*Ne...Urameshi...do you value your life?*
The voice was warm and teasing, but thick with darker hints of menace. Yuusuke's eyes snapped open wide and he whirled around, searching. He was alone. No one in the entire apartment but him.
The whisper curled all around him, everywhere yet nowhere, all at once. It sounded hauntingly familiar.
*Do you value it?*
"Who are you!?" Yuusuke shouted, pivoting around, but there was nothing to be seen. No one to fight. "Show yourself, damn you!"
The whisper laughed at him.
"Hey!!" he yelled, furious. "Only Keiko gets away with calling me that!" He paused, considering. "And Hiei...but only because he's so fast. Show yourself!"
"Stupid," the whisper continued, as a dark blue wisp of smoke arched around him. Yuusuke flinched, eyes working wildly in his sockets, and brought up his hand in preparation for a burst of reiki.
The smoke - if that was what it was - pooled onto the floor and began to stack up and solidify unnaturally. Yuusuke sighted firmly, preparing to nail the creature the instant it materialized. The creature bulged up and continued to gain shape and form until he was facing -
Yuusuke gasped and stepped backwards.
"I am you."
"Where's Ariodh?" Kurama asked his lover, laying out plates. He hesitated to put out a third one, then set it aside just in case.
Hiei shrugged, eyes glinting. "Around," he replied noncommittally. His mouth twitched. He began to walk around the counter, steps soundless. Kurama turned back to the boiling pot of rice, turning it off.
"I feel so domestic," he smiled, throwing a teasing, happy glance at Hiei.
The fire demon paused. "Do you now?" he inquired, his tone odd.
"Well - sure," Kurama faltered. He offered Hiei a tiny smile. "You know, cooking dinner for you, just the two of us - kinda like any other happy couple..."
"Happy couple?" Hiei echoed, advancing on him, his face closed and cold.
Kurama's smile flickered and died. "Aren't we?" After last night, and the night before that, and...well, I thought we were!!
Hiei stopped in front of him. "Stupid fox." Then he grinned widely, displaying his fangs.
His fist lashed out and caught Kurama by surprise, driving into his stomach. He fell to his knees, stunned, breath throttling in his throat and Hiei's hard fist clipped him at the base of his skull. Kurama choked on his raspy breath, black spots swimming in his vision, and Hiei kicked him in the ribs.
Kurama felt a snap in his ribcage but not just from the physical injury. His mind swam with shock. "Hiei...why...?" he managed to choke out, broken.
Hiei continued to beat at him, kick at him. Kurama tried to fight back but his attempts were feeble, half-hearted. This was Hiei doing this to him and suddenly nothing mattered anymore. He pulled a rose from his hair and it was snatched from his fingers. Hiei's foot descended on his wrist and he cried out as more bones snapped.
"How could you ever think I'd be in love with you?" Hiei demanded coldly. The rose fell to the floor, in Kurama's field of vision, and a black bootheel descended on it, crushing it.
Kurama's numb mind splintered around him. "No..." he coughed. "No...Hiei..." he pleaded. How could he have been so dreadfully wrong?
Hiei kicked him again, and he coughed bright red drops that spattered over the kitchen tiles. The fire demon pushed him roughly to the floor and he collapsed in a heap. "How could you ever think I'd want you for anything but this?"
Hands tore at his clothing and Kurama's stunned mind groped to comprehend. Something touched his lower back and he lurched away. "No...no..." Hiei kicked him again.
"Hold still," the deep voice growled, but Kurama scrambled across the floor, ignoring the pain in his broken ribs. This was not Hiei. Hiei would never do this. Hiei couldn't.
"K'so," the youkai muttered, sounding as annoyed as if he'd dulled the edge of his katana. "Stop moving around so much." A fist caught him on the temple and he jerked, seeing stars.
"You aren't Hiei!" he gasped.
"You're worthless," the creature replied as if he hadn't heard him, giving him another kick in the ribs. Kurama collapsed. He felt something burst inside of him, and started to choke. The hands grabbed hold of him firmly as he spun into graying unconsciousness.
Hiei found Ariodh perched in a tree in a small park near the gateway to the Makai that she had managed to get through. Either she was following a cue from him on this liking for trees, or she'd acquired a taste for them in the Makai when hiding from Hakamura.
Ariodh was curled up in a little ball of sweats and long white hair and glared at him balefully as he approached.
Hiei folded his arms and glared back. "Hn. Stop being so touchy. You gonna run away and hide every time I criticize you? You agreed to let me teach you."
She flipped back her long hair and gave him the evil eye. "You weren't criticizing. Your anger poured over me like molten lava. You were just pissed that Kurama might've gotten hurt, and you were holding me responsible."
Hiei started. He'd forgotten Ariodh was an empath. Stupid, Hiei.
He frowned at her. "Well...maybe I shouldn't have done that," he grudged, coming as close to an apology as he could.
Ariodh sniffed, but got to her feet, apparently recognizing it as such.
"You hungry?" he asked, jerking his head in the general direction of Kurama's apartment.
Ariodh brightened and he snorted. Stupid question.
The two small shapes flitted off, faster than the human eye could see.
Koenma heaved another stack of papers closer to him and blew out a long, irritated sigh, clamping the fuukuman between his lips and reaching for the one on top.
A Prince of the Dead's work was never done, he mused ruefully, almost wishing for a kidnap attempt or some kind of major disaster - maybe another invasion from Meikai - to wash away all the paperwork.
He automatically raised the stamp, glancing at the name first.
His hand froze mid-swing.
"GEORGE!!" the little Prince shrieked, nearly losing the pacifier with the force of his exclamation.
"What!?" the ogre replied, sticking his head in the door nervously.
"Get Botan in here now!" he demanded. "And Komako!"
The oni disappeared.
He set aside the document, then reached for the next one. His eyes bulged. "This is IMPOSSIBLE!" he wailed. "Not again! I won't stand for it, I absolutely won't!"
"Won't what?" Botan asked cheerfully, skipping in through the door. A dark-haired girl dressed in jeans and a t-shirt followed, somewhat more sedate and reserved.
"I won't tolerate these wrongful orders of death! That's what they must be, I'm sure of it! Pull out the book," Koenma demanded abruptly.
Botan shrugged and reached into a sleeve of her kimono, rummaging around. "Hmm...it was here just a minute ago..."
The dark-haired girl, Komako, sighed and pulled the volume out of Botan's obi. "It's right here, silly."
"Oh! Thank you Komako," Botan said brightly, taking it. "What do you want me to look up?" Koenma shoved the two pieces of paper under her nose, shaking with outrage. "Look at these, just look at these!"
"Oh my!" Botan's eyes rounded. She flipped through the book of the Dead. "You're right, these deaths are unscheduled. What do you want us to do, Koenma-sama?"
The little Prince of the Dead groaned and buried his head in his hands. "I'm so sick of this happening," he replied. "I absolutely refuse to take time out of my busy schedule to take care of matters after the deaths have occurred. Botan, Komako-"
"Yes?" the two ferry girls replied alertly.
"Take care of it."
"Ko-Koenma-sama!?" they exclaimed, shocked.
"Do it," he ordered.
Yuusuke stared incredulously into the eyes of the creature. "H-how!? You...you're me! How is this possible?"
The other Yuusuke laughed tauntingly, and aimed a finger at him, winking. "Bingo! Can't kill me now, can you?"
"That's where you're wrong!" Yuusuke replied grimly, focusing his will. "REI GUN!"
An intense beam of white light shot out, lancing through the room as neo-Yuusuke dodged, and struck the other in the arm. Yuusuke cried out, reeling, as his double was hit. He hissed and clutched at the bleeding gash that had appeared on his arm the same time the double had been scored. "Teme!"
The other Yuusuke paused, gripping his bleeding arm, and gave him a wide grin. "See, Urameshi? You can't kill me now!"
Yuusuke gritted his teeth and leapt at his double, pummeling at him with his fists. The duplicate laughed and blocked, hitting him back. A solid sock across his jaw sent him reeling back.
"I won't be defeated by you!" he shouted, springing at him again. He struck at the double, and each blow he landed sent him staggering as if he'd hit himself. The fake Yuusuke laughed at him and locked his hands around his throat, giving him a death's head grin.
"Wait-" Yuusuke choked as the double began to throttle him. "You'll kill yourself, too!"
The other Yuusuke grinned at him cheerfully. "Ekoi's magic protects me. Do you value your life, Urameshi? I don't! I'm going to kill you - and the only way you can defeat me, and prevent me from taking over your life, is to kill me - and kill yourself!"
Yuusuke stared at the mockingly grinning creature, aghast. Take over his life? His friends - would be taken in by this? Keiko - Keiko could be touched, held - kissed - !!
With a cry of rage, Yuusuke tore away from the clinging hands, the fury and desperation welling up inside him, fueling tremendous power. He could NOT let this abomination take over his life. And if there was only one way, well... Keiko...I'm sorry...
Hiei and Ariodh alighted in the tree outside Kurama's window, and the white-haired youkai cried out immediately, her face transforming into a parody of itself, wracked with anguish and pain.
"What!? What is it?" Hiei demanded, but his eyes widened as he sensed the answer, in a flicker of dark youki that was mockingly familiar - his own! -- followed by the trembling pulse of Kurama's youki, faint and growing fainter.
He tore open the window, springing inside, katana already drawn. The shapeshifter was already disappearing in a blur through the living room window, but Hiei had no time for thoughts of pursuing with vengeance. The katana clattered from his fingers to the floor as he saw the blood, and the limp wreck of a body sprawled on the floor.
With a little snarl Hiei crossed the space between them with a displacement of air, scooping up the bleeding redhead in his arms and cradling him to his chest. "Kurama - Kurama! Dammit, youko..." He halted, blinking, brushing aside sticky red hair pasted to the pale face with blood. His stunned mind groped to comprehend the full extent of the half-youko's injuries. Some of Kurama's clothing had been torn away, and with a little frown gathering between his brows he pulled it back up, growling, refusing to think of what the shapeshifter might have done to his fox's body while he wore his shape.
Vengeance would come later. After he was sure Kurama was okay.
One swollen eye cracked open and a hint of emerald gleamed through. "...Hiei...?"
A few drops of moisture collected in the corner of the eye. "You...I thought you...I thought he was you..."
"It wasn't," Hiei hurried to assure the fox, cradling him in his arms. He felt something breaking inside. Kurama would never survive the trip to Genkai's. He couldn't...there was nothing...even if he went to get Yukina, by the time he got back...
Something spilled from the corner of his own eye, clicking as it hit the kitchen tile, and he ignored it.
Ariodh halted, staring at them, her mouth trembling. Glittering tears spilled down her cheeks as she was hit with the overwhelming wave of Hiei's agony, and Kurama's horrifyingly quiet acceptance.
"Ariodh. Go to Genkai's. Get Yukina. And hurry!" he snapped curtly. It was a long shot, but by pouring his own youki into Kurama he could probably make him last long enough.
The white-haired youkai nodded and vanished.
A little smile pulled at the torn edges of Kurama's split lip and he winced. "I knew...he told me you didn't love me. And then he started to..." Kurama coughed, and blood trickled over his split bottom lip. "He-he..."
"He is going to die," Hiei finished grimly.
"I knew it wasn't you when he started to tear my pants off," Kurama continued, and coughed again. Hiei flinched, arms tightening around Kurama as he stiffened with outrage, the cold fury overwhelming every part of him.
Hiei looked at the kitchen floor. There was blood everywhere. It stained Kurama's pants and spattered over the front of his shirt, but that didn't necessarily mean...
Kurama snuggled his head weakly against Hiei's chest. "I'm glad you're here... I didn't think you'd get back before I died."
Hiei started. "You're not going to die!" he cried, almost yelling. But he could feel Kurama fading in the back of his head. Frantically, he opened himself to the youko, pouring his own youki into the link.
"Stop it!" Kurama coughed harshly, and more blood spattered onto his shirt. "You're not going to come with me, damn it."
"And you're not going to die," Hiei replied fiercely.
"Then why is she here?" Kurama murmured, tilting his head.
Hiei's head jerked up, and he stared at the dark-haired young woman who had appeared in the kitchen. She held an oar in her hand, and a look of infinite sadness eclipsed her eyes.
"Komako...is it time?" Kurama's breath bubbled on his lips. "After so long? It seems so soon..."
She stepped towards them, her serious dark eyes fixed intently on Kurama's emerald ones, swollen and nearly half-shut.
Hiei leapt to his feet, easing the youko to the floor. "NO!"
"You idiot!" Hino Seiki shrieked, advancing on the shapeshifter. Fire flared up the line of her slim arm, blossoming around her clenched fist. "You weren't supposed to kill him!"
The shapeshifter who had taken Hiei's form smirked at her, crossing his arms. "Hn. Oops." He cocked one gleaming red eye at her.
Seiki snarled and drew back her fist to deliver a searing punch. Something caught her wrist and she turned, furious, to confront Iryoku's frowning visage. The blonde youkai shook her head.
"No, Seiki," she admonished her, tone hard as glass.
Seiki flinched. "He was mine!" she protested. "You promised me Kurama would be mine to play with, but this...this...creature has killed him!"
Iryoku frowned. "It is true that Hatsu became a bit...overzealous...but Hiei should be that much easier for you or Ryuji to eliminate." She smiled coldly.
Hatsu's figure morphed, rippling strangely as flesh shifted and bones lengthened, and a youkai of medium height shook back long hair, shrugging with androgynous beauty.
"He was mine!" Seiki repeated, fuming. She turned to look out over Tokyo from their rooftop vantage. She couldn't stand the sight of the smirking shapeshifter. "Hatsu should pay for ruining my pet!"
"Seiki!" Iryoku snapped, leveling her with a brittle stare.
The fire adept flinched minutely, then tossed back brown braids over her shoulders. "I won't forgive you," she hissed at the androgynous shapeshifter.
"He may not be dead," Hatsu responded, making a face at Seiki's vehemence. Then a little smirk touched the creature's lips. "He was still alive when I finished, anyway. Maybe there's enough for you to play with. But I don't see why it matters. He's only a ningen, after all."
"He was supposed to be my ningen," Seiki returned, eyes flashing. "And he was quite lovely."
Hatsu smiled slowly. "Quite," the youkai purred.
Seiki scowled, starting forward again at the look of wicked enjoyment in the shapeshifter's eyes. Fire sprang up in her palm.
"Stop it," Iryoku snapped. She leveled a cool violet stare at Seiki, who faltered, the fire guttering out. "His little lover will be devastated. See if you can take advantage of that." And perhaps encounter my d-that brat Ariodh, as well.
The fire adept spared a last angry glance for Hatsu, then disappeared in a wash of flame.
Hatsu eyed her expectantly.
Iryoku smiled suddenly, an expression utterly devoid of humanity or warmth. "Good work. Kurama's death - if you managed to accomplish that - should demoralize their little team, regardless on Seiki's opinion of the matter."
Hatsu bowed gracefully.
"Have I discharged the blood debt sufficiently, master?" the shapeshifter inquired.
Iryoku held up a finger. "Not yet, Hatsu. Be certain of the kill. Only then have you fulfilled your obligations." Her eyes gleamed with a spark of deep blue.
Hatsu bowed again, and vanished over the edge of the rooftop.
The tall blonde youkai turned, as a lean rangy figure emerged from the shadows of a latticework of supporting steel girders.
"Sir?" the demon prompted, unwilling to confer the honorific of 'master.'
Iryoku's lips quirked. "Miiraju has proved to be an incompetent."
The demon nodded shortly. "Hai. He was captured by the Reikai Tantei not long ago."
"Idiot," she hissed. "Must I take care of these things myself?"
"Sir," the demon put forth, face impassive, "Set Seiki to kill the ningen. I am surely enough for this fire demon."
Iryoku pursed her lips and shook her head. "Iie, Seiki is unreliable. She has no grudge match with this ningen Kuwabara, but would go to any lengths to kill Hiei. You take care of the ningen."
"Sir." The demon Ryuji drew himself up, insulted. "As you command," he replied stiffly, then disappeared in a single leap.
Iryoku balanced a shard of the Orb over the backs of her fingers, smiling widely with a manic sort of glee. Then she flipped it into the air and caught it, squeezing it tightly in her fist, laughing softly as blood spilled out over her fingers and onto the ground.
"One by one...they fall!"
"Yuusuke!" Botan screamed, pounding at the window. She saw him take aim at...at...himself! Frantically Botan dug into her obi and stuck a little spyglass to her eye, even as Yuusuke fired.
The other Yuusuke went down, as she identified the attacker as the real one, and screamed as he crumpled to the floor as if he'd shot - himself. Frantically Botan clawed at the window, realization screaming a tattered beat in her brain, and abruptly it flew open and she tumbled inside.
"Yuusuke - Yuusuke! Don't!" Botan cried, running over to him. "Don't be dead!" Koenma had suspended the document of death, but that would only mean that Yuusuke would suffer horribly, unable to die, if he were mortally wounded. She kneeled beside him.
Other than a gash mark to the arm, he appeared unharmed.
"Yuusuke!" She shook him, then pressed hands to his forehead and chest, using her healing powers. His chest rose sharply with an inhalation of breath, and she smiled with relief. The gash in his arm knitted up.
Yuusuke's eyes popped open. "Oi. Botan?"
"Yuusuke!" she exclaimed joyfully, hugging him. Then she sat back on her heels. "What happened? You didn't seem mortally wounded..." How had Koenma gotten an order of death, then?
"Oi! Botan!" Yuusuke yelled, suddenly shoving her.
She tumbled to the ground, gathering breath for a protest when Yuusuke's doppelganger loomed over them, grinning wickedly.
The double took aim with his finger. "This will be the shot that kills you, Urameshi," the creature with Yuusuke's face gloated.
Yuusuke lunged, knocking them both over, and they rolled across the floor, punching and kicking. The rei gun went off in a soundless explosion of light and Botan eeped, diving for cover.
When Botan peered up again, Yuusuke had his knee in Yuusuke's back and was twisting his arms behind him, pinning him. He flung a look at Botan. "Hurry! Get something to tie him with!"
Botan hesitated, checking him with the spyglass. Then she tossed him her obi, blushing furiously. Quickly Yuusuke tied his doppelganger's wrists behind his back then sat down on the floor with a thump and a very satisfied expression.
"Aa~aah, finally that's over!" he sighed. "How rude, I was just about to have dinner!"
Botan squirmed, holding her kimono closed with both hands. "Ano...Yuusuke?"
Yuusuke looked up. "Oi, thanks a lot Botan! If it hadn't been for you, I probably woulda still been unconscious when he got up to kill me with his rei gun!"
"But - Yuusuke..." she tried again, faintly.
"What is it, Botan?" he asked cheerfully, getting up. "You want dinner, too?"
"I want my obi back!" she burst out, red-faced.
Yuusuke facevaulted, goggling.
"You can't have him!" Hiei half-snarled, half-shouted, lunging at the black-haired little Death. She stumbled back, bronze eyes wide, stunned at the youkai's fierce adamant intensity. She fell onto the floor and he stood over her menacingly, barring the path to Kurama, fists clenched. We've just barely begun - I haven't even told him...
"I won't let you near him," Hiei's voice was a flat assertion.
Komako blinked. "I'm here to help."
Hiei didn't budge a muscle. "Is that what you call it?"
Komako grew agitated. "He's dying! Let me help him! Koenma-sama suspended the order so that I could -"
"Koenma...suspended?" Hiei echoed, blinking in puzzlement.
"Let me help!" Komako pleaded.
Hiei's lip twitched, but it was Kurama's sudden raspy intake of breath that decided him. He turned swiftly, gathering his fallen fox back up in his arms. "Help him," Hiei uttered, his crimson eyes burning into her bronze ones, fire reflecting off metal.
Komako nodded and scrambled over, hesitated at Hiei's fierce expression before laying gentle healing hands on Kurama.
The half-youko shuddered and went limp in Hiei's arms, breath bubbling out in a long sigh. Hiei's gaze snapped to Komako's intent face, angry and almost scared. "Is he...!?"
"No," the ferrygirl answered absently, completely focused on her glowing healer's aura. "He's just not in pain anymore, and he relaxed."
"Hn," Hiei replied, keeping a suspicious eye on the pulse beating in Kurama's neck. He'd never seen Botan or Yukina do anything like that.
Gradually the bruises and gashes faded away, replaced by whole, unmarked skin. His split lip shrank, the tear mending itself. Komako pulled her hands away, swaying a little, exhausted. She had performed a full healing.
"Why?" Hiei asked her suspiciously, hands running over Kurama, checking him to make sure, feeling out the shape of the healed ribs.
Komako sighed. "Because he wasn't scheduled to die. Koenma-sama suspended the papers after he checked. Then he sent me to prevent the death, to save him from processing the paperwork involved in an untimely death."
"Hn," Hiei snorted. "He would." But his eyes were unusually soft as he finished checking Kurama over for any trace of the vanished injuries.
"Why you?" he asked abruptly, halting when he reached Kurama's torn clothing. He would deal with that later. "Why not Botan or Hinageshi?"
Komako tilted her head, not daring to smile as the fierce youkai fussed over the unconscious redhead. He realized how close he had come to losing something so precious.
"Because," she replied slowly, "once upon a time, I was one of the most powerful healers in Ningenkai." She stood, her eyes wistful, and pulled the oar out of thin air. Once a healer, now only a harbinger of death.
Hiei brushed a strand of red hair away from Kurama's face, no longer deadly pale or strained in agony. He looked back up at Komako. "...Thanks..." he muttered, almost ungraciously. Yukina he would have no problem with, but dealing with this total stranger was uncomfortable.
"You love him, don't you?" she said unexpectedly.
Hiei looked away, wishing for this suddenly pestering female to leave, and soon.
After a moment Komako turned to go and he felt relieved. Then she looked back over her shoulder and he smothered an impatient curse. Go! Leave!
"Make sure he knows it," she advised. "Next time, I may not be called upon for my healing powers."
Abruptly she was gone and Hiei frowned over her last sentence, then picked up the surprisingly heavy body of the half-youko, lugging him into the bedroom and depositing him carefully on the bed.
Now he had time to turn his attention to matters that hadn't been as important - quite - as a life, but now ranked up on Hiei's top ten list of things to do. Carefully, without touching the sleeping kitsune, he examined Kurama's clothing. His pants were ripped - as he'd said, they had been torn off - and stained with blood. But most of his clothing was irregularly daubed and smeared with blood, so that wasn't a definite indication that the shapeshifter had raped Kurama.
A shudder of rage shook Hiei from head to toe. Raped him, his fox - when only last night Kurama had explained that particular aspect of sex to him. How, even though they were both male, they could still - But they hadn't done that yet, because Kurama had wanted to wait until he was ready, sensing his uncertainty. He would have done it anyway because it was Kurama. But now... He clamped his teeth together, stifling a growl.
"You look like you're about to kill something," observed a sleepy, familiar alto.
Hiei glanced down. Kurama blinked up at him and smiled endearingly, then patted the futon.
"Give me half a day and I probably will," he replied shortly to the words, ignoring the gesture.
Kurama raised his fine red eyebrows and stretched luxuriously, then ran wondering hands over his mended ribs. "She healed me," he noted, a wondering smile breaking out over his face.
"Kurama," Hiei began, the important matter pressing on his brain, "what did he do to you?"
It wouldn't determine if the shifter lived or died. Just how long it would take.
Kurama's face was calm. "He beat the stuffing out of me."
"So he didn't - " Hiei stopped, face dark.
Kurama reached out and took his hand, prying the clenched fingers open and interlacing them with his own. "No, he didn't rape me, wearing your face." The half-youko understood the heart of Hiei's distress. "You got there just in time - startled him as he was about to."
The wire tautness seeped slowly from Hiei's frame.
Again, Kurama patted the futon invitingly, and this time Hiei sank down beside him, still scowling thunderously, but clinging to the youko's hand like a lifeline.
"I'm going to kill it," Hiei stated matter-of-factly.
"No, you're not," Kurama replied evenly.
"What-" Hiei began, eyes flashing hotly, but Kurama put his free hand up, covering Hiei's lips with two fingers.
"That honor will be mine," he informed Hiei with a determined look that brooked no arguments.
Hiei's lips twitched but he didn't argue. It was the youko's right, after all.
"Yuusuke, you are so haphazard!" Botan bemoaned, appalled. "You fired your rei gun at him only to-"
"...to stun him," Yuusuke gave her a smarmy daredevil grin. "Brilliant, ne?"
"You moron!" She smacked him. He rubbed his arm, wondering if she'd been hanging out with Keiko recently. "If I hadn't come along to wake you up, you'd be dead by now!"
"But Koenma wouldn't let that happen," he replied smugly, grinning.
"You can't always count on that!" she rounded on him, boxing his ear. He backed up, holding up his hands. "You may be lucky most of the time, Urameshi Yuusuke, but one day you'll wind up dead!"
"Been there. Done that," Yuusuke winked. "Now I'm the poster child for rebirth."
Botan blew strands of sky-blue hair away from her face and settled her hands on her hips. "Oooh!" She stamped her foot cutely. "Well, now what!? For starters, what do we do with him?" She pointed to the doppelganger, hands secured behind his back with one of Yuusuke's belts, mouth gagged with a pair of socks. He glared at them evilly, flopping like a landed fish.
Yuusuke sweatdropped, thinking he looks too much like me for me to laugh... "He said something about Ekoi's magic protecting him. So why don't we ask Koenma what he knows about Ekoi?"
"Ekoi?" Botan echoed, looking puzzled. "Who's that?"
Yuusuke grinned sheepishly. "Did I forget to mention that? She attacked me earlier today. I didn't think much of it because all she did was throw a little ball bearing at me..."
Botan's eyes widened. "A sphere of transformation?"
Yuusuke shrugged. "Sure."
Botan facevaulted. "Yuusuke. You really should tell people about such things." She flipped open her little gold compact and Koenma's childish face appeared, chewing nervously on his binky.
"Botan? Komako? What's going on?" the little Prince of the Dead demanded irritably.
"Yuusuke's safe, Koenma-sama!" Botan replied happily. "Mission accomplished. But Yuusuke wants to know who Ekoi is - she's the one who was behind the attack."
Koenma shuffled with some papers. "Just a minute."
They waited. Yuusuke folded his arms. Botan tapped her foot. After a moment Yuusuke amused himself by pushing the double with his foot, and watching him rock helplessly back and forth on the floor. He started chuckling and couldn't stop as the fake Yuusuke glared up at him mutely, eyes practically spitting sparks.
"Yes!" She snapped the compact back up, Yuusuke's wild chuckles nearly drowning out the prince, who eyed her with one eyebrow raised. Botan shrugged helplessly as Yuusuke continued to laugh.
"Yes...yep...right here...I've got it!"
Yuusuke wandered over, muffling his last giggles behind his hand. Botan sighed.
"No information! A blank file."
They facevaulted and toppled over.
Ariodh and Yukina raced up the street to Kurama's apartment, both of them moving at faster-than-human speed, the white-haired youkai practically dragging the ice maiden behind her.
"We have to hurry!" Ariodh said, for the twelfth time, as Yukina puffed behind her. "Or else Kurama will die!"
They rounded the corner of the last block, practically tearing up concrete as they skidded and then continued to run in a burst of speed. Then Ariodh's eyes widened and she jerked to a halt, Yukina complaining loudly as she slammed into the other girl's shoulder, bruising her nose.
A gout of fire flared up out of nowhere, bursting practically up in their faces. Ariodh backed up, one protective arm shoving Yukina back. The twining flames leapt up and resolved into the slender, brown-braided Hino Seiki.
"Rats," the fire adept frowned, spotting Ariodh and Yukina. "I was looking for the little one."
Ariodh shoved Yukina aside, drawing her soulsword from its interdimensional pocket. The ice maiden fell to the sidewalk with a little cry.
"Hurry, Yukina!" she shouted, facing off the fire adept. "You have to get to Kurama before it's too late!"
Seiki leapt up into the air, laughing, as Ariodh lunged forward with her burning white soulsword. She somersaulted and vanished, leaving only a burst of flame behind her. Ariodh whirled, stretching all her senses for the strange feel of the other's fiery youki.
"We don't have to do this," the smooth voice of Seiki argued persuasively, the sound reaching her through dozens of tiny hovering flames. Ariodh slashed at the little fingers of fire, destroying several, but more merely popped up.
"I just want to find the little one. The dark little youkai who took Kurama away from me."
"He was never yours!" retorted a familiar voice, as a gleaming silver katana cut through several tiny flames, sweeping in a broad arc.
Seiki's laughter made the little fires bob joyously.
"Hiei!" Ariodh exclaimed, clutching the soulsword firmly.
"Hiei," Seiki repeated, purring, as she appeared in another wash of flame.
"Die," Hiei replied, viciously slicing through the air as he angled to attack her. Seiki laughed and vanished in a curl of fire.
Ariodh started towards her, but Hiei made a curt motion with his sword. "Stay out of this," he warned, mouth set in a grim line. "Seiki is mine." The white-haired youkai backed up obediently, recognizing that Hiei needed to take some form of action, after what had happened to Kurama.
"Then die!" Seiki said gleefully, appearing behind him, flinging handfuls of fire at him.
Hiei flickered, appearing twenty feet away and Seiki pivoted, continuing to throw lines of green-blue fire at him, laughing with triumph. He flickered again, and disappeared.
Seiki frowned. "Where--?" She whirled, clenching her fists, and fire roared up around her.
Ariodh smiled grimly. She was apparently counting on the wall of fire to protect her. What she'd forgotten was that Hiei was a fire demon.
Hiei appeared behind her in the fire and she whirled, gasping. Hiei gave her a wicked little smile. "Now you die."
Seiki laughed in his face. "That's where you're wrong." She lunged forward faster than thought, snapping up a barrier more substantial than fire, as the air itself seemed awash in fire, consuming everything. Hiei struck at her, his katana plunging uselessly into fire as she dissolved into the burning air, laughing at him. His katana began to melt and he swore, dropping it to the smoking, buckling pavement.
"Kuso!" Ariodh whispered, then flung herself into action, striking at the barrier with her soulsword. It was one of Seiki's unusual spells, and impervious to her burning blade's aura.
She heard the familiar chuckle, a tickle at the back of her head at first, and Ariodh realized abruptly she would only have an instant to strike.
"Hiei!" she heard someone cry out in anguish, and she glanced over to the side of the street, where Kurama and Yukina gazed horrified at the dome of fire where Hiei was being fried alive, fire demon notwithstanding.
NO! Ariodh shouted in her mind, drawing herself up. Seiki's figure took shape behind her, blossoming up in fire that dripped golden and orange. She was laughing at Hiei, who had fallen to his knees inside the dome of fire. Hiei nearly lost Kurama - now I won't let Kurama lose Hiei! They were the only two people who had shown her kindness in a hundred years.
Ariodh lashed out with her soulsword, striking so swiftly that Seiki had no time to flinch back, or escape wreathed in her fire. She drove the tip of the burning white sword into the pavement and incandescent lines of energy lashed out, boiling around the two of them in a frenzy of power. "Masamune! DEATHSTRIKE!"
I kill Seiki, the dome collapses, she thought, satisfied, as the power bled away from her, focused and given a killing edge within Masamune. The searing white heat enclosed them both, licking up in a rabid storm of energy as Seiki screamed shrilly, and Ariodh clamped her lips around a cry of agony. Then the seething luminous white fire leapt up around them.
Kurama and Yukina flinched back from the tremendous light and heat of the explosion, diving for concrete to flatten themselves out. The redhaired half-youko crawled over to Yukina to protect her body with his own as they rode out the shockwave of Ariodh's power.
Her power increases when she's threatened... But it hadn't been Ariodh in danger. It had been Hiei.
Kurama pushed himself to his feet, shielding his eyes as the white glare of the horrendous explosion of youki faded. That had to be S-class, by Inari, but normally she feels like a low B!
"H-Hiei?" He squinted as the light continued to fade.
Seiki's fire dome had collapsed.
Wisps of crackling white energy still crawled over the torn-up pavement as Kurama stumbled over to the blast site. He couldn't shake a terrible feeling of foreboding. Ariodh's attack had had a sense of - finality to it. Hiei was shaking his head, dazed, fumbling for the hilt of a katana that was no longer by his side.
"Kurama?" he looked up, crimson eyes confused. "What happened? Where's Ariodh?"
Kurama's sense of dread increased with that question. He scanned over the battlesite. Seiki was gone. All traces of her fire had vanished. And the only thing that remained of Ariodh was the lines of sparking white energy that still snapped and spat over the pavement...
A glimmer caught his eye and he stooped quickly, long slender fingers plucking at something snagged on a broken piece of concrete. Hiei stepped next to him, examining the object trapped between his fingers.
A very fine, white-gold lock of gossamer hair.