Yuusuke cracked his eyes open warily. He croaked a feeble curse as the
battering, merciless sun struck him squarely in the eyes, obeying that
corollary to Murphy's law that dictated he would be in the exact right
position to achieve its full brilliance the moment he awoke with an aching
head four sizes too small for his brain.
Gods. What a hangover.
He'd had really weird dreams, too - one had involved an army of angry Keikos chasing him with huge mallets, determined to pummel him until he yelled "Ojisan!" Another had been Koenma twirling on top of the bar in a ruffly pink tutu, matching his bright pink pacifier, while Botan performed a bellydance. Yuusuke grimaced. One of the terrifying ones had been Kuwabara chasing after him, giggling and simpering like one of Kurama's hordes of swarming fan-girls, after having tripped and fallen into a Makai love spring. He'd been determined to - Yuusuke made a face and tried to shut *that* image out, then twitched his nose as he noticed the gross taste in his mouth, as if a little Makai imp had crawled in there and died. That dream with Kuwabara had probably spawned the weirdest one of all - He could've sworn he had seen Hiei and Kurama groping and making out in the hallway!
Mumbling incoherently, Yuusuke sat up. Kuwabara was starting to twitch and snort, in the throes of waking up.
Across the room, Kurama was sitting calmly on his bedroll, sipping a cup of something that steamed. He looked alert and fresh, almost luminous in the morning sunlight. He sure looked pleased about something. Yuusuke glared evilly at him.
"Have some of this," the redhead offered, indicating a tray on the floor. It was packed with food and a few more cups of the steaming liquid.
"Will it make the ringing stop?" Yuusuke mumbled hopefully, crawling over on his hands and knees, unwilling to get up and jar his head for such a short distance.
Kurama laughed at him.
He looked around. Hiei was here, after all - sitting on the windowsill of the room, one knee drawn up, wearing his usual dyspeptic expression.
Yuusuke groped for a fluttering memory of something strange that Hiei had done. He vaguely remembered that the little Koorime had been totally plastered.
"Hiei. . ." Yuusuke said slowly, and the fire demon looked up, an indifferent expression on his face. A grin spread over Yuusuke's features. "Last night, did you. . ."
Kurama's head snapped up. Hiei eyed Yuusuke with death in his gaze.
"Did you sing!?" he chortled, captivated by the foggy remembrance of Hiei singing loudly as he headed for the stairs, propped up by Kurama.
Hiei snorted and looked away.
"You DID! You were singing!" Yuusuke crowed, then blinked when Kurama shoved a dumpling in his mouth, shutting him up.
"We should get going," Kurama informed him calmly. "Before we lose any traces at all those thieves might have left behind."
Yuusuke shrugged, finishing off the dumpling. "I bet he'd be great at karaoke," he couldn't pass up the opportunity to needle the Koorime. He glanced over, chuckling as Hiei's shoulders stiffened.
They had been on the trail for a couple days now of some Makai thieves that Koenma had summoned them to deal with. The thieves had stolen some "proscribed artifacts," whatever THAT meant, and once again Koenma urgently needed them found before Enma returned and got upset. So far, they hadn't had much luck.
But they HAD gotten rip-roaringly drunk!
"We should wake up Kuwabara," Kurama said, eyeing the carrot-topped mountain of log-sawing snores.
Hiei looked up at that. "I'll bet I could wake him," he glowered. He fingered the hilt of his katana suggestively.
They trudged up the narrow, dirty street of the Makai village. Yuusuke and Kuwabara looked absolutely miserable, even after cleaning up and eating a decent breakfast. Hiei had not taken to the rooftops yet, and walked beside Kurama looking distantly impersonal as always.
But Kurama knew otherwise.
Kurama nearly chuckled as he recalled what Yuusuke had remembered of last night. Hiei singing! Well he HAD - and the look on Hiei's face when Yuusuke recalled that had been priceless! But at least Urameshi hadn't remembered what else he'd seen.
The red-haired young man's breath caught in his throat, at the still-recent memory of Hiei's arms wrapping around him, Hiei stretching up to kiss him, nudging his lips apart - it still seemed like a dream too precious to him, too good to come true. Hiei had practically attacked him in the hallway last night, the sweet green Makai liquor dissolving his inhibitions, and he'd kissed him again, for the second time ever.
Kurama became aware that he had a slightly foolish grin on his face, and schooled his expression along slightly more composed lines.
"We should try some of the slum informants," Yuusuke said, still a bit bleary. Kuwabara just shuffled along, occasionally clutching at his head, too miserable for once to provoke a fight with Hiei.
"Aa," Kurama replied, when it looked like no one else would.
Kurama slanted a glance at the sober little fire demon beside him. He was as stoic as ever, but Kurama remembered the look in his eyes from that morning. Another precious memory that deserved to be savored and clutched to his chest.
Did I really tell him I love him? He hadn't thought his courage would EVER permit that - or that he'd ever be close enough to Hiei to be able to admit it. . .or that he'd ever be able to get it out without Hiei running away.
They turned into the slums of the village and conferred for a moment, then broke into pairs to cover more ground. Kuwabara and Urameshi shuffled off, looking half-dead, which meant they fit in with a lot of the alley and slum inhabitants. Kurama offered Hiei a slight smile as they turned to seek out a few likely targets.
They spent most of the morning shaking down alleys and tossing taverns for likely informants, offering money where necessary, and applying threats in turn, but had no luck whatsoever. All the demons they encountered professed complete ignorance.
Which, in itself, was suspicious enough.
They met up with Yuusuke and Kuwabara again towards noon.
"Dammit!" Yuusuke punched his fist into a nearby wall, then swore again, scowling. "Nothing, not a single lead! What're we going to tell Koenma!"
"That's not precisely true," Hiei corrected dryly. "You're just not looking hard enough, Urameshi."
"K'so! What do you mean?" Yuusuke glared down at the smaller fire demon.
Hiei sniffed contemptuously.
Kurama shot the Koorime a slightly exasperated glance. "What he means, Yuusuke, is didn't you notice how no one knew anything about the thieves we're after? Makai thieves usually offer to sell you something, whether it's true or not."
Yuusuke blinked. "Oh yeah."
"I knew it!" Kuwabara declared. "I, Kuwabara Kazuma the great, KNEW that those lowly scum were hiding something from us!"
"Ah, so the idiot chooses to speak," Hiei murmured, tilting one dark red eye to flash insultingly at the carrot-topped human.
"NANI!?" Kuwabara screeched. "I'm gonna pound you like a nail into a board, you little shrimp - " He lunged, and Yuusuke grabbed him.
"Not now, Hiei," Kurama said, torn between amusement and exasperation.
Hiei slanted the eye at him. "What? Did I say something untrue?" he asked innocently.
"We have to figure out why these locals won't talk - " Yuusuke began.
"LEMME GO! I'm gonna cut that puny little twerp in half - "
"Don't be redundant," Hiei sniffed coolly.
"-and FIND these damned bastards - "
"-it's only what he deserves, he's got it COMIN'!"
Yuusuke held on tighter, as Hiei raised an eyebrow at Kuwabara, then gave him a purely insulting grin.
That was when they hit them.
Hiei was instantly on the defensive, his katana slicing through the air, and Kurama hit the ground and rolled as the scores of black-clad, monstrous figures leapt down from above, throwing knives and wicked throwing stars. Yuusuke and Kuwabara sprang apart, then flung themselves eagerly into the fray.
Kurama pulled out his favorite weapon. "Rose Whip!" he shouted, lashing out at the nearest attacker.
"Rei ken!" Kuwabara called forth his blazing spirit sword, slicing into his enemies with practiced ease.
Their attackers were no match for the four hardened Reikai agents, who fought back with greater skill and experience. Yuusuke waded into his opponents gleefully, adrenaline pumping through his veins and dispelling the last traces of the hangover. Kuwabara split his opponents in two with his rei ken, never resting for an instant as he spun and cut. And Hiei was a blurring flash of sword and dark fire, mowing down more opponents than any of them.
It was over within moments. Kurama nudged a body with his foot. Hiei's katana had pierced the creature cleanly through the heart.
"Are any of them alive?" he asked.
"They better not be!" Yuusuke replied, cracking his knuckles.
Hiei gave him a withering glance. "Baka, that means none of them are left to question."
"Damn!" Yuusuke swore. He began to peer at the corpses and limp figures sprawled across the alley.
"Hold it!" Kuwabara suddenly exclaimed. "I sense something with my reikan...something bad. . .we've gotta get out of here!"
Yuusuke was bending over one of the fallen attackers, tugging at something around its neck. "Wonder what this is. . ."
There was a blinding flash, as Kuwabara dove for Yuusuke, knocking him over, away from whatever he was holding up.
Kurama stumbled, his eyes full of that white-out flare, and felt something knock him flat. Hiei. They rolled away from the flash, then came to a halt as the whiteness slowly leached out of the air, restoring normal sight.
"What the hell was that?" Yuusuke yelled. "Is everyone okay?"
"Fine!" Kurama called back, blinking up at Hiei.
Hiei blinked back down at him.
Kurama smiled a mischievous little smile, shifting slightly but suggestively beneath him.
Hiei started to turn red and 'hmmph'ed softly, getting to his feet. Kurama followed suit, brushing at his clothes. Yuusuke was eyeing the corpse suspiciously, the one that had triggered the flash.
"What WAS that?" he asked in bewilderment. They had all felt the powerful wash of youki that had accompanied the soundless burst of light, but none of them seemed hurt.
"Idiot, that was you ignoring my warning!" Kuwabara declared self-righteously, shaking a fist at Yuusuke. "I, Kuwabara Kazuma, was aware of the dangers-"
"Of trying to think too hard?" Hiei finished for him.
Kuwabara's eyes bulged. "NANI!?" he yelled, lunging.
Hiei flickered from sight, and Kuwabara rushed through where he'd been, tripped over one of the fallen bodies, and fell flat on his face.
"Stop it!" Kurama glared. "Whatever it was, we should get out of here."
A weak groan fluttered through the air, and their heads snapped around. Someone was still alive.
Instantly they had all scrambled over to him. Yuusuke grabbed the front of the youkai's shirt, hauling him up roughly, and slammed him against the opposite wall.
"Who sent you?" he demanded, shaking him a little.
The gray-skinned youkai's head lolled. One yellow eye slitted open, half-conscious.
"Who sent you?" Yuusuke repeated, shaking him harder.
"Maybe I should convince him he needs to talk," Hiei growled. His katana was suddenly drawn and set against the assassin's throat, its keen point pricking into the skin lightly. Beads of ichorous blood oozed from the ungentle contact.
"Yumenoshu. . ." the youkai wheezed, its breath bubbling from between its lips. Then it sagged in Yuusuke's grip, and died.
With an exclamation of disgust, Yuusuke dropped the corpse to the scum-crusted alley ground, and backed away.
"Yumenoshu?" he said aloud, frowning in puzzlement. Kurama shrugged, and Hiei sheathed his sword after flicking the drops of blood off.
"Perhaps the thieves that stole the artifacts were working for this Yumenoshu," Kuwabara suggested, frowning pensively.
"That makes sense," Kurama replied cautiously. "Once word got to him that there were people looking for him, he threw assassins at us, hoping to get rid of us quickly."
"Only twenty assassins?" Kuwabara frowned, striking a heroic pose. "I am insulted! I alone could have handled such a number!"
"Your skull couldn't handle that number of brain cells, let alone. . ." Hiei began, and Kurama clamped a hand over the little Koorime's mouth.
"What was that?" Kuwabara swung back in their direction, eyes glinting.
"Nothing," Kurama assured him innocently, keeping a good tight grip on the struggling fire demon.
Hiei bit him.
"Yosh', let's find out where this Yumenoshu is, and get this case solved!" Yuusuke said with only a measure of his usual vigor. Apparently the hangover was still lingering, once the flush of battle had passed.
Still, Kurama had a nagging feeling as they left the alleyway and the bodies behind them, that it wouldn't be that easy.
They had traveled too far in the past few hours from any settlements, and had to make a rough camp for the night. The locals, once Hiei and Kuwabara had sufficiently terrorized them, had finally revealed the location of Yumenoshu's stronghold and they'd been traveling since after lunch.
Which, Kurama decided as his stomach began to grumble, was entirely too long ago.
He had grown a few useful, vicious plants around the wide clearing they had chosen to camp in while Yuusuke started a fire with a small rei gun spark. Hiei dragged back something from the woods, dumping it down roughly by the fire.
"This's edible," he grunted, before flitting off into the trees.
Kuwabara was busy slicing up fallen deadwood with his rei ken for the fire - something that proved to be overkill when he brought back a mountain of toothpicks and splinters to feed the fire. Kurama ostentatiously busied himself with growing a few more useful plants, some for dinner, some for defense, and grinned when Yuusuke looked resigned, pulled a knife out of his boot, and started skinning the creature.
After they had all settled down after dinner, Kurama left Yuusuke and Kuwabara dozing by the fire and walked into the more forested area. He was slightly surprised to find Hiei leaning against a tree, rather than perched high in its branches. Hiei tipped his burning red gaze upwards as Kurama approached.
"I knew you'd come out here," Hiei murmured as Kurama stopped about a foot away.
"Oh?" Kurama replied, in a teasing tone. He hesitated, eyes moving over the slightly upturned face of the fire demon. Hiei was so hard to read, despite how familiar every feature of that face was to him. He should know, he'd been looking at it a long time now. "How did you figure that?"
Hiei moved forward abruptly, closing the distance between them. "Because I know you by now, fox," he replied, stretching up to grab the forelocks of red hair that framed his face, using them conveniently to tug that face into range.
Kurama blinked at Hiei's sudden aggressive move, then closed his eyes as Hiei claimed his lips.
Strong, callused hands slid around his neck firmly, and they kissed for long breathless moments as Kurama wound his arms around Hiei's waist, pulling him closer. Finally they were forced to pull apart for a moment; it was either that or suffer hypoxia.
"Hiei?" Kurama murmured, faintly surprised.
Hiei grinned up at him from under sultry half-lidded eyes, baring his little fangs. "Just because I was a little nervous at first, doesn't mean I don't know what to do."
Kurama chuckled, darting forward to kiss the tip of his nose. "You mean I don't have to teach you everything?" he teased.
Hiei growled, tugging his head forward again, kissing him even more thoroughly. He bit Kurama's lip and the youko gasped; he took advantage of that to slip his tongue inside for a leisurely exploration. Kurama was surprised at this sudden change in Hiei, but completely delighted. It really did seem that once Hiei had gotten past the first hurdle - admitting his feelings - he was now eager to move on.
He lost track of that train of thought as Hiei pulled his shirt from his pants, sliding his hands underneath. *Wow - fast learner. . .* he thought dazedly, his tongue wrestling against Hiei's as the kiss became more rugged. Hiei's fingers sought, and found, the tender parts of his chest and began to tease.
Kurama sought to pull the youkai closer and they both froze for an instant as their bodies pressed together, eliciting an unmistakable reaction from both parties. Then Hiei's tongue came to life in his mouth and he was pushing insistently at Kurama's shirt.
Hiei broke the kiss first, both their breaths coming faster. "Get it off before I start biting buttons."
"Is that a promise, or a threat?" Kurama murmured back, his voice catching. But his fingers moved quickly to the buttons before Hiei could make good on his words. Missing buttons would be AWFULLY hard to explain to Yuusuke and Kuwabara. . .
He paused, however, after he had unbuttoned the last one, a tiny frown creasing his brows. Hiei made a noise of impatience and moved to grab his shirt, but Kurama pulled back slightly.
"Hiei. . .not that I'm complaining, or anything. . .I've been wanting to do this for. . .well, a long time! But why now. . .why all of a sudden?" Kurama held his breath. After hesitating for so long, this sudden aggressiveness, while not uncharacteristic of Hiei, was at least slightly puzzling.
"Kurama." Hiei's eyes met his firmly, darkening with desire. "I've been waiting. . .watching you a long time for I didn't know what. Now I know. And now. . .you're *mine.*"
Kurama blinked at the forceful tone of his voice, as Hiei stepped into him again, strong arms winding around his neck. But he didn't go for the lips this time. Hiei's mouth sought, and found, the sensitive joining of neck and shoulder, and Kurama sighed as his tongue darted out to lap against his skin.
Then he yelped as Hiei's fangs dug in, hard.
His arms tightened around Hiei as the little Koorime bit into him, then released his hold, licking at the wound he'd made. He nuzzled him possessively. Kurama then remembered something about Koorime behavior, and realized with a slight shock that Hiei had just claimed him, and marked him, as his mate.
Kind of like an engagement ring.
"Oh. . ." His eyes fluttered as Hiei traced a fiery path down his skin with hot, moist kisses, then encountered a nipple. Hiei's hands moved from around his neck and down the bared skin of his chest and stomach, hovering low. He let his head fall back and just enjoyed the sensations as Hiei took the nipple into his mouth, sucking hard, and his hands moved around to settle in the small of Kurama's back. He gasped as Hiei pressed up against him again, harder this time.
A scream from the nearby clearing caused them both to jerk in surprise, and Kurama yelped as Hiei's teeth clamped around his nipple involuntarily. They pulled apart.
"Sorry," the Koorime muttered, wiping his lips, and Kurama pulled his shirt hastily together, buttoning it as they ran for the clearing.
Yuusuke was on his feet by the fire as they burst into the little clearing, and he whirled to confront them wide-eyed, aiming at them with shaky hands.
"Yuusuke! What's wro-" Kurama started, then Hiei knocked him over as Yuusuke fired his rei gun.
They rolled on the ground, crashing into Kuwabara, who leapt to his feet with a horrid, high-pitched scream. "Rei ken!" he yelled, instantly lashing out at whatever had disturbed him.
Once again Hiei's fast reflexes saved them as he yanked himself and Kurama out of range.
"What the hell is going on!?" Kurama sputtered, as Kuwabara lunged again with his rei ken. They scrambled to their feet and dodged, scattering. Kurama threw himself to the ground again as Yuusuke fired the rei gun, narrowly missing.
Something was very wrong here.
Yuusuke started towards him, rage and blind violence promised in his eyes as he sighted on Kurama once more, building up his ki. Kurama narrowed his eyes, putting a hand to the ground he was lying on, feeling the life within swell to respond at his touch. The thick grass below Yuusuke's feet burst upward, wrapping around his ankles and jerking him off his feet. Yuusuke fell, screaming curses, trying to focus his ki for another attack and Kurama acted swiftly, pulling a few choice seeds out of his hair and tossing them in Urameshi's direction.
Vines exploded from the ground as Kurama coaxed them into full-fledged life, and a flower bloomed in the dead of night, unfurling its pale luminous petals and at the same time, a sweetly-scented, heavy gas. Yuusuke twitched, thrashing against the inexorable hold of the tough, flexible vines, then went limp as the gas of Kurama's blossom took effect.
Kurama levered himself up and stood over the unconscious young man, frowning. Then his head snapped up as Kuwabara's war cry shook the glade.
"Don't kill him!" Kurama called out hastily, afraid that Hiei would give in to the impulse to just slay the source of his torment once and for all.
Hiei paused even in the midst of his fight with Kuwabara to slant Kurama a scornful Look, as if to say, 'Hey, I'M not the stupid one!'
Kuwabara continued to lunge doggedly at Hiei, his rei ken flashing in vicious arcs as he howled at the fire demon with almost mindless rage. "Korosu. . .omae wa korosu!" Kuwabara raged. "You'll pay for hurting Yukina!"
Hiei flinched at the mention of his sister's name, and the rei ken narrowly missed him as he almost waited half a second too long.
"Sensui. . ." Yuusuke mumbled beside him, and Kurama turned to stare at him. Yuusuke's eyes were jerking beneath closed lids. "Sensui, I'll KILL you!" His lips peeled back in a snarl.
Kuwabara leapt again, and Kurama suddenly recognized the blank look in his eyes, the one that he and Yuusuke had shared from the moment he and Hiei had run into the clearing.
"Hiei!" Kurama yelled. "He's not attacking you!"
"The hell he isn't!" Hiei snapped viciously, leaping back from another blow and raising his katana.
"He's dreaming! He's asleep, and he thinks you're someone who hurt Yukina!"
Hiei glared up at the mountainous carrot-topped bane of his existence, but flitted back from Kuwabara's rei ken again without striking.
"I'll kill you, Yakumo!" Kuwabara screamed.
Hiei hesitated for a beat, and Kurama's heart leapt into his throat as the fire demon waited until nearly the last instant, then ducked under the blazing spirit sword and struck. The blow carried behind it the weight of constant, irritating insults, repetitive height jokes, and stupid human tricks, and Hiei wore a VERY satisfied expression as Kuwabara toppled to the ground. The rei ken guttered out.
"I hope you didn't hurt him," Kurama said calmly, walking over to the demon standing over the body of his nemesis, wearing a faint grin.
"Hn," Hiei replied.
Kurama tossed down a few more seeds to grip Kuwabara in the same tangle of greenery he'd encased Yuusuke in, and added the sleeping plant for good measure.
"I don't know what's going on here," he said to Hiei, "but I don't trust them until we do."
Hiei lifted an eyebrow, looking as if he were contemplating some form of interesting torture as he observed how helpless Kuwabara now was.
"Don't," Kurama warned him, with a faintly amused smile. Which turned up at the corners into a more impish grin. "Ne, Hiei, now that they're incapacitated. . .why don't we finish where we left off?"
Hiei glared at the suddenly playful redhead who stood next to him, moving a hand forward to brush over his cheek. "Hn," he responded. "Always in the mood, aren't you?" But he didn't swat the hand away.
Kurama's grin widened.
He pressed thoughtful fingers to the wound at his shoulder, feeling the teethmarks Hiei had left. "Ne, Hiei. . .does this mean that we're married?" He blinked wide, innocent eyes at the fire youkai, who scowled up at him.
"Baka," Hiei informed him. "It means I've claimed you for my mate."
"Marriage is a stupid human custom."
"Ah, I see," Kurama murmured, moving closer. "But we haven't mated yet."
Now Hiei *did* push at him, looking irritable. "Not now," he said shortly. "First, we have to figure out who did this, and why."
"Isn't it obvious?" Kurama said dryly.
The Koorime looked irritated. "Favor me with your brilliant observations," he spat sarcastically.
"Yuusuke and Kuwabara both looked as if they were sleep-walking - you'll notice they had wide, blank stares."
"Kuwabara ALWAYS has a wide, blank stare."
Kurama suppressed chuckle. "Well, more than usual, then. They were both dreaming - experiencing some kind of vision in which they faced down an enemy who had hurt them, or someone they loved. Yuusuke was whimpering Sensui's name, and Kuwabara called out-"
"Yakumo," Hiei completed quietly. "Who hurt Yukina."
"Yes," Kurama agreed. "That's who they saw when they were fighting us."
"Then how could this happen?" Hiei whipped around, jerking the ward off of his Jagan, opening the third eye and scanning deeply into the night. He was silent for several heartbeats while Kurama waited patiently.
"I don't sense anyone nearby," he finally said, closing the third eye. "But there's some kind of disturbance on an overlying plane. . .a different wavelength, it seems."
"The dream plane, I'm willing to bet," Kurama replied grimly. Their eyes locked.
"Yumenoshu," they said in unison.
"He must be the one who hired those thieves to steal the artifacts," Hiei observed. "He wouldn't try to kill us so badly if he weren't."
"I agree," Kurama replied. "This means we can't fall asleep."
"Hn," Hiei responded. He jerked his thumb at the helpless occupants of Kurama's mesh vines. "What do we do about them?"
"We can't just leave them here and go attack Yumenoshu," Kurama responded, a slight frown marring his flawless brow. "They'd be killed by something else that happened along, something that wouldn't mind something tasty and helpless."
"Good luck gnawing on Kuwabara," Hiei cheered on whatever creature chose to try.
"But we can't stay here, either," Kurama continued, ignoring Hiei. "We're going to have to wake them up somehow. Yumenoshu must be controlling them through their dreams. If they aren't sleeping, they aren't dreaming."
"Just let me try," Hiei arched an eyebrow, contemplating Kuwabara's motionless form.
Kurama frowned at him, and plucked another seed from his hair, growing a plant quickly. Its acrid fumes made both of them draw back quickly.
"This should do the trick," he said with satisfaction.
He pinched his nose shut with the nostrils of one hand, reaching out with the other to tear some leaves off the plant.
He wafted the strong-smelling leaves under Yuusuke's nose and the other young man jerked abruptly, then his eyes snapped open. He stared up wildly at Kurama, then seemed to realize the position he was in.
"Kurama, what the hell-" he started, testing against the strong vines that held him captive.
Kurama sighed with relief. He was awake. Really awake, this time.
"I had the most horrible dream! Sensui-"
"I know," Kurama replied. "You tried to kill me." With a slight gesture, the vines around Urameshi's body unraveled and fell away.
"I DID!?" Yuusuke was aghast. He sat up. "Damn, man, I'm sorry! I don't know what happened."
"We have a theory," Kurama answered grimly, then, still holding his nostrils shut, took the plant over to Kuwabara.
The big man was less than repentant on hearing he'd almost killed Hiei. "Why the hell'd you stop me?" he demanded, eyeing the vines that had encased him.
"I didn't," Kurama replied calmly. "Hiei stopped you."
"He clocked you, man!" Yuusuke crowed with laughter.
Kuwabara's face reddened and he leapt to his feet. "Listen you-"
"No, you listen," Kurama interrupted, uncharacteristically fierce. "This Yumenoshu must be stopped, before anything else happens. Now. Tonight. None of us can sleep until he's been taken care of."
Kuwabara's face fell. "But I'm tiiiired," he whined. "I need plenty of sleep to accomplish my heroic deeds!"
"You must not ever get much sleep, then," Hiei smirked.
"NANI!?" Kuwabara yelled, whirling on him.
Kurama stepped in hurriedly to prevent another fight.
As they approached the stronghold of Yumenoshu, several things were running through Hiei's mind.
Among the uppermost thoughts was regret for allowing Kurama's human conscience to prevail over ridding himself of a pest once and for all.
Another was the boldness with which he'd claimed the kitsune for his own.
He had never expected anyone would ever get close enough to him to be a friend to him as Kurama had, let alone slipping so far inside his barriers that he would even *consider* a sexual relationship. Let alone the one most binding to his kind. But when Kurama had told him - admitted, eyes downcast - that morning that he loved him, Hiei had come to realize over the course of the day exactly how he wanted to respond to that. He didn't have to say anything in response. He wasn't good at that, anyway. But he could mark Kurama, and make him his mate.
Hiei irritably flicked aside such thoughts, so useless to their impending conflict, and focused on the task at hand.
The dream strike had been subtle. Undoubtedly the flare of white light that had struck them earlier in the day, from that talisman, had primed them for Yumenoshu's later entrance. The exercise of youki to control the sleeping minds of Yuusuke and Kuwabara had been so subtle, so skillful, he hadn't even detected it.
The stronghold appeared taut and impenetrable in the harsh moonglow, a barrier to all comers.
"There are several ways we could do this," Yuusuke said thoughtfully, then grinned. "But I've always loved going in the front gate. It always gives them such a shock!"
Hiei chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. It would be a simple matter to leap to the battlements, drop inside, and lower the portcullis as Urameshi surely envisioned. But was it advisable?
"Hiei, would you care to scout it out?" Yuusuke asked him almost politely.
"Hn," was Hiei's only response, but he moved smoothly into action, skimming away before they could even blink.
The battlements were patrolled by a few semi-alert, pig-headed youkai. Hiei dispatched them quickly but quietly, then scanned the forecourt below. Movement - two different sets of sentries. The trick would be to dispatch all four before one of the pairs could sound the alarm. Hiei grinned a little. No problem.
Moments later he was uncranking the portcullis, first making sure the damned thing wouldn't make enough racket to raise the dead - or the demons. Urameshi, Kuwabara, and Kurama sprinted from cover, joining him.
They hastily cranked it down again, to maintain a semblance of normalcy in the courtyard. Hiei had hidden the guards' bodies already. As the jaws of the portcullis slammed shut, big steel teeth biting into the ground, a white mist began to hiss from the walls, draining the strength from their limbs.
Hiei cursed steadily and lyrically, most of the invective aimed at himself for being a fool, and the questionable parentage of their captor for being so dishonorable, as he toppled and hit the ground.
Hiei sat up with a start, moving to sit up and winced. He clutched at the bleeding wound that formed a bloody tunnel through his shoulder - obviously someone had tried to kill him while he lay locked in the unnatural slumber, but that someone had been a bleeding incompetent and hadn't finished him off. They'd completely missed the heart. He struggled to his feet, katana gripped in his hands. The others were gone. Kurama was gone.
He yanked the ward off his Jagan, pressing his consciousness outward, searching for any traces of that fox and his companions. There. . .off in the distance. The faint, fluttering sense of youki and reiki - weak and growing weaker.
Why hadn't he been taken? Why only the others? Why had they tried to kill only him?
*If you go now. . .i'll spare your life. . .pathetic youkai. . .*
Hiei whirled, the Jagan glowing an angry purple in the center of his forehead. It had been a ghostly whisper across his senses. But when he probed, nothing was there. A faint, faraway laugh fluttered at the edge of his Jagan's "sight," cold and brittle, the sound of breaking glass.
*HE doesn't love you.*
The voice was flat, final. Colder.
It sounded like Kurama's voice.
Hiei ignored the brittle voice and hurried deeper into the stronghold. He met with instant resistance, and was pressed in close quarters by at least a dozen bodies. Hiei snarled and launched himself at the foremost opponent, striking out with his katana and a flare of dark fire. The fluttering sensation at the back of his mind - Kurama's youki - was growing weaker. He set his mouth in a grim line and carved his way through the scores of opponents who stood between him and his destination. They practically threw themselves on his blade, and Hiei recognized the wide, blank stare Kurama had mentioned earlier, which meant they were being controlled.
Finally Hiei stood alone in a hallway littered with bodies and gore, barely breathing hard. He put a hand to his shoulder, where the blood now dripped thickly. Making a small face, he generated a lick of fire, searing at the open wound with the heat of the flame to cauterize it.
*All you can offer him is death and destruction. . .*
Once again he brushed off the annoying voice. Yumenoshu playing games, but he wasn't even asleep. It must be something his Jagan could sense, some residual energy of the disrupted dream plane leaking over that he could detect.
Hiei followed the faint sense of his teammates' ki. Kurama's youki was a strangely fluttering sensation that scared him with its weakness - and then it wrenched in his othersight and he blinked. No. NO! Where were they, damn it all to hells! He blurred up the hallway.
He blurred to a halt, wrenching open the door in front of him, and inside the room sprawled on the cold stone floor were the bodies of his teammates. His eyes went wide and utterly still for a moment as it seemed like Kurama was not breathing. Then the youko's chest rose in a shallow breath and Hiei's breath resumed with it, ragged. Even a fraction of a second had been too long to consider the possibility that that fox. . .that sneaky, thieving fox! - could be dead.
He approached warily. Were they asleep, or merely unconscious? Yuusuke and the idiot seemed okay. Why had he only sensed Kurama in distress? Kneeling, he felt at the fox's pulse. It beat strongly under his fingers.
Kurama sat up, blinked, focused on Hiei.
"Hn," he responded, struggling to keep the concern out of his face and voice as he let go of his wrist, fingers lingering.
"Hiei, sometimes you are so stupid," Kurama said, a smile curling his lips. But it wasn't the familiar, playful smile the kitsune usually gave him.
"What?" Hiei frowned. "What do you mean, fox?"
"How could you think I would ever be in love with something like YOU?"
Kurama's gem-brilliant eyes were hard, meeting his gaze with an icy merciless stare. For an endless instant he was falling, like the pit of his stomach, into an abyss of pain, as every single insecurity, every betrayal, every loss flashed back to him to punch him in the gut, wearing green eyes. Kurama's laughing, smiling, teasing face danced before him, then transformed into a snarl and took the words back, turning them into stabbing shards that tore away anything he might have ever gained. . .
His eyes. Kurama's eyes.
His emerald-bright eyes.
Jewel-deep, blank eyes.
Hiei snarled, the Jagan in his eye opening once more, and he plunged himself without a second thought into Kurama's mind.
He opened. . .other eyes, in another place. A gray, empty place swirling with mist and cold. The unformed dreamscape. Normally in a person's mind this would be filled with images and settings formed and shaped by their own subconscious. . .but this was the blank, neutral setting he had found usually occurred when a person was under control.
He should know; he'd done it before.
"Yumenoshu!!" Hiei yelled out a challenge. He drew his katana.
*That won't do any good here,* an amused voice wrapped around him from the shadows, low and liquid.
Hiei narrowed his eyes and held tight to the weapon. "It will if I believe it can," he growled back.
The fog coalesced into a slender form, not much taller than his own. Hiei stared in shock. "You're a. . ."
"Woman," Yumenoshu confirmed, a faint smile touching her lips.
Hiei shrugged. It didn't matter. Woman or no, this being had taken possession of his mate. He lunged forward, katana sweeping in a vicious, glinting arc.
Yumenoshu dissolved in a swirl of fog and breathless laughter.
*How will you save him, Hiei?* she taunted. *He is in MY embrace now. What can you do against the power of his own dreams, once they become MINE?*
Hiei snarled soundlessly and stopped, stock-still. He couldn't use physical force against this one. But he still had his wits. . .and his Jagan.
THAT was why. She had taken Kurama and the others because her power could reach them through her power over the dreamscape she could control in the stupor of their slumber. But his Jagan. . .somehow it rendered him proof against her manipulations of the dreamscape. That was why he'd been left for dead at the portcullis. If he could link, somehow, with that youko. . .if he could FIND that youko, maybe the two of them could resist Yumenoshu together. . .
*Kurama!* he called, springing forward again, slashing uselessly at a fogbank to make the dream master believe she still had him running in circles. *Kurama!* He put all his force behind the call.
Something stirred within the dreamscape, and the fog seemed to shimmer for a moment. *. . .what. . .* he half/heard, half/felt.
*Kurama, link with me!* he called.
Kurama's consciousness had subsided beneath the gray blankness of Yumenoshu's control. He swore viciously and the dream master's laughter tinkled in broken shards around him as she stood before him again. He lunged, aiming for the heart in a killing blow -- if, that is, he'd been able to score.
"K'so!" She vanished again.
*Kurama!* he shouted again in his mind, increasing the strength of the call. The ground beneath his feet shifted and stirred.
*. . .hiei. . .?* It was a whisper on the edge of his senses, tickling his mind, but not connecting with him. *. . . . .* The thread faded again.
Hiei clenched his teeth, realizing that the link would never be complete. . .unless he opened himself up. He heard Yumenoshu's brittle laughter and knew she was about to attack. Gathering himself desperately, he concentrated on thoughts of that infuriating, teasing, hopelessly human. . .endearing, beautiful, sexy fox. . .the kitsune who was his now, his. . .and Hiei CALLED.
There was a flash of green, a lingering scent of roses flooding through his mind.
*You called?* The warm voice filled him up inside the way he never thought anything could. Hiei closed his eyes, admitting to himself how he welcomed the touch, felt/tasted Kurama's amazement/happiness/answering welcome. . .
And then he showed his youko what he'd learned.
The dreamscape heaved and rippled as they linked completely in a meeting of minds he'd never let himself even consider, the power of Hiei's Jagan flooding through the climate of Kurama's mind that Yumenoshu had *thought* he could control. Of course, there was an exception to every rule.
Yumenoshu screamed as Kurama/Hiei took control back from her manipulations, and the encroaching wraiths of the white fog banks burned away in the brilliant outpouring of golden light. Greenery sprouted underfoot and Yumenoshu stood revealed in the no longer-barren landscape, shaking from head to foot with rage as she stared at Hiei.
*HOW could you - how DARE you - *
Hiei ignored her. He could only see Kurama.
The fox was walking towards him over a carpet of grass and flowers that bloomed under his feet, spreading out behind him, covering the gray bleak landscape with bright warm life. In his hand, he twirled a single red rose, giving Hiei that familiar impish smile he'd only just begun to realize he loved.
"Hn," Hiei snorted, observing his approach. "Melodramatic fox." But he allowed Kurama to see him smile before he stepped to meet him, putting his arms around him and drawing him into a tight embrace.
Yumenoshu evaporated in motes of screaming energy, expelled from Kurama's dreamscape, no longer able to control or even remain a part of it in the face of the fierce bond she had infringed upon.
Hiei's eyes snapped open, and the Jagan eased shut. He drew back from a muffling mouthful of red hair, blinking as he realized he was wrapped securely in Kurama's arms, the fox's arms twined around him. He pulled back, half-afraid to see the same blank stare in his eyes as before.
Kurama gave him a gentle smile.
"Hn. It worked," was Hiei's only comment, and he wriggled uneasily in Kurama's embrace, looking at the prone forms of their companions. "What do you think happened to Yumenoshu?"
"Do you think we killed her?" Kurama responded, a frown creasing his brow.
"Let's find out," Hiei said with a hard-edged smile. Anyone who messed with his fox's mind was toast.
They quickly woke Yuusuke and Kuwabara, then searched through the fortress. They met no further resistance, but found a lot of fallen bodies, and not in the corridor Hiei had carved his way through.
"It wasn't me!" Hiei exclaimed defensively.
"Yeah, right-" Yuusuke rolled his eyes.
"No, he's right," Kurama agreed, examining one of the fallen youkai. "There isn't a mark on them. It seems like they all just. . .collapsed."
"Maybe Yumenoshu's dead!" Yuusuke said hopefully.
"She was on the dreamscape," Hiei grunted. "It's a plane of pure will, and she had enough to twist others' dreams to her own purposes. I doubt she's dead."
"If they all collapsed at the moment Yumenoshu was expelled from my mind, perhaps she truly is gone," Kurama said thoughtfully.
"But. . .where is Yumenoshu?" Yuusuke frowned. "And the artifacts she stole?"
They all looked baffled.
Then, "Leave it up to me, the great Kuwabara Kazuma! I, wielder of the mighty rei ken, will use my awesome ability-"
"To prove what an ass you are?" Hiei sniffed.
"NANI!?" Kuwabara squealed, his voice spiraling on a broken upward note. He lunged for Hiei and Yuusuke grabbed him reflexively. "You little sh-"
"Cool it, man!" Yuusuke exclaimed.
"Let's just find Yumenoshu," Kurama urged, touching Hiei's arm lightly. The fire demon glared balefully at Kuwabara but disdained to continue.
It was Hiei who finally led them to the room in the tower, as he followed the scent of decay. Kuwabara broke the locks on the tower with a flick of his rei ken. Within the room, lying on the bed, was a body wasted beyond repair. Beside the bed which reeked of rotting flesh and mold was a table that contained the proscribed artifacts Koenma had sent them for; they recognized those from the pictures the Prince had shown them.
"It's Yumenoshu," Hiei said curtly.
"What!?" Yuusuke and Kuwabara exclaimed, reeling.
"But she's dead!" Yuusuke protested. "How-"
Kurama's eyes were deep and thoughtful.
"So it was Yumenoshu who stole the artifacts?" Koenma blinked. "That makes sense."
"HOW!?" Yuusuke demanded, frustrated. "She was dead!"
"But her spirit never departed," Koenma informed him, adopting a lecturing attitude. "By virtue of her special youki, Yumenoshu was able to manipulate the dreamscape."
"We got that part," Yuusuke said impatiently. "But she was dead. DEAD! As a doornail! And rotting!"
"Well, a youkai of her power could go back and forth on the dreamscape. So instead of dying, she transferred her consciousness there. Not having a physical body to tie her down, weaken her with its demands gave her more power. Which was why she was able to control you so thoroughly."
"Then why did she have her stooges steal those artifacts?" Kuwabara put in. "If she had so much power. . .what could those do for her?"
Koenma fixed a brilliant eye on him. "What's the use of having power if you can't enjoy most of its benefits?"
"She wanted to be alive again," Kurama murmured.
"Yes, exactly," Koenma beamed. "Those proscribed artifacts would have enabled her with the means to transfer her living spirit, via the dreamscape, into a new body."
Kuwabara made a face. "But her body was already rotting when we found it."
"Like your intellect," Hiei snorted. Kuwabara turned a mottled shade of red and lunged; Hiei sidestepped him, appearing on the other side of the room.
"Yumenoshu wasn't going to return to a rotting corpse," Hiei continued, flicking a disdainful gaze at the ranting Kuwabara, held back by long-suffering Yuusuke.
"Not her body," Kurama added quietly. "Mine."
Yuusuke's and Kuwabara's eyes widened, and the carrot-topped man stopped struggling. "Yours!?"
"Well, shrimp," Kuwabara said, with an air of one conferring a great favor, "looks like you did some good after all, in keeping Kurama from-ack!" He stopped short, faced with a katana pricking at his adam's apple, and tried not to swallow.
Hiei turned away, having made his point.
"If you're done," he said to the Prince of the dead, "I have other places to be."
Koenma raised an eyebrow. "That was all. Good job, boys. You handled that case rather miraculously, considering it turned out rather unexpected."
Yuusuke looked speculative. "Ne, I think you owe us a trip to. . ."
"Botan! Make sure they get home!" Koenma called hurriedly, before Yuusuke could finish his sentence.
Everyone sweatdropped and looked queasy.
"Great, not the express route," Yuusuke managed, as Botan appeared with oar in hand, looking sprightly and cheerful, blue ponytail bobbing.
Kurama sat at his desk, pretending to read the sheaf of papers spread out in front of him but in reality unable to concentrate. Hiei had disappeared without a word once Botan had dropped them off, and now he had been gone for hours. He was starting to wonder if Hiei remembered that - well, that their relationship was still unconsummated.
He ran a hand through his hair, self-consciously. The one good thing that had come of the whole Yumenoshu mess had been the amazing link that he and Hiei had shared, if only for a few brief moments. If he'd ever had cause to doubt the little fire demon's feelings for him, the link would have dispelled it instantly. Hiei had been so deeply into his mind. . .he had felt/tasted Hiei's fear for him, the desperation to find him, felt how Hiei had welcomed him into his mind with relief and. . .
A slight breath of air alerted him, and the flicker of a familiar dark ki.
"Hiei," he turned, smiling. The little Koorime was perched on the windowsill, one leg tucked under him. He had discarded cloak and scarf already and his katana was leaned against the wall. His intense scarlet gaze caught at Kurama's. He hopped off the windowsill and approached him, scowling.
"Here," the fire demon shoved something at him.
Kurama's fingers closed around something round and cool. He stared into his cupped palm, holding up the polished bright perfection of a black Koorime tear gem.
"Hiei," he breathed, astonished.
Hiei had done something to it, wound a fine little mesh of silver wire about the gem, supporting it, connecting it to the fine, threadlike silver chain. Also from the chain dangled a tiny, bloodred rose charm, its stem as green as Kurama's eyes.
He looked up with a soft smile at the Koorime who was trying so hard suddenly to avoid his eyes. "Would you fasten it for me, please?"
Strong, callused fingers brushed against the nape of his neck, tingling and tickling him a bit and then Hiei patted his hair back into place.
"Now are we married?" Kurama asked almost plaintively, and heard Hiei's snort in reply.
"Stupid fox. . ." came the slow whisper, as Kurama turned around. Hiei's crimson eyes bored into him.
"Hiei, was this the only reason you came?" he couldn't help teasing him, reaching up to touch the tear gem that connected them both. An outward symbol of the link that had forged them together even more tightly than before.
Hiei's slow answering smile was more than a match for his own.
"Baka yaro," he replied. "Did you forget we're not mated until-"
Whatever he might have said next was spoken directly down Kurama's throat as the enthusiastic fox plastered him with a kiss.