York was a city teeming with life.
By night it lay spread out like a galaxy of cold, glittering gems with darkness coursing through its heart, thick veins pulsing subtle corruption throughout. Kurapika had felt tainted by that York, and by the actions he had wrought in the darkness.
During the day the sunlight seared away the darkness, both from York and himself. He felt, almost, as if he could grab up handfuls of the brilliant light to scrub the taint away. Kurapika opened his eyes at last, truly opened his eyes in that golden relief of light now that half his burden was laid down.
Centre Park was filled with laughing children, indulgent parents...and his three best friends, his truest comrades in the world.
He was coming to value their friendship more than ever, now that he was emerging from that dark place.
"Heey! Killua, cut it out!" Gon squalled, windmilling his arms and dancing back in an effort to avoid his friend and the threat of drippy vanilla ice cream.
"I told you, Gon, vengeance is mine!" Killua crowed, brandishing his mostly-demolished cone and going for the attack.
Kurapika chuckled, lifting a hand to his mouth as if to still the mirth that welled up within him. The urge to laugh trailed off and died as the two boys darted to the side, splattering ice cream for all they were worth, and his attention was drawn to the tall, lean figure that had risen from the bench.
It was Leorio. God of his people, this was a conversation he had been avoiding for months.
"Here's my number," Leorio had said, upon parting. "I know it's only a few months...but I don't want to lose sight of you, Kurapika."
His throat closed. Simple kindness could be his undoing. That was why Leorio was so dangerous to him, because of all their little group, he came closest... Kurapika gave himself a slight mental shake, took hold of himself, and plastered on an appropriate company smile as Leorio drew abreast of him.
He was a shade taller than Kurapika remembered, which was a disappointment. Kurapika thought his own height had increased. Leorio had his hands in his pockets and wore a slightly wistful, affable expression on his face.
"You know," Leorio said conversationally, "when I gave you my number, I didn't think it was so you could block it on your cell phone."
Kurapika shook his head fractionally.
"And don't bother saying you're sorry, either."
Leorio smiled. "It's okay. You're here now. I hope you won't count us out again."
Kurapika shrugged uncomfortably. He had done what had to be done, and if he went back and did it over, he didn't think he would change his actions. No...except for... He stilled the urge to shake his head. He hadn't killed a man. He had taken down a monster.
"I wouldn't wish my burden on anyone," he replied, lowering his gaze. Leorio was too nice, he thought. He understood too much.
"That's the funny thing about friends," Leorio said in that same conversational tone. "Sometimes you don't have a choice, you know, whether you wish it a certain way or not. It may be selfish of me, but I want to be there for you."
Kurapika's head snapped up. "Selfish?"
"COMING THROUGH!" Gon's high young voice warned, and both of the older teens started as the boys came barrelling through at top speed.
"Gon!" Leorio shouted, when it appeared Gon and his tormentor were not going to change course.
"Ahh! Sorry Leorio!" Gon exclaimed, skipping nimbly to the side. He darted behind Kurapika, face covered in ice cream. It looked like he was wearing a plaster mask.
Killua stared at them, rushing at them with eyes wide in surprise, then plowed into Leorio full-tilt with broken ice cream daggers in both hands. They sank against Leorio's suit to the hilt.
"Well, that's it," Killua said with seeming cheer. "No more ice cream left to eat, even."
"K-KILLUA!" Leorio's head swiveled. "GON!"
Gon peered out hesitantly from around Kurapika's shoulder. "Sorry, Leorio," he said penitently. "He was chasing me. He threatened to drip it down my neck!"
Kurapika shook his head, torn between disapproval and more laughter. Killua's expression was comical and priceless.
"He started it!" Killua vowed, pointing his smashed cone at Gon. "He dumped his ice cream all over my head!"
Something in his protestation rang false, and Kurapika eyed him sharply. He had his own suspicions. Not only Gon, but Killua both had perfect control over their bodies by virtue of constant exercise and training. For Killua to be unable to stop was beyond credulity.
"Ahh...dammit, we're going to have to go back to the hotel," Leorio groused, viewing the front of his suit with disgust.
"Well, can't be helped!" Killua said in businesslike tones, reaching around Kurapika and snagging his friend by the arm, then dragging Gon out.
"Ack! What, what did I do?" Gon sputtered.
"Back to the hotel!"
"Oh! Oh, okay..."
Leorio glanced at him. "Can you bear with us a little longer?" he asked, dark eyes warm and friendly.
"Of course," Kurapika said at once. The warmth of the sunlight...he didn't want to leave it yet. He would eventually have to return to his employer and the other half of his burden, but...
"Good!" Leorio seemed to be cheered by that response. "Then, let's go." He looked down at his ice cream-spattered hands, shrugged, and tucked them into his pockets again. With a jaunty nod he set off.
Kurapika lingered for a moment, troubled by thoughts he couldn't fully articulate even inside his own head. There was relief in him, to be sure, and happiness at being in the presence of his friends again, and...something more. Something had kindled inside of him, some hopeful flame he thought he had snuffed out.
Killua pushed past him, hands on Gon's back, steering the boy out of the park. "Things were looking entirely too serious," the young assassin said to Kurapika in an undertone. "Lighten up, lighten up..."
That was great, Kurapika thought with annoyance; Leorio wasn't the only one capable of understanding "too much."
The hotel might not have been top of the line, exactly, not like the swank places Kurapika had been staying with Neon and her cadre of Hunters, but it was neat and clean and close to major intersections. The staff looked friendly, unlike the hunted concierges Kurapika had seen lately. Altogether, he decided, he would rather have been staying with his friends.
"We can just go upstairs and change," Leorio said, looking down at his suit again with dismay. "The three of us got a room--"
"Get some more towels!" Gon instructed urgently. He had scrubbed at his face with his hands and the front of his shirt and, incredibly, succeeded only in getting dirtier.
"Ah, got it."
Their companion ambled toward the front counter, looking sheepish. He wasn't as bad off as Gon, but Kurapika felt a pang of sympathy for the state of his dignity.
"Actually," Killua said, speaking to Kurapika, "there are showers and a pool down here on the first floor. Gon and I are going to use those, and we'll be up when we're done."
"We are?" Gon blinked. "We will?"
Killua elbowed him. "Shut up, dummy."
"Oh!" Gon cinched his mouth shut and gave Kurapika a suspiciously bright smile. "I wanna go to the pool!"
At the counter, Leorio turned and waved at them as he waited for the counter attendant to serve the elderly couple in line ahead of him.
Kurapika waved back, feeling something sickly pool and settle in the depths of his stomach.
He experienced something he hadn't felt in quite some time, not since the cold-sweat moments of the Hunter exam. He felt nervous. He stared after Leorio and blinked and thought mostly about waiting in the wide, echoing foyer and eventually Leorio would have to come back then, right? After he was showered and changed. He swallowed. Dry mouth.
This was worse than facing Hisoka.
Hands were pushing at the small of his back, making his blue and gold tabard swirl around his thighs, and Kurapika gasped, digging his heels in.
"Go on." Killua's sly voice was in his ear. "What are you waiting for?"
Was there no privacy!?
Kurapika scowled over his shoulder. "If you say anything..." he hissed. He glanced first toward Gon, who was rubbing his dark head guilelessly and dripping ice cream over the posh hotel carpet. Then he glanced in Leorio's direction as the lanky nineteen-year old leaned his hip against the hotel counter and held his hands about a quarter of a meter apart, doubtlessly requesting more towels in a stack that thick.
Clueless, both of them.
Killua's quick smile of commiseration relieved his expression of its habitual look of aloofness. "Get it?" He nudged Kurapika, who jerked away. "What are you waiting for? What's holding you back?"
Kurapika felt pale. White noise roared in his ears. He had been so calm, so collected during the entire debacle involving the Phantom Brigade here in York, but for one terrible moment when things had fallen apart. Now it was over; his enemies were dead, even if only one had been by his own hand.
"I..." I'm not ready! his mind wailed, but he was stalling and he knew it. Amongst the Kuruta tribe, he would have been pressed to select a handful of prospective mates by now.
Is it because you don't like Leorio, then? an inner voice inquired, as ruthless as Killua.
No...I...I don't know...
"Then, later!" Killua said, dashing off, seizing Gon by the wrist and dragging him along.
"W-wait, Killua! Waah!"
Kurapika concentrated on a well-known breathing technique for a moment, stilling his racing thoughts and inducing calm. Later, though, he might do more than think about arranging suitable payback for Killua.
"Where'd they go?"
Leorio's voice, warm and puzzled, startled him out of his introspective meditation. Kurapika opened his eyes and blinked for a moment. "Um...ahh..."
"Let me guess, they went to the pool." His friend's voice was wry.
Dumbly, Kurapika nodded. He, normally the most eloquent, was robbed of speech. What did he want? His thoughts chased around endlessly like cats after their own twitching tails.
"Come on, then." Leorio set off for the elevators.
After that, Kurapika had no choice. This he was almost glad for.
The rooms were dark and quiet above, reminding Kurapika of other nights and other hotels until Leorio flipped on the switch. The furnishings were somewhat faded and shabby compared to the posh finery of the newer hotels he had seen, but it gave the place a lived-in look. Glancing to the right, he saw half-opened backpacks and clothes strewn about and junk food wrappings, evidence of the dervish-like passing of two young boys.
"Go ahead and hang out," Leorio said, sticking his thumb out, indicating the living room area with couch and television and writing table. "I won't be long..."
Kurapika took a deep breath. "I'll be waiting," he replied, quelling the urge to rub his arms, feeling strangely nervous again.
From the sidelong glance and the way Leorio hesitated, he almost expected the older man to say something then and there. Kurapika was grateful when he said nothing, only moved to an end-table and set down most of his stack of towels, then vanished into the bathroom.
A slight smile tugged at Kurapika's mouth, and he let it blossom. He remembered sharing a room with Leorio that time during the Hunter's exam. Back then, he had decked him good and hard for coming out of the bathroom without clothes. There was Kuruta modesty to be considered, after all, and they hadn't been through any semblance of courtship at that time. He had known even back then that Leorio's intentions hadn't been entirely pure, protestations aside. That was why it hadn't been "all right" for him to be naked, even though the two of them were both males.
Now, though... Now was different. He was different. If Leorio came naked before him, the context would be much more significant.
And modesty could go hang.
The pattering sound of shower spray started up, and Kurapika drifted over to the far side of the hotel room, plucking aside filmy curtains. The sunshine broke over him in waves, caressing his face, and he closed his eyes.
If he were still among his people, there would be certain formalities to observe. There would have been ceremonies, and the comfortable familiarity of rituals specific to the Kuruta that he had seen acquaintances enter into throughout his life, and there would have been a period of separation for contemplation and self- reflection.
He was not among his people, though, and would never be amongst them again.
Kurapika's separation had consisted of three months, and the hardship of training and vengeance.
"Forgive me," he whispered.
Leorio's voice broke the silence of the room, freeing him of introspection, startling him. He had been so intent on his thoughts he hadn't even heard when the shower had stopped. From the sound of Leorio's voice, he was moving through the hotel room behind him.
"Is something wrong?"
Kurapika opened his eyes and breathed deep. He smelled Leorio, spice and musk and freshly-washed skin. He was still afraid, but it was receding into a vaster sense of peace. He turned. As he'd thought, Leorio was still nearby, torso wrapped in a towel, hair beaded with water droplets that caught the sunlight and threw tiny rainbows into the air. In his hands he carried the ice cream- smeared suit, which he bundled into a compartment of his suitcase, then stepped closer to the window.
He stopped. "Kurapika?" Leorio prompted softly, questioning. Puzzled.
"Leorio," Kurapika acknowledged. He took the last few steps that separated them, reached out a hand, and placed it against the smooth plane of flesh above Leorio's heart. There was no sense of hesitation within him now. He murmured, "Forgive me for making you wait."
"Ah...uh...so you..." Leorio stammered, one hand coming up to rub at the back of his head. He looked down, face touchingly uncertain for a moment, then his gaze returned. There was a peaceful resolve in his eyes, the look of a man who had made his choice and existed in the moment before action. Kurapika knew, because it was mirrored in his eyes as well. "Kurapika...I..."
Lifting a finger, Kurapika placed it over Leorio's lips. No words were necessary for this.
Leorio's eyes narrowed, then he lifted his hand, curling his fingers lightly over the hand Kurapika held over his heart. He leaned forward.
Kurapika's eyes slid shut as their lips touched. It was the barest brush of sensation, subtler than a butterfly kiss; their lips grazed and parted. Then Leorio's fingers tightened on his and his mouth returned, nudging at him, aligning their lips in tingling relief. As Leorio's mouth pressed against him chastely Kurapika angled himself closer, and the front of his tabard brushed against rough toweling.
As if this were a reminder of his nearness, Leorio slid an arm around him, bringing their bodies into full-length contact.
This made Kurapika gasp against his mouth, a little shocked, entirely willing. He caught at Leorio's mouth with parted lips and this sparked an entirely new chain of kisses, open-mouthed, each of them vying to see which of them could fit most pleasurably against the other. Kurapika tilted up into Leorio's touch, mouth drawn wide, and felt the slick flicker of Leorio's tongue over his bottom lip.
With a wordless noise, Kurapika tilted his head, sending his other hand up to cradle the base of Leorio's neck, twining them together comfortably. Leorio's tongue slid into his mouth. They kissed that way for long moments, heartbeats ticking past to the count of breathlessness. Then they pressed together, hard, crowding closer than close and Kurapika felt the imprint of Leorio's desire against his stomach.
Kurapika broke away, cheeks heat-flushed. He lifted a hand to his tingling lips.
"No...sorry," Leorio muttered, and his cheeks were crimson too. "I...I'd better go and get dressed."
As he moved to turn for his open suitcase, Kurapika caught at his arm. "Wait," he said, breathing unsteady. He recounted briefly all the things he'd had time to regret.
Leorio looked down at him, and there was understanding in his dark eyes. He adjusted the towel around his waist as it threatened to slip, then took Kurapika by the shoulders. "There'll be time, you know. For you and me." He bent his head and gave him a brief, chaste kiss again. "As long as you'll let me."
Slowly, Kurapika nodded. "Got it." He knew he could trust Leorio, now. Even against himself.
Leorio hesitated, then plucked at the sleeve of his tabard. "What is this, a dress?" His voice was light, teasing, seeking to dispel the serious tension that had knit together as their kisses deepened.
"Don't make fun!" Kurapika said, instantly indignant.
The dark-haired man grinned at him, releasing his shoulders. "Come on, the last time I saw you, your outfit was much more attractive. This is almost as bad as what you wore during the Hunter exam..."
"The last time you saw me I was in traveling clothes," Kurapika said, pressing his lips together in a prim line. "Now I'm wearing the quest clothes in my family colors, and during the Hunter exam I wore the trial clothes, also in family colors."
"No kidding!" Leorio looked surprised. "You Kuruta have clothes for all of that?"
Kurapika shook his head, trying not to laugh. "You do, too, if you think about it," he replied. "Different cultures do. Among the Kuruta it's a little more formalized, that's all."
Leorio gave himself a little shake. "I'd better get dressed. Speaking of, uh, clothes." He put on what Kurapika could only assume was an attempt at a suave smile, then rummaged in his suitcase and disappeared into the bathroom again.
The room was filled with light. Kurapika turned to the window again, hugging himself briefly, his body filled with an exciting new sensation that threatened to overflow. As long as you'll let me. He couldn't dictate Leorio's course -- he could barely chart his own -- but the intent of Leorio's words pleased him.
A door closed softly in the distance, then after a moment Kurapika felt Leorio's hands settle on his shoulders. He leaned back against the bigger body, grateful for the things he still had.
"Do you want to..." Leorio began, and stopped.
Kurapika smiled. It was nice to know he had the upper hand, for now. "Try that kissing thing again?" he supplied, twisting beneath Leorio's hands to face him. He pretended to think about it. "Well..." Then he rose to his toes, catching a startled Leorio by surprise and laying one on him.
"Come here, you," Leorio growled, catching at his hand and drawing him toward one of the couches.
"Wait, wait." Kurapika resisted. "What if Killua and Gon come in?"
Leorio blinked, then shook his head. "Uh...you don't have to worry about them."
"Of course I do, they could walk right through the door," Kurapika argued, then considered, again, the smirk he'd seen on Killua's face.
"No, trust me..."
"Although Killua seemed awfully savvy..."
"They beat us," Leorio interrupted.
Kurapika just looked at him. Leorio succeeded in drawing him over to the couch and sat, still holding onto his hand, but Kurapika had stiffened with shock and remained standing. "Excuse me?"
"I said, they beat us," Leorio said with a resigned expression. "Gon and Killua have been smooching ever since their stay in the Celestial Tower."
"Th-they BEAT us?" Kurapika twitched.
"Yes, and I think it's too late for them to take it back," Leorio said with a nod, looking resigned. He exerted pressure on Kurapika's fingers and drew him down onto the couch.
He might have been trying to pull Kurapika down onto his lap but Kurapika maneuvered himself to the side, situated so that their legs touched in a long line of warmth. This was more to his liking. They shifted, fitting like puzzle pieces, and Kurapika let himself be pulled close with a long arm wound around him. Fingers tangled in his hair.
"We'll take it at our own pace," Leorio murmured, bending to press his lips to Kurapika's once more.
The hotel door banged open and a green-clad body hurtled into the room.
"I won!" Gon cried happily, and did a little dance in place. "I won, I won!" Then he was brought down by a pale lavender blur as Killua slammed into him, full-body contact.
"Damn it, Gon, it wasn't a race!" Killua hissed, and pinned him to the carpet with his hands, slung across his hips. "I told you, I wanted to go first because--" He broke off and rubbed the back of his head. "Eheh."
Kurapika and Leorio stared at the younger set, too nonplussed to do anything but gape. They were thoroughly entangled in any case, and the most they had managed when the door burst open was separating their mouths from one another.
"Leorio! Kurapika!" Gon exclaimed in joyful tones. "Did you have sex? Was it good?"
"No. Why, Gon, did you have sex?" Leorio said irascibly, disentangling and swatting Kurapika between the shoulder blades, as if that would help. "I've been wondering ever since you called me from the Celestial Tower..."
"No, not yet," Gon said, pulling a long face.
"G-Gon," Kurapika stammered, galvanized to speech. "You'd better wait a few years before you do...or...or your Mito-san would be disappointed!" He seized on inspiration.
"I know, that's what Killua said," Gon said, pushing at Killua's rock-steady arms. He made a face. "Let me UP!"
Killua stood in one fluid motion, leaving Gon to flounder on the floor. He was wearing that sly expression again, but all he said was "So, are you going to tell us what happened?"
Kurapika shifted, putting distance between himself and Leorio, putting himself into a more decorous position. He could still taste him, though, on his tongue; he felt the warmth of Leorio on his lips.
"Yes. Explanations are in order."
Outside, the sun was setting. The long shadows stretched across the floor, heralding the impending arrival of the dark.
The bodies are fake.
Hisoka's cryptic message flashing on his cell phone made the blood thunder in Kurapika's ears. After his explanations to Gon and Killua, now this. The bodies are fake. His pulse roared, his breath went thready. For a little over twelve hours, he had been free. Now...
The bodies are fake. That meant the Phantom Brigade was still out there. He had been willing to accept that the job had been finished by others, but it was barely begun.
I can never be happy, Kurapika thought numbly as they left the hotel suite. I can never... For just a moment, he had allowed himself to believe the words exchanged between he and Leorio. It hurt worse than a chain squeezing down around his heart.
"Kurapika." Leorio stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Kurapika, we'll help..."
He smacked Leorio's hand aside. "Don't," he said harshly, voice shaking with the tension. "I can't, now, do you hear me? Until I put this behind me, it won't be over. I can't have any other involvements." He turned to confront Leorio, breathing hard. Killua and Gon were out of sight, gone for the elevator already. He was grateful.
"No, you listen," Leorio returned, his voice even harsher, his face closed in angry lines. "You shouldered me aside once, for vengeance. But it was easy because we went our separate ways. You won't shut me out again."
Kurapika backed up, shaking his head.
Leorio followed, grabbing him. His fingers bit into Kurapika's shoulders. "I'll be by your side," Leorio said, voice gentle by contrast. He shook him. "Even if I have to kick your ass every step of the way."
Kurapika tried to bite his lip but the smile emerged, half-hearted and weak. "Leorio..."
"No, that's it," Leorio said, releasing him, shaking his head. "I've already made up my mind."
"You've made up your mind--" Kurapika flared.
"Yeah, we have." Leorio shoved his hands in his pockets. "Me, and Killua, and Gon...don't count them out, too. Because the three of us, we care about you. Whether you like it or not. Got it?"
For a moment, Kurapika felt like arguing. He was so tired, though. Tired of pushing his friends away, whether it was for their own good or not. Tired of fighting himself. I just...I don't want to kill anymore.
He was tired of carrying his burden alone.
"Got it," he whispered, and Leorio was on him again, briefly, hand lifting to caress Kurapika's hair in that peculiarly tender fashion as he'd done an eternity ago that afternoon. But he did not kiss him.
"Now that we've got that straight, let's go," Leorio declared.
Kurapika followed, once more grateful and relieved from Leorio's words. He hoped with every fiber of his being that he would not come to see that choice as a weakness.