It was dark outside the palace of Makai's joint rulers, and most of the residents were settling down for the night. Hiei was sitting on his bed with his back against the headboard, idly reading one of Kurama's latest government proposals, when the author himself wandered into his room.
Kurama didn't say hello, or even acknowledge Hiei. He didn't seem to have a purpose for being there; pajama-clad and barefoot, he drifted around the room, idly examining Hiei's possessions and glancing out the windows.
Hiei paid him little attention. It had been almost half a year since he and Kurama had become joint rulers of Makai, and since then, Kurama had spent a great deal more time in Hiei's room than his own. Most of the time Hiei didn't even have any idea how Kurama had gotten in (all Kurama would say on the subject was that he liked to keep his skills in practice). Hiei suspected that Kurama, consciously or unconsciously, enjoyed turning the tables on Hiei after all the years that Hiei had treated Kurama's room in the human world like it was Hiei's own territory. He never mentioned this theory, though, as to bring it up might make Kurama change his behavior and the next new quirk could prove to be much harder to live with.
So Hiei didn't react when Kurama completed his tour of the room and then lay down on the bed without invitation. Kurama's closed-off posture, lying curled on his side with his back to Hiei, alerted Hiei to his mood long before Kurama spoke. "I'm bored."
"I'll send out a notice to tighten security."
Kurama turned his head just enough to be able to glare at Hiei. "Not the kind of bored that leads to stealing things."
Hiei could have debated whether Kurama experienced any other kind of boredom. But, because the fox had been in a foul mood for days and his bad moods tended to make Hiei's life difficult, Hiei cut to the chase. "When was the last time you got out of here, fox?"
"Yesterday, with you," Kurama said, in a tone that implied Hiei ought to have known that.
"Not out of the castle; to Ningenkai." Frowning, Hiei tossed the papers he'd still been holding onto the night table, focusing his whole attention on Kurama. Could the fox have misinterpreted him on purpose to avoid answering the question?
"I'm not certain when," Kurama said.
Hiei was; he'd done the math yesterday when he'd noticed the temper Kurama was in, and it had been a very long time. "Well. If I promise not to unwrite any of your laws while you're gone, will you get lost? Missing that place makes you impossible."
"I think that's what's bothering me," Kurama said. He turned so that he was lying on his back instead of his side and could look at Hiei. "I don't."
Hiei had to make an effort to follow what the fox was saying. "You're unhappy because you're happy."
"Yes," Kurama agreed, with the ghost of an apologetic smile. "I'm insanely happy here, Hiei," he went on in a frank tone, a small gesture of his hands taking in the room, the palace, the demon realm itself. "I could almost believe my life in Ningenkai was nothing more than a long dream. I thought coming back here would be hard on me, because of how much I believed myself to have changed. And yes, I have changed, and yes, there are things about Ningenkai that I miss. But in spite of that, I'm as happy as I've ever been. And that makes me feel... guilty."
"That guilt alone should reassure you that you've picked up some stupid human morals," Hiei muttered.
"I realize it doesn't make sense..."
"Yes it does," Hiei cut him off. "And if you can't figure that out, you've lost you're reputation as the smart one."
Kurama's expression showed nothing but confusion. "Be honest with yourself," Hiei told him, with some force. "You miss Shiori. Every day. And here's what you don't miss." Hiei started to tic items off on his fingers, but gave up quickly when he ran out of fingers. "Living in a human house. Attending a human school. Pretending to be a child. Having people disrespect you because you're a child. Pretending you think of Shiori's husband as a father, and acting in turn as a role model to his son. Acting as a role model, period. Being praised for being a mild-mannered, intelligent young man while you're plotting how to steal everything in sight. Being pursued by enamored, pubescent humans who would like you to relieve them of their virginity. Maintaining that mild-mannered reputation while you reject them. Having to conceal any use of plants. Having to play dumb. Having no challenges and virtually no companions who can address you by your real name, much less talk to you as an equal. Do I have to keep going? Of course you miss Shiori. And of course you are almost giddy with relief to be free of everything else. Visit her, then come back and help me dominate this place. And quit thinking about it."
Kurama's response was laughter. Not self-deprecating, but a free, unrestrained sound of delight like a child might make on seeing a puzzle solved. Hiei hadn't expected it--nor did he expect the intense rush of pleasure it evoked in him, starting in his gut and rising up like a wave of heat and was he blushing?!
It's not important, Hiei told himself, carefully policing his face into a neutral expression while Kurama's laughter wound down. He'd had a lot of strong reactions to Kurama lately; too many for his peace of mind, but he kept telling himself they were inevitable for the time being. He and Kurama were in virtual lockstep these days. Not only were they always together, but any action or decision Hiei made that had any degree of importance had to be approved by Kurama. For Kurama, this appearance of unity was about keeping Makai from plunging back into quarreling factions in light of there being two kings; for Hiei, it was simply about honoring his personal decision not to fight Kurama. So it was natural, with Kurama omnipresent in his life and exerting an unprecedented degree of influence over it, for Hiei to pay close attention to him. Natural that some strong reactions to him would creep up.
All Hiei's rationalizations sounded hollow in his own mind. He couldn't deny that he had flushed, or that a tension he hadn't even realized was there had melted out of his own body when Kurama's bad mood melted away. "Hiei, I never thought I'd say this, but you'd make an excellent therapist," Kurama chuckled. "You're right of course. Right on all counts."
Hiei resorted to brusqueness to cover his reaction. "I knew it would be something stupid."
Kurama only smiled. "I believe it's possible that you actually know me too well. Your loss would be devastating," he said matter-of-factly.
There--another reaction, another leaping feeling in the gut that told Hiei he was becoming too invested in these kinds of interactions. The fox wasn't done with him, either. Adopting a more playful tone, Kurama went on, "Say we'll never stop being partners again. Even if you're this very moment plotting my demise, just say it. Because at this rate, if you weren't my partner I'd have to kill you."
Hiei raised his eyebrows. "We've demonstrated that we're unwilling to kill each other. That's how we got this job, remember?"
"Hm. So, if not being partners would mean I had to kill you, and if I can't kill you..."
"Draw whatever conclusions you want."
"Good enough," Kurama said, grinning again. His smile was given so freely these days; he was, in his own words, insanely happy here. Hiei had never truly realized, all the years he'd known Kurama in Ningenkai, how much happier Kurama could have been. "I'll get the rest later."
Hiei's eyebrows rose higher. "I'll never say it."
"Won't you?" Ah, but the way Kurama's smile could go from friendly to predatory in the time it took to blink--that was something Hiei was familiar with of old. "I have gotten you to eventually say and do a lot of things you swore you never would, you know."
Hiei looked at him with as severe an expression as he could muster. "I will never say it."
"Hn." Hiei swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sitting with his back to Kurama, and ostentatiously crossed his arms. "Try and make me."
Since Hiei had done just about everything by way of invitation except wave a red matador's cape in front of him, Kurama obligingly tackled him. The match was brief and ended, as Hiei had anticipated, with Kurama disarmed and pinned to the bed. "You could never beat me in close quarters, you know," Hiei commented.
"I'm just lulling you into complacency, waiting for the day I really need to beat you in close quarters."
Hiei smothered a laugh. "It's working."
"Were you planning on letting me go at some point?"
"Not yet. You've been trying to force me to say something. Turnabout's fair play."
"What do you want me to say?"
Hiei pretended to think. "That I'm the true King of Makai."
Kurama's laughter showed that he knew how serious Hiei was. "What an interesting coup that would be. But no."
Hiei met his eyes. "Then say we'll never stop being partners again. Even if you're this very moment plotting my demise, just say it."
He'd been trying to evoke a little surprise, and he wasn't successful--but he found he didn't mind. Kurama's expression of understanding was better than the surprise would have been. "If the only way you can say it is through making me say it, I suppose I don't mind walking into that one. We'll never stop being partners again."
It was thoroughly anti-climactic. Hiei, braced and ready this time for his body to produce one of those stupid reactions he occasionally had to Kurama, found himself thrown by the absence of one. Apparently Kurama could read something in Hiei's expression, because he cocked his head and asked, "Not good enough? You'll have to feed me the words if you want a more elaborate oath."
Hiei shook his head. Belatedly, he released his hold on Kurama and moved off him. "That'll do." That was all he'd wanted Kurama to say, and Kurama had comprehended instantly what Hiei meant by making him say it. So why was it that the sound of Kurama's laughter had made his heart race, but this promise hadn't provoked so much as a skipped beat?
Kurama pulled himself into a cross-legged position in the center of the bed. "Well, we both know my word isn't always my bond. But yours is. So if you were speaking through me, do my words become as trustworthy as yours?"
Hiei groaned. "Don't start another logic puzzle now, fox. I already unpuzzled you once tonight."
Kurama laughed softly, affectionately. "That you did. I should have the courtesy to stay solved longer."
"And what would be the fun in that?"
"You're contradicting yourself."
"I only mean you should stay solved until you get home from Ningenkai."
"Ah. I agree." Apparently reminded that he was taking a journey tomorrow, Kurama got off the bed long enough to turn down the covers. "I'll save all my puzzles until I'm back."
"How much trouble can you get into there?" Hiei went around the room turning off lights, unsurprised to see Kurama getting back into bed. He rarely went back to his own room once he had colonized Hiei's for the night. "I'm the one who'll be working."
"You'd be surprised," Kurama said serenely. "But I think I can stay out of trouble for a day or two."
Hiei turned out the last lamp before getting into bed. Even in the dark, he could tell Kurama was looking at him. "What?"
"What about you?"
"You solved a few mysteries for me tonight. Anything I can unpuzzle for you before I leave Makai?"
Hiei hesitated. Kurama was always the person Hiei consulted on the rare occasions that he needed help untangling an emotion, including when Kurama himself had inspired the problematic emotion. Was this worth bringing up? "It felt anti-climactic," Hiei began. "Earlier."
He'd thought he would have to explain a lot further, but that was as far as Hiei got before Kurama cut him off. "That's because you already made that decision," Kurama said, tilting his face so that Hiei could see what little light was left in the room reflected in Kurama's eyes. "And on some level, you knew that I had already made that decision as well. Neither of us could have acted as we did at the Tournament if we intended to walk away from each other afterward. It felt anti-climactic because you already knew. And I'll still hear it from your lips someday."
For a good long moment Hiei could only stare. Then he nodded, more to himself than Kurama. "Consider me unpuzzled."
In the dark it was hard to be sure of anything other than the glint of his eyes, but Hiei thought Kurama smiled. "Good."
With that decisive word, Kurama lay back and closed his eyes, composing himself for sleep. Hiei was left staring up at the ceiling, wondering at what point he had actually made this commitment (had it been before the Tournament?), and at what point he had realized Kurama was in; that, at least, definitely hadn't happened before the Tournament. Hiei could vividly recall what it had been like standing in the ring, feeling as though time itself had stopped while he waited to find out if Kurama would agree to his plan. When had Kurama known where Hiei stood? Probably before Hiei knew it himself; that sort of thing happened when you spent too much time with the fox. And if Hiei's reactions were occasionally going to go haywire (because that, too, apparently happened when you spent too much time with the fox), why wouldn't his body react when he was expecting it, instead of flooding his system over single words like good?
"You're getting puzzled up again, aren't you?"
"...Shut up and sleep."