Blood Call
Chapter Twelve - Sacrifice

by Talya Firedancer

He could still see it.

Searing light had swallowed up everything else, even the vague outlines of Yuusuke's and Ariodh's bodies, not even the wall was left in his field of vision but the flaming silhouette of Masamune's ethereal face was imprinted on his retinas. The heart-shaped face and the blown-back masses of indigo hair and the solemn, fixed little mouth continued to drive into his brain. Kurama staggered under the shockwave but remembered what Genkai had said, and clutched the slender arm as the possessed body jerked and shrieked in their grasp.

The shockwave had blown Hiei back -- he couldn't see his diminutive lover anymore but frankly the one thought pounding through his senses was survival. There was enough youki crackling through the air to make even his youko-self bristle. Youko, in fact, was surging up to battle the perceived threat and Kurama clung to the body as she - Seiki - convulsed. Grimly he hung on, onto both himself-Shuuichi, and to her. Her high scream blended into a wrenching dissonance with Ariodh's thin, high voice.


Masamune's spell writhed around them with wrenching force. Kurama fought to maintain his grip on the white-haired youkai's body, and to wrestle his youko self into submission, and knew he was losing. Even closed, his eyes still streamed tears from the blinding flare of the explosion.

Masamune's spell was fighting to throw Seiki out of the body, to allow Ariodh's natural tenancy to reassert itself, and the fire youkai was fighting them both. Youki was so thick that they could smell it, taste it. And Ariodh was screaming.

"Yuusuke! We have to do something!" Kurama shouted to his friend.

"Like what?" Yuusuke demanded, nearly losing his grip and grabbing the tiny waist in both arms.

"Oi, watch your hands!" Kurama shot reproachfully.

"Ahh! Aa!" Yuusuke yelped, almost losing it again as he shifted. As they were still floundering, blinded, the youkai in their arms grew suddenly still.

"Uh-oh..." Kurama uttered, sensing the rising ki-levels in the body they held pinioned. "Yuusuke, if we don't do something to distract Seiki, Ariodh will die!"

He couldn't see it. He could only sense it.

There was a bright-winged angel in his field of vision, a pale heart-shaped face wearing the serene little smile, and golden-amber eyes flashed up at him. Masamune seemed to look at him, Inari, she was looking through him, and lifted two small hands.

A wall of fire sprang up around them. He could hear Hiei cursing.

"I won't!" a feminine voice shrieked, distorted and full of rage. "I won't go!" The fire was closing in around the angel and Kurama knew that somehow he still wasn't actually seeing this; the blinding feel of white was still burning through his eyes.

Seiki's familiar fire blossomed, surging up and enclosing Masamune completely. Kurama nearly cried out, stunned, and then he saw the white-winged creature rock back slightly from the force of the blast, then roll it up in her two slender hands, golden eyes gleaming dangerously. Seiki was screaming again, then the body in their arms went completely limp. The shrill, enraged keen continued, but disembodied now.

Seiki had left the body. "Ash and gone!" her voice snarled.

A wave of heat shuddered over his skin and Kurama clenched his face, expecting to be burned to a crisp at any instant. "Masamune--!" Ariodh's voice rang out, anguished. Pleading. The floor heaved up under their feet, as the youki crawling across his nerves reached critical. "Look out!" Kurama yelled, pulling them all down to the mat. The room exploded again, a seething furnace-blast of youki and glittering fire and fragmented energy.

When the incandescence cleared, Kurama lifted his head, dazed. He was flat on the floor, draped over the tiny white-haired youkai that he and Yuusuke had somehow maintained a grip on. Ariodh's slender body was utterly motionless for a moment, then her head snapped up.

"Kurama?" she gasped, shoulders heaving. Wide, wild blue eyes glittered at him. Familiar eyes.

"Ariodh," he replied with considerable relief. She had reverted to her proper body.

His eyes traversed the room in an instant, automatically seeking the dark-cloaked figure of Hiei. Everyone had been knocked flat by the explosion, but he could hear Genkai-shihan's irritable grumblings and Kuwabara's whine-edged testy reply.

"Masamune!" Ariodh cried out, her wide eyes gathering with crystalline moisture.

"Huh?" Yuusuke roused at last, pushing up from where his face had been ground into the mat. "What the hell happened?"

Kurama's eyes followed Ariodh's. Where the bright-eyed angel had stood, meeting the fiery blast and gathering the burning energy to throw back in Seiki's face, there were smoking, charred floorboards, having burnt through the mats. The gleaming sword stood there instead, its point wedged into the singed wood. No trace remained of the blue-haired elfin twin of Ariodh.

The pale tiny youkai was weeping almost silently.

"Ariodh, what's wrong?" Kurama prompted, voice soft, petting one shaking shoulder.

Hiei had stood, a little frown seated on his face, fists thrust deep in his pockets. Genkai was just getting to her feet, helping Kuwabara to his. As Kurama drew the inexplicably-sobbing pale elf into his arms, Hiei approached the gleaming sword. It was the only thing left in the scorched circle. All traces of Masamune's flesh body, and Seiki, had disappeared.

"Ariodh?" Kurama prompted.

Her small frame stiffened in his arms, the top of her head almost slamming into the point of his chin.

Hiei had stretched out a curious hand to touch Masamune's hilt.

"NO!" Ariodh shrieked, tearing out of his arms and bolting over to the sword. Hiei paused, red eyes wide and surprised, as the tiny youkai blocked his path. "NO! Don't TOUCH it!" She held out her arms wide-stretched.

Hiei blinked and withdrew his hand. "K'e!" he sniffed, diffident, then flicked away in a dark displacement of air.

Kurama got to his feet. "Ariodh, what's wrong?" he repeated, now more than a little concerned.

The white-haired youkai gripped the sword in both hands, pulling it from the toasted floorboards with a small grunt. She hefted it in her hands, then turned to meet his bewildered gaze. Her small heart-shaped face was stricken, her wide blue eyes reft open with grief. Kurama flinched back from that look, even worse than the instant he'd first laid eyes on her.

"She's gone," Ariodh whispered, numb. Silken lids fell shut over her shattered blue eyes. She lifted the sword in her hands, then it splintered into seething white youki, shimmering around her small body until it seeped away, absorbed into Ariodh's own aura. "Masamune is dead. She killed Seiki. And now the only thing left is the soulsword - which only I can touch."

"I get it!" Yuusuke blinked, lifting up a finger. "That's why you wouldn't let the little shrimp touch it."

"It would have blasted him," Ariodh replied tersely. "She -- it. It's bound to me completely now. Only me. Because Masamune is gone." She sank to her knees, seemingly heedless of the charred boards.

"She sacrificed herself," Genkai observed, crossing the floor with a slight limp, coming to stand behind the mourning little youkai. "She wanted you to have a chance for a real life, Ariodh-chan. Take the chance she's given you, for all it's worth."

Ariodh nodded, slow tears tracking down her face. She hugged herself, as if to clasp the sword that had disappeared within her, or embrace the vanished Masamune.

Kurama knelt beside her, distressed. "You can stay with us," he assured the little youkai. He bit his lip and glanced around -- Yuusuke and Kuwabara didn't seem to have noticed his slip. "You can stay with me as long as you need to."

"Arigato," she replied in a thick whisper, then let him draw her into his arms again. "Thank you, Kurama."

Awkwardly he patted her back. "It'll be okay," he soothed, wondering at the same time how he could speak that assurance and provide it, after all that had happened and everything that was still heading inevitably their way. But Ariodh nestled against his shoulder and he didn't have the heart to say anything else.

* * *

Yukina flitted up the halls of the temple, outdistancing Shizuru with ease as they pounded towards the source of the explosions. Her pale flowerlike face was drawn with anxiety and distress. The thunderous concussions had come from deep within the building, from one of Genkai's main rooms.

"Genkai-shihan!" she called out, frantic. "Genkai-shihan! Kuwabara-kun! Oh, minna-san, please be all right!"

She skidded to a halt before a pair of heavy double doors. Timidly Yukina lifted her hand and knocked. When she received no immediate answer, she lifted up the heavy brass ring, dug her heels in, and pulled with all her might. The fright thrumming through her veins was enough impetus to cause the heavy door to yield by rusty degrees until Shizuru appeared by her side. Together they wrenched the door open.

"Kuwabara?" Her crimson eyes darted about the room swiftly. "Genkai-shihan? Hiei-san?" Her pale face blossomed with relief as she spotted almost everyone, disheveled but relatively intact, and her eyes settled on the lanky, tall figure of the orange-haired boy. "Yokatta! Yokatta ne!" Yukina chanted softly, rushing to his side. "Kuwabara, are you all right?" Her healer's eye assessed him quickly.

"Aaaa~h! Yukina-san!" Kuwabara blinked down at her, his face transforming from a somewhat grim expression to a boyish, endearing smile. She smiled involuntarily, herself. "My heart brightens at your presence. Now that you're here, how could life fail to be less than sublime?"

Yukina giggled at his puzzling words. "Kuwabara-kun, you're such an enigma."

Shizuru rolled her eyes.

"What happened?" the brown-haired older girl demanded in a direct fashion, looking around the wrecked room, dwelling on the smoking crater in the center and the tiny pale youkai crying in Kurama's arms.

"We forced Seiki out of Ariodh's body. The results were...explosive," Genkai replied wryly.

Yuusuke snickered and the diminutive master of the temple glared at him.

"What? Whaaat?" he replied innocently, holding up his hands. "Was it not an understatement?"

"Ne, where's Hiei-san?" Yukina asked anxiously, looking around the room.

"Whaddya want with that little shrimp?" Kuwabara glowered, his face getting red.

Shizuru rolled her eyes again.

Kurama looked up from where he was comforting the hiccoughing youkai. "He's fine, Yukina-san. He already left."

"Is anybody hurt?" Yukina peered around, worried. Genkai-shihan was looking a bit pained.

"Just got the wind knocked out of me," the old woman muttered as the ice maiden's eyes lingered on her.

Yuusuke flashed her a V-sign. "Yosh'! Masamune kicked that Seiki's ass!" he cheered, brown eyes gleaming.

Ariodh hiccuped miserably and Kurama glared at the dark-haired boy, who had the grace to look abashed.

"Gomen, Ariodh," he apologized, but traces of his grin still remained.

Yukina turned to Kuwabara. "Sit down," she ordered, and the orange-haired human blinked, surprised, then sat down with an 'oof.' Yukina automatically checked his dressing, then used her healer's sense to feel out the wound below. She smiled with relief. "You're okay."

Kuwabara bobbed his head, a wide grin breaking out over his craggy features. "Your touch alone is enough to keep me speeding along to recovery!" he proclaimed dramatically.

Shizuru snorted this time. "Baka." She extracted a cigarette from her back pocket, lit it coolly, and began to smoke, assured that the crisis-for-the-moment had passed.

"Is everyone just going to sit here forever?" a deep voice growled, pricking and familiar. "You'll make excellent targets for Hakamura when he strikes again."

"Hiei-san!" Yukina clapped her hands. The dark youkai stalked into the room with a soft tread, his crimson eyes barely flicking to her before they darted away at once. "If Hakamura had made a move in that instant..."

"He wouldn't," Ariodh's voice interrupted, hoarse but rock-steady certain. "Seiki was blood-bound to him. Her death should disrupt him for at least a moment, and will be disorienting for a short while." She pushed away from Kurama and stood.

"Ne, he doesn't have any assassins left, does he?" Yuusuke demanded, a grin starting up his face.

They were all quiet for a moment.

"No," Hiei spoke at last. "The shapeshifter was the last."

"Yatta! Oi, we should take the battle to him!" Yuusuke challenged, eager, slamming his fist into his palm.

"Aa," Kurama agreed. "Before anyone else can be hurt." His green eyes darkened.

Yukina cast a sympathetic look at the newly-arrived Ariodh, who was pale and holding back trembles but determined. She herself, as a healer, couldn't do anything; she felt helpless that people had been hurt, nearly killed, and her friends had to continue to fight. The only thing she could do was smile bravely and pray for them, and tend their wounds when they came home.

"It's time," Genkai's dry voice intoned, "to make solid plans, now." Her narrow eyes fixed pointedly on Yuusuke, who flushed.

"Eheheheheh..." he grinned uneasily, lifting an arm to rub at the back of his head.

"I, Kuwabara Kazuma, shall come up with a plan to end all plans!" Kuwabara announced with vigor, planting a foot and waving his uninjured arm grandly in the air.

"Hn," Hiei began, crimson eyes glinting, but Kurama had stepped close to him, and he was saying something too low for Yukina to catch, as far away as she was.

"Ch'," Yuusuke grinned, but his brown eyes were bright.

Yukina just looked at Kuwabara and clasped her hands, letting her face shine. "Ganbatte, Kuwabara-kun!"

* * *

"I say we go and kick his ass right now!"

Yuusuke slammed his hands down onto the table, making teacups rattle and Kurama pause in lifting his, surprised. Genkai merely lifted an eyebrow, unimpressed.

"Enough people have been hurt!" he declared, eyes sparking with his fury. "They've threatened everybody we care about! Ariodh nearly died! Kuwabara nearly died! Kurama nearly died! And me, too! So, we should-"

"And how," Genkai's precise, biting tones interrupted his rant, "are you going to go about that?"

He blinked and came to a halt, scratching his ear. "Eto..."

"You don't know where he is. You don't know if he has more servants, or assassins. You don't--"

"He doesn't," Ariodh interrupted. She lifted a wan face, cradling hot tea between her palms, but she had insisted on being present for the meeting despite Yukina's protests. "Hakamura had only the twins and Seiki, for as long as I could recall. And the four Bloodbound. I never knew who those were, before..."

"Che. We know now," Hiei replied darkly to that.

"Well, we took care of them!" Yuusuke replied, refusing to be less than triumphant. They deserved a break, now, after all that had happened! He gave those seated around the table a wide grin, determined to express his cheer.

Genkai's eyebrow winched a little higher.

Kuwabara's long mug was eyeing him dourly. He was still swathed in bandages.

Kurama took a sip of his tea.

Ariodh's gaze was firmly fixed on her thin, pale hands.

Hiei was giving him that familiar, maddening 'you-stupid-ningen' look.

"Ch'," Yuusuke sighed. "There's just no pleasing you people."

Yukina came in with a fresh pot of tea, and Kuwabara perked up. "Ahhh~h! Yukina-san, you're back! I'm so glad you came back! Here, let me carry that for you..."

Yuusuke sighed again and looked around. "Well, what are we going to do about Hakamura now, ne? Neee~e? We have to do something."

"If Seiki was able to overtake Ariodh's body," Kurama began slowly, placing his teacup down with precision, "then isn't it possible that Hakamura has found a new host, as well?"

"Oi, Kurama, wouldn't you know a lot about that?" Yuusuke recalled suddenly, holding up a finger.

He was abruptly faced with three murderous glares, one emerald-green, one bright crimson, and one brilliant sapphire.

"A-ano..! What did I say!?" He held up his hands defensively. Why, Hiei looked like he would draw his katana and slay him on the spot! Kurama's lips were pursed up in a pained little frown. "That was different," he replied softly.

"Would Hakamura be able to accomplish such a thing?" Genkai probed.

Ariodh looked hesitant, and more than a little fearful. "I...I did. Masamune let me share her body. But where..."

"What about Iryoku?" Kurama suggested. "She was the only one left alive besides Seiki. And her brother had just been murdered. Wouldn't Iryoku be willing to share the body, if Hakamura promised revenge?"

"It's what they both wanted," Ariodh said, voice dropping soft as she curled up into a tight compact ball. She shivered. "They want to kill you. And me."

"Don't worry," Yuusuke assured her decisively. "Once we find Hakamura, we'll take care of him for good! This time, my ki-levels won't be depleted!" He aimed his forefinger at an imaginary Hakamura and blasted him into tiny youkai atoms.

Hiei snorted.

"So how do we find Hakamura?" Kuwabara demanded, picking up his tea in one big paw and sipping at it slowly.

Yuusuke blinked at the tiny youkai, who was picking at a strand of milk-white tresses. Everyone else's gaze settled on her naturally.

"Nani?" Ariodh bristled, seeing everyone eyeing her. She wilted.

"Ariodh-chan, you know Hakamura best..." Kurama began, extending his hand in a pleading gesture.

She curled up into an even tighter ball and glared at them.


"If Ariodh doesn't want to put herself in further danger, then it's Ariodh's right," Hiei spoke up, his voice cool. He glared impartially around the table.

"Ch-ch-chotto! Wait just a minute!" Kuwabara protested. "If she's our only chance of finding him-"

"Then you're incompetent," Hiei sniffed.

Kuwabara turned solid red. "N-NANI!?" Steam curled from his ears. "Listen, you little bas-" He coughed, turned frigid blue, and subsided back to the mat as his eye caught a wide-eyed Yukina.

"I'll do it," Ariodh said, her voice almost inaudible.

Kurama was leaning toward her. "Hiei is right, Ariodh -- if you don't want to help us, you've already risked more than enough..."

"Do what?" Yuusuke demanded. "Do you know something?" Her small hands were clenched so tightly they were white from strain. "Hai."

Genkai shifted, picking up her teacup again. They remained seated in silence as she drank, and Ariodh's eyes remained riveted to her own drink, as if fascinated by the pattern of tea leaves gathering at the bottom of the cup. Yuusuke looked back and forth between them, growing increasingly edgy, but restrained himself from yelling out to prompt either of them. On the one hand, Genkai would flatten him for speaking out of turn. On the other, Kurama and Hiei would probably deck him one for pushing Ariodh. Those two youkai seemed strangely protective of her -- but then, she had nearly died for saving Hiei.

"Ariodh-chan?" the old woman prompted, her eyes hooded. The elfin youkai bit her lip and took a deep breath. "'s..." Her hands were shaking.

"Ariodh, mou ie," Kurama soothed. "That's enough. You've been through enough already. We can find him on our own." Her head snapped up, blue eyes glittering. "But you won't! Not before more people are hurt, probably!'s something I wanted to forget. Hakamura had a blood bond with his servants. But...he has a blood bond with me, too."

"No way," Yuusuke breathed, suddenly remembering how Ekoi had died, the sickening, inexplicable crack that had ended her life, screaming and convulsing and afraid. "You mean -- he could kill you, the way he killed Ekoi?"

Ariodh nodded curtly.

"Why hasn't he killed you already, then?" Hiei lifted a brow.

"Hiei," Kurama said sharply, and the fire demon glared back at him.

"No, it's all right," Ariodh interrupted him. "He...he wants to torture me. He wants to make me pay for defying him." She shuddered and hugged herself. "He thinks that if he calls long enough, and low enough, and insistently, that I'll come back. He wants to use me the way he always has, my entire life."

"We're not going to use you," Kurama glared around the table. "We'll just have to find some other way."

The white-haired youkai lifted her chin sharply. "It's not using me if I consent, Kurama. Too many lives are at stake. He's hurt too many people, for too long, and now he wants to reach beyond the grave and do it some more. Well I won't let him!" Her big blue eyes were welling up with tears, but her face was still etched with absolute determination. "I absolutely will not forgive him!"

Yuusuke slammed his fist into his palm, and winced. He'd been doing that a little too often lately; it was starting to hurt. "None of us will forgive him!" he declared hotly.

"With the sky as my witness, I, Kuwabara Kazuma, will see this Hakamura punished grievously for his crimes!" Kuwabara added heroically, waving one fist in the air and nearly clocking Yukina's teapot as she made another round to refill cups. "Eto...Yukina-san! G-gomen! Gomen nasai!"

Yuusuke snickered at him.

"Demo, Ariodh-chan, you haven't mentioned what you had in mind," the old master reminded the girl.

"It's like a reverse of the ceremony Hakamura performs," Ariodh said quietly. "I only know a little. Through the bond, he can find my location.'s probably how he found Kurama in the first place, and sent the shapeshifter. There's something I can do to enervate my blood, to find traces of his location in return. Like an echo."

"Oh, no you don't!" Yukina interrupted, her mild eyes sparking with crimson furor, the zeal of a determined healer. "There won't be any enervating today, Ariodh-chan!"

Yuusuke grinned at the little ice maiden. Everyone's jaws seemed to have dropped to the floor as Yukina spoke up, her normally quiet attitude melting away in the face of a patient overstepping their bounds.

"A-ano..." Ariodh faltered.

Yukina knelt by her, placing a slim snow-white hand on the youkai's arm. "Ariodh-chan, you were just brought back, effectively, from the dead today. A great strain was placed on your body, and your very self. You should rest before trying anything." She smiled sweetly at the astonished young woman. "Onegai shimasu?"

Ariodh blinked for a moment in astonishment, then nodded slowly, a tentative smile breaking over her features. "Hai, Yukina-san."

"Can we do it tomorrow?" Yuusuke inquired with brash disregard.

Both Yukina and Kurama were giving him very thin, narrow-eyed stares, with Hiei a close third.

"Eheh..." Yuusuke put on a weak smile.

"We should do it as soon as possible," Ariodh spoke up, placing her hands flat on the table. "Otherwise Hakamura may try something else."

"Yosh'! That's the spirit!" Yuusuke cheered with vigor.

"Come back tomorrow," Genkai said, turning her teacup in both hands. Her encompassing gaze drifted over them. "We can do it then, and Yukina can make sure that Ariodh isn't badly affected."

Kurama nodded. "Hai, Genkai-shihan." He turned to Ariodh, giving her a genuine smile. "Come on, Ariodh-chan, I'll find you some food..."

"FOOD!!" Ariodh bolted to her feet, her wide blue eyes at their maximum extent, shimmering and sparkling and aimed at him with trembling piteous intent. "Doko-doko-doko...!?"

Kurama chuckled. "At home."

In a puff of air she was gone. Everyone blinked in astonishment. Kurama clapped his head. "Shimatta! I'd better hurry before I find her gnawing the walls when I walk in the door..." He gave them a bow and a smile, and departed.

Yuusuke looked around the table. Hiei had already departed, as usual -- probably frustrated at the lack of action, and the fact that Kuwabara wasn't much fun to fight with while he was around his 'Yukina-san.'

"Yukina-san, may I help you with cleaning up?" Kuwabara asked eagerly.

"Oh, Kuwabara-kun, it isn't necessary..." Their voices trailed off as they left the room, Kuwabara having taken a heaping pile of teacups in one hand, giving her a bold-yet-stupid sort of grin.

Yuusuke stared after them moodily. Kuwabara's wits seemed to dribble out of a hole in his skull, whenever he was around Yukina. It was no fun at all.

Genkai smirked at him. "Well, boy, I can think of several things for you to do."

Yuusuke held up his hands. "Um, ah, no thanks -- I, uh...I'd better be getting back to Keiko and the restaurant!" he blurted, then felt like an idiot. What was he doing, volunteering to go back!? At the very least he should allow himself some time off for those explosions, Yuusuke reasoned to himself.

Genkai studied him with pale eyes. "You do that," she nodded.

He had the uneasy feeling that she was peering through his eyes and examining his thoughts. "Hai, Genkai..." With a heavy sigh he pushed himself to his feet, shuffling out.

K'so. It was such a gorgeous day...everyone else was gone, though, and if he weren't at the restaurant he would have to have a pretty good excuse to not be practicing...for some reason, Keiko-chan could always smell a lie.

Yuusuke made a face and buried his fists in his pockets, resigning himself to a day of pushing ramen.

* * *

Hiei flicked from branch to branch, troubled by the sight of forest-leaf green eyes. He came to a halt on the great height of a telephone pole, balancing to crouch with his katana on the slender wooden pole. He stared down at the city with unseeing eyes. In that moment the explosion had shuddered out from Masamune's body, he had bitten back the shout of Kurama's name, angry at himself at the same time. Kurama didn't deserve his weakness -- he should've stayed in the Makai.

His lip twitched as he remembered what Kurama had said, after Yukina and Shizuru had burst into the room. The fox had sidled casually close and with his gem-bright eyes boring into him, said, "We have to talk."

It made the hairs on his neck bristle.

This was why he had stayed alone all this time, this was why he had refused all potential lovers before, even brushing off Mukuro's advancements.

Hiei growled. "We have to talk." Kurama didn't have any right to scold him -- on that point, he was unwilling to tolerate any chatter. The youko didn't own him, and if he chose to disappear for months in the Makai, which he had done before, it was damned well his business. But...he'd as much promised to the fox that he wouldn't leave him, that night.

His mouth twisted into a snarl. "Damned fox." He flickered from the top of a telephone pole and ran along the top of a skyscraper, then flitted from there to jump lightly off the roof of a car speeding along some ningen fast route of transportation. Within moments he was in the district of town that Kurama had chosen his apartment in. Normally, such a statement would make him avoid the person who had made it, out of sheer pique. Make them wait and stew a little. "We have to talk." No one gave him orders, except those he accepted orders from...but this was Kurama. His fox.

His stomach twisted. Hiei landed on the tree outside Kurama's apartment, carefully shielding his youki from detection. At last he admitted the crux of his problem.

He was af--he was apprehensive that Kurama might have reconsidered taking him for a lover.

Hiei gave himself a little shake. "Baka. Been around humans too long."

If Kurama rejected him, what of it? He'd been rejected before. It wasn't as if he hadn't learned to take it, by now.

The window was open. Hiei cocked his head, then slipped inside.

He was presented with marble-smooth, naked shoulders, and red hair showering down around them. Kurama rummaged around in his closet, then selected a shirt. He tugged it on, then combed through the brilliant fire-silk locks again.

"You're preening," he accused.

"Hiei!" Kurama turned with a brilliant smile that took him aback. Wasn't...wasn't Kurama supposed to be angry with him? Hadn't Kurama's tone implied that he wanted, at the very least, to say a few things to him?

"Hn." He crossed his arms and glowered. "The shirt looks nice."

Kurama gave him a teasing, impish smile and twirled in a circle. His eyes were sparkling. "I missed you, Hiei. It's been a hectic time. It seems like forever..."

"Hn. It wasn't that long, fox. Your sense of time is warped."

"Because I'm in love," Kurama replied, advancing a step, his green eyes intent.

Hiei gave him a stony glare meant to keep back oversexed, predatory-looking youkos. Kurama was undeterred. He pounced on him and hugged him.

"Grrr..." Hiei pretended to be a limp, rag doll.

Kurama didn't care. He just kept hugging him.

"Are you mad at me?"

"Mad at you? No, why would I be mad at you?" Kurama replied, sounding genuinely surprised.

"You said 'we have to talk.' " Hiei put a foot and a half of personal space between them as soon as Kurama let go. He was NOT a teddy bear. If he wanted to glomp someone, he'd just have to go and glomp Ariodh.

Kurama's face lengthened in astonishment, then he chuckled softly. "Hiei no baka."

"Nani!?" Hiei bristled. He glared up at Kurama, who was now highly amused.

Kurama bent and kissed him on the lips. Hiei bit him.

"Oww!!" Kurama touched his lip with ginger fingers, then blinked ruefully. "I guess that's what I get for loving a fire demon, eh?"

Hiei sniffed.

"Did it ever occur to you that I did just want to talk, and wasn't mad -- and I'm not going to reject you, or rail at you like an abused lover, or try to trap you?"

Hiei blinked. Kurama had just ticked off every point on his list. If he had made a list, which -- he devoutly defended himself -- he hadn't.

Kurama was giving him a softened, gentle look. There was lust there, which made his blood tingle a little, and love -- which still scared him -- and a great deal of something else that he couldn't put his finger on. "Hiei, I can't keep you here with me -- I know you hate this world. You only came back..." Kurama gave him that impish grin "...because you were bored and Mukuro kicked you out. But I will always be here when you get back."

"And get bored again?" Hiei managed to return, still struggling to encompass the fact that Kurama had seen so acutely into what had been bothering him.

"Hai, hai," Kurama purred, green eyes going molten. "I can think of a few ways to occupy you."

Hiei displayed his fangs in a sudden grin. "I'll take you up on that offer, fox." He stepped forward and reached to tangle his fingers in the fire-silken hair, pulling Kurama's unearthly beautiful face into perfect kissing range. At first they just ate at each other, lip to lip, and then Kurama's mouth parted to draw him in, kissing more deeply between the swollen, reddened lips.

"I missed you, too," he admitted grudgingly, once Kurama had pulled back a little to give them breathing space. His fox's breath was sweet.

" you want some lunch, first?" Kurama tilted his head and gave him a small smile. "I haven't eaten, and neither has..."

"FOOD!? FOOD!" A sudden thunderstorm of rapping nearly broke down the door. "Food?" Ariodh's plaintive voice came to them. "Where is it, Kurama? Those waxy things on the glass table didn't taste so good..."

Kurama buried his face in his hands. "We'll be right out."

Hiei smirked at him. "That's what you get for leaving a hungry Ariodh by herself."

Kurama wrinkled his nose, then stole another kiss.

* * *

I'm gonna tell her. I'm gonna tell her. Kuwabara screwed up his face, hoping his courage would rise to the challenge. If I don't tell her, I'm not manly. He blinked a few times. Maybe he shouldn't make THAT the yardstick by which he measured himself.

Shizuru had left the temple, assured that he would recover in fairly short order, muttering something about God looking after fools and children. He had loftily ignored that comment and gone about helping Yukina-san with her errands.

"It's very nice of you to help me carry the gardening tools, Kuwabara-kun," Yukina-san beamed up at him. "You're hurt and you should be resting..."

He threw his chest out and straightened his back. "I feel fine!" he declared. "Your sweet presence could put vigor in a man on his deathbed..."

Yukina-san giggled, lifting up a sleeve of her kimono. "Oh,'re so silly!"

They walked through the beds of blooming flowers and around a stand of trees. I have to tell her. I have to tell her... He screwed up his face again, trying to think of how to formulate the words without blurting them out like the idiot everyone always accused him of being.

"Ano...Yukina-san..." he began, wincing reflexively as they trod across a little-used path.

"Eh?" she smiled up at him.

"Ano...I..I wanted to tell you something, that is, I wanted to say..."


Kuwabara reeled, chewing a mouthful of leaves. "Flying shrubbery," he mumbled, spitting out the greenery. Was all of NATURE against him confessing his true feelings? Yukina-san was already many steps ahead of him now...he hurried to catch up with her.

"Yes, Kuwabara-kun?" She turned, her lily face inquisitive. Hearts throbbed in his eyes. Aiie, she was so beautiful! Such dainty perfection -- how could she ever bring herself to tie himself to a big brute like himself? It was selfish to ask.

"Iie, nan demo..." he muttered, clutching the gardening tools like a lifeline. He gave her a wide fake smile that metamorphosed into a real one as her sweet face brightened. "Where are we going?"

"To prune some of the back gardens," the Koorime replied, turning to trod up the path once more.

No! A missed chance! Oh, how could he shoot himself in the foot this way!? He had to tell Yukina-san his feelings. He had to tell her, before he lost his nerve forever, and remained unmarried and alone and miserable for the rest of his natural life... Oh, well, surely that was an exaggeration because the handsome debonair Kuwabara Kazuma could not stay a bachelor for very long, but Yukina-san was the true object of his affections and he HAD to let her know his feelings!

"Yoshi!" he exclaimed, hurrying to catch up with her once more. "Yukina-san, matte, I must tell you..."


A branch snagged underneath his feet, tumbling him head-over-heels into a dirty pond. The gardening tools went every which way. Kuwabara went face first into the muddied water. He pushed himself up, wet slime dripping from his craggy eyebrows, and groaned. Yukina-san had turned to observe the mess he had made of himself, one hand lifted to her delicate mouth in dismay.

"Oh, Kuwabara-kun, are you all right?"

"Shimatta!" he wailed. "I'm the greatest idiot that ever lived! Now you'll NEVER marry me!"

Yukina's crimson eyes widened. Her mouth fell open in surprise.

Kuwabara moaned and with great consideration, placed his face back into the muddy water. If he was lucky, maybe he would drown.

* * *

Ariodh tucked her legs up underneath her on the couch and snacked happily away, a morsel of sushi in each fist. "Awigato Kuwama," she said indistinctly around a bite, then gave him a wide seaweed-tinged grin. "Ith good." Much better than the strange-looking, awful-tasting, very hard fruit that had been on the living room table.

The youko gave her a soft, amused smile in return. "I'm glad you like it. 'Kaasan taught me how to make them."

Hiei was examining a piece of eel sushi, a dubious expression scrawled over his face.

"Ith good, Hiei," Ariodh assured him happily, trundling up to the kitchen counter and swiping another plateful almost absently.

Kurama sighed and turned back to the counter to make more rolls.

Hiei cautiously sniffed the piece of sushi, examined it from all sides, then with a suspicious, set little expression he licked it. Finally, grumbling he tossed the sushi to Ariodh.

She caught it gleefully and munched on it at once, happy with herself, Kurama's food, and the world.

Hiei got out his katana and started sharpening it.

"I hope you don't intend to take that thing out into the neighborhood and go hunting," Kurama said with a raised eyebrow. "If you don't like sushi I can make you something else."

"Hn," Hiei replied. "I'm not hungry."

"More for me!" Ariodh crowed gleefully, polishing the last piece of tuna sushi off her plate. "I hadn't eaten since before I was killed..."

Kurama and Hiei grimaced.

The phone rang and the red-headed youko picked it up. "Moshi-moshi?"

Ariodh turned her attention back to the food. Kurama was really quite a very good cook. He'd make Hiei a fine partner. Now, if only she could somehow con him into cooking for her as long as possible...Ariodh grinned diabolically around a mouthful of sushi. Kurama HAD said she could stay with him as long as she needed to. Then she dissolved into smiles. Hiei and Kurama were so wonderful. She was so lucky they were letting her stay.

And the FOOD...!

"Tea...?" Kurama's voice came to her ears, sounding doubtful. " 'Kaasan, I'm not so sure... Well, I'll ask. Okay. I love you, too. Goodbye."

"Your mother?"

Ariodh munched more sushi. Hiei actually sounded disgruntled. And his aura matched his tone.

"Aa, 'Kaasan invited me to afternoon tea, and asked about you and Ariodh." Kurama sounded, and felt, somewhat long-suffering. Ariodh cocked her head, still chewing. She sensed that Kurama's "kaasan," -- oh yes, the very nice black-haired lady with the soothing aura -- her efforts to pair her son up with a proper mate were starting to take their toll on Kurama. But Kurama didn't want to disappoint her.

Ariodh wondered what ningen considered a "proper mate," but decided that Minamino Shiori's ideal standards probably didn't match up with a diminutive, laconic, violence-prone Makai fire demon. She blinked innocently at Hiei and Kurama, and popped another piece of the delicious morsels into her mouth. That was too bad, because she thought they made a nice couple. And by Makai standards, they certainly were.

Hiei was looking about as panicked and cornered as it was for a normally-expressionless demon to look. She could feel that he was starting to resign himself to being dragged along, if only to please his fox. There was a strange little undercurrent of guilt to that, as if he'd done something wrong recently.

"Kurama -- ! You'd have to bribe me to get there!" Hiei protested, sounding and looking very determined.

Ariodh looked up innocently. "Well, if it's afternoon tea, you'd better take him to the bedroom right now and get started, ne?"

Kurama made a strangled noise. "N-nani!?" he let slip.

Hiei's jaw was unhinged slightly. He blinked large crimson eyes at her, then they narrowed. "Who told you?"

Ariodh took a sip from the cup of sake Kurama had given her -- it made her feel nice and warm, and a bit fuzzy -- and gave them a wide, merry grin. "I have my sources." She gave them a prim nod. Then bobbed a bit unsteadily. The warm fuzzy feeling made it hard to control sensing auras.

Kurama looked guilty. Then he turned a smoldering look on Hiei. "Well?"

Hiei's eyes were still narrow. He angled them at Kurama. "Don't even think about it, fox."

Kurama and Ariodh pouted.

Hiei gave her a very pointed look. "I do not like an audience," he stated positively, then got up and stalked off, back straight, katana in his hands.

Ariodh blushed.

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