Only in a way something he'd never anticipated could hurt so deeply.
There was nothing he could do to ease or erase the pain from Yukina's face. With all his speed, with all of his skill with the katana he had so prided himself on, his hesitation seesawing between the two people he cared most for, had cost a life. More.
It had cost his sister her innocence.
The one thing he'd sworn above all else to protect.
And now he'd failed.
"Yukina ... " the name fell from his lips largely unheeded as Yukina, moving with the jerkiness of a stop-action figure, wrenched away from Kurama's comforting hands and soothing murmur, something *he* could not give her, could never admit the need to give her, and fell sobbing to her knees beside the still-warm body of the thick-chested human. Maybe sometimes he'd been thick-headed. But he hadn't been deserving of Hiei's failure. Although his final choice, in death, bespoke the valiancy he forced himself to admit it now with which Kuwabara had lived the rest of his life.
"He's not - " The words were shrill, cutting through the chill, suddenly blood-drenched clearing. Botan's voice.
"He's not dead!" Yukina sobbed, her voice breaking on an upward note as she placed blood-smeared hands on the ruin of Kuwabara's chest. Once more she desperately tried to infuse the ragged tears with her healing power, tried to force a healing on the lifeless flesh. Amazingly, the edges of the wound began to close, a testimony to Yukina’s sheer force of will, then she fell back, tears cutting through the stripes of blood on her face to track the mingling blood and salty drops towards her chin. "I can't..."
"Yukina..." Hiei took a step forward, knowing in the next instant he would flit away. To disappear forever this time was his only option, because he knew he couldn't live in a world where he had hurt this bright light so badly. And he could not bear his own shameful failure.
"Yukina... don't," Kurama said gently, putting his hands on the petite, slender-boned ice maiden's shoulders. She seemed as if she would shiver to snowflakes at his touch. "He's gone."
"He's gone but he's not dead!" Yukina insisted, her upturned face ghastly with intermingled blood and tears standing out against her ivory skin. "He's not! Help me, Kurama!"
Kurama faltered, wide green eyes filling with ancient sadness. "Y-yukina he's -" The half-youko's face was weighted with a timeless regret.
"He's not!" Botan added stoutly, rushing forward to kneel beside Kuwabara's body, shouldering Shizuru aside. "Yukina is right! He's not dead because I, or any of the others, have not taken him!"
"Nani!?" Yuusuke exclaimed, stepping forward, brown eyes wild and alight. "Well what's wrong with him!?"
Botan bit her lip. "He's not alive, either."
Shizuru frowned, face haggard with the shock and too-sudden grief. "I don't understand."
"I'll explain in a moment," Botan replied, turning to the wide-eyed ice maiden who still hiccuped with tiny, mournful sobs. "Yukina, Kurama I need your help!"
They each gave Botan taut nods and joined her beside Kuwabara, shuddering reflexively as they placed their hands on the gaping rents that ran from hip diagonal to shoulder. The blood still streamed a silvery moist sheen into the crisp air. Then, their hands overlapping, they concentrated the wash of healer's ki into the dreadful wound that had claimed Kuwabara's life or had it?
Botan's face twisted up suddenly. All of them rocked simultaneously, their bodies drawn tense from the strain, breath escaping in harsh fits and starts.
Hiei took another step forward.
"I - I can't..." Botan's labored breathing echoed Yukina's earlier pitiful cry.
"Botan! Take my ki!" Yuusuke urged, lurching forward to place hands atop the three healers'.
"Mine, too!" Shizuru added resolutely, doing the same.
The aura brightened visibly with the influx of power, and Botan gave them both a quick nod and smile before lapsing back into concentration. They renewed the healing with Yuusuke and Shizuru's added strength.
Hiei wobbled another step forward, his black boot landing in melted red snow.
"And mine!" he put forth, stopping just behind Yukina and Kurama.
Botan opened her eyes. "No. Not yours."
He turned away, the uprising of emotion bled away in an eyeblink with the cold emptiness that had served him so well over the years. They didn't need him. Fine.
He didn't need anyone.
Hiei retrieved his katana, unable to stall the backward glance he risked at Yukina, her pale, fine-boned face even whiter from strain, the congealing blood masklike on her nearly translucent skin. And Kurama -- the fox's brow was damp with sweat beads, lips drawn nearly in a snarl. He hadn't even bothered to tend his own wound.
He was about to gather himself for a leap that would take him into the trees, away from ningen suffering, ningen guilt... ningen death... when abruptly the little circle relaxed. Yuusuke and Shizuru pitched over with soft groans. Keiko gasped and rushed forward.
"Exhausted," Botan supplied, scraping plastered bangs away from her forehead, looking as if she fit that description, too. "And drained of reiki, for the day."
Hiei risked a glance at the F'at Kuwabara. His chest, showing
through the crimson-stained rents in
"What's wrong?" Shizuru demanded sharply, pushing herself upright. "Why isn't he breathing!? We did a healing!"
"We healed his body," Botan hedged. "So he'll have a place to return if we succeed."
"What do you mean?" Kurama prompted, his face drawn and tired. Somehow, even dulled with the edge of fatigue his wide green eyes and puckish features still evoked a subtle appeal.
"What I mean is, I felt his soul go. Being taken. But none of *us* took it. He's not dead not in Reikai's books but he's not alive, either."
"How do we get him back?" Yukina pleaded, a tear slipping from the edge of one crimson eye. The reddish brown color was a near match for the blood liberally dotting her cheeks. Hiei flinched. He would do anything to wipe that blood away.
Botan lifted her head. Even her *hair* looked limp. "Hiei, you're the only chance he has."
"N-nani!?" Hiei exclaimed, backing up. "Me!?"
"That's why I kept you out of the healing circle," Botan continued determinedly. "You're the only one left with undepleted youki the only one who can *find* Kuwabara! With your jagan!"
Hiei hesitated, looking over the prone body of the hulking craggy-featured ningen who’d tormented him so -
"Hiei-san! Onegai shimasu!"
Yukina had leapt up to grab his hands, eyes wide and pleading. He opened his mouth helplessly, fingers flexing in her grip, as she bowed her head -- her whole upper body. "Onegai..."
And now he would atone for his failure.
It was a dry whisper that penetrated the edges of his skull, percolated down through the innermost layers of consciousness.
He tried to whirl around to confront the threat and discovered
he had no body. He was floating in a
*Where are you?*
The rasping chuckle started up out of nowhere, echoing almost painfully through him, around him, and again Kuwabara searched fruitlessly for the source.
The graying sensations paled around him, brightened into an almost white-out flare, as in a burst of rapidly-shuffled snapshot images he riffled through the Ningenkai, Tokyo, scenes from school, people, places temple-home-Shizuru-restaurant-Yuusuke-Kurama-Makai-Hiei-tournament-classroom-reikai-YUKINA...
The world grayed out again.
Yukina...he grasped at that last, lost image. *Yukina! Is she okay!?* The translucent, giggling white youkai had been headed right for her he'd leapt, hoping to interpose himself in time -
*My target was the Urameshi team,* the husking whisper informed him reproachfully, sounding inside his head yet all around, at once. *The killer succeeded.*
*I'm dead!?* Kuwabara gasped, wondering at the same time if there was anything left to gasp *with.* He didn't seem to have a body, after all.
*My power splits more than silly youkai,* the dry voice replied obliquely.
There was the sensation of an impatient sigh. *I split your soul from your body, stupid.*
*I am NOT stupid!* Kuwabara raged. *I took enough of that crap from the shrimp while I was still alive!*
*You're not dead yet.* The dry voice warmed, becoming smug. *I split your soul to draw it here, and nourish me. But you will be dead soon, once your ningen body expires without your soul, and I have sucked you dry!*
Kuwabara had given up trying to identify the dry whisper. They had so many enemies. *As long as Yukina is all right...what matters to me isn't important.*
Hiei extricated himself gently but firmly from Yukina's hands.
Her face fell.
"Gomen nasai...I'm sorry, Hiei-san, I have no right to claim..."
Something in Hiei's ribcage snapped but it wasn't a physical pain. "I'll do it."
Her lily-white face brightened. "Honto ni?"
With the edge of his cloak he wiped the blood from her face, the black material sopping it up.
"I have to warn you, Hiei!" Botan interjected. "A life may be necessary to even the balance."
Hiei finished wiping away the last traces of blood. The clearing was tense with his silence, everyone awaiting his answer.
He yanked off the warded strip covering his jagan, staring solemnly back into Yukina's wide, mutely pleading eyes before both crimson ones fell shut as the third lid opened, unveiling the glowing purple implant studding his forehead. His consciousness leapt outward, dipped over Kuwabara’s still body like a scenting hound, and struck over the fading sparks of Kazuma-reiki that lingered, littering the mental landscape.
He stopped at the fallen body of the youkai he'd slain, hesitating over the alien feel of it and that was his mistake.
Hiei cried out soundlessly as he was sucked into a sinkhole of negative energy, the seemingly inert blank slate of the dead youkai breaking over a seething mass of black youki. He was pulled into... another place.
The atmosphere simply reeked of the Fool, and... Other.
*Kuwabara?* he called out, stifling the label of "fool" or "stupid ningen" that came more easily to mind.
A sensation of thrashing ensued as if, given form, it would've been wildly pinwheeling limbs. *Who's there!?*
*It's Hiei,* he returned, resisting the strong impulse to insult the boy for not recognizing him -- he *was* supposed to have reikan after all. Kuwabara was no doubt disoriented from this transplant of his soul -- not death, but worse.
*Where are we?*
*It seems to be a pocket of youki,* Hiei replied thoughtfully, extending the parameters of his awareness to feel out the extent of Kuwabara's confinement. *Strong negative youki probably triggered when that thing gave you a death blow.*
*So how do I get back?*
*Easier than how you got here,* was the retort.
*Huh?* Kuwabara's blank confusion leaked through the gray matter of the surrounding trap of youki.
Hiei gritted mental teeth. *I have a connection to my body to the outside world. Feel it?*
He felt Kuwabara tentatively "poking" at him, and resisted the urge to hit back. Stunning him with the jagan's power here might kill him for real.
*Yes...* came the dubious reply.
*Follow the connection until you can feel your own body. From there you should snap into place.*
*But what about...*
*What?* Hiei exclaimed impatiently.
*What about ME, he means!* inserted a new presence. The Other loomed large around them, its crackling dry youki winding around them with threads of menace.
*GO!* Hiei shoved Kuwabara away as the Other lashed out with its dark youki, that Hiei met with a dark pulsing fire of his own. He could feel Kuwabara stumbling along the glimmering line of his connection with his physical body, and the Other hissed at him, reaching out with gray-tipped talons of youki to clutch at Kuwabara, but Hiei stood squarely in Its way, purple flames curling all about his presence.
*What about you!?* Kuwabara was yelling, at the "crust" of the Other's trap of youki.
*Just hurry up!* Hiei yelled, out of patience, and felt Kuwabara flinching back from the mental shout, plunging out of the trap into the real world. He turned back to confront the Other's furious awareness.
*You'll pay for that,* the Other hissed, snapping out a line of power.
Hiei met it with glacial calm. *No doubt I will.*
Not long after Hiei had opened his third eye, his mouth had opened wide in a noiseless cry, and he would have tumbled to the snow if Kurama hadn't staggered to catch him, easing him down and over his lap. But Hiei's breathing remained steady and even for the next several minutes.
Then Kuwabara's chest rose in a heaving, shuddering sigh.
"Kazuma-san!" Yukina exclaimed, leaping over to him and grabbing up one of his large-boned hands in both her slender ones. "He's alive! Minna-san, he's really alive!"
They gathered around him, exclaiming their amazement.
"Yoshi! I knew Hiei would come through!" Yuusuke exclaimed, flicking away something that looked like a snowflake, but wasn't.
They were all so busy expressing their noisy happiness and amazement over Kuwabara's revival that Kurama was the only one who noticed when *Hiei* stopped breathing.
The jagan eased shut.
As Kurama was still staring dumbfounded, Hiei's body vanished from his arms. Gone, like the rising steam that had fluttered up from Kuwabara's wounds to dissipate on the air. The fox's arms curled slowly around himself, and he rocked on knees and heels, devoutly denying with every fiber of his being what he *knew* must have happened.
*A life may be necessary to even the balance.*
"Kurama? Kurama-kun, where's Hiei-san?"
Kurama turned around, forcing a smile to his numbed lips when he saw Yukina, her snow-white face aglow with happiness. "He's gone. He - he didn't want anyone fussing over him."
Yukina smiled warmly. "Oh, please thank him for me if you see him before I do! He saved Kazuma-san!" She turned back to Kuwabara, who was stammering out something about how the power of love had brought him back to her sweet arms.
The power of love. Kurama smiled bitterly. It was true. Hiei's love, for his sister.
"I'm sure he knows, Yukina-san," he said softly.
Such a hollow feeling, and peculiar he hadn't felt it since Shiori had nearly died, taking with her an important piece of his life. Only he knew that this time, there would be no Mirror of UtterDark to replace what had been lost.
Hiei was gone.
What would he do now?
He retraced his steps absently back home, pressing a hand over his stomach where blood still seeped sluggishly from the slashes he’d received. All of them had been too drained of ki to enact any sort of healing, even a minor scratch. So he hadn't wanted to bother Botan or Yukina, who surely would have fussed.
"Tadaima," Kurama called out, kicking his shoes off with unnecessary violence.
Well, it was still early afternoon. The rest of his family must have gone out somewhere, maybe for a late lunch. He was exhausted, both of his powers, and emotionally. So he was glad no one was home, as he wove a stumbling path through the empty apartment, seeking out the comfort of his room, and pitched onto the futon limply. He threw an arm over his eyes. Empty apartment. Empty room. Empty heart...
All of it was empty, empty of Hiei.
He debated his options, between falling asleep, crying himself out and then falling asleep, or making the laborious trip to the bathroom to tend his wounds before crying his heart out and then falling asleep.
The choice was made *for* him.
"Still haven't taken care of that wound?"
The voice grumbled at him from a foot away. Kurama started violently on the futon, then laid very still as a pair of hands tugged at his shirt, unbuttoned it, then something wet swiped over his abdomen. He yelped.
"Itai! That hurt, Hiei!"
He sat up and glared at the little fire demon, who glared right back. Hiei put down the bloody wet cloth and picked up a roll of bandages. Kurama remained silent as he finished dressing the wound, a little crudely but well enough, and tied it off.
"I thought you were dead."
"Hn. I'm a bit tougher than that," Hiei snorted.
"You stopped breathing."
"People stop breathing all the time."
"Usually after you kill them."
"Well, he gave me a little more trouble than I expected."
"Like I said, he gave me a little more tro-"
Kurama cut him off with a fierce kiss, wrapping his arms securely around infuriating fire demon who had almost left him today, forever. Hiei put up a token struggle then let Kurama draw him in closer for a gentling of lips that opened against one another, allowing the more intimate contact of their tongues, upping the intensity as he never failed to do.
"How's Yukina?" Hiei demanded, flushed and breathing a little faster once they pulled apart, but intent on his initial objective.
Kurama smiled. "She told me to thank you."
Hiei's brow relaxed. "Hn. And K- and the Fool?"
Kurama smiled a little wider. "He's just fine."
Kurama marveled that one short phrase could be so expressive, in so many different permutations. He drew Hiei a little closer, applying pressure to the back of his neck. "Ne...Yukina told me to thank you...shall I show you my favorite method?"
Hiei snorted again.
And in that split second before Kurama kissed him again, he thought he detected traces of amusement - and relief - in Hiei's blood-red eyes.