"Before the Last Petal Falls"

A/N: Hmm . . . I usually write humor, but angst is appealing as well. I intended for the love between Kurama and Hiei to be platonic; they were supposed to be no more than friends. However, it can be interpreted as shounen-ai, so KxH fans can have a field day. ^^

"He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."

~ Funeral Blues, W.H. Auden

Hiei looked out over the horizon. The sun was setting amidst layers of feathery clouds dyed ethereal hues of pink, gold, and lavender. Its last rays lingered across the far reaches of the sky, by now navy blue; the brilliant streams of light issuing forth from an amaranthine source struggling valiantly to retain their hold but losing to the black oppression of night. Witnessing such a scene was enough to put one in agony; not the agony of pain, but the agony of an unbearable ecstasy.

The surly fire demon snorted. Where had he gotten that sentimental line? Oh, that was right: it had been something Kurama had read out of a book. Sunsets . . . Kurama had always enjoyed their beauty, though he told Hiei often that he preferred sunrises.

"They represent the beginning of a new day. So many possibilities are held in each day. This new day may bring a cure for cancer. Or it may signify the end of the world. Whatever it is," he said almost dreamily, smiling at Hiei, "it's something new; it promises things never seen before. Don't you find it exciting, watching this celestial orb of fire greet you at the end of each night?"

Exciting . . . hn. That had always been Kurama's way of thinking. He always had to be so poetic, always had to find something meaningful in the smallest and most insignificant things. Hiei had once thought it was irritating. Only now he realized how truly beautiful Kurama's life had been, and how much joy he had brought to the lives of those around him.

With Kurama's kind of demented philosophy, Hiei had found it unbelievable when he refused Hiei's ki in an effort to heal him.

"What are you talking about? Have you gone mad? I thought you were always so damn optimistic! You never let it go when I gave up! Why are you doing this now?" Hiei grabbed Kurama's collar in a furious motion.

Kurama smiled wistfully. "You gave up when you had a choice. I don't. Don't you think I knew I was ill before I was sent to the hospital? Of course I fought it."

"At first! You've given up now! I can help you! If you won't let me, take energy from Yusuke, Genkai, even Kuwabara! Yukina can help as well, you know!"

"You don't understand . . .." Kurama finally dropped that maddening smile. "I want to fight this as Shuiichi. By myself. As the person I've lived as for eighteen years. I can't take your help. Besides," he continued calmly, "you need to think this over rationally. If I couldn't save myself, with my extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs, you certainly couldn't. The virus is too destructive. I will die." Then, seeming to think that wasn't enough, he added to ensure Hiei couldn't argue, "Viruses can never be cured. You would just have to keep giving me your ki, and then eventually you would all fall ill as well if you insisted on it."

With this detached revelation, Hiei could make no reply for a while; he only glared. Then, quietly, "You could transform back into a Youko."

"Of course - I considered that. That would be too selfish, though. I owe it to Kaasan to die with dignity. I won't hide from it." That infuriating smile was back.

Hiei hadn't really ever understood that. Wasn't dying without caring about others' feelings selfish? And then, Kurama had placed great value on things that Hiei had never cared about. After all, who could care so much about dignity when one was dying?

Kurama had. He had also cared about a lot of other things Hiei felt were useless, idiotic, or both, and had no scruples to immediately inform his odd, infallibly cheerful friend of his opinions on them. There was the strange obsession Kurama had held with sunsets and sunrises, the way he would always call Hiei's attention to the delicate charm in the miniscule sparkling drops of dew adorning silvery gossamer spider webs, and the soft curves of a rose petal.

Every time Kurama had pointed out each thing that held endless fascination for him, Hiei had snickered derisively at the kitsune's naivete.

You taught me I was wrong, didn't you? Hiei thought flatly. Up the smooth polished side, over the gracefully engraved script, past the carved flourishes, his hand felt its way up Kurama's elegant snowy marble headstone. His open palm took in its perfectly flat, cold surface, tracing in the letters; he closed his eyes and concentrated solely on the feel of the expensive Italian marble under his fingers. The sense of touch was a beautiful thing – one of the kitsune's lessons he would carry for life. Hiei breathed in deeply.

When he opened his eyes, he looked deeply into the shiny white surface. That pale color reminded him painfully of Kurama's anemic face in the last stages of his illness.

"Kurama . . .." Hiei's voice cracked, though he took special care masking his face. "Does it – does it hurt much?"

"No," replied the emaciated shadow of what had once been a vivacious, handsome young man, smiling bravely. "I can almost forget the pain when you're here."

There was an eternal silence.

Hiei said, with difficulty, "How much longer do you have?"

"The doctor says it will be soon now. He believes I will die before two weeks are up." The corners of Kurama's mouth twitched slightly in amusement, though his liquid eyes were vibrant with emotion. "He's a fool. It will be within a week."

More silence. Then, sitting down on the side of the bed, Hiei proceeded to divert his frail companion's interest to different topics, which occupied them for the rest of the night.

They talked about life, love, dreams, poetry, drama, and music; in short, everything that did not touch on that most delicate of subjects, death.

Together they argued, discussed, insulted each other, and laughed. Where did the time go? Towards early morning, Hiei could see Kurama was getting tired. He stood up abruptly.

"You need your sleep," he insisted brusquely. "I've kept you far too long."

Kurama smiled, the first in a long time where his face held no trace of mocking derision or sadness. It was simply an open, genuine smile, a mirror of his heart. Such a lovely smile didn't belong on that wasted, bloodless face. It almost transformed him into a semblance of health. Almost. It tore Hiei's heart to see his friend, the perfect son Shuiichi, the relentless fighter Kurama, reduced so.

"Thank you for staying with me, Hiei. I will always treasure this night. I'm only sorry that we will be unable to have anymore."

"Hn." Hiei looked down on Kurama, unaware of the tenderness shining through his crimson eyes. He turned quietly and left, while behind him Kurama closed his eyes peacefully.

He had never forgotten their conversation either. It had been the last time Kurama had truly been alive, and Hiei had learned more things in that last conversation than he'd ever learned in his whole life.

A light breeze stirred the graveyard, causing golden leaves lying on the ground to fly up in a flurry. The rosebush planted over Kurama's final resting place rustled ever so slightly, and a few scarlet petals drifted to rest on the grass.

Of course, with the bond that they'd shared in life, Hiei had known exactly when Kurama drew his last breath. In all his battles, in all the grief over his past, never had he experienced more pain. Hiei had been brooding listlessly in a tree, afraid to go to the hospital in case Kurama died in front of his eyes. He was sure if he was forced to witness such a scene, he would go mad. Either way, he almost did.

Suddenly, a sick, sharp stab of fear had lanced through him, and he doubled over, gasping, as he fell out of his tree. This . . . this was horrible . . . as though a piece of his heart had been cut off brutally with a blunt knife by someone who had only the faintest idea how to use one, and he had then been forced to eat it. He contrived to land on his feet, but immediately staggered to a fence for support. Damnit, he swore, clutching the barbed shafts of the elaborately cast iron posts. He cursed the pain viciously, while simultaneously blessing it, for he knew it would have been a thousand times worse if he had seen Kurama's passing. In the back of his head, he dimly realized he was a bloody coward.

Fiery electric pulses shot through his veins and blotted out all his senses. All he could feel was the pain. Everything in front of his eyes was black, his head was splitting with the torment, this had to stop . . . he just wanted it to end.

Oh god . . . oh god . . . his grip tightened and dark blood ran in rivulets down his ghastly white skin. No . . . Kurama wasn't dead. Kurama couldn't die – I need you, Kurama! You can't leave because I need you!

Eventually, his ragged sobs subsided along with the initial shock. Oh, the pain was still there, but now it had diminished to a steady, dull throbbing instead of an agonizing, sadistic, fresh dagger that sliced ruthlessly through his heart.

He's gone. The words echoed through his head. Again. Again.

He's gone now, and you couldn't do anything to stop it, a cruel voice taunted him. Hiei screamed in rage and drew his katana. When the pain was too much to bear, there was nothing to do but take it out on other things – and perhaps people.

After his rampage had ended (thankfully no one had gotten in his way, and the others had known to leave him alone) he had gone directly to the hospital to see his friend one last time.

Shiori had planted this rosebush; it had been one of Kurama's wishes. Those who visited Kurama's grave regularly (and that had been almost everyone he had known; so popular was the former youkai thief) noted admiringly the amount of care Kurama's ningen mother had put into the plant. It bloomed even now, in late fall; not only bloomed, but also flourished radiantly. Every rose was perfect: large, fragrant, and exquisite.

What most people didn't know was that the rosebush's remarkable vitality was not entirely due to Shiori's vigilance.

Plip. Plop.

Two of Hiei's tears slid from his impassive eyes to the base of the rosebush, and disappeared immediately as they were quickly absorbed into the earth. Which was just as well, as if Kurama had not claimed them in his grave, doubtless God would have sent one of His angels to collect them; so precious were the tears of the Jaganshi, which were rarer than the most flawless pearls or exotic rubies.

Almost every night, he had come here so Kurama wouldn't be alone, and he had watered the roses with his tears, and few as they were, the flowers seemed to be better off for it. They would never have a night like that one again, but Hiei would never let Kurama spend too many nights unaccompanied. It was a responsibility he felt obligated to fulfill.

In a way this was almost funny. Kurama, in a fit of sentimentality, had compelled Hiei to watch a ningen animated film called Beauty and the Beast. Several more glowing petals fluttered down in a dizzying dance. Hiei remembered there was this thing with a rose – how if the Beast didn't find true love before the last petal fell, he would be doomed to eternity as a hideous monster.

Is this what it was? Were you the beauty, and I the beast? Well, I opened my heart to you. And you died. Where's the happy ending, Kurama? Aren't I supposed to transform into a handsome prince?

Well, he wasn't. He was still the petty, selfish, murdering bastard he'd been his whole life. And, according to the movie, he'd be one for the rest of his life.

Hiei wished he could appreciate the irony.

Rays of gentle warmth caressed the side of Hiei's face and slowly grew stronger. He turned his face to the east and closed his eyes, absorbing the glory of the sunrise. Then he opened them and observed it neutrally. Mother Sun was ascending her throne atop splendid clouds glowing radiantly, their light reaching out to the far corners of the sky, and turning the ebony expanse of the heavens sapphire, as the same age-old battle between night and day was fought; the same one that was warred every day.

He felt nothing.

The beauty of the sunrise failed to move him, though last night he had watched the sunset with an admiration bordering on reverence.

You weren't supposed to leave, Kurama. You still need to teach me to love the sunrise the way you did. I have only learned to appreciate the melancholy beauty of the sunset.

And now I suppose that's all I'll ever know.

A/N: Did I manage to make this into a stupid, cliched, and completely horrible story? Feedback appreciated. ^^;;