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He waited without knowing when the end would come, a coiling string of panic wound tight round his chest. Every minute without an answer was an hour, every hour a day, and suddenly Kazuma Kuwabara found himself in a hole of anxiety that he could not escape from. The regret that piled upon him was a massive stone, crushing him under its god awful weight. Every moment in which he’d slipped up, made a mistake, not done what he was supposed to have done, suddenly seemed tantamount to dooming him to hell; how could he have been so fucking foolish and careless? How, when so much had been on the line? When the one thing he treasured most was suddenly his to lose forever.

What he would have given in that moment to see Kurama’s smiling face, to hear him whisper words of comfort? What he would have done, to know that there was a second chance available to him? To know that all was not lost, and not in vain?

He waited for a sign, for a voice, for anything... Yusuke’s head in his lap; the pair of them squashed together upon an uncomfortable couch in the waiting room of Sariashiki Hospital. The clock struck two in the morning, and a soft gong peeled back another miserable hour of perpetual anticipation.

The gong was finished. Silence resumed.

Fourteen Hours Earlier:

It began and ended in the kitchen.

Kazuma received the call, bore the news, and watched as the man he loved fell apart.

It unnerved him that the sun rose the next morning, that he heard people moving about on the street. That somewhere in the world, as close as next door, there were people living, laughing, eating, going about life without the knowledge that someone as important and loving as Shiori Minamino had died. Kazuma locked the door of Kurama’s shop, and called his clients to ensure an absence from his contractual work, but it still did not seem real. At any moment, Kazuma expected another phone call, for Hatanaka or his son Kokoda to inform them both that Shiori was alive, that she was apologetic for the mismatch in information, and all was as it should be. No such call came.

Kurama, the pinnacle of strength in Kazuma’s world, was shaken to the core. His listless eyes searched backward and forward, finding nothing satisfying, unable to explain the hunger or the pain now brought up deep inside him. He often roamed throughout the confines of their apartment, as if to fetch something from the kitchen or get some work done on the couch, only to stop and stare. Only to die a little death, and retreat back to their bedroom where he collapsed upon the bed and stirred no more.

There was no comforting him. He was inconsolable.

The day of the wake was cold and gray, and Kurama remained lifeless right up until the last minute as if hoping to prolong the social custom. Kazuma could not blame him; he could only gently help Kurama dress in a mofuku that had been brought over by Hatanaka’s sister who acted as communicator between the two deeply grieving men. It was shocking to see Kurama in a plain black silk kimono, hakama, and haori. Like something out of a disturbing dream, Kurama drifted through the world clad only in black. The gray swept back and divided for him, romance fled from where he walked. As Shiori’s eldest son, it was Kurama’s responsibility to contact a temple where Shiori had worshiped as a girl to schedule a funeral. Kurama had been unable to move, much less speak, and so Kazuma had assumed the role. He lied later and told people Kurama had contacted the temple. It was a strange lie to tell, and yet it saved face in a society that demanded the grieving remember their responsibilities.

Kazuma watched Kurama all through the wake, expecting any moment for him to burst into another fit of hysterical sobbing of screaming; praying even, if only that the silence be broken and the grief be heard. Yet Kurama said nothing, his hands folded in his lap, sitting upon the floor with his back against the farthest wall. Shiori had been incredibly loving and kind, and her circle of friends was expansive. Each came, bowing to Kurama upon their knees, yet Kurama saw none of them.

His eyes were like broken light bulbs, dark and useless. They let nothing in, they let nothing out.

He kept overnight vigil at her coffin, never moving.
He was... absent. Like a shell lacking an inner muscle that simply flapped in the wind.

The funeral, however, was truly horrific. Worse beyond all imagining.

Kurama had lain in bed, dressed but unmoving till the very last conceivable moment. It had taken all of Kazuma’s will power to get him out of bed, to get him moving out the door and into the car. By the time that they were actually at the church they truly were pushing the limits for time. It was a packed house, and quite embarrassing to have to walk down the main causeway to take a seat behind Kurama’s step father and step brother who looked genuinely hurt that Kurama had not been early to help them prepare and grieve.

Still, Kazuma was with Yusuke, Keiko, Shizuru and Yukina... so he didn’t feel as embarrassed as he sat right behind Kurama and prayed to god the next two and a half hours would go by quickly. It did not help that Jiro was in the crowd, giving Kazuma questioning looks of sheer indigence as the funeral finally began. Shiori’s coffin, closed upon request of Kurama’s step father, made an unnerving backdrop as Kurama's step father thanked everyone for attending. It truly was a massive turn out, a loving tribute to a woman who had been so kind to so many, and Kazuma was relieved to see that Matsuri had not shown his ugly face. Kurama was a silent canon at this point, a bullet lodged between his teeth ready to fire... and Kazuma had no idea how Kurama might react to any amount of tension.

Yet tension was exactly what they got, from Kurama’s step father of all people as he finished his own eulogy and looked down at Kurama expectantly.

Oh sweet fucking God, Kurama was going to have to say something? Kazuma’s stomach flipped as he realized that Kurama had told him nothing in regards to a eulogy, had prepared no speech and would probably be ‘winging-it’ for lack of a better term. Some people, such as Yusuke, did well under that sort of pressure, but Kurama was already a champagne cork ready to burst.

 

With his arms crossed over his chest and an ugly sullen look upon his usually benign face, Kurama did not seem to hear his step father’s call to the podium. It was as if he was a boxer on the side of the ring, waiting for his turn to step up and crush his opponent, not a grieving child at his mother’s funeral. Kurama got up, his movement fluid and yet oddly jerky as he walked down the aisle. His head was cocked to the side, his long red hair sliding a little bit in the wind of his wake as he took to the podium and glared down upon the crowd.

Suddenly Kazuma was very afraid of Kurama being handed a microphone.

Kurama leaned a little upon the podium and observed his captivated audience.

“... It’s easy to see why this room is full,” Kurama said, his amplified voice full of cold contempt. “She was nice to people. She didn't really like most of you; she just pretended. She was good at that.”

An uncomfortable silence took over the crowd. Kazuma slowly turned his head to look at Yusuke, who had done a double take to gape open mouthed at Kurama. It seemed he too fully understood what was about to happen. They were powerless to make it stop.

“It’s incredible how many people are here today considering only four ever consistently visited her during her many lonely months of extended hospital visits. Although I suppose it was only technically three people, since my company is probably not worth counting for anything. I’m really curious, where were each of you? And, more importantly, why are you here?” Kurama asked. A nervous titter swept through the crowd as friends and family turned to look at one another.

“Oh my God...” Keiko whispered under her breath.
“Jesus shit, Kurama,” Shizuru cursed softly.

“I see you’re stumped.” Kurama gave the crowd a small, snide smile, one often reserved for enemies. “Well, let me fill you in. You’re here because you are required by society to act like you are grieving when really you are not, and then when are you are alone in your own houses and back to a state of seclusion you will take off the mask and complain about how exhausting it was to sit through such a boring and pointless funeral. Especially considering she’d been dying for years. Years.” He repeated the word. “I guess I should be surprised she managed to live as long as she did with someone like me for a son.”

He nodded a little to himself before continuing on.

“So I suppose you’re curious what it’s like to care for someone who has a brain tumor which is consequently destroying their cognitive awareness? I’ll tell you. She had exhausting headaches, seizures. She couldn’t move; she couldn’t see. She was practically a walking copse by the end of it. She started losing her mind about two months ago; she thought one time that I was my father and she tried to kiss me. Of course she came back to her senses but she was horrified. I told no one about it but now I figure, what the fuck? Who cares? She’s dead.”

Kazuma could not stop himself as he slowly ducked his head down to put his hands over his mouth. He blew forcefully through his fingers, his heart hammering at Kurama’s unbelievable words. Kurama’s voice was breaking, tight and rigid but cracking with hairline fractures as he forged on.

“She talked to people who weren’t there, people who had dead for years, like my grandfather or her sister. But the worst part was when she went quiet and didn’t say anything at all.” Kurama stopped for a moment; Kazuma dared to glance up. Kurama’s face was stone cold, but the emotion in his voice was undeniable. It was an ugly, angry, bitter tone that spoke of years of pain.

“Because she was hearing voices, and I didn’t know what they were saying to her, or telling her to do. They could have been telling her to burn down the house; so I stayed close... I made sure she didn’t kill herself. But maybe if she had, that would have somehow been satisfying to her. I can’t help but wonder if she was ever truly satisfied.” Kurama looked down.

“I’m glad she’s dead,” he said.

And that was that.

He left the podium, walking right past his stunned and horrified step-father down the main causeway. He did not pause at his seat, did not even turn to look at Kazuma, merely continuing on out the church doors. The murmur that swept through the crowd was one of shock and awe, as people all around them spoke in stunned disbelief that polite and genial Shuichi Minamino would think to say something like that at his own mother’s funeral.

Kazuma could not take it. He jerked up and took off after Kurama. He heard footsteps behind him, the sound of a bench emptying, and knew that the others were following right after him as he burst through the church doors and out onto the rain slicked front steps. He took them two and a time, shoes crunching on the gravel at the bottom, and ran out into the parking lot after Kurama. Kurama was continuing on, a good ways ahead of them, his long legs keeping up a swift stride that was difficult to match or best, but Yusuke suddenly brushed past Kazuma, running at full length after Kurama. He even jumped a railing, landing hard on the concrete in his slick black shoes, and cut Kurama off from walking any further with a risky jump maneuver that Kazuma wasn’t sure he’d like to try in a rented tux.

“Hey!”

Kurama made to keep walking, nearly knocking into Yusuke. Yusuke just followed in hot pursuit, angry and disbelieving. “What the fuck was that about?!”

Kurama did not answer; in a rage, Yusuke grabbed him by the front of his shirt. Kurama was expressionless. “Have you lost your fucking mind?!” Yusuke demanded, brown eyes popping with fury. His fists tightened upon Kurama's black button down, Kurama's dark hair spilling over Yusuke’s hands.

Kazuma had caught up, and immediately put a hand out to stop the fight that he knew was about to start.

“Yusuke!” Kazuma begged; Yusuke steamrolled right on.

“My mother is one of the most selfish, sloshed-“ Yusuke pulled a face, his anger suddenly making it impossible for him to speak clearly, “fucked up women I have ever met, but I tell you something, I wouldn’t almost be late to her funeral and say that shit!”

Keiko was suddenly at Kazuma’s elbow, no doubt having run just as fast to stop Yusuke from starting a fight. She’d arrived too late though; Kurama’s green eyes were darkening by the second.

Kazuma knew it was only a matter of time now. The pressure on the champagne cork was building.

“Like, Jesus Christ, Kurama!” Yusuke snarled, pulling them nose to nose as he vented, “You are one of the most kind, smart people I know and you go and say something like that?! What, did you just not give a fuck that she died or someth-“

CRUNCH!

Keiko let out a cry of horror, her hands flying up to her mouth in surprise as Kurama reached back and punched Yusuke so hard in the mouth Yusuke was forced to let go of Kurama’s shirt. Never in the history of their entire friendship had Kurama raised a hand against Yusuke. It was shocking, and Kazuma was rendered speechless as Yusuke slowly looked up again at Kurama. His nose was bloody, maybe it was broken. His rage had left him; he was now calm.

But a calm Yusuke was just as dangerous as an angry one.
Suddenly, they were upon one another.

Yusuke launched forward, bringing his fist around to punch Kurama, but Kurama threw him hard into the concrete wall that supported the parking lot above their heads. Yusuke shot for another punch but Kurama blocked it, swinging an arm hard only to use it again to slam into Yusuke’s gut. Yusuke was knocked forcibly off his feet, but Kurama was not done. Kurama let out a wild scream of fury, bringing an arm down, and Yusuke blocked it at once only to get the wind knocked out of him by Kurama's other hand as Kurama punched him once more in the gut. Yusuke came up swinging, but Kurama punched him hard in the neck; Yusuke had never truly been hit so hard before in such a tender area, and as he fell Kurama went with him, grabbing Yusuke tight around the throat-!

His eyes were murderous, black and blazing, he breathed tight through his nose, his nostrils flaring, and suddenly Kazuma was reminded quite forcibly that Kurama was not only the most experienced member of their team but perhaps the most capable of making an unthinkable kill. He had ripped a head clean off its shoulders in the cave during their Sensui trial; he had pierced Karasu’s heart even as his own life’s blood slipped through his finger to pool at his knees. Kurama had no enemies because Kurama left no enemies alive-

A cocky smile, a flash of warm brown eyes, tight strong arms wrapped about his neck and a wild joyous shout as a new restaurant was unveiled-

Kazuma ran forward and grabbed Kurama hard by the shoulders, jerking him clean off of Yusuke who immediately began to choke and cough with such seizing distress that Keiko could not stand by and let him lay alone upon the ground. She rushed to his side, helping him to sit up, but Yusuke was already clambering back to his feet. A dark bruise was already starting to form beneath his eye where Kurama had punched him, but Yusuke did not seem to care about physical injuries such much as the dark and dangerous look in Kurama's eye that was slowly slipping away to be replaced by... nothingness.

A complete and utter lack of emotion.

“...Kurama,” Yusuke rasped the name, swallowing several times. “What the fuck.”
In Kazuma’s slackening hold, Kurama brushed away; he straightened his collar for one moment before continuing on down the sidewalk towards where their car was waiting.

Twelve Hours Earlier:

The ride home had been unnervingly quiet. Kazuma had driven the entire way with knuckles white upon the steering wheel, praying to god another fight didn’t start out while they were in a moving vehicle. Kurama remained listless and quiet, life simply flashing before his eyes without anything truly sinking in. When they’d parked outside the restaurant, Kurama had gotten out of the car rather quickly and made to cross the street; he moved with that same fluid yet jerky grace, a bizarre mix of total opposites. It was a miracle that no cars were coming; Kazuma had a feeling Kurama would not have stopped even if there had been one barreling down the road.

Kazuma could not afford to waste time apologizing to Yusuke; he ran after Kurama. He suddenly felt quite nervous about Kurama being alone in the house. He’d barely managed to get over the threshold before Kurama was up the stairs. Kazuma followed in hot pursuit, yet he was shocked to find that Kurama did not go into their bedroom and slam the door. He’d expected a fight, a scream session that would have the neighbors calling the cops. Instead Kurama now stood quietly by their kitchen sink.

He was standing so strangely still, as if he suddenly did not know what to do or where to go anymore.

Then he was moving again.

He took one of their tea kettles to fill it with water from the tap, setting it upon an eye to allow it to boil. It seemed he was going to make a cup of tea, which now that Kazuma thought about it sounded like a damn good idea.

Leave it to Kurama to keep his head on his shoulders even in such a terrible moment.

Yet as the silence between them kept growing, Kazuma felt like something needed to be said. Something was missing from this interaction between them, but what was it? Deeper emotion? Reaction or response?

“Maybe you should lay down and rest for a while,” Kazuma suggested softly. Kurama merely made a noise, pouring the tea into his cup. When he turned around, Kazuma saw that it was a milky white. Perhaps it was a new blend, something from England meant to sooth. Kazuma would have to try it and see if it helped him too. God only knows his nerves were shaken.

“I think I will,” Kurama murmured, his voice calm and steady. He turned around, cup of tea in hand; his eyes were still hollow and dark. “I’m really tired.”

“Yeah,” Kazuma mumbled, his anxiety showing in his next words, “fighting Yusuke will do that to you; I know your pain.”

Kurama did not seem to hear him. He walked away from the stove, probably intending to head into the bedroom and lay down for a nap. Yet he stopped again in front of Kazuma, and now was looking up at him with those hollow eyes. Kazuma did not know what on earth he was supposed to see there, but he was scared and prayed that Kurama was not angry at him. He wanted to love Kurama through this pain, to nurse him back to health.

The tea would help, but Kazuma knew he could do more with his own heart, with his own arms. He could kiss tears away just as easily as wipe them.

“... I love you,” Kurama whispered. “So much.”

There was something in the way he said it; as if he thought he might never be able to say it again. Kazuma didn’t like the fear in his voice, the horrible aching sadness, the way his eyes suddenly seemed to be screaming even though they were blank and hollow. Maybe he was overly paranoid, still nervous after that shocking row with Yusuke. But... Kurama looked down for a moment into his milky tea cup, observing the contents for a moment. Kazuma wondered what about the tea fascinated him so much.

He looked back up at Kazuma, his eyes swimming; he blinked rapidly, not bothering to hide the tears there.

“Thank you, for this past year,” Kurama whispered. “It was short, but it was the best time of my life.” His tone was incredibly sincere.

Kazuma smiled. “We’ll have more, I promise.” Kazuma was slightly surprised when Kurama reached up and gently kissed his cheek; it was like a farewell kiss, not so much passionate as it was loving.

“You are a good man, Kazuma Kuwabara,” Kurama said.

For a moment he stood there, his face close to Kazuma’s neck, utterly still as he inhaled deeply. Then, it seemed, he’d come to a conclusion that he’d stood still for too long as he pulled away. Kazuma watched him go, walking down the hallway to their bedroom as one might walk to a tomb. As he closed the door behind him, Kurama did not turn around. It was as if he did not want to face Kazuma again, as if he was resolved to sleep and speak no more.

Kazuma supposed he’d earned a rest.

Kazuma was exhausted as well, and really who could blame him after such a horrible day? He made to pour himself a cup of tea, but was surprised when he found that the water inside the tea pot was merely that- water. Kurama’s tea had been milky. Had he added something to it instead of steeping it inside? Kazuma looked about, wondering what kind of tea Kurama had made, but the more he stared the more he realized that there were no loose teabags about nor any remnants in the trash of loose leaf.

Kazuma looked down at his tea cup, full of clear pure water.

Something was not right.

He left the kitchen for the bedroom hall, a sudden strange pounding beginning to take hold in his heart. He reached for the door to the bedroom, but as he attempted to open it he found it locked.

Kazuma’s hand stilled upon the nob, his heart racing even faster. He leaned his ear into the door, listening intently.

The sounds of horrific coughing and gurgling-

Kazuma jerked back from the door, and in that moment all lucid thought fled from his brain like water sucking back from the shore in lieu of an oncoming tsunami. Panic propelled him forward, and he slammed his shoulder into the door with all the strength he could muster! It busted down, breaking clean off its hinges, and Kazuma was greeted with the horrific sight of Kurama upon their bedroom floor, blood oozing from his pale mouth- the teacup was drunk, its contents drained, but a bottle was on the floor.

Kazuma did not know what it was, did not care what it was, only knowing that whatever it was was not meant to be drunk and probably poison. Dropping to his knees he seized Kurama up from the floor, cradling his lover in one arm as he reared back with the other and- god damn him for it- punched Kurama hard in the stomach.

It was all the force Kurama needed.

Kurama doubled over, vomiting blood and that strange milky fluid everywhere. He jerked wildly, trying to get away from Kazuma, making inhumane noises as he thrashed. He turned on Kazuma like a wild animal, blood spilling in a flood from his mouth as he launched himself at Kazuma and began to attack him.

“N-no! NO!” Kurama howled.
Biting, punching, tearing, slapping- his throws were weak and his body seizing but his fury was clear as he screamed. Kazuma could do little but hold on for dear life, Kurama’s blood soaking through his shirt as Kurama’s horrible wails filled his ears.

“God damn you!” Kurama shook wildly in Kazuma’s arms even as he attempted to tear him apart; those dark forest eyes were glazed and wide, unseeing in their pain, “How could-you-no!” Kurama could not stop vomiting, his body seizing so violently that Kazuma was afraid he would bite off his own tongue.

He began to sob, hands clutched tightly in his hair as he jerked and shook, several dark red strands coming loose from the strain. Kazuma tried to stop him, tried to pull his hands down, but Kurama was inconsolable.

“How could you- do this- to me-!” Kurama could barely speak between each vomiting spell, more and more blood coming up with each heave, “If you loved me- you wouldn’t- you wouldn’t do this to me! If you loved me-“

Kurama gave one terrible shake, almost falling from Kazuma’s arms, “You’d le’- me die-“

Kazuma could bear it no longer.
He snatched up cellphone and called for an ambulance. The little bottle next to Kurama rolled up into the light as Kurama kicked at it unknowingly with his foot. Its label was proud and clear: Lye.

 

Eleven Hours Earlier:

 

Kazuma could not be still, could not breath correctly, and yet seemed to be doing both by the grace of god as he trembled in his chair and breathed slowly into his hands. He waited, more afraid than he’d ever been in his life, unsure of who to call or what to say. The ambulance ride had been absolutely frightening with Kurama choking up blood and having a tube shoved forcibly down his throat right in front of Kazuma. He’d jerked and spasmed, his eyes rolling up into the back of his head. It had gotten to where his movements had overwhelmed the EMT’s, and so Kurama had been strapped down to his traveling gurney.

The straps, the tube, the blood seeping down Kurama's neck and covering his face... Kazuma had not known what to do but mutely follow the orders of nurses and technicians who bade him to follow to a back room where he could sit down and be cleaned. Kurama’s blood was still upon him, mixed with bile and a milky white substance that was immediately confirmed to be lye. His clothes had been taken from him, changed for green scrubs, and a stinging water-based substance had been scrubbed onto Kazuma’s hands and face... a deterrent for lye, he’d been told.

In the waiting room of the ER, Kazuma found himself unable to do anything but wait in fear and pray. He’d realized after sitting there numbly for thirty minutes that absolutely no one knew about Kurama’s predicament; it had taken him a great deal of strength to force himself to call Yusuke. He feared Yusuke would not pick up after the tiff with Kurama beside the parking lot; Keiko had picked up instead.

Now, they were on their way, and Kazuma prayed they would get there soon.

With his head between his legs and his hands laced behind his neck, Kazuma breathed as slowly and deeply as he could (orders from a nurse that he dare not disobey), but a numb feeling was creeping down from his neck and settling into his chest.

He was cut off from the rest of the world, in a purgatory alone known to him upon the couch of the waiting room.

But the sounds of footsteps, hammering upon the floor, reminded Kazuma that misery loved company as he raised his tear stained face to look towards the door; he was unsurprised to find Yusuke and Keiko there, haggard and horrified in a half kept state of hurried fear.

They saw him in scrubs with tears upon his face, and immediately joined him.

“Oh my god, what happened-?!" Keiko demanded, heaving for breath as she stopped before Kazuma. Both of them were now out of their funeral clothes, no doubt having changed as soon as they got home. Yusuke’s left eye had a deep purple hoof mark around it, evidence of the earlier fight; his face was bloodless with fear, eyes usually so warm now cold and wide.

“He... tried to swallow lye-“ Kazuma’s voice was strange and clumsy in his own ears; he scoffed at himself even as he spoke. “Tried? He did. He swallowed lye.”

“Lye- oh my goodness!” Keiko clapped a hand over her mouth; dammit, it didn’t help that the empty bottle of lye was still in the pocket of his scrubs- evidence to be used later no doubt. It was as heavy as a brick against Kazuma’s hammering chest.

“What did you do?” Yusuke demanded at once.

“I punched him.” Kazuma damned his words even as he said them; to lay a hand upon Kurama in such a way... he could hardly believe that he’d done it. “I punched him to make him throw it up-!”

He sobbed into his hands, unable to hold back before his two closest friends in such a time of need. “I didn’t know what else to do!” he wailed, though it was a shitty excuse for hitting the man he loved. Keiko’s hands were upon his back and neck, holding him even as he sobbed into his hands.

“Where is he now?” Yusuke asked.

“They’re-“ Kazuma needed to take several deep breaths, “getting x-rays. Trying to see the damage to his esophagus. He’s already had two seizures-“

Keiko’s hands were the only thing keeping him grounded as they rubbed soothing circles into his back.

“Jesus god.” Yusuke collapsed beside him on the sofa, his horror in tandem with Kazuma.

After a while, Keiko sat down between them, a wide berth left by the two men as they clung to the arms of the sofa and prayed for an end from this ugly nightmare. Could it be that only a week ago all of them were happy? Could it be that only a few weeks ago Kurama had turned twenty five? That Kazuma had kissed him under the stars on the roof of their home and made love to him? Kurama’s laughter, his twinkling eyes, seemed a century gone... yet it had only been a few weeks.

It made no sense. It was pure madness.

It was a long time before anyone spoke again, but Yusuke was the first in the quiet of the waiting room. “Where did he get the lye?” he asked, hollow voiced and somber.

“I have no idea,” Kazuma mumbled, for even now he had no idea how Kurama had managed to put lye into his damn tea cup right in front of him! Kazuma had seen absolutely nothing, but he’d been only feet away! If the water in the teapot hadn’t tipped him off.... he dared not finish that thought.

“Lye...” Keiko said the word, feeling the weight of it in her mouth. Her fear was obvious, “Surely he knew what drinking that might do to him-“

“He’s Kurama,” Yusuke spat, bitter. “Of course he knew, that’s why he did it.”

He looked away, rubbing his face with his hands; it was as if he couldn’t sit still, suddenly rocking upon the sofa and unable to look his wife in the face.

“I shouldn’t have said what I said,” Yusuke whispered, his face turned away but his tone thick with self-hatred.

“Do not blame yourself-“ Keiko tried to touch him as she’d touched Kazuma, to hold him, but Yusuke jerked away right out of her hands.

“If I hadn’t fucking goaded him--” Yusuke cursed himself; his voice broke, “If I had kept my stupid mouth shut--“

Kazuma could hear the tears in Yusuke’s voice. Still Yusuke would not look at either of them.

“You were afraid, Yusuke.” Keiko tried to touch him again, but Yusuke was shrinking from her hands as if she was slapping him instead of soothing him, “We all were. I’ve never heard Kurama act so indifferent and cold in light of a death. It was frightening-“

“He wasn’t indifferent,” Yusuke seethed through clenched teeth. Kazuma could now see the edge of his face and the tears that rolled fat and thick upon his cheeks. “He was suffering. He was suffering and I didn’t see it-“ Yusuke broke off again, a quiet sob escaping his lips. “Because I’m the stupidest motherfucker alive-“

He could not finish, suddenly burying his face into the arm of their sofa to keep Keiko and Kazuma from seeing his tears. Keiko was pulling him back up, trying to put her arms around him, but it was a difficult job when Yusuke was fighting her every step of the way.

“No,” Keiko murmured lovingly into the crook of his neck, able to cling tight to him with a hand about his waist and in his hair. Kazuma could see Yusuke holding tight to the hand upon his waist, his grip deathly hard. “No, you are not.”

“I don’t even know why people put up with me,” Yusuke whispered, unable to speak any louder than a hush for the emotion and the weight in his voice. His face was screwed up, his eyes closed, “for the shit that I do and say- I’m fucking worthless- I let a friend nearly kill himself. A friend who’s like a brother to me; who’s in love with my best friend-“

Kazuma reached out across Keiko’s lap and grabbed onto Yusuke’s unclenched hand, squeezing it tightly. It was incredibly rare that Yusuke ever called Kazuma his ‘best friend’.

“I’m sorry,” Yusuke sobbed, “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Kazuma whispered.
Suddenly the lye bottle felt a little lighter upon his chest.

“What k-kind of a person am I-“ Yusuke demanded of the air, but Kazuma was the one to answer.

“The best kind,” Kazuma said at once; he did not regret his word choice, “Because you’re here with me right now even though a few hours ago Kurama nearly choked you to death, and you have no regrets about it. You’re here because you love your friends like your family, because we are your family...” Kazuma paused sniffing, “So we’re gonna have to do what families do... and just sit and wait here together.”

And so they did.

 

Four hours passed, and nothing changed.

Six hours passed, and nothing changed.

Eight hours passed and suddenly they realized that it was ten at night and no one had thought to call Kurama’s step family. Not only that, they were starving, and so Keiko made a succession of calls (simply because she was the only one capable of speaking calmly) to both the Hatenaka’s, Shizuru, and a local sub delivery.

Nine hours passed, and their couch was now occupied by six people. Keiko sat in Yusuke’s lap sleeping, Kazuma sat beside him, and Shizuru and Yukina took up the other end of the couch. Hatanaka, exhausted and bent over in grief, sat across from them in an unoccupied chair.

Ten hours passed, and nothing changed.

Eleven hours passed, and nothing changed.

Twelve hours...

He waited without knowing when the end would come, and a ball of panicky string wound tight round his chest. Every minute without an answer was an hour, every hour a day, and suddenly Kazuma Kuwabara found himself in a hole of anxiety that he could not escape from. The regret that piled upon him was a massive stone, crushing him under its god awful weight. Every moment in which he’d slipped up, made a mistake, not done what he was supposed to have done, suddenly seemed tantamount to dooming him to hell; how could he have been so fucking foolish and careless? How, when so much had been on the line? When the one thing he treasured most was suddenly his to lose forever.

What he would have given in that moment to see Kurama’s smiling face, to hear him whisper words of comfort. What he would have done... to know that there was a second chance available to him. To know that all was not lost, and not in vain.

He waited for a sign, for a voice, for anything... Yusuke’s head in his lap; the pair of them squashed together upon an uncomfortable couch in the waiting room of Sariashiki Hospital. The clock struck two in the morning, and a soft gong peeled back another miserable hour of perpetual anticipation.

The gong was finished.

Footsteps... footsteps upon the tile.

Kazuma picked his head up from his shoulder, blinking around blearily at the deserted waiting room to see an older and haggard man coming towards them from the hall. He was wearing scrubs, his mouth shield down around his neck and deep bags underneath his eyes. He looked damn ready to pull his hair out, and Kazuma couldn’t blame him.

He stopped before Kazuma, observing them all sleeping upon the couch.
Twelve hours and five minutes had passed, and finally something changed.

Chapter Text

When Kazuma had been a child, he’d heard his mother say “nothing good ever happens after midnight”; so far, he was yet to find an exception to the rule.

“Did you come in with Shuichi Minamino?” the doctor asked.

“Yeah, I did.” Kazuma sat up a little straighter on the sofa, praying to god for good news. Yusuke stirred on his lap, sitting up and blinking about blearily; when he caught sight of the doctor he did a double take and immediately rubbed his eyes to focus. Kazuma heard Yusuke mumbling to Keiko to get up, so that suddenly all three of them were now in a conversation with this haggard man who looked like he could use with a ten hour nap.

“I’m Doctor Kotsura.” Kotsura shook Kazuma’s hand.

“Kuwabara Kazuma.”

“Who are you in relation to Minamino?” Kotsura asked.

“I’m-“ Kazuma could not help but blush even as he said it; it was rare that people outside their circle understood his role in Kurama’s life. “His partner.”

“We need a family member.” Kotsura grimaced, but their saving grace was found in Hatanaka who looked up from the floor; Kazuma had thought him sleeping but he’d been wrong. Hatanaka was awake, and though he looked ready to keel over and die he still nodded to the doctor in greeting.

“I’m here,” Hatanaka said.

Doctor Kotsura looked a little more at ease as he turned back to Kazuma; Shizuru was still asleep on the couch. For the moment, Kazuma did not wake her. God only knows she’d come straight from work and was probably dead; she hadn’t even changed out of her policeman’s uniform.

“So this was an attempted suicide, is what I’m gathering,” Kotsura said.

“Yes.” Kazuma immediately reached for his breast pocket to hand over the empty bottle of lye to the doctor. He took it, examined it (after slipping on a pair of glasses) and nodded in thanks as he stuck it in his own pocket.

“Thank you. I’ll be keeping this.”

“Can I see him?” Kazuma begged.

“No.” Kotsura shook his head, and suddenly Kazuma could see what awful strain the man was under. He looked like as broken as a war vet in his scrubs and mask, “No... he’s not doing well.”

“Oh god!”
It had been what he’d feared; that Kurama would die, and suddenly his eyes were burning and his throat was closing up. He turned, hiding his face from the doctor; yet where Kazuma turned to grief, Yusuke turned to anger. He rose up off the couch, hands on his hips and a murderous look in his eye.

“If he’s not doing well then shouldn’t we be back there, dammit!?” Yusuke demanded. Kotsura bristled but held his ground, “We're like family to him! Shit, Kuwabara’s fucking in love with him! If something happens-“

“His physical condition is stabilizing,” Kotsura corrected Yusuke tersely, and Kazuma let out an audible breath as he sagged with exhaustion.

Kurama was not dying. He could breathe.

“…but his emotional and mental conditions are rapidly deteriorating. He’s broken through the straps of his bed twice and has attempted suicide again. Somehow, I don’t know how, he managed to find a vine and wrapped it around his neck-? Even though there was absolutely no plant life in the room when I left twenty minutes prior to pick up his chest x-rays. I don’t know he did it.”

Yusuke whipped around, and Kazuma looked up to meet his eye. The pair of them stared at each other, knowing damn well how Kurama had managed such a feat. Multiple suicide attempts, broken restraints-? This hardly sounded like the Kurama that Kazuma loved. Surely it was just an exaggeration. This man was probably exhausted.

“We caught him, but just barely, and we’ve had to restrain him again. He’s hostile and heavily drugged. He would attack his own mother and not feel regret,” Kotsura concluded.

“I highly doubt that,” Yusuke grumbled under his breath, but the doctor was turning away and towards Hatanaka who rose up from his seat (though his posture was slouched and sagged) to wearily shake Kotsura’s hand.

“You’re family, correct?”

“Yes. I’m his step-father.”

“Where is his mother?”

Hatanaka bristled, looking away momentarily. Kazuma could see the pain in his face, yet still he kept talking, attempting to make some headway after twelve hours of nothing but silence from the back. “Dead. We spread her ashes earlier today.”

Kotsura winced, but still carried on. “My deepest apologies,” he said, and he did not sound insincere. “Does he have any biological family, anyone who I can contact as a stand-in care-taker-?”

“He’s an adult, why should he need that?” Hatanaka grumbled.

At this, Kotsura looked behind him towards Yusuke who was still glaring and Kazuma who was close to weeping again from the sheer exhaustion and stress. Keiko was likewise beat beside him, merely holding onto his knee in quiet support.

“... We’re going to have to move him to a psychiatric unit for further evaluation. Depending upon his mental condition, they may choose to keep him for an extended period of time-“

At once, the room erupted in voices.

“No, no it can’t be that bad, surely-!” Hatanaka demanded.

“You’ve lost your damn mind if you think we’re gonna send Kurama to some nut house-!” Yusuke snarled, slipping up and saying Kurama’s real name. Yet it was Kazuma now who was on his feet, Kazuma who was in the doctor’s face, Kazuma who felt uncontrollable rage pounding through his veins in light of exhaustion and fear. Kotsura was overwhelmed, bristling left and right, but he still held his guard even as Kazuma shouted in his face.

“He’s not crazy!” Kazuma snapped, “He’s just upset-“

“I don’t think any of you fully understand the gravity of this situation!” Kotsura snapped back, perhaps a little tired of being ganged on at two in the morning. He eyed them all warily as he spoke, “Your step son-“ he said to Hatanaka, “Your partner-“ he said to Kazuma, “has just attempted to end his life. Twice. He has broken through several sets of restraints, and is completely out of touch with reality. He cannot be reached verbally, emotionally, or mentally. He has become so aggressive that we have had to put a guard in his room to keep him from hurting nurses and technicians. This is standard hospital procedure to protect not only the patient, but the staff and other patients. Do you understand?”

No. No, Kazuma did not understand. He did not understand how such words as ‘aggressive’ could be used to describe the man in his memory; sweet and loving Kurama who had kissed his nose and sat with his legs in Kazuma’s lap, shirtless and sipping coffee in the bubble of their afterglow. Kind and gentle Kurama who had moved to sit in his lap and simply stayed there for an hour, his head upon Kazuma’s shoulder and his fingers stroking Kazuma’s collar bone as Kazuma read the Sunday paper.

Hatanaka was thinking fast, his hands upon his lips as his black eyes roved back and forth across the sterile tile floor. It was incredible that with his wife newly buried and his step son on the verge of a mental collapse at two in the morning he was still able to think.

“... You don’t know if it’ll be permanent?” Hatanaka asked. Kotsura shook his head.

“I cannot say. That is based on their own evaluations.”

“And I can speak with them directly during the process?”

“Absolutely,” Kotsura assured him.

“...He...” Hatanaka swallowed, looking away from the doctor to stare out at the opening of the waiting room; no one passed by. “He can’t be committed without my signature?”

“No. We must have a stand-in care-taker,” Kotsura said. “Someone to assume liability for his actions.”

“Do they have to be related to him-“

“That is optimal, but-“

“Then it should be Kazuma,” Hatanaka urged. Kotsura turned around, looking at Kazuma expectantly, but Kazuma was speechless! How could Hatanaka think that he would give any such signature-!?

“I’m not committing him!” Kazuma shouted. He was furious! “I’m not putting him in some fucking loony bin! He’s not crazy, he doesn’t belong there!”

“No one is using the word ‘crazy’ but you!” Kotsura snarled, finally losing his patience, “He’s not crazy, I completely agree. He’s upset. He’s very upset, and we cannot help him here. It doesn’t matter how much we care for his physical condition if he’s only going to try and kill himself again-!”

“He wouldn’t-!” but Kazuma’s words were weak and useless in his mouth as Kotsura and Hatanaka both glared at him. He realized now how feeble and foolish the phrase ‘he wouldn’t’ was in light of this terrible situation.

He would... and all three men knew it.

“Who do I need to speak to?” Hatanaka asked, turning his dark gaze to Kotsura who seemed just as foul tempered in that moment.

“I have a technician down the hall,” Kotsura said. “Come with me.”

Hatanaka reached down into his shirt pocket to put on his glasses, rubbing his eyes as Kotsura left for the door; before he followed, he gave Kazuma warning.

“Stay here,” Hatanaka said. “Let me speak with them, and ... assess the situation.” he did not sound hopeful, “I suggest you call your family for your own support. We need to take care of one another.”

He turned and left, following Doctor Kotsura out into the hallway and around the corner where they vanished from sight.

Kazuma crashed back into his seat. The jump was enough to wake Shizuru, who looked around alarmed to see Kazuma hunched over, pale faced and frightened. Yusuke was still on his feet, agape at the sudden turn of events.

It seemed he had no idea what to do; their leader was leaderless.

“They’re gonna commit him!” Kazuma sobbed, throwing his hands up over his eyes lest Keiko see him weeping; there was no point in hiding but still he tried.

“No!” Keiko put her hands upon him, trying to sooth him despite how useless it was. Kazuma could feel Shizuru’s eyes upon him and shame flooded his face; she must think him so weak. “No, they’re just going to talk to him for a little bit, make him feel better- I swear it’s not as frightening as it sounds! If Kurama gets help, he’ll be able to pull through this faster-“

Kazuma had no more words. He could not tell if Keiko was lying to make him feel better, or telling the truth. All he knew was that he felt powerless and small. He felt like Kurama was behind twenty brick walls and he couldn’t break through to save him. All he could do was beat on the cement and scream.

“I’m calling dad-“

“No!” Kazuma snarled, glaring up at Shizuru even as she pulled out her cellphone. It was two in the damn morning, if Jiro got a call now, he’d know something was wrong.

“Kazuma!” Shizuru’s voice was angry and commanding, authoritative to the bone... a policeman’s tone. They all looked at her, suddenly remembering that she was older than them and more experience. “I’m calling dad.”

And so she did.

“It’s going to be okay,” Keiko whispered, rubbing Kazuma’s arms, “It’s going to be okay.”

Kazuma buried his face in his hands again, and wept, ashamed.

 

Kazuma could not bear to sit around and wait for his father to show like a child in need of comfort or guidance. He wanted to make changes happen, he wanted to free Kurama from these doctors and their demands, and so he and Yusuke left the waiting room to travel down the hall where they found Hatanaka sitting on a small bench outside of an ICU room. He had papers in his hands, and was looking them over with bleary tired eyes. He blinked repeatedly, wiping moisture from them, only to hunch over and start reading again.

Kazuma and Yusuke leaned against the opposite wall, unsure of what to do; Hatanaka did not speak to them. He was too busy reading, and so tired that it seemed he might fall asleep at any moment.

Suddenly, there was a rush.

Doctor Kotsura came running down the hall, two muscular medical aids and two nurses right behind him. He punched a code hurriedly into a metal panel by the sliding glass door of ICU room. Hatanaka leapt up from the bench, still holding the papers but clutching them tight to his chest as all five of them ran into the room. Before anyone could follow, one of the nurses turned and slammed the glass door back; it locked with a resounding metal sound.

Kazuma looked at Hatanaka; Hatanaka looked at Kazuma.
They waited.

About twenty minutes later, Doctor Kotsura appeared again. A sliding sheet divided the ICU ward behind the bolted glass door. As he stepped around it, he was wiping sweat from his brow and was holding a vine in his hands. He looked down at the vegetation, completely baffled, and stepped back out into the hall.

“...Well...” Kotsura said, feeble voice as he held up the vine for them to see; it was long and spiky, full of jagged thorns. It looked unnervingly like Kurama’s rose whip. “I don’t know how he did it-“

“God,” Hatanaka breathed, taking the vine from Kotsura’s shaking hands.

“He managed to break out of two different sets of cuffs…“ Kotsura barely seemed to believe his own words. “I had already given him a dosage of benzodiazepine, yet somehow he was still moving?” This seemed to be more disturbing to Kotsura than the vine in Hatanaka’s hands. “I had to give him another one! Two, total! I’ve never had to do that to anyone in my entire career, and I’ve been a doctor for over thirty years.”

“What did you give him?” Kazuma demanded. He’d heard the name but still couldn’t fully process what it was.

“Benzodiazepine,” Kotsura repeated, his tone shaking. He looked like he need a smoke, or three. “It’s a high grade anti-anxiety medicine. I’ve seen it take men three times the size of you to the ground in under a minute; we use it for high-risk patients... but somehow, Minamino, one hundred forty two pounds and all, managed to keep moving?”

Kotsura made a noise, running a hand through his gray and thinning hair. “He’s... still, now.”

“So can we see him?” Kazuma demanded, now certain that Kurama was behind that glass door. He would do anything to get through, but he knew that a four digit code was required, after all he’d see Doctor Katsura stop to punch one in amid a chaotic rush. He’d need it if he wanted to get through.

Kotsura suddenly looked slightly guilty, and stared down at the floor before answering.

“We had to take... certain precautions.”

“Like what?” Kazuma said. He didn’t like the tone in Kotsura’s voice.

“Well, he’s tied to the bed, to keep him from harming himself or others-“ Kotsura said, but Kazuma could tell this was not what was troubling Kotsura. “But... we also had to cut off his hair.”

Kazuma was stunned.

Kurama’s lovely, beautiful, dark red hair... so thick and fragrant, draping down his back like a waterfall or hanging in soft tresses upon his chest- those locks that Kazuma had so lovingly wrapped his fingers around, had tousled with when they showered together, watching the soap and water turn that dark red to black with moisture – gone?

“... Why?” Kazuma whispered. He felt the words slip through his lips without being able to stop them.

“You have to understand…“ Kotsura was regaining his nerve with the news now spilt, but everyone was staring at him with such shock and horror that it was starting to make him sweat again. “He somehow managed to hide a vine in it and attempted to strangle himself! We tried to keep his hair out of his face and in a bun, but it didn’t help... I don’t like doing cosmetic reparations but I had no choice!” He truly sounded helpless. Had it been anyone but Kurama that he cared for, Kazuma might have felt sorry for the man. “I had to issue the order. You may not want to see him-“

Kazuma took a step forward, then another, and though he knew it was dangerous and wrong he could feel his spirit energy beginning to rise up inside him, threatening to burst out.

A lightbulb overhead flickered, its electric wiring starting to feel the effects; Kazuma could not deny the heat on his skin or the fire in his eyes. “Put me back there,” he said. “Now.”

He didn’t know why Kurama having his hair cut off made him so angry, but it did.

“I cannot have you in there if you are going to frighten or confuse him with your own anger,” Kotsura warned; Kazuma had to marvel that though this man must be feeling some kind of effect from Kazuma’s energy he still managed to hold his ground, to keep his authority. Then again, he'd been an ICU doctor for thirty years. Perhaps he’d dealt with this before.

“I know you are upset, I understand and I sympathize,” Kotsura urged, but Kazuma doubted either was true, “but Minamino is my top priority tonight, and until he is taken to Matsuzawa in-“ Kotsura glanced down at his watch, “forty five minutes, it is my job to ensure that he does not undergo anymore mental exhaustion or strain. Am I clear?”

“Crystal.” Yusuke glowered, a step behind Kazuma. Yusuke hated authority and no doubt wanted to punch Kotsura’s lights out. Still, he somehow managed to refrain. Kudos to him, thought Kazuma bitterly, for he was closer to losing his temper than Yusuke was.

“Can we follow him to Matsuzawa?” Hatanaka asked.

“No.” Doctor Kotsura shook his head. “Matsuzawa is not an open hospital; it’s a psych ward and is only open to visitors during set hours.”

“But-” Kazuma cried out, looking at the papers in Hatanaka’s hands. Had Kurama actually been committed?! Were they going to take him away?! Kazuma would not let it happen!

“When are their hours?” Hatanaka asked.

“I’m unsure of the specifics,” Kotsura said. “They’ll have a representative here to sign the paperwork, you can ask them as many questions as you like.”

Hatanaka seemed satisfied, but Kazuma was not. He seethed, words failing to come; Kotsura gave him a sympathetic look, glancing at his watch again.

“Look, give me ten minutes and I will let you back. Just you two-“ he gestured to Kazuma and Hatanaka. “I’m sorry sir, but you’ll have to wait here,” he said to Yusuke. With that, he walked back over to the panel, punched in the code, slipped through the door, and was gone again behind the curtain.

Kazuma turned on Hatanaka.

“How could you?” Kazuma whispered. “How could you fucking do it?”

“How could I what?” Hatanaka demanded angrily. “What is right and responsible?!”

“Sign him away like he’s a nutcase, like he isn’t your stepson! We should be the ones to care for him not-“

“You cannot care for him in this condition, neither of us can!” Hatanaka had lost his temper now, glaring at Kazuma as he clutched the damning papers to his chest protectively, “You have to trust the doctors at Matsuzawa, you have to trust their staff-“

“Well, I don’t!” Kazuma snarled. “I don’t trust anyone with him! Anyone!”

“You have no choice!” Hatanaka said, and there was a strange fluctuation in tone that caught Kazuma’s attention. Suddenly Hatanaka was sombre, looking away, unable to meet his eyes. “Believe me when I say that I am afraid, too-“

“Really? Because I don’t see that-“

“He is my son just as much as he is Shiori’s!” Her name was an ugly gunshot in the air that sent everyone flinching.

“...Was,” Hatanaka corrected himself. He suddenly looked like he might be ill.

Their argument might have continued, might have become heated again with Shiori’s name still thick in the air and their memories, but Kotsura appeared behind the curtain and opened the glass door again to step back out into the hall.

Hatanaka and Kazuma shared a glance; they would hide their argument for now, say nothing lest neither of them be allowed to see Kurama.

Kotsura looked at them.

“Are we ready?”

Yusuke leaned against the wall of the ICU, declining comment as he nodded to Kazuma. Kazuma now understood that in that room, he represented not only himself but also Yusuke; he represented everyone who wanted Kurama out of a psych ward and not in one.

Hatanaka and Kazuma both stepped forward; Kotsura punched pressed a sequence of numbers into a little electronic keypad on the door. The latch clicked, and the three of them stepped inside.

The room was cold and dark, with low lighting and a curtain still dividing them to all that lay beyond. As Kotsura slid the door back and allowed it to lock, he held out a hand to keep Kurama and Hatanaka from going behind the curtain just yet.

“Standard psychiatric patient procedure,” Kotsura warned. “Do not engage the patient beyond simple conversation and interaction; he’s very confused - now is not the time for deep discussions.”

“We understand,” Hatanaka spoke for both of them.

Kotsura took the curtain divider in hand and pulled it back.

Kazuma saw what lay beyond and immediately had to look away.

 

Upon a lone bed, tethered at the ankles, wrists... strapped about the legs and arms, barely able to breathe under his constrictions... A guard sitting next to him in a plush chair, regarding them silently.

This could not be Kurama. But it was.

His hair had been erratically chopped off, leaving him looking a bit like Yusuke with a wild flare; his beautiful face was sunken in, his eyes dead even though they were open. Despite Kazuma and Hatanaka’s appearance, Kurama did nothing to engage either of them. He was listless, as devoid of life as a rag doll; the only hint of reaction came from the slight twitch of his fingers... but they were small glimmers that barely lasted a second at most.

 

It was inhumane. It was horrific. It was beyond comprehension and Kazuma had no words.
His Kurama, his beautiful, loving, gentle, talented, ingenious Kurama... brought so low. Brought so far beneath what Kazuma knew him to be.

He suddenly hated Katsura; hated him more than he’d hated any other man in his life... even though he knew that it was not Katsura’s fault, and that it was wrong to hate a doctor who was only doing his job. The madness within Kurama was now reflected on the outside, and Kazuma could no longer ignore it.

Kazuma shook his head, looking away again. He made no sound, but he could feel tears running down his cheeks as he pressed his head into the wall and leaned there, exhausted. The guard got up from the chair, standing beside it instead.

“Do you need to stand outside-?” Katsura asked. Kazuma felt a hand upon his shoulder and brushed it off angrily.

“No,” he spat.

He would not be denied Kurama any longer.
He left the wall, coming to Kurama’s side and dropping down in the chair the guard had abandoned.

He suddenly saw a lock of red hair that had fallen beneath Kurama’s arm; he reached out with trembling fingers and picked it up, feeling the smooth, chopped strands beneath his fingers.

Before anyone could stop him, he pocketed the lock of hair; he did not know why. The guard said nothing though he witnessed the whole scene.

He touched his mouth and nose with a shaking hand, reaching out timidly as he made to take Kurama’s hand in his own.

“Baby...” Kazuma whispered, barely a breath upon the air. “Baby, can you hear me?”

Kurama said nothing.
Kazuma could not bear it; he leaned over the bed and before anyone could stop him or say otherwise he placed a small, dry kiss upon Kurama’s forehead. He did not care who saw, and he did not care what they said.

His gut said that Kurama needed him, and his gut had never been wrong before.

“Don’t,” Kotsura warned. He felt hands upon his shoulder, pulling him back from Kurama - the guard had finally intervened. Kazuma brushed him off angrily, letting go of Kurama’s hand and whirling around to confront them all. What did they think he was? A weak pushover? Did they imagine he would so easily step aside and allow them to treat Kurama any way that they pleased? To fill him up with drugs and leave him tethered to a bed?

“Are you insane?” Kazuma whispered, though he did not know why; it wasn’t as if Kurama was sleeping. “Look at him, he’s practically dying and you won’t let me hold him?!”

“I’m sorry, but that’s procedure.” Kotsura was growing defensive again; Hatanaka said nothing at his side. He wasn’t even looking at Kurama, instead holding the committal papers to his chest and staring at the door. It was as if he was ashamed. “He’s very dangerous--“

“He's not dangerous!” Kazuma shouted; his whisper was gone, eradicated by the word. “He’s just upset! He'd never hurt me!”

Kotsura pointed a finger, his jaw locked tight in sudden nervous fear.

Kazuma looked down; Kurama’s entire hand had twitched.

Shocked, Kazuma reached down and held his hand again; had Kurama twitched his hand because he wanted Kazuma to hold him? Kazuma certainly liked to think so.

He did so, squeezing Kurama’s pale, cold, fingers. Silently, internally, he forswore that he would not leave Kurama’s side. They would have to drag him away.

“Either you’re going to control yourself, control your voice and tone, or I’m going to make you leave,” Kotsura said. He glanced down at his watch. Kazuma set his jaw, grinding his teeth together as his heart began to pound.

“I’d like to see you try,” Kazuma growled. “I’m not leaving his side.”

“Do not threaten me,” Kotsura warned, “or I will have you removed from this hospital entirely.”

“You couldn’t keep me from him. Even if you did, I’d find a way back. I’d find a way to his side. You couldn’t stop me.” Kazuma squeezed Kurama’s fingers hard.

Kotsura’s eyes gleamed, “Step back now, or I will call security... and that will be the end of it-“

“Call the cops, I don’t give a fuck,” Kazuma interrupted. “He needs me. He may not be able to tell me so himself, but he needs me, and I won’t leave him here alone like this-“

Kotsura emitted a deep sigh. He gestured silently to the guard behind Kazuma.

Kazuma turned, looked, and saw the guard begrudgingly pushing upon his walkie talkie- Kazuma’s heart leapt in his chest.

“Code white, ICU room 4,” the guard said.

“Copy that, code white ICU R 4,” came the response.

Code white? What the hell was code white?

Kazuma braced himself, holding tight to Kurama’s hand.

“I’m sorry but you leave me with no choice,” Kotsura said. “I have to protect my patient.”

“Protect him from me?!” Kazuma demanded. He did not care if he shouted now; what difference did it make? If men were coming to fight him, to pull him away from Kurama, then he would shout all he liked. “Are you fucking kidding me? I love him!” he screamed.

Hatanaka flinched but Kazuma did not care, he carried on anyway. “He’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life! We’ve made a home together! We belong together! I won’t let you do this to him! I won’t let you take him from me-!”

He heard the door open; it was all the warning he was given before six security guards came into the room and made a bee line for him. Kazuma had to let go of Kurama’s hand, bringing a fist up for a swing-!

“No!” Kazuma snarled, “I won’t leave him!"

But he had no choice.

Six pairs of hands were grabbing at him, pulling him in several different directions, and the combined strength was too much for Kazuma to take in his weakened, exhausted state. He punched and kicked, shoved and manhandled, but he was being forcibly drug back by each of the security officers who wore determined looks upon their faces; they drug him hard towards the glass door.

“God dammit!“ Kazuma snarled, struggling against them even as his own feet betrayed him. “Kurama-!” Kazuma shouted over the heads of the officers, “Kurama, listen to me! I’m going to get you out of here! Don’t be afraid, I’m going to get you home! If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get- you- home!-“

But it was too late.
He was hauled from the room, cursing and screaming all the while.

 

In the silence that followed as the glass door closed, Kotsura rubbed his brow and gave Hatanaka a sullen, dark look. Hatanaka did not return it.

“I apologize for his behavior,” Hatanaka whispered.
“Don’t,” Kotsura cut him off. “I’ve seen worse done in the name of love. That is not the first time I’ve been threatened.”

A silence crept between them, stretching on. Kotsura checked his watch again.

“I’ll page you when the men from Matsuzawa are here,” Doctor Kotsura said to the guard. “Make sure he remains secure.”

“Yes, sir," the guard replied; for emphasis, he reached over and touched the strap Kazuma had been closest to. It was still securely fastened.

The guard nodded to Kotsura.

Kotsura gestured silently to Hatanaka, and as he left, Hatanaka followed behind.
Suddenly the guard was alone with Kurama again, and as he resumed his seat in the chair beside Kurama’s bed he picked up the Sudoku book he’d been working through. For a moment, there was only silence save for the faint scratches of pencil upon paper, but it was broken by the muted whimpers of Kurama.

His face strained with agony, his hands and forehead strapped down tight to the bed. As he wept openly, the guard could not help but reach out to take Kurama’s hand in his own and give it a comforting squeeze.

“You won’t be coming back here,” the guard murmured softly. “And if you do, it’ll be on your own terms... you won’t be on a bed.”

Still, Kurama wept.

Chapter Text

There was a pounding in Kurama’s brain, a dull and aching drum that filled him from head to toe with its rhythm. His mouth burned, his throat felt like it was on fire, and his tongue was thick with a cottony texture. Light was above him, someone was moving around him, but Kurama could not for the life of him seem to sit up and open his eyes. He tried, several times, to move his feet and his hands, but it was as if he was strapped down-

A fiery mind numbing pain in his mouth-
A tube being forced down his throat-
A vine, wrapping tight around his neck-
A doctor pressing a button-
Kazuma screaming his name, forswearing-

Kurama’s eyes snapped open.
He was strapped to a bed in a white and empty room, and a woman in a doctor’s coat with short brown hair was smiling at him. She wore square glasses and had her hair back in a miniature pony tail. She was sitting next to him in a visitor’s chair, a plastic clip board upon her lap, and her legs were crossed; she was wearing a black skirt, and pantyhose... smart, conservative shoes with a short wedge and plenty of arch support.

Kurama looked around, taking in the high window beside him through which light poured in; a courtyard lay beyond, with a fountain in the middle; beyond that forest. He took in the door to his room, which was locked and made of steel; it had one very small window upon it which seemed to be made of incredibly thick glass. Across from his bed was a steel wardrobe as well a desk from where the doctor had retrieved her chair.

Besides that, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“.... Where am I?” Kurama managed to ask; his voice was hoarse and damaged from lye. His head ached.

“You’re in Matsuzawa Hospital,” the doctor said. “Ward C, a high security area. Room two hundred, the very last room on a long hall that faces East.” She gestured to the window; she had red manicured nails. “It is Thursday, January fifteenth, at eleven o’ eight in the morning.”

The word ‘Mastuzawa’ made Kurama’s blood run cold; Matsuzawa was a psychiatric hospital in Mushiori City... and was known for housing criminally insane patients. If he was in Ward C, then he was no doubt on the same hall as some of those rumored inmates.

He had been sent to a psychiatric ward.

Kurama looked down at his straps, at his pale lithe limbs and all the bruises that were upon them. Where had he obtained such bruises? It looked like he’d been aggressively manhandled. Something likewise did not feel right about his head, but Kurama couldn’t figure it out. It was as if his head was lighter, a feeling that made no sense to him. He turned his head left and right, trying to figure out the root of the sensation, only to realize that his long hair had been hacked off.

Kurama’s eyes widened, feeling the stiff locks aside his skull and ears. He stared at the doctor now in fear, wondering what her purpose was and how long she had been sitting here, watching him.

“Who...?”

“Am I?” she finished, offering him a cheery smile that did not seem forced or fake. “I am Doctor Tomoe Gozen. You can call me Tomoe. I am in charge of Ward C patients, and I am your psychiatrist.” She tilted her head to the side. “How are you feeling today?”

Kurama felt terrified, but he knew that if he said as much to her, she would take it to offense or as a sign of his own weakness. He was torn. Part of him wanted to play his cards incredibly carefully, and to get out of the hospital and away from these straps. The other half of him wanted to lay in this bed forever, to rot into the mattress and never see the light of day again, to tell Tomoe every disgusting truth about his life, till she declared him criminally insane and put him in a padded cell - a fitting punishment for his heinous crimes.

What was the point of keeping up appearances anymore? After all, Shiori was dead.

Kurama’s stomach clenched.

He realized he’d gone a full minute without response.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Are you feeling awake?” Tomoe offered. “Alert? Or are you still groggy? They had you on some pretty powerful juice when you got here.” She said it in such a way as if they were friends, and not patient and doctor. Kurama did not know what to make of her.

He had no idea how he felt, on any level of the word, and his voice broke as he answered her again.

“I don’t know,” he repeated, looking away.

“Hmm,” she said, setting her clip board aside; Kurama realized he had a small bedside table, but it was difficult to see what with his being strapped to the bed. Tomoe reached into the breast pocket of her doctor’s coat and pulled out a small black flashlight which she clicked and shined into Kurama’s eyes. He winced, looking away. “Let me check your eyes.”

He relented a little, staring into the blinding white light.

“You have such an interesting eye color," she complimented him, clicking off the light. He blinked rapidly, his vision temporarily off kilt as his eyes re adjusted. When he could see well again, she was back to smiling in her chair with her clipboard in her lap.

“You seem to be awake. But this must be quite a shock, to go to sleep in one place and wake up in another.”

“How did I get here?” Kurama asked.

“You were transported here by ambulance very early this morning,” Tomoe replied. “Around five, I believe. We arrived at work at the same time." She smiled again.

“Where is Kazuma?” Kurama asked, praying that he was near, that he might be able to hear if Kurama screamed at the top of his lungs. But Tomoe just looked confused as she cocked her head.

“Kazuma?” she repeated in question.

So it seemed Kazuma was not here. Kurama found himself blinking back tears as he looked away towards the window.

“No one has been to see you as of yet,” Tomoe explained gently; at this she patted his arm, perhaps wanting to comfort him. “But that’s only because I haven’t made my introduction until now, nor started my consultation. As soon as I’m finished, you can see whoever you like; but first we need to find out why you are here, and get you well.”

“I’m not sick,” Kurama tried to say, but Tomoe made a worried noise that told him straight away she wasn’t buying his bullshit.

“You swallowed lye,” she corrected him, and she sounded oddly impressed by the fact.

To be fair, it was harsher than dish soap.

“You were very sick last night," she offered. “You still have burns inside your mouth, and your voice is damaged. Does it hurt to swallow?”

Kurama swallowed, trying to wet his tongue with saliva. He felt as if he had strep throat, each muscle contraction making his eyes water with pain. “Yes,” he whispered.

“That will probably last for some time. But don’t worry!” she encouraged. “We have a wonderful physical therapy unit, and they have lots of exercises to try for voice repair.”

“How long am I-“ Kurama could not finish the sentence, could not dare to ask when surely he already knew the answer; they were never letting him leave this place. His mind wandered to his shop, of the home above it, of Eikichi and their bed... of Kazuma next to him, asleep with his arm over Kurama’s stomach. He had failed to follow through with his own death and in so doing had damned himself to a life without all of it. Kurama could not decide whether to be happy at his receiving the punishment he deserved or to lament at all he had lost.

“I’m not insane,” he managed. “I know you think that I am, but I’m not.”

“I don’t think you’re insane,” Tomoe offered; Kurama was shocked to feel a tissue being pressed to his cheek; the wet trail of his tear wiped up by Tomoe’s hand, “I think you’re sad, scared... and you probably want to go home. But I don’t think you’re insane." She assured him.

Kurama could not tell if she was lying or not, and it truly infuriated him when so much was on the line.

“And tell me, doctor,” Kurama said coldly, “is that your professional opinion?”

“It is.” Tomoe just carried on, taking no offense to his harsh and jaded tone. “Free of charge. I could make you pay a rate if that would help it to seem more official.”

Kurama could not abide such a joke when thoughts of his bed and Kazuma’s arms were still bouncing around his head. He wept silently, his face turned away from Tomoe in the hope that she wound not see.

“You’re not insane, Shuichi,” she said, this time softer.

“My name is Kurama,” Kurama growled; the name Shuichi suddenly brought an anger about in him. Who was Shuichi anyway but the lost soul of a fertilized egg he’d dominated and destroyed? Who was Shuichi but a sham and a shell made to protect one frail little human from feeling pain in a world where pain was law and loss was inevitable? “Do not call me Shuichi.”

“I won’t," she replied at once. Kurama heard a scratching sound as if she was writing something on her clipboard.

“I suppose it would be your job to know if I am insane or not, seeing as it is your job to handle the insane.”

“No,” Tomoe corrected him. “That is not my job.”

“Then what is your job?” Kurama asked, rolling his head upon the pillow to glare at her. She could try to be friendly all she wanted, but Kurama knew it was a game and she was trying to play him.

“My job is to listen.”

He snorted derisively and looked away, but she continued on. “My job is to listen, learn, and offer insight when the way feels dark.” She paused. “What is your job? What do you do for a living?”

Kurama rolled his head to look at her, to observe her kind and warm smile... the way her manicured nails gleamed in the light overhead.

Why not? He had nowhere else to be.

“I sell healing herbs to demons,” he said.

Tomoe did not flinch, nor did she look surprised in anyway. She didn’t even make to write on her clipboard.

“Demons,” she mused. “Do they pay well?”

“I’ve never been stiffed. Most people are afraid to cross me.”

“I certainly would be afraid to cross someone who deals with demons.”

“They know my reputation,” Kurama said. “They don’t give me any trouble.”

“And what is your reputation?” Tomoe asked. Another opportunity to lie or tell the truth.

Kurama thought of Kazuma, and how he had beaten him when Kazuma had tried to save his life. Kurama did not deserve those loving and gentle arms.

“Heartless, unforgiving… the most dangerous of threats,” Kurama said. “I work with a team, and I am often the strategist. I control plants,” he added, just for the hell of it. What was the point of lying anymore? After lying to so many fucking people he ought to start telling the truth to someone.

“And does your team deal with demons too?” Tomoe asked, that pleasant smile never leaving. “Can they control plants?”

She was looking for repetitions in a hallucination. Kurama might have found it comical if this weren’t so serious.

“All the time,” Kurama replied. “But I am the only one with that particular power.”

“Tell me about your team. Who are they? What are their names?”

“Urameshi Yusuke, Hiei... and Kuwabara Kazu-”

Saying the name out loud was too much. Kurama’s voice broke; he had to look away again as his face began to contort in misery.

“Kazuma...” She repeated the name, no doubt recalling its mention before. Hearing it made Kurama want to cry; he tried to will himself against it, but it was of no use. “You wondered if he’d been to see you. Are you friends outside of work?”

Kurama did not answer, pressing his face sideways into the pillow in an attempt to muffle his small sobs.

“... Are you lovers?” Tomoe asked.

Kurama could not bear it; he turned and looked her full in the face.

“When can I see him?” Kurama asked, “Please let see him-“

“As soon as you’re feeling better!” she urged, and her tone was back to soothing as she smiled. “What’s the point in having a visit if you can’t even hug your boyfriend?” She gestured to the straps.

“Let me out of these.” Kurama strained a little against them, testing their worth. They were incredibly tight, made of cloth and metal, bolted with leather straps. He could not tear through them if he tried, unlike the thin plastic ones at the hospital.

These were true straps, made to restrain someone truly psychotic.

“I most certainly will,” she promised him. “As a matter of fact, I aim to do so quite soon, but not today. Maybe tomorrow, depending upon if my pharmacist will answer her pager!” she said, patting her hip where a pager lay.

“You intend to medicate me.”

“Well, yes. I do,” Tomoe said, sounding slightly apologetic. She looked at him now frankly, her smile gone. “I do plan on trying out one or two medications, to see if one might help you. I will not hide my intentions from you, Kurama.”

“You couldn’t even if you wanted to.”

“You’re very perceptive," she agreed, relaxing a little in her chair with a small smile.

“It is my job to be,” Kurama whispered.

“Well...” Tomoe looked at her clipboard. “It says here that your job is owner of a medicinal herb shop on 8th Street in Sariashiki, and you live above it.” She looked up again, “That’s where you swallowed the lye. Where did you find the lye?”

“We had some in our cabinet,” Kurama mumbled.

“That's a very powerful chemical to keep next to the coriander,” Tomoe said, once again trying for a joke. She was starting to remind him a bit of a mix between Keiko and Yusuke.

“I had to use it the day before on the drain…”

“The report says that you made a cup of tea, but it only had water and lye in it. You took it into the bedroom and then drank it.” She looked at him again, slightly confused. “Why didn’t you just drink it in the kitchen?”

“... Kazuma was there,” Kurama said.

“And Kazuma was the one who found you?” Tomoe prompted further.

A door busting clean off its hinges, falling flat to the floor in an earth shattering crash-

“Yes.” Kurama could not hide the pain in his voice.

Tomoe nodded, and he heard the scratching of pen on paper.

“What are you writing?” he asked.

“I am writing a note to myself to get Kazuma’s phone number so I can call him and ask him a couple of questions about your behavior earlier that day along with more information about these demons you sell drugs to." She winked cheerily.

Kurama looked away, shaking his head.
A sudden cough tickled his throat, but as he seized in a fit a horrible burn filled his throat and he bit down at once upon his tongue.

“Careful now.” She offered him a portable cup, one with a plastic lid and straw sticking out. A clear liquid resided within it. “Here, have a sip of this.”

But even as she offered it to his parched lips he shrank back in alarm. If she thought he was going to sip a fucking random liquid-

But Tomoe just laughed.

“Oh, such a face,” she said coyly. “It’s water. See?” And with that she took a sip herself. Kurama watched, noting that the volume of the clear liquid visibly decreased; she had swallowed. She was not pretending. She offered him the straw again.

Kurama could not deny that he was incredibly thirsty. If she had swallowed it, it lacked medicine; he could trust that. A doctor could not be drugged and on call. He took the straw in his mouth and relished the sip of water. She allowed him to take several mouthfuls before Kurama pulled his head way.

“That ought to help,” she said, setting the portable cup on the floor, out of his line of sight. “Try not to cough too deeply.”

Kurama was unsure what to make of this strange woman, of her red manicured nails and her pleasant smile. She was bubbly and comical, but soothing and sweet. She listened, and she had yet to call him Shuichi twice. She’d heard him speak of demons and controlling plants, but had not dared to dissuade his ‘illusion’ or call for help. Instead, she had offered him water, and taken the first sip to prove her trust.

Kurama’s mouth, now soothed by the liquid, burned a little less.

~*~

Kazuma could not go home, could not bear to lay in the bed that had been theirs, and so he slouched upon Yusuke’s bar, bitter with his head in his arms. It was Thursday and a little after noon; but Yusuke and Keiko had both taken off work after the exhausting hospital trip. After being thrown out and followed onto the street by the hospital security, Kazuma had wandered the road without clear destination in mind until Yusuke had pulled him by the shirt collar into his car and taken him home. Kazuma had not left since, sleeping on their couch and waking up only when offered by Keiko who had given him a glass of orange juice and some aspirin for his pounding head ache. The entire lot of them looked like shit; Keiko was sullen and pale with bags underneath her lovely brown eyes. Yusuke was grim and kept rubbing his face as he moved about his personal kitchen, making them a meager breakfast. None of them were really hungry but they genuinely needed to eat. Kazuma sat upon a bar stool, Kurama’s lock of hair before him, and watched as his breath made the long red strands flutter up only to drift back down in their hold. He’d put one of Keiko’s berets around the lock, suddenly incredibly attached to it. It was all of Kurama that he could hold or touch... and so he would not let it go.

A vibrating in his pocket caught his attention in a heartbeat; he was getting a call on his cell phone. Yet when he sat up and took his phone out, he did not recognize the number. He glanced up at Yusuke who was waiting for him to pick up with wide eyes.

“Hospital,” Yusuke said.

Kazuma picked up at once, clenching the lock of hair tight.

Keiko waited, stopping in the middle of peeling an orange. Yusuke stood beside her, his eyes never leaving Kazuma’s face.

“Hello?” Kazuma said.

“Is this Kuwabara Kazuma?” a voice asked. It was bubbly and female.

“This is he.”

“My name is Doctor Tomoe Gozen,” said the woman. “I’m Shuichi Minamino’s psychiatrist at Matsuzawa Hospital. He’s your boyfriend, correct?”

Kazuma could not help the gasp that fled past his lips. He looked at Yusuke who silently urged Kazuma to put the phone on speaker. Kazuma did so with shaking hands, setting the phone upon the counter top to hold Kurama’s locket of hair.

“C-correct!” Kazuma blurted out. “How is he?”

"At the moment he’s a little preoccupied with a fantasy world. But I’m going to get to the root of it very soon, so don’t you worry. I called to ask you a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.”

“I-“ Kazuma looked up where Keiko gestured helplessly. What more could they do but follow demands at this point? “I don’t mind at all; can I see him?”

“Soon. Very soon, I promise,” Dr. Gozen replied; she sounded sincere, but Kazuma still wasn’t sure. “First I need to get a bit more information as well as put him on a stabilizer. Hopefully it’ll help with the hallucinations he’s having.”

“Hal-“ Kazuma choked, floundering with an open mouth; Kurama was having hallucinations? Dear God, when would this train to hell stop? “Hallucinations?!”

“Well, right now he thinks that he sells medicinal herbs to demons, that he can control plants, and that he is on a team of spirit detectives that deal with troublesome apparitions. He likewise is under the impression that his name is Kurama, not Shuichi... so we need to deal with that first.” Dr. Gozen laughed.

Kazuma made a noise before he could stop himself. Yusuke dropped the knife he was holding, making it clatter to the floor. Keiko just stared, her hand over her mouth.

What had Kurama done?

“Um...” Kazuma mumbled.

“I was wondering, has he always had these assumptions?” Dr. Gozen continued on. Keiko immediately waved her arms about signaling a huge ‘no’ with terrified eyes.

“No!” Kazuma blurted out, watching Keiko the entire time. “No, he just really loves plants. Maybe that’s it.”

“Quite.”

“And Kurama’s a nickname we all use.”

“I see.”

“And... and he has to deal with some really nasty people, they could be demonic in a way?” Kazuma said, knowing it was one hell of a stretch even as he said it.

“Mhmm.” Dr. Gozen had yet to tell him to stop.

“And we were on a team. We used to do d-detective work,” Kazuma stumbled, for he knew no other way to explain it. “That’s probably what it was about. It’s just a small hiccup, right? I mean... he’s not...” but the word ‘crazy’ could not pass through Kazuma’s lips.

Yet it seemed Dr. Gozen understood.

“No,” she said at once, quite soothing in her tone. “No, he’s just a little confused right now. This upcoming Monday I was thinking it might do him some good to see you. He’s very upset about this whole affair, and misses you terribly. It may boost his morale, soothe him, to be able to see you.”

Kazuma felt like the knife Yusuke was picking up from the floor had been plunged into his chest. Kurama missed him terribly and was very upset- and he was powerless to comfort him. Kazuma could not imagine a darker pit of hell than the one he now resided in.

“God.” He put his head in his hands, wishing he could just wake up.

“Tell me what happened the day Kurama tried to kill himself. When did this... break down start?”

“His mother died,” Kazuma mumbled into his hands.

“When did this happen?”

“January tenth.”

“I see...”

“We cremated her earlier that morning.”

“Go on.”

“We got home around two...” Kazuma shuddered, the entire scene suddenly replaying itself; the milky tea cup, Kurama’s haunted expression, the door caving in under his touch and blood upon the floor. “And when we got upstairs, to our kitchen he... made the tea...”

“Tell me about his mother. What was her name? What was her relationship with Kurama like?”

“Shiori Minamino,” Kazuma said. “Kurama loved her very much.”

His voice broke, and he immediately put a hand over his mouth. He did not want the doctor hearing him crying over the phone.

“And is he an only child?”

“Yes.”

“Is his father alive?”

“They’re estranged,” Kazuma said, still quite bitter over the whole shooting incident.

“So it was just him and his mother, growing up?”

“Yeah.”

“But I have paperwork here from a man who is his step-father.”

“She remarried a few years ago... but he isn’t close to Kurama,” Kazuma said; he still did not know how he felt about Hatanaka, but right now he certainly didn’t like him.

“And what about you? Do you live together?”

“Yes,” Kazuma whispered. He looked away, not wanting to see Yusuke or Keiko’s faces as he suddenly thought of his home right across the street.

“And how long have you been together?”

“Over a year now,” Kazuma said. Had it really only been a year?

“Okay! Well, I’ll tell you what... Thank you so much for helping me to figure out what happened that day and I am going to program your number into my cell phone. As soon as Kurama is ready to receive visitors, you can come and see him.” Dr. Gozen sounded quite cheery, but Kazuma was fucking miserable.

“And you... you have no way of knowing when that will be?”

“Well, I can’t have him running around telling people that he sells drugs to demons.” Dr. Gozen laughed, and frankly Kazuma could see the logic behind that sentence. “He’s very upset, Kazuma. This psychological break with reality alludes to deep seated issues that I will have to work with him on. He could have another mental collapse if we push him to hard too fast, and he might attack someone again. He would be very upset and hurt if that were to happen. I want him to go at his own pace. When you see Kurama is, frankly, up to Kurama.”

Then he was genuinely screwed, and would never see Kurama again.

“... okay,” Kazuma whispered, his head back in his hands.

“All will be well, I promise. But I have to go. I’ll call when I have more information.”

“Bye,” Kazuma mumbled.

“Goodbye.”

And she hung up.

For a moment there was a horrible silence as they all sat about the kitchen bar and realized the gravity of the situation. Kurama was no longer attempting to hide the truth, and in doing so was putting himself deeper into a hole where Kazuma could not reach him. It didn’t matter if Kurama was healthy and healed; if they thought that he was mentally broken, they wouldn’t let him out of Matsuzawa or allow Kazuma see him. There was no way for Kazuma to reach Kurama now, unless Kurama somehow managed to get a grip on himself and remember to lie...

But Shiori was dead; Kurama no doubt felt that lies were useless. It put Kazuma in such a state of misery that he could do little but moan into his hands.

“... Well,” Yusuke grumbled, resuming chopping green onions, “Kurama ain’t wastin’ no damn time spillin’ the beans.”

“What do we do?” Kazuma demanded of Yusuke, fear flooding his face as he smacked his hands upon the counter. The force made his phone jump a little. “He’s telling her the truth, and she’s gonna lock him up! What do we do?” He looked up at Yusuke, afraid. “They think he’s crazy! That he’s hallucinating!”

Yusuke had no answers, his hands in the air as he backed away from the counter. For a minute there was only silence as Yusuke paced and Keiko thought.

Then, Keiko looked at Yusuke with newfound inspiration.

“Yusuke,” she addressed him, and he stopped momentarily to glance at her, “Maybe we need to ask for help from the other side.”

Yusuke raised an eyebrow.

“Maybe Koenma can do something,” Keiko clarified; Kazuma’s heart suddenly leapt. He hadn’t thought about Koenma in years! Could it that their answers lay in that toddler’s hands? “They have doctors in spirit world, right?”

But Yusuke was still thinking and hadn’t answered.

“Right?”

“Right,” Yusuke finally said. He was suddenly looking up at the ceiling, as if to the sky which lay beyond the plaster and concrete.

“Then call Koenma,” Keiko urged. “And tell him to get Kurama out of there. Say that Kurama’s revealing information about demon and spirit world; Koenma will have no choice but to intervene. He’s done it before!”

It was true. He had.
Kazuma and Yusuke glanced at one another.

Yusuke turned, and without another word left the kitchen heading for the stairs to the second floor. Kazuma did not know where he was going or what he intended on doing when he got there... but, God, he hoped it was enough.

Kurama’s lock of hair was still clutched tight in his hand.

~*~

Three days passed, and nothing changed. Kurama remained bound to the bed, his joints sore from being unable to move. He’d started on a medication, and Tomoe came to sit with him frequently but Kurama did not change his story; every time she left she looked oddly disappointed... but she always returned with more energy and hope the next day. She was relentless in her pursuit of his good health.

But Kurama knew he was doomed; that he would no doubt die in this hospital simply from a broken heart if nothing else, and wept often to himself as he thought of Kazuma and all that lay outside the concrete and straps that bound him. He thought of Yusuke and Keiko, of their beautiful restaurant and their incessant bickering. He though Shizuru, strong and smart; he thought of Yukina and how her little soaps smelled of ginger. He thought of Hiei quite often, and the life that both of them had lead in demon world. He wondered where Hiei was (no doubt with Mukuro somewhere) and what Hiei would say if he knew all that Kurama was enduring. He would no doubt be enraged, and cut him free of the bindings...

Oh, what Kurama would give for Hiei’s skilled hands... for his sharp eyes and sharp mind. If anyone could get him out of this mess, it would be Hiei.

But Kurama suffered in silence, his sobs echoing about the desolate and dark room late into the night. When the sun rose, Kurama’s eyes ached, and there were puffy red tear tracks upon his face.

He had no way of telling time, but as shadows crept across his room close to dusk on the third day, there came a knock on his door and it was opened to reveal Tomoe. She had her clipboard in hand once again, and was smiling in that same bubbly way.

But she frowned when she saw him crying.

“Hello...” she murmured softly, coming over to his bedside and sitting down. She took a tissue and wiped at his cheeks though there was little need for it. Kurama jerked away from her touch. She respected the move and did not make to dry his tears any more, though she easily could have. “How are you?”

“Dying,” Kurama ground out between clenched teeth.

“Why are you dying?” she asked. She had a tape recorder with her, something she often carried about, and she set it on the bedside table. Kurama could see its red little light blinking.

“Because I am rotting away in an asylum,” Kurama’s voice shook, “and I cannot be with the ones I love, and you think that I am fucking insane even though all I am doing is telling the truth.”

“Well now, that’s silly.” Tomoe scoffed softly. “Because, one, you’re not in an asylum, you’re in a psychiatric hospital-“

“It’s the same goddamn thing!” Kurama shouted, his voice bouncing wildly about the room, “Don’t you dare attempt to sugarcoat the truth!”

He seized coughing, and looked away.

Tomoe said nothing for a moment, though she did lay a hand over his forehead to check for fever and also felt his wrist for his pounding pulse.

“Goodness," she mused, completely at peace with the whole outburst. “That was quite an explosion. How long have you been wanting to yell at me?”

“Days,” Kurama said bitterly.

“Well, I’m glad you did,” she said, as if to insist he should have done so sooner. “Asylums are terrible things, I assure you, Kurama. You are not in one. You would have to be committed first... and in order for that to happen I would have to submit a piece of paper to a judge saying that you were criminally insane. Which I won’t, because you aren’t. So. You’re not in an asylum. Secondly, I do not think you’re insa--”

“Really?” Kurama demanded. “Because I’m still strapped to this bed!”

“Only for now!” Tomoe offered. “Only until we understand why you think you’re selling drugs to demons and controlling plants-“

“Oh my god,” Kurama screamed again, his temper lost for the second time as he snarled at Tomoe. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” He thrashed in his bindings but it was no good. He could not break free of them, “I’m telling you the truth!”

Tomoe just watched him, alert but unafraid. Kurama collapsed back into his pillow suddenly weak and miserable as a sob escaped his lips.

“Oh, there’s no use...”

“Why are you crying?” she asked him softly.

“If Kazuma saw me like this it would kill him. I want-“ Kurama broke off, a sob making speech impossible for a moment. “I want to go home but I don’t deserve it. Not after... what I’ve done.”

The sins of his crimes lay heavily upon his chest; it suddenly felt very difficult to breathe, as if the air was poisonous gas and not oxygen.

“But really, what have you even done?” Tomoe asked, rubbing his arm soothingly. “You made an honest mistake, plain and simple-“

“I hurt him-“ Kurama sobbed, remembering vividly how he had punched, slapped and scratched Kazuma after foiling his suicide attempt, “When he made me throw up the lye-!”

“Well, he thwarted your plan,” Tomoe reminded him. “And you’ve already said you’re quite the strategist. That must have made you very angry-“

“I said horrible things to him!” Kurama shouted wildly at her, his sobs now wracking his frail body in huge gasps. His throat burned, he was almost certain there was blood in his mouth, but still he could not stop crying.

“What did you say?”

“I- I can’t remember- but it was... something like ‘If you loved me you’d let me die’.”

“Well, that’s a very scary thing to say to someone who loves you,” Tomoe admitted. She put her hand back over Kurama’s forehead stroking away his chopped locks, “I spoke with Kazuma a few days ago on the phone. He was very worried about you... I don’t think he’s mad. I think he wants to see you, to hold you; he told me that your mother recently died.”

 

Kurama looked way, forcing Tomoe’s hand from his forehead.

For a moment they sat in ugly silence as Kurama wept softly into his pillow. Tomoe rubbed his arm up and down, never stopping. Her hand was warm upon his skin.

“My mother died too, about a year ago,” Tomoe admitted; though Kurama listened, he was still so distressed that Tomoe’s words were not sticking as they ought to. “She suffered from aggressive Alzheimer's. It was very frightening to watch the woman I love dissolve into a woman I did not know. I was given the option to commit her... but I didn’t. I should have. Professionally, I know that; but I didn’t.“ Tomoe paused. “I couldn’t do that to her. Every time I thought about it I would remember how she'd pick me up as a little girl and twirl me in the air.”

Kurama sniffed, looking up at her. Tomoe was smiling fondly at her memory.

Suddenly Kurama could remember being in a cherry tree, a child no older than five, and Shiori calling out to him from below, her ams open wide, waiting to catch him.

“My mother was a brilliant scholar... but her mind became her madness. Still, I’ll always remember her as I saw her in childhood. I don’t recall the woman who ran half naked up the street screaming, raving mad... that wasn’t my mother.” At this, Tomoe looked at Kurama expectantly. “Who was your mother?”

“... Shiori.” Kurama whispered the name.

God, what he would have given to be held by Shiori now, to feel her loving and sympathetic arms around his neck.

“She was kind,” Kurama said; what use was such a detail to Tomoe? But still he told her. He told her simply because he must tell someone before his mind broke completely in two as it was bound to do if left under such strain. “She was kind, and good, and she trusted me.” Another sob passed through Kurama’s lips.

Tomoe nodded, pulling out her pen from her breast pocket to write upon the clipboard. It didn’t matter what she wrote now; Kurama no longer cared.

“She never knew the truth about me,” lamented Kurama. “She never knew."

“What truth did she not know?”

“That I was a demon. That I was... vile and cruel. That I was murderous.”

“Heavy words,” Tomoe mused, looking up at him. “But I don't know if you’re any of those things. Why do you claim to be them?”

“Because they are true, you foolish woman!” Kurama snarled at her. Of course, she heard ‘demon’ and thought it meant a bad person. She still could not comprehend. “You think that you know who I am, that you know why I’m here, but you do not!”

At this, Tomoe re-crossed her legs and relaxed into her chair.

“Please," she said, waving a hand expectantly. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here because I drank lye and was stupid enough to get caught,” Kurama snarled. “I have a long history of thievery, arson, murder and torture. Had I been in my prime, I would never have gotten caught. I’m here because I’ve gone soft!”

“Long history?” Tomoe repeated his words. She flipped causally through her clipboard, shaking her head. “You have no criminal record. You’ve never even gotten as much as a traffic ticket. Although you were shot several months ago and killed an attacker in self-defense. If you had committed murder, surely the police would have at least listed you as a suspect-“

Kurama scoffed, cutting her off: “I didn’t do it in this life.”

“This life?” Tomoe asked.

“I did it in my past life. I am a demon.” Kurama enunciated the word with as much clarity as he could muster, in hopes that perhaps this time it would register properly with her.

For a moment, Tomoe just stared at him.

“What kind of a demon are you?” she asked finally, her pen perched upon her paper. It seemed the fun was about to begin.

“A yoko.”

“What makes you think that?” Tomoe asked, writing as she spoke.

“Because it is true,” Kurama ground out, the words tight between his teeth. “There are two other worlds separate from this one: demon world and spirit world. I am from demon world. I have lived before. I am one thousand two hundred and forty eight years old, and that is not including my human life.”

Tomoe just nodded, smiling up at him unexpectedly.

“You’re looking good for one thousand two hundred and seventy three,” she said, and Kurama scoffed as she combined his demon age with his human age. “What’s your secret?”

“You don’t believe me,” Kurama groaned to the ceiling. Of course she didn’t believe him, why should she? “You sit there and you think me a rambling lunatic. You have no idea what kind of power I possess. You think yourself safe.”

“Do you think me unsafe?” Tomoe prompted.

“I think you stupid,” Kurama seethed, turning his head to glare at her, “and unworthy of my time. I could kill you in a second if I so chose.”

“Why would you do that?" she asked with no real malice or concern. “I thought we were friends. That’s very unfriendly-“

“We aren’t friends, you are my jailor!” Kurama snarled, “You are mortal, weak, and completely vulnerable to me!”

“Like your mother?” Tomoe threw the question out there as one might lob a sword; as skilled as a ninja, she sliced through the sinews of his heart. Kurama winced and looked away.

“... Exactly like my mother,” he whispered.

“Being one thousand two hundred seventy three years old must help with the fear of mortality; you must feel safer knowing you’re not going to die anytime soon-“

“Are you a fucking idiot?” Kurama snarled at her. “I attempted to die; I wanted to die! I was going to die if I hadn’t been caught!”

“And yet you seem to have a fascination with avoiding death since this is the second time you’ve done it,” Tomoe offered.

Kurama blinked in surprise and laughed in spite of himself. “Admittedly I did the first time. When I died I transferred to her womb and cared nothing for what it did to her body, to my soul. I thought I could easily recuperate and return, but I became conflicted. It’s really quite queer - I never cared about my first mother, my actual mother.”

And all of a sudden, he was spilling his soul. “She was a normal yoko, like any other. All my family was. I was born into a large skulk of yokos, which is typical. I grew strong, I was good at defending and protecting, but I didn’t care about protecting others even if they were related to me. I wanted to taste blood. I wanted to know glory. So I struck out on my own and started carving a bloody path through demon world. This is before the rise of Mukuro, so there was no control in the Alaric to speak of, but it didn’t matter. Back then you didn’t need to kill the king. If you fucked up enough of the forest, you could get anyone’s attention.”

He was talking so fast now, practically rambling. He must sound like a raving lunatic but he didn’t care. Tomoe was listening now, not even attempting to write.

“Attention is good," she commented casually as he carried right on.

“I murdered, I pillaged, I destroyed everything I touched, and I came to have a little group of followers. Idiots who thought I was their leader because I was stronger than them. I used them, I didn’t give a shit; they were simple-minded creatures and they fulfilled my purpose. The only ones that stood out in the crowd were Yomi and Kuronue. Yomi was just some fucking kid who thought he could take my spot if he got stronger than me but he was reckless and foolish and cost me several good heists because he went against my orders and got my men killed. So I had him assassinated; the job was botched and they only managed to blind him, but it didn’t matter. It got Yomi off my hands. That pathetic bastard.” And at this an ugly laugh escaped Kurama’s lips, cold and hard.

“A pity they botched the job,” Tomoe mused. “You might run into him one day-“

“Oh, I did!” Kurama cried out; by god, Tomoe was insightful. “Of course, then I had to deal with him as the ruler of Gandara. I had no interest in his political games, but he threatened Shiori, so I could not refuse him.”

“And so you allowed Yomi to use you - a wild reversal of roles. What about Kuronue?”

Kurama groaned. What about Kuronue, indeed? Kuronue, who had deserved none of his cruelty, yet had received all of it.

“Kuronue was different. Kuronue loved me, the fucking fool. Every time he tried to touch me, I shoved him away. I thought he was nothing more than a disgusting leech, though he never showed me a drop of unkindness.”

“That’s certainly different than how you treat Kazuma,” Tomoe said. The words stung.

“I was wounded once. A heist went wrong, thanks to Yomi. I was in need of rest, I hid to recover, and Kuronue found me. The delusional moron just pressed himself against me, wrapped his arms around me, like I was his lover - like I was good to him in any way at all. Someone must have thought he meant something to me because they killed him in front of me, to spite me. I didn’t think it mattered, but- he pushed me out of the way. He screamed at me to run, and when I saw him, when I saw his blood on the ground, I … I suddenly felt everything. I had wasted my time with him.”

The blood amid the bamboo, the light draining from those violet eyes-

“That must have truly broken your heart,” Tomoe murmured softly.

“I was enraged!” Kurama howled the word, twisting in his straps though he could not get away from the pain now rampant in his heart, “I murdered everyone. I murdered that whole colony - not just the men, but the women and the children too! They were animals, and I slaughtered them like animals!” he screamed.

“And it felt good, to make them suffer,” Tomoe continued in that same soft voice, “after all Kuronue had suffered.”

“But the SDF-“ Kurama laughed in spite of himself. What would the SDF say if they could see him now, firing off secrets about demon and human world left and right? “They were getting just a little angry with me. And they were waiting. It was a trap. And they pursued me. I was weak from the battle and I was so angry, so very angry- and they killed me. They shot me through the heart. And I died on that field, just like any other yoko... But I wasn’t ready to give up; I was furious. Furious at my carelessness. So I hid in the womb of an unsuspecting human-“

“Shiori.”

“Shiori,” Kurama confirmed in a whisper. “I was eager to recover, and I was born again into this life. At first I carried on with my plan and didn’t care about the foolish twit but she adored me. Of course she adored me - I was her child! And then, one day when I was four a glass jar fell to the ground, and I slipped, and had I hit it I would have been shredded to ribbon- but she threw herself at me. She took the glass into her own arms- till the day she died she had scars from that-“

But he could say no more. He broke off, a fresh sob escaping his lips.

For a moment they sat in silence. Then, Tomoe spoke.

“That must have really touched you. Maybe even reminded you of Kuronue.”

“I suppose it did,” said Kurama quietly.

“After she saved you from the broken glass, did anything change?” Tomoe asked, recrossing her legs and picking her pen back up to write on her clipboard.

“Everything,” Kurama moaned the word. “Everything. God, everything changed.”

Suddenly Kurama had done a 180, turning from a cold and aloof toddler to a loving and devoted child. He had cared for Shiori even at the tender age of five, constantly forswearing his love to her and doing everything he could to make life better for her. When school had begun, he’d pressed hard to study, to understand these tricky human subjects like math and science. Shiori’s beaming face, so prideful and adoring, had been well worth the haggard nights of exhaustive studying.

“What changed?”

“I- I suddenly realized how much her love meant to me…” Her love had rocked him through nights of haggard dreams, of nightmares where he was a yoko again and slaughtering humans in the street. Shiori had stayed up, rubbing his feet till the early hours of the morning, lying beside him in his small bed and holding him snugly in her arms, humming lullabies into his ears.

“Unconditional love,” Tomoe said.

“She knew nothing,” Kurama repeated, bitter and hateful towards himself. “The whole time, she knew nothing! Because I could not tear her happiness from her- tell her that her son, her only family, was a barbarous wretch!”

He screamed the word ‘wretch’ and for the first time, Tomoe flinched.

She sat pensively in her chair, timidly reaching out to rub his arm. Still Kurama wept.

“... Don’t let Kazuma near me,” Kurama sobbed. “Keep these chains on me, save humanity from me!” His words were barely distinguishable through his tears. “Save them all from me! Throw me in a cell and lock me up and don’t let me out - do you understand?”

“Oh, Kurama...” Tomoe murmured. “Why do you want that for yourself?”

But it was too much; Kurama could not bear it anymore.

“Because I am evil!” Kurama screamed, thrashing hard; he was beyond hope, and he would do anything to make her understand. “Look at me! Look at me, and understand who you’re facing!”

Kurama’s power suddenly kicked in; he could feel something thick and tuberous behind his head – a vine.

A single seed had been left in his hair from the hospital, but it was all that he needed. He pushed all his rage into that seed, all his power, and suddenly the straps holding him to the bed were busted free one by one as a wild net of vines scoured down his legs and arms. Tomoe leapt back, clutching her heart, her blood draining from her face as Kurama leapt off the bed, covered in vines and thorns. He wore them like a shield, and he reached out to grab Tomoe before she could run, before she could scream.

Kurama threw her against the wall, her head hitting it with a horrible, resounding smack. He pinned her there by the throat, vines now pouring above her body, thorns pricking her skin, making her bleed.

Tomoe held back her scream but it was obvious upon her bloodless lips. Her eyes were pinched shut - Kurama would not stand for it.

“Look at me!” he roared, and slammed her head against the wall again. She gasped, her eyes flying open; so large, so innocent, so terrified. “Look at me and see me for who I am!”

Tomoe was speechless despite how the thorns shredded her soft skin, her mouth open and silent as Kurama pinned her tight against the wall. Their faces were pressed together now, Kurama’s legs shaking beneath him as they struggled to support his weight after four days of being tied down.

“You think I’m some kind of delusional human, suffering from a nervous breakdown,” Kurama snarled. “It’s time to confront reality! I am a monster, I am unworthy of redemption, and I’ll slice you into a thousand bloody pieces before you have a chance to scream!”

A vine rose from his left, its thorny tendril stroking Tomoe’s cheek. From where the thorn touched her a thin red welt appeared, slowly opening with blood. He could shred her flesh like ribbon now; there was nothing she could do to stop him.

“You thought I was spinning some elaborate tale, but I have told no falsities! My name is Yoko Kurama, and I am a murderous thief posing as human for the sake of a mortal coil. But that woman is gone now, and there is nothing holding me back! Nothing is holding me here, nothing to spare you from the agony of dying at my hands!”

A subtle flick of his wrist and another vine shot forth toward her neck, about to go for the kill-

“Kazuma!” Tomoe blurted the name. The vine halted in mid-air, mere inches from her throat. Kurama jerked back as an icy cold rush of fear overtook him.

Tomoe looked him dead in the face. “You have Kazuma. And – and,” she stumbled along, her words shaky, “You are having a nervous breakdown. Because you’re scared to death that you will become a murderer again. But you won’t! Because Shiori gave you all the tools you needed for recovery and redemption!”

But Tomoe’s words were cut off suddenly by a thunderous crash which resounded on the other side of the heavily bolted door to Kurama’s cell. Both of them looked at it.

Kurama could feel the overpowering spirit energy on the other side.

He relaxed his hold on her a little bit, his vines retreating from her bleeding skin; could it be?

“... I do believe you’re saved,” Kurama whispered softly.

It was the SDF, there could be no denying. Not with the power that he felt radiating through the door, not with the explosions slamming into it from the other side; they were going to force their way in!

“Listen to me!” Kurama was shocked witless when Tomoe reached up and grabbed his face, forcing him to turn back and look at her. Her brown eyes were wide, blood dripping down her cheek, but still she tried: “I still want to help you, Kurama! I know you’re hurting and I can-!”

But the door blew open, unable to withstand the pressure from the SDF. Kurama whipped around, got one good look at the men in armor pouring through the door, and then white light hit him right in the chest-

He was falling into blackness, Tomoe still entangled in his arms....down.... down.... down.

Chapter Text

Koenma’s job was a simple one, really. He stamped papers sending the dead to heaven or hell, and he watched over spirit world in his father’s absence. There were times when the job got hectic... an oncoming apocalypse perhaps or a martyr with a point to prove (like Sensui). For the most part, though, the world had been quietly spinning for the past seven years.

Yet here now before him was a woman who had somehow made it buzz again - plain and lovely, with brown curly hair and a simple sweet smile.

Shiori Minamino stood in his office and beheld it all with enchanted grace. She looked up at the ceiling, at the walls, at the door behind her, and finally at Koenma.

Incredible... to think this beautiful woman was Kurama’s mother.

Kurama’s destruction.

“Are you ready to go?” Koenma asked, relaxing in his chair as he held Shiori’s file upon his desk. She’d chosen rebirth, something that he found slightly surprising since she’d done so many good things in her past life. Though she did not know it, her file also included details on Kurama’s resurrection into human world... Koenma could open the file now, could turn it around and show her, tell her everything.

But for twenty five years, Kurama had kept his silence. Koenma could to the same for five more minutes. Shiori would never know... not even in death.

“Almost,” Shiori said, pleasantly, “Is it improper of me to ask you a question?”

“No,” Koenma assured her. “Many do. Usually about their family or themselves... sometimes the meaning of life though I confess I cannot impart those answers to a soul.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised, then, if I asked how my son is doing?”

Koenma shook his head.

Her son was just down the hall, being put on a thorough detox after wreaking havoc in human world and nearly killing an innocent civilian. Koenma put on a smile and pretended one more time.

“He’s fine,” Koenma lied. Though Shiori did not know it, a tape recorder lay in his desk drawer that proved heavily otherwise. “He’s sad, but he’ll be fine.”

“I’m glad,” Shiori murmured, her smile relaxing a little. “I knew he would be... Kazuma loves him.”

“Naturally,” Koenma agreed. How the hell those two had ended up together was beyond him, but who was he to judge? He had fallen in love with an employee and not even the one he spent the most time with. Poor Ame, now having to endure Botan giggling and poking sly teasing jokes at her for dating her own boss. “Is that all?”

“That’s all," Shiori said.

Koenma reached out for his stamp and signed her letter without another word.

“My assistant Botan will lead the way,” Kazuma said, and he pressed a button upon his desk for Botan to know to open the door. She did so, poking her head inside and smiling sweetly at Shiori; she looked sad. Koenma gave her a warning look when Shiori turned her back on him. Botan had better not run her damn mouth and say something to Shiori.

She nodded at him; she knew the rule. They’d had this conversation earlier.

“Hello!” Botan said as she held the door wide for Shiori. “Shall we?”

“Yes, why not?” Shiori said, and they walked off down the hall. Koenma waited a good three minutes after the door had shut, wanting Shiori out of the way before bringing in his next client... he pressed the button again, and this time when the door opened Yusuke Urameshi was on the other side.

It was strange, to see him after so many years apart. Koenma had put everything into this boy, and watched in amazement as he flourished into a man. Yusuke had earned his respect, his allegiance, and when Yusuke had made the call requesting Koenma’s help, Koenma had given it at once. During his father’s reign, Koenma’s hands might have been bound... but he controlled spirit world now, and he made the rules. If Yusuke needed help, he gave it.

Koenma gestured, and Yusuke walked in the room. Kuwabara was right behind him, both of them looked utterly spent. Koenma could not blame them. He’d called them an hour ago, requesting their presence in spirit world after capturing Kurama and bringing him to detox.

“Yo,” Koenma said. “Long time no see.”

“Where is he?” Kuwabara asked at once.

“Being looked over by a medical team,” Koenma said.“The drugs that he had in his system were making him delirious at best; we have better stuff, suited to demons. But in all honesty I don’t see what keeping him here will do. I’m going to relinquish him into your custody-“ He pointed to Yusuke, “You’re strong. You can handle him.”

Yusuke snorted, rolling his eyes. He hadn’t changed a bit in eight years.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Yusuke grumbled, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets. Kuwabara rubbed his face several times, seeming quite dead on his feet.

“Can I see him?” Kuwabara asked.

“No,” Koenma said. “Not until we get him stable - off the drugs.” Kuwabara was crest fallen, “Then you can come get him and take him home. After all that Kurama has done for me, I think this is the least I can do for him.”

“Well,” Yusuke drawled, “I’m glad you agree. I would have hated to force your hand.”

“You would have delighted in it.” Koenma scowled, for he was well aware Yusuke had a penchant for making chaos when he wanted to. “Don’t bullshit a professional bullshitter.”

He opened his desk drawer and fished out the recorder. Putting it on the desk before the two men, he slid it forward. They eyed it warily.

“We wiped everyone’s memories of the incident - over twenty five people from the ambulance ride all the way to the psych ward, not to mention the three hundred people involved during the funeral. Easy work,” Koenma said, touching the recorder. “All the files, all the footage, all the evidence... gone. It’s like it never happened. But it did happen, and this is the proof.”

He hit play on the recorder and voices filled the air:

“Keep Kazuma away from me... keep these chains on me... save humanity from me! Save them all from me! Throw me in a cell and lock me up-! Save yourself while you can!” Kurama’s voice was inhuman with grief and rage.

“Oh, Kurama,” a woman’s gentle voice whispered, “Why do you want that for yourself?”

“Because I am evil! Goddammit! Look at me! Look at me, and understand who you’re facing!” Kurama was truly screaming now, and strange sounds emitted from the recorder; Koenma was unsure what those noises were, but they sounded a bit like vines growing at a rapid rate... that would correlate with the report, at least.

“You think I’m some kind of delusional human, suffering from a nervous breakdown. It’s time to confront reality! I am a monster, I am unworthy of redemption, and I’ll slice you into a thousand bloody pieces before you have a chance to scream!”

Kazuma flinched at Kurama’s words. Koenma could not blame him.

“You thought I was spinning some elaborate tale, but I have told no falsities! My name is Yoko Kurama, and I am a murderous thief posing a human for the sake of a mortal coil. But that woman is gone now, and there is nothing holding me back! Nothing is holding me here, nothing to spare you from the agony of dying at my hands!”

They’d heard enough. Koenma hit ‘stop’, and the voices died out at once.

Koenma looked up at the men unsurprised to find them both glaring.

“That’s hardly the creepiest revelation of the tape,” Koenma said, for the part about Kuronue had been downright unnerving, “merely the most dangerous.”

Yusuke took the tape recorder and clenched it tight in his fist. He might have broken it, but he didn’t.

“Kurama is smart and kind... he is aware of the world around him." Koenma mused after a moment, lacing his fingers together upon his desk, “When he is healthy and happy, the truth will pour from his mouth. When he is at his lowest, none are safe.” He looked at the two men before him. “I’m going to try and get him to a calmer point, a middle ground from which you can work. But I’ll leave it to you to do the rest. I don’t know Kurama. I don’t know how his heart works or why this devastated him as much as it did. But I do know that when Shiori died a part of Kurama died too. We need to get that part back any way that we can. Work on that for me.”

He nodded to Yusuke, who saluted him with his middle finger pointedly raised.

“Sir, yes sir.”

“Head on home,” Koenma dismissed them. “I’ll call when he’s ready to be picked up; expect it in about... three days.”

Yusuke and Kuwabara left, closing the door behind them, and Koenma slowly took Shoiri’s file in his hands. He felt the weight of it, of an entire life now fully closed, and without another word slipped it into his desk drawer next to two other files.

 

~*~

It was a very strange change, to be drug to spirit world in a binding light only to be removed upon arrival and told that he was not under arrest. Frankly, Kurama’s experience with spirit world authorities had usually been of a different color, but for some reason Koenma did not seem to blame him for his outburst. As soon as Tomoe’s memory had been erased and her wounds healed, Kurama had been lead to a private and quiet area on the end of a long hall where he could sit and think as the drugs were washed out of his system. He was not detained, he was not in chains, and he was not being hammered with questions. Instead, he was being left alone to muddle in his own thoughts... which was arguably worse.

He knew now from Koenma that Yusuke had called in the favor to pull him out of the psych ward. Yusuke who had punched so joyfully in the mouth, was his saving grace and for some reason not angry with him. Kurama could hardly believe his luck, after having been so certain that his freedom was gone. Suddenly, he was no longer bound, and could do as he pleased so long as he was quiet and kept to his room. He could walk about, read a book, sit in the chair that was more of a bed than anything else... and think.

Think he did, of nothing but Kazuma, their home, and how he longed to return to it.

On the third day of his quiet captivity in spirit world, a knock came upon the door and it was opened to reveal a doctor holding a file and a bundle of clothes under his arms. Kurama sat up, having been slouched in his chair under a heavily depressive spell of thought.

“Kurama? Your blood work came back. The drug’s out of your system,” the doctor said, gesturing with the closed file. “Lord Koenma says you’re free to be discharged.”

He walked forward, and offered Kurama the bundle of clothes. It was a pair of jeans, and a t-shirt and a gray sweatshirt that was very familiar underneath a pair of tennis shoes. He smelt the sweatshirt, and was shocked at the hint of ginger and aftershave he found there.

This was Kazuma’s sweatshirt, one that he’d worn quite often and grown very attached to.

“Your friends brought this for you. They’re waiting for you outside at the bridge,” the doctor said.

Kurama’s heart leapt, and he gasped as he looked up at the doctor.
His friends... did that mean Kazuma was outside? Did that mean he could finally...?

Did that mean he could go home?

“Leave your IV in,” the doctor ordered. “We’re going to give you a prescription to take. When you’re ready, just come outside. We’ll walk you out.”

With that, he turned and closed the door behind him as he left.

Kurama looked at the bundle in his lap, and a dry sob escaped his lips as he touched the sweatshirt.

He knew what he must do, but he was so very tired. Still he stood up and removed his dirty hospital clothes. He was utterly relieved as the smooth cotton of his t-shirt slid over his head. Of how marvelous it felt, to dress as normal people dressed. The sweatshirt was a sensory overload, and Kurama simply stood there for a moment to smell it deeply. He put on his jeans, and sat down to tie up his tennis shoes, but he just kept going back to that sweatshirt and inhaling.

He could barely hold back tears, but he tried.

He threw his dirty hospital clothes away in a bin by the door, and opened it to find that the doctor was waiting outside. He had a vial in his hands and gave it to Kurama. It was a prescription of purified Clematis... Kurama had given some to Yusuke when he’d been distraught so many months ago. He knew this plant well, and its side effects.

“Take a dosage only if you have an episode. It’ll help with nightmares and anxiety,” the doctor said, and they walked together down the hall. It took them several flights of stairs to reach the bottom level of the palace, and by the time they did Kurama was utterly exhausted again.

The doors to the outside were ahead of them, tall and imposing, Kurama trembled in their shadow as the doctor reached out and took the door knob in hand.

“They’re just outside. Good luck.” He opened the door, and bright light made Kurama wince momentarily as his eyes re-adjusted.

A land of pink fog, floating like a sea of mist awaited him. A great golden bridge extended up and out, covering the gap between the shell upon which the palace floated and the gates of the other side. The river Styx lay between them, peaceful and gentle in its silver streamed course.

And there, on the other side of the bridge, were two men.
Kazuma Kuwabara and Yusuke Urameshi.

Kurama looked away, grief and shame filling him to the brim as he hastily blinked back tears. He took several steadying breaths, but nothing could seem to calm his nerves. The doctor registered his worry, and gave him a look of warning as he cast a wary eye out behind them. If someone saw Kurama on the edge of a nervous breakdown now, Kurama would never get home. He’d be detained even longer, and god forbid maybe even put in chains again.

Kurama knew this, but the shame within him was making it impossible to stay calm.

“Look, just get through the portal,” the doctor urged, whispering close to his ear. “Just get over the bridge and they won’t make you stay. If you want to go home, do what it takes. Hold it together.”

Kurama nodded hastily, walking outside before he could change his own mind, and the doctor closed the door right after him so that Kurama could not turn around and run back inside. There, upon the threshold, Kurama looked up at the soft pink skies of spirit world and all around as the River Styx wound beyond them.

This place was incredibly lovely. Why had he never noticed that before now?

He knew that Kazuma was waiting, was on the other side of the bridge... and yet Kurama did not know if he possessed the will to go forward. Going forward would be tantamount to begging for mercy on his knees, to apologizing for everything and praying for forgiveness from those that he loved.

But the doctor’s words hung in his ears.

“If you want to go home, do what it takes.”

The mists of the spirit world swept at his feet, temporarily hiding the bricks, and as Kurama looked down he noticed how tiny tendrils of pink flourished in the shallows of his shoes. He sniffed, and began to walk forward.

Step by step Kurama trudged forward, and though he could hear Kazuma’s footsteps drawing closer he did not dare to look up. The back of his neck and his ears were very cold without his long hair. He’d not had short hair since he was in grade school; Hiei had first come into his life then. Funnily enough, he’d even had a girlfriend then... a lovely young woman named Maya. Was she his girlfriend? Kurama couldn’t be sure. She’d been more like a very good friend who wanted to be his girlfriend-

He was upon the bridge now; Kurama did not know how close he was to Kazuma until he saw a shadow before him, and the tips of Kazuma’s boots peeking into his vision.

He paused, brushing his lip with his trembling fingers; he kept his gaze averted low.

A full minute passed and still Kurama could not look up. He knew Kazuma was waiting for him to speak, waiting for him to apologize. Kurama wanted to; shame burned in his cheeks. He took in breath after breath, feeling like he might vomit.

Kurama slowly brought his hand down, but every time his hand got to his waist it would just rise again; first to his stomach, then to his heart.

Kurama could feel himself shaking, despite the warmth of Kazuma’s sweatshirt.
Why had Kazuma brought this piece of clothing for him? Because he knew that Kurama might be feeling cold? Or because he remembered that Kurama wore it often?

Because Kurama did wear it often.

“... I am... so sorry,” Kurama whispered, hoarse and fearful. He still would not look up, still afraid to hear what Kazuma would say, “... For everything.”

There were warm fingers coming around his chin, and suddenly Kurama’s face was forced to rise. He gazed upon Kazuma, and saw in those warm eyes all the love and affection he feared would flee. Kazuma had bags under his eyes and was no doubt exhausted; had he not been sleeping? Kazuma stroked Kurama’s chin. Those fingers... oh, how Kurama needed those fingers.

“I am so sorry-“ Kurama could not say it with a straight face when he was looking into Kazuma’s eyes, and suddenly Kurama was trying to look down, to look away, if only to spare himself the humiliation of weeping so openly after being the one to fuck up so badly. “I am so, so sorry-“

“God-!”

Kazuma jerked Kurama into his arms, wrapping him up tight in such a hug that Kurama felt his rib cage decompress. It was a hug of strength, of protective love that wrapped him up from the bitter cold he’d been feeling since he was first tethered to a bed almost a week ago. This past week had been a week from utter hell, and suddenly Kurama was weeping haggardly into Kazuma’s chest, wrapping his arms about his broad shoulders to cling to his neck.

“I thought-“ Kurama blurted out, “I thought I’d never see you again!"

And he had truly been terrified by the notion.

“It’s okay. It’s all right.” Kazuma’s voice was thick was he cupped the back of Kurama’s head in his hand. He stroked the choppy lengths there, his other hand tight about Kurama’s waist, “Everything will be fine.”

“I thought-“ Kurama could barely breathe for the sobs escaping him, “I thought I’d die in that place-“

“No!” Kazuma urged, “No, I would never have let it happen. From the moment you were in there I was trying to get you out-“

“I’m sorry-“ Kurama pulled back, his hands upon Kazuma’s handsome face; he tried to discern scratches or bruises, he’d thought for certain he’d left some. “I hit you. I hit you.” Kurama could not stand to hear himself say it. “I said such awful things. Forgive me, I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry-“

But Kazuma just pressed upon his head, forcing Kurama to take refuge in his neck as he sobbed.

“Hush...” Kazuma soothed, “Hush. I know you didn’t mean it."

“I never meant to hurt you-“

“If you don’t want to hurt me, then don’t hurt yourself. That hurts me.”

He forced Kurama to look at him again, those loving eyes peering so deeply into his own that Kurama had no choice but to obey. For the past days he’d been on so many drugs he felt for certain he’d be purging his body for another two years, but Kazuma’s eyes were the greatest drug of them all. Under their gaze, Kurama was mesmerized, willing to do anything if only to see them smiling and happy.

Kurama was still breathing haggardly, he suddenly felt like he might faint.

“... I’m so tired...” he whispered; he looked over his shoulder. “Can we go-?” He wondered up at the palace of Spirit World. “Am I allowed to leave now?”

“Yeah," Kazuma murmured sweetly, “You're in Yusuke’s custody and you know he doesn’t give a shit.”

Kurama peered over Kazuma’s shoulder and saw Yusuke standing on the other edge of the bridge, waiting with a simple and charming air.

Kurama had punched Yusuke, had surely busted a blood vessel beneath his eye from the force. He’d choked him. Why on earth was Yusuke smiling at him?

“... I want to go home so badly,” Kurama admitted, his voice weak as his gulping sobs finally diminished. What was left was a hollow husk of a sound. “But I don’t deserve it.”

Kurama felt fresh sobs beginning to form; he laid his head miserably upon Kazuma’s broad chest.

Kazuma shook his head.

Kurama was given very little warning as Kazuma bent, and suddenly he picked Kurama up beneath the knees to cradle him to his chest. Kurama might have fought against this grand gesture of affection simply for the fact that Yusuke was looking, but Kurama was tired and Kazuma was strong. In a way, it felt truly wonderful to be held in Kazuma’s arms. To be loved by such a powerfully protective man. Kurama closed his eyes, his arms about Kazuma’s neck, and felt the world beginning to slip peacefully by as Kazuma carried him off of the bridge.

He was asleep and did not even know it.

~*~

Kazuma did not put Kurama down when he stepped off the bridge, nor after he walked through the portal back to human world. Keiko was waiting on the other side, and she was positively relieved when she saw Kurama asleep in his arms. Yusuke jumped out the portal last, allowing it to close behind him, and she hugged him; Yusuke grinned in spite of his somber mood, kissing her softly on the lips.

The four of them made their way through the deserted streets of Sariashiki. It was close to three in the morning, and no one was out on a regular Thursday night. A cop car passed by, but a glance at the window proved it wasn’t Shizuru behind the wheel. As they made it to Eighth Street, Kazuma was downright relieved to see his home come into sight... Kurama’s herbal shop, which had been closed for a week due to another ‘family emergency’ or so the sign on the door read. Keiko unlocked the door for him, and as they stepped inside she kept the sign on the front door. There would be no need to take it down until Kurama was ready to get back to work. Kazuma had no idea how long that would be, or what condition Kurama would be in when he woke up.

They went upstairs, Keiko once again opening the door so that he might pass. It was unnerving to walk past the kitchen, to remember how Kurama had poured himself a cup of lye and water... even more unnerving given that the door to their bedroom still had not been put back up. It leaned against the wall now, chips of wood missing from the bolts where Kazuma had broken them clean in two.

Kazuma laid Kurama upon their bed, finding that he was asleep and positively angelic with his head upon the pillow. As he worked to untie Kurama’s shoelaces, Yusuke cracked his neck and rubbed his face wearily.

“All right,” Yusuke sighed as Kazuma took off Kurama’s shoes and gently situated him beneath the coverlet. “You need us, we’re across the street. I’ll have my phone on me all the time in case there’s another emergency. But I think we’re good.”

“Yeah,” Keiko mumbled, reaching out to touch Kurama’s choppy hair. Of course, she knew it had been cut off but hadn’t seen it until now, and she certainly did not look happy about it. Yet as Kazuma made to unzip his sweat shirt, he noticed something in Kurama’s pocket. It was a bottle, and his heart leapt for a second until he pulled it out and realized that it was a drug administered by Spirit World (or so the label said). Kurama had probably been given it by a doctor.

“One hell of a cocktail,” Yusuke mused as Kazuma tossed him the bottle to inspect.

“Take it with you,” Kazuma said. “I don’t want it in the house.”

The last thing he needed was Kurama with access to powerful drugs that were no doubt lethal in high dosages. One of Kurama’s hands still had an IV in it, and Keiko made a short trip to the bathroom for their medical kit as Kazuma gently peeled off the hospital tape and slowly took out the needle. He would have to be careful in how he disposed of it. As Keiko re appeared, she put a Band-Aid over Kurama’s wound and began to gently rub at the tape residue with a cotton ball dolloped by hydrogen peroxide.

“Hospital tape is so darn hard to get off.” She grumbled as she rubbed, “What do they put in it, cement?”

“I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t wake up for twenty damn years,” Yusuke said.

“I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t sleep for twenty damn years,” Keiko cursed in a highly unusual manner. Kazuma wrapped Kurama’s tape about the end of the needle, wanting to keep it from sticking one of them by accident. “Think about all the awful memories he has now.”

“He’s sleepin’ now,” Yusuke offered.

“Well, he’s tired,” Keiko grumbled. Setting Kurama’s cleaned hand atop the covers she reached out again to touch his choppy hair, “Oh, his lovely hair..." she mused somberly, “I can fix this. Tomorrow I’ll come over and shape it up a bit.”

“Thank you,” Kazuma murmured. It would be extremely strange, seeing Kurama with short hair, but he knew in time it would grow out again.

“We’ll put some gel in it and slick it back.” Yusuke joked, gesturing with his own hands and hair. “He’ll be a regular greaser.”

“... No, thanks.” Kazuma made a face, trying hard to imagine it and failing miserably.

They left the bedroom, Yusuke and Keiko no doubt ready to keel over in their own bed, yet as they graced the top of the stairs Kazuma could not help but delay them a moment longer.

“... Thank you,” Kazuma whispered softly as Yusuke made to descend. Yusuke stopped, looking over his shoulder up at Kazuma with that careless grace Kazuma so admired. “You saved his life.”

“Nah,” Yusuke whispered back, “I just pulled some strings. Saving his life... that’s your job.” At this, Yusuke poked him in the chest with an accusatory finger.

Yusuke turned and followed Keiko down the stairs; like a true hero, Yusuke knew how to make an exit.

 

The next day, Kurama had not woken up till close to three in the afternoon, and even then had been so exhausted all he could do was drink soup from a bowl and go back to bed. Kazuma did not leave his side, determined to protect him as he healed.

Keiko came over, offering to cut his hair for him just as she’d promised as soon as she got off work, but Kurama had merely shaken his head with his eyes upon the floor. It seemed that he did not want to trim his hair, wanted to wear it chopped almost like a red badge of shame. Kazuma did not want to push Kurama nor make him do anything he did not want to do. So Keiko went home with her scissors unused (but not before bringing them both takeout from Yusuke’s) and the pair of them had snuggled together upon the couch to eat, watch movies, and let Eikichi relax upon their lap.

Kazuma tried to get Kurama to go outside, but Kurama seemed afraid to leave their house and would only go so far as their back balcony which overlooked a small green area behind Eight Street. The pair of them rested there, with Kurama upon Kazuma’s lap and a blanket cast over his legs as the sun went down. Kurama often fell asleep, as if he hadn’t slept in two hundred years, and but he likewise often awoke from terrifying visions that left him screaming for mercy in the dark. Kazuma latched onto Kurama at these times, holding him as tightly as he dared while Kurama cried into his pillow and begged to go home or see Kazuma, not even understanding he already was and that Kazuma was right next to him in bed.

It became a terrible existence, where Kurama’s grief and shame was a tightly knit part of his personality. Kazuma could see no trace of the man he’d fallen in love with; the coy and flirtatious grin of a mastermind with a heart of gold... the elegant grace of a man who’d lived a thousand years and danced a thousand dances. Kurama’s beauty was now hidden beneath a veil of shame... and it broke Kazuma’s heart.

Yet even in the dark, there were moments of understanding.

Kazuma’s gut alerted him to the hours when Kurama would do nothing but stare at their old pictures, in particular the only one they had of Hiei where he was kissing Mukuro. Kurama often touched that picture, his fingers upon Hiei’s face, and suddenly Kazuma realized that Kurama was suffering in human world where Shiori’s vacant life was all around him, so very evident in the boxes of her belongings that Kazuma had received from Hatanaka for Kurama to go through.

Thank fucking god Koenma had modified the memories of everyone at the funeral. They now thought Kurama gave an eloquent and lovely speech... Kurama’s real words were forever etched into Kazuma’s mind.

“I'm glad she’s dead.”

And then, it clicked.

Kurama needed to get away, needed a vacation, despite crying for home every night in his pillow. Kurama needed to go somewhere comfortable, somewhere familiar that was far from Shiori’s influence.

There was only one place that Kazuma could think of: demon world.
Demon world... where he’d only been once and barely for two hours; demon world, which reeked of corpses and death upon the wind.

Demon world, where Hiei reigned in the chaos and made out with a girl that had a metal arm.

Kazuma did not want to do it, honestly fearing demon world and all its strangeness, but he could easily see that Kurama needed to get away, needed to reexamine his thoughts and his life away from Shiori’s memory.

And so, a week after Kurama had come home, Kazuma picked up the phone to call Yusuke. Kurama sat upon the couch, barefoot and wearing his sweatshirt. Kazuma had just helped him to shower, and his hair was still wet; he lay against the couch, half hidden beneath a large flannel blanket with Eikichi upon his lap.

“Hey man...” Yusuke said when he answered the phone. “How’s he doing?”

“Bad,” Kazuma admitted. He looked over his shoulder at Kurama, his eyes lingering on the deep shadows underneath Kurama’s empty green eyes. “I gotta admit, I’m starting to think he needs some time away from human world. To... register this and get through it. You know?”

“Yeah. I can see the logic in that. This whole place was all for Shiori in his eyes.”

“Right.” Kazuma looked down for a moment. “There’s a favor I gotta ask.”

“Ask.”

“There’s one person Kurama trusts on this level of grief-“

“Uh, yeah, and his name is Kazuma Kuwabara-“

“No,” Kazuma corrected him. “It’s Hiei.”

There was silence on the other side of the phone, but Kazuma knew Yusuke agreed with him even if he did not want to admit it.

“Hiei and Kurama are best friends. As close as you and I,” Kazuma murmured into the phone, rather eager for Kurama not to hear his words; yet a glance over his shoulder found Kurama just as lost within himself as ever and so Kazuma continued on. “Hiei’s a fuckin’ jerk to me, but he understands Kurama’s grief. Like that time with Kuronue-“

“Yeah.” Yusuke said at once, the memory of their battle with Yakumo unnervingly fresh upon their minds. Kurama’s battle with the Kuronue look alike had been downright alarming, but Hiei had walked so bravely through it... his words had pulled Kurama back.

Hiei made it look so easy, but Kazuma had been wrestling with Kurama’s demons for over a week now and he knew from experience that it was far from simple.

“Hiei might be able to help,” Kazuma said. “But I don’t even really know where he is.”

“Well, he’s in demon world obviously, and probably with Mukuro.”

“The girl that nearly killed him.” Kazuma grumbled at the bloody memory of what should have been a very pleasant night.

“Well, you know, a foot for every shoe.”

“Christ, am I going to have to have conversations with this woman?” Kazuma griped as he wandered through the kitchen and fetched a soda from the fridge. He popped the tab with one hand and drank deep.

“I... guess?”

“That’ll be fun.” Kazuma sneered, “Hey lady, nice to meet you, thanks for nearly killing my friend. Maybe we can get him to find someone else, someone better for him that won’t try and murder him just because he runs errands-“

“Dude-“ Yusuke cut him off, now sounding quite alarmed, “ Don’t even joke about stuff like that around Mukuro. She’s incredibly strong, probably stronger than me, and frankly I don’t think she’ll like it if you say stuff to her like that. If you’re going to be around her, you’re gonna have to watch your mouth... especially if Kurama can’t help you.”

Kazuma cursed himself inwardly, unable to help his resentment towards Mukuro when Hiei had felt so frail and limp in his arms... like a broken doll cast away by a bitter child.

“Look, I know a way to get in touch with Mukuro,” Yusuke said, still sounding quite apprehensive. “I can call her and see if she’ll be up for it, but are you sure Kurama will be able to stand Hiei’s kind of love right now?”

Kazuma poked his head around the door to the living room, watching Kurama upon lay upon the couch.

“...I gotta reach him,” Kazuma whispered into the phone. “He’s slipping.”

He hated himself for even saying it, but he knew that it was true.

“Hiei may be a dick to me but if there’s one thing he does best, it’s tying a knot at the end of his rope and holding the hell on,” Kazuma lamented.

“True, he’s a little ass kicker through and through.” Yusuke joked, “Give me the night to call her... I got a way to patch through to demon world. Can I talk to Kurama for a second though?”

Kazuma shrugged, walking over to the couch and sitting down next to Kurama. Kurama glanced at him and the phone that he held out.

“Babe...” Kazuma whispered as Kurama rolled away, unwilling to answer the phone. “It’s Yusuke.”

Kurama shook his head, but Kazuma didn’t give up, pressing the phone to Kurama’s ear. Kurama finally relented, sitting up a little to take the phone from Kazuma’s hand. Kazuma reached out to gently brush Kurama’s choppy bangs from his face. Kurama did not see to recognize the touch.

“Hey, man... I’m gonna call Enki and get in touch with Mukuro so you and Kuwabara can go on a little vacation to demon world, alright?” Kazuma heard Yusuke say . “Don’t worry about a thing. Hiei’s gonna take care of you.”

Kurama’s eyes flitted for a moment to Kazuma’s face before he handed the phone back. Kazuma sighed, taking it, wishing Kurama had at least said something.

“We’ll talk to you later,” Kazuma mumbled into the phone, stroking Kurama’s head as Kurama lay back down on the couch and closed his eyes.

“Bye,” Yusuke said, sounding quite dejected.

Kazuma hung up. Kurama said nothing to this change in plans, feigning sleep though Kazuma knew he was still awake. He leaned over and kissed Kurama softly upon the forehead, and though Kurama did not shift away he did not respond to the affection either.

“... It’s gonna be alright,” Kazuma whispered into his hairline. “Hiei’s gonna make it alright.”

Kurama said nothing.
~*~

 

Yusuke sat at his kitchen counter peeling an orange, cursing all the while for knowing what he must do. If anyone but Kazuma Kuwabara had asked, Yusuke would have told them to go take a flying fucking leap... but it was Kazuma and so now Yusuke’s hands were efficiently tied.

Keiko smiled at him from across the counter, a glass of wine in one hand and his communicator in the other. Usually kept tucked way safely in an office drawer on the second floor, she now slid it across the counter to him.

Yusuke grimaced at it, uneager to make the call.

“Do it,” Keiko said.

“I don’t know,” Yusuke grumbled.

“Do it,” Keiko urged, more insistent. Yusuke sighed with an overdramatic flair as he slipped off the bar stool and came around the counter to embrace her. She set her glass of wine down, smirking even more as she wrapped a hand about his neck and played with the fine hairs at the base of his neck.

“Make me brave,” he murmured. She reached up to place a teasing kiss upon his lips. Hinted with wine, he wrapped an arm about her waist and dove deeply into her mouth; how he adored kissing her this way... totally overpowering her till she had no choice but to submit to his every whim.

To be fair, she was the one pulling the real strings. He’d do whatever she wanted with ease; as his tongue plundered her mouth he crept up her shirt with a well-seasoned hand, aiming for her unbound breasts- she wriggled away with a laugh just as the tips of his fingers danced upon a softly pebbled nipple.

“No,” she toyed with him, a hand raised in warning. “Go call Enki first.”

Now he was even more pressed to get the fucking conversation over with. He pecked her sweetly upon the lips, but as he made to pull away she stopped him with her hand upon his elbow. Reaching into a kitchen drawer they rarely used, she pulled out a pack of his cigarettes and placed them in his hand.

A sign of good faith; ah, what a sweet wife she was. Yusuke kissed her again, this time more softly.

“Just one,” she warned.

“Just one,” Yusuke repeated, snatching up his communicator and stepping outside their balcony to light up a cigarette and dial Enki’s number. As the phone rang Yusuke watched Keiko go about the kitchen, putting dishes away and finishing off her glass of wine.

He liked his life in human world; he liked running his restaurant and screwing Keiko every chance he got... he didn’t want to give that up for demon world, for the squabbling and the politics. It was why he’d stayed out of it for years. He liked a good fight, and wanted nothing more than to kick everyone’s ass... but he didn’t want it if it meant losing Keiko.

The phone picked up.

“Yusuke Urameshi!” Enki’s jovial voice boomed over the phone, “I thought you had slipped off the face of the earth! How long’s it been... nearly .... ten years now!”

“Yeah, I’m slippery like that,” Yusuke said. “Listen, I hate to be a bitch but I gotta ask a favor. Do you have a way of getting in touch with Mukuro?”

“Well, sure I do!”

“Do me a favor and hook me up,” Yusuke said. “I have something to ask her. I’d rather do it over the phone than through a letter.”

“Of course.” he could hear the gruff noise of Enki moving about. “Now, you know, while she has a communicator you’re gonna be darn lucky if you reach her. She rarely ever picks up the phone. I can give you the digits, you just tell me when you’re ready.”

“Go for it,” Yusuke said.

“Nine eight nine seven one five six two.”

“Nine eight nine seven one five six two,” Yusuke parried back. “Let’s hope I’m lucky and she picks up.”

“She ought to. She’ll see your name on the communicator when you call; Good luck, man! Next time you’re in demon world ring me up!” Enki said.

“Thanks,” Yusuke said, pulling back and hanging up as he punched in Mukuro’s numbers. As he pulled the phone back to his face he grumbled into the air.

“If this is the wrong fuckin’ number I will kill someone.” Yusuke sighed, but his breath jumped when the ringing stopped. Someone had picked up the phone.

“....Mukuro?” Yusuke said allowed.

“Urameshi.”

That drawl, so smoky and sultry. Mukuro’s voice was as unique as the day was long, and boy... was it sexy. Yusuke had to admit, there was something about Mukuro. Then again, it might have just been the fact that she was incredibly powerful and could probably crush his skull in with her bare hands. He’d always had a thing for violent women.

“.... I gotta favor to ask,” Yusuke said.

“Such as?”

“A friend of Hiei’s is in a real bad place.” Yusuke said, “His name is Kurama. He’s the one with the red hair; Yomi was using him during the last demon war-“

“I remember,” she said, her tone slightly playful as Yusuke was cut off mid explanation.

“Right, well,” Yusuke huffed. “His human mother died. He tried to kill himself, they had him a psych ward, he tried to a kill a human, they put him in a spirit world ward... we finally got him home last week but he’s... he’s not doing good at all. He and Hiei are real close, and I think Hiei might be able to help him. He needs to get out of human world, get away from all of this bullshit. It reminds him of his human mother too much; he’s slipping. He’s hardly the same guy I remember. Hiei.... has a way with people that are grieving. Especially people like Kurama.”

For a moment there was silence.
“I agree,” Mukuro finally said, and something had changed in her tone. She did not sound insincere.

“... I’m assuming Hiei is still with you at your fortress,” Yusuke said, wondering if Hiei was even there at all. He was usually on the move, after all. Shit, he could be miles away.

“Naturally,” Mukuro said, and there was something in the way she said it that made Yusuke grin.

Hiei was fucking Mukuro. Of course he was still at the fortress. Yusuke could respect the game Hiei played.

“You think Kurama and his boyfriend could come stay with you for a small bit? So that Hiei could help him?” Yusuke asked.

“... Yes,” Mukuro agreed. Yusuke let out a sigh of relief.

“All right, then. I’ll give them directions.” Yusuke even grinned. “Are you still in the Alaric?”

“As a matter of fact, I wander the border. I lead patrols, guarding the passageways into human world. I can still my guard for a few days, and allow them to slip through. We’re in Modha right now. Set the portal, and they’ll be quite near us when they arrive.”

Yusuke could do that; he could even set a portal up in his basement.

“Thanks,” Yusuke said. “You’re a swell gal.... Hey uh, by the way, is Hiei there?”

“Yes,” Mukuro said coyly.

“Is he, like... near the phone?” Yusuke asked, for he wondered if it would be better for him to relay all that had happened to Kurama than Mukuro.

“He’s sitting on my lap,” Mukuro said, but as Yusuke burst into a fit of snickering at the thought of Hiei perched on her lap like some kind of sex kitten, he heard a very familiar, angry voice in the background.

“You fucking cunt!” Hiei snarled.

“Can I talk to him?” Yusuke asked in good humor, but suddenly he could hear Hiei snarling much closer as if Mukuro was trying to get him to put the phone to his face.

“Don’t put that fucking thing near me!”
“Quit being a child and speak-"
“Get off me, you stupid bitch-!”

There was a loud thump, and Yusuke winced in spite of himself. He was pretty certain that thump had come from Hiei’s ass getting stomped by Mukuro’s foot.

“He’s occupied right now,” Mukuro said idly.

“With your foot up his ass, I hope.”

“Indeed.”

“Right, well, jam it up there real good for me, and put the phone near his face,” Yusuke said. He hear a shift of air on the other side of the communicator and took a deep breath in to scream at the top of his lungs with the phone out in front of his face.

“Hey, Hiei!” Yusuke bellowed. “I’m sending Kurama your way! He tried to kill himself so you better help him out, you little bastard!”

And with that, he pulled back to speak normally once more.

“Thank you,” Yusuke said.

“A pleasure,” Mukuro said smoothly. “Goodbye, Urameshi.”

“Later, Mukuro,” Yusuke said, and he hung up the phone swiftly.

He looked at it for a moment, still thinking of Hiei on the floor of Mukuro’s fortress, no doubt about to get pegged by a very angry bionic bitch.

“Fucker,” Yusuke grumbled. Hiei deserved every second of it.

Chapter Text

It was not often that in his adulthood Kazuma felt like a child, but he certainly was having the feeling now with Yusuke before him badgering him to repeat information and Kurama watching him with a slightly sour expression as their portal glowed and swirled expectantly. For the past three days, Yusuke had ground into his brain every topic of demon world society that he felt Kazuma needed to know before heading there with Kurama. Normally, Yusuke admitted, he would have left Kurama to make the niceties and keep them from starting a third war, but Kurama was indisposed and Kazuma would have to do. Yusuke did not feel that Kazuma fully understood the complexities of demon world politics, and Kazuma had to agree. He didn't know demon world, had only been there once, and he'd certainly not interacted with other demons while he was there. He'd merely helped to defeat Sensui, ride on Puu's back, and returned home to a scrumptious double cheeseburger.

Now Kazuma had no idea how long he'd be staying in demon world, with a small pack slung over his shoulder and a communicator stored in his jean pocket. It was a plan B, and one that Kazuma prayed he wouldn't have to use while he was abroad. Despite his anxiety he was resolved to stay until Kurama was better, ready to return. Until Kurama said he wanted to go home, they would not be leaving... and Kazuma knew the difference between an actual eagerness to go home and an eagerness to avoid pain. Kurama would not be able to fool him into magically thinking he was better, not when his eyes were sunken in and his choppy hair stuck out at wild angles.

"Okay." Yusuke braced his hands before Kazuma. "Run by me one more time, all that I told you-"

Kazuma groaned aloud, bending his knees a little as he looked away. Dear God, Yusuke could be annoying.

"Goddamnit Urameshi!" Kazuma cursed. "I'm not gonna fuck it up-!"

"Dude, last time I was there, there was a huge demon war!" Yusuke reminded him for what was no doubt the twelfth time that day. "Mukuro was in the middle of it! Please do not invoke a fucking demon war and make me have to come back and deal with it-"

"Okay, okay-!" Kazuma parried him down, eager to have Yusuke shut up and feel content. "God, you're worse than my sister. Do you have Eikichi and-"

"We've got that fur ball," Yusuke assured him. Keiko smiled behind his shoulder, giving him the thumbs up. Frankly, Kazuma would not have entrusted Eikichi to Yusuke unless Keiko was involved... hopefully Keiko remembered Eikichi liked to eat white fish tuna as a treat. Kazuma felt a pang in his heart as he briefly thought about his cat.

"And the plant-!" Kazuma added warily, suddenly remembering about Kurama's mirror plant that was naturally looking glum what with Kurama being indisposed and not feeding it bits of ki.

"And the plant." Yusuke nodded; the mirror plant now sat on the third floor in their kitchen, where it would hopefully receive plenty of warm sunlight and food.

"And don't feed it table food!" Kazuma warned, for he had a feeling Yusuke was going to be giving the plant cool ranch Doritos and Hot Pockets every chance he got.

"I won't feed from the table!" Yusuke scowled, now suddenly under the spot light as Kazuma hassled him. "Either of them!" he added as Kazuma opened his mouth again.

"'Cause Kurama told me never to do that, so you can't either-"

"Are you done naggin' me?" Yusuke demanded angrily with his hands on his hips.

"Well are you done naggin' me?" Kazuma parried back, mimicking Yusuke's pose. Keiko watched the entire interaction with dulled interest.

"You know, this break is probably what both of you need," Keiko mused aloud.

Kurama looked at the portal, his ashen face even more ghostly in its pale blue light.

"This is ridiculous," Kurama whispered, his own bag hanging limply from his fingers.

"It's just a trip," Kazuma offered, hoping to give Kurama a positive edge before they got there... a high goal, to be sure. "You need a vacation."

"To demon world," Kurama finished wryly with a knowing look.

"Yeah!" Kazuma would not be dissuaded. They were going; he'd already made up his mind. Kurama could cry about it all he damn well wanted. "So you can... just..." He shook out his limbs as if he were a palm tree swaying in a gale force wind, "let your vines loose."

Yusuke snorted, but Kurama did not look amused.

"Come on." Kazuma extended his hand; Kurama took it on reflex alone. "Let's go visit Hiei."

"Say hello to the little fucker for me!" Yusuke joked. Kazuma and Kurama stepped forward towards the portal, now on the threshold together. "And?"

"And be respectful to Mukuro," Kazuma growled, hoping Yusuke was not going to detain them any further with more bullshit.

"Unless you got a damn death wish," Yusuke warned. "'Cause she can kill you very easily."

"I'll keep that in mind," Kazuma sneered. Mukuro was no doubt as short tempered and rude as Hiei; if they were in love they had to be similar. They'd probably be arguing within five seconds of seeing each other, but damnit Kazuma was determined to make this work if only for Kurama's sake. He'd just have to put up with both Hiei and Mukuro's bad attitudes while he was their guest. He was damn lucky they'd even agreed to let him come.

"You need me, you call me," Yusuke assured him. "Any time of day or night."

'I will," Kazuma said, patting his jean pocket where his communicator lay. "God damn," he cursed at Yusuke's nagging. "Goodbye!"

And with that, he stepped forward into the portal.

"Bye, man-"

"Bye, guys!" Keiko's voice sounded so very far away as they jumped.

For a moment, they were completely surrounded by white light. There was nothing, they were in a void, but the faint odor of rotting corpses was growing stronger by the minute and Kazuma's grip tightened around Kurama's hand as he saw a pin prick of bright crimson light flash before him. Suddenly the hole was widening, opening up like a gaping mouth, and with very little warning both of them were shot out of the other end of the portal to buckle against the ground of demon world.

The smell of rotting corpses was thick in the air, lighting flashed in the dry heat above them, and a hot wind blew across the black earth. Kazuma slowly staggered to his feet, helping Kurama up, his eyes roving about wildly as he tried to take in every detail.

"Holy shit!"

Kazuma was thrown completely off track upon seeing a truly massive metal... thing in front of him. It had ten pairs of legs, each as thick and wide as a house, with a strangely bug like shape to its body; it was enormous, like a small mountain before him, and it gleamed in the lighting of demon world's skies.

What on earth was that thing?

They were by a forest, or at least on the edge of one, and everywhere Kazuma looked he saw soldiers decked in hues of grey-blue, a strange steely armor upon each of their scaled, fury, or winged bodies. These men were all a part of the same unit, or at least they dressed like they were, but one or two stood out to Kazuma such as a man who was coming forward with a helmet on his face that utterly disguised his appearance beneath. He was tall, about Kazuma's height, but he was strong and clearly held some authority on the men around them who backed up as he walked past. A breast plate of whitest bone covered his strong chest, and a slit in his heavy mask showed two dark eyes peering down. His gray hair spilled out from around the straps of his mask, making him a truly bizarre character to Kazuma who had never seen someone so oddly dressed before. As the man walked up, he inclined his head to both of them.

"Welcome to demon world," the man said. "You're the pair Mukuro is expecting?"

"That's us," Kazuma said, glancing at Kurama for a minute who was watching the man dully. "Uh... Who are you?"

He just felt so damn out of place all of a sudden. He wondered if this man could take them to Mukuro or at least point the way.

"I am Kirin. Mukuro's former second in command." Kirin inclined his head ever so slightly again.

"Well, uh... hey." Kazuma didn't know whether he should shake this guy's hand or not. Did you shake hands with a demon when they greeted you? If only Yusuke had mentioned this in his rants! "I'm Kazuma Kuwabara, and this is-"

"Kurama," Kirin finished.

Kazuma looked over at Kurama and found him glaring at Kirin in such a way that Kazuma suddenly doubted they were strangers.

"I am aware of your names," Kirin said, not unkindly. "Follow me."

Kirin turned and began walking toward the metal behemoth that had so captured Kazuma's attention. Kazuma glanced once or twice at Kurama, realized that Kurama was not following, and grabbed Kurama's hand to pull him along after Kirin. Kurama was wary and tense, his eyes darting about as he took in each of the men who watched them pass, but no one said anything to them as they approached the under belly of the iron beast. Kazuma looked up over his head, utterly shocked at how large this contraption was. He wondered if it could move; it certainly seemed to be able to, what with its ten legs. How had it been built, and who had built it? The architect in him had a million questions. He wondered what its wiring system looked like and if it had any weaknesses.

"What is this thing?" Kazuma asked, unable to keep quiet as Kirin threw up a hand; a lift from the underbelly began to lower with the sound of deep metallic gears. Kazuma could now see that up inside there was some sort of open aired space, well lit and deep maroon in color. As the lift touched the ground, Kirin stepped on and silently gestured for Kazuma and Kurama to do the same. Kazuma stepped on, bracing Kurama a little as the lift began to rise again; it was unnerving, to go so very high into the air on such a small platform.

"This is the bug," Kirin explained, "Our roaming center of operation and where Mukuro resides."

"It's huge," Kazuma gushed. "How did she build this?"

She was probably an asshole, but damn Mukuro had an eye for architecture.

"Mukuro's connections are wide and deep. She has procured this beast through centuries of diligent discipline and intelligent contacts."

As the lift stopped, Kazuma looked around and beheld a wide cavernous hallway filled with remaining soldiers; one of them was at a control panel, no doubt used to activate the lift. Kirin paid them all very little mind as he stepped off and starting walking left down a large hallway. They followed, Kazuma still holding Kurama's hand to make sure he kept up. Kirin took powerful strides, and Kazuma wanted to make sure they didn't get left behind. Mukuro's bug was oddly lavish despite being bare. The walls looked like muscles ribbed and lined, with fires lighting the way overhead in deep hanging domes. Stairs lead up all around them, but Kirin took them all the way to the end of the hall where a seemingly bare wall greeted them. Kirin's touch, however, revealed a hidden door and a set of stairs. They went up, the door closing behind Kurama's back. Kazuma wondered how Kirin had activated the door, and why these stairs were hidden. He wondered where they were going, and who was waiting for them at the other end. Was he going to meet Mukuro today? Maybe they were just being taken to Hiei. God, it was all so damn confusing.

At the top of the stairs, they reached another hallway, but it was much quieter and only a few soldiers were here. None of them wore the gray uniforms, yet Kazuma could tell they were still in rank... after all, when Kirin past they stepped aside.

"So uh, does Hiei live here?" Kazuma asked.

"Unfortunately yes," Kirin ground out, sounding thoroughly annoyed by the name. Kazuma could not help but feel sorry for Kirin.

"Oh, he get on your nerves too?" Kazuma joked.

Kirin made a deep noise. "If there were a word for it, I would proclaim it before god like a prayer."

"I feel you man. I really do." Kazuma snorted. Kirin shot him a look, and Kazuma could tell he was smiling beneath his mask. Kirin seemed all right for a demon, a little odd in uniform but... all right. They reached the middle of the hall and stopped before a pair of large double doors.

"Behind these doors is the hall on which Mukuro resides," Kirin explained, gesturing to the doors. "You will find her at the end, waiting for you."

"... Thanks," Kazuma said, now feeling very apprehensive. He took the doorknob in hand and opened it to look around inside; it was disturbing. The walls were made of teeth, compact into tight little rows in macabre fashion. There was a rug beneath his feet, old and worn, and at the end of a short hall stood a pair of dark double doors... once again, they were alone. Kirin did not follow them down the hall.

"... This is disturbing," Kazuma murmured as he looked at the teeth and skulls.

"This is nothing," Kurama muttered back.

Kazuma felt incredibly nervous as they walked and stopped before the doors of Mukuro's room. Kazuma knew she would be mean, probably snide and shitty like Hiei... but he would hold it in. He would be civil, pleasant, and thank her for her hospitality. He would do it not because he hoped to become Mukuro's friend but because he truly wanted Kurama to get help from Hiei. If that meant dealing with this bionic bitch then...well... that was what he had to do. He was a man, after all. He would stand by his partner.

Kazuma reached out, took the door knob in hand, and pulled it open.

Inside lay a very large purple cloaked bed that was tilted so high up it could have been a chair or a throne. Upon it was a woman, crossed legged and reading a large aged document. A set of chairs and a shallow table were part of the bare furnishings of this room; a wardrobe stood on the far side, hiding a slim door that Kazuma could only just see. He was shocked to find Hiei in the room, though Kirin hadn't mentioned it. Hiei was by the bed, leaning against it and looking very sour indeed as he glared at Kazuma.

Clearly somebody was in a peachy mood to be pickled with.

Yet Kazuma could not look at Hiei, not when he could instead observe the woman upon the bed... a strange creature with a vivid roving white eye and a gentle grin upon her oddly pretty face. She had auburn hair, half of which was short and frayed against her burnt skull and the other half of which was down to her shoulders, thick and slightly curled at the end. Her one good eye was deep blue, almost purple, and it held an ancient wisdom in its depth that could not be denied even by a stranger. She wore rather odd clothing too, with a red sash about her waist and a purple vest with gold trim over her shoulders. The cybernetic lens that covered her roving eye was slightly see through, hidden only barely behind a scrap of deep cloth that tied a hearing piece to the side of her head. She was truly damaged, with a bionic arm that she laid casually over her chest.

Kazuma was speechless, but not in an unflattering way.

She didn't look... mean.

"Welcome to the bug," the woman said; her voice was deep and smooth, almost like Shizuru's but without the rasp of a smoker. "You must be Kuwabara."

"... Are you psychic, too?" Kazuma asked, gesturing over to Hiei who he knew had telepathic powers due to that weird third eye of his. Hiei let out a loud, angry scowl, throwing his hand up in the air irritably.

"Oh my GOD," Hiei spat, crossing his hands over his chest and looking away.

"... You're Mukuro," Kazuma continued on. Mukuro bowed her head once, a smile playing upon her face.

She seemed so calm so... relaxed. He'd been expecting someone with a temper, someone who had a sharp mouth and a knack for picking out their opponents weak spots... but.. Mukuro seemed pleasant. Relatively at ease, even.

"Uh... Hello," Kazuma said, still quite flabbergasted with this sudden change of tune in plans, "My name is-"

"Kuwabara," Mukuro repeated, her smile widening. Kazuma realized Mukuro had already addressed him. Damnit, now he was going to look like an idiot. God only knows what Hiei had said before he'd gotten there.

"Yes," Kazuma flustered, gesturing to Kurama. "This is Kurama, my partner. Kurama isn't feeling so great so I thought I'd take him here to get some R and R, you know?" Kazuma tried. Mukuro just smiled demurely. "He and Hiei are best friends, so-"

"What the fuck does this look like to you?" Hiei snarled from the corner. "A god damn bed and breakfast?"

"Hiei." Mukuro said his name, and Hiei seemed to be jilted back from his tirade of insults. He looked away with a dark scowl.

"Urameshi said there was a death, a rather prominent one." Mukuro spoke to Kurama now. "I am sorry."

She did not sound insincere.

Kurama swallowed, grinding his teeth a little before he spoke up for the first time.

"Thank you. For your hospitality."

Mukuro shrugged. "You're tired and I have a bed," she said. Hiei glared at this, as if wishing they didn't have a bed. Some best friend he was! It was starting to get on Kazuma's nerves, but Kazuma was determined not to let Hiei get to him as he focused on Mukuro instead. He couldn't believe this calm and even charming woman was dating Hiei. Did she not realize she could do better?

"Yeah, I mean, I know this is weird," Kazuma apologized. "I don't want to bother you guys or another-"

"No, no... don't fret," Mukuro waved it off with another simple smile. "There's more than enough room in the torture dungeons."

Kazuma did a double take, suddenly imagining them sleeping on a dirty cot in a pool of blood- but Hiei sneered loudly and he looked up to see him walking behind the bed. As he did so, Kazuma noticed his fingers trailed ever so gently across the length of Mukuro's shoulder, behind her neck, and then to the other side.

Kazuma would not be forgetting that detail; he had never seen Hiei touch someone in that way. Yet Mukuro didn't look about it, it seemed almost to be normal or even expected.

"Honestly," Hiei jeered, "are you so dense?"

"I'm not stupid," Kazuma growled, his teeth clenched. "I'm ... a little outnumbered."

This was, after all his first true trip into demon world. Hiei smirked, his hand still absently touching Mukuro's shoulder.

"Difficult to hold your own when Kurama's not holding your hand?" Hiei sneered.

"I'm gonna pound your fuckin' face in!" Kazuma snarled, his anger leaping up in a way that it hadn't done for quite some time. God, Hiei knew how to rub him raw! "You know that?!"

"You do realize I'll be pounding back?" Hiei observed his fingernails absently.

"Shut the fuck up, Hiei!" Kazuma roared, throwing an arm out wide in an attempt to face off with the runt. "I can take you on any day, any time, any place! Right now!" He pointed to the ground. "Right here, if you want!"

He stretched out a hand, testing for his spirit sword- god it felt good to let the energy pump into his palm again-! But a tinkling laugh came from Mukuro and Kazuma's energy was completely thrown off as he found her... happy at their squabble. She was smiling, beaming even, as she looked at the sour expression upon Hiei's face.

"You are a treasure indeed," she mused with a comical air. "I may just keep you around if only to rile Hiei up. I'm the only one brave enough to do it here, but I admire your spunk on the subject." She folded her arms over her chest.

...Were they... dating or not? Kazuma found it hard to believe that Mukuro was okay with him cussing Hiei out if they were dating.

Did she just not care?

But then, Kazuma remembered how Hiei had lain upon Yusuke's restaurant floor, broken and bloody, dying-... the memory left him suddenly very tense before this woman.

She didn't care if Hiei got hurt, and that did not set right with him.

"Hiei." Mukuro turned. Hiei looked at her, and she gestured to Kurama. Hiei scowled at her. She glared at him reproachfully.

"This is ridiculous," Hiei muttered underneath his breath.

"What is so ridiculous about me needing aid Hiei?" Kurama asked, weary from the bickering already.

"From me?" Hiei gestured to himself.

"Drop this pompous act," Kurama commanded. "I do not have the energy to spare for it. Who is it even for, Hiei? Mukuro or Kazuma?"

"You knew this was going to happen," Hiei growled, glaring now intensely at Kurama as if Kurama had inconvenienced him; such a thought made Kazuma see red. Dammit, he'd thought Hiei would help Kurama. But if this was all he was gonna do then-

"Why has it shocked you so much?" Hiei demanded. "You look ready to fall over."

Kurama just stared.

"... The fuck did you do to your hair?!" Hiei gestured harshly. "Did you lop it off with a sword or something?!"

Once again, Kurama just stared.

Hiei looked away, shaking his head. He ran his tongue over his bottom lip, turning back to glare coolly at Kurama as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"There's a room down the hall. Take it or don't. I don't give a shit," Hiei growled. He headed for the door, brushing rudely past Kazuma and jerking the door open with some force.

"Hiei," Mukuro warned.

Hiei stopped, looked over his shoulder at her, then slipped out the door with a much more somber air. It closed again behind him. Suddenly they were alone with her, and Mukuro looked slightly less happy.

"He'll get your room ready," Mukuro assured them. "We have one that'll suffice. I usually have it around for diplomatic guests. I'm no longer a member of demon world politics but still people come to ask me for advice. The idiocy of it is staggering. They'd rather deprive themselves of oxygen than admit I care nothing for the state of affairs. With you taking the room, I can avoid their hassles and claim I'm entertaining you instead. I thank you for the excuse."

"We are ready made," Kazuma mumbled, still thinking about how Hiei had been so beaten upon that restaurant floor. Hiei had touched her, stood beside her, but she didn't seem to care if he stayed there or what he did when he left. Was that really love? Were they just... lusting after one another? Dammit, all of a sudden Kazuma felt like Hiei could do better. Hiei might have been an asshole, but he deserved someone who would care for him and love him, not beat him up and leave him to die.

No one deserved that.

"Urameshi told me that you shared a life in human world," Mukuro said. "Once again, I thank you for the entertainment since Hiei is utterly spited by it. I'll have much fun calming him down." She smiled again, even chuckling a little.

Kazuma found none of it funny.

"He needs to shut the fuck up," Kazuma grumbled.

"Leave that to me." Mukuro laughed with dark intent. "Hiei knows better than to rile me up."

Kazuma did a double take, looking back at Mukuro with great alarm. That hard edge in her voice, so clearly insidious, unnerved him greatly.

It alluded to pain, should Hiei ever cross her temper.

"He loves you," Kazuma said. "Why would you say something like that?"

Mukuro was shocked, and suddenly a very tense silence fell upon them. Kurama grabbed his elbow, leaning into his ear.

"Be careful what you say." he whispered softly.

Kazuma suddenly felt very uneasy in Mukuro's presence and wanted Hiei back. Thank god, Hiei appeared, as if called forth from Kazuma's need alone. Entering the room, Hiei glared at them before coming to stand beside Mukuro again and refolding his arms.

"Make yourselves comfortable... fourth door on the right." Mukuro tried for a smile but Kazuma did not share in it, despite her easy air, he no longer found her charming. He almost found her frightening, to know that she could turn from being so calm to a killer. He would honestly prefer someone like Hiei, who raged in the open and the clear. "Why not rest and relax? It is a hassle to travel through portals, I feel. Hiei and I work on the upper terrace. Should you ever go searching for us, you will find us there."

Kazuma nodded, noticing Kurama was turning to leave, but as he touched the door knob, he stopped.

He stopped, and he remembered.

Hiei had been nearly dead in his arms, broken like a twig, and his ashen face had been utterly wrought with pain upon waking... not entirely the physical kind.

"I'm not enough!"

Hiei's words haunted Kazuma. He turned around, looked at Hiei... saw him skulking by Mukuro's bed. Did he honestly feel that he was not enough? That he was not worthy of love or affection from another unless pain was involved. The thought sickened him.

"Before I leave," Kazuma said, looking up at Mukuro, "I have something I need to say to you."

"Kazuma-" Kurama grabbed his elbow, but Kazuma did not stop.

He could not stop; not when he knew he was right and it needed to be said.

"You don't hit what you love," Kazuma said, Mukuro was immediately taken aback. "It isn't right to beat up the person you're in love with-"

Hiei let out a noise like an animal, whirling about with piercing red eyes on Kazuma.

"Have you lost your goddamn mind?" Hiei snarled.

"Thank you for the insight," Mukuro replied, that casual smile still upon her lips. Kazuma shook his head; she didn't seem to understand, or maybe she just didn't care. Either way he wasn't finished.

"What you did that day was wrong!" Kazuma continued. "Hiei may be a jerk but he doesn't deserve to get beat up by the person he's in love with; I know it's probably really difficult to deal with him when he's got an attitude- trust me I know-!" Kazuma snorted; Hiei was still snarling, "But you can't use that as an excuse to hurt him, not when he loves you-!"

"Get out!" Hiei roared. "Get out now or I'll kill you!"

Mukuro carried right on with their conversation, unperturbed by her lover's violent rage.

"I confess I lost my temper that day," Mukuro said. Kazuma could feel Kurama's grip numbingly tight upon his elbow. "It is a rare event, I assure you."

"When he arrived to us, he was nearly dead-!" Kazuma began, "I cradled him in my arms, his body felt like it was snapped in two-!"

"All for his pride," Mukuro assured him. "Had he returned to me, given that I was only a half a mile away, he would not have been so grievously injured-"

"You-" Hiei frothed and foamed, pacing back and forth as he spat out venomous words, "You dare to assume that you can speak on such matters!?"

"Well you guys are in love, right?!" Kazuma demanded. Hiei paled, looking up at Kazuma with such an expression that Kazuma felt certain a fight was about to break out. Reckless and proud, he poured through: "Why is it such a problem to say that out loud? Why are you pretending you don't love her when you do? You need to be more open about it, it's not like someone's gonna hurt you-!"

Those words seemed to trigger a wild animalistic response in Hiei. He lunged forward, sword whipped up, but even as he made to rush Kazuma, Mukuro reached and grabbed him deftly by the arm yanking him back to the bed. Hiei nearly fell onto it, seething with rage, but he did not move to strike Kazuma twice.

It was odd. Both Mukuro and Kurama were holding them by their elbows.

"I can see why you make him so uncomfortable." Mukuro smirked, glancing down at Hiei. Was it Kazuma's imagination, or was Mukuro stroking the inside of Hiei's elbow with her thumb in an almost soothing manner. "You aren't afraid to show you care. He despises that."

Hiei jerked his elbow hard out of Mukuro's grip and sheathed his sword. He stormed back over the door, not touching Kazuma as he made to wrench it open-

"Hiei..." Mukuro called out. Once again, Hiei stopped. So close to him, Kazuma could see the fine sweat upon Hiei's bandaged brow, could see the muscle jumping in his jaw. Hiei looked almost... afraid. "Come back here; I want to talk with you some more."

Hiei looked at Kazuma. Those eyes were murderous, so full of rage; Kazuma took an instinctual step back, blocking Hiei's path to Kurama in case Hiei whipped out that sword again.

But he didn't.

Hiei let the door stay open, and suddenly Kazuma was being pulled through it by Kurama who seemed quite eager to get them away from Mukuro before Kazuma could say anything else.

Kazuma still had no idea what to make of that parting comment "You aren't afraid to show you care. He despises that-"

Why was Hiei so afraid to show he cared? What honest good did it do him to lie all the time? Hiei closed the door to Mukuro's room in Kazuma's face, and though the barrier was firm he could still hear the snarling coming from the other side.

"If you think for one god damn minute-"

"Shut up, Hiei. You're fooling no one."

"You're speaking out of your ass, and it's starting to piss me off-!"

"Why did you ignore him, Hiei? You had every opportunity to express your condolences but you-"

Kurama was pulling him away, down the hall. Even as they walked, they could still hear the faint echoes of the shouting. Kurama took them four doors down on the right, and he opened the room to find it small but comfortable with a good sized bed and a trunk at the end of it. It seemed relatively nice, with a bed almost like Mukuro's. Or had it been a chair? Kazuma still wasn't sure. It was a weird ass chair if that's what it was.

Kurama closed the door as soon as Kazuma was over the threshold, leaning against it and rubbing his face with his hands. He looked utterly exhausted.

"Kazuma..." Kurama murmured warningly into his palms before dropping his hands and looking at him.

They were about to have a fight, Kazuma could tell, but god, he wished they weren't. Not when Kurama was so weak already and Kazuma had just been trying to do the right thing-!

"I agree with your words," Kurama said, giving him a warning look. "But if you love Hiei as a teammate and a friend... do not ever say them to Mukuro again. They are private people. Their love is likewise just as hidden, and I know for a fact that Hiei is terrified of admitting his love for her openly."

"But why?" Kazuma demanded. Kurama groaned, looking away.

"Imagine every time you said the phrase 'I love you', that person died," Kurama replied. Kazuma waited, unnerved by the very concept. "After a while, you'd stop saying it. Wouldn't you?"

"I mean... I don't see how the two are connected-"

"Well, they are," Kurama growled. "In demon world, they are. There is a lot to lose when you play your hand so openly. Especially when you are dealing with love."

Kurama sighed and looked away again, rubbing his eyes.

Kazuma could not help but agree.

Chapter Text

In the world of demons there was an air, an aura, that all knew and respected. It was the field of energy that swirled about two fighters, the clash of ki and the spark of bloody battle which might rage for hours or days. The stronger the pair, the longer the battle, but as Hiei and Kurama faced one another on the outskirts of a black and wiry forest, they both knew this battle would be short. The reasons behind it were not for conquest or treasure, not for fame or glory.... Instead, this fight was for pain; for its end.

Hiei stood before Kurama, his hands clasped firmly behind his back, his supple black hair flitting in the hot wind that swept between them. Kurama’s arms were laced over his chest, feet spread in a weak fighting stance.

Hiei had been goading him for a fight all day, ever since Kurama had woken up and attempted to find something to eat on the bug. Throughout the day Hiei would not let him be, and had followed him as he had left the bug to take a walk on the edge of the woods before Kazuma could track him down. They were before one another now because Kurama had run out of time, room, and reasons to avoid Hiei. He’d officially hit the dead end. Hiei knew it.

“It is down to you, and it is down to me,” Hiei began. “Psychiatrists could not help you, your lover could not reach you; I will now do both. Painfully.” He growled the word.

“Are you threatening me, Hiei?” Kurama asked, his voice still rather raspy from the lye and therapy. “Because I don’t see that ending well for you.”

But Kurama’s words were flimsy and weak, much like his battle stance, and he knew that it would not take Hiei long to beat the truth from him. Kurama trusted Hiei, believed in him, and knew that Hiei (for all his shitty mouthing off) would help him if Kurama only gave him the opportunity. Kurama knew what Hiei needed, an incentive to fight. He was waiting now like a snake in the grass, still before the strike.

Hiei narrowed his almond eyes.

“Fight me and reclaim your honor,” he demanded.

“My honor?” Kurama repeated.

“Your honor is tarnished,” Hiei explained, his tone snide and forbearing. “You have quarreled with yourself and lost.” He said it coldly. “Your mind is a skewed and disgusting place filled with marring memories of loving embraces now cold and dead; your skin is itching for the arms of a woman you will never be able to hold again. You are laid low by yourself. You have committed social dishonor, emotional sabotage... and you have insulted your mother’s memory. Fight me, and reclaim your honor.”

Kurama ground his teeth at the mention of Shiori, for every one of Hiei’s accusations were on point and ugly to confront.

“... Hiei, do not mention her-“

“Shiori,” Hiei said the name. It was like a knife twisted in Kurama’s gut.

Kurama glared at Hiei, but Hiei did not relent nor back down. The snake was now moving in the weeds.

“... Shiori,” Hiei said the name again, over and over, making Kurama’s upper lip jump in a maddening haze of rage, “Shiori, Shiori, Sh-“

Kurama’s vision went red; he reached to his choppy hair and summoned-

“ROSE WHIP!”

~*~

Kurama had wanted solitude and silence but had found neither all day as Hiei continually harassed him for a fight. Kazuma was powerless to stop them, to be fair he knew that he shouldn’t interject when Hiei was attempting to help Kurama, and so when Kurama had vanished to the wood with Hiei hot on his tail, Kazuma had let him go. Mukuro had said that if Kazuma wanted to find her she would be on the upper terrace, and so Kazuma had asked Kirin for instructions on how to reach it and found her there watching the ground below like a hawk from up high.

The roof of the BUG was smooth and metal, tapered round the edges and a good place to keep look out with such a high vantage point. It had to be at least twenty to fifteen stories high... it was difficult to know for sure, but Kazuma was certain it was at least over ten. A spiral staircase took a viewer up a tightly wound walk that ended in a trap door that could be unlatched and thrown back. It was already cast aside, letting in fresh air and hot crimson light from the outer world. Kazuma was starting to not notice the stench of corpses so much, but he was certain that upon returning home all his clothes would have to be incinerated. God forbid anyone catch him smelling like a dead body at work. Storms were brewing overhead, making the air feel thicker than usual, and Kazuma wondered if it was going to rain.

She stood some ways off, her arms both metal and flesh over her chest, her red sash flitting about in the haggard and hot breeze. If she noticed his presence, she said nothing. He felt slightly sick as he looked down over the sliding edge of the roof, noting that should he fall now, he would die immediately upon hitting the ground... that would not be a clean or comfortable way to go. Swallowing his fear, Kazuma walked forward with cautious steady steps and stood beside Mukuro.

Down below, he had a perfect view of the outskirts of the woods, and could see all the way into their depth to where a valley lay on the other side littered with villages. Mountains covered the north in the far distance, and to the west there lay a massive sprawling forest even more grand and dark than the small one by which they stood. To the east, more valleys and plains. To the south, the looming empire of dark and ugly cliffs on the other side of a foul wood.

“I thought you might seek me out,” Mukuro stated. Kazuma looked at her, noting that her normal eye seemed quite calm and relaxed. “Hiei has Kurama quite... entertained.”

Kazuma looked over the side, and his stomach clenched with worry as he saw Hiei and Kurama fighting viciously. Kurama was slashing at Hiei with his whip, darting through the trees and no doubt trying to gain ground, but Hiei was following relentlessly with his sword in hand. The pair of them were fast, and difficult to keep a watch on, but Kazuma knew from the sounds of shouting and angry conversation that this was not really a battle of whips and swords but of words. This moment, this scene, was what Kazuma had brought them to demon world for.

Hiei would beat the grief out of Kurama; he would give him no choice but to deal with it.

“Perhaps this shall soothe him,” Mukuro said, and Kazuma had no idea if she was talking about Kurama or Hiei. “Hiei has been known to go for days when he’s in the mood.”

“... I hope Kurama can find some peace in it,” Kazuma murmured. If this fight went poorly, their entire trip would have been for nothing and Kazuma would be back to square one with no ideas on how to help Kurama.

He did not want to be back to square one. Not when it involved nightmares, and a comatose state.

“He will.” Mukuro seemed quite content in the fact. “This is our way. Humans are soothed by love. Demons are soothed by blood. When the wounds of time become too great to bear, we make our own wounds and cut them deep into our skin. As our flesh spills out, so our hearts are cleansed.”

The image was macabre and made him queasy. He grimaced at Mukuro and found her grinning at him.

“... You think Hiei can reach him?” Kazuma asked, simply because he was so very eager to get off the topic of blood and guts.

“Mmm.” Mukuro nodded, looking back out over the battle which had now taken Hiei and Kurama into the heart of the forest. Even from such a distance, he could still hear them screaming faintly in the wind.

“I WILL EAT YOU TO THE BONE AND BREAK YOU BETWEEN MY FINGERS!”

“YOU!? YOU CAN’T EVEN TELL YOUR OWN SISTER THAT YOU LOVE HER!”

 

“If there is anyone in this world or the next that understands grief and how to handle it... it is Hiei,” Mukuro said. Kazuma did not necessarily agree with that statement.

“What makes you say that?” Kazuma asked, “Hiei always had this anger problem when he was working with me.”

Mukuro just laughed, tickled by his words.

“Hiei has never not had an anger problem, Kuwabara,” Mukuro agreed with a soft smile, “His anger is his way of explaining his emotions. Like the vivid hues of oil and paint, his anger has different emotions layered underneath.” She gestured with her hand out before her, like an artist at his brush, “Consider... calm, subtle irritation.” Mukuro smiled, “When all is well with the world. Then this anger-” She pointed to the forest where they could see Hiei and Kurama dancing in and out of tree tops, “Hot and fresh, emotional and raw-“

“Concern,” Kazuma supplied.

“Indeed.” Mukuro smiled, dropping her hand to lace her fingers behind her back.

But it still made absolutely no sense to Kazuma, whose own anger had never been so sharp nor as ugly as Hiei’s. Why was Hiei so damn angry all the time? Why the shitty attitude? Why the abrasive personality? Fuck, it wasn’t like any of them had ever tried to hurt him or take advantage of him in a moment of weakness. Didn’t that make them at least somewhat trustworthy in Hiei’s eyes?

“What is his deal, though?” Kazuma asked, for if anyone knew about Hiei’s personality it would be Mukuro. “Why is he always like this?”

Mukuro frowned.

“Hiei has much grief in his heart,” she said. “You know this.”

“I do?” Kazuma replied, for if he did that was news to him. He didn’t know shit about Hiei.

Mukuro looked at him. “You’re Hiei’s teammate. A friend, even... and yet you don’t know?”

“Well I mean, he never really let us in,” Kazuma admitted. “Kurama knows the most, but even he doesn’t know a lot.”

“Mmm.” Mukuro looked back out over the wiry forest.

A silence suddenly grew between them and the more it dragged on the more Kazuma felt uneasy about the subject of Hiei’s supposed grief. Where had Hiei come from? What was his story? How had he and Yukina even gotten separated in the first place, and why was it that Hiei couldn’t tell her he was her brother (even when it was obvious she knew)? Why all the secrets, the lies, the hating?

Kazuma wondered.

“Did something... bad happen to Hiei?” Kazuma asked.

“Many things.”

Kazuma winced.

“Did... someone hurt him-“

“Many people.”

“Are they still alive?”

Mukuro cocked a head at this, deliberating. “I believe so, yes.”

Kazuma looked out over the trees, where Hiei was dancing from branch to branch wearing Kurama down with each blow of his sword.

“I could get revenge for him,” Kazuma mused, for it wouldn’t bother him to lift a sword to defend Hiei if it helped Hiei to understand that he was a friend. Shit, maybe Hiei might even be nicer to him.

Mukuro was shaking her head, smiling. It seemed his words had charmed her, for she gave him an endearing look.

“No, there’s no need for that,” she assured him. “Hiei will get revenge when he is ready. He too is traveling down the road of grief and pain. When it’s time, he will handle it his own way.”

It was easy to imagine, when Mukuro was speaking in such a tone and using such lovely words, that she was calm all the time and could inflict no harm. Yet Kazuma had seen Hiei’s body, the proof of the damage Mukuro could do. Hiei was no push over; he did not go down without a struggle... and something that could bring Hiei to his knees was something that needed to be treated with utmost care and caution. Yusuke’s words were starting to make a great deal of sense to Kazuma.

Mukuro was dangerous. She was not evil, conniving, or rude like Hiei but she was dangerous.
And yet...

When Hiei had run his hand upon her shoulders; when he had looked at her across the room and done her bidding silently... when she’d grabbed him by the elbow...

“You really give him a sense of peace,” Kazuma said, for even though they bickered, it could not be denied that Hiei had been calmer around Mukuro. Almost... docile. “I noticed that the other day.”

“Do I?” Mukuro asked, slightly coy in tone. She smiled a little at Kazuma.

“You touched him, the other day... you grabbed his elbow. And he ran his hands over your shoulders. I noticed that,” Kazuma explained. “And when you asked him to stay, he did, even though he looked like he wanted to run. That’s love in Hiei’s language, I guess,” Kazuma finished lamely. Really, he was no expert on Hiei’s emotions. If anything, he was a victim.

“Perhaps it is.” Mukuro shrugged; their conversation was momentarily jarred as a cracking, splintering sound filled the air and a massive tree in the forest came railing down into the woods that surrounded it. Ravens took flight, cawing overhead as they whistled past, almost eye level with Mukuro and Kazuma. They could hear Kurama shouting now, his voice loud and angry, emotional and heavy with guilt.

“I CANNOT-!”

“Oh, come now, not the foliage,” Mukuro grumbled. “Focus on the battle and stop dicking around, Hiei.”

“What’s he doing?” Kazuma asked, suddenly quite nervous. Kurama had sounded almost in pain when he’d shouted. Damnit, was Hiei hurting him?

“Hiei is going to run Kurama into the ground so that Kurama has no choice but to face his emotions. A very smart tactic when facing someone so analytical and calculating. Take their logic away from them, and let them flounder...” Mukuro smiled smugly. “Yes, Hiei is nothing if not a brilliant strategist.”

There was something in the way she said it, something appraising and proud.

Here was the woman that loved Hiei. Kazuma could hear it in her voice, see it in her face. The expression of longing that lovers so often wore. Even half marred by scars, Mukuro still looked lightly flustered as she said Hiei’s name.

“... How did you meet?” Kazuma asked. Mukuro blushed, looking at him warily.

Kazuma did not mean to be so nosy, but he was very curious.
“Was it love at first sight?” He jested.

“No.” Mukuro snorted, looking away. “It was not.”

She snorted to herself again, but Kazuma could see her expression slipping into deep thought. Perhaps she was remembering.

“Hope he wasn’t too mean to you,” Kazuma joked. “You can’t take hurtful words back.”

Mukuro smiled at him, and Kazuma could tell he was amusing her.

“He came to me to die.” Mukuro said.

Kazuma did a double take, his grin slipping off his face.

“For six months I unleashed over five thousand A-class apparitions on him and let him battle his way out in the torture chambers. It exhausted him... forced him to confront his demons.” She gestured out to the woods, where things had suddenly gotten very quiet, “Then I brought forth a person who, though I did not know it at the time, would force the final confrontation... the final end.” Mukuro paused, reflecting, “They battled to the death. Hiei wanted to die, and so he committed simultaneous seppuku by the other’s sword. A truly honorable death, an exquisite battle that I have never seen topped. It lasted, perhaps... five seconds.” Mukuro gestured, “I was determined to have him in my service after that. I revived him and made him the head of my army... and Kirin lost his position.”

Suddenly Kazuma could see why Kirin hated Hiei. Hiei had stolen his damn job.

But- Hiei had tried to die? Nobody had ever mentioned that to him! He wondered if anyone else knew- if suddenly he was the first person to be let in on a secret.

Now he was starting to see why Kurama and Yusuke had been so silent about Hiei’s position and problems. It was very weighing to know something as heavy as a “Hiei-secret”.

“... Why did he want to die?” Kazuma asked.

Mukuro looked away.

It became clear that she was unwilling to answer, and Kazuma realized he’d pushed too far. Now that he thought about it, it was none of his damn business why Hiei had wanted to die. He was just glad Hiei hadn’t died.

“Well, I’m glad you saved him,” Kazuma murmured. Mukuro looked back at him, and there was a smile upon her face again.

“Hiei is usually quite determined to live,” Mukuro said. “It was easy to re-spark his interest.”

“Yeah, he was always kickin’ ass back when we fought together-“ Kazuma agreed, but his words were cut off when a terrible gut wrenching scream filled the air. More birds flew from trees, and Kazuma looked around with a start.

That had sounded like Kurama.

“Be at ease,” Mukuro said quickly. “That was not a scream of physical pain.”

But now Kazuma was starting to get very concerned; Hiei was callous and difficult to manage, his temper could flare up without warning and damage anyone who was too close. If Kurama was on the receiving end of an undeserved blast, it could end him. He barely had enough strength to move about now a days- a fight had been too much to ask for.

“This is why you came here,” Mukuro reminded him. “Let Hiei do what he must.”

“Damnit, I don’t know if this is a good idea anymore.” Kazuma took a step towards the trap door.

Mukuro did not make to stop him; would she think him rude if he left?

Kazuma did not know this woman, did not know how she might react if displeased... but Kurama needed him; that alone was worth Mukuro’s rumored wrath.

Besides. She loved a man. Perhaps she’d understand.

Kazuma turned and ran for the trap door.

 

It took far too long for his liking to reach downstairs, and when he managed to get to the lift he only waited for it to be lowered half way before jumping out and hitting the ground at a run. The impact jarred his ankles, but Kazuma didn’t care, taking off for the woods where he could hear faint screaming.

He had not run so fast in a while, and the adrenaline rush of oxygen burning wildly through his lungs made his fingers and toes tingle. He made it to the woods and headed straight for the center, unsure of where he’d find Kurama or what condition he would be in. Part of him was afraid, part of him was angry, but all of him was concerned in that moment as Kurama’s wail of agony echoed in his mind.

He followed the sounds of muted battle until he came to a grotto in the woods where massive tree trunks made for thick obstacles around the fighters path. Both Hiei and Kurama were sweating, battling hand to hand now instead of with sword and whip. Kurama was shaking wildly, whether from adrenaline or pain, Kazuma could not tell, but he hung back for a moment on the frame of their vision as Hiei kept his hands up and prowled about Kurama. He leered and weaved, a flickering flame that threatened to melt the flesh of all who touched it.

“You knew she was mortal, that one day she would die; you did not prepare yourself for the loss! This is your punishment!” Hiei snarled; Kazuma’s mouth tensed into a fierce frown, ready to step out into a clearing, but Kurama was still putting up a fight, putting up a stance... dammit if Kurama was fighting then shouldn’t Kazuma let him?

Was this the right thing to do?
God... Kazuma didn’t know. It terrified him.

“One cannot prepare themselves for the loss of a loved one!” Kurama was shouting.

“Yes, you can!” Hiei snarled right back, “You can detach, you can build, you wait for the storm to arrive with a house made strong, not of cards!” He threw out a hand wildly. “You folded as fragile as one of your flowers, and you dare to blame fate? You did this to yourself, Kurama!” Hiei pointed at him.

“I could never detach from her!” Kurama screamed, the very idea clearly appalling to him, but Hiei just kept pushing.

“The love she gave you was like a drug; it made you forget the pain, but you drank too deeply from it and now you must face the pain without its soothing presence!”

... Hiei was actually starting to... make sense.
It was unnerving.

“And is that why you avoid Yukina, Hiei?!” Kurama taunted. Kazuma had never heard him make such a blow at Hiei, and knew it was a sign that Kurama was running out of places to hide. Hiei’s words were reaching him. “To avoid drinking from the well of her love? Do you smell her soap and wish you could hold her? Do you?” Kurama screamed.

“Shiori’s love for you made you just as weak as it did strong!” Hiei shouted, not fazed in the slightest by Kurama’s ugly blow. “You know this! The weakness that muddles your mind has her hand on it just as much as the strength behind your whip does! You must take what you can from her, build with it a memory of goodness, and detach! Detach and let go!” Hiei’s eyes blazed at the command.

“NO!” Kurama screamed, that same kind of gut wrenching scream Kazuma had heard from atop the BUG. Now, so close, the scream was deafening as it was heart-wrenching, but Hiei did not flinch or flee.

“Then you will never leave this place,” Hiei said, his voice eerily soft as he touched his head.

The indication was clear: the psych ward. Kurama screamed and threw himself at Hiei.

They clashed with fists, punching each other senseless as they fell to the ground. They rolled momentarily, each battling to remain on top where their punches would be most effective, but in the end Hiei won out as he kicked a leg between Kurama’s and pinned him to the ground. He was straddling Kurama by the waist, looking weirdly sensual with Kurama had he not been punching him relentlessly in the chest, neck, and face. It was terrifying for Kazuma to watch but watch he did... because he knew Hiei could hit a whole lot fucking harder than he was.

Hiei was holding back, but Kurama was still breaking beneath him.

“Let it go!” Hiei roared, punching Kurama hard in the jaw. “Detach from the drug that makes you weak and grow strong in your sobriety!”

“I cannot live as you do, Hiei!” Kurama shouted, “I cannot cut myself off from love-!”

“It is not love, it is weakness!” Hiei punched Kurama in the face again, and Kurama made a noise of pain as the blow connected with the side of his eye; it would surely leave a bruise, “Love does not suck you so dry of yourself! Love does not destroy you when it leaves you!”

“Oh, so that’s why you wept like a child when Yukina gave you soap-“

Hiei’s face flushed an ugly red, his expression changing from stern control to a brief angry rage in a flash. He punched Kurama hard in the mouth, and Kurama gasped. Hiei grabbed Kurama by the collar, shaking him hard so that his head smacked the ground.

“Shiori loved you, treasured you, adored you, but she is dead now,” Hiei spat venomously. “You gave her twenty five years of honest living, of nourishing stability and support- do not deny your own involvement in her happiness.”

“I was a bastard-“ Kurama choked out, blood issuing from the corner of his mouth; Hiei did not care, shaking him still harder so that Kurama’s head hit the ground again.

“We’re all bastards, Kurama!” Hiei roared, and his fury was to such a point that Kazuma was certain Hiei had screamed this several times during their argument. “It’s who we are!”

Kurama’s eyes opened, and they stared up in vacant awe into the canopy above Hiei’s head. A few silver leaves drifted down, a hot wind blew gently by, but neither fighter moved.

“... That’s who we are,” Hiei said, his voice now at speaking level. “We can be no other way. But your co dependance upon her love is going to destroy you if you can’t learn to let go. Take what you can from it, allow her memory to fill you up in times of darkness, but for the love of God don’t drown in your pain like a child.” Hiei glared at Kurama, “Shiori wanted you to live long and to prosper in health and happiness. That was her final wish. See it come true... or dishonor her forever.”

Kurama just kept looking up at the canopy.

“... I never told her,” he whispered. Kazuma could hear the pain in his voice.

“... I understand,” Hiei replied.

Kurama’s eyes flitted to Hiei’s face. He reached up a dirty and scraped hand, and gently grabbed the shirt upon Hiei’s shoulder. The black cloth was frayed and old, going easily with Kurama’s tight grip as he slowly sat up. Hiei slumped back, now sitting upon Kurama’s lap in a way that made Kazuma slightly uncomfortable save for the fact that he knew Kurama loved him and not Hiei.

Hiei touched Kurama’s brow where a silver leaf had fallen into his red hair and plucked it out.

“Your weakness has made you soft,” Hiei murmured. “Before you would have killed yourself with ease.”

“Well, really, you need to thank Kazuma for that,” Kurama said, a slight smile playing upon his bloodied lips. “Had it not been for him, I would not be here.”

Kazuma’s heart skipped a beat in the shadows.

“So the fool does have a use after all.” Though his words were rude his tone was strangely... appreciative.

“Yes. He does,” Kurama said, and Kazuma could now hear the affection in both their voices, see it in both their faces as they gazed upon one another.

For a moment Hiei simply sat and stared at Kurama. Then, he hugged him.

Kazuma’s jaw dropped, and he instinctively covered it with a hand.

Hiei did not hug with experience or warmth, but Kurama’s face was wide with shock and even delight. He looked at the back of Hiei’s head from where it was nestled upon his neck, and seemed utterly amazed as he reached up to put his arms around Hiei.

“I’m glad,” Hiei muttered, and though his tone was spiteful his grip was incredibly tight around Kurama.

For a moment, the only sound was them breathing. Kurama’s expression grew from delight to emotional grief, his eyes filling with tears though they did not fall. He still smiled, biting his lip as he held Hiei.

Kazuma realized he was not emotional over Shiori for the first time in quite a long time.

Kurama brought a hand up to Hiei’s head, and cradled it, his dirty fingers sliding through the short black locks. Hiei nuzzled his face into Kurama’s own, just the slightest show of affection that could barely be registered if one hadn’t been paying close enough attention.

They sat back, observing one another again. Hiei slid out of Kurama’s lap, relaxing upon the forest floor as he retightened his bandana over his ominous third eye.

“Thank you Hiei...” Kurama whispered, his eyes back up on the canopy as he lay flat on his back again. A few more silver leaves fell into his hair. “I needed that.”

“Mmm.”

Kazuma looked away from the clearing, realizing what an important and personal scene he’d just been private witness to. Maybe it had been wrong of him to watch when it was so rare, like the birth of a child or the departing of the soul from a body; this was not something he should have seen... but he’d seen it none the less.

And he couldn’t believe it, in spite of himself.

Hiei’s love, only rumored until now, openly on display as he hugged Kurama. What the hell had made him so brave to do that? Kazuma could hardly blame Kurama for the look of shock and awe that he had worn as Hiei had wrapped his arms around his neck. Never in living memory had Hiei done such a thing.

Would he ever do it again? Kazuma doubted it.

 

It was strange, to walk back to the BUG at a slow and leisurely pace, but he could no longer hear screams and knew that the fight was officially over. Perhaps, in a way, they had accomplished their goal. Kurama had certainly seemed more at ease upon the forest floor than he had in quite a while, but Kazuma was determined to stay in demon world until Kurama told him he was ready to go home.

When he’d arrived back at the lift and reentered the BUG, he’d wandered aimlessly above the upper floors, wondering what he’d find. He was really curious to see where the control was, and knew if he followed the main wiring connection that ran above his head he would find it. Kazuma could sense Kurama’s energy nearby, but didn’t run into him in the halls, and was surprised when he felt the BUG beginning to move beneath his feet. At first he worried that Kurama would be left behind with Hiei in the forest, but then he sensed Kurama’s energy somewhere above his head and knew that Kurama was on board. Perhaps he was on the upper terrace.

Kazuma traveled up, wondering if he’d run into Kurama, but did not see him as he hit the top floor. The wiring above his head was thickest here, and he was certain that the control room was somewhere on this floor. His sense of direction told him that the ‘head’ of the BUG (if one could say it had a head) would be at the end of the hall, and so he traveled all the way down to where he found a pair of sliding mechanical doors that opened wide to reveal-

Ah. A control room. Kazuma smiled in spite of himself.

Kirin was at the helm, which was a large wiring board full of switches and gears that blinked periodically when in use. Before them was a massive window, slightly rounded like a Cyclops eye would be, and through it Kazuma could see the mountains of the north looming in the distance. To his right, large monitors flashed above the halls, showing camera views of soldiers on patrol and at their stations. He did not see Kurama in any of these.

Still, he knew Kurama was close. His energy hummed pleasantly in the back of Kazuma’s mind.

“Wow...” Kazuma greeted Kirin, walking up from behind to view the control board over Kirin’s shoulder. This room was spacious for a control center, so that several men could easily access it at the same time... a smart move. “This is pretty cool.”

“Quite.” Kirin agreed, his eyes crinkling behind his eye slit to tell Kazuma he was smiling again. “A fine beast, isn’t she?”

“In my world, I build things; I can appreciate the aesthetic,” Kazuma said. “I’m an architect.”

“We have such men here,” Kirin said.

“I guess the BUG appeals to me in that way.” Kazuma shrugged, quite at ease with his newfound friend. Hiei could go take a flying leap, Kirin was pretty darn cool to him.

“Would you care to steer it?” Kirin offered in jest.

“Well, I don’t really know where we’re going.” Kazuma snorted, but Kirin stepped back and Kazuma realized he was going to let him actually drive the BUG! Leaping to the controls lest they fall slack, Kazuma kept his hands upon the levers and felt the power hum beneath them. He looked at Kirin who nodded his head once to show that Kazuma was doing as he was supposed to.

“Wow...” Kazuma said again, feeling quite powerful all of a sudden at the helm.
He wished Kurama could see this.

“Do you see those mountains in the far north?” Kirin pointed; Kazuma nodded, “That’s bandit territory, and it’s becoming a pain in the ass for Enki, our king. We have orders to comb it for ruffians and thugs, so that portals are no longer threatened.”

“What are they called?”

“The Norikura Range. They are our destination.”

 

Kazuma heard the doors sliding open behind him, but did not look around. He didn’t want to take his eyes off of the road, though to be fair there really wasn’t a road; even if there was, this BUG could tear the hell out of anything it crossed. His best move was to cut around the forest and avoid trampling the trees.

 

“Kirin,” came Mukuro’s smoky voice. Kirin turned, and greeted her with a silent gesture of his fist to his heart. It was a strange move, and one that Kazuma might expect of a soldier. Perhaps Kirin was finding it difficult to break the habit now that Mukuro was no longer a ‘demon king’ or whatever the hell Yusuke had said.

“Are you relinquishing your controls to such a creature as this human?” Mukuro said, but her voice was kind and clearly joking.

“I fear I am,” Kirin joked back. Mukuro went to stand by the monitors, flicking through them with a remote control at her leisure.

“I may see you unfit for duty if such madness persists.” Mukuro winked at Kirin, who snorted softly under his breath; clearly Mukuro would never call Kirin unfit for duty even if he was mad.

“Hey, I’m a good driver,” Kazuma dared to join in, though he never took his eyes off the road, “I just don’t know how to turn or break." He could not help but laugh aloud at himself.

“I assure you if either were required I would alert you," Kirin said. “Just keep us forward.”

So Kazuma did.

“Mukuro, do you know where Kurama is?” Kazuma asked, wondering if she’d seen him about the BUG.

Mukuro turned on a monitor with her remote, and it fuzzed to reveal a scene from atop the upper terrace. There were Kurama and Hiei, both on the roof and both looking quite at ease as they sat side by side. Kurama was still dirty and bloodied, and Hiei had a cut on his face that ought to be taped, but neither seemed eager to fix their wounds. Instead, they were relaxing after their battle and enjoying the open air.

“I guess they wanted some alone time.” Kazuma shrugged, at ease with it, “You know, they were hugging in the forest-“ He caught Mukuro’s eyes. Her good eye crinkled with amusement as she smiled. Kazuma knew she would appreciate the meaning behind those words, given that Hiei was not the ‘hugging’ type.

She suddenly seemed very happy and reached up to touch the monitor were Hiei’s face was showing. Her metal fingers soothingly stroked the glass.

Kirin snorted, shaking his head. Mukuro caught Kazuma’s eye again, dropping her bionic hand from the screen.

“Kirin does not enjoy Hiei’s company,” Mukuro explained softly.

“I would prefer comments from a bloated corpse than that snide upstart,” Kirin concurred.

Kazuma said nothing, having often shared the sentiment himself, but he noticed Mukuro reached back up to touch the screen again. Hiei looked over his shoulder, oddly right at the camera; Mukuro touched his face.

Her love was obvious in those tiny moments when she thought no one was looking.

 

As night began to fall, Kirin took over the controls again to weave the BUG through villages spaced out around the massive fields of demon world. Storms unleashed from above, and both Hiei and Kurama left the upper terrace in escape from the rain. Kurama came into the control room, perhaps following Kazuma’s energy, perhaps not, but he certainly did smile when he saw Kazuma relaxing against a bench, and sat next to him as Kazuma reached up to heal his bruised face with his own energy.

“Did Hiei really have to beat you up this much?” Kazuma asked.

“Yes.” Kurama laughed softly, Kazuma’s thumb catching upon his cracked lip. “Yes, he did.”

“Well, I may just have to clobber the little shit,” Kazuma murmured, his voice soft and low.

Kirin, at the controls, cast Kazuma a glance. “Hiei is relentless. He knows no mercy.”

Kurama looked over his shoulder, and his smile slipped a little as he regarded Kirin.

“... I’m afraid I must disagree,” Kurama said. “Hiei can be very merciful when he is properly motivated.”

“A true man requires no motivation to bestow mercy.” Kirin was unswayed. Kurama made a noise in the back of his throat, his smile slipping some more.

“It ought to be something that you do without motivation.” Kazuma added, for he couldn’t help but agree with Kirin. Kurama looked at him agog; Kazuma winced. “I mean, you gotta admit-“

“And so the men that threatened my mother or you family during our times of trial... did they deserve mercy?” Kurama asked. “Aniki Toguro and the like?”

“Well, I mean, no-!” Kazuma flustered.

“And the men who beat and raped Yukina during her imprisonment, did they deserve mercy?”

“Hell no!” Kazuma snapped, slightly angry that such a thing could even be suggested. Those men deserved to fry in hell!

“Well, okay then.” Kurama relaxed, perching jauntily upon the bench as he gave Kirin a cold glance. “I’m glad you and Hiei are on the same page.”

“I....” Kazuma could see Kurama was irritated at him, but dammit he had his own point to prove. Surely Kurama couldn’t have forgotten the millions of times Hiei had been an asshole to him. Did those count for nothing? Was he supposed to just toughen up and deal with the fact that a friend thought him a moron?

“He’s a real asshole to me, alright?” Kazuma grumbled. Kurama looked at him, aware of his displeasure. “I have resentment over that, I admit it-“

“Hiei does not understand the definition of a friend,” Kirin added. “It is a word that is vacant from his vocabulary.”

Kurama looked at Kazuma wide eyed, waiting to see what he would say in reply.
On the one hand, he had witnessed a powerful and moving hug not hours ago.

On the other...

“... You gotta admit, he could treat his friends a little bet-“ Kazuma began. Kurama scoffed, pulling away from Kazuma’s arms and jerking up from the bench on which they sat to storm out of the control room. Kazuma leapt up, following after him, and knew that Kirin’s eyes were upon him.

“Kurama, wait-!”

He followed Kurama down a flight of stairs to the fourth floor, and as he whipped out of the stair well and around a corner, he suddenly ran smack into Hiei who was talking to Kurama with a derisive look upon his face. Kazuma stumbled, jerking out of the way to avoid knocking Hiei over-!

“Dammit, Hiei-!” Kazuma scorned. Did he always have to be right in the way?

Kurama was glaring coolly at him, but Kazuma would not be dissuaded. He had a point and he was going to make it. Right here in front of Hiei if need be!

“Look, I’m sorry!” Kazuma snapped, “But I don’t like being called a moron every five seconds.”

“But you are one,” Hiei said with a sneer.

“You shut the fuck up!” Kazuma spat at Hiei, lunging at him, but Hiei vanished into a pocket of air so that Kazuma nearly fell to the floor for a second time as Hiei re appeared behind him. “See!?” Kazuma demanded, whirling upon Kurama whose cool glare now had turned into something more heated and irritable. “This is exactly what I’m talking about! Right here!”

“Hiei...” Kurama warned, “Kazuma is a not a moron. Please do not refer to him as such-“

“Am I to be censored now, for his comfort?” Hiei scoffed, his arms folded over his chest. Damnit, Kazuma hated it when he used that contemptuous tone.

“Understand me, Hiei, his self-confidence was very low when we first fell in love,” Kurama warned, and suddenly Kazuma was flushing with embarrassment as Hiei scowled. “He was too afraid to even tell me his feelings for seven years because he thought himself unworthy. Please do not further cement that thought!”

Hiei looked away, eyes narrowing.

“And you!” Kurama rounded on Kazuma, pointing a finger like a knife. Kazuma pursed his lips, hating for Kurama to use such a tone on him. “I expected better from you! Kirin does not understand Hiei; Kirin knows very little of Hiei, and cares nothing for him-“

“Tch.” Hiei scoffed, “As if I need loyalty from such a mindless dullard.”

“But you know Hiei!” Kurama continued on, eyes wide and imploring, “You fought alongside him- when Sensui threatened to destroy everything you cherished, Hiei was by your side! Do you forget that?”

“He was there because of Yusuke! Not me-“ Kazuma snapped, but before Kurama could say anything, Hiei cut across them both.

“A fashionable idea,” Hiei sneered, giving Kazuma an ugly grin. “Yet one that is incorrect; I was there because I wanted to fight someone with saint energy. The boy’s fate mattered very little to me. Kill or be killed, that is the way of the world.”

“In other words-“ Kurama cut across Hiei before he could say anything else rude. “Yes, you did care about Yusuke and you were very upset when Yusuke died.”

Hiei narrowed his eyes with a scowl.

“But that’s exactly what I’m talking about!” Kazuma cried out, gesturing to Hiei who sneered at him, “Why not just come straight out and say ‘yes, Yusuke is my friend, I was broken hearted when I saw him die!’. Why the bullshit?! Why the lies?!”

At this, Hiei reached for his sword, eyes glaring upon Kazuma. The pair of them were facing off, charring up-

“Are you calling me a liar?” Hiei snarled, learning in so that Kazuma could see the shadows underneath his almond eyes, as deep and purple as thinly rimmed bruises.

“Are you really gonna deny it, shrimp?!” Kazuma replied, ready for a fight. Yet before one could break out, Kurama reached forward. In the same move he knocked Hiei’s sword back into its sheath and pushed Kazuma back from Hiei so that the pair of them had their space.

“... He doesn’t say it because he can’t. You know that.” Kurama’s eyes bore into Kazuma’s own.

Hiei scoffed in the silence. He turned on his heel and walked down the fourth floor corridor. “I don’t have time for this nonsense,” was all that he said as he vanished around a corner and disappeared from sight.

Kurama shook his head, turned, and made for their room. Kazuma followed hot on his heels, just as irritable as Kurama. Yet he didn’t show it till both of them were over the threshold and the door was closed securely behind them.

“You can’t tell me that’s normal!” Kazuma snapped angrily as Kurama slumped upon the trunk at the foot of their bed, scowling again. “That treating your friends like shit is natural and shouldn’t be curbed!”

Kurama slammed a fist onto the trunk.

“Kazuma, you know he has difficulties!” Kurama rose off the trunk, beginning to pace; suddenly here was the Kurama he hadn’t seen in weeks, the Kurama that was engaged and brilliant, cunning as he poked into every corner of a problem for an answer; had they not been fighting he would have been thrilled. “Why do you throw them in his face?”

“I’m trying to understand, Kurama! It’s a little difficult when I’m being shitted on every five minutes!”

“That’s just his way! Hiei is defensive, he puts up walls, he keeps people out-“

“But just today, I caught a glimpse of Hiei holding you-!” Kazuma flushed when Kurama looked around at him. He was surprised, still Kazuma pushed onward. “He doesn’t always keep people out!”

“Yes, if Hiei decides you are trustworthy, that you will not plunge a knife into his back, he will open up-“ Kurama agreed, but Kazuma threw up a hand.

“I would never plunge a knife into his back!” Kazuma snapped.

“He knows that!”

“Then why does he treat me-“

“Because you are open!” Kurama shouted the phrase, and it was strange but so accurate that Kazuma was taken aback. Open? Hiei did not like him because he was open?

“Explain,” Kazuma said, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

“Because you are open, and honest, and you do not have to be afraid; Hiei is none of those things, and it’s because he is scared. He is scared to death of trusting, and you do it so easily... so warmly... go genuinely.... Hiei can’t do it; Kazuma he can’t even tell Yukina that he loves her-“

“Does he love her?” Kazuma snorted.

The look Kurama gave him was one of anger, true and honest anger that made him realize what a reproachable thing he’d just said.

“Yes,” Kurama said, his tone completely different. He glared at Kazuma as he spoke, the heat in his words not high in volume but deep in meaning. Kazuma looked away, very embarrassed.

“If Yukina died, Hiei would be...” Kurama gestured about, open mouthed, “Doomed.” He settled on the word with utmost care. “He would not wait to commit suicide as I did; the minute he found out, he would plunge his sword into his breast... because life would not be worth living anymore.”

Kazuma sighed, not saying a word. He should never have insisted Hiei did not love Yukina. He knew now that that was wrong. Still, the damage was done; he could not unsay the words.

“He adores her,” Kurama murmured, thoughtful now with no more anger in his voice as he truly considered the matter at hand, “the very ground she walks on is sacred to him. Because she is his twin, his copy, and is so loving and good... she is everything on the outside that he cannot be. Because-“ Kurama stopped, toying for words again, “I suppose because someone told him in his youth that it was wrong to trust and foolish to love-"

“Well, they were wrong,” Kazuma growled, eyes back on Kurama. He hoped Kurama was not still mad at him. For a moment they simply looked at one another, sizing each other up. Usually so well in synch, it was rare that they did not see eye to eye on a topic. It did not seem to sit right with Kurama, who crossed his arms over his chest and tried to find common ground with Kazuma.

“Kazuma, when you were little and you were afraid, who did you run to?” Kurama asked.

“My dad,” Kazuma replied. “Or my sister.”

“And what did they say to you? What did they do?” Kurama asked.

“Protected me, consoled me-“ Kazuma tried to remember his childhood, tried to recall moments of fear.

“Lifted you up, praised you, told you everything would be alright...” Kurama continued on. Kazuma nodded.

“Imagine if they weren’t there,” Kurama said. Kazuma stiffened. “Imagine you had no one, or worse had someone cruel. How would that have changed you?”

It was a fair question, and it deserved a fair answer. Kazuma mused on it, thinking of Yusuke and how Atsuko had never exactly been mother of the year. As Kazuma had grown up to defend the territory of his neighborhood, Yusuke had grown up to fight simply for the urge of violent release. He’d trusted no one save Keiko, and had had such a nasty temper that most children their age had avoided him altogether. The isolationism had been the final nail in the coffin, making Yusuke into a cemented teenage delinquent who skipped school, fought constantly, and consorted with dark men in dark corners.

He supposed that he might have grown up somewhat like that.

“Hiei is... very afraid,” Kurama began again, his voice soft. It was as if he was nervous Hiei might enter the room and hear him saying such things. Kazuma caught his eye, his fingers drumming upon his lips but still listening. “He’s afraid because someone made him afraid. When you look at him, don’t see the adult. See the child. See the young boy that’s been kicked and beaten and left to sob in the dirt. I assure you... everything will make sense if you do. Hiei is not a lost cause, he is a lost soul. There is a difference.” Kurama gave him a reproachful smile, “He needs people who will understand and support him. People like Mukuro and Yusuke-“

“And you,” Kazuma added in.

“And you,” Kurama finished. Kazuma did not agree and shook his head.

“He needs you,” Kurama soothed, taking a step forward and placing a hand upon Kazuma’s breast directly over his heart, “He will never say it, he certainly has never said it to anyone else, but he needs you.”

Kazuma still wasn’t convinced.

“How do you know that this isn’t all some joke, that he isn’t really a fucking prick to the bone?” Kazuma asked. “Where is my proof?”

“In his eyes," Kurama answered. “The next time that you argue with him, look into his eyes. You will see the fear there. If it was a joke, the fear would not exist. Nothing is funny when you are afraid... I should know.”

At this, Kurama looked down and away, lamenting on something Kazuma was not privy to. Kazuma sighed, reaching up and stroking Kurama’s face.

“... I’m sorry.” Kazuma murmured, “I’m sorry, baby, I didn’t mean what I said about... Yukina.”

“I know,” Kurama assured him. He leaned in and Kazuma held him; it was incredibly lovely, to cradle his chin atop Kurama’s fluffily chopped hair. He kissed Kurama’s brow beneath him.

Outside, the storm raged on.

Chapter Text

They reached the Norikura Mountain Range early the next morning, and when Kazuma awoke curled around Kurama’s sleeping form he could smell pine and cedar. In demon world, where pollution was nonexistent, the trees became a heavy odor in the air, and it was very soothing to smell something fresh after the rotting smell of corpses in the valleys. Kazuma rose, dressed, and woke Kurama so that they both could venture downstairs into the cool mountain air. The turf was springy and thick under foot, a dense lush green, and pine trees towered over their heads to shrink like an odd green beard upon the mountains face as Kazuma looked into the distance. The jagged peaks went up high into the sky, and farther away Kazuma could see white caps where snow lay thick upon the creamy brown tops. Wild flowers grew in bunches along beaten paths and a mist settled over the ground to sweep past their feet every time a breath a wind blew by. It truly was a lovely place.

Portals were here too, and Kazuma could not help but wonder how many portals there were into demon world and why he’d never seen one in human world. Maybe he just hadn’t been looking properly, but there were at least six (that Kazuma could see) along the main road, and frankly it disturbed him to know that he’d never felt at least one while in Japan. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. Maybe they weren’t even in Japan.

Hiei and Mukuro were already on the ground, walking past portals and inspecting them at random. Soldiers marched by in troops, lead by Kirin who was talking rapidly with Mukuro as she listened intently and scrolled over a clip board. She had that same document in her hands that Kazuma had seen her with when they’d first arrived in Demon world, and now wondered if it was a summons from Enki asking her to comb the mountains.

Kazuma and Kurama joined Hiei, and Kazuma found it very nice to walk among the mountain trails as Hiei scanned the horizon for trouble up ahead. Kazuma had to wonder if Hiei ever relaxed or allowed himself pause. Kazuma was determined not to argue with Hiei today and if an argument did arise, he had a plan... he was going to imagine Hiei as a child, and instead of fighting, he would simply banter. He would take nothing personally, and instead look at Hiei as he might look at a younger brother.

As they walked, Kazuma asked questions, wanting to keep Hiei engaged. Hiei looked very bored.

“So where do these places lead out?” he asked Hiei, who did not look at him when he replied.

“Various sights around human world,” Hiei grunted. Kazuma wondered if Hiei would be happier wandering the mountainside instead of being stuck to one beaten path; perhaps he needed a vacation from work. Did Hiei even take vacations?

“You ever taken a vacation, Hiei?” Kazuma asked. “I think you could use one.”

“So do I,” Hiei sneered, but before he could say any more, he stopped and looked over a thick brush with wary eyes. His forehead glowed a deep violet, and Kazuma’s spirit awareness tingled as he felt the Jagan expand its influence.

“Hiei?” Kurama asked, no doubt feeling it too. It was like a wave of warm light bathing Kazuma’s aura.

Hiei stormed over to the bush, pulled it back with a rough tug, and the three of them were sudden given view of a human girl no older than six or seven curled up on her side and fast asleep. She had dirt on her face and twigs in her hair. Hiei sighed haggardly, clearly irritated by the find; the little girl opened her eyes, and as she saw the three of them she opened her mouth to cry out-!

Hiei snapped his fingers, and she fell limp back to the earth. She was knocked out cold.

“Woah!” Kazuma was quite worried for the child. What on earth had Hiei done to her? But Hiei was reaching into the bush, grabbing her by her arm to pull her into a strange holding embrace as he caught the attention of a passing guard.

The guard took the child at once, cradling her in his arms, and Hiei wiped his hands free of dirt upon his cloak.

“Pathetic creatures,” Hiei grumbled under his breath.

“Uh- are we gonna make sure she’s okay-“ Kazuma asked, watching the guard carry the child away towards Kirin and Mukuro who did not seem particularly interested but did swipe a strange electrical instrument over the child which beeped rapidly. The guard took the child to the second portal some ways down the path, and stepped through it at once to vanish into the light.

“If she dies she dies,” Hiei grumbled. Normally a phrase like this would not sit well with Kazuma, but today he looked at Hiei as he might a small boy, and his imagination churned out the indignant phrase of ‘I don’t care about her!’.

So he replied as he might to any young boy.

“That’s not very nice, Hiei,” Kazuma reminded him.

“I’m not very nice,” Hiei sneered.

“I disagree,” Kazuma said. Kurama looked around at him, amazed. Hiei just glared.

“Do you?” Hiei rolled his red eyes, walking away down the mountain path towards Mukuro and Kirin. “Fascinating.”

“As a matter of fact...” Kazuma said, picking up the pace to keep up with Hiei, “I think you wanna make sure she’s okay- I bet that guard is really nice and you gave her to him because you knew he’d take care of her! Right?”

Hiei sneered, saying nothing but Mukuro had heard him and smiled at Kazuma.

“Very astute,” she praised.

“Right.” Kazuma answered his own question; of course Hiei cared. Hiei was a good guy!

Hiei was starting to seethe, his angry eyes now itching with the slightest hints of oncoming rage. But Kazuma could see something there, an embarrassment. Hiei was embarrassed at being associated with empathy and fear, especially in regards to a human child. Perhaps he thought that people would laugh at him, mock him for his kindness, but kindness did not deserve to be jested at in a world where there was so little of it. So Kazuma took it upon himself to tell Hiei this, as he might any young boy who was confused or concerned about looking weak.

“Look, you were worried, there’s nothing wrong about that.” Kazuma tried for an easy smile. This only seemed to irritate Hiei more, but he didn’t give up, “Worrying’s a good thing! It makes you connect with other people-“

“You are delusional on a level that is disturbing,” Hiei cut him off.

“Hey, man, you just gotta trust me on these things.” Kazuma smiled.

“I trust no one-“ Hiei spat, turning to go, but Kazuma’s next words slipped so easily from his mouth that Hiei was kept from leaving.

“Aww, why not?” Kazuma said. It was so easy now to see Hiei as a young boy, to forget that he was a grown man with a sword at his hip. “You have so many people that love you, why not trust them? You got me, you got Yusuke, you got Kurama, you got your sister-“

That word changed everything.

Hiei whipped around, his sword resonating with a sharp ‘twang’ as he yanked it from its sheath and pointed it at Kazuma’s neck. Suddenly Kazuma remembered that Hiei was not a child, and that he had a very good grip on his blade.... Kazuma raised his hands, realizing he’d stepped over a very thin boundary in Hiei’s world. Kurama had gasped, the tension escalating to that of a near battle as Kazuma and Hiei stared at one another; crimson eyes blazed as they bore into Kazuma’s open and honest face.

“... What did you just say to me?” Hiei seethed.

Kazuma waited a breath, noting that Mukuro was watching and so was Kirin. As a matter of fact, everyone in the clearing was now watching and all eyes were on him to make this right.

Kazuma knew he was treading on very thin ice, and he spoke in a hushed tone so that only Hiei could hear.

“Look, I know... that you’re... scared to tell her things, but I swear to you-“ Kazuma raised his hands higher as Hiei’s lip curled at the word ‘scared’, “I swear to you, she loves you and she wants nothing more than to be with-“

Kurama cut him off with a wild noise, shaking his head rapidly as Hiei’s curling lip turned into a full out snarl. It didn’t matter what Kazuma said next because Hiei had fucking heard enough. He threw down his sword and leapt at Kazuma with his claws extended. Kazuma took an instinctual step back but Kurama jumped in between them, a hand on both their chests as he tried to keep Kazuma safe from Hiei’s villainous rage.

“You-!” Hiei seethed. “You shut your fucking mouth! You disgusting cretin-!”

But Kazuma could see the terror in Hiei’s eyes, the absolute and utter terror at the mention of Yukina that made him suddenly feel very sorry for Hiei and his situation. He’d never realized until that moment, until he saw that fear, just how deep it was. Kurama and Yusuke had been right; you couldn’t broach the subject of Yukina with Hiei and expect him to remain calm. He was scared of his twin sister, genuinely terrified of all the pain she could bring him should she turn her cheek in scorn. He was so wrapped up in that fear that he did not see how much Yukina adored him.

It was an utter shame, and it made Kazuma wince in sympathy.

“Hiei, could you please control yourself and quit acting like a child-“ Mukuro sneered, her attention off of Hiei for a moment as she returned to speaking with Kirin. People were no longer watching, clearly used to Hiei foaming at the mouth for various reasons throughout the day.

“Shut up, you overly dramatic bitch, I am not a child-!” Hiei snarled.

Mukuro stopped, her expression going slack.

Kirin made a face that Kazuma could discern even through his mask: disgust at Hiei’s remark.

“Is that what she is?” Kirin said coldly. Hiei did not address him.

Mukuro looked over her shoulder, her violet eye beginning to look ever so slightly irritated as she handed Kirin her clip board and letter; he took both without a word. She walked over to Hiei, rolling up her shirt sleeves, and suddenly Kazuma could see that a fight- a very nasty fight- was about to break out.

And Hiei was gonna lose.

Hiei seemed to recognize this too, taking a step back from Kazuma and Kurama as he instead bared himself against Mukuro- but it was far too late. She was taller than him, she was stronger than him, and she was about to be madder than him after being called a ‘stupid bitch’ in front of her men.

“I’m sorry, Hiei, what did you just say to me?” Mukuro growled, her bionic hand tightening into a cold and dangerous fist.

“... I...” Hiei faltered.

It was the first time Kazuma had ever seen Hiei back down from dog cussing an opponent.

“... What’s a matter, are your emotions making your memory slack?” Hiei sneered in a rush. Kazuma could see the fear in his eyes.

Mukuro let out a soft chuckle, so soft and sweet that she might have appeared to be genuinely at peace, but then she grabbed Hiei by the collar and drug him off into the woods, her strength rendering escape or fight impossible. Kazuma and Kurama followed at once, on strangest instinct to defend Hiei even from Mukuro (which was a weird concept in and of itself). They were not thirty feet away from where the soldiers and portals when Mukuro launched Hiei from her grip, throwing him hard into a tree to pin him there by the throat. Hiei gasped for air, launching a fist at her face, but Mukuro deflected it easily with her bare hand and threw all her weight behind her grip so that Hiei coughed.

“You want to explain to me what your adorable attitude is all about?” Mukuro growled. Hiei bared his teeth to her, giving away nothing.

“Go fuck yourself,” Hiei bit out. Mukuro drew back her free hand-

“Wait!”

Kazuma had no idea why, but a burst of energy and courage shot through him, making him leap forward right as Mukuro made to punch Hiei in the mouth. He grabbed her arm, hands tight around her wrist, stopping her before she made contact. Kurama let out another gasp, and Kazuma had a feeling that if he looked over his shoulder Kurama would be ashen white from fear.

Kurama knew what Mukuro was capable of. Kazuma did not. Maybe it was for the better since he was technically now stopping her attack. Mukuro narrowed her good eye at him, and Kazuma winced in spite of himself. Damn, he wasn’t in love with her and even he could see how scary that look might be.

“Hold on-“ Kazuma spluttered, “This is my fault- don’t- he didn’t mean it-! You know he’d never call you names on purpose, he loves you too much-“

“Shut up, you miserable worm!” Hiei spat, still pinned to the tree. “I meant every word of it!”

Kazuma could hear the fear in his voice and immediately dismissed the insult.

“He’s just upset, it’s not like he actually thinks you’re an overly dramatic bitch, I mean come on-“ Kazuma scoffed in spite of himself, “Why on earth would he say that to you and mean it?”

“Step aside,” Mukuro said, but her voice was softening and her grip on Hiei’s neck was slackening.

“I’m not going to let you hit him cause he’s scared to tell his sister that he loves her-!”

Hiei made a wild noise but Mukuro’s fist around his neck kept him immobile even as he shrieked and reached out to rip at Kazuma.

“Is that what this whole argument was about?” Mukuro asked with a light sneer. Clearly, like Kazuma’s confidence, Hiei’s emotional fears were well known topic in his lover’s heart.

“Yes, and I made it happen, so please don’t-“

Hiei kicked out, knocking Mukuro’s hand free. Now un-pinned, he jerked away from them both, storming deeper into the woods. He turned on the spot, his fist up, and suddenly a ball of hot, angry energy was blasted at Kazuma’s face-

Mukuro deflected it with ease; it hit a tree and caused an explosion of splinters. Hiei was panting, taking in deep lungfuls of air as he glared at Kazuma.

“You... are a boorish, brainless-“ Hiei began, every word filled with loathing, but the misery and fear in his eyes automatically stopped Kazuma from taking offense. He’d seen children react the same way to being scolded, storming off and screaming that they hated their parents only to cry into their pillow when they were alone. His father had always made him take a walk when Kazuma had been younger and just as upset; maybe that’s what Hiei needed to do now. Frankly, the mountain air was charming and Hiei could do with some alone time.

“Hiei, you don’t have to keep engaging me when you’re so upset-“ Kazuma assured him, taking nothing personally even as Hiei scoffed and grew angrier. “Take a second to calm down!”

“I DO NOT NEED TO CALM DOWN!” Hiei shouted, “YOU HAVE NO EFFECT OVER ME!”

“You’re screaming-“ Kazuma said.

“SHUT UP!” Hiei reared back his hand as if to throw another energy blast but Mukuro was looking at him with mild irritation, that same strange expression she’d worn before storming over and dragging him off into the woods. It seemed to slow Hiei’s response time, even unnerve him.

“Hiei just...like... go take a walk-“ Kazuma offered, gesturing to the woods. Mukuro crossed her arms over her chest, waiting to hear Hiei’s response. “Look at how nice it is today- go take a walk and cool off and we’ll just talk about this later-“

“We are not going to talk about this later-!” Hiei spat, throwing his arms wide in a definitive ‘no’ stance.

“Yes we are-“ Kazuma warned, for he had every intention of trying to help Hiei through his fears should he ever be given the chance, “this needs to be talked about, for your own emotional health-“ But the words ‘emotional health’ were too much for Hiei who let out an angry scream before turning on his heel and storming off into the woods. He stomped through the underbrush, vanishing around a bend in the mountain, and Kazuma ran a hand wearily through his hair.

“Damn, he’s got issues,” Kazuma murmured. “But pretending he’s four is not the worst idea I’ve ever had-“

“Kazuma, that is not what I meant-!” Kurama moaned, no doubt remembering their conversation from last night.

“But it worked, I mean, I could tell none of that was directed at me!” Kazuma offered. “I’m not mad in the slightest-!”

“Meanwhile Hiei is re-sculpting the mountain,” Mukuro grumbled; several loud explosions ricochet off their eardrums, making Kazuma wince. He could smell smoke and knew there was fire. “Tell me, Kazuma, were the explosions part of your plan, or a simple side detail to be address later?”

Kazuma looked at the path where Hiei had just vanished as more angry screams issued faintly from the distance and black smoke began to waft past.

He suddenly was very embarrassed.

 

After his wild outburst in the woods, Hiei needed considerable time to cool down and be left alone. Kazuma, Kurama, Mukuro and Kirin all returned to the BUG where they observed the mountain terrain from the upper terrace while Hiei trained in the BUG’s many torture rooms. Save for the flickers of his energy deep below their feet, Hiei did not appear and no one sought him out. He’d blown a good chunk out of the eastern face of one of the smaller mountains, and birds were now landing in the crater he’d created to fish out newly revealed grubs and beetles. Mukuro looked through a small telescope, seemingly irritated at something though Kazuma could not say what. Kurama on the other hand was quite relaxed, and smiled as he took deep lungfuls of the mountain air. The smell of pine was clear and heavy above the BUG.

“I remember this area from my youth,” Kurama admitted. “Its beauty was always superb.”

“We should go camping,” Kazuma said, suddenly thinking of his own youth when Jiro had taken he and Shizuru deep into the wilderness of Japan for weekends spent fishing and hiking. It had delighted him as a child.

“Camping?” Kurama repeated the word, toying it over in his mind.

“Yeah. Shoot, let’s like... go for a couple of weeks.” Kazuma shrugged. Dammit, they had nothing else planned and maybe the fresh air would do Kurama some good. “We’ll camp, fish, swim, hike... just have fun. What do you say?”

“That sounds enchanting.” Kurama laughed. “Save that we are in demon world and camping is slightly more dangerous in bandit infested country-“

“And yet...” Mukuro spoke up, lowering her telescope. “Where are the bandits?”

Now it was clear what was bothering her. Enki had sent her to get rid of a problem but the problem in question was nowhere to be seen.

“They have fled,” Kirin prompted. “They no doubt saw the BUG and ran for their meagre lives.”

“I highly doubt that they have abandoned their onslaught.” Mukuro commented, “They’re probably hiding in the hills... if one were to go in unannounced once might uncover them.”

Kazuma saw an opportunity and seized it.

“Come with us!” Kazuma urged. Mukuro gave him a curious look. “You and Hiei both! We’ll all go camping. It’ll be like a double date!”

Kurama snorted at this, but Mukuro’s good eye was narrowing deep in thought.

Mukuro looked at the hills one more time with her telescope before lowering it and handing it over to Kirin who took it at once.

“Kirin.”
“Mukuro.”

“I am going into the mountains with Hiei to rid them of bandits. I will be taking our guests. You are in charge until I return.”

Kazuma punched the air, quite delighted at the prospect that awaited them. Camping with Kurama, Mukuro, and Hiei? Could the day get any better-?

Well... maybe if Hiei wasn’t going, but dammit, he wasn’t about to poke holes in such a delightful tapestry.

“Of course,” Kirin said, bowing ever so slightly to Mukuro. She turned, heading for the trap door, and gestured for both Kazuma and Kurama to follow.

“Come,” she said. They went.

“Are you serious about this?” Kurama demanded, but Mukuro did not answer as they descended into the BUG and began to make their way through the lower levels. “This hardly seems pleasurable.”

“I enjoy slaughter, and Hiei enjoys solitude. The mountains promise both.” Mukuro grumbled back.

They hit the first floor, and went down a side corridor that was heavily guarded to come upon a bolted and warded door. Kazuma had never been to the torture dungeons and frankly was not excited for what might lay inside; when Mukuro opened the door, they came upon a row of cells. Most were empty, save for two that both held soldiers; as Mukuro passed they cringed and turned their faces away. Hiei’s energy was palpable in here, a smoky heat that made it difficult to breath.

“Traitors,” was all she said at Kazuma’s questioning glance toward the soldiers. “They will die.”
Kazuma winced as he saw a pained expression upon one of the traitor’s faces.

They came to the end of the hall where another bolted and warded door lay. Beyond it, muted shouts could be heard. Mukuro ran her bionic hand upon the wood, and from within they heard several deep metallic clicks. The door swung open, and smoke drifted into their waves. Kazuma coughed, waving his hand in front of his eyes and nose which immediately began to sting and water.

Hiei was inside, relentlessly pummeling a large black rock that towered above their heads. With each hit of his fist, more of the rock exploded off into the air. Kazuma realized now that the smoke came not from fire, but from the rock. He was amazed at Hiei’s strength.

“Hiei, we’re leaving,” Mukuro instructed him.

“Good,” Hiei grunted as he punched the rock again, “I hope you never come back.”

“I mean you, too," she growled.

“Oh, really?” Hiei turned around, wiping powdered rock from his chin with the back of his bleeding fist. “And you’d assumed I would agree? A rather bold move-“ He chortled, though there was nothing humorous in his words as he returned to the rock. He smoothed it with a hands, flicking a few pebbles away, then reached back and punched it hard in another explosive blast.

“You, Kazuma, Kurama and I will be clearing the mountains of bandits,” Mukuro said. “We will also be enjoying the scenery; an idea that I find charming.”

“Spare me.” Hiei drawled, throwing another punch at the rock.

“Come on, Hiei, camping’s fun!” Kazuma chimed in, thinking of small children that he’d seen dragging their feet to spend outings with their families. They always ended up having a good time. “We can go fishing, and hiking, and-“

Hiei cut him off with a snarl.

“If you think I have forgotten your earlier remark then you are grievously mistaken, cretin.”

“Okay, I’m sorry,” Kazuma apologized, and he was quite sincere, too. “I did not mean to hurt your feelings. I honestly was trying to help, I didn’t realize how upset you would be-“

“I am not upset!” Hiei spat the word, turning on Kazuma with wild, burning eyes. In them, Kazuma saw the phrase ‘I am very upset’ written clearly despite what Hiei said to the contrary. “What is your obsession with me being-“

“Engaged, involved, compromised,” Kazuma offered, remembering when he was a small boy that he hadn’t like to be told that he was upset either. It had made him sound weak. “Pick a word that makes you feel better and use it instead, but all I’m saying is that I didn’t know. I know now. I’m sorry.”

Hiei glared at him, dropping his hands from the rock. He stormed over to a pile in the corner, and Kazuma watched as he bent over to pick up a roll of gauze which he began to use to wrap his bloodied and bruised knuckles.

“I do not require an apology.” It was clear in Hiei’s tone that he did not like the notion of people thinking he was type who liked to be apologized to.

“I’m giving you one anyway,” Kazuma said easily, making sure that his tone was light and non-judgmental, “Cause we’re friends and I don’t want you to feel... compromised.”

Hiei glared at him, shaking his head in disgust. “You are fucking insane. You should have been the one put in a psych ward.”

“Nah.” Kazuma grinned. “I’m not crazy, I just like being your friend.”

Hiei stared.

He made several rounds of noises, each of them more disjointed and irritated than the last, before turning on his heel and marching for the dungeon door. Clearly he’d had enough interaction with Kazuma to last him several lifetimes, but Mukuro’s voice caused Hiei to halt even as he wrenched open the door-

“We’re leaving at dusk,” she said.

“You’re leaving,” Hiei corrected her. He took a step forward.

“Hiei-“ Mukuro warned.

“Mukuro, I refuse to be-“

“Hiei.”

Hiei pinched the bridge of his nose, his temper flaring up; Kazuma could feel the fluctuations in his energy, the wild pitches as his heart leapt and began to beat faster.

“It is ridiculous to even ins-“

“Hiei,” Mukuro snapped, her tone loud and commanding. It left no room for argument.

“Fine!” Hiei snarled “God dammit!” And he slammed the door so hard behind him that the hinges shook.

Kazuma let out a deep breath, wondering what it would take for Hiei to relax.

He briefly thought about Kurama’s medication from spirit world which was hiding in Kazuma’s ruck sack just in case of an emergency. He could always-...
.... No... He probably shouldn’t do that.

Chapter Text

They left at dusk, with Mukuro leading them deep into the mountain. Though Hiei did not join their party, Kazuma knew he was following because his energy stayed relatively close even as they delved deep into the black and twisted wood. Hiei did not appear physically in their company however until about an hour into their trek when Mukuro halted their course and looked over her shoulder with a shrewd expression... for a moment she was just glaring into the darkness, then Hiei stepped out of the shadows with an equally irritable scowl and their company was off again.

They continued on as a group of four, and Hiei did not depart from their company again.

The first night in the woods they spent in the cleared hollow of what might have been someone’s dwelling long ago. Now, only a few large stones eaten with moss and rotting wood panels were left for them to tread on, and they created a fire in the center of their ring to sleep in a strange circle of protection. Kazuma used his pack for a pillow, but found it difficult to sleep despite the warmth of their fire. His eyes kept scanning the horizon of their clearing, wondering if there were demons in the night, waiting to attack them. This was bandit country; where were the bandits? He trusted Hiei and Mukuro, he knew that they were strong and would be on the defensive for any attack even while sleeping, but Kurama was weak and Kazuma did not want him to get hurt... yet the night passed without issue and into a cool, clear dawn.

The next morning Kazuma woke with a crick in his neck and a desire to explore.

The mountains were steep and vast with rocky trails and beautiful cliff sides. Yet every so often, they would come upon meadows that were full of wild flowers and tall weeds. One particular meadow that they passed through was chock full of flowers, each more exotic and colorful than the last; it gave Kazuma a moment for pause as he allowed his hands to drift over the tall stiff stalks and large spiky leaves.

“I recall this place,” Kurama said, smiling as he stepped about the flowers to pluck several up and examine their petals.

“It’s gorgeous!” Kazuma watched as Mukuro casually paused in the middle of the meadow to look over her shoulder; Hiei had just come into the clearing and was as tentative as a deer to step too boldly out into the open. He looked about, almond eyes narrowing pensively, but finally made his move as Mukuro crooked a finger to beckon him. It was incredible, to watch their unspoken language.

“Come here,” she seemed to say.
“As you wish” was his reply.

Mukuro smiled a little as Hiei joined her at her side, and she looked down a solitary white flower to pluck it up and offer it to him. Hiei gave her a shrewd look but still took it; he barely gave it a moments glance before letting his hand drop yet Kazuma swore he saw it drift to the pocket of his cloak.

“They call this place the Lake of Death,” Kurama said, effectively distracting Kazuma from the bizarre love scene before him. Kazuma did a double take, making a peculiar noise.

“What?” he demanded. Who on earth would call such a beautiful place anything with the word ‘death’ in it? Did everything in demon world have to be centered around slaughter?

“Nearly every flower here is poisonous,” Kurama explained.

“Oh.” Kazuma grimaced, looking down at the innocent white flowers that crowded by his feet. “That’s uh... nice.”

They lounged about in the clearing in a moment of pause, and Kurama began to collect flowers by the handful to extract their seeds as Mukuro laid upon the ground and Hiei sulked by her side. It seemed he kept firm watch when Mukuro closed her eyes temporarily. Hiei kept scanning the horizon, looking over his shoulder... watching and listening intensely for some small disturbance. Kazuma once again to wonder: Did Hiei ever truly relax?

But his attention was once again distracted by Kurama twisting flowers as if to crush them, rolling their petals together in a tight spiral.

“What are you doing?” Kazuma asked Kurama, curious to witness the process of Kurama stocking his arsenal. He was extracting seeds with nimble hands, clenching his fist only to make the seeds vanish in a flash of light. Where they went to, Kazuma could not say, but he had a feeling it was the same location as his rose whip.

“I can use many of these plants later in salves, healing tonics... What can be used to kill can also be used to save,” Kurama explained, casting aside flower after flower in his pursuit of seeds. He made a little trail of crushed white petals, a small road to heaven that Kazuma could follow should he choose to take Kurama into his arms. But he didn’t... Hiei was watching and Kazuma wasn’t in the mood to be called a ‘moron’ for being in love.

“... But they’re poisonous,” Kazuma said, a strange sensation coming over him as he watched seed after seed vanish from Kurama’s palm. Where were they going? What was he going to do with them? Why was Kazuma so paranoid?

“Very,” Kurama agreed. “One seed could be the death of you.”

Kazuma looked from the vanishing seeds to Kurama’s benign expression. Without warning the image of a bottle of lye came to mind. Kurama caught his eye, no doubt sensing the anxiety rising within him, and glowered.

“Kazuma,” Kurama murmured, his tone full of soft but stern warning.

“Eh?” Kazuma tried for an easy grin and failed.

Kurama shook his head, and Kazuma inwardly cursed himself for being so easy to read.

The deeper they went into the forest, the darker and more lush the vegetation around them became until it felt almost like dusk despite being only a little after noon. Hiei had gone ahead of their group again to gather food, and Mukuro had left with him in what would surely be a tag-team hunt. Kazuma and Kurama were left to their own devices, but they did not indulge in one another as they walked. They merely held hands, allowing each other to soak up the other’s presence after so much time spent in the company of others. It was enchanting, to dwell within such a mountainous forest alone with Kurama. Kazuma felt like he was taking a jog through a fairy tale.

But they were not alone.

The ground sloped down in a steep descent not too far from where they walked, and Kurama seemed quite interested in peering over the edge. Fallen leaves covered the ground, causing Kurama to approach with slow, cautious steps as he looked over. Kazuma was curious as to why the slow and sensitive movements until he peered over the edge himself and saw a large flock of magnificent deer grazing just below the slope by the side of a thin winding river. Kazuma had never seen anything quite like them, for though they were shaped like human deer they did not look it; their coats were black, with each antler marked in jade green that could be from tussling in grass or natural pigment. The animals had red eyes; every so often one would look up from grazing, peering about for predators; Kazuma counted eleven of them; three bucks, the rest does. There was even a fawn in the middle of the group, small and gangly upon thin legs. It hid underneath the swollen belly of a doe, careful not to stray too far from her side.

“... What are those?” Kazuma mouthed, not daring to speak above a whisper for fear the deer would hear.

“Shika,” Kurama whispered back. “Wild demon deer.” He smiled at Kazuma, pointing ever so slyly towards a tree down wind. Kazuma followed Kurama’s line of sight and was surprised to see Hiei there with his back flat against the bark. He had a knife out, and was clutching the handle tightly. He barely moved, blending in so well with the dark bark of the tree that Kazuma had not noticed him at first. He even had dirt upon his face, hiding his pale flesh amid the foliage.

“No... don’t kill one,” Kazuma whined softly, eyeing the fawn.

“We do have to eat,” Kurama placated him. “Hiei is a survivalist, Kazuma. Just treat this as another kind of experience.”

Hiei turned his cheek to the left, his almond eyes narrowing to thin slits.
A stag took a step out of line, too bold a move.

In a flash, it was over.
Hiei leapt from behind the tree, moving at such speed that Kazuma momentarily lost sight of him only to once again see him upon the back of a wild stag that reared and keened in a deep throaty bray of fear. Hiei gave it barely a breath, slamming his knife right through the deer’s skull. It crashed to the ground, knees buckling, and Hiei leapt off of it as all the other deer scattered in different directions. The fawn was the fastest of them all, pelting up ahead and bleating wildly for its mother that followed swiftly behind. Suddenly the clearing was deserted, with only the dead buck and Hiei left in the center.

Hiei watched the deer run before jerking his knife free of the stag’s skull and jamming it into the dirt at his feet instead. He wiped his face on his sleeve, cleaning it of black, and looked around at Kazuma and Kurama atop the hill.

“What are you doing?” Hiei drawled. He’d seen them in a heartbeat.

“Watching you kill a deer,” Kurama said coyly with a small smile.

“I’m lucky to have made the kill at all what with the pair of you ogling behind my back,” Hiei sneered, but Kazuma would hear no more of it. He was quite impressed with Hiei; the vivid image in his mind of Hiei upon the back of the rearing stag firmly cemented as one of the coolest things he’d ever seen. When he got to his sketch pad, he was going to try and copy it down.

“You did a great job!” Kazuma said, coming down the slope at a careful speed lest he trip, fall, and roll the rest of the way down. It was one hell of an incline. Kurama followed along, nimble and quick upon the soft earth with slim feet.

“Shut up.” Hiei glowered at Kazuma, still thoroughly agitated.

“I mean it!” Kazuma professed, “That was really cool.”

 

Hiei would hear no more compliments, jerking the knife out of the earth to carefully inspect the deer for signs of life; he needn’t worry - the deer was obviously dead.

“Kazuma, don’t antagonize him,” Kurama whispered while Hiei’s back was turned. He was still smiling but Kazuma knew Kurama was worried another fight would break out.

“I just feel if I compliment him enough he’ll start believing me,” Kazuma murmured.

“Hiei works better by actions, not words."

Kazuma looked back at Hiei, who was now dragging the deer over to the edge of the river with remarkable strength.

“So, I guess you really know everything about preparing deer.” Kazuma offered, following Hiei to the river. Hiei glared over his shoulder at Kazuma, shaking his head as he wetted the knife in the shallow river. “I have no idea how to prepare one. Will you teach me?” Kazuma asked.

Hiei sneered, saying nothing back.

Kazuma dropped to his knees beside Hiei trying to ignore the icy cold gaze of the dead deer’s open eye, “So like, do you cut its throat or something to bleed it off?”

“Never cut a deer’s throat,” Hiei grumbled, locating the sternum of the deer and cutting deep so that blood immediately began to spill onto the grass below.

“Why not?” Kazuma asked, eager to keep the questions going.

“It does nothing to the positive.” Hiei was torn between sounding amused and sounding irritated, simply indulging Kazuma with knowledge for the sake of being the one talking so that he could work on the deer without being bothered, “In death a heart no long pumps blood and it ruins the deer’s cape.” Hiei gestured to the neck.

“So how do you dress it?” Kazuma asked.

“With a knife,” Hiei sneered, no doubt trying for an insult. Kazuma just took it as another parry in their little game, a sarcastic bout of wits to see who could annoy who the most. Hiei was either grimacing or smiling, eyes slanted in concentration as he worked to cut through the abdominal wall of the deer.

Kazuma grinned, relaxing back onto his heels as Hiei continued to cut all the way to the stag’s testicles. “You know what? I’m gonna sit over here and watch you. Or I can help you!” He offered with a smile, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

Hiei slowly looked over at Kazuma, eyes still slanted and covered in a spray of blood. He was actually quite terrifying to behold, but Hiei seemed far too amused to be angry at the moment.

“What is wrong with you?” Hiei asked. “Are you deranged?”

“I’m your friend,” Kazuma corrected him. “I wanna help you.”

Hiei scoffed at this, saying nothing as he rolled the internal organs out of the abdominal cavity of the deer. He was quick with his work, saying nothing as he used the edge of the blade to crack the ribs and reach in to pull out the rest of the stomach. It was slightly nauseating to witness but Kazuma was determined to sit there in case Hiei needed help.

Hiei never asked, and Kazuma never pushed.

Hiei washed the knife in the river, grabbing the deer by the legs and rising to begin to drag it along. Kazuma saw his opportunity and went for it, grabbing the deer around the middle and hoisting it up with slight difficulty so that Hiei did not have to drag it. Hiei just scowled at him but Kazuma didn’t care.

“I do not require aid.”

“I’m just trying to do my part for the meal. Lead on,” Kazuma offered with a free hand. Hiei’s scowl only deepened.

They followed the river till it lead out onto a lake which was not particularly wide as it was deep with dark blue waters in its center. Large trees hung over the edge, huge roots drinking deep from the depths, and massive boulders covered the area from sides of the mountain worn away by water and time. Mukuro was perched atop one of these, using her telescope to peer at the other side of the lake.

“The bandits have fled from this area. I find it to be odd given the abundance of food and water.” Mukuro shook her head, in semi disgust, “It’s possible they’ve fallen back and are re-cementing their plan of attack. They have no doubt already noticed our presence in the wood."

“Then we will prepare and be ready for them.” Hiei grunted, taking the deer back from Kazuma to sling it beside a large overhanging tree. Kazuma momentarily abandoned Hiei to climb atop the boulders, Kurama following after him as they both stared out over the lake. The red skies of demon world reflected in the blue, mixing and creating a strange purple that was absolutely stunning.

“What a gorgeous lake,” Kazuma mused.

“It is beautiful, admittedly,” Kurama agreed.

Mukuro watched as Hiei continued to clean out the deer, breaking the ribs and hacking with his knife to sever the sinews of the chest cavity.

“Dude, you are gonna need a bath when you’re done.” Kazuma snorted at Hiei, for he was now drenched in blood and looking positively demented.

Hiei said nothing, but Mukuro smiled and tilted her head to the side. Hiei caught her gaze and held it.

“You look cute,” she seemed to be saying.
“Sure, you think that,” Hiei seemed to be replying as he returned to his work. Mukuro gave the tiniest of laughs, barely a hiss of air between her teeth.

Kurama was still looking out over the lake, a vacant expression upon his face. Kazuma peered down over the edge, noting the water was deep.

Suddenly a thought came to him.

He looked left and right, weighing his odds of survival if he went through with his plan; to him a wet Kurama was worth the trouble of a painful thorny death.

Without a single warning, Kazuma leapt forward and shoved Kurama hard off the high boulder. Kurama toppled over the side, unable to defend against an attack from Kazuma and shrieked on the way down, plunging deep into the water only to resurface with a great deal of anger upon his beautiful face.

“Oh no!” Kazuma could not help but laugh from on high, raising his hands in a shrug, “I’m sorry! I pushed you in, I’m a horrible person-!”

Without warning a tree limb came from behind and smacked Kazuma hard in the back. He toppled head over feet, crashing into the icy cold water and struggling back to the surface as he coughed and spluttered. Kurama splashed water at him as soon as he resurfaced. They kicked and waded beside one another, long limbs tangling in the deep.

“That is cheating!” Kazuma coughed, noting the tree limb sliding back into its natural place.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I cheated," Kurama said, though Kazuma could see the smile twitching on his lips, “I'm a horrible person!”

Kazuma splashed him back, just for the hell of it, and suddenly the pair of them were in a water fight despite being fully grown adults and in the middle of bandit country.

On the shore, Hiei was continuing to dress the deer, now using all his strength to hoist the beast up in order to slam it effectively against the tree by which he worked. Kurama saw him struggling, and despite still splashing Kazuma repeatedly with water, he threw up a free hand so that a vine crept down to grab the deer around the neck and hoist it up. Hiei scowled over at Kurama.

“One more knife unoccupied,” Kurama offered. Hiei rolled his eyes and went back to work, skinning the deer with skill and finesse.

Kurama swam for the shore and Kazuma followed after him, the pair of them staggering back onto the beach soaking wet and exhausted. Mukuro was attempting to make a fire, gathering dead wood from about the beach and piling it up high. Hiei cast her a sly glance over his shoulder and flicked his finger; the twigs immediately began to catch fire. Mukuro smiled up at him.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You don’t need to thank me,” he seemed to reply.

Kazuma helped her to put stones around the edge of the fire, successfully making a very firm pit which they added more wood to. Kurama joined Hiei by the deer. The darkening skies of demon world cast interesting shadows upon Mukuro’s face, and Kazuma had to once again stop and wonder at her as she continued to feed their fire. He’d known Hiei for so long, had endured his shitty attitudes and emotional changes... he knew Hiei like a brother, knew him will enough to trust him with his life in battle or a corner. To know now that this woman so captivated with Hiei’s heart just made her all the more intriguing, all the more incredible. He tried to imagine the romance between them, tried to wonder if they went on dates or said passionate words to one another.

It was fun to contemplate, but he doubted either were done. It was odd to think that it made him sad. Mukuro and Hiei deserved to go on a date, to take a day off and enjoy it in each other’s company.

“If I may be of assistance?” Kurama offered from Hiei’s side, dripping all over. He was proving to be a tough distraction for Kazuma.

“You may not,” Hiei growled back, cutting out the deer’s heart and holding it up in his palm. Kazuma was revolted when Hiei brought it to his lips and took a large bite out of it. Blood dribbled from his mouth and down his chin, making him look positively inhuman.

Then again, he wasn’t human.

Hiei tossed the heart to Kurama, and Kazuma whimpered aloud when Kurama bit into the heart too. Suddenly his chin was the one dripping with blood, and it was frightening to behold Kurama in such an animalistic state. Hiei and Kurama were leering at each other, chewing on their pieces of heart as Hiei continued to skin the deer.

“Uh, aren’t you supposed to cook meat before you eat it?” Kazuma asked, gesturing to the heart Kurama held.

“It’s not required." Kurama assured him, wiping his chin clean of blood. “It’s traditional to eat the heart raw. The killer gets the first bite," Kurama added, nodding to Hiei.

“It’s hardly fitting for you, I’m sure,” Hiei sneered at Kazuma.

Kurama silently offered him the heart.

Kazuma looked from it to Kurama to Hiei, and stood up from the fire pit to grab the heart out of Kurama’s hand. Hating himself for his inability to step down from a challenge, Kazuma took a bite into the heart and his mouth suddenly gushed with blood. He thought he might vomit but chewed and swallowed none the less, making sure to glare at Hiei the whole time who was snorting and shaking his head.

“Thank you, it’s fuckin’ delicious,” Kazuma taunted. “You want some?” He offered to Mukuro. She declined with a shake of the head, still focusing on the fire.

“I prefer the liver.”

A piece of meat sailed past Kazuma’s nose, and he leapt back as Hiei tossed Mukuro a dark mass of meat. It was almost purple. She caught it, glancing at him almost flirtatiously as she bit into the liver and ate it whole. Hiei grinned, sly and smooth as he finished skinning the deer and cast the remains back up into the woods. He incinerated them with a flex of his hand.

“Well aren’t you sweet,” she seemed to say
“I try,” was Hiei’s unspoken reply.

Hiei was thoroughly covered in blood, and desperately needed a bath, but Mukuro was making eyes at him like he was the most handsome man alive. Kazuma couldn’t understand it.

Maybe it was just a demon thing.

“Hiei, I think I saw something from atop the rock.” Mukuro said. “A camp site across the lake. You better have a look.”

Hiei grunted, temporarily abandoning his deer to mount the boulders. Where ever he walked or touched, a bloody hand or foot print remained. Mukuro followed after him, no doubt wanting to point out the campsite, but as they reached the top and Hiei began to scan the horizon Mukuro looked down at Kazuma and grinned.

Traitorous, she was.

Mukuro ran at Hiei and before he could dodge or turn she grabbed him hard around the waist and took him into the water. Kazuma burst out laughing, unable to help himself, for Hiei was cussing and screaming as if Mukuro were trying to fillet him with his hunting knife. The pair of them did not come up for a moment, and Kazuma’s heart started to race nervously until they re-appeared, both gasping for air and clawing at each other. Blood ran from Hiei in pink rivers, and Hiei made to punch Mukuro hard in the neck only to be blocked and sent back under the water by her bionic hand.

“Damn you-!” Hiei said when he came back up, but Kazuma was shocked to see Hiei smiling as he thrashed in the water under Mukuro’s grip. She still had him about the waist it seemed, holding onto him with one hand and the side of the boulder with the other so that she didn’t have to kick in order to stay up in the lake. She could have let Hiei go and swam, but it seemed she didn’t want to. Kazuma could not help but watch, was entranced to see this moment of flirtation happen as Mukuro whispered something in Hiei’s ear and Hiei grinned to shove at her collar bone lightly. She still did not let him go, continuing to whisper.

But then Kazuma realized she was actually kissing his neck, and his face turned bright red.
~*~

It took the rest of the evening for Hiei to cut the steaks from the deer’s carcass. Kazuma and Kurama went on another hike around the lake, and by the time they returned the sun was setting and Mukuro has skewered slabs of meat to roast over the flame. Fat sizzled as it dripped onto the burning logs, filling the air with a delectable, rich scent.

The moon rose with them cloistered around the fire, eating as Hiei sharpened his sword with a rock he’d found by the lake side. The repetitive slow gesture seemed to sooth him, and his posture was quite relaxed as he observed the blade in the firelight. Mukuro sat beside him, eating to her content, yet with both Hiei’s hands occupied he could not partake in the meal. Mukuro appeased him, offering him small slices of meat from her bionic fingers which he nabbed with his sharp teeth and swallowed whole.

 

“How did you learn to do this?” Kazuma asked, quite full on steak. It was incredible how much meat had come out of one deer.

“Necessity," was all Hiei said, continuing to sharpen his sword.

“Did no one teach you?” Kazuma asked, for surely someone had to have been involved along the way. Hiei looked down for a moment before glaring over at Kazuma.

‘I taught myself.”

“Well, you did a great job!” Kazuma complimented, “I guess experience is the best teacher there is!”

Kurama smiled at Kazuma sympathetically.

Kazuma could not help but relive scenes from his childhood when he had been about a campfire with his father, trying to scare Shizuru with ghost stories (though she always ended up scaring him). In jest, Kazuma turned the group with a new idea for prodding a connection out of Hiei. Hiei was just like Shizuru... sort of. They would both be good at ghost stories he was sure.

“You know, when I was a kid and went camping with my dad and sis, we used to try and scare each other telling ghost stories. You know any?” Kazuma asked Hiei. Hiei rolled his eyes, re-sheathing his sword and grabbing another piece of meat right off the skewer. Unlike the rest of them, he did not attempt to divert from the flame. Hiei had full control over mortal and demonic flame; he needn’t fear being burned.

“Ghosts are common here,” Hiei sneered.

“What, have you seen one?” Kazuma taunted.

“I’ve seen many.” Hiei bit into the steak with a vicious tear.

“Alright,” toyed Kazuma. “If you’ve seen so many, what’s the scariest ghost that you ever saw, ever?” He drew a line with his hands. “The one that made it difficult to sleep at night; the one you saw every time you closed your eyes. Go for it.”

Hiei just stared at him, still chewing his steak. Mukuro looked from Hiei to Kazuma, waiting to see what he might say. Kurama was interested too, playing with a reed of grass between his fingers.

Hiei remained silent.

“See, I knew you were pullin’ my leg!” Kazuma grinned at Hiei. Hiei just shook his head and went back to the steak. But there was something in his eyes, something Kazuma couldn’t quite read.

“Speaking of legs,” Mukuro spoke up, looking across the camp fire at Kurama. “What is it like being chained to Yomi’s?”

“Horrific,” Kurama said. Kazuma remembered that Yomi was another former demon king, and one that Yusuke’s ancestor had particularly despised. Apparently Kurama had worked for him at some point.

“Do tell,” Mukuro drawled. “You know, I once utterly destroyed his entire army in a three day onslaught.” She grinned as she said this, her lips still colored with blood, “Gandara has been rebuilt on ruins several times all by my hand.”

“Really?” Kurama mused, offering a smile of his own. “I once paid an assassin to rip out his throat and eyes because he kept getting on my nerves.”

They snickered at each other.

“So you were the one who blinded him.” Mukuro reached to her side where a jug of water lay and silently toasted Kurama. “I don’t think I can top that.”

“I might have considered it a personal gift to demon kind were his powers not amplified through necessity to survive. Now I find myself wondering if I ought to have included a gift receipt.”

“Nevertheless, perhaps one day I can repay you.”

“You do far enough for me, I assure you.” At this, Kurama glanced over to Hiei who was too busy finishing his steak to notice. Mukuro caught the meaning, and smiled.

 

They fell into an easy rhythm after they finished eating, Hiei incinerating the carcass of the deer but not before smoking more strips of meat for them to carry in their bundles should they get hungry later. He sharpened his sword some more, relaxing against a boulder, and Mukuro lay beside him with her head ever so slightly upon his shoulder. Kazuma and Kurama talked late into the night, simply content to be with one another as they were before Shiori’s death. They could just as easily have been on their couch in human world instead of by a secluded lake in demon world. The steaks had made them sleepy, however, and Kurama relaxed next to Kazuma to fall into a slight sleep with his head upon his pack, Kazuma soon found that the sound of Hiei sharpening his blade faded into silence. He looked over, surprised to find Hiei slumped upon the ground with his eyes open only so much. Mukuro was utterly asleep beside him, quite assured of her protection in his cautionary watch.

They were the only two awake.

Kazuma was almost asleep himself, his head upon his pack and his body alongside Kurama who was curled upon his side. Kazuma kept an arm around his waist, keeping him close. He watched Hiei, wondering what was going through that cunning mind. Hiei didn’t seem fully relaxed, not even now as they lay down to sleep. The crackling of the fire between them filled the silence.

Kazuma noted Mukuro’s normal hand was at Hiei’s hip, her fingers lightly curled about his cloak. She tilted her head a little in sleep, her lips coming close to Hiei’s neck again.

“I’m really glad you found her,” Kazuma murmured as softly as he could.

Hiei regarded him in the dark, those red eyes almost black in the night as they flitted up to the stars momentarily.

Chapter Text

They started traveling again, going deeper into the mountains, and as they began to scale the side the scenery began to change. Earthy fronds and wide petaled flowers vanished into sharp, short bushes and blackened trees covered with sweet smelling sap. The air was thinner, the climate colder, and the wildlife changed once again from deer to small varmints that scuttled across the path as they walked. They did not find bandits, which heavily irritated Mukuro as she combed the map they had brought along for more possible hide outs. They checked cave after cave, searched dens and worn out shacks, but nothing alluded to the presence of other parties in the woods. They heard no footsteps, they saw no prints.

Kurama looked weirdly content despite still being weaker than usual and heavy eyed. He was curious, touching plants and picking out seeds from shrubs. He wanted to scout, to climb into the trees and try to see their surroundings better, and Kazuma was very hopeful that Kurama was genuinely starting to feel better (or at least not feel suicidal). He did not have to the use the medicine he’d brought, and Kazuma allowed Kurama free reign to go as far ahead of the group as he pleased so long as he came back in time. The freedom was liberating, and Kurama always returned with berries to eat or leaves to chew on.

A week after their initial trek into the woods, they reached a flattened area of mountainside that smelt strongly of wet earth. The rocks were warm and the air was full of sulphur. Kazuma knew how to put two and two together, and was not surprised when the four of them came around a bend in the path and saw an abandoned onsen ryokan.

Hiei was deeply suspicious and immediately took of his bandana to observe the ryokan with his jagan. For a moment, the three of them held their breath as Hiei searched, then relaxed as he shook his head and put his bandana back on.

“Another let down?” Mukuro grumbled, but Kazuma was not about to be disappointed when the promise of a hot bath was in the very near future. It was obvious that this place had been abandoned, but not for some time as the building was still in stable shape and the lower beams had not yet begun to succumb to wood rot. As an architect, Kazuma was entranced by the excellent use of window walls that were now merely covered by molding tatami. They walked through the main archway which might at one time have been lit at night to tempt in visitors. The smoothed stones beneath their feet were beginning to be taken over by moss and the doorway to the ryokan itself was starting to disappear behind vines. Kazuma, trusting in Hiei’s jagan, entered without his sword drawn and found the interior gutted, dark, and dank with mold.

The back wall had an interesting lattice work of hand carved slats, and Kazuma pushed on it to find it could open if unlatched. Groping in the dark, he finally found the lock and undid it to swing the slats open. Down below a short drop was an onsen, steaming with deep green waters. Massive round rocks surrounded its edge, miniature boulders that provided the perfect sitting spot for the frequent bather, and a water wheel on the left churned despite no longer being used.

“Oh wow...” Kazuma grinned as Kurama bent over to look through the open slats, “This is really cool!”

“Relatively secluded as well,” Kurama mused.

“Is it on the map?” Kazuma asked Mukuro and she checked in the light from the onsen to shake her head.

“No, nothing is here.” She seemed confused by the idea, looking back at Hiei who shrugged.

“Dude, can we please stop here?” Kazuma begged, “Please, oh please- sleeping on the ground is tough. I bet that water is gonna feel great!”

“Weakling.” Hiei snorted behind Kazuma, but Kazuma knew Hiei had to be suffering too. He’d been sleeping on the same ground, after all, and it wasn’t like Mukuro slept on the floor when she was in the BUG.

Mukuro seemed taken with the idea, rubbing her socket where bionic arm met scarred flesh. Perhaps it was aching. Kurama smiled and shrugged, sliding the unlocked slats to slip down the short drop into the onsen below.

“Excellent!” Kazuma cried out, following swiftly after him.

Hiei searched the ryokan top to bottom, and found that it was a family run establishment that could not have been abandoned for more than a week. Mukuro gathered that bandits had overrun it, probably killing the original family and ravaging it for goods before leaving. There were still yukata and geta left to use which was bizarre to Kazuma who figured that clothing surely would be of value to bandits on the run; but these clothes were thin and made of cotton. They wouldn’t last long in the outdoors and really could only be used for bathing. Ryokan meals were usually elaborate and multi course when prepared by a host, but since the hosts were dead it was easy enough just to steal the remaining food and pick from it what they wanted. It was rather fun, eating otsukuri and nimono off of broken plates and relaxing in the hot water (one could not typically bathe and eat at the same time). It was also easy to wash ones clothes in the steaming mineral water, and despite not knowing Mukuro very well Kazuma wasn’t worried about being naked in front of her. Frankly he was more concerned about being nude in front of Mukuro in front of Hiei (which was a strange line of thinking that involved Hiei being a jealous boyfriend), but Mukuro didn’t care, soaking in the steaming waters and rotating her bionic arm in its socket repeatedly. Kazuma heard the joint pop even from across the onsen where he sat on the opposite side next to Kurama. Kurama was rubbing his wrist where faint scars could be seen alluding to his time in the psych ward.

They had not been intimate since Shiori’s death, but Kazuma did not feel initial arousal despite Kurama’s naked body perched so close to his own. Instead, he felt deep trust, and an inner knowledge that they could bathe together in this way and not have to have sex. In a way, it was almost more intimate than making love.

Hiei returned from ransacking the ryokan one final time to find them naked and eating in the onsen. He carried with him a wooden bucket that was meant to float atop the water, and it had within it several clay bottles (or so Kazuma could see). Hiei sneered, setting the bucket down next to Mukuro and running his hand through the water to test its temperature. Kazuma wondered if being a fire demon meant that Hiei did not register heat the same way they did or if an onsen would be as relaxing to him as it was to them. He didn’t seem to mind, taking off his boot and rolling up his pants legs to let his feet hang on the water. He did not undress nor join them in bathing, instead stealing the rest of Mukuro’s sashimi and eating it in front of her. She smirked, flicking water at him. Perhaps she was used to him ‘picking off her plate’.

“Find anything?” Kazuma asked.

“Sake,” Hiei replied.

“Oh my, are you planning on sharing?” Mukuro asked. Hiei took the bucket away, setting it on his other side so that she gave him a look of ridicule. For a minute they merely stared at one another, a weird flirting move that ended in Hiei setting the bucket into the water and letting it drift between them all. Mukuro took a sake bottle and drank from it without the aid of a cup.

“This is ridiculous.” Hiei gestured at them all.

“And yet you have your feet in,” Mukuro pointed out. Hiei looked down at his legs, scowling.

“Because my feet are tired,” Hiei muttered. Kazuma could not blame him, Hiei had been the one doing the most scouting in their group, using his Jagan to sense for bandits along the trail.

“Then it is far from ridiculous.” Mukuro replied. Hiei snorted, looking away.

Mukuro looked back at them, raising her eyebrows.

She grabbed Hiei by the belt and yanked him hard into the water. Their little sake bucket wobbled dangerously so that Kazuma had to steady it with his hand as Hiei floundered and thrashed, righting himself to drip with steam and mineral water. He seethed at Mukuro who burst into a fit of dark laughter.

“You stupid bitch,” Hiei snarled, yanking free from her grip and storming to another end of the onsen if only to get away from her. She did not seem to mind, smiling and snickering even as Hiei pushed his black hair out of his face and glared at her. Kazuma tried not to laugh, to keep his face as straight as possible, but it was very difficult to do so when Hiei kept steaming like a dumpling.

“So mean to me...” Mukuro joked, “Take off your clothes; you look ridiculous.”

“Yeah Hiei, take off your clothes.” Kazuma snorted into his sake cup. Underneath the water Kurama poked him in the side, warning him not to jest Hiei too much when Hiei was already ‘steaming’ mad.

“....Sorry, it is slightly strange to see you fully dressed in an onsen,” Kurama added as Hiei glared at the pair of them.

Hiei tutted, looking down at his soaking wet white scarf and pulling it off; he wrung it out to set it aside atop one of the many large rocks that littered the edge of the pool.

“Is it hurt?” Kurama asked. Hiei rolled his eyes.

“As if water could hurt it.”

“Well, you told me once it was very old,” Kurama explained. Hiei was perplexed, his brow furrowing as he looked over at Kurama.

“I did?” Hiei asked.

“Yes.” Kurama said, “I made you pizza and you had four... five bottles of wine? You were having a tough day.” Kurama laughed. Kazuma tried to piece back the past, recalling a night when he’d texted Kurama and Hiei had been drunk (and naked). That had been before they had started dating.

“Why?” Hiei demanded, for clearly drinking five bottles of wine was not in his usual daily agenda.

“Yukina gave you soap,” Kurama explained with a sympathetic smile. Hiei scoffed, whether at Kurama or himself it was difficult to say.

Mukuro took another sip of sake, smiling at Hiei.

“You know, I really did like that soap,” Mukuro said slyly. Hiei gave her a cold look. “I might have to call upon her-“

“You stay away from her,” Hiei said, but it was without his usual malice and Mukuro winked at him. Kazuma could sympathize, knowing full well how irritating it could be to in between your lover and your sister. No doubt if Mukuro and Yukina were to ever peg Hiei down in one corner, they would relentlessly heckle him to be good and do good. Hiei might explode.

Hiei pulled off his cloak and shirt, setting both aside on the rock as they dripped heavily with mineral water. Hiei was well toned, a man who had spent most of his life training and fighting, resulting in a defined set of abs and bulging pectorals. The dragon, so often hidden beneath Hiei’s cloak, was easily seen upon his left arm... a set of spiraling black scars that descended all the way down to his wrist where an open jawed creature made to snap at his palm. Kazuma remembered first seeing that dragon, how it had nearly ripped the stadium around him to pieces; to be fair it still scared him even though he hadn’t seen it in years.

He hoped he’d never have to see it again.

Around Hiei’s neck lay a chord and a stone that glimmered in the steam and light of the onsen. It was a hiroseke stone, and Kazuma was taken aback for the only one he’d ever seen wearing such a gem was Yukina.

“Hey, you have a gem too?” Kazuma pointed out, gesturing to Hiei’s neck. Hiei looked down touching it with a shrewd glare.

“That is none of your business,” he warned.

“I’m sorry.” Kazuma raised his hands in gentle mock defense, “I didn’t mean to pry.”
Hiei dropped his hands, but not before rubbing the gem very gently with his weathered thumb.

“You gonna take off your pants?” Mukuro asked, for Hiei still had not removed them despite being in the water up to his naval. HIei looked down again, making a deep irritated noise as he glared at Mukuro.

“I suppose I have very little choice,” Hiei spat, reaching down to his belts to pull at them.

“I’ll let you sit next to me,” Mukuro offered, patting the rock by which she sat. Hiei made a disgruntled noise.

“I’d take her up on that offer, Hiei," Kazuma teased, having another sip of sake. Kurama poked him in the side again.

“I like it over here,” Hiei snapped, reaching down beneath the water and finally removing his pants. The water was murky and thick with minerals, too dense to truly see detail, but a dark shape beneath its surface was more than enough for Kazuma as Hiei threw his pants upon the rock along with the rest of his clothes to relax against the stones and sink up to his nipples in the water.

“Well, the sake is staying over here, along with the food,” Mukuro warned, “So when you decide to play nice... you let me now." And with that she toasted him silently.

 

It was difficult for Hiei to stay away when Mukuro held the sake and the food. He had to journey over to the opposite end of the onsen every time he wanted a taste, and after the fifth round of wading about Mukuro finally reached out with her bionic arm to jerk him back to the rock on which she sat. Hiei made no choice but to follow, suddenly quite close to her as she handed him his own sake bottle, and the pair of them began to drink with great ease. Kazuma was no lightweight, but demon alcohol was different than its human counterpart, and though he’d only had about ten cups he was now feeling quite buzzed. Kurama had drank double as much as he, silent for the most part while Kazuma spoke with Mukuro about the architecture of the onsen in which they sat.

They just kept drinking as the food ran out, laughter suddenly becoming more frequent and more hearty as their cheeks flushed with blood.

“Have you ever played... drinkin’ games?” Kazuma asked Mukuro, for he was quite curious to know if demons even indulged in such nonsense.

“I have. Many times." She toyed with the half drunk sake bottle in her hand.

“Cool! You wanna play one?” Kazuma asked.

“As you wish,” Mukuro agreed.

“Uh, let’s see..." Kazuma thought, but unfortunately for him only one came to mind. “King of Questions!”

“What is this game,” Mukuro asked, trying hard to keep from laughing despite the growing smile upon her lips.

“The rounds can be indefinite though are usually defined by ten or twenty," Kurama spoke up, ever the rule setter in such situations. “You must answer questions truthfully. If you lie or refuse to answer, you have to do something that the asker requests. It can be anything, there are no holds barred. The game ends when someone who refused a question the first time answers the same question.”

“Do you think you can take me on?” Kazuma offered in brazen flare.

“I don’t think I could go two rounds with this sake,” Kurama snorted into his cup.

“C’mon...” Kazuma reached around Kurama’s back, his hand settling lazily around Kurama’s shoulder. Kurama smiled at him, relenting with a shrug.

“Alright,” Mukuro agreed, looking at Hiei who just rolled his eyes and continued to drink. “You do realize your participation is required.”

“I quiver with fear,” Hiei slurred back, his words slightly muddled.

“Okay, I’ll start,” Kazuma said, for he had a very particular question for Mukuro that he’d been wanting to ask ever since he’d arrived.

“My question is for you.” He pointed to Mukuro who smiled pleasantly at him. “How did you get the bug?”

“Very good question.” Mukuro mused, nodding, “When I was... oh, three-hundred-something?” She shook her head, the detail slipping her, “Around the time I met Kirin-“

“Wait!” Kazuma had to stop her at the ‘three-hundred’ remark, “How old are you?”

“I’m already answering a question,” she replied cooly, “You will have to wait till it is your turn again for that answer.”

“Damn... I shoulda’ asked that one,” Kazuma cursed; Kurama snickered beside him.

“I had a brawl with a king who owned a western province close to where Gandara is now. He controlled many creatures like the bug. In my slaughter, I destroyed every single one of them, but that one didn’t go down... so I cleaned it up, cleaned it out, and kept it. And I like it.” She nodded to herself.

“Wait, so... the bug is alive?” Kazuma asked, for he’d been certain it was just a machine.

“I have already answered-!” Mukuro started with a snort.

“Wait, wait-!” Kazuma was laughing, the pair of them snickering at each other as he rubbed his face with his hands, “I have so many questions.”

“I can tell. Is it my turn?” Mukuro demanded.

“Yeah.”

“Kurama,” Mukuro addressed; he perked his head up, green eyes bright, “Is it true that you stole the Setsuri Sapphire, and if so, where is it now?”

“I did,” Kurama said with no small amount of pride. “It was one of my larger heists. I stole it close to the time that I finally got rid of Yomi-" they snickered at one another- “and I hid it in one of my dens... and that’s all I’m saying!” Kurama added with a warning finger, “Because I may want to keep it for a little while longer.”

“What a spoiled child you are, taking all the nice toys,” Mukuro teased. Kurama made a noncommittal noise. “For my turn, Hiei...” Kurama looked to him. “Who is Gorobi?”

Hiei had been in the middle of drinking sake, and suddenly coughed haggardly as he clapped a hand over his mouth. He looked over at Kurama, his fingers still covering his lips, and quite suddenly there was great fear in Hiei’s eyes (or so Kazuma could see).

Hiei did not answer, staring at Kurama as if he’d never seen him before. The sudden silence that filled the onsen was downright disturbing. Kurama coughed, looking over to Kazuma.

“Can I retract my question?” Kurama asked.

“He didn’t start answering, so, yeah,” Kazuma agreed.

“Then I change it; why does Kirin hate you so much?”

The atmosphere relaxed greatly as Mukuro and Hiei leered at one another. Both relatively drunk they tried to talk over one another and ended up quarreling.

“Kirin-“ Mukuro started.

“This is my question, god damn you! Shut up!” Hiei smacked her on the arm, “Why do you always have to talk?”

“Why do you always have to interrupt? I’m sorry, Hiei, did the middle of my statement interrupt the start of yours?” Mukuro taunted.

“Kirin is a sack of shit-!” Hiei pointed to Kurama in response.

“Kirin is invaluable-!” Mukuro countered, the pair of them smiling at each other as they tried to talk over each other.

“And he’s fucking stupid-“

“He’s bitter-“

“And because of that, I’m better at his job-“

“Because Hiei has his job!” Mukuro burst into a fit of laughter.

“A charming tale; it all makes sense,” Kurama said, the uneasy tension of his first question long forgotten as Hiei and Mukuro continued to bicker light heartedly with one another.

“Now for me,” Hiei growled, pointing back to Kazuma who suddenly felt very nervous. If he didn’t like Hiei’s question he would have to decide between answering or being at Hiei’s mercy for one request. “What the fuck... are you doing... in love with Kurama?” Hiei demanded, pointing to both of them at random though his eyes remained on Kazuma, “When the fuck did this start? You expect me to think nothing’s weird or-"

“You gotta trust me, I swear! I’ve loved him for years and I didn’t tell him!” Kazuma replied in earnest. Hiei scoffed.

“Did you love him when we were-“

“No! It was like... a month after he got back from demon world that I really fell for him. Him as his....” Kazuma let a hand hang on the air, “Beautiful self.”

“Kazuma,” Kurama scoffed.

He shrugged sheepishly. “Okay, so, if it’s my turn again,” Kazuma said, his eyes back on Mukuro, “I gotta know, why did you lose your arm and where did you get it from? Like... how... tell me the whole story there.”

“Oh, this,” Mukuro pulled her bionic hand out of the water, rotating it to let beads of water roll across it in the light. “When I was a little girl, I was... a slave and to escape my chains I poured acid on myself.”

“W-“ Kazuma gaped, looking Mukuro up and down. Her face, her arm, her breast, all of it? Had she done all of it by pouring acid on herself?

What a terrifying thought- he shuddered involuntarily.

“I was still very young about... seven...” Mukuro offered, “I didn’t even know my own name. I was found by a man named Shun.”

Suddenly Hiei was smiling, shaking his head.

“I was hiding in his metal scrapyard. I looked like a corpse, that’s where I got my name... he fed me, clothed me, and said ‘you’ll need an arm’, and he gave me my arm, my eye, and part of my leg.”

“Wait your leg too?” Kazuma asked. Mukuro lifted her left leg out of the water a little, her well defined calve suddenly viewable for Kazuma to see another bionic piece attaching her foot to the rest of her body.

“Woah, he really did all that?” Kazuma asked. Mukuro nodded with a warm smile, dropping her leg back into the water, “That’s cool-! I bet he’s really awesome.”

“Shun saved my life,” Mukuro agreed. “For that, when I grew older, I spared him his.”

“Spared him?”

“Mukuro is one of the strongest demons in the world,” Kurama spoke up, looking up at Kazuma; his head was laying ever so slightly upon Kazuma’s shoulder, choppy red locks heavy with steam and dew. “She can divide space and time.”

“Just space, not time,” Mukuro corrected him.

“But still you can cut through the fourth dimension,” Kurama complimented, “that’s incredible.”

“It’s a learned art." she said; Kazuma tried to imagine anyone accomplishing such a feat and he came up empty.

“Wait, wait- could you?” Kazuma asked, gesturing to the air about them, “I just... I don’t know what would look like-“

“Not while I’m... like this.” Mukuro moved a hand about herself, signaling her less-than-sober state, “It would be unwise. I like to move with precision. Anyway, I came back to Shun several times. For repairs, or a new arm as I grew older so that it would match my natural one in length. I grew to trust him and view him as a father in a way.”

“Does he like Hiei?” Kazuma could not help but ask, wondering what he’d do as a father if his own daughter were to bring home someone like Hiei, in love.

“What a silly question,” Mukuro chuckled, smiling in spite of herself, “He does not dislike Hiei... I think Hiei amuses him, poking around his shop and breaking his creations-“

“He’s a freak,” Hiei said, but it was without malice and he even smiled.

“They’ve only met three times,” Mukuro admitted to them with a laugh, “I won’t take Hiei back until he learns to keep his hands in his pockets.” She looked at Hiei now who made a loud, irritated noise. “And stops breaking his things!”

“Hey, you better be nice to Shun.” Kazuma warned, “Gotta have the dad like you. My dad likes Kurama.”

“Shut up-“ Hiei growled at Kazuma, but his attention was stole firmly upon Mukuro who had not relented teasing him.

“I’m unsure about that,” Kurama murmured. Underneath the water Kazuma rubbed his side tenderly.

“He likes you,” he said, soothing Kurama as Kurama leaned his head a little more upon Kazuma’s shoulder.

“Hiei, my question,” Mukuro snapped; the pair of them were almost nose to nose, glaring at each other despite laughing and smiling.

“What?” He demanded loudly, “What do you want?”

“Why do you not like Kazuma? He’s charming-“ Mukuro flung the word out.

“He’s an idiot!” Hiei countered.

“Why ? Because he loves openly with a grateful heart?” Mukuro demanded.

“Yes, and he will get hurt for that-“

“But that doesn’t mean you should be unkind,” she poked Hiei in the chest; they had now forgotten about Kazuma or Kurama, the pair of them so focused on one another they could have easily been alone, “You are far too gentle and loving yourself to deprive your company of such a companionable spirit-“

“Shut the fuck up! You are talking out of your ass-“ They broke into another round of snickering.

“Yeah, Hiei why don’t you like me?” Kazuma demanded with a grin.

“I-“ Hiei turned on him sneering, “I do like you, imbecile!”

“Then why do you hide it!” Kazuma gestured angrily, for Hiei’s social habits had long been the bane of their friendship.

“Because that is what I know!” Hiei snapped.

"That is what you were taught,” Mukuro countered. “That is not how you act when you are acting with this.” She pointed to his heart. Hiei batted her hand away with a sneer.

“Who told you that that was a good idea-“ Kazuma demanded. “Who taught you to hide?”

“Did Gorobi teach you to hide?”

Hiei’s good attitude sank faster than a heavy stone, his eyes locking on Kurama even as Kurama offered him a tentative smile.

“Where did you hear that name?” Hiei asked, and suddenly his good mood was gone. Now he was close to getting angry, his tone threatening with confrontation.

“You told me.” Kurama offered him no ill will, his words gentle, “When you were drinking, you said Gorobi had given you the scarf. You never told me who he was - or should I say ‘is’?”

“Gorobi,” Mukuro repeated the name. “I don’t know a Gorobi.”

“Yeah, that’s my next question, who is Gorobi?” Kazuma added; now all three pairs of eyes were upon Hiei, who flushed and looked away.

“... I’m finished,” Hiei snapped, slamming his sake bottle down upon the rock and heading back towards the other end of the pool where his clothes lay. Mukuro grabbed him before he could take two steps,

“Hiei,” she murmured. Hiei jerked to get out of her grip but she did not let go.

“Okay, okay!” Kazuma threw up his hands, knowing full well that it was time to back off, “I’m sorry... I’m sorry, Hiei,” Kazuma said. Hiei glared at him, but with each passing minute his expression was softening. “That’s none of our business, we won’t ask again.”

Hiei took a step back towards their group and sat back down next to Mukuro.

“It’s your turn to ask a question,” Kazuma offered; Hiei merely shook his head, looking away.

“I’m not interested. Ignore me.” Hiei relaxed against the rock.

“That would be difficult for me to do,” Mukuro jested. She reached out to let her hand trail about hiei’s shoulders, her fingers settling in the fine hairs at the nape of his neck.

Hiei smiled at her, but it was a small movement.

Kazuma took it upon himself to prompt the next round of questions, and turned to Kurama.

“Okay, I’m gonna go again and ask a question,” Kazuma said, and Kurama raised an eyebrow expectantly. “Where in demon world were you born?”

“Where?” Kurama repeated. “In Baeri Valley, on the other side of the Gorgon River.”

“I know the area,” Mukuro said.

“Where were you born?” Kurama turned the question on her.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a shrug. “All I knew was the castle I was kept in. Hiei destroyed it,” she said, passing Hiei another sake jar. Hiei toasted himself, taking a long sip.

“And!" Mukuro added with delight, “And, he brought me my owner in chains... covered in a parastic plant-“

“Aha!” Kurama blurted out, eyes gleaming as he turned to Hiei, “I see!”

Hiei snorted into his jar.

“Is this where my plant went?” Kurama glanced at Kazuma in explanation, “Hiei came to me to ask for help, now I see the result. Brava Hiei, very sweet.” Kurama toasted him with his sake cup, filling it up and taking a sip.

“He said to me... Happy Birthday..." Mukuro grinned, her unscarred cheek quite pink, “A torture puppet all my own.”

She nuzzled the side of Hiei’s face. Hiei turned on her spitefully, offering her a shrewd glare where any sane lover might have a kiss, “Go to hell.”

“Always," she replied with a sweet smile.

“You two are so weird.” Kazuma snorted. What on earth was wrong with them? Why couldn’t they act like a normal couple and say sweet things like ‘I love you’ and ‘you’re perfect’?

“Why, Kazuma, are you jealous?” Mukuro taunted.

“No.” Kazuma’s hand was already upon Kurama’s waist, and he pulled Kurama in a little tighter. “I’m very happy over here, thank you!” Kurama snorted against his shoulder.

“I’ve hardly seen the rumored affection between the two of you, how do I know it even exists?”

“Oh, you wanna see it?” Kazuma suddenly turned to Kurama who threw his hands up with a gale of laughter only to be swooped down upon. Kazuma kissed Kurama behind his ear as Kurama laughed, blocking his face to hide how he blushed.

“Please, dear god-“ Hiei scathed, making a noise of obvious disgust. When Kazuma looked over he saw that Hiei’s lip was curled and his eyes were narrowed.

“Hey, she nuzzled you!” Kazuma threw at him. “You didn’t hear me gagging, did you?”

“Just ask another damn question and quit touching him!” Hiei said it in such a way as if Kazuma touching Kurama were the worst thing to witness in the world.

“Alright, answer this, you little shit: Where were you born?” Kazuma demanded, keeping up in the spirit of Kurama and Mukuro’s question. Hiei looked away with a snort.

“I don’t want to answer that question.”

“Well you shouldn’t have said that, because guess what-“

“What?” Hiei snapped angrily.

“Now you are at my mercy!” Kazuma thumbed his chest with high importance.

“Oh, dear..." Kurama murmured, alluding to the grave undertones of the situation. Hiei made a noise of disdain, rolling his eyes.

“I... have the granted authority to make you do one act.” Kazuma said, sweeping his arm wide, “And I decree that since you were so rude to me... you... must kiss Mukuro. Right now.”

Hiei blushed, a loud sneering noise passing his lips.

“That doesn’t sound very unreasonable, Hiei,” Mukuro said, turning on him with a smile. Hiei moved back.

“Woman-!” Hiei warned.

“Oh please, do not be modest for my sake-" She leaned in, and Hiei suddenly had nowhere to run, pinned between her and a large rock. She kissed him, his face turning redder by the minute as he automatically broke their connection and looked away with a clear and ugly scowl.

“No!" Kazuma shook his head, quite enjoying his authority over Hiei’s punishment, “That does not count! He has to initiate it.”

Mukuro relaxed back, smiling pleasantly while Hiei continued to scowl.

“I’m waiting,” she said when Hiei did not automatically seek to kiss her.

“All your life,” Hiei grumbled, but his voice had dropped an octave and he was still clearly blushing.

Everyone sat waiting, the silence ticking on as Hiei just continued to grow redder under their heated gazes.

“We can do this all night, Hiei,” Kazuma warned.

“Or at least until the sake runs out,” Kurama added.

Hiei glared at them both, but his scowl was interrupted when Mukuro reached out to let her fingers play upon his bicep. Hiei looked at where she touched him, observing how her fingers rubbed across his skin.

She touched his chin, ever so slightly.

Hiei sighed, leaned forward, and kissed her upon the lips.

Kazuma had never seen Hiei kiss anyone in public, and to be frank the way Hiei kissed Mukuro was different than how Mukuro had kissed him the first time. The first kiss had been like a joke, sneering and short, but this kiss was much softer and purposeful with gentle clarity. It did not last long, and certainly was not an intimate kiss, but it was a kiss and when Hiei sat back Mukuro was grinning at him smugly.

“Yeah!” Kazuma jeered, “Now I’ve seen you kiss! I’m very happy, thank you.”

“Go to hell!” Hiei threw at Kazuma. “As if you’d kiss him so openly in front of us!”

Kurama looked up at Kazuma from where he lay against his shoulder.

“I think that’s a dare,” Kazuma warned Kurama.

“I’m afraid it must be,” Kurama agreed. Kazuma leaned down and kissed him tenderly on the lips.

“Oh for the love of god!” Hiei snarled, throwing his empty sake bottle so that it whistled by their heads with well-intended aim. Kurama laughed into Kazuma’s mouth.

“I like this game very much!” Mukuro laughed, and they felt a great splash against them as she pulled Hiei to her side.

“Well I fuckin’ don’t!” Hiei roared. Kazuma broke away from their kiss to look over and see Hiei and Mukuro fighting as Mukuro tried to pull Hiei to her side and HIei pushed away. Waves were going everywhere, their little sake boat overturning as Hiei yanked his arm from Mukuro’s grip only to get pulled into her lap as she grabbed him about the waist and tugged him back.

Hiei snorted, their legs tangling as he jerked off her lap and sat beside her again. She splashed him. He splashed her back.

“Hey, kids!” Kazuma called. “You wanna end this game?!”

“Yes!” Hiei shouted amid a mouthful of water as Mukuro splashed him again.

“Answer a question you didn’t want to answer the first time!” Kazuma ordered above the din.

“What was the question?” Hiei asked ducking a little as Mukuro tried to pull him into her lap again. This situation was close to getting out of hand, for Kazuma was certain that her fingers accidentally brushed against Hiei’s loins (he’d certainly gasped angrily enough for that to be the case).

“Where were you born?” Kazuma asked.

“An island,” Hiei snapped, jerking his arm away from Mukuro. He took a few steps back from her, so that there was now too much space between them for her to grab him or even splash him.

“We need more information than that; what’s it called!” Kazuma demanded.

“Hyouga!” Hiei said, eyes still locked on Mukuro as she rose up a little from the water, taking a predatory step forward. There was really nowhere for Hiei to run, not in an underground onsen and naked. If he abandoned the pool, he abandoned his dignity, but Mukuro certainly didn’t seem to mind everyone seeing her one good naked breast. She was too busy trying to grab at Hiei to care.

“Where’s the island? Is it in the ocean?” Kazuma demanded.

“There are no oceans in demon world,” Kurama said as Hiei dodged to the left to avoid a strike from Mukuro and nearly abandoned the pool. “The Hyouga is in the sky.”

“The sky?” Kazuma repeated, looking at Kurama. Kurama nodded with a solemn smile, “No way, islands can’t be in the sky.”

“It floats.”

Kazuma had never heard such nonsense. Floating islands in the sky? What was this, a Miyazaki film?

“Okay then, if it floats in the sky how did people even get up there, and for that matter how did he get down here?” Kazuma demanded, “What, did he fall off?”

Hiei stuttered, his eyes wide.

Mukuro lunged, not paying attention to Kazuma, and grabbed Hiei about the waist. Hiei shouted as he went under, the pair of them disappearing only to reemerge coughing and spluttering as Mukuro kissed Hiei’s neck. Hiei seemed to be quite taken aback by something, shaken as he tried to regain his footing and his distance only to fail miserably. Mukuro noticed, stopping even as she kissed him, surprised at his pale expression.

“What?” she asked.

Hiei did not reply.

~*~

The next morning found Kazuma upon tatami mats in a yukata while his steamed clothes dried on an onsen rock. His head throbbed, his tongue felt fuzzy, and the light was entirely too bright for his liking as he blinked awake and blearily looked around. Mukuro was gone, and Hiei was still asleep, exhausted and curled upon his side in a yukata that was far too big for him. Kurama was awake and seemed to be brewing tea over a tiny fire at the mouth of the onsen. Kazuma groaned as his head gave a particularly painful throb, and Kurama looked around.

“... We are never... drinking... again,” Kazuma muttered into his hands, trying desperately to block out the light filtering in from the canopy above. Why was it so damn bright?

He heard a sympathetic chuckle issue from somewhere near Kurama, and the sweet smell of ginger filled his nose as Kurama brought him a cup of golden colored tea.

“Drink this,” Kurama offered, pressing the cup into one of his hands. “It’ll help.”

The tea was warm, and Kazuma blew on it before sipping only to find that with each precious drop his tongue felt less fuzzy and his head more clear. He heard Hiei stirring, and looked over to find him slowly sitting up, rubbing his jaw irritably from where it had been resting against his sword handle. He looked just as haggard as Kazuma felt, and Kurama offered him a cup of tea too; Hiei drank it without question.

“Where's Mukuro?" Kazuma asked, looking around.

“There’s a cave up ahead, and Mukuro wanted to investigate. We rose quite some time ago. I assume she’s still there," Kurama supplied, pouring himself a cup of tea and sipping it gingerly. How could Kurama speak so eloquently and look so calm when Kazuma was certain that he must be hungover too?

“How are you so alert?” Kazuma mumbled into his teacup, wincing as his head throbbed.

“Compared to spirytus, sake is simple," Kurama answered. “That and I’ve had five cups of tea already.”

He sipped on his sixth one mildly. Kazuma threw the rest of his back in a determined shot. He wanted to be as sober as possible as soon as possible.

Hiei said nothing, drinking to spare himself the agony of speaking.

As soon as Kazuma felt capable of standing, he did so, and dressed in his freshly washed clothes. They were stiff to the touch with minerals that had dried, and they itched a little as Kazuma pulled them on. Hiei dressed just as quickly, looking quite irritated that he had ever taken his clothes off in the first place. By the time that the pair of them were ready to go outside, they’d drunk four more cups of tea a piece and Kazuma’s headache had almost dissipated. He had no idea what was in the tea but with Kurama’s skill and all the seeds he’d been picking up during their mountain trail, Kazuma was very hopeful that his hangover would be gone entirely by noon.

They ventured out from the onsen and through the ryokan, stopping only to refill their canteens as they made their way back down the mountain path. The cave was off the trail and slightly downwind from where they had stayed last night; it was set deep into the mountains face, and a water fall ran right over it to crash over the of a small but lovely lake. Mukuro was there, her hair wet and dripping about her face as she drank straight from the fall. Kazuma was almost certain he caught Hiei blushing but couldn’t be sure as Hiei started staking out the cave and the woods that surrounded it. Kurama and Kazuma tentatively made their way down the side of the water fall, taking care not to slip on rocks wet with condensation from the wild spray. Behind the waterfall lay the cave, and so they joined Mukuro there to see a small but nicely sized pile of fish that she’d caught.

Kazuma wondered how she’d done it without a rod or reel. Maybe her bionic hand could double as a fishing line, though he doubted it. She, like Hiei, probably knew how to survive in the woods for extended periods of time.

The cave was deep and dark; the only light came from beyond the waterfall and it was dimmed by the thick spray. Mukuro’s bionic hand was their lighting grace, doubling as a touch when she flexed her long fingers to cause her palm to glow. Red light filled the cave, lighting up every chisel in the rock, every dip in the wall. Moss had begun to grow on the rocks closest to the mouth of the cave, no doubt nourished by the spray, and Kazuma leaned against them as Mukuro dropped her glowing hand and made a scowling face.

“No life forms." She muttered; perhaps her hand doubled as a scanner for body heat, “If bandits were here, they’re gone now."

They went deeper in, and sure enough found an abandoned camp fire not too far from the mouth of the cave. Kurama bent down, rushing the ashen twigs and feeling the charcoal in his hands.

“It’s fresh.” He announced.

“I see I was correct.” Mukuro sneered; so there were bandits in the area... but where they now? Kazuma looked over his shoulder, suddenly very wary of the dark of the cave. Could it be that they were hiding and waiting to pounce when their backs were turned?

“They were close to our camp.” Kurama said, for the onsen was not three miles up the mountain side; and to think they’d be drunk!

“But they knew not to entreat us," Mukuro mused.

“Even when drunk," Kurama added.

“I was never drunk.” Mukuro looked back towards the mouth of the cave; outside, Hiei was now taking her fish and beginning to skin them, using a short sharp blade to shed each fish of its scales. They collected on his hands, making them shine in the dim light.

“I feel you may have been slightly intoxicated,” Kurama corrected her; she made a slight sneering noise.

“Shit man, I was hammered," Kazuma mumbled, for it was the damn truth. “I still feel a little hungover.” He rubbed his temple.

Something caught his eye on the cave wall, and he pointed so that Mukuro lifted her bionic hand and held up the light. Sure enough, drawings in deep shades of black and red were covering the wall, creating a map that looked very old! Kazuma was delighted, stepping forward and taking in each nuance of detail; the mountains in the north, the deserts in the west, massive splotches of forest to the east and south with lakes spread out. Could this be demon world?

“Look at that,” Kazuma murmured to himself, smiling as he stepped a little closer to the map.

“Look at what?” came a sneering voice; Hiei had joined their group, and scowled when he saw the camp fire. He bent over, touching the twigs, and when they snapped easily between his fingers he looked even more irritated. Standing back up and brushing his dirty hands on his cloak, he gave Kazuma a contemptuous look.

“It’s a map.” Hiei sneered, “Many caves have them. It is not worthy of such attention-"

But Kazuma had to disagree, for he’d never seen an entire map of demon world and suddenly wanted to know every location on it.

“Kurama, where were you born?” Kazuma asked. Kurama looked up from the cold camp fire, pointing to valley in the east just past the winding white paste that marked a strange dividing river.

“Cool..." Kazuma grinned, touching the valley where Kurama had pointed. He wondered what it was like there; was it wide and spacious, full of flowers? He could see a child like Kurama playing in such meadows, no doubt thoroughly enjoying himself among the weeds.

“Where was that palace thing?” Kazuma asked Mukuro. She scowled to herself, scanning with a narrowed eye upon the map before pointing to the south where a small chunk of forest was cleared out; a black square, no bigger than ones thumb nail, lay in the center. Perhaps that was to mark a castle.

“Where’s the island?” Kazuma asked Hiei, searching all over, “I don’t see any islands.”

Hiei rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

“I knew you guys were pulling my damn leg, there is no floating island!" Kazuma scoffed; Hiei must have been quite drunk to try and spin such a story last night.

“There is,” Kurama corrected him gently, “But you will not find it on this map."

“Why not?” Kazuma challenged; if Kurama said it existed, then perhaps it did, but there were still more unanswered questions than answered ones and Kazuma was far from believing the island floated in the sky.

“It’s secluded,” Kurama explained. “You’re not supposed to be able to find it. The villagers have cut themselves off from the rest of demon world.”

“Why?” Kazuma wondered, for this seemed like a very poor way to go about an economy indeed. What would happen if a plague broke or they needed to trade? Being isolated had its downfalls... surely a village would crumble without the networking support of other villages to trade and grow into.

“They believe that men are the source of all evil,” Mukuro said. Hiei was entering and exiting the cave, clearing out the burnt limbs of the old fire and replacing them with new ones from the woods.

“...Wait..." Kazuma scoffed, for with that answer had come another question, “Then what about their men. What makes them so holy?”

“The koorime are a tribe of women,” Mukuro corrected him.

“...What?” Kazuma frowned. Without men how could the next generation be born? “I’m missing something-“

“Kazuma, the Koorime are all female tribe,” Mukuro repeated, her eyes flitting every so often to Hiei who was now lighting new limbs upon the fire and making to fillet the fish she’d caught. “They reproduce asexually."

“Oh, wow," Kazuma said, suddenly reminded of the animals he’d studied while still pursuing his science degree. He looked over at Hiei, and suddenly was struck by the fact that Hiei was a male. “Hiei, you’re a male!"

Hiei glared at him sullenly.

“Fascinating,” Hiei sneered. "What brought you to that conclusion?” He started slitting the fish every inch or so, his knife incredibly careful with their tender meat.

Kurama sat down beside the fire, and began warming his hands as Mukuro smiled and walked towards the mouth of the cave.

Kazuma squatted down next to Hiei and Kurama, glad for the fire that warmed his aching bones.

“I’m just saying, they must have been really excited when you were born!" Kazuma said, for surely a male born into a tribe of woman must have caused quite a stir, “Like, talk about cool, the only dude in probably hundreds of years! I bet your mom was really popu....” Hiei looked up at him, his eyes dark and his jaw set.

Kazuma suddenly realized that a boy born into a tribe where males were considered evil would not have been received with open arms.

“...Or they weren’t happy about it, and your mom was really unpopular,” he mumbled apologetically, casting his eyes down to avoid Hiei’s glare. “I’m sorry. I didn’t-"

“Just stop talking,” Hiei growled. Mukuro passed by him, and she ran her fingers lovingly across his tense shoulder blades. Hiei cast her a glance, and though it was very slight Kazuma could see the appreciation in his gaze.

Kazuma was resolved not to speak about the Hyouga again and no one else brought it up as the day dragged on. Though they combed the woods and swam in the lake beneath the falls, no one saw bandits, nor did they see any signs of their existence save for the cold campfire they had stumbled upon. Hiei seemed to think they’d never been in the cave at all, and had simply laid a campfire there to make it look like they’d slept in the cave overnight while instead taking refuge in the woods. This made absolutely no sense to Kazuma, for who would choose to sleep in the cold woods when you could instead curl up in a warm dry cave? Hiei insisted that bandits might use it as a ploy to lure them into a dead end trap... but the bandits never showed up and as night approached Hiei started to look doubtful of his initial plan as he cooked their fish and tended quietly to the fire. Kazuma, was one again very surprised to find that though no sauces or spices had been used, the fish was delicious.

“Hiei, you are a really good cook,” Kazuma said. “You know that?”

Hiei scoffed, rolling his eyes, “I’m serious!” Kazuma threw out.

“It is merely a necessity-“ Hiei began again.

“And you turn it into an art form,” Kazuma cut him off. “I’m just saying, I’ve never had fish this good.”

“Why, thank you,” Hiei drawled. “I got practice from cooking human brains."

“Screw you, man,” Kazuma laughed, taking another bite of fish as both Mukuro and Kurama chuckled. “You can’t have my brain." He tapped his head.

“The brain isn’t the part you want, it’s the liver,” Mukuro offered.

“Speak for yourself.” Hiei shook his head, “The heart is better."

“It's a taste preference,” Kurama said, and Kazuma did a double take. Had Kurama... eaten humans?

Shit, wouldn’t that make him a cannibal? Should Kazuma be worried?

“...Oh, my god.” Kazuma looked about their group. “Have... you guys... eaten humans?”

“Naturally," Mukuro said, eyeing in him in such a way that Kazuma suddenly was very glad that Hiei was sitting at their camp fire. She wouldn’t eat him in front of Hiei... would she?

She wouldn’t eat him at all, right?

.... Right?

“You... You wouldn’t eat me- right?” Kazuma asked, his voice squeaking despite how he tried to hide his nerves. Kurama laughed aloud now, turning his gaze away to snicker over his shoulder.

“I haven’t eaten humans in many years,” Mukuro assured him. “Nor would I eat a friend... the last time I dined on human flesh was... perhaps two hundred years go?”

Two hundred years-

“Wait, how old are you?” Kazuma asked.

“Kazuma.” Kurama chastised him gently, “That is not a question one asks over dinner-“ He suddenly felt like he was twelve again and being a pest when his father had company over.

“I’m serious, how old are you?” Kazuma demanded; Mukuro smiled at him in a teasing fashion.

“I am close to seven hundred years old," Mukuro said. “My true age is a mystery even to myself. I’m unsure of the year in which I was born-“

“Do you at least know the day?” Kazuma asked.

Something strange flashed in Mukuro’s eyes, a deep darkness that he had not expected at all. It shocked him.

“Naturally, she knows the day-" Hiei growled, “What is your contention with knowing her age?” Mukuro’s silence was now staggering as she glared at the fire, suddenly withdrawn from their company despite sitting next to them. Hiei kept casting her glances, forcing a fish into her hands to make her interact. She bit off a chunk with suppressed venom, still brooding even as she chewed.

“Well I mean, I’m just curious how old she’d be in human years." Kazuma said. “Like, how old are you?"

“Ninety nine,” Hiei answered.

“Wow, big birthday next year,” Kazuma murmured.

“This year,” Hiei corrected him, and though at first Kazuma wanted to ask what day Hiei’s birthday was, he suddenly remembered that Yukina’s birthday was November twenty first...

So he already knew.

“Demons age much differently than humans,” Kurama supplied, chewing thoughtfully upon what remained of his fish. “Hiei would be around our age, and stay into his twenties thirties up until around... five hundred?” He offered, “When you start getting close to the first thousand, you turn into your fifties and sixties. Most demons do not live that long.”

“So let’s just say Hiei’s twenty five, like us!” Kazuma offered.

“I can see that,” Kurama agreed.

"So, how old is Mukuro then?” Kazuma said, suddenly unable to stop grinning.

"Around her forties I suppose. Her early forties.” Kurama said.

Kazuma chuckled, looking from Hiei to Mukuro; Mukuro glanced up at him, still glaring but softening as she heard his laughter.

“My, my, Hiei...” Kazuma sneered, putting on his best imitation of Hiei’s voice, “Dating older women are we?”

Hiei scoffed, picking up a small pebble and chucking it at Kazuma’s head. Kazuma ducked to avoid it.

“Kazuma...” Kurama warned, and Kazuma half expected another lecture on manners, “I’m older than Mukuro."

“But-!” Kazuma flustered, looking from Kurama to Hiei who was now sneering back with gusto, “You’re twenty five in your human body! You don’t look old!"

“And do I look old?” Mukuro asked, smiling at Kazuma even as she teased.

Very loud warning bells were suddenly sounding off in Kazuma’s head, reminding him of the very powerful lesson that one should never ever say a woman looked old even if there were cobwebs growing in her ears and liver spots on her cheeks.

"No!" Kazuma assured her, much too loudly for his own good. “You look... eighteen!"

Mukuro burst into laughter, the noise bouncing off the cave walls. She even had to cover her mouth for a moment as she looked away.

Kazuma felt like he’d dodged a sniper’s bullet and shrank back a little.
Still, it sure was nice to hear her laugh.

 

It was difficult to sleep that night, even with the fire that hiei had conjured. Too many questions were bouncing off Kazuma’s head, making him wonder about the Hyouga, Mukuro, bandits, Hiei, and all other sorts of thing. Kurama was asleep with his head in Kazuma’s lap, and as Kazuma stroked his hair he looked across the cave to see Hiei and Mukuro against the opposite wall. They slept back to back, and though Mukuro’s eye was closed in a light sleep Hiei was awake and staring out into the night. He kept waiting... watching... his eyes never leaving the mouth of the cave.

In the silence, Kazuma and Hiei glanced at one another.

“You think they’re out there?” Kazuma asked, looking at the mouth of the cave.

“I know they’re out there.”

“Do you think they’ll come tonight?” Kazuma asked.

“Yes,” Hiei said. Kazuma rubbed his fingers together, sensing his spirit energy. All it would take would be a burst, and he could have his sword out. In his lap, Kurama stirred, sensing his energy.

Kazuma petted his hair, running his fingers lovingly over Kurama’s smooth jaw.

Hiei said nothing, his eyes still on the opening, but Kazuma watched Hiei’s expression soften if only for a second. How had he not noticed these things through all the years that he’d known Hiei? How had he overlooked the small nuances of his reactions, the tiny furrows of his brow or how his eyes relaxed when he was deep in thought?

Kazuma felt ashamed of himself. He didn’t deserve to call himself Hiei’s friend if he couldn’t treat him right.

“... I wish I’d been a better friend to you,” Kazuma whispered. “I was mean. I’m sorry."

“What are you talking about?” Hiei grumbled, glancing at Kazuma for one second.

“All those years, I never really like... noticed you reacting to stuff. I figured you didn’t care about us but you really did care. I can see that now. I’m so sorry, man. I totally judged you wrong. You’re a really good guy.”

Hiei made the tiniest tutting noise, barely a breath on the wind.

When it became clear that Hiei wasn’t going to reply, Kazuma decided to ask him a question that had been nagging at him for quite some time.

“Hiei, what happened to your family?” Kazuma asked, “How did you end up so far away from Yukina?”

Hiei said nothing for a moment.

“I left the village,” he finally answered, his tone flat and his words forced. Kazuma could tell that this subject was incredibly sensitive for him.

“... I hope your family didn’t make you,” Kazuma whispered.

“The elders,” Hiei corrected. Kazuma could see the sense in that, particularly if the village was isolated and despised men.

“... I bet your mom tried to stop them, though,” He mused aloud, thinking of his own mother and how she’d always been protective of him. He hadn’t thought of her in so long, he’d almost forgotten her sharp keen eyes... her lovely auburn hair.

Hiei had said nothing in reply, his gaze darkening.

“... I bet she was really pretty,” Kazuma said, still thinking of his own mother.

“I would not know nor care,” Hiei whispered, but Kazuma could tell from his tone that he was lying. Perhaps Hiei felt compromised, afraid to explain when Kazuma was not as close to him as Kurama.

Kazuma knew what needed to be said, but still could not help wincing on the soreness of the subject. “Yeah, I guess it really doesn’t matter what our moms look like; they’re always pretty to us. My mom was pretty." He paused, pursing his lips. Why was it now that he was thinking of her at the kitchen counter, chopping carrots and wearing a pink beaded shawl?

“I haven’t seen her... in over ten years. Close to fifteen."

Hiei’s eyes flickered to him ever so casually.

“She was a psychic. A really good one. I guess I gorot my powers from her. But she wasn’t trained like Yusuke or me, and she got in over her head. She was labeled as psychotic by human doctors because she could see demons and apparitions; they put her in a mental institution when I was twelve. Shizuru cried for days. Then mom broke out and ran away, and no one’s seen or heard from her since."

Kazuma stopped, suddenly realizing that he was clenching his teeth without meaning to.

“I don’t even know if she’s dead,” Kazuma admitted, his bitter tone surprising him, “I don’t think she is. Surely if she was, I’d know.”

Hiei looked down for a moment, sighing softly in the dark of their dying camp fire.

“.... Is your mom dead?” Kazuma asked.

“Yes,” Hiei whispered.

“How did you find out?”

“I returned to the village to ensure details."

“I guess they weren’t really happy to see you,” Kazuma muttered, wondering what the women might have thought, seeing Hiei back.

“They did not see me at all,” Hiei replied. Once again, that made sense. Of course Hiei hid, why shouldn’t he? He probably didn’t want to make a stir.

Kazuma watched Hiei for a moment, noting how relaxed and somber he appeared.

“... Who’s Gorobi?” Kazuma asked.

Hiei sighed haggardly, a loud noise in the quiet of the cave.

“Why do you want to know?” Hiei asked, quite tense all of a sudden.

Kazuma wondered if he should lie and invent another reason, another story, but it wasn’t a good idea. He'd never lied to Hiei before, and he did not want to start lying now.

“’Cause if he’s the guy that hurt you, I wanna find him and fuck up his face,” Kazuma admitted.

Hiei scoffed softly, even laughing darkly though no chuckle could be heard upon the air as he looked down at his lap.

“He didn’t hurt me,” Hiei finally replied.

“Are you sure?” Kazuma tempted, sensing that was merely a lie to dissuade him.

“He-" Hiei paused, jerking his head up.

A moment of silence passed and Kazuma suddenly felt a tense change in the air. Hiei was alert now, eyes bright as he looked at the mouth of the cave. He snapped his fingers softly, reaching around to grab and squeeze Mukuro’s normal arm. She moved her head, and Kazuma could see both her eyes were open now, wild and dark with energy.

They were tensing, ready for a fight.

Kazuma reached down, making to grab Kurama’s arm as his heart began to pound, but Kurama was already sitting up, looking at the mouth of the cave.

He’d awoken with the shift, no doubt acknowledging it before Kazuma. All four of them stared at the cave mouth. For a moment nothing happened as the blackness of the mouth of the cave loomed in on them.

Then, a group of thirty men burst into the cave.

Hiei and Mukuro were on their feet in an instant, hurling themselves onto their attackers with swords and fists out. Kurama leapt, his hands suddenly sprouting with sharp shooting vines as he began slashing and stabbing at men who tried to grab him. Kazuma jerked to his feet, summoning his spirit sword, and as the energy burned in his palm he threw himself into the fray to slice at men.

The bandits were fast, and certainly strong, but they were also unprepared for four well trained fighters. Hiei slashed through several of them with his sword, moving at lightning speed that Kazuma could barely register as he took down ten men one after the other. Mukuro was likewise a violent and oppressive force, her metal hand her only weapon as she took two fingers and slashed back and forth. White light burst from the men’s chest as blood sprayed into the air, coating her body and hair as they screamed in agony, exploding from the inside out. Kurama was more flexible and limber, kicking off the cave wall and cracking two men in the face as he smacked a third with his fist. His vines did the rest, gutting the men wildly in a flare of brutal bloodshed. Kazuma was the most straight forward fighter, slashing at men with his sword left and right in a way that he hadn’t been able to do for years being in human world. It felt incredibly liberating, to finally face off with these damn bandits and take them on after tracking them through the mountains for over a week. A second wave of fighters were coming into the cave, stronger ones who avoided Hiei altogether (or at least tried to) to attempt to take Mukuro on at the same time. She moved with rapid speed, bringing back a fist and punching the men in a wave of explosive power. All ten of them flew out of the cave and through the water fall, screaming as blood streamed through the air. Kazuma heard a resounding crash as they hit the water. But more men were coming in, trying to take Mukuro after such a powerful exertion. They were fools to think her weak, but they did not even reach her; Hiei took care of them, their intestines suddenly raw and open to the air as he sliced their stomachs. He behead several of them, blood flying onto the wall as their heads lopped off and rolled away.

But a man was at the mouth of the cave, huge and hulking. His face shrouded in a cloth, he took Hiei on personally.

Hiei fought with skill, but the man’s arms were guarded in gauntlets and he blocked each of Hiei’s sword blows with moderate success. Hiei did not stop fighting, did not stop swinging, twisting very tight as the bandit made to grab him and kicking out to strike at the bandits chest. He only took a step or two back, so large that Hiei’s kicks were rather feeble against his chest.

In that moment, he ripped off his mask to reveal his face: he was a warrior with a heavy set jaw and dark black eyes, bearded with long hair that was pulled back from his face.

Hiei saw him, registered his face, and dropped his sword with a resounding loud clang.

Kazuma was alarmed, for he had never seen Hiei drop his sword in the middle of battle!

“Hiei-!" Mukuro shouted, angry at Hiei’s lack of discipline in such a crucial moment.

The bandit and Hiei stared at one another, neither moving amid the corpses of the fallen men. The bandit seemed in great distress, looking from Hiei to Kazuma and the others before glancing at the mouth of the cave. Every time his eyes went back to Hiei’s face, he seemed.... pained.

Hiei did not make to pick up his sword, to fight in any way at all; Mukuro stepped forward but Hiei threw out a hand to make her stop!

The bandit glanced at Mukuro, then at Hiei; Hiei shook his head, a tiny jerking movement that could only be discerned if you knew what you were looking for.

The bandit understood. He ran out the mouth of the cave.

“.... Hiei.” Mukuro said his name, the irritation and anger in her voice thunderous as she began to snarl, “What the hell?!”

Hiei slowly dropped his arm, looking at the rags on the floor that the bandit had ripped from his face.

“I have never seen you drop your sword,” Kurama said, just as concerned as Kazuma felt. His vines were retreating up his arms, vanishing into his sleeves. He glanced at Kazuma who just shrugged his shoulders, completely speechless. What the hell had they just witnessed?

“Is there a reason you fucking let him get away?!” Mukuro demanded. Hiei seemed shell shocked, slowly reaching down to pick up his sword but dropping it twice by accident as his fingers slipped. When he finally managed to grab it, he slid it back into its sheath with slight care. He was pale, his eyes wide as he looked out the mouth of the cave.

He started walking, and did not stop. He left.

“Good!” Mukuro snarled at his retreating back, “And don't come back until he’s dead!”

She looked away as Hiei vanished into the dark, glaring down at the corpses at her feet. She was quite terrifying with blood painting her face and a snarl upon her tight lips. She kicked the corpse of a man near her, looking at his rugged and hairy face.

“Bandits," she murmured, “All of them."

“Quite.” Kurama agreed.

Mukuro, Kurama, and Kazuma left the cave to search the woods. They did not find Hiei, the bandit who had fled or any other bandits for that matter so that as the night wore on they finally gave up their search and momentarily bathed to rid themselves of blood before settling back down into a fitful sleep. Mukuro wanted to take watches, still not convinced that they were entirely alone, and Kazuma could not help but agree. The cave now stank of death with blood and guts upon the wall, but they had no where else to sleep and being outside underneath the stars would have been very stupid indeed on such a night. They simply walked back farther into the cave, until the stench of blood and bile was not as ripe, and slept in pairs as the third watched the cave mouth for more bandits. Mukuro took first watch, then Kurama, and finally Kazuma, but when Kazuma awoke he found that Kurama was unable to go to sleep and kept watching the cave mouth with great worry.

“... Where is Hiei?” Kurama finally whispered in the dark.

“Do you wanna go search for him?” Kazuma asked. Kurama nodded.

They rose, letting Mukuro continue to sleep in her exhaustion. Yet even as they passed her, she grunted.

“Where are you going?”

"To find Hiei,” Kurama replied.

“Bring him back when you do." Mukuro sighed, sitting up to relax against the cave wall, “Make sure that bandit is dead."

Kurama did not answer, continuing out the cave with Kazuma and into the cool night air. Kazuma was not sure how to search for Hiei’s energy as well as Kurama was, and allowed him to take the lead into the dark woods. Dawn was starting to approach, and just enough light was now visible to wear Kazuma could avoid tripping over fallen logs or stumbling into small dens and burrows. Kurama paused every so often, looking left and right, his eyes narrowed as he searched out Hiei’s energy. They were heading down the mountainside, towards a strangely barren area of woods that seemed to have a walking path leading somewhere though it was not connected with the main road above them. As they drew around a bend, Kurama and Kazuma were given view of a run down temple that was small and consisting only of a single room. Kurama stopped, very tense, and he held up a hand as he gestured for Kazuma to stay close. Kazuma did so, peeking around the large tree behind which they hid to finally see into the clearing before them.

 

They stood back to back, Hiei looking out onto the forest and the bandit looking in to the ruined temple. Any second now, Kazuma expected for Hiei to turn around and start a fight; perhaps this was a demon way of engaging battle.

But the minutes ticked by, and neither of them made to fight.

Kazuma didn’t understand. He and Kurama looked at one another, each looking as wary as the other felt.

“... What do we do?” Kazuma mouthed.

“Nothing," Kurama replied, barely moving his lips, “Let Hiei instigate.”

So they waited, but still Hiei did not fight.

“... The portals are being breeched, humans are being taken, you pull your men back... and you come here alone,” Hiei whispered in the still morning air. “You are sending mixed signals. You have become an A class, but you are doing nothing with your power.”

The bandit reached out with a large hand, touching the door of the rotting temple and stroking its molding wood. Who was this man, and why was Hiei speaking with him when he’d attempted to murder them in their sleep?

“... Enki has requested for Mukuro to push back,” Hiei admitted.

“To keep the portals clear.” The bandit finally spoke; he had a deep, rumbling voice that issued from his barrel chest like a roll of thunder.

“Yes.”

“... I saw you in your camp tonight,” The bandit murmured, still not looking at Hiei, “You were warming your friends.”

Hiei looked down, then to the side, but never at the man, “... Why were you at my camp?”

“It was not safe,” the bandit explained. “My remaining men were near. They wanted revenge.”

Safe? The bandit was concerned for their safety?

Kazuma didn’t get it, if he were concerned for their safety why had he even attacked them in the first place?

“Let them come,” Hiei sneered softly, but his voice was usually weak and bare compared to the normal malice it was capable of holding. It was as if Hiei could not be angry with this man. “We can take your men with ease. They are weak; they are nothing compared to Mukuro, Kurama... Kazuma-“

Kazuma was shocked that Hiei had used his first name. It jolted him.

“We can take them all,” Hiei said, touching his throat momentarily with pale thin fingers. “I suppose you think that’s very ugly and cruel of me to say; I can be both.”

Kazuma had never in his life heard Hiei refer to himself in such a way.

The bandit looked around, shaking his head in mild disgust, but when he saw Hiei was still not facing him he turned back to look at the temple for a moment before finally relenting and turning all the way around and facing Hiei. Hiei would not look at him, staring out at the forest with dulled eyes.

“How is it that you can drill a Jagan through your skull and travel into human world where few dare to go, but you can’t turn around right now and face me on this porch?” the bandit asked, and the disgust he felt for Hiei was clear in his tone.

Hiei’s face flickered with strange, angry emotion before retuning back to calm.

“I do not fear the unknown,” Hiei whispered.

“But you fear me,” the bandit said. Hiei did not deny it.

Kazuma’s jaw dropped; he turned to look at Kurama and found him horrified. If Hiei was afraid of this man, what kind of power did he possess? Had Hiei traveled out here to make some kind of bargain with him? Was he trying to save their lives?

Suddenly Kazuma felt very nervous looking at this hulking warrior.

“How did you know I was waiting for you?” the bandit asked.

“... Because I know you,” Hiei whispered.

The bandit sighed, hands on his hips as he looked down at the rotting porch. Suddenly the disgust was gone, replaced by disappointment and remorse. Kazuma and Kurama could see him open and close his mouth many times, trying to say something but failing. Hiei was not privy to this sight, still staring out at the woods.

“... Tell me, when you try to kill me as I know you eventually will, will you do with your hands or with your sword?” Hiei spoke up. The bandit looked at Hiei agog, his dark eyes wide with sudden anger. “I have never known which one might suit you better.”

“Why would you say that?” the bandit demanded, taking a step closer to Hiei. Kazuma bristled, waiting any minute for a sword to be pulled, for a flame to be thrown, “Why would you ask for death when I want you live? Why would you get a Jagan, why would you go to human world, when from the moment I cast you out I wanted nothing more than to take you back in again?”

Kazuma blanched.

Cast you out... what on earth did that mean?

Did Hiei and this bandit know each other from before? Were they even friends?

Hiei’s face was getting darker and darker, his brow furrowing deeply as the muscles in his jaw jumped. He made not a sound, but with every passing moment as the bandit spoke his face was growing closer to emotional distress and it was terrifying to witness.

Hiei, usually so cold and callous, so mean and malicious, was about to cry.

It was fucking disturbing.

“That’s why I came to your camp tonight,” the bandit admitted. “I wanted to ask you to come home.”

Hiei clamped a hand over his mouth, clutching his jaw tight to hide his distress lest he make any sound.

“I’ve wanted to ask you ever since you left... but I could never find you- I searched for months!” The bandit was speaking softly but his voice was pained. Kazuma could not tell if he was sincere or not. “I heard you were working for Mukuro, that you had grown incredibly strong and had even been to human world and won the Dark Tournament. So I started making waves, hoping to catch your attention... I guess my plan worked.” The bandit paused.

Hiei had not dropped his hands, his eyes were tightly screwed up.

“You’re here now... I’m here now... and I can hardly believe I’m this close to you after all these years-“ The bandit reached out with both hands, and ever so gently placed them upon Hiei’s shoulders.

It was like an electrical shock. Hiei jumped, leaping away from the bandit and landing on the grass to whip around with wild blazing eyes; he looked like a cornered animal, terrified and pained.

“DON’T TOUCH ME!” Hiei screamed, and Kazuma could hear every terrible drop of agony in his voice. Hiei clapped a hand over his mouth again, turning away; Kazuma could hear every breath he took, the sucking of air like that of a dying man or a frightened child.

“I’m sorry- I’m sorry-“ the bandit stepped off the porch and onto the grass, hands out in obvious surrender though Hiei did not see it with his back turned. “I just wanted to touch you so bad, you’re so tall now- god, the last time I saw you, you were only fifteen-“

Hiei threw up a hand, an obvious but silent demand for the man to stop.

He did.

For several minutes, neither spoke. Hiei was slowly gaining control over himself, rubbing his eyes haggardly with one hand while he slowly dropped the other. When it was back by his side, the man spoke again.

The bandit took a breath.

“It wasn’t your fault, Hiei,” the bandit said. Hiei made a noise, throwing his hands up to cover his face as he rapidly shook his head as if to say ‘no, no, no, stop!’, “You were young, it was my fault, I take the blame! I put a sword in your hands, you were only doing what you were told to do- so you got a little enthusiastic about it, what child wouldn’t have? That’s what children do, they play-!”

He reached out again but Hiei moved before he could touch him. Storming off into the woods, Hiei did not look back even as the bandit called out for him.

“Hiei, please-!”

“I was not playing,” Hiei snarled before stepping into the tree line and vanishing.

Suddenly they were alone with the bandit, whose broad shoulders sagged and head dropped as he let out a deep sigh. He breathed for a moment, soaking up the quiet, before turning and heading off in the opposite direction of Hiei.

Kazuma looked at Kurama, and found him speechless as he stared at the spot where Hiei had vanished into the wood.

“... What the fuck was that?” Kazuma whispered.

“I don’t know,” Kurama said gravely. “But I am deeply concerned.”

Chapter Text

As soon as Hiei left the clearing with the bandit, Kazuma and Kurama hurried to meet him on the path ahead. They caught up to him near the waterfall, and neither dared to approach him or speak to him when they saw the state he was in. Hiei was distraught, despite how he might try to hide behind anger or cynicism. He would not speak, and when spoken to would only give biting remarks back so that as Mukuro, Kurama, and Kazuma made their way down the mountain path and back toward the bug, they learned to simply leave him alone and let him be. It took them several days to return to the base of the mountain, and each night KAzuma would stay away for as long as possible watching Hiei as he sat against a tree and stared out into the night. When Mukuro closed her eyes and Kurama fell asleep, Hiei became almost catatonic save for his short sharp breathes, the dartings of his eyes. His fear was so palpable, his terror so obvious, that it was impossible to say how he might react to the simplest of things. At times he might completely ignore the person who spoke to him (such as Kazuma when he asked Hiei if he was alright). Other times, he would simply bite back (when Kurama commented on a plant in passing and Hiei snarled ‘No one gives a fuck, Kurama’).

 

Now, after four and a half days of dealing with Hiei’s emotional instabilities, Kazuma and Kurama were all utterly exhausted and eager to be out of his company; Mukuro on the other hand seemed very eager to get him to herself, perhaps with the intention of ironing out a few of his issues with her bionic hand. She certainly was in no mood for his games by the time they stepped of the mountain trail and back onto grass land. The bug was exactly where they’d left it, tending to portals, but Hiei was walking in the opposite direction of it, and Mukuro made a noise deep in her throat like a growl as he made to whisk out of sight.

“Where are you going?!” Mukuro demanded loudly.

“Where the fuck I want!” Hiei snarled back.

“Hiei-!” Mukuro cried out, throwing out a hand to make him stop; Hiei was too quick, vanishing into thick woodland before Mukuro could get another word out. Mukuro let out a tirade of noises, looking from Hiei’s back to Kazuma and Kurama who were watching with slight fear after having spent too many days watching Hiei fuze. Mukuro glared at them, though certainly for no fault of their own.

“Excuse me.” She snapped, making her way into the woods after Hiei.

Neither of them made to follow her.

“Kurama, we gotta tell her-“ Kazuma murmured, thinking of the conversation with the bandit and how Hiei’s temper had been so damn volatile lately. Mukuro was bound to push a bad fuze and not mean to. God forbid they get into a fight now-

“No.” Kurama disagree, shaking his head, “Hiei is very private. I fear that he needs to be the one to say something to Mukuro. It may be that he genuinely does not want her knowing and we have to respect his wishes on that.”

“But-!” Kazuma spluttered, “You gotta admit that conversation was-“

“Disturbing?” Kurama supplied and Kazuma nodded eagerly. “I concur, but Hiei is a grown man and he lives his life as he chooses. Let him be the one to broach the topic with her. When we see what stance he is taking-“

“We back him up.” Kazuma finished Kurama’s sentence, simply knowing it to be the right thing to do after watching Hiei while traveling with him. Perhaps that was how Kurama had grown close to Hiei; he’d stood beside Hiei and backed him up in a corner. it certainly made sense to Kazuma now. When Hiei made a stand, he dug his heels in.

“Let’s go drop off our bags.” Kurama said, “I don't know about you but I’m eager to be alone for a moment.”

The bug was relatively quiet with most soldiers outside during the evening hours, and as Kazuma and Kurama dropped off their bags in their room and spent a moment to unwind, the pull of the evening air enticed them to the upper terrace where they might enjoy it better. Unfortunately as they hit the fifth floor, they noticed Mukuro standing in the command center with Kirin and another man that Kazuma had never seen before. While being along had its advantages, Mukuro still looked disturbed and Hiei was no where around her.

Had they fought? Perhaps it was best to ensure Hiei was alright before they made their way up. Kazuma walked into the control center, nodding to Mukuro and Kirin before glancing at the third man who was in the corner. He was tall and unnerving with a massive piercings cutting through his skull and face. His long black hair was tied out of his face, and a strange metal plate hung from his ears around his neck like a barbaric mouth shield that a doctor might use during surgery. He was speaking with Kirin and Mukuro, gesturing to a map of their are on the monitor screens.

“- a small group compared to what we were told.” The man was saying.

“I highly doubt that was all their of their forces.” Kirin grumbled, looking at the monitor as he spoke.

“As do I.” Mukuro concurred, “Hiei is still on the ground, we will observe his stance and see what move the bandits make. Ten attempted to take me on individually, it could be that they might do the same for Hiei and we’ll see more of their numbers.”

So it seemed that they had not fought.

Kurama certainly looked relieved as he saw Hiei on the monitor screen; he was standing upon a boulder looking out over the forest, and his face was contorted in absolute agony. His expression would flash to bizarre blank calm every now then, but would slowly slip to something more painful. It was like watching a coin drop to the bottom of a glass of water only to magically re appear at the surface every time it hit the bottom.

“What is that expression for?” Mukuro muttered aloud, clearly unnerved by Hiei’s anger. She sighed, changing the screen on the monitor back to the map.

“He is a fool.” Kirin grumbled. “Fools upset easily.”

“It’s not his fault.” Kazuma said. He felt Kurama tugging at his elbow, urging him to stop.
Mukuro glanced at Kazuma.

“What's not his fault?" Mukuro asked, an odd hope in her good eye as she looked at Kazuma.

“... Um..." Kazuma mumbled, looking away.

They’d resolved not to mention it to Mukuro, but how well was that plan going to work out now? Kazuma couldn’t lie to her, she was his friend and his host.

Mukuro took a step towards him, sensing his apprehension.

“Where did you find Hiei the other night?” she asked.

Kazuma looked down at the floor, unwilling to meet her gaze. It was incredibly powerful.

“At a run down temple.” Kazuma admitted.

“Hiei is not the praying type.” The man with the surgical mask commented darkly.

“You would know.” Kirin mused in the same tone.

“He was... scoping the area.” Kazuma tried to lie, “He never found the bandit.”

But the man in the surgical mask was not impressed and shook his head as Kazuma caught his eyes.

“Hiei’s jagan could easily find such a man. Especially if he saw his face as closely as he did in the cave.”

“I think he was... tired.” Kazuma tried, hoping the excuse would suffice.

“The jagan would not have drained that much energy from him.” The man shot down again.

“You don’t know that.” Kazuma said defensively, “It’s tough work having an eye in your head that doesn’t belong there-“

“I know better than anyone." The man replied with wry and cold grin, “I put it there.”

Kazuma stared.

Kurama’s voice in his ear nearly made him jump, “That is Shigure, the demon surgeon. Beware of him, he gave Hiei his jagan... that is not a man to be trifled with or ignored.”

Kazuma nodded ever so slightly, a signal to Kurama he’d heard his words.
So it seemed that metal mask was a surgical shield.

Kazuma shuddered in spite of himself.

“Using our radar we’ve detected a small cloister of activity near the center of the forest.” Kirin said, and upon pressing a few buttons he zoomed in the map’s frame to center in on a forest north of the bug at the base of the mountain on which they’d been traveling. Yellow blinking lights flitted about its dark canopy, signaling ki signatures.

“Probably them.” Shigure mused, “Can we hone on them?”

“I’d need an energy class, or a ki mark.” Kirin admitted.

“Well... the big guy is an upper A class.” Kazuma offered, for during Hiei's conversation taht detail had slipped. Yet even as he spoke, he winced; Mukuor’s eyes were back on him. He looked away at once.

“How did you know that?” Mukuro asked.
Once again, his heart began to pound in his throat as he knew he must lie.

“I um... could sense the energy.” Kazuma admitted.

“You can sense energy that well?” Mukuro asked warily; her tone suggested that she did not believe him.

“Well...” Kazuma said, for the truth of the matter was no.
He did not like lying.

“... Are you lying to me?” Mukuro finally asked.

Kazuma looked up, and was distressed to see the fear in her face. She was apprehensive, no doubt afraid something was wrong with Hiei and she did not know...
Oh if only she knew, what would she say? She who knew Hiei best... She who understood his heart and how it worked.

Kazuma turned around to look at Kurama, and found him grimacing at the floor. When Kazuma finally caught Kurama’s eyes, he saw the displeasure there. Kurama did not want to have this conversation... Kazuma understood perfectly well why.

But this conversation had to be had.
It could not be avoided if real danger was afoot (as Kazuma suspected it was).

“... We...” Kurama paused, looking away, “Witnessed a meeting.”

“A really disturbing meeting.” Kazuma muttered.

“Between whom?” Mukuro asked, but the tension in her voice made it clear that she already had a suspicion as to whom.

Kurama looked at the floor.
“Hiei... and the bandit in question.” Kurama finally answered.

Mukuro seethed, crossing her arms over her chest. She snorted softly once or twice, before finally speaking once more. Her tone was nasty now, dark with anger.

“I see." She sneered softly, “So he did find him.”

“He didn’t kill him." Kazuma admitted.

“Any particular reason why?” Mukuro glowered.

“Because he is incompetent-“ Kirin grumbled.

“No!” Kazuma cut Kirin off at once. “It’s-“

“Dropping his sword like that when he was standing between Mukuro and the bandit was tantamount to foolishness-“ Kirin warned, but Kazuma knew that Hiei would never have dropped his sword unless he was truly and deeply disturbed. It was not an act of momentary foolishness! It was an act of shock!

“That man is aware of Hiei.” Kurama spoke up, defending Hiei in HIei’s absence as best friends were wont to do, “They have known each other before; I believe he was compromised when he saw him. That he was not prepared to deal with the anxiety that followed the meeting. He no doubt thought the bandit dead; seeing him alive must have been disturbing on many levels-“

“Such occurrences are not uncommon in this land, have you been in human world so long that you’ve forgotten how demon world works?” Kirin snapped.

“I have not forgotten how demon world works, nor have I lost the ability to defend myself in it.” Kurama replied cooly, “Perhaps you’d like to ask Shigure about such concepts."

There was a moment of silence.

“... How did he know the bandit?” Shigure asked, looking at Kurama.

“I am unsure.” Kurama admitted, “But he knew him... and he was... deeply disturbed.”

“I see.”

Everyone turned to look at Mukuro as she spoke. She faced the map, looking at the blinking lights.

“Kirin, hone in on upper A class.” Mukuro ordered. Kirin once again hit buttons on the control panel, and after a moment of pause and searching seven yellow lights popped up at various places around the forest.

“Scan through them.” Mukuro ordered, “I’ll know his face when I see it.”

Kirin did so.

An image of a dark skinned demon with goat horns, a demoness with waving blonde hair, a demon with large protruding fangs and wings like a bat, a demon with dark eyes and long hair tied back-

“There.” Mukuro stopped Kirin before he could continue again.

There he was, murderous and bitter looking, his hulking frame towering over several smaller men who milled about him.

Kirin was running information, and didn’t seem too impressed with his readings.

“He’s not particularly powerful.” Kirin mused, “Shall I dispose of him?”

“No.” Mukuro said, “Hiei wil do it.”

“I do not see Hiei agreeing to such a plan.” Kurama warned.

“I do not see myself caring.” Mukuro said, and her tone was clear. She, like Hiei, would dig her heels in.

It was most inconvenient that as they spoke an energy signature flickered in the hallway. Mukuro’s head snapped around, her eyes blazing.

“Hiei!” She barked, her tone commanding and angry, “Get in here.”

Slowly, rudely, Hiei approached. His soft footfalls echoed about the chamber as he came into the control panel. When he stepped into the room and saw Shigure in the corner, Hiei gave him the briefest, the tiniest, of nods. Shigure nodded back, bowing his head. Hiei glared at Mukuro, Kirin, Kazuma, and Kurama.... His lip was already curled in clear irritation.

“What do you want?” Hiei grumbled.

“You failed to kill the bandit twice the other night.” Mukuro snapped, her violet eye boring into Hiei’s paling face, “We’ve marked his energy, he’s easy enough tot find. Travel now and dispose of him so that we can be rid of this nonsense.”

“I will do as I please.” Hiei snarled, his jaw jumping as he began to grow violently angry. Kazuma could hear the shake in Hiei’s voice, could see the wild emotional distress within him that was threatning to spill out at any moment.

“You will do as your told-“ Kirin back lashed, quite furious with Hiei at downright disobeying Mukuro in front of him when he was her second in command.

“You will keep the fuck out of my business-!” Hiei shouted at Kirin, and Kirin immediately came around Mukuro to stand between them in a sharp imposing move. Instead of cowing, Hiei just got angrier, his power beginning to flicker about him as he balled his shaking fists.

“Your business was my business and if you hadn’t stuck your fucking nose in it, it would still be my business!” Kirin bent a little so that he and could lean over above Hiei. Hiei was shorter than Kirin by a foot but he didn’t give a damn, far too angry to care as he pushed back against Kirin’s energy. Nothing was visible yet, but the air was growing hot and thick; it was almost difficult to breath from the anger both fighters were putting out.

Behind Kirin, Mukuro watched alarmed.

“You are unfit to hold your position!” Kirin yelled.

“You are unfit to question my ability to hold my position!” Hiei yelled back, his face screwed up with a wild hate that could not be tamed nor explained.

“Are you insisting that I am a fool?!” Kirin demanded loudly.

“No!" Hiei sneered, and Kazuma knew that Hiei was about to be an absolute ass. It was evident in his voice and posture. Like a child he was going to fight and scream and put up the biggest fuss he could to hide his terror and pain until the very last second, “I am insisting that you are disgusting, low life, D class, worm that can only count to ten if he’s barefoot or wearing sandals-“

Kirin grabbed Hiei tight by the throat and slammed him into the wall.

At once, both Mukuro and Shigure made to separate them, with each taking and pulling Kirin off of Hiei even as Hiei blasted his energy out. Kazuma grabbed Kurama, pulling him behind himself in the prayer that any pain they might feel from Hiei’s energy would not touch Kurama. He felt no pain, oddly enough, but he did feel a terrible prickling heat like he was standing too close to a furnace.

“What in the hell is wrong with you?!” Mukuro demanded of Hiei, her voice loud and throbbing in the heated air. Hiei caught her eye, saw the anger there, and turned. He stormed out of the control room, making a bee line for the stairs; Mukuro’s violet eye was blazing, her nostrils flaring.

“Wait here-“ Mukuro said to Kirin, placing a hand lightly upon his chest. It was like cement, rooting Kirin to the spot as Mukuro ran out the door after Hiei. She looked absolutely livid.

Kazuma followed, knowing that a fight was imminent now. As bizarre as it was, he felt determined to protect Hiei, to explain to Mukuro the entire truth. He would not have Hiei hurt again; he would not hold Hiei’s broken body and know the woman he loved had done it to him.

Kurama was right behind him as they ran down the stair well, and the pair of them barely made it to the fourth floor when they found Mukuro grabbing Hiei tight by the back of the shirt and shoving him hard into the wall.

“Hiei!” She barked at him, allowing him no move to run or back talk, but Hiei was still fighting none the less. He struggled against her, writhing wildly till she was forced to let him go as he stumbled away.

“GET OFF ME!” Hiei snarled, eyes burning with hatred; the hate was not for Mukuro, and Kazuma prayed that Mukuro understood as much.

“What is wrong with you?!” Mukuro demanded, “What happened with that bandit-!?”

Mukuro knew. Kazuma let out a breath.

“That is none of your fucking business!” Hiei screamed, his voice wild and full of seething malice. Once again, Kazuma could see the child in Hiei, could see the absolute terror in his face.

“Your friends are under the impression that you know him!” Mukuro snarled. Hiei looked at Kazuma, his brow crinkling as his anger dropped to be replaced by honest confusion. Kazuma’s heart was pounding in his throat.

Hiei realized, and the noises he made were utterly distressful as he looked away with a hand over his mouth.

“... What did you hear.” Hiei demanded, his voice wavering for a moment. Kazuma could not answer, afraid that his budding relationship with Hiei would be crushed if he spoke. Kurama bit the bullet.

“From the time that you mentioned... mixed signals.” Kurama murmured. Hiei began to seethe, a wild noise bursting from his mouth as he slammed his hand into the wall of the bug. A chunk of wall blasted off, falling to himself in a sprinkling of broken stone.

“You are a fucking sneak!” hiei shouted at Kurama, who braced himself for each biting word as Hiei yelled at him, “Do you think I need you to hold my hand like a child, do you think I need you to help me out with my own agenda, Kurama?!” Hiei got in Kurama’s face, the pair of them suddenly chest to chest. Kurama held his ground, his eyes calm but cold as he looked down into Hiei’s blazing face.

“Not in all things, but in this, perhaps-“ Kurama said. Hiei sneered loudly.

“You can’t even help yourself, and you think that you have the fucking stones to take on my own-“ But Hiei broke off, unable to find a correct word to express his distress.

“Problem?” Kurama offered, “Is this a problem, Hiei? Is this man a problem?”

Hiei could not bear it, wrenching away from Kurama to go back to the wall if only to brace himself against it. Kazuma could see it so clearly, could see the child starting to crumple to his knees but Hiei was going to fight all the way down, bless him.

“God no wonder they put you in a psych ward you just run in circles when you’re not kept entertained!” Hiei snarled, not facing Kurama as he said it.

“That’s not a joke, Hiei, that was really scary-“ Kazuma blurted out, unable to help himself as he came to Kurama’s defense.

“And you-!” Hiei rounded on Kazuma, cutting him off at once with a finger in his face. Suddenly the lion’s jaws were upon him and there was no where to run, but Kazuma forced himself to see the child behind Hiei’s words, to see the child panicking and screaming for help even as Hiei shouted at the top of his lungs, “You, stumbling about, trying so hard to keep up in a world where you don’t belong-“

“Don’t try and act like the last few nights didn’t happen just because that bandit occurred, Hiei! I know you better now-“ Kazuma warned.

“You don’t know me!” Hiei screamed in his face, “You know nothing about me!"

“I know many things about you, and something I do not know is that you are really upset right now!” Kazuma shouted back; Hiei shouted, turning away to brace himself against the wall again. It was as if his knees were growing weak, as if he did not have the strength to stand on his own. “That guy fucked with your head, and hurt you, and you are running in circles so you’re blowing up on people like Kirin because you don’t like him, and Mukuro because you love her, and Kurama because you need him, and me!” Kazuma pointed to each person as he spoke, finally with his hands upon his chest, “Because we’ve been talking for the past nights and I’m more open to you now- you’re attacking people but all you’re really saying when you yell at people is ‘help me, save me from myself’. You think we can’t see that?! You think you’re so tough that we can’t see you dyin-“

Hiei turned, and like a wild cat pounced upon Kazuma.

In hindsight as he crashed to the floor and began defending himself from Hiei’s railing blows, he probably should have seen this coming or at least attempted to approach this subject with a bit more tact and grace. Then again, Hiei had been so wild, so hectic, that Kazuma had felt time was already out. He’d sprung the truth too soon too fast, and now Hiei was going to pound his face in instead of listen. But even as Kazuma grabbed at Hiei’s wrists and held on for dear life while Hiei’s clawed hands tried to reach his face, he heard a shout:

“No!” Kurama yelled, grabbing Hiei by the back and yanking him off of Kazuma. Kurama was furious, blocking Hiei’s way from Kazuma as Kazuma staggered back to his feet. His hand was upon Kurama’s elbow, holding tight, the pair of them standing their ground together as Hiei shook with rage and braced himself against the wall. Kazuma could see HIei’s eyes glistening, roving about in his sockets like a mad dog. He was losing concentration now, so desperate to keep from feeling pain that he could not follow logical thought.

Hiei, you know I’m right.” Kazuma spoke up from behind Kurama, determined to push through before it’s too late, “You know I’m telling you the truth. I’m gonna need you to take a second and look deep inside of yourself-“

“I’m gonna need you to take a second and look deep inside your ass-“ Hiei mimicked his voice, in a childish and sneering way, not truly even listening any more as he looked anywhere but at them.

“I think we’d both see the same thing, Hiei.” Kazuma snapped.

Hiei flinched, visibly, and Kazuma mentally cursed himself at once for falling back into the habit of using painful words to get through to Hiei. That was not going to help him at all in this situation, and Hiei’s soul was not shit.

“Fuck I shouldn’t have said that.” Kazuma grumbled around, “That was stupid, I’m so-“

“You think I give a shit about what you say?!” Hiei shouted, though he still would not look at Kazuma, “You think your words can actually hurt me?!”

“Yes I do.” Kazuma said, and Hiei flinched again, “And I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean to. I was angry because I could tell that this guy... this asshole bandit... I can tell he’s the one that hurt you as a kid.”

Hiei closed his eyes, trembling.

“I can tell.” Kazuma staggered on, unable to quit telling the truth when the pain was so great in the air, when the truth was the only way out of this hellish hole. “That was him. That had to be him. Cause when he tried to touch you, you jumped and told him to stop, and when he tried to say he was sorry he spoke about when you were a child-!”

“SHUTTUP!” Hiei screamed.

He was desperate. He had reached the end of his own rope.

“You don’t know... what you’re saying.” Hiei stuttered, so emotional and angry he could not form a fluent sentence without pause, “You’re so fucking stupid you don’t understand a mundane conversation between strangers-!”

“And yet your the one breaking down.” Kazuma pushed forward, “Because it wasn’t a mundane conversation between two strangers, it was emotional sabotage between a shitty parent and an abused ch-“

Hiei had had enough. He yanked out his sword, and in the blink of an eye pointed it at Kazuma. There, facing Kazuma dead on and looking into his eyes, Hiei’s pain and anguish became so very clear.

Kazuma’s words had broken his resolve, his will to hide. His desire for no one to know that he was struggling to even breath, to exist without screaming.

“... The only reason you are a-alive is because I find your stupidity...mildly... amusing.” Hiei said, his voice dead. “That is the reason I have indulged you, do not... entail yourself in whimsical nonsense. That I actually care about you, or what you think. Because I don’t. I don’t care what any of you think. I never have, and I never will.”

But his tone never shifted, his eyes never lit, and Kazuma knew that HIei was only trying to gain distance at this point. To hurt Kazuma so that Kazuma would leave him alone and stop making him feel.

“... Thanks Hiei.” Kazuma said coldly, not caring that there was a blade dangerously close to his neck, “If you’re trying to hurt us, then you’re succeeding... but not for the reasons you think.”

Hiei’s words hadn’t hurt him at all... but his need to hide certainly had.

“So long as I get you off my ass, I don’t care how I hurt you.” Hiei said.

After a moment Hiei sheathed his sword. Kazuma saw his hand shake violently on the hilt for a moment.

“I’ll do what it takes to keep my distance.” Hiei said.

“That’s the first honest thing you’ve said in this conversation.” Kazuma said, for he knew with every fiber of his being that Hiei was going to run and run until there was no where left to run in order to avoid his pain.

That fucking bandit had taught him to run, and so he was going to run.

Hiei was looking beyond them, and Kazuma looked to see Mukuro glaring at Hiei with utter disgust. It was as if they did not know each other, as if they were not lovers and companions.

“... You disgust me.” Mukuro muttered nastily; her words hit Hiei like a sack of bricks, and he flinched visibly again. His eyes were misting, “Treating your friends like trash. Get out and fix your fucking problem. Don’t come back until you do.”

She turned, walked to the door that lead to the hall of their bedroom, and walked through it slamming it closed.

Hiei seized at his neck, as if he couldn’t breath, but Kazuma could see him clutching and knew that he was touching the stone on its chord.

Hiei turned, heading for the stair well to the lower levels.

Kazuma took a step forward but Kurama stopped him with a hand on his chest, watching Hiei warily.

Hiei had stopped at the door, his expression screwed up with visible pain.

“... Take care of her.” Was all he said.

He wrenched the door of the stairs open, and was through it before either of them could respond.

In the silence that followed Hiei’s fading footsteps, Kazuma reached out and touched the spot on the wall where Hiei had punched it.

There was blood on the stone.

 

After Hiei left, Kazuma felt compelled to go to Mukuro and to ensure that she was alright. Kurama was much more pensive than he, and once again Kazuma found himself staring down the barrel of an invisible shotgun that everyone else swore was loaded. Unable to ignore Mukuro after Hiei’s single plea for her well being, Kazuma went to her chambers and found her slumped upon her bed in deep brooding thought. He sat in a chair by her bed, Kurama nervously flitting about before settling down in his chair’s twin, and the pair of them kept silent watch as the minutes ticked by into hours.

When Mukuro finally spoke, she seemed calm but... vengeful. A strange, weird quiet that boded ill to the man who spoke poorly.

“Tell me everything.” She said, and her eye found Kazuma’s face, “Tell me what was said during the meeting.”

Kazuma thought back, catching Kurama’s eye from across the low coffee table that sat between them. Kurama had resigned himself to the downfall, unwilling to hide Hiei’s secrets when Hiei was out of control.

“When we first came up, Hiei said to him something like ‘you’re sending mixed signals’ and he said ‘Enki has requested for Mukuro to push back’... the bandit assumed ‘to keep the portals clear’ hiei agreed... the bandit mentioned he’d been watching us in camp. Hiei asked why he’d been watching. The bandit said that his men were out in the night and it wasn’t safe... Hiei told him he didn’t care, and that we could take on anything” Kazuma pointed to the three of them in a strangle triangle, “And then he said ‘I suppose you think that’s very ugly and cruel of me to say, I can be both’, which scared the fuck out of me. I’ve never heard hiei ever call himself ugly or cruel.”

“It was very strange.” Kurama said.

Kazuma nodded, “Then the bandit was like ‘how come you can do all this stuff like get a jagan and go into human world but you can’t turn around and face me on the porch’”

“They weren’t facing.”Kurama added in explanation as Mukuro raised her one good eyebrow in confusion, “The whole time, Hiei would not look at him.”

“And Hiei was like ‘I don’t fear the unknown’.” Kazuma muttered, “and the bandit asked ‘but you fear me’ and Hiei... said ... nothing.”

Kurama bowed his head, “He fears that man.”

“Which once again, scared me.” Kazuma said, for he would not lie about Hiei (especially to Mukuro), “Cause if HIei’s afraid of him, who knows what he can do.”

“Not necessarily.” Mukuro began, pondering, “He’s an upper A class, strong but not unbeatable. It’s not what he can do to us, it’s what he can do to hiei. It’s all personal. Emotional sabotage, as you said.” she nodded to Kazuma.

Kazuma felt slightly proud that she agreed with him. She, who knew Hiei best.

“The bandit was like ‘how did you know i was waiting for you’ and hiei said ‘because I know you’.” Kazuma continued on.

“Which lead me to believe they’d met before if Hiei was familiar with his habits.” Kurama offered.

“Then hiei said this really scary line. He said ‘when you try to kill me are you gonna use your sword or your hands’. Like... he didn’t care. He genuinely seemed to think this guy was gonna kill him.” Kazuma shuddered to himself, remembering the unnerving quiet in which Hiei had spoken.

“What did the bandit say?” Mukuro asked warily.

“He was like ‘why would you say that, why do you want me to kill you-‘ “ but Kazuma broke off, looking at Kurama as words failed him. It was difficult to remember the exact words the bandit had said, “What did he say?” he asked Kurama.

“Why would you ask for death when I want you live? Why would you get a jagan, why would you go to human world, when from the moment I cast you out I wanted nothing more than to take you back in again?’” Kurama offered. Kazuma nodded.

“Right... Cause he was saying that’s why he came to our camp. To ask him to come home.”

Mukuro bowed her head.

“He was saying that he’d been looking for hiei for ages, but couldn’t find him- I guess cause he was with us in human world. This whole border bullshit, it’s a plan. To get your attention and get him out there in the woods- which is where he is now!” Kazuma gestured to the door, suddenly quite angry with the whole situation. If they were smart, they ought to be out there finding Hiei and dragging his ass back to the bug where he was safe from emotionally manipulative pricks.

Mukuro raised her head.
There was darkness in her good eye.

“Hiei was raised by bandits.” Mukuro said. Kazuma winced, starting to put two and two together, “I’m almost certain that this man is one of them. They no doubt want to use his power now that he’s acquired it.”

“He tried to touch HIei.” Kazuma agreed, “He was saying shit like ‘I can hardly believe I’m seeing you’ and reached out, and put his hand on hiei’s shoulder and I’m telling you, Mukuro, Hiei panicked.”

“He put a great distance between them.” Kurama added with a sigh.

“And the bandit panicked.” Kazuma said, for the bandit had raised his hands in alarm as if he thought Hiei was going to strike him, “and was saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I just wanted to touch you so bad’ and Hiei put a hand up and he stopped talking but... it was really... unnerving.”

There was no better word for it.

“The conversation came to a very abrupt end when the bandit told hiei that the something wasn’t his fault. That Hiei had been young, and that it was the bandits fault. That the bandit had put a sword in hiei’s hands as a child, and that Hiei was only doing what he was told. That hiei was enthusiastic, but what child wouldn’t have been. That children play...” Kurama shook his head, looking down for a moment before he continued on, “Hiei walked off, and told him ‘I was not playing’. That was the end of it.”

Mukuro looked away from the pair of them, and she seemed to be dwelling in a great deal of sadness as she thought. It was like she was swimming in an ocean of blackness, her eye swallowing up its color till the violet was gone and only ink remained.

For a long while, they sat in silence as she brooded.

“Hiei and I both were rather... vicious as children.” Mukuro whispered; she smiled at the word choice.

“Hiei slaughtered thousands, I millions. Hiei killed because he liked it, because the screams of his victims were his music box. I killed because I was... vengeful, and despised the world. I wanted to watch it burn.”

Mukuro looked at them, and her eyes were just as dead and hollow as Hiei’s had been out in the hallway. It was as if she was empty from her own body, her soul somewhere else as she spoke.

“Hiei’s mother’s stone... gave him great peace, and clarity. that stone was his only token of her love, it gave him peace. protection. comfort in the dark. He wore it openly as a child. He tempted the greedy and the vain to try and take it... and then he destroyed them. The bandits could not control him so they cast him out. He lost his necklace, oddly... I found it.” Mukuro smiled again.

She reached own and touched her bare neck where the scars of acid met smooth tan flesh.

“The same river it fell in was the same river I fell in.” She mused aloud, “Strange, no...?”

“Fate.” Kazuma offered, for as she spoke tiny pieces of Hiei’s past fell together, clinking like a puzzle in Kazuma’s mind.

“I wore that necklace for many years." She said, her voice hollow and throaty, “I wore it until the day that I watched Hiei fight Shigure in my basement... until Hiei killed himself in front of me.” She stopped, smiled, then continued on.

“He told me everything, in his subconscious. His entire life story, laid out before me. He held nothing back... every detail every drop of pain... every exquisite bout of agony. Afterwards I revealed myself to him, and shared my story in turn... and gave the necklace to him. He has never taken it off since.” Mukuro looked at them.

Then, she said the two most important sentences Kazuma had ever heard in regards to Hiei.

“... He needs that necklace.” She whispered, “And he was not playing. The bandit knows that.... and he... he will try and take that necklace if he can.”

Kazuma looked at Mukuro, and saw in her face all the pain that had been on Hiei’s. The fear of losing a lover, the hollow sting of known loneliness, the bitter burn of a past you couldn’t shake. The hatred for men already dead, for men beyond your reach.

Hiei was out there, somewhere in the woods, running around with a dangerous bandit that wanted his necklace.

Kazuma rose up, and headed for the door.

“No he won’t.” Kazuma muttered aloud.

“Where are you going?” Kurama asked.

“You know where I’m going.” Kazuma said. he reached out and took the door knob in hand but was surprised when he found a pale hand upon it waiting for him. He looked up to see Kurama; when had he moved from his chair? Kurama looked at him imploringly.

The pair of them had come to demon world to be healed, now they were doing the healing. When had their roles changed?

“Kazuma, that is not safe-“ Kurama murmured, “Hiei is very upset right now and this bandit is doubt well surrounded-“

“You know what’s not safe, baby?” Kazuma replied, seeing the beginnings of fear in Kurama’s eyes, “letting a guy as good and loving and afraid as Hiei be embraced by a conniving manipulative asshole. That’s not safe. And I’m gonna put a fucking stop to it. And you’re comin’ with me.”

Kurama was beginning to smile.

“Cause you’re awesome like that.” Kazuma murmured. He opened the door to the hall, and Kurama stepped out it.

“Where are you going?” Mukuro asked.

“To get your boyfriend back.” Kazuma replied.

He did not look behind him as he closed the door.

He would bring Hiei back to Mukuro; he would bring Hiei home.
It was as simple as that.

Chapter Text

When Kazuma and Kurama set off into the night, they did so in stealth and secrecy. Kurama masked his energy and Kazuma kept his as low as possible as they slipped from the valley into the base woods of the Norikura Mountain Range. At night, the woods were full of eyes and teeth, each passing tree limb like an outstretched hand in the dark that made Kazuma very grateful to have Kurama beside him. His hand was closed painfully tight into a fist, ready at any moment to form a spirit sword, and his eyes darted about in the black gloom trying to pick out an enemy before an enemy actually appeared. How could people sleep in the forest? How could they feel safe, feel protected, if they were by themselves or wounded? God forbid you be both, you wouldn’t make it till dawn!

Hiei’s energy was faint and issuing from a clearing in the woods. A large tree had fallen some time ago and moss was now growing up its trunk to create a massive boulder that Hiei stood upon looking up at the moon which was deep and red. When Kazuma saw elevated off the ground and in the moonlight, he thought of joining Hiei and apologizing to him for their argument in the hall. Yet Kurama kept him hidden in the underbrush of the wood, his eyes lock on a hulking black mass just out of sight where the moonlight did not reach. Kazuma could not feel energy well enough to know one from the other, but he could sense that someone was with Hiei in the dark. That someone was so close they could have reached out and touched him.

“Leave her.” That deep rumbling voice; it was the bandit from the mountain. Kazuma clenched his fist tight again, wishing he could just burst from the shadows and pound the bastards face in. As he saw Hiei now, flinching and feeble, there was no doubt in his mind that this bandit was someone who had raised Hiei.

Who had taught him to fear.

Hiei looked to the side where the man no doubt stood, and the shadow shifted as the bandit came into the moonlight. He stood way too close to Hiei, his hand upon Hiei’s shoulder in as if to show parental concern. Hiei was not jumping, was not screaming, but he seemed just as distressed as before. His face would fall into utter despair, only to jump and return to blank calm.

“... I’m not saying don’t came back, I’m not saying... never return.” The bandit offered, “but leave her, and come home with me.”

Hiei said nothing, looking back up at the moon. The bandit reached up and in a move that startled Kazuma tucked a small piece of black hair behind Hiei’s ear.

“She doesn’t understand you.” The bandit grumbled soothingly, “None of them do. They expect you to be some kind of ... savior, some kind of hero that protects the weak and the innocent. But there is no room for either in this world. You know this.”

But Kazuma knew different, for he’d seen Hiei cradle a human child in his arms and hand her to a loving and concerned guard that would bring her safely home. He’d watched Hiei fight and defend, calculate with Kurama on how to save the weak and the wounded.

“Everyone you save will die.” The bandit continued on.

Hiei made a noise, his breath audible as he swallowed and tried to find words. The bandit stole them from him as he continued to speak.

“Everyone you love with die.” The bandit said. Hiei shuddered.

“Nothing will stop that, Hiei.” The bandit warned him, once again tucking that piece of hair behind Hiei’s ear where it had fallen back out, “Nothing.”

Hiei’s expression just sank lower, growing more and more distressed as the bandit’s words weighed down on him. Hiei seemed to be having trouble breathing, and clutched at his throat again as he touched his mother’s stone. Now with the knowledge of Mukuro’s explanation, Kazuma knew Hiei was trying to stabilize him, to find strength in that stone to not panic and keep calm.

“Do you remember what happened to Haru, Hiei?” The bandit asked. Hiei turned, making a noise of slightest irritation. As he turned, he looked down and suddenly his eyes locked on Kazuma and Kurama’s faces in the shadows.

He’d seen them.

Hiei’s eyes widened noticeably; he took a step back and turned around only to run smack into the bandit who blocked off any chance of escape.

“Do you?” The bandit asked.

“Yes.” Hiei said, turning away from the bandit. He leapt off the log and the bandit followed. Hiei was moving, trying to keep them as far away from his conversation as possible. The bandit wouldn’t allow him to go far, stopping them movements with a hand on Hiei’s wrist.

“She died because she was stupid, and believed that goodness would protect her. Are you stupid, Hiei?”

Hiei growled a little, trying to jerk his hand away; his eyes unfortunately fell into the shadows again, desperate to get away from the bandit’s face, only to find Kazuma and Kurama again. He winced and looked away.

“No.” Hiei muttered.

“No.” The bandit murmured, and his tone was sickeningly kind though Kazuma doubted very much that he actually was kind.

The bandit reached out, and Kazuma was shocked when he cupped Hiei’s chin in his large and weathered hand. Hiei’s eyes flew open, he sucked in a breath looking anywhere but at the bandit. Hiei was riding a dangerous edge between having a hysterical breakdown and listening to this man if only to save face in front of Kazuma and Kurama. Before, when he’d thought himself alone, Hiei had shouted and raged at the man. Now, knowing that Kazuma and Kurama were watching, Hiei seemed afraid to do or say anything too out of the way... but the bandit was taking the silence to be acceptance, and was making great strides in that bizarre silence to fill Hiei with weird affection.

Hiei was trapped, the bandit’s hand cupping his face as if he were a child and not a man.

“You are incredibly smart.” The bandit murmured. Hiei scoffed, but the bandit would not allow him to look away, “You don’t believe in goodness, because you know it doesn’t exist. There is no right or wrong, no bad or good... all there is the the sword, and the man who holds it. The man who bleeds from it. You hold the sword.” and suddenly the hand holding’s wrist moved so that Hiei’s fingertips were touching the hilt of his katana.

The bandit cupped HIei’s fingers, forcing them to curl around the swords hilt.

“Because I taught you to be strong.... you are strong Hiei. You don’t need them. You don’t need any of them... but without a center, you’ll collapse. Every great warrior had a tribe, a family.” The bandit let go of HIei’s face, his fingers now dancing upon Hiei’s white scarf.

“And you never took off this scarf, did you?”

Kurama sucked in a breath beside Kazuma, and Kazuma could see Kurama’s beautiful green eyes were blazing with hate in the night. Kazuma knew a man named Gorobi had given Hiei the scarf, that Hiei considered it precious but never wanted to talk about Gorobi and had become very reclusive when his name was mentioned at the onsen. Now, with this man before Hiei, saying awful things with his hand cupping Hiei’s face, Kazuma could see clearly who the bandit was.

He was Gorobi. He could be no other.

Gorobi let go of Hiei, reaching into his own pocket to fish for something.

“Brought ya something.” Gorobi grumbled, “I saved it.” He pulled out a small bundle wrapped in stained red cloth, and undid it to reveal a necklace made of teeth, fur, and bone. Hiei made a noise of amazement, scoffing even as Gorobi held it up for him to see.

“I should have never taken this from you.” Gorobi said. He put it up to Hiei’s neck, and Hiei stiffened, no doubt un-eager to have Gorobi’s hand so close to a vital organ, yet as Gorobi let his fingers trail upon Hiei’s neck, he suddenly fell upon the chord that held Hiei’s mother’s stone.

“How about a trade?” Gorobi tried for a joke.

“No.” Kazuma said aloud, his voice soft in the dark as he exclaimed in horror, “No don’t do it Hiei.”

Kazuma had no way of knowing if Hiei heard him or not, but Kazuma was relieved when Hiei wrenched hard away from Gorobi and stormed a few paces so that there was a healthy distance between them. Gorobi was left holding the macabre necklace while Hiei clutched the stone, glaring at Gorobi in the moonlight with vindictive anger.

“You will never have this.” Hiei growled. “Ever.”

“I’m just joking.” Gorobi said with an easy smile though Kazuma was not fooled for a fucking heartbeat. Gorobi wanted that necklace.

Hiei did not relent, glaring malevolently.

“Kasai...” Gorobi soothed, “I’m joking. Relax.”

Kasai? Hiei seemed quite struck that Gorobi would call him such a name. Was it a pet name that he hadn’t heard in years? Kazuma couldn’t be sure, but suddenly Hei was quite still as Gorobi walked back up to him and put the necklace of teeth and fur around his neck.

“The stone is mine.” Hiei said, but his voice was weak.

“I know.” Gorobi murmured as he tied the clasp behind Hiei’s neck, “But so is this.” He finished and looked over Hiei’s shoulder to see how the necklace lay proudly atop the white scarf. In the moonlight each of the teeth gleamed like pearl. “After all you made it. Remember, had I to help you because you were so little that you couldn’t string the beads-“ Gorobi broke off in a chuckle. He reached out and tousled Hiei’s hair.

It was such a fatherly and loving move that it made Kazuma feel sick with rage.

“... You think about it, alright?” Gorobi murmured. “I’m gonna go back to camp; tomorrow morning we’re gonna make another move on the portals... I want you there with us.” Gorobi sighed, looking up at the moon.

“... If your mother were still alive she’d be happy to see us back together again.” Gorobi said.

“She wasn’t my mother.” Hiei growled, “And she hated you.”

Gorobi chuckled again, totally at ease despite the tension in Gorobi’s voice.

“Yeah well... you hate me too, right?” Gorobi offered with a loping grin. His dark eyes were like black sockets in the moonlight, hidden beneath a heavy furrowing brow.

Hiei looked away.

“... Do you hate me?” Gorobi asked.

Hiei did not answer, but it was answer enough.

Gorobi reached out and touched Hiei’s chin.

“... I missed you.” Gorobi said.

Hiei did not move, so lost within himself that it was possible he could not even feel Gorobi’s hand upon his face.

“... I need to think.” Hiei finally said, his voice hollow and flat.

“Sure.” Gorobi said, and he dropped his hand, “But hang to that necklace, okay?” His fingers ever so lightly trailed upon Hiei’s scarf. “And my scarf.” He said with a chuckle.

He turned and walked off into the night, leaving Hiei alone in the clearing. Hiei looked down at his neck and touched the necklace upon his chest.

He seemed rooted to the spot, weighed upon the ground by the necklace’s weight. In an angry movement Hiei wrenched the necklace off. Beads of bone and teeth scattered upon the grass as he threw the necklace down into the dark soil, but his hands never left the white scarf as he wrapped it tighter about his neck as if suddenly cold.

Kurama shifted in the dark.

“I’m following the man.” Kurama whispered to Kazuma as he took a step back, “You stay here and watch over Hiei-“

“Oh hell no!” Kazuma grumbled, still seething at the thought of the man trying to take Hiei’s stone away, “I’m coming with you!”

“Fine, but let’s hurry-“ Kurama said, stepping back off the path and beginning to make haste through the underbrush, “And keep your energy low!”

They followed Gorobi at a distance through the dark, walking along a faint trail of energy that Kazuma sensed Kurama was following (for he himself was lost) and as they walked farther and father into the wood the trees became larger, the ground more soft. They were going right into the very heart of the wood now, where the moonlight was utterly blocked out and the only light that could be seen was from a tiny campfire that grew in the distance.

Kurama made a bee line for the light, hiding in the elongated shadows of trees as he pulled Kazuma along in his wake. Kazuma followed in his expert footing, careful not to step on any twigs or rustle any fallen leaves as he walked. It was difficult for a man as strong and large as Kazuma to make much headway without giving himself away in the dark, but Kurama could blend right into the trees, could hide in even the faintest crack so that as they came upon the outskirts of a camp that was set into a dip on the forest floor, Kurama pressed them both up behind a large oak. He leapt with light grace, scaling the trees lower branches, and reached a hand down to offer Kazuma held up. With slight difficulty, Kazuma climbed up, shocked at Kurama’s strength as he was pulled into the lower most branch. They were hidden by leaves now, concealed in bizarre camouflage as the looked down upon a scene of ten or so men sitting around a camp fire. They were bandits, each of them wearing a necklace much like the one Hiei had been given by Gorobi; decked in fur, teeth, and bone, they were a truly macabre lot. Their faces were heavily tattooed, their hair stiff with blood and dirt as they warmed their hands and sat in somber silence. The remains of rabbit were burning in their fire, perhaps having been their shared dinner.

“I think the bandit is Gorobi.” Kazuma whispered.

“ I agree.” Kurama whispered back, “But wait for confirmation before assuming anything.”

The pair of them waited in silence.

A hulking shadow appeared on the edge of camp, and Gorobi stepped into the fire light. He was recognized at once, the other men turning and acknowledging him as they rose up from their fire and came to greet him. It was obvious that he was leader, and Gorobi cracked his thick muscled neck to relax by the campfire as the others rejoined him around the small blaze.

“Well?” A man asked, lithe with heavy scars upon his muscled chest.

“What’s he like?” Another asked, a young bandit with tattoos on his face.

“We’re nearly there boys..” Gorobi smiled, his voice soft and promising, “We’re nearly there.”

“You so sure, Gorobi?” The scarred man asked.

“Knew it.” Kazuma muttered in the tree. Beside him, Kurama squeezed his hand.

“He’s weak.” Gorobi said, “All I need is a little bit more time, and I’ll have the dragon a leash.”

Dragon on a leash-!? Kazuma’s heart began to pound wildly in his ears as his anger spiked. Dragon on a leash- what like Hiei was some kind of fucking animal to be tamed?!

“What about Mukuro?” The young one asked, “She’s gonna get real mad-“

A murmur ran around the camp.

“I know.” Gorobi assured them in gentle command, “But all we need to do is get him away from her. Then we can pounce. Just stay in the background, I’ll handle him... He won’t hurt me, and he won’t let her hurt me.” Gorobi seemed quite fucking certain about what Hiei would and would not do. “I know him well enough to say that if Hiei thinks that we’re not his friends even for one second, he’ll strike. We have to make sure he’s... content. Soothed. Wait for him to slip, then make our move. We can’t attack him while he’s nervous. I raised him to keep his guard up at all times, save for against me. That’s why I have to be the one to make the move. He’ll let me in.”

Every word Gorobi said was just making Kazuma madder and madder.
He’ll let me in- Wait for him to slip- it was a fucking trap! They were setting Hiei up!

“Gorobi, are you sure this can even work?” The scarred man said. Gorobi looked at him with a wry grin, malicious and cunning, “He’s even stronger than last time and he nearly killed us all then. The only reason we even lived past that day is-“

“Because he wouldn’t hurt his own father.” Gorobi finished. The scarred man nodded.

“That’s the interesting thing about Hiei; he didn’t know it but he loved me then. That’s why didn’t attack me. He was scared of losing me.” Gorobi explained, “Now, he loves even more people. I’ve seen ‘em from the tournament. A team... and he’s got Mukuro. He’s in love with her for sure. That love has made him weak... more than enough opportunity to beat his ass.”

The men chuckled around the camp fire.

“I still can’t believe someone loves that asshole.” Another bandit spoke up bitterly. “I guess some people are desperate.”

Hiei kissing Mukuro, smiling into her mouth; a scene around a tiny noodle shop as Kazuma washed dishes-

“Kazuma!” Yukina cried out, “That is not nice to say. I like Hiei.”
“As do I” Yusuke said
“As do you-“ Kurama warned. “Hiei is your friend, your teammate, and will defend your back in a corner. If you doubt that, remember your struggle against Sensui-“

 

“Nah, he’s got a charm.” Gorobi assured him, “I should know I was taken in by it once. He’ll look at you with those big ol’ eyes and you’ll think ‘maybe you’re not a sack of shit’ for one second... “

Hiei’s eyes, wide and full of fear; Soft and calm in the middle of the night as he looked at Kazuma and opened his soul. Hiei’s face screwed up with pain and agony-

“Then he’ll turn around and burn down your camp!” The scarred man snapped.

“I know you’re bitter.” Gorobi warned the man, “And I know why. You’re gonna get your revenge, I promise you. Just let me get him away from that bionic bitch and you’ll have him all to yourself.... We can’t kill him until he’s away from Mukuro, until he thinks that we like him.”

All the hiding, all the anger, all the hating and fighting- an obvious reason now smacking Kazuma in the fast as his heart pounded painfully in his chest. Hiei had been terrified to trust people because he was afraid of being hurt, because of fuckers like these men below him who plotted and waited, who kept a knife under their pillow and stabbed you in your sleep-! It was cowardice, it was despicable, they weren’t real men! They made him sick!

“Imagine.” Gorobi murmured, “The power of the black dragon at our disposal. Enki won’t stand a chance. The king of demon world will be at our mercy, and demon world will be ours-“

Kazuma was shaking violently, his grip on the bark beneath him breaking as his hand ripped off a chunk of the wood.

“Kazuma, don’t-!” Kurama whispered, for the snapping sound was loud and would no doubt attract attention even in the middle of a forest where snapping wood was probably common.

“I’m getting revenge for HIei, I’m doin’ it!” Kazuma snarled. “He’s right, Hiei does love people and I’m not gonna let him make Hiei sorry for trusting us-!”

Kazuma jumped from the tree even as Kurama gasped out his name; mid fall he summoned his spirit sword with ease, his anger bursting from his hand as electricity suddenly pumped through his hand. God it felt good to see that glowing brilliant light in his palm! To know that he had what it took to make cretin’s like this pay!

He landed close to the camp fire and immediately took a fighting stance, his sword pointed at Gorobi’s dark and haunted face. The men scattered, backing away from Kazuma at once to form tight ranks around their leader. They were skilled, they were trained. They knew how to keep an enemy at bay when fighting in a group. Kazuma didn’t care about form or finesse. He just wanted to make them fucking pay.

“You fucking asshole!” Kazuma roared, “You think you can use my friend, that I’m just gonna lay down and let you walk all over him?! You think I don’t know who you are?!” Kazuma swung his sword wildly, the electricity crackling dangerously in the air, “You think I don’t know what you’ve been saying to Hiei. How you’ve been lying to him?!”

“Oh I see.” Gorobi rose up, rubbing his muscled hands together as he stepped out from the group to come around the camp fire. Kazuma’s sword was up, ready to fight-! Gorobi paced, his fingers wiggling as he leered at Kazuma.

“Look boys!” Gorobi taunted, “Proof of idiotic love, just like I said.” the other sneered, the man with scars on his neck was particularly incensed. “I had a feeling someone might stand in our way, and now you’ve finally turned up.”

Gorobi was still at ease, thinking Kazuma far from a threat when he smelled like a human. Kazuma suddenly remembered that demon’s ate humans, and he doubted that rabbit was very filling for a group of men.

He did not let his sudden slight fear show, still to fucking mad to care that he was in a group of cannibals that were probably gonna eat him if he fucked up. A whistling sound emitted through the clearing, and a shadow dropped down beside Kazuma- Kurama had leapt from the clearing, a rose in his hands.

“Gorobi.” Kurama said the name, “Who are you to Hiei.”

“Who am I?” Gobori asked in a mocking polite tone, “I am his father.” Gorobi said.

A sneer went around the group behind Gorobi.

“Hiei’s father has been dead for nearly one hundred years.” Kurama growled, stepping in front of Kazuma so that suddenly he was facing Gorobi full on. Gorobi was a manipulator, but Kurama was a mastermind, and Gorobi’s emotional sway would have no effect on Kurama who could shut himself down with ease.

Suddenly Kazuma could see how that kind of intellect was invaluable in demon world. Maybe this was why Kurama had learned to shut off his emotions.

“I will ask again, who are you to Hiei.” Kurama said.

“Well there are many different types of fathers.” Gorobi said, and it was with such a contemptuous tone that Kazuma had the urge to move Kurama aside if only to shove his sword down the bastard’s throat.

What was it in this minute he was thinking of his own father? Of Jiro’s sun glasses and the way he teased Shizuru about dating Yukina? Of how in his youth, Jiro had held him for hours as he worked in his studio, allowing Kazuma to nap in his lap as he worked on a new record deal. His leather jacket had been Kazuma’s blanket.

Kazuma didn’t know why that thought was with him now... but it was, and it was just making him madder.

“I have only known you for a matter of minutes, but I watched you interact with Hiei on two separate occasions, that was more than enough detail for me to decipher you were both close to him, and separate.” Kurama warned, “ Now, for the final time, I will ask you.” Kurama flicked his hand as his whip appeared in a burst of green light, coiling tight in his fingers. Each long poisonous thorn gleamed individually in the camp light. Several of the bandits were watching that whip now, no doubt aware of its power in Kurama’s hand. Many of them had pulled out their own weapons, swords, clubs, axes and shields. “Who are you to Hiei.”

Gorobi raised a heavily furrowed eyebrow.

“I’m his leader.” Gorobi growled, “I’m the one who found him, raised him, cared for him... and his allegiance rightfully is mine-“

“YOU DID WHAT ANY FUCKIN’ DECENT DEMON WOULD DO-!” Kazuma roared, stepping around Kurama with his sword back in Gorobi’s marred face, “THAT DOESN’T GIVE YOU THE RIGHT TO PUT A LEASH ON HIM! Those were your fuckin’ words!” Kazuma spat with venom, “You’re gonna use him!”

Gorobi glowered at Kazuma, his leer slipping into an obvious scowl.

“You’ve been tellin’ him that you care about him but you really just want him for his dragon! As soon as he gives you what you want you’re gonna kick him to the curb and let him flounder!” Kazuma roared.

“Oh no...” Gorobi said, and maliciousness of his voice unnerved Kazuma, “Not at all. As soon as he gives us what we want, I’m going to kill him.”

Kazuma’s mouth fell open a little.

“And you assume that we will allow you to do this.” Kurama said with cold conviction.

“No.” Gorobi shrugged, at ease in his murderous ways, “I assume I’m going to kill you too. Right here, right now.”

Kurama flicked his whip, letting the coils drop onto the ground. He gripped the handle tight with expert hands.

“I see.” Kurama scoffed softly, “A fine idea, if only it had the stomach to work.”

Gorobi reached to his hip and pulled out two long sharp machetes. They were dirty, and flecks of dried blood glinted on them in the camp light. One for each hand, they were a deadly set.

“You doubt my blades?” Gorobi warned.

“I doubt your brain.” Kurama sneered.

Gorobi let out a barking laugh and charged.

This had been the moment Kazuma was waiting for, the moment where his anger could at last have a fucking outlet, and he took Gorobi on at once despite how he initially charged for Kurama. Gorobi seemed slightly surprised when Kazuma leapt at him with a shout, his spirit sword slicing down hard as Gorobi brought his blades up in an ‘x’ to block the attack. He spun, and Kazuma made for a side swipe hoping to cut the bastard in two only to meet thin air. Gorobi was big but he was also fast, and he jumped over Kazuma’s swinging blade to try and cut his neck. Kazuma blocked the attack with his sword, and his energy exploded as it met Gorobi’s blades. The pair of them pushed back and forth, both muscled and strong, both large men with bulging frames that demanded attention in a fight to the death. Kazuma roared, kicking out, but Gorobi was ready for it and side swiped him. Angry, Kazuma brought his sword back around in a wild wide arch, and it crashed upon Gorobi’s blades in such an angle that he had no choice but to drop them from the force of the blow. Kazuma saw the opportunity and seized it, swinging him to kill Gorobi on the spot-! Gorobi’s arm guards blocked him, the metal making his sword crackle from the force. Now Gorobi was making to punch him, each of his blow charged with demonic energy, and the earth beneath Kazuma’s feet exploded as he leapt left and right. One wrong slip and he was going to be seriously fucked.

Kurama had taken on the rest of the group, his initial demand to Gorobi now taken over by Kazuma. His whip was merciless, slashing through men left and right, but one demon brought away to blow out a sharp high whistle into the night air, and suddenly other men were appearing around the clearing. The initial group of ten bandits was now close to eighty, with more men coming all the while even as Kurama swung, ducked, dove, and lashed out. Even as men fell to his whip, more men kept coming, and Kurama let out a shout of frustration as he jumped high into the air to avoid a direct onslaught. He spiraled through the air, his long legs twisting like an unfurling ribbon as he landed on the other side of the clearing and spun hard. His whip followed his body’s elegant movements, cutting through twelve men and bringing them down in a spray of blood and long tirade of pain filled screams.

But more men just kept coming.

Despite Kazuma’s blazing anger at Gorobi, despite his determination to bring the bastard to his knees, Kazuma was scared for Kurama and suddenly found himself abandoning his battle with Gorobi to leap over the camp fire and brace Kurama so that none could attack him from behind. They were back to back now, sword and whip out and pointing at a sea of enemies-!

But as Kazuma’s eyes searched the clearing for a way out or a way up into the trees where they might stand a better chance for victory, his gaze landed on Hiei.

He was standing on the outskirts of the camp, only just arriving to find a chaotic and bloody scene. He was panic stricken, his eyes wide with fear as he observed Kurama and Kazuma in danger with Gorobi leering and laughing.

“Hiei is your friend, your teammate, and will defend your back in a corner.” Kazuma heard Kurama’s voice in his head.

“HIEI!” Kazuma screamed out his name.

Gorobi looked over his shoulder to see Hiei on the outskirts of the clearing. Instead of looking afraid, Gorobi looked delighted and even gestured for Hiei to join him.

Hiei stumbled forward on uncertain feet, his eyes never leaving Kazuma’s sweating and straining face.

“Damn good timing you have there, Hiei.” Gorobi said, nodding to where Kazuma and Kurama were now surrounded by a swarm of angry and armed men, “We were about to have trouble there... they came into our camp and tried to kill us-“

“Kazuma-!” Kurama’s voice was loud in his ear, his back still pressed against Kurama’s own.

“I have to tell him, Kurama.” Kazuma blurted out, downright terrified to see Hiei so close to Gorobi when Kazuma knew Gorobi meant to kill Hiei.

It was almost like there was a blade already pressed to Hiei’s neck and only Kazuma could see it.

“Do it with care.” Kurama urged, “Please-“

“Hiei you know we saw the meeting between you two tonight!” Kazuma shouted over the heads of the men who pressed in on him, his sword still up and pointed, keeping them at bay, “We followed him back here, to see who he really was, to see if you could trust him. It’s a trap Hiei!” Kazuma begged, “It’s a trap, he’s- he’s using you! Because you absorbed the dragon! That’s the only reason why he’s even talking to you at all; he wants you to use your dragon to kill Enki, so that he can take over demon world. He’s gonna kill you Hiei!” Kazuma screamed it, praying to god Hiei would hear him, “He doesn’t care about you!”

Hiei stared, his eyes locked upon Kazuma’s face. Those strange almond eyes, usually so full of fear, were blank now while Kazuma was downright petrified. How queer that their roles were reversed in this pivotal moment.

“He’s lying.” Gorobi sneered at Kazuma, “They’re trying to keep you chained to them so that you can’t do what you want.”

“When have we ever kept you chained anywhere?!” Kazuma screamed, irate at the very notion, “When?! When have we ever not let you do as you wanted?! All this time we’ve been living in human world, we never forced you to associate with us or dragged you to places- we invited, we hoped, but we never chained! You know us Hiei! You know we wouldn’t do that to you!”

Hiei’s eyes were still blank, still upon his face.

“They’re weak and clutching at straws.” Gorobi said, his grin turning malicious, “They can be easily dispatched, don’t you think?” He looked down at Hiei for an answer, but Hiei gave him none.

“He said, his own words, ‘all we need is a bit more time, and we’ll have the dragon on the leash’. They were talking about you like you were some kind of animal!” Kazuma screamed, a momentary burst of anger making his spirit sword crackle with energy as it pulsed hot in his palm.

Hiei’s eyes still wouldn’t leave him. They were locked on him, searching for something.
But what?

“He’s lying-“ Gorobi tried.

“I’M NOT FUCKING LYING HIEI I WOULD NOT LIE ABOUT THIS! I WOULD NOT LIE TO YOU ABOUT THIS MAN IF I THOUGHT HE COULD GIVE YOU SOME PEACE!”

Hiei flinched.

“HE CANT’ GIVE YOU PEACE HIEI!” Kazuma shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice straining as every emotion poured out of him, “HE DOSN’T WANT YOU TO HAVE PEACE, HE WANTS YOU TO MAKE THE WORLD BURN SO THAT HE CAN RULE IT AND USE YOUR CORPSE FOR A THROW RUG!”

“That was a little too much.” Kurama muttered in his ear.

“I don’t care-“ Kazuma stumbled in his words, certain that his emotions were all showing upon his face as he kept his eyes locked on hiei’s.

Gorobi bent down to pick up one of his machetes, wiping it off on his pants leg. He didn't care, he felt certain that victory was in his grasp, that HIei was going to do whatever he wanted-!

“He said he knew that if you thought for one second he wasn’t your friend, you’d turn, once again, his words! He knows Hiei! He knows that you’re vulnerable to him! That’s why he’s using you-“ but Hiei was turning to Gorobi, watching as Gorobi sheathed his machetes.

Kazuma knew what he had to say, but god fucking damnit he didn’t want to. Still it exploded from his lips.

“THINK OF YOUR MOTHER!” Kazuma screamed at Hiei. Hiei’s face snapped back to him in an instant, “HE TRIED TO GRAB HER STONE HIEI! HE WANTS IT! HE WANTS YOUR MOTHER’S STONE! ARE YOU GONNA GIVE IT TO HIM?! ARE YOU!?”

Hiei’s face was starting to grow heavy with emotion again.

“Trust me...” Kazuma begged, heaving in exhaustion from keeping his spirit sword up, “Please Hiei, trust me.”

Hiei reached up to his neck, touching where the stone lay beneath his scarf.

“Mukuro said you need that stone...” Kazuma admitted, his voice breaking from the strain of screaming, “He tried to grab that stone. If you have to have motivation to do this, if it hurts too much to do it on your own, do it for your mother. Do it for her stone.”

Hiei made a face that Kazuma had never yet seen on him before; one of truest sorrow that bordered on weeping and made him weak with empathy.

“Do it to keep the peace yours... because you... you don’t deserve to not... have that peace. You don’t deserve to lose that stone again.”

Hiei closed his eyes, shaking his head in self disgust.

Gorobi put his hand on Hiei’s shoulder, and that was all it took.

Gorobi exploded into violent bright flames, only one second of terror showing upon his marred face as it was engulfed in wild black flames that caused him to at once fall to the ground.

Kazuma sucked in a breath, Kurama’s hand numbingly tight upon his arm.

Bandits were running now, tearing away from the group formation to vanish over the rise of the clearing, but suddenly their way off was blocked as black flames jetted up from the ground and cut off their escape route.

They turned, wild and desperate to escape Hiei, and ran to kill him in a group.

Hiei raised a hand, not even looking at them, and flames exploded from his arm to cut each man down. They fell, howling and screaming in agony, their flesh bubbling and hissing in an acrid smell of burnt skin as they writhed upon the forest floor, dying where they fell. Hiei was surrounded by flaming corpses, his face downcast- the flames were bright, cutting away the darkness so that no shadows could remain. Every twig upon the ground, every indention in the trees... all of it could be seen in striking detail as Hiei burned the clearing. The heat was palpable, and Kazuma sweated fiercely as he pulled Kurama to his chest. He defended him, holding Kurama tight against the flames even as they pressed in. The men were still screaming, still dying, and in that strange tiny hell Kazuma cupped Kurama’s head in his hand, his other hand tight around his waist with his spirit sword still out.

He could feel Kurama’s hands tightening upon his chest, sweat upon his brow making strands of red hair stick to his skin like little rivers of blood.

Kazuma kissed the top of his head, not even knowing why. Simply wanting Kurama to know that he was there, that all would be well, even as the screams of vanquished men rang in their ears.

Hiei was on his knees.
In the light of the flames, Kazuma could sees wet tracks upon his face. He did not know if they were of sweat or tears.
He supposed... it wasn’t really his business to know. Hiei was a private person.

The screams had stopped. The bandits were dead.

The flames holding the clearing in vanished, and they were plunged into horrible smoking darkness as the cold air of the night swooped in and soothed their scalding skin.

Kurama picked his head up from Kazuma’s chest, timidly looking around at Hiei. When he saw that they were alone in a sea of corpses, he flicked his whip and it vanished in a puff of acrid green smoke. Kazuma dissipated his spirit sword, his palm numb after having energy fly through it.

The pair of them had no idea what to do save to walk over to Hiei and ensure he was alright. Such a display of power, burning and fierce, had probably drained Hiei. Yet as they came upon him, they found that his hand was ever so gently touched the charred black corpse of Gorobi.

Hiei was not moving, catatonic in the aftermath of his rage.

Kazuma squatted down, unsure if he was ready to handle the sight of Hiei with tears on his face. Mercifully Hiei seemed quiet blank, neither crying nor raging as his fingers groped for his mother’s stone beneath his scarf.

He grew tired of the fabric being in the way and pulled it from his neck so that it fell down upon Gorobi’s corpse. It began to turn black and red with blood and charred skin. The stone was visible now in the moonlight.

Hiei touched it, his fingers sliding across that smooth gem; he still did not speak.

“... I think Keiko’s scarf suits you better." Kurama said to Hiei. Kazuma rose back up, putting a hand comfortingly upon Kurama’s back.
Hiei did not reply.

Kazuma did not know what to say to him, save what he truly wanted to say... though he was unsure if Hiei was ready to hear it yet.

“Come on man,” Kazuma mumbled, reaching down tentatively with a hand.

For a minute he did not think that Hiei would take his hand. That Hiei would stand up on his own, and his hand would go unanswered.

But then, Hiei reached out, and with trembling fingers took Kazuma’s grip in his own. Kazuma could still feel the heat pooling in Hiei’s hands, the power behind this digits as he pulled Hiei to his feet, but he knew that Hiei would never hurt them. That their death would never come from Hiei’s hands.

Hiei was his friend and teammate. His brother. Hiei could be trusted in all things.

“... Let’s go back to the bug. Mukuro’s really worried about you.” Kazuma said, but as he said her name Hiei jerked his hand out of Kazuma’s grip and made an angry ugly noise. He took a few steps back, and suddenly he was far too close to a tree for the tree’s own good.

“FUCK!” Hiei screamed in sudden frustration, punching the tree with all his might. Flames shot out from his fist, and the tree suddenly began to catch fire. Hiei did not care, ripping away from the tree to find another, and another! Each tree was starting to catch on fire, the heat returning as the mighty oaks groaned and swayed under the blaze. “FUCK-! FUCK!!” Hiei collapsed against a tree even as it burned, the flames unable to eat at his skin or clothes. It was almost like a barrier divided him from the burning wood, keeping his safe even as he threw his hands up to cover his face. His expression was contorted in rage and agony, every fiber of his being that of a man in distress... a man, lost.

Lost without the woman he loved.

“Look you made a mistake, it’s okay!” Kazuma urged, but Hiei was shaking his head. Kazuma took a few steps forward to Hiei, careful to mind the burning trees lest they begin to fall or lose limbs, “Go to her, tell her that you made a mistake, and you can fix this!”

“You certainly did not harm her for insidious reasons.” Kurama added in a gentle tone; Kazuma felt his fingers suddenly become entwined in Kurama’s own, and he squeezed them carefully, “She is aware of how compromised you are. That is why she is worried.”

“Right!” Kazuma joined in, “She’s not mad at you; she’s just worried.”

Hiei looked away; a breeze blew between the trees and embers drifted through the air dancing like fireflies.

“It’s okay Hiei.” Kazuma murmured, “Your head was bein’ screwed with.”

It certainly was an honest remark.

Hiei sighed heavily, lifting away from the tree. He walked away so that Kazuma and Kurama followed him at once. Kazuma knew instinctually that Hiei was heading for the bug, because if he had been in HIei’s shoes and had been screwed around with by an abusive father figure, he had a feeling he’d been running to Kurama for comfort too. The walk out of the woods was just as dark and dangerous as the walk in, but Hiei was a strong figure upon the path and none dared to cross them as they made their way through the winding oaks and pines. As the trees grew smaller and the ground beneath them more trodden on, they suddenly stepped out of the wood to emerge back into the valley. The bug was ahead of them, its windows glowing in the dark, and Hiei made a beeline for it.

With each step, Kazuma felt a little more certain that things were going to turn out right. That Mukuro was going to see Hiei and be fucking relieved. God, he knew he would be if he was in her shoes. He had a feeling they all looked like hell as they took the lift back up. Each of them was sweaty, dirty, and covered in blood. Hiei in particular was terrifying with his skin almost black from soot and ash. When the lift stopped and they emerged on the first level of the bug, Kazuma was slightly humored to find Kirin looking at them with great concern.

Hiei walked right past him, saying nothing.

“There a reason half the forest is on fire?” Kirin called out to HIei.

“Assholes had to die.” Kazuma said as he walked past, still holding tight to Kurama’s hand.

Kirin watched them go, only to give a little shrug as they made their way to the stairs.

“Fine enough.” Kirin mused to himself.

 

The fourth floor was quiet and bare, the only disturbance found in the chunk of wall Hiei had punched loose. They entered the side hall where Mukuro kept her quarters, and as Hiei took step after step towards her door his gate slowed only to stop.

It was as if he did not have the courage to continue, but Kazuma knew Hiei to be a brave man. He just needed a friendly reminder all would be well.

Kazuma reached out and took the door in hand, opening it wide to find Mukuro upon her bed, deep in thought.

She looked up, her one good eye widening slightly as she saw them.

A minute passed, and Hiei did nothing. When he took a slight step in, a tiny and timid movement, Kazuma stepped back so that Hiei was the only one to enter Mukuro’s room. Kurama gently pulled Kazuma away from the door, but they were still close enough to witness the scene as Mukuro slipped off her bed.

“... Did you have fun out there, Hiei?” Mukuro asked, no doubt slightly taken aback by the grimy state Hiei was in.

“... I killed him.” Hiei answered, his voice hoarse and heavy, “He was... compromising me. So I disposed of him.”

Mukuro was directly before him now, the pair of them looking into one another’s eyes utterly oblivious to anyone else that looked on.

“How was he compromising you?” Mukuro asked.

“...He...” Hiei seemed disturbed by his own words, “Was using our prior connection as a means for loyalty claim. I was... unsettled by it.”

He looked way, but Mukuro’s good hand came up to touch his cheek. She smoothed the ash and dirt there, finding the bronzed skin beneath.

“.... You look like hell.” She whispered, “And you smell like a fire.”

Hiei would not look at her, his eyes roaming any where else to avoid her face.

“Why won’t you look at me.” Mukuro asked. Hiei immediately looked at her, perhaps wanting to silently assure her that he was not angry at her or avoiding her out of spite.

Hiei looked away again.

“... What’s wrong?” Mukuro asked. “What did he say to you?”

“I’m fine.” Hiei grumbled, but the truth could not have been further from. He let out a bitter, short laugh that was more of a gasp of pain than a comical admission, “He just- wanted me to leave you-“

But even as he said it, it became obvious how deeply disturbing such a sentence had been for Hiei to hear. Mukuro pressed her face into his, their noses side by side as their foreheads touched.

“... I-“ Hiei snorted softly, “He knew if I...”

“Sh.” She would not let him continue, her fingers loving and sweet upon his cheek, she stroked the skin there, cutting through the ash and blood. “You’re certain he’s dead?”

“Yes.” Hiei said.

“And the others?"

“None survived.”

“Good.” She said, and turned her face ever so slightly so let her lips grazed against Hiei’s jaw. It was not a kiss so much as it was an embrace... one of the strangest Kazuma had ever seen.

Yet she stepped back, her hand slipping to take Hiei’s own. She was pulling him away further into the room toward a door near the back that Kazuma had never gone past before. Hiei would walk a few paces only to stop, as if unsure of whether to follow or not.

Mukuro tugged at his hand.

“Quit beating your self up.” She teased softly. Hiei snorted.

She pulled him to the door and the pair of them slipped through it to vanish from sight.

 

In the silence of the hallway, Kazuma looked down at Kurama.

“Where do you think they’re going?” Kazuma wondered as he pulled Mukuro’s door closed.

“Honestly?” Kurama murmured, looking down before glancing up at Kazuma; his cheeks were pink. “To make love.”

“Well then.” Kazuma flushed, not entirely happy about having that image flooding his head. Yet Kurama was still looking at him, his hand still in Kazuma’s own as his cheeks grew hotter in a spreading blush.

Kazuma could feel Kurama’s heart beginning to beat faster in his pulse.

“What?” Kazuma asked, smiling at Kurama.

Kurama reached up, and gently touched his cheek much in the same way that Mukuro had touched Hiei. His fingers, so loving and smooth, made sparks dance beneath Kazuma’s skin.

“... Come with me.” Kurama whispered.

He pulled Kazuma to the door of their bedroom, opening it and slipping inside.

Chapter Text

He followed her touch simply because it was the only touch he could follow.

She knew it would not surprise him that she was pulling him into their bathroom when he looked like absolute hell, but Mukuro was wary of him as she shut the bathroom door and observed him for a moment, pressed up against the inner wall. He was dazed, lost even within himself, and she worried that the words of the bandits were in his mind, poisoning his peace.

She would not have it.

She turned on the shower, testing its spray for warmth, and the ash upon her fingers dripped clean to reveal tanned skin again as she turned around and found Hiei right where she’d left him.

She trailed her fingers upon his bare neck, noting that his scarf was gone.

“Where’s your scarf.” Mukuro asked softly as she helped him to pull his shirt over his head. Bare chested, with only his mother’s stone around his neck, Hiei was silent for a moment until Mukuro ran her fingers over his collar bone. Her touch sparked him back to life.

“I left it.” Hiei muttered at last, catching her eyes momentarily before looked away, “It was his. I have another one I’ll wear from now on. It’s red.”

“I like red on you.” Mukuro said, allowing her hand to trail slowly down to the many belts of his black pants, “It’s a good color.”

Hiei nodded, saying nothing as Mukuro let go of him for a moment to pull off her own shirt. Her skin was cooled in the air, even as mist from the shower swirled through the air and began to haze the bare lighting of their small sanctuary. This room had seen them in many fashions, bloodied and barely in need of a bath... weary and delighted... angry and utterly in love. They had made love on all of its surfaces, covering it with their connection till the tiles were not tiles but the walls of a private heaven that none could breech.

This was their place to be.

Mukuro unbuckled his trousers, pulling at the white lengths till they fell away; Hiei’s hips were so narrow, the bones of his pelvis jutting... his hands were upon her pants, pulling at their button with expert hands. He had done this dance far too many times with her to slip up now. His trembling now came only from his shaken nerves. His confidence was rocked.

Mukuro understood the feeling; she too had been emotionally compromised by a man before. She was resolved to sooth every frayed bone in his body, to lull him just as Hiei had lulled her in the past. To rock into him until he forgot about the world outside their tiles. To kiss him till his lips could no longer form stinging words of pain or moans of agony.

Nude before one another, their hands did not stray in a wild groping fashion. Hiei toed out of his boots, his bare feet leaving slightly dirty prints upon the floor as Mukuro pulled him into the shower. He was utterly filthy... and that needed to change. He would not be getting in their bed looking this way, and Mukuro fully intended to have him there that night.

The water hit Hiei, suddenly turning black as the soot, ash, and blood washed away from his face and chest.

“There’s no need.” Hiei grumbled, but Mukuro ran her fingers over him anyways, picking up a damn rag to aid in her cleaning quest. It was like she was unwrapping a present, with each wave of water washing away more of Hiei’s dirt to reveal his dark skin.

“There is every need.” She replied, and when she looked up at him again she leaned in to kiss him under the spray. To kiss those lips, so very soft and sweet. Those lips that could be vile and harsh, spitting insults like shards of glass till the skin around them bled... but Mukuro knew better, knew that Hiei’s mouth was not a violent creature.

It could be, but that was not its base nature. It was a loving organ, one that brought pleasure when soothed and stroked.

Suddenly Hiei’s hands were upon her, cupping her shoulders only to slide down her back and feel her butt, her thighs... he brought his hands around, his fingers ghosting over her smooth stomach, the underside of the swell of her breast. It was as if he was mapping her with his hands, and he pushed her gently against the shower wall as he kissed her with more focus and zest.

“What are you doing?” She murmured into his mouth, sensing his urgency. She wanted to know every thought that ran through his mind, every momentary question that flitted through his eyes only to be swallowed up in silence.

“Seeing you.” Hiei replied against her skin as she let the rag drop. “To think that I... even for a moment... even for the slightest moment....” Hiei broke off, allowing her to kiss him deeply as she intended to pull the pain from him, to make him forget. Her stance was wide and he stood between her legs, her arms encircling him and pulling him in as she grabbed at his lower back and suckled sweetly upon his jaw. Hiei breathed heavy in her good ear.

“-Allowed him to deceive me. To forget your-“ but Mukuro never found out what the bandit had made Hiei momentarily forget. Instead, she reminded him of everything as she brought her hands up to his cheeks and kissed him passionately. Hiei groaned a little against her mouth, his hands upon the shower wall as he clenched them into fists. They dropped to her hips, to the swell of her backside that he clung to so tightly... as if he feared he would slip away and never feel her again.

“Dragon on a leash-“ Hiei muttered the words nastily into her mouth, a clear insult that had been thrown at him. Mukuro scoffed aloud. Dragon on a leash?

What utter nonsense.

“How can I forgive myself?” Hiei asked her, looking deep into her eyes. There, in his eyes, she saw all the love that she sought and took it with great greed.

“With ease.” She soothed. “Forgive and forget it.”

“Never.” Hiei kissed her neck and collar bone, each wet placement like the lighting of a candle upon an alter. All things that he did were with precision and care.

“Yes, forever.” She mumbled, her words momentarily lost upon her as she watched Hiei slip further and further down her body. He cupped her breast, placing a kiss upon it as her breath quickened in her chest. Hiei kissed his way down her stomach till he was kneeling before her, looking up at her from the ground with his lips parted and his eyes hooded.

Mukuro reached out and ran a hand from the soft peaks of his jet black hair, knowing full well that Hiei was no longer thinking about bandits or dragons on leashes.

Good.

He kissed her belly button and nuzzled her there, his face pressed flat against her stomach.

“I was a fucking fool-“ Hiei whispered into her skin.

“Shh...” She whispered; she would not allow Hiei to speak about himself in such a way. That was her job, damnit. She smiled, even as the comical thought crossed her mind.

Hiei pressed kiss after kiss till his lips were upon her sex, and Mukuro sucked in a breath as a sudden rise of feeling came from Hiei’s tongue sliding deep within her soft folds. Mukuro gripped his hair tighter as Hiei drank in her strength and lust, suckling her sweetly with that pleasure filled mouth. One of his hands was drifting to her folds, and she could not help but groan as a deep warm feeling took root within her belly; his finger slid within her slick folds, pumping deep as Mukuro hung onto his hair and his spare hand which was still upon her hip. She grabbed his hand, squeezing it as her pleasure grew deeper and stronger with each flick of Hiei’s tongue.

Hiei spread her legs better, trying to find a more honest purchase upon her. Who was she to disagree or fight? Tiny noises were slipping past her lips as her vision narrowed. Suddenly the world shrunk down to Hiei’s mouth and fingers, to the incredible strength within this man to take a beating with maniacal laughter and return it with gusto. This wild card who at times hated the world and every man in it... save for her.

All his love, all for her.

“Oh-!” Mukuro felt the sound slip past her lips as a second finger joined the first, pumping deep within her core, stroking her walls to pull her orgasm from her. He would not allow her to escape, he would demand her pleasure to peek; Hiei was nothing if not relentless.

Without warning Hiei nipped at her sensitive center, and Mukuro cried out as the sharp pain shot her orgasm to the surface. She rode it in waves, her thigh shaking momentarily as Hiei kept pumping his fingers, deep, smooth, strong...

She wanted him in that moment, wanted to feel him within her, wanted to take him within her till he had no choice but to shuttup and submit to her love.

Mukuro sank to her knees, and Hiei pulled back with a devious grin upon his lips as she grabbed him by the back of the head and kissed him hard on the mouth. She could taste a foreign tang on his tongue and knew it was her own scent; she reveled in it, in how it marked him for her.

She pushed him upon the floor of the shower, their bodies side by side with the water’s hot spray as Mukuro straddled his narrow hips and leaned over him. Her breast dragged against his skin, creating delicious friction as her nipple grew hard from the touch. Her folds were slick; she could feel the heat in his loins, the stiff length firmly pressed between her sex and his stomach.

Hiei kissed her again and again, breathing heavily against her skin as she took him in her hand. She reveled in the feel of his length, of that smooth soft skin so stiff with want and need. Hiei let his head roll back with a soft noise. She kissed his exposed neck, ever so gently dragging her canines across it till two thin welts appeared where her mouth had been.

“Take me.” Mukuro teased him softly as Hiei grabbed at the soft flesh of her hips and thighs.

“All that we do, we do together.” Hiei reminded her; she smiled into his mouth, charmed by him even as she felt his slick length pressing hot and tight to her center.

As he thrust up she pushed down, and the pair of them groaned together at the feeling of explosive warmth, of tight constricting heat, of bulging muscle that slid with delicious friction within her.

“Hiei-“ She said aloud, unable to stop herself. Hiei was pushing himself up, kissing her all over as she rocked her hips and allowed his mouth to travel all over her chest and neck.

She threw her head back, overcome with the poisonous pleasure that he drove within her.

“Forgive me... forgive me...” Hiei was mumbling into her skin, a prayer whispered before her alter as he thrust within her.

“Hush,” Mukuro groaned, rocking hard. Hiei gasped. “I love you and you know it.”

And so he did.

“Allow me.... to show...you...”Mukuro could barely speak as she began to ride him with true gusto, setting the pace for them in a movement of control that thrilled her endlessly. His length within her was hers to wield, his passion hers to bring out as she brought a hand to his face and watched him kiss her palm. Her thumb slipped between his lips and drug over his teeth.

He bit her, suckling her thumb sweetly before pulling back and biting the flesh of her palm. A pain jolted her and even as he kissed the bloody welt upon her hand Mukuro brought her hand back to slap him across the face. It was not a hard blow, not intended for pain, and Hiei laughed in spite of himself as her blood stained his cheek.

Mukuro was laughing too, she could not stop herself. Hiei brought his thrusts up with a burning passion, and as Mukuro began to sense a wave of pleasure starting to roll higher and higher within her Hiei reached back to slap her. The burning sting upon her skin delighted her. She wanted more.

Mukuro brought back her metal hand and cracked it hard across his face. Hiei gasped, a thin line of blood suddenly issuing from his lip at the blow- Mukuro swooped in and kissed his swollen lip lovingly.

She would make him enjoy this. She would force him to forgive himself. She would give him no choice.

She pushed him down till his back was flat along the shower bed, fully in control of their love making as she rocked deeper and harder against him.

“Let it go Hiei...” Mukuro burned, “Let it go...”

Hiei shook his head, his mouth open and trickling blood as he panted loud and hot.

“Whatever he said to you, whatever he did to you.” Mukuro groaned as his flesh pulsed within her, “Let it go."

He was close, she could feel it. His body, so proud and strong, was stiffening beneath each of her touches. His flesh within her was burning, its fire desperate to be quenched. She threw her head back, throwing her entire weight behind each rock of her hips.

He let go.

Mukuro heard him shout her name, felt his release pooling within her, hot and sweet, and as he began to pant exhaustedly Mukuro leaned over him.

He was lost within bliss, too far away to call out to. Still she stroked his face with her fingers, wanting him to know she was there. He closed his eyes at her touch, his breathing slowly beginning to even out. She rolled off of him. They were side by side, their legs and releases intermingled. Hiei’s lip was still swollen and slightly red from Mukuro’s blow, and she kissed it ever so sweetly in apology.

She kissed his neck, his face, his chest and shoulders. She kissed him where ever she could reach him, needing him deep within him even as his release cooled between her thighs. Needing his touch, needing his love.

Hiei gave her both, his arms around her and his face buried in her neck.

“Let it go...” She whispered, “Let it go my darling.”

She never called him such names; she did not know why she called him it now... it was a strange name for Hiei; he was no ones darling.

And yet... he could be darling to her. Darling when he held her in his sleep and buried his face in her neck as he did now. Darling in his impish grins and his mean little comments. Darling in his tiny moments of pause when he let the weight of the world sink in...

“Let it go...” She soothed into his jaw, sensing him tensing beneath her fingers.

“I was a fool-“ Hiei blurted out.
She could hear the emotion in his voice, could feel the drip and heat upon her neck, blood from his lip and burning shame in his cheeks.

“Yes.” She agreed softly, stroking his back lovingly, “But that is fine. We are fools at times.”

“... I love you.” Hiei whispered in her neck.

Mukuro pulled back, looking down as Hiei stared up into her face.

She ran her finger along the top of his cheek, circling his almond eyes.

“I love you. I love you.” Hiei said it again, and he suddenly kissed her powerfully upon the mouth. Mukuro could feel his tongue within her, his hands around her, and much like a burning flame needing release she smothered him in her arms.

“I love you too.” She kissed into his mouth.
And she did.

It was a little silly to pick themselves up off the shower floor after laying in one another’s arms for a few moments in order to actually bathe. Hiei did not like her shower, preferring the rivers that flowed nearby or waterfalls that dotted the mountains, but Mukuro made it worth is while as she washed his hair and ran soap upon his chiseled stomach and chest. It was not an exercise in getting clean so much as it was an act of touching one another, and when Mukuro finally turned off the shower Hiei looked quite back to normal save for his slightly swollen bottom lip.

“Come on.” Mukuro pulled him out; they dried one another and when Mukuro felt satisfied at last she opened the door to their bathroom timidly to peek her head outside.

She urged him towards their bed, though Hiei’s eyes kept wandering to his clothes on the floor. She shook her head, and he grinned to himself as he climbed back in bed to relax upon their pillows. He watched her lock the door to their bedroom (god forbid they get interrupted by their guests), and Mukuro smiled as Hiei held out a hand to her.

He knew what she wanted, but he was not yet privy to the final plot in her plan. The present she’d been eager to show him for some time (though the opportunity had not yet presented itself). She shook her head.

“Close your eyes." She said.

Hiei did so, looking thoroughly annoyed though he smiled.

“Whatever bullshit you’re about to pull-“ He warned softly.

“Shh.” Mukuro grinned to herself, opening the door of their wardrobe to find her prize nestled carefully beneath several boxes in the bottom; a crafty hiding notch to keep presents in when Hiei was in one of his more destructive moods. She pulled the box out, opening its lid and snickering softly at what she found inside.

Yes, she suppose Hiei had more than earned tonights entertainment by being an absolute asshole to Kirin earlier today.

Walking over to the bed she climbed upon it and set her purchase aside, toying with the bottle of oil in her hands.

She was going to thoroughly enjoy this.

“What are you doing?” Hiei grumbled as Mukuro pressed a kiss to the back of his neck.

“Trust me.” She murmured, “You’re going to like this. Lay down.”

She pushed him onto his stomach, and Hiei grumbled a little with his eyes still closed. She straddled him, pouring a slight bit of oil onto both her hands. She pressed her hands onto her back, rubbing smoothing circles deep and tight as Hiei groaned beneath her touch.

Her purchase was still hidden behind her. Hiei would not see it so long as he did not fully turn around. Mukuro held back another snicker, childlike in her delight as she massaged him lower and lower. Her thumbs pressed right into the base of his spine, and she grinned as she heard the bones pop audibly.

Hiei moaned in appreciation.

Mukuro hid another laugh, breathing slowly as her grin stayed firmly in place.

“Relax." She said, rubbing her oiled fingers together.

She pressed her touch lower, and was unsurprised when Hiei jolted a little beneath her fingers.

“What-“ He said but Mukuro leaned over and kissed the back of his neck, keeping him still.
Hiei’s heart was pounding. She could feel it with her lips pressed to his flesh as her finger teased him.

“Relax.” She said again, this time more playful.

“What are you doing?” Hiei said, and though there was no fear in his voice there certainly was apprehension. Mukuro could sympathize.

“Relax.” She chuckled again in his ear, teasing his entrance even as she kissed the flushed shell of his ear. Hiei was blushing furiously, now refusing to open his eyes as Mukuro began to push upon him.

“I want to try something.” Mukuro whispered, grinning into his ear. As her finger slipped within him, Hiei gasped, his blush darkening angrily. He kept his eyes firmly closed.

Mukuro kissed his upon the back of his neck and slowly sat back up, her natural hand slowly massaging Hiei’s lower back as her bionic hand pressed deeper within him. Hiei was shuddering, his body wracked with emotion and feeling as Mukuro dared to slip another finger. Hiei made a tiny noise, but Mukuro just kept massaging him, just kept loving him, ever attentive to the tiniest motions he made as he grew accustomed her touch. It seemed she’d baffled him, utterly throw him by this sudden introduction of new lovemaking.

Good. She liked it when she could make him shut up.

“This is- ridiculous-“ Hiei said, trying to sit up. Mukuro just moved with in, and Hiei made an angry noise of indignant anger as she suddenly found himself sitting in her lap even as she continued to pump her fingers within him.

“Is it.” She toyed in his ear. “I think you need to relax Hiei. I’m not going to bite you.”

She popped his thigh with her natural hand in emphasis. Hiei made another tiny noise of indignant anger.

“Just because you keep demanding I relax doesn’t mean I can-“ Hiei growled, trying to look over his shoulder at Mukuro. Mukuro forced his chin back around with her natural hand, grinning deviously. She would not have him see her surprise just yet.

“Face forward.” she said, stroking his inner walls lovingly.

“Are you ordering me?” Hiei whispered.

“I am." She teased, “Face forward.”

Hiei had no choice but to obey, he sat still in her grip.

Mukuro pushed him a little off her lap, reaching behind her even as another grin broke out upon her face. She slowly undid the buckles of the strap on, and as her fingers slid from Hiei, Hiei looked a little over his shoulder, unsure of what she wanted.

“Keep facing forward.” She warned softly, using both hands to buckle the strap on around her waist.

Poor Hiei; she really was about to rock his world... and he still had no idea.

Mukuro poured a generous amount of oil onto her hand, rubbing the leather lovingly till it shone beneath the sheen. She returned her hand to his center, slipping her finger back inside him and grinning as he gasped.

“Relax.” She said, noticing that his jaw was still quite stiff.

“Say that one more time with a finger in my ass, and I will let you have it.” Hiei growled in warning.

“No you won’t.” She grinned, “Not in a few seconds.”

At this, she pulled him to her, and Hiei finally felt the strap on against his back.

“Wha-!” Hiei looked over his shoulder at Mukuro and Mukuro could not help but bust out laughing at the look of incredulity upon his face, “Wait, what are you-?!”

“What are you so jumpy about?” She kissed his cheek sweetly, pumping her fingers faster till Hiei gasped; he was shaking, making ridiculous noises that could not be defined as she pushed him forward to slip the head of her strap on closer to his center.

Hiei made the tiniest noise, like a small animal being trampled on.

“Do you think I’d hurt you?” Mukuro murmured, sucking at the skin of his neck.

“I- I-“ but Hiei could say nothing as Mukuro pulled out her fingers and gently moved her strap on to the head of his entrance.

“You’re stuttering, Hiei.” Mukuro whispered into his ear, “Maybe you should give it up?”

And she slipped within him.
Hiei cried out loudly, gasping as he threw a hand over his mouth to clamp down firmly upon the noises he was making. Mukuro listen to every lilt. Every change in tone. It was the sweetest music she’d ever heard.

She moved slowly, unable to feel him tensing as he might have felt beneath her, but it was incredibly empowering to suddenly have their roles reversed... to touch Hiei in a way that he’d only touched her before now. To watch as Hiei shuddered over and over again as she slid deeper within him. Mukuro rubbed his leg with her bionic hand, massaging the tense muscles of his thigh.

She slid out a little bit, and a delight grin pushed hard back into him.

“Fucking hell woman-!” Hiei blurted out through his fingers.

Hiei could scream and cuss all he liked, Mukuro could see his member stiffening with need again as she pulled out once more and began to rock into him with a rhythm.

This was incredible, something that she selfishly wanted only reserved for her, something that she could keep forever as a secret; that she could bring one of demon world’s wildest warriors to his knees in such a way.

She rocked into him again and again, a rhythm established. She would gain no orgasm from this, but she hardly needed one to enjoy the act. This was for him, all for him. She wanted him to feel pleasure from her hands, to scream and cry out from her touch till his throat was raw and his cheeks were red. She wanted to fuck him; a greedy concept that disturbed her on a deeper level as she realized this act of power, this reversal of roles, was something she’d always wanted. Perhaps since her youth when she’d been raped.

Suddenly she was the one to call the shots, to fuck her partner. She wanted to fuck him good, to make him never forget her name.

Her grin only spread as she watched his hand fall away from his mouth. He clutched at her arm, then at the bed beneath them, his fists curling tightly as he gasped over and over again.
Mukuro reveled in it, going faster.

“Let me breathe-“ Hiei begged.
Mukuro would do no such thing.

But suddenly, she struck something within Hiei (or so it appeared) and he let out a string of filthy curse words, groaning loudly.

“Never mind, never mind, don’t let me breath, never mind.” Hiei begged in a rush. Mukuro laughed in spite of herself, fucking him now in a hard rhythm as she pushed him forward onto his hands and knees. She could control the pace better now, and angled her thrusts deep within him as Hiei cursed and cried out over and over again.

“Bitch-!” Hiei sobbed aloud after one particularly deep thrust.

‘You know you really shouldn’t call me mean names when I’m fucking you in the ass.” Mukuro growled into his ear. Hiei’s cheeks burned with embarrassment.

Let him be embarrassed, it would do him no good in the end.

Mukuro reached out, taking one of his hands in her own to bring it up to the apex of his thighs where his member slapped against his belly with each of her strokes. Hiei was pulling his hand away, knowing full well what she wanted but not daring to give it to her in his irritation and anger.

Only Hiei could be this stubborn while riding a strap on.

“Touch yourself.” Mukuro grinned into his ear.

“No-!” Hiei panted, barely able to issue the words as she pistoned her thrusts.

“Don’t be a tease.” Mukuro warned.

But Hiei was going to be a tease, and Mukuro understood that she would simply have to take matters into her own hands now. She stilled and pulled out of Hiei, reveling in the gasp he made, only to turn him over so that he was forced to lay against the bed while she leaned over him. She cupped the flesh of his calves, spreading his legs up and out, and Hiei looked anywhere but at her as she took him once more, pushing deep within his core.

Hiei swore, his eyes pinched shut.

She re established her rhythm, deep and hard; she pushed to the hilt, wanting every inch of the leather to be swallowed up within him. The sight was hypnotic to her, the dark leather vanishing only to re appear at her command. She could watch it forever.

Mukuro took one of Hiei’s hands in her own again, forcing it down even as she kissed him hard upon the mouth.

He struggled against her, but it was in vain. His fingers ghosted over his stiff wet flesh and he moaned into her mouth. He panted with each of her thrusts, a little puff of breath across her face in tandem with her rhythm.

“I know you know how to please yourself.” Mukuro whispered into his mouth, “Don’t you dare hold back.”

Hiei refused to look at her even as Mukuro watched him begin to touch himself, his eyes rolling back into his head as she pushed into him over and over again. It was too much stimulation, HIei could not take it, but Mukuro was not finished with him yet.

“Look at me.” She commanded.

“Not when you’re-“ Hiei tried to say, but Mukuro cut him off with a vivid thrust.

“Look. At. Me.” Her voice was dark and primal with need. Hiei slowly raised his eyes to her face; there, within his crimson gaze, all the arousal and need he’d not want her to see.

He liked it. She knew he would.

She kissed him hard on the mouth, fucking him with glee as Hiei stroked himself faster and faster; he couldn’t hold back now, not when she wouldn’t allow him to.

He threw his head back, shouting wildly as he reached the zenith of his pleasure. Mukuro watched, fascinated as his release suddenly appeared, slipping down his length and dripped between his fingers. Mukuro slowed herself, taking care not to be too forward or demanding (though in truth they’d crossed that line about fifteen minutes ago) as she watched him carefully for signs of pain.

Hiei’s eyes were closed, his lips lightly parted, his cheeks pink and shining in sweat.

Mukuro reached down between them and cupped his softening flesh in her hand, allowing her fingers to wet it in his release.

“Dragon on a leash, indeed.” She muttered. Hiei opened his eyes a little as she brought her finger up for him to see, pearly with his own release. He blushed fiercely.

“Why leash you, when you can run free and bring me home the most delightful of presents.” Mukuro mused aloud. She put her finger to his lips.

“Suck.” She commanded. Hiei made a face, utterly embarrassed but unable to get away as he irritably sucked her finger. It was a bizarre taboo, to taste his own release, but as Mukuro drew her finger clean from his warm wet mouth she tapped him sweetly upon the nose.

Hiei looked away, unable to meet her gaze as his cheeks grew redder and redder. It was obvious that he was exhausted however as his eyelids began to droop, his gaze slowly milking over as his breathing slowed.

Mukuro reached behind her to undo the buckle and ever so carefully pulled herself from Hiei’s tight heat. He winced, sucking in a slight breath, but Mukuro was kissing him lovingly, soothing away his pain even as she cast the toy aside

Mukuro caressed his cheek as he relaxed into the pillow, breathing slow.

She reached beneath them, pulling for the covers and finding them easily as she pushed them down and helped Hiei to climb beneath them. In the dim light of her bedroom, with the warmth of their blankets around them, Hiei was quickly slipping to sleep, unable to stay awake as Mukuro relaxed into the bed and pulled him sweetly to her side.

Hiei’s head fell upon her chest, his face pressed into her flesh as his arm curled around her.

“I lo’ you.” Hiei whispered, barely audible.

“i love you.” Mukuro whispered back, running her fingers sweetly over his jaw and through his hair.

Hiei was already asleep.

~*~

 

Kurama could not explain the deep throbbing heat within him as he pulled Kazuma into their bedroom and closed the door. Everything about him in that moment was eating away at Kurama’s resolve, from his chiseled abs to his gorgeous face, the blood and sweat upon his biceps and the heat between his thighs that Kurama could feel as he pressed Kazuma against the door only to lock it absent minded.

Kazuma saw him lock it and smiled at him.

“You saved my life, Kazuma.” Kurama said, for he knew in that moment as he looked upon Kazuma’s face that he was in some way back to normal. That he was in control, that he was... sane. For the first time in quite some time.

It was as if he could finally breath.

“Well, you saved mine.” Kazuma murmured. Such a charmer, Kurama could not help but blush, “I didn’t come alive till I... loved you.” Kurama smiled.

Yet as Kazuma reached to thread his fingers through Kurama’s chopped hair, his loving eyes grew dark for a moment as he touched the short lengths.

“When you....” Kazuma whispered, “I was .... so afraid.”

When you drank lye, I was so afraid.

Kurama looked down.

“If I had lost you that day, I would have lost myself.” Kazuma mused, cupping Kurama’s cheek sweetly in hand.

“Life goes on, Kazuma.” Kurama said, meeting his gaze, “I do not hold the balance in my hands.”

“Not for everyone else.” Kazuma agreed, “But for me?” They stared at one another for a moment, “You do. You really do.”

Kurama sighed. He did not want Kazuma to be so dependent upon his health and mental clarity when it seemed that both could be taken from him in a moment’s notice, and yet it seemed that Kazuma already was.

“It’s a choice, Kurama.” Kazuma said. Kurama looked up at him, intrigued, “I choose to give myself, my heart, my life. To you. I choose it.”

Kurama smiled, moved by Kazuma’s words.

“Why?” Kurama asked, unable to help himself as Kazuma wrapped his arms ever so gently about Kurama’s waist and held him close.

“Because...” Kazuma answered, “You’re my favorite person.”

“Still?”

“Always.”

Kurama reached up, wrapping his arms around Kazuma’s neck, and his lips burned as they touched Kazuma’s own. It had been so long since they’d kissed in such a way, so long since they’d held one another and made love-

Made love?

Kurama thought for a moment as Kazuma kissed him lovingly, deeply, each breath moving them closer and closer together.

“I would have never made it through without you.” Kurama whispered, “All this... All this is your doing. My sanity, my life... all yours.” Kazuma cut off his words, his kisses making Kurama weak at the knees.

“Don’t give me all the credit.” Kazuma grumbled into his neck, sucking the flesh there lovingly; always a weak spot.

“No.” Kurama pulled Kazuma’s face up, determined to have his words be heard; they stared at one another, “That day in the ER... you were there beside me. You held me. In my moment of need, in my moment of weakness... you saved me-“

“I couldn’t protect you.” Kazuma mumbled in shame.

“That is inconsequential.” Kurama shook his head, unwilling to let Kazuma speak poorly of himself, “You were there. You saved me. In that moment, you saved me.”

For a moment they simply stared at one another, their lips touching but neither of them making to kiss. Kazuma trailed his lips upon Kurama’s jaw, heading back for his neck... back for that weak spot.

“Make love to me.” Kurama felt the words tumble out of his mouth as Kazuma made to suck on his neck. Kazuma paused, pulling back, and they stared at one another intently for a moment as Kazuma registered his words.

Kazuma looked down at him, and Kurama nodded if only to further cement his words.

“Make love to me.” Kurama whispered again as he kissed Kazuma upon the mouth.

Kazuma grunted. “God yes.”

Suddenly, there was an utter frenzy between them, a desperation for skin and sweat, for sex and the salt of two bodies moving in harmony as Kurama yanked his shirt off over his head and Kazuma tugged upon the button of his jeans. Kurama was out of his mind with need, grabbing at Kazuma’s shirt and trying to pull it over his head. But Kazuma wouldn’t stop touching him, wouldn’t stop to put his hands over his head- Kurama would wait no longer, grabbing Kazuma’s shirt and ripping it clean in two.

Kazuma burst out laughing, kissing him feverishly as Kurama ran his hands over Kazuma’s bulging muscles, still cooled with sweat and ash from the prior battle. He felt his jeans slip from his hips and willingly let them fall as he tugged on Kazuma’s own. He toed off his tennis shoes, dirty with forest mud as he ran a hand down to cup Kazuma’s hard length in his hand.

Oh how he’d missed this, this beautiful intimacy between them as Kazuma groaned loudly into an open mouthed kiss.

Kazuma picked him up wrapping his arms tight beneath Kurama’s backside to lift him clean off the floor as he carried him over to the bed. It was such a protective motion, such a manly action, that Kurama could not help but blush as Kazuma sat him upon the mattress.

Kurama grabbed Kazuma by the hips, waisting absolutely no time as he pulled Kazuma onto the bed and lay down between his legs. He ran his tongue upon Kazuma’s length, uncaring for how ridiculous or whore-ish he might have looked as Kazuma let out a loud uncut groan. His hands were in Kurama’s short hair, but Kurama reached up to thread one of his own hands in Kazuma’s own as he sucked deeply. He reveled in the sore burn of his jaw muscle, in the thick muscle filling his mouth, pushing as far as he dared as Kazuma threw his head back and groaned again.

“Let me- let me touch- you-“ Kazuma was saying, and Kurama was surprised when Kazuma pulled Kurama up so that his length fell from Kurama’s willing lips. Kazuma was so eager to touch him, so eager to please him that he cared nothing for his own release, instead running his hands feverishly over Kurama’s skin. He squeezed his backside and cupped his own aroused flesh, reveling in its hardened heat as Kurama threw his head back and moaned.

He had not realized until now just how much he’d missed this, just how much he’d needed this touch... this strange secluded universe where only Kazuma’s body, so strong and so sweet, existed. Where only Kazuma could remain as he rocked Kurama into a blissful oblivion.

Kurama didn’t know what was happening, but suddenly a great deal of energy was slowly exploding from him like a balloon filling up with helium. He took deep drawing breathes, sucking in all the air he could, but the earth was calling out to him from their shoes on the floor and the seeds in the mud were begging for life.

Kazuma was laughing, “Oh wow...”

Kurama opened his eyes.

Vines, budding with tiny flowers, were creeping up like fingers reaching for the heavens around their bed, interlocking as they wove a cocoon. Kurama looked left and right, entranced by the leafy canopy now sealing them in, but as he did so he felt something heavy upon his shoulders and neck.

“Oh my god...” Kazuma whispered.

Suddenly there were hands in his hair- long, beautiful, dark red hair- and Kurama was rendered speechless as he realized that the power burst from within him had caused his chopped hair to grow back. He could not say why it was that his hair growing back moved him so deeply... perhaps it was because his chopped locks had been a bizarre outer reminder of his inner turmoil. As Kazuma threaded his hands through Kurama’s hair and kissed him passionately upon the mouth, Kurama felt utterly whole for the first time in so very long.

So very whole. And yet... aching internally, aching for a touch that only Kazuma could give him.

“It’s like we’re in a cocoon.” Kazuma’s voice rumbled in Kurama’s mouth, the roll of thunder deep in the blackest night. A motion that stirred a fire within so hot and so beautiful that nothing could put it out.

“Often when I’m with you, when you’re hands are on me.” Kurama whispered breathlessly as Kazuma’s hands roamed all over his hypersensitive flesh, “...I often feel this way.”

Kazuma took the flesh of Kurama’s hips and squeezed, so hard and so deliciously perfect that Kurama could not help but groan as his hands ghosted over Kazuma’s member.

“Oh god... never let me go.” Kurama whispered.

“Never.” Kazuma agreed.

Kazuma brought a hand to Kurama’s face, and Kurama turned to kiss those beautiful long fingers, to take one in his mouth if only to suck on it; he’d lost his mind but Kurama didn’t care. He just wanted to feel Kazuma’s hands. If that meant the loss of his sanity, then good riddance.

It seemed Kazuma could not bear to watch Kurama sucking his fingers anymore, for quite suddenly Kazuma’s finger was wrenched out of his mouth to be replaced by Kazuma’s own lips. Kurama drank deep from them, groaning shamelessly as he felt Kazuma’s fingers beginning to probe at his center.

Oh, it had been far too long.

The burn, the ache, the fire in his belly that would not go out, all of it pooled together to create a hot an angry desire within Kurama. It could be satisfied by one thing and one thing only, as ridiculous as it might sound or feel even in his own head.

Kazuma was kissing his neck, sucking at the sensitive flesh there... that place that made Kurama’s pulse run wild. Kurama stroked Kazuma’s flesh, running his hands teasingly over his aching member and reveling in the fluid that he found at its tip.

“Kazuma, please-“ Kurama groaned in his ear.

“Let me-“ Kazuma was nothing if not thorough, trying hard to prepare Kurama but he still did not understand.

“No,” Kurama shook his head, “I want it to hurt-“

Kazuma looked up at him, momentarily abandoning the noble quest of sucking upon his neck to look deep into Kurama’s eyes.

“What-?” Kazuma shook his head, his fingers momentarily stilling within Kurama. “No-“

“Listen to me....” Kurama begged, still stroking Kazuma’s flesh even as he spoke. He felt Kazuma take deep breathes beneath him, his powerful chest rising and falling from the arousing force of Kurama’s touch, “ I need... to feel this. I need to feel you. Please, understand. Please. I implore you.” He pressed his nose to Kazuma’s cheek, kissing the sweated flesh he found there.

“I think you’re crazy.” Kazuma murmured, but his tone was light.

“Well I have been put in a psych-“

Kazuma pulled back and pointed a finger in warning in Kurama’s face.

“Do not joke about that.” He growled.

In silent apology Kurama kissed the tip of Kazuma’s finger. Kazuma tapped him playfully on the tip of his nose and Kurama smiled.

“.... Are you sure about this?” Kazuma asked, wary as he narrowed his eyes at Kurama. Kurama nodded.

Was it unsafe? Perhaps. Was it unwise? Some would claim.
Would it fulfill every ache within him? Absolutely.

“Yes.” Kurama said. Kazuma raised his eyebrows, kissing Kurama lovingly as his strong hands found Kurama’s hips and began to tug him around.

Kurama followed quite willingly, and when Kazuma gently pushed him forward onto his hands and knees Kurama did not disobey.

His heart raced within him, every beat making his blood pulse hot and fast to his loins.
He felt Kazuma pressing, felt his body’s resistance, but the burn that followed put him in such a state that Kurama could not think anymore as he let out a deep shuddering breath.

Kazuma was within him; but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t near enough.

“If you want me to stop, you tell me... any time.” Kazuma murmured, leaning over Kurama’s back to kiss him sweetly between the shoulder blades.

“I will.” Kurama croaked out, rather mystified that he had even gathered the ability to speak.

The burn grew, pushing him hotter and higher. Kurama clutched at the bed sheet beneath him, delicious agony overcoming his features-

“Kurama-“ Kazuma did not sound convinced, indeed sounded quite worried but Kurama threw out a hand to stop Kazuma from backing out.

‘No!” Kurama begged, his voice raw with passion.

Kazuma seemed very unsure, but still he continued forward. The deeper he pressed the more that ache was filled. That beautiful, precious ache which made Kurama feel alive.

Kazuma stopped, completely sheathed within him, kissing him softly as he rubbed a hand tenderly upon Kurama’s flank.

“... Should I move?” Kazuma whispered.

After a moment, Kurama nodded, completely unable to speak for the thrilling burn within him.
As Kazuma moved within him, Kurama could not contain himself. He let out a filthy moan, throwing his head as long dark hair spilt over his back and shoulders.

“God, yes-!” Kurama shouted, uncaring who heard in that moment. Let them hear. Let them hear and know that Kurama was in a world of complete ecstasy.

“You are... incredible-“ Kazuma’s voice was shaky, his rhythm rocking Kurama deeper with each thrust.

“Break me-!” Kurama begged, guttural and deep in his primal need. He looked over his shoulder and found Kazuma blushed fiercely, utterly adorable in his uncertainness, “I know you can. I know you’re strong.” Kurama bit his lip, grinning feistily, “Make me feel your strength.”

Kazuma ran a hand upon Kurama’s back, feeling the smooth alabaster planes beneath his fingertips shift with each thrust. Kurama groaned in spite of himself, unable to quit smiling as that burn made him whole.

“... If that’s what you want, I’ll give it to you.” Kazuma whispered.

Kurama chuckled, but his voice burst into a cry as a particularly powerful thrust spurred by Kazuma’s immense strength completely took him by surprise. One should watch what they ask for lest they receive, but Kurama would be asking for this much more often if only to feel Kazuma’s strength pounding away into him.

He wanted Kazuma to mold him, to shape him, to change him with his strong hands. To break him goddamnit! To make him behave.

Kurama let out another primal moan, shameless in his lust, and delighted in the stinging burn that suddenly blossomed from his hair as Kazuma grabbed it and pulled. Kurama jerked up, unable to resist the tug, and suddenly he was back to chest with Kazuma, each pounding thrust rocking them both into oblivion as Kurama’s scalp burned with Kazuma’s fierce grip.

Kazuma kissed his neck, but Kurama screamed at Kazuma bit down upon the skin there, utterly taken by the pain and pleasure that blossomed through him.

Kazuma’s hand had been holding him tight by the hips, his grip bruising as he thrust in and out, but as Kurama reached back to grab onto Kazuma’s hips, Kazuma let go of Kurama’s hip.
Kurama cried out, almost in glee as Kazuma smacked him hard upon the ass, the skin stinging. My god, what a man-

“Oh god yes-!” Kurama could not stop himself as he said the words.

Kazuma kissed him deeply, hitting him again and Kurama smiled into his mouth. When he hit him a third time Kurama threw his head back; his breathing was starting to come in hard rugged pants.

He didn’t know what made him say it, but a string of filthy words suddenly burst from Kurama’s mouth.

“Come inside me, make me yours-“ He knew it was the most perverted thing he’d ever said in his life, but damnit he didn’t care. At this point he was like a dog on his belly, crawling for the chance at a treat as Kazuma pounded him straight into a blissful oblivion.

“Oh are you gonna talk dirty to me now?” Kazuma growled in Kurama’s ear, his deep rumbling voice sparking a brilliant wave of arousal within Kurama, “Is that it?"

“Yes-!” Kurama blurted out.

“Fine I can play that game too-“ Kazuma chuckled, grabbing Kurama’s ass and squeezing it hard. It still stung from his blows and Kurama hissed in the sudden siege of beautiful pain, “Who does this belong to?”

“You!” Kurama laughed, hardly believing that they were having such a conversation.
What on earth was wrong with them?

“Who?” Kazuma teased, squeezing harder with his muscled hands.

“You!” Kurama shouted, “I belong to you! All of me belongs to you, oh please-!” He begged.

He didn’t have to beg for longer. Each thrust sparked them closer and closer to the edge, the heat within both their bellies becoming too high, too powerful to deny-

Kazuma let out a shout, his grip on Kurama’s hip flexing as he stilled deep within Kurama, a warmth filling his belly, filling his soul-

Kurama couldn’t stand it, he felt his release wash over him as he screamed-!

For a few seconds they simply rocked together, unable to stay upright with their energy and minds completely spent. When they crashed onto the bed, they did so in each others arms, both of them gasping for breath.

Kazuma was kissing him languidly, sweetly, upon his neck.

His hand slowly came over Kurama’s flank where he’d hit him during their love making, rubbing the burning skin there with care.

“Did I hurt you?” Kazuma whispered.

“Mmm” Kurama was still quite breathless as Kazuma slipped from him, suddenly leaning over him in the dark of their cocoon as Kurama relaxed into the pillows.

“Good hurt.” Kurama managed to say, “Not bad.”

Kazuma was trying to stay upright, trying to cradle him, to cover him, with his body.

Such a silly man.

“I bruised you-“ Kazuma murmured, certainly not sounding happy about it; still Kurama smiled a sultry smile as he winked.

“I know.” Kurama toyed. He noticed Kazuma’s biceps trembling... a clear sign of his exhaustion. In the dark, Kurama reached out, pulling at Kazuma with his hands.

“Lay down.” Kurama offered. Kazuma did so, unable to stay up, utterly spent as he rested his head upon Kurama’s chest. Kurama felt a powerful wave of protective and fierce devotion sweep over him as he kissed the top of Kazuma’s head, running his fingers sweetly over Kazuma’s shoulders.

 

“You are... so beautiful." Kazuma whispered into his skin.

Kurama’s brow furrowed with emotion as he wrapped his arms tighter around Kazuma’s back.

“... Sleep.” Kurama murmured, kissing him again.

“I adore you...” Kazuma kept talking, unable to rest till he spoke his mind, “You are the ... light of my life.”

Kurama looked down at the incredible man in his arms; this strong, loving, generous, nurturing, and protective man... who took anyone under his wing in order to shelter them from the storm. Who looked at a sneering and angry soul and showed it pity, who brought it comfort in its time of need even thought it was not his job or his expectation.

Who held Kurama tight amid the chaos of his own creation, and shouted that he would defend Kurama’s madness to the end.

“... I will never leave you again.” Kurama said softly into Kazuma’s hair, “I promise.”

Kazuma was barely awake.

“...Kay..” Kazuma whispered, “If you... promise.”

“I do my darling.” Kurama whispered, relaxing his head back into the pillows as he closed his eyes. “I do.”

Chapter Text

When Kazuma awoke the next morning, the smell of pine had receded and he knew that they were no longer in the mountains. He was automatically concerned when he opened his eyes and found that he was alone in bed, his nude body covered in a blanket that had specifically not been there the night before. The vines that had cocooned them during their love making were gone, and Kazuma noted that Kurama’s clothes were no longer on the floor... it seemed Kurama had gone out.

He rose and dressed, wondering if the smell of sex on his skin would be as obvious to other demons as it was to himself. He could swear that the smell of green tea- a scent so heavily linked to Kurama for Kazuma- was covering his skin. He smelt his forearms, drinking in that light aroma.

Memories of last night, blurred by sweat in his eyes and the raging fire in his belly, flashed through his mind. He could not help but wonder how long Kurama had been gone.

He left their bedroom and began to search for Kurama through out the bug, but was unable to find him on both the fourth or fifth floor where he thought Kurama might be. He ventured to the upper terrace as a last option, and found Hiei keeping lone watch beneath bright crimson skies. The sun was high overhead, it was close to noon.

After last night, Kazuma had no idea what to say to Hiei anymore. In truth, he felt sorry for Hiei and certainly wished he could say as much as he approached him from behind. Yet he knew instinctually that Hiei did not like people feeling sorry for him, that he would react badly if Kazuma tried to say as much, and so instead Kazuma broached conversation in a common-ground fashion.

“Hey.” He murmured, “Sleep good last night?”

Hiei turned his head ever so slightly, a distinct acknowledgment of Kazuma’s words.

“You’re looking for Kurama.” Hiei said, ever astute.

“Yeah.” Kazuma came to stand by Hiei’s side, and the pair of them looked out over demon world together. They were back where they had started among the plains and small forests of the south. The mountains were far away in the distance, but even still KAzuma could see a dark mark on the mountain’s green beard that he knew to be where Hiei had set fire to the wood last night.

“He’s over that hill.” Hiei nodded to the right, and Kazuma looked out to see an expansive field that rose up on a slow gate.

“Wow, that far?” Kazuma mused, wondering what on earth Kurama was doing over there. He supposed there was only one way to find out.

But first.

“Hey uh...” Kazuma looked down for a moment, wondering how best to say to Hiei what he so desperately wanted to.

“Whatever you are about to say, don’t.” Hiei grumbled.

“... But you know I want to.” Kazuma said.

“I am aware.”

Kazuma nodded. So long as Hiei knew, that was really all that matter. Better that the words be unnecessary than unknown.

“Okay, well I’m gonna go find Kurama.” Kazuma said, and he turned to head for the stairs. Yet as his feet touched the top step, he felt this odd prickling sensation upon the back of his neck that caused him to look around. He found Hiei staring at him, his almond eyes relaxed and strangely at peace.

In that silence, Kazuma heard a ‘thank you’ to his ‘I’m sorry’.
So he shrugged and smiled.

“I’m aware.” Kazuma replied.

The corner of Hiei’s mouth twitched... a tiny movement that might have been offered as a smile. Kazuma wouldn’t assume it was one, but he liked to hope.

He left HIei on the outer terrace and traveled down through the bug to the lift. Taking it to the ground, Kazuma set off in the direction of the west where small fleets of soldiers were practicing sword play in the fields.

It was strange to walk through the waist high grass and known that this place, so vulgar and yet so beautiful, was Hiei and Kurama’s homeland. As a child he had wandered his neighborhood until he knew every corner and crevice, until it was his to claim as king of the mountain. He wondered if Hiei had done the same, if Kurama had run about the valleys of the east till his legs were tired and he had to trudge home. He’d seen adult demons and even elder demons, but never once had he seen a child. He wondered why that was, and if children were often kept indoors or away from the public eye. He supposed it made sense in a world where chaos and violence was law for children to be watched with extra care while they were still small and vulnerable... but he wished that he could see a child playing. He wished that he could see happy demon families or school yards, or a group eating a picnic or something relaxed and jovial. Instead, in demon world, all he found was fighting and waiting.... fighting for your life, and waiting for your death.

He’d walked a great distance now, and the bug was far behind him looking rather small. The fields were sloping down now, and he followed them to the ruins of an old castle where ivy was growing around the broken stones. It had been burnt down, or so it appeared, and through its courtyard lay a thicket of bamboo that shivered and shuttered in the light wind of the afternoon heat.

Kazuma felt a few leaves drift into his hair, and brushed them out as he emerged on the other side, and saw someone with lovely red hair sitting in the grass.

Kurama was alone and so Kazuma went to join him.

Sitting down next to Kurama, Kazuma let his thoughts drift like the wind through the grass as he ran his fingers over the tall stems. He looked at Kurama, and found him dwelling with dark eyes.

“... I died here.” Kurama explained. He patted the ground between them, “About where you’re sitting.”

Kazuma looked down, for some reason expecting a mark in the earth. He found nothing and was surprised.

“He died over there.” Kurama jerked a thumb over his shoulder back to the bamboo grove, “Near the bamboo. I checked, but his bones aren’t there. His body was probably scattered a long time ago.”

Kazuma knew that Kurama was talking about Kuronue, that man for which he’d died and had yet been so cruel to in life. Kurama’s eyes were still heavy, and in light of all that Kurama had suffered recently, Kazuma felt compelled to ask, “Are you okay?”

“Hmm?” Kurama looked at him, the darkness receding as he smiled at Kazuma, “Oh I’m fine.” Kurama assured him, and his tone certainly sounded sincere though Kazuma was still unconvinced.

Kurama looked around and found a tiny blue flower to pluck up. As he stared at it between his fingers, the petals unfurled and became brighter, larger, fully alive in his power.

It was beautiful to watch.

“It’s funny, coming back here and enjoying these flowers.” Kurama mused, “Blue violets... they’re really pretty, aren’t they?”

Kurama began to pluck petals off one at a time.
Kazuma felt a nagging question rise within him, rather childish and whiny given all that they had gone through the past couple of weeks (in particular last night) but still he needed to ask it.

“Did you love him?” Kazuma asked.

Kurama smiled at him.

“Yes.” Kurama said, “I didn’t know it until they killed him in front of me, but I loved him. He did not deserve what he received... but if you are asking, as I feel you are, you should know that I love you more than anyone else alive or dead. Including Kuronue.”

Kazuma grinned in spite of himself.

“... Maybe we could put up a shrine, in our home, you know?” Kazuma offered. Kurama said nothing, casting the blue petals aside. Where each one fell a new blue violet began to spring up from the earth, urged along by Kurama’s powers, “Like we have for Shiori.”

It made him nervous saying her name, but Kurama was still smiling and did not seem troubled.

“That’s a nice thought.” He said, “But... I don’t have his picture. I don’t have anything, really. Just this.”

Kurama reached into his pocket and pulled out a dirty and tainted necklace. It’s pendant was a dark red stone that could barely be seen save for when the light hit it directly. It looked like it had been buried for many years.

“... I’m amazed I found this.” Kurama said, his voice soft as his thumb rubbed the stone. He looked at Kazuma, and Kazuma could see with clarity the pain that Kurama felt. Kurama did not attempt to hide as he smiled somberly.

“I love you.” Kurama murmured. Kazuma reached out and took Kurama’s hand in his own even as he held the pendant. “I love you so much. If the same thing happened to you, I would kill myself.. and I would not come back.” Kurama looked down at the necklace. “So strange, to think... my whole life, my whole existence... was triggered by this necklace.”

“... What do you mean?” Kazuma asked, letting his fingers travel up and down along Kurama’s slender arm.

Kurama sighed, looking back over his shoulder at the ruined castle.

“There was a trap, set at that castle.” Kurama nodded to it, “He and I were stealing from it, and we were ambushed. We were overwhelmed, surrounded... we fled. This pendant was something he always wore, and it broke from his neck and fell to the ground... I gave it to him.” Kurama added; Kazuma could hear the bitterness there, “A ruby because he... said he liked rubies.”

“Good gift.” Kazuma tried. Kurama let out a weak chuckle.

“He said ‘I need it’, and he doubled back.” Kurama continued on, “I tried to make him stop but, he wouldn’t.”

“... And they got him.” Kazuma could piece together the rest.

“Bamboo spears.” Kurama looked up to observe the bamboo swaying in the breeze, “All through his body. Right there...” Kurama pointed at the grove, the ruby still held tight in his hand. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the same spears became those trees. I...”

Kurama looked down, then around, before finally turning his eyes upon Kazuma. He was lost and helpless like a child.

It hurt him endlessly to see the pain, the moisture, in those lovely green eyes.

“I think in that moment, I lost my mind.” Kurama whispered, sounding quite ashamed of himself, “I went wild. I slaughtered every one. The men... the women... the children-“ Kurama shuddered in spite of himself, “every single person who ambushed us, every single person in that castle... died.” He looked back up at it, “Of course, it didn’t end there... it was the SDF’s turn for fair play.”

Kurama looked at Kazuma again.

“They came and... as I tried to defend myself....” Kurama looked down at the earth on which they sat.

“They killed you.” Kazuma finished.

“Yes.” Kurama smiled, “Yes they did.”

Kurama ran his fingers over the earth, but it seemed that for once in his life he was tired of the soil as he instead put his hand upon Kazuma’s knee and squeezed it delicately.

“... I regret many things in my life, but I do not regret that slaughter.” Kurama admitted, “Not when its reason was Kuronue.”

Kazuma understood completely. If someone killed Kurama in front of him, he had a feeling he’d do the same- but such thoughts made his stomach churn and he immediately banished them from his mind. Still... it made him wonder.

“If someone killed me, would you do that?” Kazuma asked.

Kurama’s expression was one of peace as he spoke, “Kazuma, no one would kill you. I would stop them with my own life before they were able to. If you die from such a fate it will be after I have taken my final bow.”

Kazuma smiled tenderly, charmed and warmed by those words. In demon world, it was easy to be afraid. Easy to imagine a greater foe around every corner. But they lived in human world, and their lives were not ruled by such chaos. They would not die defending one another from a murderer, if Kazuma had anything to say about it. They would die old and comfortable in each others arms, quite at peace with the world and themselves in it.

“... That’s not gonna happen.” Kazuma smiled.

“No. It’s not.”

He smiled as Kurama’s lips found his own, a sweet kiss that was simple and true. As Kurama sat back, he looked up at the sky, then around them at the high grass, and said:

“I think I’m ready to go home.” Kurama mused, “I don’t belong here. I belong in human world with you... Yusuke, Keiko...” Kurama smiled as he said their names, “It’s nice to come here, to see it and remember, but I don’t belong here. I haven’t belonged here in quite a while. I’m certainly glad we came here, though.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Kazuma said, nodding as he spoke. “You wanna go home?”

“I do.” Kurama said.

Kazuma stood up and pulled Kurama to his feet, “Then let’s go home.”

~*~

The portal shimmered like in the evening light, pulsing in waves as Hiei and Mukuro watched over Kazuma and Kurama’s departure. It was saddening despite how Kazuma wanted to get home, for he’d come to greatly enjoy Mukuro’s company and it had been a pleasure to know Hiei better. To become his friend, and deserve the title. He realized that he would miss them both.

“Well uh... It’s been a really weird vacation.” Kazuma began his goodbye. Hiei sneered.

“I told you, we are not a bed and breakfast.” Hiei said.

“Yeah but you gotta admit, we had fun.” Kazuma replied.

“Is that what we had.” Hiei looked off to the setting sun, perhaps trying to appear aloof, “I couldn’t say.”

“So uh... Yusuke’s birthday is coming up.” Kazuma announced, for he realized that now was an opportune moment he ought to seize, “I’m hoping you’ll be there. Cause I’m gonna plan the party and it’s gonna be great.”

Hiei said nothing, still observing the setting sun.

“You should come to!” Kazuma said to Mukuro, for he knew that when it came to social interactions it was better to ask Mukuro than ask Hiei for an RSVP. Mukuro seemed taken by the idea, and tapped her chin with her bionic fingers as she looked slyly over at Hiei

“Me in human world.” She mused, “A queer thought-“

Hiei looked at her, and his eyes began to narrow in suspicion as she spoke.

“To be fair, I have wanted to travel there for quite some time. It’s... wonders appeal to me.” Mukuro said to Kazuma, and her smile was becoming more purposeful as an idea blossomed in her head.

“No.” Hiei growled, but Mukuro did not listen.

“Hiei often travels there to see Yukina, I think it would nice to visit her to-“

“If you think for one fucking minute-“ Hiei snarled, but Mukuro cut him off with a smug grin.

“Is that fear I detect in your voice, my love?” She asked. Hiei was equally miffed at being called ‘afraid’ as much as ‘my love’ and made a noise deep in his throat as he began to grit his teeth.

“It is disgust.” Hiei sneered at her, “Learn to recognize it when it’s being addressed at you, you stupid bitch!”

“Come now, Hiei, I am not going to say anything to Yukina that you would dislike; surely you know me better than that-“

“I know you to be a meddlesome irritating woman and that’s more than enough-!”

Kurama coughed into his hand even as Kazuma withheld laughter in his throat. He would certainly be missing conversations like this.

Mukuro looked at them, and she was beaming as Kurama dropped his hand and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Goodbye.” Mukuro said.

“Please leave.” Hiei snapped.

“Will we see you at the party?” Kazuma could not keep from laughing as he spoke, and Hiei’s eyes sparked with malicious intent as he barred his teeth at Kazuma.

“I don’t give a fuck about the party, now get out of here before I end your miserable life you stupid-“

But with each word, Kazuma could only laugh harder, knowing full well that Hiei was just panicking because Mukuro was now intent on traveling to human world. They would work it out on their own, they always did, but Kazuma could not resist the temptation of saying goodbye to HIei in a more caring way.

Just for the hell of it.

He reached out, and before Hiei could do anything, hugged Hiei to his chest. Hiei gasped, truly taken aback as Kazuma quickly let go and dove for the portal before Hiei could skin him alive. Kurama was certainly eager to follow him, dashing like mad after his retreating back as Hiei’s indignant shriek of ‘You stupid fucking human!’ rang in their ears through the blinding white light that surrounded them.

They were falling to darkness, to a cool and familiar space, and as their feet touched bottom in a black and tiled room KAzuma was still laughing aloud.

The portal closed behind them with a ‘pop’.

“Kazuma!” Kurama admonished him at once, shoving him lightly upon the shoulder “That was very mean of you!”

“Did you see his face-?” Kazuma quipped.

“I saw his sword-!” Kurama replied, “And you’re very lucky you didn’t see it too considering it was pointed at your back-“

But a noise caught their attention as both looked around in the dark of the pantry to see a very familiar figure leaning casually against the wall in a white t-shirt and roughed jeans.

Yusuke Urameshi grinned at Kazuma, and though Kazuma knew it was foolish and childish to be so damn elated he could not help himself. God he had missed his best friend!

“Hello.” Yusuke said, and Kazuma bum rushed him to grab him in a bone crushing hug.

“I’ve missed your fucking ugly face!” Kazuma cried out, delighting in every nuance of Yusuke... the smell of his hair gel, cigarettes and diet coke- !

“I’ve missed your stupid grating voice-!” Yusuke replied with gusto, wheezing slightly from the force of KAzuma’s hug.

“I’ve missed your stupid voice-!”

“I’ve missed your face breaking beneath my fists-!”

“I’ve missed your weak ass punches barely bruising my skin!”

Behind him he could hear Kurama tutting, and knew that surely if Yusuke was down here Keiko was too. It was very rude of him to ignore her, but damnit he couldn’t ignore Urameshi.

“Keiko, I’m so glad to be home.” Kurama was saying.

“Oh Kurama-!” he could hear Kurama laughing as Keiko no doubt hugged him, “You look completely different!”

“I feel completely different.”

“Back to normal?”

“Yes.”

In that moment with Keiko and Kurama preoccupied, Kazuma set Yusuke back down on his feet and pulled back to observe his best friend. Yusuke’s impish grin utterly delighted him, making him feel like all was right with the world. Yusuke looked over Kazuma’s shoulder, before leaning in and bringing an arm around his back to hug him in an honest and loving manner.

It would have to be quick; god forbid the others see and start insinuating that they actually were friends with each other.

Kazuma wrapped an arm about Yusuke, deeply relieved as he held his best friend close. If they had been alone or been more open as men to one another, they might have hung on for a great while longer.

Instead, they let go, and turned around to face their respective loves.

Keiko was running her fingers through Kurama’s long hair, marveling at it as she beamed up at him. Kurama let her touch him, smiling pleasantly as she petted the strands, but now Yusuke had seen Kurama’s hair and he was just excited as Keiko.

“Kurama!” Yusuke greeted him, and Kurama looked around to be suddenly swooped up in a great hug as Yusuke threw his arms about Kurama and lifted him right off his feet. “Oh Kurama, my darling, my dream! My princess-!”

Kurama scowled in Yusuke’s hold.

“Kiss me, you beautiful creature!” Yusuke cried out.

“I will certainly no-“ Yusuke kissed Kurama on the cheek even as Kurama protested, and Kurama wriggled out of his arms at once with a disgusted expression upon his face as he hurriedly wiped his cheek with the back of his sleeve. “Honestly!” Kurama scowled as Yusuke finally dropped him. “Kindly refrain from licking me in if you wish to keep your t-“

“Oh, he’s back!” Yusuke squealed, almost prancing upon his toes as he took Kurama into a second hug (though he did not make to kiss him again and did not lift him off his feet) “He’s back! He’s snarly and witty and I love it all!”

“Yes I’m back.” Kurama said dully, his arms pinned to his sides from Yusuke’s tight grip.

Yusuke let go, and Kurama straightened his shirt with an irritated scowl that soon slipped into a bemused smile as he shook his head at Yusuke. It was incredible, to have them all together again, whole and healthy as they always should be.

“How’s Hiei?” Yusuke asked, looking hopeful.

“Wonderful.” Kurama assured Yusuke, but he looked at Kazuma as he spoke, “Isn’t he, Kazuma?”

Kazuma smiled; he wondered what Yusuke would say if he knew about all their adventures in demon world.

Yusuke looked at Kazuma, curious.

“What?” Yusuke asked.

“...Nothing.” Kazuma grinned, “Me and Hiei uh... well...”

“They bonded.” Kurama supplied, “Very well.”

“Get the fuck out.” Yusuke scoffed, not believing a word of it. Keiko seemed likewise impressed as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“Dead serious.” Kazuma assured him, but suddenly his stomach grumbled and a thought popped into his head. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Pounding your face in-!” Yusuke joked.

“That’s what I thought.” Kazuma agreed, for of course they’d be spending the night together after having been apart for so long, “Tell you what, how about I spill the beans over dinner cause I’m starved.”

“Hell yeah!” Yusuke said at once.

“All me to cook, please?” Kurama asked and the three of them looked at him as he continued on, “I miss my kitchen and frankly, I owe the meal to both of you for everything that you did for me and Kazuma... especially me.”

“That’d be wonderful!” Keiko agreed. “Let’s go get Eikich-“

Kazuma suddenly realized that there was someone he’d missed even more than Yusuke. His cat.

“EIKICHI!” Kazuma shrieked the name, turning and bounding for the stairs up to the first floor even as he left the other three behind.

Yusuke scoffed in the sudden silence, glancing at Kurama who did not seem very surprised.

“Well I guess he’s gotten over you, Kurama.” Yusuke joked.

“A harsh break up to be sure.” Kurama spoke in a voice of mocked pain, “Dumped for a cat.”

~*~

The site of his home filled Kurama with such joy that he could not contain himself as he ran across the street ahead of everyone else and peered through the darkened glass of his front door. Oh how he’d missed his shop! The little glass jars on the back wall, the boxes of herbs and the catalogues tacked to the wood to advertise what could be ordered or purchased. Kurama wanted nothing more than to rush inside, but had to wait for Keiko since she still had the keys. She seemed to realize how excited he was, and she tossed him the keys so that he could catch them in mid air. He opened the door, stepping inside his home for the first time in too long to take in a deep breath of contentment.

It was good to be back.

A sign had been taped to the inside of the front door, explaining the shops closure due to a family emergency, and Kurama peeled off the sign to crumple it up into a ball. There would be no need for it anymore; he would return to work tomorrow. As soon as the others were over the threshold with groceries for the nights meal, Kurama closed and locked the door behind them. He tossed the crumpled sign into the waste bin behind his counter, and lead the way upstairs as Eikichi meowed plaintively inside her carrier. As Kurama unlocked their house and opened the door, and he could not help but let out a tiny noise of delight.

He’d missed this sight.

His living room, with its books and plants, their sofa snuggled against the wall... his kitchen, gleaming in the moonlight drifting in front outside. Kurama turned on the lights, the warm glow making him smile so wide that he had to put a hand over his mouth to hide his glee. Yusuke sat the groceries on their kitchen table where a stack of mail was waiting, and Kazuma let Eikichi out of her cage. She sprinted off at once, glad to be back in her own home as she leapt upon the couch and promptly settled down in a ball of calico fur. Tonight was a night for celebration and so as Kurama heated up a skillet to prepare spaghetti he also fetched wine from the cupboard to pour them all a glass. Yusuke and Kazuma began to drink at once, already drunk from being in one another’s presence after spending so much time apart. They’d tried to hide it back in the cellar but Kurama had seen that little hug they’d shared and knew they were both very eager to catch up. Keiko helped him to chop onions, carrots, mushrooms and tomatoes, wearing his apron and looking stopping every once in a while to take a sip of wine.

Kurama did the same, the alcohol soon making him feel warm and fuzzy as he listened to Yusuke and Kazuma prattle on. It was odd, having all four of them crammed in the same corner of the kitchen and yet it felt so right. They were home, and they were happy.

“Tell me everything!” Yusuke demanded like a school girl eager for fresh rumors, “Tell me absolutely everything!”

“Well we arrived and got settled in, and I ended up convincing everyone to go camping- MUKURO!” Kazuma shouted the name wildly, causing Kurama to laugh, “Holy shit, Mukuro!”

“Yeah she’s something ain’t she?” Yusuke agreed, for really what words would suffice for such a woman as Mukuro?

“Yusuke, she is incredible.” Kazuma gushed with delight, “That woman is- she has- she’s fucking saved Hiei’s life! Do you realize that?”

Yusuke was laughing in agreement.

“It’s like they were meant for each other!” Kazuma continued on, “I can’t believe it. Like, she is a god send. We need to give her flowers, because she is the queen!”

“What’s she like?” Keiko demanded, for none of these phrases had conveyed to her exactly what Mukuro was.

“She’s funny, she’s really insightful-“ Kazuma offered, “when Hiei gets in a mood she doesn’t take it personally. She rolls right along with it and she’ll yank his butt out of it! She doesn’t allow him to sulk or be an asshole. She’s really cool. I like Mukuro.” Kazuma finished with gusto, “And I like Hiei.”

Kurama looked over his shoulder to catch Yusuke’s eye. He was quite disturbed though not in a bad way as he grinned at Kurama.

Kazuma and Hiei... who would have ever imagined.

“They bonded.” Kurama said, but Yusuke was still shaking his head, still unbelieving even as he smiled.

“No...” Yusuke grinned, though his words were insincere.

“I judged him wrong, man.” Kazuma admitted, “Hiei’s a good guy. I like Hiei.”

Yusuke was very impressed, drinking deeply from his wine as Kazuma made to open another bottle.

But even as he did so, he caught Kurama’s eye and they shared a moment of acknowledgement. There was something Yusuke did not know, something he possibly ought to.

“Um...” Kazuma murmured; Kurama nodded.

He would support Kazuma with whatever he decided to reveal.

“There’s something you should know about Hiei.” Kazuma admitted.

“What the hell did you do to him?” Yusuke asked with a dark chuckle as Kazuma poured him and Keiko both another glass of wine.

Kazuma did not seem able to put into words what had happened and so Kurama took it upon himself to get the ball rolling as he began to sauté the ground beef.

“Kazuma saved Hiei’s life.” Kurama explained.

Kazuma scoffed, but Kurama knew it was true. Had Kazuma not been there to warn Hiei of Gorobi’s malicious intent, Hiei would have fallen prey and possibly been killed.

The idea of Hiei dying at a man’s hands in whom he’d placed so much love and trust made Kurama sick to his stomach. He quickly banished the thought

“Dude, you were supposed to go on vacation, not get hurt.” Yusuke chided Kazuma.

“Well there were bandits causing trouble and one of them was... uh... involved with Hiei. Like, was his dad or something-"

Keiko coughed into her wine, covering her mouth as she gaped at Kazuma.

“You met Hiei’s father?!” Keiko demanded.

“No, no!” Kazuma assured her, “Not like his actual dad, like... the guy who took him in as a kid.”

Yusuke grimaced, clearly familiar with the situation as he drank.

“One of those types, eh?” Yusuke grumbled into his wine glass.

“Yeah he was trying to fuck with Hiei’s head and make him ‘come home’” Kazuma formed quotation marks in the air with his fingers, “He was saying ‘be loyal to me’ but all he really wanted was for Hiei to turn the dragon on Enki and then, when Hiei was spent up, they were going to kill him. We overhead their plan.” Kazuma explained.

“And foiled it.” Kurama finished with a smirk.

“Yep.” Kazuma grinned, “And HIei killed the guy. Set him on fire!” Kazuma said the final word with delight.

“Hell yeah!” Yusuke cheered. They toasted one another, clinking their wine glasses loudly.

“Poor Hiei.” Keiko mused, “Like he hasn’t had enough crap to deal with in his life.”

“I know.” Kazuma agreed, for it all really was unfair, “But it’s all good! Cause we took him home and Mukuro took care of him.”

“H-hell yeah...” Yusuke snickered loudly as he drank, gyrating his hips a little even as Keiko kicked him lightly in the shin.

“Oh my god, you don’t know they did that-“ Keiko grumbled.

“I’m pretty certain they did that.” Kurama corrected her; she gave him a look of surprise, and the pair of them snorted softly as Kurama continued to add more vegetables to the sauce. Yet as he tried to fetch another pot to boil water in he kept bumping into Yusuke and Kazuma. It really was quite infuriating and so Kurama grabbed a dish towel to hit them both with a well formed whip strike. They yipped, skin stinging as they backed away from him at once.

“Oh my goodness could you please get out of my kitchen!?” Kurama demanded in half-hearted anger, “I know how to cook without you-!”

He grabbed a pot in the free space he was now given, yet as he set it over the sink to fill with water, Yusuke sneered.

“But what if you try and do something again-?”

Kurama turned, the dish towel still in hand, and smacked Yusuke hard in the chest even as Yusuke held in his limbs to protect himself with a snicker upon his face.

“Get out of my kitchen!” Kurama snarled. “Keiko take them in the other room so I can work and actually get things done!”

“Move!” Keiko goaded, pushing Yusuke and Kazuma out before they could get in their way again. They were guided into the living room, blocked from returning into the kitchen by Keiko who had her arms outstretched.

“Honestly how do I even breath around here?” Kurama grumbled to himself as he set the pot of water upon another stove eye.

“Baby are you sure you’re okay-“ Kazuma offered from the doorway of the kitchen where he peeked over Keiko’s shoulder. Kurama turned and threw the dishtowel at him, hitting him right in the face.

Kurama turned back to the stove, biting his lip with laughter.

 

They ate with gusto, abandoning the kitchen table to instead eat on the living room floor around the couch like a bunch of teenagers as they opened up yet another bottle of wine. Eikichi relaxed upon the back of the couch, purring close to Kazuma’s shoulders as they finished their meal and relaxed against the sofa.

Maybe it was the wine, or the cat purring, the moonlight, but Kurama felt truly happy as he observed his little family.

“I wanted to thank you...” He admitted to all of them, particularly to Keiko and Yusuke who were relaxing upon the couch next to him. “For everything.”

They smiled at him.

“I’m so sorry.” Kurama sighed, sitting his wine glass down on the coffee table to speak more frankly to them both, “For the entire... for all of it-“ Kurama did not know how to convey how truly embarrassed he was, “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh gosh, don’t be.” Keiko was quick to dismiss it with a wave of her hand, but still Kurama was not convinced.

“No, the way I acted....” Kurama shuddered at the memory.

“Totally normal-“ Keiko urged.

“Despicable.” Kurama corrected her, though she shook her head in clear disagreement, “And I’m sorry. I mean, I punched you-!” Kurama gestured to Yusuke but at this Yusuke snorted and sneered.

“Pffft.” Yusuke grinned in a slightly drunken haze, “Your weak lil’ chicken arms didn’t do nothing-“

Kurama stopped mid apology, turning to look at Yusuke.

“I’m sorry Yusuke,” Kurama could not stop from grinning, “Did... Did you just say I have a weak punch?”

“Yeah.” He leered, “Whatcha gonna do about it prissy boy.”

Kurama nodded to himself, rising off the couch as he pretended to move their dirty dishes away from the couch, but in a split second he grabbed Yusuke by the collar and yanked up him from his seat to push him against the wall. He burst out laughing at the surprised look on Yusuke’s face, the pair of them grinning at each other as Yusuke leaned back against the wall.

“Prissy boy.” Kurama repeated.

“You move fast for a first date-“

“Shuttup Yusuke.” Kurama laughed, “And please do not ever think that Shiori’s death meant nothing to me-“

Yusuke’s grin dropped a little. “Yeah I know I shouldn’t have said that-"

“No I’m telling you that I understand why you said it... but I want you to know I...” Kurama shook his head, “I know it looked like I didn’t care. But I did.”

“Totally got that when you swallowed lye.”

“Just making sure.”

“And by the way, you have a weak punch.” Yusuke teased him. Kurama scoffed, bringing up his other hand to knock it lightly into Yusuke’s jaw without power or pressure. Yusuke snickered and returned the act, his fist grazing Kurama’s cheek lightly.

“Hey!” Kazuma warned from the couch, grinning as he spoke, “Don’t be hitting my baby, or hitting on my baby for that matter.”

“Oh?” Yusuke took the bait at once, dropping his hand to squeeze Kurama’s backside playfully. Kurama scoffed, smacking him hard in the chest in embaressed anger. “I’m not hitting on him, I’m squeezin-“

And squeezing hard for that matter.

“Yusuke!” Kurama shoved him off.

“Excuse me, am I not allowed to play?” Yusuke teased.

“Not with me.” but Kurama smiled at him.

Keiko was rolling her eyes, continuing to drink.

“You’re a filthy pervert.” She said to her husband, “And by all rights you should be hung at the neck until pronounced dead.”

“Oooh...” Yusuke grinned, sliding next to Keiko on the couch. “Talk dirty to me-“

“No-!” She knew better than to let him have his way, jerking up off the couch to stand by Kurama.

“I’m gonna pound your face in for grabbing him.” Kazuma warned, for now they were sitting side by side without Keiko to be in the way.

“Yes, please do.” Keiko agreed at once, knocking her hip into Kurama’s.

“Or better yet-“ Kurama reached around, lightly putting his hand upon Keiko’s hip. She squealed though he barely touched her, bursting into a wild fit of laughter as she hit her flushing face.

“You’re playin’ with fire-!” Yusuke laughed from the couch.

“No, I’m playing with her butt.” Kurama corrected him with a smirk.

“You stop that-!” Keiko swatted at him, and he let go of her to pick up his wine glass as she rounded on Yusuke, "And you know you deserved that!”

“No, you’re a fucking asshole for turning traitor on me-!” But Yusuke was grinning from ear to ear as he spoke, rising off the couch to nearly make Keiko trip over the coffee table as she took a hasty step back.

“Oh yeah, I’ll squeeze your butt!” She warned, reaching for him and grabbing his backside with both hands. “How’s that for turning traitor, huh?!”

‘You’re not even squeezing hard!” He goaded her and Kurama saw her grip tighten as Yusuke cackled merrily.

He grabbed her backside, his hands much stronger than her own, and his grip upon her flesh made her cry out in delight as they suddenly teetered and fell to the floor. Kazuma got out of the way, stumbling over to Kurama as he watched Keiko and Yusuke roll about on the floor, laughing gayly like children.

“Isn’t it wonderful to be home?” Kurama said to Kazuma. Kazuma reached down and kissed him at once, his lips sweet with wine. Kurama could not resist, opening his arms at once to wrap them around Kazuma even as he held onto his nearly empty wine glass.

“YUCK!” Yusuke shouted from the floor.
Kurama raised his middle finger to Yusuke, kissing Kazuma deeper just in spite.

 

~*~

It made him nervous but Kurama knew what he had to do as he walked upon the brick pathways of Matsuzawa Hospital’s outer court yard, white roses in hand. He’d been home for a week, and had taken that time to restock his shop and resume his life. Yet as he’d pieced together his life once again and started back up without Shiori, he realized that there was one more thing yet to be done.

One last person to apologize to.

In truth, she deserved it the most, for Kurama remembered in vivid detail how even after she found out the truth and had a dangerous thorn pressed to her face, she had wanted to help him. Dr. Gozen had been loving and kind even as Kurama tried to take her life... and he’d been lucky that she was his doctor.

He found her just where she’d promised to be over the phone, sitting at the crossway of several brick paths that centered around a water fountain and beautiful hydrangea bushes. She was reading, taking her afternoon break outside in the sunshine of late February, and as he approached her she smiled while still reading her book.

There was a very faint white scar upon her cheek, the only sign of her struggle with him.

“... Hello there.” She murmured into her book, closing it and setting it aside. She was wearing a red dress, her brown hair pulled back in a hearted clip with pink manicured nails. She was just as charming and lovely as ever.

Kurama sat down next to her on the bench, offering the roses to her. She took them with quiet grace, smiling and leaning over them to sniff.

She smiled at him.

“You helped someone very close to me.” Kurama explained. “They weren’t nice to you, but you were nice to them.”

“All a part of the job.” She assured him gently. “I knew what I was getting into when I took the position.”

“You’re in the right field.” Kurama mused with a soft laugh. If she could handle him, he supposed she could handle anyone.

Dr. Gozen looked him up and down, observing his long red hair.

“... How did it grow out so quickly?”

Kurama did a double take, his smile dropping automatically as she looked at Dr. Gozen.
She smiled down into her white roses.

“... I suppose it doesn’t help that I have a very cunning mind and attend regular hypnosis for my own mental health.” Dr. Gozen explained gently. “Did you grow these?”

Kurama watched as she smelled the flowers again.

“... Yes.” He said.

“Thank you." She murmured. “Did you come here to apologize to me?”

“I did.” Kurama admitted.

“Well that’s very sweet of you.” She assured him, “But not necessary. I’m just glad you got help... you certainly look happier. Are you happier?” She asked.

Kurama thought about it, and all that he had endured.

“Yes, I am.” He said. “A good friend of mine helped to remind me of who I am... and my partner only cemented the notion.”

“It’s always smart to have a support team.” Dr. Gozen agreed. “Do you know why you had such a hard time at first?”

Once again, Kurama pondered it all.

“I suppose because I associated my mother with everything good; without her, all good died.”

“And was she everything good?” Dr. Gozen offered, “When your good friend and your partner exist without her?”

Kurama smiled... ever the crafty one Dr. Gozen.

 

“No, I suppose you’re right.” Kurama murmured with a small smile. “She was merely a part of the goodness. A large part, but... just a part.”

“And I think she’d be very proud of you, to see you this way.” Dr. Gozen said. She touched her roses again, captivated by them, and her cunning brown eyes found his own as she raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain you don’t want to talk to me anymore? About anything at all?”

Kurama shook his head.

“I’m fine. I have Kazuma.” He assured her. “He is my personal therapist... Unfortunately for me.” Kurama laughed even as he spoke.

“Well I trust you. You certainly are smart enough to know if you weren’t fully happy.” She hugged her roses to her chest. “Thank you for my flowers. I’ll put them in my office.”

“You’re welcome.” Kurama replied, “Thank you for... helping me. Despite how much of a lost cause I was.”

“You weren’t a lost cause. You were a lost soul.” She assured him with a gentle smile, “And there is a great deal of difference between the two.”

Kurama thought of Hiei in that moment, and could not help but smile back.

“... You are right.” He murmured.
The wind blew warm between them. Spring was coming.

Chapter Text

Yusuke’s twenty fifth birthday party was a split event that Kazuma prepared in tasteful style. Yusuke, despite enjoying the attention that came from brassy fights and wild fanfare, did not like birthday parties when they were his own. Kazuma understood the notion of embarrassment well, having spent his own birthday in the quiet comfort of his home with Kurama (a night that was quite long and sensual), and so he decided that the best thing to do was make the party centered around a meal.

It was set for seven at night on March 26th, and Kazuma invited only a handful of people that Yusuke granted permission for including Hiei and Mukuro (though he was unsure if they’d even come). Yusuke closed his restaurant early that night, and around five Kazuma and Kurama left their house to travel across the street to help Yusuke and Keiko clean up. They’d dine upstairs, and Keiko was convinced that even though she’d cleaned several times their house was still dirty. Kurama was more than happy to help her; the pair of them whisking about upstairs while Yusuke and Kazuma took care of the mess downstairs. The staff were certainly happy to get the night off (particularly because it was a friday) and as soon as the building was cleared around six Kazuma texted Shizuru to give her the all clear. She came with Yukina who was wearing a strapless white cocktail dress with a red shrug, and as agreed neither had brought gifts. Yusuke’s only desire was to eat, drink, and be merry.

Upstairs Keiko had put on music, and was chatting animatedly with Kurama about a new movie that had been featured in the sunday paper; when the entire group arrived on her doorstep the movie was long forgotten to be replaced by heated talk of food to be prepared (for it was Yusuke’s request that he cook for them despite it being his birthday).

Now they were all milling around upstairs, preparing dinner together as the minutes ticked by closer to seven. When the hour struck, Kazuma glanced down at his wrist watch then to the balcony, wondering if Hiei was coming at all.

He supposed his sorrow showed on his face as Kurama came up to his side.

“What?” Kurama asked, looking from the balcony to Kazuma.

“Nothing...” Kazuma said, trying for a smile, but he could not help the feeling of disappointment that was growing in his chest. Kurama seemed to understand what was bothering him, and gave him a sympathetic smile as he kissed him softly upon the cheek.

“Oh Kazuma.” Kurama sighed, looking at the balcony wistfully, “If he comes, he comes. If he doesn’t... don’t take it personally. You know he’s not a social animal.”

“Yeah but... I kinda miss him telling me to fuck off.” Kazuma admitted, and it was true. It had been rather fun hanging out with Hiei in demon world; there was something charming about the way that he told everyone to go to hell.

“Oh, you’re so sweet.” Kurama whispered in his ear, a hand slipping about Kazuma’s waist so that slender fingers could squeeze his side.

“So, is Hiei coming tonight?” Shizuru asked from the buffet, checking her watch as she helped Keiko to set the low dining table. it was strange that despite living in a modern home Yusuke and Keiko owned a traditional Japanese dining table, but it had apparently belonged to Keiko’s grandparents and meant a great deal to her as she pursued building her own home with Yusuke. Yukina, who was fluffing rice, gave Shizuru a meaningful smile though it was somber and certainly not optimistic.

“Hopefully.” Yukina replied.

“He’ll come if he feels like it.” Kazuma said, still unable to take his eyes away from the balcony door, “But it’s better not to ... force him. If he comes on his own free will he’ll stay longer and be in a better mood.” He caught Yukina smiling at him and returned the gesture, “Which is what we want.”

“Since when have you become an expert on Hiei?” Yusuke demanded, quite impressed as he stirred a massive wok full of sautéed pork and vegetables.

“Uh, I guess since I stayed with him for nearly a month, why do you ask.” Kazuma teased.

“I just think it’s really fuckin’ cute that you two are like best buddies now.”

“Jealous?” Keiko asked, and Yusuke’s expression was akin to his steaming vegetables.

“Pfft!” Yusuke did not even dignify the question with an answer.

Kazuma grinned at Yusuke; Yusuke caught him.

“You wanna start something-!?” Yusuke demanded, “I can whip your ass with one hand and stir this wok with another, you just watch!”

“You don’t have to be jealous. I still like you more.” Kazuma teased, yet he stopped when he noticed Keiko wearing an expression of glee.

“What-?” Kazuma asked, looking over his shoulder to where ever she was staring, and found that her eyes were on the balcony where two figures had suddenly appeared in the dark. From the light of the kitchen spilling through the glass, Hiei’s face suddenly loomed into view with a red scarf around his neck, and Kazuma could not help but snort in delight.

Hiei had come... and he’d brought someone with him who was wearing a hooded cloak.

“What are you lookin’ at?” Yusuke asked, but as he saw the balcony, he nearly dropped the wok in surprise.

“Holy shit you asshole-!” Yusuke squalled, abandoning the stove to burst between Kazuma and Kurama. He wrenched the balcony door open and before Hiei could so much as say ‘go to hell’ Yusuke grabbed him tight by the waist and pulled him into a seizing hug. Hiei scowled angrily, tall enough to where Yusuke could not pull him off his feet but still clearly on the tips of his toes as he struggled in Yusuke’s hold.

“I knew you’d come!” Yusuke crowed in delight, swinging Hiei back and forth as Hiei’s guest came through the door and closed it with a bionic hand.

Kazuma grinned, knowing full well it was Mukuro.

“You can’t stay away from me, you love too much-!” Yusuke grinned from ear to ear.

“Get off of me!” Hiei snarled, finally wrenching free to give Yusuke a murderous scowl, “You demented cretin, you haven’t changed a bit you’re still as ugly and annoying as ever-!” Hiei seized up, shaking his arms as if frozen by a sudden chill from Yusuke’s hold, “God I hope you die-!”
Yukina had stopped turning the rice, and her expression was one of utter joy as she beamed at her brother, but she did not make to crowd him or to hug him as Yusuke was doing. She was waiting for her cue, the happiest to see him but the last to approach.

“Yeah, yeah, I love you to-“ Yusuke said with an easy grace, gesturing to Hiei’s cloaked ‘friend’, “So whose your-“ but Yusuke did not need to finish as Mukuro reached up and removed the hood of her black cloak. A slight gasp came from Keiko, and Kazuma could not blame her when Mukuro’s face was so heavily eroded in acid. She turned away, not letting Mukuro or Yusuke see her surprise lest she appear rude, but the true surprise came from Yukina who was open mouthed and wide eyed.

Kazuma wondered if she knew who Mukuro was, what she was to Hiei.

“Hello Urameshi.” Mukuro said, untying her cloak from about her neck and draping it over her arm. She was wearing a leather jacket and jeans, an incredibly odd look on her when Kazuma remembered her demon clothing, but it seemed that she’d wanted to blend in as much as possible in human world. This was very difficult to do with half your body parts missing and a cloak on but... Mukuro was trying.

“Hey, Mukuro.” Yusuke was chuffed, quite surprised to see her upon his doorstep but certainly not displeased, “‘Sup? Still doing your thing?”

“As always." Mukuro replied; Kazuma suddenly marveled at how similar the pair of them were. Both were proud fighters and both were head strong in their pursuits. Perhaps like sought like. “I hear it is your birthday.”

“Yeah!” Yusuke gloated, “I’m twenty five years old!” He sounded like a child as he said it, “Whatcha gonna say about that-?!" He demanded, punching her playfully in her bionic arm. Mercifully for him, Mukuro did not make to punch him back (for Kazuma had a feeling that shit would hurt with a metal hand).

“Happy birthday?" She tried with a comical grace.

“Unshakable you are. Come over here I want to introduce you to someone.“ Yusuke glanced at Keiko, and saw an opportunity as he seized Mukuro’s hand and pulled her to the buffet table where Keiko was still chopping preparing dinner. Keiko took off her apron, coming around the island with a kind smile upon her face

“Is there a reason you drag people about like a child-?” Hiei grumbled, for Yusuke had an iron grip on Mukuro’s bionic hand and would not let go.

“This is Keiko!” Yusuke jerked his head to Keiko, and Mukuro tried for a small smile though she still looked relatively confused. “My wife!”

“Hello.” Mukuro said, her tone easy but her posture rather tense. It was obvious that she did not socialize much and probably did not care for wild introductions every ten seconds. She would not last long in the Urameshi household.

“Hello. Welcome to our- home?” Keiko tried, gesturing about, “Also our work space? Is this your first time in human world?”

“It is.” Mukuro said.

“I hope you like it here.” Keiko was nothing if not a kind host.

“I find it enchanting.” Mukuro said, but Yusuke was still bouncing about as he jerked a thumb at Mukuro with a cheesy grin.

“Mukuro’s Hiei’s girlfriend!” Yusuke teased.

“Burn in a fucking hole.” Hiei growled, shrugging off his black cloak as Yusuke cackled with delight.

“With you baby-!” Yusuke said delightedly; Kazuma could see how excited Yusuke was to have all his friends together in one place. “With you all the way! We burn together!”

“Well I’m very glad that Hiei has found someone.” Keiko tried, unsure what to say in light of Yusuke’s bizarre introduction.

“I hear you knit scarves.” Mukuro said, glancing slyly over her shoulder to where Hiei stood yanking off the red scarf from around his neck.

“Hiei!” Keiko gasped as she spotted it, “You’re wearing my scarf-?” She was genuinely touched and Hiei scowled as he yanked the scarf hard from around his neck. Kazuma snickered, knowing Hiei did not like being the center of any sort of affection.

“My other one was ...disposed of!” Hiei warned her, but Keiko would not stop smiling, “I had to find a replacement, quit smiling as if this means something-!”

“Aw, you’re so sweet!” Keiko touched her breast, moved by the thought of Hiei wearing her christmas gift, “I can do matching gloves too but I figured you wouldn’t like them because you carry a sword. But I can do fingerless gloves if you like-!”

“Woman-!” Hiei growled, eager for the conversation to end or at least change topic, but his retort was cut short as Yukina stepped forward from around Keiko to stand before Mukuro. The two women stared at each other, a beat of silence all the introduction they needed. For once in her life, Yukina was more intrigued by the person Hiei had brought than Hiei himself.

“Oh-!” Keiko turned to Yukina as Yukina quickly wiped her hands on a dish towel; her fingers were shaking. “This is-“

“Yukina.” Mukuro finished.

Another beat of silence. It seemed that Mukuro needed no introduction to know who Hiei’s twin was.

Yukina smiled timidly, and Kazuma could hear her short breath as she clasped her trembling hands before her and swallowed.

“Hello Mukuro.” Yukina said; though she hid it well, Kazuma could hear the emotion in her voice.

He didn’t know why but there was a swelling feeling in his chest, fully and warm as it flooded him from his head to his toes. It was truly wonderful to see the two of them meet, and he knew he was smiling.

From the doorway of the living room, Shizuru watched, enchanted.

“I’ve wanted to meet you for a very long time.” Yukina admitted to Mukuro.

“And I you.” Mukuro assured her, her voice soft. “I thank you for your patience.”

“Oh goodness.” Yukina sighed softly with a little chuckle, “Well... I suppose I have plenty of practice.”

“I assure you one day you will not need it anymore.” Mukuro said, and Yukina smiled wider as she beamed up at Mukuro.

“I am much more hopeful now that I have met you.” Yukina agreed, “I feel we can do great things together.”

“I agree.” Mukuro said.

“I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.” Yukina said.

“Oh, should I be worried?” Mukuro teased.

“Oh no.” Yukina shook her head slowly, “All good things.” And she smiled sweetly at Mukuro.

Kazuma glanced at Hiei and saw him taking quite a long time to lay his and Mukuro’s cloaks over the back of the sofa. His eyes were averted, looking away, it seemed he did not want to be a part of this interaction for a long as he could manage it.

Kazuma glanced back at Yukina and she caught his eyes as he nodded his head ever so slightly to Hiei.

“Oh!” Yukina momentarily abandoned Mukuro to quickly embrace Hiei who unfortunately stood and turned just as he came upon him. Hiei was shocked, his face pale with nerves as Yukina held him tight about the neck, smiling into his shoulder.

Mukuro ever so cautiously signaled the act of hugging someone back to Hiei, and Hiei winced as he timidly placed his hands upon Yukina’s waist. She pulled back at once, beaming at him. Hiei seemed unsure of what to expect, eyeing her warily as if she were a bomb that might blow up. Yusuke was back at the wok, grinning at Kazuma as Yukina hugged Hiei.

Tonight was a good night.

Kurama said nothing, having not even been addressed by Hiei or Mukuro yet and keeping silent by Kazuma’s side as Yukina placed a hand ever so lightly upon Hiei’s chest. The chord that held his mother’s stone was long and wide, hidden beneath the collar of his black shirt, but if you looked close enough you could see it. Hiei seemed quit eager to keep Yukina at arms length but she would not allow it, stepping closer every time he tried to take a step back.

“I’m so sorry I was ignoring you!” She apologized. “I haven’t seen you in so long. How are you?”

Hiei could not speak at first though his mouth opened and closed several times.

“...G- fine.” Hiei muttered at last.

“That’s wonderful.” Yukina gushed, “I hoped I would see you tonight, I brought your something since you missed Christmas again-“

“That will not be happening anymore.” Mukuro assured Yukina and Yukina beamed at her momentarily while Hiei gave her a deep and ugly scowl. He had to wipe his expression back to neutral however as Yukina looked back at Hiei with the same smile upon her face.

“I have your present.” Yukina said, and Hiei went another shade paler (which Kazuma had not though possible) as his eyes widened ever so slightly, “I’m gonna go get it, wait right here-!” and before he could stop her she kissed him upon the cheek to hurry off towards the stairs to the second floor where all their coats and purses were. Hiei’s eye twitched as he gingerly touched the spot where she had kissed him, taking several deep breaths as Mukuro approached him with a knowing look.

“Are you alright?” Kazuma heard her murmur, an incredibly soft sentence that he could barely detect above Keiko and Yusuke nagging each other over the wok.

“Give me a minute.” Kazuma saw Hiei mouth, unable to even hear his voice.

“Take your time.” Mukuro looked over her shoulder back to the stairs. The color was slowly returning to Hiei’s face as he took several slow breathes, his expression of neutral irritation momentarily flitting across his face.

“She’s beautiful.” Mukuro said.

“I am aware.” Hiei replied, hoarse.

“She looks just like you.” Mukuro said, glancing over her shoulder every so often to ensure Yukina was still out of ear shot.

“I am aware.”

Mukuro had only a moment to touch his shoulder, a simple act that spoke miles of understanding and support that Kazuma was certain Hiei desperately craved during times when Yukina was so close. Yukina was returning, and she dropped her hand to her side to perch along the back of the couch as Yukina brought Hiei a tiny, flat, square box wrapped in thin silver ribbon. Hiei looked at it, unsure as she pressed it into his hands.

Yukina just smiled, able to wait as long as Hiei needed as Hiei slowly pulled off the silver ribbon. As he removed the lid, a pained expression flitted momentarily across his face upon seeing what lay inside. Hiei pulled out a woven black leather bracelet that had several gems embedded tight to the chords in intricate knots. They were hiroseke stones, hardly bigger than a pinky nail and gleaming bright in the light of the living room. There were nine of them in all.

“...Honestly.” Hiei whispered the word, too moved to make much verbal sense.

“What?” Yukina teased.

“A bracelet.” Hiei said, still too soft to speak above a whisper.

“It’s a good luck charm.” Yukina explained, and she took the bracelet from him to put it around his wrist. Where her skin brushed his, Kazuma could see HIei jumping every so often. “It should do you well. I’m making jewelry now. Soaps and all those sorts of things. I can weave gems now, so I put a bunch of my stones together and made bracelets for my family. To help, you know, with tough days.”

Yukina tried for a hesitant smile, but Hiei did not return it, too transfixed as he stared at the bracelet.

“Hey man, how come Hiei has more stones than the rest of us?” Yusuke joked from the stove; Yukina stuck her tongue out at him.

“Because Hiei has more tough days! Birthday boy." She said the title in warning and Yusuke winced saucily at her.

She turned back to Hiei, but found him still looking at her bracelet. He touched the stones, his fingers running over them even as they trembled ever so lightly.

“I’m glad you like it.” Yukina finally said. “I made that one just for you.”

Hiei closed his eyes, unable to answer.

“Thank you.” Mukuro answered for Hiei, “It’s beautiful.”

Yukina blushed.

“Okay, dinner’s ready so you morons better get around the table if you wanna eat it!” Yusuke jeered.

“Oh, I bet you’re starving!” Yukina took Mukuro by the hand, and Mukuro did not resist her as she pulled her along into the dining room. “Are you coming Hiei?” Yukina asked over her shoulder.

“No thank you.” Hiei snarled at Mukuro’s retreating back, “I am perfectly fine over here, far away from that horrendous woman.”

Shizuru helped Keiko to bring plate after plate of food into the dining room, momentarily pausing as she passed Hiei.

Hiei eyed Shizuru warily.

“Not a bad jewelry maker.” Shizuru said, and Hiei raised an eyebrow. “She’s got a little shop running, you know.”

“Has she.” Hiei drawled.

“You should come by and take a look.”

Hiei rolled his eyes, but his gaze caught the pistol hidden upon Shizuru’s hip. He glowered at her, eyes shifting from the gun to her face.

“Any particular reason you’re carrying a gun?” Hiei sneered.

“I’m a detective.” Shizuru replied, “I always carry a gun.”

Hiei made a noise, no doubt thinking a gun very poor protection indeed.

“Good for safety.” Shizuru mused, as she looked down at her hip, “Awareness like mine... put a gun behind it and you’ve got a powerful line of defense.”

She turned, and grabbed the final pot of miso from the kitchen as Kurama and Kazuma fetched pitchers of green tea.

“Very nice.” Kurama murmured under his breath as Hiei slipped away from the sofa to head into the dining room where Yukina was passing out plates. He gaze Shizuru a comforting smile as he closed the refrigerator door with his hip. “Not too forward but it got the point across.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about Kurama.” Shizuru warned. re adjusting her grip upon the handles of the heavy carrying bowl. The handles were too hot for her bare skin, so she folded up two dish towels till they could work as pot holders.

“I’m in your corner.” Kurama assured her, but Shizuru just gave him a small scowl as she left the kitchen with the bowl of miso in tow.

Kazuma snorted, smiling at Kurama. He suddenly realized they were alone in the kitchen and living room; before anyone else walked in he leaned in and kissed Kurama softly on the lips. Kurama smiled against his mouth, looking back at the door of the dining room before kissing him again.

Kazuma pulled back just in time as Yusuke poked his head around the corner.

“Would y’all quit suckin’ face and bring in the tea.” Yusuke complained loudly.

“I have no idea what you are talking about, Yusuke.” Kurama said defensively, heading into the dining room even as Yusuke leered at them.

There was nothing quite like eating with your friends around a table, sitting side by side with your shoes off and your knees touching from the cramped space. Given that there were eight of them, each pair could take a side of the table as they passed around plates of food. Kazuma could not help himself, constantly finding his gaze falling upon Hiei and Mukuro as they ate and bickered with one another (much to everyone else’s amusement).

Kazuma tried not to look too much into the fact that Hiei had chosen to sit between him and Mukuro, knowing that Hiei had probably done it to avoid sitting next to Yukina (who was on Mukuro’s other side). Still he smiled as he watched Mukuro eat human food for the first time. She kept getting funny looks on her face, struck by the taste as she looked from Hiei to Yusuke.

“This is really good.” Kazuma heard her mutter twice to Hiei. Hiei just snickered.

 

“How have you found human world so far?” Kurama asked Mukuro.

“Quite bright, rather like Gandara for its technology and city scape.” Mukuro admitted. Kurama nodded, no doubt sympathetic with her new assimilation, “I haven’t seen much of the wilderness though Hiei tells me the woods are really peaceful and deep here-“

Yusuke made a knowing noise and Keiko smacked him lightly on the thigh with a warning. Naturally, Yusuke ignored her warning and dove right in to being an ass.

“What else does Hiei tell you?” Yusuke said in an alluring voice, wiggling his eyebrows at Mukuro. It only served to make her laugh as she took a sip of her tea.

“That you love to rile him up and will stop at nothing for a fight.” Mukuro replied.

“He knows me well.” Yusuke put on an air of emotion as if Mukuro had pronounced Hiei to be his greatest fan instead of easily annoyed by him.

“Are you staying the night?” Kurama asked, but as Mukuro opened her mouth Hiei opened his and suddenly they were talking over one another.

“We intended-“

“You intended-“ Hiei corrected her tersely.

“We intended to stay the night and-“

“I will stay where I damn well please-“

“You will stay with me seeing as I do not know how humans-“ but as Hiei opened his mouth again, Mukuro turned on him, her violet eye shining brightly, “I’m sorry Hiei is the middle of my sentence interrupting the beginning of your sentence again? How very unfortunate for you that I should be talking before you-“

“How very unfortunate for me that you even talk at all.” Hiei replied with a sneer.

“Stay with us.” Kazuma offered as Mukuro opened her mouth to jilt Hiei again; he glanced at Kurama and found him nodding with a smile. “We live right across the street!”

Yusuke was snickering again, but Keiko just hit him harder on the thigh.

“Whatever.” Hiei grumbled, busying himself with his soup so as to avoid speaking. Mukuro seemed content with the plan, catching Kazuma’s eyes.

He could suddenly remember with clarity all the times they’d sat together in demon world, when the smell of corpses had filled his nose instead of sautéed pork. It still amazed him that Mukuro was here in human world, sitting at Keiko’s grandparent’s table as if she’d always been there.

“How’s Kirin?” He asked Mukuro, simply because he knew it would piss Hiei off on several levels.

Mukuro grinned slyly as Hiei scowled into his nearly empty soup bowl.

“A pain in my fucking ass.” Hiei cursed at Kazuma, “Why do you ask?”

“I didn’t know if you two had gotten any... closure. I mean, you didn’t exactly mean all that stuff you said to him. I hope he knows that.” Kazuma offered, “If only so that you don’t have to listen to him complaining.”

Hiei glared at Kazuma dully.

“He complains no matter what.” Hiei corrected Kazuma.

“Kirin knows that HIei was having a bad day.” Mukuro assured Kazuma, and Kazuma was relieved to hear as much. Kirin was a nice guy, he didn’t deserve to be sneered at, “Believe it or not, Kirin and HIei can be quite good friends when they’re not trying to murder each other.”

Hiei mimicked her voice as he drained his soup bowl, muttering nastily into the black bowl though neither of them could understand a word of what he was saying.

“I could have sworn Kurama was Hiei’s best friend.” Kazuma said, and Mukuro smiled.

“Kurama is practically like a brother to Hiei-“

Hiei made a loud sneering noise as he got up and left the table, taking his empty soup bowl with him.

“Whatever delusions you suffer from I will not suffer with you!” Hiei scowled as he left the room for the kitchen.

“Thank you, Hiei.” Kurama called out after Hiei’s retreating back, slowly eating his rice with a small smile, “I feel quite the same way.”

They heard Hiei curse angrily from the kitchen, and Yusuke had to bow his head as he hid a laugh behind a hand.

Poor Hiei. No wonder he hating socializing.

Now that Hiei was preoccupied, Kazuma leaned in a little to speak to Mukuro alone, and found her waiting with an expectant expression. Perhaps she’d known he was curious about how Hiei was doing.

“How is he?” Kazuma asked, refilling Mukuro’s tea cup along with his own as they emptied.

“He’s fine." Mukuro murmured back, and Kazuma was relieved to hear as much, “He was upset for a while but I’m helping him to understand that he had nothing to do with Gorobi’s actions. That it wasn’t his fault. It’s mostly the inner questioning now.”

“Yeah, that’ll drive you crazy.” Kazuma agreed, for Kurama’s depression was not subdued even now when suicide was far from his mind.

“Sometimes he has bad dreams.” Mukuro admitted, “Visions from the past. Things that make him afraid of closing his eyes. I’m there to sooth him for the most part, but he’ll try and hide from me in an attempt to save face." She smiled at Kazuma as she blew across the surface of her steaming tea, “We know our dance.”

Kazuma was more than aware of it now, how Hiei would jerk away only to come running back to Mukuro’s open arms. How Mukuro would poke and prod him, forcing him to step up even when he didn’t want to.

They truly were an incredible team.

“How is Kurama?” Mukuro asked, her voice still low though Kazuma had a feeling Kurama could hear every word they were saying despite how he talked to Yusuke and Keiko.

“Fine.” Kazuma said, “We got a box of his mother’s stuff a couple of days ago. He cried for a while but... I was there. So, you know, same as you. I sooth him.”

Mukuro raised her tea cup to him.

“To soothing." She said.

“To soothing.” Kazuma agreed, raising his own tea cup. Hiei was back, and the pair of them pulled away as he slid in between them with a refilled soup bowl.

“Here I was thinking you bonded with Hiei!” Yusuke said, gesturing to Mukuro.

“Maybe I bonded with both of them, you know? People can do that.” Kazuma warned him. Yusuke just snorted.

“Oho, whatever-“

“You’re just jealous cause you didn’t get to go camping with HIei and Mukuro.”

“Yeah that’s me.” Yusuke sneered, “Jealous as hell.”

Kazuma could not resist the temptation.

“I’ll go camping with you if you like!” He offered, but he knew that Yusuke hated the woods and wanted nothing to with the entire idea.

“Uh, how about no?” Yusuke scorned. Kazuma laughed in spite of himself, “I didn’t like camping with idiots when I was fourteen and I don’t like it now when I’m twenty five.”

“Kazuma is not an idiot.” Hiei corrected Yusuke.

Yusuke did a double take, staring at Hiei from across the table with newfound appreciation. Kazuma flushed, saying nothing lest he spoil such a precious moment. Hiei glared at Yusuke as he continued to stare with his mouth open.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Hiei demanded of Yusuke.

“Wha-?” Yusuke closed his mouth, coming back to himself as he coughed and returned to his nearly empty plate, “Nothing, just... glad you’re here with us Hiei. Please fight me-?” Yusuke asked for what was surely the twentieth time that evening.

“Please fuck off.” Hiei growled.

“Hiei, I can’t figure it out.” Shizuru spoke up, catching Hiei’s eye, “Where do you live in demon world? Everyone’s giving me random answers.”

“We actually live on the move.” Mukuro explained when Hiei did not answer Shizuru’s question. “In a... caravan of sorts.”

“It’s really incredible!” Kazuma boasted to Shizuru, wishing she could see the bug herself. No words could do it justice, “It's amazing. The architecture on their craft reminds me of something from the gothic era, the power behind each of its moving legs can punch holes the size of cars into the earth. They call it the bug, but trust me... it’s no firefly.” Kazuma said.

Shizuru looked quite impressed.

“I’m glad you liked my bug.” Mukuro said smugly.

“I loved your bug!” Kazuma said, proud of the delight in her voice, “I want one of my own!”

“But heavens, think of the parking.” Kurama joked on Kazuma’s other side. Kazuma nudged him lightly with his elbow; ever the practical one, Kurama.

“And just so I am correct-“ Shizuru warned Hiei again, “Mukuro is your girlfriend?”

Hiei rolled his eyes, muttering something into his cup.

“That could be a word for it.” Mukuro said with a pleasant smile.

“So it’s a little more serious.” Shizuru asked.

“Quite.” Mukuro nodded.

“But you’re not married-“

“God help me.” Hiei growled aloud, setting down his soup bowl to rub his brow as if suddenly pained by a severe headache.

“I don’t know what you’re waiting for Hiei!” Yusuke said, “You might as well marry her, you love her enough! I married Keiko and that was the best move of my life!” Yusuke said. Keiko smiled up at him, scrunching up her nose in delight as Yusuke kissed her charmingly upon the cheek.

“Burn in hell.” Hiei grumbled, his cheeks flushing in irritation as he looked away from them all.

“Aww, you’re blushing!” Yusuke crowed, “You want to ask her don’t you!”

Hiei made a deep angry growl, a violent noise that boded ill and images of things set on fire.

“Yusuke.” Mukuro said, and her tone made it quite clear to not push Hiei anymore, “It is not your job to heckle him.”

“That’s your job, right?” Yusuke offered with a charismatic grin.

“Indeed.” Mukuro said smugly.

“And she’s damn good at it so don’t egg her on any more!” Hiei snarled, his eyes blazing as he turned to glare at Yusuke.

“I wish we’d see you around more often.” Yukina spoke up, and all the anger was suddenly sucked from Hiei as he glanced at his sister. Though no one else could see it, Kazuma could see Hiei’s fingers trembling where they hid beneath the table.

God, he really was terrified of Yukina.

“I’m uh, busy.” Hiei grumbled.

“No you’re not.” Mukuro warned softly.

“Yes I am.” Hiei growled back.

“No you’re not.” And she looked at him knowingly.

“Yeah technically you’re screwing your boss so can’t you just lay it down for Mukuro and then take a couple days off? You know, let her really have it-“

“Do you want to fight me, Yusuke?!” Hiei spat, his cheeks quite pink as Mukuro rubbed her temple with her bionic hand, “Is that what you want?! Is that why you’re acting like a child!?”

“Yes!" Yusuke cried out exasperatedly.

“Then get outside!” Hiei snarled, wrenching up from the table to grab his sword by his side.

“Hell yes!” Yusuke cried out, jerking away from the table to run for the stairs to the second floor.

“Oh for god’s sake!” Keiko begged, “You guys know you can’t be seen-!” But they were already heading for the door, neither caring for the chaos they left in their wake.

“Hiei you really need to learn better social skills-“ Mukuro taunted. “You’re playing into his hand-!”

“Shuttup you stupid-!”

“Yes, yes,” Mukuro waved a hand with an irritable sigh, “Shuttup you stupid bitch, I love you too, I hope Yusuke breaks your jaw." Mukuro grumbled into her tea cup.

Yukina laughed, covering her mouth with a hand.

“You are a true blessing.” Yukina complimented her.

“Some would say.” Mukuro shrugged.

" I would say.” Yukina said, and Mukuro smiled at her.
Kazuma felt Kurama’s hand upon his thigh, and reached under the table to clasp it firmly.

~*~

As soon as the meal was done, Kurama made to help Keiko and Yukina clean up while Kazuma and Shizuru went outside to watch Yusuke and Hiei spar one another (from the sound of Hiei cursing and Yusuke crowing it was getting quite heated). They used the kitchen on the first floor simply because it was bigger and had deeper sinks in which to wash, but Kurama noted that Yukina and Mukuro vanished after depositing dirty plates and cups into the sink.to Despite wanting to help her, Keiko seemed happy to wash alone, perhaps needing a moment to herself after the raucous dinner upstairs. Kurama left her, wandering around the empty first floor and wondering where Yukina and Mukuro had gone off to till he spotted both women sitting outside on a private dining patio. Leaning over the balcony to look out on Sariashiki’s dazzling skyline blinking in neon, they stood side by side with their backs to the door where Kurama watched in the dark behind a lowered screen.

He felt incredibly nosy, seeing this moment between the two women, but it was very difficult to tear himself away. Not when he knew what would surely be the topic at hand.

 

“I suppose you are aware that Hiei is my brother.” Yukina murmured, looking up at the night sky. The stars were difficult to see, so far into the city.

“Very.” Mukuro said; the neon lights reflected upon her scarred skin as if it were made of water, each and scar and crease thrown into deep shadow with hues of crimson, emerald, and topaz “Hiei has told me everything, including the reason for his silence. Our hearts are one; we hide nothing from each other. His pain is as familiar to me as my own... and I understand the difficulty we face ahead of us.”

The ‘we’ did not go unnoticed by Kurama.

For a moment, Yukina said nothing, looking down at the tile beneath her. Kurama could see the tension so pronounced within her shoulders, the pain hidden beneath her tiny frame like an atom bomb ready to explode.

“Why does he...?” Yukina could not finish the sentence.

Kurama winced at the hurt in her voice, leaning gently upon the wall as he crossed his arms over his chest.

“He is terrified.” Mukuro admitted to her, “He imagines certain things will happen should he ever disclose the truth to you.’

“What does he imagine?” Yukina demanded, hurt and angry from the sheer idiocy of it all even as Mukuro continued to look out onto the city.

“Scorn and disgust.” Mukuro murmured. Yukina scoffed, looking away. Kurama saw her wipe her eyes, “Horror and repulsion. Each idea more ridiculous than the last but, I swear to you...” She looked at Yukina, reaching out to touch her hand upon the balcony railing, “There is a part of him, a tiny beautiful part of him, that hopes. Every time he looks at you, every time he sees your love, that part grows and the fear shrinks. One day, the hope will be stronger, bolder than the fear... and on that day he will speak."

Mukuro was incredibly wise. Kurama was moved by the clear affection in her voice.

Yukina sighed, allowing her fingers to curl around Mukuro’s own.

“You have no idea, what a relief it is.” Yukina certainly sounded relieved, the anger gone from her voice to leave it weak and timid, “To speak to someone who knows him so well. Who loves him so much.” Yukina touched her neck with her other hand, the emotion returning back to her voice, “Who I can talk to in my hours of need. I have many hours of need when it comes to my brother."

Mukuro did not look away, strong in the face of pain.

“I am truly sorry.” Mukuro murmured.

Yukina sniffed, smiling at her faintly, “It’s okay.” Yukina whispered, “For every tear that I’ve shed I have a feeling he’s shed about two hundred of his own....” But even though she’d tried to sound comical in her tone, her pain became appallingly evident as she looked away, her hand over hr mouth.

“My poor-“ Yukina hesitated, her voice cracking, “My poor brother.”

Kurama’s heart throbbed in his breast as he heard the tears in Yukina’s voice.

“I just want someone to be kind to him for once. To love him.” Yukina was angry and hurt, hateful at the world for all its cruelty and spite, “Sometimes I wonder why that is so much to ask of people.”

Mukuro looked down.

Her brow was furrowed.

“I... understand the emotion completely." Mukuro murmured, and her voice was thick with distress all her own.

Kurama had never seen Mukuro so torn, even when Hiei had left for Gorobi.

“But...” Yukina turned with a heavy sigh, her tears receding from her voice as she smiled up at Mukuro and licked her chapped lips, “I look at you... and I see how much you love him, and I have hope.”

Mukuro looked away again, rubbing her brow with her free hand even as her bionic one still lay in Yukina’s grip.

“I have hope that... he’ll have hope.” Yukina said. “Is that strange?”

“I hope not.” Mukuro murmured, her voice still thick with emotion.

“We sure are talking a lot about hope.” Yukina whispered. Mukuro scoffed softly, a tiny weak laugh.

Yukina stared up into Mukuro’s face as if bidden to memorize it, searching every detail she found there for something only she could see.

“He loves you.” She said.

“I know.” Mukuro smiled as she looked back at Yukina, “I love him.”

“He may say things that are-“

“Yukina...” Mukuro cut her off with another small laugh, her smile returning, “I promise you, I have had many opportunities to think about the things your brother says to me, and I assure you. I know I’m in his heart.”

Yukina was relieved.

“I have a communicator.” She said, “I want your number, so we can... keep tabs on him together.”

“Oh my.” Mukuro laughed at the thought, “What a charming notion.”

“We’ll make him see the light.” Yukina joked.

“We’ll give him no choice.” Mukuro grinned.

“No mercy.” Yukina said, and Mukuro was charmed by her words.

“You are so much like him...” She said, looking down at Yukina. Kurama wondered if she, like he, could see the striking resemblance between the two twins. “I see him in your face.”

“Well we are twins.” Yukina smiled sweetly.

“You are everything he refuses to be on the outside. Every hope, every prayer... every moment of beautiful vulnerability is found in you. You are the image of his innocence... and for that I treasure you.” Mukuro said, and Yukina blushed.

“And what are you?” Yukina parried. She reached up, and with a timid hand she touched Mukuro’s scarred cheek, “But his strength and warmth... his love and his courage to soldier on...”

Mukuro smiled.

“I see him in you, I really do. You’re both so similar... but you’re different. You’re unafraid. You’re all that he could be if... he would just...”

“... Hope?” Mukuro offered.
Yukina nodded.

Mukuro sighed, the weight of Yukina’s word heavy on her chest as she reached up to touch Yukina’s cheek with her natural hand. She marveled at the softness of the skin, perhaps feeling man she loved beneath her fingers.

“I promise you.” Mukuro murmured soft and low, “I will fight every day to get him to hope. If you will promise me the same, if you will promise to never give up... then the pair of us may stand a chance.”

“I promise.” Yukina said, and there were tears in her eyes once again. “I’m just... really glad I finally have someone on my side.”

Mukuro let out a breath, her natural eye darkening with emotion. She took Yukina in her arms without the slightest hesitation, her bionic arm cradling Yukina’s head with love as her metal fingers sifted through her teal hair.

Kurama looked away, knowing full well that he shouldn’t be watching such a scene. He’d heard more than enough, and his heart was heavy with the knowledge of Mukuro and Yukina’s suffering. He knew the road ahead of them was long and treacherous, marred by every man in Hiei’s life who had told him he was unworthy or damned. Yet it was inspiring to see the pair of them band together, sister and lover, a strong and unbending force that might yet stand a chance at changing Hiei’s self image; Kurama looked away, but nearly jumped out of his skin as he realized Hiei was standing right next to him.

“Inari-!” Kurama cried out, frightened senseless as he clutched at his pounding breast. How long had Hiei been behind him, watching him in the dark? Kurama did not know, nor did he care to know as Hiei glared dully at him. His cheek was bruised, no doubt from Yusuke’s fist, but he certainly looked in a better mood as he raised a wary black eyebrow at Kurama.

“what the hell are you doing?” Hiei asked Kurama.

“Just thinking.” Kurama stuttered, still quite surprised, “Is that such a crime- what happened to your cheek-?” He asked, reaching out to touch it.

“My cheek is nothing compared to that bastard detectives gut.” Hiei growled, and Kurama could imagine the state Yusuke was in as Hiei stormed past him; when he caught sight of Mukuro and Yukina on the balcony together (mercifully no longer holding one another) he stopped dead and became suddenly very pale and still.

He glanced at Kurama.
Kurama shook his head a little, silently assuring Hiei that nothing had happened he ought to be worried about.

Still, Hiei was unconvinced.

Hiei opened the balcony door, stepping out onto it and into the cool night air. Mukuro and Yukina did not seem surprised to see them, both relaxing against the railing once more.

“What are you.... What are you doing?” Hiei asked Mukuro.

He sounded horrified.

“Nothing.” Mukuro assured him softly, “We’re just... talking about your shitty fighting skills.” She tried for a grin but HIei did not return it still very unsure.

“It’s fine HIei.” Mukuro murmured. Hiei did not seem to agree.

“I was defending your fighting skills.” Yukina offered, emboldening Mukuro’s lie, “She was saying you could improve.”

“Perhaps.” Hiei growled, still quite nervous.

Kurama watched the dark, biting his lip.

“I think you give yourself far too little credit.” Yukina continued on, swallowing as she spoke, “You are an incredible fighter, the best that I know.”

“I have often felt the same way.” Mukuro said softly.

“You are swift and strong, and you know your opponents as well as yourself.” Yukina said.

“You are unfazed by their egos.” Mukuro added.

“And iron willed in your own.” Yukina finished.

“In short, a perfect warrior.” Mukuro smiled.

“A legendary warrior.” Yukina said.

Hiei just stared, his mouth slightly open though no sound or words came out.

“Though your repose is a tad bit rusty and could use some shaping up.” Mukuro poked with a sly grin.

“I disagree.” Yukina chatted.

“Really?” Mukuro warned, “Watch him when he throws a left blow with his sword. He lands far too hard on his left foot. Should an enemy trip him then, he’d be in the dirt. As a matter of fact, that has often happened in my presence. Such mediocrity cannot be tolerated.”

“Oh you tease him.” Yukina smiled at Mukuro.

Hiei seemed able to breath again, looking down for a moment before at last speaking up.

“I do not know what madness has pursue you to say such things but... I will take no part in it.” Hiei’s voice was hoarse; Kurama could see how terrified he was, how nervous.

Something big was inside Hiei, threatening to burst.
It was painfully obvious.

“Perhaps it’s for the best.” Yukina tried, for some reason suddenly nervous too, “One of us has to keep our head on straight....” She paused, “But I truly believe you to be the greatest of men.”

“And I agree.” Mukuro murmured, “Despite your shitty footwork.”

“With all your flaws.” Yukina’s voice was thick with emotion, “You are... truly incredible to my heart.”

Hiei was speechless.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Kurama watched as Hiei continued to try and speak, more and more, a phrase on the tip of his tongue but not spilling forward. He could not look away from Yukina, his eyes full of longing and sorrow as he tried again and again to speak.

Kurama put a hand over his own mouth, realizing that Hiei was about to say it-!

But Hiei looked down, his nerve flying from him like a bird from the trees. Kurama winced in the darkness as Yukina’s face fell from brilliant hope to terrible despair.

Yukina looked away to hide her miserable expression.

“... There’s a park nearby.” Mukuro whispered suddenly, “Show me it.” She caught Hiei’s eye.

He nodded somberly, turning and walking away through the darkened restaurant. Mukuro squeezed Yukina’s shoulder as she departed.

Yukina looked back around, watching Mukuro go; there were tears falling from her eyes.

She saw Kurama there in the dark of the shop.

Yukina gestured helplessly to Hiei’s retreating back.

“He was gonna say it-“ Yukina whimpered, more and more tears falling from her eyes, “I know it. I know he was gonna-“

But she could not continue on.

Kurama could not stand it; he quickly strode out onto the balcony to hold her in his arms. She seemed desperate to hold onto someone, desperate to hide her face in someone’s shirt for a moment as she grief and despair washed over her. He had utterly no idea what to say to her, and felt truly sorry for her as she cried into his shirt. He supposed words would not suffice in a moment like this. One could not verbally proclaim loss; the could only feel it.

~*~

Keiko had found herself much occupied when the others had finally left, her house and restaurant quiet but her bedroom wild with noise and movement as Yusuke pressed so much love upon her she thought her heart would burst. The entire night she’d been fretful, thinking of nothing but the future as her family sat clustered around her grandparent’s table. In truth, she’d been nervous for weeks now, but as she lay in Yusuke’s arms amid the quiet of their room she found she could no longer deny the presence of her fear in his silence. He was still awake, his fingers trailing gently through her hair, and she watched him as he ran a hand down the side of her face, across her breast still flushed with sweat, down her stomach-

Keiko caught his hand and held it there before it could go any further, needing to feel his hand there upon her belly.

Needing him to caress what was so deep inside her.

Yusuke smiled at her, that gentle loping smile which warmed her heart so much; his careless charm had captivated her all through her life, and when he made love to her she was awash in a sea of him... drowned in his delight as his manhood throbbed deep within her-

Keiko shuddered at the memory not even an hour old.

“What’s up?” Yusuke whispered, his face barely illuminated by the soft gray light that filtered through the edges of their blackout curtains.

“... I wanted to tell you something, but not until we were alone.” Keiko admitted.

“well hell,” Yusuke looked left and right with sarcastic charm, “I think we’re alone now.”

She touched his face, running her hands over his cheeks and through his hair... freshly washed, no longer gelled.

How she loved touching his hair when it was soft like this, practically silk in her hands.

The more Yusuke stared at her, the more Keiko found herself rendered speechless. The weight of her words, the true knowledge of what lay before them, was so great that she didn’t know how to explain it to him.

He sat up a little to look her better in the face, tilting his head to kiss her palm sweetly.

Keiko trailed her fingers over his lips; those brassy wild mounds that could move the very earth if they so chose.

What would they say when she told him?

“... Yusuke, I’m pregnant.”

Yusuke looked down at her, and for one split second it seemed he had not heard her, but as Keiko continued to look at her, he suddenly sat up, looking quite petrified much to her horror. She sat up too, afraid for every breath that he took as he looked about their room for some kind of refuge, some kind of answer.

“W-what?” Yusuke jerked a bit as she touched his arm.

She tried not to wince.

“I um...” She suddenly realized that his reaction would not be one of joy or hope, and it filled her with such a horrible misery that she could not stand it; she did not know how she found the strength to speak, but did not try and hide the tears from her voice, “I checked. A couple of times just to be certain. I’m about three weeks.”

Yusuke was shaking, pale as he suddenly gasped for air.

“Yusuke, it’s gonna be okay.” She whimpered, trying to touch his arm again. He didn’t jerk away this time, but he certainly didn’t look at her either, “This is a good thing, because I love you and you love me... and we’ve got a great home, and a stable income, and we’re smart... and we know what we want from life. So this is a good thing-“

But Yusuke would not stop shaking.
The terror in his face was so heavy, sucking at his soul even as tried to speak.

“Well you’re.. you’re so smart.” He said, his words tiny, “And kind. Course you’d... be a great mom. You’d... know what to do. You’d do it well. Me, I’m...”

Yusuke seized, and Keiko pressed a hand over her mouth to hide her pity as tears slipped out of Yusuke’s eyes.

“I’m not dad material, let’s face it.”

Yusuke wiped at his eyes angrily, his fist balled tight into a fist.

“It’s okay to be scared-“ Keiko whispered, but Yusuke shook his head, cutting her off.

“Is it?” He turned, and though he glared at her, none of his anger was to be her burden. It was self hatred that she saw, shame and disgrace. “Is it okay?”

And his voice break.
He turned away from Keiko at once, covering his mouth with both his hands. His sobs, though muffled, were like thunder in Keiko’s ears; thunder that rolled across their empty bedroom, blackening the night. She took him in her arms, pulling at him, trying to urge him into her arms; he fell without direction or purpose into her lap, suddenly cradled upon her naked thighs like a terrified child as he wept.

She pressed her hands upon his back and head; she had seen him weep many times before, but never from fear. Never from sheer panic. Nothing had ever scared Yusuke so much before, to send him into such a state of comatose terror. It was a testament to the true weight of their predicament.

Keiko rubbed his back, holding in her own tears for his sake.
“Shh.” She felt the noise slip past her lips, a prayer more than a command as Yusuke sobbed into her naked skin.

What on earth were they going to do now?