A/N: Here it is! A little late but hopefully worth it; this is the end. Happy new year!
Yusuke remained frozen--every nerve tingling, not daring to look, willing the voice to speak again. After a moment, it did, with a familiar irritation was the most wonderful of blessings to Yusuke's ears. "Are you going to turn around, or do I have to move over there? And keep in mind that I've already done a lot of traveling to get here."
Yusuke turned. She was there. Was it real? He had seen her before, seen her flickering in and out of visions brought on by too much or too little snow. And her voice he heard always. But something made him think she was really there. Maybe it was because he knew he couldn't possibly be influenced by snow now. Maybe it was the way she looked, compassionate and cross at the same time. Maybe it was because her image was transparent and flickered and he knew instantly she was a ghost, and he had never seen her that way before.
She was waiting for something. For him to speak. Yusuke wet his lips. "Can I--can I touch you?"
Keiko bit her lip; she shook her head. "You know how these things work," she said apologetically, indistinctly. "Not all the rules get broken for you."
It made sense, that he couldn't. It hurt, but even the pain was something to hold onto. Yusuke stayed where he was and stared, determined that if he couldn't touch her he would not miss one second of looking at her. He tried not to blink.
Keiko didn't say or do anything at first, just watched him watching her with compassion now untempered in her eyes. But when she realized he wasn't going to do anything else without prompting, she spoke. "I'm really impressed that you can see me now, Yusuke. You've grown a lot."
She sounded sad and happy at the same time--the way she had always sounded when she talked about Yusuke fighting, when she talked about things she couldn't understand but accepted anyway. "What do you mean?"
"I've come to see you before and you couldn't--"
"I would never," Yusuke cut her off, his voice louder than he meant it to be. He tried again, quieter. "I would never not..."
"How many people have been helping you and you didn't know it? You didn't see them. And they're alive."
"I would never miss seeing you. Ever."
Keiko shrugged. "You're not psychic, Yusuke," she said. "You can't see a ghost unless you're trying to. Unless you want to."
They stood in silence. Yusuke still felt frozen. He knew there were a million things to say, to ask, explain, apologize. Apologize. "Keiko--" But he couldn't get past that.
"I'm sorry." He ground it out, and for the first second took his eyes away from her, because he couldn't bear to look at her while he said it.
"For?" Keiko's voice was neutral.
For some reason, that triggered Yusuke out of his shock. "What do you mean, 'for?'" He was amazed to find that he could still--still--yell at her. "For you being dead! For both of you! I killed you!"
"Don't ever say that again." Her eyes were flashing and she was neither speaking nor yelling, but somewhere in between, her anger greater than Yusuke's. "Ever."
"It was not your fault. I don't know if you'll listen to me or believe me but you have to hear me say it just once anyway, just in case it does make you believe it. It wasn't your fault."
"I didn't protect you."
"Yes, you did." She had calmed down now, as though she had expected this--but of course she had. What else would they talk about? "You taught me how to use spirit energy even though I was terrible at it. You had me watched when you weren't there. You had me watched when you were there."
"It wasn't enough."
"The only other thing you could have done would have been to stick me in a fortress somewhere and never let me leave. And that wouldn't have been right, either."
"It sounds pretty good to me now." Yusuke bit his tongue too late to stop the sarcastic comment. He couldn't believe Keiko had traveled between dimensions so that they could stand here bickering with each other, like always. Although, it felt pretty damn good.
"I would have been miserable," Keiko replied. "But I was happy, Yusuke. I was happy up to the day I died. That's what you did right. That's what husbands are supposed to do. You can't protect a person from everything that might happen."
"They were demons, Keiko! You didn't get cancer or get hit by a car. Demons killed you. If you had never known me you would be alive."
She didn't answer right away. "Yes," she finally said, shortly. "That doesn't mean it's your fault. It's the fault of the demons who killed me. And you've been letting them win."
It was like she had slapped him across the face--worse than that. Like she had knocked the breath out of him with those words. "What?" he managed, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"Why do you think I was attacked, Yusuke? All the things you did--the way you killed all those demons that were attacking humans, the way you got them to elect their kings, the way you were changing everything in Makai--they wanted to destroy you." Her voice trembled. "They wanted you to stop what you were doing. And you did."
Yusuke couldn't say anything. He couldn't, because he knew she was right, right on all counts. And because saying she was right, or saying he was sorry, wouldn't be anything in the face of the last ten years. So it was Keiko who spoke next, again. Her voice was still trembling but overly casual, like she was trying to choke back tears and not let him know it. "This thing, that Kurama and Hiei are making you do? I'm really proud of you," she stammered. "You got through it okay. You got back to yourself, you even made them do it too. You're winning now."
"And that's what you came to tell me?" he asked, his voice just as shaky.
"No. I came to tell you I forgive you, even though I don't because there isn't anything to forgive you for, and I don't want you to think I think there is. But everyone in Spirit World says you need me to forgive you. So I will."
Yusuke didn't know what to say. He never would have believed it--that getting a chance to talk to Keiko again, he would stand there in silence, not knowing what to do with her forgiveness. She didn't fill the silence this time, and they stood there a long time before Yusuke asked the question he had to, whether it was wise or not. "What happened to the baby?"
"It couldn't die--it was never born. It was born to another couple. They won't tell me who. I guess that's a good thing. It doesn't need two mothers." Keiko's eyes were shadowed, and Yusuke could tell that whatever she said, she missed the child. But then the shadows left as she looked him directly in the eyes and spoke deliberately. "It did not die, Yusuke."
It was like he was suddenly floating--like that great a weight had been lifted off him. He closed his eyes. "You did."
"And you will too, someday--again. But you had better fix it first."
Yusuke opened his eyes again, startled it. "Fix it?" he echoed stupidly. Like I told Hiei to.
Keiko gestured vaguely. "This. Fix it. You're finally you again--I know you are, and that's the hardest thing you'll ever do in your life. But our friends--the group is still--and all of the things you did when you were...ill," she faltered. "I know you can do it, Yusuke. Fix it."
"I can't. I can't bring you back to life."
"No. So what can you do?"
They faced each other a moment, until Yusuke nodded slowly, understanding what she was telling him. "Okay."
Yusuke felt a vague smile overtaking his face--saw it on her face, too. It was like it was ten years ago and they were standing in the kitchen talking and drinking coffee, and Keiko making sure Yusuke couldn't weasel out of whatever they were talking about. "Promise."
"Good. Now hold still, and don't close your eyes. You won't feel this." Keiko stepped forward, her face unreadable but surely full of both sorrow and joy; and Yusuke held still, held even his breath, and didn't close his eyes while Keiko kissed him.
Yusuke's excessively cheerful voice greeted Hiei and Kurama at really too early an hour the next morning. Two pairs of eyes opened owlishly, blinking at the cave entrance where Yusuke stood, sunlight pouring in all around him. "So, I've been doing a lot of thinking while you two slept--and thanks, by the way, for letting me take the watch. It's good to know you can trust me." He added this last part a little maliciously, for he knew full well Hiei and Kurama had fallen asleep without thinking about posting a watch at all--he watched them blink and then glance at each other. "Anyway, I've been thinking, and I want to apologize."
"For?" Hiei asked with a scowl.
"Well," Yusuke began. "Kurama, do you remember back when I was first off the snow and I tried to apologize for attacking you while I was on it? You said I had a hell of a lot of things to apologize for and people to apologize to, and not to half-ass it. So, here goes."
His two friends were looking at him like he had lost his mind, but Yusuke took a deep breath and went ahead anyway. "Kurama, I apologize for attacking you when I was trying to get snow from you, and for trying to shoot you with the spirit gun, and for running out on you when Hiei and I went to fight the drug lords, and for trying to make you stay in human world when Shiori died when that was really stupid and selfish of me, and for the time I punched you and called you a liar when you came to find me and tried to tell me Genkai had died--I might be making that memory up, I'm kind of unclear on it but if it did happen I apologize--and for all the times you had to save my ass and I didn't even recognize you, and for walking out of your life when Keiko died, and for not listening to you a bunch of times I should have." He turned his gaze from the stunned fox to the equally stunned fire demon. "Hiei, I apologize for all the times I hit you or screamed at you while I was detoxing and you were taking care of me, and for going with you to fight the drug lords when I knew that I couldn't hold up my end of the fight and getting you into a deadly situation, and for letting you walk out of my life when you had your fight with Kurama, and for waiting all this time to tell you what I thought about it instead of calling you on it right then and there, and for saying no when you asked me to watch Yukina while you were here and I was there, and for all the times you had to save my ass and I didn't see you and all the times you yelled at me and I didn't hear you, and for the time I did hear you but I pretended I was too high to recognize you because it was easier than listening to what you were saying. And I apologize to both of you for letting you go through years of silence and not getting into your business and beating your heads together a long time ago, and for anything else I forgot to apologize for."
There was a stunned silence. A very long stunned silence. Kurama recovered first. "I accept your apology," he said simply.
Yusuke nodded, then glanced at Hiei. He gave his usual response. "Hn."
Taking that down as another acceptance, Yusuke took a moment to breath deeply. Telling them he was sorry had been hard--telling them he wanted to leave them was going to be harder. But he continued as though nothing was bothering him. "So. I have a lot more people to apologize to, and a lot of things I have to fix, and I decided I ought to start in human world because those are the people I hurt first and probably the worst. Not that I haven't been having the time of my life in this cave, of course, but they say all good things must come to an end. Although--and I know you guys have already done a hell of a lot for me, but I'm still going to ask for more. When I'm done in human world and come back here, there'll be an awful lot of people to track down and apologize to, and I don't even remember who some of them are. I can't do it by myself."
Hiei and Kurama looked at each other, considering. Some sort of communication that Yusuke couldn't follow passed between them--something about body language, facial expression, maybe even telepathy, who knew? Whatever it was, they both looked back at him, and Hiei spoke. "We'll walk you to the border." And that was that.
It felt strange to leave the cave. It had been a boundary to him for so long--a jail and a sanctuary at the same time, a place where he was watched over. Where those who watched barred him from leaving, kept him there against his will, but also kept the outside world from reaching him, protected him and picked him up when he collapsed. He would have neither boundaries nor guardians any more, and the thought was a little frightening.
But no more than that. Nothing could really frighten him now--he had faced his worst fear last night, and she had forgiven him, and kissed him. He thought about that kiss--insubstantial, a thing not felt but seen and remembered--and let his mind dwell on the memory while they walked silently through the forest, Kurama and Hiei on either side of him.
No one spoke until they reached the border, the silence a peaceful one for once. Their farewells were simple, since they knew they would be seeing each other again soon. Kurama cautioned him that human world had changed in ten years and he shouldn't be surprised if technology and customs were slightly different; Hiei advised him to go to Genkai's temple, which Yukina was now in possession of, and orient himself there before he did anything else, and Yusuke agreed. Then they said goodbye and see you soon, and Yusuke stepped across the border into the human world.
Kurama and Hiei stood there looking at the space where he had been for a few moments, saying nothing. It was almost anticlimactic, after all they'd been through--and yet, there was no denying the goal had been met, even if it hadn't all gone exactly as they'd planned. Yusuke was fine. They turned to each other questioningly. "So what now?" Hiei asked.
It was a loaded question. Kurama thought for a minute; then he stretched, casually, and sighed. "Yusuke's got me thinking about loose ends," he said. "I've got a few of my own I could stand to tie up. I was just thinking, in fact, about an old associate that Yusuke reminds me of sometimes. He stole the most incredible sword, right out from under my nose," Kurama said musingly. "Never did get it back."
"Then go and get it," Hiei said sharply, clearly annoyed. "Or don't. Why bother telling me about it?"
"Because it wouldn't be easy. To retrieve it, that is. A difficult job." Kurama met Hiei's eyes. "I could use a partner."
The energy between them changed. Kurama's eyes held a question, and after a moment Hiei answered, with a nod and a feral smile that seemed to spread across his whole face. "So where does this scum live?"
Kurama returned the smile. They turned away from the border, already discussing distances and methods of entry, their feet falling back into the old habit of walking side by side without either of them consciously altering their step. Neither of them looked back.