Genkai dies in her sleep. Yukina has just heated a kettle for tea and is waiting until she hears Genkai go through her morning routine to steep the leaves. The water cools before she can. Only the birds clustering on the windowsill make a peep. For once Yukina lets them in, knowing she won’t receive lip from Genkai for inviting their mess; knowing she’ll need the company to face what she’s about to face; knowing, as she knew in her bones when she put on the kettle, that Genkai is gone.
Kurama arrives before Yukina can peel herself away from the bedside. The birds flee from the fox, whose hand replaces them on her shoulder. Gently he leads her back to the cold kettle, hinting that Botan needs space to work. For the second time that morning Yukina’s heart breaks, this time for Botan, who’s already done this once and of course wouldn’t want a friend to see her do it again. It breaks a third time when Kurama hands Yukina a quivering cup.
By the time the others have assembled, Botan has come and gone. Yukina doesn’t see her, but she feels the loss and hears Urameshi scream in the forest. Nobody speaks in the temple except Kazuma, who eventually lends his voice to Urameshi’s, leaving the rest to listen to their tribute. Keiko’s arms smother her sobs, Shizuru rubbing her back instead of crying herself. Yukina dares not even let her clothes rustle in the breeze coming through the open window.
As Genkai’s heirs, the group proceeds with funeral preparations in lieu of relatives. The rites are as traditional as they can manage despite that, Yukina is told. Belatedly they take turns moistening Genkai’s lips, then wash and dress her. Everyone wears black for the wake and funeral, a solemnity that Yukina understands but which crushes her most somehow. She came from a monochromatic world. Recently she’s begun wearing pinks and browns and oranges, joining the collage of colors that make up her friends. Today they’re indistinguishable, muddled into one shared pain.
Nobody sees—or at least nobody acknowledges—Hiei arrive, but it’s his fire that cremates her, and the candles beside Kurama’s white chrysanthemums and lilies are lit with black flames. They pass the bones around with chopsticks before packing them into an urn and burning incense. A grave is erected behind the temple. Koenma himself appears to assure them that Genkai is headed where she’s meant to go.
As the days pass, the group thins out, returning to jobs or school or simply escaping the pile of stones in the yard. The Kuwabaras don’t leave without Yukina, who silently follows them onto the train, watching the birds flit around the closed doors before disappearing from her view.
Shizuru offers her bed to Yukina. Instead Yukina sleeps on the couch, but she wakes to find the siblings have spread blankets on the floor, so the next night she takes the bed. The sheets she cocoons herself in smell of cigarettes. She remembers incense burnt with black flames and longs for the mountain air.
Over breakfast she tells the Kuwabaras that she’s planning to return. They compare schedules to see who can take her to visit, and she shakes her head.
“I can go by myself. I’m living there, after all.”
“You are?” Kazuma asks.
“Of course. That’s its purpose now, after all.”
“No, it’s for demons to—” He swallows a bite of rice and egg along with his words. Yukina twists her hands in her lap, her food untouched. The cup Shizuru sets down clacks hard against the table, but her voice is velvet.
“I’ll go with you this afternoon and make sure you have everything you need, okay?”
Gratefully Yukina nods. If they’d tried to argue, she wouldn’t have had the energy.
As promised, they escort her to the temple, check the food and utilities, and visit Genkai’s grave before Shizuru drags Kazuma away. “Call us if you need anything,” she says. Yukina thanks her, watches them descend the steps, and then collapses. She ends up spending the night in the forest, breathing in the dirt and leaves.
She’s prepared to be alone, or so she tells herself, but the group comes in rotations to burn incense and sit with Genkai. They always say hello to Yukina, who can’t summon more than a few words in response, taking comfort in their energies outside as she sweeps the floors and prepares simple meals.
Soon after days begin to stretch between visits, Yukina sees the first demon. He’s clinging to a tree branch on all fours, a tail longer than the rest of him curled around it. To her dismay a squirrel tail pokes out of his mouth, and when she calls out a greeting he unwinds himself from the branch and scuttles up into the canopy.
The next week, a silhouette of a hawk passes over the steps. It turns out not to be a hawk at all, but a demon gliding in circles to scope out the territory. Wary of the new predators, the animals gather around Yukina more than ever while she makes her rounds, aware of the demon watching her.
A week later Yukina goes down to the shore, remembering how joyously she and her friends played there after hearing Genkai’s will, and sees scales shimmering silver under the water.
All of the demons are smaller than her, their energies faint enough to suggest they’d die in a fight in their home world. None of them will speak to her.
She doesn’t push them. In the temple she performs Buddhist rituals Genkai adhered to, hoping that if she sets the example some of the demons will become curious enough to enter. The birds have begun to make nests inside, squirrels and rabbits hopping about the front room, and the demons stay away. A couple of times she thinks she feels Hiei’s energy out among the trees, but she assumes it’s wishful thinking.
Kazuma visits as often as a busy student can manage. He takes the steps up two at a time, but even his jokes feel forced. From within the temple he can sense every new demon hiding on the land, sometimes warning Yukina, sometimes letting them be. Each time he leaves he asks her if she really wants to stay, and each time she says yes. He trudges down the stairs.
One visit he’s especially solemn. The angles of his face have changed since they first met, Yukina notices as she studies the lines there now. This time he doesn’t ask her if she wants to stay, and she doesn’t see him again for longer than he’s gone without visiting. Perhaps he decided to focus on human friends after all, she thinks, even as she chides herself for her lack of faith in him.
When he appears again, she’s so happy she almost hugs him. His seriousness makes her invite him politely inside instead. He asks her how she is, apologizes for being so busy, asks her how she is again. She says she’s fine, it’s fine, she’s fine.
“I have to tell you some stuff,” he says once they’re kneeling across from each other at the table. She pours his tea and waits.
“You know, I never cared whether you were a demon or a human, but…” Kazuma sighs into his cup. “Kurama says ignoring our differences does you a disservice, or however he said it, and it makes me put my foot in my mouth. Anyway, both Shizuru and I want you to know you can stay with us anytime you want.”
Yukina’s shoulders drop from relief. For the first time in weeks, tears form in her eyes. She forces them back, not wanting him to see the gems hit the ground.
As far as she’s concerned, that settles matters, but Kazuma looks green. Jerkily he rises, announcing that they’re going down to the beach. The sky is pink over the water, and the water demon’s scales catch the color before slipping away with a splash.
Yukina turns to Kazuma, meaning to comment on the sight, or maybe the memories this place invokes. He blurts out a question before she can.
“Will you grow old with me?”
“No, I won’t,” she says. He looks stricken; she thought he knew. “Demons live much longer than humans.”
“Oh. Nah, I know that. That wasn’t what I—I mean, it means—I’m asking you to marry me.”
The water tickles her toe. She laughs, a sound harsh from lack of use. He throws up on her feet.
It takes several rounds of chasing and nursing before they sit down on the steps and talk about it. It’s a halting conversation, full of starts and stops and rewinding. By the end they’re not quite on the same page, but at least they realize that much.
“S-so, the point is, it’s not me. You aren’t interested in marryin’ anyone, right?” he asks, his voice as squeaky as it’s been since they sat. She nods. Among her people marriage was taboo, but she isn’t bound to their laws. She simply can’t wrap her head around that sort of love, not now, maybe not ever, and that’s fine with her as long as she isn’t alone. “I guess… I guess that’s not so bad,” he mumbles.
She touches his arm. “I’d love to live with you and Shizuru, though, if you’ll still have me.” The day has made her realize how little they know about each other, things he’s willing to share whereas the demons around the temple still hide at her approach.
“Of course we will!” he says. He reaches for her hand the way he did when they first met, hesitant and twitching, and she squeezes before letting go.
The night Yukina moves in, she finds a mint green toothbrush on the bathroom counter beside the blue and yellow ones. The toothpaste’s taste matches her brush’s color, and it comforts her to think they’ll all go to bed with the same breath. She doesn’t dare mention how the brush’s fibers catch in her fangs. In the morning Kazuma twists this way and that in front of the mirror, making strange faces until his teeth sparkle, and though she thinks it would be fun to do it beside him, she doesn’t.
The windows of Keiko’s ramen shop and the mirrors of the stores where Shizuru takes her to buy clothes display further differences. Unlike the girls’ smooth bangs, her hair gathers in points like icicles, and none of them have red eyes. Together with her toothpaste-colored hair (winter green, she’s told), her features draw the attention of everyone she passes. Shizuru offers to dye her hair and buy her colored lenses, but she declines. She’s learned that if she smiles, most people will smile back before ducking their heads away. On days she can’t summon one, their own mouths stay level or dip down.
It’s something she’s noticed about humans. If they care for each other, the imitations run deeper. When Keiko rests her hip against the counter, Urameshi leans against it in a slouched half-imitation, and Shizuru’s shoulders never drop unless Kazuma is folded over a desk. But Yukina’s still practicing smiling on command, and her own posture is always stiff, her steps short even without her kimono, though the Kuwabaras’ long legs eat up a square of concrete with each lunge.
She hasn’t seen enough of Demon World to know if this mirroring is unique to humans, or if Hiei is just strange. He only smiles when someone else is frowning, and the reverse; he doesn’t face people, either his chin or the frame of his shoulders pointing away; he sits, stands, and lies on surfaces others won’t sit, stand, or lie on, in positions they wouldn’t take; and he keeps his hands in his pockets while others gesture wildly with their own, his eyes rarely meeting theirs.
That’s one area in which only he is her mirror. Fire behind glass, on the same level, or would be if he hadn’t taken to wearing heeled boots. She’s noticed, too, that he softens when she does and frosts over when she becomes like ice, and if her lips are parted in total loss, his are likely to be as well. On the rare chances she gets she watches to see if he reflects anyone else this way, but she is the only one.
When Yukina brushes her teeth next to Kazuma he says nothing about her fangs, and she stands on her tiptoes to make faces next to him. Shizuru rolls her eyes at them from the hall, not complaining about them hogging the bathroom despite how long she needs to get ready.
Shizuru starts smoking outside instead of in her bedroom. If it’s an attempt to keep Yukina away from the smoke, it fails, as she jumps at the opportunity to not be confined by walls. Sometimes they don’t speak, listening to cars and the birds that have begun nesting near the house. Other times Shizuru gives Yukina the sort of unannounced advice that reminds Yukina with an ache of Genkai. And every so often Yukina will chirp along with the birds, something humans have given her strange looks for from time to time, though Shizuru only smiles.
If Kazuma is still hurting from Yukina’s rejection, it shows only in his half-finished jokes (if they were ever that), the long looks he gives her while they sit watching television, times he reaches for her before rubbing his neck instead. Shizuru mentions once that she warned him it was too early to propose to anyone, everything else aside, but otherwise they don’t discuss it. He’s told everyone that’s asked that she’s his new little sister, and they’d better not mess with her. When only she’s around, he coos at Eikitchi in a way he won’t when friends are over, though he has little time for fun with how hard he’s studying. Knowing none of the material, Yukina can only deliver food to his room while he works late into the night.
The evening after Kazuma graduates from college, Urameshi drops by with several of Kazuma’s friends and a case of alcohol. Shizuru puts out snacks and they all toast to Kazuma’s success, quickly forgetting the cause for celebration as they unwind, playing games and becoming progressively rowdier. Yukina loses all of the card games, though she hardly cares, and she watches the others arm wrestle until Urameshi knocks a glass off the table and Shizuru chews him out.
Without anyone saying as much, Kurama’s been made designated driver. Yukina watches him move about the room, lifting bottles from slack hands and tapping shoulders that need to be tapped. The people around him yell, and his soft voice chips away at the volume until it’s muted, never quite to his extent, but closer than it started.
When the noise settles, Kurama escorts everyone who needs to be escorted home, and Urameshi and Keiko fall asleep folded around each other on the couch. Kazuma has already passed out in a chair; Yukina is kneeling nearby, playing over the night in her mind. Shizuru lays blankets over the rest and touches Yukina, who’s too tired not to flinch away. After disappearing, Shizuru brings out pillows so that Yukina can curl up on the floor, listening to her friends’ steady breaths.
She wants to imprison the moment in glass, like the snow globe Keiko bought her when she moved in. The same scene to shake and swirl whenever she’s sad: little sculptures in a flurry of glitter, always settling safely down again unless the glass breaks.
Humans aren’t sculptures. Most of the time, they don’t break like shattering glass, but wither like a plant in frozen ground.
As the years pass, Shizuru develops coughing fits that worsen. Grey eats at the roots of her hair despite her coloring it, and she gives in after the poof over Kazuma’s forehead recedes.
When she finally collapses, the hospital staff holds Yukina up at the desk. They usher her into Shizuru’s room after Shizuru yells at the staff. “That’s my daughter, and she’s the only one who’s allowed to give me medicine without getting punched in the face, so screw your red tape or I’ll screw it for you.”
The sight of her in the hospital bed doesn’t match her threats. Yukina strokes the wrinkles below Shizuru’s knuckles while Kazuma squeezes the other hand, and Yukina thinks about all of the ways to heal a stab wound without coming up with one to stop a human from decaying from the inside. The herbs Kurama sneaks in can only ease her pain. Yukina’s skin is as smooth as ice compared to Kazuma’s when his palm swallows her hand.
Though the basic traditions remain the same, Shizuru’s funeral stands in stark contrast to Genkai’s. Genkai’s fame could have brought hundreds of attendants if the group had publicized her death, but they hadn’t, mindful of her desire to be left alone and preserve the land for demons. Yukina doesn’t recognize most of Shizuru’s friends and coworkers, as there are only so many years Yukina can be around a human before they notice something’s wrong. Seeing all of them, she only now wonders how many houseguests the Kuwabaras would have had if she hadn’t unwittingly hoarded the family.
Her only consolation comes when she hands Kazuma his third embroidered handkerchief and remembers the night Shizuru confided her main wish: for her little brother to outlive her, and live well. She’s satisfied, Yukina hopes. Botan confirms this in a watery visit.
The next time Yukina sees Botan, she smells of the lilies by Keiko’s bed. Yukina hasn’t seen Urameshi all day, only heard him. Kazuma finally goes to him, leaving Yukina without the arm she’s been clinging to, and it’s only a few minutes later that Botan appears and cries on Yukina’s shoulder.
“They tell us not to get attached,” Botan says between hiccups. “The other ferry girls whisper about how silly and impulsive I am, but they’re a cold lot.”
Yukina has never met another ferry girl, but in her mind they look like her people, and she understands.
“Would you have given up the chance to know her?” Yukina asks.
“No, of course not! Not for anything. Not darling Keiko.” That sets Botan off again, and Yukina holds down her own tears by rubbing Botan’s back.
After Shizuru’s death Kazuma has never been the same, though even with his dwindling energy he’s not the type to roll over and wait for his time. When it finally comes Yukina expects to be hit with the same shower of grief as when she thought Toguro had killed him. But it’s a slower, quieter affair, and she’s never able to summon such outbursts unless shocked into them, so it’s as if a part of her melts away, leaving empty air.
Urameshi screams enough for both of them. At the wake the words Who am I going to fight now? Who am I going to fight? echo in Yukina’s ears after Urameshi’s been dragged away. They seem strange, as Urameshi has never had a problem finding opponents, but she doesn’t care to question it.
Giving him space, she looks around for someone else to comfort or at least share her grief. More people surround her than at Shizuru’s ceremonies, flowing in by the moment, a whole flood of people Kazuma touched. Her heart aches when she turns to tell him, see, I told you, and finds herself pressed against a wall to avoid the tide of strangers.
Who am I going to fight?
Finally she leaves and wanders to the trees, seeking creatures smaller than her. Kurama finds her resting against a trunk. She’s felt the plants reaching for him since entering the woods, though she hadn’t seen him at the wake.
“I’ll be paying my respects shortly. I don’t care to do so in groups,” he says. She nods. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I have no reason to stay in Human World anymore,” Yukina says. He nods in return.
“There’s a demon named Mukuro. Her reputation is fierce, but you’ll be safe with her.”
Though she’s heard the name, she’s still ignorant of most of Demon World and isn’t sure where the confidence comes from. Nevertheless she trusts it.
“You’ll always have a place with me, as well,” he continues. “Please don’t think you must be alone.”
The kindness stirs something in her that her loneliness had not. His energy feels ancient; she thinks about how he’s been displaced from as many worlds as her, and about all the people he must have lost.
“The same goes for you,” she says, taking his hands. They’re as dry and wrinkled as the tree bark; she suspects it won’t be long before he sheds the skin and starts anew. As if he’s a snake, not a fox, she thinks with what would on another day be amusement.
With surprise he looks down, then smiles thinly, tiredly. “Thank you,” he whispers.
Yukina doesn’t leave immediately. As neither Kuwabara had children, she took care of them as they aged, and at some point Kurama pulled strings to list her as their legal family and heir. She nods numbly through the posthumous procedures, passing paperwork along to Kurama, who’s begun sleeping on Kazuma’s couch for the purpose. He never announced himself; she simply found him there in a ball as if a tail should be curled around him, and she laid Kazuma’s old sweater over him, averting her eyes while he buried his nose in the fabric.
She wonders if Mukuro is somebody he would be safe with, too. She can find her herself, if not. She always used to travel alone.
Before she can make any plans, Hiei arrives, standing on her windowsill just as evening is about to drop. When she hurries to let him in, he doesn’t step inside the room. Without preamble he asks, “Are you ready?”
She doesn’t ask how he knew. “Kurama…”
“He can take care of himself.”
On a basic level she doesn’t doubt it, but on another she wonders. Her refusal to move must convey her concern, as Hiei’s gaze flickers around the room, and his voice lowers. “Being seen like this wounds his pride. He’ll come when he’s ready.”
He would know best, she supposes, so she packs before she can linger on the fact that she’s leaving this place for good. Hiei tells her he’ll meet her outside, though when she steps out he’s nowhere to be seen. As expected he emerges from the house with a faint smell of roses covering ash, and wordlessly they set off into the twilight.