AN: And here we go. Dedication and disclaimer in the first chapter. Oh! And baku are real - well, you know, for a given value thereof - thing; they're Japanese demon-like things which eat dreams/nightmares.
"I used to have demons in my room at night
Desire, despair, desire
So many monsters
Oh, but now…
No more 'I love you's…"
- "No More 'I Love You's", Annie Lennox
Koenma shook his head. "I can't believe I'm letting you do this. Remember, don't let the baku get at anything but Karasu, or there's no telling what it could do to any of you over there, or to Kurama if it eats some of the scenery."
Yusuke reached over and patted his overly-hatted head, just because it had to be embarrassing. "Hey, when have I ever let you down? Look, just gimme the leash and send us off to dreamland with the right tickets, okay?"
Koenma looked distinctly nonplussed. "You? You're not going, Yusuke." He glared at Botan. "What did you tell him?"
"Yeah, Botan, tell him what you told me," Yusuke demanded. "And lemme tell you, I'm just about two inches from fed the hell up with this - this -"
"Prevaricating," Kuwabara put in.
"Yeah, absolutely, that." Yusuke's brain caught up with what had just happened. "What?"
Botan cringed. "I didn't know you weren't planning on letting Yusuke go, sir."
"Of course I wasn't planning on letting Yusuke go!"
"The hell with this," Yusuke snarled, wishing there was something on hand to break so as to make himself more intimidating.
"He's right," Hiei said abruptly.
"Damn right I'm right. Tell him why, Hiei, you've probably got a reason he'll understand."
"I meant Koenma." Hiei looked very smug, which wasn't much of a change but was still making Yusuke even more annoyed with life. "I should go. Alone. Kurama and I won't need help with one demon, and Kurama won't want either of you there."
"What is this, Bizarro World? Since when is extra backup a bad thing? Kurama likes backup, remember? Fallback plans?"
Hiei snorted. "I'll enjoy seeing what he does to Karasu," he explained, or at least said in a tone which implied he thought it was an explanation.
"This is all fascinating, but what Kurama wants isn't the issue here," Koenma said. "The issue is who's most likely to get in unnoticed, and that leaves you and Hiei out, Yusuke. Karasu probably never gave much thought to Kuwabara, and his power is the least attention-grabbing." Botan was making wild throat-cutting motions at her boss, who continued obliviously, "And anyway, I'm not risking my Spirit Detective over this; Kuwabara is the most expendable -"
Yusuke leaned very far over the desk. "Excuse me?"
Koenma pushed his chair back. "- just at this moment, time-wise, you're very behind in school, Kuwabara's actually been making an effort..."
"Fuck you," Yusuke said, backing off in disgust. "Just... fuck you."
"Kurama won't want him there," Hiei insisted, verging on irate. "It should be me."
"If you can go, I can, and I still say there's strength in numbers. It won't matter what Karasu knows if we just take him out fast enough."
"I can do it," Kuwabara said. "I think Kurama figured it was gonna be me." His face went oddly blank as he fished in his pocket, and then he came up with a little silver key, turning black in places and with a nasty spot on it. "He gave me this."
Yusuke stared. "That makes no sense, man. What's that got to do with anything?"
"I dunno." Kuwabara looked at the key. "I forgot I had this."
"Oh, that's great. He gave you a scrap of metal to throw out and you forgot about it, so you think you can take on a demon that almost finished off Kurama?" Yusuke paused and looked at Hiei. "Unless you're about to tell me that's demon code for 'come on in my head, I've got beer and chicks'."
Hiei shrugged dismissively, which Yusuke figured meant he knew absolutely jack about this key deal and didn't want to say.
Koenma looked intrigued. "When did he give it to you?"
"Yesterday. I was at his house to study, and he..." Kuwabara looked confused. "He gave it to me. I think. I'm sure! I just don't remember when. Or how it got in these pockets. But that means it's a magic thing, right? So probably it'll help."
"Yeah, you forgetting something right in front of your face, definitely something uncanny afoot," Yusuke grumbled.
"He must have meant for you to let us know sooner than the last minute," Hiei snapped, "so that I could use it."
"You don't know what it is either, don't make out like you're so smart -"
"Boys!" Botan snapped. "Squabbling is getting us nowhere. Kuwabara's the safest bet, isn't he? And don't we want the safest bet?"
Hiei growled, "You're putting Kurama in even more -" and then stopped, looking at Kuwabara speculatively. "Fine," he finished, and smiled. "Send him."
"We really need to get on with this," Koenma said loudly, overriding Yusuke's attempt to ask what that had been all about. "It's almost time, and I give up. You boys decide."
I looked down at the gaping hole in my stomach and crumpled.
Karasu caught me before I hit the clean, smooth floor of the rink.
"Well," Koto said invisibly from the empty stands, "it looks like Karasu just completely ruined my chances for a threesome. Remember, kids - wear the cheese! Do not let it wear you."
Karasu hummed, stroking my hair as he cradled my head on his knees. He looked less intimidating upside-down. "I like this ending better," he mused.
"Don't lie to me," I said.
He sighed. "As you wish."
The crowd roared, my flesh smelled of burned meat and the pain made me wish for something to throw up as I fell facedown on the rubble that used to be rink. I'd failed everyone, I thought, as the agony started to move like lead through my limbs, growing more tolerable as I drifted away.
"This is better?" He asked.
I could see Kuwabara, because he was tallest. I hoped Hiei would remember to train him sometimes; he could use the discipline, and Hiei could use... "I never said that." I coughed, and blood spattered on the stone. "Just… get it over with."
"Why," he asked, "would I do that?"
The stadium froze and cracked, and we fell back into the water.
It wasn't cold, and I wasn't in pain. I grabbed the nearest ledge of intact ice gingerly. Before I could test it, his hands closed on it beside mine, his chin touching my head as he drew close. "What are you doing?"
"Getting out. If you haven't noticed, it's freezing."
His shoulders moved against mine in a shrug. "Not once you get used to it."
I laughed. "It's still freezing then. Just… you are too." I didn't have much to lose, so I trusted my weight to the ice and pulled. It worked, and I slithered onto the attic floor.
Karasu was already there, standing; he took my hand, yanking me to my feet and after him out the door. I grabbed a rose from the nearest pile of junk while he wasn't looking.
Outside, the place was his again, but each stone and plank was made of ice. He dragged me along the corridor, which should have been slippery but of course wasn't. He was almost eager, looking ahead and moving too fast, and I used two of my fingers to tear petals from the flower in my hand, leaving them behind.
He looked over his shoulder, frowning. "Do you smell roses?" The question was absent, and I held the stem close behind my leg.
"Yes," I answered, keeping pace with him. "Always. The scent lingers."
I'd run out of petals, though, and as we continued, I began shredding the stem, leaving pathetic strings of it on the ice.
He frowned. "Do you smell plants?"
"Yes," I repeated. "Always."
We were still going, and I had nothing but a thorn left. I fell back, letting him drag me, and pricked my fingers, trailing them along the walls.
"Do you smell blood?" The question was barely there; we'd nearly reached our destination.
We were in the center of the maze, for a moment, and then it was a room with three windows at the top of a tower, mountains sea forest, and the stones that made up the room glittered. Karasu stretched out a hand and three of the stones shattered, the wind howling through the cracks until ice grew over in its place, and I didn't even know what he'd taken. "How long?" He asked again.
Now the windows showed nothing but bleak, dark sky and snow. A crow pinwheeled past like a scrap of rag in the wind.
One crow sorrow…
"You'll arrive here every night now," he said, fingers ghosting over my arms, up and down. (Another crow joined the first.)
…Two crows mirth…
"The first dream of the rest of my nights." I smiled. (And another.)
…Three crows a wedding…
He smiled in return, fingers moving to my back, and still he only touched me with the tips. (Another.) "I know you still believe they'll come, but trust me - I've never had you more to myself."
…Four crows a birth...
I quirked an eyebrow. "Then this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship?" I asked sarcastically. He flattened a palm on my shoulder, pushing me back. (Another crow circled us.)
…Five crows silver...
(Another.) "It's important to make new friends," he said as my back hit the door, stained glass turning his face red and purple. It occurred to me that if no help came, I could just let him. I panicked even thinking about it, cold sweat on my palms, but that was irrational. It didn't mean anything. What I would have to do to stop him -
…Six crows gold...
"I've always been more in favor of keeping the old," I said as he moved in, eyes gleaming. One hand was around my neck, fingernails scraping through my hair, along my cheek. The other... the key scraped in the lock as it turned, and I put my hands on his shoulders, fingers shaking, which sounds better if less accurate than trembling. (Another.) I wasn't going to let him, and it was just dumb pride and terror, and I'll take you apart piece by piece and I believed him, believed that he could. No one, no one, but the arrogance wasn't helping. I believed him.
…Seven crows a secret...
The window shattered, and the last crow tumbled in, screeching - "Look back, look back,
there's blood on the track!"
I grabbed Karasu, and kissed him for all I was worth.
When I stopped, he whispered, "That was cheating."
"Well," I said, turning the knob, "yes."
"Kurama!" Kuwabara warned as he let the baku go. I pushed the door and ducked, down and away, and used the hand still on his shoulder to shove as the dragon-like thing latched onto his back, fangs setting into his neck, and they both fell through the doorway into blackness and the howling of emptiness, and then the screaming started.
...Which must never be told.
"Well, that was easy," Kuwabara said, nonplussed.
"Kuwabara," I said, taking his hand. "Look at me. And close the door."
"Hey, man, it's fine, he's gone," and he sounded frantic and distracted, which I couldn't have but if I couldn't school my face back... I settled for anger, wrapping both hands around his wrist now. Nothing of Kuwabara moved, but the wind from behind the door, the vacuum, pulled and whipped my hair and clothes.
"Do it!" Piece by piece... why should I have believed him? Why should I ever be afraid of anything? Why should I ever have to be?
"Okay, okay -"
I let go of his hand with one of mine -
- Shiori -
"And look. At. Me." I used my free hand to grab his jaw, swinging his face back when he turned it the wrong way.
"Jeeze, Kurama -" but he reached out, groping blindly, and slammed the door.
"The key's gone - oh, right, wait, I have one." He fumbled one-handed in his pockets for a moment, and I let his face go. He pulled out the key and brandished it triumphantly. "Got it!" He twisted it in the lock, the jubilantly triumphant tone I'd been expecting long gone to muted hopefulness in his confusion. "Done."
I stepped back, releasing his wrist. He rubbed it, chagrined. "Hey, man, are you all right? You still look kinda weird."
"Do I?" I looked at him, and then he wasn't there. I was standing on the snow. What was left of Karasu lay at my feet, slowly wasting away. Very slowly. I smiled.
"Lie to me," he said.
He was uninjured but becoming gradually translucent.
"I told you," I said. "You chose badly."
He sighed. "I never chose."
"If you say so." I knelt behind him, and put his head on my lap, stroking his hair absently.
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" He asked.
"I'll catch them up. I want to watch the light leave your eyes. Although," I glanced around at the desert of snow, "I admit the scenery is less than appealing."
He laughed, and it caught in his throat. "I didn't make it from nothing, you know." He reached up to touch my cheek, but I caught his hand and held it, thin and cold. "We're not so different."
"I never said we were."
"But you pretend. All of this, and you pretend..."
"It's enough," I assured myself distantly. "I'm willing to pretend. That's fair, isn't it?"
He didn't care. "You won't forget me now. We had…"
"Nothing real. Never anything real." I folded his hand on his chest and put my finger to his lips, and didn't comment on the likelihood of his being nothing to me but a bad dream in weeks. "Now go to sleep." Softly, I sang,
"Hear you now the captain
Heave his sorrowed cry
The weight upon your eyelids
Is dimes laid on your eyes…"
Kuwabara was staring at me, much too far down, and I realized I'd crumpled to my knees here, too. He opened his mouth and almost said a lot of things, and settled on, "We done?"
"Yes," I said, rising and dusting off my pants.
"You're gonna owe me if you broke my wrist."
"Come on, this place is giving me the creeps." He started back towards the corridor, adding as he stepped around the remains "Be careful, I think something was living in here." He jostled my arm with his elbow when I caught him up, friendly. "I never liked that movie The Wizard of Oz - it feels like cheating when the ending is just, And then they woke up."
"I'll take it this time," I said fervently.
"Okay then." He paused, searching in his pockets again, and then looked back. "Hey - the baku -"
"Don't worry." I straightened my shirt out, smoothed my hair down and checked the seeds in it. "It's gone."
"Whatever you say," he said amicably, producing something that looked like a stopwatch and placing his thumb over the dial. "Hang on." He took my hand and pressed down.
I stretched slowly, weak morning sunlight slicing across my bed. On the windowsill, a crow perched, but it flew away when Shiori opened the door.
"Shuuichi! You're still in bed?"
"No," I said, standing up to prove it. "No, I'm awake."
Kurama was sitting leaning against a tree, making a flower open and close, when Kuwabara found him.
"Hey, man." He put his hands in his pockets.
"Hello." It was, technically, an answer, but he looked more like he was talking to the flower than anything else.
"So Hiei's really pissed off at you," Kuwabara announced, lowering himself to the ground facing his friend. "When I woke up at headquarters, he made me tell him what happened and then he swore a lot with his face, and it wasn't at me."
Kurama smiled a little, with a lot of vindictiveness in. "I'm sure he'll let me know all about it later."
"The stuff about the door made him grunt." Kuwabara leaned in a little. "I was the one you wanted there, right? And I did what I was supposed to? I didn't screw it up?"
"No." Kurama finally met his eyes, letting the flower drop. "You were exactly what I needed," he said clinically.
"Okay." Kuwabara squirmed. "But... what was back there? It's driving me nuts, man."
Kurama watched him for a very long moment. "You really didn't see anything?"
His smile was better this time. "Nothing. There is absolutely nothing behind that door."
"For real?" Kuwabara leaned back. "Well, then, what - what was the big deal - why'd you freak out until I locked it?"
"I just need it locked," Kurama said imperturbably.
"Why couldn't you've shoved him in there and locked it, then?"
"I wouldn't have. I needed you to. And I needed the distraction, obviously, or it wouldn't have worked."
"Sure you could have -"
"I didn't say could. I said would."
Kuwabara sighed, exasperated, and reminded himself that conversations that mattered were always like this with Kurama (unless he was expositing), so it was good that he was getting the maze treatment. "Okay. So you needed someone to distract him, and it had to be me because if it wasn't you wouldn't have bothered to shut and lock a door you were practically throwing up over having opened and that doesn't have anything behind it anyway."
"Yes, that sounds accurate. Yusuke would have worked, too, probably. But you were best."
"Hiei was really sure you wanted it to be him, and he was gonna get a big kick out of seeing you kill that guy." Which had, Kuwabara thought, actually been pretty boring; it was the after part that had freaked him out.
"No, Hiei was sure that -" Kurama stopped. "Really?" He thought for a moment. "I can see how that might actually have been considerate of him."
Kuwabara, who was feeling very heroic and did not intend to share the spotlight for nothing, made a face. "Yeah, well, then he said fine, it should be me after all. And he looked mean when he said it. He was smiling."
Kurama turned that over and sighed. "Never mind."
"So basically," he said, "the point is, you needed the Kuwabara magic, and I, Kuwabara Kazuma, delivered!"
"Yes, that is basically the point," Kurama admitted warily.
"I'm thinking that's good for a lot help on math homework," he announced.
"You may be right." Kurama grinned, suddenly, and it looked too really-happy to be real. "You are really a very good person."
"You're seriously not gonna tell me what's behind that door?"
"I did," Kurama said complacently.
"Why do you need nothing locked up?" Kurama looked at him again, until he started squirming. "If you tell me I'll trade you one of the math days."
"I just like to pretend there's something back there," Kurama said finally.
Kuwabara wished he was drinking something, so he could've spat it out. "Pretend?"
Kurama nodded. "I don't suppose that's much to go on, a pretense..."
Kuwabara gave up. "Well, hey, whatever gets it done." He scooted around to lean against the tree too. "If it matters that much, that's all that matters, right?"
Kurama sighed. It sounded sort of happy too. "I'm glad you think so."
"...That wasn't a very good answer, though."
"You still want all of the math days?"
"That sounds fair."
"So... what was the basic point again?"
"You are really pushing your luck. You realize you're leaning against a tree in a field of grass and flowers?"
"I'm not worried."
"All right. This is it, though."
"I needed the Kuwabara magic and you, Kuwabara Kazuma, delivered."
"Thanks. ...Damn it, I save your ass and I'm still the one saying thank you..."
"I like to think it just means you're a well-mannered young man."
"Yeah..." Kuwabara settled in for a nap. "Let's pretend."
Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? Nothing. That's what I found in the boy. No conscience, no fear, no humanity. Just a black void...That boy's mind was the blackest hell I've ever known.
-Ethros Demon, "I've Got You Under My Skin", Angel
AN: Wow. There. Done! I can't even pull the "please review to help me continue" card now, so, just, out of the goodness of your hearts? Please?