A level of despair is reached, where people are willing to die to punish their tormentors.

-William Kammeraad-


Confessions
Retracing the path that he had followed what seemed like a lifetime ago, Kurama studied the withered leaves laden with mud and debris with a fatigued look settling over his usually placid expression. It doesn't take much for the faith of friends to falter. Trust is an unstable idea with one side hoping that the other doesn't have the same doubts that they do. Botan had acted out with a violence that he had never credited her with and it was because she doubted the person that Kurama was. Her doubt became the leverage his enemy needed, and she was not the only person who was suspicious of him. Kurama clenched his fist at his thoughts, knowing full well that her response, however vicious, was natural. But if she was capable of providing power for his opponents so would everyone else he allowed close to his heart.

He could cast his own doubts on his friends and family, but if they really knew his origins, their rejection of him would only be expected.

'It's true that I have changed since taking up this form,' he glanced at his comrade. 'I have friends now, not solely for personal gain, but because I want their companionship. But I can not deny that there are times that I take pleasure in torturing my prey- because that's what they are to me, disposable burdens preventing me from an ideal life.'

That kind of power is impossible to separate from a man who knew nothing else for an entire lifetime.

With downcast eyes, Kurama came to a sudden stop in the middle of a familiar field. Hiei eyed his counterpart carefully, coming to a halt a few strides ahead of him. It was a complex sight to behold; the mixture of anger, guilt, and patience creating a storm in those emerald eyes. Kurama's eyes often betrayed his inner strength. They were the eyes of an ordinary human boy that understood the sight of suffering and pain and exposed sympathy in a way that Kurama had thought he was unable to. The emerald orbs were far more perplexing and interesting than his infamous golden eyes or Hiei's distant red ones.

The silence between them dragged on for an exhausting amount of time before Kurama knelt towards the ground, lifting a seed from the base of him neck and pressing it against the damp soil. It spread through the thick mounds of grass, choking other shrubs that had been in the way. The tiny vine shot up into the sky, revealing the hidden castle where Botan had been held captive.

"This is where it begins."

Hiei agreed without words and followed his companion towards the entrance. Lately, words hadn't been needed to declare anything on his behalf. He hadn't even questioned Kurama's decision to rush back to Makai after saying they would wait for the attacker's next move. Either way, it would be an engaging spar for Hiei that he had been missing in his long months working with Mukuro. An off smell interrupted his thoughts as it drifted through the air, causing the hair on Hiei's neck to stand on end.

"Chloroform." Kurama explained as he took a small step back and covered his mouth with his sleeve. It would be difficult to continue when his human body was so susceptible to such toxins. He didn't have the time to wait outside to think of a plan. No doubt that it had been part of the kidnapper's strategy. He was already ahead of Kurama in the game and that thought only irritated him more.

As if realizing the sense of urgency, the vines snaked their way through the small crack between the ground and the door and forced them open. Kurama raced in, his throat already burning from the sweet ether scent as he fell into a fit of coughs. Fortunate enough, the poison subsided greatly within the hidden walls. Kurama leaned forward slightly, resting his arms on his knees for a moment to steady himself.

"You needn't go on if you're unable to." Hiei glanced at the red-head. To be honest, he was somewhat worried about the injury to Kurama's back and the added effects of the airborne chloroform to his weakened body, though he wouldn't admit as much. "I can handle this on my own."

"Respect my need to do this, if nothing else Hiei," He choked out.

"Why has this become so personal for you?"

That was an interesting question, one which had no definite answer on Kurama's part. He immediately felt anger towards Hiei for asking – he didn't have to explain his actions to anyone- but maybe that in itself was answer enough. As was the frown so openly displayed on his face. Kurama looked away; he had more pressing matters on his hands than to justify himself.

"You are becoming quite the annoying little creature, Youko." A harsh whisper drifted in from the darkened hallways.

"Show yourself and I can promise that you'll have a chance in hell of earning a painless death." Hiei threatened.

"Normally I wouldn't allow you to bring your pets inside my home," It continued. "But you've always had a thing for toting them along side you. I haven't kept good enough tabs on you these last couple of decades, tell me; what happened to Kuronue? He was so faithful to you. Is it possible you weren't responsible enough to take care of that one, so this child here is the replacement?"

It was impossible to tell who was angrier at the comment as both hastily ran through the winding hallways. Kuronue's death had remained a sore spot for Kurama. There weren't many people who had a deep understanding for the kitsune as Kuronue had. He had been his first and probably his only real friend. What secrets of his past had he kept hidden from Kurnonue? When had Kurama ever needed to hide who he was in front of him? Never. Kuronue's death was not enough to satisfy the people who hated Kurama. The constant reminder that he was so easily deposed of was infuriating.

On the flip side, Hiei hated being compared to the thieves of Kurama's past. He was no where near as close to Kurama as Kuronue had been and doubted he ever would be. This wasn't the first time he was called his pet and he knew he should have expected it. Kurama, though weaker in his human state, was on an entirely different plane than he was. Be that as it may, he was convinced that his expertise was fighting, not stealing, and therefore he was no more valuable to Kurama than Kurama was to Hiei.

Near the back of the castle was a large room lit by several candles. They both slowed down to a quick walk as the room grew brighter once they entered it. A chair was placed in the center of the room and a lone man sat with his back facing the newcomers. The fading scent of Botan's blood still clung to the man. None of them moved for a tense while until Kurama boldly took another step forward.

"So cautious," The man chuckled. "You act as though I'm going to kill you."

"What have you done to the girl?" Kurama asked calmly.

"The human mind is so complex, yet it is amazing how easily it can forget things. I could have sworn I've already explained all of that to you in out last encounter. Am I wrong?"

Hiei had not been fortunate enough to witness the initial dialogue between them and refused to allow himself to butt into their conversation until he understood what had happened to Botan. Kurama's anger seemed to dissolve once he had heard the unanswered response to his question nonetheless.

"Who are you?" His voice seemed more uncertain as he spoke, but Kurama's features remained cold.

"Who?" There was more laughter. "Why waste time talking? I thought you came here for a fight."

"It would be incredibly rude of me," Kurama took in a deep breath. "Not to know the person whom I am about to kill."

"Of course," He spun around in his chair, the candles illuminating his youthful appearance. To Hiei's annoyance, he was indeed at least half human. His eyes darted back to Kurama who hardly seemed to recognize the other man.

"You'll have to forgive my memory lapse." Kurama said dryly.

"I was just a child at the time. If I remember correctly, you and your accomplice attacked our village late in the night in search of my mother, Tsuya. Maybe her name doesn't mean as much to you as it did to your companion, Kuronue."

"I recall burning the entire village down." The red-head prompted. "I wasn't aware that anyone survived."

"Unfortunately for you, I was the sole survivor. A young maiden took me out to safety, but she was kidnapped by your cohort not long afterwards. Needless to say, she was a victim of your insatiable lust for women as well as blood."

"Is that-" Kurama couldn't find the right words to express himself for a moment as his blood ran cold, then continued. "The maiden, are those her memories that the girl has seen?"

A grin lifted the corners of the man's lips. It was obvious that all reasoning ended right then.

"Enough of this," Hiei broke up the discussion. Kurama's last words were urgent, something foreign to his mannerism. Kurama was an extraordinary demon whose past quickly became legend. Kurama rarely spoke of himself when he was a demon, and it was likely that his past was riddled with these heartless acts of cruelty against innocent lives. Hiei had no desire to listen to such defamation. His sword clicked as it loosened from the hilt. "I tire of your mindless babble. If your mother was a demon and couldn't handle her own fight, then she deserved what happened to her."

"Aren't you being a little cruel? Or maybe you enjoy damning your own mother. I seem to remember that she allowed her lust to overcome rational thought and died as a result of such weakness. Is that why you got that jagan, so you could keep a close eye on your sister and prevent her from following in the inevitable footsteps of your mother?"

Hiei launched an attack, driving his sword towards the weaponless man. He reached out a hand, grasping the dull side of the blade despite its speed and twisted it around before Hiei could react. Hiei's arm twisted painfully behind his back before he was sent flying against a nearby wall. Kurama stood in shock then ran towards Hiei once he had regained his senses. Botan's kidnapper hadn't even exerted any energy and he'd already defeated Hiei.

"Why have you invested so much time in tracking me down?"

"That wasn't my intention. You were supposed to be dead."

"If you don't mind me asking, why are you hiding in Makai? There were many times in the past few years where the gateway was wide open."

"Where exactly do you suppose I live in Ningenkai, Kurama? I was not born human as you were. I can not assimilate as easily as you did." He stood up; taking Hiei's sword that had been dropped as he crashed against the wall with him. "I don't care to talk anymore."

"Nor do I." Kurama withdrew his rose and held out his arm defensively.

With a crack, Kurama's rose relinquished its docile appearance and formed a lengthy whip of thorns. Without hesitation, he lashed it forward, catching Hiei's sword by the hilt and thereby freeing it from foreign hands.

'That was too easy.' Kurama thought frantically, searching the man's movements for some indication of an assault. 'He is unarmed and alone in this room. What does he plan to do?' His eyes widened. 'Does he want me to kill him?'

Kurama watched stoically as the man lifted one hand up. A blast of wind raged through the room, blowing out the lone sources of light. The sound of heavy footsteps allowed Kurama to pinpoint his position regardless of his inability to see. His grip on his whip tightened and he bided his time to allow his eyes to adjust even in the slightest. When he finally decided to strike, he was quickly stopped.

"I wouldn't move just yet if I were you." Something brushed by his shoulder and he raised his rose whip to hit it only to have his left wrist tied up. Kurama instinctively tried to pull free from his captivity as the tiny wire dug deeper into his skin. "I spent innumerable years trying to beat you at your own game, but I soon tired of manipulating plants. There are more destructive materials offered in Makai."

The line worked its way up his arm and over his collarbone. Kurama was unwilling to drop his whip and leave himself open, but had no choice to reconsider when it pierced his most recent wound. With an anguished cry, Kurama stumbled forward onto another strip of wire that left a thin, but deep, gash across his cheek.

As painful as it was, Kurama stayed still, his face pressed up against the cable. His blood trickled down the wire, reflecting a dim light from outside. The entire room must have been covered once the light had been removed, making it too dangerous to try to pull back. Kurama hoped that Hiei wouldn't wake until he found some way to break down the hazardous cage.

Kurama's eyes flickered across the floor until he caught sight of Hiei's sword. It hadn't been so close before, be he didn't have enough time to analyses how it had reappeared there. He grasped the hilt, holding it with strange hands. He had hardly ever held such a weapon before because of its cumbersome weight and inability to make a clean cut. Kurama forced the blade in front of him; a quiet twanging noise announced the destruction of the wire.

Without warning, Kurama was lifted from the floor and thrown crudely against the wall, his feet just inches off the floor. The attacker stood within inches from him, his hand crushing his throat.

"I'm disappointed. You said you wanted to know the name of the one you were about to kill." The following smile was unsettling. "But it would seem that since you are the only one who will die today you will remain ignorant of my name."

Silence settled over the room as Kurama reached out to grab the man's arm. He was loosing far too much blood and was denied oxygen for so long that he hardly had the strength to fight back. Closing his eyes and using his remaining strength, Kurama summoned his plants to lift the sword as quietly as possible. The plant lunged forward, piercing the man's back and protruded out his chest, missing Kurama by mere inches.

Kurama fell to the ground as air rushed back into his lungs with a ragged gasp. Meanwhile, his attacker fell back against his own mess of wires.

"It was you," Kurama stated through heavy breaths. "Why did you move his sword for me?" The sun broke the horizon, lighting the man's smirk. "You are about to die and in all this time you had to live you wasted on a failed attempt of revenge. There aren't many people who get second chances and you..."

"Wasted it?" A low cough signaled what should have been a chuckle. "What more was there for me to accomplish in Makai than to try my hand at ending your life? Nothing I have done in these years was wasted. It was your own philosophy; everything has only one inevitable outcome, and that is death. I lie here without regret and do not fear death."

"You misunderstood me. No one in this room fears death..."

"Except..." His words were become harder to comprehend as his voice began to drown in blood. "You. You fear more... than anything... that you won't be there for your mother... and sooner or later," The wires collapsed, freeing the dying man. "You won't be."

Kurama, infuriated by his dying words, sent one last plant to expose of the demon then succumbed to his own pain and fatigue.

-.-.-

Shiori sat on the edge of her son's bed. He had been sleeping soundly for three days now, unaware of her presence or her worries. The blue-haired girl who had left with him days ago had brought him back without any explanation of what had happened. His body was ravaged and covered in blood though he was already healing much faster than she could have imagined. Luckily her husband was called away for business and Shuichi was also on a school trip. In her frantic loneliness she had thought about calling the doctor, but his wounds started to heal on their own. In any case, she had no plausible excuse for his extensive injuries. However, time was running out. Both her husband and step-son were due home soon.

She brushed his red hair away from his eyes and examined the cut on his face, which was also healing well. For as long as she could remember, she had pushed his strange abilities out of her mind, but she was grateful that he wasn't as ordinary as she had hoped. How else would he return to her alive?

Shiori lifted a bowl of water from his bed-side table to re-fill it with warm water and left from his room.

Hiei had been waiting just outside his window, as he always had. He hated this feeling that was becoming all too familiar to him. He hated the emptiness that followed such a battle, the guilt of seeing his accomplice so gravely injured, and all the while knowing that he had been too weak to do anything to prevent it.

Kurama's fighting level surpassed his own and was made evident by his return from the fight. He had gone into battle with a wound that alone could have cost him his life, but still came out victorious. Almost.

He hadn't shown any signs of being conscious for a few days now. Unlike Yusuke, Kurama hardly ever needed that much time to recuperate, which was why he decided to pay him a visit. He pressed his hand against the window and began to slide it open before being interrupted.

"Oh, Hiei," Her voice was pained, but surprisingly she managed to offer a polite smile to the fire-youkai. "I didn't expect you to show up. How has he been?"

"Fine, considering the amount of blood loss," He paused for a second then continued. "Blood loss from the injury he received prior to the battle I accompanied him in. I failed to find any documentation in your report given to Koenma accounting for that particular wound, yet you were the only person with him at the time."

"Just what are you implying, Hiei?" Botan fired back angrily.

"I'm implying that you struck him with the dagger we found him carrying when he rescued you."

"You don't know anything." She remained shockingly calm and brushed passed him to the window. Just like Kurama, her eyes had given her away. They welled with tears and avoided Hiei's pressing stare.

"He was poisoned."

"We're already giving him treatment for the large dose of chloroform he inhaled."

"You're taking Kurama for an idiot. Koenma advised him against going back to Makai right away because we had you back. Yet he rushed in without even thinking anything through, and there's only one reason for that." He gave Botan a moment then continued. "He knew he didn't have long before the poison from the blade you used to strike him set it."

"I want you to shut up." She whispered harshly, still mindful of their vulnerable surroundings. "You weren't even there."

Gaining as much admission as he needed from Botan, Hiei glanced back at Kurama and stepped off the ledge, disappearing into the air. Despite his anger towards her, Hiei knew that she was only there to help him.

Botan immediately stepped into his room, knowing that she only had a matter of time before Shiori would be coming back. Taking just a moment to familiarize herself with Kurama's room, she walked over towards the red-head and pulled a paper from her kimono. There were a series of questions that would be used to find an antidote to whatever had been introduced into his blood. Everyone in Spirit World had been convinced that it was from Kurama's direct contact with the deceased man's blood.

She knelt down beside the bed and began to scribble notes as Kurama shifted uncomfortably. His breaths became shallow in his new position and the pain was reflected on his face. Botan set aside her papers and tried to stack some pillows against his back to ease his breathing when she seen the crude stitches across his shoulder. The area surrounding it was heavily bruised and unlike anything she had ever seen before.

"I should have known better." She scolded herself.

She was aware that both the Spirit world and Makai were better equipped to deal with these kinds of injuries than the human world, but Botan decided to bring him home. It was a decision she was quickly beginning to regret.

'I can't leave him here.' Botan walked quietly to the door and shut it soundlessly. 'I'll take him back to Makai until he's conscious.' She lifted a blanket around the kitsune to keep him warm on the journey, but the cloth was snagged by something. Botan swiftly reached over to the point where the sheet had been caught only to discover Kurama's fist clenching it with an exhausted grip.

"She'll..." His eyes were still closed, but the corners of his colorless lips were turned upwards into a grin. "Be angry with me... if I take her covers."

Botan suddenly felt relief wash over her. It was possible that Kurama could make a full recovery at home now that he was awake, but she couldn't chance it. She had already put Shiori through enough by letting her see her son so close to death, but if Kurama continued to stagnate then it would devastate his fragile mother to a point that not even Botan was willing to think of.

"I have to take you back." Botan whispered. There was an ear-piercing silence that followed her statement that was eventually broken up by Kurama attempting to clear his throat. Botan's nimble hands darted into her kimono, retrieving from it a small vile of liquid. "Here, this should help." She pressed it against his lips and allowed the drops to slip into him mouth when he didn't resist. "Don't try to talk for awhile. The chloroform..."

"I can't leave." His regularly smooth voice was raspy and almost too distressing to listen to.

"We can't treat you here, Kurama." She was nearly pleading with him.

"I trust that you, of anyone, can." Her heart skipped a beat as the words flowed purposely from his lips. She met his emerald eyes as tears sprung back into hers. After everything...

Botan let out a small cry and laid her head gently on his chest, her arms holding onto Kurama as though trying to impart some of her sorrow to him. How could he be so forgiving? For as long as the Spirit World had been keeping written history, there were always people hunting him down. Maybe he had been just an ordinary thief once, capable of feeling compassion in his youkai form. But a soul can easily become tainted in such a hateful, bitter world where killing is the only means of survival. Kurama himself was excellent proof of the venomous nature of Makai. A thief, a murderer, and yet the most merciful demon or human Botan had ever met.

Kurama was taken aback by Botan's actions, but welcomed them nonetheless. He raised his battered arm, ignoring the discomfort in response to his movement and placed it on her shoulder.

"I've been..." He found himself at a loss for words immediately. There was no simple way to explain his actions, but she deserved to know the circumstances of that night where she first saw what kind of monster he had been. "After I escaped Makai and made the human world my home, I expected all the survivors from my younger years to die and for my very existence to become questionable. In time, I was even hoping that I might forget some of the atrocities committed on my behalf. All these years that I've been trying to hide what I was..." He held in a breath then slowly said, "I have always been fascinated by the short life span of humans."

"Why?"

"I lived for so long... it's easy to take things for granted and for the heart to grow cold, but humans don't get that opportunity. With such a short amount of time to live, they manage to achieve something more that I could have in the centuries that I've existed. Their early deaths prohibit even the vilest of them from committing a fraction of the treasons and infidelities I carried out. And even their beliefs that life does not end here but begins once again in some heavenly world gives them hope that they might attain something greater than what their current life has afforded them. They have something to strive for, whereas..."

"You've seen it all." Botan completed for him. "Koenma has no intentions of punishing you, Kurama. I think he trusts you more than Yusuke sometimes."

"Kuronue wanted Tsuya." Kurama continued, ignoring her effort to comfort him. "I was later informed that she rejected him and that in itself was almost like an insult to me. He was like a brother and I wouldn't stand for anyone who would spite him like she did, so I convinced him that there was some trinket worth attacking for that was coincidentally located in her village. In the process, we found her home and discovered the reason why she had turned Kuronue away; she already had a family with a human. It was then we decided the only penalty worthy of her was torture and death."

Kurama allowed his hand to run down her hair and slip back onto the bed. He was no longer sure that telling Botan the truth was the right answer as her eyes welled up at his lost memory.

"We murdered her family and destroyed her village. But there... there was a girl who somehow survived. Kuronue took her to me," It happened so long ago, but the guilt was almost too much for Kurama to bear. He didn't need to explain in depth as he was sure Botan knew the ending to the story. Shame burned at his cheeks and he broke their intense stare. "I was truly a monster. My life was not as glorious as many demons believe it to be."

Botan sat up as she heard Shiori's footsteps drawing near. She was unsure what to make of Kurama's confession, but there was a more pressing matter on hand.

"I need to take you back." She brought up once again.

Kurama let out a small laugh at her persistence and gave a defeated nod.

"I'll come for you later tonight." Botan moved quickly to the window and mounted her oar. "Kurama..." The turn of the doorknob forced Botan out before she could speak to him.

--

It was nearly midnight before Shiori reluctantly left her son's room and by that time Botan could see that his condition was not improving whatsoever. She waited for the light in Shiori's room to dim before returning to Kurama's room. He was sitting upright with his back against the headboard of the bed. He was no longer conscious, which made the trip a little more difficult, but she was met by a team of doctors upon her arrival.

Once they had him stabilized, they began searching for the poison, although they could not find the knife used. It was obvious that he had gotten rid of it long before they even realized that the knife could become this much of a problem.

Botan sat in his room, monitoring his state and trying to be optimistic about the whole situation.

"Botan, you need to get some rest." Koenma slipped through the door.

"I know." She replied in a whisper, letting her eyes fall back on the sleeping red-head. "It's just... I can't leave him right now. If I would have..."

"Listen Botan, there were a lot of things going on. Kurama knew exactly what would happen so you need to stop blaming yourself. He's a strong kid; he'll pull through faster than you know it."

"Yes, of course." She wiped away the tears in her eyes. "I'll just be a little longer then I'll help you with your paperwork."

"Alright," Koenma hesitantly left the room. He knew more than he was letting on, but it was something they had to work out on their own.

Botan cleared her throat and shut the door a few minutes after Koenma had left, then walked up to Kurama's bed. He seemed to be in a lot less pain so she busied her hands with re-taping his bandages. She caught herself staring at the resting kitsune, lost in the complexity of his being.

He rarely seemed it, but he was a heavily wounded man on the inside, his heart marred by the savage lifestyle that continued to haunt him no matter how hard he seemed to push it away. Botan understood the significance Kurama's admission of his past had been. Kurama did not discuss too many things with Yusuke or Kuwabara and naturally he would never permit himself to converse such matters with his mother. With that, the only person left was Hiei, and a subject such as this would be almost taboo for the pair. These restrictions had caused him to keep to himself and have little trust in anyone.

Kurama had called himself a monster. She had always thought very highly of Kurama for being the more humane person in the group, though he was not exempt from a couple of slip ups. Therefore the word 'monster' wasn't one of which she would ever use to describe him. But she had attempted to kill him.

"Etsuya." Kurama whispered, still locked inside his sleep.

"Who is Etsuya?" Botan prodded as she readjusted the sheets nervously. Her voice roused him from his sleep which hadn't been deep enough to mask the sound of his proclamation just seconds earlier.

His green eyes glanced up at her while she worked feverishly to smooth out the wrinkles on the sheets beneath him. He forced himself up onto one elbow, giving a frustrated look when his body began to tremble in pain. Botan tried to ease him back down but before she had the chance his other hand swept behind her neck, pulling her in close to him until her lips were pressed clumsily against his. Her startled cry was stifled by their kiss and she immersed herself with concern for him with the awareness of how cold his lips were. She knelt beside him on the bed and carefully leaned over him, forcing him to lie back down. Botan opened her eyes, her breath coming out in slow pants as she pushed his tangled hair away from his face. He was struggling to hide his pain from her, but with determination, he sat up slowly and pressed himself against her so that she was underneath him.

"Kurama," She said calmly. "You need to rest."

He closed the little space that was separating them and placed his bandaged fingers on her lips. He looked into her eyes and brought her into another kiss that wasn't as gentle as the first one had been. It was not as though he was being forceful, but his weight was preventing her from moving away and a familiar sense of fear chilled her to the core.

She tried to turn her face away from him, breaking his contact with her and she pushed her hands at his chest uneasily. Botan avoided his stare and looked at the closed door across the room. She was not numb to the burning tears trailing down her flushed cheeks, nor was the man above her.

"I'm sorry," Botan said sympathetically. "It's just…"

He placed his elbows above her shoulders and traced the path left by her tears with his thumbs. He encouraged her to look at him once more and she was met by a saddened smile on his face. She seen nothing but kindness in the way he looked at her, but his movements, his touches, they were eerily similar those she had experience in that memory. It was not her memory, but it was someone's, someone's who had endured it and whose life had ended shortly after.

"There is a part of me, a part that you seen, that is difficult to amend," He breathed across her neck. "I will try my best to change that because this is my last chance to become the person I want to be."

"Don't." She murmured. He looked up at her. "I don't want you to change. You are exactly who you should be."

Kurama gave a slight nod as she touched the bandage covering his cheek. She leaned up and enveloped him in a kiss. She removed his shirt delicately and sighed quietly as his hands ran over her stomach as if in search of something until he traced the line where her injury had been.

"I don't even remember him doing it." Botan offered. She raised a leg up so that he could rest comfortably on top of her. He placed his head on her chest and listened to the steady pace of her heart. From this position, she could clearly see a ragged scar where she had wounded him. "But you remember…"

"I remember how happy I was to see you alive." Kurama interrupted her. "Happy that I could see you smile again. It is one of my most treasured memories."

Botan struggled to smile as his words left her feeling exposed. He had known the true depths of an evil she had only had a chance to touch on, but he still managed to function as a normal person, he still trusted her and everyone else. She had lost faith in him at the point where he needed her to be at her strongest and had therefore become his biggest liability. Yet here he was, his words full of sincerity and conviction, saying that he was happy to see her once again. Botan's momentary loss of faith had spurred him to say that he needed to change, when in fact it was everyone else around him that needed to learn and adapt the way he had. He really was the perfection everyone else was striving for, and at time it must be hard for him to accept that it was the others lacking behind him.

"I'm happy to see you again too." She admitted, wrapping her arms around him.

Shiori was not deaf to the sound of her son slipping through the front door, though he tried valiantly to sneak in. She lay motionless on the couch, pretending to be asleep. Once again she was put in the position that she could confront her son, but she was too scared. Scared to learn of the horrors he had been through and why he kept going back, all the while not being able to do anything for him.

He sat his bag on the floor and stood still, lost in the silence of the house he had grown up in. She had hardly rearranged a thing since he was young. Perhaps it was an attempt to hold on to him when he was gone; to look at the couch when the light hit it just right and expect him to be there so much that it was almost possible to actually see him. Kurama couldn't be sure, but Shiori definitely wasn't a woman who liked to change the house.

He ventured further into the living room and knelt on the floor in front of her. As if unsure what to do, he went to touch her, but quickly retracted his hand when she opened her eyes. He smiled to cover his surprise that she had almost certainly been awake the entire time he'd been in the house.

"I'm home." Kurama whispered.

She was quite, using the hiatus to observe how much Shuichi had changed since she had seen him last. No marks on his face… hadn't there been one right there? He looked so rested that she couldn't possibly be looking at the same son that she had seen before. Shiori had to be sure and thought about stroking his face to be sure he was actually there, but, if she was wrong and had dreamt it all up, she would only worry him. Her shock must have been apparent on her face as Shuichi leaned closer, wrapping his arms as best he could around her. Numbly, she sat up and accepted his hug then as she realized that Shuichi was alright, she hugged him tighter.

"Mom, I…"

"I'm glad you had a safe trip, Shuichi." Shiori's words were muffled in the collar of his jacket. They were frozen in a moment that threatened to continue for eternity until she let out a deep breath that gave away her sorrow. Her tears soaked through the thin fabric of his jacket, but he wasn't sure how to comfort a woman who had only hours ago seen her son so close to death. "But please tell me," As the words slipped from her mouth, she already wished she hadn't said them. Shiori felt Shuichi stiffen up as her worry became known and felt nervous about the future of their already awkward bond if he chose to answer her.

The seconds dragged on, one after another, each marked by a constant tick from a clock. He struggled to find an answer, struggled to tackle her question from every angle in case she had said something other than what he had heard. He could finally answer her, stop her from wondering why her son had been so strange since the day he was born, or he could throw the question back at her and get more clarification.

"What do you want to know?" Kurama answered with something similar to dread in his voice. He hadn't meant for her to hear that tone, but this definitely was not a discussion he was prepared for. He had given it some thought before, letting the one person who deserved the most to hear his secret, yet it just seemed safer to keep her unaware of his double life.

His mother was motionless, her face hidden in the fabric on his shoulder. Would he actually be willing to share his world with her? It was always a possibility, but she had always been too timid to ask him.

"Will you," Shiori wiped the tears from her face and gave a smile that presented more bravery than she actually possessed. The reasons he kept his life so secret were his own, and even her responsibility as a mother didn't seem like enough to intrude on that. "Just come home to me."

"Of course," He answered without hesitating. Etsuya was right; one day there would be a battle too great for him to overcome. That was the path he was destined for, his way of repenting for the horrors of his past was to prevent others from gaining the ability to cause the same destruction he had.

The only assurance he had these days was that there were people depending on him to return with his life, people who would be devastated if he should fail. That was a far stronger motivator than he had ever known in his years as Youko Kurama.

END


Sorry it took so long to get this out. I had plans to finish writing it during winter break, but I hadn't seen my family in four months, so I kind of let this story get pushed off. Then I was going to finish it when I got back for my second semester of college… but my classes turned out to be harder than last semester. And Spring Break… well, I didn't get much of anything done then. But here it is: the final (for real) chapter of this story. I tried to make it worth your time, I'm sorry if it didn't reach everyone's expectations. There is only so much more I could jam into this fic before I write it into the ground.

I really appreciate all your support and putting up with my procrastination. Thanks for the reviews, it's been great.