He was fixated to the sight as a ghastly fascination, a horror of anomaly that made all the color drain from his face. Too late - they were too late, and his numb thoughts scattered to the four winds, seeing the blade protruding from his lover's chest.
Kurama's first instinctive reaction after the shock was to clench his fingers around a lock of red-silk hair, snapping free a rose and transforming it instantly to the whip. The green tendril of thorned vine lashed out towards the expression of mocking triumph on the blonde youkai's face but fell short of its target. They were too far away and he couldn't risk injuring Hiei even further.
Bile welled up bitter on the back of his tongue, and in that anguished instant he knew exactly how Hiei must have felt, equal parts of towering rage and a need to protect the fragile bond they were still forming. It was too soon to die.
"Keiko!!" Yuusuke cried out again, and Kurama's eyes darted over the terrace near their feet, spotting the carelessly-sprawled figure of the brown-haired girl as if someone had dumped her there, a bundle of no importance.
Anger burned inside him. It was one thing to target them; they had been Tantei for years and the hazards were something they were not only accustomed to but had accepted as part of the duty. It was utterly unacceptable and...and cowardly to target innocents.
Unfortunately, most of their opponents did not adhere to the concept of honor, which was why they were being chased by the Tantei in the first place.
Hiei slid off the blade, expression stunned, and clutched at the bright spurt of crimson that gushed from the wound. His eyes sought Kurama's, wide orbs the color of dried old blood. "Stay back," he gritted.
Kurama's mouth drew to a narrow line. If Hiei thought he could keep him from this battle and protecting everything they all held dear, he was severely mistaken.
The fire demon flitted towards them, his movement so fast even Kurama's eye could barely follow and Yuusuke's soft gasp beside him confirmed the unusual speed. Hiei's expression was grim as he turned, one hand pressed hard against the holly-bright wound, and with a soft pop he was gone.
He didn't have a thought to spare as Iryoku straightened, the wave of rising youki lapping over them. She tossed Hiei's sword to the side with a careless flick of her wrist. Kurama's blazing green eyes narrowed to slits as the Rose Whip lashed restlessly in his grip. Fire sprang up from the youkai's palms, blue fire that glowed with sickly eldritch light and she lifted her hands to send sheets of it spewing forth.
With a curse Yuusuke darted forward and scooped Keiko out of its path, bounding to the side.
"Botan, take care of her!" Yuusuke ordered, his enraged brown eyes flashing as he deposited his fiancÈ in her arms.
"Hai!" Botan bobbed her head.
Kurama leapt nimbly out of the path of the fire - too much fire lately; it reminded him of Seiki - and landed beside another body. He nearly stumbled over her, he was so shocked - Ariodh lay limp and still, her pale face drawn into a pained little snarl. He knelt beside her and felt for the pulse.
"Hn," a deep voice grunted beside him, "you won't find her pulse there - not this kind of youkai."
"Hiei!" Kurama rose to his feet, part of his mind noting that Yuusuke was drawing Iryoku's main fire - probably to keep the creature from targeting more innocents, and giving them time to get Ariodh away from the field of battle. The other, greater part was caught up in the fact that Hiei was whole and alive. Relief was a sudden flood-rush through his veins but there wasn't time to express it.
It must be a convenient trick, to shrug off such an apparently mortal wound as if it were mere annoyance - yet he'd seen Hiei do it time and again. He had seen him run through with a sword or other deadly object more times than he cared to count; seen him take full-power ki-blasts at point blank range. Then seen him afterwards, unharmed. It was mystifying.
With a sweeping motion Hiei unfurled the cape from his shoulders, draping it over Ariodh's body.
"Is she dead?" Kurama demanded, sparing a glance for the fire that Iryoku/Hakamura was throwing at Yuusuke. The Tantei avoided each blast with nimble consideration for his own hide, and he hadn't fired a single blast of the rei gun yet.
"Yes," Hiei snapped, snatching her up and flitting away.
Kurama was stunned. Dead...Ariodh...?
Iryoku turned flashing blue eyes of triumph on him. Hakamura was peering out of those orbs, that hateful crystalline gaze that wanted to see them all dead. It was because of this one that Yuusuke had been kidnapped, nearly killed - because of him that Seiki had sought to make Kurama her own personal plaything. It had begun here, with Hakamura's evil. Bile rose up in the half-youko's throat and he growled.
"Ariodh is dead," Hakamura gloated, the formerly feminine voice thickened and made guttural. "And you children are next!"
Delicate white hands danced an intricate path of cabalistic signs in the air, and then the slender body was wreathed in a halo of flames. Blue tongues licked outward from Iryoku's body, fanning out in a deadly circle. "Prepare for your deaths," the creature nodded with satisfaction. "My ultimate attack: Blazing Orb of Hatred Eternal!"
Kurama's eyes met Yuusuke's in a silent communication. Yuusuke gave him a short, tight nod. Kurama's lips thinned. They would both do their best to avoid the attack and retaliate - at this point their only hope was to induce Hakamura to drain enough of that suddenly S-class energy that one of them would be able to finish it.
"For what you did to Keiko, I won't forgive you!" Yuusuke shot back, taking aim with one forefinger. He drew a bead on the surprised, amused features of the now-empty vessel that housed an S-class's vengeful spirit. "And for Ariodh, too!"
"She was worth nothing," Hakamura snarled, "aside from the pitiful scraps of her energy that I gleaned over the years." Globes of seething fire sprang up around the blond youkai, gaining speed and mass while whirling around her body as the creature spoke.
"You gained more than pitiful scraps; you gained enough power to steal the Demon Orb," Kurama tossed in his teeth. He was functioning on gut instinct now, hoping to catch the youkai off-balance. "Only Masamune prevented you from harvesting enough power from a frightened Ariodh to conquer a third of the Makai." Yuusuke shot him an incredulous look, the question is she really that powerful? swimming plain on his face.
Had been. She had been that powerful. No longer.
Kurama held himself poised to strike or defend, determination swelling through him - their first concern was that no more people were hurt. Keiko's limp unconscious state and Kuwabara's fresh bruises were silent testimony to the damage Hakamura had wreaked here-and-now. But avenging the wrongs that had been done to them - Hiei, nearly lost to him more than once, himself, almost mistaking his attacker for Hiei, Yuusuke and Kuwabara's near-deaths... And the little white youkai who had fled, hoping for any kind of protection.
She deserved a place in his determination too.
"You needed Ariodh for a power source," Kurama goaded the S-class even further, and the slitted blue eyes sparked danger-signals. "Without her, your plans were doomed to failure, weren't they?"
The fire-globes blazed up at the same time the look of rage seized hold of Hakamura's features. "You die," he hissed, voice distorted even further with fury.
"We'll just see about that, won't we?" Yuusuke tossed him an infuriating, rakish grin. His features turned abruptly cold. "You'll pay for what you did to Keiko."
With an inarticulate cry of fury, the fire-globes swelled even further and they hurtled through the air. Kurama leapt aside as Yuusuke dodged; the second one was heading straight for him and he rolled. The globe burst right behind him in a shower of sapphire sparks.
Abruptly the world was on fire, bleeding with blue-shot tears.
"Yukina, daijoubu desu ka?" the oafish ningen was inquiring of Hiei's sister. Hiei ignored them both and laid the body of the white-haired youkai at the head of the steps.
Things had gone badly awry. They weren't supposed to attack until tomorrow, and that had been for the advantage of surprise. Yet for some reason, Ariodh had slipped out to complete her own personal vendetta. It had been stupid, he judged it harshly - her actions had jolted Hakamura into action as well, catching everyone off guard. Now Hakamura had the advantage as he built up a corridor of flame intended to consume Yuusuke and Kurama and even Botan cringing at the far end of the temple grounds with Urameshi's girl half across her lap.
If she were awake, he'd be tempted to slap her for such stupidity.
Hiei placed his fingers over the white-haired creature's pulse. It throbbed beneath his fingers, dangerously slow. But it only confirmed his suspicions; Hakamura would have been disoriented by Ariodh's death from what she had mentioned of the blood ties. And so Ariodh was not dead.
More than anything the fire in Hiei's blood urged him to grab his sword and take it up against the upstart S-class youkai who wielded blue flame. Killing rage whispered this demand and more sweetly through his blood.
Instead he stared down at the heart-shaped face, wide cheekbones and a pointed chin, hollowed silken lids shut tight over the crystal-blue eyes beneath. Her skin looked even more waxy-pale against the black folds of his cloak. Somehow, Ariodh fit into this puzzle too well and she wasn't dead yet. She must possess some means of killing or stopping Hakamura or she wouldn't have left to go after him...would she?
Somehow, Ariodh must be the key.
Hiei scanned the faces of his sister and Kuwabara quickly. They watched the battle with white, strained faces but appeared unharmed. Kuwabara had acquired a great many more bruises and scrapes, and possibly more less-apparent, internal injuries but all had been taken in protecting his sister. For that, he owed the human a grudging debt of gratitude.
Hakamura had summoned up a handful of globes that spat blue fire, circling his tool's body that was burning with the same cerulean flame. Fire was not natural to his servant's body...so how long would it take for the fire to consume Iryoku and leave nothing but a vengeful spirit?
Kurama's face was white and determined. For an instant Hiei regretted lying to him but it was necessary.
For this to work, Hakamura would have to be completely seized in surprise.
"Hiei-san?" Hesitant fingers touched his bare arm. He turned to meet the wide crimson eyes of his unacknowledged sister, and her face was pale with concern. "Ariodh-san - is she...?"
"Alive," he nodded his head, curt. His mouth tightened. He wasn't sure what needed to be done to wake Ariodh from her coma-like state, but perhaps Yukina could do it. "Yukina - can you...?" He made an abortive movement towards the battle that raged in the temple forecourt.
"I'll take care of her," Yukina assured him.
"Wake her up," Hiei corrected, leveling a piercing stare on her. Now was not the time for coddling. "Do what you have to."
"H-hai," Yukina faltered, doubt plain on her features. But she knelt swiftly next to Ariodh and began slapping the pale face with quick sharp pats.
With a grim smile he drew his sword and stalked back towards the battle. Great spheres of fire were flying everywhere, shattering and erupting into fountains of flame so darkly blue they looked black. Yuusuke was swearing as he ducked and wove a path through the ki-globes being hurled at him. Kurama leapt, dodged - and pitched back as a globe exploded at his feet. Hiei swore and threw himself at the creature's undefended back.
In a swirl of short-cropped blonde tresses and a nasty smile,
Hakamura pivoted to meet his attack, flame bursting from open palms.
Hiei vaulted over his head, avoiding the attack to land neatly on the flagstones, sword held at the ready. He hadn't called on a fraction of his power yet, and Kurama and Yuusuke had been goading Hakamura into these showy displays of youki - very expensive in energetic terms. Wise of them. If they could wear him down...
"Where the hell is he getting all this energy?" Yuusuke shouted, flipping his body back from a sizzling bolt that would have taken his feet off.
Hiei scowled. There was only one answer he could think of, and it would explain why Ariodh was still unconscious.
"Yuusuke - Yuusuke!" Botan's voice shrilled out, and Yuusuke half-turned, a curse tumbling from his lips as he dodged yet another blast.
The youkai was throwing every fat sphere of fire the instant he summoned them to fingertips that were alight with the same blue-black fire. The result was a shower of fire globes exploding all around them without an instant's surcease. A single hesitation would have the fire blowing up in their faces - and the results...
Hiei raised one eyebrow as he launched himself at Hakamura in a flurry of strikes, the metal of his sword becoming a blur in the wan light of dusk. It was foolish of Botan to distract Yuusuke in the middle of this battle.
"I - I can't wake Keiko up..." he heard the ferrygirl saying, almost crying.
A bone-jarring blast of flame sent him tumbling back. His mind was numb and the aftershocks of the fire still crawled up the burnished surface of his sword. It dissipated once it hit the iron hilt of his sword, but he stared at it in vague surprise, his own fire-related youki automatically categorizing it. This fire...it was... Hiei's eyes widened.
"Kurama!" he shouted, dodging another volley of globes as he hurried over to the sprawled boneless figure of the redhead. He didn't receive an answer, and he wasn't really expecting one. Hakamura's laughter crackled on the air as he sent the fire-globes spinning after them. Hiei froze for an instant then sent up a searing wall of black fire, encasing Kurama's body completely. It gave him a frozen moment to peer into Kurama's face and make certain of his guess.
Empty vessel; that's what Kurama's eyes told him. As if no spirit were prisoned behind the wide green eyes, and looking into them sent a chill crawling up his spine. Just earlier today they had looked him through and through, warm and alight with mischief and pleasure. A faint bluish halo fanned out from Kurama's face and body and Hiei's lip curled. He recognized the stigma of this particular type of fire but had never seen a living victim. Now there were two - Kurama's face was drawn in the same slack expression as Keiko. Botan's cry nagged at his thoughts. I can't wake Keiko up! And Hakamura's fists blazed with azure youki flame.
It was Eternal Fire.
"We can't wake them," Hiei muttered, wrenching his attention from the still pale face to the battle at hand. He let the wall of black flame gutter and vanish. It wouldn't do any good for Kurama in his current state.
"What's the matter, little boy?" Hakamura crooned to Yuusuke, whose face was red with anger, his black eyes snapping every bit as darkly as Hiei's fire. "Can't wake your woman up?" The blonde body planted fists on her hips and threw her head back, laughing.
Hiei and Yuusuke squared off on the flagstones, facing him. "Yuusuke - there's only one way to wake them up. Hakamura is using the Eternal Fire - what he called Hatred Eternal - and the only way to dispel it is the death of the one who summoned it. Keiko and Kurama will be slowly consumed by the fire, unless Hakamura dies."
Yuusuke cracked his knuckles. "I don't see a problem with that," he growled. He was truly angry - Hiei had only seen the cocky human this angry a handful of times, and most instances had involved Keiko in some way. His fists began to glow with the eerie incandescent blue light of his reiki.
The fire demon gnawed at his lip. It was possible Yuusuke's current power level alone wouldn't suffice - Toushin might do it, but...
Yuusuke dodged the fire-globes that flew from the youkai's fingertips, weaving a swift path that had Hiei nodding in grudging admiration. He rolled under a concentrated blast of the fire and planted himself at the youkai's feet, discharging his Shotgun point-blank with a hoarse yell. Hakamura pitched to the flagstones, a surprised cry wrenched deep from the feminine throat.
"Yatta!" Yuusuke cheered, pointing an index finger at the throat of the creature he had cornered. Reiki hummed a shrill note on the air as he prepared to discharge his rei gun again.
The body didn't even twitch but Hiei shouted as he sensed it.
"Yuusuke, LOOK OUT!"
Blue fire blossomed in the courtyard as a fierce explosion seemed to ignite the very air itself. Yuusuke's body sailed through the air as Botan screamed out his name, and Yukina cried in dismay. Hiei's eyes flicked to the side for an instant, long enough to see Yukina's hand pressed to her mouth, eyes wide and anguished. He hit the flagstones hard, bounced once, and sagged, head lolling. Yuusuke's entire body was surrounded by that hateful fanning halo of blue flames.
Hakamura dusted off the tattered remains of clothing that had covered Iryoku's slender form. He aimed his forefinger at Yuusuke, pulling an imaginary trigger, then turned to face Hiei.
Hiei stared back, sword poised. He had faced worse odds. True, he couldn't remember any recent instances, but he knew he had. Briefly he wondered if he could withstand Eternal Fire by virtue of his fire demon heritage and decided it didn't matter.
"Two down..." Hakamura sighed, running fingers through the short blonde hair. "One and a half to go."
Hiei nodded once, to himself. The wards on his arm began to smoke and he clenched his teeth as the urge to release the Wave of the Black Dragon began to eclipse any ward's power. If he loosed the Kokoryuha here, in the forecourt of the old temple, their deaths were a certainty - everyone would die, Eternal Fire or no - Yukina, Kurama - and it was a sacrifice he wasn't prepared to make.
"Hiei-san!" Yukina's voice implored.
His eyes flickered there and back from the figure of the blonde, who was summoning once more the crackling spheres of eldritch fire, to his sister, tending....
Crimson eyes narrowed. Her, and Hakamura.
In a blur he was at the head of the steps, bending over the white-haired youkai, then seizing the front of her shirt and hauling her up. He drew his arm back and slugged her. Ariodh's doll-crumpled figure lolled at the vicious blow, but her eyelids didn't even flutter. Hiei lifted a hand to slap her again but something caught his wrist and he turned with a half-snarl.
Kuwabara was shaking his head, expression reproachful. "Don't," he rumbled, "don't hit a woman - it's not right, not even now."
Hiei bit back a curse. "If we can't wake her, your friend Yuusuke and his girl, and Kurama, will be lost in the Eternal Fire until it consumes their flesh and bone - and Yukina will be next!"
Kuwabara set his jaw in a mulish expression. "You're not hitting her."
Out of the corner of his eye Hiei saw the fire-globes expanding and knew there wasn't much time. He could tackle Hakamura himself, or he could try to wake up the little glutton for back-up... Ariodh's body was not surrounded by blue fire. Her face was half-covered in milk-white hair and blood, but the bluish fires that had overwhelmed Keiko and Kurama hadn't touched this youkai.
"Okite yo!" he snarled, shaking her. Wake up. "If you don't wake up, people will die - and Masamune sacrificed herself for nothing!"
He didn't waste precious seconds lingering to see if her eyes snapped open at that or not - turning and drawing his sword was one simultaneous, fluid motion. Hiei leapt over the first globe, which shattered at his feet and spewed blue flames then he ducked under the second, which smashed into one of the temple pillars.
Then the third one was heading for him, and Hiei's eyes widened - if he avoided this one, it would head straight for Yukina and the unconscious youkai in her charge.
It wasn't much of a choice.
The globe exploded the instant it struck his chest, engulfing him in the nerve-searing chill of its intense fires. Hiei had one bemused moment of darkly ironic laughter. What do you know? I'm not immune.
The darkness that followed was absolute, bereft of a certain pair of warm green eyes.
With a great tearing gasp that filled up the lungs with ragged bursts of air, Ariodh heaved into wakefulness. It was a forceful ejection from the calm gray limbo that had surrounded her, the safe and warm haven she had been seeking, with Hiei's accusation still ringing in her ears. If you don't wake up, people will die - and Masamune sacrificed herself for nothing! At all costs, Masamune's death could not be for nothing. She would not permit it, not now - the quietude of limbo had given her back the earliest memories.
Masamune, her mother.
Masamune, who had died twice to save her.
"Daijou-" the pale pretty ice maiden was bending to ask her, when her slight body went rigid. "Hiei-san!" Yukina's eyes were fixed in horror on the sight of the small black-garbed fire demon collapsing to the ground. Blue fires crackled and sang around his frame, encasing him in a mindless, timeless cocoon.
"No!" Ariodh shouted, appalled. With a blink her blue eyes took in the temple forecourt - Keiko, Kurama, Yuusuke, Hiei - all of them swallowed up in the grip of the dancing blue flames that Hakamura forged from her stolen ki. "No, no, no!"
Her fault. This was all her fault. If she had finished Hakamura earlier - if she had killed Iryoku instead of hesitating, or showing mercy, none of this would have happened. The vengeful spirit in the blonde youkai's body would have died with Iryoku. If she hadn't been caught off guard, if she hadn't -
If, if! Ariodh tore at her hair then recoiled in fright as Iryoku's slender blonde figure advanced, tossing a fat sphere of fire in one hand with a casual air.
"What are you going to do, Ariodh?" he mocked her. "Nothing, as you've always done. Who shall I kill next? Tell me, weakling child. The pretty Koorime? The clumsy human? Or perhaps that frightened little ferrygirl with the large scared eyes?"
Ariodh's lip trembled. "M-m..."
The female throat laughed softly, a sound rendered harsh already by Hakamura's ill-usage. "Well?"
Her eyes flared. "Masamune!"
The blonde body reeled back a step as the incandescent light flared up, discharging from her body, from her pores, from her soul and the air as the tremendous soulsword formed in her two small hands. It crackled with living energy from hilt to gleaming tip. Hakamura's blue eyes - so like her own, but blazing with hatred - resembled hers even more for a fleeting instant as a flicker of fear replaced customary arrogance. Then his confidence surged to the fore. "Masamune can't help you anymore," Hakamura purred, flicking his hand up in a cabalistic gesture. The globe flew at her with such speed she nearly missed, hands shaking, but then Ariodh swung the sword and sliced it in two, the seething orb of pure fire. The blue St. Elmo's fire started to explode - then its energies were sucked into the sword so swiftly even Ariodh was taken aback.
Hakamura recouped quickly. "Nice try - but do you really think you can parry a dozen globes at once?" he sneered.
She glanced over her shoulder at Yukina, whose face was drawn and pale - and Kuwabara, who had summoned up his reiken and stood with a grim determined expression. He would protect his Yukina at all costs.
"No," she said, her voice soft. "I can't." She dove off the steps to the side, rolling in the dust and springing to her feet cat-quick. She could feel the searing heat of a globe behind her and jumped, narrowly missing it, the hot fire licking up the backs of her legs.
There was only one way to defeat him.
Ariodh pivoted, halfway between Yuusuke's and Kurama's prone forms. Her hair swirled in a gentle storm around her body as she narrowed her eyes, facing him. Hakamura, Him, the demon who had killed her mother and stolen her own life-force for more years than she could recount. He who had made a blood pact with all his servants, a tie that irrevocably bound the servant to the master - but what most did not know was that the bond cut both ways. And the fact that she had tried to deny for every day of her life was now the only means of his downfall.
"You die," he proclaimed, lifting both of Iryoku's slender hands to shower her with a rain of his Globes of Hatred.
"You first," Ariodh sucked in her breath, a little half-sob.
Ariodh lifted Masamune high.
Fire-globes flitted from Hakamura's hands, each one heading for her with unerring aim.
At that, the white-haired youkai drove the giant soulsword through her body. Its tip punched through her back with a wet, grisly sound.
With her thin wail of pain, every single globe hung poised in the air for an instant, then shattered. Blue fire bled into the earth and vanished.
Hakamura's eyes, his blue fiery eyes, were wide with disbelief as they sank to their knees, both in the same instant. Ariodh was vaguely aware of Yukina crying out something, her voice faraway and weepy, but her focus was on Hakamura. The dark youkai fell to hands and knees, head hanging low. From the expression of utter surprise scrawled across the feminine features, Hakamura had never expected the bond to affect him so profoundly. He had always underestimated her. No more.
"How..." he grated.
With both hands slick with blood, Ariodh pulled the sword from her body. Hiei and Kurama and Yuusuke were already stirring, sitting up with confusion on their faces - any one of them could finish it and less painfully than she. But Ariodh wanted this. Needed it. She forced herself to her feet and watched the blood streaming down her torso with almost clinical detachment. It felt light and empty, her head full of strange thoughts.
Perhaps I, too, can fly with angel's wings.
Ariodh tilted her head to stare fixedly at Hakamura with glossed-over eyes of hatred. "The blood tie is broken," she uttered, and spat a mouthful of crimson at him. It splashed on one ice-white cheek of the shattered, borrowed body as she hefted the sword in a two-handed grip. Then she swung it in a wide, savage arc.
A head rolled over the blood-etched footsteps, cerulean blue eyes wide. Perhaps shock. Perhaps anger. But the mouth was stretched in a grimace of pure fear at the arrival of the death evaded for so long.
The white-haired youkai sank to her knees, one hand still wrapped around the hilt of the sword, its point wedged between two flagstones and keeping her nominally upright. She stared at the disembodied head, devoid of fear or even anger as bone-deep exhaustion claimed her. And the blood pooled over the stones.
Crackling streamers of white you-ki leapt up around her body as Kurama climbed to his feet, automatically seeking Hiei then looking her way with questioning green eyes. Ariodh observed as if from a very long distance, then glanced at the head once more. White fire crawled along her skin, shuddering coolness lapping at her from head to toe, promising peace and a safe place.
With another flirt of white flame, Ariodh disappeared.
"YATTA!" Koenma cheered, nearly toppling over his chair with enthusiasm as he fell backwards onto the seat. His arms flailed as he regained balance. "They did it! George, they beat Hakamura! Yatta!"
George regarded the viewscreen with an expression that couldn't decide between delighted, and dismayed.
"Yatta!" Koenma cheered once more, then turned to the oni at his elbow. "They won. Fork it over, George."
"Koenma-sama," George protested, "you rigged the betting - you wouldn't let me bet against Hakamura. Besides, none of the Tantei team did it. It was the little white youkai."
"Ah, yes, well..." Koenma narrowed his eyes at George. "Hakamura lost. So you lost the bet. And I'm sure you remember the penalty for welching on bets...?"
George shivered violently. "H-hai, Koenma-sama."
The demi-god gave his staff member a wide smile around the obstruction of the fuukuman in his mouth. "Pay up."
A gusty sigh. "Hai, Koenma-sama."
Kurama flinched back from the fierce surge of white fire, shielding his eyes. When it cleared away and the feel of youki was no longer ringing over his senses, he looked up. Ariodh was gone. He hurried across the forecourt, past Hiei and towards Yukina.
"Are you all right?" he asked her solicitously, directing the question at Kuwabara as well. In passing Hiei he had noted that his lover seemed just fine - brushing dirt and dried blood off his clothing with an irritated, testy expression but otherwise unharmed. "Aa," her face lifted up to look at him. Her maroon eyes were soft and sad. "But so many people were hurt, and Ariodh-"
"Where did Ariodh go?" Kuwabara scratched his head, looking around the grounds with a puzzled expression.
Kurama gave him a tired smile, but made no attempt to reply. Hiei was a solid comfortable presence behind him. He could tell without looking that the fire demon was looking over his sister intently to make sure she was unharmed. "Hn. Stupid human."
"Why, you-" Kuwabara screeched, making an abortive lunge. He stopped, accompanied by the flicker that meant Hiei's ki was gone. Kuwabara scratched his head again and grinned, an expression that was actually rather dashing. "He's just irritated I wouldn't let him knock Ariodh around, that's all."
Kurama smiled faintly.
He turned to see Keiko and Yuusuke approaching the steps, arguing fiercely. Botan appeared to be trapped in the middle and she was waving her hands in a desperate, vain attempt to placate them. "If you hadn't been off gallivanting, this never would've-"
"GALLIVANTING!? Why, you-"
"Maa, maa, why don't you calm down?" Botan tried to interject soothingly. "After all, we won! Hakamura's dead! And..."
Keiko and Yuusuke ignored her, facing off. The charged sparks flying in the air were strong enough to rival Hakamura's Globes.
"Urameshi Yuusuke, you are absolutely, WITHOUT a doubt, THE most irritating, smug, overconfident-"
"Oh yeah? Oh YEAH?"
"-infuriating, pig-headed man and I wonder sometimes why I want to marry you so much," Keiko finished in one breath, dark eyes flashing.
Yuusuke opened his mouth to yell his reply. He blinked, stopped, and opened and closed his mouth a few more times. Finally, in a markedly milder tone he said, "Oh yeah?"
Keiko planted her fists on her hips. "Yeah."
Yuusuke whooped. "Yatta! Y'hear that, everyone? She's gonna marry me!" He caught Keiko around the waist and did a little victory dance.
"Yatta!" Botan cheered them on, clapping her hands.
Kuwabara coughed diffidently to catch their attention, his expression equal parts dignified and nervous as he held Yukina's hand in his own. "Might I suggest a double wedding?"
Yuusuke's eyes lit up. "You and Yukina? That's great!" He thumped Kuwabara on the back so soundly that Yukina fretted over the dressing on his injured shoulder.
Kurama smiled and offered the happy couples his congratulations. Then he slipped away quietly, resolving to get Hiei very drunk and mellowed-out before he broke the "good news" about his sister.
Hiei might go off in a snit and oh...say...challenge the hapless Kuwabara to a duel or something.
The moon was brushing over the rooftops of the tallest buildings as he made his way home, hands shoved deep in his pockets. It was finally over, and he would have the time and space to ponder exactly what he and Hiei were, to each other. Over...briefly he wondered what had happened to Ariodh. Blood had covered her body like a glistening coat of gruesome paint. Nothing could survive a wound like that, not even youkai - well, he amended with a dry smile, not all youkai. Hiei would have survived it without a doubt.
Thinking of me? A dark touch brushed over the uppermost of his thoughts, like a whisper-ripple over the glassy surface of a lake. It was the first time he had ever felt Hiei's mind-touch this way, actual thought and a hint of emotion and not just the mere sense of his youki.
"Hiei," he greeted his partner, dredging up a more genuine smile as the fire demon thudded to the sidewalk beside him. "I had a feeling you'd show."
They walked in silence for a length of time. Hiei tilted his head. "I thought I'd sleep with you tonight." His tone was matter-of-fact.
In spite of it Kurama's heart turned over. "Instead of stony ground or scratchy branches?" he kept his tone light and teasing.
"Because of that too," Hiei shrugged.
Kurama bowed his head and smiled. They'd have all the time in the world to explore this, the strange and bewildering entanglement between them. And suddenly Kurama found himself very eager to do so. After a few more paces he felt sturdy, very warm fingers brush his hand, then interlace with his own fingers. He glanced sidewise, a smile tugging his lips. Hiei's profile was aloof as ever. He squeezed, a bare hint of pressure.
Hiei squeezed back.
It was all the ecstatic youko could do not to pounce on Hiei and drag him into a silly triumphant dance right there, in the bald view of the moonlight and the entire city block, cars, pedestrians, and all. But he settled for a soft chuckle, followed by Hiei's snort.
Stupid fox, swept against the edges of his mind, gone swiftly but not before he grasped the rich undertones of amusement and even - gasp - affection.
For a change, Hiei accompanied him up the stairs and down the hallway to his apartment, not relinquishing his hand as they utilized the more conventional route. As he unlocked the door, Kurama broke the silence.
"She's dead, isn't she?"
Kurama frowned at him.
"Sorry about before," Hiei raised one eyebrow. "I was hoping Hakamura would be surprised. I guess he was." This said with a flash of fang.
"He was," Kurama agreed with a rueful smile. "I didn't realize the blood bond worked that way."
"Neither did he," Hiei smirked. He nodded once, expression more serious. "She wasn't stupid, in the end. Not bad."
From Hiei, it was damning with faint praise, or nothing.
He toed off his shoes and Hiei kicked his boots unceremoniously onto a corner of the mat, wandering around the apartment barefoot. Kurama contemplated making some food for the two of them and decided he was emphatically not hungry. Not after tonight. Instead he drifted into the living room after his small lover.
Kurama paused. There were still traces of the meal they'd eaten only that day - an overturned bottle, a wax apple in the bowl gnawed halfway through. "Do you think she'd come back? If she's alive, I mean?" With her wide, wounded eyes he wondered if she would last long in the Makai, hurt as she was. If she were alive. He shook his head. *None of your business, Kurama.* He glided up behind Hiei to where he stood at the moon-gilded window and wrapped his arms around the smaller youkai.
"I'd say so, fox."
Hiei lifted his hand. Trapped between forefinger and thumb it glittered in the slanting rays of the moon, grabbing at ambient light. A very fine, silken lock of gossamer-platinum hair. ~owari~