They stumbled through the gate that would take them to Genkai's temple, tired, dirty, and battered. Kuwabara had tossed an unconscious Yuusuke over his shoulder, while Hiei supported Kurama with his whipcord strength.
Genkai hurried to help, bustling them into a room for rest and healing. Kuwabara lowered Yuusuke to one of the sleeping rolls that Genkai dragged out hastily, grumbling, then passed out on one of his own. Hiei helped Kurama to another roll then hesitated near him, waiting until Genkai left the room to brush light, barely felt fingers under the line of his jaw, across his face.
Kurama gave him a weary smile as Hiei retreated to a far corner of the room, and Yukina came in.
It had been a hard battle - he was more hurt than he cared to admit; it would take at least a week to fully recover. Which explained why Hiei was still in the room, as close as *he* could get to hovering while Yukina took care of his wounds.
He sighed with relief as the pain left him, lay back, and closed his eyes.
Hiei watched as Yukina took care of his fox, eyes glittering. He crossed his arms, leaning against the wall, a slight smile forming on his face as Kurama fell asleep. He had sensed the youko was in more pain than he was willing to show, but Yukina's expression as she tended him was unworried.
"Ne, Hiei-san?" Yukina's voice came to him as she moved next to Kuwabara, making a little worried noise until she discovered he was okay. He scowled fiercely at the lunkhead who had somehow managed to capture his sister's affections.
"Nani?" he replied, less curtly than usual.
"Did you have fun at the party last week?" she asked brightly, an obvious conversation gambit.
Hiei snorted contemptuously. It had been Yuusuke's stupid nineteenth birthday party, and Kurama had *dragged* him there - literally. He hated "socializing," as Kurama called it, and had ended up picking a fight with Kuwabara after an unfortunate incident involving darts, then had retreated reflexively to a far corner of the room when Kurama had put a stop to it. Then he'd gotten thoroughly drunk.
Kurama'd sure gotten a kick out of teasing him about what he'd done after that. . . provoking him to the verge of strangling the hysterically laughing youko until he finally admitted nothing had actually happened.
"I just love parties," Yukina continued cheerfully, tying up a bandage. "Birthdays are such a wonderful thing."
"Hn," Hiei replied, holding his tongue because he thought it was a stupid human custom. He didn't want to squelch Yukina, who seemed so enthusiastic about it.
"I kind of wish *I* had one," Yukina said wistfully, moving on to Yuusuke. She made a little noise of distress, then began to work. Yuusuke and Kurama had taken the brunt of that last stand. "But I don't even know when I was born. Maybe. . . if I ever find my brother. . ."
Hiei regarded her for a long moment, heart aching. He was a little glad Kurama had safely fallen asleep; the fox would've been elbowing him about now, urging him to reveal to Yukina that he *was* her brother. He considered for a moment, then decided he wouldn't be revealing anything.
"Oi. You can have mine," Hiei offered a bit shortly. "I've never had much use for it."
"Honto ni!?" Yukina blurted in surprise. "When is it?"
Hiei told her.
"Arigato, Hiei! Oh, Hiei-san, domo arigato!" Yukina exclaimed happily, eyes alight. "It means so much to me!"
She was talking to an empty room. Hiei had vanished in a breath of air.
A little smile twinkled over Yukina's sweet features, and she turned back to tending Yuusuke.
Hiei flicked from branch to branch, seemingly teleporting with the speed of his travel. He was unsettled. Mukuro had just given him a summons, effective in three days' time. He would have to return to the Makai, to her service.
He alighted on a branch outside Kurama's apartment. The redhead was sitting at his desk as usual, bent over some paperwork intently. He allowed a smile to touch his lips as he watched him, unobserved and still unknown to Kurama.
This would be the first time for six months that Mukuro had summoned him, since she had put him on leave. It would be the first time he would be forced to leave this fox since they had begun this new phase of their relationship.
Hiei didn't want to admit it but he was nervous. Of how Kurama would react, and what this would mean for them.
He dropped lightly to the sill, where the window had been left ajar for him as always.
Kurama was still engrossed in the papers, and Hiei raked him over from head to toe with his eyes, admiring his beauty and graceful form. He was pretending to ignore him again, a game they occasionally played to eventual mutual enjoyment.
Hiei glided forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. He gathered up the brilliant red hair, pulling it to one side and bending to press lips to the nape of his neck. Then he slid his arms around Kurama, just holding him. He could feel the youko's warm smile as he responded, rubbing his cheek against Hiei's in acknowledgment.
"Hello," he uttered softly.
Hiei buried his face in Kurama's hair, inhaling his scent. Then he began to kiss down his neck, fierce hot kisses, reaching the cluster of nerves at the joining of neck and shoulder, and dug his teeth in possessively.
Kurama made a small noise of startled pleasure, inclining his head further to the side. Hiei placed a gentle kiss over the little wound he'd made, then traced a path with his tongue to Kurama's mouth. He was waiting for him eagerly, opening his mouth at once to Hiei's exploring tongue.
It wasn't enough. Hiei's hands closed around Kurama's shoulders, tugging, urging him to get up. Kurama chuckled softly, deep in his throat, and tossed his pen on the desk. He let Hiei lead him to the bed.
An endless, breathless time later, Kurama lounged beside him with that satisfied expression he usually wore when sated, but not yet worn out. Hiei pulled him closer, setting an ear against the youko's chest and listening to his heart beat, running a hand over silken muscles and smooth planes that were so familiar to him, yet never failed to invoke quicksilver stirrings.
"I'm going back to the Makai the day after tomorrow," Hiei informed him quietly. "Mukuro finally summoned me."
Kurama's body, pressed against him, went tense. "Oh." He pulled Hiei closer.
"I don't know when I'll be able to come back," Hiei continued doggedly, feeling that he should make sure Kurama knew this, but wishing he could give him something more reassuring.
Kurama's gem-bright green eyes were closed. Hiei frowned a little. Usually Kurama was the more vocal of the two of them. Was something wrong. . .? Did he think Hiei would never come back? A thought flashed through his head, quickly gone but he felt guilty anyway for having it as a little voice whispered *will he wait for me to leave, then take another lover?* He suppressed the voice firmly.
Kurama opened his eyes, meeting his gaze steadily. He smiled. "I'll be here when you *do* get back."
Hiei was overcome. Instead of responding with words, he kissed the youko fiercely, passionately as he knew how.
They were pleasantly occupied until dawn.
Yukina was puttering around the garden, one of her favorite activities at Genkai's. The flowers responded excellently to her touch, despite the fact that ice was her normal medium. She was currently working on shaping a flowerbed to form the pattern of a phoenix.
As she worked, she hummed and thought. Her mind wandered back to the conversation she had had with Hiei two weeks ago, when he had given her his birthday.
She considered it the best gift she'd ever been given.
So naturally, being generous of spirit and believing strongly in reciprocating gifts, she wanted to do something equally special for Hiei.
Yukina thought about it some more, as she placed a few new cuttings and stood back to observe the overall effect.
She considered Hiei himself. She tried to review everything she knew about the little fire demon, recalling in her mind every encounter she had had with him. How lonely he seemed most of the time, and aloof. *I've never had much use for it,* Hiei had said about the birthday, and she saw again the look on his face that struggled for a lofty distance, but somehow she saw through it. She traced her way back through every conversation, every silent presence.
Then she knew, in a burst of intuition.
Yukina clapped her hands with surprise and delight. It was more perfect than she had dreamed.
Kurama hadn't been home for very long and was just about to immerse himself in paperwork to drown out thoughts of Hiei when there was a knock on the door.
He hoped the visitor would provide a welcome distraction from the fretful thoughts that had plagued every day since Hiei's departure. It seemed all he could think about was Hiei in the Makai, wondering when he would be able to return - sometimes, in fits of self-indulgent melancholy, *if* he would return. Or at least if Hiei would be able to get word to him, in between acting as Mukuro's messenger boy and sparring partner.
He was confronted as he opened the door with one of the last people he expected to see.
Kurama blinked at the slender little ice maiden, then smiled widely and invited her in. "Konnichiwa, Yukina-san. . .I haven't seen you in awhile."
"Hi!" Yukina replied brightly. "Sorry to trouble you, Kurama, but I have a small matter to discuss. "
"Oh? Come on in and have a cup of tea."
"It's just that. . .well, you seem closest to Hiei and you've certainly known him the longest. I need your advice, and your help."
Kurama listened in surprise and a touch of humor as Yukina outlined her plan to him. "There's just one problem," he warned. "Hiei is back in the Makai, serving Mukuro. I don't know for how long."
Yukina's face fell. "Oh."
He served them both tea, watching the hot steam rise up as they were both silent. It was too bad. He would've liked to see the expression on Hiei's face...
"Isn't there anything we can do?" Yukina implored. "Could we ask Lord Koenma to intercede...?"
Kurama shrugged thoughtfully. "Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to try."
Hiei walked into the reception room with Mukuro, almost stiffly at attention. The first couple of days had been exhausting both mentally and physically, as Mukuro seemed to try and push him to every limit she could. Things were better now, as Hiei's edge began to re-emerge brighter than ever.
She had even at one point made an offer - propositioned him.
"Come on, Hiei," she had said, laughing. "How about it?"
Hiei had remained stony, closed off. "I have someone," was the steadfast reply. "Someone I'm faithful to. And I won't cross the line of the relationship of a liege and her retainers."
"Even my heir?" Mukuro had replied, watchful.
"Even your heir," Hiei replied firmly.
That, too, had turned out to be a test, but now Mukuro knew he had a relationship, and had probably guessed by now that it was someone back in the Ningenkai. She was too discreet to ask and the thought of telling her never occurred to him.
Mukuro seated herself, gestured for Hiei to do the same, and was about to review some lists when a messenger entered the room, bowing and handing her a small silver tube. She snapped it open and extracted the message, scanning it quickly. Her eyebrows raised. Then she began to chuckle.
"I'll be damned."
Hiei raised an eyebrow but remained silent, knowing she'd only tell him what the message concerned if she damned well pleased.
Mukuro tucked the message back into the tube and disposed of both, then stood, rubbing her hands together briskly. She looked Hiei up and down, then grinned a slightly predatory grin.
"You look like you could use a workout."
That one sentence put him on his guard before Mukuro struck. They tore up the reception room as they fought, and Hiei was brought up against his very limits as Mukuro pushed, and continued to push, and push, until Hiei was straining the edges of his powers and still unwilling to admit defeat. Systematically Mukuro beat him to a pulp, and he kept gritting his teeth and getting to his feet, knowing this too was probably another test.
He knew that he had improved already in the time he had spent with her over the past few weeks, but he was still outclassed. Finally Mukuro stood back, straightening to stand tall.
"Enough," she declared, narrowing an eye at him. She looked him up and down once more. "Go home." The words were brusque, clipped.
"Go home," Mukuro repeated. "To your lover in the Ningenkai."
Not that he didn't *want* to. But this felt like another test.
"I'm done with you for now." She gave him a feral smile. "Don't worry, Hiei, I'll recall you in a few more weeks. But for now. . .go home. And yes, I think I'll make it an order."
As he left the floating barge, Hiei was confused. This was a side to Mukuro he'd never seen before. But. . .he was grateful. Unwillingly so, but still.
He flitted from rooftop to tree, not moving as quickly as he usually did. He was tired and knew he barely had enough strength to curl up beside his fox in bed before falling asleep, let alone to do Kurama justice. But he wanted to be there with him.
Maybe surprise him and see his face light up. . .
Hiei reached the familiar apartment, leaping from a rooftop with ease into the tree that would take him to his lover's window. Then he scowled. The window was closed. All the lights in the apartment were out. Kurama was gone.
He entered the apartment anyway, knowing that he could sleep until the youko returned. Hn. Being woken up after resting by a mischievous, amorous fox wasn't *all* bad. He padded lightly over to the futon, spotting a neat handwritten note in the middle of the bed. He bent over and read it.
It was for *him*.
*Hiei, if you should get back by some chance while I am away, you can find me at Genkai's temple. Love and kisses, Kurama.*
Hiei scowled at the flippant ending to the note. Then his brow wrinkled. How had Kurama known he'd be back tonight? Pure wishful thinking? . . .Or did he write a note like this every time he went out, hoping that Hiei would come while he was away, and find him?
*He misses me too,* the sharp feeling pierced him, mingled with a sense of wonder. It was still peculiar to have someone care for him this much.
Hiei sighed, eyeing the futon with longing. It would be so nice to collapse. On the other hand, Kurama would be so happy to see him. . . The wistful feelings behind the note caused a tightness to rise up in Hiei's chest, a strange feeling he couldn't quite pinpoint. Yosha, maybe if he found that youko the feeling would get better.
Hiei flitted out the window and back into the deepening twilight. If Kurama wanted to be found, then find him he would.
The grounds surrounding Genkai's temple were tranquil and beautiful. Hiei admired Yukina's handiwork with a sort of surprised admiration, amazed that anything related to him could produce something so lovely, pleasing to the eye and the senses. The phoenix fanned out across part of the lawn in a graceful arc, a riot of orange and red blossoms that swirled together in a fiery, fascinating pattern. Further on, he spied a leaping fox depicted in white and silver blooms laughing, lolling out a red-blooming tongue, that surely appealed to Kurama's vanity.
"As if he needs any more," Hiei muttered, approaching the temple. It was more than just tranquil. It was unusually. . .quiet.
Reflexively he gripped the hilt of his katana as he mounted the stairs. His eyes scanned everywhere for possible dangers, and he pressed his senses outward, sensing no hostile or unfamiliar youki. Hiei was just about to yank off the warded strip covering his Jagan as he pushed the door open, still uneasy.
Orange-yellow fires flared into life, dazzling him for a split second. Torches were held up high.
"SURPRISE!" everybody yelled, grinning like idiots. He was faced abruptly a widely-grinning, sly-faced Kurama, along with Yuusuke, Kuwabara, Keiko, Botan, Shizuru, Genkai, and even Koenma waving around torches, throwing confetti into the air. There was a big banner strung between two pillars.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HIEI!
Hiei growled, tightening his grip on the katana. His clenched right fist began to smoke a little.
Yukina stepped forward to give him a swift hug, her face smiling and happy. "Hiei-san! Happy birthday!"
Yukina was the only reason, he decided, not to draw his sword and slay them all.
Everyone was wearing a stupid, wildly-colored conical hat. Kurama's, as he approached Hiei, was slightly askew, giving him a rakish appearance. He held out one of the stupid hats to Hiei. Hiei bit him as he tried to put it on.
"This is all your fault," he accused the foolishly-grinning youko. "I'm going to kill you."
"Nope!" Kurama replied happily, making another pass with the hat. Hiei drew his sword and cut it in half. Kurama made a face and tossed it aside. "It was all Yukina's idea."
Shit. That left him with no one to blame.
"But you went along with it!" Hiei was determined to hold *someone* responsible.
"Hiei-san! Thanks to you, it's my birthday party too!" Yukina proclaimed, gesturing to a large cake in the middle of a table.
Hiei relented a little at seeing how happy she was. He shot Kurama an "I'll GET you later" look and walked over to glance at the cake, which read "Happy Birthday, Yukina and Hiei" in thick blue frosting. There was a big tub of that sweet snow next to it, stuck in an ice chest.
Hn. Maybe this wouldn't be ALL bad.
There were no darts at this party. Hiei had a feeling Kurama was behind that one. But there *was* pin the tail on the donkey, which Kurama steadfastly refused to let Hiei play due to Kuwabara's involvement in the game. Inevitably the party degenerated into drinking games and stories, and of course eating up all the food while still sopping up as much alcohol as possible. Hiei managed to polish off half the tub of sweet snow all by himself. Then he got to the sake.
Yukina had just begun to open her presents when Hiei, yawning widely enough to split his head open, climbed into Kurama's lap, curling up against his chest cat-like. Kuwabara's and Yuusuke's eyes popped out as they goggled, their jaws unhinging to hit the floor. Fortunately they were both drunk enough that they forgot it in five minutes. Hiei fell asleep with the steady, silken sound of Kurama's heartbeat thudding reassuringly in his ear.
Yukina's silvery laughter lingered in his mind, forging pleasant dreams.
Hiei awoke the next morning to a taste in his mouth not unlike the depths of a Makai cesspool, discovering that the awful sensation trailed past the back of his tongue and for some strange reason continued up into his brain.
He groaned and opened one eye reluctantly. Someone was laughing at him.
"Shut up," Hiei managed to grit out, but was unable to pass up the opportunity to admire Kurama sprawled out among the white, white sheets that contrasted so starkly with the mane of crimson hair and the bottomless green of his eyes.
Kurama smiled into his eyes. "'Morning, Hiei," he taunted.
"Hn," Hiei responded, shutting his eyes resolutely against that fact. He suddenly wormed his way into Kurama's arms, nuzzling the hollow of his throat, clinging almost desperately. A small noise escaped his iron-hard control.
Kurama hugged him back tightly. "Welcome home, Hiei," he whispered against his ear.
A long time later, Hiei had recovered enough equilibrium to get out of bed and eat some of the food Kurama cooked, and get rid of that awful Makai brand(tm) cesspool taste. He must've had an awful lot to drink last night. But Kurama wasn't acting smug or amused this morning, so he couldn't have done anything *too* bad.
Kurama sat down at the table, a peculiar expression on his face. "Hiei. . .here." He shoved something across the table at him.
"Nani?" he inquired, picking up the small box. Uh-oh. Ningen wedding rings came in parcels this size. Was Kurama going to ask him to marry him. . .?
"It's your birthday present, silly. Most of us got you something, believe it or not," Kurama replied.
He opened the box. Staring up at him, almost winking as the light struck, was a small pewter dragon, its faceted black jewel eyes bouncing the light with a lively gleam, seeming to regard him as if alive. Hiei frowned, picking up the flat, circular dragon that twisted all around itself, fierce in the act of attacking. Its pewter scales almost seemed to flow like flames.
"What is it?" He turned it over. A pin was fixed to the back.
"It's a pin for your cloak," Kurama explained, a little smile on his face. "I know you don't need it. But it reminded me of you."
Hiei put it back in the box. He met Kurama's brilliant green eyes and smiled, one of his genuine rare smiles. "Arigato, Kurama."
There were a few other things scattered across the table. Curiously he picked up a piece of paper; it looked like a card.
"Who's this from?"
"Yukina," Kurama glanced at it casually. The card was hand-made, with twining black flames on the cover, surrounding a pair of red eyes that seemed fierce and gentle at the same time. A true feat of work on the behalf of the artist, he mused.
Hiei opened the card and scanned through it. His face went blank and Kurama could've sworn he actually *paled* a shade or two as he dropped the card to the table, fingers barely shaking. . .but for Hiei that was a lot, an immense display of emotion, for him a total lack of control. Hiei turned away from the table, getting up, and Kurama got up too, concerned, as he saw a tremor go through his fire demon's shoulders. He snatched up the birthday card quickly, eyes widening in shock as he saw a black tear gem slide through the air, grabbing at the light, then *clink* as it hit the floor.
"Hiei - " he started in surprise, then read through the card. It was short and very simple, only one sentence that had shaken Hiei so profoundly.
*Happy birthday, oniisan.*