By: Ryquest

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is partly inspired by a short story that was forwarded to me via email by a friend. The title of the story is "My First Rose", and unfortunately the author of this great angst story was not cited in the email. Nonetheless it served as an inspiration to this K+B fanfic.

I don't know for certain what drew me to him initially. Maybe it was that calm, gentle smile. Or perhaps the merry, mischievous sparkle in those emerald eyes that have always seemed to me to be so full of life. Possibly it was also because, simply put, he was gorgeous – long, flowing scarlet hair framing an amiable, handsome if slightly feminine face. I also can't say for certain when he began to notice me beyond our casual meetings when I would be sent by Koenma-sama to meet with the Reikai Tantei. All I know is that sometime in between the harrowing missions I've come to care for him in a way I wouldn't have thought possible when we'd first met.

I have to admit that he frightened me, initially, when I first saw him back during the time when he'd stolen the Reikai treasures along with Hiei and Gouki. I'd cowered slightly behind Yusuke when I first caught sight of him, more than half-expecting that we'd be faced with a merciless, ruthless killer of a thief as Koenma-sama had described him. But the person we met was a teenage ningen boy about seemingly the same age as Yuu-kun, though in reality I knew him to be a youko more than a hundred years old. He had a sad, haunted expression on his features then. Sadness we would learn later to be linked with the terminal illness his mother was suffering at that time.

Since then I've seen the sadness recede from his glorious green eyes, to be replaced by a warm, friendly glow when he had come to consider us as friends. Oh, sometimes I would catch a glimpse of the rage he hid so well within himself, when in the passion of battle those eyes would become like steel daggers poised to strike fear into his foes. But those eyes only regarded me every time with a tolerant and amused gaze, and sometimes with something akin to affection.

It was the night after Yusuke won his battle with Toguro, when we were all packing our bags in preparation for returning home after the traumatic events that had transpired during the Ankoku Bujutsukai. I was outside the hotel walking under the pale, wan light of the half-moon that hung suspended from the sky. I was still saddened by Genkai-baasan's death, though my spirits had considerably been uplifted by the victory of the Urameshi team. I had chosen to be alone, and had excused myself from the company of Keiko and Shizuru, who wanted to go to the guy's room for a small victory celebration. For some reason I had simply wanted to walk outside beneath the stars, to hear the crashing waves out in the distance under the silvery light of the moon. And as I stood under the moonlight, letting the warm, gentle breeze tug at my hair playfully, I heard soft, steady steps from behind me.

"Konbanwa," I heard someone say casually. "It's a lovely evening to be outside, isn't it?"

I turned and was surprised to find Kurama there, casually dressed in a black jacket over a white shirt and slacks. I had to admit he looked good in the attire, but then he had a flair for clothes – even his fighting outfits seem to have been picked to convey elegance and style. But then Kurama had always been a picture of grace, even when he was fighting.

"Hai," I replied, smiling. "Ne, Kurama, I thought you'd be with the other guys? I mean, Kuwa-chan was talking about celebrating your victory and all."

"Well, if it qualifies for a 'celebration', Kuwabara-kun is telling Yukina-san about the heroic way he won his matches because of her," Kurama began, "Yusuke is being scolded by Keiko-san for being so foolhardy during the competition and for making her worry. Shizuru-san is smoking as usual, but I think she might still be slightly upset over what happened to Sakkyo. Hiei is simply staring outside the window, trying to look nonchalant but I think he's keeping an eye on Yukina since she's with – as he put it – that orange-haired ningen oaf."

"Some celebration, huh?" I said, giggling. "Maybe we'll have a better one when we get back to Tokyo."

"Maybe," Kurama replied, but I could sense from the tone of his voice that he doubted if that would be possible. "Personally, I'm just glad the Bujutsukai is over. It's evoked enough memories…I'd rather not soon remember."

"Like you turning back into youko?" I asked, then clamped my hands over my mouth just as soon as I uttered the words. Silly me. For all I knew Kurama might not want to be reminded about his fight with Karasu. I wasn't even sure how he felt about having reverted back to his youko form all of a sudden during his last two matches.

But my embarrassment melted away when he placed a friendly hand on my shoulder. He chuckled slightly, probably over my moment of tactfulness. But gentleman that he was, Kurama just shrugged it off and stared thoughtfully into the distance. I followed his gaze into the horizon, where the moonlight shone upon the ocean and gave the waters a slight silver tint. For several minutes we merely stood side by side in companionable silence. I was aware that his hand still rested on my shoulder, but found it comfortable for some reason. So I didn't mention it, choosing instead to relax and enjoy his company.

"Frankly, yes, it was disturbing," Kurama said suddenly, and I glanced up in surprise to find pain and excitement warring in his eyes. "It's been so long since I've been in my youko body, and sometimes…I almost forget that Youko Kurama exists within me. I can almost believe…that I've truly become human."

I was surprised by his candid confession, and did not know how to reply. So I stood there gaping at him, mouth slightly ajar. I didn't know if I was supposed to comfort him, to tell him that youko or not, he was Kurama and he'd always be my friend. Or to tell him that he was more human that some that I've known during their lifetime. A thousand possible replies passed through my mind, but I never thought to say any of them out loud. For one, it was disarming to find my gaze locked with his, confused purple eyes meeting intense green orbs tinged with wistful sadness.

Suddenly, he pulled a white rose streaked with pink around the edges from his hair. He handed it to me with a smile, and I grinned at him, blushing slightly as I accepted the rose. I couldn't tell him that this was the first time anyone has given me a rose for a long time. Ever since I became a Reikai ferry girl, I'd buried the girl in me that delighted in roses and chocolates, for I knew that as Deity of Death I was not to know love in its distinctly human sense any longer.

Yet Kurama changed all that with his single gesture, which probably to him meant nothing more than giving a friend one of the roses he kept hidden in his hair. I'd never figured out how he could make beautiful flowers appear out of nowhere with such ease, and I never did ask. I was simply glad that the person in front of me has given me a rose as a friendly gesture, or so I would then think.

"No matter," Kurama said, sighing. "Now that youko is back, I'd simply have to deal with the kitsune thief I know so well to an irrevocable part of who I am. But youko will just have to live with me being Shuuichi most of the time."

"So desu," I said, nodding. Then I did something that probably surprised both of us. I tiptoed and brushed my lips slightly against his cheek.

"What was that for?" he asked, puzzled, but he did not seem displeased.

"For making me feel human again," I replied, smiling at him. "Arigato for the rose, Kurama."

"My pleasure," he stated amiably, smiling back. He had a truly charming smile. "Glad you liked it."

We went back to the hotel afterwards to join in the 'celebration', and neither of us mentioned the incident ever again. Up to the time we returned to Tokyo and went on other missions, Kurama and I became closer friends, but not a hint of romance blossomed between us. I'd thought that was all Kurama and I could ever be. And though I felt the tug of a deeper sort of affection for him in my heart, I refused to acknowledge it and buried the feeling until I thought it was safely kept away that it would never surface.

But it did. And it was too late when I realized that I'd made a mistake never admitting to him or to myself just how much I've come to care for him.

It was on the day that Kurama chose to die.

I monitored the lives of the Reikai Tantei even after Yusuke and the others were released from service by Koenma-sama. I was there when Yusuke and Keiko were married, and I felt more than a touch of envy when I saw Keiko looking positively radiant as she walked down the aisle toward her intended groom, who looked uncomfortable in his tux but seemed happy and content anyway. I also attended Kuwa-chan and Yukina's wedding, where I was amused to see the glowering Hiei watching the ceremony from the back aisle. The Koorime eventually congratulated them both through gritted teeth and warned Kuwa-chan that should he hurt Yukina in any way, he will taste cold steel jammed down his throat. The two almost came to blows until Kurama and Yusuke got in the way, separating them before they could wreck the chapel.

I watched as Keiko gave birth her and Yuu-kun's son, a healthy boy whom they named Shouji. A year after, Yukina also gave birth to a daughter, whom the proud Kuwabara held to him as he cried, his tough façade giving way to the caring individual he really was at the sight of the beautiful little bundle of joy. Yukina named her Hina, and Hiei visited his niece more than once, even playing with her in the cradle once when he'd sneaked in through the window late one night. I never found out if Yukina ever figured out that Hiei was her long-lost brother, nor did Hiei ever tell her, but there was always a bond of trust and respect between them both.

And Kurama…well, he remained a bachelor, much to the distress of the girls from his university and later his stepfather's company who were always following him around. He aged gracefully, and it seemed to me that as he grew older he became more handsome. He cut his red hair short eventually, but it only succeeded in making him look less feminine but never less attractive. He chose to remain solitary, though he doted on his mother every chance he would get. His love for her never lessened but only grew through time.

The Tantei held annual reunions, and Yusuke and Kuwabara would always tease Kurama about his choosing to remain single. They even tried to arrange blind dates for him, but Kurama avoided their attempts gracefully. I'd concluded that he was one of those bachelor types, maybe as an offshoot of his independent, restless youko side. Keiko, Yukina and Shizuru would also try to arrange matches for me, but I explained to them patiently that a Deity of Death could not aspire for any relationship such as marriage. Deep inside I yearned to be Kurama's bride, dreamed of a normal life where we'd have kids and grow old together gracefully. But I'd simply accepted that it was not to be, and contented myself to seeing how life was turning out for my friends.

Eventually they all began to show signs of age, except for perhaps Yusuke and Yukina, owing to their youkai heritage. The kids were also growing, and I noted with satisfaction that Shouji and Hina were getting along well enough, sort of like Yusuke and Keiko when they were younger. Shouji had his father's eyes as well as his courage, and Hina had Yukina's sweet looks and inherent gentleness, though she was capable of temper outbursts, which I suspect may have come from Kuwa-chan or Hiei. Kurama became an itinerant uncle to the kids, and they had the greatest respect for calm, good-natured Shuuichi-ojisan. I became sort of aunt Botan, and that resulted to another round of teasing when they'd try to pair me up with Kurama. We both took the matter in stride, however. I'd laugh the matter off, feigning interest in romance. And he'd seem to smile and shrug it off. I never know nor figured out for a long time how he really felt.

Minamino Shiori passed away fifteen years after the first Makai tournament, and during the time Kurama never went back to Makai nor attempted to revert to his youko form. Her burial ceremony had been solemn, and Kurama stood before her grave with head bowed, tears streaming openly from his eyes. Even after her stepfather and stepbrother have left, Kurama chose to remain, kneeling before her mother's grave. He gently fingered the bouquet of fresh red roses he'd brought with him to her grave, a final gift to her from the youko who had chosen to remain human for the sake of being her son.

It was nearing dusk when I chose to approach him, thinking to offer what little comfort I could. In truth this was another time when I could not think of a thing to say to him, since it had been myself who had ferried Shiori-san's soul to Reikai. But the first thing I could think of was that Kurama needed a friend, and though I knew Yusuke, Kuwa-chan and the others had offered their sympathy, I wanted to be with him during his moment of grief. So I stood behind him, knowing that he was aware of my presence but chose not to acknowledge it for a while.

Finally, he stood, and faced me with reddened tear-streaked eyes. He was considerably older now, his fierce red hair now streaked with gray near the edges. The lines of his face had hardened, matured through the years. But his eyes had remained the same – glorious emerald orbs that could hold a soul captive should Kurama choose to do so. When I looked into his eyes, I noted the same sadness that I first sensed many years ago when I'd first met him. Sadness now blended with tiredness and a sense of loneliness so palpable that it almost brought tears my own eyes.

"Condolences, Kurama," I whispered, reaching out to take his hand in mine. "I know you loved her so. But…I hope you'll be able to let her go. She's happy now. That much, at least, I can assure you."

"Aa," he nodded, and my heart broke with the realization that no words of comfort could ever make up for her presence in his life. But he did smile a bit, if in gratefulness. "My thanks for your assurances. All I've ever wanted for okaa-san was her to be happy."

"And what about you?" the words bubbled unheeded from my lips. "What will you do now?"

"A good question," Kurama said softly. "For a while my mother has been the anchor of my ningen life, and now that she's gone…I feel that I can no longer stay."

"You mean you're going back to Makai?" I ventured to ask. My heart felt like breaking, for I knew that once he was there, there was little chance of my seeing him again. For one, Reikai people were not welcome in Makai. And another, his youko half will be taking over. And certainly I knew Youko Kurama to be colder, rasher than Minamino Shuuichi.

"Yes," he replied truthfully. "I think it's time for Shuuichi to rest. For me to recover the life I once had in Makai." He chuckled wistfully. "I know I don't exactly cover myself in glory as a thief, but at least being back in Makai will give me a sense of purpose. Something to live for now that she who has been my beacon in life is gone."

And now who will be the beacon in mine? I wanted to say these thoughts, but the words simply refused to come out. After all, Kurama did not know that I loved him. That it pleased me to see him in Ningenkai during my not-so-infrequent visits. Could never know that I liked seeing the sparkle in his eyes or hearing his easygoing, friendly voice. Now I heard the unspoken request in his voice. He wanted me to take him from his human body, so that his youko soul may be free again to wander the vast realm of Makai.

I could not fight the tears that started flowing, and I could sense that this startled him, since he placed a placating hand on my shoulder. A gesture that only made the pain more intense, because it recalled to my mind a similar incident from many years ago which had changed my life, though he knew it not. But I could not be selfish, would never deny him his freedom. I wanted Kurama to have the peace I knew he deserved. I wished for him the solace I knew he would never find in Ningenkai for there would be too many memories to evoke the deep, haunted sadness I had once seen in those eyes.

"Tonight, Kurama, I will come," I simply stated, and he nodded in understanding.

"Arigato, Botan," was his only reply, though I could sense he was pleased. Not happy, just pleased.

I turned away, not wanting him to see my cry anymore. Not wanting him to see the pain in my eyes, nor hear my heart thumping wildly at the prospect of losing him forever. I mounted my oar and soared into the sky, attempting to ease my distress through flight. But the roar of the wind around me only reminded me of his voice, whispering promises of a love that I knew would never be. And the sting of the cold, biting breeze only served to recall to my mind his touch, distinct yet distant. Yet at the appointed meeting time arrived I came to his room, to find him lying peacefully on the bed, a slight smile on his face and a single red rose in his hand.

"This is for you," he said, handing me the rose. I tried to smile as I accepted his gift, knowing that this was the last time I would receive one from him.

"It is beautiful," I said, though I wanted to add that no rose could ever be as beautiful as he was.

He sighed as he settled back on his pillow, and I held out my hand as I felt his soul break free from his human body. One moment I saw Minamino Shuuichi, then the image of Youko Kurama emerged, his golden eyes a picture of calmness and peace. Wordlessly, we mounted my oar, and I took him to the Reikai palace where Koenma-sama awaited him. I already knew that he would allow Kurama to return to Makai unhindered, but the visit was a formality.

I took him directly the Reikai Prince, who glanced at Kurama with tranquil, topaz eyes that bespoke of understanding and a hint of pity. He sifted through the papers he held until he came to Kurama's file. I merely stood behind Kurama, not wanting to take part in the judgement, knowing that Kurama was slipping further from me. There was no stopping his return to Makai, especially not for the sake of a Reikai ferry girl who loved him but dared not reveal this to him for fear of being rejected by the beautiful youko who had so unwittingly claimed my heart as his.

"Well, Kurama," Koenma-sama began, "you've served me well and lived an exemplary life as a human. You will, of course, be allowed to return to Makai. What you choose to do with your life there is beyond my jurisdiction, of course. But I hope there's enough of Shuuichi left in you to avoid your getting into too much trouble."

"Perhaps," he laughed, his voice smooth and unruffled. "Farewell, Koenma."

"A pleasant journey to you, Kurama," Koenma replied. Then he glanced at me. "Botan, lead him to the Portal."

"Hai," I said, attempting to look cheerful. Youko Kurama followed me without a word, and we walked together in silence until we reached the Portal where he was to enter in order to return to Makai. I gave him a sad smile and indicated that he should enter. He gave me a nod, but hesitated before entering. He glanced at me with speculative eyes, then he smiled sadly. A smile that I could have sworn did not belong to Youko but to Shuuichi.

"Possibly Koenma was right," he said ruefully. "There's enough of Shuuichi left in me. Enough for me to feel what Youko would otherwise have been more immune to. My human side did not die completely, you know. It has merged with my youko half, though now the youko is dominant with my human body's passing.

"Yet youko or no, what your presence means to me hasn't changed. Thank you for having been a wonderful friend all these years, Botan. You have made my human life infinitely more pleasant than it otherwise would have been had I not met you."

"I'm glad you think so, Kurama," I replied, somewhat glad that at least he'd noticed my presence all those years. "Be happy in Makai."

"I will try," he stated simply. "I have changed too much since I have last been there. I can only try to find a way to survive the hostile, harsh life that awaits me."

"I know you'll find a way to do so," I said, giving him my best "you-can-do-it" expression. "I've always believed you were capable of anything. Quite frankly, I can't imagine you losing."

"I try not to imagine myself losing, either," he replied, his earnest grin reminiscent of a younger Shuuichi. "But my thanks for your faith in my abilities."

"Be well, Kurama," I said by way of farewell, fighting back tears. Know that you more than my faith in you, I wanted to say to him, because no matter where we both end up after this you will always be part of my heart.

"Goodbye, Botan," he said softly, then surprised me when he bent down to kiss my cheek gently. He smiled sadly as he approached the Portal. "And…know that I have always loved you."

He stepped through the Portal into Makai, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

I stood frozen before Portal, wondering if I just heard what I thought he'd said, and later berating myself of never revealing my true feelings for him. Believing that all we could ever be were friends and nothing more. A false belief that we probably shared, and that has probably caused us both pain. We could have been together while he was a ningen, I thought wistfully. Though we'd never have a normal life my human standards, it would have been comforting if we'd both know that we'd cared for each other. Then I would not have been plagued by regrets that stung me more than a razor-sharp blade ever could. For I was bleeding inside, the loss of Kurama in my life almost too much to bear. But I chose to go about my duties, knowing that if Kurama was trying to find a sense of purpose in Makai, I might as well do the same in Reikai.

In the years to follow I would hear from Yusuke that whenever he visited Makai, he would watch out for tales about a silver-haired youko, and would tell me about these stories whenever he returned to Ningenkai to be with Keiko. He told me that Kurama served Yomi for a while, then for whatever reasons that could only be his own, he left Yomi's service and disappeared. He told me that the youko thief was heard to be hunting for treasures in Makai, and that Youko Kurama was out to multiply his horde of priceless valuables. Yet some say he formed a small band of his own, defending human settlements and weak villages from savage youkai attacks. I listened to the tales with interest, glad to know that somewhere, Kurama was alive and doing well for himself, though it was not likely that I was to see him again.

Then one day Yusuke visited me, holding in his hand a single white rose tinged with pink around the edges. He handed it to me wordlessly, sorrow in his deep brown eyes. I shot him a questioning glance, quivering, knowing that the rose could only have come from Kurama. Knowing from his expression that the news he bore was likely not a good one.

"He's…gone, Botan," Yusuke stated softly, his voice filled with grief. "But…the last time I saw him, he asked me to give you that rose. He told me that you'll know what it meant when you received it."

"W-what do you mean he's gone, Yusuke?" I grabbed his shirt, my voice frantic, the rose held tightly in my trembling hand. "He can't be! Iie…he can't be!"

"He died defending a small group of youko childen from a rampaging youkai horde," Yusuke explained. "When I learned he was there, I rushed to his aid, but there were too many…and even he could not handle him all. I arrived there just as he was dying, a rose in his hand. He had a peaceful smile on his face…I could almost believe Kurama was actually happy with his fate.

"He passed away a hero, Botan. With his dying breath, he asked me to tell you to recall the last words he told you before leaving. And…to tell you that you were his sense of purpose, that he tried to be someone you would have liked and been proud of even in Makai."

I do not know how long I cried into Yusuke's shoulder, memories of Kurama flooding me with despondency and remorse beyond anything I have ever experienced before in my life, human or otherwise. My deepest regret was that I knew too late that he cared for me, that I could no longer hope to reciprocate his love. That I'd been caught up with fear of rejection, missing out on the chance for happiness we could have had otherwise.

"He never knew, Yusuke," I whispered. "He never knew what I really felt for him."

"I think Kurama did, Botan," Yusuke smiled gently. "Somehow…I think he did."

Later that evening, I stood before the balcony of the Reikai palace, staring blankly into the horizon. I had asked Koenma to relieve me of my duties, saying that I could not hope to perform my ferrying duties effectively when I was too laden with grief. He nodded, indicating that he understood, and offered me a chance to be reform in a human body. I'd mulled it over for a while, then accepted his offer. I wanted the chance to live again, and love again, and this time I vowed that given the chance I would never again allow my feelings to go unspoken.

"You may yet find each other, Botan," Koenma said softly. "May the fates be kind." Then he bid me to try to relax around the palace for a while, to await the time when I would be reborn.

I kissed the rose gently, memorizing the sweet, gentle scent that wafted from it. The rose that Kurama had held with his dying breath, a rose the color of that which he had first given me when my feelings for him had first been wakened. A rose I had been too naïve then to discern the true meaning and fully appreciate. A rose that now symbolized to me a love that was, could have been, and hope could yet be. A rose now I choose to believe to be a symbol of his love and commitment he made years ago – a vow to love in purity and secrecy, and never reveal this until it was too late.

I sighed as I cast this same rose to the wind, hoping that it will carry my message to him somehow. Believing with my heart that somewhere, he was listening, waiting for me to come, and we would be together. Then I closed my eyes and smiled, recalling his sparkle in his eyes, the endearment in his voice, and the gentle touch of his hand on my shoulder. And I would imagine him nodding in satisfaction, now that I finally knew what his gifts of roses had truly meant.

"Watashi mo aishiteru, Kurama."

"Watashi mo aishiteru" means "I love you too." ^^ This is the first time I've written a K+B fic from Botan's point of view, and I hope it didn't turn out too badly, no da! I'd appreciate any comments, feedback and suggestions regarding this fanfic. Just send mail to Ryquest

Yu Yu Hakusho is a copyright of Yoshihiro Togashi / Shue Isha Fuji TV, Studio Pierrot. This fanfic is for non-commercial, entertainment purposes only.