This chapter was scheduled to be posted a month ago, in time for this fic's first birthday. If you follow my tumblr you may have read why it didn't happen, but for those of you who don't, here's the summary: I live in Barcelona, and days before I intended to update, the terrorist attack happened. No one I personally knew was injured, though some were caught near the site and I couldn't get home that day, and I lost a lot of steam to write for a while. When I felt like I was back to writing okay, my work schedule was extended again, then I came down with a cold that I haven't fully gotten rid of yet, and finally, a dick move from politicians has tossed the region into a huge unrest.
Basically, writer's block hit like a truck and I've been chipping at it all this time. What would usually take me three days to write became a month and a half, and the result isn't what I hoped, but I think it's high time to update. For you, since I've made you wait long enough, and for me, so I can move onto writing something else for a few days before plunging back into the final chapters with renewed excitement.
Also! We hit 200 reviews last chapter! Thanks so much for your support, and for sticking around this long!
Guest: That was definitely a makizushi pun. Think of her hair as nori.
Makoto doubled over, resting her hands on her knees and trying to stay up as she regained her breath.
"That was just sad," Amemasu said, sitting under the shade of a nearby tree, and, as always, covered by a water mantle.
Coming out of the lake to surveil Makoto's training while Genkai was busy had been a nice gesture, but the running commentary was starting to get on the girl's nerves.
"I know," she breathed out, and let out a small groan as she stood up straight, wiping beads of sweat from her forehead.
"I know you know, but that won't keep me from saying it. Hurry up, you still have three reps left."
It wasn't just her face. A sheen of sweat covered Makoto's entire body, her right hand included as she concentrated, again, her energy in it.
It wasn't going to work…
She missed the peak of her flow of youki by a split second, and the shot that came out of her palm was diffuse, weak, and completely useless unless her aim was making bad fireworks.
Thanks to Master Genkai's training, fainting after a few shots was a thing of the past. Now she was at the stage where her own reiki flow sabotaged her when she concentrated on her youki, sending her brain mixed signals and making her lose her tempo.
She heard Amemasu hum as she readied for the next one.
"This is being quite instructive, all things said," they remarked. "I had never thought about the sorts of problems your kind have to deal with. Humans are so inconvenient."
Makoto glanced at them after the next pitiful shot, which poofed out of existence as soon as it left her hand.
So much for being better at this than she had thought. As proficient as she had become at lowering her energy output, it turned out that letting it out was an entirely different matter. The exact opposite matter, in fact, and needless to say, she was struggling to get it right.
"This is useless," she muttered with frustration.
"One more!" Amemasu chided. "Or I'll tell Genkai."
Instead of retorting, Makoto twisted her mouth and made one last effort. She had to do this right. Slowly, she took one deep breath and centered all her attention on her energy flux, sensing how her youki and reiki beat to different rhythms, on separate but intertwined wavelengths, and waited until the two of them met.
Still some time to go.
But when she released her energy, she flubbed it again. The sad beam of youki disappeared as soon as it reached the shore of the lake.
Amemasu sighed. "We all have bad days, I suppose."
"Do not feel the need to be tactful."
"Oh, all right. That was painfully embarrassing. Take a break and come back tomorrow; I can't keep watching this any longer."
Makoto grimaced, but did as told. Truthfully, she didn't think she could keep going without collapsing then and there after a few more tries.
She watched Amemasu disappear under the calm waters, a fish tail showing for an instant, and the ripples left behind.
There was still some day left ahead of Makoto, but she doubted she'd get much done as things were. Returning to the temple was an option, but she could use a run to clear her head, and there was somewhere else she could go.
The mountain range that was visible for the lake was also part of Genkai's lands, permanently windy and frosty, and currently housing several guests, if she could call them so. She could them a visit.
Makoto made her way up a mountain until she reached the top, crowned by a hidden building similar to a temple, and surrounded by amulets to contain youki that, she suspected, had grown every time she went there.
Its source was obvious when she entered the perimeter they delimited. Outside there were the usual energies that emanated from Master Genkai's grounds, but inside, something less natural, more active and much, much stronger, waited. The Spirit World would have taken notice of it soon, but precautions hadn't been taken.
She pushed the enormous doors before her and stepped inside the building, which was pitch black inside save for a candle next to Master Genkai, who observed what was going on in the dark.
"Close the door," she said as a greeting.
Kurama had rounded up a few acquaintances from the Dark Tournament and recruited them to work for Yomi. And, of course, if the situation became dire, as it was wont to do, to have some capable support on his side. Master Genkai was in charge of their training before they could be introduced to Kurama's employer, so to speak.
It had only been a few weeks, but the improvement was palpable. They would have decimated Team Urameshi if they had been at this level during the tournament.
"Already done with your training?"
Makoto said yes with a timid voice as she stared firmly at her sneakers. Genkai leveled a sly glance at her, probably knowing why she was sounding like that, before she made any comments, someone took notice of Makoto's presence.
"Mako's here!" A childish voice announced, and right away someone ran from the depths of the dark room towards her.
Rinku's aura slapped Makoto with its effervescency as he looked up with a grin bigger than his face.
"Hey," she said very eloquently. There was so much power contained in a vessel so small.
"Hey you too! How come you are here?"
Makoto decided it was best not to look at Genkai. "Today is not my day."
He snickered and crossed his arms behind his head. "Don't give up! If you keep training you can get as strong as me someday!"
"Such big talk from such a tiny guy," Makoto rasped.
Rinku stuck his tongue out at her, and then she saw Suzuki approach the group.
He looked like the last time she had seen him at the island, but considerably less beat up and spiteful. It was a relief for everybody's retinas that he hadn't gone back to his clown shtick.
"I was wondering if you'd show up today!" Suzuki looked genuinely glad to see her. "How have you been?"
"We saw each other just a week ago."
"So much can happen in a week! Aren't we all a testament to that?" He said, gesturing pompously into the dark, right as a very drunk-sounding Chuu cursed at Shishiwakamaru.
Indeed, all of them had been at the tournament, and all of them had come somehow changed out of it. Maybe even Master Genkai, who had ascertained what her successor was capable of doing.
But Suzuki, in particular, was a man born anew, and he had a newfound fondness of Makoto that she appreciated but didn't quite know how to manage.
"Now I realize what you meant back on the island," he continued, sparing Makoto from answering. "I can hardly believe how far I've come, but now I'm sure I can do better! And your encouragement is partly to thank."
Makoto blushed slightly at the praise and refused to look at him as she brushed off his comment. "You effort is yours alone. If anything, I only told you what was likelier to happen."
"Drill those words into your brain," Genkai butted in. "She has predicted five deaths in less than a year and failed every single time, so don't take anything she says for granted."
Makoto felt the rush of blood to her cheeks get worse. "But you and Yuusuke did die!"
"And what was the point if it didn't stick?" Genkai wagged a finger dismissively at her.
Makoto didn't know how to counter that, but Genkai didn't seem to be very interested in her answer, either. "And you two, get back to work," she said to the guys. "You aren't done for the day yet."
"Yes, ma'am!" Said Rinku and Suzuki at once, and with a wink and a wave, respectively, they bid farewell to Makoto and disappeared back into the dark.
"They are much better students than Yuusuke," Genkai said when they were out of sight.
Makoto couldn't tell if the tone of her voice hinted at approval, nostalgia, or both.
"I hope he is doing all right," Makoto said, putting in words what she had been thinking all summer long.
"He's Yuusuke," Genkai replied, as if that said everything, and in a sense it did. "I thought you'd be more worried about someone else, considering the track record of that bunch."
"I am not worried," Makoto clarified, "I am hopeful."
Hopeful that Yuusuke would come back with a new resolve; that he had been able to put his priorities in the order that felt right for him; that he had found out what his place in the world was. Hopeful that this would give Makoto a hint to figure out these things for herself, too.
"Isn't that inspiring," Genkai said, ever the pragmatist. "Now if we could also hope for you to acquire more endurance."
Makoto started to fidget unconsciously. "I will do my best," she whispered, embarrassed.
"Your best isn't enough." Genkai retorted, firm, but not chastising. "Learn from these folks. Your best is just a starting point so you can aim higher."
Makoto paused to look at Master Genkai, then at the pitch-black space where the others were sparring.
She wasn't able to fight for prolonged periods of time in normal circumstances, much less if she had to concentrate on pinpointing each of her opponent's gestures with her awareness.
Master Genkai was right. Her best would never be enough. She could still become so much more.
"I swear we wouldn't see each other anymore if we didn't live next door," Fumiko complained. She pulled a sleeveless peach dress from a rack at the shop they were at and held it up. "What about this one?"
"I thought you would be happy to be rid of me every now and then," Makoto joked with a serious tone. "I do not like it."
Fumiko sighed and put back the dress. "You are harder to shop for than my mother. And what do you know, after so many years it's weird to go a week without listening to someone speak in monotone."
"Do you not have boring teachers?"
"The operative word was 'listening'."
"I feel blessed."
"I'm sure you do." Fumiko pulled another one, a navy blue with spaghetti straps and sequins on the skirt. "You like this color, right?"
"That skirt is tacky."
Fumiko groaned. "Make an effort and search you too!"
Makoto got up from the seat she had taken on a hassock next to a mirror. Fumiko was helping her find a dress for Shiori Minamino's wedding, and by helping, it meant that Makoto was leaving all the work to her friend while she turned down every garment Fumiko shoved in her face. She just couldn't see herself wearing anything so fancy.
After browsing for a few minutes, something yellow caught her eye. As soon as she touched the fabric, Fumiko jumped at her and took it out of the rack. It had short sleeves and a wrapped bodice with a modest neck. The skirt was plain, knee-length, and had a bit of flare.
"Try this on."
"I do not—"
"Come the fuck on, Mako, it's your favorite color and we've been here for an hour – go!"
Grumpily, Makoto took the dress from Fumiko and went to the dressing room. Fumiko waited outside the curtain while she changed.
"By the way, I was meaning to ask you something," Makoto said as she undressed.
"What have I done now?" She said dramatically.
"…Why, what have you done now?"
"Suspicious." She paused. "Anyway, I wanted to ask how you calculated how many days you could skip school without having to repeat a grade."
Fumiko sounded really excited on the other side and clapped her hands. "Oh my! From honor student to bad girl in a semester!"
"I am not an honor student."
"Compared to me, sure you are," she replied. "Does that mean you'll be spending even more time out of the city?"
She heard Fumiko sigh. "Kids grow up so fast."
Makoto glanced at her legs in the mirror. "Literally. Soon I'll be taller than you."
"Only in your zombie bug infested dreams."
"There are things I need to do." She added after a small pause. "Or that I feel I need to do, at any rate."
"Hm. Well, whatever feels right. It's not like I'm going to go anywhere while you kung-fu punch trees in the mountains." Fumiko sounded a little dejected, and maybe because of that she changed the subject right away. "What are you going to do with your hair?"
"My hair?" Makoto looked in the mirror. As always, it was long and straight and absolutely flat and perfectly tailored to hide her face.
"Don't tell me you mean to go like that to the wedding."
She paused while struggling with the side zip of the dress. "What is wrong with my hair?"
"Nothing's wrong, but… don't you think you should do something with it for the occasion?"
"No. I like how it is."
"I refuse to go near a hairdresser. They always do what they want."
"You should also put on some make-up," Fumiko continued without paying any attention to her. "Why don't you go to Shizuru's? I'm sure she'll do something nice with your hair."
Makoto thought about it. "If it is her, I guess I—"
"And then you can go to school and show everybody the pictures of how stunning you looked the day Minamino's mom remarried."
"…Why did I think for a moment that your motives were pure?"
Fumiko cackled with glee. "I live for high school drama."
"You can say that again," Makoto replied, finally getting the zip up. She looked in the mirror and readjusted the dress slightly. She thought it didn't look bad on her, but instead of showing Fumiko right away, she decided to make her wait some more, because making life a little harder for each other was just a natural part of being friends. "How many boyfriends did you tear through in three years?"
"And that is why I swore off men," Fumiko said solemnly.
"I did not think you were serious when you said that, to be honest. But you have not dated anybody since… when, the zombie apocalypse?"
Fumio cleared her throat and repeated, "I swore off men."
Her words took one second to sink in, another so Makoto put two and two together, and a third as she opened the curtain and looked at Fumiko from behind with an indignant expression.
"How did you trick Shizuru into dating you?!"
"Woah, that dress looks great on you!"
Fumiko grinned at Makoto and tossed her hair aside with a hand. "You of all people should understand my charm."
"Was it hypnosis? Bribery? Drugs? Please tell me it was not drugs."
"Of course it wasn't drugs! It was the doing of a wonderful mutual friend who introduced us."
Makoto rested her forehead on the wall. "I should have seen it coming."
"Aren't you happy for me?" Fumiko asked in a joking manner, but Makoto could detect a bit of insecurity under the question.
"I have to be. Your taste has improved immensely."
"I think you'd look great with short hair."
"Hers is worse than I expected, though."
Fumiko burst into laughter and proceeded to inspect every inch of the dress Makoto was wearing before deeming it was perfect and making her friend buy it so they could leave the shop already. Makoto did so gladly, yearning for freedom, until she was reminded that she needed new shoes to go with it.
Shiori Minamino married Kazuya Hatanaka on a sunny, early autumn day, and Makoto spent the hours before it happened undergoing a test of patience at the Kuwabara's. It involved a face full of make-up (which would have been all right by itself, but several tries had been made, and at some point Makoto had to remind Shizuru and Fumiko that she wasn't the bride, to which she was promptly told to shut up. They were bad influences on each other), a French manicure, and a traumatic haircut.
Shizuru had said that she'd only cut the tips and a little bit from the locks at the front to give some shape to Makoto's hair, but Shizuru was a hairdresser, so Makoto hadn't believed a word.
As it turned out, Shizuru hadn't lied, but no one could take away from her the scare of seeing the scissors hover near her face.
She also resented that her front bangs had been cut just short enough so that she couldn't hide her eyes behind them.
After insisting over and over that she didn't want to wear any fancy updos, and the girls insisting that it was a waste of long hair, Shizuru let go of her idea for a chignon and settled for something simpler. Leaving the two bangs she had cut shorter alone to frame Makoto's face on each side, she gathered the locks above her ears, pinned them on the back of Makoto's head, and adorned it with a pale yellow tulle flower, effectively letting her wear her hair down without it getting in her face.
Makoto felt terribly exposed, but it didn't look bad and it was time to go, so she didn't voice any complaints. She left the house side by side with Kuwabara, who was wearing a black suit with a blue tie, and by the way he tugged at it, anyone would think that the fabric was trying to strangle him.
"I feel so awkward," he muttered.
Makoto thought that despite how much he seemed to struggle against it, it looked good on him. She supposed it was sort of what Fumiko and Shizuru had been trying to tell her all day long.
"Same," she said, taking a strand of hair between her middle and index fingers, levelling it to her eyes with a sense of uncertainty, then letting it fall back in place. "People should go to weddings in pajamas."
That comment got a snicker out of Kuwabara. "Or band t-shirts."
"Megallica…" She said wistfully.
"Did you see the design for their last tour?"
"Please don't remind—"
"C'mon, Kazuma, Makoto!" Kuwabara's father urged them from the sidewalk, the car's engine already running. "Do you want to get there in time or not?"
And as odd as they felt in those clothes, the answer was clear, so they hurried up and took their ride to the church, Makoto being silently glad that she was in good company.
There weren't many people at the church when they arrived, and Ms. Minamino and Kurama would be the last to appear, so Kuwabara and Makoto stuck next to each other and found an empty bench to sit on while the other guests, many of which apparently knew each other, gathered in small groups.
"I can't wait until Kurama gets here." Kuwabara voiced, once again, what both were thinking, though he did it in a whisper so no one but Makoto could hear. "We're like the youngest people in this place."
Makoto almost said that Kurama was definitely older than anybody else in the vicinity, but she agreed with him, so she didn't feel like being nitpicky. "There's the other Shuuichi," she replied, nodding towards the groom, who was in a corner of the room talking with some people she didn't know, and who she guessed was his son.
"Right, Mr. Hatanaka's son, isn't he? Do you know him?"
"Only heard of him."
Kuwabara gritted his teeth and said, "We'll have to weather the storm alone, then."
Neither said it, but Makoto was quite sure that Kuwabara was wishing Yuusuke could be there as much as she was. There was no room for uncomfortable silences when Yuusuke was around.
She looked at Kuwabara, sitting all rigid and solemn on the bench with his arms crossed. He appeared to be even tenser than Makoto, who any onlooker might think that she was trying to glare at the floor until it opened up and swallowed her.
This was silly. Makoto was terrible at small talk and Kuwabara had never been too sure how to talk to her, so without Yuusuke or Kurama acting as a buffer between them, and without life or death situations that would inevitably spur some sort of conversation or another, they were doomed to silence.
A few agonic minutes passed like this, until Makoto decided to reach for the first inane topic that crossed her mind to save herself.
"How is Eikichi?" Makoto tried, unsure. "Shizuru and Fumi didn't let me near him at all."
There was a small tinge of disappointment in her voice, if one knew her enough, and she pinched her skirt with two fingers to indicate the reason why her petting rights had been rescinded.
Thankfully, Kuwabara held onto Makoto's comment like a lifeline, his face lighting up like a kid's on Christmas Eve as soon the cat was mentioned, and they passed the time until the ceremony started talking about their cats instead of thinking about how awkward everything was.
And finally, the church doors opened behind them.
Many years down the line, Makoto would have forgotten how was the dress Shiori Minamino wore, or the way they had woven their hair, or the music that had played as she made her entrance, but she would always carry with her the memory of her face as she walked to the altar with her arm entwined with her son's, the happiest bride Makoto had ever seen, and the hope that, in the unlikely event she ever married, she could do it with as much confidence as she did.
She would also remember Kurama, proud and as happy if not more so than his mother, and the wish to freeze that little moment in time and hold it forever because it was perfect and right, and everything that family deserved, instead of the hardships they'd had to go through.
Makoto's chest constricted as they walked all the way to Mr. Hatanaka, and she was trying to blink back the wetness that was threatening to spill from her eyes when, for a second, Kurama met them, and during the instant that his smile was only hers, she forgot how to breathe.
She kept blinking as the ceremony went on, and a few minutes into it, a hand holding a handkerchief invaded her field of vision.
"Are you okay?" Kuwabara whispered.
Feeling embarrassed, she took the handkerchief without glancing his way and dried the corner of her eyes.
"Yes, thank you." And when she tried to return it, Kuwabara gestured at her to keep it.
Makoto didn't know when or how she had ended up caring so much for this family. She didn't understand how Ms. Minamino had wormed her way into her heart so easily or how Kurama had become a crucial part of her life in such a short time.
After the vows were exchanged and the ceremony was over, the newlyweds left the church among the congratulations of their families and friends, and while everybody was busy with them, Makoto spied Kurama getting away from the group to go up to her and Kuwabara, happy, but also looking more relieved than someone in the company of his family should probably be.
"Thank you for coming," he said with his best smile, the one he didn't use all that much in public. "I'm sorry I couldn't greet you earlier, but since I had to walk mom—"
"Don't you dare apologize!" Kuwabara said, patting him on the shoulder. Makoto had the impression that, had the receiver been Yuusuke, it would have been a punch. "Congrats, Kurama! Now you're an older brother! Think you're up to the task?"
"I hope so," he answered with a short laugh. "For their sake, if nothing else."
How very much like him to make his concern about them.
"Congratulations," Makoto said. "My parents also send their best wishes to your family."
Makoto wasn't very sure what one was supposed to say in these kinds of occasions and showing the depths of her feelings wasn't something she was good at, either, but they seemed to get through to Kurama, anyway. And that was an ongoing theme with him, wasn't it? He always seemed to get her better than most. That's why they had become friends.
"Thank you, truly," he told her. "It means a lot to me that you are here."
"There's no way we could miss it," Kuwabara replied. "Right, Makoto?"
"Of course," she said at once. But a brief silence lingered afterwards, prompted by Yuusuke's absence. No one said it out loud, same as before, when it had been just she and Kuwabara, but the shadow that crossed their faces was enough to know what the rest were thinking.
Kurama glanced over his shoulder to see that his parents were slowly disentangling themselves from the guests, and gave Makoto and Kuwabara a look of urgency. "I must go help with preparations – see you later?"
"You know it," Kuwabara replied, "Are we sitting together?"
"We are. Not that there are many tables to choose from—"
"Oh, Shuuichi, how much you've grown!"
Kurama winced momentarily and his face froze in a plastic smile as he turned around. A middle aged woman with an impressive perm approached their group.
Apparently, Makoto wasn't the only one that found extended family reunions stressful.
"Sorry," he said quickly. Kurama, always ready to take one for the team, scurried away to intercept the woman before she could intercept all three of them, but by the looks they were getting while she spoke to Kurama, it was obvious that he wasn't going to be spared any inquiries about them.
The reception was happened in a quaint restaurant with a porch and a garden. While Makoto and Kuwabara waited to go inside and be seated, a few of the other guests had approached them to ask from which side of the family they came and if they were a couple. Kuwabara had turned beet red at the latter question, and Makoto had felt the need to intervene because Kuwabara was being unintentionally loud in his adamant denial of a romantic involvement. He even mentioned another girl in his defense. Makoto thought his crush on Yukina was cute and completely understandable.
When the Hatanakas arrived with their sons in tow, Makoto was first alerted of their presence by her finely-tuned Kurama radar, but it would have been made obvious anyway by the wave of youki that washed over the place and made the garden livelier, and when she looked at the early autumn flowers, they seemed to be blooming stronger and more colorful than before. Kuwabara noticed it as well, having been on the receiving end of it quite often back when he and Kurama trained together. Upon looking at Kurama, he put on an innocent smile and said something to his mother, who walked towards Kuwabara and Makoto promptly.
She was radiant, and not in a metaphorical sense. The dying, fraying aura that Makoto had first met nine months prior now shone with its own light, warmer than ever, and she thought she saw once again how someone like Kurama had decided to cast away his old life to stay by her side. Shirori Minamino – no, it was Hatanaka now – was like a beacon whose light made you feel like you were better just by getting touched by it.
"Thank you so much for coming," she greeted them just as Kurama had done. "I'm so happy that you're here for Shuuichi – he's been so busy helping us, I'm glad he'll be able to take a breather today."
"We are here for you as much as him," Makoto assured her.
Kuwabara was quick to agree. "That's right! It's your wedding, not his."
Shiori laughed. "I hope his wedding turns out a little less stressful for him than this one. But for today, can I ask you a favor?" She said conspiratorially. "Keep him company. He's been taking care of the guests from both sides of the family, and at this rate I'm afraid I'll be one son short by the end of the day."
Makoto smiled a little at that. "He just wants to make the day the best he can for you."
"Oh, I'm sure of that. But the problem with my boy is that he doesn't know when to stop. So you make him, all right?"
"Count on us," Kuwabara replied with excitement.
"Good." Her tone turned stern and she glanced at the area of the garden where Kurama was talking to a pair of guests. "Go get him, kids."
"At your service," Makoto said, determined, and she shared a quick look with Kuwabara as they both set towards Kurama at the same time.
He may have been taken by each arm by his friends and forcibly removed from social engagements while the kidnappers excused themselves with pleasantries, but they were young and quiet, so Kurama's swift removal didn't rise that many eyebrows, and his protests died down when the mastermind behind the attack was revealed. Kurama looked at his mother, who in turn had been watching the action like a hawk. She nodded at Makoto and Kuwabara in acknowledgement, and walked away to guide her guests into the restaurant.
Kurama's mother, with a display of consideration that made Makoto's day ten times better, had placed her seat between Kurama and Kuwabara. Next to Kuwabara was Shuuichi, and between him and Kurama, a couple of cousin's near the kid's age. They were the youngest table at the restaurant, close to the main one.
Makoto was shielded from most social interaction by her flanking friends, and that was perfect, because she'd noticed that the kids were avoiding looking at her face. She couldn't blame them.
"You cut your hair?" Kurama asked Makoto at some point during the desserts.
Makoto refused to take her eyes off her soufflé. "Shizuru insisted," she said reluctantly.
Kuwabara sounded amused when he said, "My sister and Makoto's friend locked her home and didn't let her go until they were done with her."
"I can attest that they've done a good job," Kurama said kindly.
"It is not right at all," Makoto said, catching one of the cropped front bangs with her fingers. She couldn't even fidget with her hair, now that it was pinned back. "I feel naked."
"Why?" Kuwabara stared at her with curiosity. "We just can see your eyes now."
He frowned. "Why'd you want to hide your eyes?"
Makoto paused and frowned back. "Have you seen them lately?"
"Do they not unnerve you?"
For a moment it seemed like he didn't know what Makoto meant, until he seemed to remember something. "I guess they did at first, but who cares?"
"Most people do."
"Then screw most people! It's their problem, not yours."
Makoto stared at him, speechless. Kurama chuckled at her side.
"I thought you were the decent one of the group, Kuwabara," Makoto said at last.
He clucked his tongue. "This is about fairness! It's not like you can switch your eyes. You shouldn't have to hide to make others comfortable."
"I would say the benefit is mutual," Makoto replied.
Sensing that Kuwabara wasn't going to drop the subject until Makoto conceded his point, and that Makoto wasn't all that interested in talking about it, Kurama intervened.
"Regardless, I think the haircut suits you."
"I will tell Fumi to tell Shizuru that you approve."
That comment piqued Kurama's interest. "Kuwabara mentioned Fumiko earlier. Are those two friends?"
Kuwabara replied before Makoto could. "They see each other every other day. Careful, Makoto, I think my sis is trying to steal your friend away."
Makoto's hand that held the spoon stilled. "I do not think that is what is happening, exactly."
A glance at Kurama and the glint of recognition in his eye told her that he had caught her drift right away. Another at Kuwabara told her that he was none the wiser.
"What do you mean?" He asked.
"I…" She wondered if it was all right for her to say it, but she supposed she should leave the satisfaction of breaking the news to Shizuru, even if no one had told her it was a secret. "I do not think she is trying to steal anybody from me."
"She doesn't seem the type," Kurama concurred.
Makoto couldn't help ribbing him. "You would know."
Kuwabara still seemed to think something was off, but he let it slide as Kurama cast a narrowed glance at Makoto. "Oh, yeah. It was a joke." He scratched the back of his head. "But man, they've really hit it off."
Kurama coughed discreetly and Makoto ignored him.
"I had a feeling they would," Makoto said. "Just not how much."
Kuwabara agreed absentmindedly as he dug his spoon in his dessert, and Makoto shot Kurama a glare because he was not being subtle.
A while after this exchange, the music started and the newlyweds walked to the dance floor to open the dance with a waltz.
Makoto ended up staring more at Kurama's delighted expression than the dancers, and also idly thinking how embarrassed she'd be if she were the center of attention like that.
Mrs. Hatanaka's dress trailed behind her, and the tiny pearly beads sewn onto the fabric glinted under the soft lighting of the restaurant.
Little by little, other guests joined the dance, and Kurama's mother became obscured from view. Kuwabara and Kurama chatted next to Makoto while she observed the dancers from a safety distance, but after a while, someone had to shatter her little moment of peace and quiet, because of course she couldn't have that on a day she had to be around so many people.
Kurama was certainly emitting good vibes, though. The fact that they made her nervous was entirely due to what he said.
"Would you grant me a dance?"
And he extended a hand towards her.
Makoto knew that he was being polite. She also knew he was in a very good mood, and that his mother would think that seeing them dance together would be cute. And while in any other circumstance Makoto would have said she'd do anything for her, it was only because she hadn't thought of this situation.
She looked straight at Kurama. "Would it be terribly rude of me to say no?"
"Not terribly, no," Kurama said, unfazed. "Though it would be a tad disappointing."
Curse him and those innocent-looking eyes.
"I do not dance."
"Does it look like I often do?"
Makoto looked at him skeptically, noting that Kuwabara was smiling at the exchange and that Kurama was having fun at her expense. She saw Kurama's retreating hand, and with a short but long-suffering sigh, she thought to heck with it, taking Kurama's hand and standing up.
Anything for that woman.
And going by the faces of the guys, neither had thought she'd actually accept.
"Having second thoughts?" Makoto taunted a stunned Kurama.
He blinked, and his astonishment was exchanged for a mischievous smirk as he stood up. "Never."
Kuwabara yelled at Makoto to save a dance for him, too, when they were done.
Many months passed without news from Yuusuke or Hiei. Kurama kept going back and forth from the Human World, to the Demon World, to Genkai's temple while juggling all of this with his human life, and Makoto… Well, Makoto had gotten used to her new routine of missing all her Saturday lessons, courtesy of Fumiko's calculations, in favor of visiting the temple. Kuwabara accompanied her many of those times to visit Yukina, so Makoto didn't feel guilty anymore for leaving her alone all day long while she trained.
She went back to not skipping Saturday school once April rolled around and she began her third year at Meiou, but it wasn't out of any sense of responsibility towards the upcoming university entrance exams. No, she was just wondering what to do with those extra days. Meanwhile, watching her classmates get increasingly anxious as the big day approached, convinced her once and for all that she didn't want any part of that life. She felt sick for the most part at school, because she kept getting those nervous vibes from everybody.
After the excitement of the previous year, going back to a completely normal life felt… dull. Not quite right. She spent her weeks looking forward to the weekends, the only saving grace of her weekdays being Kurama and Kaitou. She didn't know if the fact that her classmates now talked to her counted as good or bad.
She wondered if this was how Yuusuke had felt after Toguro's and Sensui's defeat. It was difficult to lead a normal life when one wasn't normal by any accounts. Makoto thought she had grown used to it, but the last year had proved her wrong.
And then, one day…
One, two, three.
A burst of energy, compact and unwavering, shot from the palm of Makoto's hand and flew into the sky, making ripples across the surface of the lake at Genkai's as it rose, scaring all the surrounding wildlife.
Birds scattered as the shot blinked high between the clouds and disappeared from sight.
She'd done it. It had taken her a long time, but she'd done it. She was able to. She had been all along!
Makoto was jerked back to reality by the round of applause Amemasu gave her.
"Nice. Very nice." Looking appreciatively their arms, they said, "Am I ever glad to be in this form so I can do this."
Makoto kept looking in silence at the sky, following the invisible trajectory of her shot, and scarcely believing it.
It had taken nearly ten months.
A year and a half ago, she would have never thought she could accomplish it.
She threw her arms up (and she echoed the sentiment that it was wonderful to have them, actually), and let her body drop back onto the grass, allowing out a satisfied smile.
She held up her index fingers and thumbs, framing the cloud into which her youki had disappeared, wondering if Nana had been able to see it, wherever she was.