"Let it not be said that Yukimura Keiko isn't a woman to be reckoned with," Koenma pronounced solemnly, then dissolved into helpless howls of mirth, pounding his desk and trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears of laughter.
Botan's mouth quivered and she held up the sleeve of her kimono, hiding her expression.
"So she clobbered Ekoi with a frying pan?" Koenma uttered, wide-eyed, his face struggling between deadpan and a genuine admiration of Keiko's work.
Admiration won out.
He whooped with laughter, waving a fist and nearly clocking a large stack of paper with his enthusiasm. Botan squeaked but Koenma merely subsided into his seat, placing hands solidly on the table, still chuckling and wheezing.
"Botan...so who does that leave, to fight the Urameshi team?" the little God of Death demanded, getting back to business.
The skyhaired ferrygirl plucked a little remote control from the folds of one sleeve, clicking on one of the office screens. Faces popped up as she pressed a button. "Well, the boys took care of Miiraju, Kuwabara just K.O.'d Ryuji, Keiko knocked out Ekoi...and Ariodh killed Seiki." Botan blinked and looked sad. "Ano...that leaves only Hatsu, the shapeshifter, against Kurama."
"Eh, good," Koenma nodded. "Now they can concentrate on finding that Hakamura, and bringing him to justice."
Botan nodded firmly, blue strands of hair bobbing. "Hai, Koenma-sama!" Then her face looked troubled. "Ne, Koenma-sama...what about the strange manner in which Ekoi was killed?"
Koenma frowned reflectively, then thumbed a button on his desk. "George! Get in here!"
The oni popped in at once, as if his entire life depended on responding to the little god's summons promptly. "Hai, Koenma-sama?"
"We need some research." Koenma frowned again, authoritatively this time. "Everything this office can dig up on Hakamura, the S-Class youkai."
George snapped a salute to his boss.
Botan was quietly edging towards the door when Koenma's eye fell on her once more. "Botan, you'll assist him."
The ferrygirl was crestfallen. "Hai, Koenma-sama," she agreed reluctantly. The oni and the blue-haired girl looked at each other and shrugged as they left the room, diving once more into the crowded, body-packed hallway on a quest for the research room.
"Masamune..." Hiei echoed, struggling to keep his face expressionless as his eyes ran over the elfin figure, thorough and cold.
She was tiny, as Ariodh had been, and her features were roughly similar - the pointed chin, the wide high cheekbones, the same gamine, but closed-off expression that looked rather wistful, as if hoping for something better. But everything else about her was all wrong - the long, silky hair tied back in the multiple tails was blue, not white, and long tapered ears peeked out. The eyes were wide and amber, not sapphire.
But the look on her face was frankly familiar - she knew him. And was impishly aware of his confusion.
"Masamune was the name of Ariodh's sword," he bit back, sheathing his own and surveying Mukuro's limp body with an impersonal eye.
His employer apparently considered him property. Not only that, but she'd been all too ready to kill a woman she thought was his lover. Ariodh...
He knelt by the other body that had fallen in the clearing, turning it over. The flesh was cold and lifeless and he winced - this couldn't be happening.
The wide upturned eyes that stared glassy and fixed at the stars were brown. The hair that rippled back from a strange, suddenly lumpish brow was dark, and coarse. He had held Ariodh's hair in his hands, while Kurama had shoved her into the tub and they'd washed her - Ariodh's hair was fine and silky. Not like this.
"Shapeshifter_" Disgusted, he shoved at the body and the dark-haired youkai flopped over again.
"Mukuro killed the shapeshifter." The voice pierced the clearing, and his confusion. He looked up again.
Masamune was watching him intently, her delicate heart-shaped face reminding him keenly of Ari_of someone else, someone who was most certainly dead.
"We have to get out of here, before Mukuro wakes," Hiei said shortly, turning. In a flash of black he crouched on the nearest tree limb and turned his head, vaguely astonished. The blue-haired elf was every bit as fast, and she favored him with a tiny smile at the widening of his crimson eyes.
"You still won't let yourself believe it, will you, Hiei?" the elfin youkai murmured.
Hiei twitched an eyebrow at her, and vanished into the thick canopy of grasping leaves.
Shizuru jerked sharply upright as her head listed to the side once more, and her brown eyes flicked open. It was past daybreak and a thin weak light rose up from the east, eclipsing the night terrors.
They had all thought Kazuma was more seriously injured than Yukina's examining, at last, had proved him. But that hadn't stopped Shizuru from sitting at the side of his pallet, all night.
The wound had been partially healed by the ice-maiden, but still Shizuru had no taste for dragging her brother's body back to the foot of the hill, and finding a taxi. It was simply easier to let him recuperate at Genkai's.
Her half-opened eyes fell on Yukina. The pale little girl was kneeling by Kazuma's side, one of his thick-boned hands grasped in both of her small ones, and her deep red eyes were concerned.
"Is he all right?"
Shizuru's voice broke the seeming spell of silence that lay over the room. The Koorime blinked and her eyes started up, meeting Shizuru's calm brown gaze. "Aa...he'll be just fine, Shizuru-san..."
"Yet you stayed up all night with him," Shizuru returned, veiling the amusement in her voice.
"Ano...well, so did you," Yukina faltered, offering a timid smile.
"I'm his sister," Shizuru snorted. "It's my job to make sure the idiot doesn't kill himself. But you..."
"Kazuma-san isn't an idiot!" Yukina sparked, showing the first signs of spirit Shizuru had yet seen. "He's a very brave, valiant man! He deserves..." The girl trailed off and flushed.
"So he'll be okay?" Shizuru queried again calmly, acting as if she hadn't noticed Yukina's fluster.
"Aa...he'll be just fine," Yukina repeating, her face soft as she looked back down.
Shizuru settled back, satisfied. Kazuma's reikan might be clouded, when it came to judging Yukina and her heart, but one simple exchange had revealed all she needed to know.
Everything *was* going to be just fine.
Kurama and Genkai eyed the struggling youkai, both expressionless and grim. The slight body had begun to spasm as morning came, and now she was fully awake, baring her teeth in a snarl and shrieking mostly-incoherent curses.
"I believe that's enough," Genkai pronounced finally.
Kurama nodded and dropped a seed beside her vine-pinioned body.
The youkai shrieked again, positively howling, as the fumes from the unfurling plant reached up to grasp her securely in unconsciousness. The mentor and the half-youko breathed soundless sighs of relief.
Genkai put a hand to her head. "Such a headache, that one."
Kurama nodded ruefully.
He wished there had been some other place to bring the displaced Seiki, but keeping her at his apartment was out of the question - he could lose his lease over such an incident. And Genkai might have some clue as to what they could *do* with the youkai wearing a stolen body. Kurama, himself, had never dealt with such a situation, in six hundred years.
"There is a problem, Kurama-kun," Genkai admitted, steepling her fingers as she frowned at the unconscious white-haired youkai. "Rather crucial, in fact."
Kurama looked at her expectantly.
"Where is Ariodh?"
Masamune smirked at him - the insolent creature actually had the nerve to *smirk* at him. Hiei fumed. "Where do you think, Hiei?"
"I thought she was dead," Hiei replied stiffly, beginning to get fed up with the creature's evasive replies and enigmatic words. They had been traveling for hours towards the nearest gate and he still hadn't gotten a straight answer out of her. "So are you telling me she's alive?"
One amber eye peered at him, the expression almost impish. "You could say that."
Hiei growled, preparing to grab the creature's shoulders and SHAKE some answers out of her. He was in no mood for games. He'd been ambushed by some nameless creature not far from the gate - probably Mukuro's blind hunter-tracker - then he'd been rescued by a faux Ariodh that had proved to be the shapeshifter who had been hunting his lover, and that Ariodh had been killed before his eyes by his employer. Who was under the mistaken impression that there was something between them, and hadn't shown any hesitation in eliminating supposed competition. All in all, it had NOT been a very good twelve hours.
At least he could go back to Kurama.
Hiei bit at his lip, worrying it with one fang. *If* Kurama wanted him back, after the way he'd left him.
A soft sussurating huff from the youkai beside him caused him to turn his head and eye her again. Her wide amber eyes were glittering in the backlit rays of the rising sun. "Hiei no baka," she pronounced, tilting her head. "You were trying to teach me to be more observant..."
It wasn't a question, it was a sudden, piercing insight.
Masamune smiled, and the blue tails of hair bobbed. "Aa. She's here, with me."
His dark red eyes burned into her gem-bright ones. "How?"
"It was in the fire," Masamune began quietly, as they both hunkered down on the branch. The wise elfin features altered slightly, the expression growing somehow more youthful, and less sure of herself. Ariodh. "Hakamura never permitted me to use the full powers of the sword, but in that final strike, I unleashed something I didn't completely understand."
"My own power, it was the key to opening Masamune," the elfin figure continued, a look of wonder crossing her face. "And through that interdimensional space, where she stays when I'm not wielding her, I discovered an escape route."
Hiei nodded shortly. "So that's how you disappeared."
A wry smile touched the pale lips. "Well, that wasn't all. Seiki's body disappeared into her own fire, but she still followed me. She...Seiki forced me out of my own body." Masamune-Ariodh looked down, gritting her teeth. "I didn't have any place to go."
At last, Hiei reached forward. One hand fingered a spill of silky, blue hair - the same texture he remembered. "But you're still here."
Her smile was brim-full. "Hai, I'm still here. Masamune offered me her body, and together...we changed."
Hiei blinked, puzzled. "So, where is Seiki?"
Amber eyes widened in shock. "She - she looks like me. But oh, gods - dammit Hiei, where do *you* think she would go!?"
"Kurama," he ground out, suddenly feeling like the worst kind of imbecile. He had left Kurama so he wouldn't fall into one trap - only to be baited into another.
Youki crackled in the air and their heads snapped up, searching. The two small youkai became very still on the wide limb of the tree as they felt the tendrils curling through the area, poised to strike. Mukuro...Hiei nearly snarled. With one stroke, she had revealed a side of herself he simply could not countenance. As ruthless as he'd known himself to be, he could not serve a woman who would kill off his lover, in a misguided attempt to rid herself of competition.
It was only by the strangest twist of fate that she hadn't killed anyone he'd cared about - had, in fact, rid him of a threat.
He glanced over at Masamune. The golden eyes were narrowed, nearly hidden by sweeping black lashes. She met his gaze.
How the hell were they supposed to get out of this?
Even unleashing the destruction of the Kokuryuuha wouldn't ensure Mukuro's demise. And he doubted that Ariodh, as Masamune, would be nearly as effective a fighter without the solid security of the gleaming soulsword in her hands.
Masamune's pale smile flickered over him, and he nearly tumbled backwards as, in a burst of whirling white, a pair of tremendous wings thrust out into full extension, snapping outward, the large primaries flicking out. She cocked her head at him, the wings beating lightly, then held out her hands.
Stiffly Hiei nodded.
Masamune leapt from the branch, the wings flapping furiously, snapping out again to catch the wind.
"Wings...how--" tumbled from his lips, as Masamune held tightly to his hands and they flew, sailing on the updraft, towards the gate.
Her silvery laughter shivered over the sunlight. "I wasn't always a sword, you know."
As Yuusuke began to tiptoe out of the restaurant, edging steadily towards the door, he felt the scruff of his neck seized by a pair of fingers, pinching him hard. "Itai! Lemme go!"
"Just where do you think you're going?" Keiko demanded, giving him the murderous evil eye.
Yuusuke grinned widely, a crooked halo practically popping into existence over his head. "Why, I was simply planning on running some errands for the restaurant!
"Why don't I believe you?" Keiko narrowed her brown eyes dangerously.
Yuusuke pursed his lips, straightening his shoulders as he gave her his best insulted sniff. "Keiko-chan, honestly, after that fiasco yesterday why would I risk getting on your bad side again?" Woefully he recalled Keiko's deadly accuracy with a frying pan.
"I don't know," Keiko returned, eyes flashing, "why do pigs always want to wallow in the mud?"
"HEY!" Yuusuke objected strenuously.
His eyes sparked as he stepped toe to toe with her. Keiko raised one dainty fist, mouth twitching. "Yuusuke, you have an obligation to this restaurant."
He scowled darkly at her. "Well, I have an obligation to my teammates, too. I wanted to go to Genkai-shihan's. Kuwabara wasn't home when I called, and neither was his sister...Kurama wasn't home, either."
Keiko evaluated him for a long moment. Finally she scowled back, her pretty features less angry than resigned. "All right, but *try* not to stumble into any world-threatening situations."
"I'll try," he promised, flashing her his best sincere smile and darting forward quickly. Her face lit up as he kissed her cheek - then transformed to pure fury as he flipped her skirt up for a panty check.
"YUUSUKE!" she roared, starting after him, but he'd already bolted out the door and he ran down the street, chortling.
"That's a very nice shade of green, Keiko-chan!" he called back gleefully.
Keiko paused in the doorway, resting one hand against the wood. A reluctant smile tugged her lips, as Yuusuke vanished around the corner. "Damn you, Urameshi..." she sighed, then her eyes did darken a little. "I know this place isn't enough for you but sometimes I do wish..." She shrugged philosophically and turned. However Yuusuke felt about the restaurant, she did know he'd always come back.
Kurama sighed softly and buried his head in his hands. Strands of silky bright red hair spilled around his shoulders, shadowing his face from sight, and he turned his nose into the crook of his arm.
Nothing was going right in his life. Now that he'd finally found Hiei - now that Hiei was finally his, it seemed - the infuriating little fire demon had vanished without a trace as always.
And right after he'd said he wasn't going to leave.
Absently he blew at a lock of coppery hair. Not only that, but Seiki wasn't dead. It dredged up a whole complex of uneasiness he wasn't happy to deal with in the least. The girls at school were bad enough, fawning and simpering in his direction, a cluster of chattering, covetous girls who wanted nothing more than to claim him as theirs, the honor of being Minamino Shuuichi's girlfriend. That, alone, was enough to make him painfully self-conscious. He might be vain but not that vain.
Hino Seiki was one of the few people in his life who'd made him feel utterly and completely like an object, something solely for possession.
Yomi had been another, but he thought he'd worked past that. He knew he'd certainly managed to get through the most recent fiasco without Yomi seducing or forcing him into his bed - quite a relief.
Hiei, though - he was the first person in a long, lonely life that he felt he could give his heart to entirely. Because once his loyalty - once his heart - was given, it was a precious gift that could never be taken back. Kurama had spent every year learning that more and more, and wishing desperately that *he* could be the one to earn Hiei's trust. Succeeding in that, at last, he had found he wanted more.
And it was not just a youko's mere whim.
"Where are you, you little demon?" Kurama whispered, fingers tightening convulsively around his knees. Had he gone back to the Makai, and Mukuro? It was hard to say. Hiei had vanished for months at a time, even a year on one occasion...he smiled against the back of his hand...but he had always come back before. That was something he knew he could count on.
"Zutto," he whispered fiercely, ignoring the stinging in his eyes.
"Forever what, fox?" The deep voice startled him to his feet, looking around wildly on the temple steps. There was no one in sight.
Kurama's red bangs fell into his eyes. His mouth bowed in a tiny smile.
His head snapped up, and he put his hands on his hips, whole posture softening and becoming a bit jaunty, teasing. "Forever and a day until I see you again, you demon."
Hiei was seated on the edge of the tiled roof that jutted out over the temple steps. One leg was drawn up, arm braced against it, and he looked down with calm, unblinking crimson eyes. He snorted. "Hn. Baka. Trust you to wax poetic."
Kurama was more than a little stunned. "Hiei, what are you doing here? When you left, I thought..." He bit his lip and looked away. How to say it without sounding pathetic...now, that was a challenge.
"The shapeshifter is dead," Hiei began, leaping to the steps. He blinked up at Kurama, an uncomfortable expression crossing his face.
Kurama felt a curl of anger stirring. "You killed him? Damn it, Hiei, I told you--"
"It was pretending to be Ariodh," Hiei replied, suddenly expressionless. "And I didn't kill it, Mukuro did."
"Mukuro?" Kurama echoed, confusion eclipsing the anger.
"And then...Masamune knocked out Mukuro," Hiei continued, a sudden toothy grin stunning Kurama speechless.
"Masamune!?" he blurted, clutching at Hiei's shoulders. "How_what_!?"
"I believe I should offer an explanation," a wry, amused voice piped up. A soft thud hit the stone behind him.
Kurama released Hiei and pivoted. There on the flagstones, a petite, elfin, blue-haired amber-eyed version of Ariodh gave him a demure little smile. He rubbed at his eyes, and looked again. It was still there.
"This has definitely been an interesting day," Kurama muttered, fleetingly thinking of Seiki imprisoned inside, wearing Ariodh's body.
The indigo-haired youkai cocked her head, fingering one pointy ear thoughtfully. "Prepare yourself, Kurama...it's about to get even more so."
Kuwabara cracked his eyes open warily. This didn't *feel* like his bed. It felt more like a flat, partially lumpy pallet. He opened his eyes all the way.
It was a flat, partially lumpy pallet.
He looked around, then winced. Ouch. He hurt. Shizuru-neesan...dozing in the corner. To his other side... WAAAAAIII!! YUKINA-SAN!!
Kuwabara struggled to sit up bolt upright, and moaned. He sank back onto the pallet. "Itai..." he groaned woefully. It was all very well and good to go about defending one's home and family, but dealing with the wounds afterwards - aiie, that was less than romantic.
"Kazuma-san, daijoubu!?" Her pale flowerlike face unfolded into his field of vision, wide crimson eyes fixed on him worriedly.
Kuwabara extracted one hand from the depths of the blanket he had been tucked into, and grasped her upraised fingers. "Aa," he breathed, the skin of his face flushing and boiling red. "It is the power of love that brings me back to life."
Yukina-san giggled and tucked back a strand of sea-wave green hair. "Oh, Kazuma-san, sometimes I don't understand you."
A silly grin spread over Kuwabara's bony face. He sagged back against his pillow, positively giddy with her presence. What a lovely sight to wake up to. "Ah, Yukina-san, what a sweet savior you are..."
Yuusuke bolted up to the steps of the temple, taking them two by two in his usual vigorous fashion. It was shaping up to be quite a fine day. The sun was sparkling brilliantly through the overhanging canopy of spring-green leaves, the birds were warbling cheerfully, and he was nearly half a city away from the restaurant. He felt vaguely guilty about leaving Keiko again - but he really was concerned about Kuwabara and Kurama. With assassinating youkai lurking about, he really couldn't afford to stay out of touch with his friends for too long.
Kurama was on the steps of the temple proper - he could spot that bright head of hair any day - and Yuusuke waved, shouting out. That slight dark figure beside him would be Hiei, but the blue-haired creature...
"Oi! Kurama!" Yuusuke jogged up, grinning from ear to ear. "What's up? Yo, Hiei. Who..."
He trailed off as the creature turned. Except for the pointy elfin ears, and the blue color of the hair, the youkai was a dead ringer for Ariodh - !!
"AUGH!" Yuusuke jumped back in an exaggerated pose of surprise, lifting one finger to level it at the blue-haired youkai. "It's a ghost!!"
Swift as thought, the creature darted forward to grab his finger, and pushed it back against his hand, forcing him to form a closed fist. Yuusuke's mouth opened in a startled `O'.
"Watch where you're pointing that thing," the youkai blinked up at him with wide, innocent amber eyes. "You really could hurt someone."
Yuusuke eyed the creature suspiciously. "Who are you!?"
"And what has she done with Ariodh," Kurama added in an amused tone.
Yuusuke swiveled to glare at the grinning kitsune. "Oi, what's so funny?"
"Let's go back inside the temple, so Masamune doesn't have to repeat herself," Kurama replied obliquely, cocking his head to indicate the open doorway.
"Muh-masamune...?" Yuusuke repeated dumbly.
The creature grabbed at his hand impatiently. "Oh, come on." She dragged him into the temple after Kurama. After a moment, Hiei followed with one of his typical sour grunts.
"Ano...where's Kuwabara?" Yuusuke recalled suddenly.
"Oh, he's fine," Kurama waved his hand, "he's recovering quite nicely."
"From WHAT!?" Yuusuke demanded, suddenly feeling completely out of the loop. Geez, it had only been one night!
"You didn't hear?" Kurama was surprised. "I thought Koenma would've told you. Kuwabara took down Ryuji last night, but he was hurt, too. Yukina took care of him."
"Yukina's here?" Hiei suddenly looked like he might flit away again.
Firmly the blue-haired youkai grabbed one of Hiei's wrists in her other hand. "You're not going anywhere."
Yuusuke was astonished. Hiei didn't blast the elf to small black atoms on the spot. Well... it looked an awful lot like Ariodh...wait, wasn't Masamune the name of the sword?
"What the hell is going on here?" Yuusuke blurted
Masamune's wide amber eyes glittered up at him, hugely amused. "Ariodh is still alive."
"Can you do anything, Genkai-shihan?" Kurama implored.
The tiny old woman lifted her head, still sipping at the cup of tea. She put it down, and her angular eyes were thoughtful. "Ariodh melded with the sword?"
Masamune gave the old woman a small, decisive nod. "It was within her capabilities, and my desire. I didn't want to see her dead, not just when she was gaining her independence."
"There is another problem," Genkai warned. "Seiki will not give up the body so easily. It means her death, her true death this time. And we'll have to act quickly to prevent Seiki from taking over the sword's body."
"That won't be a problem," Masamune replied confidently. Her golden eyes hardened.
"So what do WE do?" Yuusuke complained. The only thing keeping him here, really, was the fact that it meant an hour or two longer away from the restaurant.
Genkai and Masamune gave him identical grim smiles. "You get to hold Seiki down, of course."
Yuusuke backpedaled. "Oh no! I don't want any youkai sinking their pointy little teeth into me!" He sweatdropped. "Ekoi was bad enough!"
"Oh, what happened with Ekoi?" Kurama inquired curiously.
Yuusuke muttered something into his sleeve.
"What was that?" Kurama said, arching one fine red brow.
Yuusuke muttered it louder, but every bit as incoherent.
"Yuusuke, you're going to have to speak more clearly," Kurama prompted, leaning forward.
The dark-haired boy glared at him, then glared at Kuwabara, then looked up at the ceiling, crossing his hands behind his head. "Keiko knocked her out with a frying pan," he mumbled, his face twitching.
"Keiko...what...?" Kurama favored him with an astonished look. Hiei snickered.
"WAHAHAHAHA! Urameshi the great, upstaged by his fiancee!" Kuwabara chortled gleefully, leveling a thick finger at Yuusuke, who leapt up from the table. "WHAHAHAHA! Keiko beat up your assassin for you!"
Yuusuke shook his fist in Kuwabara's face. "Omae--" he growled. Kuwabara blinked at him, long face suddenly solemn, a perfect halo popping up over his curly orange hair. "Why, Urameshi, you wouldn't hit an invalid, would you?"
Yuusuke growled at him and sank back down.
"Are you two quite finished?" Genkai inquired acidly.
"Hai, Genkai-shihan," the two teenagers chorused sullenly.
"Now...is everyone ready?"
The two boys glared at each other, then nodded reluctantly. The two youkai nodded. And Masamune simply folded her hands and smiled beatifically.
"Let's do it."
Yuusuke sweatdropped. "Ne...*how* exactly are we going to do this?"
Like a distorted mirror, the two diminutive youkai faced each other. The white-haired youkai was still pinned to the wall, sagging limp in a meshing framework of vines that trussed her securely. Her slack features were, on such a close comparison, completely identical to that of the blue-haired elfin youkai who faced her, wide golden eyes very serious.
"Masamune, how shall we proceed?" Genkai prompted.
The elfin youkai glanced up, distracted. "Eh? Oh...Yuusuke and Kurama, if you would make sure she can't move, even during the worse of this..."
They nodded and grabbed hold of the unconscious creature's vine-wrapped arms, pinning her even more decisively to the wall.
"The body knows," Masamune said softly, her skin taking on an eerie glow. "That soul does not belong there, but just as blood calls to blood, the body calls to the soul, and the spirit shall be drawn back." She bowed her head, blue locks cascading around her shoulders, and the golden eyes fell shut.
"Demo...what about Seiki?" Kuwabara inquired suspiciously. A fiery white aura flared up, and they flinched back from the brilliance. "*I*, Masamune, will take care of Seiki." Her tone held the steel of the body she had so recently been housed in.
The room suddenly lit up in a soundless concussion of incandescent light, and Ariodh's voice echoed around them, a thunderous whisper. "Masamune - ESSENCE!"
There were two Ariodhs. No, three - and one of them had golden eyes and a fury of indigo hair and wide, endlessly stretching wings of pure, radiant white. The world bled into color and crackling sound and a pair of eyes snapped open.
The scream reverberated through the room, rocked them all and fragmented the high keening tones of the spell that Masamune - Ariodh - maybe both had wrought.
Genkai and Hiei were pitched back with a shout, as the room was blasted apart.