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Author's Note: I am SO sorry it took so long for me to finish this story up. I got into some other projects and wasn't really inspired, and well, enough excuses. This will be the final chapter. So leave me a review and tell me what you thought.

Disclaimer: I do not own Yu Yu Hakusho, nor do I own the poem "We Wear the Mask," which was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Chapter 4

Kuwabara (The Sidekick)

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

I've never been as strong as Yusuke; as smart as Kurama; or as fast as Hiei. Hell, if anything, I'd be considered the weak link of the team. I know my limits. Now anyway. And I know I'm one-hundred percent pure human, which is more than I can say for the other three. I'm sure thee are some that would say that I should be proud for keeping up with such powerful demons, but I have to wonder if I really ever did keep up. For all my tough talk, I always knew they were better than me.

Tough talk. That's been the mask I've put up all my life. I've always hid my insecurities behind idle threats and boasts. And while I may play the fool, I'm not stupid. I've always wondered how many people have ever seen through that guise. No, I've never been smart like Kurama or even Hiei, but I do take pride in where I've gone since the Tantei disbanded. I've always been lazy when it comes to schoolwork - Urameshi is the same way, I'm sure - but I have a decent amount of street smarts. I wouldn't be around today if I didn't.

I know I'm strong. For a human, anyway. But when it comes to the others, I don't think I'll even be able to compare. And that is where the trash talking comes in. I hide behind a mask of strength and confidence to keep others from realizing that what I fear most is being weak. Few people have even seen behind that mask, or even guessed it is there. And I'm okay with that. Let them think what they will about me. I'm a man of action, anyway.

This debt we to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

I think Kurama might have been the first one of the team to really notice the mask. I think Urameshi may have guessed long before, but he never really did anything about it for the longest time. Hiei had always acted like I'm a complete idiot, but when I think back to our first meeting, I can hardly blame him. But I think even he knows. We've been through too much together for him - for any of them - to not. But Kurama was really the first to try and tear back the mask. And for that we share a special bond.

I think Kurama might understand my pain and feelings more than the others. Maybe that was why he tried to bridge the gap in the first place. Whatever it was, though, I'm grateful.

We both know the best - and worst - of both worlds. The juggling of feelings one way or another was dangerous in our old line of work. But as time went on, I did begin to question our missions. Humanity took some dark turns in my eyes and I've often wondered about that. It's not that I agree with Sensui or anything, but really, there is something deep within the core of the human race that makes us just as primal and dangerous as demons.

And yet, the Tantei were the protectors of it all. The irony of three of the four members not being human is not lost on me. In fact, I feel I've become more cynical after the Tantei broke up. Back then, no matter the cost to us or our souls, we were to protect those that didn't even realize they needed saving. And we paid the price, which was often quite high. I still have nightmares about a lot of the stuff we faced. So I think I've earned the right to be a bit cynical about the world.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?

The nightmares; the scars; the pain; they never fully leave no matter how much time passes. I know the others still dream. I do as well. Sometimes there is a reminder of something and I just freeze up at the memory. Does that sound cowardly? I might have considered it to be once, but no longer.

I think it's the fact that I've been out of action for so long. The others, they still go to the Makai Tournament. I'm done with all that. I occasionally get a call from Spirit World asking for help in catching a demon that's escaped into Human World - the others probably do to - but that's different from really being involved. It's never a challenge, morally or physically. Not anymore. So I consider myself out of action. And since I'm out of it all, the reality of what we went though had since really settled in. I've had time to think about it a lot more.

But the world doesn't need to know that its heroes hurt and feel pain like the rest of them. Hell, they don't need to know they have heroes at all. If the world knew that the four of us were all that stood between them and becoming demon prey, well, they would probably freak. So let them have their storybook heroes and values. The true casualties of war are those of us who went through it all. But you don't see any monuments being built for us.

Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask

There is a certain face we have presented to the world to keep them from becoming suspicious. I hide behind my tough authority and no one thinks anything about it. They don't need to know the pain and insecurity that lurks underneath the mask. They say ignorance is bliss, after all.

After awhile, though, the mask tends to becomes habit. It's harder to take down the longer I wear it. I think the four of us are constantly showing our masks that were forced on us by society and pain to each other. But it's something we've gotten used to. I've seen them when they were vulnerable and hurting and they've seen the same of me. We've been through too much together to not know each other well enough to see past the facade.

But while we may see past each others' masks, the rest of the world had no need to knowing that we are even wearing them. We have made the seams very hard to find.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise

I often wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after dreaming about the past. The fear and the pain always seem so real. And when the others are at the Makai Tournament, the dreams and fear seem to come more often. After all these years, the truth still scares me. But there are so few people who understand and even fewer who can do anything about it.

So instead of doing anything about it, I'll continue to talk tough; Yusuke will continue to pound on whatever or whoever is most convenient; Hiei will continue to slash away his pain with his sword; and Kurama will continue to function normally, those deep eyes the only thing belying his discomfort.

We all have our demons - literally and figuratively - and we have our own ways of getting through the day when faced with them. And in that sense, we all have our own masks.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

There is a long road ahead of me filled with many obstacles. At the end of the road is peace of mind and comfort. There is a long way to go before the nightmares will decrease and the scars will fade. The way people talk, it seems like things like nightmares and scars should fade in no time at all. But those people know nothing of true pain and true suffering. Until they know the truth, they will only be extra roadblocks on my way to shedding my mask.

But no matter how long it takes, I plan to stay the course. Maybe then I'll be someone worthy of Yukina's love. Maybe then I'll be someone worthy of my own love.

I will stay the course and in the end I will find out. I know my friends have their own roads to travel, but they will always be there when I need them. Fighting alongside them for so long formed a bond that tells me that. And I will be there for them when they need me.

But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Until the day I reach the end of the road, I will continue to wear the mask. We are all searching for something within ourselves and until we find whatever it is, the masks won't be ready to come off. And I've come to terms with that. The few people in the world I would even want to show my true self to already have a good idea of what lies underneath the mask. Maybe a little better idea than even I have. So until the road comes to an end, I will wear the mask.

The End