The sensation of sword-callused fingers
stroking through his hair, tugging softly at the red strands, brought him
up from sleep into a hazy state of half-awareness. Morning light trembled
into shards on the carpet, broken by the blinds and the faceted pane of
"Ohayo, Hiei," Kurama blinked drugged emerald eyes at his lover before unkinking each length of his body, from the heels of his hands dug into the pillow and down to his toes. He still had yet to become accustomed to the fact of waking beside Hiei - honestly, *Hiei!* - but it was like a blue moon revelation, every time. Hiei snorted as Kurama stretched on his stomach like a lithe feline, but the hand continued its grooming ministrations.
He cracked one eye open again and surveyed the dark-garbed youkai who was seated with precision, one knee crooked with the leg beneath him, on the edge of the rumpled bed. Fully dressed at this early hour meant the one thing he feared.
"I have to go," Hiei’s deep voice rumbled over his senses. The fingers twined in deep at the roots of his hair, massaging his scalp lightly. Kurama closed his eyes again.
"I know," he replied, his tone calm but a brief, strained expression flitted over his face in spite of his accustomed rigid control. Hiei was the only one he allowed himself to be this open with, the only one who saw him unguarded -- everyone else was treated to an ever-shifting cavalcade of masks. Even ’Kaasan hadn’t seen the true Kurama; she was only acquainted with well-mannered, successful Shuuichi. So being with Hiei was momentary respite. And he was growing so very weary of keeping up the flawless seam of a mask.
It wasn’t necessary to speak of where he was going; they both knew. Hiei hadn’t seen his employer since she had killed the shapeshifter, the impostor Ariodh - showing a dismaying willingness to kill any lover Hiei took. Mukuro seemed to be under the impression that she held exclusive rights over Hiei’s person. Or, as she had succinctly put it to him, "As my heir, I have the right to govern every aspect of your life...including the reservation of your affections."
They had discussed it briefly -- actually, from Hiei’s point of view he had informed Kurama he was going, and his tone would brook no argument. Then he had refused to even discuss the possibility of Kurama going with him, and with a rueful grimace he had to admit Hiei’s point was a sound one. If Mukuro was willing to kill one lover, why should she balk at killing another, even if it were the infamous Youko Kurama? So he had decided not to make life difficult for Hiei.
His breath stuck in his throat. He wanted to ask how long, but knew Hiei wouldn’t be able to give a definite answer. And he might be irritated if asked, so Kurama wasn’t willing to press the matter.
"Yosh’," Hiei’s voice spoke the word, a thread of sound against the room’s quiet.
Kurama stirred in the warm nest of sheets, opening his eyes as the hand disentangled from his sleep-mussed locks. "Hiei."
"Kiss me," he demanded, green eyes boring up into the crimson ones that had slid to a corner of the room.
The corners of Hiei’s mouth tugged upwards. "Demanding fox." Before it broke into a smile Hiei leaned close and pressed against Kurama’s lips, one hand gathering up hair at his temple and just as it seemed he was breaking away, pressed even closer as his tongue slipped into the parted mouth. Hiei’s kiss couldn’t be compared to his fire, quite -- more like heat lightning that shivered along the line of his every vein and synapse, diffuse.
He wanted to drag Hiei back into bed with him. But just as one hand lifted the fire demon, probably sensing this, broke away. "Kurama, you know--"
Kurama rolled off the bed to his feet, seizing a robe and moving towards the bathroom to leave Hiei, a black anchor against a sea of sheets, in mid-word. He knew he was making this more difficult than it had to be but perversely he enjoyed it. Perhaps it was a way to punish Hiei for denying him the choice to go with him. Even if he did have work, that had never deterred forays into the Makai before now. Kurama tied back mussed, flame-dark locks and began to brush his teeth.
A dark touch lathed at the corners of his mind, rough-edged but caressing all the same. *Ja ne. Stubborn kitsune.* A fitful gust of wind broke through the room, flapping the sheets and raking at his tied hair with indelicate fingers, unlike the stroking that had woken him.
He sighed and spat into the sink. Maybe it was better this way, to pretend it was only a brief parting; to go about his regular schedule. He didn’t have an absolute claim over Hiei’s activities nor would it be fair to ask -- the same way Hiei would never ask him to leave Shiori and his current ties to the Ningenkai, however much the fire demon disliked it.
When he returned to the bedroom it was empty, as he’d known it would be; the window shut behind before the slight chill outside could drain away the warmth. Nuzzling Hiei’s neck in their tangle of sheets, bodies fit together, he had been warm. Not now. The only token his Jaganshi lover had left behind was a few scattered articles of clothing he’d decided he wouldn’t need for such a short trip.
Kurama ignored the rumpled bed and general state of disarray in the room and dressed swiftly, shutting the bedroom door behind him before he could give in to the urge to press a handful of Hiei-scented sheets or slacks to his face. Rub his cheek along the fabric and imprint its smell, like a youko.
He flushed. That was the problem.
Brewing coffee in the wide, functional kitchen of his apartment and fixing a lunch to bring to work occupied his hands but unfortunately left his mind idle. So his train of thought continued without mercy. He wasn’t afraid for Hiei -- that wasn’t at stake at all. Kurama had always had absolute faith in Hiei, despite the fire demon’s indications to the contrary; that had never been at issue for the length of their friendship and there was no reason for it to change now that they were more. He knew he could trust Hiei to be himself, and that was inflexible in his own code of honor. And for some reason, Hiei had chosen him. So Kurama knew the only way to lose him would be for himself to change his mind. Hiei never would.
A simple explanation for his own behavior - sharp displeasure at Hiei’s new absence; sulking about in pretended indifference -- had begun to form in his mind, but Kurama was uneasy to consider it. He tilted the pungent cup of coffee to his lips. His mind was already considering it, though.
He was acting, in a disjointed, blurred echo of behavior patterns, like a youko in heat -- more specifically, the mating-bond behavior. Now that he was with Hiei, it was the first time he -- as Minamino Shuuichi -- had been sexually active. He bit back a curse as a hasty swallow hit the roof of his mouth with scalding coffee.
It hadn’t started until this morning, though. But this was the first time he and Hiei would be apart for more than a day or two since the first time they’d... Well, there it was.
He sighed and began to wash the dishes -- quickly, or he’d be late. Perhaps it was a good thing Hiei was gone for a short while. It meant time and space to sort things out.
* * *
Hatanaka Kazuya ran a successful firm in one of the more well-to-do business districts of Tokyo. It was through business contacts, by virtue of the engaging social medium of the infamous ëbusiness lunch’ that he’d met his wife-to-be, Minamino Shiori. Frequently the union of single parents as they were led to unhappiness or resentment for the children involved. But Kurama had always considered the Hatanakas a blessing, for Shiori and himself.
The wide office he worked in now was a partial reflection. Although windowless and a little cold in the winter, it was more than any other second-year associate could hope for. It was nepotism that had earned him a cubicle and stack of files to start with, but his own work ethic and efficient manner had landed him a position as assistant to one of the lower senior executives, and his own (albeit small) office. He was well on his way to being a junior executive, himself. In a way it paralleled Kazuya’s success for he’d been a mid-level executive when he met Shiori; now he was the CEO of his own firm. It was a measure of his modesty -- and the deep attachment in his marriage -- that he attributed his rise entirely to Shiori’s influence and support. He and Kazuya were on more than friendly terms; their relationship was as warm as that of Shuuichi-kun and *his* father.
Kurama rested his chin in his hands, regarding a portion of the wall wistfully, where the window might be -- if he had one. It had been a week since Hiei had left, nearly -- since the fire demon had gone on Monday, and it was Friday now.
He eyed the stack of paperwork on his desk. One detriment to displaying a willingness to work was the dismaying tendency of superiors to heap *more* upon you. Kazuya had often urged him to take a break or small vacation and now, considering Hiei’s renewed and expanded role in his life, he probably would. A secret smile curved his lips. There was something so seductive about having this relationship gathered close to him, like those still-scented sheets, that no one else knew.
The polite knock was followed by the insinuation of head and shoulder around the jamb of the half-open door. "Konnichiwa, Shuuichi-kun!"
"Konnichiwa, Hatanaka-san," Kurama replied. Although Kazuya encouraged familiarity among his executives and other members of his office, Kurama was very much aware that his behavior was under constant scrutiny of favoritism. So he strove to treat Kazuya as any other employee would.
"Sakamoto-san has been badmouthing you as usual," Kazuya began, eyes twinkling. It was a familiar complaint and it made Kurama smile - so typically Japanese. Rather than embarrass him by recounting the praises his boss, Sakamoto Toryo, bestowed on him Kazuya instead made oblique reference by speaking of complaints where there was no possibility of such.
"Ah, I suppose I’m a week behind, again," Kurama returned, green eyes kindling with a spark of warmth. It was the typical response -- he averaged a week ahead in his paperwork.
"Hai-hai," came the cheerful reply. "We may have to suspend you to make an example to the other employees." Kazuya threatened this frequently, but the ‘suspension’ was a vacation.
Kurama’s smile broadened. He was about to shock his step-father. "I may take you up on that, in a few weeks." *When Hiei comes back,* he added to himself.
Kazuya’s eyes widened briefly, then he grinned and clutched at his heart. "God damn!" the Americanism tripped from his lips, "the world grates to a halt! Does Armageddon approach? Minamino Shuuichi, taking a vacation-we may have to close the entire office!"
Kurama bore the good-natured teasing. Kazuya’s reaction was understandable -- since his first day the only time off he’d taken was the standard length for Shougatsu. And recently a few well-explained days for fighting youkai -- the damned things never waited for the weekend. "I suppose such a scolding is what I deserve for being such a terrible employee," he returned, a small smile flitting over his mouth.
"Aa," Kazuya inclined his head, then took a few more steps into the office, his tone altering. "Naa, Shuuichi, if I might ask a favor...?"
"Of course," Kurama inclined his head, one eyebrow raising. He didn’t work directly under Kazuya, so any requests were invariably family issues.
"I’d like to surprise Shiori with a weekend trip to the hot springs," and here Kazuya’s dark eyes turned inward, his smile warmer, "and I wondered if you could take Shuuichi-kun, if that wouldn’t be an imposition. If it’s any inconvenience we could take him with us--"
"Nonsense," Kurama said briskly. He smiled. They would do it, too, and consider it no detriment to their weekend. "I haven’t seen him in awhile. It’s no trouble. And if Shuu-kun carts his Playstation along, I’m sure he won’t even notice the change in location for a few days."
"Yokatta!" Kazuya exclaimed, pressing his hands together and bowing in Kurama’s direction, glasses slipping askew on his nose. "Chance! Doumo arigato, Shuuichi! I’m indebted to you."
Kurama smiled at his stepfather’s palpable delight. "Well, boss, maybe we could overlook my delinquent habits for another week."
"Certainty, certainly," Kazuya bobbed his head with a magnanimous air, then spoiled it by dissolving into a grin. "Shuu-kun is in school right now, of course, and Shiori suspects nothing -- it was my day to pick him up."
"I’ll take care of everything," Kurama assured him, already mentally considering the best bus route from here to Meiou High.
Kazuya flashed him another surprisingly boyish grin, thanked him again, and turned to go. Kurama wished him sincerely a good weekend.
His thoughts were somewhat jumbled as he turned his attention back to his desk and the piles of paperwork. Shuuichi-kun would be a welcome distraction from a house too suddenly empty after feeling brim-filled from the past few weeks.
The crucial question was...did he have enough food for an insatiable teenager’s appetite? Kurama sighed. The pantry was still in pitiful shambles from their post-Hakamura celebratory party not too long ago.
* * *
In the competitive arena of Meiou High, Hatanaka Shuuichi was becoming ever more hard-pressed to live up to the overwhelming standards his older brother had inadvertently left behind as a legacy. Each of his teachers somehow already *knew,* despite the difference in familial names, that Minamino Shuuichi was Shuuichi-kun’s ‘oniisama.’ But this was somewhat more of a hand-me-down than old clothes were -- not, he assured himself, that he would ever accept Shuuichi’s old clothes in any case. His step-brother seemed to wear a lot of....flowing-type clothing, when he hadn’t worn his school uniform or the work clothes he’d exchanged the uniform for.
He scratched behind his ear with the pencil as he set himself to another difficult math problem. The clothes, he had to admit, only gave substance to sniggering rumors from the rowdier boys in the schoolyard, who pointed out that his fashion sense, coupled by the fact that he had rejected any and all admirers in high school, only proved that he was...was...
Shuuichi’s ears turned red. They called him gay.
Shuuichi-kun, now that he was placed in the position of filling his step-brother’s shoes, was beginning to understand why his step-brother had never had a girlfriend -- he had never possessed a spare instant of time to entertain such a time-consuming thing as a girl! Since Hatanaka Kazuya was always so proud when he brought home grades that were almost -- never quite as -- good as Shuuichi’s, it made him struggle that much harder to live up to his red-haired step-brother’s academic reputation.
But it was so damned hard!
He began to chew on his eraser, a bad habit that spent yen like water for new pencils. That was another thing that bothered him. Shuuichi seemed so...well...so *perfect!* It was maddening, because you couldn’t get mad at such a nice, considerate person as his older ‘brother,’ but... It was impossible. Impossible to live up to the standards he’d set, but conversely Shuuichi-kun was determined to grit his teeth and *try.* Still, it would help if Shuuichi had *some* small flaw or bad habit or defect, even if it were something so small as an irritating laugh or...or hell, even if he *was* gay.
It was hopeless. Shuuichi was perfect.
The bell washed over the bent, intent heads of the students and everyone’s eyes snapped up with relief. The teacher nodded to the class leader and she led them in the leave-taking formalities, collecting papers, and then Shuuchi squeezed his way through class and hallway bustle to fight his way to his locker.
"Hey, Hatanaka-kun!" one of his classmates shouted with an offensive grin, as Shuuichi passed him on his way out. "There’s a bee-yoo-tiful lady waiting for you in front of the school!"
Another boy smacked his lips together in kissy-noises. "A real babe!"
Minamino Shuuichi wasn’t just hard to live up to...he was hard to live down, too, sometimes.
Shuuchi rolled his eyes. "Assholes," he muttered. He flipped his schoolbag over his shoulder, not-quite-accidentally clipping close to one boy’s face, making him yelp and skitter back.
"Embarrassed of your kawaii brother?" the first one chuckled. "Naa, Shuuichi, all those girls clustered around him and not a single date - you sure he’d rather not have *my* number, instead?"
It was a tired old slam and he’d been hearing it since middle school. There were two possible returns -- swing around and smash his knuckles into the offensively-plastered smile on the boy’s face, bloodying his fingers and the boy’s teeth and experiencing tremendous short-lived satisfaction. Or, keep walking and ignore the crude insults -- which was the only thing he could do, because anything else would lend credence to their nasty prattling.
Minamino Shuuichi’s brilliant red head lifted as Shuuichi-kun approached, a cascade of silk-fire locks that framed a wide porcelain face crowned with jewel-bright green eyes. The length of hair did contribute to the illusion of femininity, but it was so beautiful that first his high school, and now his place of business gave permission to bridge dress code rather than shear off the wealth of hair.
"Shuuichi!" Shuu-kun waved his hand, dashing over the lawn to hurry up to his step-brother, grinning like an eager puppy. Despite his classmates’ words there weren’t any gaggles of girls hanging around his brother, although a few did still hang about, casting longing looks or whispering together at a distance. "I haven’t seen you in forever! Hey, what’re you doing here?"
"Tousan is taking Shiori away for the weekend," the redheaded older boy replied, giving him a wink.
"Honto? That’s great!" Shuuichi cheered. "I get to stay at your place and stay up all night and eat junk food! And no one’ll yell at me for gluing my eyes to the TV and crappy programming!"
"Oh no?" the elder Shuuichi turned an amused glance on him.
Shuu-kun offered up an unrepentant grin. "Well, maybe *some* of that. Hey, ‘niisan, can we get some American food for dinner? Like pizza?"
"We’ll see..." Minamino hedged with that glinting smile that meant near-certain indulgence. They began to walk away from Meiou High, a few last catcalls rifling the air that they both comfortably ignored as a matter of course, although Shuu-kun felt like flipping the jerks off. He had a feeling his brother wouldn’t approve. Shuuichi’s hands were shoved into his pockets, gaze turned inward and seeming somehow amused.
"Hey, ‘niisan!" Something had occurred to him. "Can I bring my Playstation, too?"
* * *
It didn’t take Shuu-kun long to make a bundle of clothes and other necessities, and Kurama pondered his dilemma with Hiei in the meantime. Mostly wondering what Hiei’s reaction would be, if he did evince a reaction, to the possibility of being recipient of a youko mating bond. He missed him with a wrenching portion of self that wanted to gather up the fire demon in his arms, lick his cheek, nuzzle along his throat and nibble and taste his skin. Pure youko.
He caught his breath. It was all tactile and scent-oriented urges that flowed through him. It wasn’t quite as strong as the youko need to be with his bonded, but it was getting there. The revelation Hiei’s absence had forced on him was a two-edged sword. On the one edge, a bonding so strong it crept even into his human behavior would ensure that Youko Kurama would definitely be considering Hiei a mate for life. But on the other keen side of the blade, what if Hiei had no intentions of forging a permanent bond...and left him sick and wanting, the need to be with his partner denied by Hiei’s decision?
On the bus ride back to his apartment, he was fortunately diverted by Shuuichi-kun’s chatter. He was a precocious boy too, but far more lively and outgoing than Kurama had been at his age. It was easy to see how he’d captivated Shiori’s heart -- and she was so happy to have someone still in the household to lavish her motherly instincts on since he’d moved out.
Kurama carried his briefcase into the bedroom as Shuu gleefully carted the Playstation into the living room. He shrugged his jacket off, mentally weighing the options of going to the grocery store or just indulging his brother and ordering pizza.
As if cued, Shuu-kun’s voice penetrated from the other room. "Shuuichi?"
"Uhm?" he responded, slipping out of his shirt and into a sweater.
"Shuuichi, there’s a girl in your kitchen."
"Why is there a girl in your kitchen? And what would ‘Kaasan say?"
Kurama nearly groaned as he darted through the living room into the open kitchen. He winced, then did not -- quite -- shout.
The skinny shoulders flinched. There was a small woman-child with a curtain of crystal-platinum hair seated cross-legged in the corner of the kitchen. At the shout, she pulled one grubby hand out of a torn-open bag of chips.
The wide, heart-shaped face with enormous crystalline blue eyes tilted sloooowly towards him. "Yes?" Ariodh looked up at him, her voice a mixture of caution and innocence.
Kurama’s eyes narrowed. "Try harder," he urged. "You just sound guilty."
"Shuuichi, there’s a *girl* in your kitchen," Shuu repeated, looking staggered.
"Shoujo ja nai yo!" Ariodh objected. She blinked back and forth between the two brothers, confusion writ plain on her face. "Who’s Shuuichi?"
Shuuichi-kun’s brow knit and he shot a glance at Kurama. The half-youko could divine the vein of his thoughts -- probably running the gamut from nameless one-night stand to tragic young amnesiac. The boy opened his mouth.
"Ah, you’re confused, of course," Kurama interrupted, bending down to try and snatch the bag of chips from Ariodh’s steely grasp. She growled and clutched it to her chest. "Don’t you remember me telling you about my step-brother Hatanaka Shuuichi -- the one with the same name as me?" His eyes lit into her with peculiar emphasis as he willed her to understand. She was empathic, after all.
"As opposed to the step-brother you have without the same name," Shuu-kun turned to give him a grin.
Ariodh bounced to her feet, giving them both a dazzling smile. "Hajimemashite," she quirked her lips at him, offering one tiny hand. With the other she pressed the abused bag of chips to her sternum in a clearly possessive gesture. Shuuichi took the outstretched hand, looking equal parts speculative and mirthful.
God, he could only imagine what Shuu would tell Shiori.
"Shuuichi..." Shuu-kun turned to him again, dark eyes snapping with mischief, "There’s a *girl*..."
"Ariodh," Kurama made another doomed attempt to recover the chips, "you tore into Hiei’s private stash." She snapped at his fingers.
One small digit tapped his nose, making his eyes cross. "Mi-na-mi-no...kun," Ariodh drawled, "you shouldn’t have left them out."
Relief rippled through him. She had understood and remembered his human name. "I didn’t leave them out," he groused.
"Ah sou?" Ariodh put the finger to her pursed lips, considering. "Hmm...they were tucked back in the cabinet under the sink behind the cleaning supplies, so I guess you’re right."
Shuuichi was still eyeing the platinum-haired youkai with clear fascination. "Shuuichi, what’s a girl doing in your apartment? Does Shiori know about this?"
"Ah...well, she’s..." Kurama groped for a quick-fix explanation.
"I’m Hiei’s cousin," Ariodh chirped, all innocence as she looked over Shuuichi with equally evident fascination. "Since Shuuichi is Hiei’s very good friend, he’s letting me stay for awhile."
"Sou ka?" Shuu-kun narrowed his eyes. "You don’t have a place to stay?"
"Not here in the city," Ariodh gave him a decisive nod. She blinked guileless crystalline eyes. "Your brother is nice enough to offer his place every time I come to town! And he’s such a good cook." She beamed at Kurama, then at Shuu. They nodded at each other, then turned identical eager expressions on him.
"Neeee~e? What’s for dinner?" they chimed in perfect chorus.
Kurama ran a hand through his hair and stared at them. For whatever reason Ariodh had showed up, he now had *two* voracious house guests...and one of them a youkai who had just now nearly blown his cover. But, he admitted, it did contribute to the distraction factor. "Pizza."
"Wai!! Pizza!" Ariodh cheered. Then she cocked her head, wide puzzled eyes seeking his. "Pizza?"
"You’ll like it," Kurama assured her. Hell, she’d eaten wax fruit off his table once. "I don’t feel like cooking tonight."
Shuuichi dredged up an impish grin. "I promise I won’t tell ‘Kaasan on you."
* * *
After dinner when Shuuichi was thoroughly engrossed in his Playstation, Kurama drew the pale-haired youkai aside, green eyes narrow. "What are you doing here?" he inquired in a soft voice, low enough that Shuu-kun would have no chance of hearing, and Ariodh no chance of missing.
She blinked, then lapsed into a childish expression dangerously close to a pout. "You said I could stay as long as I wanted to," she reminded him, gathering up a few soft locks of ice-white hair and winding them around a finger.
"Yes, but..." he trailed off, trying to articulate exactly what was bothering him. It was hard, when he couldn’t even *pinpoint* his source of irritation. Was it her presence? Or just the fact that a youkai was here, and it wasn’t Hiei? "Why aren’t you in the Makai?"
She looked up at him, her eyes growing large and blank. Abruptly she looked an awful lot smaller, though whether it was due to her powers or simply drawing in on herself, he couldn’t tell which. "Hakamura is dead," she said softly, then bit her lip and looked uncomfortable.
Kurama gave himself a little shake. He should’ve realized. "And his territory is in uproar, and youkai have been flocking from all over the Makai to battle for his turf?"
"Unh," Ariodh nodded. Her eyes had acquired a hard sheen, and her mouth was firm -- he’d almost think she was glaring at him, if he didn’t recognize the defensiveness of her expression. "I’m not good enough to fight more than a handful of them. Still not good with M...with my soulsword." She shrugged, an indifferent, rueful gesture. "I can shove it through my own body but using it for anything else..."
"Hiei could help you with that," he reminded her. It wasn’t often one got the opportunity to take lessons from one of the most feared youkai in the Makai.
"Sou desu," Ariodh blinked up at him, an owlish expression. Her head turned this way and that, peering around the apartment as if he’d secreted Hiei in one of the shadows or perhaps stuffed him under a sofa cushion. "Where is Hiei?"
"He went to Mukuro’s, five days ago," Kurama replied, "to..."
"No, he didn’t." Ariodh stated it very positively.
Kurama frowned. "Yes, he did. He left on Monday."
"That doesn’t mean much to me -- but one thing is for sure; he’s not in Mukuro’s territory." Ariodh’s expression was stubborn.
He released a slightly exasperated sigh and raked a hand through his hair, mussing it slightly. "And what makes you say that?" He tried to control the note of condescension in his voice, but it was impossible. He knew where Hiei was -- Hiei had said so. He trusted Hiei.
Ariodh heard it and her cheeks colored briefly, then she really *was* glaring up at him. "Kurama," she began, voice heated and he signaled to her frantically to lower her voice, glancing at Shuuichi. The boy was still engrossed in his Playstation. "Mukuro’s territory borders Hakamura’s old lands. Trust me, I would know if the delinquent, recalcitrant, intractable fire demon of an heir had returned from his extended absence."
Kurama’s eyes widened. "Is that what she’s calling him now?" A slight nod. His lips quirked. "Mukuro never was one to mince words." He glanced back into the living room, where Shuuichi was blasting away at a high-level bad guy and laughing with glee. Damn. It would be impossible to disappear into the Makai with his little brother here, if only for an hour ... his eyes widened.
"You think something happened to Hiei?" Ariodh was whispering, her blue eyes huge in the thin pale face.
Kurama frowned. The chances of something permanent happening to Hiei were so slight he couldn’t even consider it -- but something unpleasant; that was something else entirely. "I suppose," he began dryly, "Mukuro might have killed him for his earlier defiance and now is covering it up."
"Kurama!" Ariodh gasped, peering at him accusingly. "You don’t really think that."
"No," he admitted, "it’s not Mukuro’s style. Besides, Hiei wouldn’t be so stupid."
Ariodh nodded tightly and he glanced at his step-brother again. Shuuichi was thoroughly engrossed. Surely, he wouldn’t miss him for an hour or two. Just long enough to scout around. The problem was where Hiei might have crossed over into the Makai...but the odds were it was *somewhere* within Hakamura’s territory, because anything else would be either near Yomi’s or Raizen’s. And there was an easy way to bypass Koenma in getting there...
"Can you get me there? To Hakamura’s territory?" he asked tersely. Just for an hour, he promised himself. He’d tell Shuuichi he was going for groceries and the boy wouldn’t even know he’d been gone.
Ariodh’s mouth puckered. Her jewel-blue eyes narrowed. She was considering it, the skin at her eyes drawn tight and Kurama realized she really *didn’t* want to fight, whether it was from underconfidence or a genuine lack of facility with the sword. Were the contenders for Hakamura’s territory really so bad?
"All right," she muttered at last, hands clenched tight. Then she smiled up at him, but it was a strained expression. "You’d better make me a really, really nice dinner for this."
"Sure," Kurama replied easily.
He left her and crossed the room, fretting at the edges of his mind but knowing Shuuichi would be okay. It was only for a few hours and it wasn’t as if he was taking the kid to the Makai, after all. He hunkered down beside the dark-haired boy, whose eyes were fixed intently on the screen.
"Mm." The boy didn’t even pause his game, and Kurama smiled.
"Shuu, Ariodh and I are going to go shopping, okay?"
"Unh-hunh," he replied, then his face lit up as a peal of obnoxious music emitted from the television. "YEAH! All-*right!* This is the furthest I’ve ever been!"
Kurama grinned at that and patted his shoulder. "I’m sure you won’t even notice we left."
"Is there some place where people won’t see us?" Ariodh asked as he rejoined her, and they eased out the door.
"Yes, the roof," Kurama nodded. He looked at her. "How do you -- ?"
"You’ll find out," Ariodh assured him, a flicker of her impish grin returning. But her eyes were shadowed.
He hoped they wouldn’t encounter anything truly formidable after crossing the kekkai -- with Ariodh’s current state, he couldn’t depend on having backup.
Ariodh lifted her small hands once they had reached the rooftop, and the seething white glow of her youki sprang up. Kurama’s eyes narrowed. "Masamune!" she uttered, lids falling closed, as the familiar evanescent fire sprang up to surround them, but without the sword this time. Before, he had noticed the sword seemed to disappear. So *that’s* how she did it -- somehow Masamune was a key between dimensions, he supposed.
Kurama experienced a brief stutter of absolute panic as the fire surrounded them both, darkening around the edges as their surroundings bled away. It reminded him for a throat-seizing instant of constricting arms, a throaty voice purring in his ear, and the mocking whispers that lingered long after the fire adept herself was dead. Dark fires made him feel... If he could have shaken his head, he would have -- instead, he fixed his vision forward onto the white-out flare of Ariodh’s heart-shaped face and the blown-back masses of hair.
Hiei, he reminded himself. Hiei was reason enough to risk a fire-Gate.
* * *
Shuuichi-kun nudged the rooftop door open cautiously, dark eyes wide and expectant.
The moment he had seen a girl in Shuuichi’s kitchen, a gleeful little voice had chortled happily that his older brother Minamino wasn’t as perfect as everyone seemed to *think* he was. But the wiser portion withheld its judgment. If Shuuichi really were dating a girl, he would have brought her home to ‘Kaasan already...wouldn’t he? Surely.
In truth, he would have been happy to play his game all afternoon. He had never gotten this far with ëMusashi’ before and it was a really awesome game -- but as soon as his perked ears had caught the girl’s whispered question, Shuu really had no option BUT to follow them. * Is there some place where people won’t see us?* the platinum-haired girl had asked his brother. All teenagers had an instant affiliation to the exact phrases they weren’t supposed to hear.
His eyelids had slammed up somewhere near his browbone. Was Shuuichi having SEX with her!? Was that why he didn’t want to bring her home to meet Okaasan and Otousan?
With equal parts trepidation and a sick sort of excitement creeping in his veins, Shuuichi-kun had followed them up to the roof. He *had* to find out. This might be his one chance to find out Shuuichi’s one flaw. He HAD to know, even if he couldn’t tell anyone else.
He edged around the corner, and white fire leapt up before his eyes.
* * *
Kurama closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The rich primal scent of the Makai was all around him; across his senses a vibrant green had flared up as the stronger Makai plants made themselves known to his youki. Living in the Ningenkai had always been a pale reflection of this strong constant thrill along his nerves, and returning was almost a physical taste of sensual experience.
He glanced over at Ariodh; the smaller youkai had a deep scowl etched on her features, and the huge blade was gripped in both hands, its flat laid over her shoulder. Despite the apparent relaxation of her stance he was sure Ariodh was on a hair’s-breadth readiness for violence.
"We’ll just skirt the edge of Mukuro’s territory, a quick scouting expedition, and that’s it," Kurama promised, his own expression turning determined.
Ariodh did not reply as they began to move off into the woods. He looked around, trying to place their location from former experience, then finally had to admit he was at a loss. But the white-haired youkai was already moving ahead, her steps sure.
Hiei could not be dead. Oh, gods. A sick feeling clawed at his middle. Hiei was too *good* to be dead, too powerful, and he’d gone missing for long stretches of time before -- Kurama thought back sourly on that lost year -- but he had never lied to him. Hiei didn’t hesitate to omit the truth, or stretch it sometimes...but he never lied. He was too honorable.
He had said he was going to Mukuro’s. Which meant nothing short of an S-class upheaval would keep his formidable lover from confronting his (possibly) erstwhile benefactrix. Kurama’s green eyes widened.
"Ariodh!" He jerked to a halt. Why hadn’t he seen the connection before?
She swung around, eyes narrowed and assessing, the burning sword gripped tightly in both hands. Kurama rocked back out of its path, glaring at her. "G-gomen!" she stammered out, stumbling back and setting it over her shoulder again.
"Watch what you do with that," he said reproachfully.
Red crept up those pale cheeks. "Sorry," she repeated, looking so miserable as she bit her lip that he relented.
"It’s all right," he gave her a nod. "We’re both on edge. Ariodh, did you hear anything about a fire demon getting involved in all this mess over Hakamura’s territory?"
The white-haired youkai bit her lip again and frowned. "I don’t..." She trailed off and her head tilted to one side. She looked adorable in her utter state of concentration, and a shaft of light filtered through the tangle of the greened canopy overhead. It made her look softer somehow, and her lips kissable.
Kurama swore to himself inwardly. Hiei’s absence was starting to gnaw at him in the worst way. That was the trouble with the youko mating urge, in the end, and had caused fierce inter-clan wars in its day -- if the mate wasn’t available, the sexual drive was still there. And apparently, his body considered Hiei to be his mate and was clamoring plaintively for the dark demon.
That failing, anything available.
Ariodh’s eyes went huge in her thin pale face and she was suddenly staring past him. "Kurama..." she gasped and with a rustle the slender youkai vanished into the underbrush. He didn’t bother choking out a query; he just plunged after her, letting instinct and senses seize him as he gave himself over to action.
Ariodh burst into a clearing and her slight body was already launching into motion, taking a flying leap sword-first towards a youkai twice her size with large, batlike wings and a misshapen face. His slit-yellow eyes burned and he hissed as he brought one clawed hand up to fend her off. Kurama’s gaze snapped over the youkai -- two more of them, cornering a small, frightened boy...wait, it was a *human* boy... -- oh GODS, it was -
...it was Shuuichi-kun.
Kurama paused for a moment as Ariodh’s blade cleft the bat-youkai’s skull and split the creature in half. Blood flew on the air.
"Kurama, there are three more of them heading this way!" Ariodh clipped out, leaping into a defensive crouch as another youkai hissed and struck at her viciously with its wicked claw-tipped hands.
There was no way he could hang back and let Ariodh handle all this herself. Out of the corner of his eye he caught another batlike youkai dropping to the ground, looming over Shuuichi -- no time for hesitation or worry for consequence -- "ROSE WHIP!"
The thorny tendril cracked through the air, sharper than razor blades and more than a match for the creature’s low-classed power. The bat-creature was cut nearly in half and Kurama twisted to confront another one of the creatures approaching, beating it away from his little brother before dispatching that one, too. Ariodh was hewing through two more of them with her burning blade and then they were dead, all six of them. Gritting his teeth, Kurama turned to confront his step-brother.
Shuuichi-kun was staring at him, dark eyes huge in his pale face, looking like burnt holes in the papery-ashen skin. "Kurama..." he whispered.
His expression was tentative as he stepped closer to his brother, making the Rose Whip vanish. Ariodh had called him Kurama without thinking twice, in the heat of battle.
"She -- " Shuuichi lifted a shaking hand. "She called you Kurama." His voice was numb.
"Shuu-kun, how did you get here?" Kurama demanded worriedly, brushing his brother’s unvoiced questions aside for the moment. "You..."
"I followed you up to the roof," Shuuichi replied, his voice eerily calm. "And saw her making some sort of portal, like a video game, with white fire." He gave Kurama a disjointed grin that looked out of place in his face, still too white. "So I followed you here. I couldn’t let you have all the fun, naa...Kurama-kun?"
"Shuuichi..." he began, agonized, but the other boy cut him off.
"Where are we, ‘niichan?" His expression altered. "Maybe I shouldn’t ask you. You might not tell me the truth. Not all of it, anyway. Ojousan -- Ariodh-san -- can you tell me where we are?" He turned to Ariodh to appeal to her.
Ariodh, to her credit, glanced at him first and he shrugged wearily. Might as well let the boy know. He had nearly died once before, during the time Kurama had been in the Makai at Yomi’s palace. He hadn’t known or remembered anything of it -- but this time, there would be no forgetting. And his safety was still Kurama’s responsibility. This time Kurama had nearly failed, in his own carelessness and hasty exit to find Hiei.
"We’re in the Makai," Ariodh informed him, expression watchful.
Shuuichi-kun’s eyes widened. "Really? Far out..." The last two words were whispered, barely intelligible. "Why are we here?"
Kurama pondered exactly how much to tell him. "We’re looking for Hiei. My...friend."
Shuuichi, the resilient little bastard, recouped enough to give him a cocky grin. "Your...*friend,* huh, ‘niisan?" he repeated, exaggerating the word. "How good of a friend?"
"Hiei and Kurama are such good friends," Ariodh chirped, "that Hiei sleeps over ALL the time and Kurama wanders around in the morning with a goofy gr...OOF!" She rubbed her side where he’d slammed his elbow and made pained noises, glancing over at him with wide puzzled eyes. "What did I say?"
"Kurama?" Shuuichi repeated the name softly, losing his smile.
"Later. I’ll tell you later," Kurama promised quietly, one green eye still gleaming over his shoulder as he turned to move on. "Right now, we need to scout around quickly and get you out of here as soon as possible."
"No." Shuuichi’s dark eyes were unusually steely as he leveled Kurama with a look he’d never seen from the laughing, carefree boy. "You’ll tell me NOW."
* * *
The explanation was still shivering its way through his conscious mind. Minamino Shuuichi, truly a refuge for the spirit of Youko Kurama. Fox demon, thief extraordinaire turned Reikai Tantei. A part of himself had shut down, simply refusing to process this information. It was so dreadfully, insidiously close to him that he simply couldn’t realize the extent of the implications. Kurama.
The syllables echoed, wrapping around his brain and squeezing into the tight empty spaces. The boy who called himself Hatanaka Shuuichi stared at the elegant red-haired half-youko, consumed with shock for several long constricted heartbeats. Then he returned to himself and was forced to control the urge to double up in hysterical laughter.
Oh, what a wicked, whimsical sense of humor Fate had!
Suddenly Shuuichi’s beauty and utter perfection made a fitting sense. That red-haired beautiful boy’s body housed Youko Kurama. How, then, could Minamino Shuuichi fail to be anything but perfect? Hatanaka clamped one hand over his own mouth to control the chuckles that shook his body and wracked at his soul. It was all too, too amusing. But now the redhead and the little white-haired youkai who had fallen into his company were moving ahead, and he forced his legs to start moving, the way he’d had to urge his heart to continue beating.
What would Kurama say if he knew?
* * *
"I think Hiei must have gone through Hakamura’s territory, somewhere," Kurama tried again to capture Ariodh’s flighty attention. "It would’ve been the best option -- but with S-classes and other high-classed demons flocking in to fill the power void, Hiei might’ve gotten sidetracked or even challenged on his way to Mukuro’s territory..."
"Uhm," Ariodh responded absently, perched on a moss-eaten log as she stared out over the broad valley that spread from the jagged fringes of the forest, propping herself up with Masamune’s tip sunk into the dirt.
Kurama sighed and gave up. At least Shuuichi was listening to him with a fascinated expression, but there were dark shadows in the boy’s eyes. Was he that angry with him, then?
"Do you know where any of the combatants are...?" he queried the little youkai with milk-white hair, twitching at her sleeve.
She turned wide blank eyes on him, irises nearly drowned in black pupil. "I am not getting one hundred feet within any of them," she stated flatly, her expression so neutral it bordered on hostile.
"Fine," Kurama returned, his own expression growing determined. He was getting desperate to find Hiei -- more than just his own bodily pressures demanded it. If he had gotten embroiled in a territorial debate, it could jeopardize Hiei’s tenuous position with Mukuro even further. "Just tell me where they might be, and you can go back to the apartment. And take Shuuichi with you."
"No way!" Shuuichi-kun exclaimed, his expression dismayed. "I want to stay with you, ‘niisan! This is better than any video game!"
Kurama restrained the sigh of exasperation that sought to blow its way from between his teeth. "Shuuichi-kun -- the Makai is a dangerous place," he pointed out gently. "And if someone with Ariodh’s power is afraid to be here, you’d be foolish not to be a little scared."
Shuuichi’s face was set and stubborn.
"Besides," he pulled the last card from his sleeve, "what could I tell ‘Kaasan or ‘Tousan if you got hurt?"
Shuu-kun’s expression turned sulky. "That’s not fair."
"It’s very fair," Kurama replied serenely. From his perspective, it was.
Shuuichi’s mouth pulled down into a petulant frown. "Fine," he muttered at last, "but do you promise to tell me all about it, later?"
Kurama was quiet for a moment. "I promise I’ll tell you anything you like, when Hiei and I get back."
Shuuichi’s face beamed up at him. He stepped forward and rangy arms were flung around him in a brief but enthusiastic hug. "Domo, ‘niisan," Shuuichi’s voice reached him, muffled, then the teenager was pacing away, hands stuffed deep in his pockets.
Ariodh had remained perched on the log, her head tilted like an inquiring bird’s. When Kurama’s eyes met hers, she nodded. "There are several of them down below, in the valley. We can’t sense them from here -- but if you get any closer, they’ll sense you. And you’ll probably be able to sense *them* shortly after."
Kurama gave her a curt nod. "Thank you."
Ariodh’s lips pursed up in a bitter scowl. "Just come back safe," she uttered, then vanished from the log. She appeared not a split second later by Shuuichi-kun’s side, grabbing his arm, saying something bright and cheerful to him that made the boy laugh in response.
Kurama lifted his hand in a brief wave that neither of them saw, then turned to descend into the valley.
* * *
His senses prickled, like hairs raising over the skin but this was his awareness that responded and he could feel them, three powerful presences like a searing light viewed from a great distance. Kurama kept to his steady pace as he threaded his way deeper into the wood-scattered valley. In his head he was making a mental catalogue of the seeds he had in his possession, currently, that would provide enough protection. He was coming up short. In this frail human body, he wasn’t a match for three such powerful demons. Even Quest-class Youko would be hard-pressed...and his presence here was surely being viewed as a challenge.
Either that, or the aimless wanderings of a pretty human boy who could be taken for a toy.
Kurama kept his hand clenched around a lethal seed of a demon plant, one that sought blood hungrily. He had no intentions of being taken for prey.
Two of the presences winked out, leaving only one burning in the forefront of his mind like a great barely-shielded lantern. Kurama’s jewel-green eyes were sharp as he moved through the forest. He was getting close, he could sense it now.
He was very close. Then his senses were flooded with another youki, and his knees started to buckle.
Kurama braced himself against a tree. "Hiei," he breathed, eyes falling half-closed, head tilting back. His whole body was thrumming. If he’d had suspicions before, now it was more than a certainty. Typical youko response -- in merely sensing his lover’s ki after such a long absence during their bonding period, he had immediately gone into full sexual receptiveness.
Hiei was there, a dark tickle in the depths of his mind. In spite of himself, in spite of the gravity of the situation, Kurama was smiling. He pushed himself away from the tree and moved from the thicket, breaking past tall grass and into another forest clearing, eyes darting around -- and he halted, horrified.
"Who did this!?" Kurama demanded, voice harsh, as he hurried through the clearing to the center. Hiei’s sturdy body was lashed to a giant boulder, one battered cheek resting against the unyielding surface. His eyes were closed but they wrenched open as he approached.
"Kurama -- what the hell are you doing here?" Hiei rasped, his crimson eyes hard and unreflecting. "Get out! Go back to Ningenkai!"
Kurama reeled, hands falling away from the ropes. "What...?"
"You heard me," Hiei said, eyes boring into him. "You have to get out of here."
Kurama blinked. He thought he understood. "Is this because of..."
The S-class was drawing closer, moving fast. Hiei’s expression grew savage. "Get OUT of here!" he shouted. "Now!"
Kurama gave him a glare poisonous to match Hiei’s own. "Not without you," he returned icily, bending down to pluck a grass blade, making it lengthen and grow razor-sharp in his hand. "Who did this to you? And why?" Without waiting for an answer Kurama began to saw at the ropes.
"I did," a husky voice shivered through the clearing, making his head snap up in surprise. "It’s his punishment."
Kurama’s jaw set as the figure emerged from the screening dapple of shadows. One unwinking, mechanical eye glared at him in lifeless vigilance. How was this possible...?
"Stop interfering, Kurama, and go home," Mukuro told him, her expression uncompromising. She put one hand, the flesh hand, to her hip and her mouth twitched. "Otherwise..."
The threat hung in the air between them. Kurama glanced at Hiei. The fire demon’s eyes had fallen closed and he was swearing something vicious under his breath.
"And if I say no?" he countered, his voice calm. His stance was loose and relaxed, but all his muscles had gathered in readiness for the possible violence inherent in her voice and the one eye.
Mukuro’s dark eye glittered. "Then I’ll just have to kill you."
* * *
Hiei pressed his fevered flesh against the cool rough face of the boulder, and dredged up a few more curses from his copious store. This was the worst that could have happened, the one he had feared when Mukuro had levied her punishment -- and he had defied her, of course, his pride rebelling to the thought of being staked out in the center of disputed territories like a flagrant example. He didn’t remember the entirety of what had happened afterwards but he did remember the graying blank unconsciousness, then waking up bound to the boulder with rope and wards.
Kokuryuha was thoroughly warded, of course. Not that it would do him any good, against Mukuro.
So Kurama had come to find him, as he’d known the inquisitive fox eventually would. But this was not the best of situations -- and Kurama in human form couldn’t compare to Mukuro.
"Relax," Kurama was whispering, his smile tugging up in a brief smile as he slid the sharp-edged blade grass into Hiei’s hand, patted it, then turned to face Mukuro. His expression grew hard. "I’m not leaving without Hiei."
"So it’s you," Mukuro remarked cryptically, then her face transformed into a cruel look. "Are you ready to die today, Kurama?"
K’so! Kurama didn’t stand a chance -- !
He heard the patter of running feet, heard Kurama’s yell -- "ROSE WHIP!" then Mukuro’s laughter. Hiei clutched the grass and sawed determinedly at the rope that held him so securely, and had bound him for the past five days of Mukuro’s ‘punishment’. First the bit of white paper that was warding him...there...and then the rope and another ward...
Kurama cried out, and he heard the *thud* of a body striking the ground, hard. Hiei gritted his teeth and plied the blade of grass faster. The rope fell to the grass and he wavered, nearly collapsing to his knees - five days without food or water could do that, even to a demon -- then forced himself to turn around. "Mukuro..." escaped his lips. It had been an easy thing to agree to take a short time of punishment, and have the whole thing forgotten. But Mukuro’s suggested method had been too much to stomach...and now this. He could never forgive her.
Kurama had forced himself to his feet again, clutching a now-bleeding arm -- he was leaping at Mukuro, Rose Whip raised...
There was no time for him to react, fast as he was normally. He was taxed to the limit of exhaustion.
He could only watch, crimson eyes widened to their natural limits, as the clearing lit up in an explosion of lethal, crushing proportions.
Hiei pushed away from the boulder and stumbled forward into the smoke, searching. "Kurama...?" he called, intent.
A strong metal arm gripped his throat. "No, Mukuro," Mukuro’s voice replied in honeyed tones. She lifted him off the ground and he dangled, growling. If Kurama was dead, she would have to kill him, too -- he could never bring himself to serve such an honorless creature.
The swirl of smoke and dust cleared, and a ragged figure still stood as Mukuro drew a hissing breath in surprise.
Youko Kurama crossed gold-toned arms, his expression amused. One silver ear twitched. "You’ll have to do better than that," the smooth tenor of the youko reached their ears, and then greenery all through the clearing swelled and burst, giant plants bulging upwards. A few hungry Makai versions of the flytrap edged close.
"Ch’," Hiei angled one red eye back towards Mukuro. He was safe from youko’s plants, of a certainty -- but Mukuro definitely did not have that assurance.
"I could kill him in a heartbeat, before you could do a thing with one of your precious plants," Mukuro’s warned. Hiei was very careful not to move. At this moment, the slightest twitch could be mistaken for provocation.
Youko’s thin pale brow flicked upwards. "Go ahead. Kill him,” he replied with chilling indifference.
Hiei felt his face shut down into a blank expression. Was this how it would be, once Minamino Shuuichi died? A cold, emotionless youko the only thing left behind, only interested in him for warming his bed and perhaps not even that, beyond a half-century or so?
Mukuro paused. "You’d do it? You would kill him just to finish me?" Her voice wavered between uncertainty and contempt.
Youko waved one hand, his expression still careless and amused. "My focus is on this fight between you and I, and we will finish this, no matter who is trampled in the dance." The giant plants twitched and swayed.
"You don’t love him!" Mukuro accused, and her grip tightened around his throat. Hiei coughed harshly.
That eyebrow lifted again, contemptuously. "And you do?" the smooth voice prompted her.
"Yes!" Mukuro shrieked. "Yes, yes, I love him! I will have him! He’d forgotten me -- but I found him! And I’ll have him again!"
Hiei’s brows knit together in confusion. Had she gone off the deep end? This was entirely unlike the Mukuro he knew. Kurama lifted a hand.
"I’ll kill him!" Mukuro threatened again, her husky voice fraying, growing shrill. Hiei would have frowned harder, if he weren’t utterly concerned with breathing. If he had had the strength to fight her he would have done his best to turn her into a black smoldering pile of ashes.
Youko lifted a hand. "Better he die because of me than live with you," Kurama laughed. Hiei stared very hard at his lover, at the adamant look in those burnished golden eyes. Then one of the giant ravenous plants was snapping close and Mukuro dropped him, shrieking.
Hiei scrambled off to the side, shaking his head. Now he was thoroughly confused. Mukuro was acting completely unlike herself -- and a brace of Kurama’s plants slithered to follow the first, all of them snapping up the woman’s body, trapping her in a writhing cocoon of ravenous greenery. It undulated softly, sucking noises of their feeding sounding large in the clearing after the abrupt silencing over her screams.
Youko’s head tilted and he smiled at Hiei -- a genuine, dazzling smile. "That was too easy."
"It was," Hiei agreed shortly, hopping to his feet. He was fixed in place as he watched the feeding plants, expecting Mukuro to burst free any instant, to leap forth from the pods and level them both with killing force. Nothing happened.
Kurama crossed the space between them and bent to twine his arms around Hiei’s bare shoulders, nuzzling him affectionately. "Koibito," he purred. A tongue flickered out to trace over his ear and Hiei jerked.
"Stop that," he said irritably, but made no move to disengage the arms as he stared at the bundle of hungry plants. "What about your ‘better he die’ words, huh?" But there was a smirk fixed on his face. He had never lost faith in Kurama’s ability, not for an instant. And now Youko was proving himself just as...er, affectionate and willing...as Kurama the human ever was.
In fact, Youko was rubbing against him in a very direct fashion.
"That," Kurama replied, "was during the fight. You know how I am when I fight." His golden eyes narrowed and he licked down Hiei’s throat.
*I do now,* Hiei filed it away for later reference. He knew Kurama was always focused on his battles, but never before had their relationship been an issue. And before when he had seen Youko, it had always been in a battle situation -- seeing the hard side of him. *This* side of Youko was very...
Hiei’s eyes widened. "Stop that!" he sputtered, pushing at him this time. "Kurama."
"Hmm," Kurama mumbled, arms wrapping around Hiei’s waist as he gnawed on his shoulder. The golden eyes were half-lidded and focused completely on him. He was acting like a youko in... Hiei’s eyes got wider.
A youko in heat.
"That wasn’t Mukuro," Hiei said finally, conceding the fact that he wouldn’t be able to snag Kurama’s full attention with anything short of drastic.
"Sure it was," Kurama replied easily, then he freed a hand and waved it at his plants. They released the body and it thudded to the grass. With a sharp curse the youko straightened, disentangling himself, and Hiei smirked.
"Hn. Told you so."
The body wasn’t a body, per se. The shape lying on the blackened blades of grass was shiny and wooden, its head a blank, featureless oval of wood. No S-class demon corpse.
It was a golem.
* * *
Kurama swiped a handful of silvery hair out of his eyes and frowned at the wooden mannequin. "It *was* too easy," he sighed, only half-disappointed that he hadn’t been able to defeat such a powerful youkai as Mukuro. "So, did Mukuro acquire a new talent for her repertoire? If not, then whose golem did I just break?"
Inwardly he was more than a little exasperated and....just plain *frustrated!*
Freed of any human inhibition, the only thing he wanted to do was pounce on Hiei and screw the irresistible fire demon silly. And now that he was in youko form, his desire for his lover had only sharpened. He wanted Hiei NOW and everything else was just petty distraction.
Hiei’s sigh held more than an edge of irritation, too, which pleased him to no end.
"You can come out now," Hiei called, his voice hard as obsidian and every bit as dark.
Kurama put his hands on his hips and stared at Hiei, puzzled. "Dare...?"
Hiei was looking around the fringes of the clearing, crimson eyes intent. He motioned Kurama to silence. "Come out NOW. This is your last chance."
"...And if you wait much longer, I’m going to jump on him and take him right here!" Kurama added impishly.
Hiei whirled on him. "Kurama -- !" His gaze was pure venom.
"I’ll give you to the count of three..." Kurama continued, speaking to the air at large then bending to nuzzle at his mouth. "Mm...missed you lots, koibito..."
"Hn," Hiei was snorting, then he smacked Kurama’s hand away as Kurama groped him. "Wait."
Kurama pulled away, grumbling.
"All right," a forlorn little voice called. "I’m coming out. Just tell the youko to stop fondling you."
"I can’t promise anything," Hiei’s dark eyebrows had lifted to their natural limits. Kurama stared at his lover -- it wasn’t often he saw him so surprised.
After another pause, there was a shuffling noise and a small dark figure dropped from one of the trees that bordered the clearing. The creature was shorter than Hiei, and garbed in dark chocolate brown leathers trimmed with fox fur. Kurama’s lip curled and his hands clenched. In response, the sated plants began to stir again.
The youkai who approached them was very small, but her body was undoubtedly feminine, with a wasp waist and slight but firm breasts. She had chestnut hair cut very short, almost like a boy’s, with wisps framing her fine-boned face. She regarded the plants with a measure of fear.
Hiei was frowning again, and Kurama looked from him to the approaching woman, who wore a recognizable expression -- hunger. He glared at her through slitted golden eyes and hooked one arm around Hiei, watching her with deliberation.
The youkai looked pained.
"He was my lover once, you know," she said, not addressing Hiei but Kurama this time. Her dark brown eyes were bitter and weary.
Kurama’s eyes narrowed further. "He’s mine, now."
Hiei was shaking his head.
The youkai released a short bark of laughter. "You don’t even remember."
Hiei gave a small shrug, the contact rippling through Kurama who continued to stare the woman down. She had used a golem to impersonate his lover’s benefactrix. She had used her leverage to ward him, for gods’ sake, to a boulder.... and who knew what else she would have done?
"How did you find me?" Hiei demanded, his expression dark.
"I felt you when you first came through this territory, over a month ago," the dark-haired youkai replied. Her shoulders slumped as recognition continued to elude Hiei’s eyes and he stared at her indifferently. "And then I felt you come through again, and I knew I had to take the chance. I sent some of my golems after you."
Hiei growled. "You were impersonating Mukuro, even then?"
"I wanted you back," the youkai said, her voice low but hard.
"So you’re the one who killed the shapeshifter," he nodded curtly. "What made you think I’d ever go back with you?"
The youkai shrugged, her expression mimicking Hiei’s earlier gesture. "You never had many attachments back then. I figured if I eliminated your current ones, you’d have no reason not to."
"You figured wrong." Hiei’s crimson eyes locked with her dark ones. It was obviously a clashing of wills and Kurama watched, half-amused, half-draped over his lover.
The other youkai lowered her eyes first. "You still don’t remember me." It was a statement, not a question.
Hiei shrugged once more. "Hisashiburi."
In a flash of silver, a movement that rivaled Hiei’s speed, the youkai had drawn a sword and leveled it at Hiei’s throat. Kurama growled and the plants stirred, beginning to move. But he waited.
"Does this prompt your memory?" the youkai whispered, her chocolate-brown eyes wide and filled with an ocean of aged pain.
Hiei continued to meet her gaze steadily. Not the slightest flicker of recognition entered his maroon eyes.
Finally she withdrew the sword, nodding to herself. "So...I truly was nothing to you. Not even a memory... not even this far..." The dark-haired creature sheathed her sword, and her smile was bitter. "Treasure him, Kurama. Some day you, too, will be less than a forgotten memory to him."
In a sable flicker she was gone, only straightening blades of grass betraying a former presence.
Hiei turned to him, with rough hands and the hungry mouth Kurama remembered. "That," he vowed, "will *never* happen."
Against his lips, Youko Kurama smiled.
* * *
When they walked through the door into his apartment, Hiei having taken the front route for perhaps the second time he could recall - feeling possessive, perhaps, which gave him a warm feeling clear down his middle -- Ariodh and Shuuichi were squabbling.
"No, you can’t!"
"Yes I can!" Ariodh insisted.
"No -- you can’t do that! The controls won’t let you!" Shuuichi shot back, yanking the Playstation controller from her hand. He clicked the game on and demonstrated some esoteric move that involved a long gleaming sword. "See?"
"I can, so!" Ariodh shoved her lower lip out. "I have a sword and I can do it!"
"But it’s just a game!" Shuuichi exclaimed, sounding very frustrated.
Ariodh glowered, then she sniffed. "Hn. It’s stupid," she pronounced judgment in a dark tone that was awfully reminiscent of a certain fire demon.
Kurama glanced over involuntarily at Hiei. Hiei’s lips twitched but he said nothing.
Shuuichi looked up from the TV and his argument with Ariodh, and his face lit up. "‘Niisan! You’re back!" He leapt up and crossed the room in a few swift strides, then came to a halt at Hiei’s stony demeanor. Shuuichi sweatdropped and scratched at his head. "Eheh...Hiei, I presume?"
Hiei just nodded.
On the way back Kurama had told Hiei how the boy had discovered Ariodh’s portal, and followed them through the tail end. The fire demon’s reaction was rather indifferent -- for him, the discovery wasn’t an earth-shaking thing. The thing that worried Kurama most was that Shuuichi might let something accidentally slip to ‘Kaasan or Tousan -- but hopefully they’d just chalk it up to his intense gaming.
"So, how did it go?" Shuuichi demanded eagerly. Ariodh had hopped to her feet and followed, absently braiding handfuls of long white hair in her hands.
"Did you kill any of them?" she added, expression crafty. Her eyes zoned in on Kurama’s arm, and her eyes lifted accusingly. "You’re hurt."
"It’s just a scratch," Kurama demurred. "I’ll bandage it up when I change my shirt."
"Where’s *your* shirt?" Ariodh switched focus to Hiei, pursing her little mouth.
Hiei shrugged uncomfortably and went for the literal answer. "Somewhere in the Makai."
"Did you kick anybody’s butts?" Shuuichi quizzed with a grin.
Kurama rubbed the back of his head. "Well -- not exactly," he conceded with a wry expression. As Youko he had done a better job against the nameless golem-master, but even then they hadn’t defeated her. Just one of her wooden constructs.
"So what *did* happen?" Ariodh’s gaze skipped from one to the other, finally resting on Kurama.
He looked at Hiei. Hiei looked at him and gave a small shrug.
"Later," they chorused, trudging towards the bedroom -- Hiei heading for the bathtub, Kurama for the medicine kit.
"Ooh!" Ariodh exclaimed, "even faster than...oomph!"
Shuuichi had clapped a hand over her mouth and gave them a reassuring grin. "Maa," he waved his free hand, "go get changed and cleaned up and stuff. I’ll keep her busy."
Ariodh latched onto the meaty portion of his palm. Shuuichi howled.
Kurama shut the door very firmly behind them.
* * *
"Why did you follow me, fox?"
The question reached his ears from the bathroom, a thread of sound between them. Kurama tugged the loose cotton shirt over his head and pulled the silky trapped strands of red hair free, then patted his bandage to make sure it was still secure. "Because I heard from Ariodh that you hadn’t shown up at Mukuro’s." It was the most straightforward answer - anything else would be admitting that he’d been worried. Or revealing to Hiei that he’d been compelled from necessity, of something which he was now absolutely certain. The youko mating bond.
"Hn. Didn’t think I could take care of myself?"
Hiei’s voice was more amused than outraged -- which was as close as he could get to admitting he was grateful for the assist. The fire demon was currently soaking in the bathtub and drinking large amounts of water from the tumbler Kurama had brought him. Five days without food and water had been somewhat depleting.
"I was..." Kurama hesitated and rephrased it. "I had to find you." He bit his lip. How much to reveal, this soon? He and Hiei had barely been together for over a month and there was no sense in pushing things.
"Would this have anything to do with Youko Kurama acting like a fox in heat?" Now Hiei’s voice was extremely dry.
Kurama could *feel* the blood drain from his face. "...what...?"
Splashing noises issued from the general direction of the tub, then the fire demon was padding into the bedroom, a towel wrapped around his waist. His expression was curiously intent. "I don’t know very much about youko," he admitted, "but I have seen a vixen in heat before and you were acting just like her."
Kurama buried his face in his hands. This was not how he wanted to bring this up. No, not at all.
"Fox?" Hiei prompted him, coming even closer.
Glittering green eyes took him aback for a moment, as Kurama raised his brilliant head. "Yes," he said slowly. "Youko -- there’s a mating bond that happens between them and their chosen, their first lover."
Hiei’s brow creased. "First...?" he repeated, confused.
Kurama’s cheeks were red. Hiei shook his head, still unable to believe what he was hearing. The Youko was over a half-millennia older than he was -- there was just no way...
"Uso. I’m your FIRST!?"
Kurama made shushing motions. "Be quiet! Ariodh and Shuuichi will hear you."
"Fox, I don’t give a damn if the entire human apartment building hears me. I’m your *first!?* Am I -- am I really?" He regarded the beautiful fox with puzzled eyes. It wasn’t just Minamino Shuuichi who was so beautiful - it was all of Kurama, whichever form he took.
Kurama’s expression altered. "The first that matters," he whispered unsteadily. Green eyes glazed over for an instant as the gaze flickered away. His mouth firmed. "You’re the first I’ve given myself to."
Hiei was speechless. He could hear what Kurama would not say. He was the first...willing...partner Kurama had had. It made him taste blinding rage all in one instant, and he understood fire hotter than the moment he had discovered what had happened to his sister. Because this was *his* fox. Had it been Yomi? Karasu? Masaka...Seiki? He wanted to demand who. He wanted, quite simply and rationally, to go skewer them with fire and sword and make it last.
"...Who...?" The word fell between them, simple, flat, clinical. He heard Kurama’s sharp intake of breath and it stirred an answering flinch within that he refused to let reach the surface.
"Dead now. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to talk about it. Not now, Hiei."
He answered in such short, flat phrases it only made Hiei angrier. It was so like him to hide what hurt deep inside. In that regard, they were too alike.
"You’re the first for me, Hiei. Understand?" Kurama was still speaking, his voice low.
Kurama had told him to drop it but he wanted to press the issue. He wanted to find out. He wanted to choke Koenma by his scrawny little throat to cough up those souls so he could whet his sword’s keen appetite. He opened his mouth to ask, again, who it had been. Instead, what emerged was, "How? Why...am *I* the first?" Hiei’s crimson eyes regarded Kurama, unwinking. He had seen the Youko before. He was a tease, a flirt, a graceful construction of gold and silver that flitted from conquest to conquest. So he had pondered in his heart, and was starting to come to terms with, the fact that he was just another notch for Youko. But apparently there hadn’t been any notches at all.
"Kitsune mate for life," Kurama said simply.
Hiei’s eyes went very wide and blank.
* * *
Kurama took one look at him and got up to leave.
That look -- wide-eyed, shocked, speechless -- was exactly the reaction he had feared. And now Hiei would probably bolt, overwhelmed by the twist of events that had given him a besotted youko lover. Hiei wasn’t the type to form deep attachments. The old pain in those chocolate-brown eyes of that poor creature swam up in his too-fresh recollection. Hiei had been her lover, too, once.
Now she was less than a memory at swordpoint.
That would be him someday. So he turned on his heel to go.
A sword-callused hand seized his wrist with an inexorable grip, and his eyes flashed as he turned his face to meet Hiei. The fire demon’s expression was...amused. And that hurt more than anything, driving sharp needles into him as the youkai, that little *bastard,* actually began to chuckle.
"To think," Hiei rubbed one hand through his bristly hair, "I was actually worried about *you* leaving *me* someday." He chuckled again, then began to cough, a dry rasping sound. The sound was painful.
That simple sentence penetrated him to the core. "Hiei...I..." Kurama stopped himself, feeling somewhat ashamed. Then a smile tugged unwilling at his own lips. They had both been so afraid to bring up the issue, they had wound up inadvertently hurting each other. He sat down on the edge of the bed. "I’m sorry, Hiei, but you’re stuck with me."
Hiei let go of his wrist and sat next to him, towel twisting low on his hips. "Hn." That familiar smirk quirked his lips. "At least life won’t be dull." The fire demon hooked an arm around his waist, grabbed a sidelock of his hair, and tugged his face exactly where he wanted it. A tongue ran over his bottom lip and then their mouths meshed.
Hiei’s lips were dry and cracked. When he pulled away, Kurama gave him a languorous smile. Oh, yes. This was what he’d been missing.
"Kurama...it’s been five days..." Hiei’s expression was intense.
Kurama nodded and licked his lips. The next words out of Hiei’s mouth nearly brought him crashing to the floor.
"I am DYING to eat something."