Dedicated to my readers whose uplifting reviews motivated me to finish this new chapter: krm3DeeDee-san, Meeka-san, and Reader in the Corner-san. And oh yeah, Lunalom-san. (About that "wavelength" thing... Kuwabara said it. Apparently he confuses adjectives appropriate for length with those for height. XD) And, of course, my friend and former thesis partner who already knows all the answers to the questions that this fanfic poses: MAZTERMIND-chan.


A ceramic bowl smashed straight into his face.

The fine china cleanly cracked in the middle before one of its halves slid from the ramen cook's left cheek and promptly dropped to the floor.

Yusuke peeled the other shard off a tightly clenched jaw. "Teme! You're gonna pay for chucking china at your chef!"

"Really," scoffed the apparently dissatisfied customer. "Bad enough that I had to pay for the meal."

"You son of a—"

"Yusuke!"

A tender hand clapped onto the hot-headed toushin's shoulder.

"Kurama!" The mazoku slackened his tensed shoulders slightly upon catching sight of his fellow ningen-slash-youkai. "Am I glad to see you!"

"Ku…"

The two whirled to face the stranger who had finally caught earshot of the secret name of the secretive Minamino Shuuichi.

A vast, verdant meadow met eye to eye with a cloudless midday sky.

Kurama's eyes widened. "Ma—Mayonaka-san—"

"… rama…"

3: The Urameshi Thermostat
Alternative Chapter Title: Spring Onions in Shoyu Ramen

"But why not? It's abandoned!"

One of the younger aides scowled defiantly, a reckless impatience written across his face and boiling his hot demon blood. Yomi was by far the most rebellious of the newcomers: launching into attack when Youko specifically ordered to hold fire, pouncing while Youko was still planning.

And scowling, always scowling, when he did not get his way.

But Youko Kurama was used to disapproval. Being the longtime leader of the most notorious and feared band of thieves in all of Makai earned him more—much more—than insignificant frowns on grudging faces.

The bonfire at the heart of their base camp crackled with the howling winter wind, its roaring tongues of fire licking frostbitten toes and bodies wounded and worn from raids, robberies, and the inevitable duel to the death. Youko met the flames with his eyes, which mirrored the soft orange silently, almost eerily.

"Belittle not the seemingly 'abandoned' castle," The kitsune's earthy baritone captured even the most inattentive of ears. "They are usually the most heavily guarded. A lesson learned through experience. Take it well."

The thieves hung their heads low, some to draw closer to the blazing bonfire, others in shame for entertaining the prospect of defying Youko's orders and pillaging the ancient dilapidated castle on their own.

The fox demon rose and addressed all his men. "I see the wait has made you restless. We raid tonight."

Excitement surged through the demons. Some stood and pumped their fists while others beamed and cheered. A satisfied smile spread through Yomi's lips.

"But Kuronue and I alone shall enter. The higher ranks shall stand watch by the gates and doors. Those of you with less than three hundred fortnights' experience, cover home base. We shall take ten minutes at longest."

All traces of thrill in the air faded. Amidst the sudden uproar, Kurama could feel poisonous, treacherous eyes boring through his entire body.

His second-in-command stepped in on his defense. "Men! Brothers! Comrades-in-arms! Youko has nothing but your best interests in mind. His orders are for your own good—your safety. A reliable source informed us that that old castle by the cliff is secretly inhabited by an Eternal," Kuronue cast a long look at their newest target in the distance. "The Eternals are invisible to the naked eye and capable of killing without having to touch or see their victims. Only Youko and I are experienced enough to break and enter into their territory and still get away with our lives."

Most of the demon thieves staggered in fear upon hearing the news. A particularly shaken one even exclaimed, "But why're we even botherin' to get anything from 'em? If they're jus' that deadly!"

Hn, Youko regarded the demon silently. A lover of his own life, this one. "A laughable query, but necessary. Eternals are spirits of time. One generation alone lives for millennia. Throughout their near-infinite lifetimes, they acquire countless material possessions: gemstones, rare artifacts, enchanted talismans, and more. Each of them owns an hourglass made of pure gold, called the Toki no Suna. Any merchant would buy it from us for a hundred—no, a thousand—times the price of all our heads."

He was all too aware that he had already won the money-hungry demons over. Now, for those who covet power.

"Need I mention that whoever has possession of it wields limitless power over time?" he added smugly.

At this point, the pack of thieves seemed to have forgotten about, or dismissed, the biting cold altogether. All of them looked forward to contributing to the successful ransacking of the old mansion, as lethal a mission as it may be.

Yomi, ever obstinate, still had one point of contention with the entire plan. "So the place is one big treasure chest! Won't we get the job done a lot faster if many of us loot it at once? It's not fair that only the two head honchos get a shot at the big stuff!"

Kurama had anticipated this argument from the very beginning. He looked Yomi squarely in the eye. "Yomi. Yomi, Yomi, Yomi," he scoffed. "Of what use shall your 'loot' be to you if their owner sensed your presence and caught you red-handed? You cannot take even the finest crystal with you to the afterlife."

The scowl returned to its usual place. Youko was taking Yomi's stealth and skill lightly—that much was obvious to all. The young demon harrumphed.

But Youko was one to think of everything. All possible scenarios, options, alternatives, escape routes, delegations of work, and—of course—outcomes. "Minna, stay on guard tonight. When Kuronue and I return, we split the spoils evenly. Even those on base shall get their fair share. Any more concerns, Yomi?"

That was what the rascal had wanted to hear all along. "Che."

"I didn't think so." A thin, arrogant smile curled Youko's lips. "You reap a bountiful harvest without sowing even so much as one seed. Such opportunities are the rarest of all. I would take full advantage of it, if I were you."

He turned his back on Yomi and the inexperienced thieves, and nodded to Kuronue and their accomplices for the mission on hand.

And in the blink of an eye, the thieves on duty vanished into the cold winter night.


One of the demons keeping watch by the doors of the castle cracked one eye open, shot a dazed look at the hazy white moon, and yawned loudly. His widely opened mouth attracted a fly, which he shooed away frantically as it attempted to nose-dive right into his throat.

"Damn! I'm starting to think that brat Yomi was right! I don't hear anything from inside this old dump—Youko and Kuronue could be dead by now! C'mon, let's infiltrate!"

The other thief was preoccupied with studying the ancient inscription engraved on the black wall next to the gargantuan castle gates. "I-I dunno. Something's real spooky 'bout all this. There could be booby traps in there…"

"Hmph!" The bored bandit dismissed his companion's suspicion by spitting to the ground. "If you're too chicken, suit yourself! I'm helping myself to a big, fat handful of rocks, if you know what I mean!"

The cocky thief-guard stepped into the aged metal doors. His comrade stretched his hand out to reach his back, to no avail.

"Wait!" The thief left behind froze in place. Just beyond the imposing doors—and right before his eyes—was a hollow void, an endless cavern of inescapable darkness. He shuddered and silently waited for any sign of his superiors.

He did not have to wait long.

A bloodcurdling yell ricocheted through every vestibule and chamber of the decrepit fortress. Winged dark creatures fled from its rooftops, gutters, and balconies in instinctive haste.

With a full-length mirror framed in silver and two jewel-encrusted boxes under the crook of his arm, Kuronue stopped in his tracks and gasped.

In another wing of the castle, Youko Kurama closed his eyes as his fox ears slightly twitched to the all too familiar sound of death. O Foolishness, how many more bold men must you take away? He sighed lightly, almost inaudibly, and turned the doorknob.

An inconvenient darkness played with his senses. He found himself placing his full trust in his night vision and keen sensory awareness, sharpened by both nature—his being born a fox—and nurture—his collective experiences as a thief.

Kurama's acute animal eyesight adjusted to the dark instantly. He found a long, sweeping canopy of scarlet majestically draped over all sides of a four-poster bed. But no chairs, tables, drawers, closets, or other such furniture. At all. The rest of the room was debris. Ruins. Cinders. Vestiges of war. Of past theft and crime.

The bedroom most resembled a penitentiary, an asylum, with its only window of crisscrossed wrought-iron bars offering no means of physical escape. Only the blurred, clouded glow of the midnight moon penetrated through the unbreakable window and shed a thin, dusty sliver of light upon the dismal room.

Youko Kurama was perfectly aware that appearances—even of harmlessly bare bedrooms—could be deceiving. He weighed his options. Have I nothing more to see here, nothing more to find? Shall I merely leave this potential treasure trove behind with not a stone unturned? But even the most barren of trees, when tended with a patient thumb, could—and do—bear the sweetest fruit…

His claws bared and milky white fangs gleaming with the moonlight, the fox in human form softly padded and stealthily pounced across cold marble.

The icy winter wind breathed upon the light, delicate canopies of the bed. A slender ivory hand with sharp, thorn-like nails parted the splendid curtains gracefully.

Kurama held his breath. Glittering before his liquid, lustful eyes was the golden hourglass for which he and his most skilled and indispensable accomplices were risking their very lives. The Toki no Suna!

A seemingly human hand with canine claws ghosted closer. Closer. Closer. He could taste it in his jaws and mouth. Cold and metallic, like blood. A most mouthwatering taste. His loins ached with longing. He loved the sensation.

He loved it so much that he was reminded of why he chose the wayward life of a thief. The thrill was unspeakable.

Kurama's fingers remorselessly wrapped themselves around the hourglass on their own. His excited, taut knuckles unintentionally brushed against the intricately sewn bedspread. A gasp suddenly caught in his throat.

The quilt—it's warm! The flushed heat of a living body!

With a speed that not even the expertly trained youkai eye can follow, Kurama seized the valuable hourglass. But what he found in his hand was another hand—translucent, limp, and frail.

Pale porcelain fingers weakly curled open to reveal the object of Youko Kurama's desires clasped within. A ghastly scar ran the length of the Eternal's ashen palm. His or her wrist was a thin film of skin with a tangled web of veins beneath, but drained of color, a pulse, and life.

Then the long, large sleeve of a silk brocade with two lotus flowers stitched along its hem. Eternals should be invisible to all… Why can I…?

The robe bared a thin, bony collarbone. Youko's golden eyes blinked in anticipation.


Shuuichi's green eyes blinked in anticlimax.

A dream, he sighed.

Kurama closed his eyes once more in an attempt to induce the continuation of his most recent dream sequence. Lying stiff upon his own bed, with his arms folded behind his head, the warm winds of summer danced into his bedroom window.

He nestled his head deeper into the cradle formed by his arms, the back of his palms touching the soft, downy pillow beneath. Why can't I remember that face?

He sighed again, this time in frustration. The long red locks that served as his sideburns coolly wafted with the wind.

Surely Eternals possess the power to freeze time, he told himself as his eyes rested on the ceiling. Kuwabara should have neither seen nor spoken with an Eternal, let alone sense their ki as youki—they're not youkai. But he would be right about one thing: they are powerful. After all, they control the very fabric of time.

He unwound one arm from behind his head and cupped his chin. Do the Reikai authorities send Eternals over to Ningenkai on official duty, as they do to Botan and other spirits they summon? Botan shows herself to ningen when the need arises…

But if the dog's rescuer truly was an Eternal, that still doesn't explain how he knew where the dog's owner lived, or that the dog even had an owner.

So what could explain that?

He glanced at his bedside clock. Time to investigate.

Minamino Shuuichi rose from his bed.


Mayonaka Setsuki rose from her bed.

"That tears it. I may not have finished studying yet, but studying has sure finished me."

She slipped one foot into a slipper and forgot the other. With back slouched and shoulders sagged, she plodded into the kitchen with an empty look and an even emptier stomach. "So much for feeding my mind. My tummy is getting jealous."

The starving student lifted the lid off a saucepan on the stove. "Oops. Forgot the pot holder," she knocked herself lightly on one of her temples. "Oh, well. Doesn't matter. Whatever is in this is long cold by now."

She peered inside the pot, only to make a face at her own reflection in the clear but oily broth. "Seriously, Oyaji. Not goya soup again."

The disappointed girl carelessly dropped the lid back onto the stainless steel cookware, her undivided attention on the trellis just beyond the sliding door leading to the balcony.

She pressed her hand onto cold glass, pushed the sliding door to the side, and bent over to pick up a fallen goya leaf. "I still can't believe that you grew so well this fast," a serene smile played upon her lips as she casually twirled the leaf by its stalk. "And I didn't even have to consult any book."

Setsu eyed the trellis, long ringlets of goya vines looped intricately along its whitewashed wooden lattices. Just as the most golden of flowers adorned the elegant vines, the ripest and plumpest of goya gourds hung onto them, ready to drop if not picked in time.

"It's a good thing that Oyaji couldn't help but like you when he already saw you growing," she chuckled to the now vine-filled trellis. "He didn't want to buy any medicines or medicinal supplements with your extract in them, even if he needs you for his diabetes."

A fond gleam in her eye, she left the fallen leaf to rest on a flower pot containing a bed of soil. "I won't bury you, ne?" she told the leaf. "I know that you'd want to do that on your own."

She took one step back to admire and pay her last respects to the crisp, nearly withered leaf. Back inside the condominium unit, the telephone rang.

Alarmed, she sprang towards the house phone, stepping on several goya vines and leaves on her way.

"Mengo," she called towards the balcony as she picked up the receiver.

"Kisetsu, were you talking to your miraculous goya vines again?"

Setsu knocked herself on the head lightly. With her mind's eye, she could see Mayonaka Tsuzuku's suspicious, knowing eyebrow raised, even when he was behind his office desk a city away.

"Well, I accidentally stepped on them—"

"You're apologizing to plants. You must be really hungry."

Setsu's facial expression contorted into one sour, awful mess. Her father knew her, and he knew her well. "So what time are you coming home?"

Of course her Oyaji was very much accustomed to her transitions from one irrelevant subject matter to another. He had put up with it all her life. "Much later than I can promise. After those final examinations, you're entering college—meaning you're old enough to cook. So why don't you?"

Setsu sighed. They had been here and done this too many times before. "Busy. Lazy. Crappy cook. Hate own cooking. Never mind."

"You can tell me all the excuses in the world, Kisetsu, but I can't—"

"I know," the tone of the irresponsible daughter was glum, sorrowful. Pitiful, even. She was working him over to her side. Now, just a touch more remorse for the win. "You can't cook for me forever. Well, I really will do that for myself when I'm staying at Kazuyu-'ji-san's already. For the meantime… In the mood for ramen?"

"But I left you with soup—"

"Which I have been taking ever since we picked the first gourd of goya that ripened in our own balcony," Setsu was frankly sick and tired of the bitter vegetable by now. "Besides, ramen has noodles in it, too. I need the starch, the carbohydrates, for my exam tomorrow. It's braaain fooooood."

"Speaking of which, have you studied?"

"Tomorrow's essay exam is History. I hate it. All history books were written by only the winners of everything. Our class textbook is no exception," Setsu twirled the curled telephone cord around with her pointer finger. "I'll write about what really happened out there. Not the success stories of the victors alone."

From the other end came a hopeless sigh. No threat, bribe, or plea could prompt a halfway decent answer from his unapologetically reluctant respondent. "As long as you pass."

"Aa." Her left hand still clutching the receiver, Setsu's right hand fished for loose change in her jeans pockets. "By the way, I would love to stay and chat, but soon enough you might not be able to hear me over my stomach growling…"

A creased forehead on the other end of the line sweat-dropped.

"Besides, the earlier that I leave, the earlier that I should also get home."

Mayonaka Tsuzuku did not even bother to argue with his daughter in times such as this. "Who will go with you?"

"The entire cast of my new manga," Setsu shot a glance at the pile of papers on the desk in her room. "Nami-chan is grounded right now, so I shouldn't call her."

"What about that boy?"

Setsu bit her lower lip. Oyaji had already known Hagiri Kaname for nearly a decade now, yet he still adamantly refused to refer to "that boy" by his name. "Knowing him, Kaname-kun will foot the bill."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"That is because it is." Her lips straightened into one taut, thin line. "He should not dip into his pockets any more than he already has. He has no obligation to feed me. Or buy me anything at all."

"That boy," followed a disgruntled but markedly amused chuckle. "You get so serious, Kisetsu. I just wish you felt the same way about school."

"I'll be fine. I'll even take my history book with me. Shoyu ramen—my treat."

Soon, Setsu kicked the stand of her old and rusty mountain bike, swung a leg up, and pedaled away.

Her favorite restaurant was a modest, one-man ramen stand on the outskirts of the city. The establishment was merely a stall on two wheels, a human-drawn carriage of sorts. Everyday, its owner—a noticeably young man who was also its waiter, manager, treasurer, chef, and busboy—would pull his portable business like a cart to its usual location: a secluded little spot a few meters from the railroad tracks. Setsu frequented this humble ramen shop—she just loved the man's style of spicy shoyu ramen.

It was a private hobby, these visits of hers. Every time she could, she would always, always just sit down in the ramen stall all by herself. Whether from a long school day at Meiou, from a tranquil day of being alone in the house, or from anywhere else, Setsuki found herself at ease and at peace in the eatery-on-wheels. She spoiled herself there.

The neighborhood was a most urban milieu, but it calmed her nonetheless. With pencil or pen in hand, she would immortalize it all on paper: the early evening trains that go by… the ramen deliciously steaming before her eyes and nose… perhaps even just a crude, rough sketch of that young ramen peddler. But knowing how "upfront" the guy was (even with his customers—no, especially with them), he might mistakenly believe that she was even just the slightest bit interested in him.

"But I'm not," Setsu grunted to herself, the chilly evening wind slapping her hard on the face. "If I would ever draw anyone for such a reason, it would only be K—" She cut herself short and took the slaps full on, rubicund cheeks warming up in spite of the cold.

As her ride became a smooth, steady coast, her attention momentarily lingered in front of the handlebar of her old bicycle. Her bike basket contained a stack of papers—some completely spent as pages of her new manga, others blank—bound together inside a sliding folder. She had also brought her new box of colored pencils and, as she had promised, her history textbook.

The bike ride was long. It always was. But the trip whetted her appetite even more. She was looking forward to that hot ramen.

She wheeled up to the shop and set one foot onto the asphalt to stop her bicycle. No other customers were there. All the better for her.

"Irasshai!" erupted a boisterous, enthusiastic greeting from behind the counter. The ramen seller must have recognized the squeak and creak of his regular customer's rusty, rickety bicycle—even from afar.

With a clean page and a box of pencils in her hands, Setsu brushed aside the thin Welcome cloths (customarily hung overhead in Japanese food stalls) without using either hand—she just strode right through. She comfortably plopped herself onto a stool. "Shoyu ramen, onegai."

The young cook had his back turned on her. He was so preoccupied with an adult magazine that the lids of the two boiling saucepots behind him were jumping from the heat. Yet he knew very well just what she came for. "Aa! One spicy and for dine-in, and the other one ordinary and to-go! Gotcha!"

"I love this place." Dimples shyly revealed themselves on the upturned corners of Setsu's lips. She stacked up six hundred yen's worth of coins—which she had already counted twice before she had left home—on the tabletop.

Amid cooking preparations, the ramen chef darted glances from the magazine centerfold to his loyal customer, then to the exact amount that she never failed to pay upon every visit. A cheeky but similarly satisfied grin was plastered on his face.

"And this place loves you too, Ma'am!" retorted the young man playfully.

Setsu pulled out several colored pencils from their cardboard box and laid them out neatly on the long wooden panel that would serve as her drawing as well as dining table. "How have you been, Urameshi-san?"

Urameshi Yusuke lifted the stainless steel lid off one pot and, with his trusty strainer, scooped noodles out of boiling water. He staged a performance of repeatedly tossing the heap of curly noodles up in the air and catching it with his strainer, showing off to his only spectator. "Damn bored outta my mind, as usual."

"Oh," Setsu's eyes were directed down at her paper rather than up at Urameshi. "What would catch and keep your interest, then?"

"A kick-ass martial arts tournament," Yusuke responded casually, as though it were the most natural answer in the world. Actually, it was—in his world.

"Hn. Those are televised every so often," Setsu absently gnawed on the tip of a pencil, subconsciously staving off her hunger. "You could install a TV here. Local primetime is known for its boredom-busting abilities, after all. And who knows, the flickers and crackles of a TV set might attract more customers."

With a perfected flick of the wrist, Yusuke flung the noodles up one last time, and then dumped the edible swirl onto a ceramic bowl. "Thanks for the thought. But I like 'em best with me in 'em, y' see."

"So you wouldn't mind a career change from peddling food to professional fighting, then?"

"Y' could say that." His back turned on her again, the cook responded over his shoulder. He poured a generous amount of soy sauce into the chicken stock. "Actually, I was already into it waaay before I got into this ramen thing!"

"Then why did you 'get into this ramen thing'?"

"Simple as pie. I got fired."

Urameshi-san's walnut eyes—both in shape and color, noted Setsu—were downcast… wistful. He must have loved his former profession more than he was letting on. It must have nourished him with a sense of purpose in life. His heart truly seemed to be into it—until now.

"Ah, what the heck!" Yusuke poured the clear brownish broth into the noodle bowl. "I wasn't getting paid for it anyway!"

His fists were at his sides. His brows wrinkled and his lips jutted out into a cross, cranky pout. Setsu noted to herself that Urameshi-san would habitually, instinctively assume the role of a royally pissed, tough-as-nails badass in order to conceal, deal with, and dismiss his more… vulnerable… sentiments.

But his façade was flimsy, transparent. The punk still had a most natural, unpretentious air about him. This inherent charisma of his distinguished him, hailed him as a born leader.

In spite of all her inward silent psychologizing, on the surface Setsuki seemed to be concentrating her mental energies upon the noodle soup bowl across the counter. Her left hand frantically scrawled on her paper. "This may not change anything, but I just thought that you might want to know—at one point, I too devoted my entire life to something without ever getting paid for it, either."

"Huh?" blinked a clueless Yusuke. "What was it? Drawin' stuff?"

"I only wish it were."

The chef expertly minced a spring onion into thin, fine pieces, which he sprinkled into his customer's shoyu ramen as garnish. "Aw, come on! Tell me, or I won't give ya your ramen!"

With one sweeping motion, his customer coolly scooped up the stack of coins on the tabletop into her hand. "Fine. I can always take my business someplace else."

"Fine! Take yer stupid money! The hell do I care!" Yusuke raised and shook his fist. "And don't even think of comin' back—"

"By the way, how is your lovely landlady?"

"Eeh?" Yusuke staggered back, dumbstruck. Oh, yeah—that's right! Even with his current net income from ramen sales, he was still four thousand yen short of last month's rent! Not to mention his irresponsible bum of a mother even snuck off with yesterday's earnings to take a swig of that cool new whiskey label fresh off the liquor store…!

Yusuke needed Setsu's money. And worse, she knew it.

"You sneaky bitch," muttered Yusuke between gritted teeth, referring to both Urameshi Atsuko and his calculating, conniving customer. Grudgingly, he shoved the heaping bowl of ramen towards her. The greasy brown liquid swished to and fro in the deep bowl.

"Itadaki." Entirely ignoring Yusuke's attitude, Setsu peacefully took a sip of her noodle soup and blinked. "Hn. It's not spicy yet."

"Don't ya go changin' the topic on me!" The chef spat as he trickled chili oil into his customer's order, his head hotter than the chili. "Why don'tcha wanna tell me?"

In the face of a seething Yusuke, Setsu calmly stirred her now spicy shoyu ramen with her soup spoon. "Can you tell me what you used to do that you don't do anymore?"

"Sorry, Ma'am," Yusuke's smart-ass, thug-like manner of speaking did not suit the "Ma'am" at all. His passionate baritone leaked of sarcasm. "No can do."

"Then neither can I."

"Heck, it's not as if your old job put your life on the line as much as mine did!" grumbled Yusuke under his breath as he prepared the other shoyu ramen that she ordered.

"With my old job, I had no life."

Yusuke's eyes widened. How old was the annoying bitch, anyway? Wasn't she only in high school? So what "old job" could she have been yapping about? Was she some god-forsaken hooker or child porn star or something?

Before Urameshi could deliver another one of his snappy comebacks, Mayonaka put her spoon down. "We really should not fight, Urameshi-san. It isn't becoming of a chef and his customer."

"But I wasn't fight—"

Setsu raised a most authoritative eyebrow at him, almost as if to mean, "You were saying?"

Yusuke found himself shutting up against his will. "Kuso!" He buried his nose into his glossy centerfold.

Setsuki darted glances from her ramen to the piece of paper beside it. She picked light brown from the row of colored pencils neatly aligned on the table and began shading the paper with it.

She worked efficiently, alternately drawing with her left hand and eating with her right. From behind the magazine spread, Yusuke overheard both light and heavy pencil strokes on paper as well as the occasional sip of a mouth and soup-scooping of a spoon.

Whatever it was that she was drawing was more time-consuming to finish than the spicy shoyu ramen was. Yusuke's okyaku-san momentarily abandoned her illustration to raise the ramen bowl to her lips with both hands. Yusuke sniggered to himself quietly as he watched his customer down the last of his ramen with gusto.

"Gochiso."

"Done already? I haven't even turned the page yet!" He was poking fun at the girl's hearty appetite and indicating to his notorious and disreputable reading material.

"You sure you're not just a slow reader?"

She did not even bother to look up from her drawing.

Spider veins popped out of Yusuke's temples. Gee, can't this chick take a joke? He leaned over the ramen stand counter to catch a sneak peek of that stupid piece of paper with which his customer had been engrossed for some time now.

With an exasperated sigh, Setsuki instantly flipped the sheet around so that only its blank back was visible to Yusuke. "I hope you don't mind. I would appreciate some privacy."

"Privacy?" exclaimed Yusuke. "Y' watch me cook your ramen all the time! Gimme a break!"

"I don't want to have to say this, but that is because I pay you to cook it. Besides, you could always choose to work behind a screen, a makeshift wall, or some other sort of cover so that I wouldn't get to watch you cook."

"Y' mean I hafta pay ya to see that piece of—"

"Iie," interrupted Setsu. "I wouldn't show it to you even if you paid me to. Especially now that you just insulted it."

"But I—"

"Did. In your mind, at least."

"Che!" spat Yusuke. There was no getting around this bitch! At that very moment, he just wished that Kurama would come and beat this smarty-pants stranger at her own game. If the witty kitsune always got the deadly, razor-sharp-tongued Hiei to shut his pothole, then this girl would be no exception.

He kept an eye on her. Good—she stayed put on that stool, entirely absorbed in coloring whatever that blasted picture was. He crept out of his ramen stand and stole into the night.

She was still at it when he reached her bicycle. An entire folder of papers lay in its basket. So what if she would let hell freeze over before he got to see that one itty-bitty piece of paper? She left plenty more on her bicycle—unguarded!

He made no sound at all.

Just as Yusuke successfully pinched away one sheet among the ream in the folder, a ceramic bowl smashed straight into his face.

The fine china cleanly cracked in the middle before one of its halves slid from the ramen cook's left cheek and promptly dropped to the floor.

Yusuke peeled the other shard off a tightly clenched jaw. "Teme! You're gonna pay for chucking china at your chef!"

"Really," scoffed the apparently dissatisfied customer. "Bad enough that I had to pay for the meal."

"You son of a—"

"Yusuke!"

A tender hand clapped onto the hot-headed toushin's shoulder.

"Kurama!" The mazoku slackened his tensed shoulders slightly upon catching sight of his fellow ningen-slash-youkai. "Am I glad to see you!"

"Ku…"

The two whirled to face the stranger who had finally caught earshot of the secret name of the secretive Minamino Shuuichi.

A vast, verdant meadow met eye to eye with a cloudless midday sky.

Kurama's eyes widened. "Ma—Mayonaka-san—"

"… rama…"

"Uh-oh. My bad," Yusuke gulped, an uneasy, shameful guilt scribbled across his face. At least he knew that he was never supposed to call Kurama by that very name before a total stranger… Wait a second—Mayonaka-san? What the f—? "So, I take it you guys have met before."

"Yes," Kurama smiled at him forgivingly. "We have."

"Only for a short time. Just like right now," Setsu jammed her hand into her jeans pocket to retrieve the colored pencils that she had crammed into it and dropped them back inside their box. "Mengo, Minamino-sempai. It would be best for me to leave now. Got an essay exam tomorrow. Need a full night's sleep."

She arranged a sliding folder, a box of colored pencils, a textbook, and the packaged shoyu ramen for her Oyaji in her basket, and hitched upon her bicycle.

Minamino-sempai Kurama repeated. She had already heard my true name, yet—

"That other name of yours," Setsu closed her eyes awhile. "That should be none of my business. A lesson that Urameshi has a long way to go before he learns."

"Aw, come ON—"

Setsu deprived Yusuke of any opening. "Before we part, Minamino-sempai, there's something you should know," the girl was the very epitome of serenity and contentment with the world despite her most recent squabble. "You seem to be Urameshi's thermostat. He's a lot calmer now, with you around."

She laughed to herself quietly and turned to Yusuke. "I dropped the 'san,' ne? You will earn it again only when you finally practice professionalism with your customers. Congratulations, you ticking time bomb—your ramen was as steaming hot as your head. I just hope that your little stall wouldn't crash and burn as easily as you do."

And with that, her bicycle rattled away.

"Congratulations, ya privacy-lovin' psycho—y' completely lost me! I should'a made yer ramen insanely spicy when I had the chance!" Yusuke lunged towards the retreating figure, impulsively nearing himself to a confrontation as he always does.

The brash, explosive War God found a restraining hand before him. "Don't, Yusuke! She lives far from here, and you can't leave your shop for very long."

Yusuke glared off into the distance. For a while, his fists and arms were poised to hook a quick right, then a finishing uppercut. After struggling with his inner demons, he unclenched his jaws and sighed. "Fine. Much as I don't wanna back down from a fight, y' got a point. But how did'cha know 'bout 'er house?"

Kurama froze for a split second. Despite appearances—let alone his brazen behavior—Yusuke did have his wits about him. It would be wiser not to tell him I once walked her home, Kurama decided inwardly. Once he knows, I will never hear the end of it. "Her bicycle," he pointed out. "If she lived close by, perhaps she would have just walked."

Yusuke seemed pleased with the explanation. "Could be. Come t' think of it, she does always come 'ere ridin' that broken-down deathtrap."

Always? "Does she frequent your ramen shop?"

"If I flew a plane, she'd have frequent flyer miles," wisecracked Yusuke. "Orders only miso ramen on Mondays. Likes a helluva lotta spring onions in 'er ramen. And 'er shoyu's always gotta be spicy. I run outta chili paste when she's around! Always pays in coins, too!"

Her house. Meiou. The local bookstore. Now Yusuke's ramen shop, enumerated Kurama mentally. Her tracks are becoming easier and easier to trace.

"But I doubt she'll ever come back now."

"Tell me, Yusuke. What happened?"

"I just wanted t' see what she was drawing!" Yusuke hopelessly threw his hands up in the air. "But damn it, she just wouldn't cave! After all I've cooked for 'er!"

"If she really didn't want to show it to you, then why did she leave it with you?"

"Nani?" Yusuke shot a surprised look at his right hand. Between his pointer and thumb was the piece of paper that he had filched from the folder in her bicycle basket. "Eeehhh! I didn't even notice!"

Creamy, gooey chocolate eyes nearly bore a hole through the thin sheet. In the blink of an (uninterested) eye, Yusuke tossed it aside. "What was that? Now that was a waste of time and saliva if I ever knew one! She didn't hafta break a bowl for it!"

Hn? Curious in spite of himself, Kurama saw no (immediate) harm in taking just one look at it as well. She isn't here to throw any ramen bowls at my face anyway…

He chuckled to himself. He could not possibly fear a simple human high school girl! But after that display… what aim. I would expect no less of Sniper's girlfriend.

He picked the paper up.

He held and beheld a black-and-white still-life portrait of lush, leafy goya vines intricately weaved around the wooden lattices of a homemade trellis. Below the miniature painting were the words: "It looks like this now. I know that I did not grow this alone. Thank you. You can keep this."

I will. Kurama smiled to himself.

"Now this is more like it!" exclaimed Yusuke from his own ramen stand. "But why'd she snap her cap over this? I jus' wanted one li'l peek at it!"

She must have drawn something for him, too. Kurama strode over to the counter and peered at the page atop it.

A heaping bowl of shoyu ramen in full color.

Kurama turned the page over. Its back read: "When I come back, I will draw you more of your ramen, so that you can hang all of these in a line and make them your menu for your other customers to look at and choose from. Thank you for the food."

Still the same, that ningen.

He flipped the paper over again to admire the illustration. For a work completed using only oil-based colored pencils as medium, it was astoundingly realistic. But something about the picture seemed off. There was just something wrong.

Oh. That's right.

Kurama sat upon a stool and retrieved a green colored pencil from the breast pocket of his polo shirt.

"Shame. Kinda makes me sorry she's never comin' back," Yusuke confessed, more to himself than to Kurama. His eyes were closed, his nose upturned, and his arms crossed before his chest. He popped one eye open to glance at Kurama and saw the redhead violating the ramen drawing. "KURAMA! What the hell are ya doin'?!"

"She wasn't able to finish this," the kitsune pointed out calmly. "Look at the spring onions. She outlined them with a light green pencil, but didn't color them in."

"Lemme see that," Yusuke snatched the sheet from the table. "Everything looks true to life 'cept for the uncolored spring onions, all right. I must've been bugging 'er already when she was drawin' this part."

"Iiya," Kurama disagreed, his tone as certain as certainty itself. "She couldn't have finished this even if you left her be for all eternity."

"Newsflash, Kurama: You're gettin' all vague again."

Kurama held the green colored pencil up for Yusuke to see. "This pencil matches the color of spring onions more accurately than any other shade of green she has."

"I don' get it," Yusuke cocked a confused eyebrow. "If that pencil was here anyway, why didn't she jus' use it?"

Kurama sighed. Alas, the cat really insisted to be let out of the bag… "Jitsu wa, Yusuke… it wasn't."

"'Twasn't what?"

Are you intentionally provoking me, Yusuke? "Here. When she was."

"So why's it here now?"

Either you are certainly on to me, or Hiei was right about how… maddening… you can be without even knowing it.

"Oh, I get it!" The teenage boy's sudden toothy, mischievous grin filled in Kurama's blanks. "And why, Kurama, was one of 'er pencils with you?"

This was the very interrogation that Kurama was hoping would never transpire. Work with me, Yusuke. We might have a case in our hands again. "I know what you're thinking, Yusuke. But it's not that. She might not be who you think she is—"

"I'll say!" Yusuke elbowed Kurama with a naughty wink. "She could be yer girlfriend and I didn't even know it!"

"No. That's precisely why I came to you, Yusuke—"

"I can't believe it! Kurama, the most romantic guy I know, came to me for love advice!" A cheerful Urameshi clapped a hand on his good friend's back. "I always thought y' didn't need any help in that department, Kurama, but I'll help ya, buddy! I sure can help ya with the ladies a helluva lot better than Kuwabara can!"

Even Kurama's tried and true patience was wearing thin. "Yusuke, she could be the enemy! I came here to ask you if you've noticed anything strange or different happening lately."

"Other than you keepin' a girl's stuff now, nope. Not a thing."

"Yusuke! I'm serious!" Kurama frowned, not only from Yusuke's stubborn refusal to cooperate and take him seriously, but also from a nearby burning smell that irritated his kitsune nose.

Wait. Burning?

Kurama sniffed the air to trace the source of the smell. The answer startled him. "Yusuke! Your ramen shop! It's on fire!"

"But I turned the gas tank and stove off…" a justifying Yusuke mumbled slowly as his eyes followed the direction to which Kurama's were pointing. They nearly popped out of their sockets. "HOLY SHIT, MY SHOP IS ON FIRE!"

Ravenous, famished tongues of fire eagerly licked the left-hand underside of Urameshi Yusuke's peddling cart—the corner of the wooden stall farthest from the stove.

"Kuso! That bitch was this mad at me?!" swore Yusuke between gnashed jaws and gritted teeth as he grabbed hold of a soup pot and sloshed its contents over the flames—pot lid, broth, and all. It was not enough.

"I just hope that your little stall wouldn't crash and burn as easily as you do."

Kurama scanned his surroundings, a bead of sweat trickling down one of his temples. Is Yusuke not mistaken this time, Mayonaka-san? Are you responsible for this?

Are you really the enemy?

Continued

So… the plot thickens. (After all, it's supposed to. XD)

Thank you, thank you, thank you for adding this little fanfic of mine to your Favorites and Alerts. But I appreciate REVIEWS a lot more—I love hearing from you. You could tell me which parts you liked. Which parts you hated. Any questions you might have. Any changes or recommendations you might want to suggest. Anything.

So please, REVIEW.

Japanese to English translations and abridged YYH glossary

aa. Slang for yes and other such words of agreement or affirmation
-chan. An honorific used to address girls, animals, or anything that the speaker considers to be cute
che. A grunt or expression of disapproval, not limited to the Japanese language
eh and hn. Disfluencies of speech (much like the English uh and um), not limited to the Japanese language
gochiso. A shortened and disrespectful manner of saying gochisosama, a traditional Japanese expression of gratitude customarily uttered after meals (much like changing a prayer to thanks for the grub)
heh. An expression of casual indifference (much like a shrug)
iie and iiya. Formal and informal no, respectively
irasshai. Short for irasshaimase, a traditional Japanese expression of welcome customarily uttered as a guest or customer enters the establishment
itadaki. A shortened and disrespectful manner of saying itadakimasu, a traditional Japanese expression of gratitude customarily uttered before meals (much like changing a prayer to thanks for the grub)
'ji-san. A contraction of Oji-san, a respectful address for one's own uncle
jitsu wa. Actually; Kurama almost always uses this when he begins explaining
ki. Refers to supernatural power; not limited to the YYH universe
kisetsu. Season, used as a name in this fic
kitsune. Fox
-kun. An honorific used to address boys or boyish girls
kuso. A swear word, roughly translated to damn (it)
Makai. Demon World (as opposed to the Human World, Spirit World, and Netherworld of YYH)
manga. Japanese comics, such as YYH
mayonaka. Midnight, used as a name in this fic
mazoku. The lineage of youkai directly descended from Raizen, the toushin of Makai who starved himself to death for his beloved human woman
mengo. Not an actual Japanese word; Mayonaka Setsuki's version of sorry
Minamino. Southern field, used as a name in this fic
minna. All / everyone
miso. Bean paste
nani. What / what is it
ne. An expression for seeking confirmation (much like the English tag questions isn't it or okay)
ningen. Human / human being
Ningenkai. Human World (as opposed to the Demon World, Spirit World, and Netherworld of YYH)
okyaku. Customer
onegai. Please, less formal than onegaishimasu
oyaji. Old man, used to address one's own father in this fic
ramen. Japanese noodles, or a dish serving this
Reikai. Spirit World (as opposed to the Human World, Demon World, and Netherworld of YYH)
-san. An honorific used to address someone politely
-sempai. An honorific used to address an upperclassman
shoyu ramen. A dish of noodle soup combining chicken (or vegetable) broth and soy sauce, optionally garnished with spring onions, fish cakes, and seaweed, among others; may or may not be served spicy
Shuuichi. Excellence first, used as a name in this fic
teme. A very disrespectful and rude form of the word you, used only by males
Toki no Suna. Sands of Time (toki is time, and suna is sand); used as the name of an object in this fic
toushin. War god (also translated to Japanese as toshi kami)
Urameshi. Bay rice, used as a name in this fic
youkai. Demon
youki. Demon(ic) power, wielded by youkai (as opposed to reiki)
Yusuke. Ghost helper, used as a name in this fic

Yet again, if I missed anything that you need translating or explaining, just say so in the Reviews page. Please review!