A/N I guess this can be viewed as a prequel to Lamppost. It takes place right after the group leaves the cave after defeating Sensui. It follows what Kurama and Yusuke discussed while Kurama gave him a much needed hair cut.
Kurama studied Yusuke with a critical eye. He had far from forgotten the fantastic power and skill Yusuke had demonstrated, not to mention the alarming transformation he had undergone. It had been a mixed blessing to discover him alive, for he was not truly himself any longer. He was among the living, but he was no longer solely human. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to be the same brash and bold Yusuke, but there was no denying his darker inclinations. Demon blood is strong, and in it is sown the seeds of bloodlust and fury.
It was a state he was familiar with; however, Kurama was not pleased to see himself in this boy. He wouldn't wish his curse on anyone, but now, Yusuke would suffer. No matter how well he wore his human skin, he knew, deep down, that he didn't belong in this world. Just the small taste of his home that he had sampled, left his blood boiling for his return. The Makai called to him, whispered to his consciousness, taunted his soul. The allure was strong, and in his heart of hearts he knew he would not be able to resist for very long.
It was not a pleasant existence, this dual life. His very nature in itself was contradictory. The two halves of his soul longed for different places, different things, and different faces. One half longed for peace and the other for war. At times, he felt as if he were an elastic string stretched taut, to the very point of breaking. If something didn't give soon, he was sure to snap.
However, he feared his problem was far more extensive than that. It was more than just his human and demon side warring within him. There was a meld of the two, a persona he usually adopted, the mild mannered yet deadly Kurama. A melding of the cruel Yoko and the gentle Shuichi. This personality was his favored side, neither evil like his demon counterpart nor weak like his human one, but more and more often, he found himself becoming aggressive and merciless. Ever since the Dark Tournament brought out his Yoko's dark disposition, he could feel it growing stronger and stronger within his mind. His foray into the Demon Realm only exacerbated his dilemma. Yoko had long ago forced Shuichi into remission, and now was pushing Kurama to do the same.
He could only imagine the similar struggle his recently resurrected friend was suffering through. If it was even half as intense as Kurama's own, then he would need guidance if he were to emerge at least somewhat intact when the dust cleared. There was, perhaps, more hope for Yusuke than for himself. Yusuke was born in this world, and this is where he truly belonged. Though he was now a demon, it was to his human aspect that he must remain true.
Kurama heaved a sigh as he analyzed his teammate. His long, wild raven mane and tribal battle markings indicated that his ancestor was a demon of phenomenal strength. He must be old, a battle hardened warrior of legend. He was certain that his trifling with Yusuke's body and his interest in his descendant's affairs were far from over. Dark times approached…
He desperately needed to speak with his friend. If he was correct in his assumption, then Yusuke was confused by his new demonic biology. Of course, Yusuke, being who he was, would never admit to the need for assistance. He was stubborn and arrogant, and no amount of demon blood mixed in with his could cure him of these character flaws. However, Kurama was spared the trouble of finding an excuse to talk privately with the ex-detective by the boy himself.
"Man, I cannot stand all this hair," Yusuke screeched, saying the last word as if it were derogatory. Tugging on his hair as if hoping to pry it loose from atop his head, he continued, "Don't think you could cut it for me, eh, Kurama?"
Kurama raised his elegant eyebrows in mild surprise as his friend turned his inquiring gaze upon him, "But, Yusuke, I rather like it. It quite suits you."
"Very funny, fox-boy," he gripped in return, pointedly scratching his own eyebrow with his middle finger. "Just hack this mop off me, will ya."
"As you wish, Yusuke," he complied, having the grace to look obsequious.
"Good, hate to have to thrash you with my new evil Mazoku powers for being an ass, now wouldn't I?" Yusuke rejoined with an insolent smirk.
"As you say," was Kurama's good natured reply.
"Do you think you could summon some kinda plant that could get these crazy tattoos off me, too?"
"I'll see what I can do," he assured the outwardly relaxed youth. Kurama could only guess what the brazen boy was really thinking underneath his bravado.
"You sure you don't feel no different, Urameshi?" asked Kuwabara, eyeing his best friend suspiciously as if he were waiting for him to suddenly breathe fire or something else monstrously out of character. Everyone in their little group looked at Yusuke expectantly, and even the usually spritely Botan had an aura of unease about her. Kaitou and Yana, completely at a loss as to what had transpired within the cave, simply gaped at the boy in confusion.
"No, I feel the same as ever," Yusuke insisted, though perhaps he was imagining it, but Kurama would have said there was a distance in his voice.
"Well, you look freaky, man…oh wait, that's just you," Kuwabara laughed at his own weak wit.
"Even looking like this, I'm prettier than you, ugly," he jibed cheekily.
The ensuing scuffle lasted all the way to the train station, ended only by an irritated Shizuru bodily lifting Kuwabara off his feet and unceremoniously tossing into a train leading back to town.
The group split up here, Botan floated away to Spirit World to deliver the bittersweet news while Koenma insisted he try to contact those in the palace still loyal to him. Genkai headed to her compound, and Shizuru, Keiko and Kuwabara took the train that would take them as close to their respective houses as possible. Keiko seemed reluctant to leave Yusuke's side, as if fearful that if she let him out of her sight again, he would never return to it. After Kurama had discreetly taken he aside and assured her that the danger had passed and gave her his solemn word to guard Yusuke's life with his own should anything happen, she happily boarded the train with a cheerful, if somewhat forced, wave to the two boys. Kaitou and Yana boarded the next train to Mushiori with Yana hesitating to give one last envious gaze at Yusuke's offending shock of ebony locks. Kurama suggested that it would be far easier and far less conspicuous if they traveled to his house on foot. Yusuke agreed enthusiastically, eager for the chance to stretch his legs. They were getting strange looks on the relatively abandoned platform as it was, and drawing attention to themselves by lingering in a crowded train for a quarter of an hour would be ill advised. Between Yusuke's appearance and the fact that Hiei was sleeping soundly in a snug piggy back hold on Kurama's back, they must look quite the sight. He had decided it would be best if he brought Hiei back home with him to let him rest up somewhere safe and familiar.
The walk to his house was uneventful. They had taken many back roads, rooftops, and deserted alleys to arrive there. Yusuke wondered briefly if Kurama had ever had the need to take such indirect routes before. Both of them were too deep in their own thoughts to really strike up a conversation on the way.
Kurama unlocked the front door easily. He had forgotten his key, so Yusuke had a firsthand glimpse of his lock-picking prowess. He had to admit, the man had skill. Taking what looked to be a bobby pin from his pocket, he gently pressed it into the lock one handed, while the other hand secured his hold on Hiei's slumbering body, and twisted for what seemed to be only a second. In next to no time, the door was open, and Kurama was ushering him through, oblivious to Yusuke's admiration. The street thug in him had to give the man props; he was cooler than his nerdy appearance led people to believe.
The house was mercifully empty, and Yusuke paused a moment to examine it. He had never been in Kurama's home before, and he had often wondered what it would be like. It seemed glaringly ordinary for such an extraordinary demon. But then, this wasn't his demon home, it was his human one, and the house reflected that. He entered into a normal living room, complete with a comfortable-looking couch, reclining chairs, and a humble television set. He caught a glimpse of the kitchen in the next room, dressed in earth tones with a lovely mahogany table decorated with a vase of freshly cut red roses, before Kurama led him up the stairs and into a dimly lit hall.
Yusuke balked at the pictures adorning the walls. They were all of Kurama…no "Shuichi," when he was younger. Yusuke gazed, mesmerized, at pictures of a short little midget of a kid playing in the dirt, his face a smear of soil and mud, and a slightly older blazingly red-haired boy smiling for what appeared to be a school picture. There was a picture that appeared to be featuring a short haired Kurama giving his mother a hug.
"Awwww, weren't you cute, you scary little demon, you," Yusuke crooned in a falsely sugary voice as he snickered under his breath.
Kurama turned around following his gaze and frowning a bit. "Why, Yusuke, I'm hurt. You don't think I'm cute still?" he asked in a sad tone, mockingly threatening tears.
"You're just a riot today, Kurama. You feeing alright?" It was unlike his friend to be so cheerful. He was usually in a good mood and teased him regularly, but it somehow felt forced now, as if he were hiding a darker emotion behind his light hearted teasing.
Kurama sighed deeply, shaking his head and letting his face fall almost imperceptibly, his crimson bangs shielding his eyes from view, "It has been a very long and trying day. Between learning of Sensui's fall, the attack on the apartment, Kuwabara getting captured, getting trapped within a video game, having to…" he faltered. Yusuke could guess what Kurama had been about to say…having to kill Gamemaster. "…being insulted by a mind reader, defeating Toguro, being ensnared by Itsuki, watching you fight a losing battle, seeing you die, engaging Sensui in doomed combat, and evading the apocalypse and almost certain death, I am understandably very tired."
"We can do this another time, man. If you want to take a breather, I get it," Yusuke sympathized with concern in his voice. He had been so caught up in his own needs, he had forgotten about those of the ones closest to him.
"That's quite alright, Yusuke. I have strength enough for this," he smiled motioning for Yusuke to enter the last room in the hall which he could only assume belonged to his friend.
It was a simple bedroom. So simple and pristine, in fact, that Yusuke doubted it was inhabited at all. The bed was perfectly made, bed sheets tucked snuggly into the bed frame. An almost bare nightstand stood next to it with only two framed photos on its surface. Yusuke smiled to himself at the very recent picture of Kurama and his mother in a light embrace. For a moment, he let himself feel proud that it was in part due to him that the two of them survived that fateful night on the hospital roof when he had first met the red haired rouge. The other picture featured his favorite demonic duo, relaxing in the sun. Yusuke smiled at this, too, for he rarely saw Hiei so peaceful while conscious. A window was opposite the bed and beside it was a neatly organized desk, perfect for the studious scholar. Yusuke had very little trouble associating this very businesslike room with his pragmatic friend.
Kurama deposited Hiei on the bed with surprising tenderness, covering him with a blanket. Yusuke found the action a strange parody of a mother tucking in her sleeping child. Blocking that mental image out of his head completely, he watched as Kurama moved the desk chair to the center of the room and indicated that Yusuke should take a seat. He then busied himself riffling through one of the desk drawers producing newspapers that he promptly fanned out around the chair. Brandishing a pair of sharp scissors with a flourish, he swiveled the chair around so Yusuke faced the window with Kurama at his back.
Yusuke couldn't help but fidget as the loosed strands of his hair brushed the bare nape of his neck. More than a couple of times, he reached back to scratch fervently at his neck.
"Yusuke, please, be still. I do not wish to inadvertently harm you," came the chiding from his patient barber.
"Geez, sorry, but I don't know how you deal with all this hair, man. I mean, how can you actually fight like this? Doesn't it get all sweaty and stick to you; how do you even move without it whipping you in the face?"
Kurama chuckled briefly at his tirade before simply saying, "I've had centuries of practice."
Yusuke's voice was so small and soft; Kurama almost didn't hear him speak. He sounded so much like a child, fear dripping off of every syllable. He seemed uncomfortable at the directness of his inquiry, squirming uncomfortably in his seat.
Eyes wide and blinking, Kurama hesitated, searching for a tactful answer. He finally settled on the truth, "It's very likely. Mazoku are rare, but the ones of which I have heard live for innumerable centuries."
"Oh…" Yusuke muttered in the same soft voice, sounding lost and scared.
"Something troubling you, Yusuke?" Kurama asked seriously, letting his concern color his voice.
"Yeah…I mean I have these new powers now, and that's cool and all, but what else will it change? I don't want to live hundreds of years if it means I have to watch the ones I care about die," he said slowly but with conviction.
"Yusuke, I'll tell you what I tell myself when I think of how I will outlive my mother, and how I had mistakenly thought I would outlive you. It's not easy to know one's life span will be longer than all those around him. I've watched as many a friend and ally had died, and I have survived. Time doesn't take away the pain of loss, but it does give one more opportunities to find more people to love. You have many people in your life to care for, Yusuke. You will outlive many of them, but remember those who will survive as you do. Take comfort in their presence, and find new people to care for, all the while keeping the memories of your fallen friends and family within your heart. Take comfort in the fact that it doesn't matter how strong the demon, death claims us all in time."
"I guess that's part of what worries me. I feel like I'm living on borrowed time. I mean, I died once before, and got a second chance, but there were strings attached. I came back to life, but I was stuck with Spirit Detective duty. I had my second chance, but to have a third? Not many people get that, and I'm worried about the price I'll have to pay now. Like I've accumulated so much bad Karmo, and now it's time to pay up, and I don't think I can afford it."
"I believe the term you are looking for is Karma, Yusuke," he correctly mildly. "The concept of 'what goes around, comes around,' if that is to be believed then any bad Karma you've accumulated by being a delinquent in your past now must have been negated by all the good you did in sacrificing yourself and honoring your obligations as the world's protector. And I, also, know something about dying as well as about second chances and they are rarely free, that's true enough. I stole my second chance at someone else's expense. I'm not proud of what I did to survive, and I know that my actions will have consequences one day, but perhaps the price you paid for your life was not so steep after all. You have been given a blessing very few ever receive, and the only price you seem to be paying at the moment is greater power and extended life. You have nothing to worry about there."
"But I do have something to worry about?" Yusuke surprised Kurama with his sharpness at catching his subtle word play.
"I fear that the Makai is not yet finished with either of us, and what is to come will be dangerous for us both. We are in a similar position… being what we are, and the Demon World is doubly treacherous to ones such as us."
"Hey, y'know, you're right, not that you need to hear it, you're never wrong. I didn't really think about it until now, but we are similar, aren't we?" Yusuke voiced his excitement at the prospect of not really being all alone in his problem.
"Yes, we are. It's not a pleasant thought, but it is comforting, I'm sure, to know that you are not unique in your suffering. It's a hard life, fighting your nature in order to blend in where you will never truly belong. But it would appear that life's always been like that for you, not really fitting in anywhere and to having to fight to carve out your own niche. I've been at this much longer than you, and I can tell you it isn't easy or gratifying, but you will survive."
"Ha, I guess we can have our own little club now, huh, Kurama? Loner half-breeds party of two." Yusuke joked hoping to see the return of the amused glint, usually present in his friend's emerald eyes, but that had long since disappeared, lost to the forlorn musings of a heart lonelier than his own.
"It's not something to make light of, let's be serious for a moment, shall we? I wouldn't wish this fate on my worst enemy, let alone my close friend. It is a lonely existence, but somehow I sense that it fits you well. You've always been a loner, never truly belonging anywhere you were. Not at school, not in this world. You always seemed most at home fighting for your life against demons. Maybe this change will not be so hard for you, after all…" he trailed off, lost in thought, his voice wistful.
"Look, Kurama, I think I'll be fine, and you will, too. We're freaks, but we're fighters. We wouldn't be happy with a simple life or simple problems. Take a leaf from my book, and don't make things worse by over-thinking. Just go with the flow, roll with the punches, it'll work itself out." He abruptly returned to his normal cocky self, effectively snapped Kurama out of the dark tunnel of his grim thoughts. Smiling absently, he continued to hack at Yusuke's wild mass of hair.
"What's it like…being a demon I mean?…I'm kinda new at this," Yusuke asked hesitantly after a small silence.
Kurama pondered the question. He had often mused on this topic, but had never voiced his personal opinion before. "Well, Yusuke, I find it to be very like being a human, and I am perhaps the only one that can know, being both. Demon's are only more instinctual and more powerful creatures, with emotions being somewhat foreign concepts to most. There is the usual hatred and rage, but anything deeper is beyond most's capacity or understanding. But you've met enough demons by now to realize this. Simply being born a demon doesn't make you malevolent…only different. You are one of the few humans who knows this to be true, which is perhaps why I admire you the way that I do. Hiei, myself, Touya, Jin, Chu and others you have met blur the line between the stereotype of the evil demon and the righteous human."
Yusuke absorbed this information thoughtfully. He had never really thought of demons as a separate species. It was as Kurama had said, some of the ones he had met were so human…
After a few quiet moments with the only sound being the soft snipping of the scissors as it shore the hair, Kurama's hand once again hesitated in its dutiful clipping, Yusuke knew that his friend was not yet mollified.
"What's up?" Yusuke asked, slightly apprehensive about what more Kurama could be worried about.
"Nothing, Yusuke, I'm merely thinking," he said distractedly as he began again to wage war against Yusuke's unruly mop.
"What's really bothering you?" Yusuke insisted, sure that something was slowly eating at the usually calm and collected redhead. "When you're really bothered, you have a hard time hiding it, now spill."
Kurama stopped cutting his hair altogether and moved so that he was facing Yusuke, kneeling on the floor so that they had eye contact. Yusuke was immediately captured by his powerful gaze, unable to move, he could only stare like a deer in the headlights. Those spring green eyes were looking accusingly at him, his usually delicate features sharp with anger.
"That was foolish of you, to sacrifice yourself like that…it wasn't certain that the three of us had enough power to defeat Sensui," he scolded, his usual light tone heavy with emotion. Greif danced in his evergreen eyes. As if in agreement to this statement, Hiei, silent up until this point, gave a loud snore from his position on the bed beside them. They both paused to scrutinize their slumbering friend before Yusuke turned back to Kurama.
"I—" Yusuke began, but Kurama cut across him. Now that he had been goaded into telling this, he was determined to get it all out, and they could argue the details after.
"We would have been better off fighting him, together, the four of us, as a team, as it should be. You took a dangerous risk, Yusuke. Today's outcome wouldn't have been nearly as favorable if not for a one in a billion fluke. You cannot afford to be so rash!"
"Really, and here I was thinking it was selfless and noble," he retorted sarcastically, his voice thick with hostility.
"I'm being serious, Yusuke, It was dumb and reckless. You have much more to live for than you give yourself credit for. Many people would not forgive such an act of … selfishness. They would miss you terribly, and we need you… the world needs you to continue fighting no matter the cost or circumstance," he admonished fervently, his eyes blazing with passion.
"Surely you cannot be so ignorant as to suggest that you are oblivious to how much you have come to mean to the members of your team. Kuwabara has been your closest friend from the moment you introduced yourself to him by so elegantly punching him in the face in lieu of a handshake. And while I admit that Hiei's and my positions in your ranks were at first obligatory, we have come to respect and admire you as a trusted ally and dear friend. You are our leader, Yusuke. Your place is at our side, for better or worse."
Yusuke thought back to all the times he'd spent in his friends' company. All the times he pounded Kuwabara into the pavement and all the times they snuck out of school to blow coins at the arcade. He thought of when he had met Kurama, and the trust he had felt, and the feeling he had when Kurama had taken Hiei's sword stroke for him. He remembered Hiei vowing revenge, yet pushing the lever anyway and saving them from the Gate of Betrayal. He thought of Kuwabara's cat, Hiei and Kurama side by side smiling in amusement at his ridiculous spirit beast. He thought of all of them working together in the Dark Tournament, bonding by shared pain. He realized that their bond was unbreakable, forged in steel and tempered by Hiei's fire, Yusuke's determination, Kuwabara's honor, and Kurama's compassion.
Yusuke was touched by his heartfelt speech and the way his eyes shone with genuine affection. He found his throat had grown quite dry, and he could only bring himself to nod his understanding. Kurama smiled, honestly, this time, and moved to trim his bangs.
"This is the second time you have attempted to give your life for me, and I have to say that it is two times too many. I must insist that you desist."
"You're one to talk…how many times did you try to off yourself during the tournament for the good of the team? Touya, Karasu…"Yusuke counted on his fingers, trying to make his point, but not willing to anger the wily fox.
"That makes twice," he informed Yusuke lightly, "Well, then, it would appear as if we are even…"
"That sounds good to me."
"I've grown rather fond of you, Yusuke, and I have precious few friends. I can't afford to lose any…even to their own stupidity," he said warmly.
Yusuke's eyes sparkled with mischief at this confession. "You like me," he taunted.
"You wish," came his smug reply with a knowing smirk.
His hair was fighting back admirably, as he would expect any part of his body to do if faced with amputation or mutilation, but this was seriously getting out of hand as they neared the three hour mark. Kurama, at last, vanquished the rebellious locks after a hard won battle, perhaps foreshadowing what would happen were they to actually pit their skills against one another in the ring. His head certainly felt lighter now that the five pounds of hair was shorn off of the sweat from his brow, Kurama handed Yusuke a small mirror with which to inspect his newly sculpted locks.
"Woah, this is exactly like it was before. You should get a job at Shizuru's salon…damn...I can't even tell the difference," came Yusuke's animated declaration upon careful examination of his beloved hair. The only evidence that he had ever had more hair than he did now were the tell-tale strands now littering the floor of Kurama's once tidy bedroom.
"That reminds me, Yusuke. Why did you select me to accomplish this task, would Shizuru not have been a better choice? She is, after all, by profession, a hair dresser."
"Maybe I realized I needed some advice. I guess I figured you were the only one who could really understand where I'm coming from, y'know? Cuz, you've been there before, and seem to be dealing with it okay."
"Well, Yusuke, it would seem as if your subconscious is wiser than your conscious," Kurama taunted, leaning on his desk to admire his work with a jeering smirk on his face.
"Listen, I don't know what those words mean, but I'm gonna assume they were insulting and pound you for them anyway," he said, nettled at the constant use of big words that went completely over his head.
"It wasn't meant as an insult, merely an observation on the mystery that is Yusuke Urameshi."
"Speaking of mysteries, what are we gonna do about these markings? I can't go to school like this…" he stopped as he reached that conclusion. Now he had a solid excuse to ditch school!
"Oh, don't fret, those markings should be gone by tomorrow, leaving you free to pursue, with your usually tenacity, the never-ending joy that education brings."
Yusuke's eye began to twitch at this, glaring furiously at the fox, who quickly hid his laughter behind a graceful, long fingered hand.
"Any ideas on what these thing mean…?" he asked fingering his check dubiously.
"Several, each as unlikely as the last, though judging from the energy you used to defeat Sensui and the unique markings, I have narrowed it down…" he answered ambiguously.
"Do you not remember that I'm charging you money for being vague now?" he said menacingly, only increasing Kurama's amusement.
"It's nothing really; I fear you will come to understand soon enough. Though the tattoos are the only thing that will fade…the feeling that you don't belong will lessen, but it will never really go away. You will find the answers you seek in Demon World…sooner rather than later," he replied, cryptic as always.
"Well, thanks for the hair cut, and the advice, fox-boy. I appreciate it. And since you did such a good job I'll forget about you owing me twenty bucks for the vagueness and call it even."
"I'm insulted that you think my work is only worthy of a twenty dollar bill. I think you are the one that owes me, especially considering I'm not letting you walk out of here without a shirt. People will be gawking in the streets," he countered peevishly, crossing his arms as Yusuke started to protest.
"Alright…but nothing pink."
Kurama smiled evilly, "Wouldn't dream of it, Yusuke."
A/N Please review even if it is unsigned. They make my day and inspire me to write more.