama handed her. "Thank you. And a relief, of course. I've had no news of the wizarding world since your father died. When none of the priestesses contacted me before you were eleven, I assumed you had no magic..." Shiori took a deep, shuddering breath as she brought herself under control once more and stood. "Come with me."

Kurama, still adapting to the revelation that his father was a wizard, followed bemusedly as his mother led him upstairs and to the attic trapdoor. As he was a bit taller, he pulled it down at her direction, and they climbed the ladder. Shiori brought him to a rather battered trunk at the far end, kneeling before it. Kurama settled himself next to her and looked curiously from the trunk to Shiori.

"There's no lock."

"I know." She stretched her hand out and touched the smooth metal where a lock would be on a normal trunk. "Put your hand here and will the trunk to open. Then say 'Alohomora'."

His slim fingers covered hers on the metal plate. "Alohomora." he murmured. The lid faded away like mist before their eyes, revealing the trunk's contents. Lying on top was a flat wooden box, inlaid with an elegant abstract design in darker woods and polished to a glossy sheen.

Shiori lifted the box reverently. "Your father left this to you. He was so certain you would need it... but I suppose you have one already." She placed the box in Kurama's hands. "Still, it should be given to you personally." She sat back, glancing at the trunk. "Close," she directed, and the lid phased back into place. "The trunk can be closed by anyone, but opened only by a witch or wizard," she explained. "So it is yours, to do with as you see fit. I... it is late, and I have an early morning tomorrow."

Kurama stood, cradling the slim box with one arm. He guessed that she wanted to break down in private. "All right. Let's go to bed; it's been a long day." This time, he led as they returned to the second floor and closed the trapdoor. "Good night, Mom," he said softly.

"Good night, Shuiichi. Sleep well."

Kurama went to his room, placing the mysterious box on his desk and preparing for bed. There was no sign of Hiei, who slept here as often as not, especially during the rainy season, but he hadn't expected him to come tonight anyways. Probably out working off his fury at being roped into this, or watching over Yukina for any sign that she doesn't want to go and he can get out of the mission. He turned the covers down on his low bed, then sat down at his desk. Nice how that worked out. I think I want to be alone for this.

He traced the design on the box's smooth lid. "Father..."

He hadn't really thought much about his father before. The man had died before Kurama's human body was a year old. Nearly half of the memories he had were hazy images, not from a lack of mental ability on Kurama's part, but from the simple fact that his infant eye muscles had been unable to focus on anything that wasn't approximately a half-meter from his face. As he recalled, his father had been a smiling, sandy-haired man who'd smelled of sawdust.

Had he made the box? It was a work of art in and of itself, worth hundreds of thousands of yen, at least. Kurama tried the lid, discovering that it moved easily, with no signs of mildew or warping.

Inside, the contents were hidden by a layer of soft black velvet. Kurama set the lid aside and folded the cloth back. More velvet cushioned and displayed a well-packed assortment of glass vials, woodworking tools, an eyeglass, two pieces of wood, and a folded sheet of parchment. He withdrew the parchment, delicately opened it, and set to reading.

<i>To my precious son,

As I write this, the morning breeze is tugging playfully at the rosebuds on the arbor outside your nursery window.  They seemed to sprout almost overnight, their bright petals cracking free as quickly as you seemed to outgrow your swaddling clothes and your mother's arms.

If you are reading this, I have not survived to see you grow up. I am more sorry for that than I can ever say. I can only hope these dark times have ended for you.

From the day you were born, I have occasionally felt the power your human child's form cannot yet call forth. A wand made for a human-souled wizard will never fully suit you, little one, and I cannot craft one for you now.

This box contains all you need to craft a wand that suits you and you alone, save the magical core. As a magical being, a hair of your nonhuman form would understandably suit you best. As for the rest, follow the directions enclosed.

I have not told Shiori the contents of this letter. She would understand the truth all too well, that you did not choose her as anything more than the first safe place you came across. She would love you still, but that knowledge would only hurt her.

I only wish I could have been there as Shiori taught you humanity. I love you, my little son. Be well.

-Father</i>

Kurama replaced the letter and closed the box with white-knuckled hands. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered, turning off the light.