Okay…I decided my one story was getting a tad lonely, so I took some time out to write this one-shot that's been nagging me for quite some time. I will resume with "…Nightmare" once my brain gets unstuck and remembers exactly how it wanted to say things.

I also have a YYHxYGO cross-over in the works way down the road.

Thanks to ButteredOnions for being my ever loyal, ever nitpicky and ever "what the hell were you thinking here?" beta reader. She really helps catch those "ohmygod, I can't believe I lost both copies of the whole document again and have to re-type all 11 pages of this thing at midnight" typos. And "its" vs. "it's"--you simply cannot believe how many times I get it wrong, despite graduating with an English degree.

Between her computer problems and my computer problems, it's amazing this thing even got posted.


A gust of wind blasted from behind, whipping his hair about his face as the ground swiftly fell away from his feet. He watched with mild amusement as the city shrunk before his eyes, first transforming into a moving model town…then a road map…an ant farm…dissolving into a patchwork of greens, ambers, browns, grays and blues…and finally disappearing behind a white, cottony cloud bank as they continued their ascent.

The wind kicked up again, snapping his silvery hair against his cheeks, stinging his skin with dozen of tiny lashes.

Silver hair? That didn't seem…right…for some reason. Shouldn't his hair be…red?

Kurama turned his face into the wind, only to be smacked by a bright blue ponytail blown by the blustery breeze.


The Spirit World ferry girl glanced back, her large amethyst eyes sad…apologetic. "We'll be there in a minute." She forced a weak smile. "Hang on."

What? How? He had no time to ask, however, as the oar suddenly dipped into its final descent, sending his stomach lurching into his throat for more than one reason.

Moments later, the two companions padded down the expansive hallway leading to Koenma's office. Usually bustling with activity, the hall was eerily empty, causing their footsteps to reverberate off the high, polished marble with grim finality.

Neither spoke. Botan--normally a bubbly fountain of babble--remained quiet, occasionally looking over her shoulder to ensure that her reticent companion was still behind her. She wanted to offer some form of cheer…consolation…something…to her confused and trouble charge--no, friend. But, for the first time, she was at a loss for words. It was probably best to leave Kurama to his own thoughts--whatever they were--for the time being, anyway.

Kurama walked a few paces behind, numbly staring at his feet. They mechanically fell one in front of the other, carrying him down the hall out of habit. He had walked this path dozens--maybe even hundreds--of times, yet he had never felt the trepidation he felt now.

"We're here."

They paused in front of the looking doors leading to Koenma's office. Beyond them, the junior demi-god sat behind his desk, no doubt, waiting to pass judgement. Panic fleeted across Kurama's mind. This was really it. Nowhere to run. No escape. No more chances. Time to face his reckoning, to answer for the actions of his life. It hadn't been long enough. Shiori…what would happen to his mother now? He felt his lip trembling slightly at this last thought and bit down on it to calm his nerves.

A soft hand fell on his shoulder. Kurama turned to see Botan smiling gently at him. "Koenma's waiting." Kurama nodded his assent.

"Yes…he's hardly the patient type…isn't he?" he feebly joked, trying desperately to mask his apprehension.

"That's an understatement, to say the least." Botan's small laugh twinkled off the walls, alleviating some of his anxiety. He inhaled deeply and put his hand on the door, feeling its oppressive, solid weight beneath his palm, seeping into his soul.



Kurama swallowed hard as a knot tightened in his throat. "Wait for me?"

"Of course, Kurama."

He pushed open the door and entered Koenma's office.

"Well, it's about time!" Koenma snapped, glancing up from the file he was reading. "What'd you do, Botan, take the scenic route!" he shouted past Kurama's shoulder as the doors glided soundlessly shut behind him. Kurama involuntarily took an uneasy half step backwards, his back connecting with the unyielding, closed doors.

Koenma turned his eyes on Kurama for a moment, before returning his attention to the file in his hand. Oddly enough, only a neatly packed file sat on his desk, rather than the hundreds of sloppy pages that usually cluttered it.

"Kurama, come in." The order was even and calm, lacking in Koenma's usual histrionics and affectation s of importance. It sounded almost…gentle…coming from him. But closer inspection of the demi-god behind the desk conveyed an entirely different meaning. Despite his toddler form--a form for which Yusuke kidded him mercilessly--Koenma's cool dispassion radiated the gravity of the situation. Stripped of all pretense, Kurama finally felt the immense power Koenma wielded, and, for the first time, it intimidated him. He hedged forward a few steps.


"I'd rather stand, thank you." His attempt to mask his apprehension made that sound a little more brusque than he had intended. Kurama crossed his arms, defensively, mentally noting that there wasn't an actual chair in which he could sit.

Koenma didn't even look up from his file. "I wasn't asking." A leather, straight-backed chair materialized out of thin air behind Kurama, scooting forward and knocking him in the back of the knees. He attempted to sit gracefully as his knees buckled and dropped him in the seat. Kurama gripped the armrests, resisting the urge to sink his claws into and nervously pick at the supple leather. His tail twitched neurotically, betraying his feelings. He scowled, miffed that he had lost so much control of the appendage over such a short period of time in a human body.

After a few tense moments--mere seconds which felt like an eternity to Kurama--Koenma closed the file and set it down on his desk. He looked up, his steady gaze meeting Kurama's for the first time since his arrival. "You know why you're here." It was more a statement of fact than a question.

"I'm dead."

"I would have expected you, of all people, to put it a bit more eloquently than that, but basically…yes."

Kurama felt his heart sink into his stomach. Somehow hearing it made it seem more real…and more inescapable. "I don't remember."

"Remember what?"

"How it happened."

"Hmmm…interesting…" Koenma flipped open the file again. Kurama waited for Koenma to explain his death. Silence. Apparently, no answer was forthcoming. "So now what?"

"I've been reviewing your file, Kurama. Yoko Kurama. Minamino Shuichi."

Kurama glanced at the file in Koenma's hands. "It's a large file. Has it been that long?"

He could have sworn Koenma smirked--it was hard to tell with the pacifier in his mouth. "As you humans say, time is relative. Actually, time is an illusion physical beings impose on their reality to create some sense of order for themselves. But I'm not here to discuss time/space relativity with you. And this is not your file. That--" he pointed to a substantial stack of files and paperwork heaped into a full corner of the office, "is your file. This is merely your contract."


"With your oversoul."


"Don't tell me you are unfamiliar with the concept of your oversoul." His voice contained a hint of impatience.

"No, I'm familiar with it. Minamino Shuichi was well-read." Kurama felt a slight twinge of regret, having referred to himself in the past tense. And third person, no less. "My studies touched upon theology and metaphysics," he corrected himself. "The oversoul is the part of your soul that remains rooted in the spiritual plane while the rest of your soul lives your incarnated life on the physical plane." He was painfully aware of the fact that he suddenly felt like a child reporting rote learning back to a schoolteacher.

"Yes…basically, that's it. But it's not quite the one to one ratio you described."


"Think of the relationship as…well…hmmm…as a grapevine. The vine itself is the oversoul, and from it, the tendrils expand into your different lives. And those lives branch out, giving rise to different incarnations of 'you,' which are the clusters of grapes. Each grape, of course, being a separate life. Some even going on simultaneously in what you refer to as the 'same time.' Each an individual, separate life, yet at the same time, all interconnected. All nourishing and feeding your oversoul with your experience, much the same way photosynthesis sustains a plant. And all receiving the guidance and direction that you need to blossom and grown from your oversoul and the vast library of experience of your incarnations and past lives."

Kurama arched an eyebrow. "I'm a grape?"

"Darn it, Kurama!" Koenma sputtered, "I'm serious here. It all sounded more eloquent when I was devising the analogy, than it did when I was explaining it. I'm trying to explain a very complex concept in terms you'll understand. Now pay attention--I have a point to all of this."

"I'm a grape," Kurama goaded. "And apparently a stupid one."

Koenma didn't bite this time. "Well, at least your dry sense of humor is still in tact. And in this analogy, yes, you are a grape, if you must be so flippant about it. From grapes, some wonderful things have been created--jam, juice, wine…even the leaves go into some tasty culinary dishes. But, more importantly, do you know what many grapes contain?"

"Seeds." Kurama scowled. It was a stupid question to ask of someone as learned in botany as he was, but, he had to admit, he was curious to see where Koenma was taking this analogy, and he wasn't sure he was following it.

"Seeds," Koenma repeated. "Seeds which can give rise to a new plant. You see, sometimes the end result of an oversoul's effort is a 'product'--memories, experiences, a life which enriches the oversoul and all of creation. Because when you create something, you set it free, it lives on and it contributes to the universe. But that doesn't always mean it will 'create' as well. Sometimes, however, the fruition of an oversoul is a seed--a completely different entity which will become a new vine. One which will create in new ways. Do you follow?"

"Minamino Shuichi…" Kurama mumbled.

"Exactly. Usually, this sort of thing doesn't happen within the same lifetime--the grape dies, the seed falls, and a new life--a new soul--is born later, once it can take root. Do you see my dilemma?"

"I think…you're not sure how to judge me."

"Yes…something like that, but it's complicated. Do I judge you as Yoko Kurama? Or do I judge you as Minamino Shuichi? Or both? There's a duality there--you are one and the same souls, yet two very different souls at the same time."

Kurama shifted uncomfortably. Admittedly, he had never really thought about the nature of his soul. Only that it was his. There had to be an answer somewhere in all of that paperwork. "What about my contract?"

"Your contract? What about it?"

"Well…if that's the contract with my oversoul, than it stands to reason that it spells out my path in life. What does the contract say about the final status of my soul?"

"Ah…well…it doesn't." Koenma shrugged. "You see, your contract with your oversoul doesn't dictate your final judgement--that's my job. Your contract spells out things such as the talents you take with you into the physical world, the 'karmic burden' you willingly carry from your other lives, the 'life's lessons' you should learn, the experiences you will have along your life's journey. How you react to those experiences and use them to shape your life is up to you."

"Free will." Kurama stated bluntly. "I see…"

"No, you don't. Life is not as black and white as pre-destination vs. free-will. It's a little of both."

A thoughtful silence passed between them. Finally, Koenma spoke: "Life is a highway--"

"Isn't that an American rock song?"

"It's an analogy."

"Another one?" Kurama barely suppressed rolling his eyes.

Koenma glared pointedly at him. "Humor me."

Kurama crossed his arms. "Fine." He didn't mind stalling. Truth be told, he wasn't looking forward to the final outcome of this meeting. The longer he sat there, the heavier the sins of his life--particularly those of Yoko Kurama--weighed on his mind, and the more apprehensive he became. A cold sweat broke out across his palms, which he concealed within the folds of his arms.

"Your life--your contract--is like a freeway. You have a particular destination in mind--a purpose in life--but how you get there, and whether or not you actually do, is up to you. There are distractions along the way--accidents, bad weather, road construction. These are life's lessons…experience. Larger lessons, more life-defining experiences, are like interchanges. Sometimes they simply provide a change of scenery and a fresh perspective for you to take with you when you get back on the highway. Sometimes they alter your life's path and change your destination. Your contract with your oversoul is your roadmap--you researched the side streets, scheduled a few rest stops, decided upon which interchanges to take. On a subconscious level, you planned out the trip beforehand. But getting there is the real adventure." He paused for a moment to see if this analogy made sense to Kurama. Since Kurama wasn't voicing any questions, he was satisfied that it had and continued. "Then, of course, there are the exit ramps."

"Exit ramps?"

Finally, a question…at least he was paying attention. "The points in your life where your oversoul offers you a chance to permanently end your journey. It is a crossroads you may reach several times in your life, and the decision to stop or move forward is in your hands."

"It sounds a lot like suicide…why would you decide to stop?"

"Haven't you ever been stuck in gridlock so bad that you wished you could get off the road?"

"I don't drive," Kurama wryly noted.

Koenma harrumphed. "Anyway, it's a choice you make on a subconscious level when you and your oversoul feel that you are 'stuck'--there's nothing more to learn, the journey is not worth it, the burden too great to bear, you want to take an entirely different trip. You've had a lot of exit ramps in your lifetime, Kurama."

"And I obviously decided to stay on," he challenged, feeling vaguely uncomfortable with the notion that this was his fault and had been his choice. "So why is it different this time?" he demanded, unleashing his anxious frustration.

"Because, at some point, the road always ends. There is nowhere else to go and nothing more to learn from this life's experiences. You return to the spiritual plane, accept your judgement to tie up loose ends, digest what you've learned and how you've grown, and you move on to a new phase of your life." Koenma's voice was cool and calming in a parental--not patronizing--way. "It is the unfortunate nature of life on the physical plane that you are all born to die. The body is just not able to go on forever."

"But Shuichi was so young…" Kurama felt control of his emotions slipping from his grasp as he plead for a life he suddenly deeply missed. He didn't care about grapes, contracts, roads, lessons, salvation or damnation…he just wanted to go back. He wasn't ready.

"Yes…yes he was."

"Then why?"

"Because your road ended long ago."

Kurama collapsed back against his seat, feeling like he had been punched in the stomach. "What?"

"300 years is a long time, Kurama. Even for a demon. Your road ended the day that bounty hunter caught up with you."

A new kind of panic swept over Kurama. His greatest sin of all…and it filled him with sorrow…self-loathing. The sin that surely damned him. "And Minamino Shuichi's contract? His life?"

"It's interesting you should mention that." Koenma reached into the file and extracted a smaller, powder-blue file folder. He handed it across the desk to Kurama, who received it with trembling hands. "Open it."

"…it's empty…"

"This is rather…um…embarrassing," Koenma tugged nervously on his collar and cleared his throat, "but I believe you would refer to this as a 'clerical error.'"

Kurama fingered the empty file affectionately. "A clerical error? I don't understand…"

"We hadn't actually contracted with an oversoul to provide a soul for Minamino Shuichi's body."

"You forgot!"

"Well…no…not exactly…actually…yes." Koenma hung his head.

"You're saying Shuichi would have been born without a soul? But doesn't that mean--"

"--he would have died. Technically, he would have entered the world stillborn. Or Shiori would have miscarried."

Kurama's thoughts drifted to his mother, and his heart ached to see her again.

"You see, Kurama, just as a soul cannot survive in the physical world without a body or a ghost, a body cannot survive without a soul. The two must combine to produce a life. There are exceptions, of course--people in vegetative states, comas, autistics, Alzheimer's patients…their souls are still tenuously connected to their bodies, though the soul flits back and forth between the physical and spiritual planes. Returning to the physical realm is a lot like putting on cold, wet clothing, and they tend to gravitate towards the spiritual. As the soul spends more and more time in the spiritual realm, it releases its grasp on the body, which fails and dies unless it is kept alive by unnatural means."

"So Shuichi was destined to die."

"That wasn't my intention, of course. I wanted him to live. Knowing your father's untimely death was approaching, I knew the loss of both child and husband would be a great burden for Shiori to bear…maybe too great…"

"You're not saying…"

"I'm simply saying that the exit clause existed. Whether she would have taken it or not would have been her decision." Koenma paused, allowing Kurama to digest this information. "I knew 'time' was running out--the synchronicity that exists to link a soul to a body is a very brief window, unique to each individual. I knew Shuichi's time was almost up."

"So what happened?"

Koenma smiled, and again , Kurama glimpsed at the vast wisdom behind his toddler act. "You came along."

"You knew?"

"Of course I did. It was easier for me to reach your oversoul than it was to contract another. So we 'talked' and an addendum was written into your contract."

"And I took it…" Kurama felt numb emptiness growing inside of him. "I didn't escape…you let me escape." How stupid he had been all this time to think that the clever fox had cheated death.

"Don't feel bad, Kurama," Koenma soothed as if he could read his thoughts. "You've always been a survivor--a reveler of life. It's why you're able to manipulate life--your plants--so well. I gambled on the fact that you would take this new chance at life and somehow be able to manipulate it and make it work."

"I replaced him…"

"No…you became him."

Kurama blinked in confusion. "There's a difference?"

"A demon soul is not designed to go into a human body. Nor is a human body equipped to handle the spirit energy of a demon soul. Even in possessions, the human soul must remain intact for the body to survive, and the demon soul remains somewhat detached. You could not simply possess a human body."

"Then how?"

"Your soul was so weak--so badly damaged--and the human body so susceptible that you were able to merge. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure it would work, but I was willing to take the risk."

"But it did work." He wasn't sure how he felt about all of this.

"Surprisingly, yes. Though your chances of survival were still pretty low. Even if you survived your first few months, I was certain the strain of growth--particularly during early puberty--would kill you. Obviously, I was wrong.

A demon soul integrating into a human body, in theory, should not work this well without dire--often fatal--consequences. They are essentially incompatible. One will eventually destroy the other."

"What happened?"

Koenma stroked his chin thoughtfully. "The will to live. It was so strong--both body and soul wanted to survive so badly--that they compromised, changing and conforming their fundamental nature to force compatibility. You yourself have witnessed this. Your ability while in human form to manipulate your spirit energy, control plants, create weapons and use your demon senses should not be possible. But it is. But more extraordinary than that is your heart…"

"My heart?" He could feel his chest tightening as he uttered those words, as if Koenma was actually reaching into his chest and grabbing his heart.

"Not the organ…think about it…"

"My human heart…"

"Exactly." The tension eased slightly. "Your compassion, your ability to love, even your thought processes and rationale are no longer strictly demonic in nature, nor are they fully human either. And, in the end, it is your heart, more than anything, that is weighed and judged.

Which brings me back to my original question: How do I judge you?"

Kurama's head began to spin and he felt vaguely nauseated. "Why are you asking me this? You should know." The feeling suddenly intensified tenfold.

"You should know," Koenma shot back, causing a slight stab of pain to reverberate through Kurama's head. "Look into your heart, Kurama. What do you see? What are you?"

Tottering to his feet, Kurama stumbled back away from the chair. The dizziness and the confusion were blinding. He could no longer see the junior god behind the desk.

"What are you?" Koenma's words echoed again, seeming to come from all around him, yet from within him at the same time.

"I…I don't know…" Kurama stammered.

Koenma wasn't letting him off that easily. "Then who are you? Think!" he challenged.

"I…" Disorientation continued, dragging him under. He closed his eyes against a flood of bewilderment, feeling as if he were sinking to the bottom of the ocean. "I…I'm…" A flash of insight hit him like a wave, washing over him with calming certainty. "I'm Kurama."

"Yoko Kurama?" Koenma's disembodied voice accused.

The rhythm of the waves continued to ebb over him, each one bringing greater clarity and carrying him closer to the shore. "No…not Yoko…not Shuichi…yet both…just…Kurama."

Warmth enveloped him, like hands gently grabbing him and pulling him into a loving embrace. He allowed himself to melt into it.

"Very well then."

Kurama's eyes snapped open. He was standing directly in front of Koenma's desk. The chair was gone. He shook off the last vestiges of dizziness, noting with annoyance that his hair never stayed in place as the red locks tumbled across his eyes. Red locks…he was in his human form again…

Koenma pulled out another small folder from Kurama's file--this one, a small silvery light pink. The paper was so delicate, it was almost transparent, like vellum. From it, he extracted a sheet of high quality parchment fully written out in some of the most exquisite calligraphy Kurama had ever seen.

"What's that?"

"Kurama…you have been judged." Koenma's stamp landed on the fine parchment with a heavy thud, the sound banging through the entire room like a judge's gavel. Kurama felt as if his heart shattered with that sound.

"But…it's already written out…"

"Yes, I know." Koenma blew on the fresh ink and rolled the parchment up into a tidy little scroll.

"You already knew?" he uttered in disbelief.

"Of course." Koenma thrust the scroll across the desk at him. "It's that whole omnipotence thing. You don't hold the kind of power I possess by being a dumbass, you know."

"I've noticed," Kurama mumbled numbly.

"Yes…I knew you would." Koenma waved the scroll. "Take it."

With shaking hands, Kurama closed his fingers around the scroll and pulled it from Koenma's grasp. "But…if you already knew…then why?"

"Because I want you to understand why."

"To understand why I have been judged the way I have?"


"You've known all along…"

"I have."

"And I needed to learn…?"


"I understand."

"No, you don't yet. But you will. Good luck, Kurama."

Botan leapt to her feet as Kurama re-entered the hallway and closed the doors behind him. "Well?" she asked, practically launching herself at the young man.

"I don't know," Kurama shrugged. He sheepishly produced the scroll, his fist clenching slightly and crumpling the parchment. "I haven't looked."

"Well, you're in your human form," Botan stepped forward and brushed Kurama's hair out of his eyes. "That must mean something."

"I suppose so," he mumbled.

"Do you…do you want me to read it for you?" she offered tenderly.

Kurama nodded, holding out the scroll in his slightly trembling hand. "Please." The color rose to his cheeks.

"Its okay to be nervous," Botan reassured as she gently pried the scroll out from under his fingers. "I'd be nervous, too, if I were you." She gasped. "Um…what I mean is…it's perfectly normal to be nervous. I wasn't implying that you should have any reason to be nervous…even though you should…but not because of you…it's rather…oh my…"

Kurama chucked, a slight smile playing across his lips. It was the first time he had smiled since his arrival. "It's ok, I understand what you meant."

Botan returned the grin and unfurled the scroll. A quick glance told her everything she needed to know. "Oh." She rolled it back up and handed it back to Kurama. "Follow me," she commanded, her voice betraying no emotion.

In the blink of an eye they were standing in the middle of an intersection. Kurama glanced around--where did the hallway go? He didn't remember getting here. Paths of different shapes and sizes stretched out in every direction. Paved, cobblestone, steel, dirt, plastic…up, down, diagonally, left right… They intersected, criss-crossed, overlapped, merged. It looked like a giant freeway interchange. Below them, clouds puffed merrily along, giving no indication of the ground beneath (if there was ground beneath.) Above them, the sky burst to life in a brilliant sunset--vibrant hues of pink, orange and lavender, occasionally dotted with slightly darker, fluffy cloud. The soft breeze ruffled his hair and he felt a twinge of nostalgia. Could this be the last sunset he would ever see?

"This way," Botan beckoned, dropping down to a path on the lower left. White, interlocking slated paved the way into eternity, with no end to the trail in sight.

"This will be faster." She snapped her hand in the air and her oar materialized. "All aboard!" She winked, twirling it around and mounting it.

Backing away a few steps, Kurama stalled. "I…"I'd rather walk, if that's ok."

"Oh, c'mon. My driving's not that bad," she chided. Seeing that he was in no mood for joking around, she quickly dispensed with the oar. "Ok…if that's what you want. This way." She started down the path. Kurama followed.

A few meters passed in silence--Botan leading--before Kurama sidled up next to her. He took her hand in his, lacing his fingers through hers. She stopped. "Oh, Kurama," she sighed, "It'll be ok. Really."


"Don't be." She started forward again, holding his hand. "It's ok to be nervous. Actually, you're one of my better charges. Sometimes I have to drag them along, practically kicking and screaming the whole way. Even when they're going to heaven." She chuckled. "I bet Yusuke will be like that--when he's not shouting insults at me."

Kurama smirked. "And Hiei."

"He'll be worse. I'll just have to beat him over the head with my oar a few times." Both friends laughed, the sound echoing before dissipating into the serene stillness that surrounded them.

The walked again in silence, Kurama falling into a pensive mood once more.

"It wasn't long enough."

"It never is. Even after 300 years." She playfully nudged him.

"There were still things I needed to do. People I needed to see…"

"Most leave behind unfinished business…"

"My human mother--"

"--will be fine. I promise."

Kurama turned and studied Botan. Her lavender eyes sparkled with sincerity. He smiled. "I believe you. Thank you."

Heat radiated to his left, warming his cheek. Kurama turned, looking for the source. The path they were on diverged, turning black and ominous to the left. Oppressive spirit energy radiated from it, pressing upon Kurama as if a hand had reached into his chest and began throttling the life from him--squeezing the blood from his heart and the very essence from his soul. His heart skipped a few beats, intensifying the sensation. As his eyes spied the gateway at the end of the path--looming, menacing black steel back-lit by a blood-red glow--his knees buckled slightly. But he remained standing by sheer will. He inched his foot onto the path, the brittle stones cracking under his weight and sending shivers up his spine. Untold horrors lurked beyond that door--Karasu was one of the first to pop in his mind--each prospective scenario worse than the one before it, intensifying his dread until he was almost paralyzed with fear. His foot continued to inch forward of its own volition, as if the gateway were taking control and magnetically drawing him against his will.

A gentle tug on his hand snapped his attention away from the dark path. "No…this way…" Botan coaxed, pulling him towards the light again. They seemed almost to glide as Botan led him away from the darkness. Within moments, the two of them stood in front of another door, this one an elegant, solid maple door, like the kind seen in an office boardroom. A brushed steel pull handle gracefully arched out from the top of the door, extending all the way to the floor. Two planters stood on either side of the door, teeming with fresh spring blooms and overflowing with lush greenery.

Kurama placed his free hand on the smooth wood. "This is it?"

"This is it," Botan confirmed, squeezing his hand reassuringly.

"I see." His hand slid along the cool surface and grasped the slender handle. "This is the end." With a quick jerk, he pulled the door open.

The path ended abruptly, dropping off into nothingness. A furious wind kicked up around them, whipping their hair and clothes into a frenzy. "Go!" Botan encouraged, shouting to be heard above the roar.

"Wait! One more thing," Kurama tightened his grip on her hand as he tried to resist the vortex's pull. He leaned in and his lips brushed against her cheek in a gentle, chaste kiss. When he pulled away, he could see her eyes beginning to well with tears. "Botan, thank you."

She nodded, loosening her grasp. "Kurama, let go."

He did. And he fell.

Wind battered him from every direction as he tumbled head over heels through the storm. The pressure was so intense, he found himself unable to breathe normally. His mind fought the air forcibly pushing itself into his lungs, and it struggled to regulate his own breathing. It was not unlike the sensation of drowning, but without the danger of oxygen deprivation. Drowning on air. Drowning. It hurt. How did he know that? This hurt.

Kurama attempted to scream, but produced no sound. Whether it was because he lost his voice or the wind strangled his cry, he could not tell. The only sounds audible to him were the rushing air and the frantic beating of his own heart. He felt them more than actually heard them. His eardrums painfully reverberated with the noise while it amplified and echoed inside his head.

Brilliant light pierced his eyes, growing brighter with each passing moment. Kurama shut his eyes tightly as they began to water and burn with the intensity. Even with his eyes closed, the light continued to assault them, seeming to burn through the flesh.

He did not have long to dwell on it, though, as a new burning sensation overtook the pain in his eyes. It felt as if fire erupted in his lungs, shooting flames up his throat. He wondered if this was his judgement--to be burned off, piece by piece, until only his soul was left blazing for eternity. Kurama gasped as the fire shot through him again, feeling like someone was dragging a hot coal out of his lungs and through his throat. Cool air quickly flooded his lungs, which simultaneously irritated and quelled the raw pain. He greedily sucked in more air. The agonizing stinging sensation abated slightly. More importantly, though, he noted that the wind had died down slightly and he was able to breathe on his own.

Then it was over. No falling. No roaring wind. No pain. No burning eyes. No fiery lungs. Not even his life flashing before him, as he would have expected. Only darkness. Silence. Silence broken by a soft, gentle voice that called to him…

"Shuichi…please open your eyes…"

Sensation crept over him slowly like a cat stalking a mouse. Everything ached…felt so…heavy…

"Shuichi, please open your eyes…" the voice begged again. "Wake up." Soft fingers stroked his cheek.

He tried so hard, but his eyelids would not budge. It felt as if lead weights had been placed over them. The strong, pungent smell of alcohol…disinfectant…starchy sheets…sterility…assailed his nose. Intimately familiar with the smell from his mother's protracted illness, he quickly identified the haunting stench of a hospital room. A hospital? It seemed like an odd place to spend eternity. A low groan escaped from his lips, followed by a dry, hacking cough. His lungs burned furiously from the force. He gasped in pain.

"Shhhh…" Smooth glass was pressed against his dry, nearly cracked lips. His mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton. The cool liquid flooded into his mouth, and he gulped it greedily, relishing the icy path it traced down his parched throat. He sputtered as his eagerness to consume the refreshing water overtook his ability to actually swallow it, and the glass was taken away. "Easy…easy…"

Finally, his eyes obeyed and fluttered open. The room was dim. His focus was fuzzy, but he instantly recognized the face looming over him. Her kind eyes were all he needed to see to lift the haze clouding his senses. "Mom?" His voice sounded unnaturally hoarse.

Tears flooded her eyes. "Oh sweetie," she broke down crying, clutching him and slathering his face with kisses, "you had me so worried."

"What happened…?"

"You drowned. Don't you remember? You were in the park with your friends this morning and a young boy was drowning in the lake. You went in after him but…" her voice choked with emotion, "but he dragged you under."

"Did he…?"

"He's fine." His mother continued to sob. "I was so scared. I thought I'd lost you."

Kurama could feel the tears welling up in his eyes as well. "I'm so sorry…"

"Don't." She wiped his eyes, then hers. "I'm just happy you're safe." She kissed his forehead again. "I should call your friends. Urameshi and a few others stopped by about an hour ago when the doctors pulled the breathing tube. They'll want to know you're awake. Besides, I shouldn't keep you up. You need to rest." She moved to leave.

Kurama grabbed his mother's hand. "Stay," he yawned, "just until I fall asleep…" Exhaustion was beginning to descend upon him like a thick, warm winter blanket.

She nodded, pulling her chair closer and leaning her head against his shoulder. For the first time, Kurama could look beyond her and see the window.

The sun was setting. So…he would see another sunset after all--hopefully many more. He had gotten another chance. A chance for the seed to take root…

Vibrant pink exploded across the sky…

Brilliant orange…

Fluffy yellowish clouds…

A twinkle of amethyst eyes…

A flash of a bright blue ponytail…

And a girly, giggly peal of laughter carried on the wind and carrying him off to sleep.

Well…there you have it. I always appreciate reviews. Remember if you pose a question you actually want me to answer, please email me.

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