"You certainly seem to be enjoying your high school life, Kuwabara."

For some reason, that line always sat funny with me. There was something in Kurama's voice that was, well, weird. I had trouble understanding it.

Almost like he envied me…

Urameshi hadn't changed, just like Kurama had said. I hadn't seen much of Hiei, but whenever it came up, there was a whole bunch of sidelong looks and shared laughs between Yusuke and Kurama. So, I could only imagine that either Hiei had done an emotional U-turn, or he'd finally cracked and tried to kill Koenma.

"You certainly seem to be enjoying your high school life."

High school was almost over. I'd hung out with him a few times, and invited him to go places with me and my friends. I know Kaito had also tried to fellowship Shuichi Minamino, since they'd managed to get into the same high school, and really didn't want a repeat of their years at Meiou. But something was weird. Even though he seemed happy to see us, and always greeted us with a smile, he never initiated the contact. He never asked us to hang out.

As long as I'd known him, Kurama had been an amiable loner. He had, can you believe it, trouble making friends. I couldn't imagine why, but Kaito backed me up on it; Shuichi read during free time, studied during lunch, went to his clubs, did his homework in the library and went home. Until he met Genkai, he had no idea that Shiuchi had any friends at all.

When I saw him, it was like he was waiting. Like he was right on the verge of something, but not quite over the edge. And for the life of me, I couldn't get him to tell me what it was.

So, when Urameshi suggested a camping trip, (Why, I have no clue…) I figured that some male bonding might get him to open up. Nothing like getting eaten alive by mosquitoes to get a guy to vent out all his problems. "Can we invite Kurama?"

Urameshi laughed. "What are you, crazy? Of course I'm inviting Kurama!" He shook his head in mirth. "Besides, if I don't, there's no way Hiei's coming to this thing…" I wasn't too keen on Hiei's companionship, but since I hadn't seen the midget in awhile, I supposed it was about time we crossed paths again.

Besides, he was the only one we could count on to get a fire going in under two seconds.

So, the four of us hiked through the woods, Kurama going first so he could do his thing and create a nice little path for us through the branches. While we walked, we joked about old times, reliving everything from Yusuke getting hit by a car ("Too bad you missed it Hiei. You would have laughed.") to the tournament in demon world. ("Too bad you missed it, Kuwabara. Then we could have all had a laugh.")

My gear was heavy, and I started to fall behind, realizing for the first time just how long it had been since I'd had to train for anything. Kurama must have noticed my struggling, because some plants decided that they'd spontaneously grow along the pathway, and pass bits of my gear discreetly up to him. I wanted to protest, but he just winked at me and kept on walking, not slowed down a bit, and Hiei and Urameshi oblivious to the whole thing. Assuming, of course, that Hiei was oblivious to anything. But there was some comfort in knowing that he wouldn't dare take a stab at my weakness if Kurama decided to give him the evil eye.

"So, how's patrol going?" Hiei grunted at Urameshi's question, and shrugged.

"It's going," he replied. "I never realized how stupid humans are. They just keep walking through, completely unaware of where they are, or what they're doing…" He huffed loudly. "It makes me almost glad to spend a weekend in the human world; at least I don't have to baby-sit any of them." I laughed at that. He might have mellowed, slightly, but it felt more normal to have his perpetual sarcasm and bad attitude.

"You've got the patrol thing for a couple more years, right?" I asked, and he gave an affirmative grunt.

"I honestly don't know how I'm going to make it out with my sanity…"

"Oh, you lost that years ago," Urameshi teased, and the rest of us shared a laugh.

I figured this would be a good time to turn the subject to the one who needed some stuff pried out of him. "So, Hiei's on patrol for three years…"

"We just said that."

"I know!" I sputtered, shaking my head in annoyance. "Sheesh. Kurama, what have you got planned next?"

To this day, I cannot believe what I thought I saw. I thought I saw him stiffen. I imagined that in his steady, rhythmic steps, there was an irregular pause, for just a nanosecond, and a suppressed facial expression that suddenly found its way to the surface. Yep, never doubt that Kurama has head case issues, because when you're least expecting it, he'll surprise the heck out of you.

At least it happened while we were camping, and not while fighting crazed psychics or competing in tournaments.

"What do you mean?" he asked. Ha! He knew very well what I meant.

"Like, what university are you trying for? Any jobs or stuff?" And he just shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm not sure yet," he answered evenly. Ooh, vague.

"Didn't your stepfather have a-"

"Yusuke," Hiei cut in abruptly, "Mukuro's been wondering if you plan to return to demon world anytime soon."

"Aw, does she miss me?" Urameshi laughed, while I just grumbled in annoyance. They did that on purpose.

Kurama's grin was back. "Oh, I can think of at least one person she's missing a whole lot more than you, Yusuke," he taunted. Both cracked up, while Hiei's eyes burned.

Inside, I was fuming, too. Again with the inside jokes. And since when did they all rally over and protect Kurama?

Since always, I had to realize. Yusuke and Kurama had always been on top of each other's lists. They'd been tight, ever since the day they met, trusting each other without hesitating for a second. Kurama and Hiei, for all the time they'd known each other, couldn't claim that kind of trust between them until much later. Even so, Kurama had always looked out for Hiei, so, fair was fair.

But why would they feel they had to cut the conversation? Did they know something I didn't? What were they talking about that they couldn't tell me?

It seemed those three were always keeping some sort of secret. I still didn't know exactly how Yusuke arrested Kurama; I couldn't believe he was capable of it, even now. They decided not to tell me Genkai was dead, and, I'm still the only one who doesn't know who Hiei's sister is. I know a couple things happened while Sensui had me captured, that nobody wants to talk about, and I don't even want to imagine the things that went on during the Demon World tournament. But they keep making comments, and jokes, and, as always, I have no idea what's going on.

But, with the conversation away from Kurama, I had nothing to do but accept it. "You and Keiko picked out where you're gonna live yet?" I asked. Urameshi ran a hand through his hair, kicking some leaves.

"I dunno. Probably live somewhere around here, close to her folks and the demon world tunnel," he drawled. "I tried to convince her to live in Demon world, my ancestral pop left me some sweet land, but she's not too keen on that. Says it's a bad place to raise kids."

Hiei snickered. "Children of Raizen, being raised in the human world. It's laughable." Urameshi grinned back at him.

"Well, they're only gonna be a quarter demon, remember that." He grew mischievous, "But there's no reason I can't bring them now and then to visit where their great-infinity granddad grew up, right? I bet the bald monks would make good baby-sitters…."

"I think, Yusuke," Kurama put in dryly, "That you should wait to worry about children until after you settle things, like maybe the actual marriage."

"Right! Hey, who's your best man?" I shouted, exited, "I've got the sweetest bachelor party planned for you!"

We reached a clearing at the top of a hill, and started dumping all our gear into the middle. "I'd better pick you. My monk posse is already fighting each other over who has the right to send me off to married life." He sighed, "I'd really rather just have them cater the thing." Within minutes, our sleeping bags were rolled out and Hiei had a fire going in even less time. We didn't bring tents, figuring it would be cooler to sleep under the stars. I loved doing that, though I hadn't had a chance to since before the Dark Tournament.

I took a deep breath, and Kurama and Urameshi followed suit. "Man, sometimes I really wonder how I can leave this place," Urameshi murmured, and Kurama gave a small nod.

I didn't get it. "Huh? You two have been here before?"

They both chuckled a bit. "No, we mean Human World in general," Kurama clarified, looking almost dreamily over the hill. It was a good spot we had, with the forest behind us, a hillside view in front of us, and an unobstructed view of the stars. Now that the sun was setting, they'd be out soon. "Even when you don't feel you belong in this world, it seems happy that you're here."

"Yeah," Urameshi confirmed, rubbing his hands together. "Like it knows I've been gone for forever, but it still greets me, goin' 'Urameshi, good to have you back and kickin' tail!' Know what I mean?" Kurama nodded, I shook my head, confused, and Hiei just snorted.

"I don't know what you fools are talking about," he said contemptuously. "I have everything I need in Demon World."

Kurama gasped in mock surprise. "What? You mean, you don't need me anymore?" He pretended to cry and Urameshi offered his shoulder to the redhead.

"Yeah, Hiei. What about that rock that you gave him?"

"I-you- You know that's not-!"

Urameshi patted Kurama's weeping head, the latter boy now cracking up, "You gonna ditch him for Mukuro?" Smoke was coming out of Hiei's ears now, as he spewed pronouncements of hatred for Kurama. I just sighed.

"You guys ever gonna let me in on this?"

"NO!" Hiei shouted, furious. "It was a stupid joke, and the detective never should have been let in on it!" Kurama just laughed hysterically. "It is not funny! Let's all remember when you got mistaken for a girl, and see how funny you think that is!"

That shut Kurama up. He looked at me accusingly. "You told him about that?" I held my hands up, waving them defensively.

"I swear, I never told anyone, honest!" But by now, Urameshi and Hiei had evil grins on their faces.

"Wait a second, fox-boy," Urameshi slid next to me, "What's this he's talkin' about?"

"My, my, it happened again?" Hiei nodded, joining him, "It seems that we can't take her anywhere, can we?"

Kurama, behind stony eyes, better have been planning his will.

"Well, you see," I began, scratching my head, "We were at the train station when I ran into some girls from school. And, well…"

"Be quiet," Kurama warned. But, it felt good to be in the group. After all, those three had so many jokes, and stories, and secrets. Making fun of Kurama's effeminacy was something we could all do together.

"…Anyway, they thought I was on a date with my girlfriend, and I had to explain that he's really a man," I grinned slyly at him, "Just fragile, and delicate…"

It took a good hour to get Hiei and Urameshi to stop cracking up. Even longer to get Kurama to talk to any of us again.

By that time, the sun had set, and we had finished cooking a nice meal of… well, we weren't really sure. After all, we were all guys, and none of us had thought to get the women in our lives to pack us a lunch, so…

Kurama calmly sprinkled some demonic herbs over his meal. "I'm not even going to chance it."

Urameshi held out his plate. "Wanna share your secret sauce, Julia Childs?"

"If you stop comparing me to women," he ordered, but I think he knew we weren't going to do that. Just like we knew he'd never hold out on us. So we chewed, and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, and talked some more. It was good to just talk.

Sometimes, everything that happened in my life seemed like a dream, but sitting here, with these guys, reminiscing about our crazed adventures reminded me of just how real it was. Reminded me of the tough odds I'd beaten, the friendships I'd made, and the things I'd learned about myself. I was so much more than just a kid who liked to fight, and it was all because of these people, and what we faced together.

Somehow, I don't think it was the same for these three. Just another way that I was out of the loop. They seemed to get along perfectly fine without me, during their fiasco in Demon World, but it went even deeper than that. They thought about things that would never cross my mind. They'd been through things I'd never had to worry about.

They got close to death way more than me; Urameshi died twice! I don't know if what Kurama went through is exactly death, but he was born twice. And Hiei…has caused a lot of death… Death is everything to them, and it's always on their minds. Not in the 'well, this was unexpected, now how am I going to save my butt' kind of way, but the 'I could kick the bucket at any second, and how much is it going to hurt' way. They're very… aware of the fact that they can die. And it's kind of scary to realize just how much they think about it. But they never talk to me.

I wish they would, but then, I don't know what I'd say. As much as I want to feel part of the group again, I know I'm not. They've changed, in ways that I didn't. And not only do I realize the differences we have now, but, I'm begging to realize just how out of the loop I've always been.

"So, first you guys had to beat an entire group of demons, before they organized you into one on one fights?" I had been given the run down on the tournament from Kurama, but that had been a while ago, and I was eager to hear the detailed points of view.

"Yeah, piece of cake!" Urameshi chimed in, "And the best part was, all of my monk dudes got stuck in the same group! You should have seen their faces!"

"You should have seen the battle," Kurama added.

"No you shouldn't have," Hiei grunted. "It was so stupid…"

"Yeah, it was, huh?" Urameshi scratched his head. "But yeah, all us guys made it tthrough the first round. It was the second one where we ran into trouble." He counted on his fingers. "Jin, Touya, Chu… I think all of them bit the dirt them, right?" He turned to Kurama, who confirmed it, thoughtfully.

"Yes, their victories didn't lie in the winning circle," he mused. "Although, Chu really has yet to come out ahead, as far as I know…"

"Oh, yeah! Kuwabara, you're just gonna die! Chu met this chick, and turns out he has to fight her, and he's so…" He launched into this embellished story that Kurama and Hiei had to keep correcting about how Chu was so in love with the woman he was fighting that she beat the pants off of him, and still doesn't seem to like him any better. It took a long time to get back to their fights.

"..so, then," Urameshi moved on, "Kurama goes up against this psycho doctor dude…"

"…I'm begging to develop a loathing for all physicians," the fox demon muttered.

"… And he starts kicking the tail out of Kurama."

"Excuse me? It's not like he immediately gained the upper hand! We sparred for a long while before I ran into difficulty!"

"Oh, yes, Kurama, a whole thirty seconds," Hiei drawled, "I don't know what you were doing out there, but it sure wasn't fighting."

Kurama raised an eyebrow. "Is it wrong if I don't feel the need to slice and hack everything in sight, Hiei?"

Urameshi clapped him on the back, "Kurama, I don't think even you knew what you needed, right then." He shoved a spoonful of whatever it was we had cooked into his mouth. "So, anyway, Kurama goes and transforms into his fox self, and starts winning the battle…"

"Huh?" I exclaimed, "How did you do that?" Kurama shrugged.

"In Demon World, it's easy," he responded. "Here, it's a hassle, but there, my transformation is so easy that I can even return to my former body unintentionally."

Urameshi continued. "And now that we'd discovered that, he decides he's gonna be human again, and surgeon guy goes back to beating on him, taking his time, too."

"I'd be interested to know what it was he said," Hiei pried, but all it took was a simple look to make him drop it.

"Nothing he knew anything about," he was met, tersely. Even Hiei couldn't stand up to Kurama's evil eye, so I sure wasn't about to try it. Besides, there was another thing that caught my attention.

"Why'd you go back human?" I asked, as he delicately took a sip of water from his glass. "I mean, you used to be an A-class, right? You could have taken that tournament!"

"I highly doubt that," Kurama replied modestly, and Urameshi and Hiei seemed a little too eager to concur. Made me wonder who would win if they ever had to fight each other.

They almost did, I had to remind myself. "So, why didn't you stay in the fox-form? Urameshi said you were winning."

Kurama sighed and put his glass down. He smiled slightly as he turned to me, trying to make me understand. "I needed to prove that I could win without my former strength and body," he replied. I think he expected me not to get it.

"What's the difference if it's a couple decades old? It's still your body, right?"

Kurama shook his head, and calmly went back to eating. "No," he tried to explain. "I have a different strength now, and my muscles carry different memories." I saw his hands clench his fork a little tighter than they needed to. "That body had a very different life, and it remembers what to do when the mind orders it to attack. It remembers where to strike, how hard and how fast. And always, how to kill. The body caries all of its past habits, but nothing of what I have learned as a human." He sighed again. "It makes for a different mindset, when fighting."

"It's why Kurama's always the first to get hurt," Hiei interjected. "His mind wants to fight like he did during his years as a demon fox, but his human form just isn't capable of it."

Kurama raised an eyebrow. "Really? And I thought it was because I seem to get all the emotional battles."

"Ha," Urameshi teased. "I thought it was because you sucked."

"I still don't get it." They all shrugged.

"That's fine," Kurama said, and Urameshi nodded.

"Probably better that you don't."

"I did win my battle, though," the redhead smirked at our companions. "Unlike some people."


"Well, that's hitting below the belt, isn't it?"

"You should know, Hiei. You can't hit any higher."

I laughed. "So, who were you guys up against?"

Urameshi jerked his thumb at the midget. "Hiei got Mukuro. Did pretty well, but even his black dragon couldn't bring her down. But somehow," he shared a grin with Kurama, "He doesn't seem to mind it so much."

"No," Kurama said back, as Hiei grumbled. "He seems almost, well, happy about losing."

"But Hiei's never happy."

"And he hates losing."

"And that can only mean one thing!"

"Be quiet, or forever say goodbye to your voice boxes!" Hiei threatened, but it didn't have the desired effect.

"But Hiei," Urameshi chided, "How can we say goodbye after you've ripped out our voice boxes?"

"You really need to think your threats through before you make them."

"Kurama, I'm beginning to think that he doesn't mean half of what he says."

"Oh, I know. He's always threatening to rip out my voice box, but he never actually does it."

"Come to think of it, he never hurts us when he says he will, does he?"

"He tried to kick me in the shins once."


"Yes. I think he was aiming for my head, but you know, he only comes so high..."

"That's enough!" Hiei roared. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or groan. It didn't look like I had a place in the group anymore. Maybe all friendships had the point where you really just had to go your separate ways. And, maybe, now it was my turn.

I only half listened while Urameshi regaled us with his fight with Yomi, and Kurama and Hiei had to take him down a few pegs. I had looked forward to hearing all about this tournament, but now it was just making me depressed. Part of me wished I had been there, but the rest of me knew that I never could have gone up against the kinds of opponents these guys were facing. These three had so far surpassed me that I could never hope to catch up.

I thought I was okay with the simple life, but now, I was just envious. While I was off living a normal life, my friends had fought wars, faced death and basically moved on without me. "...And that left me unconscious. I didn't wake up until after the whole thing was over and the new king had already been crowned."

"So you didn't see Kurama's next fight?"

"Fight?" Hiei scoffed, "He couldn't even stand!"

"I could too!"

"You couldn't during Hiei's fight," Urameshi criticized. "Maybe if you went straight to the hospital wing instead of watching him lose, you could have pulled yourself together enough to get to the next round."

"I was not in that bad of shape," Kurama protested, but it fell on deaf ears. I hadn't even been there, and I still would take Hiei and Urameshi's word on this one. Kurama seemed to be always recovering from a fatal injury, incurring a fatal injury, or about to be getting a fatal injury. By all rights, those wounds should have been, well, fatal.

But, Urameshi? Unconcious and losing a fight? And being okay with that? They really had moved on without me...

Eventually, we all stopped ragging on each other and went to bed. At least, that was the intention. A few minutes after we had all shut our mouths and closed our eyes, I felt a raindrop on my face.

I opened one eye. A raindrop fell in it. A few minutes later, it was pouring, and Urameshi, Hiei and I were running for the trees. Until we saw Kurama, who was still sleeping and mumbling at us to all be quiet. While we were getting drenched, he had grown a giant plant beside him, with an enormous leaf to catch water and keep him nice and dry.

We all looked at each other. We looked at Kurama. Nodding to ourselves, we stalked over to his makeshift tent and dragged him out by his feet.

I tell you, the memories I will have of that moment will stay with me forever.

After convincing Kurama that he should wait to kill us until after we saved the gear, Hiei got a fire going underneath a roomy lean-to made from leaves. At first, it looked like Urameshi and I were going to have to build it ourselves, out of sticks, since Kurama was currently refusing to speak to us. But Hiei was nice enough to remind our buddy that if he didn't share the roof, we weren't sharing the warm fire. And that led to us finally drying out our clothes and getting back to bed.

As usual with this group, the whole sleep thing never lasted long. I don't think Kurama actually left the fire; he was busy drying out his hair. Once he'd done that, though, he just kinda stared into the light, looking pensive. I was going to get up and ask him what was on his mind, but Urameshi and Hiei woke up first and beat me to it.

Before he could run away, they were both sitting on either side of him, with uncharacteristically serious looks on their faces. Well, uncharacteristic for Urameshi; Hiei always looked serious. However, the concern was a little unusual. I pretended to still be sleeping, but kept one eye open a tiny crack.

"So, I'm just guessing," Urameshi began, throwing a few extra twigs onto the fire, "That you really have no idea what you're going to do with your life, do you?" Kurama folded his arms demurely and faced him.

"I have several ideas."

"So why didn't you answer Kuwabara?" That one came from Hiei. "You always have five contingency plans for everything you do, and it's not like you have limited options."

"You can get just about any college you want."

"Or return to Demon World."

"Work at your step dad's company."

"Or return to Demon World."

"Start the world's most successful florist shop ever."


"Okay, broken record, Hiei."

"It makes more sense than the florist shop."

"The point," Urameshi finished, "Is that you're never indecisive. And frankly, it scares us."

"Scares him," Hiei corrected. "It intrigues me." Urameshi glared daggers at the fire demon.

"Want to let me and the sadist in on your plans?" Kurama sighed, but kept silent.

"Or you could talk to Kuwabara." I blinked at the mention of my name. Without any threats of death. Wow, Hiei really had mellowed out.

"I don't want to talk to Kuwabara." I had to shut my eyes, then, because I think they might have been looking at me. But it suited my mood better, because that one hurt. "I don't need to talk to anyone." I heard the rustle of leaves as Kurama stood up and left the camp. "I just need to do some thinking."

"I'll alert the media. Attention, world: Kurama is thinking!" Urameshi called after him, but Kurama just kept walking. There was a short silence as the fire crackled. And then Hiei opened his mouth.

"Well, that went well."

"Aw, shut it!"

"Now he's thinking. That's not good for anyone's health. Or his, for that matter."

"It's not my fault he never wants to talk about anything!" I heard a thud as Urameshi punched the log he must have been sitting on. "He always tells us he's fine, and then he goes and snaps. I hate it!"

"It's true. He's more repressed than you are."

"I knew that stupid kid would make him crack!" More punching wood. "Why does he do that? Every time: 'I'm fine Yusuke. I just killed someone, I just have a sword in my gut. Just finished pulling all the vines out of my arteries, but don't worry, I'll be ready for the next fight.' As if that's all that matters!"

"Is it?"

Silence. Why did it take so long for him to answer? Kurama was our friend, and if he was hurt, then we needed to know! It didn't matter if we were fighting evil or just walking down the street. He wasn't just a member of the group; he was a friend.

But, they had a point. Kurama never told us anything. Or, better he never told the team much, and never told me anything. Was it possible that he thought he was only important as a fighter?

"No. We really care about him." Hiei grunted. "Don't even start with that anti-social crap. I'm not in the mood."

"And just what would you say, Yusuke?"

Urameshi didn't seem to get it, and neither did I. What would he say if what? Not being able to ask the question was frustrating enough, plus trying to feign sleep.

"What do you mean?" Yeah, pipsqueak? What do you mean, going on about stuff you probably have no idea about? Since when do you care about helpin' people anyway? You hate my guts, have to be bribed to do anything for Urameshi and Koenma, and you still haven't lifted a finger to help us find Yukina's brother! The only one you care about is yourself, which is pathetic, since there's really not much to you! And you owe Kurama, you owe him big time, jerk!

They were unfair thoughts, but I was feeling bitter. Not only was I the third wheel, (or, really, fourth wheel…) but these two were both completely stupid!

I heard weight shifting, and figured it must belong to Urameshi, because Hiei always sat freakishly still. "You think Amanuma is his only trouble?" I was confused. Amanuma? Wasn't that the little punk psychic working for Sensui? Right, he had power over videogames, or something, didn't he?

"No, but I'm willing to bet it's one of the straws that broke Kurama's back!"

"And if he talked to you about it, what would you say?" Hiei cut in. "You, who would have lost it if Genkai hadn't saved you from killing Doctor, you actually plan to help Kurama get over murdering a child?"


My mind raced. Kurama killed a little kid? Gamemaster, he was still alive, right? They told me they had to defeat him to get to me, but that's all I knew.

Nobody ever said anything about death! And when we got outside, he was alive, right? What did they do, kill him and resurrect him right away?

And if they did, why would Kurama be so upset about it?

Nobody had said anything about death!

"Hey, how did you know about Doc- You were watching us, weren't you?" Urameshi said accusingly, and I was positive that Hiei was looking pretty smug.


"And you couldn't lift a finger to help?"

"Did it ever occur to you that I wasn't sure if I wanted to help or not?" Hiei yelled back. "You were human; it was clear-cut for you! Kurama's a human lover-Don't look at me like that, I'm not saying it's bad!- and he always puts Human World first! I had to think about it! Maybe I wanted to go home!"

I hadn't considered that. I'd always assumed that Hiei was just a little rat, and left because he was a jerk. Or maybe he was mad at Koenma, since the tyke had hurt his pride by calling him a C-class, or a D-class, or a whatever class that was inferior because it wasn't A. Maybe he wanted to watch us suffer. I guess I'd half forgotten he was a demon, because I never imagined that he might have considered the opening of the tunnel to be a good thing.

Had Kurama also maybe wanted it? He would have been able to go back to where he came from, then. Of course, I don't think he would leave his mom, but, home's home.

And Yukina? She was so pretty, and sweet, but still a demon. All of our friends… they were all demons, weren't they?

I hadn't even thought about what they might have wanted.

Urameshi sighed. "Look at us. Without Kurama, we can't go five minutes without bickering."

"Implying that with Kurama around, we are capable of this?" Laughter, and I almost joined in. Except, I was pretending to be sleeping.

And now I was really worried. What did you do, Kurama? Their levity didn't last; a few chuckles and they were back to being serious.

"So," Urameshi asked, "You're saying that he doesn't tell us these things, because he knows that we're the last people on earth that can help him?"

"No." Then what the heck was Hiei talking about? "I'm sure he has other reasons. But I know that if he talked to me, I wouldn't be able to help him, and I doubt you suddenly became an expert in psychology."

Darn right. "I dunno. I think we're in better emotional shape than he is, these days."

"Well, that's a first."

There was a short silence, then, "We should wake up Kuwabara."

Huh? "Why on earth should we do that?"

"Because he's not like us. Maybe he can talk some sense into Fox-boy." Ah, so they realized it, too. I'm not like them, not really part of the group.

"You know, the reason he's not like us is because we don't tell him all our problems," Hiei countered. "And frankly, I'd like to keep it that way." Figures he'd be the first to exclude me. "One of us has to turn out normal…"

Huh? Confusion seemed to be the reigning state of mind for me, and I couldn't do much else but listen. "Don't you think he should know about this?"

"No. We don't need to tell him how Kurama slaughtered a human child."

"Oh, so you'd rather explain to him why Kurama drowns himself in a river?" Killing a human… didn't Botan and Koenma say that was an unpardonable crime for a demon, no matter what the circumstances? Did they know? Had Kurama got off because Gamemaster was alive again? Or had the whole Demon World Tournament and Koenma disobeying his dad thing put that issue on the back burner? How did the pipsqueak die? Why did he die? He was only half Kurama's size! Kurama, despite rarely using his fists, could have worked him over with ease, and his Rose Whip… Did Kurama know that Koenma was going to save Gamemaster? Or, had he killed the kid, expecting that it would be permanent, knowing that what he was doing would be considered manslaughter…

Suddenly, I didn't want to think about it anymore.

"He wouldn't."

"You've known him a lot longer than I have, Hiei," there was a strange tone to Urameshi's voice. "And ever since the day I met him, he's never once looked at imminent death and thought it was a bad thing. He's our kamikaze pilot, who's just waiting for a reason to crash his plane!"

"You're exaggerating." I certainly hoped so.

"Oh, yeah?" Urameshi was on his feet now, crunching foliage and twigs. "He thought his mom would be better off without him. He hated himself for how he treated her when he was younger." How he treated her? Kurama loved his mom, and he was the perfect kid. Everybody was always saying how they wished they could have Shuichi Minamino for their son. "He thought he was a liar, a parasite, a burden, and even blamed himself for her getting sick. And as far as I know, nothing has happened to change his mind! Plus, Kurama never does anything rash, you know that. He even called me out so he could deliver an oral suicide note! He was ready to die, Hiei!"

There was no response.

So Urameshi kept going. "I know martyrdom isn't quite the same thing as suicide, but you have to admit, Kurama has always just been a little too okay with how close he's come to death. And as for the fight in Demon World , those century old seed things were such a fluke. We all knew he had a ninety nine percent chance of kicking the bucket!"

"I get it."

"Fighting is what we do, Hiei. How much you wanna bet that Kurama somehow ends up with the dude who nobody has a chance against? After all, it's happened a little frequently already, dontcha think?"

"I said, I get it!" Hiei gave an exasperated sigh. "You're right. This is serious." Darn right it was. I was close to freaking out, and I had only heard half of the story. Why didn't they tell me? Why did they feel they have to leave me in the dark about everything?

"We have to get Kuwabara to talk to him. That's why we brought him on this trip." What are you talkin' about, Urameshi? What the heck am I supposed to do?

"No." Oh, Kurama was back. I hadn't even heard him walk up. "We invited Kuwabara to come camping with us so that we could spend some time with him. We wanted to do something normal."

"I didn't, I hate Human World, and nature, and-"

"Shut up, Hiei!" They both shouted at him. I heard several deep breaths taken before they all sat down.

"Can't we just spend a weekend together, goofing off like normal teenagers?" Kurama.

"But you're not normal, are you, Fox-boy?"

"None of us are."

"Just Kuwabara." Yeah. I'm the only one who isn't a demon. Or part demon, or used to be a demon, or whatever the case may be. No wonder I didn't fit in.

Did they think I was inferior? That because I was just a human, I couldn't understand the things going on around me? That I couldn't understand them? Did they think I wasn't worth a friendship?

Kurama would never think that. Human or demon, he forms friendships based on their own merits, and has always considered me a friend.

Urameshi didn't know he was a demon for years, and we'd been tight. He makes fun of me a lot, but I know that he respects me.

I don't know what Hiei really thinks of me. He insults me all the time, and if he's asked, he'll say that he hates my guts. But, I think I annoy him more than anything, and he's really just not good at interacting with people. Whatever's up with him, I know he's got the right stuff inside.

At least, that's what I thought.

"He hated himself for how he treated her when he was younger." Did Kurama hate his mother, having to be raised by someone inferior? Did he really hate humans?

Was all the stuff Urameshi and I had done together just an act? Was I just some kind of side kick to him?

Was Hiei just tolerating me because Kurama did? A lot of people had been spared due to that fact…

"Which is why," I heard Kurama's voice, and that reminded me that there was still a conversation going on outside of my own head. "We can't let him suspect anything's wrong." Yeah, I thought. Can't let the idiot know anything. But he's stupid, he won't be able to figure it out . They could just keep on keeping their stupid little secrets and having their stupid little fights; I didn't care! I couldn't believe I'd ever cared about their problems.

Urameshi agreed. "Yeah, poor dude would just spend all his time worrying about us. And he has entrance exams coming up." Yeah, poor, poor Kuwabara-wait- What?

My entrance exams?

"Yes." Kurama. "Shizuru says his grades have improved phenomenally. While we were off fighting each other, he's been working hard." A small chuckle. "He's changed so much since we first met him."

"Yeah, Kuwabara's definitely gonna go places." Urameshi. "We can't bung it all up for him."

I didn't believe it.

They had been keeping secrets from me, making me sweat it out and worry, all because they didn't want to distract me? Okay, who are you guys, and what have you done with my friends? Urameshi was, like, only human half the time, and on the verge of getting married, Kurama was on the verge of a total meltdown, probably had been for years, and Hiei… well, I didn't know what was up with Hiei, but someone had to find out about him! And they were worried about distracting me?

"Distract him?" Hiei scoffed. Finally, one of them was thinking normally. "If he knew half the things we've been hiding, he'd never speak to us again."

"OH, THAT'S IT!" I roared, jumping to my feet and glaring at their shell-shocked faces. I couldn't remember a time when Hiei and Kurama had looked so shocked. As for Urameshi, I think he had worn that expression right after he found out I wasn't really killed by Toguro. If I wasn't so mad, I would have enjoyed this moment.

"He was awake?" Urameshi said weakly, and the demon pair sat stonily, waiting to see what I would do.

"You're darn tootin' I was awake," I shouted. "I heard everything you said, you crazy lunatics! I know I don't know half the things that go on around here, let alone what's going on in your heads, but I gotta say, you are all stupid!" I don't think they appreciated being called idiots, but I didn't care. I got right in their faces. "What secret could you possibly have, that could ever make me hate your guts more than not telling me at all does?" They looked at each other, seeking help, but no one wanted to answer. So I made the choice for them. "You first, Redhead!"

Kurama took a deep breath, then met my angry face with a look of perfect control, like he was telling me tomorrow's weather forecast. Honestly, someday his face is going to freeze like that. "I slaughter children, disrespect my parents, hypocritically decide who gets to live and who gets to die, steal things, abandoned my best friend to save myself, tell lies to absolutely everyone I meet, mercilessly slaughter anyone who gets in my way, and all the while keeping up the illusion that I am a hardworking, teenage boy who deserves all the best opportunities in life." He shrugged. "In short, I'm a cold hearted bastard."

Wow. I had our work cut out for me here, didn't I? I turned to Hiei. "What have you got, hamster-legs?"

He grinned evilly at me. Frankly, I'm not sure Hiei knows how to smile any other way, but this time, he really meant to be evil. "If you marry Yukina," he said, "You and I will be brothers in law." Huh?

Did that mean…?

Oh, dear God, no!

I had to remind myself that, for all intents and purposes, God was Koenma, and that meant that Hiei was telling the truth and my goose was so cooked. "Okay," I answered, sweating. "Urameshi?"

"Who me?" he laughed, "I'm just a jerk."

"And…?" Kurama growled, and the air around us grew cold. You know, I don't even know why that guy keeps a rose whip. His evil eye can shrivel up just about anything. I saw Urameshi shiver, as he realize the consequences of not spilling his guts like the other two did.

"Well, I…" He scratched his head, uncomfortable. "I'm not going to college, and I'm probably going to spend all my time in Demon World, even if Keiko doesn't really like it… I'm a drain on society, a loser… I dunno, I'm just a lazy, deadbeat pain in the butt, the only way I can resolve anything is by hitting it until it breaks…" he looked up at me with sheepish eyes. "And, um, I really hate your cat."

I looked him seriously in the eye. "You hate Eikichi?"

"Um, yeah. She's noisy, and she scratches, and her fur makes me sneeze…"

"Yusuke Urameshi," I said gravely. "Insulting me is one thing. But," I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up to my face. "Nobody insults my cat." I began by giving him a noogie, he tried to pull out, and pretty soon we were pounding each other into the dirt. Demons 1 and 2 looked on, more shocked than when they found out I was eavesdropping.

Good grief, Yusuke, I sighed internally. Figures; he's a loner, just like the other two. He liked to be alone a little too much, and so, I don't think he really knew what people thought of him. That's what Botan said. When he died the first time, he didn't think anybody would miss him. Didn't think anybody would care. Didn't know that we believed him to be so much more than a failure.

"Urameshi," I shouted, having finally gotten him face down on the ground, "When I met you, you were a punk headed nowhere and gonna turn up on death row! Now you're a punk headed somewhere, and you're probably going to turn out all right." I sat on his back to stop his squirming.


"I'm used to fighting with you, and even though you are a jerk sometimes, you're still an okay guy. You're definitely not a deadbeat, and you've got some direction in your life now. Just 'cause you're not gonna go to college doesn't make you a failure, and if you end up in Demon World, it would be kinda useless to you anyway. And no matter what you do, or where you go, you'll always be my best bud!" I leaned over to see his face. "You hear what I'm saying?"

"Yeah, now get your fat butt off me!"

I complied, turning to my next project. Urameshi was easy, because all you had to do was remind him of things he'd forgotten, usually with your fists. "Hiei!" the aforementioned fire demon snapped his head up. "You have got to be the worst brother that ever lived, and compared to me, that's pretty bad!" He glared at me, which was probably his way of flinching, since it didn't carry its usual sense of utter loathing. "I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to be Yukina's brother, and I guess that's your own twisted business," I said angrily, "But if you make her cry and stay up at night wondering if her brother is alive, I'll tell her who you are, and that she should pelt you with snowballs until your nose turns blue!"

I grinned, while Hiei processed that statement. Little brat. I didn't know why he wouldn't want to be closer to Yukina, seeing as she was such a sweet, wonderful, amazing person. Maybe he was scared. I couldn't imagine why. And I probably couldn't have made him tell me, but if he kept hurting his little sister like this, I'd find a way to drag it out of him. Even if he wasn't ready to be found, he needed to let her know that he was okay, and that someday he'd find her.

"Let her know her brother's fine, and that he loves her, got it?" Hiei broke his stony glare and nodded.

"I will."

"And Hiei…" I paused before I spoke; not my usual practice. This was going to sound so corny, and I hoped he wasn't going to gut me for it. "Yukina admires you… she'd be happy to know that she has a brother who cares about her as much as you do." Nothing. "And even though you're pretty rough around the edges… well, we know you care about us."

"I do not." Were all my friends hopelessly repressed?


"Lunkhead can't figure anything out."


"Has been a pain in my neck since the day I met him."


"Don't kid yourself…"



"Let us care about you, too." That was about as much sap as either of us could take, so I turned to the last one. And possibly the hardest. "Kurama…" He looked up.


"Walk with me." He nodded and gracefully fell into step behind me. It wasn't raining anymore, and I was grateful for that, because I wasn't sure what to say to him. But whatever I did say, it would probably need to be private, and that meant we had to leave the shelter.

We stopped eventually, far out of Urameshi's hearing range and hopefully Hiei's, too. I leaned against a tree and debated on where to start. Kurama looked calm and unruffled, but it had to be an act. I had seen him stoically go through pain and shock a thousand times before, and he always had the best poker face. Even though he usually figured things out hours before the rest of us, he never let on that he knew anything.

Wait a second…

I had seen that look a thousand times before. Kurama did conceal all the things that his mind could realize ahead of the rest of the group, and generally, they weren't pretty. His face was the best poker face I had ever seen.

If my suspicion was correct, he really was more repressed than Urameshi. "You have a lot of guilt on your shoulders, don't you?"

"I have lived for centuries. These things tend to add up"

"So, you felt guilt as Youko Kurama, too, huh?" He shook his head.

"My view of what's acceptable has changed since those days," he explained sadly, "If I didn't spend these years as a human, I doubt I would feel remorse at all." He paused, "Except for…certain things."


A shake of the head. "I don't want to talk about it." Figured. That was how he lived, just suppressing all emotions that interfered with what he was doing. He couldn't take time to deal with it, he couldn't melt down or explain the things on his mind, because other things were more important. Things like fighting. Like being a certain kind of person for his mother. Preserving the innocence of his friends.

But I needed him to confirm it. "So, whenever this happened," I asked gently. "What did you do?" I don't think he really got what I was saying, and if he did, he didn't know how to answer.

"What did I do?"

I nodded. "Yeah. After whatever happened that's tearin' you up inside happened, what did you do?"

"I just..." He looked at the ground. Bad sign. Kurama always held his head up high, and if he was looking down at the ground, he was either unconscious, or the person he was talking to was really short. "Kept on living."

"And when you killed Amanuma, what did you do?" He jerked his head up.


"Yeah, I know." I didn't like the look in his eyes. "Still don't know the particulars, though. What did you do next?"

He looked at me, still stoic-faced, but a pleading look buried deep in his eye. "I kept pushing forward, to Sensui," he explained, almost pleading. "I had to, he was going to open a tunnel to Demon World; I had to keep going!" He shut his mouth quickly. He had sounded too desperate.

"I know." I did know, too. He wouldn't hurt anyone if the situation didn't require it. I didn't know what kind of tight pinch they were in for him to have to kill the kid, but I know that he wouldn't have done it if it weren't absolutely necessary. And considering I was kidnapped at the time, I was grateful that he was able to keep going, and rescue me. "So, whenever bad things happen, you just ignore it," I summed up, "And keep moving forward?"

He seemed uncomfortable. "I don't ignore it..." he tried to protest, but I don't think he quite believed it himself. "But I... I can't let myself become distracted... I can't let a heavy heart hinder me from completing what needs to be done. If I'm so burdened by regrets... I could make a mistake. I might let everyone down, make the wrong choice." He nodded, fortifying himself. "I have to do what needs to be done, no matter what."

I could practically see the layers of ice forming over his heart. "Without telling anyone how you feel?" I kept probing.

He looked seriously at me. "Why should I burden everyone with my troubles?" he asked. "And sometimes... everybody has enough troubles of their own. Sometimes, you're all better off not knowing why I'm in pain, or even, if I'm in pain."

"And you're okay with that?"

He nodded at me, his red hair falling over his dark eyes. "If it's to protect someone close to me," he said slowly, "Its okay if I get injured. It's okay if my heart burns..." That's what he said… but I didn't agree with it.

I finally understood how Kurama could be the level headed member of the group. How he, while everyone else was panicking, getting angry or crying, he could keep it all together.

He closed himself off, became withdrawn. And just kept going.

But, towards what? If he carried so many chips on his shoulders, if he really felt this way about himself, why did he push forward? What was he trying to find?

"Why do you keep fighting?" He blinked at me, and I clarified myself. "If you're such a horrible person, and you've done so many horrible things, why do you keep on living?"

"Because…" His eyes… slid. I can think of no other way to describe it- they just slid. Suddenly, they weren't looking at me, or at anything else. Focused on a horizon that wasn't there.

And his voice was softer, with emotions that had never been released leaking through it. I wondered if this disclosure was voluntary, and sincerely hoped he hadn't gone and developed D.I.D.

"Because someday, the world will be peaceful… someday, I won't have to fight…" He glanced back at me, reassuring me that he was, in fact, still with me. "Maybe my cold heart can melt, too…"

I opened my mouth too comment, but he cut me off. Probably a good thing, since I had no idea what I was saying. "There's so much inside of me, so many thoughts and feelings that I never can realize!" he said earnestly, and maybe a little embarrassed. "I keep fighting, so I can make it to a day when I can finally stop, and relax. Take all the weight off my shoulders and finally let out the things I've kept bottled up inside…" Kurama's face was serious as he turned to me. "If I don't believe in that future, I have nothing. And yet…"

Well, that couldn't be good. "And yet?"

He looked down at the ground again. Not good at all. "Who am I, to deserve happiness?" His eyes were hollow and lost, and I didn't like it one bit. "It seems that my fate is to always continue living, through the hardest times… What if I'm not meant to find peace? What if I'm meant to be damned?"

For my part, I had no idea what he was talking about. The little bits of understanding I had gleaned weren't very favorable, either. "What do you mean? You're always saying that mistakes are okay, because it means we've learned, and keep hoping, and that it's never too late to reform your ways! That's what you always say!"

"Where was Amanuma's chance?"

Well, he had me there. And now, he was going to have to talk about it. "It was too late for him, wasn't it?" Kurama seemed on the verge of tears, if such a thing were possible, and then I knew I was in way over my head.

"But Koenma saved him, right?" I knew that it wouldn't be enough.

"I didn't expect him to," Kurama said bluntly. "I knew I was killing him. I got to choose his fate; I never let him have a chance to change his ways. I got a chance, but I can't let anyone else have the same! No, Youko Kurama gets to live, and anything in his way gets slaughtered, so he can save himself!" He punched a tree, and my eyes went wide. This was so unlike the Kurama I knew.

"I'm sure you weren't so bad," I offered lamely, but Kurama disagreed and began punching wildlife again.

"I was a killer!" he screamed. "A thief, a murderer! I ordered an assassin to kill my partner, I let my best friend get killed!" He didn't seem to know what to do with himself, and frankly, I didn't have any answers. "What do you call someone like that, Kuwabara? What word is bad enough for a being who doesn't think twice about stealing the future body of an unborn soul? Of lying to those people who were proudly expecting a HUMAN baby? Treating them with such disdain that the one dies, and the other becomes so broken in spirit that she falls ill?" Kurama was crying. Kurama was crying; the world was going to end!

He fell to his knees, and I knelt down beside him. Thank goodness we had decided to leave the shelter, because there was no way Urameshi and Hiei needed to be seeing this. To tell the truth, I didn't really want to watch Kurama's internal struggles. They were terrifying, and kinda reminded me of Sea Man.

That was an interesting comparison. Maybe, seeing the world through human eyes had been the equivalent of a human watching Chapter Black? No, Kurama loved being a demon. Always had, always would. But, he loved being a human, too.

It must have been hard, trying to be both. Abruptly, I wondered if that was why he didn't take his fox form during the demon tournament. Maybe, he needed to mesh his two very different personalities together. The dominating, fighting, intelligent demon side, and the caring, gentle, yet strong human body that had not become so entrenched in death.

It was true, no matter what Hiei would try to convince us of. Though Kurama would always have his past, would always carry his demon personality with him, he had also become human. Had become Shuichi Minamino.

And Shuichi Minamino had one heck of a conscience.

"I heard him screaming at me, and begging me not to kill him!" Kurama continued, all restraint dissolved. "I just ignored him; I couldn't listen to him, I wouldn't listen to him! It was just a stupid game! Why did Sensui make me do that? Why did I let myself do that? It wasn't fair to him!"

I wasn't there. I didn't know what to say to him to make it all right. He had killed a kid, and no matter what motives he might have had, there was no getting around that. He was just going to have to deal with it.

And that's when I had my epiphany. Kurama had to deal with this!

Yes, it sounded simple, but really, it was a breakthrough. We had all been wrong about this whole situation. It wasn't that Kurama couldn't deal with what was bothering him. It was simply that he didn't! He'd put off his emotional maintenance for so long, that finally taking care of his problems was going to be a huge, gut-wrenching task for him. But, he was, after all, Kurama. He was much tougher than he looked, especially if he could carry all this baggage. He just needed a chance to let it out.

That realization being made, I sat back and let him scream. I let him spill his every thought, question, concern and outburst of emotion for everything he felt while stuck in that cave with the game-playing brat. And I just listened. I let him talk, scream, and rant about himself and everybody even remotely involved.

"You certainly seem to be enjoying your high school life, Kuwabara." Now I got it. He did envy me. They all did.

They knew I wasn't like them, hardened and cynical. They knew that when the fighting was all over, I would go back to being normal, and happy. And they all wanted to protect that in me. Even Hiei, the egotistical, ornery, wonderful, little shrimp. But as for themselves...

Hiei had his reasons for being a loner, and had come across a few more while I'd known him. The fact that he even had us for friends was an improvement. Though he seemed to live from life and death struggles, I could see that they were beginning to wear him down. He was tired of fighting.

Urameshi's home life had messed him up long before he became the Spirit Detective. If he didn't end up doing twenty five to life, it was already more that anyone had hoped for. His experiences with Spirit World made him grow up incredibly fast, (though, he'd always be a pain in the butt,) and in some ways, it was a good thing. But it was also taking a toll on his conscience. Despite what his teachers thought, Yusuke Urameshi didn't really like to cause people pain and grief.

As for our favorite Fox Demon, I think even the Buddha expected him to join Urameshi in the pen someday. But now, the majority of his world revolved around pleasing his mother. He wanted to be a normal human, while retaining his demonhood. Not only did those two things not mix well, but having to fight for it had put an even greater rift between his conflicting ideals. He'd become so entrenched in lies and death, that I don't think he even trusted himself anymore.

Yeah, I enjoyed myself as a normal teenager. I did homework, played video games, hung out with my friends. I felt good about my achievements, and worked harder to overcome weaknesses. I could go a week without talking about a possible apocalypse. I could go for days without looking over my shoulder and wondering who might be watching me. When I was with my friends, it never crossed my mind that one day I might be forced to fight them, or the other way around. I could be with my family, without having to plan out how I was going to protect them once they left my sight. I didn't live in fear that these people might be used to hurt me. I could see the sunrise, without wondering if it was going to be my last. When Botan went flying by, I didn't wonder if she was coming to take someone to the next world.

That was something they could never have.

When Urameshi kicked the bucket the first time, he learned that life had meaning, Hell sucked, ghosts had it rough, sometimes people were fickle, Death wore a pink kimono and nothing is ever given without a catch. I learned: "Look both ways before you cross the street."

Hiei got arrested, and learned there's a high price for theft, monologue-ing distracts you from fighting, stupid people can be smart, people you were planning on killing tend to join the other side, community service sucks, Koenma's not merciful when a his father's spankings are on the line, working with humans brands you for life and criminal records really do last forever. I learned: "Spirit energy is like laser light."

Kurama did well in school, and learned that popularity has a downside, hard work does not always reap rewards, all his teammates are idiots, never take Botan on a mission requiring intelligence, never take Hiei on a mission involving restraint, people are cruel, and become violently jealous of one's success, being able to control plants can make you look like a 'freak', and how to have a conversation when limited to less than five colloquial syllables. I learned how to spell the word "H-O-T".

I felt that the world was a happy, fairly safe place. They had learned that it was harsh, unfair, and dangerous. The Dark Tournament had taught them that. Sensui had taught them that. Yakumo taught them that. Life had taught it to them, but they shielded it all from me.

Eventually, Kurama calmed down a bit, and I was able to remind him that the fate of the world kind of hung on that one kid's life, and that Koenma had brought him back.

I think he might have actually listened.

I let him talk a little more, about anything that entered into his head. I learned a lot more about him than I probably needed to know, but that was okay. It was good to know that he trusted me, that he wanted me to know these things about him.

"I don't know what I want to do in the future," he told me honestly. "I was so concerned with escaping from my past… I'm not sure what it is I do want." I didn't completely understand where Kurama was coming from, but I did know what it was like to be indecisive. I didn't know he did, though. "But I feel sort of guilty, having gotten into the best schools, and being offered the best jobs… when everybody thinks I'm someone I'm not. Like I don't deserve it."

"Believe me, you deserve everything you get. You work hard, and I can't think of anyone that spends more time at school than you do. You're not a bad guy, Kurama. You'll figure out what you need."

He seemed to be feeling a bit better, and I was glad for that. Because I didn't know what on earth I would have done if he hadn't. Probably taken him to a shrink, or to Genkai, who, in times of dire need, could function in the same capacity.

But, he was talking. He was going to be okay. For now, anyway; he still had about five thousand other issues to resolve. But, hopefully, now that he'd been through this once, it wouldn't be so hard for him to let one of his friends be a listening ear.

Urameshi, Hiei and I were different. I vocalized nearly everything I thought, and even if the other two tried to keep things hidden, it didn't last long. Eventually, they'd crack and let everything out, and occasionally do something really stupid in the process. However, Kurama was able to hold things in for, well, apparently centuries. But even he had to have a catharsis someday. I supposed we just weren't ready for it.

We weren't the smartest group of guys. That had always been Kurama's job. But, we could be there for the others when things got rough, and if there was one thing we knew, it was that Kurama was a decent human being. We could keep reminding him of that, and hopefully, he'd be able to handle the rest, just a little at a time.

A little at a time, he'd walk away from this. We all would.

"Sometimes," the redhead continued, significantly more relaxed. "I wish I could just tell everybody who I really am." He smiled slightly. "And just live. Go to college, get a job, and compete in the occasional tournament. Have a home in the city, and a home in the demon plane. Not having to worry about hiding things, or being accepted… Not worrying about being human, or being demon, just being… alive." He shook his head to clear it. "Is that too much to ask?"

"No," I answered, but I knew he might never get that. Humans liked hunting powerful demons. And because of that, Kurama was going to have to get a lot stronger. He had more backs to watch than just his own, these days. And despite whatever "honor system" that had been cooked up in Demon World, as a "human lover", Kurama was never going to live easy. And he'd racked up way too many enemies in his time.

He was just going to have to settle for what he had. "Even if my mother, and my step family, and the people at school didn't try to kill me," he said wryly, realizing his own situation, "There'll always be that bounty hunter out there… There's always going to be beings like Yomi, like Yakumo's minions, like Kaito, people who want revenge. There's always going to be people wanting to fight, and there's always going to be people who want revenge after I beat them. I can't escape that…" He ran a hand through his hair. "I hate Koenma…"

That last part was in a whisper, and even though it sounded vehement, I knew he didn't really mean it. But, at the moment, I shared his frustration. I don't think Koenma really had any idea what he'd put these three through. What he might have put me through, if they hadn't protected my naivety. Good things had come of the unlikely alliance, but more than bad karma had been accumulated, too.

"You know… if you ever need help," I offered, and he smiled at me. His eyes were kind of tired, but grateful. "You've got four good friends who'll always be ready to jump in. And a whole host of people who can be rounded up with a little notice." He laughed, nodding his head.

"Thank you, Kuwabara." Slowly, he got to his feet. "Thanks for listening. I really needed it."

No kidding, Sherlock, I thought to myself, but just patted him on the back. "Anytime. Whenever you need someone to blab to." He'd probably be taking me up on that several times.

And that would be just fine with me.

We made it back to the camp, relieved to find that the rain had stopped. Urameshi and Hiei were busy trying to make sense of the shelter Kurama had grown, even suggesting that they just tear it down and use it for fuel. Kurama had to jump in quickly to save his plants, some which turned out to be from the demon plane.

I just sat back and watched them chase each other around, bickering. It didn't bother me that I was maybe a little out of the loop these days. Just because I hadn't been off fighting with them, didn't mean that I'd been replaced, or that our bond had changed. They still wanted me, and, oddly enough, they needed me.

I wondered if the other three sometimes felt like they were the odd man out. After all, we really were so different.

Urameshi was holding a plant dangerously close to the fire, while Kurama frantically tried to shrink it back into a seed, yelling something about it being extremely rare. I don't think Urameshi noticed the angry vines rising up menacingly behind him, but Hiei did, and was awaiting the impending scuffle with a smirk on his face. I just grinned. Normally, I'd be a good friend and warn him, but I knew better than to mess with Kurama's plants. Urameshi, on the other hand, had to keep tempting fate.

The guy just couldn't stand for life to be boring, and had to go off creating his own excitement, usually by tormenting his friends. But it was just who he was, and I think even Hiei accepted it about him. Certainly Keiko did, though she and Botan were constantly trying to remind him that there was a time and a place for certain things.

Of course he felt out of place. He didn't have to have a reason for it; he just was, since the day he was born. His mom had been a teenager, and his dad was a no-show. Even though Atsuko loved her kid, I bet Urameshi got the impression he wasn't really wanted. He didn't fit in at school, with his bad neighborhood and a mother who supported herself by extorting money from others. He didn't fit into any gangs, since he was so strong, he scared even the guys on his side. He didn't fit in as a ghost, and there were only three people he could call his friends. One was me, whom he didn't really like and we were always fighting anyway. Botan, the ferry girl who constantly whacked him upside the head with an oar. And Keiko, who would slap him less frequently across the face. And since he liked her so much, I think those slaps hurt more than Botan and her stick of solid wood.

He was only just learning that he wasn't alone, that people really did respect him, and believed in him. That he wasn't just a screw up. He had a lot of things undecided still in his heart, like where he was going, and what he wanted. I think he'd only just got a handle on who he was, though it was contrasting heavily with what society had been saying about him for years. Though he seemed like a tough guy, his soul was pretty worn out, and needed to be treated gently.

I laughed to myself. He'd beat me up if he knew I was thinking such stuff about him. Not that he was capable of it right now; Kurama's vines were beating the crap out of him.

Eventually, I managed to calm them down, (no help from Hiei) and we were able to re-set camp up and get back into our sleeping bags. Yusuke dropped off like a rock, snoring loudly, and Kurama appeared to finally get to bed, but I couldn't sleep. As I stared up at the cloud-filled sky, trying to find a star or two that were brave enough to poke through the haze, I noticed that Hiei was still awake as well. Doing the same thing I was, actually.

Shelving the curiosity on whether or not he ever actually slept with both his eyes closed, I followed his gaze to Kurama, who was slumbering more or less peacefully. Hiei had a strange look on his face. I imagine he knew I was watching him, but I don't think he cared. That unnerved me more than anything else about him.

Those two were close, I noted, as Hiei's expression as he watched Kurama was… peaceful. If I really wanted to go out on a limb, I'd have said it was happy. The demon duo weren't quite like Kurama and Urameshi, but I had a feeling they could get there. More importantly, they had an understanding of each other that differed than any other member of the group, and a bond that absolutely nothing could break, even if Hiei wouldn't admit it.

Each had a dark side to them. Hiei seemed cold and unemotional, but even though I didn't know the details of his past, I knew there was something more there. Something tragic, and heartbreaking. I knew anger wasn't the only emotion he could show, and if Yukina was his sister… than there was so much about him that I never really saw.

It didn't take a genius to see that there were things in his past he didn't want to talk about. Probably didn't even want to remember. He grew up in the world of demons, and that had made him who he was. It may have accounted for the bond Hiei and Kurama shared, even when on opposing sides. This was something they could understand in the other. Living out their lives, alone, in a place that was dark, cold, and dead. Depending only on strength, not even knowing what it was like to cry.

"You are stronger than us. Unfortunately, that's the only thing that matters here in Demon World." Kurama said that to Sensui. I didn't understand the wistful tone of his voice at the time, but now I got it. Urameshi lived with the humans. Whatever his heritage, he was human. He was of the species where one guy would stand in front of a line of tanks, to protect family, home and a dream of peace. He was of the race of beings where five guys take on an army, teens jump in front of cars to save little kids, and someone gives up his life to help a friend he barely knows. And in Human World, that counted for something. In Human World, that produced miracles. In Demon World, it did not.

Hiei was something of a rebel, and though I didn't understand him… on a small level, maybe I did. His memories, which were more like a never ending battle than a soothing comfort, filled his heart with a sorrow that I'd never felt. And because I couldn't understand that, I think a part of me knew that I couldn't expect him to be me. I couldn't expect him to be anything but Hiei, the eternal rebel. The guy who walked alone, as if to defy the thousands of people who clumped together on the city streets. It was a lonely life, but I think that the worst thing about it was that he didn't realize how lonely he was. He always seemed shocked by our acts of friendship, as if a bursting fire had pierced a hole in his icy heart, but always shook it off, saying he didn't care about such things like kindness, and warmth. I think he was scared. Rather lonely, than be trapped and hurt. To me, it seems cowardly, but when I think of Hiei, that's not what comes to mind. I see him as strong, just as much as I think of him as a big pain in the rear. Nobody who doesn't know the kind of sleepless nights he has can ever have his strength.

And that's what I don't have, I think. That's what makes me different from the rest of the team. They have that strength, and I don't. But, then, when I think of the price they paid for it, not even really wanting it, I have to ask myself, do I really want it myself?

Hiei breaks into my thoughts with a simple statement. "You understand Kurama."

There was a lot of subtext in that, and probably more than I wanted to go digging for, so I said nothing. He let his statement land for a minute, before shrugging and leaning against a rock. He pulled his sleeping bag around his shoulders and said the second most shocking thing I'd ever heard leave his mouth. "Maybe you're not so dumb."

This was immediately followed by the first most shocking thing he'd ever said. "Frankly, Yukina's too good for any normal human, or demon, and Yusuke's just too much of an idiot to take care of her right." He kicked Kurama's leg lightly, earning a muffled grumble. "I don't trust this clown as far as I can throw him." Arms behind his head, he closed his eyes with the apparent intent of going to sleep. "You just may be the best I can get."

I blinked. Was he… giving his blessing, or something equally unexpected? "What do you mean?" I sputtered.

He yawned, mumbling as he made his way to dreamland. "A mulberry is a mulberry… And Kazuma Kuwabara is a man…" he trailed off.

I had to sit up and digest that for a minute. He actually said…

You know, Hiei didn't seem so short, at that moment.

"Hey, nitwit. Shut your gaping mouth and go to bed. You look like a beached carp." Well, back to normal. It was Hiei, after all. But there was a grin on my face as I replied.

"Oh, shove it, Hamster Legs."

I didn't go to bed, though I did lay back down. Hiei was sleeping silently against his rock, Kurama on my left side and Urameshi a few feet away, snoring monstrously. I couldn't help but marvel at the paths our lives had taken to get us here. Kurama and Hiei, clashing over who knows what, and Urameshi and I slugging it out for about the same purposes. Occasionally teaming up, and growing to need each other. Then, the Three Treasures, and the two demons met the human detective. Kurama splits from Hiei to help Urameshi, and Hiei swore to massacre them both. The demons go to jail, and Yusuke and I meet up for Rando. We all go out to defeat the four beasts; demons get acquitted. The four of us get roped into this psycho tournament, and then, seemingly, go our separate ways.

Then, Yusuke gets kidnapped. Kurama rushes to help; Hiei has to be bribed. Hiei ditches us for a time, Kurama goes through Hell, Yusuke gets his butt kicked and I get kidnapped. Everybody rallies to save me, Yusuke dies, we take on Sensui, perfectly okay with the knowledge that we're probably just gonna die, and then Yusuke comes back. We save the world, and everybody who's not me is suddenly an enemy of the state.

And then, Yusuke goes off to see his ancestral-whatever dad, and become the king of Demon World. Hiei goes off to reconcile some personal issues, and if anyone actually knows what was going on in Kurama's head, they deserve a medal. After it looks like they might end up all killing each other, Urameshi suddenly has a brainwave that makes it so they only have to fight each other. Hiei loses, Urameshi loses, Kurama wins, but is too injured to go on, and the three leave demon world a little better than they found it. Hiei serves on patrol, even though we all know he could bolt at anytime if he wanted. Urameshi finally hooks up with Keiko and picks fights with Jin and Chu whenever he feels like it. And Kurama goes back to the whole good student thing.

And then, there's me. I'm in a good high school, and with such a good standing that I can get into a good university, something that a few years ago, I never would have dreamed I was capable of.

We all started in different places, but our paths kept crossing. And even though they split apart, letting us take our own separate journeys, we all ended up at the same place.

Here, on this hill, sleeping under a cloud filled sky that masked the bright stars twinkling. Even if one of us were to leave now and climb over this hill, I knew that someday, we'd meet back up. I think our hearts are too close now, to ever really leave one another behind.

I looked over at my companions, and I realized that I was the only one not sleeping. Yes, it should have been obvious, but I didn't think Hiei the type to truly sleep, or Kurama for that matter. Not as peacefully as they were. In fact, by the contented look on the redhead's face, you'd think he was home in his own bed. And Yusuke actually looked like a normal teenager, out camping with his friends, instead of a guy who'd knock off a liquor store for kicks. They were all… normal.

Something they didn't think they were.

And truth be told, I guess they weren't, when you got down to details, but in their hearts, their souls… they were just like me. Moving forward, improving and growing closer to the people we wanted to be. The people we were meant to be.

My buddies… talking about our friendship was so awkward, especially when you mixed Urameshi and Hiei into it, and Kurama just didn't talk, but… there's nothing wrong with guys needing each other. I believed that, and I think they did, too. They showed it to me by their actions, even if they couldn't in their words.

And then, I didn't feel so far out of the loop. Yes, I was different than all of them, had been through different things, and couldn't comprehend the nightmares in their pasts, but still…

I understood Kurama.

I could see value of Urameshi, even when he was at his worst.

And I had Hiei's respect.

I wasn't the odd man out, I was the fourth wheel that kept our unsteady vehicle moving towards our future, and kept it from collapsing and crashing along the way. There was always a place for me here, even among three demons, and I had something they would always need me to provide, until they finally healed.

They needed my humanity. My never-sleeping kindness, my courage, my honor code, and, dare I say it, my naivety. I had thought they were trying to protect that in me, sometimes, and now, I had an inkling why. Without it, they'd just be lost. I completed the group.

Not that they still didn't have a long way to go, if anything had been gleaned from my little heart-to-heart with Kurama. I sighed. They were still a little lost. "But I won't accept being lost, anymore," I found myself whispering, eyes drifting over my weary friends. "I swear it."

They all had their dark sides, and the lonely places in their hearts. Things they needed to learn, work through, experience. But they'd be okay. They had me, and I'd be with them the entire way, like I always had. In the midst of their oppressing darkness, I could be a light, and if I had no further purpose on the team, I could be that.

I would be honored to be that, in fact.

I watched them sleep a little longer before giving in to my own tired eyes. Yusuke, still snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Kurama, looking so comfortable that I began to wonder if this was the first nightmare-free sleep he'd had in years. And Hiei, as still as the rock he was leaning against. I looked up at the clouds that had finally parted, showing the stars twinkling with our dreams of the future.

We'd be alright. A little at a time, we'd walk away from this.

The four of us together.