A/N: This started as a one-shot which quickly grew into a series (Humilty is next) and has now been turned into a podfic! Check out creator gwello at AO3 for the podfic
Scene One: Arrogance
"I have a question for you. Are you arrogant, or is your mother arrogant?"
Kurama turned with surprise to his window. There was-Hiei, that was the name he had given. Sitting on the windowsill like he owned it, one leg propped up and the other dangling, for all the world like he hadn't nearly died at Kurama's hands earlier that afternoon. Kurama had thought he'd seen the last of him when they parted ways at the warehouse-or at the very least, the last of him for tonight.
Kurama raised one eyebrow slightly, betraying only the mildest hint of his surprise. "You'll have to give me more than that before I can answer."
"You told me your name was Kurama. I can only think of three options; you gave me a pseudonym because you didn't want to reveal your real name, you've assumed the name for your own and are arrogant, or it really is your name and the person who named you is arrogant. Which is it?"
Kurama turned away to hide his smile. Nice to know he was still famous. "I'm arrogant. But that is my real name."
"Then your mother was arrogant too."
"The name didn't have any connotations when she gave it to me."
"You expect me to believe that you're that old?"
"If you're telling the truth, then this is the sum total of a thousand years of accumulating power-so you're either pathetic, or a liar."
"You fail to understand me," Kurama said simply, without affront. He recognized this kind of game-provoking anger to learn someone's secrets-and this little demon was no better at it than anyone he had ever played against.
Why, then, do I have every intention of telling him the truth?
"That was not one of your options for an answer."
Kurama turned, one hand extended to point at the exact center of Hiei's forehead. "That eye was acquired less than a year ago. You lost a lot of power when it was put in and you haven't gotten it back yet, and that was only for an eye. I have an entirely new body to cope with, and when I've finished training it to accept demon energy, you will not be so disappointed."
Hiei paused to consider for a moment. "I'll accept that you're telling the truth for a moment, then. But it doesn't have any bearing on your power level now."
"On the contrary. It gives you the vital information that, like yourself, I will be very powerful in a few years."
"And what name will you use then?
"I've already admitted as such."
"Is it honestly your name?"
Kurama couldn't help himself-he lifted a rose from a vase by his desk and started twirling it between his fingers. He had not started carrying one on his person yet, partly because he hadn't re-perfected materializing the whip and partly because there hadn't been a need, but he kept roses nearby nonetheless. Maybe it was time to start growing his hair out to conceal one in-maybe the need to carry one would come sooner than he thought. Maybe that need was sitting in his windowsill and sharply examining the stance he took with the rose, as he had been meant to. "How long ago did Youko Kurama die, exactly?" Kurama asked.
Hiei studied him for a long moment before reluctantly giving the answer Kurama had seen him arrive at immediately. "About as many years as that human body has."
"So you do believe me?"
Hiei shifted restlessly. "Why do you care so much?"
"You're the one who came back," Kurama pointed out. "The only thing it means to me is if you believe me you'll respect me, whereas if you don't you'll underestimate me and I'll likely wind up killing you someday."
"Respect you? A notorious demon thief like that having to flee to the human world to survive and living in their bodies and caring whether a dumb little schoolgirl lives or dies? You'd do better to hope I don't believe you, because if I do I'm going to be sick."
Kurama nearly snapped the rose's stem in annoyance. He had nearly killed this child, and then healed him when he was under no obligation to do so, and then told him he was Youko Kurama-and Hiei's disdain never wavered. Kurama would have liked to see him afraid. "Well, if you really need to engage in theatrics, be kind enough to stick your head out the window before you vomit."
Hiei eyed him. "Hardly the response you had hoped for when revealing that you were the Great Youko Kurama?"
Kurama resisted the urge to smile. That was an error, youngling-you think what you just said will provoke me, but all it does is tell me the response you referred to was also designed to provoke me, and not genuine. "No, not really. But we all suffer disappointments in this life."
"You don't care." Something in Hiei's eyes said that he knew they were playing a game, and enjoying it.
"Not much," Kurama said with a shrug and a shadow of a smile, also acknowledging the game.
"You really are arrogant. Picking out a human body so beau-so easy to identify and remember." Kurama had to work harder not to smile this time. He wondered if Hiei was attracted to men-that would make things even more interesting. "I bet you did that on purpose. And you are the only thief I know so arrogant as to steal someone else's body and inhabit it."
That stung ever so slightly-Kurama still felt vaguely guilty over evicting somebody else's soul-but he only shrugged again. "After awhile one runs out of challenges and must invent them."
"Who else knows about this? Who else can match Kurama's name to your body?"
Kurama didn't give an answer-didn't want to, but the bastard took one from his silence and grinned, a malicious, smug grin. "No one." Kurama realized he was scowling and forced himself to stop. "Why do you trust me?"
"I don't. I told you, I'm arrogant. I don't care if you know."
"You wouldn't have lived so long if you let arrogance make stupid mistakes for you. What makes you think I won't kill you now before you recover your strength?"
When he asked that question, Kurama suddenly discovered the answer, an explanation for his own actions, and his smile was suddenly as smooth and sly as Hiei's grin had been smug and malicious. "Why would you do that when you could have an ally with a thousand years experience instead, and no one would even realize what kind of power you'd allied yourself to? You have no reason in the world to kill me."
Hiei looked startled at Kurama's statement. It wasn't the fear that Kurama had hoped to see earlier, but he decided to count the visible reaction as a victory nonetheless. He pressed his point. "You can let it slip who I am, Hiei, and one of my old enemies will come and kill me while I'm weakened, but I'd have you killed or kill you myself first, depending on how much I'd come to respect you. You're the only person who knows my name and it will be obvious who betrayed me. On the other hand, you could shut up, sit down, and learn from me. Your fighting style is interesting, I'll admit, but your stealth and strategy leave much to be desired."
"Well-when you put it that way." Said with a complete deadpan, while moving to lean casually back against the windowsill. Kurama wondered if Hiei meant to be as hilarious as he was-he didn't strike Kurama as the type to have a sense of humor, but he consistently said humorous things with such a straight face that it made Kurama want to laugh. That could prove to be an endearing trait, someday. "I do wonder, though, what you think you're getting out of the situation? There has to be a reason you gave me your demon name in the first place."
"Perhaps because you are a demon."
"You don't politely introduce yourself to every demon you meet. There are more of us than that in this world."
Kurama twirled the rose slowly between his fingers. "Well... perhaps I'm sick of always pretending to be human. A little light exercise with the weaklings that usually manage to squeeze through to this world is one thing, but..." But you aren't like that. Things are changing. "Perhaps I'm ready to become a demon again."
There was a steel to Kurama's voice that he had not expected to be there. Ten hours ago, he wouldn't have even been able to conceive of saying something like that. He loved Shiori, liked her human world, enjoyed the goddamn stifling peace-but the slow, feral grin that was Hiei's response to that steel made Kurama want to say it again, shout it, see what more he could get from Hiei. Something about him was producing a response in Kurama, an answering feral readiness, a desire to take the whole world on just to find out how much they could do, just to see what they could make happen together. That was why Kurama had given this dark apparition his real name-because he sensed that the time for action was nearing. And he always worked better with a partner.
Hiei stood. "Well, I have affairs that still need to be dealt with-I'll have to push taking fox lessons to later."
There was clear mockery in his voice, but meant only to pique, not enrage-he had a sense of humor, alright. "I couldn't make a fox of you in a million years. But don't despair, we might be able to salvage something anyway."
He nearly smiled! Not a grin, malicious or feral, but a real smile-nearly. "The animal I associate with is not a fox, but a dragon," he informed Kurama, and the fox spared a moment to wonder why he'd picked a dragon. "So 'salvage' is not quite the right word. Technically, Kurama, you are the prey animal, and I am the predator."
Kurama couldn't help himself; he purred when he replied. "Oh, but technicalities are such boring, useless little things, aren't they?"
Half a smile-almost there. He would have to capture the rest of it later, because suddenly Hiei wasn't there and Kurama moved to the window only to see him standing on the lawn. "It'll be a few weeks."
"I'll leave the window open."
"For two weeks?"
"You don't strike me as the type to ring the doorbell. You have to come and go as you please, and damned with everyone else's convenience, isn't that right? Leaving the window open will be easiest. Just mind the plants, they're not exactly vegetarians."
"Any other booby traps I should know about?"
"No." None that you should know about.
"So you rely on your plants. Arrogant."
"I believe we've already established that," Kurama replied, having a sudden premonition that he would be getting used to that accusation. "Go deal with your 'affairs.'" And he shut the window, but stopped his hand before it would have automatically tripped the lock. He had a feeling he would be falling out of that habit soon.
Scene Two: Honor
"Please clarify something for me, Hiei. Are you ignorant, or genuinely stupid?"
This was Hiei's welcome back to the world as for the second time he woke to find himself lying, groggy and disoriented, in a rose-scented bed he did not remember getting into. His insightful and intelligent reply was "...What?"
The fox was brooding in the corner, watching him with intent eyes. "I've met people who fight like you before. No sense of strategy, getting goaded into obvious mistakes. They're very attached to their honor, and when they get killed they do it very honorably indeed. I don't partner them."
Hiei's head was in too much pain for him to follow the finer points of the fox's statement, but he got the gist. "We're already partners," he pointed out mildly, gingerly touching the wound at the back of his head.
"Yes, but not for much longer. The way you fight, someone will take you out for me soon."
"You regret working with me, then?" Not the most biting of replies, but Hiei felt it was to his credit that he could converse at all.
"Then there's no need to continue doing it."
"I'm afraid I can't allow the association to end, Hiei."
Kurama's eyes were suddenly blazing-even though he hadn't moved, not a fraction of an inch, suddenly all the light in the room was concentrated in his eyes and Hiei, for the first time, could see the king of thieves inside that skinny redhead. "You know my name."
"Your own damn fault."
"And I regret it. Arrogance, as you stated, is my flaw. And yours is being so attached to your honor that you'll die over it."
"Your conversation centers disconcertingly around me dying, fox."
"After your recent performance I can't help but have the subject on my mind. I will give you points for sheer energy, though-as I said before, your style's intriguing. But ultimately it's stupid. I don't know how you've survived this long, honestly, if you always act like that-and by the way, I don't know who this Yukina bitch is that you're looking for, but-"
Hiei hit him. Flew off the bed, wound and all, and delivered an open-hand strike that was neatly intercepted. Kurama watched him coldly, still not having moved-having anticipated what Hiei would do. Testing him. Issues of honor-the fox had none. "As I was saying," Kurama continued after a moment, slowly and calmly, "whoever she is, flaring up at the slightest provocation will not help her."
"That was not a slight provocation," Hiei snarled, wrenching his hand out of Kurama's grasp since the fox hadn't bothered to release it yet, and then trying not to reel from the motion. He must have lost a lot of blood, to be this dizzy.
"A word. A word, furthermore, that you and I alone heard. A very honorable thing to die over, indeed." Now his eyes were mocking-but also angry. Disappointed.
"If you don't like my style," Hiei said, still focused on keeping his balance, "then you're out of luck. I'm not changing it to suit you."
A hand at his elbow-of course the fox knew how injured he was, he had been the one to tend the wounds. Hiei couldn't quite understand how Kurama's healing skills seemed to extend to keeping him alive, but not actually making him hurt less. He wouldn't recommend him. "I'd settle for some evidence that you listen to me."
"Listen to you? Listen to you?" Hiei said, snarling even as he allowed himself to be supported, half-carried, back to the bed. "I haven't stopped listening to you since I came back! I'm sick of you showing off how smart and educated you think you are and expounding on every single possible course of action before you actually pick one! I don't need to know what my enemy had for breakfast three days ago in order to pick a damned strategy-"
"Hence you are the one bleeding from the head, and I am the one stuck with the unenviable task of keeping you alive."
"If I had waited for you to be ready to attack, we'd still be standing there!" Even though the words were the same as before, Hiei wondered-were they still playing? Was this a game, were they just testing each other and smiling at the feints and blocks, or was this real? It was starting to feel too vicious for a game-but then, Hiei was certain Kurama had not gotten where he once had by playing nice.
The fox's eyes were still a mask when he replied, his voice mild. "If you wait for me to be ready to attack first someday, Hiei, you'll see something you wouldn't believe if I told you about it."
"Arrogant. What makes you think that you can produce an attack that will surprise me, now that I've seen you fight?"
"Because you've only seen me fight after you've already struck, and I'm forced to adapt to the conditions of battle you've already set. You're not only a stupid fighter, you're a selfish one. You always take the lead for yourself."
Hiei snorted. "I don't follow anyone. Anywhere.
"I'm not asking you to, but you should at least have the grace not to expect me to follow you either. Will you hold still for a minute?"
Hiei wasn't sure if having provoked genuine emotion-irritation-in Kurama's tone was a victory in the game, or a reason to start watching his back. He continued to evade Kurama's attempt to touch him. "What are you doing?"
"Tying the fragments of your head together," Kurama replied shortly.
"No," Hiei said warily.
Kurama looked like he would have liked to throw a fit of temper-would have liked to so much that being above such a display was the only thing that kept him from actually doing it. Instead he pressed his lips together tightly for a minute, clearly controlling himself, and then said mildly, "Hiei, you'll die if you don't accept aid. Which surpasses honorable stupidity and becomes just plain stupidity, and while I honestly think I might be better off without you I'd just as soon not deal with the carcass."
Hiei blinked, and looked at him sharply. Kurama gave him a blank face back, but wasn't able to hold it for long before Hiei saw his lips trembling in the effort not to smile, or laugh. "You play disturbing games, fox."
"Well, I have been rather isolated here in human world, you'll have to cut me some slack. I take it you realize now that if I really wanted you dead, I could have simply left you there? Or killed you myself, now that I think of it."
"Yes," Hiei muttered, doing his best not to sound like he was sulking.
"Well, then-hold still."
Hiei held still. He was convinced Kurama made the process of treating the wound much more painful than it had to be, but he sat and gritted his teeth and did not mention it. After a moment, he offered cautiously, "If it will make you more tolerable to deal with, I'll admit the fight was a disaster."
"Do you always let yourself be goaded like that? It was painful."
"Do you always hesitate like that? It was pathetic."
"Well... this is never going to do. We worked together at the warehouse. We did it instinctively, and we did it well, too, or we never would have bothered to find each other afterwards. Why can't we do it now?"
Hiei surprised himself by replying, "It's been my experience that when there's an immediate bond like that between two people, it always has a dark side. That must be where we are."
He could tell Kurama was surprised too, by the short silence before he answered. Kurama was disciplined enough to never, ever say a word he didn't mean to say, but Hiei had picked up on a silence or two like this one-when he was weighing his options, or thinking, or maybe just maintaining silence until he was certain he could be in perfect control of his voice. "An intriguing concept," Kurama finally said. "I especially like the irony-a great partnership to be achieved if only we two can keep from killing each other. And it's anyone's bet right now which end we'll come to."
"I've changed my mind, I have no interest in being your partner," Hiei muttered, pushing Kurama's hands away because he knew the fox was done and was just fussing with the bandages to irritate him.
Kurama swiftly relocated his hands to Hiei's shoulders, and pushed him gently to the bed. "But you are my partner. Because you know part of my secrets, and I know part of yours. It's already done. So go back to sleep, and heal, and be aware that next time I'm either picking the strategy or killing you. Your choice."
"You're not getting into this bed with me," Hiei muttered, not bothering to abandon the reclining position the fox had pushed him into. "You can have it if you want, but I won't share it."
"I'll take the floor. But I'm curious-what makes you think I can't kill you from any point in this room if I choose to?"
"You can probably kill me from any room in this house if you want to, fox, it's your territory and I'm not naive. That doesn't mean I have to sleep next to you."
"You're afraid of physical intimacy, then?"
"I have no desire for it. That doesn't mean I won't stand back to back with you or carry your unconscious carcass if it's necessary, so don't bristle at me like that. Do you want the bed or not?"
"Not. You may not have noticed but your blood is all over it, and I have no interest in rolling around in it all night, so that little foray into the realm of homophobia was unnecessary. Besides, I might wake up in the middle of the night and kill you before I remembered who you were. This way we at least have the time it would take me to cross the room for me to remember."
"You're not funny, fox. And the games you play are stupid," Hiei mumbled, already halfway unconscious.
Kurama's answer drifted to him across that last threat of consciousness, the last thing he was aware of before everything took on the familiar flavor of his dreams. "I'm not trying to be funny, Hiei. And I'm not trying to frighten you, either. But I do wonder what makes you think I'm playing."
Scene Three: Irony
"Question. Do you consider it beneficial to the outcome of a fight to completely entangle your partner in flesh-eating plants, or do you just think it's cute?"
The question was delivered like it was a philosophical point he was mildly curious about, without the asperity that Kurama had to admit Hiei would be perfectly entitled to. Nevertheless Kurama was irritated, because there was a shadow of gleeful gloating in his voice and on his face-smugly satisfied that the tables had turned. "Well, do you make it a habit to step straight into your partner's best attacks? The whole thing wouldn't have gone to hell if you had stayed put."
"That was your best attack?" Hiei's nose curled, but Kurama wasn't sure if it was related to his statement or the fact that his foot had just slipped into a particularly fetid puddle. The swamp they were currently resigned to making their way through, too tired to do much more than trudge, was less than aromatic. "Tell me you're joking."
"Well, it used to be," Kurama muttered absently under his breath, concentrating momentarily on using his awareness of where plants were and weren't growing to find solid ground-a bit of knowledge he was not all inclined to share with Hiei at the moment.
"What?" Hiei asked, not letting him get away with it, and raising his katana slightly as he looked at a particularly thick thatch of vines-it was almost like he was hoping to intimidate them.
"I said it used to be," Kurama repeated more clearly, turning back to persuade the vines to part slightly-not so much out of consideration to Hiei as to the vines. "I've never summoned it in this form before."
"Ah, now I understand. You're saying it was a disaster even before I stepped into it."
There were times Kurama really wanted to throttle Hiei-not for what he said, but for saying it with that intolerable deadpan that made Kurama want to laugh, instead of being able to hate him in peace. "That is not what I am saying, and I will take your statement as admission that you did, in fact, step into it."
"If it will help you recover your pride to think so, you're welcome to."
Hiei wasn't giving an inch today. Kurama continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Making it also your fault, then, that we had to rely on our enemy's stupidity to salvage the fight while I cut you back out of them. Though this raises an interesting possibility-I've heard of people laughing themselves to death. Maybe you and I could make an effective attack out of it."
"Next time you get to be the one getting his flesh eaten, then." Hiei's skin was indeed red and irritated, a few harsher marks where the plant had gotten a decent start showing, but Kurama had moved with what he felt was appreciable speed to remedy the situation. Hiei should be grateful for that, at least... "I think you should know, fox, that when you said I'd be surprised by what I saw if I let you attack first, this wasn't what I had in mind."
"Neither did I," Kurama said with a sigh that was half aggravation, half defeat.
To Kurama's utter astonishment, now that he had made a tacit admission that yes, it had been his error and not Hiei's that had wrecked today's fight, Hiei didn't press his advantage. In fact, he promptly changed the subject, switched the game to a new playing field as though that tentative admission had been enough. "Can't you turn this swamp into a daisy or something?"
"A daisy?" Kurama stammered, completely lost.
"Well, you seem to have an affinity for flowers."
"Ah-that. Yes, people find it bewildering at best, and laughable at worst, that I choose to fight with such delicate instruments. Irony, and all that. It makes them lower their guard."
"Well, I find it ironic that a master of plants is swimming through this swamp with me. Do something about it."
"Why don't you just burn it down?"
It was a measure of the trust that was starting to form between them that Hiei didn't bother to hide his shock. Kurama raised one eyebrow slightly. "Don't think I haven't noticed? You may base your technique around your skill with a blade and that new Jagan, but you're a fire demon by birth. Or at least part fire demon-there's something about you different than other fire apparitions I've known, a little more volatile. But at any rate, you carry the scent of smoke."
Hiei was silent for a moment, making a bit of a production out of applying his blade to an overly friendly vine to give himself a moment to think. When he spoke, his voice was different than Kurama had yet heard it-not quite guarded, but still something in it the fox couldn't name. "You're too observant for comfort."
"It wasn't a compliment."
"I'm flattered nonetheless. So which side do you get it from?"
"You're also damnably persistent and intolerably smug and a real pain in the ass."
"I'm having a harder time feeling flattered, Hiei."
"Perfect." He attacked another vine, this one more of an innocent bystander than anything in his way, and Kurama decided he had reached the point that he shouldn't push anymore. He did promise himself, though, to pry out the other half of Hiei's ancestry someday, because it was fascinating-the extreme volatility to his energy, it didn't come entirely from the fire. There was some sort of fundamental opposition.
"So-you dislike fire techniques?" Not dropping the subject, exactly, but veering to the side slightly. An old trick-Hiei would answer now, where he might not have before, because he would want to avoid the other line of questioning.
"Imprecise," was Hiei's succinct response.
Kurama elaborated. "And you, with that katana with the paper-thin edge that moves too quickly to be seen-you wouldn't like that."
Hiei's face betrayed his pleasure. "You can't see it? How have you stayed alive so long, then?"
"Because you're terrible at cloaking your energy. Not particularly stealthy of you."
Hiei stopped walking. "There are a few hundred souls no longer in company with their bodies who would disagree with you."
Surprised at his pique, Kurama turned with one eyebrow raised and said calmly, "I suppose, then, we'll have to assume you haven't been dealing with people on my level." Then he realized the reason Hiei had stopped walking had nothing to do with pride, and was unable to keep a smirk from forming-though he had to admit he didn't try particularly hard. "Would you, ah-like me to-"
"I can talk to it, you know."
"Tell it to fuck off, then." Hiei had somehow wound up in the loving embrace of yet another overenthusiastic plant-this time with thorns. He really had no concept of where to step.
"You do know the plants respond to your aggression, don't you? They're very sensitive that way. Perhaps if you were to calm down it would remove itself."
"You. Are. Insane."
"Actually, I just enjoy watching that moment when you think I'm serious."
"Then you're sadistic."
"Hiei, take a look around. We're stuck in a swamp that we'll be lucky to clear by the end of the night, getting tangled in vines every ten steps, alive only by the grace of the fact that our enemy was laughing too hard at us to form an effective attack. My sense of humor is what's keeping me going." Hiei looked unimpressed. "Admit it-this wouldn't be any fun if I didn't throw you a curveball now and then."
"Human expression-I guess you haven't run into it yet. Let's just say that I'm trying to keep you from getting bored with me."
"How could I be bored with you?" Hiei said, in tones of genuine wonderment. "You get me into life-threatening situations and expect praise for getting me back out, heal me far enough that I stay alive but never so far that I don't consider just killing myself and having the pain over with, pry all my secrets out of me without even trying, compliment and insult my fighting in the same breath, and introduce me to the joys and perils of creative botany. It's idyllic-we should get a house by the sea together."
Kurama knew by now that it was safe to completely crack up. He even caught a flicker of a smile cross Hiei's face in response before he returned to his straight face and said, "Are you capable of extricating me from this-thing-without halfway killing me again?"
"You're sure? You've done it in this form before? I've already had enough of your first tries."
"If you don't watch it I'll get you on purpose this time. Shut up and hold still."
Hiei held still, but kept up a running commentary under his breath that Kurama mostly heard and pretended he mostly didn't. "Step where I step," he finally consented to say, after coaxing away the last of the thorns and stepping away. "There's a few tricks to it."
Hiei didn't comment, not even the "you didn't tell me this earlier?" glare that Kurama had expected-just gave the curt nod that was his version of "heard, understood, acknowledged." He seemed to be thinking about something-at any rate he didn't speak-so Kurama allowed the lapse into silence, and spent a few moments cataloguing the surrounding fauna, hoping to spy something unknown and potentially useful. But it was all familiar to him, and he was relieved when Hiei spoke again even if it didn't make sense. "Ice."
"Hm?" Kurama half-turned to glance at him.
"Ice," Hiei repeated, looking pleased with himself, or at the very least a bit more superior than he had when he was so thoroughly entangled in vines a moment ago. "The other half of my ancestry."
"Ice." Kurama savored that for a moment. No wonder Hiei was so volatile-how truly ironic. And how unfortunate for him. Then, Kurama turned to the obvious question. "Why did you tell me?"
Hiei's expression progressed from pleased with himself to downright smug. "Because you'll find out soon enough anyway. If I preempt you and tell you outright, you'll spend a few days chewing over why I did it and I can have a break. A curveball, I think you called it. Are you showing me where to step or do I have to take you up on the offer to burn this place down?"
This last was said because it was Kurama who had stopped walking this time and let the other get ahead. Hiei watched him impatiently for a moment, as the surprise written across Kurama's face slowly transformed itself into a small, satisfied smile. "You know something? Kurama said, cocking his head to one side as though considering him. "Despite the fact that generally I hate you, there are moments when I think I'm starting to genuinely like you."
Then he brushed past Hiei, and it was again Hiei's turn to remain rooted to the spot for a moment, staring dumbly at his partner's back before shaking his head, muttering, "Feeling's mutual," and falling into step.
Scene 4: Patience
"So, fox, are you patient or just lazy?"
"Depends. If you mean putting up with your belief that coming here means a free meal, it's patience. If you mean resisting the urge to push you out the window when you're defying gravity that way, it's laziness."
Hiei was perched precariously in Kurama's windowsill, one half of one foot in contact with it-admittedly showing off a little. He was also holding a bowl of a frozen confection that Kurama had assured him was not, in fact, a delicacy, it was readily available. So far it was the only point Hiei had seen in humanity's favor. "You know that's not what I'm talking about."
"In point of fact, I have no idea what you're talking about," Kurama agreed readily.
"Why do you stay here?"
"Here?" Kurama asked, pointing at the bed he was lying on. "Like I said, laziness."
Hiei didn't bother to scowl. "Here," he said, with a general swipe of his hand that didn't clarify much, but that was already because he knew they were on the same page now. "You're capable of getting back to demon world. You haven't even attempted it. So either you've gotten lazy and you like being a big fish in this polluted little puddle of a world or there's a purpose to it, you're stalking something big and this is all a facade, a trick to make people look the other way while you wait. Tell me it's the second, by the way. It's been a good day and I don't want to spoil it."
Kurama smiled thinly. "I've told you why I stay, Hiei."
"Which is why I think it's the second option. Although you could have chosen a more convincing cover than love-particularly love for a human woman."
"I don't have the energy to make you believe I genuinely want to stay here. Maybe if she wasn't ill. But I can't leave her now."
"Did you cause the illness?"
Hiei found himself dangling out the window, attached to this level of elevation by one hand that had grabbed the window frame so hard his nails were sunk into it, and by Kurama's fist clenched in his scarf. As soon as he realized this, he felt a small thrill of sensation in the pit of his stomach that let him know that for the first time, he was frightened of Kurama. Not wary or guarded or impressed, but just a little afraid. It was the look in his eyes. "Do not ever say that again."
Hiei could have definitely arrived at that conclusion without Kurama's input, but now he couldn't be seen to obey. Couldn't be seen to, but he didn't feel it prudent to antagonize someone whose company he actually took to-or someone who had him by the throat, for that matter. Middle ground was called for. "I meant no offense," Hiei said, as calmly as though neither of them had moved. "I only wondered if her illness was part of your cover-a distraction, a visible reason you could point to for remaining." Something in Kurama's eyes-dark and dangerously close to self-loathing-prompted Hiei to clarify further. "With your knowledge of plants, you could easily cause some inexplicable symptoms that could easily disappear just as inexplicably when it suited you."
Kurama's eyes cleared slightly, and Hiei realized the explanation had genuinely been needed-Kurama hadn't known that was what Hiei meant. "If I could cure this illness, it would be gone. Nobody knows what it is, and none of my plants work against it. Yet. I'll find a way."
Hiei nodded, as nonchalantly as he could with his scarf bunched up around his throat and holding most of the weight of his body. Kurama wordlessly withdrew his grip, allowing Hiei to get the purchase he needed to swing himself back into the windowsill. "Sorry about the ice cream," Kurama offered casually over his shoulder, returning to the bed.
With the crisis past, Hiei glanced down at the lawn and spared a moment of mourning for the overturned bowl before returning his attention to the room. This reaction definitely warranted further investigation-but he would wait, first, for the fox to settle down. For the atmosphere of lazy complacence they had been enjoying earlier to return. A month ago, two months ago, Hiei would have gleefully poked and prodded at any sore spot he had uncovered. But something had happened in the intervening time; somewhere along the way, he had realized that Kurama had begun to genuinely respect him. And that was not something he was willing to jeopardize. So he would act-well, respectfully.
Kurama was clearly in the process of recovering his cool; Hiei had the very strong impression that if he had been in his fox form, he would have been grooming. Even as it was his hands strayed to his hair, smoothing it and tucking it behind his ears, flicking the ends. Instincts died hard. "Well, that was refreshing," Hiei commented, making his tone dismissive. "I needed some air. Now, what were we discussing?"
Kurama didn't look at him. "Nothing in particular. You were trying to get me to say I stay in human world for some reason you could understand, and I was declining to provide a convenient lie."
"I don't believe for a minute that you genuinely like it here, fox."
"It has its merits."
"Well, I know that one's a lie. You wouldn't be so skinny if that was it."
"If you continue to reject the truth, eventually I will run out of clever lies and have to resort to very obvious ones."
His tone was clipped, reserved, making it very clear that this was not one of the verbal games they were used to playing. Hiei paused to reassess; clearly, the "middle ground" tactic wasn't working, but what direction would it be best to go from here? Drop it completely, or figure it out?
No great debate there. If he started another topic point-blank it would be so blatantly obvious why that it would be completely ineffective. Besides, he wanted to figure it out. "By the way, I think you're a hypocrite."
"You mocked me for hitting you over an insulting word, and then you knock me out the window over a casual question. Though I'll admit it's nice to know there's something in this world you consider it a matter of honor to attack over."
"I mistook the question for an accusation. I apologize."
Hiei wasn't going to let him get off that easily, not with nothing explained and a complete lack of apology in his tone. "Why does it matter so much?"
Kurama's eyes were expressive, when he allowed them to be. Right now they were hard and angry, but they let Hiei know that this time he was not telling a lie. "Because I would never hurt her. Not for anything in the world, and certainly not for my own convenience."
"You could have explained that a bit more civilly." No response. Hiei leaned slightly closer, consenting to quit the balancing act and put both feet on the windowsill so he could peer in. "You believe you caused her illness?"
Kurama turned his face away slightly, and Hiei realized he hadn't hit a sore spot after all-he had hit a complete pathology. "Fox-that's impossible."
"How do you figure?"
"Is your idiocy contagious?" This won him a mild glare. "If it's not, then I doubt you could have made someone sick. Unless you tried to, of course."
"I've exhausted her for fifteen years. I used to treat her like-you can't imagine how I used to treat her. If it's her spirit that's broken-and I think it is, because none of my plants can heal her-"
Then she's a frail, pathetic individual who didn't deserve to be alive and near you in the first place. Hiei knew very well that voicing that opinion would earn him another trip out the window, this time one-way, but he wasn't sure how far he was willing to nurse this issue either.
Then again-how many times has he pieced you back together so far? You owe him a little tolerance.
Hiei found himself saying, "If it was her spirit that was broken, then your love for her now would have healed it. She can't possibly be so blind as to not see the way you dote on her. It's an illness of the body, fox, and as far as I was aware it isn't even serious."
"We don't know how serious it is yet." But Kurama's facial muscles had relaxed somewhat, and Hiei knew he'd accepted Hiei's words as at least worthy of consideration, if not outright truth. "But at least they've ruled out cancer."
"Then leave it to the human doctors. If she was one of us it would be different, but you can't possibly know anything about human diseases. After they've figured out what it is you'll be able to figure out how to cure it." I cannot believe I'm sitting here discussing the health of a human woman like I give a damn about it.
From the look on his face, Kurama couldn't quite believe it either. Hiei could have sworn he could actually see the fox wondering whether to tease him over it or not. He was a little surprised when the answer turned out to be not; but then, it was really Hiei's fault for getting serious over it in the first place. "I really do apologize for trying to kill you earlier, Hiei. But then, you ought to find it reassuring that I'm racking up a track record of failure at that attempt."
"You owe me ice cream, fox."
"Agreed." There was finality to Kurama's tone, indicating not only that the topic was closed but that the conversation was winding down. After all, it was pitch black outside, technically already tomorrow; they had been talking casually, without purpose, for hours. It was a strange experience for Hiei. "Hiei, would you mind closing the window? It's getting cold."
A month ago he would have told me to make up my mind whether I wanted to be inside or out and get the hell out of the window, whether it bothered me or not. But they had gotten past the phase where they needed to constantly, deliberately bash against each other on even the slightest issue, to test one another and to gain just a little bit of ground. They might still enjoy doing it, but they didn't have to.
Insider or out? Hiei considered for a minute. It certainly wasn't cold by his standards-but nonetheless he found himself sliding down from the windowsill, feet hitting the carpet with a gentle thud, and closing the window behind him. He looked for the lock for a second before he remembered this window was never locked, at least not since he'd started using it as his private doorway. He settled down beneath it, back to the wall, one elbow resting on one raised knee. Kurama cocked his head slightly. "You're staying?"
How to explain? Kurama was off balance and disoriented by their conversation; Kurama was his partner, and Hiei couldn't afford for him to be upset and alone anymore than he could afford for his blade to be dull. Furthermore, it was Hiei who had upset him in the first place. All of this was his own internal reasoning, his justification, for the impulse that said stay. "I'm getting attached to sleeping on this carpet."
Kurama didn't move in the slightest, not even to blink; he just stared at Hiei in a way that said nice effort, try again. Hiei shrugged slightly. "You don't want to be alone."
Surprise; then half a smile. "That's remarkably... civil of you."
Hiei shrugged. "If you can put up my thinking this place equals a 'free meal' and defying your understanding of gravity, I suppose I can show some patience for your human foibles."
Kurama had a definite taste for mischief, and Hiei could tell it was only with great restraint that he was keeping himself from teasing this time. He could also tell that Kurama was truly touched, and for a moment he feared the conversation was going to take a turn further into sappiness than he could handle. But Kurama mastered both impulses and merely offered a "Goodnight, Hiei," before lying down and burrowing under the covers.
"Hn." Hiei leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, and found himself somehow falling asleep much faster and with much less effort than he was used to.
Scene Five: As Yet Untitled
this is not the start. make it part of the fifth.
"Who is Yukina?" Kurama asked, glancing over at him. (I see him lying on his bed with his head upside down over the side)
"You'll never give up on that, will you?"
"Never. I love knowing secrets."
"Who says it's a secret?"
"You won't tell me."
"She's not your lover, and she's not your mother."
Hiei looked at Kurama. To most people, it would seem a blank stare, but Kurama had startled to pick up on Hiei's subtler cues-the slow blink, once, twice, the subtle tilt of the chin, were requests for him to elaborate. "You don't have a lover," Kurama continued. "Don't ask me how I can tell, but I can. I'm not sure if you ever have, but if you did it was long ago. And you're an orphan, that one's easy. Furthermore, your attitude towards this Yukina implies no equality, so she is not a friend or business associate. I've narrowed it down to three possibilities. She could be your sister, or your daughter-or the sister or daughter of someone you loved, whom I would guess from your attitude is deceased and no longer able to care for her. I'm leaning against daughter simply because I don't think you're the kind to allow for the possibility of offspring even if you have had a lover. So logically-"
"Where do you find the time to think these things through?" Hiei burst in, unable to stand it any longer. "How do you stand it? You must have put hours and hours into this."
Kurama smiled. "Well, I do have to entertain myself somehow when I'm in school. But you flatter yourself-you're not particularly hard to read." Kurama flipped over so he was lying on his stomach and could look at Hiei properly. "So which is it-sister, or relation of a dead partner?"
Hiei raised one eyebrow-very, very slightly, another of those subtle communications Kurama was learning not to ignore. "I won't deprive you of the entertainment of figuring it out yourself."
All questions starting out the chapters. I think I might keep this one friendship with a hint of slash.
Vignette 5: Kurama asks Hiei if he's a prude or just overly cautious. This one may carry slash overtones, but not directly. More than they are interested in and connected to each other, however it may be. Kurama's comment is in reference to this being the first time Hiei's just lain there with his shirt off and let someone rub his back, Kurama can tell it's the first time, tries some gentle and subtle prying into Hiei's past. Hiei deflects without anger or too much tension, just a subtle "not now" message, curled up easily at the side of the bed with knees up and spread and elbows resting on them, hands together, asks Kurama some similar questions (this would be penetrating if it wasn't so soft and casual kind of questions), there are hints in this one both of Shiori's deteriorating health and Hiei's forming plans. Like, K has to leave the room to get her something, check on her. H might mention, grumbling, if we did this or that we could blah, need someone to be the decoy but really, etc.
Vignette 6: Kurama asks Hiei, do you think you're using me or do you honestly expect me to follow you like this? Or something like that on the or. Tension filled, the breaking of the relationship that's been formed, a sense of having been mistaken, but no, I wasn't mistaken, this, now, is wrong. But they have their verbal byplay and Kurama hides much from him and H suspects but can't pin down, so offers some token of trust and leaves, and Kurama turns away sadly, already emotionally distancing himself and plotting this friend's downfall.
"Hiei... do you think you're using me? Or do you honestly expect me to follow you?"
Hiei's glance was uneasy, probing. "I've followed you before. Is it so much of a strain on your pride to ask you to follow my lead?"
"Back when we were partners, I followed you as much as you followed me. But this isn't a partnership. This is you showing off, you trying to be a mastermind and me a key player in your game. Which is why I wonder if you honestly think that you're just using me to get to the Artifacts. Will you kill us both afterwards?"
That expression again-definitely uneasy, trying to pin down something but not quite able to. Kurama was used to seeing others look at him like that. That was his skill; he was not the strongest demon out there, he had never been, but he could weave a web of subtleties and half-truths so deep it would take a friend a week to wade through them, and an enemy longer. Hiei wouldn't be able to figure out where Kurama's loyalties were, wouldn't be able to quite guess his intentions.
Kurama could see it in his eyes-that he didn't know. But Hiei was young and confident and strong-he would act as though what he wanted was true, and even though he would keep a wary eye out he would go forward as if nothing was wrong. And Kurama realized that he himself must mean something to Hiei-because Hiei went further than was necessary, and reached out to him. Leaned forward, dropped his guard, put his hand on Kurama's shoulder. Quiet, reassuring. "We'll get through this."
And then he was gone, out the window and towards the woods, darting, pursuing the plan. "No, Hiei," Kurama said just as quietly, to the empty room. "We won't."
He turned away, already forming his own plans, and absently closed the window behind him.