Some thousands of points of light clustered together on the curved sheet of the world and marked out one of the domiciles of man. The city lay quiet this evening, crises of both natural and supernatural kind declining to disturb the peace. Families were finishing their dinners, the white tern was returning to where it had balanced its egg, day things cringed from the gathering dark, night things stretched and savoured the new night, and a red-haired boy sat on the roof of the local hospital, a small round mirror in one hand, kicking his heels absently against the stucco and looking out across the houses.
The most immediately peculiar thing was that nobody had raised a cry about him. There he was, perched several stories above the pavement, outside of the netting placed around the edges to forestall accidents, and not one person seemed to have noticed. If he had chosen to pitch himself to earth and perish, no one would have had a word to say about it until he had already hit the ground.
Not that he would throw his life away so foolishly. No, he had other uses for that commodity. Uses that should come to pass tomorrow night, when the full moon rose.
So now, with so little future to consider, his mind seemed intent to dwell on everything of the past which had led up to this day, and for once he indulged himself, casting his mind's eye languidly backward as far as it would go.
He could not remember a time when he had not been a thief. It was a way of life he had taken to before he was strong enough to live any other way, and then had never left behind, because there he had discovered his talent. Centuries had come and gone, each leaving him stronger and craftier than the one before. He had first begun to pass into legend in those early bandit days, robbing fortresses and waylaying the more unlucky class of rich traveler. Those were the days when he had still been weak enough to require the support of a band. There had been fifty of them, give or take, and they had been notorious in a localized sort of way. He could have carved out a territory, then. A little kingdom that he would have fought to keep thorn and nail and icy stare until he grew too powerful to challenge; or else, what was more likely, someone had planted a sword in his back and beheaded him with their other hand, and finished him.
But he hadn't wanted that. It was more than the fact that something in him was not willing to settle into and be bound by a territory. It also had to do with more than what had happened to Yomi, though he laid some blame with that incident as well. He had set that assassin because the boy – he really had been a boy then, hardly older than Hiei, and centuries behind inside his head – had become too much of a nuisance. Kurama had been tired of bailing him out, tired of listening to his madcap follies, tired of him endangering the rest of the band and Kurama's own authority. So he had done what he always did with an unnecessary twig. Cut it off.
But it nagged at him, even then. He hadn't felt guilt precisely, but he had – regretted the action. Something had been removed from the world, and it was not simply the loss of Yomi's presence as lieutenant that had cast a pall over his band of thieves. He had heard since that a blind lord of that name, who more or less fit Yomi's description, had become exceedingly powerful in the past few centuries. He had wondered if it was his old subordinate, alive after all, and found himself hoping it was. If so, that boy must have grown up a great deal. How he would laugh at Kurama now.
The fox had disbanded his thieves not too long after getting rid of Yomi. Increased his strength in solitude until falling in with Kuronue. Kurama smiled a little and leaned back against the fencing with a clink as that name came up for its turn in his mind. They had not become friends all at once, to be sure, but over an acquaintance spanning nearly two centuries an unequalled understanding had been established between them. Their temperaments were more complimentary than similar, and more than once had they sworn never to speak to one another again after some altercation over Kuronue's rashness or Kurama's habit of playing everything so close to the chest. But somehow, incredibly, it had worked. They had done great things together, and enjoyed them. The youth that Kurama had never had and that Kuronue had never abandoned they had stolen from time and stretched to fit them. They had laughed at cheating death. Kurama had always dealt with Lord Death, until that time, in a sensible breakneck manner, letting him exactly as close as necessary, and no closer. After all, his memory did not properly begin until he was already an adult fox – self-sufficient and nearly powerless, except as strong jaws, quick paws, and an already sharp mind counted for power. And then they were chaotic, confused memories, and often desperate as well, for a fox is caught in an uncomfortable place between hunter and hunted. Even large birds consider fox a reasonable meal, and fox has to run after anything likely to serve as food, all the way down to grasshoppers. It had taken many years of determinedly not dying to grow into the powers attributed to his species. To become clever enough to scheme, powerful enough to trick and cheat and disguise himself. To cross the border into the demon realm and go on more than ever following that simple rule, and no matter what happened simply not dying.
Humans tended to think of demons as a single kindred despite all their obvious differences, as humans were all the same under their skins, but they were wrong. Demons had a thousand origins, often with no point relating them but the fact that they were alive. He himself was born of the human world; he had its waters in his veins and its sky lodged behind his eyes.
Perhaps that was why he had come back there, after not-dying had almost failed, when he had been fleeing alone, his flesh that had sheltered him for thousands of years left to rot in a tolgy wood halfway between the spirit and demon worlds. Eyeless, half-mindless, panicked, his diminished being had wriggled its way from the eternally descending demon planes, through some crack in reality into cool night and soft air, and the world had welcomed him. The place his spirit had been born and still recognized as home. A place that promised refuge – if not here, now, in this place, then somewhere, somewhen, if you were willing to look.
And Kurama had found one. Greedy, hurried, anxious to live, he had found an uninhabited body and snapped it up. Of course, it would mean starting over again. Building his power up from nothing, waiting for perhaps hundreds of years before he became again a force to be reckoned with. That was sufferable, if it allowed him to keep living. To hold onto life, he would do anything. He had lived that way through every acquaintance he had ever had, every place he had briefly called home, every precious thing he had made his own and every enemy he had cut down before they could touch him. Kurama might be complicated, might be deep, but his basic tenet of life was very simple. He would not die.
So it was strange, reflected Kurama, that he had come so far from that ideal in these few years, that he was ready to give up life for someone else. Perhaps it was true that the human soul was writ large, to let them pack as much as they could into their hurried little lives.
Yes, he decided, running his thumb around the gem set into the top of the mirror, the human soul was writ large, and poured illumination recklessly into other souls and the air around it. That was what those thousand lights spreading across the immediate world were to him. The shine of lives, burning themselves up so quickly and so brilliantly.
And yet, in the end, not so different from the banked fires that lived in demons. We live longer, Kurama thought, but I don't know that I can say we live more. He turned his face up, eyes closed, to feel the tingle of more distant lights, stars sharing their warmth with other spinning stones than this one. I have lived as one of you, he told the lights below, and let my flame burn almost as high, and soon I will have burned all I have, and go to ash as you do.
Because not so far below him, through the hospital roof, was another light, one he would not let go out until its last possible instant.