Disclaimer: Yu Yu Hakusho is owned by Yoshihiro Togashi and probably a corporation or something. But that's okay. This is only non-profit work.
Author's notes will appear at the end of the last chapter. More urgent replies to reader correspondence may sometimes appear at the end of a chapter, unless I respond privately. Depends what you'd prefer, of course. As for my preferences, I love hearing from readers, no matter if the reviews are quick "I liked/didn't like this chapter" or critical or grammatical advice.
The forest was silent when the hunter killed Youko Kurama. Most noticeable were the birds, whose canopy conversations ceased as soon as the rifle shot blanketed the aural range.
That was the first thing Kurama noticed, the silence. He hovered fifteen feet above the ground, in a crouching position, and looked with only mild interest at the tableau beneath him. He noticed many other things too.
First, his body. Not pretty. It lay at the base of a tree in the Demon World forest. The upper chest area and neck had taken the bullet, and, well, now he didn't have an upper chest or neck. But that didn't seem so important now. A smile played on Kurama's lips as he looked without revulsion at his ruined body.
"It's liberating," he thought. "No more vanity or pain."
The hunter stepped from the bushes and approached the body. As soon as he did, the birds picked up where they'd left off, chattering away. Kurama—the spirit Kurama who retained the appearance if not the corporeality of his earthly body—closed his eyes and listened to the Demon World birds. Their noise had greeted him every morning of his life, but he'd never noticed before. Now the sound brought back memories, and he thought of the few people with whom he'd shared pleasant times.
Though the hunter glanced at the sky, as if to catch sight of the birds, he did not appear to notice Kurama's shade. Kurama cautiously waved one hand, but the hunter did not flick his eyes upward again. "I must be invisible," he thought. Strange to be so… cut off from humanity. He had never thought of death so much as a separation than as a joining with those who had gone before. He had half-expected Kuronue to saunter up to him, swinging his old medallion, a grin on his dark face and a warm light in his eyes.
"I wonder if I'll ever again share a quiet moment in the forest with a friend," he thought. As if in answer, a breeze gently shook some nearby tree boughs, making the branches wave. "Is that goodbye?" he wondered.
It didn't seem important. In fact, though he had always expected to go to his afterlife with many regrets, he felt strangely at peace. He felt ready to move on. With that in mind, Kurama examined himself.
He seemed to be intact. As the trees reminded him, he still had his memories, and he was sure everything else was in place: wit, personality, code of ethics (such as it was), and the memory of all his fighting skills. Whatever was to come, he would face it as Youko Kurama.
Wouldn't he? Something about that assumption felt wrong. But he couldn't explain it. Something in the movement of the tree boughs and the sight of his corpse on the ground made him think again.
Suddenly unsure, he examined his ghostly 'body.' Six-foot height? Long, white hair? Sharp front teeth? Fuzzy fox ears? Muscled exterior? Everything seemed to be in order, including the casual, white tunic he'd been wearing when the hunter attacked him. Amazing! He still had his good looks! Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
A smile tugged at him as his foxy sense of humor reasserted itself. "It can't be so bad," he thought, "since I could still pick up women. Well, if there were any around."
A cheerful, feminine voice said, "Kind of fascinating, isn't it?"
Kurama turned. His eyes widened. It was as if King Yama, the great lord of death, was listening to his thoughts and granting his wishes one after another.
The woman in front of him had the appearance of a teenager, but the eyes of an immortal. Her eyes were happy and intelligent, with a sort of sparkle that spoke of confidence—confidence in the inevitability of life and in hope that awaited everyone. But mostly her eyes were just friendly, the kind of friendliness found in someone who'd never been robbed. She smiled and bowed in greeting.
"Youko Kurama? My name is Botan. I'm your ferry guide. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Kurama bowed in return. "The pleasure is mine," he said. Breaking contact with her eyes, he took in the rest of her. She had long, blue hair, rosy skin and a slim figure covered by a modest, pink kimono. "Are you here to accompany me to the Spirit World?"
"I am indeed," she said. There was that engaging smile again. And he noticed that she sat on a wooden oar that floated in midair, level to him. Sitting on it appeared to be second nature to her, and she seemed to control it using subtle body movements. He looked at her curiously from his crouching position.
"Tell me, what should I expect?" He was half-prepared to go with her, but he was suddenly loathe to leave the softly waving tree boughs.
Botan answered the question easily, as though with practice.
"We'll fly on my oar to the Spirit World, where I will escort you to receive judgment from Lord Koenma, son of the Great King Yama."
"The lord of death himself isn't the one to make the judgment?"
"He, er, has exalted duties to take care of himself. His son, Lord Koenma, oversees the bureaucratic workings of the Spirit World."
"Wait a moment. The fate of my eternal soul is a 'bureaucratic working?'"
"Oh, no, no, no! Never! Please forgive me for implying such a thing." She bowed and waved her hands at the same time, somehow managing not to fall off the oar. "Lord Koenma reviews each case personally and makes a fair, heavenly judgment. There is nothing to fear. Shall we go?" She gracefully lowered the empty side of her oar toward him.
"I have more questions."
"Of course." She smiled again and repositioned the oar. "Ask away."
"What are the possible outcomes of Lord Koenma's judgment?"
Her smile attained a look of being fixed in place. "Oh, you don't need to worry about that."
Kurama simply raised one dark, finely sculpted eyebrow.
Botan's fixed smile became chagrined. "I suppose perhaps you more than others might be a little nervous…. I'll be honest with you. A poor judgment could send you to a hell, or cause you to be reincarnated to try again for a better life." Kurama felt a sudden spike of something foreign. He thought it might be fear. "But let me also assure you that you may have a chance for a good judgment. There is something redeemable in every person, King Yama says. And the Spirit World is where the concepts of mercy and forgiveness were born. A good judgment will send you to a heaven, or to the Kami."
"Wherever I wind up," Kurama said slowly, "will I… remain as I am?"
Botan blinked, and her oar gently rocked back and forth in a sort of subconscious movement. Finally, she said, "Nobody goes to the Spirit World without undergoing a profound change, Kurama, It is a process of divesting yourself of mortality. Everything about you that is impermanent will fall away, leaving the core of your soul free to pass into eternity. You've already begun this process, and it's now time to continue."
They looked into each other's eyes for long moments. Then Botan smiled again and said in a bubbly voice, "So, let's get out of here, shall we?"
Though startled by the sudden change in mood, Kurama resisted the urge to jump. He took a deep breath, even though he didn't need air anymore. "May I have a moment, then? I didn't realize until this moment."
Botan's face softened. "Of course. We have a few minutes left. Let me know when you're ready."
Kurama floated to the ground, where he spotted a log that would serve as a bench. When he sat on it, he noticed Botan flying a little out of range, trying to allow him some privacy. She was entirely too nice for what he had planned. "Botan! Wait!"
She looked back. "Yes?"
"Would you sit with me? I could… use the company." And something else, he thought.
Botan did as he asked. She sat a modest distance from him and leaned her oar on the other side of the log. "Thank you," he said.
"My pleasure," Botan said. "I know this must be difficult for you."
He nodded, and they sat in silence. Across the clearing, the hunter finished inspecting Kurama's body. He picked up the ankles and dragged it behind him out of sight, leaving a little trail in the underbrush.
Botan and Kurama gazed after him. "Did you, er, know that man?"
"I haven't a clue as to who he is. A bounty hunter who got lucky, I suppose."
"Ah." They listened to the birds. Kurama felt it was time to begin.
"Have you always been a ferry girl, Botan?"
"Me?" She laughed. "Of course. My people gave me to the Spirit World soon after I was born, so that I could bring them honor in serving Lord Enma-Daioh."
"When was that?"
"Millennia ago." She said it so simply and happily that it took a moment to register.
"You're… that old?" He looked at her with a tinge of awe.
"Mm-hm. Why do you ask? I mean, it's unusual for a new spirit to ask me questions about myself. You usually have more on your minds."
"I always have an interest in those who have been kind to me," Kurama said.
"Oh." He saw her considering that with such innocence that he now felt sorry for what he was about to do.
"Don't you have somebody in the Spirit World who takes an interest in you, Botan?"
"You mean friends?" She laughed, a little nervously. "Of course. The other spirit guides and I are very close, and—"
"What about men?" He moved closer, but didn't quite enter her personal space.
"Some suitors, yes." There was the fixed smile again, and now a tautness about the eyes. "But I'm really much too dedicated to my work to pay them any attention. You know?"
With that, she inched away, but he moved closer still. "For thousands of years, you've never…?"
"Never wha—" But he cut her off by bracing the back of her neck with his left hand and covering her mouth with his own. She squealed and tried to move away, but he was insistent, and to his delight, he found that kissing was just as good even in a non-corporeal body. Apparently, she found the same to be true, and after a longer pause than necessary, she moved away from him.
He grinned at her, green eyes shining. She frowned, but there was a deep blush in her milky cheeks.
"Kurama, I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression."
"Well, I'm very flattered and all, but—Hey, what are you doing with that?"
"This?" He grinned and stood up, hefting the object he'd grabbed with his right hand during the kiss. "I believe I'm stealing it."
He threw her oar into the air and leaped to meet it. The wooden oar accepted his weight with a little bob.
"Kurama, no! You'll never get to the Spirit World at all without me to guide you!"
He looked down at Botan, who apparently couldn't fly without the oar. "Who says I'm going to the Spirit World?" He steered in several directions, quickly getting the hang of it. Laughter spilled from him. What a delightful tool! "I'm not quite ready to 'divest myself of mortality,' Botan. Goodbye!"
"No! Kurama, come back here and be good! You don't know what you're doing! Come back here!"
Ignoring her cries, Kurama rose into the air, passing above the tree boughs and tall layers of canopy until he reached the sky above the forest. Now he saw his home for the first time from a new angle, with sunlight striking the green leaves and creating a glare that almost hurt his sharp eyes. The birds he'd always heard in the morning and at still time with close friends flew in great flocks and little, colorful groups, creating a loud, lively song. He laughed again in joy, and soon was out of sight.
To be continued in Chapter 2.