Please see disclaimer in Chapter 1. Comprehensive author's notes will appear at the end of the final chapter. In the meantime, comments and criticism are relished. Please enjoy your reading.

"Going Gently"
By Port

Chapter 8

This is how it would have been.

He would have worn a white pair of slacks and dress coat, and he would have shined his shoes before coming to the Spirit World. He would have stood in a massive, ivory hall flooded with sunlight from high windows, and his shadow would have revealed him fidgeting once. Just the once.

He would not have made a date with her beforehand, and he wouldn't be ashamed to admit he wanted her off balance, just a little. Botan had a clever, playful mind, and he would not have wanted to give her too much time to think about this.

Before too long, she would have appeared, peeking out from behind an enormous marble pillar before coming the rest of the way out. Her hair would have been arranged in a complicated, braided design, and her kimono would have been white silk with blue floral patterns embroidered on it. She would have blushed when he forgot to close his mouth.

He would have presented her with a peony, sprouted from the cuff of his sleeve a moment beforehand, and she would have laughed. Called him original and unique with that sparkly smile, and he would honestly never have known whether she meant it in truth or ironically. Probably the latter; it stood to figure other men would present Botan with peonies. Still.

"It's the thought that counts," he would have said.

"And it does," she would have replied, accepting the gift and bringing it to her nose. "Come with me. I'll show you the gardens."

He would have followed her to the scullery or even Koenma's office had she asked, because she would have held out one hand as she led the way. It would have fit in his palm with room to spare, and he would have noticed how warm it was and the funny way she wiggled her fingers.

On their way, they would have passed other ferry girls, who would have giggled to each other as they came into sight. One girl would have given Botan a blatant thumbs-up, and Botan would have blushed and walked faster.

It would have pleased him, everyone knowing.

The palace opened onto a generous courtyard that Kurama had often glimpsed but never explored. Botan would have taken him down the steps of a wooden veranda into a sea of lush clover, where footpaths made irregular ways into the garden proper. She would have chosen a circuitous route through a long plot of rosebushes, all in bloom, and then past an array of other bright flowers, walls and walls of them creating corridors of scent and color. He would have felt heady by the time they would have reached the pond at the back of the garden. It would have felt like they had walked forever, hand in hand, before pushing past the pale green strands of a weeping willow.

He would have kissed her there, and she would have let him. He would have sunken his fingers into her hair and nuzzled her neck. She would have eased him out of his jacket, and then his shirt, and then guided his hands to the blue sash of her kimono.

They would have knelt in the clover and kissed, taking their time about it. She would have lost her breath first, but he wouldn't have been far behind. They would have caressed each other's skin as they separated the inches needed to breathe for a few minutes, and then Kurama would have lowered her to the soft, shaded ground. He would have wanted to please her like no one else could, and he would have found himself challenged by his own expectations for himself, encouraged by each response from Botan, and wanting to outdo it. He wanted this…. He wanted this to be….

….But Botan would have laughed between breathless shudders and whispered something about competition and the bedroom.

And then she would have won that competition, using her entire body, her warmth, her creative, soft, flawless touch. She would have had him in an agony of ecstasy as the sun slowly sank to the horizon. He would have given this bout his best shot, but he would have been content when she won it.

Her elated weariness at the end would have made him feel like he had been the real winner anyway. Her hair would have been wild, her cheeks like soft pink dots. Her skin would have been sweaty to the touch, and still clean. Kurama would have been so far away from thoughts of winning and losing. It's like that when you're content.

"Did you notice?" she would have asked.

"I noticed many things," he would have answered, not breaking any of the points of contact between their bodies. "Shall I demonstrate?" And he would have started to do just that.

"Well, ye—Yes! Kurama…."

Maybe twenty minutes would have passed before Kurama would have murmured: "I noticed, Botan."

She would have smiled sleepily, buried her hand in his hair and closed her eyes. Kurama would have watched her breathing even out and laid one arm across her stomach. "But that wasn't the Spirit World," he would have whispered. He had experienced all three worlds, and each had affected him its own way. Not the way they did Botan, defined in herself by her bond with the Spirit World. Kurama was his own man, and would be forever if he got his way. No place could touch him. Today, only Botan would have. She would have been enough, more than enough, and Kurama would even have lived with the knowledge that she had tapped into something besides him, something more than him. It would have been all right, seeing how happy that made her.

This is how it was:

The fox hissed through the air and landed snarling at Botan's feet. She was the first thing it saw when it landed, and Kurama was too far away to stop it from rearing up at her. Even Botan didn't have time to react.

His first thought was, "Yusuke's going to kill me."

His second thought didn't contain words, and he voiced it as a yell. By this time, he was already halfway to the spot where he had thrown the fox at Botan.

There was no thought after that.

"Couple'a clowns," Kuwabara grunted, spitting on the sidewalk. His opponent lay at his feet, unconscious in a reeking heap. You'd think these guys would possess the occasional shower stall along with upstairs bedrooms, but no. Stupid foxes, with their matted red fur and grimy mouths full of teeth. That one bite might need stitches, but Kuwabara was more concerned about infection setting into his arm. Not that he'd say as much to the guys, but man, when he got home, he was gonna douse the sucker in Shiziru's private liquor stash.

Well, as long as Shiziru wasn't around to catch him. They probably had some peroxide somewhere, too.

Yusuke kicked the guy he had fought and got a groan in return. "Tell me about it. I didn't even get to do anything fancy this time. Botan really needs to find us a more challenging case."

Kuwabara opened his mouth to point out that this one had included video games and snacks, but a sudden keening wail came from down the street.

"Whoa," they both said at the same time, before glaring at each other.

"I guess the other foxes found Kurama," Yusuke said. "Come on. These guys aren't going anywhere."

Together, they ran toward the vacant lot where Kurama and Botan had been staked out. It was unlit, an oddity of unused space in the quiet, neat neighborhood. Kuwabara figured someone would buy it up soon and build a house on it, but for now it was all dirt and scrub brush, with a few tall trees lining the side where it lined up with the street.

One of those trees had fallen down, the trunk divided into giant splinters of soft, white wood. The rest of the tree lay in a leafy mass, sticking into the lot. He and Yusuke paid it no attention as they ran past it. They ignored the corpse of the fox that lay next to the fallen tree, a wooden shaft impaling its chest. Or was that its stomach? Hard to tell in this light, and okay, maybe Kuwabara paid it a little attention as he ran by.

With the tree down, some light from a streetlamp entered the lot, and they found Kurama standing over a shadowed figure, staring at it where it lay unmoving. Yusuke and Kuwabara came to a stop beside Kurama, but he didn't acknowledge them. "Whoa," Kuwabara whispered, then was a little surprised when Yusuke remained silent.

At their feet, a fox, smaller than the other three, sinewy and lean, had been ripped apart. There were no traces of the thorny stems Kurama liked to use as weapons, and Kurama had blood on this hands. Well. He had blood everywhere, to be sure. It was on the ground, too, in sticky puddles, all over the place.

Yusuke looked from the dead fox to Kurama, who still hadn't moved. "It's a girl," Yusuke said.

Kurama clenched the fist Kuwabara could see. He noticed a single, thick shiv clutched there, wooden and gleaming sharp. He hadn't torn apart the fox—the girl—the girl fox, whatever. Kurama had gutted her. Kuwabara shuddered. He didn't want to know what would make Kurama do that to a girl.

Yusuke's lip had curled. "What the hell, Kurama?"

Kuwabara looked down at the blood in the grass, noticed a trail of sorts. He wanted to jump on Kurama too, wished he'd gotten the first word in, because, man. This was just wrong. But now he noticed blood leading off to the topmost branches of the fallen tree, and instinct had him wandering over there. Behind him, Yusuke kept prodding at Kurama, who didn't defend himself.

Before him… Before him was something Kuwabara didn't want to see. He didn't see it yet, and he didn't know what it was, but his intuition told him it would be the worst thing he saw tonight.

His intuition was right.

"Well?" Yusuke was saying. "What the hell, Kurama? Don't make me ask Botan."

Kuwabara gagged and clamped a hand over his mouth. He turned away, nearly tripping over the branches spread out behind him

"Kuwabara?" He looked up to find Yusuke and Kurama staring at him. "What's wrong? And why am I the only one talking here?" Kuwabara glanced at what he had found, felt his eyes water, then looked back up to see Yusuke stalking toward him.

"No, wait, Urameshi! Hold on."

For a wonder, Yusuke stopped. "Why? What's over there? Another fox girl?"

Kuwabara couldn't think of anything to say. He stood there stupidly, knowing how dumb he looked and not caring, trying to think of a way to keep Yusuke from seeing this. He looked over Yusuke's shoulder at Kurama, one of the few times he had ever asked for help with anything. But Kurama avoided his eyes.

"Yusuke…." Kuwabara said. But his friend was marching over again, and there was nothing to do but step aside and let him pass. Kuwabara didn't watch, though. He didn't want to see this, didn't want to be here. He didn't want to hear the soft noise Yusuke made, an indescribable little sound, hardly fitting, but still too personal to bear overhearing. Kuwabara didn't want to be a part of this night.

But he was. And two minutes later, it wasn't passivity that made him allow Yusuke to stumble over to Kurama and hammer his face with one massive punch. Botan had been Yusuke's friend first. Kuwabara figured that gave him first crack.

It was disconcerting, the familiarity of floating above it all, coupled with the unfamiliarity of floating without her oar. Nothing in her grip, nothing to sit on, no ground beneath her feet. She still had on her jeans and T-shirt, the leather jacket she'd been glad for when the night turned cold. That was wrong, too. In her spirit form, she always wore a kimono; street clothes were for her human body, which most certainly could not fly.

Botan opened her eyes. From above, the lot in the Takagis' neighborhood only looked a little different, a dark green, square plot with a fallen tree jutting toward its center, letting in the light from a streetlamp. The tree reminded her a little of what had happened….

…She had been sitting in one of the middle branches, Kurama perched above her. A little breeze came through, and she had closed her jacket tighter across her chest. The tree shuddered, but from a blow, not the breeze.

Botan shied away from the memory, certain it had not ended well. "What's going on?" she asked herself. Her friends could probably tell her. She recognized their foreshortened figures even in the dark, from well above, and gusted down to meet them.

Only, things were not as she'd expected with Yusuke, Kurama and Kuwabara.

"Come on!" Yusuke sat on top of Kurama and punctuated his yell with a punch across the face. "Say something you bastard!" His fist cracked again across Kurama's cheek. "How could you let this happen?"

"Hey, Yusuke…" Kuwabara said, standing tensely to the side. "I think that's enough. Come on, man, he's not even fighting back—"

"Shut up!" Yusuke yelled. Beneath him, Kurama groaned. It had to be involuntary; he looked totally out of it. Botan hovered to the side, her mouth open, and when Yusuke raised his fist again, she screamed.

"Yusuke, no!"

"What the--!" Kuwabara blurted. He had already reached forward, as if to pull Yusuke off Kurama, but now he jumped back and looked all around. "Botan?"

"I'm here. Yusuke, stop hurting Kurama. What's gotten into you?" She winced when Yusuke ignored her and grabbed Kurama's shoulders, shaking him. "Yusuke!"

"Botan, is it really you?" Kuwabara asked. He faced her general direction, but couldn't seem to make eye contact.

Botan blinked. "Can't you see me, Kuwabara?"

He shook his head. "No, Botan. But I can sense you. You feel like a—"

"Are you talking to her?" Yusuke demanded. He had stood up, leaving Kurama to cough and gasp for breath on the ground. "Is she here, Kuwabara?"

"Yeah, but…." He looked miserable, shoulders stooped, not knowing what to do with his hands, avoiding Yusuke's eyes.

"Can't you hear me, Yusuke? Yusuke?" She floated around to face him, sitting in the air between him and Kuwabara. She waved a hand in front of his face, but he still didn't react. "Yusuke?" she whispered.

Behind her, Kuwabara sighed. "He can't see or hear you, Botan. And your energy…. You feel like a ghost."

To be continued in Chapter 9.

Author's Notes: It's been so long, but I am determined to finish this story very soon. For what it's worth, apologies for the long wait. I just couldn't seem to get this scene blocked out correctly….

Have replied to individual signed reviews, but wanted to thank everyone who was so kind as to leave their thoughts. It's really delightful to hear what you think, the good and the bad. Honestly, you guys rock: midnight1987, Aeris888, BrunaK+B, Kitsune of Darkness, kiss-me-kitsune, Steven, animegirl007, Princess of Angels, Canlo, xmiahimex, Smoxx, Empressofthedragons, CWolf2, Maverick48, KitsuneKit, Inikus, Kitsune-001, Yuki Amida, Pyrinsomniac, A lilmatchgirl, and Volpone.

Thanks again! Next chapter soon!