Well, I actually started this back in early December with the intention of making it a "Christmas/New Year's Present" of sorts. Then it got pushed back because of new computer glitches, lack of feedback and a few other issues, so I was going to make it a "Happy Valentine's Day" present. Then the beta reads came back and I realized I still had a lot of work to do. So…um…Happy St. Patrick's Day?

Thanks to the Niyali-chan half of "ButteredOnions" for being my beta reader and picking up a lot of stupid mistakes, as always. Also thanks to "Uncle" for being a back-up beta reader and catching a lot of grammar/style problems (he's not even a member of the fandom, so he really had his work cut out for him).

Also, thanks to all the readers/reviewers who have really stuck with this story—I know it's been a long time coming to get to this point. Oddly enough, this story was formulated from start to finish when I posted the first chapter, so it really shouldn't have taken me this long to write it. But I've added and subtracted a lot of elements along the way, so maybe (hopefully?) it's worth it. Thank you guys so much for the feedback!

The modest kitchen was larger than Hiei imagined it would be, given the relatively small size of the home. Of course, with the whole city as his "home," and the nearest warehouse, construction project, abandoned building or secluded tree as his bedroom, he supposed anything would seem small in comparison.

A shrill whistle turned him with a start. Shiori was making tea. Hiei understood little about human food preparation, nor did he really care to learn. For him, the next meal was whatever wasn't fast enough to avoid the business end of his sword. Occasionally, Kurama would track him down and bring him a burger and fries or something. As far as Hiei was concerned, the "meat" tasted greasy, grisly and thoroughly unpalatable, and the fizzy, overly sweet drink made him gassy. But he was not one to turn down a free meal. Kurama would usually stick around and eat with him. He was a real pain like that.

Clattering cups drew his attention from his thoughts back to Shiori. The whistle earlier meant that the water was ready—that much Hiei knew. Curiosity got the better of him, and he tried to keep an eye on her preparations. With her back towards him, he had to lean sideways for a better view, noting her movements with more interest than he probably would have cared to admit. Each cup received a pour of hot water and a few loose tea leaves, but he couldn't see much more than that. Sensing she was being watched, she glanced over her shoulder and nodded at him. Hiei quickly straightened and dropped his gaze to his feet, feigning disinterest. Oh yeah…oops. He realized he had once again failed to remove his shoes inside the house (about which Kurama always nagged him), and he shifted his eyes and pretended to take interest in something outside the kitchen window before she noticed.

"Don't worry about the shoes," Shiori smiled wryly as she set the tea in front of him.

Hiei wasn't listening—something had captured his interest. Not outside the window, but inside on the windowsill.

"Oh, that?" Shiori commented, following his gaze. "That white orchid has seen better days." Leaving her tea on the table next to his, she padded back over to the stove. Hiei assumed that meant she would be eating too. Like mother, like son. How annoying.

"You should see it when it's in bloom. It's really beautiful. My husband gave it to me when I was pregnant with Shuichi. During my pregnancy, I had a knack for gardening--my husband joked that I had become a 'fertility goddess'—"

Hiei cringed. Human pet names were so stupid. Besides, that was a mental image he did not need.

"—but after Shuichi was born…well, taking care of a baby and all…I didn't have the time. And then when my husband passed away, I couldn't bear to throw it out."

"It seems to be doing well now," Hiei commented, hoping to put an end to the conversation. Botany was Kurama's thing—not his.

"Well, yes, since Shuichi started taking care of it a few years ago. His talents seem to pick up where mine left off. But it hasn't been doing so well recently…even his own red orchid isn't doing that well…but his is still so gorgeous, isn't it?"

This was what had drawn Hiei's attention. He wondered if Shiori truly had any concept of what sat on her windowsill. A demon blood orchid. An exceptionally rare flower which was notoriously difficult to cultivate on the demon plane—much less the human one. Its vibrant red bloom was rumored to be a euphoria-inducing aphrodisiac, though Hiei put little stock in such foolish folklore. He doubted Kurama needed such an exquisite and labor-intensive plant for that purpose, either—he hardly seemed the type. From more reputable sources, Hiei had heard that when the orchid's glossy, needle-like leaves were dried out, they could be ground down to create a powder which was then used in minute applications to brew a powerful antibiotic. In larger doses, the powder fashioned a potent poison solution, causing the unfortunate victim to hemorrhage from virtually every orifice—hence the name. Either concoction required a tremendous amount of precision and patience, and very few accomplished mastery of one, much less both. Hiei suspected Kurama was very adept at making both solutions. Suddenly, he had a much greater appreciation for the salve Kurama kept plying on them during the Dark Tournament.

The satisfying smell of a prepared meal wafted to Hiei's nostrils long before the bowls were placed in front of him. "I'm sorry it's not much," Shiori apologized, "just some miso soup and rice. I didn't think Shuichi would be able to stomach much after last night, and I wasn't counting on company this afternoon." She set some western-style utensils in front of Hiei, casting him a side-long glance as if to question his ability to use them. He defiantly snatched the spoon, murmured a half-hearted…something…maybe it was a "thanks"…and began slurping at the soup. Satisfied that he possessed at least rudimentary knowledge of basic table manners, Shiori returned to the stove to dish out her own meal. Hiei was too busy eating to be insulted.

As she sat down beside him at the table, Hiei caught his first glimpse of the scars on her arms. They were old—just as Kurama said. But judging by the width and thickness of the dark and jagged healed-over skin, the wounds had been deep—deeper than Hiei had presumed. Kurama had not mentioned that.

Hiei tore his gaze away from the scars as she tugged on the sleeves of her sweater to cover them. A subconscious habit, perhaps, but he still did not wish to appear as if he were gawking. His eyes cut away only to fall upon another reminder of that near-tragic day.

Blood. On the floor. Years of cleaning, scouring and bleaching could not hide the sordid stain from his demon sight. He wondered if Kurama—with his human eyes—saw the stain as clearly. Of course he did…Kurama only looked human. Although he had not fully recovered his demon form or mastered transformation to his "true" self, he was more demonic than he cared to admit. Every time he entered this room, he saw it. The blood.

A constant reminder of her sacrifice for him—the sacrifice that inexplicably tied Kurama to her…to this world. The sacrifice Kurama had repaid with his own blood—his own soul, even. And, still, he would not leave. He wanted to stay. Hiei would not—could not—understand such devotion.

Hiei absently stirred his soup. He blinked into the swirling, milky broth, watching the tofu and various vegetables bob casually in the wake created by his spoon.

"There was a tournament." The words spilled from his mouth before he had time to stop them. Only, it didn't sound like him—the voice sounded so far away. Almost as if someone else were speaking through him. Almost as if the story had a life of its own, begging to be heard, no matter who was betrayed in the process. "Participation wasn't optional—declining the invitation was a death sentence. I believe Kurama—like Yusuke and Kuwabara—had been informed that if he failed to appear, they would destroy everything he loved first, before killing him. They would have murdered you before his eyes…and only afterward taken his life."

Shiori stifled a gasp behind her hand, but, wisely, did not speak—as if speaking would somehow break the spell and cause Hiei to fall silent. But her eyes begged for him to elaborate.

"It was not the first time your life was threatened," he obliged, "nor will it be the last. Coercion, cunning and strength rule most of the demon plane—not mercy nor regard for others' lives. At least, most of the time." He seemed on the verge of adding further explanation to that statement, but decided not to elaborate.

Fearing Hiei was about to end his story as he got lost in his own thought, she ventured to speak. "But why you? Why Shuichi? Why now?"

Hiei snorted, hardly believing how far he had strayed from his inherent nature to land among such dubious allies. "Our association with Yusuke drew their attention."

"Yusuke? How so?"

"He is the 'spirit detective.' It's his job to track down and eliminate demon threats in the human world. Kur—I mean, Shuichi—and I were one of his early cases, but since then, we have…assisted…him on several occasions." He said the last part as if the mere thought of it disgusted him. Before Shiori could speak, Hiei held up his hand and answered the question he already knew she would ask. "Kurama's reasons for helping him are to protect his new life—and you. My reasons are my own, so don't ask."

"I see." That particular question died on her lips, but more remained etched upon her delicate features. "I just never imagined…"

"You look at me as if you can't believe your son is an able fighter or capable of violence, yet you know what he once was. I can tell you from experience that he is not any less capable nor merciless—you said you even felt it yourself when pregnant with him. Only now, he is more reluctant. No…I guess it's more reflective. He can be just as relentless, but he won't make brash, unwise judgments. Unless he's backed into a corner."

"A corner like a threat against me. Like the tournament."

"We were the 'sacrificial lambs'—sent to be eliminated as threats to demons living here and to satisfy their bloodlust. Fights were expected to be 'to the death.' No one expected any of us to survive, much less all of us." He smirked smugly with self-satisfaction, took a sip of his tea, and finished the rest of his soup.

"But Shuichi did die, if only briefly."

Hiei sputtered. How did she know? Fortunately, what came out of his mouth was: "What makes you say that?"

"I felt it." Her eyes clouded over and welled with tears. "At first, I wasn't sure, but now…I know that's what I felt. Don't try to deny it—"she cut him off even as he opened his mouth to speak. "It was almost like a dream. At first, I thought it was a dream because I was lying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep. I heard him scream. Then I heard him call out to me. I felt such pain and despair—like I was feeling the world through his senses—then this crushing emptiness and sense of loss I knew was my own. In that brief moment, I knew he was gone. I was in such a daze, I hardly remember the next few hours until he telephoned to say he'd be home soon."

Hiei drained the dregs of his tea and stared into his empty cup. "I won't deny it. Even I wasn't sure…until now." They fell silent, staring numbly into their empty dishes as the feelings of loss seemed to encompass them all over again.

"Who?" Her whisper barely registered through the emotional fog enveloping his brain.


"Who? Who killed my baby? I have to know." Her entreaty caught him off guard for a moment.

"Karasu." The mere mention of that name added a deathly chill to the silence. "He didn't just kill him…he tortured him." Hiei didn't know why he felt compelled to reveal that, and he instantly regretted it. But when he glanced up to look at Shiori, she was not horror stricken by the knowledge. Instead, she seemed almost at peace with it.

"I see."

"Technically, though, I suppose you could say Kurama sacrificed himself in order to ensure his death wasn't in vain. He used the last of his life energy to kill Karasu and force the match to a draw rather than allow Karasu to win. That would have bought the rest of us one more chance to save our own lives, if we needed it. He's noble—and stupid—like that. It wasn't the first time."

"I know."

Hiei smiled to himself as Shiori cleared the dishes off the table. "Hn…I might have guessed you knew somehow."

"The Forlorn Hope. You'd be surprised what you hear—and what you remember—when lying unconscious in a hospital bed." She smiled warmly, setting a fresh cup of tea in front of him. "I would have stopped him if I could have."

"You couldn't. He's stubborn, too."

"More so than you?"

Hiei smirked and sipped his tea, almost forgetting that he was not supposed to be enjoying this. She was an interesting woman…for a human.

The most grating, obnoxious sound to Hiei's ears pierced the serenity, "like nails on a chalkboard," and sent Shiori scurrying to the front door:

"KURAAA—ow! What the hell'd you do that for, Urameshi? Huh?...oh…yeah…MINAMEEE—"

"Hello, boys," Hiei heard Shiori's muffled greeting as she opened the door to let them in, effectively silencing Kuwabara's insufferable voice.

Fortunately, Yusuke possessed more social grace. He exchanged some pleasantries with Shiori, explained that they had stopped by "Shuichi's" school to say hello, but were told he wasn't there…blah, blah, blah. Hiei really wasn't listening. He was too busy sulking about the intrusion.

"Shouldn't you boys still be in school?" Shiori's voice drew closer as she led the new arrivals to the kitchen.

Yusuke scratched his head nervously and scrambled for an answer. "Well…um…you see…there was a water main break and they sent us home early…"

"You used that one last time," Kuwabara hissed into his ear.

"That was your mom…" Yusuke snarled.

"I can hear you…which means she can hear you. And she's not stupid," Hiei spat.

"Wha--? Hiei!" Yusuke exclaimed, entering the kitchen and spying the fire demon for the first time.

"What are you doing here, shorty?" Kuwabara demanded, then suddenly remembering he was in the presence of Kurama's mother, "I mean…uh…hey, Hiei! How's it going?"

"Just sit down before you make an even bigger fool of yourself," Hiei sighed, rolling his eyes.

Glaring and grumbling, Kuwabara flopped into the nearest chair. Shiori's eyes sparkled with amusement. She placed a new kettle of water on the stove and excused herself to go upstairs—presumably to check on Kurama.

"Seriously Hiei," Yusuke lowered his voice as he spun a chair around and straddled it, "what are you doing here?"

"Same as you, I suppose," he muttered.

"Huh, I doubt that," Kuwabara sneered, crossing his arms and continuing to mope.

"Hn…you're probably right. I doubt my reasons for being here are anything like whatever idiotic excuse your feeble brain could muster."

"Hey!" Kuwabara exploded out of his chair.

"Try it," Hiei growled, rising to his feet.

"Cool it. Both of you," Yusuke calmly ordered. Something in his demeanor immediately diffused the situation, compelling both of them to sit down again.

"So why are you here?" Hiei cocked an eyebrow at Yusuke.

"Hm…" Yusuke mused, biting the corner of his lip. He leaned back and scratched his head again. He looked to Kuwabara, then to Hiei, back to Kuwabara and began fidgeting under their expectant stares. "You know…I really don't know. It just seemed like a good idea, I guess."

"Yeah—skipping school was a great idea." It was Kuwabara's turn to roll his eyes. "Good way to further our academic careers."

"You still came." Yusuke smiled roguishly.

"He's starting to stir," Shiori announced her return, abruptly ending their conversation. "He asked me if we had anything for breakfast and then rolled over and went back to sleep." There was noticeable relief in her voice. "Would you boys like a cup of tea?" The cups were out and she had already started to pour the water before they could respond.

"Yes, please," Yusuke and Kuwabara politely answered in unison.

Steaming cups of tea appeared in front of them moments later. "Thanks," they both chimed in stereo again.

Awkward silence reigned for a few minutes. No one dared speak for fear of breaking the tranquility or bringing up an uncomfortable subject.

"Could you boys do me a favor?" Shiori asked. The "boys" exchanged wary glances, waiting in anticipation. "I have a few things I need to pick up from the store. Would you mind waiting here until I get back?"

"Uh…yeah…sure." Yusuke answered for all of them.

It was the perfect excuse, Hiei realized. Shiori knew exactly what she was doing. This gave them the opportunity to talk freely among themselves while ensuring someone remained in the house to keep an eye on Kurama so she could run some errands.

"I won't be long. Promise." She gathered her purse and keys and headed for the door. On the way out, she paused briefly, taking in the scene in her kitchen and smiling. At least Shuichi had friends to get him through this. That was good to know.

"I've only met her once or twice, but she seems really nice," Yusuke commented, hearing the door close behind her.

"And pretty," Kuwabara added, "I mean…for a mom and all." He flushed.

"And smart," Hiei added, taking a sip of his fresh tea.

"How so?" Yusuke asked.

Hiei slyly peered at them over the rim of his cup, drinking in their reactions. "She knows."