Koto, apparently in shock, dropped her mic. She swiftly swiped it up again and tried to argue with the committee. "As an experienced officiator and a lover of this tournament, I must object!"
"There will be no further deliberation." Over and over in my head I calculated all the available fighters and the rules of the tournament. Over and over again I reached the same conclusion: Team Urameshi had no one left. They had lost the match, the tournament, and their lives.
Touya, still clutching the wound in his stomach, staggered to the edge of the ring to confront his teammate. He ground out a few accusations about deceit and making a mockery of their team mates' sacrifices, but his voice might as well have been under water. I clutched Kuwabara's hand, the energy flow fading to the back of my mind as the odds and possibilities ran over and over again, all coming to the same grim conclusion. I vaguely registered Risho kicking Touya out of the ring, an ugly sneer warping his face.
Behind me, I could hear the distant murmur of Yusuke and Hiei's voices, and then the warmth of their flaring energy, like a growing fire. Then, the connection with Kuwabara was gone.
Had I been standing, I might have fallen. Though I was feeding Kuwabara energy, there was something like momentum to the connection, and the sudden break in the flow of energy was like missing a stair, or sliding on ice. My breath shuddered as exhaustion hit me all at once, and I couldn't even muster a protest when Kuwabara shakily pushed himself off the ground. His brow was furrowed, his teeth gritted. Sweat beaded on his brow.
I didn't realize what he was doing until he started staggering towards the ring.
I stared at him for long moments as he struggled. I thought about stopping him, opened my mouth to do so, even—but then I shut it with a click.
Whatever I could think to say wouldn't matter, in the end. If Kuwabara did nothing, Team Urameshi would die. If Kuwabara fought and failed, which he almost certainly would given his injuries even with all the healing energy I'd shoved down his throat, Team Urameshi would die. A win was so unlikely I discarded the notion immediately. But looking at the glint in the kid's eyes and the stubborn set of his jaw, I knew that he'd rather die fighting than lying on the grass. And so I kept my trap shut.
Koto hadn't noticed the fire in Kuwabara's eyes or his halting shuffle towards the ring. Grudgingly, she announced, "Due to Yusuke's ineligibility and as there are no other members on his team available to fight, and as Team Masho still has a competitor, by forfeit the winner of the round is—"
"Wait right there!" Kuwabara had reached the ring at last. In what I guessed was a show of bravado, an attempt to seem less injured than he truly was, he pulled his shirt off dramatically. "We still got one more fighter on our team!"
"You've got to be kidding me." Yusuke's voice was flat, unimpressed. Kuwabara clambered determinedly into the ring, still wobbling and staggering a little on his feet.
Botan stood abruptly and stomped off to try to talk some sense into Kuwabara. I shuffled over on the grass to support Kurama's shoulder with my own, though with how exhausted I was his weight was keeping me upright just as much as mine was keeping him up. Botan, meanwhile, halted her tirade to frown at a tall brunette woman waving her over from the entrance to the ring. Looking extremely reluctant, Botan left the arena and followed the woman out of the stadium. My eyes tracked her curiously, wondering what or who could be so important as to draw her away from this match.
"Interesting." Kurama turned his green, green eyes toward me. I might've felt unsettled if I had enough energy to feel discomfort. "How are his injuries, after your efforts?"
I sighed heavily and let my eyes drift shut. I pictured the glittering network of energy that was Kuwabara's body when I worked to speed his healing, and then forced myself to speak instead of nodding off to sleep. "Better. But considering how he started, that's not saying much. Bones that were broken before might be only cracked or bruised now, and I'm pretty sure any internal bleeding has stopped, but he's nowhere near healed, and fighting will only undo all the work I've done to speed up his recovery." I opened my eyes, forcing myself to stay awake. "I hate to be a downer, but I don't like his odds."
"I can handle this, you guys." Kuwabara's jaw was locked stubbornly, but his hands shook and he moved gingerly. "Remember, that lady from the medical tent took Hiei and the masked fighter but said I was okay!"
"Stupid, cause she's not a nurse!" Yusuke shouted from the edge of the ring, but he made no move to stop Kuwabara, either.
"Don't confuse the issue." Kuwabara straightened in the ring, pushing his shoulders back as if better posture would convince his team mates that he could do this." The point here is that I'm still eligible to fight, and I'm the only one!"
"Yes, but 'eligible' and 'able' are two different words," Hiei snarked. Kuwabara bristled in anger and spun to snipe at Hiei, but hissed in pain and clutched his ribs from the motion.
"See? You're in no shape!" Yusuke cried. I couldn't see his face, but his twitching hands and ready stance looked like he was seriously considering dragging Kuwabara out of the ring.
"I'm going, Urameshi, unless you want to kill me yourself!" Kuwabara gritted out stubbornly. "I know these guys are cheating us, and I know you're angry. Heck, I know what happens if we lose! But if you and Hiei go on some tirade destroying people until you get your way, you'll be just like them." I blinked, looking between Hiei and my cousin and wondering when the whole 'destroying people tirade' had been discussed. "Let's win this thing clean. Like—"
"Like men," Yusuke finished seriously. Kuwabara smiled.
"And we men go down with honor." Kuwabara turned on heavy feet to face Risho in the center of the ring.
I watched with eyes at half-mast, a frown tugging at my lips. "Kurama? How old is Kuwabara, anyway?"
I felt Kurama shift against my shoulder for a moment before he answered evenly, "I believe he's the same age as Yusuke. 14, perhaps 15 now."
For a moment, the boy in the ring was replaced by a young girl with her hair in pigtails, smiling innocently. So young.
I realized I'd said it out loud when Kurama responded, quietly, "It's dismal, but at least it will buy us time to consider our options."
Dismal was a bit of an understatement, in my opinion. "I've had enough of dead kids." I clenched my fists, nails digging into my palms. The slight pain, and Kuwabara's probably-impending death, helped me to wake up. "If I'd conserved my energy I could've helped." Not that I would have been allowed, but still.
"If you'd conserved your energy, Kuwabara wouldn't have a chance," Kurama said certainly. "If Kuwabara manages to survive this, he'll have you to thank."
"If," I repeated, shaking my head. I wouldn't hold my breath for Kuwabara's gratitude. Kurama's lips tugged downward, but he inclined his head, allowing the point.
In the ring, Risho taunted Kuwabara while the kid swayed on his feet. Koto began the match and Kuwabara charged forward, goaded by Risho's words. The kid formed his sword of crackling orange energy—but it barely brushed Risho before it flickered out. Now that he was defenseless, Risho delivered a kick to Kuwabara's back that sent him rolling. I winced, knowing all that contact with the ground had to be hard on his injured ribs. I hoped he hadn't re-broken anything.
"Something's really wrong here." Kuwabara stared at his hands in disbelief. "I had energy. Why can't I make my sword?"
Risho chuckled, and attacked. Still unable to manifest his sword, Risho landed punch after punch, explaining that the spirit energy Kuwabara usually used to manifest his sword was currently working hard to keep him alive. Hiei's energy, meanwhile, began to surge outwards. It felt like the surging heat of a bonfire, and Ruka's forcefield seemed to strain to hold it back.
I turned to stare at Hiei, briefly, wondering what was going on. His red eyes were fixed on Ruka, and they promised pain.
"He's getting ready to fight his way out," Kurama explained, following my gaze before turning his attention back to Kuwabara's struggling in the ring. "Should Kuwabara fail, he and Yusuke will fight every demon in this stadium before they admit defeat."
"Just Hiei and Yusuke?" I asked, glancing down to check on the plant in Kurama's arm, which had grown smaller since the last time I checked. Kurama did not take his eyes off Kuwabara, but he smiled a slow smile that for some reason sent a shudder down my spine.
Kuwabara fell to the ground. Koto began the count, and the kid only just managed to haul himself by the count of 9. Risho, perhaps getting impatient with Kuwabara's continued perseverance, stepped out of the ring. I was confused for just a moment, but then the earth of the stadium shook and Risho climbed back into the ring, covered in armor made from the dirt and rocks of the arena. Thus protected, Risho launched himself at Kuwabara and hit him directly in his injured ribs.
Blood sprayed from Kuwabara's mouth. I just knew that all his barely healed ribs were broken again. Maybe worse than before. Still, despite the hit, despite the pain I knew he must be in, Kuwabara pushed himself up from the ground before Koto could complete the ten count, again and again.
"Why don't you quit?" Risho demanded angrily as Kuwabara pushed himself up once more. It was a fair question. I didn't know what Kuwabara hoped to accomplish by torturing himself like this. Dying with honor would still leave him dead.
"Dummy." Kuwabara let out a pained chuckle. "Guess you haven't checked the score for this round lately. We've got four wins. You've only got two, and the first team to five advances. Urameshi and Kurama gave their all for us, and I still have a way to bring it home for 'em!"
"He's going... to kill himself," Hiei said, disbelieving. I thought this was obvious, but the tone in his voice was almost impressed.
"What does he mean?" I directed my question to Kurama, but I couldn't tear my eyes away from Kuwabara's trembling form.
"With his spirit energy inaccessible, Kuwabara intends to use his life energy to fight Risho." Kurama's voice was somber, but resigned. "He may win, but the effort will kill him."
Risho didn't look concerned, though. "Using your life energy will only delay this. You're still going to die."
"No joke, moron." 14, perhaps 15 now. Kurama's earlier words echoed in my mind. Another kid was going to die in front of me, and I couldn't do anything. That this time it wouldn't be my hands ending the life barely made a difference. "That's the whole point of this fight, as long as I take you with me! If this fight ends in a draw, my team wins and the rest of my guys get to live!"
Kuwabara turned from Risho to address his teammates. His tone was soft. A goodbye.
"Hiei. You're a little punk and you always said mean stuff to me, but I know underneath all that junk you're a good guy." Hiei's sneer was gone, his face unmoving. "Kurama, you taught me a lot with the things you said. There's nobody more caring than you." Kurama's head bowed. "Mummy fighter person, you saved those guys from Doctor Ichigaki, and that means a lot. You didn't say much, but somehow I really feel like I know you." I glanced over to see how the masked fighter reacted, but the jumped to attention at the sound of my own name. "Ren. You did your best to help us even after we almost killed you, and you mighta Kurama's life. I know that Doctor made you do some bad things, but I know you're still a good person." Kurama's shoulder twitched against mine. My cheeks were wet, though I couldn't remember beginning to cry. "And Urameshi, well... just take care of the rest of this, okay?"
Yusuke shook his head in denial at Kuwabara's words. "Don't you do this."
Kuwabara tried to act casual about walking to his death. "Let's not get too emotional, Urameshi, I wanna keep my finish nice and manly!" He chuckled, facing his opponent once more. "You ready, Risho?"
Risho launched himself forward. Kuwabara braced himself, guarding against the brunt of the attack with his arms. A quiet cry from the stands had Kuwabara craning his neck around lightning-fast, though. He ignored Risho completely, exclaiming, "Hey, wait! She's really here!"
Appearing thoroughly distracted, Kuwabara punched Risho in the face with enough force to send him skidding out of the ring. I blinked, wondering where the broken kid walking to his death had gone as Kuwabara skipped out of the ring giddily and approached the stands. He started laughing and flexing his muscles in front of a small gaggle of girls standing at a railing just above the ring.
I tilted my head to the side, then pinched my arm to reassure myself that I hadn't fainted from exhaustion and started dreaming very bizarre dreams. The pinch twinged. "Okay, what just happened?"
Kurama's shoulders shook against mine with a low laugh. When he spoke, his voice was laced with relief and amusement. "Kuwabara is rather smitten with Yukina—the small one with the blue hair," he nodded at the girl Kuwabara was making eyes at. "I'd say her unexpected appearance here has given him a second wind."
"I am never gonna understand that bastard," Yusuke said, amazed. I scrubbed at the tear-tracks on my face, feeling exhausted by emotional whiplash.
Risho attempted a sneak attack on Kuwabara while he fawned over his girlfriend, but this time he manifested his spirit sword with no trouble and struck Risho back, hard. As the demon's armor dissolved from the blow, Kuwabara wound his sword up like a bat. He swung, knocking Risho into the upper stands of the stadium like a baseball. That done, Kuwabara hastily scrambled back into the ring before Koto finished her ten count. Finally, Koto called the match, and the round, for Team Urameshi.
I slumped to the ground in relief.
Author's Note: Thanks to all who reviewed! I'm no longer able to keep up with posting two chapters a week, so from now on I'll be posting only once a week, on Fridays.