Dear god, we've done it. We've made it to the end of With the Tide.
I'm not going to lie—I cried while writing this. Pathetically. I am an ugly crier. It's just so strange for this to be over. Just… what do I do now? No more scribbles in one of my hundreds of half-full notebooks, no more thinking of evil cliffhangers in the shower… holy cheesecrackers. (Though I'm sure y'all could do without the cliffhangers ;) )
Thank you—all of you who are reading this. Even if you have only left one or two reviews, or none at all, thank you for reading these two stories. I'll assume you enjoyed it—you're still here after all, eh?
And as always, the most heartfelt thanks to the reviewers of the last chapter. Thank you, RandomCitizen, Mikila94, Kactuskat16, Zinthree, Emzybubble, unknown player, Beryl Bloodstone, DreamTrance14, BlueTwilight94, Mr steve jr, Wolf-Maiden Mitsuki, YuYuHakushoObsesser, and two Guest reviewers for reviewing the last chapter (and I think chapter 14?)
And hey, for all the people who haven't reviewed yet—please do so! Not because I just want a bunch of reviews (though that is nice,) but also because I want to see what kind of people y'all are! I want to at least send all of you one PM of personal thanks before this draws to a close, and I can't do that if you stay anonymous! ;D LET ME LOVE YOU! Haha!
Thank you so, so, so, so, sooooo much, everyone. I hope you enjoy the last chapter of With the Tide. And know that you are all awesome, fantastic people. I think I have the coolest readers ever, if I do say so myself! :3
"There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."
Epilogue: With the Tide
Months ran together, and suddenly, it was March. Winter had passed once more and signs of spring were just beginning to appear. Next month, both Kurama and I would graduate—him from Meiou, me from U-High—and the question of what we were going to do with ourselves kept popping up among select family members.
It was then that Kurama decided that we needed to set a few matters straight. Most of the questions that came from my mother and Shiori were queries on what Kurama and I were going to do about college… go to the same one, move into an apartment together, go live with other people or alone…? While the mark kept us close, even when we were physically apart, we didn't like to be away from each other too long. I discovered that headaches cropped up more frequently when we had to think over long distances. Could be a coincidence, but… Kurama planned to use that to build his case.
We were going to tell my family about the mark. What its implications were, et cetera… and how it factored into our proposed post-high school living situation. Kurama was fine with whatever I wanted to do—Maya and Yana, whose romance had immediately become very serious, were moving in together, so my favorite roommate was no longer an option. Keiko was still attending high school in Nakayama, and I was going to be moving permanently to Mushiyori City, so… that wouldn't work either.
The obvious option was Kurama, naturally. But first… we had to come clean, as to all the reasons why.
My father's grizzled right eyebrow lifted above the other as he looked at the two of us—Kurama looking utterly serene, even smiling a bit… as I grew increasingly flustered. I tugged on my shirt sleeve, pulling it down over the mark—now fully healed—on my left arm.
This is going to be so bad. Why are we doing this... Why NOW? I whimpered mentally. Kurama squeezed my hand, but didn't respond. He simply watched my father the cogs turned in his head—and my mother still looked confused. Her facial expression was far less ominous than that of my dear old dad's, but was still guarded.
Kurama had just finished explaining the concept of what a mark was. He'd managed to weave it seamlessly and tactfully into our already running conversation as only he could do, but now the time of reckoning was upon us. I could immediately pinpoint the exact moment my father realized what Kurama was getting at, because his gaze flashed to mine searchingly, and his mouth popped open.
"Reina?" he growled, a warning. I cringed slightly into the sofa.
"Yup," I squeaked. "Yup, it's exactly what you think. I give up, I give in—ground me forever if you want to but please stop glaring at me…"
"Reina…" My mother's enunciation of my name was more an exasperated sigh than anything. "What were you thinking?"
"It was… an accident," I insisted, noting that the way I stumbled over the word made Kurama's fingers freeze around mine. Don't you start. I've got enough on my plate as it is. Then, when he didn't respond: Okay, I'm sorry. Why don't you distract yourself by helping me out here? I suggested.
"In the end, she had a choice," Kurama said quietly. "She could have either negated the mark with a tattoo and worked for Reikai as their new Spirit Detective, or kept it and her freedom. She decided on the latter, for multiple reasons."
My dad calmed down somewhat upon hearing Kurama's level words. He settled back into his chair with a sigh, and shot the demon a questioning look. "Work for Reikai?" He shot me a distracted sort of frown. "I should've known they wouldn't have left you alone, not really," he muttered, a tad bit resentfully—this made me smile.
My dad had been aware of my psychic abilities—rather, my potential for psychic abilities—as long as I'd been alive. When Otake had come to the Human World so he could seal my powers and tie them to Yusuke, he'd asked my father for permission. (Because I'd been, y'know, a newborn… and couldn't exactly vouch for myself at the time.) My dad had been completely unaware of the fact that I'd actually developed my psychic powers until I'd confessed as much the night Sensui split open the fabric of space-time.
He'd been distracted momentarily by this new information, but recovered entirely too quickly and settled both Kurama and myself with a stern glare this time. "So now you're… demon-married, or something?"
"Something like that, yes," Kurama responded, a tad too breezily for my tastes.
"Can I see?" my mother interrupted suddenly, plunging all of us into a startled sort of silence.
"Um…" I glanced up at Kurama, and he nodded encouragingly, "sure." I rolled up my sleeve and bared my arm, twisting it for my mother's inspection. She rose from her seat and sat down beside me, taking my arm and running her fingers over the thin, silvery scar. She was very interested about such things—she'd only recently become privy to the comings and goings of all things supernatural, and had adapted with the kind of lackadaisical curiosity that Kurama informed me was eerily similar to my first reaction to this privileged knowledge.
One nugget of information seemed to blindside my father all of a sudden, and he glowered at Kurama with renewed disbelief, tinged with just a smidgen of ferocity. "You bit my baby girl?"
"Well, technically…" I started to explain, but was stopped short when Kurama hurriedly interrupted me:
'Probably best to… not mention Youko.' His inner voice was strained, careful.
"Um," I faltered hesitantly as my parents both stared at me with raised eyebrows. "Um. Yes, well technically… I guess… so?" Yeah, Kurama was right, now that I was thinking about it. Oh yes, mom and dad, I'm demon-married to my boyfriend—yes I know we're only 18 years old—oh and also he has a psychotic rapey demon half, and he was the one that took a chunk out of my arm. Not Kurama. Don't worry though, he's gone now. Hiding out somewhere deep in Kurama's subconscious. At least, that's what Kurama says—he hasn't heard any voices in months.
Yeah, they'd totally take that in stride. I shot a cursory glance at Kurama, thankful to realize that he hadn't been eavesdropping on my hysterical inner musings.
"And you said it was an accident?" my mother queried, frowning over at me.
"Yes, how did that happen?" my dad barked.
"Heat of the moment?" I responded meekly, my voice rising higher with every word that came spilling out of my mouth. As my father's expression darkened, I resisted the urge to clamp my hands over my mouth and run, screaming, from the room. Oh holy shit no. I'd rather tell them about Kurama's bipolar disorder than have a sex talk—and oh how I knew it was coming, judging from the concerned look on my mother's features.
My mom shot a pointed look at my dad, and his expression cooled somewhat; he leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms.
"We've always been very… open and honest about these things, Reina," my mother began carefully, patting my on the arm. I rolled my sleeve back down over my mark. "We figured that you and Kurama were… active. I'm just worried that you made a snap decision that you'll come to regret. What with the mark. No offense to you, sweetheart—I couldn't have picked a better match myself," she added, reaching around me to pat Kurama on the knee. He inclined his head towards her, quirking a small smile.
I worried the inside of my lip. "As Kurama said… it came down to my choice. While I was level-headed, thinking about it… this wasn't a snap judgment. Can you…" I glanced over at my dad, and then back over to my mom, frowning a little, "can you trust me on that? You raised me well enough, I think… for me to be able to make these kinds of decisions."
"We did," my dad huffed. He sounded a bit resentful, though more resigned than anything.
"You're just…" My mother sighed, and brushed a strand of hair behind my ear, smiling at me in a sad way. "so, so young. You're supposed to be," she amended. "When did you grow up like this? I must've blinked…"
"You have raised a remarkable young woman, Mr. and Mrs. Shueisha," Kurama said gently, smiling at them both. "And I thank you for that. Because of you, I have the privilege of knowing her."
My mother beamed at him; my father's glare became slightly less pronounced.
"So what are your plans?" my dad asked gruffly. "You're… married, in a sense—I wish I'd been included in the decision-making process, by the way, Reina—but that's not recognized on this plane. Are you planning on getting human-married anytime soon?"
"It's in the cards," I said vaguely. Kurama and I had spoken about it—we realized that it was, essentially, inevitable… (in a good way, of course,) but our graduation dates were looming and I did want to go to college. "I mean, technically we could right now, but…" I glanced over at Kurama helplessly.
"College first," my mom said in an uncharacteristically stern voice.
I nodded, agreeing. "Definitely."
Then her expression softened, and she grinned at me. "See if you can't graduate early, dears. I want grandbabies immediately."
"Wow, mom." I flapped my hands at her, blushing like mad. "But no pressure, right…?"
"Right," my dad echoed grimly. But when I looked over at him, there was a slight smile hiding under his mustache. Figures—he was a sucker for the little ones. And dear holy would a miniature Kurama be the cutest thing in existence. I had to shake my head to rid myself of my sudden, traitorously baby-feverish thoughts. Kurama chucked quietly at this, hiding his mouth with his hand.
I let my hands drop, and smiled hesitantly at my dad. "You'll both be included in this one. I promise. You raised me to fend for myself, yes—but I never meant to push either of you out of the loop. I'm sorry for not including you…"
"Oh, it's quite all right," my mom assured me, patting me on the knee. "I know you didn't mean it that way, sweetie."
My dad rose and ambled over to Kurama, shaking his hand. "You're a good person—good enough for her. Possibly." He grinned and winked, releasing Kurama's hand. "You took care of her and made sure she was safe when I couldn't. Thank you, Kurama."
Kurama nodded his acknowledgement. "Thank you, sir."
My mom coughed and brushed surreptitiously at her eyes, rising. "Come on now, you two. Let's go eat. And then it's graduation invitations for you, Reina."
I heaved a dramatic sigh, grinning—relieved that this ordeal was over—and rose to my feet, pulling Kurama up with me.
Three Months Later
The secondhand coffee pot grumbled and made a chorus of other suspicious noises on the kitchen counter as I yawned and stretched, bending down for a quick toe-touch that made my back pop and my thighs ache pleasantly. I rose to my full height and started busying myself at the small stove, pulling out a pan for our eggs and plugging in the toaster oven. I hastened a small glance out the window—the late June sun had already risen, and was glinting brightly off of nearby rooftops.
Kurama walked into the kitchen, looking completely put together, as I poked sullenly at the eggs—two sunny-side-ups had become scrambled once more—and he pulled out two chipped coffee mugs from the cabinet over my head, kissing the back of my neck briefly before resting his chin on my shoulder.
"Foiled again?" he asked, amused at the sight of our breakfast.
"Yeah yeah, don't be a smartass. Stick some bread in the oven or I'll mess that up too," I responded with a grin, bumping him with my hip.
"I believe it," he responded. I could hear the smirk in his voice. As he rummaged around for the bread, I glanced up at the little calendar pinned to the side of the cabinet over the sink. I took a break from further mutilating our eggs and snatched a sharpie off of the windowsill, marking off another day, and then my hand froze in midair as I realized what today was. June. June 26th.
"It's Yusuke's birthday," I noted quietly, placing the sharpie on the counter.
"So it is." Kurama maneuvered me away from the stove and took over the eggs, deftly handing me my coffee.
"One more year, huh?" I asked offhandedly, continuing to study the calendar through the steam rising out of my mug.
"Perhaps sooner." Kurama remained optimistic, as always. He was the glass half full; I was the glass half empty.
Keiko had informed me of the promise Yusuke had given her the night he left for Demon World. He told her that in three years, on his 18th birthday, he would return to Human World and marry her. The latter bit was likely an attempt to distract her from how much she was going to miss him, and probably just hot air—but I knew he was coming back on that day. I didn't doubt it for a second.
This last year would go by slowly.
Kurama signaled his need for plates and I obliged, setting my coffee down on our shabby little dining table to retrieve them.
"Don't worry too much about it," Kurama said gently.
It was June now—11 months since I'd returned from Makai myself. I'd managed to graduate on time, and had been accepted at U-High's sister university. Kurama, astounding us all, had opted to work for his stepfather's company in lieu of college. This news had come unexpectedly—somehow he'd kept that decision a secret from me, and he'd had his reasons for being secretive… I picked up my coffee again and watched the steam as my mind wandered back to two months ago—Kurama's graduation night. I smiled as I relived the memory.
"But where are we going? You're being sneaky," I accused, somewhat frustrated with Kurama, but mostly amused as he led me further into the hospital. A few nursing staff gave us odd looks, but otherwise ignored us.
"You don't recognize this hospital?" he teased, glancing over his shoulder to smirk at me.
"Of course I do," I retorted, rolling my eyes. "The last time I was here, your mother was dying in one of these rooms. Oh, and then you nearly sacrificed your life to a magic mirror to spare hers. Cheery."
"Must you always remember the negative parts?" he said with a dramatic sigh, opening the door to a stairwell. He waved me onwards with a grand gesture. "After you."
"You just want to look at my ass," I huffed, obliging anyway and bracing myself. The expected pinch didn't take me by surprise, but I squeaked and swatted his hand away regardless. "I swear, if you weren't so cute..." I grumbled even as I smiled. He chuckled at that as I continued to march up the stairs. I was thankful that I hadn't listened to my mother, who had tried to convince me to wear heels to Kurama's graduation ceremony and the after party at his mother and stepdad's house. Flats were wonderful things, especially when you added stairs to the mix. Besides, I'd worn heels to my own graduation a week earlier—my feet still hadn't recovered.
"Let me get that for you," Kurama said a short time later, reaching around to push open the door that led to the roof.
The door creaked slightly as we stepped out onto the roof, Kurama holding it open for me. It was an uncharacteristically chilly night for late April, and when Kurama saw me shudder, he shrugged off his jacket and placed it over my bare shoulders. I smiled and tugged at the lapel to pull the jacket closer to my body.
"What're we doing here?" I asked after a few silent moments. Kurama, who had been looking up at the sky, smiled languidly and met my gaze.
"Did you ever wonder why I told you about me… about everything?" Kurama asked suddenly, quirking a smile to offset the seriousness of his tone. "It really made no sense, when you think about it. I'd kept my demonic heritage a secret for fifteen years, and there I was… divulging my darkest and most jealously guarded secret to a complete stranger."
I snorted at that, nodding. "Yeah… what came over you, I wonder?" I mused, grinning up at him evilly and waggling my eyebrows. "Were you entranced by my feminine wiles?"
He winked at me. "Well, naturally… but there were other reasons. I knew…" He paused, furrowing his brow, and sighed, his lips turning down slightly. "At that point, I knew that my days were numbered. I was going to give up my life in exchange for my mother's. During that time, I felt this strong urge to do something of worth… to help someone. And there you were." His smile was wry, and I reached out, squeezing his hand gently.
"You were a weak psychic with the uncanny ability of attracting trouble and finding yourself in life-threatening situations almost daily." He chuckled slightly at that, shaking his head. "You knew nothing of the occult, and that was my chance—knowledge is power, is safety, and I was going to make you as safe as I could before I departed this world. That was… suitably noble. But I had other intentions as well."
I frowned slightly, mainly out of confusion, but with slight apprehension as well. When Kurama looked this serious and sounded this subdued, he was about to go on some tangent about what a horrible person he was. The last time this had happened was when I'd first been marked, and I didn't care to repeat that process again. Sensing this, Kurama sent some reassurance ebbing out towards me, which helped a little.
"I'd always wondered what it would be like," he continued softly, his gaze on mine but distant, "if I had no secrets. If I could tell my family what I was. I wondered what their reactions would be. I still wonder," he added with a ghost of a smile, flicking his gaze up to the sky again. "But that is of no consequence right now. When we last talked here, Reina… that was the first time I gave part of myself up. The first time I had fully trusted a human with the knowledge of my true identity. It may have seemed easy to you… but trust me, love," he paused briefly to bend down and kiss my forehead, "it was by far the most difficult thing I have done in this life."
"Why did you choose me?" I murmured. "Why didn't you tell your family?"
Kurama drew back and gazed down at me. "I wanted her to remember me… as her child, a human boy. But with you, well… it wasn't really my choice, if you remember. You touched me, electrocuted me—you knew that I wasn't exactly human. Your instincts were fairly screaming the truth for you to hear." He smiled, a little crookedly but it was there. "An opportunity presented itself."
I remembered that day very clearly. Running into him, our fingertips brushing as we parted ways… the confused, calculating stare he'd fixed me with. I remembered my panic that had been so prevalent in the early days, and almost laughed at myself. So silly.
"And after Gouki attacked you, well, all was lost. You knew for a fact that I was different. And then you did something that caught me off guard—you confronted me. Me, of all people! You were terrified of me, but still so brave, somehow." He trailed off into silence as I smiled at the memory—it was almost funny now, the way that I'd been afraid of him.
"It was then that I realized you were different," he continued gently, his thumb brushing over my chin and coaxing my face up. "You were not one to cower and hide from the truth. You were strong enough to bear it. And from that moment, you laid claim to a part of me that I had shared with no one else."
Far below us, a car ambled up the street, and a couple kids kicked around something that bounced, their voices a quiet murmur drifting up to the rooftop.
"This trend, as you know, continued," he added with another wondering shake of his head. His hand moved to my cheek and I leaned into it, gazing up at him. "I trusted you. You were the first person I confided in when something was amiss. And then, I gave you something more than just my confidence—you had my heart. You loved me fearlessly, as you had confronted me fearlessly, that first day…"
"And you were reckless," I reminded him with a small smile.
"Indubitably." He laughed then, his face breaking into a wide, easy smile. He gripped my hands tightly in his own, and brought them both up to his lips—then released them, letting them swing back to my sides. He took a couple steps away from me, and I watched him, wondering.
"I loved you recklessly, with complete abandon," he said clearly, his smile warm and gentle. His tone was light. "And through all the trouble it's caused you—the tournament, Yomi, the mark… everything… you have continued to love me back. I cannot fathom why. All I know is that you are something I treasure, the person I hold closest to my heart.
"And because of this, I've given myself to you in every way I know how." Kurama's smile widened, something I didn't understand shining in his eyes. "Except for one. And I thought… it would be appropriate to do this here, where everything truly began."
His right hand drifted to his back pocket and he sank to one of his knees, drawing out something small, something that glinted in the dim light of a nearby floodlight, and holding it out to me. His smile was wide but his eyes were careful, questioning.
I was dimly aware of my breath hitching in my chest, my hand jumping to my mouth. I stared at him, wide-eyed and nearly disbelieving, as if watching a dream.
"I love you more than words can say," he said in a clear, unwavering—though gentle—voice. "Reina… will you marry me?"
It took me a few moments to realize that he had just asked me a question, and expected an answer of some sort. Instead of speaking, I found myself dropping to my knees in front of Kurama, reaching out to him almost blindly—just wanting to touch some part of him and hold him close to me.
"Of course," I whispered when I had gathered my wits about me. "Of course I will. I love you. More than I really understand sometimes..."
He cut me off my crushing his lips against mine, and I laughed when I drew back for air, returning to him more quickly than I'd left. And in that moment, it felt like the end of something… of being one person. I was not simply part of a whole—I was Kurama, and he was me—there was nothing that distinguished us anymore. Our hearts were one and complete.
The ring was very simple. A small, twisted band with a tiny emerald set in an arrangement of curved, silver leaves. Kurama, it seems, had known me well enough to realize that I preferred my birthstone over a too-expensive diamond. I could've done without it, even—but having this outward sign of our commitment to each other was important to him and made him happy, so I wore it.
We'd moved in together fairly quickly—he was already in his entry position at his father's company, and claimed he had no interest in pursuing a degree. He simply wanted to have a job that provided for the two of us, and had no intentions of sending us into debt for 'A piece of paper,' as he had put it. This mindset, he assured me, only applied to him—he fully supported my decision to pursue a degree, but he didn't think college would interest him. He could learn whatever he put his mind to and become an expert at it on his own, I knew—he didn't need that little piece of paper to prove himself. And besides, he regularly traveled to and from Demon World during some weekends and holidays—he didn't really have time to be a full-time student. He was constantly running around, getting a feel for the political climate of Makai, which he noted was in fact thankfully stable after the commencement of the tournament.
A king named Enki had won, and he was, luckily, a demon who seemed to be fond of humans. His first decree was to make sure no demons attacked and/or killed humans—and because of this (and the fact that it actually seemed to be working,) Reikai had taken down the Kekkai barrier in hopes that our two worlds would someday merge peacefully. The demons who had lost the tournament were required to patrol for, rescue, and then return humans to Ningenkai, and Kurama had been able to get his shifts in week-long spurts for the time being, so he could be here most of the time.
Kuronue, after lots of deliberation, had decided to join up with Reikai in assisting them with the registration of demons travelling in Human World. He decided to do this so he could still be close enough to see us every couple months—he had generally stayed with whoever had available space. But I could tell that he was getting pretty sick of couch surfing at our apartment, Kuwabara's house, and Genkai's temple. He needed something to do, and so he was gone. I missed him of course, but I'd much rather he was happy and content with this second life he'd been given.
Kurama worked full-time at his stepfather's company and still somehow managed to get his reconnaissance and patrol duty in Makai done, though he hadn't gone back to the demon realm for a little over a month now. Last time he had left, Kuronue had managed to get leave from his work and kept me company.
Kurama and I weren't exactly rolling in cash, so we lived within our means—which had required us to scour thrift stores in search of the best deals possible in the weeks leading up to our moving in together. Our apartment was cheap, though not dingy, and in a surprisingly good area. (Not that it mattered; I certainly wasn't worried about home safety with Kurama around.) I'd gotten a job at a gymnasium near the university I was planning to attend, and Kurama commuted to his stepfather's company headquarters in the next town over by bike. It wasn't a huge distance, but it still raised eyebrows among those who weren't exactly aware of his demonic heritage—and subsequent physical capabilities. He was more than capable of the journey, and enjoyed the exercise.
"It's too bad we had to turn down your parents for dinner today," Kurama said conversationally as he whisked away my empty plate before I could do anything about it. This made me jump; I'd been lost in thought.
"Hm?" It was taking a couple extra seconds for me to catch up with him.
"We're meeting everyone at Genkai's, remember?" he called over his shoulder from the sink, turning to give me a quick, slightly confused look. "You're the one who spread the word."
"Oh!" I'd completely forgotten. "Are Shizuru and Kuwabara coming here before we go to the bus station?" We would have to take a bus to Nakayama before heading out to Genkai's via train, and then bus, and then foot.
"Only Kuwabara, if I'm not mistaken."
"And Keiko's meeting us there? I haven't seen her in months," I realized, shaking my head. She'd been so busy with studying for her entrance exams that we'd only managed to get in a couple phone calls. "When are we leaving here again? Sorry, I'm still really tired."
"Scatterbrain," he teased, flicking a few droplets of water in my direction. "Within the hour. That's why you set your alarm. In fact… I believe Kuwabara's a little early."
As usual, I heard him before I saw him. Kuwabara barged inside (having already familiarized himself with our home—he'd helped me move in, as Kurama had been woefully absent during most of the heavy lifting because of his patrol duty.) He kicked his shoes off at the door, and sat down at the table next to me. The poor chair creaked under his weight as he leaned over to mess with my hair. "Mornin', sunshine!"
I grumbled at him and rose with my coffee, shuffling back to the bedroom to change out of my pajamas as he and Kurama started talking.
Reina had described Jaganshi Hiei as 'short, evil-tempered, and constantly… bored.' She'd been absolutely correct.
Hiei settled me with a glare as he leaned against a wall in Mukuro's brand-spanking-new customs facility, casting a cursory glance over the pitiful pile of demon misfits I'd acquired in South Africa. They sat against the wall, heads bowed, their arms bound in front of them with thick cuffs.
"And what am I supposed to do with them?" he groused, flicking his blood-red gaze up to mine. The thin eyelid on his forehead twitched dangerously—I could tell he was growing tired of speaking with me, and would much rather pick the information he needed out of my brain—and I smirked down at him.
"They're registered for Mukuro's territory," I replied innocently, being as vague and useless as I could manage, just to mess with the guy.
"Registered?" His scowl deepened. "Your job is to reclaim unregistered demons. Are you as incompetent as you look?"
"I caught them hunting down an endangered species of wild cat."
"And?" Hiei glanced over at the demons, who shifted and grumbled anxiously under his stare. "They weren't killing humans."
"Yeah, well the humans were getting into a tizzy over the rapidly declining numbers of one of their pretty, spotted felines—so it's kinda about the humans, in a roundabout way. They get worked up about the most useless things." I lifted an eyebrow. "And we're not just protecting humans, remember. We're trying to prolong their ignorance of the other two worlds as long as possible. Kinda difficult to do that when you have asswipes like this running around and causing a ruckus."
Hiei released a low, frustrated growl—though I noticed his lips almost twitched up into something less unpleasant than a grimace. Reina had also mentioned Hiei's disdain for all things humankind. Maybe I could get on his good side by dissing the mortals.
"I'll take care of it," he muttered finally, shooting a baleful look at the demons lined up on the wall—they visibly flinched. "Go waste someone else's time."
"Nice doing work with you, Hiei," I said, jutting out my hand—which was ignored. It fell to my side, and then I remembered.
"Oh yeah—almost forgot." I started digging around in my pocket, and pulled out a bundle of envelopes. "The people back in Human World wrote you some letters. And Reina thought you'd like these." I handed over the envelopes, and he surprisingly took the colorful array (Kuwabara had insisted on assembling the most flamboyant and potentially embarrassing stationary for this very purpose;) and then I reached back into my pocket once more, pulling out a handful of pictures. He took them in his other hand, and frowned down at the images.
For some reason, most of Reina's pictures were of the blue-haired ice maiden, Yukina. Candid shots of her working the garden, reading—and a few of her smiling into the camera. There were a few group shots including other people in there too, and images of the scenery surrounding Genkai's temple. Hiei continued to frown at these in a way that was, surprisingly, not entirely hostile.
"Hn." The envelopes in one hand went up in flames, and the pictures in the other hand stayed untouched. I started, and protested:
"Hey, at least two of those were from Yukina!" I didn't know what his deal was with the pretty little demon—maybe he had a crush that Reina was aware of (thus the pictures.) Regardless, as soon as he heard this, Hiei's eyes widened and he cast the letters to the ground, quickly singling out the ones from Yukina and stomping out the flames. He left the others to smolder.
Hiei bent down and picked up the singed letters with the care of someone handling a baby bird, and carefully slid them into his pocket while still holding the pictures in his other hand. He glanced up at me, and then back down at his hoard. The image on the top of the pile was one of Yukina sitting in Genkai's flower garden. She had a trio of wrens lined up on one of her arms, and a cardinal on her head. Hiei's thumb pushed the stack till it fanned out in his palm like a hand of cards.
"From… Reina?" Hiei said her name quietly, carefully, as if testing it out. (1) I nodded, and he released one of his noncommittal grunts again, shoving the pictures into his pocket along with the letters he'd managed to save. He snapped at the demons I'd brought in, and they rose and walked in front of him. They marched to the end of the hallway and through the door that led to the holding rooms.
It wasn't until they had disappeared that I looked down and counted the ash piles on the floor. I realized that Hiei had rescued a letter written by someone other than Yukina.
Kuwabara, who was now at the ripe old age of 17, was thoroughly engrossed in his studies at the Gai Tech high school annex, and was actually studying for the entrance exams at the sister university. (Even though he had another year to go as far as high school was concerned, and it was summer break.)
Kuwabara hadn't actually had the time to sit down and talk with Kurama, so they were shooting the breeze as we waited for our bus to arrive. They were currently talking about the details of the tournament, of which Kuwabara was a little sketchy.
"So, you all lost, huh?" Kuwabara mused, lacing his fingers behind his head and glancing over at the fox demon.
"Indeed. Our victories were not of the winning kind," Kurama admitted with a little smile. He'd relayed to me that Yusuke and Hiei had learned some personal lessons of their own—and even Yomi had had a bit of a change of heart. The demon lord had a son that I hadn't been aware of, and as soon as the tournament had ended, Yomi had taken off with his kid to go spend quality time with him. Or something like that. It was good for him, and good for the Human World (he'd expressed on more than one occasion his desire to rule both Makai and Ningenkai… so it was good that he was being distracted by his little bundle of joy.)
"Wow, so even Urameshi ate some dirt? Huh." Kuwabara frowned slightly at the thought—no mater how tough he acted, Yusuke was still his best friend—but then he sighed and smiled slightly. "Guess it's a darn good thing I didn't take part in it…"
"Really? You could've won, Kuwabara," I teased with a smirk.
Kuwabara blushed slightly, and spluttered. "Aw, c'mon! I'm not the same joker who doesn't know my own strength, Sparky. Not anymore."
We all glanced over at two girls—a blonde and a brunette—who were walking up to the bus station. They exchanged glances and, grinning, made their way over to us.
"Oh—hey ladies, what's up?" Kuwabara asked, letting his elbows fall on the back of the bench the three of us were sitting on and leaning back to regard them with an easy smile. The canned drink he had in his hand clinked against the metal of the seat.
"Where're you headed to?" the brunette asked.
"Oh, nowhere… y'know." Kuwabara shrugged and sipped his drink. The brown-haired girl's gaze slid over to rest on Kurama. I was used to it—his eye and hair color was very much out of the norm, and he was, I thought, very attractive. I was a bit biased though.
The brunette's smile became a little more mischievous then friendly. "So that's your girlfriend, right?"
…And there was that, too. While Kurama's good looks couldn't be denied, he was… a bit androgynous. He was well aware of this though, so the girls' teasing just barely inspired an annoyed, though slightly amused, smile.
"Going to a motel…?" The blonde pressed with an equally impish grin.
'Oh dear,' Kurama thought mildly.
Hm, that's a good idea actually. Our walls are pretty thin, y'know... I'm sure we're bothering the neighbors.
Kurama elbowed me.
At this attack on Kurama's manhood, Kuwabara spat out his drink and sat up, spluttering indignantly: "H-he's a man, okay—a tough one!" He looked somewhat terrified at this point—I wondered why. Maybe he was afraid that his friends would actually manage to insult Kurama.
"No way!" One of them, the blonde one, leaned in to study Kurama more closely. She winked as him, and Kurama snorted, shaking his head. The girl's gaze slid to mine questioningly.
"I assure you, he's all man," I said lightly, with the most suggestive smirk and eyebrow waggle I could muster. "I'm his fiancée. And yes, that is his natural hair color. I have… very impressive proof." Kurama was now shaking with silent laughter, one of his hands clamped over his mouth.
Kuwabara was choking on just air now. "SPARKY!"
"Didn't know you swung that way, Kuwabara," the brunette teased.
"I like girls, okay! And—he has delicate features!" Kuwabara's face was a bright, humiliated red. I wondered how much more teasing he could take before he spontaneously combusted.
A bus rumbled into the station, and the doors opened with a hiss. The blonde straightened up with a conniving grin in my direction, and waved at us. "We should do this again sometime. See you later!" I smirked back at her, somewhat enchanted at how easily she'd flustered Kuwabara. What a useful ability…
They boarded the train with a flurry of giggles, and Kuwabara became more stony-faced as silence fell over our group.
"Dude. I'm so sorry," he managed, and then lapsed into awkward silence again.
I could almost hear Kurama rolling his eyes. "Don't be. It was more amusing than anything." He shifted, slinging an arm around my shoulders. "So… I see you're doing very well with the girls lately…" he hinted. Wise choice, Kurama. Steering Kuwabara away from his embarrassment with shameless flattery that involved the fairer sex. That was sure to distract him... Kurama heard the sly commentary in my thoughts, and tugged slightly on a lock of my hair without breaking stride in the conversation.
"Oh, yeah." Kuwabara's easy grin was back on his face now, and he picked up his drink from where he'd placed it on the ground. "Well, when I was a freshman, I used my awareness to predict an earthquake. I've been kinda a fascination to 'em ever since."
"Seems like high school's working out for you," I said, leaning around Kurama to grin at him. Kuwabara chuckled and finished his drink.
"Since your school's partnered with the university here, you should be a shoe-in."
Kurama was still busy making small talk with Kuwabara; we all swayed a little as the bus rocketed down the street—all three of us were standing, because the bus was rather full and there hadn't been three empty seats next to each other. Kuwabara shrugged and rubbed his nose with his thumb, a nervous action that he had picked up from Yusuke. Nostalgia made me smile a little, though it felt more like a grimace.
"Yeah, people always think that, but we have to pass the entrance exams just like everyone else," Kuwabara answered in muted tones. "If there's one thing I've learned from… everything though, it's that I can beat tough odds." Kuwabara fell silent, and then, in a subdued voice: "Can't believe it's been two years."
"Yeah," I murmured. Though I'd seen Yusuke a little over a year ago, I still felt for the ones who hadn't had that chance—mostly Kuwabara and Keiko.
"Two years since I last talked with Urameshi," Kuwabara continued, sounding as if he were speaking to himself. He frowned out the window at the scenery passing by, his eyes squinted against the sun. It cast strange, quickly-moving shadows on his face.
"Time does fly by," Kurama said absently.
"In some ways it doesn't seem like it's been that long—y'know, since you come around and give me the latest news, Kurama. But I do miss the guy." He shifted his grip on the handle hanging from the ceiling, and Kurama looked up at him, smiling a little.
"Well, he hasn't changed all that much, if that helps any."
"He's changed in good ways," I amended. "He's still a cocky little shit—all his endearing qualities have stayed the same. He's a little more serious now, though. More mature."
"Does he ever say anything about comin' back?" Kuwabara asked.
"Every time I see him he says he has something different to take care of," Kurama answered, shaking his head. "Keiko said that he's due back in another year… but sometimes I think he may have cold feet, and may not return at all…" Kuwabara shot Kurama a confused, and slightly alarmed, look.
"Y'know, the proposal?" I reminded him, and Kuwabara nodded, his lips turning down in a frown.
"So he won't come back for another year and then maybe not at all?" Kuwabara realized, his voice becoming more disgusted as he continued: "The guy's repressed; for once he should make a choice that's not about fighting. Y'know somethin', I'm kinda surprised Keiko hasn't gotten fed up and left him yet." With a disgusted snort, Kuwabara turned back to the window and glared at suburbs we were passing through. Almost there.
"Maybe he's just psyching himself up for it… or maybe he's planning something big." I shrugged as Kuwabara muttered something disbelieving under his breath. "I seriously doubt it's the latter, but I do hope he gets his ass in gear… one way or another," I said in a tone that was just a little threatening. If he broke Keiko's heart any further by not returning at all, I was going to kill him. Kurama sensed my murderous musings and took my free hand, squeezing it reassuringly.
We rolled to our stop and walked a little ways to the train station, picking a booth in a café that overlooked our platform so we could see when our ride arrived. I was nursing a bottled water and breathing deeply; for some reason standing in buses made me a little carsick. Never when I was sitting, though.
"Okay, so there's one thing I can't put together yet," Kuwabara started, holding up two fingers, "two years ago, we had this big fight with Sensui to stop him from digging a tunnel to let loose the strongest demons in Makai. At the end of the day, Reikai sealed the tunnel and the barrier net—so how come you, as powerful as you are," Kuwabara pointed at Kurama, "have been able to come and go as your damn well please?"
Kurama put down his teacup and smiled brightly at Kuwabara. "It's because the Spirit World has brought down the Kekkai barrier."
"Oh, okay. That makes sense." Kuwabara settled back into his seat, and I turned my head slightly to shoot Kurama an incredulous look. Our dear, usually over-excitable friend had taken the news of the barrier's dismantlement so well… "Wait, WHAT?!" Kuwabara shouted, slamming his hands down on the table and shooting us a wild , there it is.
"Whaddya mean, they brought down the barrier?" Kuwabara leaped to his feet, and in his haste jostled our table. Kurama snatched his cup before it could be knocked over, and blinked up at Kuwabara as he loomed over the demon, spluttering his horror. "You mean we're completely unprotected?! So what're we now, some kind of feeding store…?!"
I glanced pointedly at the other café patrons who were now shooting us odd looks, and Kurama opened his mouth to pacify Kuwabara—but someone else beat him to it.
"Calm down, bro—one day you're going to blow a lung out," Shizuru said calmly as she walked up to our booth, planting her hand on her hip and shooting her younger sibling a mildly exasperated look.
"Shizuru," Kurama said with an air of relief. If anyone could calm Kuwabara down, it would be his older sister. "It's been too long."
"Yeah, how's my favorite redhead?" Shizuru replied, smiling easily at him.
"There's no time for catching up, sis—there could be demons anywhere!" Kuwabara protested, his head whipping back and forth as he scanned the small crowd of curious bystanders that were looking our way.
"Oh dear god, I've found one," I said with revulsion, cringing away from Kurama. "Run! The horror!" The demon in question snorted, and waved for Kuwabara to sit down.
"Did you have too much sugar today?" Shizuru jabbed, grabbing Kuwabara's shoulder and all but shoving him into his seat. She sat down beside him, across from me, and winked at me. I grinned back—I hadn't seen Shizuru in a long time either.
"There's no need to worry, Kuwabara," Kurama said slowly, gently—as if he were approaching a wild animal. "There's a sort of… honor agreement between the lords of Makai. They have sworn to do no harm here."
"Sounds iffy to me, but if you believe it, I will," Shizuru said with a shrug, making to pull out her trusty pack of cigarettes, and then replacing them with a sigh as the café owner shot her a dirty look.
"Wish you'd told me that before…" Kuwabara grumbled, settling back into his seat once more. Kurama smiled faintly and sipped on his now-lukewarm tea.
A faint rapping noise sounded on my left, and I looked up to see a tall, long-haired girl knocking on the window we were sitting under. My mouth popped open as I realized who she was.
"Hey, is that Keiko? Holy she got tall! And it hasn't even been six months since I last saw her," I said, gaping at her. She grinned at me, and then rushed out of sight. I heard the bell over the door jingle as she walked into the café, and jumped to my feet to hug her as she all but sprinted to our table.
"Oh, it's so good to see you all again!" she said brightly, grinning at all of us.
Shizuru decided to buy some food for Kuwabara before boarding the train. I could see him trying to rush her along as I sat in the car between Kurama and Keiko.
"So how've you been?" I asked, turning my attention to the suddenly tall and strangely older Keiko. She'd aged so much in such a short time. She smiled at me, her nose scrunching in a familiar way. She had a new patch of freckles.
"Dai's is all right—not nearly enough clubs though," she admitted, shaking her head. That was Keiko, the overachiever. Complaining about the fact that there weren't enough things to squeeze into her busy schedule. She was currently taking a couple classes, not so she could graduate early—but so she could learn all the subjects that the school had to offer. She then rolled her eyes, and continued: "I kinda wish I'd picked a co-ed school. My friends won't leave me alone about not having a boyfriend. It's all those girls can think about, now that there aren't any boys in our class."
"Oh, don't mind them, they're just deprived," I said easily, noting how her expression had fallen slightly as her mind turned to Yusuke. "We'll have a girl's night," I insisted. "You and me. Takeout, cheesy movies, the whole shebang."
"You're never coming back to my parent's house," she said, shuddering. "Remember the potato incident? So embarrassing. I just about died."
"Well, then we'll do it at my place once Kurama goes on another patrol duty," I said brightly. "Or I'll kick him out."
She perked up slightly and snatched my left hand, eyeing my ring. "Pretty!" she said after a few moments of study, dropping my hand. "Simple, but I couldn't imagine you wearing anything needlessly big or complicated. Nice work, fox boy."
Kurama inclined his head slightly and continued working on his crossword puzzle. At that moment, the Kuwabaras made their way into the train car, plopping down on the seats across from us.
"Thanks for the food though," Kuwabara was saying as he ripped off the packaging encasing a few sushi rolls. "I don't care what the other guys say sis, I think you're a pretty decent human being. Oh, does anyone else want some?" He swallowed his second bite and offered the tray to the rest of us, grinning sheepishly. "I mean, I won't mind eating it if you guys don't…"
"Eat, bro. I got it so you wouldn't talk all the way there." Shizuru said with a slightly endearing smile in his direction. She rustled her newspaper, opening it up to another section.
"So how was the move?" Keiko continued to interrogate me with increasing persistence. Her expression was open and cheerful—I could tell that she was trying to be a good friend by asking me about the details of Kurama's and my ever-evolving relationship, but I knew that some measure of this talk would hurt her, what with Yusuke's absence. Keiko was one who would hide her negative feelings for the sake of her friends—I appreciated it, but wanted to steer her away from having to do that.
"It was good. Kuwabara helped with the heavy lifting—I paid him in food," I said with a pointed glance in the redhead's direction as he popped open a box of crackers, having already inhaled his sushi.
"You're a good cook!" he said between mouthfuls. "Now, the best thing I've ever tasted were those fries you cooked by frying them with your spiritual energy… but hey, food is food."
"Indeed…" Kurama murmured, eyeing him in an amused way.
Shizuru snorted and turned another page in her paper. Then she started, her mouth popping open. "Guys… you are not going to believe this…"
"What did you find?" Keiko asked interestedly, leaning over to Shizuru's side of the car.
Kuwabara spared the paper a cursory glance before rolling his eyes and cracking open a can of soda. "The center pages is always about alien sightings and stuff—ain't worth your time."
Shizuru blew a puff of annoyed air at him, and then reached over, opening the paper with a flourish for all of us to see. Keiko's hair brushed my knee as she leaned over to peer at what Shizuru had found. She and I gasped in unison as we recognized the picture that was front and center.
"Oh my gosh! Hiei's in here!" Keiko cried, and then she clamped her hands over her mouth, retreating back into her seat to guffaw into her hands. It was undoubtedly funny—a caricature of Hiei with spindly arms and legs and a little round face stared out at us with a grumpy frown on his features. Yup, definitely Hiei.
"'Short, three-eyed alien…' Kuwabara read, and then his face lit up with glee. "Yeah, it's him! Aw, look at the shrimp!"
"I thought he was in Makai," I mused, glancing up at Kurama questioningly.
"Hiei is on patrol duty right now," Kurama informed all of us. "It's part of the agreement the demon lords have—the losers of the tournament have to patrol Demon World and rescue the humans who have fallen through," he explained for everyone else's benefit.
The wraiths were doing pretty well, what with this new development—Kurama had told me that they'd been able to expand outposts into other territories.
"Hiei erases the human's minds," I added, making a gesture to my forehead. "Y'know, with his freaky eye thing. Someone must've gotten back with some memories intact…"
"I doubt that'll happen again," Kurama said pleasantly. "Shizuru, would you mind saving that? I want to bring it to Hiei the next time I see him."
"Get your own, fox boy," Kuwabara said, still chortling. "That's going up on my refrigerator."
I'm sure Kurama's gift would be as well received as all the letters we'd gathered to send with Kuronue—because he'd said he would probably swing around Mukuro's territory soon. I imagined most of them were piles of dust by now. I hoped Hiei had at least kept the pictures of Yukina I'd sent.
A few hours later, after catching a bus that brought us even further into the wilderness where Genkai resided, we were marching up the thousands of stairs that brought us, with each step, closer to her temple. We spoke sparingly, saving our breath for the climb. But Keiko, keen to fill the silence with chatter (she'd never been one for quiet companionship), spoke up:
"So did Genkai tell anyone the reason for this meeting?"
"No; she said she just wanted all of us to visit her together," I said. I'd managed to visit the temple a little over two months ago, to help Genkai clean out an old storage closet and spend some time with Yukina. During that time, Genkai had made this request of me and I'd spread the word around to the others.
"She wants to show us a new set of dentures or somethin'?" Kuwabara asked cheekily. Shizuru walloped him on the back of his head, and he didn't even break stride.
"We'll find out soon I'm sure," Kurama, always the pacifist, said pleasantly.
So many stairs, I grumbled internally. Hey, Kurama…
'No, I am not carrying you.'
Then what do I keep you around for?!
Shizuru was wheezing by the time we reached the top of the stairs, poor thing. I patted her on the back and lagged behind to keep her company as the others walked up to the doors that opened to the temple grounds. The solid, red doors opened with a faint groan, and I winced. Genkai had asked me to oil those hinges when she'd roped me into helping her with that closet; I knew I'd have to redo it now.
As we walked under the tall torii and entered the temple grounds, a hush fell over our group. This place always had that effect on me—it was so quiet, so peaceful that the birdsong which was almost always present (now that Yukina was staying here full time, at any rate) sounded like a gospel choir. Such was the silence that, when Yukina slid open the doors at the main entrance, it caught all of our attention at once.
She swished out onto the porch, the skirt of her pink dress fluttering around her knees—and her ruby-red eyes glittered with happiness. She waved energetically, the aquamarine braid that was pulled over her shoulder flipping onto her back. "Hey guys!"
"Y-Yukina!" Kuwabara bolted forward, leaving us all in his dust.
"Hello Kazuma, everyone! How've you been?" Yukina's gaze flicked over the rest of our group as we walked up to the porch steps, and then lingered on Kuwabara, a soft smile appearing on her features.
Kuwabara preened under the greeting just for him, and fairly skipped onto the porch, beaming down at her. "I've been great!"
"Just fine, Yukina," I said as we came to a stop, peering up at her with a wide grin. "How've you been? You haven't been losing your mind staying up here with just Genkai for company?"
"Oh, we get by. I've missed being able to spend time with everyone, but Kazuma comes by pretty frequently." She shot him a dazzling smile, and he all but melted.
"Oh?" Keiko smirked.
"Still trying to work that Kuwabara family magic I see…" Shizuru snickered.
Kuwabara spluttered his embarrassment, and rubbed the back of his neck with increased fervor. "Ah—um, family magic—no idea what you're talkin' about, haha! And by the way, that ain't cologne—it's my natural scent." Yukina smiled indulgently at this, and I turned my gaze skyward, shaking my head at the adorable ridiculousness of these two.
"Yukina, is Master Genkai here?" Kurama asked, still smiling at Kuwabara's embarrassment but ready to move onto more pressing matters.
"Of course—right here." Yukina turned and looked at the slightly ajar door, and in that moment, Genkai shuffled out onto the porch, smirking at the sight of all of us.
"You're late," she grumbled, but there was a twinkle in her eye that was difficult to miss.
Genkai led us into a tea room, and we all kneeled at the edges of the tatami mat closest to the door, which was left slightly open to let the summer air and birdsong filter in. I could hear the hollow sound of her favorite shishi-odoshi fountain echoing throughout the temple. (2)
"I see Yusuke hasn't come back. What the hell is he working on over there, I wonder?" Genkai grumbled, mostly to herself, her withered brow crinkling further as she frowned. "Not that it isn't good to see the rest of you. He just needs to drag his ass back home sometime before I die of old age."
"No one's sure, really," Kurama said with a slight shrug of his shoulders. "He keeps to himself. I only get to see him briefly whenever I visit."
We all settled into a sort of contemplative silence. I glanced furtively over at Keiko; she was staring blankly at her hands—they were folded loosely in her lap.
"Oh come on, we know what he's doing," Kuwabara finally burst out. "the asshole's pickin' fights… it's not like he cares about anything else now."
Did he really just say that, with Keiko sitting right-the-fuck there? I thought after recovering from my astonishment. Kurama sent calming thoughts my way as the silence dragged on, tension filling the room. Eventually, Kuwabara must've realized what he'd just done—he jerked to attention and glanced around the rest of us at Keiko, and stumbled over an apology, his face growing redder by the second.
"You don't have to protect me," Keiko said quietly, her voice wavering slightly. She coughed, and then straightened up slightly, smiling. "I'm just glad to see Genkai after all this time—let's focus on that."
"Yeah. I'm glad to see you're so healthy, Genkai," Shizuru said with a small smile.
"What would you expect from Genkai?" I grinned at the old woman, thankful for this chance to distract Keiko from her sadness. "You're probably in better shape than all of us put together."
Genkai harrumphed at my compliment and the sudden focus of attention, but she didn't have to cringe in the limelight for too long—the doors behind us slid open fully with a bang. I twisted around to see who'd just arrived.
"Well I didn't know all of you would be here!" Botan said cheerily, grinning at everyone.
"Botan!" Keiko exclaimed, jumping up to hug her.
"Guess Genkai was able to get the word to you, huh," I said, grinning at the sight of her. It had been entirely too long since I'd heard her chipper British accent.
"She got a hold of me too," a voice said quietly. I turned and saw Koenma standing in the doorway to the dining room. He met my gaze briefly, and ducked his chin curtly in my direction—an acknowledgement I returned a hair less civilly. Well, there went my good mood…
"Koenma! Where'd you come from?" Kuwabara said with real surprise.
The prince of Reikai lifted a thin eyebrow in the psychic's direction. "Well, that's a lengthy story you'd have to ask my dad about," he said, smirking around his pacifier and uncrossing his arms.
"Damn, really!" Kuwabara complained, while the rest of us sniggered at his—once more—beet-red face. "Geez…"
"Sit," Genkai ordered with a frown. I heard Botan kneel behind the rest of us, and saw Koenma settle down on Genkai's right.
"There's only one reason I asked all of you to come here today," Genkai said in a more subdued tone than was normal. "These past couple years of getting into trouble with you dimwits has made me think about my legacy… and I want to tell you all what I want you to do when I die."
"Genkai, you shouldn't talk like that." Kuwabara said in a pinched voice, flapping his hands at the old psychic in an attempt to silence her.
"It brings bad luck," Shizuru added mildly, a slightly concerned frown making its way onto her features.
"Genkai, you've got so much time left its not even funny," I assured her.
"Yeah! You look better than I do on some days!" Botan insisted.
"Aw, just shut up and let me finish this." The wizened psychic rose then, and walked over to the set of doors on the western side of the temple, sliding them open and folding her hands behind her back. "Once you all have given me a teary-eyed funeral, I'll be leaving this whole estate to your group. That includes this temple, and all surrounding land. The sea on one side and a stone wall on the other will tell you where it ends." She paused, and let the enormity of what she was saying sink in, before continuing:
"Leave nature as it is. Don't bring any logging companies in here, or I'll come back and haunt you all till the end of your days. It takes several hours to reach the nearest town by car, as you know—not the most convenient place for humans to live, but perfect for apparitions." She turned to us, wearing a thin smile on her features. "The Kekkai is down but it'll take a long time for humans and demons to live in peace. I spent a lifetime trying to understand a demon and failed… I want you all to bridge the gap as I never could."
By now, she'd informed all of us—not just Yusuke—about her connection to the younger Toguro. How they'd been teammates in the Dark Tournament. How he'd been wracked with grief after a horrible tragedy had befallen his pupils… and about his wish to become a powerful demon, so he could enact his revenge. The subdued tone of Genkai's voice, and the way it caught and wavered on her last few words, made a lump rise in my throat. I resisted the urge to rise and go to her, an impulse I could sense the others battling—she'd never really been one for hugs anyway; we all knew that. So we stayed seated and silent.
Genkai nodded to herself, and turned back to the open door. The wind blew past her, tinkling a wind chime somewhere and rustling her thin cloud of pink hair. "Go on before it gets too dark," she said finally, in a gruff voice. "Go explore your inheritance."
The bright sunlight, after lingering inside the dark temple for so long, made my eyes water. I shaded them with my hand and squinted at the sky as an eagle screamed overhead, circling above us once before disappearing into the trees.
We all gathered in a loose line at the forests edge, looking down at the rolling hills surrounding the western side of the temple grounds—on the other side of the temple from where we'd entered the grounds. Where we'd come from lay the stone wall—and now we were facing the ocean. Finally, Kurama spoke:
"Amazing. All of this land—as far as the eye can see…"
"Belongs to Genkai," I finished in hushed tones. A quiet atmosphere of reverence settled over our group. The trees below us rustled and swayed in the wind; a few moments later the breeze reached us, kicking up little eddies of dust from the packed earth surrounding Genkai's home.
"We'll do a lot of good stuff here," Kuwabara murmured, nodding to himself.
"The world's changing," I murmured. The Kekkai was down. Maybe I would see the demon and human worlds united before my time was up. I just hoped they would merge peacefully—or at least learn to coexist.
"We have time—we could go down to the beach she was talking about," Yukina said brightly, breaking the contemplative silence.
"Sounds good," Shizuru said quietly. "Lead the way, girlfriend."
We discovered that the path to the beach included yet another set of stairs—though Yukina assured us the trek down to the beach would be much shorter than the journey back to the highway.
"It's weird hearing Genkai talk about death… as healthy as she lives, she could outlive us all," Botan was saying as we ambled down the stairs.
"Makes me want to to quit smoking," Shizuru said dryly, inspiring a few chuckles from the rest of us.
Beside me, Kurama turned to glance back. "Kuwabara?"
I looked up, and saw that the psychic boy had turned back and was facing the temple. The side of his face that I could see sported an odd little frown. Kurama and I exchanged a look, and he walked up to speak with Kuwabara. I nodded to myself, understanding, and turned to walk with the girls.
"I'd almost like to live out here with you, Yukina," Keiko said conversationally. "I'm not sure how well that would work… but this place is beautiful. Imagine if all of us could live here, together."
"We've done that before, remember?" I said, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "In Yusuke's mom's apartment, when we were dealing with Sensui? That was awful!"
"Yeah, but this is a bigger space," Keiko protested, sticking her tongue out at me. "More room to breathe. But still, so far away from everything…"
"Well, someone's going to have to stay out here, if we're going to do what Genkai wanted," I said with a shrug, my arm slipping off her shoulders. "To keep an eye on the grounds, make sure the safehouse stays… safe. We don't have to worry about this for some time yet, though," I added. "Genkai's definitely not on her way out."
"We should visit more often, though," Shizuru said, digging for her cigarettes. "She'd never admit it, but she needs more help keeping everything running out here. And Yukina shouldn't have to do that alone."
"Don't worry about me," Yukina said kindly, smiling up at all of us. "I know all of you are busy, and I can handle it."
Kuwabara and Kurama rejoined us. I noticed a thoughtful expression on Kuwabara's face, and a slight smile on Kurama's. I curved my arm around his, and we continued down the stairs.
It took us less than an hour to reach the beach, and most of us kicked off our shoes at the forest's edge. Kurama and Shizuru did not, and found an old beached rowboat to sit on as the rest of us wandered up and down the waterline.
Botan trekked down to the water's edge and flung out her arms as if to embrace the sun, beaming. "Oh my… what a perfect end to a perfect day!"
"A sunset by the ocean…" Yukina added softly, staring out across the ocean.
"Romantic, huh?" I teased, glancing behind me at Kuwabara. He didn't notice me—he was too busy admiring the back of Yukina's head.
"Oh, yes!" Yukina said with a bright smile, laughing and clapping her hands together once.
"Romantic, huh?" I heard Kuwabara murmur. I could see his wide grin in my mind's eye. "This is gonna be my hour…!"
"C'mon, let's get our feet wet," Keiko suggested, taking my hand and Yukina's and dragging us along. The waves surged up the wet sand after us, and the other two girls yelped and scrambled away from the water, laughing when it caught up with them and surged over their ankles. I simply stood there and took it—it was cold, but the sand and the air was warm (and I was a little overheated from the walk,) so I didn't mind.
"It feels like ice…" Yukina noted, wriggling her toes in the sand.
"Look my love!" Kuwabara bellowed. We looked back up the beach and saw him wading out of the water, a colossal starfish gripped tightly in his hand. "I found a starfish, just for you! I used my awareness to find it under a rock!"
"It's beautiful," Yukina called back with one of her sweet, kind smiles, and Kuwabara puffed out his chest with pride. Botan walked up to Kuwabara, holding out a handful of seashells for him to look at. Shizuru and Kurama looked on, the eldest Kuwabara puffing serenely on a cigarette, and the kitsune's eyes following me. They met mine, and he smiled.
"Do you ever think I'll be with my brother?" Yukina asked, very quietly. I turned my attention back to the smaller demon, noting the contemplative frown on her features.
"Someday soon, I'm sure of it," I reassured her, curving an arm around the tiny demon's shoulders. I hoped that the calm manner I'd seen in Hiei back in Makai would inspire him to change his mind—maybe when he was free to come and go from Human World as he pleased, he would relax enough to tell Yukina the truth. That's what I was hoping for, anyway.
"I think you will… when he's ready," Keiko added. "Now c'mon—let's have fun. That's the thing about sunsets…" She stretched her long arms over her head, her fingers intertwined, and took a deep breath. She let her arms swing down by her sides, and squinted into the dying sun. "They make you think too much."
Yukina nodded, agreeing, and we continued walking in the surf. Yukina was momentarily distracted by the tiny little clams that were buried in the sand, and I stopped for a moment to dig some up with my foot, so she could watch them burrow back to safety. She was always so captivated by little things like that—things that hadn't existed in her frozen homeland. She was utterly enamored with the Human World.
Keiko kept wandering across the sand, peering out into the sunset. I looked up and saw that she had come to a stop, and was squinting out across the water, her hands loose at her sides.
Suddenly, she raised them to her lips, and shouted for all she was worth:
"This is the end!" Her voice broke on the word, and the chatter going on between Yukina and I was silenced instantly. "I'm tired of waiting for you, Yusuke! Half my life I've waited for you to come around—even when you were here you weren't really!" Her shoulders shook, and her voice wavered, but she continued on:
"You weren't here for me!" Her hands fell to her sides, and I could see that she was breathing heavily. A hand shot back up to rub angrily at her eyes, and then dropped back down—a fist, now. "Go on fighting—it's time I get what I want for once…!"
I glanced back at the others helplessly, at a loss for words… for what to do. Shizuru dropped her cigarette and snuffed it out with the toe of her shoe, worrying her bottom lip. She opened her mouth as if she were going to say something, but then thought better of it. I noticed that Kurama's features were downcast; a thoughtful and sad expression on his features, and sent out comforting thoughts. Kuwabara and Botan made their way over to us, and hesitated at my side.
Nobody really knew what to say. Small waves broke over the shoreline, washing over Keiko's bare feet. My own felt cold now—the sun was almost gone.
Keiko was silhouetted against the sun, her hair flying in the wind. She shuddered, and let her hands drop to her sides, still facing the horizon. All our hearts went out to her, I knew—we all felt her pain. But what could we possibly say? We could sympathize, but we didn't know her loss, not the way she did.
"I don't want you to wait either, Keiko."
His voice made us all jump and turn, as one. Shizuru lurched off of the boat, and I turned, gripping Yukina's hand in shock.
Yusuke stood on the beach as if he'd been there the entire time. One hand held a small backpack that was slung over his shoulder; the other was shoved into his jeans pocket.
While the rest of us had jumped at Yusuke's presence, Keiko slowly turned to face him. His eyes were only for her, and as she turned and saw him, he grinned his wide, familiar smile, and laughed:
"See? You don't have to." Yusuke tossed his little backpack off to the side, and opened his arms to her.
Slowly, haltingly, Keiko started forward. She faltered and hesitated halfway there, as if unsure or disbelieving the fact that he was really, truly here. Yusuke's hands fell to his sides, and just as he made to close the distance between them himself, Keiko lurched into a sprint with a cry of joy.
When she launched herself into his arms, Yusuke, unprepared, toppled over into a heap of limbs and breathless laughter. Keiko rolled over on the sand next to him, and propped herself up on her elbows. They stared into each other's eyes, completely and blissfully oblivious to the rest of us.
And then, as the sunlight glinted off of the churning water and the rest of us waited speechlessly… Keiko did finally get what she wanted. Her hair fell around their faces as she bent forward and down, locking her lips around his, her fingers tracing his face and pulling him closer. After a beat of stunned inaction, Yusuke's arms came up to curve around her, hugging her to his chest.
It was in that moment that a wave decided to break over them, obscuring them from our vision and sweeping away Yusuke's little backpack.
"Dear god, finally," I muttered, grinning from ear to ear, and that broke the tension—Shizuru and Kurama started laughing, and the others whooped and shouted, Yukina's hands hiding the wide, ecstatic smile on her features.
The wave retreated, and Yusuke's hand jutted out of the surf to grab his backpack before it was lost forever. When he and Keiko sat up, they were suddenly a few feet apart from each other, both of them sopping wet and just a little bit stunned.
And then, Yusuke's mischievous smirk was back.
"You're gonna pay for that one, Keiko," Yusuke warned, shedding his jacket and jumping to his feet. Keiko let loose a shriek and skittered away from him, bolting into the surf and whirling on him as he lunged after her. She bent down and scooped up water into his face.
"You stole that lip time from me, now come'ere!" Yusuke shouted, ducking to avoid the spray of water.
"Come and get me, then!" Keiko teased, splashing a rather hefty amount of water in his face. Yusuke gave up on defensive action and bent down to start splashing her; he was bent double from laughter anyway.
"You know I could dump this whole ocean on you if I wanted to, right?" Yusuke, having made Keiko retreat from his offensive action, turned his attention to the rest of us. He drew back his foot and launched a wave of seawater in Kuwabara's face, making the redhead splutter and round on his friend, who was currently pointing his fingers at him in the shape of a gun.
"Bang!" Yusuke snickered and kicked some more water on the shore, making me duck, and Botan and Yukina flinch and squeal. They ran into the ocean after Kuwabara as he launched himself at Yusuke—he locked his friend in a headlock.
I exchanged glances with Kurama, and he simply lifted an eyebrow and shook his head. I rolled my eyes at him and turned, bolting into the fray.
"What're you doing here, Mr. Mazaku—I thought you were going to Demon World to become their king!" Kuwabara was shouting as Yusuke struggled to break free of his grip.
"I'll go back someday, but I mean—who was gonna be here to kick your ass?" Yusuke turned and locked Kuwabara's arms behind his back, jabbing him in the ribs.
"I've been filling in for you, don't worry," I said, and when they looked up, caught off guard, I lunged forward and tackled both of them. They went down with a mighty splash and garbled shouts of protest, and I leaped to my feet as soon as I was able, making to sprint away from them before one of them could enact revenge. No such luck.
"Oh no you don't!" Yusuke's hand flashed out and grabbed my ankle, hefting me into the air—upside down. I could see him grinning evilly down at me as I struggled to right myself. "How's it hangin', Sparky?"
"That was bad, even for you!" I shot back, grinning so widely my cheeks were hurting, and twisted myself up to wriggle my fingers into his sides. He howled with laughter and released me; I landed with a splash in the water as Botan flew in out of nowhere to knock Kuwabara over. I scrambled over to the water's edge, and locked gazes with Kurama. He lifted his eyebrows at me.
'No. I refuse.'
If his eyebrows went any higher, they would wrap around his head and end up on his chin. I smirked in a self-assured way, and after battling with me mentally for a couple more seconds, he sighed and bent to take off his shoes.
"Good boy," I crooned as he walked into the water with an eyeroll. I bent down and halfheartedly scooped some water up into his face; he ducked and shook what little of it had hit him out of his hair.
"I cannot believe you convinced me." He reached me and pulled me closer to him, pressing his cheek against my temple as little waves surged around our calves and ankles. My wet clothes must've been soaking him, but he didn't seem to care. "Actually… I take that back. You're the only one who could."
"You know it." I leaned back to peer up into his face. He smiled softly down at me, and I reached up to snag a few strands of hair that had gotten caught in his mouth. My fingers lingered and stayed on his cheek, and one of his hands came up to rest on top of mine. The last orange remnants of the sunset were caught and held in his eyes; they shone brighter than new grass in spring.
I saw him then, truly saw—and felt the familiar swelling of my love for him in my chest—it ebbed and flowed like the water we were standing in, always lingering and returning in earnest for moments like this.
We turned, as one, to look at our friends—our family. They were the picture of perfect youth, overwhelming happiness, and overflowing vitality—dancing around each other in the surf, rejoicing in the last bright minutes of the day. It made my heart ache from happiness to see everyone together like this—reunited after so long. Kurama felt the turning of my heart in his own chest and held me to him, pressing his lips against my forehead. It had been so long since we'd been together this way, but now… we were home. All of us.
And all of that empty time was being washed away now, disappearing with the tide; in the arms of the sun sinking below the edge of the earth. The emotion roiling in my heart almost felt like sadness… but it was drowned out completely by an all-encompassing peace.
The past was gone, and our futures stretched endlessly before us. We were as the sun; we had burned brightly, streaking across the sky… and now entered the quiet. A twilight lit only by the shadowy reflections of what we once were.
And as the others became still and silent—as they turned to watch the morning star dip below the horizon—I knew it would be enough to sustain us until dawn.
1. He was testing it out because that was the first (and last) time he ever spoke her name in this series.
2. Shishi-odoshi: those odd little bamboo fountains that fill up a bamboo stick with water until it falls forward to hit a rock. The rough translation is "deer-chaser;" its original use was to scare off deer with its noise.
And again… thank you all so, so, SO much. I am beyond words. I cannot even begin to say how thankful I am for each and every one of my readers and reviewers. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.
Some news: as I've already mentioned, I am going to start working on Gravity soon, and post that next. I also said that WTT is where Reina's narrative ends. However, after thinking about it… I've decided that there's a chance I might write a third installment to this series. Maybe. Possibly. However, Gravity is definitely going to be the next one to come out. If I do another story from Reina's POV, it'll be after I write that one—and will be sort of a prequel to the events of Gravity.
So if you want to be notified of that if/when it comes out—put me on author alert. And follow me on Tumblr if you have one. The link is on my bio page.