The weight of ancient tomes pressed together lent a presence to the air, apart from the musty scent arising to tickle the nose, or the dust-motes glittering in the slanted lines of light that seeped in through drawn shades. Rolled parchments and weathered stone tablets peeked around the corner from immense leather-bound volumes, which in turn gave way to hardbound books with glossy pages.
Botan wrinkled her nose and sneezed for the umpteenth time.
"It's so dusty in here," she complained, reaching for another volume and blowing wayward bits of hair out of her face. She made a moue of discontent. "Why am I here, anyway!? I'm a ferrygirl, not a data collector or librarian!"
George looked up from his perusal of a giant tome as long as Botan's torso. "Koenma-sama should computerize everything," he observed. "Then it wouldn't be too dusty. And it would save a lot of time." A fretful expression sat on his face. Time was always an issue for George.
"Too expensive," Botan wrinkled her nose, flipping the new book open and scanning the pages.
"Ekoi was her name?" George paused, running one thick red finger down the length of the page.
"Mm," Botan responded absently, "and anything on an S-class named Hakamura."
"Sou ka," George scratched at his head with one scaly fingernail. "Did Hakamura breach the kekkai?"
"An S-class?" Botan scoffed. "Not possible. Well, it's not very probable."
They lapsed into silence again, sitting side by side companionably at the long wooden table. Books were scattered everywhere, testimony to their efforts thus far.
"Seems like we've been here forever!" Botan burst out after a length of research. She dropped the book to the table with a thump and scowled in the general direction of Koenma's offices, shaking her fist.
"He doesn't pay attention to who he's giving orders to, sometimes," George noted sagely, in response to her earlier grumpy comment. "He just needs something done, and tells the most competent person nearby who he can trust to get the job done." Botan beamed at him. "That's a flattering way to put it, George. Thank you."
"It's nothing," the oni replied, scratching at his head and retreating back to his book in embarrassment. They both turned back to the records with renewed intensity.
"Yuusuke and the others will need this," Botan gave herself a firm nod. She traced down the page with a finger as she read. "Someone as dangerous as Hakamura has gone at large for far too long."
They lapsed back into silence, pursuing the written words scrawled or typed or inked into the volumes. Maybe part of the immense presence of the room stemmed from the sense that these thousands upon thousands of books and parchment and scrolls and even tablets carried with them the weight of centuries rolling down onto the present day.
"Kuso, without any proper knowledge of his age we can't cross-reference quickly..." George burst out, dropping the huge book to the table with a tremendous thud of unwieldy hide and parchment.
Botan sneezed again, wrinkled her nose, and looked miserable. "This could take forever. Hakamura could be as old as some of the artifacts in the Treasure House."
"Hai, and some of those artifacts are quite old," Botan agreed, lifting one finger as she spoke. "Why, the Orb he stole, for instance..." The indigo-haired ferrygirl trailed off, her rose eyes rounding to the size of small saucers.
"Botan-chan?" George prompted with a frown.
"That might be it!" Botan said excitedly. She leapt up and tore through row after row of shelves until she skidded to a halt and wrenched an old, tall red volume from where it was wedged in with the other records. Botan flipped through it quickly and her eyes lit up. "What was I just saying? That an S-class breaking the barrier was improbable...?"
George turned a very perplexed expression on her.
"Yatta!" she turned and grinned at George, clasping the volume in her arms. "I think this is what Koenma-sama was after... it's not Hakamura, it's the Orb!"
"Unh?" George queried, dumbfounded.
"Later," Botan assured him. "You keep searching for references on Ekoi, and Hakamura. Better add Iryoku to your search list, too!"
She dimpled and George smiled back at her unwillingly, still puzzled. Then she hugged the big red book to her chest and dashed out of the record room.
George blinked. "Ano...Botan-chan?" he repeated forlornly. He scratched his head, then turned with a sigh to reshelve the volume he had been reading, and pick over the selection for another.
Whatever she'd been so excited about, he sorely hoped it would do some good.
The impromptu lunch had been a success - if one considered it from Ariodh's point of few. Kurama looked on with resignation as the tiny youkai licked her plate clean, small pink tongue swiping out to catch every last morsel, kittenish.
He began to gather up plates to take back to the kitchen and noticed Hiei lounging against the living room side of the counter, arms folded. The fire demon hadn't eaten anything, expressing a silent distaste for the pieces of fish pressed onto wads of rice.
Kurama reached to ruffle a few jagged strands of the white starburst playing negative to Hiei's jet-dark hair. The fire demon jerked back, his crimson eyes kindling with venom. The half-youko merely laughed, unfazed by his seeming menace, and leaned to press a kiss to one high cheekbone. His lips met air.
Ariodh watched with wide sake-muddled eyes. "I'm hungry," the insatiable castaway youkai announced with a pitiful little moue.
Kurama threw her a shocked glance. "We just ate." The living room table was littered with the testimony of her efforts.
Ariodh sniffled convincingly. "That was sushi. Sushi doesn't count," she proclaimed righteously.
"You ate five plates' worth," Hiei pointed out with acid-etched precision.
"Sou desu?" Ariodh blinked.
"I am NOT going to tea with your human mother," Hiei declared, shifting gears with an unequivocal air, glaring sidewise at the red-haired fox.
"But-" Kurama began to protest.
"NO!" Hiei snipped, flitting across the room and settling on the windowsill.
Kurama looked injured.
"I'll go with you," Ariodh declared, climbing into his lap and blinking her wide, guileless sapphire eyes at him. She began to comb through his long red tresses with curious fingers.
Kurama regarded her suspiciously. This was the most defenseless Ariodh he'd yet seen. "How much sake have you had?"
White head listing to the side, Ariodh began to count off on her fingers and stopped unsteadily at six.
"Six cups!?" Kurama exclaimed. "You..."
"Six of the big, funny-shaped cups," Ariodh added, happy. With her two small hands she described an hourglass shape.
Kurama suppressed a groan. Six *bottles!?*
With a snort of incredulity Hiei jumped off the sill and stood beside the couch, eyeing the giggling youkai in his fox's lap with an assessing eye.
"She seems to like you," was all he had to say, before he seated himself on the couch's arm and tangled possessive fingers around a lock of crimson hair.
"Oh, can we keep her?" Kurama deadpanned, blinking large flawless emeralds in Hiei's direction.
"Hn." Hiei folded his arms, mouth pursed. "She'll eat you out of house and home," he warned.
"No, I won't!" Ariodh contested hotly. She glared fiercely at Hiei, then her eyes crossed. She hiccuped.
"Well, I can hardly take her to my mother's in this condition," Kurama noted, tone dry. "She would accuse me of taking advantage of the poor girl's honor."
"And I would have to stand up for her honor," Hiei replied, solemn. "Her being my cousin and all that."
"Was she your cousin?" Kurama blinked. He had forgotten the swift explanation Yuusuke had offered up. Then he met Hiei's eyes, expression growing sly. "And what would you do to protect her honor, Hiei? Would you challenge me to a duel?"
"With swords," Hiei agreed, raising one dark brow. He smirked.
"Well, you'd probably win," Kurama tipped his head to the side, a slight smile overtaking his luminous face. "After all, you're faster. And the sword is your weapon. And what would you do once you beat me?"
Hiei considered it. He eyed Ariodh, who had made herself even smaller, half Hiei's size, and curled up in Kurama's lap, buzzing like a kitten. Fast asleep.
"I'd ravish you hopelessly, fox."
Kurama's smile broadened. "Do tell."
Hiei's weight disappeared from the arm of the couch, and for a moment the red-haired kitsune was disappointed. He cast about the living room. The table was littered with empty plates, messy with wasabi and soy sauce, and drained sake bottles and cups. Apparently Ariodh, liking the sake, had delved into the supply he kept stashed in the pantry for parties. He grimaced. Ariodh wasn't much for table manners. He carefully eased the sleeping youkai off of his lap, then covered her with the blanket that hung over the back of the couch.
When he stood, Hiei was leaning against the door frame of the bedroom, crimson eyes fixed on a corner of the room. His hands were buried in his pockets.
Kurama couldn't help but smile, to look at him. Hiei was all his, now. He could act however he liked around the others but here, alone, all the seeming nonchalance in the world on his fire demon's part couldn't fool him.
When Hiei looked up the burning soul in those crimson eyes made him catch his breath. It was all he had ever asked for, and more.
"Are we going to bed early, Hiei?" he teased.
Hiei tipped his head and looked thoughtful. "What is it you humans call it?" A slow, wicked smile tipped his lips, revealing a hint of fang. Kurama wanted very much to feel them grazing his skin, ever so slightly. "Working off what you ate."
He laughed and shut the door behind them, feeling Hiei take his hand, marveling at that one simple fact -- being loved by him, at last -- and closed his thoughts for now against the future. Here and now, they had each other in this moment before the storm.
Yukina's flower-like face was inquisitive, her crimson eyes fixed on him intently. Kuwabara found himself tongue-tied, unable to move his rubbery lips, barely able to feel his numb face. Had he really just blurted out his deep-most desires to the peerless object of his affections? Had he said it out loud?
"Kazuma-san? Are you feeling all right?" she inquired, solicitous. Her delicate white hands gripped him, and cool cloth wiped his dripping face clean.
With chagrin he realized it was the hem of her kimono. "WAAHH! Yukina-san, please do not defile your clothing so! My unworthy face has taken much greater beatings than a puddle like this." Kuwabara slouched into the soggy ground beside the small pool.
"I think your face is perfectly worthy, Kazuma-san," Yukina said, looking down at her toes as a slight blush crossed her fair skin. "You shouldn't say such things about yourself."
"I...I..." Kuwabara stammered. His heart was collapsing in on itself. She hadn't said a word about his blurted proposal. Maybe he hadn't said it aloud, after all. Which was just as well, because he was a clumsy fool and shouldn't be asking for the things that were forever out of reach.
Cool, tiny hands took a hold of his face on either side, and before he knew it a soft kiss, the brush of a snowflake, had pressed against his lips. He could feel his face turning crimson.
"You're too hard on yourself, Kazuma-san," Yukina said, crimson eyes earnest. Her hands were still lightly touching his face, and he could feel his skin turning purple. "I...I might marry someone like you, strong and brave..." She cast her eyes shyly down.
He was turning blue. Perhaps he should breathe.
"If I were asked properly," Yukina finished, taking her hands from his face and twisting them together.
Kuwabara inhaled a great tearing gasp of air, and color returned to his face. He breathed in fits and pants, nearly hyperventilating, then controlled himself with an effort of will. A lady was waiting for him to say something. He had to recover his scattered wits and make this his most eloquent speech yet.
Your eyes are like incomparable rare gems, and your beauty is like none other that I have ever seen -- your rare sweet face is a sight that can restore vigor to any man, and....and...
"WAAA~AI! Yukina-san!" Kuwabara blurted, nearly falling flat on his face. He was already on his knees. He took possession of one slim white hand, then screwed his face up in a grimace. Well, he'd botched that part; time to make it good.
No honor in this world would be more sufficient, would bring me greater joy, than to have such a priceless treasure consent to be mine forever, to...
"Will you have me?" the words popped out of his mouth, plaintive. Kuwabara grimaced in despair. Why would nothing obey his tongue properly today? "I...I don't have much to offer you. I'm a poor college student and we would only be able to get engaged until I have a job to support you but I swear, I would devote my entire life to be worthy..."
"Kazuma-san," Yukina interrupted, placing her other hand atop his. He looked up, into her softly-smiling, radiant face. Her smile sparkled. "I'll marry you."
He blinked, shocked beyond words. "Yuh--you will!?" He leaped up, ecstatic. "This is terrific! This is wonderful! This is the happiest day of my life!" He pulled the giggling ice maiden into a joyful dance, and she let him whirl her around a few times.
He set her down and knelt before her again, his long face solemn. "Yukina -- I don't have a ring yet..."
"That's all right," Yukina returned, her voice soft and sweet. "We have plenty of time."
His face dissolved into a foolish expression of fatuous, doting adoration. He knew he probably looked silly but he couldn't muster up the energy to care and besides, Yuusuke was nowhere around to make fun. "I don't have much to offer," he repeated, voice hoarse. It dropped low and quiet as he finally ground out the next few words. "But I love you with all my heart."
He couldn't look up. He couldn't bring himself to do it. Then he felt the cool touch of her fingers on his cheek again, and finally by degrees wrenched his eyes upwards. Her own deep burgundy eyes met his, full of the same sweetness he had always seen there...but never before had he noticed the affection. He trembled. The love?
"Kazuma-san," and her eyes were serious and intent, the most beautiful look she had ever given him, "I love you, too."
The afternoon following that heady rush passed in a swift blur for one Kuwabara Kazuma. He only remembered Yukina's darling face, and what she had said, and at one point his own interjection... "I think we should have a June wedding."
Her laugher sparkled amongst the rose beds.
"Do you love me?"
The question popped unexpectedly from Yuusuke's lips, seated behind the bar with his chin propped in his hands. He was in the process of ignoring a large bowl of ramen she had placed in front of him.
Keiko turned from a bubbling pot of water, surprise angling her brows. "Huh? You feeling all right?" It wasn't like him to ask so abruptly. Well...maybe it was. But not like this.
Yuusuke flashed her his trademark daredevil grin. "Awww, I'm feeling just fine, Keiko. Forget I said anything, 'kay?" He turned his attention to the food and pushed it around some with his chopsticks.
Keiko put her hands on her hips. "Urameshi Yuusuke, you should know by now you can't dodge me so easily. Is there something you're not telling me about this latest assignment you're on?"
Yuusuke fitted his fingertips together very carefully and gave her a completely blank look, one she recognized all too well. He was trying to look innocent and failing miserably. 'Hey, can't a guy ask his best girl if she likes him or not?"
Keiko's breath caught. "You asked if I *loved you," she corrected. A few steps placed her at the counter, right in front of him.
"Yeah, well..." Yuusuke squirmed on his stool. He met her eyes and gave her a bright fool's grin. "You know, I must've asked you about twenty times to marry me!"
"Nine," she corrected with a small smile. She remembered every single instance. Whatever had been going on lately, it might be bad enough to bother him, and hence the sudden questions. He had already died twice, when most people didn't survive even the first death. Luck couldn't hold out forever, not for anyone, and he'd been playing fast and loose with fortune for far too long now.
But she couldn't ask him to stop doing what made him feel alive.
Keiko narrowed her eyes. "Did you have another close call?" she demanded.
"Eheheheheheh..." Yuusuke held up his hands and scrunched his face up. "ME? Are you kidding? Urameshi Yuusuke? Reikai Tantei extraordinaire? Super deluxe-"
"Oh, save it," Keiko scolded him with affection. "You can't impress me with that hot air, baka."
He grinned at her for a moment more then sobered abruptly, his face adorable in its intent. Of course, she couldn't ever tell him that. He was conceited enough as things stood. Yuusuke caught at one of her hands and she regarded him in surprise.
"I love you, you know," he said seriously. Then he flashed that grin again, the one he expected to get himself out of all kinds of trouble - or into it. "And you said 'yes' last time I asked, so..."
He let go of her hand and vaulted off the barstool, moving towards the door with his ramen barely touched, as she stared at him.
"So we'll get married soon! Remember, you said yes. Ja ne!" He ducked out the door, still grinning and probably fully aware of the flutter that had just seized her mind, whirling her thoughts around in chaotic bits, equal parts affection and exasperation.
"Yuusuke!" she repeated, stamping her foot. "Ooh! You can be so irritating sometimes!" But she was smiling. "I do love you, baka." Yes, they'd get married soon. It hadn't been so very long since the last time he had asked, and they were both pushing ramen for a living... But suddenly, Keiko found herself looking forward very much to becoming Urameshi Keiko.
"Kooo~enma!" Botan burst into the office, book clutched tightly against her. "Koenma-sama! I found something!"
Koenma blinked and hastily pressed something on his remote control, fumbling with it and hiding it in a desk drawer. "Ah~h, Botan. It's about time!"
Botan stifled the first response that rose to her lips and placed the book on the only uncluttered space left on his desk. "We were so busy focusing on the assassins sent after Yuusuke and the others that we forgot completely to ask ourselves how Hakamura could still be alive!"
Koenma's eyebrows raised up to the band of his hat. "Sou desu yo..."
Botan beamed at him and flipped through the pages of the tremendous tome with an excited air. "See...see! The Orb has certain powers that we completely overlooked, because we thought since it had been destroyed, it was of no further concern!"
Chewing on his lip, Koenma's expression grew distinctly unhappy. "That was the one reason my father lightened my punishment..."
Botan sweatdropped and rushed on. "Well, as you can see, if the Orb is shattered to pieces, as it was, if it has a tremendous infusion of reiki or youki at that time, it has certain properties which could - under certain circumstances - just possibly enable a soul to transfer into another body."
Koenma pursed his lips. "Go on."
"I didn't exactly understand the mechanics - I just skimmed it. But it had something to do with side-effects of the Orb's true purpose, which is to channel reiki. The unused energy has to go someplace, and if a soul is properly alert to the possibility, and has a willing body, it can ride the energy and leap from its dying body to a new one." Botan tilted her head and managed to look alert and confused all at once.
"And...?" Koenma prompted.
"Well, apparently from Kurama's report, Iryoku was close to the body at the time of Hakamura's death. But this kind of transference isn't very probable..."
"And Iryoku's power involved probability!" Koenma snapped his fingers. "Botan, good work!"
Botan straightened and looked very pleased.
Koenma's expression, however, blackened even further. "Do you know what this means!?" he demanded. "Iryoku was a B-class!"
"So she could cross the kekkai," Botan concluded, turning glum.
"Probably already has," Koenma grimaced. "Botan, go tell Yuusuke and the others at once, if you please. I think we have some sort of ki-detector to be used in emergencies, and you could possibly use it to find Iryoku..."
"Hai, Koenma-sama!" Botan snapped upright.
"Oh, and Botan - " This said as the blue-haired ferrygirl was halfway out the door.
"Give my congratulations to Kuwabara and Yukina."
From the rooftops she had a good survey of half of the entirety of this human city - crowded, choked with the plague of people, infested with smoke and disgusting smells. Iryoku tightened the cloak around her and stared down at the pestilence with narrowed eyes. Many youkai had sought to control the human world. It was a waste of time.
Humanity wasn't worth the time it took to carefully set up a play for power. But power in the Makai - ah, that was worth something! Something deep inside of her whispered that it was best to stick to what she knew. At this moment, it was vengeance. The arrogant black-haired Reikai Tantei would pay for what he'd done to her brother. Kizuna's death could be placed squarely on his head, and she would exact revenge most pleasing, striking in a similar fashion - all he held most dear.
The girl Keiko seemed to be particularly beloved in his esteem. Ekoi had discovered certain essentials about his life that would make it easy to construct a fitting revenge, before she killed him herself. Ekoi had been useful to a point before her death had been necessary. Iryoku sighed in a regretful manner, but it was only a surface mannerism - she couldn't feel anything deeply anymore; had not felt anything deeply since Kizuna's death. Her other half. Ever since that moment, it felt like a part of her psyche had been...subsumed...by something.
A part of her had been smothered by the encroachment of darkness. A black hate, she told herself, a fluttering panic welling up. It was only hate; it wasn't anything more substantial that was swallowing her up.
Iryoku glared down at the dirty human city.
Ariodh was the other part of her revenge. Ariodh, for her utter betrayal. From that one, she would exact her price in fear.
The four Bloodbound were dead or captured, delivered to Reikai Justice, and that hindered her severely. She would have to dispatch them one at a time, herself, and strike within the realm of her specialty. A wicked smile curled the lips of the blonde youkai. Those beloved of each of her targets would provide a ready lure for the final blow.
What was the probability of Ariodh walking into her own death trap? Iryoku snickered and leapt off the building, cloak billowing, racing towards the white-haired youkai, the reasons for such ready sensation of the girl rapidly slipping past her crumbling conscious mind.
Her mind was befuddled, wrapped in a thick cloud of warm muzziness that made her feel light. But she was sinking. Ariodh whimpered in the silences of her own mind and dropped like a stone inside, tattered fragments of memory playing as a fixed reel does, projected on the insides of her eyelids.
Hakamura's cold blue eyes glared down at her, as he snapped the whip taut between his hands.
Ariodh scrambled into the smallest niche of the castle, a grimy hiding place in the castle sewers and hugged her knees tight, making herself as small as possible.
Her hands clenched into fists as she curled her body desperately around the sword, the white blade that had become a part of her very substance. "ARIODH!" Hakamura's deep voice bellowed through the dark castle, tearing at the edges of her mind. He would find her.
"Masamune," she gasped out, and the sword stirred inside of her. The sword would keep her safe. The sword was...
The darkness plucked at her with its inky talons, all-encompassing. She had been running in the bowels of the castle again, hiding from his youki that sucked and clung and stole away her life. His hands that grasped and pinched and hurt; eyes that burned; whip that cut and bled her dry as it crawled across her skin.
Hide, hide from him, can't fight, not strong enough...
Not strong enough but you will be, the warm golden voice told her, bracing her as she stumbled.
She tripped over a harsh outcropping and fell to her knees and he was right behind her. Screams and shrieks and screams resounded from the walls and echoed through the castle and no one could hear but the man who had never been father.
"You stole everything!" Ariodh screamed at him, and his long nails scratched as he slapped her sharply. "My mother - my life-breath - my everything!"
The cruel shuttered look in his eyes promised the whip, and pain.
"Masamune," His deep voice growled out, and Ariodh cringed into the deepest corner of the room, her small thin body sheltered by the bureau. "You haven't fulfilled our bargain."
"You can't have her," the woman's voice was cool and poised. "I don't care if you don't have enough energy for whatever plans you've hatched. You're not taking my youki anymore, and I refuse to let you have Ariodh."
"My payment is due!" His voice made the corners of the room tremble. Every time He came, Mother's soft hands urged her to make herself small and find a secure corner.
"You're not taking it out of my daughter!" Mother shot back, unfazed by His demands.
"Watch me," His voice purred, and Ariodh's stomach clenched at the silky menace in his tones.
"Let go of me!"
"You can't keep me from using my daughter however I see fit!" Scuffling noises; small gasps of pain and Ariodh peeked around the bureau and nearly cried out despite Mother's cautious words. He was hurting Mother! He had her by the throat and he was choking her!
"STOP IT!" Ariodh shrieked, clutching the hard scrolls of wood that bordered the bureau, and saw Mother's eyes widen. Her hands pushed at His shoulders. He shot a look at Ariodh and released Mother all at once, and she was falling - falling...
Ariodh screamed and the sound would not stop.
Mother was falling onto the point of the sword that responded to His upraised hand.
Ariodh's thin screams shuddered through the air and trailed off.
Mother was breathing harshly, hands clutched around the sharp metal, wet with color, with holly-bright red, and her stunned golden eyes fixed on Him. They were filled with hate, such a blistering black emotion that Ariodh hid her face again.
"Mother," she whimpered.
Death can't stop me, her voice promised. I will still protect her.
His sneer curled on his lips, twisting a face that might have been handsome. "You can do *nothing.*"
Ariodh ran through the halls, tripped, and stumbled again. It had been unmeasured time since He had brought her here, a dark-robed tormentor. His glittering eyes could steal life, and she was never safe.
He was not far behind. Ariodh scrambled around a corner and froze in shock.
It was the white sword. The one he had used to kill Mother.
Ariodh... The whisper wrapped around her, warmth and the memory of soft hands, not the seductive hard steel of Hakamura's mind-sendings.
Hesitant, the white-haired youkai crawled across the floor. Mn...?
Hakamura grated to a halt in the doorway, black robes swirling around his tall thin body. "ARIODH!" he roared, and his cold blue eyes widened. His next words were snarled. "Don't touch that."
Her own blue eyes narrowed as she huddled behind the sword, gleaming metal taller than her own body. A wisp of memory floated past and she seized it.
One day, little kitling, you'll wield a soulsword like this one, forged by my own hands...
"Mother," she whispered, and saw something...a foreign emotion stamped on his aquiline features, recognized only because it swam through her guts every miserable day - was it fear on his face? I will still protect her.
Ariodh wrapped both trembling hands around the hilt of the sword. Hakamura was roaring at her.
Ariodh jerked awake, tangled white hair falling about her face in a sweat-strangled curtain. She shook. Some of the flashes - some of those memories had been deep, so buried inside of her that she had not remembered them for more than a century. She wrapped her arms around herself and trembled on the wide couch for several minutes before she looked around at last, burning blue eyes peering up through framing strands of milk-white hair.
Not the Makai.
Not... She shivered. Not back in the deep levels of Hakamura's castle, running and afraid.
Why? A shiver worked its way through her skin. She looked around the apartment. The door to Hiei and Kurama's room was closed, and their auras... Ariodh blushed. She had to get out of here; she was intruding upon their privacy.
Ariodh opened the window and darted up to the roof, reveling in the feel of the cool breeze, clean-scented air brushing through her hair and across her body. A small part of freedom, all of it so lovely. But as long as Hakamura was alive, she wasn't truly free. He wouldn't let her.
A frown tugged at her mouth. Mother. She hadn't thought...
Touching the feel of the soulsword inside of her, a small comfort reached out to soothe her. In the end, Masamune had protected her at all costs. But she had died. Mother had died. Everyone she loved would be destroyed, as long as Hakamura continued to pursue her. It was a very simple matter in Ariodh's purview of understanding. She had already made her choice, of sorts, when she decided that Hiei had to be saved from Seiki, no matter what. And Kurama had shown her a kindness that brought awake a part of her that had lain dormant for centuries.
The clear afternoon sun washed over the rooftops, gilding all the metal in sight. As she stood, she could feel the soulsword stirring inside of her. It was her strength and had always been but Masamune was gone.
Could she do it?
With a mere thought she was running along the tops of the buildings, darting swiftly away from Kurama's apartment. She had promised to find Hakamura, through their blood link. She would do that now.
But the only way to prevent more death and pain was to face him herself.
Now, for the first time in centuries, truly alone.
Could she kill him?
There were no certainties. Well, she corrected, an expression of unaccustomed grimness overtaking her set features, the only true certainty was death.
His, or hers.
Kurama roused himself, sheets twisting around his hips, and smiled with drowsy content as he felt arms flexing around his waist. He definitely preferred to wake up to a possessive Hiei, as opposed to a departed one. Then he frowned, fine red brows drawing close together. Wait...he'd heard...
Why had he woken? He sent out his awareness beyond Hiei's ki and felt around the apartment.
That brought him the rest of the way to wakefulness. When they had withdrawn into the bedroom, Ariodh had been curled up and sleeping on the couch. He sat up and Hiei blinked up at him, mere slits of dark maroon looking up as he stretched like a dark, stirring feline. Then Hiei frowned abruptly.
"Ariodh's gone," he announced, voicing the thought that had nagged at his mind. Hiei pushed himself into sitting position. He cocked his head, an indecipherable expression crossing his face.
"I know, I think that's what woke me," Kurama returned. "Normally I wouldn't be concerned - she's youkai, and you disappear with regularity, after all... But considering Hakamura and everything that's happened recently..."
"Hn," Hiei responded, slipping out of bed and padding over to the windows.
Kurama grinned and enjoyed the sight of his naked bottom twitching to and fro.
"I don't think she's anywhere in the area," Hiei finally pronounced, and the pursed-mouth expression looked out of place on his triangular face. Concern? It seemed like a foreign concept connected with Hiei, in regards to anything but Yukina. "Ariodh isn't the most stable of youkai right now, Kurama." He scowled.
"Are you saying we should try to find her, Hiei? Is that a little bit of concern?" Kurama teased.
Hiei flitted away from the window and began to dress, putting on each piece of clothing that Kurama had stripped away so leisurely, his movements swift and efficient. He angled a crimson eye over his shoulder to look at Kurama. "Well, are you coming?"
Kurama stretched. "I did that earlier," he smiled, slow and wide, "but thanks for the consideration."
The fire demon gave him a very irritated look. "Not that," he sniffed. Then a look of mischief crossed his face. "I know you did that earlier. I'm going to go find her. She's not good enough to take on Hakamura, by herself."
"You sure?" Kurama crossed over to the closet and picked out something that would be easy to fight in.
Hiei mulled it over. "No," he returned, slow. "But we don't know how injured Hakamura is. He sent those assassins after us instead of coming himself, so..."
"But Ariodh said that was his way of doing things," Kurama argued. "And besides, he's S-class. He can't cross over to the Ningenkai."
"Ariodh's not S-class," Hiei stated very definitely. "And she's still afraid of him. You didn't see her the way I first did, fox."
"No," Kurama thought back on the pitiful bundle of long milk-white hair and bone-thin youkai, eyes wide and hard in defensiveness. "But what I saw was bad enough."
Hiei nodded and belted on his sword.
Kurama smoothed down his tunic and regarded his diminutive lover, a bemused smile tugging his lips. "Hiei?"
"Why do you care so much?"
Hiei's slender dark-clad body stiffened. He turned his head slightly, one bloodred eye barely visible, then he finished winding his scarf. "Ch'. Stupid fox. You ask too many questions," he scoffed, then he vanished in a jet-black blink.
Kurama no longer had to contain his smile. Hiei tried to hide it - normally one could only detect it where Yukina was involved - but he had a heart, too. Maybe Ariodh reminded him in some way of Yukina. Or maybe...and this was slightly more likely...maybe she reminded him of himself.
He checked his supply of seeds and an uneasy feeling gripped his chest. Ariodh had nearly sacrificed herself before. So many people had nearly died. She shouldn't have to pay for her freedom with her own life, and none of them should have to pay so dearly. Kurama's face twisted in an expression akin to youko's snarl and he tucked a few extras behind his ear.
Their momentary interlude was over.