Wow...it's only been forever since I updated this. nn;; Sorry guys.
I heard a rumor via email that we're not allowed to answer reviews anymore...and I honestly don't know what to say to that. It's nowhere in the rules, but all the same, I don't want to get booted because of breaking a non-existent rule. Our account is perilous enough as it is.
XD In short, review responses will be back next time. Because I'm lazy and figure none of you remember what you reviewed about in the past four months. Except...for all of you who thought Touya was going to Suzaku's...think again. Bwahaha.
Final stretch, people. As soon as I type up the next chapter you can have it...my floppy drive died so I have to cross-type. Damn.


Chapter Twenty-Six:
Happenings

Yusuke did not believe this was happening.

He managed to pass the note on to Botan with fairly steady hands. The note had been lying on Kurama's unused bed—Yukina, poor thing, had been the one to notice it.

It was not a happy note.

I cannot take any more of this, and so I have left to work out a solution. Do not come after me; I shall return when I am ready.

--Kurama

"How could he be so irresponsible!" Koenma had shifted back to toddler-size in his distress, and was venting his rage to the entire room. "He knows we can't escape with the bracelets on—it'll feed off his energy until he returns!"

"I don't understand," Botan said, after reading the note, "Any more of what? Was it something we did to cause him to leave?"

"Yes." All eyes turned to Hiei. "Yusuke, Touya, and I caught him sneaking in late last night. He'd been to Toguro's to investigate the noises, and Karasu caught him."

"He overreacted when I said something about that," Yusuke added, looking at the floor. "He yelled something about 'dealing with it himself' before running off, so I guess it's my fault—"

"No." Genkai sighed. "You did what you thought was best. Kurama has to learn to handle his own demons—all we can do is nudge him on."

Yusuke blinked. "We can't…help him?"

"It's a matter of honor," Genkai explained, gently, "Kurama will never be entirely free of Karasu unless he kills him himself. If we were to help, it would interfere, and he'd wonder for the rest of his life if he was truly strong enough to have ended it himself. This is something he must do alone—and he knows that. He won't let us help him."

"But still, we have to go after him!" Jin had now read the note and was determined to contribute. "You know what happens when a bracelet is removed from the plantation without a master's consent! It'll drain off his energy until there's none left!"

"None left?" Yusuke turned to him. "Can that happen?"

It was Koenma who nodded affirmatively.

"And…what happens?"

Nobody spoke.

"What happens?"

Surprisingly enough, it was Yukina who answered.

"They die."

"Which is why we have to stop him!" Jin continued, before Yusuke had too much time to dwell on that thought. He raced out of the kitchen, and they heard a loud crash as Jin bumped into something, swore, and then there was an energy increase as he found his bracelet.

Pause.

Jin returned to the kitchen, red-faced with frustration. "The door won't open!"

Genkai ran out of the kitchen to test it herself; she came back in a moment later and shook her head.

"This is not good," she said, "Toguro's locked us in—"

"He can do that?"

"Yes, dimwit, he can. Although," she continued thoughtfully, "he doesn't do it very often. In fact, the only times he's ever done it are when one of us is being sold…"

"Sold!" Yusuke's eyes widened. "He can't do that!"

"Newsflash, boy, he's the Master of this plantation!" Genkai yelled. "If he wants to sell us, he can! If he wants to lock us up to make sure we don't interfere, he can! HE HAS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER US—AND IT WILL BE THIS WAY UNTIL HE DIES. This is how life is, Yusuke—I'm sorry you had to be born into such a world. But this is our lot in life."

"Who would he sell?" Yukina wondered, in the silence that followed. "I mean, except for Kurama we're all here, so it's not one of us; Toguro doesn't know about him yet—"

"You're wrong," Koenma said, through gritted teeth. "We're not all here."

It was Jin, the only remaining Shinobi on the plantation, who first figured out that he would never see his best friend again.

..:--:..

A good mile away from the plantation, Touya sneezed.

The black-cloaks didn't even turn around, he noticed. All the better. He really didn't think he could take any of what they were certain to give him; after all, life would be different now. He hated to admit it, but life under Toguro had been relatively easy. The only real work they'd had to do were the assignments he gave them, and even those weren't that bad when you had a friend to help you through it.

Jin, he thought miserably, the red-haired Shinobi first in his mind, You were always there for me—and now I have to leave you. You're the last hope the Shinobi have of being avenged, Jin…I've failed. I've failed in everything—that original mission, and now—

I'm sorry! He cried, unconsciously sinking back into the pit of depression the sneeze had jerked him out of. I can't do a thing to stop this—And as loneliness seized his broken heart, drawing his gaze to nothing, a very tiny thought snuck into the back of his mind.

Why don't they just kill me? I'm of no use to anyone. Even Toguro sent me away. No wonder; Yukina can control ice just as well as I can, plus she can heal. What good am I to anybody…

So wrapped up was he in his sad, cold world that he didn't notice the tree root until he tripped over it. He didn't bother to get up. With his wrists bound, and the chain one of his new masters was holding, it'd be nearly impossible.

"It's sad to see him like this," commented one of the black-cloaks quietly.

"Toguro is a bastard," said a second.

"Yes, well, we know that."

Those voices...they sounded so familiar. Like he'd heard them before...Hands were gripping his shoulders, pulling him up into a sitting position against the tree trunk.

"Don't touch me!"

Instinct forced him to shove them away; his current status in life made him freeze immediately afterwards.

"It's okay," said the first voice, "We're not going to hurt you—here, I'll prove it to you." And the hands were on his neck, the collar—a spark jumped from their connection all the way around—

Then the collar clicked and fell away in two very separate pieces.

"There," said the voice, "Isn't that better? Captivity never suited you, Touya. Then again," he continued, as Touya's head jerked up. "Captivity never suited any Shinobi."

Touya couldn't speak—he tried, but no words came. All he could do was stare, voices flying in and out of his head, names matching with tones until finally one long forgotten flew into his head and stuck.

"Risho…?"

..:--:..

Nobody was much in the mood for anything, and so the house was silent.

Yusuke didn't like it.

If he could have, he would have gone outside. Not that there was anything to do there, but—oh, why did he want to go outside anyway? It was raining; he'd get wet.

Kurama was out there, though. He was probably soaked to the bone. Yusuke hoped he was alright—wherever he was.

Maybe Kurama would make it—to freedom! Then he'd come back, one day, and free them….because he couldn't just leave them! They were friends. And friends didn't—they didn't just abandon each other.

…did they?

..:--:..

A friend of Yusuke's was inside, watching the rain through a glass window.

Hiei never much cared for rain, whether or not he was out in it. It was only natural, of course—water was the antagonist element.

That was why he didn't understand the man. The man standing outside their house, as if…waiting. For what? Surely not anyone inside.

The man below the window turned, and his head tilted up.

Hiei didn't move, and he knew their eyes met.

The man who'd repelled the Dragon of the Darkness Flame looked away.

Hiei knew he was being taunted by the way the man stood.

And so Hiei stared back, watching, waiting.

Waiting for the day when his dragon would finally strike down Bui.

..:--:..

A friend of Yusuke's was in the rain, pushing forwards one step at a time. Shoes stuck in mud and were reluctant to pull away; hair hung in eyes and he could not muster the strength to push it out.

The voice in his head told him this was madness, to stop and turn around now!

The bracelet on his arm stole away his energy, bit by bit, until at last he stumbled over something, falling to his knees, falling completely, and he did not get up.

Kurama didn't have the strength.

..:--:..

Someone Yusuke did not know stepped out of the shadows, barely more than a shadow himself. He looked down at the fallen Kurama, purple eyes narrowing in suspicion as his gaze alighted on the source of the boy's pain.

Purple eyes bent down to pick up the semi-conscious slave.

Someone Yusuke did not know took Kurama away.

..:--:..

Someone Yusuke knew was waiting for him in his bedroom. Someone Yusuke didn't like was in the room before he closed the door. Someone Yusuke despised calmly said hello to him after he entered.

Someone who shouldn't be there, was.

And Yusuke stared, dumbly, into the face of the man he'd hated for eleven years.

Toguro stared back.

Yusuke's first move should have been to attack, but his legs refused to move, knees quivering though he tried to repress it.

"H-how?" he stuttered. "How are you—"

"Honestly, Yusuke. Did you really think I'd have a place on my plantation I could not get into?" His tone was that of a mother reminding a child of a very obvious fact. Yusuke's mouth dropped open; he pulled it shut almost immediately.

"I should have done this months ago," Toguro went on, taking a step closer to Yusuke. And another, slow and deliberate. "Welcomed you properly to the plantation. How foolish of me to have forgotten." He came closer; still Yusuke found himself frozen to the spot. Months of lessons flew out of his head. He could barely breathe as he realized a horrifying truth.

This man could kill him.

"Of all my slaves, I think you are the most promising since—Genkai, at least. Perhaps even since Yoko." The name should've caused a reaction to Yusuke, but it didn't. He could only watch… "Which is why I feel you should know."

Master stood in front of petrified slave.

"You will never beat me like that."

A bead of sweat trickled down Yusuke's face as Toguro continued. "You would need at least two more months of rigorous training before you could even scratch me—and frankly, you don't have that much time."

"What do you mean," Yusuke managed to choke out. Toguro took two steps—one alongside him. One past.

"Things are happening, Urameshi. Your friends are missing. They could return. Before you know it, you could find yourself in the toughest fight you'll ever be in." A final step. To the open door. "And I want a good fight.

"After all, it's not every day the fate of the plantation lands on your head.

"Consider this your lucky day, Yusuke Urameshi."

The master left. A terrified slave fell to his knees, his hands, to stare at the floor, at the muddy boot-prints that proved the reality of what had just happened.

He's so strong...too strong.

God dammit, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO!