He woke, his pulse hammering in his ears and his breath catching. It was going to happen like he had dreamed, and there was nothing he could do.
It was coming.
"Are you going to go to sleep at all tonight?"
Kuwabara shook his head and wandered restlessly to the window, ignoring the clock that showed half past three in the morning. "No, probably not."
"Why not?" Yukina asked curiously. "It's a weekday."
"Someone's coming," Kuwabara explained softly to the windowsill and the storm beyond, then looked over his shoulder. "You don't have to wait here with me."
Yukina considered her options, then tactfully said, "I think that I will make some coffee," and drifted from the room.
Kuwabara smiled at her retreating form, then lost himself in thought again. Yukina had rarely gone out in public in the human world when they were younger, but was now even more of a recluse as she found that she didn't age like a mortal. They were both nearly thirty years older than when they had met, and while Kuwabara showed it with the grace of one who has an excellent grasp on his reiki, Yukina didn't show it at all, save for a slight darkening in her eyes.
Forcing himself to think of other things than Yukina, he returned to the uneasy feeling that had haunted him all through the day. Twice he had rung up his sister to discuss it, and he had left a message for Yusuke once, though that one had yet to call back. The feeling was worrying him, wearing him out, but he couldn't sleep. It had intensified so drastically in the past hour or so that sleep was not an option.
Yukina poked her head back into the room. "I'll be reading in the far room if you'd like to find me," she offered, and retreated into the gloom. Kuwabara sighed and flicked the television on, then went to examine the status of the coffee.
Outside, footsteps splashed heedlessly through puddles all the way up the drive and cleared the steps in one jump. The runner stumbled to a halt, took a deep breath, then bent to examine the prominently placed lock. A smile slowly formed under dripping hair, followed by a whispered "Why doesn't anyone ever consult me over the matter of locks?" A hairpin clattered to the boards of the porch, unable to keep its hold on wet hair. The visitor eyed it thoughtfully before picking it up, snapping it in half, and going to work.
Kuwabara was gazing unhappily at the meager amount of liquid sitting in the carafe when he heard the squeak of a hinge and a hastily bitten off mutter from the front door. Coffee forgotten, he skidded out into the foyer, where his blood promptly ran cold with shock. "Kurama," he said in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"I need some assistance," said Kurama slowly, passing one hand over his mouth before tucking the broken halves of a hairpin back behind one ear. "I'd hoped that I wouldn't have needed to wake you unnecessarily. The only reason I came in was that it's practically hailing out."
"The telephone just wouldn't do?" Kuwabara asked.
Kurama's eyes darkened. "No. It wouldn't."
Kuwabara considered pushing the matter, but decided that doing so would be a bad way for him to get caffeine in short order. "There's coffee brewing. You should probably have some," he advised, as Kurama was white and shaking in addition to dripping all over the floor. He closed the door on the storm outside and set off for the kitchen without an explanation, though it had been some time since he'd seen Kurama for more than five minutes and the old familiarity felt stilted and unreal.
Kurama scrambled out of his shoes and followed him, not to be dissuaded. "I need help. Please. I need to go somewhere far away, where no one can find me. My family, my friends, spirit world, nothing. I need to disappear. Since you and Yukina moved out here, a lot of people lost your contact information."
"That was deliberate," Kuwabara said, glaring at the coffee. The only thing keeping him from giving it a bit of an aura stab was the memory of the last time he had tried such a thing. They'd been discovering bits of glass for weeks, and in the most baffling of places.
"I know. You gave me your address, but I memorized it and 'lost' the paper. My family won't be able to reach you. They've probably forgotten who you are," Kurama continued. "Will you help me? I need you to do just one thing for me. It's very simple and very small, but it's quite important to me. Please, I'll return the favour any way I can."
It occurred to Kuwabara that giving caffeine to Kurama in this state might be a bad idea. "Kurama, what is wrong?" he finally managed.
Kurama took a break from trying to rub some warmth back into his fingers to turn the light on and flick his sopping hair out of his face. "You can't say you haven't noticed," he added. "It's been twenty-eight years, twenty-nine? You've seen me enough to have figured out that something is wrong. Look at me."
Kuwabara looked, and saw a boy who seemed no older than seventeen looking at him, shivering slightly. "I noticed, but it didn't occur to me that it mattered," he said diffidently. "Why? Does it matter now?"
Kurama's eyes darkened. "If it didn't matter, I wouldn't have run to your house – which happens to be halfway across Japan – in the middle of the night during a rainstorm."
Kuwabara had to admit that perhaps Kurama had a point there.
"My family looks at me in fear," Kurama spat, and began to pace around the kitchen table. "My friends don't talk to me anymore. I've gotten to the point where each time one of them questions it, I erase their memories of me. I keep re-inventing my age to match when I meet new people and I can't get along very well in the human world."
"That's insane," Kuwabara said. He had trouble enough remembering dates as it was. He couldn't imagine the chaos that would ensue if he had to change them all every few years or so. "Have you ever considered saying that you get lots of plastic surgery?"
Kurama smiled. "I've got more lies flying around about me than most humans dream up in their lives."
For some reason, that comment made Kuwabara's blood run briefly cold yet again. "You seem to know a lot about lies."
"There's no 'seem' about it," Kurama said easily. "Though I do so like how malleable the human mind can be, it's somewhat sickening, how easily I can change things. I just...I think that this fuss over aging is ridiculous. This is a normal age to look as a demon. You've seen demons. We tend to level off after we hit a certain point in growth, and then that's about it. This is right where I should be. My demon aura stops my growth and just maintains me, because decay is dangerous." Kurama smiled faintly at nothing. "I suppose we all die young, in a way."
Kuwabara looked at his hands, his wrists. He was constantly plagued with arthritis, and had to clear up the blockages of reiki in those limbs every day. Kurama's words had stung, and the dull ache flared in response. "They fear you because you remind them of their mortality. Humans decay and then die, Minamino Shuuichi," he said. "You tempt them with something which they can't have."
It occurred to Kurama that he must have said something unkind, and he stammered into amends. "Oh. I. Um. Kuwabara. I'm sorry. I. Er. I shouldn't have come. I mean. You have a job and all. And a life. And. Um. And. I'm sorry," Kurama repeated, struggling for the words but unable to understand what kind of pain he had inflicted. "I don't know – I don't understand why they hate me," he added softly. "I...if you'd prefer, I can go."
"Stop wibbling and sit down," Kuwabara said, pushing Kurama into a chair and draping a hand towel over his head unceremoniously. "I'm calling Urameshi. If the coffee finishes, drink it. You're so wired I think you'll go through the roof, but you're also freezing, so I'll risk it."
"Wait!" Kurama threw out one hand, then paused. "I..."
Already standing in the doorway, Kuwabara parroted, "You...?"
"You don't have to call Yusuke," Kurama said hurriedly. "This really doesn't have to be something complicated. It will take five minutes at the most."
Kuwabara turned back around. "I go with my instincts on these matters. Respect my instincts, because they're getting you coffee in short order." He eyed Kurama bouncing in the chair, then asked, "Why are you so restless?"
"It's this or total collapse," Kurama explained, giving him an odd look in return. "You know, I was never sure that you knew my human name. I'm a bit surprised."
Kuwabara made a dismissive noise and left Kurama to his fidgeting. Picking up the cordless phone, he headed for the back room where Yukina read and, on occasion, communed with the local wildlife. "Yukina?"
"You've got Kurama in there?" she asked without looking up. "He must be freezing. And drenched. I shan't be much help for the former, but I think that I'd like to talk to him regardless," she concluded, draining the last of her iced tea.
"I'm calling Urameshi," Kuwabara offered, holding up the phone.
Yukina nodded and put her book aside. "It's the same thing that happened to me, isn't it?"
The gaze directed at him following that said, quite clearly, I love you, but how much more dense can you get? "He's not aging correctly, is he?"
"No," Kuwabara said, sounding bewildered.
"Then call Yusuke," Yukina told him, "and I'll go talk to Kurama."
Waiting until he heard the quiet murmur of voices in the kitchen, Kuwabara hit the speed dial and listened to the ringing with a bit of desperation.
"Youknowhatimish?" Yusuke slurred after about ten rings.
"Three...forty-four?" Kuwabara was glancing at his watch. "In the morning, of course."
"Urameshi, will you wake up?"
"Kurama is bouncing off the walls of my kitchen. He's also an absolute mess, not to mention trying to get me to smuggle him to parts unknown. I just thought that you should know."
"'m awake. I'm awake," Yusuke repeated. "What's going on?"
Kuwabara sighed. "He's having trouble with the way he looks."
"If this is about a bad haircut I will snap that pretty, pretty boy's neck. Do you have any idea what kind of a hangover I'm developing right now?"
There was a muffled, "Maybe you should try acting your age for once," from the background. Even many miles away, Kuwabara could feel Yusuke stiffening and searching for a response.
"That has something to do with it. You know, how he should be in his late forties and looks about sixteen," Kuwabara carefully filled in.
"...I'm on my way. Kuwabara..."
"Urameshi?" Kuwabara prompted.
Yusuke muttered something Kuwabara couldn't hear, then said, "I...never mind. I'm coming." There was a soft click, and the line went dead.
Kuwabara stayed and listened to the dial tone until the metallic voice prompted, "If you would like to make a call, please depress the receiver and try again. Have a nice day..."
The voices in the kitchen had grown soft and hushed, and Kuwabara turned the phone off and went to join them.
" – like for me to go get him?" Yukina finished asking gently.
"I..." Kurama's eyes lit on Kuwabara with a good deal more of his usual poise than had been there previously. "Hello."
Yukina smiled and left the room with a murmured, "I'll be right back." Kuwabara watched her go, then turned back to Kurama. "Your plans? Look, are you sure that you have to disappear like this? I mean...you love your family, don't you? There's a lot for you that's here." Distantly, he felt Yukina's aura flare slightly, as though she was performing some minor working.
Kurama shook his head vehemently, and when he continued speaking Kuwabara couldn't see his eyes. "It doesn't work. I'm a freak to any human. I have to get out of here and if I go back to the demon world, I'd be fine, but I can't get back. And I'm still a criminal, to be honest. I don't know where I can go. I need to disappear just for a little bit, so people forget about me. Maybe a couple years. Then I can slip back into the demon world unnoticed and I'll be fine. I just need my trail to vanish, and if I leave through you, vanish it will."
The silence that followed was broken by a slight ding from the coffee maker, then again by the sound of someone tapping on the door.
"Go for the coffee," Kuwabara said. "That had better be Urameshi. Yukina!" he added, raising his voice. "Coffee's done!"
Yukina passed through the door, glass in hand, and poured herself some coffee. "Would anyone else like it iced?" she asked as her beverage stopped steaming.
"That's a useful trick," Kurama said gravely before turning to Kuwabara and asking, "How long ago did you call him? I would give even Yusuke five more minutes."
Kuwabara demanded, "Who else would be showing up at this hour?" before heading to the door.
"If you ask, you are guaranteed to find out," Kurama noted helpfully from his position of being half-buried in a cupboard. "Er. Yukina? Is there supposed to be a lesser coffee filter demon in here?"
"Yes, there is. You may want to get out of there. If it's a glass you're wanting, you should look in the cupboard to your left."
When Kuwabara, shaking his head at the oddities of demons, opened the door and looked out into the storm, he initially saw absolutely no one. Then the dark-clad figure standing at the top of the steps glanced over their shoulder at him with red eyes and Kuwabara nearly had a coronary.
"What in all that's holy are you doing here at four in the morning?" Kuwabara squawked into the rain.
Hiei tilted his head to the side thoughtfully and looked at him. "You know, it's been twenty-nine ; years and your voice hasn't changed in the slightest. I was sent for; I'm not here for you."
Kuwabara felt the need to regress to years long gone and flail around in utter incomprehension. "Why are you here, then? And why are you looking at me so strangely?" he added, as Hiei still looked mildly perplexed by Kuwabara's appearance.
"You look...different," Hiei finally conceded. "That's interesting. I...don't think that I was expecting that to happen."
"That still doesn't tell me why you're here," Kuwabara pointed out. "It has been nearly thirty years, as you just so kindly pointed out. And it's the middle of the night."
Hiei's eyes flickered away from Kuwabara at last. "I said that I'm not here for you." When it still didn't click, Hiei very composedly walked past Kuwabara and into the house. This went generally unnoticed because Yusuke had just appeared in the yard, panting somewhat and slightly on the wet side.
"Am I hallucinating," Kuwabara asked woefully, "or did Hiei just show up?"
Yusuke bounded up the porch stairs with easy grace and smacked Kuwabara on the back of the head. "Stranger things have happened since the world began."
"Not lately," Kuwabara muttered as they passed into the house. Yusuke still looked the same as the last time they'd met for coffee, which was not a day over twenty-one. He'd aged quite normally for six or seven years, but had levelled off as well. Kuwabara sometimes wondered if his fingernails ever grew.
Looking from Yukina to the two other demons to Yusuke at his side, Kuwabara realized that he might have passed for being in the company of the expedition for the Fountain of Youth. Beautiful and exotic and powerful and young were the creatures in his kitchen, and none of them fully human.
"So you're just going to vanish," Hiei was saying, with the air of someone trying to discredit an argument. Oddly enough, this is exactly what he was doing.
"That was the idea," Kurama replied. They were both sitting on the counter now, facing each other stubbornly over cups of coffee. "From everyone. If you don't know where I am, neither my family nor the spirit world can find me through you."
"We don't have to tell them where you are," Hiei pointed out. "I somehow doubt they'll be trying to torture it out of us these days."
"If they're still looking for me, they'll probably still be that determined," Kurama pointed out.
Yusuke sighed. "You don't need to be paranoid. They'll leave you alone. However, if you go larking around stealing things, they might not be so lenient."
"I'm not going to," Kurama said firmly. "I just want to...go somewhere and be alone until people don't remember me so very well."
"And by alone you don't mean us?" Kuwabara asked. "Or do?"
Kurama stood up and walked out of the kitchen, staring into the rain through the window. "If your memories of me grow dim, then that's the way they should. If you don't forget me, then you won't forget to find me."
Hiei stalked out of the kitchen after him, leaving the other three to watch the pair over the divider. "That is not – " He didn't seem to know how to finish the sentence, and skipped to a new topic. "How long?"
"I'd been thinking about five years," Kurama began slowly. "It seems a well-rounded number."
"Five years," Hiei repeated, and blinked. "That's...a long time."
Kuwabara was still trying to comprehend the strange dynamic between the pair of them when Yusuke gazed wistfully at nothing. "You're the luckiest of us all, Hiei."
"Am I." Hiei's eyes were glimmering strangely in the dark, casting firelight shadows on the empty hearth.
Yusuke folded his hands under his chin and sighed. "You and yours both live in a world where the people do not grow old and die. Everyone dies young and dies fighting. You are what most can only write stories about and wish for in secret. You fare better than Kurama because you have never known anything different."
"'Yours'?" Kurama quoted, one eyebrow raised.
"Yes, while we're on the subject, just what are all the lingering looks and possessive pronouns about?" Kuwabara broke in, not liking where Yusuke was trying to go.
"We'll tell you when you're older," Kurama said, climbing up onto the windowsill and drawing one leg up under him. Kuwabara heard Yukina start to giggle, and was confused as to what was so funny. He began to wonder if it was a demon thing, but that just brought him right back to Yusuke's rather disturbing point and the swamp of primal panic that lay beneath it.
Yusuke harrumphed pointedly. "I wasn't done," he announced. "You see, after five years, you can have him back." He took a shaky breath, then said, "After five years, he'll probably still like your selfish ass. Vanity won't even be a factor. You know why Kuwabara and Yukina live out here. You know why Kurama's trying to disappear from everyone's sight, including ours."
"Humans are stupid," Hiei said dismissively. "We shouldn't have to be the ones constantly giving in to their whims."
"Yes, but it's their world," Yukina said gently. "It is enough for us to live on the fringes. Were we to live in the demon realm, I'm sure that we would face just as much persecution. At least here, we can be safer."
Hiei opened his mouth to start arguing, but Kurama forestalled this eventuality by hooking fingers around the back of Hiei's neck and kissing him firmly. "Do. Shut. Up," Kurama enunciated after a pause. "If you keep arguing with me, you'll talk me out of it. I've had a hard enough time talking myself into this."
"If I can talk you out of it, then it's probably a bad idea," Hiei retorted.
"It's necessary. That doesn't mean it's a good id – mrrph! Don't do that, I need Kuwabara coherent! We seem to have broken him."
Kuwabara's brain had long since screamed to a halt and tried to retreat frantically while keeping one foot heavily on the brakes. All that resulted was a lot of thick black smoke and general confusion. "I...but...wibble..." he finally managed weakly. "Is that...are they...?"
"Yes. For some time now," Yusuke said. "For the record, you're a blind idiot."
"Ah," said Kuwabara knowingly. It was about all he could manage at that point.
Yukina sighed. "While these distractions are very satisfying, I'm sure, the rain is letting up and it probably won't take very many days for Kurama's family to wonder where he's gotten off to."
"It'll take them some time," Kurama said quietly. "They don't...well, my stepfather already died. I'd wondered if my mother would start talking to me again, but she started to bond with my stepbrother instead. I mean...I haven't talked to either of them in weeks. I don't really have many friends now. I can think of only one or two that will wonder where I've gone, and I doubt that they'll do much about it. I think people will notice when the bills start piling up, to be honest."
"How were you planning to go about this, anyway?" Yusuke questioned. "Why do you need Kuwabara in order to disappear?"
Kurama looked studiously neutral. "I will tell one person in this room where I am going. That person may not write it down or tell another person until five years from today. Then and only then will you all find out where I have gone."
Kuwabara blinked. "Who?"
The neutral expression dissolved as Kurama bit back a laugh. "I came looking for you and only you, Kuwabara. Who do you think?"
"It's me, isn't it?" Kuwabara concluded. There was a barely audible derisive noise from Hiei's direction at this statement.
"Yes, it's you," Kurama agreed, slipping down from the windowsill and striding over to Kuwabara. "I tell him and no one else," he reminded the room.
"I can't write it down or tell anyone or anything?" Kuwabara asked desperately. "How am I supposed to remember for five years? It had better be something memorable," he added warningly.
Kurama smiled at him, a bright, brittle expression. "If you don't remember, then you don't remember. I'll certainly be back sometime. Besides, I trust you."
Kuwabara said nothing, but looked uncertainly at Yukina instead.
Smile vanishing, Kurama reached up and forced Kuwabara's head to turn, standing on his toes to whisper into his ear so quietly that Kuwabara didn't know how he was hearing it. "You won't tell a soul for five years, living or dead, and you won't write it down or otherwise leave it for someone to find. I know your honor well." A pause, and then he told Kuwabara the place with careful slowness. "You may remember it, or you may not," he added softly. "But I do not think that anyone will ask you outright, five years from today. They may look at you slightly askance or mention me in passing, but no one will ask, because no one wants to know the answer. You will have to tell it to them."
"They'll want to know where you are," Kuwabara said out loud, startled.
Kurama stepped back easily, lightly. "Not that answer," he corrected. "No one will care to find out if you can remember it." All the eyes had turned to the pair again when they returned to their normal volume. "Just as no one cares to ask me about things that I should not know, or when I was born."
"What are you saying?" Kuwabara asked, gripping the counter. Yukina sidled over to him and slid her hand over his gently.
"You're the only one who will age here," Kurama said. "You are the only one who will die. And none of us want to face it, or anything that reminds us of it. We condemned Toguro, but you are the only one who could ever have become him. The rest of us, willingly or not, were like him from the day we were born. You alone are human. You alone can forgive us all."
Kuwabara knew that he should say something to the four sets of eyes fixed so intently on his own, but it seemed quite useless, because darkness was creeping over his eyes and silencing his tongue.
It was coming.
He crawled out of bed and staggered to the mirror, looking at himself with tired eyes. He was still young, which was something that he needed to reassure himself upon after such a vivid dream. Young, alone in his room, and now fearing the future like nothing else he had faced in his life. His prophetic dreams always tended towards the bizarre at the end (he was starting to wonder if his subconscious was flamboyantly gay as well as addicted to 'shrooms), but the gist of it was invariably true, and often even some of the more odd things as well.
His textbook lay abandoned on the desk next to him, showing the part of the Trojan war where Achilles chose fame and a fighting death over comfortable old age. Before he had slept, Kuwabara had been unable to comprehend vanity so powerful that it was akin to suicide.
Now, feeling the inexplicable certainty that accompanied his true dreams all the way down to his marrow, he wondered if perhaps vanity wasn't such a bad thing after all.