A/N: Every time I sit down to work on the fics I owe people or the long-shots that need updating, the muse throws out something else entirely. How can something be so frustrating and so rewarding at the same time?
"It's just--as a precaution, you know. I mean, it wouldn't really be effective, he could chew through both of us if he got really angry, or probably even if he was only a little angry, but there's safety in numbers, right?"
"Uh, Botan? You're kinda making me nervous."
They were headed to the mall--which seemed like a really odd place to go look for a demon, but that's where Botan said the one she wanted was. At first when she'd shown up Kuwabara had thought she just wanted to check out how his injuries from Genkai's tournament were healing; then, when she'd started nattering nervously about demons he'd thought she was asking him to do Urameshi's job while he was stuck up at the old lady's. But no--they were just going to talk to someone. And Botan didn't want to do it alone.
"I mean, he's already shown himself to be very partial to humans and to Yusuke in particular but he is a demon, and if he is who they say he really is--oh, but I don't care, I still like him better than the other one Koenma wants help with. I think this one won't attack us, I mean he did save Keiko's life and Yusuke and all--"
"What?! How did Keiko get involved in all of this?!"
"Oh, it's a long story Kuwabara, but to make it short I don't think there's going to be a problem, so don't be tense, okay?"
Kuwabara felt like saying something along the lines of, 'How can I not be tense when you're a nervous wreck?' But chivalry demanded otherwise, so he replied with confidence. "Don't worry, Botan, I'll protect you if things get ugly."
"Oh, I know you will Kuwabara, that's why I asked you to come--of course he'd probably pulverize you but--"
"Hey! I am not a weakling here!"
"Oh, Kuwabara," Botan sighed absently. "You really have no idea what you're involved in yet."
This was said as they went through the revolving door, and as soon as they were inside the mall Botan stopped her stream of anxious chatter to focus on looking for their target. Which was a relief to Kuwabara, as she really wasn't making him feel all that relaxed. Sure, he had held his own at Genkai's tournament, and he was proud that Botan had come to him when she wanted backup, but he'd still just as soon not listen to her babbling about how he'd be sure to get killed if there was a fight.
They didn't have a chance to find the guy they were looking for--he found them first. Kuwabara was looking in the other direction, eyeing some high school girls, when he heard a mellow voice--a man's, but nearly an alto--say, "Botan." It was half a greeting, half a warning.
Kuwabara turned back and blinked at the sight that met him. A boy, a boy about his age in a school uniform, with startling red hair and long limbs. But the really startling part was that he was holding several shopping bags and the arm of an older woman who looked frail but was smiling at them. "Well, how do you know this beautiful young woman, Shuichi?" she asked in a tone that was intended to make him blush.
Except he didn't. His eyes were calculating as he looked at them both--Kuwabara feeling more than seeing the experienced flick of a fighter's eyes sizing him up--but his voice was kind. "This is--a friend of Yusuke's," he said, hesitating slightly. "You remember Yusuke?"
"That boy from the hospital?" The boy nodded, and Kuwabara thought he might as well go home right now because he was obviously dreaming. None of this made sense. How can he be a demon? How can she be his mother? And who introduces that punk Urameshi to their mom? Well, demons, apparently...
Kuwabara came back to the present when he heard is name. "This is Kuwabara, a--another friend of Yusuke's," Botan stammered. "Kuwabara, this is--"
"Shuichi Minamino." The boy cut her off firmly, like it was imperative that he be the one to introduce himself and not her. "I'm afraid I can't stop to talk, my mother--"
"Could use a rest," the woman declared, cutting him off as swiftly and decisively as he had just cut off Botan. "I'm going to go sit in the food court over there for a few minutes and stare at all the food that the doctor says I can't eat yet. You run around with your friends for awhile, Shuichi, I really do think I need to sit for a bit."
The boy nodded, but Kuwabara could tell that "running around with friends" was completely off his radar. "I'll help you over," he said, and the woman objected but he didn't pay any attention, and it was clear as they walked that she really did need his arm to lean on.
"Is something wrong with her?" he whispered to Botan as they watched the boy settling the shopping bags around the woman's feet.
"She's recovering from an illness," Botan whispered back. "She ought to be fine, I'm a little surprised she isn't all the way recovered already but I guess when a human's been sick for so long it doesn't go away overnight no matter what you do..."
She stopped talking and edged a little closer to Kuwabara. The boy was returning to them, and now that his back was to the woman his face was severe and unwelcoming. "What do you mean by coming here?" he asked as soon as he reached them. His tone was mild, but Kuwabara could detect the anger behind it. "In front of my human mother? You couldn't think of a better way to contact me?"
"I'm sorry, but here there's--"
Botan cut herself off, and the boy looked amused. It was not a kind of amusement that made others comfortable. "Here there's several hundred humans, so I can't possibly make a scene. I see." His eyes flicked to Kuwabara. "And a bodyguard? Should I be offended or flattered that you distrust me so much?"
"This is Yusuke's best friend, he just happened to be with me." Kuwabara would have objected--loudly--to being called Urameshi's best friend, but Botan continued before he had a chance. "Kurama, we need you to--"
"And that's another thing--do not ever refer to me as Kurama in front of my mother. She doesn't ever need to hear that name."
"Right--Shuichi. Anyway, there's something we need your help with."
He seemed amused again, and this time it was less cold. "I had been given to understand that was part of my parole. Why the big production?"
"Well, it's very important. It's about Hiei."
Botan looked flabbergasted. So was Kuwabara--the refusal had been calm, but also swift and firm. "But--but--I haven't even gotten to the question yet!"
"I cannot assist you with anything that concerns Hiei." He turned halfway, like he was getting ready to walk away from them.
"Hey, you don't know that yet!" For someone who had claimed to be afraid to talk to him, Botan was suddenly remarkably indignant.
The demon turned back to her. "If you want my assistance to persuade Hiei to do something, you haven't realized that his fondest ambition right now is my bloody, excruciating demise." He said this very calmly. "We haven't exactly had the best relations recently, if you recall. And if what you want is for me to provide you with information that will damage Hiei or to otherwise harm him, the answer is still no, because I feel that I've done enough to him for the time being. So either I can't, or I won't. There's really nothing to discuss."
"Don't forget what Yusuke did for you!" Botan said angrily.
"Firstly, that matter is repaid and closed. Secondly, Yusuke isn't asking me."
"Don't you want to help Hiei?"
Kuwabara couldn't help it--he got the chills when he saw how flat, how cold, this person's eyes could go. "Why do you think I should? Haven't I made it clear that Hiei is a threat to my life? I ought to be trying to kill him."
"But you aren't. Listen, Kurama, Koenma is considering giving Hiei bail on a couple of conditions--similar to your own."
"He has to stay home and be a good boy?"
"Well--sort of. He has to stay in the city, and help Yusuke. You know how bad the situation is now, we need the firepower! Koenma thinks Hiei will hold to a promise once it's been made, but he's not sure and you're the only person we can find who knows Hiei at all and we need your help if we can make it happen. So are you going to try and get your comrade out of jail or not?!"
The boy seemed to consider Botan's impassioned speech only briefly. "Yet again I must point out that Hiei wants me dead... so, not." And again, he turned like he was ready to walk away.
Botan looked like she was going to pull her hair out. She made a frustrated noise, and Kurama looked back at her with slightly narrowed eyes. Kuwabara swallowed, wondering if he really would have to defend Botan. This guy looked really skinny and not at all strong, and that combined with his immaculate school uniform from that dork high school usually would have made Kuwabara write him off. But the fact that he couldn't understand most of what he and Botan were saying, and the way his eyes could snap from friendly to cold and back again so easily, made Kuwabara hope he didn't have to find out how deceiving that appearance was.
"Listen," Botan said furiously, "you saw what Yusuke's up against. Youwere what Yusuke's up against. Do you want him to get killed?"
"Clearly not, or I would have let Hiei do it and spared myself all this."
"Right. And Yusuke trusted you and--"
"And all of this would appear to put me on Yusuke's side. Where Hiei is not."
Botan crossed her arms. "So bring him over," she said simply.
The boy looked momentarily surprised--like it hadn't quite occurred to him yet that this was what he'd be doing. "Bring Hiei to Yusuke's side," he repeated slowly, considering. "The irony."
Botan stuck her nose in the air. "Of course, if you don't think you can do it..."
The boy smiled, and the smile was as chilling as his eyes. "Yes, that line would work on most demons," he said absently, almost courteously, something in his tone saying excellent job, really, but you didn't quite make it. "You know us well... and yet... there is something in the challenge this presents that..." He trailed off, and Kuwabara could see his lips move slightly as he thought but he couldn't read any of the words.
Then he smiled again, and this smile was so far from chilling that it made Kuwabara want to smile in response. "I'll do it."
"Super! We can go right now and--"
"Do you think I want to explain to my human mother how I flew out of the mall on a wooden oar?"
"Um... right... I'll... come get you later?"
"Agreed." Then he turned to Kuwabara for what felt like the first time and pleasantly said, "Pleasure to meet you," and then he was gone, weaving his way back to his mother.
Kuwabara and Botan were both silent for a moment. "Well.. guess I don't have to defend you," Kuwabara finally said.
"Guess not." Botan's tone was a little wondering, and Kuwabara thought she might be thinking the same thing he was as they watched the demon bending protectively over the woman, trying to take the shopping bags back while she put up a playful fight--trying to figure out how the contradiction of this scene of affection and the calm talk of killing, the warm smiles and the chilling ones, could coexist so seamlessly.
The only conclusion he could come up with was, "I don't get that guy."
Botan shrugged and sighed. "Well, at least he'll help--even if it's only because he finds it a challenge or appreciates the irony. Now if we can just prevent Hiei from killing him, we'll be fine."
"Are you sure this team is a good idea?"
"Trust me, Kuwabara. In a few months, you're going to be very glad to have them around."