Standard Disclaimers: Inuyasha and Yuu Yuu Hakusho belong respectively to Rumiko Takahashi and Yoshihiro Togashi.
A/N: I appreciate those of you who understand why I'm hesitating to update my two main pieces. Hopefully circumstances will play out in a way that I can pick back up soon, but in the meantime, I figured I would switch up with a few little random pieces.
Smoke and Mirrors
"This is ridiculous."
Kurama glanced down at the hybrid with a faint, suspicious frown tugging at his lips. It was far from the first time Hiei had been reluctant to carry out an interrogation assignment involving humans, but for some reason, he was being exceptionally belligerent this time. Not to mention vocal.
Where normally he would show his displeasure through oppressive silence and dark scowls, this was the third time he'd spoken up to indirectly convince them not to visit this shrine.
"Not all humans are so oblivious to spirits that they can't be helpful." Kurama decided Kurabara probably wouldn't make the best example given his audience, and settled for leaving it at that. He tried to catch the shorter youkai's attention to read into his oddly stubborn resistance, but Hiei pointedly ignored his attempts. Kurama sighed in temporary defeat and went back to memorizing the new surroundings, absently drawing in bits of energy to familiarize himself to the local spirits. "According to our research, this is an old and reputable shrine."
"Just like the last shrine?" Hiei finally slanted him a mocking look, reminding him of the particularly spectacular failure they'd already experienced this morning.
Kurama lips quirked in a humorless smile and he glanced over the hybrid's head at Yuusuke. He waited for the retrograde's shoulders to hunch in embarrassment before he drawled out, "That place was not a part of my research."
"I'd suggest not using such collective terms then," Hiei snorted and stuffed his hands down into his pockets. "You never know who might be listening, and you have a reputation to maintain."
"How was I supposed to know?" Yuusuke muttered irritably. "Koenma said to check the shrines, I grabbed a directory."
Kurama sighed more heavily, but he decided he would be better served keeping his distaste for Yuusuke's methods to himself. In favor of avoiding unnecessary arguments and headaches it would inevitably cause him. Instead, he settled for sliding a hand through his hair and pushing it back over his shoulder while he reached out his youki to taste the trees that nearly hid the shrine's steps. "You can't discern a shrine's potential by picking the name out of a book, Yuusuke."
"Yeah, well." Yuusuke came to a stop at the bottom of the steps and scowled up at the torii gates. "I'm with Hiei on this one. What help can we get here that we can't get the usual ways?"
Kurama frowned at Yuusuke for being obtuse, and more pointedly at Hiei for encouraging it. "Reikai is not capable of purifying intense and excessive jyaki from artifacts in the same way a natural miko or monk can." When Yuusuke opened his mouth again, Kurama help up a hand to cut him off. "Just think of it this way. The sooner you stop complaining and we find out if the caretaker has reliable abilities or suggestions, the sooner we can leave."
Yuusuke glared at him, but finally laced his fingers behind his head and started up the steps. "Fine. After this we're stopping for lunch."
Hiei's eyes narrowed as Kurabara followed Yuusuke without question. Gritting his teeth, he hung back and silently pondered how believable it would be to have one of trees mysteriously come down on their heads. At least until Kurama came to stand beside him and ruined the pleasant fantasy.
The kitsune stared up the steps, smirking faintly when the half-hearted bickering between their companions resumed right where they'd left off. If he'd known him any less, Hiei might even have believed the younger men had Kurama's full attention.
They both knew better.
Kurama shook his head and glanced down at the unmoved hybrid with one brow arched in silent question.
Hiei still didn't bother to look at him as he answered, "There is no reason for Koenma to be interested in this place."
"Every spirit I've asked said this shrine has someone strong in traditional purification. Someone who would understand what we're asking and why," Kurama assured him, waiting to see if Hiei would challenge his information. "I don't particularly enjoy wasting my time either, Hiei. I was very thorough in my inquiries."
"You're not as all-knowing as you think," Hiei's words held a definite note of warning.
Kurama frowned as he watched Hiei grudgingly start up the steps, hesitating only a moment before he shook his head again and followed. Whatever the reason for Hiei's odd behavior, he wasn't going to figure it out falling behind.
"You know." Yuusuke twisted slightly to make sure his voice carried down the steps as they continued to climb. "I got a whole new appreciation for the stairs most of these places have."
When he seemed to be waiting for someone to question that claim, Kurama resisted the urge to roll his eyes but obliged him. "Why is that, Yuusuke?"
"If you're going to go worship some chick, the least she can do is live somewhere that she's spending enough time on these babies to give herself a smoking hot ass." Yuusuke grinned cheekily, laughing when Hiei flashed him a dry, unappreciative glare.
Kurabara's brows drew together in disapproving censure. "If we're meeting a miko, Urameshi, you should be more respectful. You can't treat a holy person like that."
"Right, and you've met so m-" Yuusuke's intended taunt died mid-word, and his steps faltered as he reached the top of the steps and found himself looking into the shrine's courtyard.
Or, more accurately, looking at a young boy with thick, black hair who appeared for all the world to be waiting for them.
His hands were tightening on the broom he held the longer they stared, unconcerned that the bamboo shaft stood just as tall as he was. But there was a wariness in his eyes, and a subtly defensive hint to his stance that suggested he was fully aware of just what they were. Which, admittedly would have all been normal enough given their nature and the strength of these grounds…
If the boy hadn't been scowling at him with claret eyes set in a disturbingly familiar face.
Undaunted by the way each of his companions had gone silent and still the instant they reached the top step, Hiei casually maneuvered around the frozen detectives and continued toward the child. With every step, his eyes absently scanned the grounds and his aura flared in a habitual, more thorough search for anything that might be out of place. Satisfied at the undisturbed calm that wrapped around him in the answering brush of power, he moved to stand in front of the boy and waited.
After one more glare daring the strangers to try coming closer, the boy's eyes to grudgingly left the "threat" and moved up to Hiei.
Hiei slid his hands out of his pockets and held one palm up in a silent order. The boy blinked, nodded, and passed the broom into the hybrid's open hand before turning to disappear into the house.
Yuusuke stared in disbelief at Hiei, his mind almost frantically working to process the hybrid's casual familiarity with what they had all thought was a completely random, unknown shrine. Temper rising at being ignored, his eyes narrowed as he willed Hiei to face them rather than stare so relaxed at the two-story house. At the human house smack in the middle of ground that vibrated with so much holy energy it practically pooled around their ankles.
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, Yuusuke paused and narrowed his eyes on the line of Hiei's shoulders. Rethinking what he'd just observed, he tested it out against the object of his scrutiny again and frowned. Everything about him practically screamed that this place was familiar to him.
There were a million questions fighting in his throat, and yet not one of them was managing to make it to his mouth. The distracted, vague thought went through his head that it was glaringly obvious Kurama's research hadn't been quite as thorough as they had thought.
Well, as thorough as they had come to expect in his work, really. But considering what it seemed Kurama's inquiries had been up against, Yuusuke couldn't fault the kitsune in that.
Hiei had been trying to manipulate them into avoiding this shrine.
Because Hiei hadn't wanted them here.
Because he'd been there before.
And that boy-
A small, black blur suddenly came streaking out of the window beside the door and slammed against Hiei side. The hybrid didn't so much as flinch as a much younger child with the same black hair wrapped little arms around Hiei's shoulder and squeezed with all his strength. Well aware he had an unwelcome audience watching his every move, Hiei subtly turned his body even as he tilted his head to stare down at the blatant adoration filling those luminous blue eyes. Satisfied with the privacy his position would grant, he let his expression soften just enough for the child to see. The smile it brought to the boy's face was nearly blinding, and he enthusiastically went right back to squeezing Hiei's arm.
The distinct creak of the door opening broke the awkward silence in the yard, the sound automatically drawing their attention away from the bizarre sight to find the source. As it swung wider, a young woman stepped out of the house with a strange sort of hesitating precision and almost excessive care. The instant she passed the door, however, all eyes -to a one- dropped straight down to her stomach and found the cause.
Even without the emphasis of the light blue fabric stretched across the faint rounding of her stomach, there was no mistaking the woman's present condition. But it was the delighted recognition that lit her eyes at seeing Hiei combined with the coincidentally familiar features of the two children that gave Kurama serious concerns for the mental health of his other companions.
Especially once she graced the hybrid with a private sort of smile no man with an ounce of experience could mistake and walked over to tug the child off his arm.
"You're early." Her voice was soft, warm, and directed entirely towards the silent hybrid without sparing so much as a glance toward the rest of her visitors.
"Something came up," Hiei answered with a nonchalance that had Yuusuke nearly choking on his own tongue.
"I was trying to sit him down for lunch." There was a scolding note in the words, but it was nearly buried under more exasperated affection.
Hiei didn't comment on that, but shifted to face her while she expertly disengaged the child despite his whine of protest. Once she set him on her hip, the whining abruptly stopped as the boy's full attention redirected to her stomach. And to Kurama's amusement, he sprawled out over the lump and set his ear on it with a look of intense concentration.
She chuckled at what seemed to be a usual occurrence, stroking his back soothingly before she let her arm fall back to her side. A flicker of movement at her side drew Kurama's attention just in time to see Hiei trace his fingertips discreetly down the woman's arm and brush across the inside of her wrist.
Raising his eyes to Hiei's unchanged expression, Kurama struggled to keep the incredulity out of his expression. The caress was over almost as quickly as it had begun, and so subtle that he might have missed it if he hadn't been watching the pair so intently. Even so, there was no mistaking that Hiei had just verified his suspicion.
Inwardly excited at this unbelievable development, Kurama turned a calculating stare on Kagome, alert to how she reacted. She shifted her weight in a way that would have looked entirely innocent if not for how the slight sway brushed her shoulder against the stoic hybrid. Yet in the same motion, she finally turned to face the rest of them with open curiosity.
Kurama carefully held his expression into a calm mask to hide his delight at the smooth duality in her move. After all, it was far more interesting to silently observe the two, meticulously watching and analyzing each and every look that passed between them. The practiced way they pulled off every "innocent," fleeting touch somehow remained so perfectly private regardless of their audience.
This woman had an intimate relationship with Hiei.
And unless his instincts had broken beyond comprehension sometime in the last five minutes, Hiei fully encouraged and returned her affections.
When those dark blue eyes landed on Kurama, understanding dawned on her face and her smile changed from distantly polite to a more genuine welcome. "You must be the fox friend I've heard about."
Kurama glanced searchingly at Hiei, already nodding his head to agree with her assessment as he tried to discern just what part he was supposed to play in this game of theirs. "I'm afraid I-"
"Kagome is the caretaker of this shrine," Hiei cut him off before he could start asking questions. "She is aware of your existence."
Taking over quickly before any of them started in on Hiei, Kagome brought her other hand up to slide her fingers through the child's hair and draw attention back to them. "This is my youngest, Tomoharu." She smiled down at him when he patted her stomach carefully. "Although he says he's a big brother now that we have the baby coming."
"He says?" Kurama left the question hanging, pressing for verification of what he suspected she meant by that.
This time the tilt to her lips was just sly enough for his lips to twitch up in appreciation. "He takes after his father in some respects we didn't quite expect." That said, she continued on without giving him a chance to ask more, "You've met my oldest, Jun."
Hiei arched an eyebrow.
"He's teaching Haru what happens when you leave your plate undefended at the table," Kagome's voice dropped to a low murmur as she answered the silent inquiry.
Kurama coughed into his hand, struggling to hold in a chuckle at her disgruntled tone. "Have we interrupted you, Kagome-chan?"
Hiei's expression didn't change, but Kurama could feel the weight of the hybrid's disapproval pressing in on his aura. He stubbornly ignored it, never taking his gaze off Kagome as she flashed him another smile and shook her head. "It's all right. I don't have any appointments today, and my brother always comes over after school to help me stay on top of everything. He worries about me overdoing it almost as much as my husband sometimes."
"Your husband-?" Kurama brow kicked up suggestively and he finally flicked a discreet, sidelong look at Hiei to meet his heavy stare. It was rare enough to have Hiei in a corner, and despite the threat lurking in the hybrid's eyes, Kurama couldn't resist provoking him just a little.
"I'm afraid he's working right now, if that's the reason you came." Kagome's attention dropped down to her son again, stroking her fingers affectionately through his hair.
Knowing full well that there would be nothing helpful from Hiei, he refocused on Kagome and found himself momentarily enthralled by the picture she made with her little boy. This time he didn't bother to hide his chuckle when Tomoharu went back to petting her stomach so intently, only to twist that huge smile up on his mother in what he suspected was more silent communication. Reluctantly, he interrupted to clarify their reason for being here at her shrine. "Actually, I'm fairly certain we're here to see you."
Brows raising in surprise, Kagome started to speak when Tomoharu's giggle visibly disrupted her train of thought and had her attention dropping to her stomach. Her son ignored her soft, questioning hum to remain solely focused on the source of his new delight. When his petting paid off in the flutter of movement beneath him, he let out a happy squeak and tried to wrap his arms around her distended middle in an enthusiastic hug to "answer" the baby.
Kagome shook her head at his antics, rubbing his back with helpless amusement at the smug contentment radiating off him. Shaking her head, she brought herself back to the situation at hand and gestured toward the house. "Sorry. If you're here for me, would you like to-?"
"They can ask what they want here," Hiei interrupted sternly.
Kagome shot him a less than pleased frown at the blunt order.
Hiei met her look unflinchingly. "It won't take long. There's no need to go inside."
Kagome rolled her eyes, sliding her hands under Tomoharu's arms and lifting him up against her chest despite his grunt of protest at losing his favorite position. "I think I can handle having a friendly discussion with four boys."
"You are not currently in the proper condition to perform the type of consultation they're here for." Hiei let his eyes drop to her stomach in a way that might have seemed more condescending had Kurama not caught a hint of something very much like pleasure in the hybrid's eyes.
Her eyes narrowed, trying to cover the blush across her cheeks with the façade of anger. "That's my own-"
"Actually," Yuusuke reluctantly interjected, reaching up to rub the back of his head. Regardless of how badly he wanted to know what was going on, there were just some things that you didn't do. With that firmly in mind, he cleared his throat and glanced at his teammates for support before he nodded deliberately toward her stomach. "I ain't too sure Hiei's got the wrong idea."
Kagome's head tilted in confusion, ignoring the faint smirk she could see twisting Hiei's lips. "What?"
Kurabara winced at the "encouraging" kick Yuusuke landed on his ankle and bit back a curse when he found himself staring directly into the miko's eyes. Stiffening in nervous embarrassment, he pointedly refused to look down the same way Yuusuke had and cleared his throat before reluctant picking up where the retrograde left off. "Well, you're all pregnant…"
Kagome blinked, but her irritation instantly fizzled out at the humor in the blushing man's awkward excuse. Unable to resist the temptation, she set a hand on her stomach and teased, "I guess that's better than half. But then, it's usually pretty all or nothing where that's concerned, you know."
Kurama lifted his hand in front of his mouth and bit down on his lip to hide his smile. Habit had him ducking his head enough to hide his eyes with his bangs; effectively preventing Yuusuke and Kurabara from taking their cues off his reactions while leaving him free to enjoy the scene playing out in front of him. While Kurabara sought help from his teammates in silent, near-desperate stares, Hiei had already decided to ignore them in favor of slanting Kagome a look that quite clearly indicated the pair was involved in a private conversation.
Kurama carefully kept Yuusuke and Kurabara in his line of sight, but more actively watched Hiei from the corner of his eyes. Well aware that their invitation into Kagome's home hinged on the outcome of his decision.
Finally, the hybrid let out a faint sigh and stalked through the open door.
Unconcerned with his unenthusiastic assent, Kagome rested her hand on Tomoharu's back and pivoted to hold her arm up in a more openly inviting manner. "Come in and I'll see if there's anything I can do for you."
Recognizing the fickle nature of Hiei's approval, Kurama didn't bother waiting for the other two to recover their wits enough to start asking questions. With a bow to Kagome in respectful thanks, he hurried to take advantage of the temporary hospitality, but paused once he reached the door. Determined to garner favor with the more likely ally in this regard, he wrapped his fingers around the old wood and gestured elegantly for her to precede him into the house.
Kagome glanced up with a sardonic smile tugging at her lips that told him she quite clearly knew what he was doing and why. But she still dipped her head in gratitude for the show of courtesy before she absently braced her hand on the doorframe and stepped up into the genkan. He could have sworn he heard her murmur something unintelligible under her breath when she passed him, but he couldn't be certain if she'd intended it for his ears or for Tomoharu.
And to both his consternation and amusement, Kagome's face revealed nothing as she followed Hiei inside.