Author's Note: This is the shortest chapter of Counting ever to be released. I hope everyone enjoys it despite that.

The Crow and the Fox

By Jean de la Fontaine

Master Crow, perched on a tree,
Held a cheese in his beak.
Master Fox, attracted by the smell,
Said something like this:
"Well, Hello Mister Crow!
How beautiful you are! how nice you seem to me!
Really, if your voice
Is like your plumage,
You are the phoenix of all the inhabitants of these woods."
At these words, the Crow was overjoyed.
And in order to show off his beautiful voice,
He opened his beak wide, letting his prey fall
The Fox grabbed it, and said: "My good man,
Learn that every flatterer
Lives at the expense of the one who listens to him.
This lesson, without doubt, is well worth a cheese."
The Crow, ashamed and embarrassed,
Swore, but a little late, that he would not be taken again.

Kurama narrowed searing eyes against the dazzling sunlight and stinging breezes carousing around Sakyo's house, pregnant with dust and pollen. His knees stumbled; his head ached, nostrils flaring to take in all the overpowering scents while he blinked away tears. For a moment, Toguro was practically dragging him forward, a big hand draped over Kurama's shoulder, boots crunching the gravel around the entrance.

The guards manning the door stood to immediate attention as they passed. One was human and fondling the handle of his gun, his face dissatisfied but professional. The other was a leering youkai who smelt strongly of soap, dressed up in an ill-fitting suit for the occasion that clashed with his poison green skin. Kurama thought he saw the demon fitfully adjusting his white collar as he glanced back, and knew with a sense of bitterness that he could guess why the demon was so irritated—if he was on guard duty, he wouldn't participate in the hunt.

The comfortable and luxurious platforms Kurama saw once his vision cleared gleamed with bright colors and expensive wood, silk pillows and cashmere blankets folded against the morning cold, tucking Sakyo's elite guest list in like garish, overweight children. A man glistening with grease, sweat and gold pawed into the dress of a girl wearing little more than her tight smile. Others smoked and ate oysters and other hors d'œuvre with apparent pleasure, sipping cocktails and holding discussions in murmurs Kurama strained to hear, men's voices wrecked by years of cigars and fine wine and women's higher and too nasally. Kurama watched it all coldly. Huge black screens were set up in front of the platforms, sleek and state-of-the-art, reflecting soulless faces back into the crowds. Kurama couldn't look at them without feeling nauseous, so he didn't.

He struggled once, just a toss of his shoulders that drew eyes, as Toguro led him stoically to the cage sitting in front of them all, an odd and enormous thing, built like an old-fashioned rig for a traveling zoo, the sort of place you'd expect to find a bear or a lion. Or perhaps a fox,Kurama thought caustically. The carnival atmosphere of the whole consortium roused Kurama's anger, but it burnt low. He didn't comment, didn't curse or rage, simply because he didn't have the strength left to do so.

The cage, which was based off a flat wooden bottom, was raised off the ground and reachable by stairs. It didn't have cushions or any comfortable places to sit, but there was a narrow bench lining the edges that dispelled any ideas of this being a cage for animals. No animal needed a ledge like that—this was something built either for demons or humans. The bars were iron, and spotless, the barbaric, antiquated feeling of the cage offset by the fact that it was obviously new, and had been oiled recently.

Kurama was marched up the stairs to an open door he hadn't been able to see at first, and then his knees half buckled as he was pushed in perfunctorily, more for theatrics, he realized bitterly, than anything else. Kurama sniffed, recovering his balance easily, one hand drifting over his sore shoulder. He raised his head, noting the cage's two entrances: one to the side, which was slamming shut, and one opening towards the forest's fringe. The woods shivered under the wind, rustling leaves and branches woven into a dense and uninviting tangle, bathed in weird mats of shadows and light, and an uncomfortable quiet. The songbirds were silent, chased from hearing range by all the fuss over the foxhunt.

Kurama stood for a moment, gazing quietly at the thick russet trunks that interlocked in front of him, the woods dissolving into an impenetrable gloom after a few feet, and then turned on his heel and sat gracefully on the bench, hating that the oil on the bars was seeping through his tunic. The sharp, acrid scent of bloody iron and grease made him sneeze—Kurama hated it almost as much as he hated his own vulnerability. In a show of bravado, Kurama twisted to lie crosswise on the bench, gaze resting idly on the striped world surrounding him, one lackadaisical arm hanging through the iron bars as his feet rested neatly on the bench, one on top of the other. It was studied boredom—nonchalance was satisfying, and made his pulse pound a little less.

"Has the betting been concluded?" Sakyo's voice carried across the wide lawn. Kurama looked at him, forcing casual contact between their eyes.

Affirmative murmurs made Sakyo smile. "Before I bring out your pursuers, Kurama, please open the festivities properly. Sing us a song."

Sinister hums echoed around him, and Kurama, thinking back to his stint in the isolation chamber, felt his lips draw back from his teeth in a snarl. Refusing to let that continue, he sat up and glanced around him, taking in eager faces, dark trees, a blue sky, and crushed, bleeding grass. "What shall I sing?" he asked dryly.

"Something tasteful, that reminds you of your situation. A lack of compliance will result in our tying your hands when we release you."

I was right, Kurama thought, they do intend to chase me. Bastards.

Wanting to send a message without provoking outright aggression, Kurama deliberated. Kurama had always been allowed to roam during the duration of his time with Karasu for the same reason he wasn't all that worried about his hands being bound. Every time Karasu tied him up, chained him up, locked him in a cage, the second Karasu was gone, Kurama escaped. There had been a progressive series of restraints for Kurama in the early days of his captivity, eventually discarded as useless. Still, there was no point in defiance right now—it wouldn't even succeed in making Kurama feel courageous. He disposed of his longing to spit in Sakyo's direction.

Finally, laying his head back down, he cleared his throat and began to sing, the rest and recuperation he'd had under Toguro's care giving his voice strength.

"There may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight and music, and love and romance, let's face the music and dance."

There was a moment of silence. The day Kurama'd spent locked in the isolation chamber, the recording device had given a metallic ring to the kitsune's voice, and fear had taken away its depth. Many of the listeners were surprised to find that Kurama actually had a smooth, melodic voice, sweet and warm, like melted chocolate or dripping honey. He had a close enough range to Nat King Cole, whose version he was modeling after, that the oily jeers that had been itching to fill the air were shocked into silence. Sakyo's eyebrow rose as he placed the song, wondering why Kurama would choose something whose meaning was so transparent. Still, Kurama's voice rose, toying with the lyrics and melody, matching them to his own tones.

"Before the fiddlers have fled—before they ask us to pay the bill—"

Toguro blinked and pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, leaning back on his heels where he stood to Sakyo's right. He recognized Kurama's topic, and was amazed by the banality the beautiful voice was sent to, like a prized stallion playing at a hurt leg. Kurama had chosen a real emotion to appease them, but there was very little real wrapped up in his ironic choice—it was half a sentiment, in Toguro's opinion, chosen to skirt over all Kurama's sore spots. Though the look on Kurama's face was pained, he'd chosen well. His watchers were assuaged without him debilitating himself.

"And while we still have the chance, let's face the music and dance."

Kurama's meanings slipped away as he closed his starry green eyes and just sang. It was not something he did around people—not often, anyway—but as a lover of music, and in his own way vain, Shuuichi Kurama and Youko before him had perfected their voices. Kurama allowed himself to enjoy the song, lifting above his circumstance for moments at a time, regretting how often reality brought him down.

"Soon, we'll be without the moon, humming a diff'rent tune, and then…"

"He has a wonderful voice," Sakyo admitted. "I thought so last night, even if the context was different. Care to shed any light on that, Toguro?"

Remembering Kurama's screaming nightmare, Toguro smiled, noncommittal. He was enjoying the music.

"There may be teardrops to shed. So while there's moonlight and music, and love and romance—let's face the music and dance."

Toguro smile widened, remembering American records from long ago with this song on it.

"Dance—let's face the music and dance."

Aniki was bored. Music was not his style, and the enjoyment of a humiliating experience for Kurama remained an unfulfilled promise. Glancing into the forest, his eyes focused on the barest hint of a presence—and he smiled, his first true smile of the day. His brother hadn't noticed. Aniki gestured obliquely, shooing the watcher back to the forest, and continued his ghastly smirk, stifling a giggle. If Toguro had been sensing the perimeters, if he had been looking, if he hadn't been caught in a trap unlikely for him—a reverie—he might have caught on to the sabotage happening under his nose. Even then, though—would he have helped?

As it was, he was on another dais and focusing on Kurama too intently for that. Sakyo, in turn, was watching Toguro, trying to equate this infatuation with what he knew of the man.

"Soon, we'll be without the moon, humming a different tune, and then…!"

Some of the crowd, uncultured men in their own right, had already lost interest. There was blood lust in the air—a song, no matter how well sung, couldn't quench it.

"There may be teardrops to shed. So while there's moonlight, and music, and love and romance, let's face the music and dance! Let's face the music, and dance!"

"Very nice," Sakyo complimented as the last note cut off, and Kurama's head spun, the crown of his skull rapping painfully against the bars. The curative powers of music, Kurama thought wryly, fixing Sakyo with a disdainful, belligerent stare. He stopped himself with difficulty from souring—or better yet, poisoning (if only he'd known for sure that a demon wouldn't stop him!)—Sakyo's tea. Even such a brief illicit use of power would clarify the fact that it was no longer bound inside of him. Since the power had been there all along, if only allowed into avenues of healing, it wasn't a sudden blaze of light—the power that was already there and circulating through healing venues was now able, though Kurama was meticulous in conserving the illusion that it wasn't able, to create, grow, twist, entwine, mold, and otherwise manifest itself within his beloved plants.

"Now, let's get to the bones of the matter," Sakyo said with a blank, empty smile. At an unknown signal, a side door swung open and demons jostled their way out. It was immediately apparent why they'd been chosen.

One of the groups that formed from the milling youkai was picked for beauty. They looked eager to go, grinning snidely at their kitsune prey with shapely, humanesque faces. They would all make a lovely picture with the young fox—none of their skin-colors jarred with Kurama's face or his hair.

The next group was chosen for their brutality and ugliness, boar demons, pig demons, bull demons, all bestial male animal spirits of particularly virile brands. They would put on a show of domination and disgusting force, but it was unlikely that this team would win, Kurama thought; all of their eyes were small and stupid.

The final group made Kurama's jaw tighten. This was the only one whose members were obviously armed and outright leering.

They were also, by Kurama's astute estimation, guess, or outright knowledge from previous encounters, all violent sadists, to a man.

Aesthetic misery, repulsion and loathing, or debilitating pain,Kurama thought. He sighed gently, already trying to examine each demon, planning his own capture.

The group that Kurama had dubbed the aesthetics was to go in last, Sakyo's attendant revealed as he outlined the rules of the game, the bestial group first, the sadistic group second. The aesthetics don't have a chance, Kurama thought glumly. The bestial have a better shot, especially if the sadists decide to let them win. I don't doubt all the groups will get a chance at me once I'm caught.

"Hunters: you may split up any way you want," the man continued. Kurama's lean muscles were uncomfortably tight as he listened without appearing to, putting every helpful nuance of the speech and the things revealed by it into memory.

It was stark and miserable, but Kurama was quietly relieved that his life was not in danger. Karasu would do a better job of hurting him than any of these bastards, and wouldn't ensure Kurama's survival at the end of his play. Kurama was glumly accepting of the pain and humiliation he was about to experience, and sat carefully, masking everything from his power to his expression, even down to his heartbeat. He presented his enemies with a blank wall. Let them feed on that,he thought bitterly.

The talks were concluded, and the attendant pressed a button. The door closest to the forest, as unadorned as the one on the side, opened.

"The fox has five minutes." Kurama's lips curled again, and then he was off, sauntering into the forest, where he slipped through the first of the undergrowth and, to the watchers, evaporated into the murky shade. It would be foolish not to put on a show—if he wasn't a good enough distraction, they'd make him a better one.

He cursed at the lack of discretion in the whirring sound that followed him, a glint of metal zigzagging through the sprawling greens of the trees as he ducked under the rotting corpse of a fallen tree. It was a simple enough construction in the Makai—akin to a video camera, but on the move—and Kurama was relieved. Yoki could take something like that out easily, but not simple ningen movements. They didn't know that his youryoku was unlocked. The bulbous camera, which was zipping along next to him now as he picked up speed to distance himself from his pursuers, had a dilating red eye that turned to a glowing neon streak when he glanced at it sideways.

Kurama was a master of the forest. He didn't need yoki or reiki to make himself difficult to find—covering his ki and scent was second nature, as was finding paths that would be nigh impossible to track or follow. He evaded the scent of his pursuers, and for a good twenty minutes, he kept himself safe. He revised his opinion of the bestial youkai's chances when they all barreled into the forest behind him, loud, grunting and mangling branches under too-big feet. The aesthetics' chances were also revised. Many of them were clever enough to follow the sadists' early tactics, and mask their noises under the stampeding bestials. The groups were splintering fast, though, and there were too many for Kurama to evade forever. If Sakyo hasn't electrocuted the edges of the wood,Kurama thought dourly.

It was tiring. He quickly realized why there'd been no traps or alarms in the forest when he'd met Botan: they'd been disabled for this day, even on the side opposite the preparations, where the passage led out, and he was glad for it. As he scrambled down a birch sloughing its skin, the papery bark slick against his palm, he forgot about his pursuers momentarily for its comforting presence. Birds scented his strange mix of human, demon, and animal and kept silent or twittered without a thought—he smelt too much of earth to bother them.

There were a few near misses with especially bright hunters, a sadist's trap almost tripped as Kurama tried to bypass a bear demon rooting around near where he'd hidden in a tree, a beautiful young water sprite almost succeeding in tracking him, but Kurama was confident, barely needing the help of his yoki to scope out those seeking him once they came within a certain distance. He was already preparing to orchestrate his own capture.

He'd worked up a thirst and an appetite as time went by, nobody having thought to feed him before he left and bitter forest herbs he snatched as he ran far from filling. A longing for some watercress was what brought him out of hiding, finally. He stopped short as he smelled and heard something delicious while bobbing through the mat of undergrowth covering the rich loam of the forest. There was a little crick running nearby, and Kurama, his fingers pausing for a moment to pop the tart bud of a wild raspberry in his mouth, began to massage his throat, feeling uncomfortably parched. He couldn't resist.

Ducking under boughs he barely touched, his feet naturally seeking the places that wouldn't leave a footprint he couldn't grow some oblique moss to replace, he suppressed all noise. It only took him a minute or two to get to the dainty brook that fell laughing down a stone pathway in the forest. Kurama scouted the edges of the winding creek, but there were wide embankments, and he couldn't find a place where the water hadn't pooled that wasn't out in the open. Finally, desperately thirsty, he sniffed the air, crouched under a tangle of bramble, panting delicately to himself. For a full three minutes he waited motionlessly, until his legs were horribly stiff, determined to make no sound, not to let his guard down. Relieved to hear nothing, Kurama finally broke the cover of the forest and eased down the stones, dipping his lips into brisk water and closing his eyes momentarily in bliss, forgetting the camera that still whirred near his head.

Pain, sudden and debilitating, made him aspirate water, and he flailed like a landed fish, choking, delirious, his lungs hacking. A helpful hand slammed into his stomach and the water, followed closely by a little bile, spat from his mouth and into the white foam of the creek, which carried it away, callous and jolly. Kurama's flails only tangled him further in the arms of what he finally realized was a weighted net, and he froze, survival instincts suddenly catching up.

The creature grinning at him was recognizably an aesthetic, but with a nasty smile. Long white hair hung in locks around his puckish face, curling next to a snub nose, and his teeth were white and even, the canines sharp and extended past what a human would find comforting. The hunter quickly refolded wings of iridescent grays and greens, giggling nervously to itself. Kurama coughed again, trying to appear unassuming, and asked, "How did you find me?"

"They gave us maps, didn't they, little beast? Ol' Rockham just had to wait where he could see the water—knew it would come eventually."

This could be my best chance for a decent capture, Kurama thought. But if I disappoint my watchers and go quietly, they might decide to up the ante. Perhaps if I escape, and allow him to recapture me again? Or make it overly histrionic? Make too much noise and lure another pursuer over and slip away while they're fighting?

His thoughts were startled out of his head by a scream that he didn't react to, arching over the forest, more near than far. The camera, which was trying for good angles, turned and captured white birds rising from a far portion of the forest. Rockham's brow crinkled as he glanced nervously about the clearing for information.

"Perhaps the game got too serious, eh, Rockham? Your brethren must be getting antsy."

"We were told—Sakyo-san said—"

Kurama's eyes narrowed. If he were right about the fact that all the pursuers would get a turn, why would someone kill a player? Perhaps one of the sadists was feeling frisky?

The wind changed directions, suddenly active, stirring up little ripples on the stream's surface to the left, away from where it was running. Kurama's eyes widened suddenly in horrified understanding, color draining from his face.

"Rockham, we need to go back."

"Is the little beast—?"

"We don't have time. If you value your life, take this off me and run."

Rockham smirked. "Tricks and guiles won't get it any…"

"Listen to me, you fool!" Kurama hissed desperately, interrupting the reticent demon insistently, half begging and half demanding. "Gunpowder! I smelled gunpowder! The wind has been running from here to there, he might find us any minute!"

Rockham hesitated, and that cost him his life. Kurama closed his eyes against the sanguine rain of coppery blood that spattered him. Rockham's lips mouthed, a thin line of red spittle dribbling down onto the clawed hand that had blossomed through his chest cavity.

Kurama cringed and closed his eyes at the explosion, horrified, feeling bits of internal organs spray him with another gush of blood. Karasu, in all his terrible glory, tossed the corpse to the side with a magnificent sweep of his arm, his face taking on new levels of demented perversion as he advanced on Kurama, claws out, scarlet hand opening and closing compulsively. Kurama was too frightened to resist.

Kurama moaned feebly as a small explosion detonated against his leg, the pain so much worse than he remembered. He flinched at a second explosion, and looked up to see the camera falling to the ground and bouncing once, its red lens shattered and metal frame bent. As the light in its eye faded, Kurama's heart beat frantically. He stared up at Karasu, and realized through a fog that for once in his life, he was frozen in fear.

There were catcalls and boos as the screen blanked to white noise, and Toguro, adjusting his sunglasses with a sigh, got down off the dais and began walking towards the forest.

"Ah, you remember me, Kurama. I'm so flattered."

"Karasu—please—" Kurama begged, struggling urgently with the net that wrapped him up in a crushing embrace.

"Pleading already, Kurama? Please,I want you to fuck me?" No one, in Kurama's opinion, should speak so calmly with a look in their eye like the one in Karasu's, and their whole body drenched in blood. Karasu's red tongue flicked out to sample Rockham's remains, splattered against his lips, and his face relaxed at the taste. Kurama shook convulsively in front of the horrible scene, knowing his own blood would soon be joining the hapless Rockham's. Gruesome sprays covered the clearing, the red reaching the water that carried it away, like unwinding spools of thread. A bit of intestine was caught against a rock, leaking a rivulet of blood into the current on either side.

The net was ripped away. Kurama had been trying sluggishly to escape it, but once it had vanished, he curled into a frightened ball at the loss of its comfort. It was something between Kurama and Karasu's frenzied lust, for blood, body, and soul, and now that it was gone, he was bare before his nightmare.

Kurama sobbed, still unable to resist, as a vice descended over his wrists and he was hauled to his feet, marking the beginning of the business of undressing him. Silence had descended, Kurama breathing in frantic gasps that only made the quiet more profound, and Karasu making no noise at all.

There was nothing teasing about it; the look on Karasu's face was not one of his usual cruel amusement or play. He looked livid and disgusted, the lust only a side effect. His eyes were bright, feverish, and passionate in their revulsion for Kurama. Kurama had never seen anything so terrifying. He couldn'tresist—it might break the dam, unleash the violence that was bubbling just below the calm surface. Karasu had gone on a spree—he reeked of blood, was drenched in it, maroon sheets of demon life coating both arms to the elbow, his coat sleeves rolled up to accommodate. The contents of someone's jugular were splashed across his chest and throat, and stained black cloth even blacker, further discoloring the violet.

Claws raked down Kurama's front to shred his clothing, Karasu smiling grimly at the fox's jerk and wail, without a scrap of fondness. The crow's talons rent fabric and skin indiscriminately. Then Kurama's tunic was torn from him so harshly his entire frame jerked down to his toes, almost ripping him off his feet. Kurama compacted into a little huddle, struck dumb, filled with the amazing fact that he was going to die.

"I wish I could play with you, Kurama. I wish I had hours, hours to show you precisely how kind I've been. Toguro, I fear, is already walking to us, so I will content myself in knowing the fox died unable to speak with his beautiful terror."

The idea of death, made more real by Karasu's words, drew Kurama from his fear, but no sooner did he glance at the woods than pain blossomed and he was suddenly shocked to find his open mouth moaning wetly into dirt. He blinked, amazed that the feelings that had been so far off from him before this point were now so real and so near, as close to him and as much a part of him as air. He lived his fear, he sucked it in and breathed it, he cried it out so hard his eyes reddened, and it brought nothing to Karasu but the faintest feelings of amusement and glee.

Kurama's right hand curled desperately in wet moss, a beetle mashed to nothing beneath his grip, and it was that very desperation that led him to sense the seed buried beneath the little green mat that bled like him. Karasu was dragging him back by his ankles, and Kurama tossed his head and pushed in his power, enough so that a tendril hooked into his hair, making the seed attached to it nestle itself in scarlet curls before the last of Kurama's modest clothing was torn from him, leaving him bare and aching against a tree, not having registered Karasu's throw until he was wedged between bark to his back and Karasu to his front.

"I want you to die with my cock inside you, Kurama. I want you to die a whore."

Karasu's breath in Kurama's ear, paired with his harsh, oppressive hands, made the fox's lungs hitch and spidery shivers crawl down his spine. Karasu leaned forward and tried to kiss Kurama, but Kurama turned his head away and cringed, a feeble, pitiful defiance that went unremarked. Karasu scraped teeth over Kurama's shivering neck, and Kurama sobbed. Kurama's breath hitched as he was shaken for a moment, hands on his arms jerking him, pulling him up.

"Kiss me," Karasu commanded.

Kurama, desperate, slipped the seed from his hair, tangled now and littered with leaves, and into his mouth, open and distorted by grief. Then, tremulous, he turned back, closed his eyes, and matched his own reluctant lips with Karasu's, barely parted.

Karasu dug his fingers cruelly into Kurama's arm and Kurama panicked, shoving the seed, along with his tongue, deep into Karasu's mouth. Luck, for once, was on Kurama's side—Karasu swallowed reflexively. Kurama immediately ripped his tongue away, slamming his power into the seed, frantic. He writhed, twisting free of Karasu and running faster than he thought his human body could go, the moment his feet touched dirt, almost directionless.

Karasu staggered, massaging his throat, his limbs twitching and jerking as the drug dulled his brain's electric impulses. He leaned over, eyes tearing, and vomited, lush and wet; the paralytic Kurama had just force-fed him splashed against a tree.

"Kurama…" he husked, eyes bright and glowing crimson with rage. He was in the forest in a second, despite his still-heavy limbs, giving chase.

Kurama ran. His heart pounded like a kettledrum, his pulse vibrated in his ears. Any moment now, he knew, Karasu could be on him, and his heart, so real, so rhythmic and overwhelming now, would never beat again. The thought gave his feet wings. A branch whipped him as he passed, slicing a bloody rent on his cheek, but he didn't notice. His awareness was focused on running, adrenalin-heightened senses screaming to him the location of Toguro, and behind him, Karasu. He fled from one and hurtled to the other, knowing that nothing and no one could save his life but Toguro, hoping against hope that his presence and approach meant he would help him, scared that Toguro would not, or could not, being too slow.

Karasu was gaining. Kurama could feel it, hear it, taste it, like the bile in his throat. Breathing was difficult and laborious, and sometimes Kurama forgot to do it, fear stripping him of everything but the ability to run. The explosions behind him as trees were blasted from Karasu's way brought tears to Kurama's eyes; he kept running. It was a race, and who would get to whom first?

Karasu was gaining; Toguro was too far. Kurama was racing the wind, but it seemed futile. So futile, in fact, that he screamed, just screamed, when he was grabbed, screamed, fought, clawed, a child having a tantrum but much more imperative than that. He didn't notice that he'd been grabbed from the front. Suddenly, he collapsed in his captor's hold, weeping. He gave up his life in that moment, gave up the fight, and just wanted to die already, without having to worry about pain or fear or death itself. He raised his gaze, expecting Karasu's sneering face, and blinked tear-filled eyes. Toguro's greeted him instead.

"Give him to me, Toguro." The voice came from behind, and Kurama shook his head silently, mouthing, no, no.He turned his head and saw his nightmare, Karasu, emerging from the sudden gloom of the thick forest, all black and red, violet and white, his eyes insane.

Toguro looked from one to the other, face grim, still holding the boy like a lover, or a frightened child. "If you kill him, Karasu, I will rape you in Kurama's place."

Karasu stopped his slow advance, staring. "What?"

"If you kill him, at any point between now and when I say you may, if you hurt him, rape him, lay so much as one finger on him, I will hold you down in his place. Hell, I'll do it every night, and let my brother have a taste. I'll make sure you regret it."

Kurama stared too, open-mouthed.

"I'm sick of this game you play. Besides, Sakyo has need of the boy, and this foxhunt was never meant to result in death."

Karasu was shivering in rage, his bony face grotesque. "I will not stand for—"

"You will stand for whatever I goddamn tell you to stand for. Leave. You have one week. After that week, I hunt you down and bring you back; your contract has not expired. There will be a barrier up before then, though, keeping you out. You clearly can't control yourself. Kurama, come."

Seeing that the boy was too stunned to walk, Toguro thoughtlessly picked him up and carried him in his arms back towards the mansion. Karasu tried to follow, incensed, but couldn't. He blew a crater in the forest, but it was useless. Like the night in Sakyo's mansion, there was a perfect, untouched circle. Stalking the temporary barrier of Toguro's power like a hyena at a kill guarded by lions, his rage cooled, hardened, and became ice. He hunched down, throwing the occasional bomb at the barrier, and thought. Is there anything so dangerous as that?

"You don't love me, Kurama."

Kurama blinked, shocked, still panting as he swayed with exhaustion in Toguro's arms.

"Remember that I'm not a protector. I've hurt you as much as I've aided you. The rapes will happen when we get back regardless. I haven't saved your body or your dignity—only your life."

Kurama looked down, overcome. "Thank you," he said, softly, fatigued and spent and feeling the adrenaline inside him wind down, despite the horrors still to be endured.

Toguro snorted, of the opinion that there was nothing worth thanking him for.

As Toguro had promised, the last of the pursuers fucked Kurama. Kurama was bleeding, tired, lay quietly in whatever position he was put in. When a sadist dug a knife into his side, he didn't scream. When a boar demon pulled away with a bloody cock, he only sighed, despite his agony. Through his whole body, despite the pain, humiliation, the jeers of the crowd, there was a sense, overwhelming and powerful, of life, of being alive.

Toguro took him back to his room, and this time simply called the healer. Again, Kurama was bathed, but he was already asleep, wrapped in the feeble illusion of being protected. That night, he had eight dreams: four were the best he'd had since coming here, four among the worst. Even his psyche was confused by the contrary actions of the demon.

For that night, however, there was no struggle, no plots in Kurama's mind. He slept the sleep of the dead, or the innocent. It was hard for Toguro, watching most of the night, to decide which.

To be continued.