The Killing Mask

When one wears a mask, one dies with every breath. Every moment spent in that prison is like a needle piercing the skin and burrowing its way out of sight, to become undetectable to the normal eye.

But each of those needles still brings the individual pain, a pain hidden by the very mask that causes it.

In the beginning there is a reason to the mask. There is a 'something' to protect against; weakness, love, pain. As time passes, though, the defined line between when the mask is needed, and when it is not, blurs. Clarity lessens and disappears, until the subconscious reasons that it is better to be trapped in an act than to be caught unaware.

And who is the conscious self to argue with that logic? Did this not begin because the true self was not safe to leave out in the open?

And so there comes a death. Inevitably, the original is replaced by a creation, and the gentle soul of innocence shrivels into nothing. Energy coils beneath the surface, only to strike out at what threatens to become dear, instead of what must be guarded against. It would never do for someone to penetrate those careful shields and find the horrid truth. That is the way of things, is it not?

In this case, when wearing the killing mask becomes just as destructive as going without, what does one do? Does one continue to struggle and uphold that created image, or does he let it drop and labor to survive with the openly twisted and damaged soul?

After centuries of such pointless musings, these circular thoughts become tiresome. Around and around they travel, always to return to the beginning and start again. From here the occasional query would branch, leading to a questioning of the very fabric of reality, the reason for even bothering to exist.

If Hiei's mask had not been so firmly adhered from the very start of his careworn childhood, maybe he would have had at least one or two happy memories to look back on to ease the long, lonely decades.

Another needle wriggled into his heart. Even now, when surrounded by beings that claimed to be his friends, it was almost as bad as being alone. Even the fox, who had a past nearly as dark as his own, was better able to cope with the trials of everyday living. Just being near them reminded him, forcibly, that he was not like them and never would be.

Yet, it was that flame of life that drew and tied him to this city, not this silly thing called probation. His damage was beyond repair, even if that kind of magic touch was possible, but even that knowledge could not obliterate the impulse to warm himself for the short time he was sure the option would be available.

He shifted on his branch, finger tracing the ragged edge of his ancient sword. The cleaning cloth lay discarded to his side.

He didn't notice as the blade sliced the delicate flesh of his finger pad.

If one is going to toy with the concept of death, why toy? Why not make the decision clear-cut? To tiptoe around the concept is cowardly.

The sword shifted in his hands instantly, tip pressing against his stomach. What would it be like to descend to the fiery pits of Hell, where he was so surely heading? He doubted any would mourn his passing or, at least, not with much feeling. This reflection made way for a familiar deterrent to worm its way through the cracks, the one that always removed him from that dangerous, shining edge.

Is it not equally spineless to end ones own existence as to suffer through without hope? The concept appealed to his pride, refusing to let him finish the task.

The momentary pause gave the figure, frozen with horror in the clearing below, the time to act.

"Hiei, you idiot!" he roared, jumping straight from his position to Hiei's branch twenty feet above the ground, and viscously knocking the katana from the demon's hands.

Hiei snapped from his dark reflections, so surprised his blade plummeted to the ground, tip first, to bury itself in the soft soil, and nearly fell as he instinctively tried to twist into a defensive posture.

"Yusuke," he growled, eyes narrowing.

The teen's mouth smiled, though his eyes did not. "Surprised to see me?"

"Hn." Hiei turned his head away, and stood to retrieve his sword, now that this threat proved harmless.

Yusuke's smile vanished, and his lips turned downward as he lunged to grab the demon's ankle, halting Hiei's fluid progress as he attempted to leap to the ground. Hiei lurched and slammed into the trunk, Yusuke's grip the only thing between him and a fall on his head.

He glared up at his captor, who sneered with teeth growing sharper with each passing second. A reiki charged wind stirred the lengthening hair, and brown eyes rapidly changed color.

"Don't look at me like that," he snarled. "I'm not the gullible fool you take me for."

When Hiei's expression remained the same he seemed to consider dropping his fiery friend just to test his agility, though he finally gave up on the idea, yanking Hiei back onto the branch and standing with perfect ease. "I would appreciate it if you didn't try to run," he said coldly. "I think we need to discuss a few things."

Hiei scowled, angrily standing and yanking his clothes straight. "And what if I don't want to discuss anything with you? What's to stop me from leaving?" He turned away, sword or no, to make his point.

Immediately, he found himself pinned to the bark. "You won't be pleased, Hiei," Yusuke threatened, with a growl worthy of Makai. "I'm not very happy with you at the moment." He stepped back. "Now out of the tree."

Hiei snorted haughtily. "Why should I listen to you?"

A sinister smile curved Yusuke's laughing lips. "Because I see right through you."

For a heartbeat Hiei nearly gaped at the hanyou, but then he drew himself together and dropped to the ground, feigning indifference. However, behind his mask, a tiny flame of fear flickered to life. Was Yusuke bluffing, or could he really read him? It was a serious enough matter to worry him.

Yusuke took the more conventional approach to descending the tree, using the time to get his rampaging blood under control. When his feet touched the ground, he was once more, in appearance at least, all human. His gaze flickered from Hiei to the sword and back again, tacking in the thin sheen of blood already covering the blade. Anger smoldered in his eyes.

He reached out, snatched the weapon, and sliced his wrist open in one fluid movement.

Hiei actually jerked in surprise, starting forward before catching himself.

Yusuke laughed lightly, watching the blood drip, before glancing at his friend. "Just the fact that you reacted proves you aren't beyond redemption."

Hiei ignored the words, watching the blood slide down the fine silver of his blade. "That was stupid, detective."

The laugh stopped abruptly. "Maybe, but nothing else has penetrated your thick skull." The laugh returned, tinged with darkness. "You were worried for a moment, even if you won't admit it now that it's gone, just like you won't openly admit to ties of friendship." His tone turned speculative. "I wonder how you would react if you arrived upon the scene I did?" Hiei suddenly realized that Yusuke had slowly been pressing the sword tip to his stomach. Blood began to seep through the usual white t-shirt. Hiei's back stiffened, but he refused to react again. "For a second I thought I was too late." The blade sunk deeper, drawing a slight gasp. "Imagine the panic, when I already knew I would probably be too late, when I arrived just in time to fail."

Hiei's head spun. Too late? For what? Saving him? If so, then the detective was more than a few decades off.

The front of his shirt became drenched. His jeans became black as they started to absorb the rich red. A slight tremor started in the hand as it continued to deepen the wounds depth. "You may not care, Hiei…"

"Enough," Hiei snapped, cutting him off. He remained unmoving, but true anger flooded his eyes. "You've made your point."

Yusuke raised an eyebrow, face beginning to grow pasty.

Hiei huffed, eyes remaining fixated on the weapon as he advanced. "Life is precious, you fool. Don't waste it dragging romantic sentiments from me." He paused. "Now return my sword." He lifted his head, honoring Urameshi with eye contact. "It isn't meant to taste the blood of comrades."

The words were bitter, but Yusuke took them in the spirit they were meant. "Fine." Some of the tightness went out of his face, though not just because he had drawn the sword from its sheath of flesh.

Hiei extended a hand. "Now give me my sword."

"Sure." Yusuke smirked mischievously. "But first I want something."

The demon froze, eyes flickering. "What?"

"A promise…" Hiei raised a questioning eyebrow. "That you won't try this again," he added, with slight embarrassment.

Hiei rolled his eyes, grabbed Yusuke's wrist, and sliced his own while the boy still held the blade, quickly pressing it to Yusuke's own sluggishly bleeding wrist. Binding power exploded and surged up both of their arms.

"Wha…"

"Blood oath." Hiei pulled their wrists apart, the strings of promise physically stretching to allow them separate movement. He shook Yusuke's hand until it reluctantly released its death grip on the sword. It fell to the grass where it would await cleaning, and Hiei pushed Yusuke to the ground. "Unbreakable."

Hiei turned away slightly and began tearing strips from the bottom of his tunic. Yusuke landed with a slight thud and quiet 'oh' of surprise, followed by a wave of guilt. "I… but… shit…" He trailed off. "Suicide's too good for you anyway, bastard." He missed Hiei's amused smirk as he slumped against the tree trunk, arms folded over his bloody shirt.

Hiei snorted. "I would never have done it."

Yusuke's head shot up. "Then… Jeez…" His head dropped again. "I really am an idiot."

Silence fell, but for the continued ripping. "Aren't you going to put that away?" he asked dejectedly.

Hiei glanced at the katana. "No. Ruins the sheath." He tore another strip from the shirt. What he wouldn't add was that the thought of touching it was rather revolting at the moment.

He turned and prodded Yusuke's arms out of the way before beginning to wrap the wound.

Yusuke jerked at the feel of over warm arms around him, causing Hiei to fumble with the makeshift bandages and half collapse on his chest as he retrieved them.

"Hey, man!" Yusuke shouted, trying to push him off. "Get…" Hiei whacked him in the stomach, accompanied by a withering glare. Yusuke tensed and fell back with a pained hiss. "Away…"

Except for the faint tinge in his cheeks Yusuke made no further attempts to discourage him, finally relaxing against the tree, eyes drifting shut under the rhythm of Hiei's hands. The demon's fingers lingered over the wound before moving to bandage Yusuke's wrist. "How."

One eye opened lazily. "How what?"

Hiei scowled. "How did you know?"

His lips curled. "Oh, that." He pushed himself up so he was sitting on his own, and watched Hiei tie the knot around his wrist. "I'm not as dense as I look, which I already mentioned. I mean, it's just a matter of taking the time to look beyond the surface."

Hiei's blood ran cold, and he dropped Yusuke's wrist, pulling away. "And I suppose you took that time, detective?"

Yusuke reached out and grabbed Hiei's wrist, dragging him back despite himself. "Well, yeah…" he said, reaching for what was left of the bandages Hiei had torn. "I always do with friends, though that doesn't mean anyone really expects me to." He smiled to himself. "They don't think I'm that kind of guy, or that I'm sensitive enough to be that perceptive. I suppose you thought that too?" Hiei didn't respond. "That's okay. I guess that's just the mask I choose to wear." His expression turned shrewd. "But they all hurt, don't they?"

Hiei was silent for a heartbeat. "Yes."

Yusuke nodded, not bothering to look up from his work. "You're mask is one of the best I've seen, though Kurama's is up there too." He trailed off. "Kurama tried to convince me you were fine, but I couldn't believe him."

"Why? He obviously knows me better than you."

"That doesn't mean he should have left you alone today." Yusuke tied off the bandage, but didn't release Hiei's wrist.

Hiei bristled. "Especially today I want to be alone." Today, the day he had been so callously cast aside.

"Why are you so against caring?"

Openly shocked for a moment, Hiei wrenched away from Yusuke, snatching his sword and standing with disgust. "You said you were good at reading masks," he said accusingly. He slid the weapon home with a decisive snap.

Yusuke looked up at him, hurt hidden. "You'll ruin the sheath."

Hiei snorted with disappointed fury. "You already ruined the sword."

"Will you at least let me finish speaking?" he ventured, worried eyes seeking Hiei's.

"No." He turned his back on him, walking away. "If you were as good as you think you are you would know the problem isn't that I don't care; it's that I do." He risked one last glance over his shoulder. "Next time listen to the fox."

"You fool!" Yusuke shouted, jumping up. "That's not what I meant!" But Hiei was already gone, traveling faster than the eye could follow. "I meant, why are you so against letting us care…"

Kurama's voice drifted down from the tree above him. "I ask the same thing everyday, Yusuke."

The boy looked up, barely surprised. "Did I just make things worse?"

Kurama smiled slightly. "No."

Not quite so sure, Yusuke sighed, eyes softening with empathy. "Whatever, Kurama. See you around."

"And you're going where?"

"Genkai's."

"Right. I'll follow Hiei."

Yusuke nodded, watching as Kurama jumped to the ground and followed the path Hiei had disappeared down.

When alone, the forlorn words slipped from his mouth, for only the trees to hear. "Why… Why can't I do more..."

To watch a friend is to feel their pain. To care is to take their wounds. When one watches a friend, they feel every prod and wave tenfold, unable to reach through that carefully erected mask. One begins to wonder, is there really anything I can do? Or am I useless?

What good am I if I can't even help?

But… on the few occasions that such a friend can actually reach beneath the surface, even if it appears to make things worse, it brings the wounded that much closer to surviving.

With each show of shared pain, it brings the masked closer to being whole. Every time the mask is stripped away by someone who truly doesn't care what is found beneath, it brings the broken one step closer to being healed.

Knowing that our death would injure someone else is what helps us keep going.