Warnings: lots of dialogue, KuramaxHiei shounen ai
Part 4: Breaking the ice
Sasuke was relieved to find that his former teammates calmed down after Gai left them alone together. They weren't exactly acting normal, but it was close enough. The two were still standing by the door, Naruto pointedly not looking at him, Sakura blatantly looking at him too much. At least Sakura wasn't crying or threatening to swallow him with her eyes anymore. Neither of them seemed eager to break the silence, so Sasuke got to the point as quickly as possible.
"Why are you here?" asked Sasuke.
Naruto whipped his head around, "What the hell kind of question is that! We're here to check on you, obviously." His eyebrow twitched and he quickly looked away again, adding a muttered 'teme' as an afterthought.
Sakura looked hesitant, "Sasuke...I - that is, we - we were worried about you and...it's so good to have you back."
"I didn't come back on my own," Sasuke reminded them, frowning at Naruto in particular.
He hadn't expected to see them again. He'd broken ties with them, hadn't he? It didn't matter that someone had dragged him back to Konoha. Nothing had changed. If they gave him freedom, he'd just go back to being under Kakashi, who was more interested in dousing his ambition than feeding it. And the next time Orochimaru sent minions after him, he'd be no stronger than he was now. What was the point? They might as well have left him where he was.
Sakura was starting to get that teary eyed look again. Sasuke ignored it. At least she was actually looking at him unlike some people who should have been giving him an earful by now.
"Who brought me back here?" he asked her.
"Ah," Sakura blinked, "that was..." She shot a look at Naruto's profile, which didn't help much. "We don't really know who. They were strangers. They came to see the hokage."
That was a good way to gain favors, Sasuke thought. It made sense. If it had been someone from Konoha they wouldn't have risked trying to bring him back alive. They'd have killed him on sight and disposed of the remains.
Sakura took a tentative step forward, the first move either of them had made since Gai's flamboyant exit. "Sasuke-kun? This is yours..."
She lifted his scratched hitaiate in one hand and smiled tearily down at it. A minute ago she hadn't had anything in her hands. Sasuke decided not to wonder where she'd been keeping it. Had Naruto brought that back with him?
"We can't give it to you in here," Sakura said quickly, "but we'll hold onto it and as soon as you get out, we'll give it back to you."
Why was she acting like nothing had happened? Sasuke stared blankly at her. She was usually the smart one.
"I can't wear that," said Sasuke.
Obviously. He was a traitor for one thing. Not to mention the forehead protector still bore Naruto's lengthwise scratch that would make anyone who saw it think he'd damaged it intentionally. He qualified as a missing nin, but he didn't particularly want to walk around announcing that fact. Assuming he had a chance to walk around anywhere.
Sakura looked wounded. Sasuke dropped back on his bed and turned his face toward the other wall. If all they were going to do was pretend like things were normal, there was no point humoring them.
"If you aren't going to say anything relevant," Sasuke said calmly, "you might as well leave."
Naruto promptly exploded. Sasuke didn't have the chakra to feel it, but his hearing was just fine. He didn't so much as tense when Naruto rushed to the side of his bed and stopped short. If he'd had a shirt, this was where Naruto would have grabbed him by the collar. Sasuke turned in time to see Naruto jerk his hands back. No collar meant no shaking.
Naruto clenched his hands and growled instead, "Damn it, Sasuke-teme! Sakura-chan's been worried sick about you - you made her cry! You tried to kill me - the least you can do is apologize, teme!"
That was more like what Sasuke had expected from this reunion. His expression didn't change, but his tone was less blank and more darkly amused. "Apologize," he repeated. "For not killing you?"
"For trying to kill me!" Naruto cried, more outraged by Sasuke's tone than anything. "What's wrong with you?"
"I'm here," Sasuke said immediately. He was here and shouldn't have been. He had an excuse for not knowing how to handle this situation because he'd never planned on it. Naruto had wanted to drag him back from start to finish of their fight, even after he'd made it clear he intended to kill him. "You're the one 'checking on me' as if we're still teammates."
"We are!" Naruto growled. "We're still a team. Just because you went and-"
"Naruto," Sakura started, "that's not-"
"-ran off," Naruto continued, talking louder, "doesn't mean you can get out of it that easy! It doesn't matter how many times you run off, I'll still bring your ass back and-" He jerked suddenly, grimacing and making an odd sound that was half groan, half gag. "Damn it, stop that! I didn't mean-"
Sasuke stared as Naruto let out a loud 'gragh' sound, clenched a hand in the hair over his right ear, garbled something about 'split-eared bastards', and bolted from the room. Sakura turned just as the door slammed behind him. She looked as shocked as Sasuke felt when she finally glanced back.
"What's wrong with him...?" asked Sasuke.
Sure, there had been a dozen times during their fight where either of them could have died. But of the two of them, he'd been thrown into the cliff a lot more than Naruto. If one of them should have come out brain damaged, it was him. Naruto had bolted too quickly for it to be anything physical.
Sakura blinked slowly, sending another confused look at the door. "I don't know. That was weird, even for Naruto." She let out a weak laugh and turned toward him again. "He's probably just feeling awkward. He was really happy about you being back, Sasuke-kun. We both are."
She smiled wider, her eyes getting teary again. "I'm, ah, that is, neither of us was supposed to see you alone, so, I should probably go now. But we'll be back soon!"
Sasuke frowned and turned to stare at the ceiling. "You don't need to come back."
Silence filled the room for a moment before a soft, "Yes, we do."
He heard the door shut behind her and closed his eyes. Of course she wouldn't change. She didn't realize how lucky she was that he'd never been as close to her as he was to Naruto. Best friend. If it had been Sakura he would have killed her before he had a chance to reconsider. Maybe it was a good thing Naruto had a demon inside him. He was much harder to kill.
The blue-haired girl with the flying boat paddle took Kakashi on a sweeping tour of a city before heading for their ultimate destination. It was an interesting experience, not particularly shocking, which surprised him. The landscape was bigger. The buildings were colder, stone - cement, Botan informed him - and tall and lifeless looking things. He'd seen similar buildings in other countries, namely near the Sand village. Similar, yet here they were...bigger and colder. The same thing was true for the bridges, cable constructions not dissimilar from the one in Wave Country, just wider and filled with metallic vehicles rather than coaches. He had heard of contraptions like those, amused rumors of what bored scientists in other villages toyed with. They were impractical when one had to traverse narrow forest paths that barely fit a visiting coach. Here they had molten lanes for the vehicles - tar, blacktop - that wouldn't be destroyed by the weight of the metal things - cars, trucks, semis - and multiple lanes to account for the thick traffic. The sheer number of the vehicles did alarm him somewhat because it implied a huge population - and Botan was quick to tell him this was a relatively small urban town.
His guide pointed things out in a rambling sing-song voice, telling him all about the areas - business district, residential, shopping mall - when to his eyes it was just a very big chaotic mess of buildings randomly separated into blocks and sections by those paved streets. There were no walls to keep invaders out. No forests to hide in - plenty of those in third world nations, though - and apparent class systems - by income, industry, masters degree, and there's still a queen in England and a President in the states - weren't so apparent. What 'slums' she pointed out to him didn't look much different from the buildings she claimed were for the wealthy elite - it's the inside that counts, poor decor, shabby plumbing, no air conditioning - and even the - residential - homes that were similar to any in his own village might house the rich next to the poor. Where were the armies? And she pursed her lips and told him to talk to Kurama about that sort of thing. He held his questions for the time being.
They flew toward one of those small homes, Kakashi sitting on the back of her flying boat paddle, his mask sparing him from swallowing the whipping tip of her pony tail. She flew at and through the wall, and it took him a panicked moment to rationalize that. He'd heard all about the spirit world - Reikai, Shinigami, though ferry girl sounds so much nicer - and tried to accept that he wasn't actually here. Physically. He still felt the wind when she'd flown low and then high over the city. And he felt a suffocating ickiness when she barreled through that wall. If someone attacked him, would it connect? Would his own attacks connect in his defense? She laughed as if he were cute when he asked. He didn't ask again.
There was a panic when they arrived in a bedroom, catching two teenage boys in the middle of a wrestling match involving choke holds and whapping a video game controller on the floor. Botan explained once they'd untangled themselves. Her explanation - a bunch of humans have been living secretly in Makai and we're going to show him the Ningenkai because his people might have to move here! - made him scratch at the back of his neck. Her response to the boys' natural disbelief - they don't even have airplanes - actually annoyed him. If they didn't have these things it was because they'd never needed them. They could have had buildings and vehicles like these, but they'd be impractical and who would want to live in a lifeless tomb, anyway? This little room, from the bed to the television, the game station, was no different from any civilian teen's room in Konoha. Well, televisions were too expensive for most civilians to afford one for a child's room, but otherwise it was the same.
"You're not insulted, are you?" Botan asked, picking up on his mood. "It's not your fault you've been stuck living in Makai." She shivered. "At least you have electricity and laws. You're lucky to have evolved past blood sacrifice and slavery!"
Kakashi's eyebrow twitched, "We still have those." Particularly in some of the oldest bloodlimit clans. Hyuuga Neiji could have given her an earful.
He looked the two boys over as they bombarded Botan with questions. Both were muscular, young, sixteen or seventeen if he had to guess. The taller one had orange hair curled ridiculously out over his forehead and a tendency to squeal when he spoke too quickly. The other one had short black hair slicked back over his head and a way of smirking that reminded Kakashi, rather painfully, of how Sasuke had looked when he'd gotten one up on Naruto. He missed his team, the old team, before Haku and the exam and everything had gone to hell.
"You don't have shinobi here?" asked Kakashi.
The black-haired boy - Yusuke, Botan had called him - looked surprised. "What, like in the movies?"'
"They still have them in Makai," the other boy, Kuwabara, said loudly. "Jin, right?"
"Yeah, Jin and Touya's team called themselves that. But they were more like mercenaries than ninja, you know? They were only together for the strength in numbers. All that pride shit fell apart the second they fought-"
"Don't remind me!"
Kakashi caught Botan's eye, leaving the boys to their reminiscing. "Then you don't have shinobi here?"
A new voice spoke up from the doorway, "The samurai era ended a long time ago, shinobi along with it. The clans had to adapt in the face of technology. You don't use swords and knives and tactile combat against automatic machine guns and nuclear weapons capable of destroying entire countries with the push of a button." A redhead was standing there, his green eyes holding Kakashi's coldly. "Humans wage war from home now. Men in offices make decisions while pawns shoot each other from a distance. And if their pawns are outnumbered, they push a button, drop a bomb, and say goodbye to everyone, soldiers and civilians alike. Those who prefer feeling the blood of their victims stalk the streets and hide their kills in dumpsters and rivers. Why not? There are always more humans where those came from. You certainly don't get your hands dirty pushing a button or squeezing a trigger."
"Shit, Kurama!" Yusuke grimaced. "What crawled up your ass and died?"
The redhead flashed innocent surprise, "I'm just answering his question."
Kakashi gave a slow look from the newcomer to Botan, "Then your...airplanes...come with a price."
"Technology always does," Kurama smiled unpleasantly. "Old diseases are prevented and cured, while pollution and excessive living create new ones every day. Humans die from overeating while children starve to death on the other side of the world. You can't walk barefoot in a river without runoff from the plant upstream making you sick, but you can build a station miles beneath the ocean and fly men to the moon. It's a trade. Humans were removed from the Makai to protect them from being killed by demons. So they find creative ways to kill themselves instead. If any of this sounds disturbing to you, you'd learn more visiting the Makai than you will looking around here."
Yusuke stepped between Kakashi and the door, cutting off Kurama's taunting, "You're just talking about the bad side. I don't know what's got your panties in a twist, but knock it off." He shot a look at Kakashi. "He's not usually like this. Hell, half the time he's the one defending humans and pointing out all the good things about them. I think he's channeling Hiei or something. You met him?"
"Yes," said Kakashi. "Briefly."
"Yeah, well, the point is humans got their bad side, demons got their good side, neither of them's really better than the other no matter what bullshit you heard in the Reikai, and that's that. Some of my best friends are demons. Some of their," and he shot another baffled look at the stone-faced Kurama, "best friends are humans. We all get along just fine, thanks."
"Yusuke," said Kurama.
"Did Botan tell you where in Makai he comes from?"
Yusuke frowned thoughtfully. "A group of humans who'd been living there secretly?"
"Hidden by a kekkai that's apparently been in the middle of Mukuro's territory since before the worlds were separated," Kurama informed him, again, with a not quite pleasant smile. "They don't live with demons. They don't even recognize demons. The only demon Hiei made contact with there was trapped in a human, sealed but separate, treated as a living battery incapable of rational thought. When he mentioned wanting to communicate with the demon, they reacted the same way you would if someone asked to interview Kuwabara's cat."
Kakashi suddenly found himself receiving several distasteful stares. Even Botan grimaced at him. He refused to let himself feel cornered. They were talking about Kyuubi. He wasn't at liberty to discuss that even if he had felt the need to defend himself.
"What's that mean, exactly?" Kuwabara muttered. "Not all demons are smart enough to talk to, anyway, so..."
"This one is," Kurama said sharply.
"Well," Kuwabara floundered, "maybe it's dangerous and there's a good reason for-"
"What kind of demon is it?" asked Yusuke.
Kurama smiled. "Guess."
"Urk!" Kuwabara choked off any further attempt to be optimistic about this. He raised his hands and backed away from the frigid redhead. A wince passed his face as he glanced at Kakashi, "Good luck."
"Okay, okay!" Botan broke them up with a threatening wave of her oar. "No fighting! We're supposed to be showing him around the Ningenkai, not-"
"I've seen enough to report on," said Kakashi. He didn't want to be away from the village any longer than necessary. Orochimaru wasn't the type to sit back idly after all the trouble he'd gone to already, and there was still the Akatsuki to contend with. This situation, whatever it ultimately implied for the village, was Tsunade's business. Until, unless, she gave him leave to discuss things openly with these people, he couldn't do anything but make matters worse. He'd seen enough to know it was real. That was the mission assigned to him. "Take me back now," he said to Botan.
"We have to wait for Hiei," said Yusuke. And he glanced at Botan, "Don't we?"
"He's in charge over there," Botan nodded worriedly. "Since it's Mukuro's territory."
Kuwabara snorted. "So that's why I can't go! Stupid shrimp. Come on, Urameshi, you still gotta make excuses to your mom and-"
"It's not like she'd even notice I'm gone," said Yusuke. He did let himself be prodded toward the door, Kurama edging aside to let him through. "You can explain to Keiko, right? If I call her now, she'll kill me."
"Oh, sure," Kuwabara scoffed. "I'll just tell her you gotta go to Makai for a while to keep the shrimp from slaughtering a bunch of humans. She'll love that!"
"You don't have to put it that way..."
With the room emptier, Kurama slipped in to sit on the edge of the bed. If anything, his expression darkened. Botan was suddenly torn between following the boys and keeping things civil. Odd, considering Kurama was usually the mediator of the group.
"Are you not allowed to talk about him?" Kurama asked Kakashi.
"I'm not," Kakashi confirmed. He toyed briefly with the idea of reading his book while he waited and decided against it. The redhead was dangerous, openly, with a muted chakra that made the hairs on his neck stand up. As painfully curious as he was to see how that chakra would feel at full blast, he had more restraint than that. He could satisfy his curiosity later. After all- "You're coming along?"
"I wouldn't miss this for the world," Kurama smiled. "What's his name? Surely you can tell me that much."
Kakashi sent him an amused look, "What makes you certain it's male?"
"Scent. You reek of him."
That was a new one on him. Kakashi couldn't stop himself from recoiling, just a little. Kyuubi didn't have a body, so he couldn't have a scent. Even if he did, surely the Inuzuka kid would have noticed during his match with Naruto. Hell, Pakkun would have noticed when they'd raced toward the Valley with all of Kyuubi's chakra blazing their senses. Or maybe that was what Kurama meant. Kyuubi's chakra was very distinct. He could certainly have gotten a little on him when he'd carried Naruto back. But that was three days ago.
"Kyuubi," Kakashi said. Everyone knew of the nine-tailed natural disaster, so he wasn't divulging anything restricted. "Kyuubi no youko."
Kurama flinched, shooting off the bed to pace distractedly. He shoved his bangs back, eyes narrow and dark.
Kakashi followed his movements with the first stirring of amusement. That had shocked the intimidating aura right out of the teen. Now he reminded him of someone. Sasuke, when he'd spied on the boy during that initial bell test and watched him wrack his brain for a viable attack plan. Who did Kurama intend to attack? Kyuubi? He almost laughed. "You've heard of him?"
"I wasn't alive when the worlds were separated," Kurama said, in a scathing resentful tone. "I should have known. The only demons inside the kekkai are ones that were there when the shield went up. So old..." And he turned on Kakashi, his expression violent. "How could he have been sealed by a mere human! Against his will!"
Now the amusement sharpened into an outright smile. Kakashi shrugged, carelessly amused. "Sorry. I'm not at liberty to discuss that." Green eyes flashed visibly. Was he going to attack? Really, now. Kurama looked personally insulted. "It wasn't easy, if that makes you feel better."
Kurama's breath hissed inward, he tensed, and just as abruptly, his stance went lax and casual. He gave a polite smile without a hint of threat or darkness. "I didn't get your name."
"Are you a good shinobi, Kakashi-san?"
"Oh," Kakashi drawled, "I like to think so."
"Well, then. I look forward to working with you." Kurama held a hand out with a disarming smile. He laughed softly when Kakashi hesitated. "Do you shake hands in your society?"
"Occasionally." It didn't take a genius to know the redhead was up to something. Kakashi was a genius, so he absolutely knew the redhead was up to something. He shook hands with him, anyway. And he wasn't quite surprised when the door flew open and suspicious red eyes locked on their clasped hands. He wondered how Kurama had felt Hiei coming in order to time this little scene so perfectly. The redhead was a clever one. "Hello, again."
"You're still in one piece," Hiei noted, still staring suspiciously at Kurama's hand. He was glad when the two stepped back. His attention shifted to Botan, who was looking confused. Nothing unusual there. "The tour?"
"He said he'd seen enough to report on," said Botan.
"Good." He shot a warning look at Kurama, not fooled for a second by his sweetly innocent smile. "Let's go."
They didn't get an audience with the hokage when they returned to the village after a short stop in the Reikai. Kakashi went alone, leaving them to wait under watchful Anbu eyes.
His report to her was succinct. It was real. He considered them dangerous. Enough to force them to relocate? No, he didn't think so. Enough to cripple them with casualties if forced into a conflict? Absolutely. They were already low on high ranked shinobi, which was the very reason Sasuke's 'recapture' had gone so badly. If they'd had even one available Anbu, they could have caught him easily. Naruto had certainly worn him down enough. There were too many teams out, scouting for information on the Akatsuki, deliberating with Sand, conferences with their weaker allies who were doubting them after the debacle of the exam. This was a horrible time to have a new enemy of unknown strength.
Kakashi kept most of his own opinions to himself during the debriefing. If she wanted to hear them, she'd ask. After his report, she did. He'd expected her to. A lot of people were doubtful of her ability to lead the village. He knew better.
He thought they should go along with it. Better to keep them here, civil, let them learn what it was they'd come to learn, and learn from them in the meantime. As dangerous as things were, they couldn't afford to have them alienated. Kyuubi was their primary interest in Konoha. There were other shinobi villages with demons. They didn't want these strangers joining sides with their enemies, just because their enemies were more willing to answer their questions and cooperate. He didn't believe they posed a threat to Naruto. They seemed to know a great deal about demons, it might even help Naruto live with the one locked inside him. He again reminded her of Yusuke's claim that some of his best friends were demons. If that were possible, to make an ally out of a demon, a friend, then they had even more reason not to let these people talk to their enemies. Demons were dangerous enough when they were simply tools used by shinobi. If they could be convinced to fight because they wanted to, the balance of any conflict would automatically lean in their favor.
She sent him away without making a decision. He'd expected that, too. She'd confer with the counsel, possibly even Jiraiya, since he was the most familiar with Naruto's seal. What he didn't expect was the order she gave before dismissing him.
"Go visit your team," she said, flicking him away. "I want them relocated within the hour. You're on babysitting duty until further notice. Don't let any of them die." And she glowered at him, "Or run away."
Hiei's team was given four rooms in a hotel, informed by a masked Anbu that they were under probation. They could move around the village, but they would be watched. He didn't say a word about the demon, or the real reason they were here. Maybe he didn't know. He also didn't forbid them from interrogating civilians. Hiei supposed if they did something their watchers disliked, they'd be informed of it. He was immediately suspicious of the freedom they were being given. They'd go along with it for now. Learning about this human civilization was as important as interviewing the demons. They gathered in one of the rooms to make plans.
"We need currency," said Kurama. "The rooms are provided for, but we'll learn more if we mingle. Listen to gossip, see how the villagers interact. Find the ones interested in talking."
"Botan," Yusuke said immediately, with a grin. "Let her go around alone. If she doesn't get hit on, we'll know right away the people aren't normal. Same for you-"
"You're so touchy," he grimaced. "It wouldn't kill you to flirt a little. Girls talk more than guys, you know."
"I'm sure you'll manage that just fine," smiled Kurama.
Yusuke squinted suspiciously, "Then what are you and Hiei planning to do?"
"Watch our watchers," said Hiei. "There are two types of humans here. You'll work on the civilians. We," and he sent a knowing look at Kurama, "will incite the shinobi."
"That shouldn't be hard," Kurama murmured.
"Wait," protested Yusuke, "I thought we were going along with it. You're gonna make us play nice with the civies while you pick a fight? That's not fair."
"We won't be fighting," said Hiei. "Unless they start it. We'll be...investigating."
Yusuke scoffed at that. "You're not a 'Spirit Detective' anymore. You never investigated when you were."
"Hiei's the leader here," Kurama reminded him. Such a reversal of their old dynamic. It would take some time before Yusuke got used to not being the one in charge. Not that Kurama had any intention of following orders, either. But they should at least play nice while Hiei was watching them. He caught that knowing glare and smiled sweetly.
"Stop smiling like that," Hiei grimaced. "It's disturbing."
Hiei turned to Yusuke, "Find a place that buys things. See what we need. Botan can fetch it if it's something ningen. I'll send Bui after it, if it's raw materials easier to get in Makai." He looked at Botan, "See where the civilians spend their free time. And any place where the shinobi and civilians mingle equally. Stay away from any group of shinobi who might notice your reiki. You're weak, female, civilian. If you're identified as a threat, you go back to the Reikai."
"I'm not going to blow my cover," Botan huffed. "Give me some credit."
Yusuke laughed at her. "He means no floating, no going through walls, no pulling your oar out of thin air. You know, no doing what you always do when you're trying to pass as a human. You gave yourself away to Kuwabara and Keiko within the first few minutes of meeting them because you couldn't remember to keep your feet on the ground."
"It was an accident..."
"Exactly. No accidents this time."
"All right, then," Kurama smiled. "Yusuke, go find a way for us to make some quick money. Botan, feel free to hit anyone who gets too frisky with you. You're a civilian, and a cute one, but you're not a push-over."
"You better believe I'm not!" Botan sniffed, one fist raised threateningly. Despite her appearance, she was quite capable of knocking sense into a person. With or without a baseball bat. "Come on, Yusuke. You can escort me out."
Kurama shut the door behind them and then leaned on it. His expression immediately went sly. "You're true to your word. I can't smell him on you at all."
"Then why are you still looking at me like that?"
"Because I like looking at you, of course."
Hiei snorted. "What upset you earlier?"
"I know who he is," sighed Kurama. "Old, very old. Just a legend in my time. A red youko, so old he didn't even have a humanoid form. He didn't need one." He tilted his head back against the door, eyes falling closed. "He must have been huge, monstrous. So old and powerful..."
"I thought you would be," Hiei smirked. "I couldn't sense his strength or age, but he attacked despite his seal. Completely shameless."
"You shouldn't have challenged him," said Kurama. His amused tone belied the criticism. "You're completely shameless."
"He's been neutered. The human he's sealed in is too young to survive his youki, so he can't fight at full strength, however old he is, not even to defend himself. He must have known it was futile to even attempt attacking me."
"Which is why you challenged him. He'll be furious now. I feel sorry for the boy he's trapped inside of."
"Then why are you grinning?"
Kurama pushed off from the door and circled Hiei casually. "Oh, just thumbing my nose at a legend. That's such a human thing to do. You'd think I had no respect for my elders. No, Hiei, he's going to want to tear me apart for letting you rile him that way."
"As if you have any control over what I do."
"I would if I weren't part human now. I'd have put you in your place a long time ago."
"I don't fancy going to a Reikai prison. If you weren't part human, I'd have killed you a long time ago."
"Touché," Kurama acknowledged. "We're alone here."