(two months later)
Yusuke turned and waved. Shuichi was running up the temple stairs, smiling and waving back. Far behind him--barely within eyesight--Hiei was taking the stairs with deliberate slowness. If Yusuke hadn't known better, he wouldn't have suspected that they'd arrived together.
Shuichi arrived at the top of the stairs, a little pink in the cheeks but not out of breath, and said, "Yusuke, d'you wanna see my Kurama impression?"
Faced with that question, and an eager kid, Yusuke could only blink a few times and say, "Uh…sure?"
With a great deal of flare, Shuichi reached into his hair and announced, "Rose whip!" And--to Yusuke's intense astonishment--the whip actually put in an appearance, falling to the ground in its customary graceful arc.
"That's… a pretty good impression," Yusuke admitted, looking him up and down. "What gives?"
"Hiei taught me. I don't want to use a whip," Shuichi added in a long-suffering tone. The whip contracted back into a rose, which he tucked in his hair with Kurama's customary movement. "I want to use a sword, like Hiei does. But he won't teach me until I learn to handle this stupid thing again. Muscle memory, and all that. Let me ask you, who the hell picks a whip as their primary weapon? It's really hard to maneuver in a tight space. It's stupid."
Faced with this barrage of words--all of it delivered with a cheerful expression, even while he was complaining--Yusuke could only gape. He hadn't seen much of Shuichi in the last few months, not since the chaos and recriminations that had followed Shuichi's impromptu crossing of the border into Makai had died down, so this cheerful, well-trained Shuichi was a shock. He'd had no idea Hiei was training him to use spirit energy--to be honest, he probably wouldn't have remembered to invite Shuichi to the party they were throwing at the temple if Kuwabara hadn't reminded him.
And, speaking of the devil-- "Kuwabara!" Shuichi said happily, looking over Yusuke's shoulder and gesturing for the carrot top to come over. There was a gleam in his eye that was too reminiscent of Yoko Kurama for Yusuke's comfort; Shuichi's voice, however, bespoke pure innocence. "Kuwabara, you can teach me how to use a sword, can't you?"
"Absolutely not," Hiei said, arriving with impeccable timing. "That imbecile can barely keep one end of a sword straight from the other."
"Hey! I heard that!" Kuwabara came up to stand next to Yusuke, glaring at Hiei.
"But Hiei," and now Shuichi's expression practically dripped naivety, "you won't teach me. And I want to learn. So if Kuwabara will teach me--"
"You'll learn how to fight like a fool."
"Watch it, shorty! Kurama taught me how to use my sword, you know!"
"Even the greatest teacher cannot improve upon mediocrity."
Kuwabara ignored that comment, though his teeth were gritted, and addressed himself to Shuichi. "So it's my job to teach you, since Kurama taught me," he said, in a leap of logic that Yusuke didn't quite follow. "And I'll teach you way better than Hiei could. He doesn't even use a sword anymore."
"Don't I?" Hiei said, unsheathing his katana.
A moment later, Yusuke and Shuichi were standing together and watching as Hiei and Kuwabara chased each other around the temple grounds, yelling taunts and insults. Yusuke couldn't help but notice the small, self-satisfied smile on Shuichi's face. "That was well done," he commented. "Now Hiei has to teach you, or he knows Kuwabara will and his pride can't take that. Well played."
"Thank you," Shuichi replied simply.
"What I don't get is why you want to learn."
"I told you, I don't like the whip," Shuichi replied complacently. "I don't mind using plants--they're really pretty versatile--but anything other than that whip."
"No, that's not what I meant. I mean, why learn to fight at all? I thought you wanted to be a normal human."
"That's what Kurama wanted for me," Shuichi corrected. "It's not what I want. I want to go back to Makai and see things and do things that I can't do until I'm stronger. I don't think I'll ever be as good as Kurama was, but who knows? I've got more spirit energy than you started out with, from Kurama sharing my body all these years, and you certainly did okay for yourself. Plus I've got memories of Kurama's way of fighting, which is a good place to start forming my own style from. Except I can't see how I'll really ever have my own style, because Hiei's teaching me, and between my memories and his it's almost impossible not to just fall into the same old way of fighting. I guess that wouldn't be too bad. After he teaches me to use a sword, that is."
Then, looking over Yusuke's shoulder, Shuichi got a very mischievous expression on his face and said, "I'm going to go say hello to Yukina. Hiei hates it when I talk to her. He thinks I'm going to give everything away." With a cheerful wave, Shuichi ran off and left Yusuke standing there speechless.
He watched Hiei and Kuwabara mock-fighting with each other, wondering about the start contrast in Shuichi from a few months ago, until Hiei finally got tired of dodging Kuwabara and approached Yusuke. "Don't train him," he said without preamble, giving Yusuke a warning glare. "No matter what he tells you, don't teach him a damn thing. He gets confused because his memories get jumbled up with Kurama's and he thinks he can do things he can't. I know what he's ready for and I'm training him."
Yusuke had to work hard not to grin at Hiei's level of possessiveness. "I wasn't planning on it."
"Make sure you don't. He's enough of a pain in the ass without anyone helping him to go behind my back." Hiei's eyes were trained on Shuichi and Yukina. "I swear sometimes he rebels against what I'm trying to teach him even when he agrees, just for the sake of rebelling."
This time, Yusuke couldn't hide his grin. "Hiei, he's a human teenager. Rebellion is part of the package."
"You were never this stupid when you were human. Close. But not quite."
"He told me he wants to go to be Makai again?"
"He's determined. But he's agreed to wait this time until I say he's ready. He knows I'm serious about it, and he knows he needs me too much to risk alienating me." Yusuke raised his eyebrows. "Because of the memories," Hiei clarified. "There's so much that Kurama took for granted that Shuichi's never had experience with. I can usually sort it out."
"He's still getting more new memories?"
"Yes," Hiei said shortly.
"He doesn't seem…" It was Hiei's turn to raise his eyebrows, while Yusuke tried and failed to find some way of expressing himself that was less blunt. "Well, he doesn't seem miserable anymore. Those memories used to drive him crazy. And so did you, by the way--I know you two had a hell of a fight right before he went into Makai. And now he seems really happy. So what gives?"
Hiei shrugged. "We stopped fighting."
Yusuke hesitated. He was one of few people who felt comfortable enough with Hiei to pressure him into saying more than he wanted to--but something told him not to this time. "So… he's okay, then."
"You saw him. He's fine. He's incorrigible."
"And… Kurama? Any… any signs?"
Hiei looked at him impassively for a moment. "You saw him. He's fine."
Then Hiei walked past him, toward Shuichi, leaving Yusuke staring after him with a slack jaw. Hiei couldn't… he couldn't possibly mean what he'd sounded like. Yusuke knew Kurama well enough to know he hadn't just been talking to him; that had been Shuichi. Kurama wasn't back. Hiei wouldn't be training him if Kurama was back.
And yet--Shuichi had summoned the rose whip. No matter how much he professed to dislike it, he'd done it. He was so completely different from a few months ago. Unafraid of anything--mischievous even--and very much at ease. Almost like Kurama. But not quite.
What was going on?
"So what's going on?" Botan asked quietly, when she arrived several hours later. She looked nervous, and plainly didn't want to talk to anyone but Yusuke. She was still experiencing backlash from some of the others because of her selective communication concerning Kurama's death. "We still haven't seen any sign of Kurama on our end. Do you think Shuichi…"
"Well, he remembers stuff. A lot of it, and I'm pretty sure some of the stuff he said to me means he remembers things from after he and Kurama split."
"So… he is Kurama?"
"No. Not really. At least--I don't think so. Sort of." Yusuke shrugged, frustrated with his inability to put what he was seeing into words. He'd been watching Shuichi and Hiei pretty carefully, and he thought he had it figured out, but it was hard to explain. "I mean, he's got a lot of Kurama's memories, and Hiei says he's still remembering more and more stuff. But--well, before, when we all knew Kurama, it was like Shuichi was this tiny piece of him. Like a personality quirk. It's like the reverse now. Like Kurama's there, but he's in the background now, just a tiny part and Shuichi's the one in control."
"You mean, Kurama has gone back to this body, only he's hiding?"
"No. I'm not saying this right. I think--I think Kurama is dead," he suddenly said, flatly. It was the first time he'd said that. "The way we knew him is dead. Shuichi won't ever be that person, but that person's part of Shuichi, and… oh, hell, I can't explain it. Just watch him for awhile. I'm not one hundred percent sure what happened, but I think Kurama would have been okay with it."
Botan bit her lip and didn't respond for a moment. "What about Hiei?" she finally asked in the same low tone, not looking at him.
Yusuke smiled, suddenly more relaxed than he had been when talking about Shuichi. "I don't think you need to worry about seeing him on your side of things anytime soon. He's teaching Shuichi how to fight, so that tells you something."
"What does it tell you?"
Yusuke rolled his eyes; sometimes he forgot that Botan wasn't a fighter. "That he's planning on getting a return on his efforts." Botan still looked blank, so he added, "He's planning on staying here."
"Botan doesn't want to be near me," Shuichi observed.
Hiei spared a glance in the direction Shuichi was looking. "Botan won't ever see you," he replied dismissively. "If she does talk to you, she'll always be examining you for signs of Kurama." A small smile flickered across his face. "It must drive her crazy that he found a way to sneak past her."
"She probably feels guilty that she can't find him," Shuichi countered.
"Think what you like."
"I will." Shuichi scowled at him. "And I'm going to go talk to her."
Shuichi got up and walked away. He looked over his shoulder once, a brief moment of uncertainty, wanting to know that Hiei hadn't vanished into the forest. Then he faced front again, walking briskly. Hiei watched the first few moments of his attempt to establish peace with the reaper; then he turned away and looked at the forest. There was a prickling on the back of his neck, a tingling in his spine, that made him feel like he was being watched. He highly suspected he was imagining it. But he couldn't be sure.
He watched the forest silently for several minutes. Then he shook his head and gave a quiet chuckle. "Idiot," he said softly, and it wasn't clear whether he was talking to himself or to somebody else. He turned his back on the trees and went to join the others.
(A/N): This is the end. You may draw your own conclusions as to what you think really happened. I hope everyone enjoyed this experiment.