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Phantoms

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*

You’re living like a shadow. Have you found your purpose yet?

Hiei’s eyes flew open at the sound. It was a terrifying noise, screeching and withstanding. He glanced around his room. It was wide and spacious—unnecessarily so. Hiei didn’t require such accommodations, but Mukuro had insisted.

In the darkness, he was able to discern nothing wrong. The wailing came from a farther distance within the fortress. The painful notes carried on for several seconds before dying down and starting anew. Hiei reached for his katana beside him and concentrated with his Jagan. All at once his mind reeled and Hiei tore away his consciousness from probing any further with a violet jerk. Gasping in the darkness, he gripped tightly onto his katana as if for reassurance.

“What the hell…”

Without glancing back, he flew out the window in pursuit.

Almost three years, he thought. It was close to the time for the next tournament. Mukuro had long stopped participating. She was complacent these days—truly happy for the first time in her life. She had no wish to rule over the Makai. But Hiei had never stopped competing. He didn’t desire to rule; he only wanted to fight the best. He had encountered some nasty opponents over the years, but none had inspired him to go full out. Hiei could have laughed at himself. They finally had peace and all he could do was mope around waiting for the next challenge.

The cry came again, this time closer. At this proximity, Hiei stopped and barely suppressed a shudder. It was an inhuman sound and he had no idea what could have caused it. There was no one around. He frowned. There should have been youkai swarming the complex but there was nothing. Hiei didn’t feel any trace of youki anywhere.

How long are you going to stay like this? You’re becoming an eyesore.

He should have been happy for this unseen predicament. He had grown soft from all the years of patrolling the Makai, watching out for those hapless humans that wandered into their world unwittingly. He should have relished this moment of possible danger. Instead, Hiei felt sick to his bones. There was something inherently wrong. No amount of idle fighting over the past decades could dull that warning sensation. Hiei seized his katana fiercely, allowing the Jagan to scope freely.

No youki at all. But there was another strong presence—that presence that had rejected his earlier probing so strongly—and it was—

“Reiki?” muttered Hiei to himself, half surprised. He hadn’t felt a spiritual presence in the Makai for a very long time. There was no reason why he should have. The Makai was youkai territory; the Rekai had made it clear early on they would leave the Makai alone.

It brought Hiei’s mind back to older days. There had been four of them. Two renegade youkai, an idiotic oaf, and a headstrong detective. One was gone forever, but the other two…

Hiei focused his attention on the reiki. It was coming from Mukuro’s room, but there was still no trace of the youkai herself. Hiei dashed through the stony fortress. He wasn’t sure if he should have been relieved there were no bodies. There were still residual traces of youki in the air, but they were from hours ago. Hiei wondered if the only reason why he was still left was because his room was the farthest away from the main complex. He had insisted on his privacy and Mukuro had smiled it off, granting him an isolated part of her fortress. It stood alone, nearly separated from everything else.

There were seventy-seven of them with Mukuro. Hiei was one. As he neared Mukuro’s room, he wondered if he would find the remaining seventy-six in the room—dead. And Mukuro… Hiei gritted his teeth. He had warned her she was becoming too calm, too relaxed in her defenses. It’ll be the death of you one of these days, he had said to her recently. Hiei edged towards the door, placing a hand over the uneven surface. The reiki was unstable, flaring up sporadically. An unsteady enemy—it was the worst kind of opponent to face off against.

The wailing was at its peak now, an unyielding scream pitched high without faltering.

Run, dammit, run, his mind screamed at him. Hiei knew by now to listen to his instincts even if the enemy didn’t appear strong. But his comrades were missing and he couldn’t leave without finding some type of clue first. As cold sweat dripped down his neck, Hiei grinned wildly to himself. A reckless human had taught him a thing or two about loyalty a while ago. It seemed the lesson stuck with him more than he thought. Hiei slipped into the room swiftly.

If you want to do something, go and do something. What, you want me to hold your hand?

He should have been stronger than this. He shouldn’t have been on his knees, retching bitter bile up his throat and onto the stone ground. It was a struggle to regain his composure. The Jagan was transmitting too much lingering emotions through him. Hiei fought to deactivate it, closing off the bombardment of fear and turmoil. But his own emotions were still his to fight. He shut his eyes against the string of corpses surrounding him. Damn bastards. They didn’t deserve this kind of death.

And in the middle of the room, on Mukuro’s very own bed, was the damn thing responsible for it all.

Hiei wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, standing up shakily. The bodies hadn’t been mutilated. Strewn across the room and over each other like dolls, seventy-six of Mukuro’s seventy-seven personal guards were completely unmarred. But their faces were another story. Contorted and twisted into expressions of utter terror, there was no mistaking the agony they underwent before death. Hiei had fought with these youkai, had come to even like this band of thugs. They had all been honorable and brave in their own right. Now they were simply dead, the most pitiful expressions of horror stuck permanently on their faces. Hiei looked over to Mukuro’s bed. There was the thing and there was Mukuro herself. Held limply by the thing, she was pale and unmoving, her very soul being drained by the thing like it was the biggest meal it ever had.

Hiei was paralyzed. He knew he should have run when he had the chance. But he had had to stick around long enough to find out what happened. Now he knew. He wondered if his corpse would be found later with the same expression as his comrades. He managed a tight laugh. What a way to go. He was grateful that damn Kuwabara was long dead and gone. The shame would have been too much.

You’re just going to stand and watch?

He shouldn’t have heard it over the scream, but he did. It enveloped his mind like a warm blanket. For a second, Hiei regained his movement. It was Mukuro, he knew. It should have been impossible; her soul was almost completely separated from her body, being consumed into that thing. Her consciousness would barely be present anymore. But Mukuro had always liked the impossible.

You gonna avenge us or what, Hiei?

It was her youki. For the briefest of seconds, before her soul was completely transferred over into the thing, she released her full energy. It was probably less than half a second. Once her soul was taken completely, the youki vanished entirely. But it was more than enough time for Hiei to run.

And he ran away faster than he ever had before, the wind taking his tears before they could fall.

*

The Reikai was in disarray.

Koenma had never seen such grim circumstances in all his centuries. He supposed it was a matter of time, though. Ever since his father’s impeachment, the situation in the Reikai had gradually degraded. The last rebellion was still on his mind. He had been helpless in that situation, relying once again on Yusuke to foil the latest machinations of his enemy. The Reikai was no longer strong. The Ningenkai was prospering without their aid and the Makai was happily left alone. But his home, Koenma knew, was on the verge of collapse. The souls in their care were agitated. The Reikai was not the ultimate destination. It was a mere illusion maintained to keep the humans in line. But now the humans no longer needed them. The Reikai was being exposed in all its weaknesses. What gave them the right to decide who died? Who was reincarnated? In only a little over a century since the Ningenkai had learned of the Makai’s existence, the humans had grown strong. And the Reikai had been faced with all types of moral and philosophical debasement.

He would like to know too, the final destination for all of them. Koenma wondered where the soul of Sensui Shinobu went—where the souls of all those who rejected the Reikai had gone. If there was a true heaven, Koenma was sure he would never see it when he reached his end. He had committed too many mistakes, too many had died under his watch. And all this lying to the humans, it wasn’t as if the inhabitants of the Reikai were any better than them. What gave them the right to rule over them indeed?

“Koenma-sama!”

At the sound of Botan’s panicked voice, Koenma turned away from the window. Botan was panting as she neared his desk. By her pallid countenance Koenma knew something serious had happened. He should have been worried, but circumstances had been grave for a while; he no longer had it in him to agonize over every obstacle that came his way.

“Tell me what happened,” he ordered calmly.

“A soul has escaped from Underworld Seven and into the Makai two days ago. It’s killed Mukuro and all her guards.”

Underworld Seven was the destination for the most heinous criminals; it was where Toguro had volunteered to serve his sentence. Koenma looked in disbelief at Botan. “That’s not possible,” he nearly whispered. “A soul doesn’t possess that kind of power.”

Botan looked pleadingly at him. “All souls possess reiki. It’s in their very nature. The maintainer of U-7 said this one was particularly strong. It became more violent over the course of thousands of years, losing all memories of its previous life. When it escaped, it began to consume souls from youkai, using them to increase its own spiritual energy to become stronger.”

“It’s probably because our defenses are so low at the moment the soul was able to escape,” muttered Koenma darkly to himself. He looked out the window again. “Mukuro and all her followers are dead, you said?”

Botan nodded, eyes shining.

“And Hiei?”

“No trace of him.”

“So he could have escaped. Or the soul could have just consumed him entirely, taking on his form,” concluded Koenma mildly.

“Koenma-sama, what are we going to do?” cried Botan, her tears escaping.

Koenma watched her silently. Her tears weren’t for the perilous situation the Reikai now faced; her tears were for Hiei and his questionable fate. She remained remarkably the same despite the turmoil in the Reikai. Still optimistic and naïve. Koenma wondered when he had become so cynical. He knew the Makai’s current leader would demand an explanation. Perhaps even retribution. Koenma wished it was Enki who was still in command; he would have been more reasonable. But Zakuro was a proud youkai. He tolerated the Ningenkai because the humans had become valuable business partners, but to the Reikai he held no allegiances. Koenma was sure he would demand the Reikai to fix this somehow.

And perhaps he could.

“Well, things aren’t too bad yet. Two days. It’s not awful. I may be able to do something.”

“So we’re not completely hopeless?” inquired Botan, wiping her eyes delicately and putting on a strong face.

Koenma grinned at her; at least some things didn’t change. “Hopeless would be the Makai deciding to invade the Reikai and wiping us all out. Since that hasn’t happened, I’d say we still have a shot.”

*

“You’d turn on your own father?”

“You’ve dishonored yourself. You’ve painted the youkai as villains. Destroyed innocent lives.”

“How naïve can you be? The world is all about deception. Where would the humans be without us? Order has to be maintained. There is always a group that must obey and a group to rule.”

“And you think the Reikai has that right to rule?”

“I think you are too young to lecture me about right and wrong. But go see for yourself how things will turn out in the next century or so. See how your honesty will help you.”
“I’d rather trust my principles than further the decay you’ve started.”

“You hate me that much—your family?”

“I don’t know who my father was anymore.”

*

He managed to follow the thing for three days before its nauseating presence had finally drove him to retreat.

Hiei knew he was going to need help for this one. There was no way he could get close to that thing without backup—it would take him down with a single glance and then he would have failed Mukuro and everyone else. Hiei knew several things about it for sure. Its reiki was phenomenal. It reminded him of Sensui, but its aura was even more sinister and twisted than that deceased bastard. Initially, the reiki had been growing and changing with each soul it took, but it appeared to finally be reaching a stabilizing point. Hiei had no idea what that form would look like, but the spiritual capacity of the thing was that of a middle ranking S-class youkai at least.

The other thing was its mind. Despite its incorporeal form there was a definite presence of mind. That was what kept Hiei from getting too close. Even with his Jagan he could barely protect his mind from the onslaught of emotions the thing projected. It was enough to drive any human mad, paralyze any youkai in place. After watching the thing making its move several times, Hiei realized that was how it got Mukuro and the others. His own Jagan could barely shield him, and the thing wasn’t even focusing its attention on him. Any youkai swept into that thing’s focus was a goner. No physical fight, just a total mindfuck that left you as good as dead.

Hiei wanted to know really badly where this bastard had come from.

It sickened him. He wanted to avenge them so much but all he could do was watch as it ripped one youkai’s soul after another. Eventually, he knew there was no point in following it anymore. He couldn’t even touch it, couldn’t even approach too directly without completely freezing up. He had warned as many youkai as he could of the thing’s coming. Hiei didn’t know whether they believed him or not. Prior to Mukuro’s death being announced, they had scoffed at him. After he saw the announcement of her death himself, Hiei stopped warning the youkai. Those strong enough to detect the incredible reiki heading their way ran. The others that thought the announcement was a joke had remained; Hiei had watched the thing eat their souls.

Just trailing after the thing had drained Hiei considerably. He had never used his Jagan so much in one sitting. In order to follow the thing he had kept it on for seventy-two hours straight. Once he stopped his tracking it was all he could do to just find a place to recuperate from the strain. Hiei had winded up in a remote forest, locating an abandoned animal’s den. It was an embarrassing hideout, but he didn’t have the strength to find anything better and just lied down to sleep. The den was big—it must have belonged to a large animal—but he didn’t worry about the danger. The thing never turned back on its trail; it kept a steady pace forward, and Hiei knew there was nothing in the forest to warrant any extreme caution.

He slept for God knows how long and it was a nagging feeling in his gut that woke him up. Without even opening his eyes, Hiei swung his katana expertly in the direction of the incoming danger. When he straightened up to look around, he saw branches of leaves around him.

“I see you’re as watchful as ever.”

Hiei’s eyes moved towards the den’s entrance. He cracked his shoulders and neck. “I wondered if someone would come after me eventually,” he said, sheathing his katana.

For the first time since he left Mukuro’s fortress, Hiei felt safe. He wasn’t surprised Kurama had been able to track him down, and the kitsune’s presence soothed his frayed nerves.

“I found you yesterday actually, but I figured you needed the rest,” replied Kurama, eyes soft.

Hiei stood up, brushing off his cloak before sweeping it over him. “I take it you heard about Mukuro and the others.”

“Koenma actually came to the Makai two days ago. Zakuro’s welcoming was quite formal. I was surprised he was able to keep his composure together long enough for Koenma to strike up a bargain with him,” said Kurama.

“Koenma?” repeated Hiei. The he realized. “Don’t tell me it’s from the Reikai.”

Kurama nodded. “Apparently it’s a soul that escaped from one of the Reikai’s hells, twisted and mutilated from its torture. It has no memory of its previous life and is eating the souls of youkai to increase its reiki,” he explained. He paused, catching Hiei’s closed expression. “This has never happened before. The Reikai is in an unstable state.”

“So we’re fighting someone who’s already dead.”

“There is no fighting this thing, Hiei. At least not until it reaches a physical state.”

Hiei’s eyes cut into Kurama. “We have to wait until that thing reaches a corporeal form? So we just allow it to take any soul it wants?”

“Zakuro has already placed watches around the Makai to warn any youkai of its coming. Koenma predicts it probably only needs some time now to reach its final form,” continued Kurama calmly.

“Have you seen this thing, Kurama?” demanded Hiei. “You wouldn’t know its true power unless you were close by—which I was. Its reiki was already equivalent to that of a middle S-class youkai when I last saw it. And that was just a single reading. Its reiki was constantly fluctuating.”

Kurama stared hard at Hiei. “It is untouchable now, Hiei. There is nothing anyone can do if it remains in this form. We have to wait for it to reach a physical state. At least then we may actually be able to hurt it,” he said coolly.

He was being childish, Hiei knew. He understood the logic, why they had to wait. But at the same time he didn’t want to wait. Because he knew instinctively that if they waited, they would have to face something they never had come across in the past—something truly horrific. Worse than Sensui, worse than Toguro. Hiei remembered those flitting images he received from the soul. He wondered if it was even worth fighting. That type of darkness didn’t fear death or pain—it craved for those things. Unbidden, the faces of his fallen comrades flashed across his mind. Hiei snapped his head to the side violently, shutting his eyes.

To his credit, Kurama never said anything. Hiei was grateful for that.

“I had expected Zakuro to engage war against the Reikai for this, but he’s being surprisingly tactful. I suppose he realizes that the Reikai at this point is a shadow of its former self. Victory over it would be simultaneously too simple and meaningless. He just wants the soul to be eradicated and he’s even cooperating with Koenma to do it.”

Hiei took a deep breath and faced Kurama again. “So now it’s just a waiting game. Does Koenma know how long it will take for the soul to reach a physical shape?”

“He estimates a week, give or take a few days.”

Hiei clenched his fists. “So the whole of Makai has to be on constant watch for this time.”

“However, now that they’re on alert, it’s easy to stay away from the soul’s path. It’s not even trying to be inconspicuous. The boundary between the Makai and the Ningenkai has also been sealed off—against reiki forces.”

A smirk made its way onto Hiei’s face. “So now the humans are warding off spirits instead of youkai.”

Kurama smiled. “At least it keeps the soul in one place. But when it reaches its final form…who knows. Koenma reckons its spiritual capacity is too great now for it to possess a human—or youkai for that matter. Its final form will probably just be pure reiki in physical shape.”

“So how do we kill it?”

“Oh, it’s not us who are doing the killing, Hiei,” replied Kurama calmly. “We’re doing the baiting.”

*

The mountains were freezing his ass off. Yusuke bit back a sneeze and shoved his hands as far as he could into the pockets of his rather inadequate jacket. Denim was a strong fabric, but it wasn’t windproof and did jack shit against the cold. Yusuke sent a string of curses along to Hokushin mentally. Survival training, he had called it. Yusuke wanted nothing more than to rip him a new one and shove those words up—

Yusuke sighed. There was no point in getting annoyed at the monk. It wasn’t like Yusuke had anything better to do. Between managing his ramen stand in the Ningenkai and running on random assignments on a whim, he was really stuck with nothing. The missions were hardly anything special. Yusuke had made it a point to accept only those in which clearly a human or youkai was causing trouble. At least then he could get in a punch or two.

The ramen stand was more for his own amusement. He made surprisingly decent money off it, though. Apparently, his ramen was the best in the district. Then again, he had been running it for almost a century now. Time really does improve any minor skill you possess; he probably could have opened up his own restaurant if he felt like it. But Yusuke didn’t have the intention. He was seldom in the Ningenkai that much anymore.

Life sort of went downhill after everyone passed on. Keiko’s death had been the most recent—almost ten years prior. Yusuke should have gotten over it by now, but he knew he was still drifting. It was hard enough watching everyone grow old while he remained the same, but the final act of death still got to him every time. He wasn’t resentful. He knew they had lived great and fulfilling lives. It was just that he didn’t know what to do anymore. Taking care of them had been his personal promise to them over the years. Now that they no longer needed him, he was left hanging.

That and everything seemed so messed up lately with the world. Yusuke hadn’t seen Koenma in years and he knew the guy was probably having a hell of a time keeping the Reikai together. The human/youkai interaction was also another serious brain twister. He supposed he was glad that both worlds were getting along, but it seemed almost surreal to him. Suddenly all these new laws permitting youkai integration into human society and the proposed releasing of souls the Reikai held in possession filled every newspaper, every sign on the street.

It was enough to drive Yusuke insane. He almost preferred it when the Ningenkai had been ignorant of both the Reikai and Makai. Things had been simpler then. Was the Reikai acting on the will of God? Should youkai have to hide their true appearances just to fit in? Yusuke didn’t give a damn about that.

Fighting had always been his answer. But the world didn’t fight with fists anymore. Yusuke didn’t know what the world was coming to now. Everything seemed pretty fucked up in his opinion.

So he had retreated into the Makai—because there, of all places, things were still relatively the same—and spent his time flitting from one place to another. Kurama had also taken permanent residence in the Makai since his mother passed away and Yusuke had stayed with him for a while before deciding he was imposing on his friend too much—though Kurama never said anything of course. Yusuke had even stopped by Yomi’s territory and played babysitter to Shura a few times before Hokushin had finally taken pity on him and suggested the survival training. It was supposed to run for six months in the highest mountains of the Makai. And since the next tournament would follow right after, Yusuke thought it was a perfect idea. He didn’t really think he could get any stronger, but the last five and a half months in the mountains had taught him otherwise.

It was a bit of a lonely time, but Yusuke had managed to glimpse Hyouga passing by once. Yukina had dropped down joyously to see him. It was his only contact with anyone else in that span of time.

“Just one more week here and I’m gone,” he muttered to himself against the chilling wind.

He thought by now he would have been able to grow a resistance to the cold, but nope, God hated him. Yusuke still froze his ass off every time he went out for meditation and that didn’t seem to be changing any time soon.

“I can’t wait to see Hokushin’s face when I come back. He really thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. I totally win this bet.”

Yusuke continued grinning to himself before stilling. There was something off. He got out of his meditation stance and concentrated. Probing with his youki did nothing. There was no other youkai around the area. But there was something oddly familiar about the tickling sensation. And then Yusuke did a double take.

“Reiki? But that’s huge…”

He blinked in surprise. The Makai was filled with all types of youki. It was almost nostalgic to detect this reiki presence in a world of youkai. But what the heck was it doing here? Yusuke began reaching out with his own reiki.

“Whoa, there,” he cursed as the presence suddenly shifted below him. It was heading towards him now. Rapidly. “Okay, this isn’t good. That wasn’t a friendly aura I was getting.”

Yusuke leapt up the snowy ledges, heading deeper into the mountainous trenches. The presence was still following him undeterred. Yusuke frowned deeply as he tried to head on the most treacherous path he could find. It was dreadful fast—nothing could get up here that quickly. Even Hiei would have a hard time at it. The way the thing moved was like it was flying. Well, Yusuke had seen flight before but this was something else entirely. It was as if the cold and wind did nothing to it.

Then before he knew it, the thing was right in front of him.

“Holy shit,” muttered Yusuke as his eyes widened.

It was undulating in the air, a shapeless glob of nothing. Except it wasn’t nothing. There was a presence, and Yusuke could see something but he wasn’t sure what it was. It pulsated and seemed to shift the snow around it. It was a waving stream of gaseous liquid, pounding white light. It could have been beautiful, almost ethereal, but its reiki was black as the darkest night. Yusuke felt like he was suffocating. He had to get away; his finger twitched but the rest of his body remained petrified. Shit, shit, shit, fucking hell! Yusuke had underestimated this thing’s speed. He hadn’t even known it was right in front of him until it was too late.

Suddenly, it was as if someone was screaming in his head. Yusuke cried out as he collapsed onto his knees, clutching the sides of his head in agony. Images, horrible pictures, filled his mind. There was a mother being raped relentlessly every day by her son, tears of blood streaming down her face. There were naked children lined up in size order before an old man, his eyes scanning each of them coldly to calculate how much he could profit from them. There was a young girl stabbing herself repeatedly in the leg, blood gushing across her shirt and pants in thick ribbons; she was crying and didn’t seem aware of any pain, continuing her self-mutilation until the blade struck a bone and remained wedged.

There was a man lying on the ground, mouth blown wide open from the rifle shot that cleared through his skull; his brains were splattered against the wall, a piece of his tongue hanging loose from his dislocated jaw, stray teeth embedded within his innards. There was Keiko, his beautiful Keiko, in her prime, standing naked before him. She smiled sadly and with her hand began to peel away the skin from her face. It fell away like a bed sheet, revealing veins and arteries, blood rushing through a patchwork of exposed nerves and organs; she dug a finger into each eye and wrenched them out with a violent tug, offering them to Yusuke on her skinless hands.

“Like what you see, Yusuke?” she asked sweetly.

Yusuke was moving back unconsciously as the thing neared him. He was screaming but he didn’t know it. Couldn’t feel the hoarseness in his throat. Couldn’t feel the cold anymore, but he was too far gone to be relieved. As the thing neared, Yusuke slipped on a patch of ice. Unknowing of anything around him, he fell into the snowy wonderland below.

*

It’s like being underwater. Except you’re not swimming. You’re just suspended there in one spot, holding your breath until you can’t take it any longer and drowning; then a second later, you’re revived and you have to go through the whole process all over again. The water is murky brown. There are pieces of people drifting before your eyes. A tooth, a finger, a mouth shaped in a gummy smile.

You want to look but you can’t. Because you’ve seen what’s below. You’re just a head. You shouldn’t even be able to see anything, but you can. You don’t have the lungs to hold a breath and yet you do it somehow. You think some of those body parts are yours. You don’t know where you are or who you are. You think there’s something important you’re forgetting. A person doesn’t just end up in the middle of an ocean—or whatever this hellhole is—without a reason. But you can’t really think properly because you’re too afraid. There are voices sometimes, you think. They’re saying something to you but you can’t hear them well. You believe they sound familiar, but there’s an irrational fear preventing you from remembering. As far as you know, you’ve been in this place all your life.

“Y…”

Your ears perk. Do you even have ears anymore? Probably not, but that doesn’t keep you from listening.

“Yus…”

And you think there’s something familiar in that.

“Yusuke!”

Then the water’s draining away from you and you shut your mouth because those body fragments are coming right at you. You’re swirling around with them like a great whirlpool and you’re getting dizzy, but then the water’s gone and it’s dry. And then you’re suddenly gasping because you can’t breathe. You need the water, you realize with mounting panic. You need the goddamn fucking water!

Now you’re really afraid and that voice is shouting something again but you’re not listening anymore. It was better with the water, you think, and are those tears on your face? You don’t know anymore, you don’t know…

*

Shit,” swore Hiei, pulling away with a grimace.

Kurama was at his side immediately. “Are you all right? Did you get to him?” he asked, the most impatient Hiei had seen him in a while.

Hiei massaged his temples and closed the Jagan. “I reached him—just barely. I’m probably going to need one more session with him to bring him around fully. He was pretty fucked up,” he said, taking a deep breath.

It was amazing Yusuke had even survived the encounter with his mind intact. The former detective had absolutely no resistance to psychic attacks; it was simply pure strength of will that saved him from going insane. Just genuine stubbornness. Well, that was very Yusuke.

Kurama gave a relieved smile. “Leave it to Yusuke to somehow lead our enemy into a remote location without even being aware there was an enemy.”

Hiei grunted in agreement. It was a blessing, honestly. They had all been intervening at Yomi’s territory when Hokushin had arrived. Hiei had expected Yusuke to be with him but when the monk spoke of his master’s isolated training in the mountains, his blood ran cold. It shouldn’t have startled Hiei so badly after all these years in Yusuke’s acquaintance, but worrying after him had become almost second nature.

They had been on the verge of sending a search party after him when Puu crashed through the front gates of Yomi’s fortress. And atop the demonic phoenix was the very subject of their discussion, battered and cold to the touch, but alive and breathing. It seemed the rogue soul had tracked Yusuke up in the mountains—why it had deferred from its straightforward path, no one knew—and it seemed Yusuke had been rescued by Puu. On the positive note, the soul was now in a remote area with no youkai around to endanger, and it seemed content to remain there for the time being. On the downside, Yusuke’s preliminary analysis showed he had suffered a huge mental shock and was showing no signs of waking up.

That was when Hiei had to go in himself.

It had taken a full day of divulging himself entirely in Yusuke’s subconscious before finally finding him. The following day was spent trying to contact that essence of Yusuke. Hiei had been on the breaking point before he finally responded. But he had had to pull away at that moment or else risk being trapped in Yusuke’s mind as well. Hiei rested his arms on his knees, closing his eyes. It was a close call. If Yusuke didn’t have such a resilient personality, he would have surely been lost a long time ago.

“We should be thankful he’s so stubborn,” remarked Kurama, brushing away a few strands of hair from Yusuke’s forehead.

Hiei glanced at the bedridden figure. His friend. One of the few he had left. “It’d take more than that to bring down Yusuke.”

“Although Yomi is a bit annoyed by the damage Puu did,” said Kurama with a smile. “I’m sure he’ll forgive Yusuke for the dramatic entrance, though. He always did have a flair for theatrics.”

“If this thing is gonna possess that much psychic strength when it reaches a physical form, we’re not going to make it.”

Kurama looked at Hiei. “When it takes on a physical shape, it’ll provide a buffer, though.”

“But if it wants to attack us mentally, it can. And it will most certainly win,” replied Hiei forebodingly. “Do we know who this soul belonged to yet?”

“The records were destroyed by Enma’s associates after he was impeached. So likely, it belonged to a youkai who had been wrongly sentenced to suffer,” said Kurama, eyes cold.

“A youkai? Why would it devour its own people’s souls?”

“Remember that the soul doesn’t recall who it was anymore. All it knows is pain and anger. We don’t know for what purpose it’s doing this, and Koenma isn’t optimistic. He reckons the thing won’t even be coherent when it takes physical form and just wreak havoc across the Makai.”

Hiei nodded. “It’s possible. The mind of this thing is…unreal.”

Suddenly, Yusuke jerked up into a sitting position. Hiei got to his feet at once, noting the blank look slated across his face. He activated the Jagan despite his weariness.

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Kurama quietly, standing opposite of Hiei.

Hiei did a quick probe with his Jagan. “I think…” He opened his eyes in alarm. “He’s waking. Kurama, hold him.”

The redhead did as he was told wordlessly and a second later Yusuke’s vacant gaze focused. He began screaming immediately as he fought against the restrains Kurama had placed. Had Yusuke been truly awake he would have been able to break the hold without difficulty, but his mind was only confused and trying to understand what was going on around him. Hiei sidestepped the flailing arms and placed both hands on either side of Yusuke’s face, forcing the ex-detective to look at him.

“Yusuke, calm down. You’re safe. You’re amongst friends. Remember my face,” he instructed in an almost hypnotic tone. When Yusuke didn’t stop struggling, Hiei released him. “Dammit, Urameshi, snap out of it!” he ordered scornfully, taking his katana and placing its tip at Yusuke’s neck.

And then Yusuke woke up.

Kurama sighed to himself in relief and released his plants. Yusuke’s arms dropped to his side as he looked around in bafflement.

“Hiei? Kurama? What…happened?” he asked slowly, blinking.

Withdrawing his katana, Hiei sighed.

“It seems you’ve found your way back to us, Yusuke,” smiled Kurama.

Yusuke scratched his head. “I remember…” He jumped to his feet. “There’s this thing with enormous reiki—it was heading towards me! You guys—”

“We’re ahead of you, Yusuke. In fact we were on our way to find you when Puu dropped you off here instead,” explained Kurama. Before Yusuke could ask any further questions he continued. “It’s a rogue soul from the Reikai. It escaped about eight days ago into the Makai, eating the souls of youkai to gain more reiki. It killed Mukuro and her guards along with many others. It possesses amazing mental dominance and with its lack of a body, it’s impossible to destroy so we’re waiting until it reaches a physical state, which is soon.”

Yusuke remained quiet for a while. He looked at Hiei. “Mukuro is dead?”

“Yes,” he replied noncommittally.

“I’m sorry.”

The sincerity in his words shook Hiei, but he didn’t show it. He couldn’t think of accepting sympathy or pity, but Yusuke wasn’t offering either. He was offering support. Hiei looked away from his face; he hadn’t been able to mourn for them this whole time and he preferred it that way. The danger was still too close. But Yusuke was making it difficult for him to remain detached. It was the way he always was, so headstrong and passionate about everything—it affected Hiei more than he liked.

“So Zakuro actually didn’t invade the Reikai for this? I’m shocked.”

Kurama laughed a little. “Zakuro’s more fond of his home than he admits and taking over the Reikai would mean nothing. Its power isn’t what it used to be. Keeping the youkai safe is Zakuro’s main goal. Koenma’s offering aid of course, and it’s him who’s going to take the frontlines to dispatch the soul.”

Yusuke frowned. “How so? This thing’s as strong as any S-class youkai I’ve ever seen. Koenma can’t withstand that kind of power.”

“The soul is made up entirely of reiki. And when it comes to spiritual matters, there’s really no one better to deal with this than Koenma. He and his special forces are going to try to seal it away.”

Laughing, Yusuke shook his head in disbelief, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “Wait, sealing? You’ve got to be kidding. That thing is not going to be sealed off, no way.”

Kurama smiled knowingly. “Koenma hasn’t explained it fully himself. I think he’s going to do something reckless to be honest. But we have to trust him,” he said.

“Okay, so they seal this thing. But how? That thing’s not going to stay still long enough to be sealed away.”

“That’s where we come in,” remarked Hiei, smirking slowly. “We’re going to be trying to beat the crap out of this thing and keep it down long enough for the others to seal it away.”

Yusuke stared incredulously at them. “No fucking way,” he said before passing out.

*

“You think time’s moving too quick?” laughed Keiko. She looked at her weathered hand, the liver spots, the many creases in the once smooth skin. “For me it’s been almost painfully slow,” she continued, smiling.

Beside her, Yusuke only shook his head petulantly and continued rambling. Keiko listened patiently but didn’t really pay attention to his words. Yusuke dropped by every week at the nursing home just to talk to her. Most of the times it was just nonsense. Keiko knew he only came because of her. Yusuke hardly spent his time in the Ningenkai anymore. Everyone else had gone; she was the only one left for him to come back to. She wondered what he would do when she passed on. He probably would come to the Ningenkai every so often if only to make sure his ramen stand was still up; he had developed a strange attachment to that stand. It amused Keiko.

A lifetime had passed right before her eyes. Though she had eventually married another man, Keiko had always loved Yusuke. And she knew he had loved her too. It was a strange bond they shared. She had met someone and lived out her life, but Yusuke had never found anyone else. He always remained by her side and was even her “best man” at the wedding. Keiko knew this was his way of being with her. It was difficult watching him as the years passed, never aging while the aches in her bones only worsened. She knew he never asked her to be with him because it would be unfair. And as much as Keiko wanted to accuse him of being petty, she knew he had been right to make that choice. Just seeing him now—eternally young and strong—at her side while she was so frail and weak embarrassed her. It was a painful reminder of her mortality. But he still loved her, she knew. And that gave her strength.

She reached out and took his ponytail gently into her hand. “What’s with the hair by the way?”

She had interrupted him mid-sentence with the non sequitur, but he forgave it readily. “Got lazy and eventually decided it wasn’t too bad even if it gets in the way sometimes. Why?” he replied.

“Makes you look older,” she said softly. It highlighted his face, Keiko added to herself. Made him more handsome. She was old enough to be his grandmother. That’s what the nurses here thought she was. Keiko smiled sadly to herself. “You’re still in your springtime. I’m at the end of winter.”

Yusuke took her hand into his and kissed her knuckles lightly. “Oi. Stop talking all morbid.”

And just like, the mood was lightened. Keiko laughed despite the pain it caused in her chest. The hardest part about all this, she knew, was not the aging, the shame. It was leaving him. She didn’t want him to be alone. He hadn’t deserved to be alone all these years when she had had her family. But he was so stubborn she was worried he would just scoff at her if she mentioned anything. So she just stayed quiet. Soon, she knew. Soon she would tell him, “Go find someone else to bother for crying out loud,” and then she could rest in peace.

“Do you believe in God, Yusuke?”

“Hell no. If there exists someone with a twisted enough sense of humor to kill someone twice and then resurrect him as a youkai, I’ll go kill him myself.”

Keiko smiled. “Then I guess you’re going to hell when you die.”

“Third time’s the charm, right? Maybe finally I’ll get to relax. Or roast. Either way it’s something new.”

*

“It was the mental stress. After enduring that kind of torture, the mind needs to rest. By all rights, it’s amazing he recovered on his own. Hiei thought he would need another session with the Jagan.”

“Well, I was hoping to speak with him but I suppose I can wait,” replied Koenma, looking over Yusuke’s sleeping form. “Somehow, just seeing him makes me feel better.”

Kurama agreed inwardly. Yusuke had that effect with everyone he knew it seemed. “Hiei’s resting now too,” he added. He looked over at Koenma. “How is it in the Reikai?”

Koenma gave a humorless laugh. “A mess. I expect someone in my own office to rise up and go against me any day now. There’s internal conflict occurring everywhere. At least the souls have stopped rioting. Though they can’t really do anything to us, they sure can hurt the ears after a while. The Ningenkai is naturally oblivious of what’s happening here, so much the better.”

“I’m sure you’ll sort it out.”

Koenma shot him a shrewd look. “That’s the thing, Kurama. I’m not sure I should.” He turned to leave. “Tell Yusuke I need to see him when he wakes up. Thanks.”

It wasn’t just the rogue soul they had to worry about. No, the soul was just a catalyst. The Reikai was crumbling and there appeared to be no stopping it. Kurama didn’t know what Koenma planned to do, but the look in his eyes was darker than anything he had seen from him. It was unfair for Koenma really. The humans had taken to the youkai’s existence far more welcomingly than the Reikai’s presence. It was only natural. Everyone dreamed of a paradise and a hell. To discover that the Reikai was merely a pit stop for souls with no real authority was shattering ideology. Kurama had watched over the affairs with a critical eye. The Reikai’s existence may have been questionable, but the humans had forgotten that for thousands of years already their souls had been in the care of those people—and for the most part, Kurama thought they did a fair job with the souls. It was when the Reikai tried to control the youkai/human affairs they failed. All three worlds were subject to criticism to be honest. But the Reikai was taking good care of his mother and his friends. For that Kurama was thankful.

When this was over, Koenma would have to make a choice. To fight for his world and ideals or to abdicate his position and turn a blind eye on everything. Kurama was sure the souls wouldn’t be able to last long without guidance from the Reikai. But the humans weren’t aware of that. They were still naïve.

Kurama walked over to Yusuke’s bed, studying him. He had grown his hair long again, Kurama noted with a smile. Yusuke had it cut before Keiko’s funeral but now it was well past his shoulders once more, tied in a loose ponytail. Other than that, he remained unchanged. Physically at least. Kurama wondered if Yusuke cared about these issues. He was sure he did, but the ex-detective was diligent at dodging questions. Even when he had stayed over at Kurama’s place he remained pointedly neutral about the debates. But Kurama was sure Yusuke was supporting Koenma from behind. He was just surprised Yusuke hadn’t done anything about it. Then again, none of them had. They’d all fled to the Makai, leaving Koenma to deal with things alone.

“What happens here will determine his future actions. We have to do our best to make sure he doesn’t go flying off the handle, Yusuke,” he said quietly. Kurama then smiled, looking down at him affectionately. “You should thank Hiei too. He won’t ever admit it, but he nearly lost his own mind trying to find yours. It’s difficult to manage the Jagan like that, but he wouldn’t hear of giving up.”

*

It was the aftermath of the tournament. Enki had just announced his human policy and Yusuke was watching from afar, away from the main masses. He whooped unabashedly when Enki finished, clapping his hands without discretion. He wasn’t disappointed. He hadn’t expected to win—Yomi was one heck of a fighter. Yusuke smiled, pushing his hands into his pockets.

“Another time,” he promised out loud.

“Talking to yourself?”

Yusuke turned around, surprised but not really. Hiei always made entrances like that. “At least I lost to a guy. No offense to Mukuro or anything.”

Hiei smirked. “You try fighting her one day and find out for yourself, Yusuke.”

“I actually wouldn’t mind that,” he agreed easily.

The crowd began dissipating. The sun was setting in the horizon, casting everything in shades of orange and red. It didn’t feel like a year and a half had passed. To Yusuke it felt like only yesterday he was leaving the Ningenkai. He glanced over at Hiei.

“I take it you’re staying.”

“And you’re leaving.”

Yusuke grinned. “You happy?”

Hiei shot him a wry look. “Are you?”

It was a blur of motion and Hiei hadn’t expected it at all. When he felt the barest touch on his lips, he almost thought he was imagining things. But by then Yusuke had pulled away, smiling wholeheartedly.

“Now I am,” he said.

Hiei should have felt anger. Or at the very least, discontent. But he only stared at Yusuke, expressionless. Then he shook his head, reaching under his shirt to pull out his hirui stone. He took it off and tossed it to Yusuke.

“Keep it until you’re ready to settle this,” he said before vanishing in a midnight flash.

Yusuke looked at the precious stone, enclosing his hand around it tightly.

“Only if you’ll have me, Hiei.”

*

Things were at an impasse on day twelve. Zakuro’s scouts had informed them that the soul had remained stationary in the mountains. It seemed all they really could do now was wait. The SDF had prepared an area in the Makai they would use as ground zero for the sealing. It was a rocky plain with arid soil and mild weather. The SDF were spending all their time trained on focusing their reiki for the exhausting procedure that would inevitably occur. Koenma himself remained in the Reikai doing his own brand of preparation, he had told them.

Hiei spent most of the time in his room. Yomi’s fortress was similar to Mukuro’s, but more luxurious and comforting. Mukuro was almost half machine herself and her home was the same way—all cold interiors and metallic surfaces. Hiei preferred his new room in comparison to the old one. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to go back to Mukuro’s after all this was over. But he didn’t mull over those thoughts for too long. Instead, he trained his Jagan. It would serve to provide the best defense and he had to strengthen it before the anticipated battle. As it was, he, Kurama, and Yusuke would be the only ones going in to keep the soul contained within the barrier the SDF set up. The Jagan would be able to offer protection for three maximum and since he already had strong ties to both Kurama and Yusuke, it would be easier to cover them than mere acquaintances. Yomi and their other companions would remain on standby in case anything happened.

It was almost like the old days, Hiei thought. Only he had already lost something important, too important, for him to treat this like a regular challenge he once would have.

“Yo, Hiei!”

Yusuke popped in through his window and threw himself onto the bed. Hiei turned around slowly, regarding him with undisguised irritation. Yusuke laughed and sat up cross-legged.

“Do you need something?” asked Hiei.

“Just came by to see how you were,” answered Yusuke brightly. He got up and looked around the room. “You got the cool digs. Yomi must still be holding a grudge against me for the gate because my room is like half yours.”

There was something about Yusuke that always put Hiei on edge. Kuwabara had been worse. It was the way of idiots, he supposed. But Yusuke got away with it because he was him. No one else could have commanded Hiei’s respect like he did. Sometimes even he didn’t understand it himself. Hiei had stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago, though. It wasn’t worth the time fretting over Yusuke. He was a foolhardy idiot, but he possessed the charisma to pull it off relatively unscathed. Hiei could have envied him that.

“Yusuke,” he began before stopping at Yusuke’s quizzical stare. He frowned. “What is it?”

It seemed for a while Yusuke wasn’t going to say anything. But then he cleared his throat. “You know, you’re really good at hiding your emotions. Why don’t you just let it all out?” he asked. He smiled to himself. “This really scary shorty once told me how you gotta cool your head off before a fight.”

Hiei froze. He was speechless for a minute, taken completely aback. Even more perturbing was the echo of his own voice he heard behind Yusuke’s words. It brought him back to that day—the day that really marked the beginning of this whole mess, one could say. Hiei couldn’t believe Yusuke even remembered those words. But then again, that day wasn’t one to forget. He had saved Yusuke only to watch him die hours later. The barrier to the Makai had been broken. Yusuke had been reborn as a youkai. Hiei had been ready to give up his own life for vengeance; he could have very well died that day too, except he wouldn’t have come back.

“You’re a really surprising guy. Even when I know you’re unpredictable, it still annoys me when you catch me off guard.”

A long time ago, Hiei would never have admitted as much. Yusuke grinned toothily at him.

“I thought I was the most predictable guy in the world too.”

Yusuke possessed an innate skill to get to him. Hiei had ignored it in the past because he always spoke of Keiko. Even after awakening to his demonic aspect, Yusuke remained decidedly loyal to the human girl. Hiei had always been intrigued by him and knew one day he would be able to fully explore that curiosity, but not when Keiko was living. He also knew Yusuke had felt the same. There was an unspoken understanding between them—something Hiei hadn’t ever experienced with anyone before. And until he met Mukuro, Yusuke had been the only one. His relationship with Mukuro was vastly different from the one he had with Yusuke, though. It was all cryptic words and a shared suffering with her. Yusuke and he were as different as night and day and yet that link had always just been there.

But at the moment, all Hiei wanted to do was not think. So when Yusuke asked him if he wanted to spar, he could only hide his smile and grab his katana.

“Yomi has a large training ground not far from here.”

“Nice,” replied Yusuke as he followed Hiei.

They didn’t use the door. They jumped out his window like impatient fools. Perhaps that was what they had in common.

*

Day sixteen was the day the Makai experienced a phenomenon in the sky. It was noon and the clouds settled around Yomi’s grounds were the usual deep crimson. Yomi preferred the dimmer surroundings, perhaps as a reflection of the darkness he always faced. But that day there had been a light—a piercing sort of light with the kind of scorching brightness enough to blind. It flashed across the horizon with such powerful radiance that for several seconds, everything was cast in white; there were no shadows and everyone had had to shut their eyes. But even from behind their closed eyelids they could see spots of white. Yomi remained sightless to all but he could feel the light, and for a second he swore he could almost see the world.

Then the light vanished and everyone knew what had happened. The reiki was finally stable and it was moving. Yusuke reacted first, calling for Kurama and Hiei. Wordlessly, they flew off. Yomi ordered Shura to remain at the fortress and look out for the weaker youkai. He then left with Hokushin to follow after the three that had departed before them.

The plain where the SDF was located looked grimmer than ever. Yusuke could have laughed at the grave expressions on each of Koenma’s men, but he didn’t. He understood this was more than a containment spell for them; this was putting their pride on the line. The Reikai was crumbling but this, this was something they could do. Koenma himself stood by at a distance, arms crossed. He was in his adult form, the pacifier still making for a skewed picture. Yusuke, Hiei, and Kurama stepped into the barrier zone. A tingle swept up his spine. He didn’t know if Hiei and Kurama could feel it, but Yusuke knew this was a strong barrier. He just hoped they would be able to weaken the soul long enough for the SDF to carry out the sealing.

“We nicknamed it Hikaru,” called out Koenma, walking up to where the barrier stood. It would contain the soul, but that was it. The sealing required for the soul to be at a weakened state and that was why they needed Yusuke, Hiei, and Kurama. They appeared to be in top form, but Koenma couldn’t help wonder if it would be enough. “Judging by that light earlier, it seems to be an appropriate name, no?”

Yusuke walked up to him, poking his finger into the barrier. It sizzled brightly but he didn’t pay it any heed. “You have got a twisted sense of humor,” he said drolly. Sighing, he placed a hand on his hip. “Are you guys gonna disappear or what?”

Koenma nodded. “We’ll be back when Hikaru is within the barrier.”

“You sure this thing can contain it?”

Koenma’s eyes glinted. “Positive.”

Then Koenma and everyone else disappeared. Yusuke rose an eyebrow, turning back to look at Hiei and Kurama.

“I guess it’s time to get this show started, huh?”

Kurama had changed into his Youko aspect whilst Hiei opened his Jagan. Yusuke also allowed himself to release his youki, his Mazoku markings sprawling across his face and body. He grinned at the two before him.

“How do these things always happen under our watch?” he asked.

Kurama smiled. “It’s our unfortunate luck.”

“We’re going to destroy this thing,” growled Hiei.

Yusuke sighed. “Okay, work time.”

He closed his eyes and locked out everything around him. It was a meditation exercise Genkai had taught him—not that Yusuke ever used it much. There were a lot of things the old granny showed him that he never bothered practicing. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t learned them. It had been a long time since he had called only on his reiki. Nowadays he spent most of the time unifying his reiki and youki to augment his power. His attacks were still all reiki-based, but their intensity was supplemented by his youki now. Yusuke always ran out of reiki first, and when that happened he only had his youki left—and he still had yet to develop any specific technique for just his youki. Yusuke gritted his teeth. He would have to work on that later, but now all he needed was his reiki.

Hey, you. You want a challenge? Come over here. Let me show you how it’s done.

Hikaru moved at once. Yusuke grinned. Still just an amateur, whoever this soul used to be. But that was fine with him. If it was that easy to provoke Hikaru then maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“When did you learn to project your thoughts like that?” asked Hiei, raising an eyebrow.

Yusuke laughed. “I didn’t. But after seeing Kuwabara and Genkai do it so many times, I guess it kind of sunk in somehow.”

“Well, it’s working. Hikaru’s coming,” remarked Kurama.

They stood there for a few minutes before seeing anything. There was nothing but rocky cliffs surrounding them on every side. It was the tremor in the ground that alerted them. Rocks began cascading down the cliff sides, tumbling heavily onto the ground. Yusuke braced himself, feeling the dark reiki edging closer towards them. Hikaru then appeared around a rockslide. It was like something from a science fiction movie. Hikaru was a figure of white in human form but with no discernable gender attributes. It looked like a paper-cut man, blinding white, moving with slow purpose. When Hikaru entered the barrier, the rockslides ceased and it became dead silent.

Yusuke released a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding. Hikaru was right before them, but there was no mental torture this time. Maybe they could do this without too much fuss.

Then Hikaru turned to him, raising a finger. Terror sliced through him for one second, rooting him in place. Then he felt the Jagan’s reassuring presence and Yusuke breathed again. “Okay, so this is gonna be hell,” he said out loud.

He felt Kurama at one side, a warm comfort. Hiei grunted from his other side.

“Just let me do the guarding. You better not hold back on your attacks,” he warned.

Yusuke tried to remember Genkai’s words, bracing himself. “It’s going to be one of those days.”

He looked over to Kurama. The white kitsune appeared utterly invulnerable; Kurama always was a hard nut to crack. The SDF reappeared outside the barrier, positioning themselves for the sealing. Koenma was straight ahead of Yusuke, right behind Hikaru’s shoulder. From across the barrier, he issued a challenging look to the former detective: Are you going to wimp out now?

“Damn you, Koenma,” he said, grinning as he readied himself into a fighting stance. His head was clearing. Fighting was what he was best at, dammit. There was no way he was going to let this soul psych him out.

“Much better, Yusuke,” he heard Hiei say.

Yusuke cracked his knuckles. “All right, bitch, let’s get this show on the road.”

*

Death was a strange thing. Yusuke thought the first time was surreal, but the second occasion proved even more baffling. For starters, he knew he was going to die. He had opened himself to it without fear. But instead of waking to find himself suspended over his body—or anywhere else for that matter—he could only be confused. When he died that second time, there had been nothing. Yusuke remembered it well. There was just darkness and a cold, clammy feeling gnawing at his skin. He supposed it was because he hadn’t really died. His human life had died, yes, but his youkai life was just beginning. That odd crossover didn’t occur without some trauma. Yusuke didn’t know why that dark realm had terrified him so, but all he knew was that he never wanted to experience something like that again. It was pure emptiness and solitude. The universe was dead in that place. It made him realize how small everyone was in the end.

*

You’re in a funhouse of horror. Bodies galore, that girl is still stabbing her leg, and this time it’s Kuwabara who’s greeting you.

You think to yourself, fuck, not this shit again, but you can’t do anything about it. At least this time you’re aware that everything is just a hallucination. Hiei’s probably to thank for that. Even though you can’t see either him or Kurama, you can feel them somehow. It’s a reassuring tingle in the back of your mind. You were really hoping to duke this out with fists, but Hikaru was smart. You definitely had the edge in combat and Hikaru saw that. So it withdrew and decided to go for the mental approach. Hiei must be working overtime, you know, and you hope he’s not going to burn out.

Kuwabara walks up to you. He looks the same as he did when he was fourteen. You can’t help but grin. He always prided himself in being a tough delinquent but he was always the most sensitive person you ever met.

He’s aging, you realize, after a minute. With each step he takes his back curves a little more, his frame shriveling up like a dried grape. The smile he wears becomes strained, his teeth falling out one by one. The lines around his eyes grow distinct, his hand is shaking terribly by the time he touches you on the shoulder.

“Hey, U-Urameshi… You look exactly the same…”

You feel yourself tremble. Not from fear. Not from repulse. From rage. Pure, unadulterated fury. You know Hikaru is playing with your weaknesses. You always harbored that guilt for leaving everyone behind. And it was always the worst with Kuwabara because he never said anything about it. You visited him every single day that last week of his life, and never once did he express any envy towards you for your unchanged appearance. Never once did he lament the fact that by the age of fifty, his body could no longer withstand the physical pressure from his own reiki, forcing him to retire from any type of fighting permanently. Kuwabara was always the strongest. And you cannot forgive Hikaru for this unfaithful portrayal.

So you punch Kuwabara with all your might. His skull is crushed as soon as your knuckles brush his skin. You watch remorselessly as his insides splatter across the air like a mini-explosion, spraying your clothes with bits of himself.

The images around you fall flat and you’re standing in a room of black. You smile sinisterly, raising your bloodied fist.

“Try again.”

You feel a flicker of acknowledgement from Hiei. He’s proud of you. In this odd realm of thoughts and emotions, you’re able to identify his feelings accurately. You wonder what he and Kurama are facing. Hikaru seems to enjoy playing with insecurities, bringing up phantoms from the past. You know that you have plenty of skeletons in the closet.

When you’re suddenly dropping down from the room of black like gravity’s got one mean grudge against you, you almost laugh. So it’s time for another go. There’s a flicker of emotion from Kurama. Be careful. You stop smiling. This isn’t a game. There have been many lives lost already. You remember Hiei’s face. You still can’t believe Mukuro is dead. You’ve never fought her, but you knew she was something mighty. For someone like her to fall at the hands of Hikaru… You feel repressed anger rising up again. It fills you with strength. You were always a simple-minded fighter. Emotions fueled your power. And in this place, you think your anger may be the only thing that might save you from total meltdown.

You’re watching your mother now. Fuck. You always knew what your mother did to get money when times were rough, but you never once spoke of it to her. It was one of those things. How the hell do you approach your mom about being a prostitute? The scene before you has Atsuko in her early twenties. You were only in grade school at this time. She’s with a customer. You want to take her away but you’re forced to stand and watch from a distance.

The man is in his early fifties at least and he’s grotesque. His suit is tailored finely but it does nothing to hide the glutinous body underneath. He sweats profusely even though he’s sitting and you don’t know how Atsuko even manages to touch him without flinching. His voice comes out in short puffs—he can barely manage speaking without losing air, all that fat clogging up his arteries. You can’t imagine him exerting himself at all without having a stroke or heart attack. But Atsuko caresses his face gingerly and his grubby hand reaches up to cup her breast. You’re seething where you stand.

She whimpers as he squeezes too hard and that excites him. His breaths are coming out in shorter frequency and he pushes Atsuko into his lap. He’s hard, straining against his pants; he goads Atsuko to take action.

You know your mother would never have served a patron like him. But this Atsuko showers him with affection and it’s a sickening display of adoration. She takes him in with her mouth and he runs his hands through her hair roughly. He’s shaking all over, his breaths sounding more like pained gasps. The sweat rolls down his brow in thick droplets. A stench enters your nostrils and you know it’s coming from him. Atsuko continues her ministrations with zealousness. The wet sounds echo disturbingly around you, making you want to throw up. This isn’t your mother, you keep repeating to yourself, but you’ve never seen your mother in action so how do you know?

He’s really gasping in pain now. His hand grips at Atsuko’s head, trying to force her to stop but she doesn’t. His left arm is seizing up. He’s choking on air and his own saliva. His ruddy complexion is gradually turning purple, veins popping out around his temples. His eyes are bulging, bloodshot. Oxygen, not enough oxygen. He reaches a climax just as his body decides it can’t go on anymore. Atsuko’s bobbing head stills and she pulls away, thin threads of his release hanging around her slack lips.

“Fuck you.”

You whisper it with little anger. You’re too distressed. You feel waves of sorrow and anguish wash over you. You know Hiei’s trying to reach you, but you’re ignoring him. You’re blocking everything out except this vision of your mother. This wasn’t Urameshi Atsuko, you know. But did you ever really know her? She was an elusive figure in your life. You know she loved you, but everything else about her was always buried behind the alcohol, the cigarettes, the random excursions that could keep her away for weeks.

The Jagan’s faint presence vanishes in the back of your mind and along with it goes Hiei and Kurama. You realize you’re alone now. You wipe your tears away. That’s fine, you think. You’ve got a bone to pick with this thing. It was nice to have their support for a while, but you had a feeling you would wind up alone. You’re too stubborn for your own good sometimes. This was supposed to be a team effort. You have no idea what Hiei and Kurama are doing now, but you hope they’re taking Hikaru down bit by bit. You have your own score to settle.

You know your body is still outside somewhere. You realize that you, Hiei, and Kurama are probably just standing there on the plain like idiots. Hikaru doesn’t seem to have weakened much but you know you’re wearing down. You hate mind games. It was never your forte. But if there’s one thing you’re good at, it’s thinking in black and white. Your body is out there. The scene of your mother is replaying over and over again. Hikaru must be distracted by Hiei and Kurama right now. You smile to yourself. This is it. You know you have to use this time to figure something out. Your mind flies through the various lessons you shared with Genkai. Mastering the Reikohadou was the first thing you ever learned. Hikaru is a soul. Despite the mutations it’s gone through, it remains a spiritual entity. You should be able to handle this. You’re Genkai’s heir. Her only pupil.

There was a technique she used once at the Ankoku Bujutsukai. Against a team where three humans were being manipulated against their will…

She showed you the technique once. You scoffed, thinking when the hell would you ever need something like that. Leave the purifying to Koenma and his goons, you thought. Now you know how you can make Koenma’s job easier.

Purify the main soul.

You’re laughing at yourself now. Genkai’s probably rolling in her grave. You were never good at techniques that didn’t involve physical violence. You’re in Hikaru’s realm. You’ve got no hold here. If you want to go with this plan you’ve got to find Hikaru—the original soul. You’ve got to somehow reverse your situation and force Hikaru to show its true face. You need help. Again.

And then there’s the Jagan. You can feel Hiei’s scorn. He thinks you’re insane. He doesn’t want to help you commit suicide. You know he’s only just worried.

The Jagan embraces you fully and you’re suddenly bathed in warmth. This is Hiei’s doing. He’s covering for you completely so you can complete your mission.

“If you fail I’m going to hunt your ass down in the Reikai myself.”

You laugh. You know you’re risking both Kurama and Hiei’s well-being in doing this. They’re left unguarded. But you also know you can do this—you just need a little help.

It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There’re so many souls. So many mournful emotions. But the Jagan locates Hikaru. Center stage, basking in the spotlight. You know what you have to do and you desperately try to remember what Genkai showed you so long ago. Hikaru is coming at you with everything it’s got. The Jagan is faltering under the pressure. You cling onto your own subconscious, determined not to lose yourself in this playground. Hikaru is frightened—alarmed by how close you’ve gotten; this makes it weaker, if just only. You channel your reiki. The Jagan is cracking down and you’re hit with a plague of emotions not your own, but your reiki is a buffer.

“All right, you asshole. See if you like this!”

The words for the incantation come intuitively to you for some reason. Your reiki rushes forth. The Jagan is gone. The other souls seem to cower from your light. Hikaru is exposed.

It’s warm. It feels like the reiki isn’t even coming from you. You realize you’re probably expending your whole spiritual capacity in this one attack. The world crumbles around you and suddenly you’re back where you began. In the barrier. Hikaru is standing in front of you. The paper-man is screaming in agony. You’re barely standing yourself. You can’t feel Kurama and Hiei beside you—hell, you can barely feel anything anymore. You catch Koenma’s flabbergasted expression. You grin; it’s rare to catch the lord of the Reikai so off guard.

And then you fade out to black.

*

Yusuke purified Hikaru.

Koenma would have laughed if he hadn’t felt so devastated by that fact. In truth, he should have been ecstatic. The terror of the Reikai had been subdued and no more innocent lives had been lost in the battle. Yet as he gazed down on Yusuke’s sleeping form, Koenma couldn’t summon any form of gratitude. Only resentment. Anger. Disappointment.

“You took away the glory, Yusuke. I’d normally never complain about that but…”

For the first time in my life, I hate you.

He laughed to himself, shaken and troubled. Backing away from Yusuke’s bed, Koenma stumbled into a chair. He was being ridiculous. Yusuke had nearly lost his life in his attempt to purify Hikaru. All of his reiki had been depleted and if it hadn’t been for his youki, he would have certainly died in the aftereffects. Hiei had also been rendered into a weeklong coma due to overexposing his Jagan. Only Kurama remained relatively unharmed. Though by the dark shadows that hung beneath the kitsune’s eyes, Koenma knew that he too suffered silently. So why did he feel so resentful? Koenma knew. He knew he was being childish. He knew he was being stubborn. If Yusuke hadn’t stepped up when he did, he probably wouldn’t even be here now. Sealing Hikaru on his own would have expended his life. Koenma knew this. It was perhaps why he had been so adamant on his decision. To disappear in a blaze of glory… It was the dream of every fighter. But Koenma was never a fighter. He shouldn’t be feeling this despair in having missed his chance.

And that just made him feel all the more worse. He was angry and bitter because he had lived.

“I was trying to escape the world, Yusuke. You didn’t know that. If you had, you’d probably never have let me go with the sealing. And yet…somehow you still managed to save me without knowing,” Koenma said quietly.

He stood up and made his way to leave. Pausing at the door, he looked back at Yusuke. Sleep of the dead. Nothing would stir him for another few days at the very least. Koenma smiled ruefully.

“I wonder if that’s fate.”

*

Kurama waited in the garden, examining a bamboo plant to pass the time. It was Genkai’s. And like its former owner, it was strong and unyielding. A soft breeze blew past him and he looked up.

“Why have you called me over, fox?” greeted Hiei with all his usual manners.

Smiling, Kurama looked up at the tree the smaller youkai was perched on. “This is proving to be a strain on my neck, Hiei. Would you mind coming down to the ground?” he asked pleasantly, knowing well how his friend would respond.

“When have I ever indulged on your whims, Kurama?” came the sardonic reply.

Kurama chuckled. “Ah, I just wanted to be sure. You nearly died today. It’s good to see that hasn’t affected you negatively.”

Hiei regarded him with suspicion now. “Spit it out, Kurama. I’ve no patience for your games,” he said tacitly.

“You stayed with him. Both you and Koenma. I’ll admit I was surprised, but not really. I suppose I’ve suspected something along the lines for a while now,” replied Kurama calmly. He watched as Hiei processed his words. He was stunned. It didn’t show plainly on Hiei’s face, but Kurama had learned to decipher his friend’s many small tells.

“You will not mention anything to him,” said Hiei after a long pause.

Kurama raised an eyebrow. “Yusuke? Why ever not?”

Hiei glowered at him whilst Kurama laughed. “I’ve already made the baby swear to secrecy. I’m not against using force to convince you of the same, Kurama,” he warned.

“You know it isn’t required, Hiei,” replied Kurama, still smiling. “But why? You…care deeply for him, correct?”

The words seemed to hurt Hiei. He jerked and pushed himself off the tree, landing before Kurama. “You and your human emotions.”

Kurama watched him patiently. “Then why did you remain behind? You knew Yusuke had no idea how to diffuse the bomb. Koenma, I can understand of course. They share a strange relationship that nonetheless masks a great deal of affection on both sides. But you…”

Hiei closed his eyes. He knew clearly what Kurama was asking. But he had never voiced such feelings out loud. The idea of it annoyed him. Terrified him. Yet he knew that one day he would have to face them. Hiei looked at Kurama. “Yusuke’s risked his life for the world enough times to be able to embrace the idea of death unafraid. But I wasn’t ready to let him go should he fail. So I didn’t leave. I couldn’t leave,” he said slowly. Hiei knew also that he would never leave Yusuke.

There was a period of thoughtful contemplation before Kurama approached Hiei.

“So…” Kurama leaned over to stare intently into Hiei’s face. “You love him.”

If Hiei felt any burst of heat rush through his cheeks, it was quickly ignored in favor of leaping away from Kurama to a more reassuring height. As the kitsune laughed below him, he cursed beneath his breath, “Damn fox.”

*

Lightning crackled across Yomi’s fortress. From within the safe confines of his room, Yusuke laughed at the scampering youkai desperately seeking shelter from the oncoming storm below him. Two weeks had passed since Hikaru was exorcised and Yusuke could scarcely believe how debilitated he still was. His reiki was still recovering itself slowly, and it left him feeling half complete. His concentration was limited at best and he tired easily; it made Yusuke feel uncomfortably vulnerable. But at the same time, he couldn’t regret the break. He had been training nonstop for almost six months and relaxing had become a foreign idea.

Yusuke groaned. “Training wasted for nothing,” he muttered to himself.

“There’s always the next tournament.”

Blinking, Yusuke turned around and saw Hiei. The door behind him was still closed. Yusuke grinned slowly. “Okay, now that was an impressive entrance,” he greeted brightly. “I guess old Zakuro didn’t want us raining in on his parade. Still…after all the deaths and hype Hikaru caused, I would have thought he’d postpone the tournament at least a month.”

Hiei raised an eyebrow. “And risk us partaking? Not likely. It was a smart move on his part to keep the tournament on schedule while the rest of us were still recovering,” he said. Then he smirked. “But he’ll still lose. It was only luck that got him the last victory.”

Yusuke stretched out his limbs. “I only hope we get a more attractive leader at least.”

“Are you fully recovered?”

“Not quite,” replied Yusuke, flexing his arms. “I don’t think I could even manage a decent game of poker yet. Youki’s good standby, but my reiki is what I really depend on and without it I feel…really weird.”

Hiei watched him silently. “I’m holding Mukuro’s funeral tomorrow.”

Yusuke looked at him in surprise. “Well that’s a conversation starter if I ever saw one,” he said, laughing. “Am I invited?”

“Yes.”

Yusuke was nonplussed. “Really?”

It seemed as if Hiei was debating his words. He averted his gaze and stared at the floor for several minutes before finally speaking. “Mukuro…respected you. And she admired you a little too, I’d imagine. She didn’t have many friends, but she always counted you as a comrade. She would have wanted you present,” he said slowly.

For a while, Yusuke didn’t say anything. He was touched. Completely taken aback as he was, Hiei’s words filled him with warmth. “I…didn’t know she held me on such high esteem. I’d be honored to attend,” he replied sincerely.

Hiei nodded discreetly. Yusuke smiled.

“Can you tell me why? I mean… I can count the number of times I’ve spoken to Mukuro on one hand. It’s flattering and all, but I don’t get it.”

Hiei walked over to where Yusuke sat, looking out the window. The clouds were swelled and rain was beginning to trickle down. The youkai below had all disappeared. All but them. “She recognized your ability to…gather the masses, if you will. I think she envied your charm a little. Even with me she saw it,” he said.

Yusuke looked curiously at him. “What do you mean?”

“Back during the first tournament, she determined that if you and herself were to ever engage in a fight, I would immediately join your side if things were looking bad for you,” answered Hiei. He turned to look at Yusuke for a moment. “She was right. Though I didn’t say anything.”

Thunder roared in the close horizon and the rain began to fall hard and steadily. Yusuke stared at Hiei, speechless. He always did that. Just when the conversation would be proceeding normally, Hiei always had a way of dropping a bomb on him from out of nowhere. Yusuke sometimes begrudged him that ability. For all his fast words and affectionate gestures, it was really Hiei who was the more expressive one. It made Yusuke realize how cowardly he really was. Almost fifteen years. It shouldn’t have taken so long. And it wasn’t even Keiko’s memory that held him back. It was…

“If you keep making statements like that, Hiei… I may just blush.”

The spell was broken. Hiei rolled his eyes—an elegant move. Only Hiei could have made it look anything but that. “You never change, Yusuke. And I don’t mean that kindly.”

Yusuke grinned. “Oh, I know.”

Time was heading down the speed lane and Yusuke knew he would have to make his move eventually. Soon, he told himself repetitively. It was unfair to Hiei, but Yusuke couldn’t help but cherish these moments. Yet he also knew that if you stretched a string too much, it would snap. Yusuke extended his hand out the window, feeling the water cascade down his palm.

“So after the funeral…what are your plans?”

“I’ll probably continue my patrols. Rebuild Mukuro’s forces. She placed me officially as her successor should anything happen to her so it’s my duty to uphold her will. Plenty of youkai are still loyal to her so it shouldn’t be difficult,” Hiei replied.

“Ah, so you’re joining my side of the ball game now? Well, you’ll probably be a better leader than me. I sometimes feel bad for leaving Hokushin in charge all the time, but what can I say. I’m a free spirit.”

Hiei crossed his arms. He didn’t say anything, but Yusuke could see the hint of amusement in the smaller youkai’s eyes. He cupped his hand and watched as a tiny pool of water collected at the center of his palm. “I’ll probably be heading back to the Ningenkai. I haven’t been by the ramen stand in a while,” he said. He looked askance at Hiei. “You should come by sometime. I’ve never cooked dinner for you.”

This time it was Hiei’s turn to gather his thoughts. After a few seconds, he gave a slow smirk.

“Do I really want to risk my well-being, Yusuke?”

Yusuke relaxed a little and pointed an accusing finger at Hiei. “I’ll have you know that I’m a very good cook.”

“I suppose we’ll see.”

It was as straightforward an answer Hiei would ever give, but it nonetheless filled Yusuke with hope. Grinning, he quickly withdrew his hand and swiped it forward in Hiei’s direction, splashing water over the spiky hair. Yusuke only laughed at the glowering glare that he was privy to seconds later.

*

Botan was worried.

It seemed that over the past year all she had been was worried, but now that feeling was multiplied tenfold. The factions were one thing to consider, but ever since Hikaru had wreaked havoc over the Makai, things at home had seemingly taken a permanent turn for the worst. Even though the affair had been kept a tight secret, it wasn’t to anyone’s surprise when the Ningenkai found out; the humans and the Makai were becoming fast friends, and it was a feat that something like Hikaru had even managed to stay undisclosed for so long.

And even though the Reikai had been preparing for the worst, it still quivered in the wake of the fresh accusations and scandals. Hikaru had turned out to be a female youkai. But here was the kicker: She had been wrongly accused of her crimes nearly two centuries prior and her punishment was unnecessary. She had been yet another victim of Enma’s design to paint the Makai’s inhabitants as ruthless barbarians. It infuriated Botan to think of how Koenma’s father could have perpetrated such devious actions. And now they were paying for it. No amount of paperwork and press conferences would appease the protestors; Koenma’s enemies were practically hovering on the edge, planning their coup, and Botan was about ready to give up.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if Koenma were up to the game. But he wasn’t. That realization had dawned upon Botan too late. Try as she might, she couldn’t motivate her boss. It was as if nothing fazed him anymore. There was a dull look in Koenma’s eyes nowadays and she dreaded visiting his office to hand in her daily reports. When he had overthrown his father, he had been distressed for a while—which was expected. But he had bounced back a few days later, ready to take on the challenge of leading the Reikai. The first event that really shook him up was the hostage crisis. Though it was alleviated quickly with the help of Yusuke and the others, Botan knew that Koenma had been affected drastically by the event. It wasn’t just his father’s mistakes he would have to correct, but it was also his responsibility to gather the people of the Reikai and unite them.

But the Reikai hadn’t united. It had remained fractured these past few years and those division lines were only growing stronger. Those who had been under Koenma in the recent past were loyal to a fault, but gathering new allies was the real challenge. And Koenma was not the man he once was.

“Koenma-sama, I’m here to drop off today’s transfer notes. Also, the souls of Area Eight are rebelling again. They refuse to cross over to their designated assignments and the guards don’t know what to do. They don’t want to risk injuring them so they’ve built a blockade. The souls are staying within the perimeter for now,” announced Botan as she entered Koenma’s office.

It was a mess. Papers were strewn from ceiling to floor, the desk nearly hidden by the pile of books and charts. Diagrams, graphs, statistics. Botan had seen them. Most offered a bleak outlook. Koenma had stopped requesting them months ago, but these old ones remained. Untouched. A sign of failure. Botan hardened her gaze as she saw her boss turn towards her. He was facing the window. It was his usual sentry. Watching the Reikai run amok seemed to be his latest pastime and Botan didn’t know what to make of it. She could only push and prod and hope he would awaken from his stupor. So far there was nothing.

“If they wish to damn their eternal lives then let them be. Give them a warning. If they don’t obey then let the guards do as they see fit. The souls seemed to have forgotten that we’ve been managing their ever afters for well over two millennia. Maybe if they see the consequences themselves they’ll rethink future acts of rebellion.”

The apathy that coated his words made Botan shudder inwardly. It was a far cry from how the Koenma of twenty years past would behave. But she only dropped off her reports before bowing and leaving the room. Outside the office, she rested against the wall. The oni scrambled across the hallways, phones ringing incessantly from within the cubicles. Botan tightened his fists, refusing to let the tears spill.

“God… If there is a God… We could sure use some help,” she whispered.

*

“So I heard you wanted to talk to me?” greeted Yusuke as he abruptly entered Koenma’s office as if he owned the place.

Looking up from his paperwork, Koenma gave a small smile. As exuberant as ever, Yusuke always managed to brighten up things without even trying. It filled Koenma with relief to know at least that wouldn’t change.

“You’ve recuperated from your attack then?” he inquired politely. Yusuke insisted on informalities, and Koenma often acted overbearing just to spite him.

Yusuke nodded, glancing around the office. Papers, books, more papers, and more books. It made him feel queasy just looking at them. “Like I would ever let a soul do me in? Granted, it’s a soul doped up on reiki, but still,” he began. He nudged a fallen book with his foot. “Been busy, I see.”

Koenma waved a hand. “Oh, the usual political mess. Even here we can’t escape from them,” he said dismissively. “But my concern right now is the renegade soul. I’ve a means to get rid of it, but I’ll need your help.”

Yusuke grinned at him. “Come on, Koenma. You and I have history, man. Of course I got your back.”

The former detective’s lightheartedness made Koenma yearn for something. The past, perhaps. It had been so easy then. Koenma couldn’t resist from smiling again at the way Yusuke offered his assistance no strings attached. He knew he would have Yusuke’s unadulterated support without asking, but to see his companion’s determination was something else. There was a light in Yusuke that seemed to always burn. He would never say it out loud, but Koenma admired him.

“My special forces will manage the barrier. I will be in charge of sealing. I’ll rely on you, Kurama, and Hiei to weaken the soul enough for me to do the job,” he began to explain. He cast a wry look at Yusuke. “Save the world again, Yusuke.”

“Hey, that’s my specialty,” replied Yusuke, laughing. Then he narrowed his gaze on Koenma. “What about you, though? This soul is strong. Can you really seal it on your own?”

Koenma gave a carefully offhanded shrug. “It might be the death of me, but it’s the only option we’ve got right now. We don’t have the time to wait for safer alternatives,” he replied airily.

Yusuke stared at him for a long moment. “I get the odd feeling you’re not telling me everything, but I’ll let it slide for now. I’ll figure it out eventually, Koenma.”

He said the last sentence with a teasing tone, but Koenma could detect the undercurrent of seriousness in Yusuke’s voice. He always was more perceptive than his peers gave him credit for. Koenma breathed a little more easily.

“Well, I guess I better get back then. God knows what Hiei’s doing to my body back in the Makai. He’s been grumpy ever since he overextended his use on the Jagan trying to save my life. Hmm. I guess I should be more appreciative, huh?”

At this Koenma chuckled. “You were able to successfully separate your spiritual self from your physical body this time around, though. I suppose aging does have its purposes.”

Yusuke’s eyes flashed. “Oi, no old jokes. Besides, you’re way older than me, Koenma. Despite all appearances otherwise,” he retorted. He began to make his way out the office. “I’ll see you soon, you big baby. Try not to let the workload cramp your style. If I see you slip up, I’ll personally deliver you a lecture you’ll never forget.”

*

Kurama could barely withhold his amusement as Hiei sulked in the corner of the room.

It was with some bafflement he had been informed of his friend’s sudden arrival, and when he came upon Hiei in his greenroom, Kurama could all but laugh. Hiei was in an uncustomary mood. He waited by his plants with all the pretence of patience and nonchalance, but anyone who really knew him could sense his frustration.

“The greenroom, Hiei? If you had but journeyed another floor up, you could have just came directly to my own suite. What deterred you from that last flight?” he had inquired.

To which Hiei responded with a glare, “Your servant caught me as I was climbing up to this floor and stopped me. I’ll admit this: your companion is fast if not an imbecile.”

Kurama had bowed at the compliment. But now Hiei had lost his conversation. Kurama would normally have sent for refreshments, but he could see that all his friend wanted at the moment was privacy so he had sent away his servants promptly. Fortunately for him, patience was secondhand nature and he had no quarrels with waiting for Hiei to gather his thoughts.

Then finally, “He sent for me.”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out who Hiei was speaking about, but Kurama feigned ignorance nevertheless. “‘He’? Who is that exactly?” he asked innocently.

“Don’t play naïve with me, Kurama,” warned Hiei.

Kurama smiled acquiescently. “So what is your dilemma?”

Hiei uncrossed his arms, a troubled expression coming over his face. It was highly unusual and, though he would never say it to Hiei directly, endearing. “He actually sent an oni to me. I didn’t even know he employed them. He invited me to…to dinner.”

“Oh, I can see your problem already,” agreed Kurama with an exaggerated nod. “It must be difficult indeed to choose between accepting and declining. I don’t know, Hiei. This may be your most challenging obstacle yet.”

“Your sarcasm, fox, is unwarranted and unrequired,” replied Hiei darkly. He closed his eyes. “I know I’m being a fool,” he admitted more quietly.

It seemed Kurama had finally broken through. Hiei appeared calmer now. Kurama regarded him fondly. “I’ll assume you accepted the invitation?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“Of course,” repeated Kurama, nodding approvingly. “Then why are you in such a fit?”

Hiei frowned at him. “I…” He was about to say he wasn’t in a fit, but that would have only made the fox think he was right. And perhaps he was. Kurama could read him like a book. He regained his composure; there was no point in delaying. “He invited me for dinner tomorrow night. Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of Keiko’s death.”

All at once, understanding hit Kurama. He could have scolded himself for his thoughtlessness. It was little wonder Hiei was so anxious. Fifteen years plus of waiting and nonverbal promises were more than enough to cause unease in the stoutest. And with Hiei and Yusuke… Kurama could understand many things, but the tenuous bond his two friends shared was incomprehensible to say the least. It was without doubt one of the strongest attachments he’d ever seen in his life, but it was also completely unfathomable. He didn’t know when it was exactly they came together; he doubted even they knew. Friendship had been the base but everything else that came after was as concrete as air. But that was the beauty of it. Perhaps no one was meant to know.

When Keiko had passed away, he had thought that would be it. Yusuke and Hiei would finally close the strange rift that was suspended between them. But then a year had passed and nothing changed. And now it was almost fifteen years post-Keiko’s death; time flew by so quickly without Kurama even realizing.

“I would be inclined to believe Yusuke did that on purpose.”

“Yes, I don’t doubt that,” replied Hiei dryly. “But this is Yusuke. I don’t know what to expect.”

Kurama smiled. “Contrary to popular believe, he has changed. He’s more mature and…more unpredictable than ever. Yes, I see your concerns,” he said, shaking his head. “But when has that ever stopped you?”

Hiei looked sharply at him. “It isn’t stopping me, Kurama. It’s just that after all this time, with a gesture like this… I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it well if I were to be let down. And Yusuke has tried my patience many times in recent history,” he said somberly. His eyes flashed. “I do not want to be disappointed again.”

It was futile to offer words of support. Hiei had been supporting himself his entire life; he was only confessing his misgivings to a trusted friend. Kurama knew without fail that Hiei would carry on fine if such a letdown occurred. He would probably even continue waiting for Yusuke because that was just how it went. Love was a powerful, cruel thing. But Kurama knew Yusuke too. And he knew that Yusuke wouldn’t just randomly invite Hiei to dinner on Keiko’s death anniversary; that he had sent for an oni to personally deliver the notice was significant enough. Kurama never knew Yusuke to plan for many things, but he had obviously thought this out.

“Come, Hiei. Let me accompany you back to Mukuro’s fortress. Or rather, yours. How was the funeral by the way?”

Hiei accepted the topic change wordlessly. Perhaps even gratefully. “You’re not feeling scorned are you, fox?”

“Of course not. After all, it was only yourself and Yusuke who attended. Why ever should I feel left out?” he replied coolly.

“It was her wishes—”

“I’m only teasing, Hiei. I respected Mukuro very much to recognize her desire and honor it. Did the ceremony do her justice?”

Hiei snorted. “The garden was ruined by the storm from the previous night so the affair was more morbid than it had to be. Of course, that didn’t stop Yusuke from laughing the entire time.”

Kurama chuckled. “Our Yusuke… There are some things that never change. At least not too much.”

*

Friday nights were always his busiest. The stand would usually be teeming with young couples, flirting the night away surrounded by the mists from their steaming bowls. Yusuke was grateful high school kids had changed so little; they were his best patrons and he wouldn’t trade the free entertainment for the world. Some of them even exclaimed how they had missed him when he opened up for the night. Apparently, Yusuke’s reputation had risen to become a small legend among the streets of Tokyo. His ramen had made an impression, and being away for half a year would no doubt cause some gossip.

“We made sure no one would break in or take away your stand, you know. The cops were thinking about towing it away because you’d been gone so long,” one of the kids had informed him.

Yusuke had only grinned his thanks, but there was nothing that would have been able to take away the stand. He had modified it over the years; the base, outside cover, and doors were made of minerals from the Makai—even a youkai would have been hard-pressed to break in. And there was no way any regular human would have been able to tow it away.

“Where have you been all this time, Urameshi-nii-san?”

He had insisted the kids just call him Yusuke, but the girls in particular were very obstinate. It only amused Yusuke further. Girls and their coyness.

“I’ve been training in the mountains mostly. I’m a fighter first and foremost you know,” he replied as he handled a batch of noodles.

He heard a few excited squeals and gasps behind him.

“A fighter?” repeated a boy—probably the girl’s date. “That’s incredible. What type of fighting do you do?”

Yusuke shrugged. “Your usual martial arts. Nothing special. I guess you could say I specialize in channeling reiki.”

“Reiki?”

“Spiritual energy. Every one of us is born with it, but only a few have the potential to access it freely,” he replied, turning around.

Yusuke laughed at the couple’s flabbergasted expressions.

The boy frowned. “You’re not just messing with us are you?”

“No, no, I’m telling the truth! But I wouldn’t advise you to pursue this particular field of training. I can tell right off the bat you don’t have the capacity for it. Regular martial arts for you should be more than enough—no offence,” he replied, grinning. “Besides…there are better ways to impress a girl. I had a friend. She hated the fact that fighting always took me away from her.”

Thinking of Keiko no longer pained Yusuke. In fact, the pain had disappeared a long time ago; he just thought it should hurt.

The girl giggled as her date blushed and stammered. Yusuke watched them warmly. Then he felt a slight change in the air. He would normally have never noticed it, but he had been on guard the whole night and his senses spiked. When he saw the familiar figure emerge from the darkness of the streets, he smiled openly.

“I was worried you wouldn’t make it,” he called out. The couple before him turned around curiously. As Hiei stepped into the soft light, the girl gasped again.

“Y-you’re a youkai, aren’t you? Oh my God! Kite, I never thought I would see one in person!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. She turned to Yusuke in delight. “Yusuke-nii-san, you never mentioned anything about youkai! Is he one of your fighting partners?”
Yusuke stifled his laughter at noting Hiei’s discomfort. He nodded at the girl. “You’re sharp,” he replied, winking. This time she was the one who turned red.

She hastily got her boyfriend to pay for their meals, including a rather generous tip. “We’ll leave you and your friend alone, nii-san! Will we be seeing you soon or are you going to disappear again?”

“I’ll be here and there. Check back in a couple of weeks if I’m not,” he replied, leaning over the counter casually.

“Okay, bye!” came the distant farewell.

Yusuke smiled indulgently at the departing couple. It’s funny, but he always felt at odds with most kids when he was their age; now he freely engaged on easy conversations with them. It was hard to remember sometimes that he was old enough to be their great-grandfather. Chuckling to himself, he finally looked at Hiei.

“See how popular I am?”

Hiei had situated himself in one of the wooden stools, looking very out of place. Yusuke laughed again and smacked his hand against the counter. “Okay! I know exactly what I’m making for you so don’t say anything. Just sit and watch the master,” he announced, rolling up his sleeves.

“The humans haven’t changed very much.”

The quiet statement made Yusuke smile. As he chopped up vegetables and tossed them into the boiling broth, he glanced at Hiei over his shoulder. It had been a few weeks since Mukuro’s funeral—and that was the last he’d seen of him. Yusuke didn’t know why, but he almost expected Hiei to be somehow different. It was just the nerves, he told himself. Sending out the oni had been spur of the moment and once he had done it, he could only swear at his rashness. Yusuke had been planning the occasion for a while; it seemed even his own subconscious thought he was being too slow and decided things for him. Seeing Hiei before him now, though… Yusuke just couldn’t believe he had wasted fifteen years.

“You have every right to kill me, you know,” he murmured.

He knew Hiei would hear him despite the bustle of the kitchen. Yusuke turned around to face him. Hiei simply stared right back at him, silent and unmoving.

“Damn, you’re hard to crack,” Yusuke muttered. He lowered the flame on the stove. “But you know what? I’m the bigger idiot—and don’t tell me you already know. I know you know. I know you know that I know. But that doesn’t keep me from being stupid.”

He shut the heat when the vegetables began to come afloat, simmering and bubbling in the hot liquid. The bowl had been pre-selected. Blue and red with slim dragons swimming over the smooth ceramic. No one had ever used it. Yusuke had purchased it because it reminded him of Hiei. He transferred the steaming ramen and broth into the bowl with practiced ease. Then grabbing a fork, he turned around and served the meal to Hiei.

“I know you still don’t like chopsticks,” he said playfully.

Hiei took the silverware graciously. “Your humans love ritualizing actions. Eating shouldn’t be about showing off the dexterity of your fingers,” he replied.

Yusuke laughed out loud. “They’re chopsticks, man! You’re a swordsman!”

“Swordsmanship dictates strength in the wrist and arm. As long as my fingers can grasp the hilt, I’m satisfied.”

“So you’re saying you just don’t have nimble hands.”

Hiei shot him a sardonic stare. “Should I be worried you seem determined to prevent me from eating this?” he asked, gesturing to the steaming bowl.

Yusuke backed away, waving his hands. “Oh no, no. Please, do continue.”

The first forkful was spun neatly and Hiei took a careful bite. After a few seconds of chewing, he swallowed. “It’s not bad,” he conceded.

“Oh ye of little faith,” teased Yusuke. He leaned back against the stove, watching Hiei eat for several minutes. Then he made another decision. “Cooking is one of the few skills I have no doubts on. I know I can make a good bowl of ramen just like I know I can cheat at a game of cards better than anyone I know—except maybe Kurama of course.”

Hiei looked up at him as he ate, his gaze questioning but patient. Yusuke crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow at him.

You, on the other hand, I was not so sure of,” he pointed out. Hiei was listening with intent now. “And like I said earlier, you have every right to kill me. I mean, fifteen years? That’s overkill even for me. You should have given up on me, Hiei. Any sane person would have. But I guess that’s why we work, huh? Because I’m a complete idiot, yet you still tolerate me. And then with Hikaru…”

It was Hikaru that made Yusuke realize how he was wasting away his life. The past was dead and gone, but he couldn’t let it go. Hikaru had painfully reminded him of that. He had thought he was moving on, but he was only deluding himself. It wasn’t the memories of the deceased that tethered him; it was the concept of longevity. He had so many years ahead of him—what was the rush? Yusuke scoffed at his logic. Damn, but he could really be an idiot.

Yusuke shook his head and caught Hiei’s solemn face. He reached his hand below the cashier and pulled out something. He grasped it tightly for a second before tossing it over. Hiei caught it smoothly. When he saw what it was, Yusuke was gratified to see that small indication of shock in his eyes.

“So now you tell me,” he said softly.

The hirui stone glimmered brightly in the light. Hiei rolled it back and forth between two fingers as if mesmerized. Yusuke couldn’t blame him. It had been years since that day. The hirui stone had been stored in the stand the entire time—untarnished and unseen. Yusuke himself hadn’t even looked upon the stone in quite some time. But here it was now, shining and unmarred. A testament to the past and a promise for the future.

Hiei looked the stone over once more before tucking it away. He closed his eyes. “You really are an idiot. And you make me feel like one too,” he said. Sharp, crimson eyes landed on Yusuke. “I’ll punish you later.”

Yusuke broke into a wide grin. He took Hiei’s bowl and refilled it with a generous amount. “Then eat. You’re gonna need your strength,” he said knowingly.

In the hazy smoke of the night, the stars peaked out over them.

*

Koenma’s gaze swept over the barren landscape unseeingly. Area Eight was a high-priority purgatory; the souls initially sent here were only temporary and it served as the gateway to many heavens and hells. The terrain was smooth and suspended in air. The cemented paths to future destinations spiraled out of its platform in a dizzying circle. The office building located on the floating station was a lone tower and frequently understaffed. Koenma sympathized with the workers. The souls that gathered there were usually minor criminals—neither too bad or too good. Finding permanent stations for these souls could take up to weeks and they were unafraid to voice their complaints during the wait. Koenma wasn’t surprised at their recent rebellions. These were people who were used to pushing the normal boundaries a little. It also made them notoriously difficult to bargain with.

“I should go back,” he said out loud.

There was no one to hear him. At this distance, he could see the lines of souls at Area Eight waiting to be dispatched to their permanent designations. It was a slow-moving process. Koenma could relate to that. He should have been in his office by now. Botan would not be pleased. But even she had given up lecturing him. He knew she meant well. They all meant well. But he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. His death wish was abated for now, but Koenma knew that didn’t mean anything.

He was irrevocably lost.

“God save me.”

*

“Things aren’t going as you planned, are they?”

“You don’t need to state the obvious.”

“I told you as much, Koenma. Honesty and principle are fine ideas, but they aren’t practical. People are selfish and care only for themselves. They will take advantage of kindness; it’s in their nature.”

“I don’t want to listen to your rambling.”

“Then why do you come see me every week? I doubt it’s guilt.”

“…Because you are my father.”

“So I am your father once again? What happened to that arrogant attitude? You all but denounced me.”

“I find that family is something you can’t quite ignore forever—no matter how much it pains you.”

“You are pathetic.”

“I know. I know and yet…I can’t seem to do anything about it.”

*

Yusuke had teetered about in the Ningenkai for a while longer before the mundaneness got the best of him. He returned to his fortress hoping to seek out some adventure but Hokushin had reported nothing. After training with the monks for a week or so, Yusuke finally snapped and broke free. He hadn’t spoken to Hiei since their fateful dinner, but he knew he would hear from the youkai eventually and didn’t go to him. Hiei was a loner by nature and treasured his solitude. So he went over to Kurama’s territory instead. It was an old favorite hangout spot and Kurama had never disappointed Yusuke yet.

But as he sat in Kurama’s rec room, Yusuke resisted a yawn. He flipped through the channels on the TV with dull interest before stopping on a newscast. The headlines caught his attention. “The Reikai in Disaster! Divine Intervention Perhaps?” Yusuke frowned at the television screen. It seemed all the humans could talk about recently was the Reikai. And it wasn’t pleasant news either. There were protests all over the streets of the Ningenkai and it seemed the vast majority believed the Reikai was nothing but a fraud. People had taken to purchasing seals from their new youkai allies that prohibited the soul’s departure from a deceased body. Yusuke had scoffed at that. Idiots. If the humans knew the damage they were inflicting on their loved ones’ souls, they would stop immediately. But they didn’t. And their fervor only intensified.

“Does this make sense to you, Kurama? Because this sounds like a load of bullshit to me,” he said, annoyance tingeing his words.

Kurama set down his cup of tea and crossed his legs elegantly. “Their outrage has only increased since Hikaru was exposed. I’m worried that Koenma doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it,” he replied, eyebrows creasing.

“Damn, I didn’t think it would get this bad. Koenma needs to take a stand already!”

Kurama’s steady green gaze landed on Yusuke. “I don’t think he has that ability anymore.”

“Don’t say it,” said Yusuke quietly. He looked out the window. “I may have to step in after all.”

“Don’t you mean we?”

Yusuke looked at Kurama, catching the kitsune’s smiling eyes. “Well, yeah. Sorry, forgot my manners for a sec. You know me,” he replied with a lopsided grin.

Kurama shut off the television. The news didn’t surprise him one bit. They were living in revolutionary times after all. “I’ve been worried about Koenma for a while now. He seems to have lost his edge, if you know what I mean. I’ve visited the Reikai a few times since the Hikaru incident and he never answers my summons.”

Yusuke chewed on his lip. “Is that so? Well, the last time I saw Koenma period was during the sealing. I didn’t see him at all when I was recovering—which is very unlike him. I just figured he was busy. He’s running a whole world after all,” he said while leaning back into the sofa. He blew a wisp of hair out of his eye. “But I know what you’re talking about. The baby’s depressed.”

Suddenly he sat upright. Kurama followed Yusuke’s alerted stance.

“That’s…” Yusuke’s eyes widened as he stood up and ran to the window. In the distance he saw a tiny figure flying quickly towards them. “Botan!” he exclaimed in shock. It had been years since he felt her reiki presence. He jumped back as the ferry girl zipped through the window.

“Yusuke!” gasped Botan as she got to her feet. She ran to him in tears. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around her. Kurama stood by his side, concern written plainly in his expression.

“Hey, hey, what’s with the waterworks? I haven’t seen you since Keiko’s funeral—I thought there would be more smiles and laughter when we met up again. Unless these are tears of joy?”

Botan’s petite frame shuddered in Yusuke’s arms for a few more minutes before she pulled away. She sniffled weakly and wiped away her tears with a sleeve, trying to smile but failing. “I’m sorry, I just… I’ve had a rough time, you know?” she said. Her dispirited expression cut through Yusuke.

“Did something happen?” he asked urgently.

She nodded. “There’s been a coup. Same guys as before. The True Disciples captured all the municipal offices—including the main headquarters. I managed to escape since I was in the Ningenkai at the time. Koenma reportedly wasn’t at the scene so I’m hoping he wasn’t there when they invaded.”

Yusuke’s eyes narrowed. “Where do you think he is?” he asked.

Botan looked at him dejectedly. “He’s been wandering away from headquarters a lot recently. He visits his father in prison too. But I know he takes walks among the purgatories.”

“It seems he really has lost himself,” murmured Kurama.

Yusuke punched the wall in frustration. “Why the hell didn’t he say anything?”

“Because he didn’t want to get you involved,” replied Botan suddenly. She was regaining her composure slowly and she watched Yusuke with steel eyes. “After the hostage crisis… He wanted you to live out your own life. He felt guilty.”

Kurama glanced at Yusuke. It was the most angry he had seen the younger man in a long time. But Yusuke no longer burst into long rants or acts of violence when he was angry; the concrete resolve emanating from him was more than enough to drive off any protest. Kurama smiled to himself a little. He knew what was going to happen.

“Shall I call in for backup?” he asked.

Yusuke shot him a wry look. “That predictable, huh.”

“Well, it’s you we’re talking about.”

Botan watched the exchange, the barest of hope rekindling inside her. She’d forgotten how much she missed this.

“The old gang should be good enough. These guys are religious extremists, but I don’t think they pack too much power. As long as they’re not pointing a bomb at us of course,” replied Yusuke, grinning. His expression grew serious again. “But leave Koenma to me.”

Kurama nodded. “I wouldn’t have dreamed otherwise,” he said with a formal bow.

Yusuke smiled at the kitsune. “Oh Kurama, you smooth talker.” He looked at Botan. “I’ll need you as a guide.”

“Of course,” agreed Botan without a moment’s thought. She watched the two men discuss strategy for a few minutes. Her hand tightened around her oar and she opened her mouth: “Yusuke.” He turned to her patiently. Botan almost felt like laughing. Here they were, depending on him once again. But it wasn’t wrong. They were friends. Koenma seemed to have forgotten that at some point. She swallowed a knot in her throat. “I tried really hard to reach him. But he’s closed himself off to everyone.”

The understanding in Yusuke’s eyes almost made her start to cry again, but she didn’t. She’d done enough of that already. It was time for action. She gave a small smile. Small but strong. Yusuke could see that clearly and reached over to touch her chin.

“Don’t fret so much. Girls aren’t pretty when they’re crying.”

*

The room was lit by the sunlight streaming through the open windows. A cool breeze swept through, disturbing the curtains. Kuwabara only leaned his face towards the wind’s direction, breathing deeply. Spring had finally come. He smiled and felt strength renew his old skeleton. He wanted to go outside.

He blinked when he felt a prickling in his senses. Kuwabara turned to the door and saw a young man step into his room. For a second, his mind was foggy. The dark ponytail and mischievous face seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite… Then his memory cleared.

“Urameshi. You’re still visiting me?”

Kuwabara watched the surprise hit Yusuke. He grinned to himself. Yusuke walked over to the bed and sat down by his feet.

“You remember me, huh? Well, this is the first time all week. I was beginning to feel discouraged,” he replied, smiling.

Regret pierced Kuwabara. “Yukina stopped by this morning with the kids. I didn’t remember them,” he said. He looked at Yusuke sharply. “You should be honored!”

Yusuke looked upon him with open affection. Kuwabara allowed his gaze to wander over his friend’s unchanged appearance. He never envied Yusuke’s fate. His own wish was always for a normal life and that included old age. He only wished illness hadn’t plagued him. That was the most painful thing for him. The memory lapses were more prolonged now and most of the time he was quite carefree about it. But he was always aware that something wasn’t complete. When the memories flooded back, Kuwabara could only grit his teeth and bear it with as much dignity he could muster. If Yukina and the children could put on a brave face for him then he sure as hell could do the same. He looked at Yusuke. He knew he had been visiting every day. His mind had placed him as the “nice but no-good teenage rebel” and Kuwabara laughed now. Even when he didn’t remember his old friend, the very appearance of Yusuke was undeniable and universal.

“Man, between you and Keiko, I don’t know. She’s gonna outrun you if you keep this up, Kuwabara.”

Kuwabara’s ears perked. “How’s she doing?”

Yusuke shrugged. “Running the household still. The grandkids are all afraid of her. She’s got major power.”

Laughing, Kuwabara pointed a finger at Yusuke. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of her too, Urameshi.”

“What do you mean ‘too’? I was always afraid of her, you dolt,” replied Yusuke, grinning.

It was always “Urameshi” and “Kuwabara” between them. No matter how many years had passed, that still remained the same. Kuwabara knew the reason why. They were both stubborn men. But they were also best friends. Nothing else was required. Kuwabara’s reiki had remained just as strong in his old age even if his body couldn’t keep up with it anymore. He knew his time was coming soon. He suspected it was the reason why Yusuke had been visiting so often. Kuwabara smiled at the seemingly younger man before him. He would miss this.

“You better not waste the rest of your life, Urameshi. I’ll personally come back from the dead and give you nightmares like you did me.”

Yusuke watched him without saying anything. Then he smiled. He placed a warm hand on Kuwabara’s leg. “Yeah, yeah. I love you too.”

*

Jin snapped the gum in his mouth, grinning in satisfaction when Touya turned to glare at him. He had acquired the habit of chewing gum when he visited the Ningenkai a while ago. The rubbery texture fascinated him, and he was thoroughly impressed by the teenage girls who showed him how to blow a bubble. Even now in the Makai he continued the practice, driving his friends to the edge; Jin only laughed to himself.

“This mission does call for stealth,” remarked Kurama with picture perfect calmness.

Damned if the kitsune always made him feel like a child. Jin shrugged his shoulders. “Won’t do it again, I promise,” he replied, winking.

Kurama shook his head, but his smile was amused. Touya was less forgiving and placed an ice cold grip on his arm. “Don’t mess this up,” he warned.

Jin shivered at the numbing sensation traveling up his arm and offered a placating smile. “Lighten up a little, man! Otherwise you may just freeze up those wrinkles of yours permanently,” he said.

Touya just shook his head.

“So where’s good ol’ Yusuke anyway?” inquired Jin curiously.

“He’s gone ahead of us in search of Koenma,” answered Kurama.

Rinku tugged his yoyo upwards. He offered a skeptical look to the kitsune standing beside him. “So he’s leaving us all the hard work? That’s not fair…”

Suzuki cracked his knuckles. A predatory grin filled his face. “That’s fine with me. I’ve been needing a decent workout.”

Jin pointed a finger at him. “Oi, where’s Shishi anyway? He’s usually hovering on your shoulder like the little gremlin he is,” he asked, waggling his eyebrows.

The blond rolled his eyes. “You know how he is when it comes to Yusuke. He opted out of this one because he felt he had involved himself ‘too much with that commoner’ already. He’s probably sulking somewhere by now.”

Rinku hummed in agreement. “Yeah, that makes sense. And of course Chuu’s all caught up with paperwork—”

“I still can’t believe he won the tournament!” exclaimed Jin.

“Luck,” muttered Suzuki, “pure luck. It happened with Enki after all.”

Jin laughed as Kurama looked around the group, clapping his hands twice. “The gossip is very entertaining but shall I get back to the main point of our meeting?”

“Touchy,” muttered Rinku.

Kurama raised one cool eyebrow at the younger youkai. Rinku ducked his head. “So the mission is simple,” continued Kurama once Rinku had sufficiently expressed his contriteness. “We are to be Yusuke’s guards in basic terms. While he’s searching for Koenma, we’re to provide distraction so the others may not discover him first. We’ll be divided into three groups. Jin and Suzuki. Rinku and Touya. I will go on alone. We’ll be dispersed over the Reikai. The distractions…I shall leave up to you gentlemen to decide.”

Suzuki grinned wickedly. “Ooh…Kurama, you sure about that?”

“Just no deaths,” added the kitsune with his own mischievous smile.

Rinku pouted. “It’s too bad Chuu can’t come,” he lamented.

Jin smacked the smaller youkai on the back. “He could if he would. Hell, he wanted to, but he’s got other responsibilities now,” he said, chuckling.

Touya shook his head gravely. “I still can’t believe that he of all people…”

“Well, luck’s a skill too, right?”

Kurama watched the four fighters before him with mild exasperation. Idleness had brewed an unhealthy sense of gossip in them; this mission would hopefully provide them reborn focus. He did wish Yusuke hadn’t left already. The younger man was always better at inspiring a united effort. Especially with this lot. Kurama sighed. Neither of them had heard from Hiei, but Yusuke hadn’t expressed his concerns. Always the dark horse by nature, Kurama was sure that Hiei would probably make his grand entrance sooner or later. It wouldn’t have surprised him if Hiei was already on Yusuke’s tail—just to make sure the latter wouldn’t land himself into unnecessary trouble; Hiei was overprotective like that.

“Yusuke is relying on all of us.”

The solemn words succeeded in drawing everyone’s attention to Kurama again. The kitsune’s green eyes shone brightly in the light. “It’s not just him, though. If the Reikai falls, all of us will suffer the consequences.”

The underlying gravity of the situation struck home, and Kurama was gratified to see the serious expressions from the four fighters surrounding him. For them, this mission was of political significance. The True Disciples didn’t look upon the Makai favorably, and if they were to completely take over the Reikai then the demon population would most likely have a war on its hand—a war that would doubtless be won by the Reikai. Youkai were aplenty but only a tiny percentage of the population would be strong enough to present a real challenge to the Reikai; even then, the spiritual and ancient weapons the Reikai possessed would ultimately triumph.

This wasn’t all, though. Their mission’s purpose was first and foremost a rescue plan. The politics and schemes didn’t concern Yusuke one bit. For him, this was about helping out an old friend. And because they were all friends with Yusuke, they too were much more personally involved. Kurama knew without fail that there was no one amongst them present that would ever turn their back on Yusuke. Such command and loyalty were only proof of Yusuke’s own mightiness. Of course, the former human would never think anything special of himself.

Kurama smiled to himself. Koenma had better be prepared; being on the receiving end of Yusuke’s temper wasn’t anything pleasant.

“So now I shall instruct you on how to separate your souls from your bodies…”

*

Yusuke gently traced the characters on the gravestone with one finger. He never got around to crying. For some reason, the tears wouldn’t come. He wondered if he was in shock. The vast emptiness he felt contradicted that notion, however. It wasn’t shock. He felt a heavy turmoil burdening him, but there was a sliver of happiness to be found too. He smiled to himself.

“I wonder why I’m not sad.”

An icy draft blew past him. Strange weather for spring. Yusuke knew who it was immediately.

“Paying your last respects, Hiei?”

The way he spoke was distant, shuttered. Yusuke was aware of Hiei’s concerned gaze but he ignored it; he wasn’t going to do anything foolish. The shorter youkai walked up to the grave and placed something small near its base. A hirui stone. Its smooth surface reflected the sunlight brilliantly. It was different from Yukina’s stones; the blue was mixed with crimson and black. Yusuke finally looked at Hiei.

“The oaf should feel privileged. I have never bestowed this to anyone voluntarily.”

A smile tugged at Yusuke’s lips. “I’m glad. I can’t seem to muster up the tears.”

Hiei stared at the epitaph, eyes hard and unwavering. “Then I will cry for both of us.”

*

Area Eight was swarming with souls as usual.

Koenma knew of the dangers that had befallen over headquarters. It was just his luck he had been here when the major takeover occurred. That was about eight hours ago. The purgatories, hells, and heavens were almost under complete control of the True Disciples. Area Eight remained the black sheep because of the rioting souls. The warden there was also considerably more violent, and had opposed the Disciples quite heartily. After seeing the warden and guards putting up arms against these strange outsiders, the souls and staff of Area Eight had reached a temporary truce in order to ward off the invaders. Koenma had observed this rebellion from afar. He felt some pride that the men and women had under him were fighting so valiantly, but he still couldn’t shake off his troubles.

He had to go back eventually. It was his responsibility to at least ensure the safety of his people. After that, the Disciples would probably revoke his title and privileges and lock him up along with his father. Or maybe they would even have him executed. Koenma didn’t really fear death, but he felt remorse; he had failed to save his home. He stood up and wiped down his clothes. He had failed. He would accept his punishment at the very least. It was what he deserved.

Koenma began to turn away when a brutal force collided with his head. He flew back several feet and landed on his back, his cheek and jaw throbbing. Spots of red and white burst across his vision. Reaching up with his hand, Koenma felt blood trickle from the corner of his mouth and he looked up at his assailant in shock.

Urameshi Yusuke appeared the picture of serenity. But beneath the tranquil face, Koenma could see the raging anger in his eyes. Anger, disappointment, disdain. Koenma looked away in shame.

The words came slow and steady. “We’ve got a lot to talk about, Koenma.”

*

He called me Hikaru.

All I felt was contempt and rage, but I knew that name was false. Hearing it within the stretches of the mental landscape infuriated me further and I wanted nothing more but to crush the half-blood. How dare he? How dare he stop me? Revenge, I wanted revenge. Retribution. I couldn’t remember why. It didn’t matter. They were trying to stop me, the half-blood, the kitsune, and the damned eye-holder. That eye was evil. It shielded the brunt of my attacks.

And then the half-blood burst through my defenses. Such a wave of power and blinding aura. I was scared then. I tried to destroy his mind, but he was protected by the eye. Then his light hit me. Beautiful, beautiful horror.

My name is Akira. I died two hundred years ago. I was framed by Enma and made to suffer. I lost my memories and my name until the half-blood saved me.

My soul is my own again, but the mind doesn’t forget. I forgive and I remember. Justice is never pure.

*

Koenma was a damn fool.

Of course, Hiei never had the highest opinion of the Reikai leader, but his most recent behavior was something on a completely different level. Even he had thought Koenma better than this—a little boy lost and confused. So disillusioned by his own ideals that he welcomed death over action. Hiei sighed inwardly. He didn’t know exactly what Yusuke had in store for him, but he knew it would be entertaining at least.

“Hiei? What are you doing here?” cried out Jin in surprise when he fell upon the scene.

After thoroughly knocking out three guards simultaneously, Hiei frowned. “These are weak fighters,” he chastised, unheeding Jin and Suzuki’s stunned expressions.

Suzuki laughed in astonishment. “Well, not that I’m complaining about you joining the fight, but where were you during the meeting?”

Hiei sheathed his sword. “I didn’t get the memo.”

Jin shared a grin with Suzuki.

They were located in one of the eastern bases of the Armed Church of the True Disciples. Jin and Suzuki had managed to infiltrate the building easily enough, but neither were accustomed to espionage work and had been discovered by a passing guard. If they had been in the Makai, the fighting would have been child’s play, but the Reikai’s spiritual atmosphere meant their strengths were decreased dramatically. Fortunately, the base was scarcely occupied and the Disciples were mostly trainees without any real combat experience. Now that they had Hiei’s assistance as well, the remaining bases were merely dominoes waiting to fall.

Jin glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. “All right, we’ve been decimating this place for about half and hour. I’d say most of the baddies are out of the game,” he announced. He took out the map Kurama had drawn for them. “I think we should head out to this next one over here,” he said, pointing to a spot, “since it seems the closest!”

Suzuki raised an eyebrow at him. “You can’t possibly be that lazy.”

“You two can go ahead if you wish. I have another target,” interjected Hiei, looking over the map critically.

Jin placed a hand on his hip in exasperation. “Hey, come on, where’s your team spirit? Don’t hog up all the fun, Hiei!”

At the smaller youkai’s icy glare, he promptly ceased his complaints. Suzuki looked over to Hiei curiously. “Did you spot something significant?” he asked.

Hiei folded his arms over his chest. “Where did Kurama go?”

“He said he’d focus on sneaking into HQ,” replied Suzuki. “You’re not worried about him?”

“Oh, believe me, that fox is in no need of worrying over!” exclaimed Jin.

Hiei glowered at the red-haired youkai. “I am well of aware of that.”

This particular band of people he’d always considered Yusuke’s friends—never his own. And despite the fact that they shared the same home world, Hiei would have preferred the company of Kuwabara over them. They were too loud and boisterous for him. Or perhaps he simply missed that small group of four he had been a part of so long ago.

Hiei looked at Suzuki. Despite the blond’s former penchant for comical attire and flamboyant gestures, he possessed a more strategic mind than Jin; Hiei could respect him for that much.

“I will follow after him. You carry on with whatever you were doing,” he said before moving out in a flash.

He didn’t hear their responses to his sudden departure; he didn’t care to listen. Kurama had taken on the biggest obstacle for himself. That wouldn’t do. Hiei hadn’t been surprised when he learned of Yusuke’s plans to invade the Reikai. He wasn’t even taken aback by the deliberate exclusion of his involvement—it was one of Yusuke’s games. That he kept tabs on the former detective’s actions was something that only Kurama knew, but it seemed Yusuke was beginning to pick up on it too. Good, Hiei thought. That would only make things more interesting.

It was also a show of trust that Yusuke didn’t inform him of his plans. There was no coercion or persuasion; it was all up to Hiei to come to their aid or not. Of course there was never an issue of whether or not he’d come, but more a question of what he would do. Yusuke had given him freedom by not involving him directly. Now Hiei could enter the playing field with his own agenda undisturbed.

The whole of Reikai was like a ghost town. The Disciples had spread their forces wide and despite their limited numbers, they had effectively taken over the major municipalities. They had planned this out well and taken advantage of the people’s confusion; the coup had been almost entirely bloodless. The people of Reikai had lost faith in Koenma and embraced the Disciples’ leadership. Only the loyal officers under Koenma had suffered losses. They were the ones being detained in the headquarters. Hiei didn’t know who the main perpetrator of the coup d’état was, but Kurama probably had him covered already; his own personal goal was just to take out the main forces to provide an example to the Disciples spread over Reikai. Religious radicals or not, people always feared for their own lives and Hiei was a master at providing the intimidation.

The Disciples had advanced technology at their disposal; it was the one advantage they had over Hiei. Cameras and music players were one thing, but he could never quite accustom himself to the many technological devices the Ningenkai employed. It was one of the many reasons he preferred remaining in the Makai. As Hiei ventured closer, he could spot the many surveillance machines deployed over the buildings and tower posts. He remembered that last time there had been a half second delay in between viewing each watch, but Hiei doubted he could rely on that now. Technology improved fast. That meant he had to find another way in.

Hiei looked at the sky. It was always white clouds in the Reikai, and night only lasted five hours. By the lengthening of the sun’s rays, he discerned it was nearing sunset. That would provide some camouflage to work with. His gaze went over to the main rampart circling over the middle tower. There was only one guard there and no camera was dispatched to that area—probably because of its height and exposure; no one would dare enter from that post. Hiei smiled darkly to himself. No one without his speed at least.

In the back of his mind, he wondered why he felt so light.

*

She appeared as vibrant and lively as she did over seventy years ago when he first took her as his hostage.

Hiei stepped into the room hesitantly. It was almost ludicrous, the amount of tension and wariness he felt towards one Yukimura Keiko. She was almost ninety and living in a hospice; she couldn’t even walk on her own anymore. And yet there he was—one of the most revered fighters of the Makai, cowering before a frail, old woman.

“It seems people really do respect you more with age, huh?” she greeted with a gentle laugh.

Hiei stood as far away from her as he could manage. “Why did you ask to see me?”

Keiko smoothed the wrinkles on her sheets patiently. Her eyes smiled at him. “Just to offer some advice,” she said, “about Yusuke.”

It was by far one of the most awkward moments in Hiei’s life. He’d always regarded Keiko as something of a nuisance. As one of Yusuke’s oldest friends and potential lover, Hiei had reserved a special kind of indifference towards her in the past. It was no different now. Despite no longer being his rival, she nevertheless maintained a hold over Yusuke that caused Hiei much frustration. It wasn’t her fault—not entirely at least. But it was easier to blame her than Yusuke or himself.

“I know you’ve been patient, Hiei,” she began. Her brown eyes bore deeply into his.

“And you’ll probably have to be patient for a while longer. That’s how Yusuke is. If we didn’t love him so much, we probably would have killed him a long time ago.”

Hiei folded his arms, averting his gaze. “He is a fool.”

Keiko laughed, nodding. “Yes, yes, he is. But…he’s like a child. Even after all this time. He always goes at his own pace. I wouldn’t trust him over to anyone else other than you. So I’m just asking you to continue waiting. He’ll come to you eventually.”

She watched him fondly. The familiarity in her expression perturbed him; Hiei never wished to be her friend, never wanted it. But he could honor her loyalty to Yusuke. “You’re still just as annoying as before,” replied Hiei after a long pause.

He left her in the room, a peaceful smile resting upon her face.

*

The final confrontation that transpired between Koenma and Yusuke that day was never revealed to their friends and allies. Kurama could only conclude that whatever happened, it was for the best. He and Hiei had completely dismantled the Disciples’ control over the main headquarters by the time Yusuke met up with them. Jin, Touya, Suzuki, and Rinku had also succeeded in disabling their targeted bases by then as well. The inhabitants of the Reikai were in an uproar, torn between supporting the Disciples or running away. That was when Koenma reappeared. With what was left of his own officers and forces, he issued his first major public statement to the people. It was a historical gesture, and his words were broadcasted in the Ningenkai and the Makai simultaneously.

For the first time in the whole of the Reikai’s long existence, its leader made himself freely known.

And by doing so, Koenma cemented his significance and worth; the people began to look to him for leadership once again. The speech had been moving and succinct. In acknowledging his failures and promising to return the Reikai back to its former prominence, Koenma had won back the hearts of his people and gained the respect of the many humans and youkai watching from their homes. Everyone knew it wouldn’t be an easy journey, but in Koenma’s eyes was the burning ambition to succeed and nothing would discourage him ever again. Relations between the Ningenkai and the Reikai would be strained at best in the near future, but with the Makai’s neutral standpoint all three worlds would ultimately achieve a delicate balance.

Everyone was aware of each other. No one would be left behind anymore.

*

“You should tell him.”

“I won’t have you butting into my affairs, Koenma.”

“But why do you wait? It’s unlike you.”

“…Some things are meant to take the slow path.”

“Well. That’s royal coming from you.”

“You will say nothing to him.”

“Yes, yes, you have my word. Honestly, you’re such a mysterious fellow sometimes.”

*

One month after the True Disciples’ failed attempt to take over the Reikai found Yusuke standing in the middle of a field of flowers. Spring was blooming in this particular region and the multitude of colors and soft scents pervading the air was vast. He walked through the ankle-high grass, eyes resting on the lone onyx monument resting amidst the swirl of petals. Yusuke approached the memorial and followed the unfamiliar, but elegant, script with his eyes.

The field was like a paradise. The sun fell on his skin like a warm caress and the breeze was cool and uplifting. If it weren’t for the somber presence of the marker, Yusuke would have thought he’d gone and died in his sleep. Hiei had chosen the location well. He read the foreign writing once more.

The past month seemed like a dream to him sometimes. Yusuke hadn’t had that much excitement crammed in such a short time since his days as a detective. It had been an enlivening experience, but he was thankful for the break. He needed it. Yusuke had the unique privilege in having been born as a human in the Ningenkai, dying and being reborn as a Reikai Tantei, and then dying again only to resurrect as a youkai; once the media in the Ningenkai got wind of his diverse background, he’d been in great demand to offer counsel and guidance. To escape the raving mobs and publicity, Yusuke took refuge in the Reikai once more and became an official liaison for Koenma. The political ramifications of this action were enormous. As a representative of all three worlds, Yusuke had chosen to ally himself specifically with the Reikai, and that shed more positive light to Koenma’s position.

It had been an easy choice for Yusuke to make. The Makai and the Ningenkai were prospering well on their own, and Koenma was an old friend. Yusuke could never turn his back on him after all they’d gone through together. Loss of free time and privacy were a small sacrifice to bring order to a world. The work wasn’t too strenuous either. Mostly, he acted as an envoy/bodyguard on diplomatic missions. Sometimes he would investigate certain scandals, which was very reminiscent of his detective days—except this time he operated alone. The only real political strength he had was his public appeal, which was spread across all three worlds—especially in the Ningenkai; Yusuke’s sudden popularity had come as the biggest surprise out of the whole business, and he didn’t really know how to respond. He was flattered of course, but on his off days he would usually retreat to the anonymity the Makai offered.

After his last mission involving a clandestine affair between the Prime Minister of France and a young male youkai, Koenma had given Yusuke a weeklong break. The work may not have been as physically draining, but it was nonetheless exhausting. Politics. It was a dirty and cruel battlefield.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m just too nice,” he pondered out loud. A blue petal fluttered across his vision as if laughing at him. Yusuke grinned.

“It’s your own fault for accepting the job.”

Yusuke turned around. “You know, we gotta stop meeting up at graves. It’s kind of depressing don’t you think?”

Hiei stepped forward and rested a hand on the marker in reverence. “You wanted to meet somewhere isolated,” he said.

“Yeah, but come on. Most of the Makai is uninhabited wilderness and you chose Mukuro’s burial grounds?”

“You said before you wanted to see where I would bury her,” replied Hiei dryly.
Yusuke rolled his eyes. “Well, yeah. I can’t believe you were considering burying her in the garden. Talk about being tied down to your office.”

“She wouldn’t have cared,” pointed out Hiei. “Now why are you avoiding the topic?”

Smiling, the former detective plopped down on the grass, spread-eagled. The sun peaked out from behind a cloud and he squinted to avoid the sudden light. The earth shifted gently around him and Yusuke turned his head to peer up at Hiei.

“I just wanted to see you,” he said simply.

He’d had a dream like this before. Yusuke found that he much rather have the reality. Hiei stood before him like something ephemeral. If he closed his eyes he felt that the shorter youkai would disappear completely. But Hiei only stared at him, back against the sun, before moving into Yusuke’s direct line of vision. Suddenly, the light was shadowed and Yusuke was able to look onto Hiei’s face without squinting.

“You’re busy aren’t you?” asked Hiei.

Yusuke blinked. “I’m on break now.”

“I’m busy too.”

“…But you told me you’d meet me here?”

The meaning in Hiei’s eyes was indecipherable. “You said it was an emergency.”

“You wouldn’t meet with me otherwise!” replied Yusuke, frowning. Then Hiei moved and the sun hit his eyes. “Shit! Give me a little warning ne—”

He didn’t finish his words, however. Hiei’s lips pressed against his with no sense of urgency, though the demand was all too clear. Yusuke resisted from smiling as he allowed Hiei to take the charge. Soft yet strong. He felt his whole body surrender to him.

A warm hand moved to rest over his heart and Hiei inched away from him.

“I pledge myself, heart and body, unto thee.”

The words trembled against Yusuke’s lips, and all he could see was crimson. He leaned up a little to kiss Hiei lightly. “I pledge myself, heart and body, unto thee,” he whispered back, closing his eyes. He pressed his right hand to Hiei’s heart, feeling the steady rhythm beneath his palm. He chuckled to dissolve the nervous energy within himself. “I guess it’s a little late in coming, but you know I love you, right?”

Hiei smiled wryly. “You really are an idiot.”

He leant back and Yusuke saw he was crouched on one knee. His hand was still pressed to his heart and Yusuke looked down to see that something else was also there. When Hiei lifted his hand, he saw the hirui stone fixed onto a silver chain.

“This time it’s yours to keep. If something should ever happen, I’ll be able to find you.”

Yusuke caught the stone as he sat up. He looked at Hiei slyly. “I’ve never been good with jewelry, you know…”

“Then you better change your habits,” replied Hiei with every measure of coolness.

Throwing his head back, Yusuke laughed.

*

FIN