Warnings: None

Previously On: Kurama has continued to treat NQK coldly ever since she woke up in the hospital after falling ill with Mushiyori Fever. NQK set up an alibi with Junko and Amagi, who will cover for her during NQK's weekend visit to Genkai's temple. Upon revealing she knows the future of the YYH world, NQK gave Kaito a mysterious envelope.


LUCKY CHILD

Chapter 121:

"Covert Operations"


My parents swallowed the news of my weekend plans the way children swallow cough medicine: with much hemming and hawing, but with the evolving understanding it was for the best, even if they didn't quite understand the why or the how. Of course they were hesitant to let me go off on me own, out from under their watchful and protective eyes, but I told them I needed an intensive study weekend in a new environment for maximum knowledge absorption. ("Zoo animals need enrichment!" I reminded them with a feral smile.) Eventually they admitted it would be good for me to have a change of scene after staring at a wall for so long, and they said they were fine with me spending the weekend with Junko and Amagi, for which I was grateful. My desire to study was a lie, but my need for a change of pace was certainly based on truth. I appreciated knowing they understood my needs even if said needs weren't accurately represented.

Mentioning Amagi made my excuse go down easy, I'm also guessing. They liked her and Junko a lot. So many of my friends were guys; they were happy I'd made a few female friends at school. Said it was good for me. Yusuke, they commented, influenced the way I dressed and spoke perhaps a little too much, and I supposed that was true. The comments Botan made about my fashion sense on Hanging Neck Island ("You're such a lovely girl, but the way you dress is sometimes…" she'd said with a look of pity on her face) made me feel self conscious every time I put on my typical out-of-school uniform of high-waist mom jeans, baggy t-shirts, muscle tanks, men's basketball shorts and windbreakers. A good number of the pieces were Yusuke's outgrown castoffs, but others I'd purchased for myself very much on purpose. Dresses hung in my closet, but they were in short supply (and purchased almost entirely by my mother). Could my wardrobe could be fully accredited to Yusuke? I wasn't convinced, but I didn't tell Mom as much when she pushed the issue. I just winced, thinking about the fact that my sartorial sense was a topic of frequent discussion between Botan and Shizuru—and who knew who else—every time I got dressed in the morning.

Funny how small comments will stick with you like that. Anyway.

I packed a selection of my favorite hand-me-downs and athletic gear after obtaining my parents' consent to "go to Junko's for the weekend," knowing function mattered over form when interacting with Genkai. Her training regimen would no doubt be brutal on my wardrobe. My thoughts lingered on the days to come at her temple, wondering what lay in store given this weekend represented a huge breach from canon. I had no clue what was coming. Canon decreed that Kaito and two other Territory psychics, Yanagisawa Mitsunari and Kido Asato, would go to Genkai for help learning to control their abilities, but beyond the presence of those boys in addition to Kaito, Genkai's role here represented a huge black spot in my knowledge. And Keiko damn sure wasn't supposed to go along with Kaito, Kido and Yanagisawa for training. Neither, in fact, was Amanuma. Keiko and Amanuma weren't meant to have Territories at all.

I didn't feel great about these canonical breaches, but mulling over my unnatural involvement in the plot was almost preferable to thinking about what had happened at school that day. Kurama and his fake smile skirted the edges of my awareness, memory of his empty eyes and tight mouth lurking around the corner of every mental turn. That smile was a gate, a wall he built high and strong to keep people out, and I thought he'd let me through the gates a long time ago... and yet, here I sat on their other side, staring at the barrier of that fake smile like an outsider desperately seeking refuge from a storm.

I still had no idea what had caused the widening rift between us. He claimed he held no suspicions or ill will about the potential of me keeping my sickness a secret. That had been my only working theory regarding his behavior, but in just a few words he'd defenestrated the notion entirely.

Trying not to think about Kurama proved a challenge, but I busied myself in an attempt at distraction. Into my duffle bag went clothes, toiletries, some shelf-stable foods that required no prep or refrigeration. (No clue what kind of food Genkai would have on-hand at the temple, after all.) I also packed a blank journal into which I'd transcribe notes about my experience over the weekend. I was still keeping up with my journaling and note-taking after all this time, in spite of—no, especially because of the recent breaches in canon. Being able to jot down details and look them over at a later date had helped me sort through many issues regarding canon, and I didn't intend to fall behind on that practice now that I teetered upon the edge of the unknown.

Most importantly, however, I made sure to pack my bracelet—the one the Beautiful Suzuka had given me at the Dark Tournament—and the small seed Kurama had given me so many months prior. He'd claimed at the time that it disrupted Spirit World surveillance and other methods of supernatural observation, and comments from Ayame had indicated the little bauble did indeed protect me from prying eyes. Hopefully the device still worked. It was possible he had retracted its effectiveness the way he'd retracted his affection, but there was no way to know short of asking directly, and who knew if he'd even be willing to talk to me. I'd already tried a direct confrontation that day, and he'd merely dodged my questions like they were particularly annoying houseflies.

Part of me figured it was best not to ask him about it, in that case. Another part of me wanted to push the issue. He was a beehive I wasn't certain I should poke, but dammit to hell and back, I couldn't help but want to, just to see how he'd buzz.

The next morning I left early for school, duffle bag slung over my shoulder. I intended to head straight to the train station after school to meet up with Kaito and his plus-ones (Kido and Yanagisawa, if canon held up correctly). Only downside was that the teachers would probably ask questions if they saw me with a bag on school grounds. It was too big to fit into my shoe locker and too conspicuous to bring into class, so when I reached school just as the principal arrived to unlock the school gates, I avoided contact with others and headed around the main building toward the back of the campus. The greenhouse behind the gym was Kurama's territory, but hiding my bag under the workbench at the back of the structure felt like the safest place for it. School staff had overturned my hidey-hole in the PE equipment shed after the Saint Beast debacle. Kurama was the only person to ever enter the greenhouse these days, which meant my bag was safe from prying eyes and invasive questions.

Well. Safe from everyone but Kurama, of course. He was the only person to ever go in the greenhouse, but he was also the one person most likely to bust me for being shady. Kaito and I had agreed that Kurama was the biggest, most threatening obstacle to maintaining the secrecy of our Territories. He was too smart to fool, too cunning to outmaneuver, too shrewd to outwit. Storing my bag in the greenhouse, therefore, came with inherent risks.

... but to be completely honest, I didn't much care. The air in the greenhouse felt sticky and warm against my skin, matting my hair to my forehead with cloying humidity. Sweat beaded on my palms for an entirely different reason. Would Kurama see the bag? Would he recognize it as mine? It was the same one I'd brought to Hanging Neck Island. If he saw it and realized to whom it belonged, would it spark his curiosity? Would it entice him to approach me, incite the formation of questions, force an interaction between us?

I knew this was a bad idea. I knew this was risky, laying out a snare for him like a hunter luring a fox into a chase. But thinking of his distant smile and hollow eyes, I couldn't help but linger in the greenhouse on the off chance he might show up and caught me in the act. God, I was pathetic, pining after his attention like this. I was playing with fire and hoping like hell to get burned—and when the ball rang to summon me to class, I walked there with my head hung low, disappointed and ashamed of it.


Kaito gave me the same curt nod he always did when we saw each other that morning before class (he really was good at pretending to be normal). Kurama wore the polite, disquieting smile he'd donned the day before. My teacher called me into the workroom during lunch to study with her again before the start of the weekend, so I did not get the chance to talk to Kaito or Kurama outside of class. That was just as well, probably. It was probably good I hadn't encountered Kurama in the greenhouse. I'd avoided his discovery in private; didn't need to go risking exposure in a crowded classroom, too.

I'd arranged with Kaito ahead of time to meet at the train station after school. We would travel there separately so as to avoid being seen together by our friends, families and teachers. He had to fetch our new associates, and he would also be picking up Amanuma. Kaito had a very careful itinerary laid out (or so he'd told me over the phone the night prior) but my own travel arrangements were more abstract. They mostly involved Junko swaggering up to me right as I got back from lunch, Amagi on her heels, the former grinning at me with a broad, happy wink.

"Hey, Keiko." She spoke at a normal volume, but in our quiet classroom, her voice carried loudly enough for everyone to hear. "Since you're coming over for the weekend, I figured we'd leave together from school and go get dinner somewhere. Right Amagi?"

Amagi nodded, her smile small and secretive. "Right."

"Sounds good. I'll have to get my bag after class, though," I said (wondering if Kurama could overhear; he was sitting in the back of the class, after all). "Wanna meet at the school gates once clubs end?"

"Sure," said Junko. "See you then!"

The girls were playing along beautifully; I sure was lucky to have such great friends. Junko's parting wink and smirk had me almost giggling behind a hand, but I did my best to stop myself. If Kurama was paying any attention, I didn't want him catching on that something spurious was afoot.

After the final lesson of the day, I made sure to tell Amagi and Junko that I'd see them shortly at the school gates, reminding them that I needed to go get my overnight bag. When I turned around and scanned the classroom, unable to help myself, I didn't see Kurama. He'd probably ducked out the second the bell rang. My heart sank at the thought. If he'd overheard our conversation, he clearly didn't give a damn. Only Kaito offered me a subtle parting nod as he walked out, Kurama nowhere to be seen.

The walk (more like a trudge, really) to the greenhouse passed quickly and quietly, no one paying any attention to my trek. To my dismay, the duffle bag lay right where I'd left it, completely undisturbed beneath a workbench crowded with pots and seedlings Kurama must've been meaning to transplant. It was pathetic, the way I felt so disappointed to know I hadn't managed to get Kurama's attention, so I just snatched up the bag and headed for the door, head bowed and hands clenched at my sides. I shoved the door open with my shoulder, not bothering to make sure it fell shut as I trotted across the field and back toward school.

"What are you doing?" he said, voice like leaves on the wind.

My heart thudded against my ribs. Even without turning around, I knew it was him. I knew his voice in my bones, every syllable radiating Kurama's energy like the sun radiates light and heat. He stood a few meters off, leaning against the greenhouse right beside the door; I must've walked straight past him without realizing it. He watched me with hands in pockets, one leg crossed over the other, gaze hooded beneath the fall of his dark bangs. Swallowing nerves, I lifted a hand in greeting, trying not to telegraph the relief—relief that he'd appeared, relief that he'd talked to me, relief that he'd deigned to acknowledge my existence—making my blood race.

"Oh. Hi." I chanced a smile. "Didn't see you there."

I expected him to make a joke about foxes only being seen when they desired to be perceived, but he didn't say anything. His eyes just slid to my bag, lingering on it. Ah. So maybe my ploy to get his attention had worked. Surely now he'd ask what I was up to, make a comment, voice some stunningly astute observation that would get me in trouble but reconnect us after his odd, detached—

"Well." He pushed away from the wall and turned his back on me. "You're clearly busy. Don't let me disturb you."

And with that, he reached for the greenhouse door. In the span of one, thundering heartbeat, my eagerness vanished, replaced by a spark of fury.

"Really, Minamino?" I said, mindful we were on school grounds even in the grip of white-hot anger. "Really? That's how you're gonna play this, huh?"

Over his shoulder, green eyes flared with annoyance, a beacon of agitation sparking from the way I'd pronounced his name with such disdain. It was the first real emotion I'd seen from him in a while; I confess it cheered me immensely, even if it wasn't a positive emotion on his part. I didn't back down, though. I squared my feet and balled my fists, glaring at him for all I was worth.

"Really?" I repeated. "You see me in your greenhouse being shady as hell, and you don't have any follow-up questions?"

He shrugged. "What you do is none of my business."

"Is that so?"

"Yes."

His calm demeanor—so smooth, so civil—got under my skin like a splinter under a fingernail. "What is wrong with you lately?" I snapped, patience entirely lost. "Why are you acting like this?"

Again he shrugged. "I don't know what you mean."

"You barely even look me in the eye anymore."

Pointedly, he met my eyes, expression utterly blank. "That is difficult to believe," he said without a single trace of feeling, "given you keep appearing in front of me."

"Oh." Acid drenched every syllable that fell from my poisoned lips. "Is my presence a problem for you, then?"

Kurama did not reply. He opened the greenhouse door, head turning until I could no longer see his dispassionate green gaze. Just like that, I'd lost him, the thread of conversation fraying and snapping like a bungee cord under a honed blade. The bag wasn't enough to entice him, direct questions weren't enough—so what was? Desperate, I shouted the first thing I could think of, throwing caution to the wind as I threw my words in his indifferent wake.

"I talked to Hiei, by the way."

The strike landed. Kurama froze in place, caught on the greenhouse's threshold, foot poised on the liminal border of inside and out.

"It was a very interesting conversation." I lifted a hand to study my nails, feigning the same causal indifference Kurama had worn so readily in recent days. "Quite informative, really."

He didn't turn around. "What did he tell you?" he said, voice the barest murmur over the wind in the nearby trees.

I shrugged. "This and that."

One green eye glared over his shoulder, the color of a dollar bill on ice. "Kei," he said, my name a hard command—but I just laughed, head tipping back with wry humor.

"Finally you look at me," I said. "Is that really what it takes these days? Me threatening to expose you?" I couldn't keep the sneer from my voice, the infuriated blaze from my eyes. "And here I thought we were friends."

"Kei," Kurama repeated in that same, hard tone. "What did Hiei tell you?"

He'd been dodging my questions for days; it was only fair I do the same in return, volleying back an acerbic barrage of my own queries, instead: "Why? Is there something you'd rather he not have said? Something you wished Hiei would keep quiet?" Nearly taunting him, hoping to force his hand with a bluff, I slyly asked, "Is there something maybe you ought to tell me yourself?"

Kurama didn't move. He didn't speak. He just watched, silent, the conflagration of green over his shoulder glimmering with emotions I couldn't name—but I had him, I thought. I had him on the ropes. My bluff had landed. He was going to tell me whatever it was Hiei had been keeping secret. His tongue wet his lip like he wanted to talk, mouth parting as words gathered. Yes, yes, talk to me, tell me what the hell was so damn wrong—

Kurama's eyes hardened. His lips pressed into a thin line before breaking into a small, pleasant smile that didn't look happy at all. He turned away, calling my bluff and holding his cards to his chest.

"No. There's nothing," said Kurama. "Have a nice weekend, Kei."

Long after he disappeared into the greenhouse, I stood there, waiting—but he never returned, warm spring air cold from the frost of his apathetic smile. And when, in the silence that followed his departure, I turned from the greenhouse to make my way into the broader world, I could not shake the feeling that we had just followed different forks of some unknown crossroads—and to my horror, I had no idea where our disparate paths would lead.


Clad in Yusuke's castoff clothing, I stood at the train station and waited.

I'd changed in the train station bathroom, standing atop my empty shoes to avoid placing my socks on the public floor. Hated changing in public places, but needs must. I felt better once in my tennis shoes, sweatshirt and jeans, like shedding the cicada shell of my school uniform had likewise shed the feelings of confusion, anger and devastating loss that had followed me all the way there from school. But because those feelings still lurked at my subconscious elbow, and because those feelings possessed the needle teeth of a vicious fox, I tried not to think about the conversation I'd just had with Kurama. Instead I studied the people milling about in front of the station, staring out over the crowd to search for the two newest additions to the canon cast of Yu Yu Hakusho.

I was a bit nervous to meet new characters, truth be told. I hadn't met a new member of canon since the Dark Tournament's onslaught of demons and perilous enemies. It didn't help matters that I knew very little about the newbies, too. They were only part of this specific story arc, absent before its beginning and nearly vanishing after its conclusion. Sure, I knew their names and the basics of their personalities, not to mention their Territories, but that was it. Canon didn't give them much time in the limelight at all. Would I even recognize them when they inevitably showed up?

The answer to that question was a resounding 'yes,' because as it turns out, both Yanagisawa Mitsunari and Kido Asato quite stood out from the crowd.

The pair of them walked up alongside Kaito and Amanuma, which of course helped me identify them within the crowd, but I honestly didn't need Kaito and Amanuma to guide my realization. Just like when I met other canon characters, a shock of recognition went through me the second I saw them, like I'd been doused in cold water or shoved outside into a snowstorm. Both wore streets clothes (jeans and jackets; normal attire for normal people) but between Yanagisawa's hair and Kido's coloration, they were impossible to miss.

Yanagisawa Mitsunari had a long face, sleepy eyes, a rather hooked nose and a pointed chin—not necessary handsome, but his features had a lupine cast to them that was rather memorable. His was not a face you forgot. Likewise, his hair made an impression sure to last long after a first look. He had dyed his dark hair nearly grey, shaved down close on the sides but left long on the top, and he'd spiked it straight up into a thick column that made it look like he'd been caught in a wind tunnel or something. The amount of gel that style required put Yusuke's usual hair-care routine to absolute shame. It was probably the most bizarre haircut I'd seen on a human in this canon. I'd expected his hair to get toned down now that he was flesh-and-blood instead of animated, but no dice. He was just as unforgettable as his illustrated counterpart. I wasn't entire sure how to feel about that, just as he wasn't sure how to feel about me if his quizzical expression was any indication. He looked me over with a lazy, crooked smile, head cocked gently to the side as if listening for something just beyond the range of human hearing. A curious look, quite relaxed, very go-with-the-flow. Yanagisawa seemed chill, like somebody you'd wanna smoke a bowl with at a frat party.

And then there was Kido, with his eyes so dark and narrow and glittering under his shock of spiked-up blond hair that turned heads with every step he took. The only blond in the area, he was impossible to miss because of that bright sunburst hair, and he swaggered forward with head inclined, hands jammed in pockets, looking at me from across the plaza down his nose. He'd shaved off half of each eyebrow, I noticed—definitely a street punk, or at least that was the air he wanted to project. I knew his type very well indeed. He had intimidating looks thanks to the onyx slashes of his eyes, though the daunting effect was somewhat spoiled by his high cheekbones and strong, square jaw. He had nice, full lips, too... and was it just me, or was he actually kind of cute? I got the feeling he might be haffu, because his blond hair didn't show any telltale roots from a dye job. Either that or he was fresh from the salon.

I suppressed a laugh. Thinking of him at a salon certainly killed the tough-guy persona he was trying so hard to put out.

My judgment of his tough-guy act solidified when he stopped and gave me a quick, intense once-over, sizing me up and feeling me out in a way that immediately called to mind a certain cocky punk named Urameshi Yusuke. Had the same build as Yusuke, too, with rangy muscle and a lean strength that characterized his walk and the set of his slim shoulders. He was a bit taller than Yusuke (the tallest person here if you didn't factor Yanagisawa's hair into his overall height), but I got the sense he didn't have as much muscle mass as Yusuke, like he hadn't seen nearly as much combat in his lifetime.

How did I know that, though? I wasn't sure. Maybe it was how he carried himself—a hedgehog ready to poke—but it was all posturing. He didn't scan the crowd the same way Yusuke did. He didn't size up potential threats with the same depth, eyes traveling too shallowly to get a decent read on passersby. Something about him just said he was softer than Yusuke. Whether I knew that from canon or from my own subconscious read of the guy, I couldn't quite say.

After Kido, Yanagisawa, Kaito and Amanuma came to a stop before me, Kaito wordlessly handed me a train ticket. Kid stood with hands in his pockets, leaning way back, a postural affectation to convey disdain and overstated, manufactured ease. I met his eyes and smiled; one blond brow shot up, forehead furrowing, though I didn't know him well enough to understand what that expression meant.

Amanuma didn't notice any of the exchange. He danced over to my side and grinned, tugging at my hand. "Nee-san!"

"Hey kiddo," I said. "What's up?"

Kaito ignored us. "This is Yukimura Keiko," he said to Yanagisawa and Kido. "Yukimura is the one I told you about."

Yanagisawa lifted a hand. "Nice to meet you," in a voice as lazy as his face, eyes blinking sleepily in my direction. "I'm—"

"Yanagisawa Mitsunari." My eyes traveled away from him and toward the other newcomer. "And you're Kido Asato."

Kido's narrow eyes widened; Yanagisawa's hand dropped a few inches, confusion withering his smile. To Kaito he turned and muttered, "I thought you said you didn't tell anyone our names."

Kaito glared at me, unamused. "I didn't."

"Did you bring the envelope?" I asked him.

One hand moved to the pocket of his coat. "Yes."

"Open it when you get a chance." I turned toward the entrance to the station. "I'll be inside."

The looks on their faces—stunned and confused, perhaps a little in awe—made me laugh, the drama of the moment rather satisfying after the otherwise disheartening day I'd had. At least they would appreciate me after this stunt. Over my shoulder I heard a paper rustle as Kaito opened the envelope in his pocket, followed by a tired sigh. Upon the paper I'd written both Yanagisawa and Kido's full names—indisputable proof that I knew of their existence far ahead of schedule.

"So, uh," I heard Yanagisawa say. "Yukimura's Territory reads minds, right?"

"Nope," I yelled without turning around. "That'd be Murota's Territory."

"Who?" Amanuma asked.

"I haven't the faintest idea." Kaito sounded utterly bored of my antics, tone as dry as paper. "Ignore Yukimura's attempt at pageantry. I assure you, it's just for show."

I laughed. Soon enough Kaito caught up, walking at my side as the others trailed behind us. The newbies were probably giving me a wide berth; I didn't look back to check. Too busy dodging other people in the station as we tried to find our gate to the bullet train that would take us far into the mountains, away from the city and toward the temple of the renowned psychic and spiritualist, Genkai.

"Pageantry, huh?" I muttered to Kaito with a low laugh. "You gotta admit you're impressed, though."

"I will admit nothing." His voice dropped into something just above a whisper. "It's clear you know about this from the legend. I was fated to find these two, wasn't I?"

"Heh." I shot him a conspiratorial wink. "Got it in one."

We found our gate, the five of us settling into seats as the time to board approached. Yana observed me from a distance, like he wasn't quite sure what to make of me. Kido, meanwhile, stared with open curiosity; he didn't bother looking away when our eyes met, stare instead intensifying as a grin stole across his well-defined features. I wasn't entirely sure what to make of his frank perusal. People in Japan were generally too polite for such direct scrutiny, but he saw no issue in meeting my eyes and looking me over. Trying to intimidate me like the punk he wanted me to think he was? Probably, I decided, so I did my best to ignore him. Although I remembered him being more polite and deferential in the manga, it was possible he would only act that way toward Genkai and Yusuke. Perhaps away from them, he was more like a traditional, bellicose street punk.

Amanuma chattered about school and a new game he'd brought with him, which he wanted to play on the train, while we waited to board. Yanagisawa soon leaned forward to chat with the kid, the pair of them talking at length about their favorite games. While they were distracted, Kaito (who sat beside me, opposite the others) leaned toward me to speak.

"I already believed you regarding the legend, for the record," he grunted. "There was no need to prove it to me" (he patted his pocket where the envelope lay) "with such theatrics."

I hummed, but I didn't acquiesce. "You have to admit it was cool, though."

"Again: I admit nothing."

"Spoilsport."

Soon we boarded the train and got settled. Kaito had booked us a pod of four seats, two of which had been installed backwards so the occupants could face each other and converse. I sat in a fifth seat across the aisle from the others, alone. The train wasn't particularly populated, with only a few other passengers in our car. They sat way up toward the front with many buffer seats between us. We'd be able to speak freely if we kept our voices in check, then. Good. And it was good we sat in a relatively isolated part of the car, too, because when a passenger walked by and paused for a second too long, Kido mean-mugged the hell out of him until the man huffed and walked away.

Yeah. Kido was a punk, all right. Not quite how I'd imagined him, but...

Once the train got moving, images of the city speeding past through the window, Yanagisawa offered up a slow, inviting smile. "So, uh. We all got powers, huh?" he said with easygoing cheer. "That's cool."

"Seems like it." Kido had a low, rumbling voice at odds with his thin frame; I wondered if he'd pitched it that way on purpose or if he naturally had such a deep baritone. "Wanna go around the room and introduce ourselves?"

Kaito nodded sharply. "I suppose we ought to make proper introductions."

"Sweet." Yanagisawa tapped his chest with a fist. "Well, I'm Yanagisawa Mitsunari, though I guess you already knew that." He chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. "Anyway. I'm sixteen years old, grade 10 at Hibiya High School. My power—"

"Territory," Kaito grunted.

"Right. It's called Copy." He rolled his eyes, grinning. "Or at least that's what Kaito keeps calling it."

Kaito affixed him with a stern stare. "It's the only logical name for your abilities, as I have explained more than once, Yana."

"All right, all right, settle down," I chided. Kaito huffed and stuck his nose in the air; but I ignored him. To Yanagisawa I smiled. "Anyway. Your ability is Copy?"

He nodded, impressive tower of hair swaying in time with his head. "If I touch somebody, I can copy everything about them—and I mean everything." He ticked off his fingers one by one. "Their looks, their abilities, down to their memories—I become them entirely, top to bottom. Probably even down to their DNA, though I don't have a lab to test it or whatever. It's weird, but it's useful. My clothes don't change, though, so it can get awkward if I copy a person without preparing first." He smoothed his hands along his thighs, grin kicking up the corner of his mouth. "So that's me, I guess. And my Territory makes sense for me, by the way. I've always been good at impressions, so... Oh, and everybody calls me Yana, so don't bother with the full name or anything." He gestured at everyone else, averting his face and clearing his throat. "Uh. Your turn."

Amanuma bounced in his seat. "I'm Amanuma Tsukihito! 10 years old, grade 5 at Mushiyori Elementary. We've been calling my Territory 'Arcade' because I can bring video games to life. It's super cool. Wanna play together sometime?"

Yana's eyes lit up, a bit more lively than before. "Heck yeah! That sounds awesome!"

"It is, though I gotta be careful which games we play, because some of them don't end so good for the players if you lose." Amanuma's bright smile faltered, the downside of his Territory not lost on him, but he recovered quickly enough. "Anyway. I've pretty much got the greatest Territory ever, so if you have questions, just ask." His nose thrust into the air, smug smirk decorating his young mouth. "I'm an expert at this point."

Kaito flicked the kid's forehead. "Pride goeth, child." He gave Kido a nod, ignoring when Amanuma yelped. "Moving on."

Kaito gave Kido a nod. Kido nodded back and draped one ankle over his other knee, hands shoved in his pocket as he slouched in place. Self-assured and cocky, he looked at me, then Yana, then Kaito and Amanuma in turn before speaking.

"I'm Kido Asato," he said. "15 years old, third year at Hibiya Middle. Territory's called Shadow."

"Cool name," said Amanuma. "What's it do?"

"You ever play kagefumi?"

"Shadow tag?" Amanuma said—and he deflated a little, sulking. "Sure. But I'm not just a kid, you know."

"Oh, I figured," Kido said without missing a beat. "It's just that my Territory is a lot like shadow tag."

Amanuma frowned, but he leaned toward Kido with renewed interest. I observed the exchange in silence, noting the easy way Kido had allayed Amanuma's concerns that he was being patronized. Amanuma was sensitive about his age, so the mention of a playground game immediately made him feel insecure, but Kido had so quickly assured him—without drawing attention to it—that Amanuma's age wasn't in play here. Whether he'd done that on purpose to put the kid at ease, I wasn't sure, but it was nevertheless appreciated.

"If I step on somebody's shadow, I can paralyze 'em," Kido explained with easy confidence. "Couple other things here and there, but that's the main one. Played too many games of kagefumi as a kid, I guess." He smiled at Amanuma, though on his sharp features, it closely resembled a smirk. "Pretty neat, right?"

"Very neat," Amanuma conceded. "Bet it's handy in a fight!"

"Less than you'd think, if they're fast." Kido shrugged, not at all deterred. "But I'm good with my fists, so it doesn't matter to me."

His smirk turned into a grin, lazy and confident—but full of coiled energy, opposite of Yana's languid cheer. He caught me looking and didn't flinch, observing me right back. I couldn't quite get a read on him, I realized sourly. Yana was exactly as I recalled from the manga, but Kido... He had a nice enough smile and was good with Amanuma, but that bad-boy affectation of his didn't jive with my memory or him from canon. Again I remembered how polite he had been in canon, apologizing to Yusuke for treating him roughly and deferring to Genkai's expertise in all matters. Was his behavior now all a front, a bluff, an act? He had pretended (with much success) to be a stone cold killer the first tie he met Yusuke in YYH—when he kidnapped Yusuke at Genkai's behest and threatened to kill Yusuke with his bear hands, to be exact. No one had doubted his act in the slightest.

Yes. Kido was probably pretty good at wielding that tough-guy persona. I just needed to see what substance lay beneath it.

"We know all about Kaito already. 16 years old, second year at Meiou High, Territory is Taboo. He won't shut up about it, either." Kido's eyes trained steady on my face, assessing as he ignored Kaito's huff of indignation. "That just leaves you."

I nodded and took a deep breath. "Yukimura Keiko. Age 15, and I'm at Meiou in the same class as Kaito. I—"

"Wait, really?" Yana said, apparently noting the discrepancy between my age and grade compared to Kido's. "How'd that happen?"

"Skipped a grade when I changed schools."

"Not a surprise." Kaito smiled approvingly. "Yukimura is almost able to keep up with me in terms of academics. You take a mix of classes with 10th and 11th grades, as I recall."

"That's right."

Kido was sizing me up again with that same, dark stare. "That seems unusual," he said. "And not just skipping a year. Taking lessons from different grades, I mean."

"Meiou is structured more like a Western high school than a Japanese one," Kaito explained.

"Yeah. Not many places would let me get away with my academic career, but... Anyway." I shook my head, finding where I'd left off into my introduction once again. "My Territory is Yume—or Dream."

Kido frowned. "What's it do?"

"So far I've been able to view people's dreams."

"That's it?" Yana asked—and Kido gave Yana a not-so-gentle kick in the shin, muttering something about watching his mouth. Yana held up his hands in defeat, but he only rolled his eyes at Kido, not at all perturbed by his friend's growl of warning.

"Sorry," Yana said to me. "It's just that that Territory seems kind of…"

He didn't have to voice his thoughts; the look of slightly pitying hesitation on his face said it all. Even Amanuma, quick to poke fun at me most of the time, stared at the floor in silence. Kaito's eyes remained unreadable behind the glare reflecting off his glasses. I knew my power was less active, more subtle than the other, flashier powers represented in the train car, but I didn't allow myself to falter. Instead I smiled, trying to appear chipper. It helped that Kido had continued to glare at Yana, like he was still defending me.

"It's OK. I get it," I said. "My Territory does seem a little lackluster. But I think there might be more to the power than I've discovered." When Yana's head cocked, listening, I raised my hand and clenched my fingers into a tight fist. "It's just something I can sense when I use it—like there's something just out of reach I haven't managed to touch yet." Fingers uncurled, hand dropping to my knee. "And I don't want to use it on others without their consent, because dreams can be very personal. That means there aren't many people I can reveal my power to, so I haven't been able to practice with it much. And that's why I wanted to see Genkai." Excitement bubbled in my chest, bright and effervescent. "She's brilliant and has all kinds of experience. If anyone can help me use my Territory to the fullest extent of my abilities, it's her."

No one said anything when I stopped. They just stares. Kido sat up a little, watching me through narrowed eyes. I shifted in my seat and tried not to fidget.

"What?" I said, unnerved. "What's wrong?"

Yana muttered, "You're kind of intense."

I winced. "Sorry. Was I rambling? I'm just excited, is all."

"It's OK. We are, too," Kido assured me. "Using my Territory the first time—it was killer."

He looked genuinely happy about it, eyes bright and smile wider than before. Yana, Amanuma and Kaito nodded in agreement.

"Oh, that reminds me," Yana said. "What happened to all of you before you got your Territory? When we were talking to Kaito online, we all said we did something cool right before we got sick. What happened to all of y'all?"

Amanuma's chest puffed. "I beat every game in my collection!"

Yana's sleepy eyes snapped wide awake at that point. "Every game? Whoa!"

"Yup!" he said. "And the entire arcade, too. It was awesome. And Kaito, you wrote a paper, right?"

"My magnum opus, in fact." Kaito's chest puffed out, too. "A paper about literary theory that omitted the 'e' sound entirely—a perfect foreshadowing to the Territory of Taboo. And you, Yana?"

"I managed to impersonate my parents on the phone to my school so I could skip a day." He looked a little bashful, then. "And then I went on an infomercial shopping spree with their credit cards."

"Both parents?" Amanuma asked. "Even your mom?"

"Yup. Mom's voice was harder, but they bought it hook, line and sinker," he said. "Made sense when I got Copy after that stunt. Kido's Territory made sense, too, after what he went through."

"Oh?" I said.

He looked pleased that I'd asked, addressing me exclusively when he explained: "Fought off a bunch of punks in pitch dark. But I didn't have any trouble seeing them. Seeing in the dark hasn't happened to me again, though. Makes me wonder if there's more to Shadow than I know about yet." He dipped a nod and grinned. "Thanks for the idea, Yukimura."

"You're welcome."

"And you?" he asked. "What happened to you before you got Dream?"

The question was a trap, whether Kido knew it or not. Very carefully, not letting my brain whisk me away down the rabbit hole of memory, I said, "I got trapped in a dream and had to find my way out. Nothing major."

"What was the dream about?" asked Yana.

"Just stuff." I shrugged. "It was basically a nightmare."

"Creepy," said Amanuma. "Was it a nightmare with monsters and stuff?"

"Sort of," I said—even though he was right, but I didn't want to talk about it. "I don't really remember." This was a lie, of course, and I changed the subject before their curiosity made me tell another. To Yana I said, "Impersonating your parents, huh? Sounds like a handy power."

"Definitely," he said. His hair bobbed, dangerously close to colliding with the train window as he nodded. "I've always been good at impressions, but..."

The chatter lapsed into discussions of our powers and ways to use them. It turns out none of us had much experience at all, our collective all separately deciding that experimentation could result in unwelcome discovery and scrutiny on part of our peers and families. All of them were excited to meet Genkai. Her reputation preceded her, especially after I talked her up a bit... well, I talked her up a lot, actually. Not a hard feat considering how awesome (if not a little scary) she was.

"So Yukimura," Kido asked. "How'd you meet Genkai, anyway?"

"Kaito mentioned you're the one who thought of going to see her," Yana said. "I'd never heard of her before, but apparently she's pretty well known in occult circles and stuff on the 'net."

"Oh. Well, I don't know her from there," I said (understatement of the year). "She trained a friend of mine."

Kido leaned forward, interested. "Does your friend have a Territory, too?"

"Not exactly. It's a long story, but..."

I told them briefly about everything I knew, because according to canon, Genkai was going to tell them the truth about it all anyway; they might as well hear some of the more personal bits, like Kurama's dual identity and Yusuke's history, from me, the person who'd represent them in the best lights and leave out the bits they wouldn't want anyone knowing. Demons, Spirit World, spirit energy, Yusuke coming back to life, demons reincarnated in human skins posing as regular high school boys, the Dark Tournament, ghosts and ghouls and psychics and everything in between... I saw no point in holding any of it back. They'd already been tossed into the deep end, after all. The only parts I left out were my own odd origin and the fact I knew about Yu Yu Hakusho from the canon of a manga in another universe.

I'd already told Kaito and Amanuma to keep that bit hush-hush—not out of a desire for privacy, but because I wasn't sure if I trusted Yana and Kido just yet. No telling how they might try to use my knowledge of the future for their own ends. Once I got to know Kido and Yana better and trusted them not to abuse my foresight, I'd give them the details if it felt necessary.

The good news is that thanks to the deluge of information I gave them, they didn't have the wherewithal to suspect I might not be telling them quite everything. Kido and Yana listened in silence as I filled them in, Amanuma looking sly all the while, pleased to be in on a secret. Kido and Yana swallowed my monologue readily enough, though Yana looked pretty uneasy by the time I stopped talking.

"Demons. Yeesh. Kaito mentioned youkai really exist, but..." He shuddered, long features looking like melted candle wax with worry. "This feels like a fantasy novel."

"I'll say." Kido looked me up and down before letting out a low, appreciative wolf-whistle (the sound of which brought a light heat to my face, unexpected and warm). "You're really on the inside of all this, huh, Yukimura?"

A shrug. "I guess so."

"That's pretty cool," he insisted. "You're like... a secret agent for the supernatural, sorta."

"I'll say," said Yana, looking at me with similar appreciation. "Very cool, actually."

"You're all on the inside too, now," I assured them, disliking the way I occupied the center of attention. "We're all secret agents, not just me."

"Not really, though." Kido shook his head. "You're the head honcho agent."

"A regular 007." Kaito smirked and crossed his arms over his wide chest. "The metaphor is fitting. This experience has felt rather clandestine, to be sure."

"Heh. Yeah. Yukimura's the captain of our covert operations," Kido said, matching Kaito's smirk with one of his own—but then he looked at me and frowned, because I'd started giggling behind a hand, unable to keep the humor in. "What's so funny?"

I tried to I hold back a chortle and failed. "Nothing, unless you start calling me Captain all the time."

They didn't get my joke, but I hadn't told it for them; it was just for me. It wasn't like they knew the nickname Minato had given me back when we first connected as fellow Not Quites. Beyond that, it was nice to know James Bond transcended realities and worlds. Hadn't been expecting that, but it made some sort of twisted sense. Hiruko certainly liked cloak-and-dagger intrigue enough to be a fan of classic Bond films...

While the others discussed what the existence of demons meant in terms of the broader universe ("So is Bigfoot a demon? The Loch Ness monster? The yeti?" Yana wondered with a rather ill look on his face), I gazed out the window, letting Kaito take the lead in the conversation. I'd educated him the most out of anyone and he knew these boys better than I did; the information probably went down easier coming from him than it did coming from the mouth of a person they'd met only an hour or two earlier. Since I sat outside the four-seat pod they occupied, it was easy to zone out and remove myself from the conversation, thinking ahead to the temple and Genkai waiting for us there. I could barely wait to see her, fidgeting restlessly in my chair under the train's harsh fluorescent lights. The sooner I excused myself from this whole thing, the sooner Genkai could release me from my promise to keep secrets, and the sooner I could go back to my normal life. I knew the stunt she'd want to start planning to challenge Yusuke, and Keiko was not meant to be involved; I intended to keep Keiko out of it in this reality, too. Once I got Kaito, Kido and Yana in place and set them up for success, I could wash my hands of the whole affair.

And then I could get back to what was really bothering me—namely Kurama being a total and complete weirdo asshole.

I'd successfully kept him out of my head by dealing with Kaito and Yana, but thoughts of him crept in once I found myself alone with my thoughts. As the others talked without me, I stared out the window into the dimming evening, watching as the sunset painted streaks of red across the darkening violet sky. We'd gotten far enough from the city lights for stars to peek through the scattered clouds. They danced over the tops of mountains steadily rising in the distance, twinkling against the tall trees that turned the horizon into a line of jagged teeth. The last rays of the sun caught the tops of the trees and illuminated them like emerald spears. Their color reminded me of Kurama's eyes, especially with the scarlet rays—so close to the hue of the highlights in his hair—lanced through those viridian treetops in a riot of glimmering color.

Crap. I really had it bad for him, didn't I? Too bad the feeling wasn't even close to mutual anymore. It had been, once, to the point he'd even talked about being together... but then something changed. And the pessimistic part of me was starting to think it would never change back...

So lost in my thoughts was I, I barely noticed when Kido rose from his seat and left the car. He returned a few minutes later and stood over me, nudging my foot with his toe when I failed to notice him standing there. He held up a pair of bento boxes like they were supposed to explain his presence somehow. Apparently he'd gone to the snack car...?

He nodded at the empty seat beside me. "Seat taken?"

"Uh. No." I scooted into to the window seat so he wouldn't have to climb over my lap. "Be my guest."

He sat and pulled down his tray table. "Hungry?"

"... a little."

"Good. Here." He handed me one bento and a set of chopsticks. "I couldn't decide which one I wanted, and I can't eat 'em both by myself, so if you wanna share, we can try 'em and see which is better for the trip back."

"Um..." I put down my tray table, too. "OK."

Kido's deep drawl proved oddly soothing to listen to. We spent a few minutes picking at the bento boxes, trying each component and discussing what tasted the best. He was shockingly chill, conversation easy and not at all aggressive. I'd been worried when I saw him mean-mugging passengers that he'd be kind of a jerk, but he was actually a goof, talking and laughing and joking about the food with shocking ease. He'd just sort of invited himself to sit with me, but the conversation wasn't at all awkward. We just ate, and chatted, and soon his dark eyes slipped sidelong in my direction.

"So, Yukimura," he said, toying with his chopsticks. "Yume, huh?"

I nodded, picking at the bed of rice under my grilled mackerel. "Yup."

"That's pretty cool." He shrugged, shoulder just barely nudging mine. "Dreams and Shadows, though. Maybe we'd make a good team."

I shrugged, too. "Maybe."

"Any idea what you'll do with your Territory past the dream-viewing?"

"Maybe dream manipulation?" I said. "Could use it to get information out of people. Or just keep them awake at night." A wry laugh wrung from my lips. "Sleep torture is a thing..."

"Devious." He grinned. "I like it."

We sat in silence for a few minutes. Kido had long fingers, nimble and clever in the way he manipulated his chopsticks. He was on the tall side, too, height more apparent now that he sat next to me instead of across the train car. Still wasn't entirely sure what he'd come and sat next to me for, but I wasn't really complaining. I'd been hungrier than I realized. Would have to pay him back for the food at some point, but that was neither here nor there...

"Where ya from?" he said.

"Oh. Um." Hadn't been expecting that out of nowhere, but... "I was born in Tokyo but I live in Sarayashiki. You?"

"Mushiyori, born and raised," he said. "Weird you got the fever when you aren't from my neck of the woods, though."

"I spend a lot of time there."

"Oh?" he said, interest piqued.

"Yeah."

A slow smile crossed his sharp face. "Not gonna tell me why, though, are ya?"

"Ha." I smiled back. "Nope."

He hummed, grin firmly affixed in place, before declaring, "You're mysterious, Yukimura. Pretty cool." His eyes traveled over my face, assessing. "You seem like the studious type, if you don't mind me saying so. Skipping a grade and all that..."

"My grades are good. Great, even," I admitted. "Used to be class rep, but..."

"But?"

"I almost got expelled from my old school." The confession was calculated; his eyebrows shot up, clearly impressed (the way I knew his punk-ass would be at my rule-breaking). "Been lying low at the new one."

"Expelled?" he repeated, like he didn't quite believe me.

"Well... I kind of tried to punch a teacher." The memory of Iwamoto made my lip curl in a silent snarl. "He disrespected my best friend at his own damn funeral. Couldn't take that lying down, but my dad intervened before I could do anything."

Kido let out another of his impressed wolf-whistles. "I'm impressed, Yukimura," he said with slow deliberation. "And surprised. You definitely don't seem like the rough and tumble type."

"What can I say? I contain multitudes." I tapped the side of his bento with my chopsticks. "Try the pickles, by the way. The carrots are nice."

Instead of eating them, he picked them up and moved them over to my box. "You can have 'em. Not really my thing." He seemed happy to give them to me, smiling as he completed the transfer. "Got any hobbies?"

"Sure." I didn't tell him what they were, though, not sure why he was so interested. "Do you?"

"Working out," he said in his slow, measured drawl. "Games. Music. The usual stuff. Favorite band's Megallica."

I couldn't help but grin. "Mine too, actually."

"No way." Now he was really grinning, cheeks round with delight. "You'll fit right in with me and Yana, in that case."

"Metalheads?"

"Since we were kids."

"You go way back, then?"

"Known 'im since kindergarten," he said. "Kaito, too."

I blinked in surprise. "Wait, what?"

"He didn't tell you?" Kido said. When I shook my head, he sat up in his seat and called out, "Oi, Kaito. You didn't tell Yukimura we all know each other?"

Kaito refused to look guilty for this oversight. "I did not feel it was relevant to the situation at hand," was all he said, and he pointedly looked away and went back to talking with Yana and Amanuma.

"Figures," Kido muttered as he slid down in his seat. "Kaito's a private guy."

"I can tell," I said. "But would you mind cluing me in?"

"Happy to." He jerked a thumb toward the others. "Yana and me've been friends since we were kids. Parents were work friends and we lived near each other. We're at different schools right now since he's older than me, and Kaito went off to Meiou for high school since he's really smart, but all three of us went to the same elementary school."

"Oh, wow," I said. "Small world."

"Yeah." He looked happy about it, the smallest of smirks crossing his sharp face. "Fell out of touch over the years, though. When me n' Yana both got sick at the same time and got our Territories, we got to talking about it and decided to try and find others. Yana's into computers and he saw Kaito's post in a forum about side-effects, and the rest is history." A low chuckle thrummed in his chest. "We didn't know we were talking to Kaito at first, though."

"How'd you find out it was him?"

"He kept using big words and acting like an ass." His smirk widened into a smile when I laughed, his description of Kaito so bluntly on-point, it cut straight to the heart. "Eventually he starting feeling familiar. We met up and it wasn't much of a surprise to see him standing there. Yana n' me had a good laugh." Kido tittered. "Kaito, though..."

"Bet he wasn't thrilled to get caught off guard, huh?" I surmised.

"Not one bit," he said. "But you know him. Not exactly a fan of surprises."

I giggled again. "Truer words never spoken."

Dark eyes looked me over carefully. "You're friends with the guy these days, then?"

"Yeah. I like books and literature, so..."

"Figures he'd like you if that's the case," Kido said. "He's said good things about you, by the way."

"Aw, really?" I said, a little touched in spite of myself. "I'll be sure to make fun of him for it later."

Black eyes glittered with mischief. "Give 'em hell for me, eh?"

"You know it." Apparently getting on Kaito's nerves was a hobby we had in common. "So what'd he say, exactly?"

"Just that you're smart enough for him to stand." He raised his hands to perform a set of air-quotes. "'Not a total ignoramus when it comes to the literary arts.' That sort of thing."

I laughed again. "Y'know, I should've guessed!"

"He also said you were trustworthy."

Something in Kido's voice stopped me cold—a seriousness at odds with his casual chit-chat. It matched the frank stare that honed his narrow eyes into twin blades of intensity, measuring and acute.

"Kaito said," Kido told me, "that you'd fight like hell for your friends, and he felt lucky you'd gotten close before all this happened. Couldn't imagine going through it with anyone else, he said." His head listed to one side. "Gotta say, hearing that made it a lot easier to go along with this plan of yours to see Genkai, even before I met you."

"That's..." My vision went a little misty. "Aw. Kaito really said that?"

Kido nodded, lips quirking as the intensity in his eyes receded. I twisted in my seat to stare at Kaito. Took him a minute to notice, but when Kaito at last beheld my pursed lips and watery eyes, he frowned and recoiled.

"Why in the world are you looking at me like that, Yukimura?" he asked.

"No reason." I sniffled. "I'm just glad we're friends, OK?"

"... something tells me Kido" (Kaito glared at the aforementioned from across the train car) "has been talking too much for my tastes." With that, he pointedly turned his face away. "Ignore everything he says, Yukimura. I assure you, he's exaggerating."

But Kaito doth protest too much, because even though he'd looked away, I could see the pink beneath the freckles crowding his broad cheeks and square face. Kaito and I were friends, but he wasn't much for affirmations or compliments. Knowing he held me in that regard and knowing I could count on him as an ally in the days to come at Genkai's felt heartening, indeed.

Kido and I ate a little while longer, idle chitchat flowing without a hitch. He was friendly, clearly making an effort to get to know me and establish a casual rapport. I half suspected he recognized me as the most in-the-know person of the group and was just trying to get on my good side, but I tried not to read into it as we chatted about everything and nothing. It was nice to make a new friend. Especially considering I might have just lost one of the closest ones I had—

No. Don't think about that. Think instead about the incredible odds of Kaito encountering two of his childhood friends when recruiting other Territory users. I'd made the offhand comment that this was a small world, but truth be told, it didn't feel like a small world at all. That couldn't be a coincidence; it just couldn't. Kaito finding Kido and Yana, of all people, felt way more like fate or destiny than random happenstance, and—

"Got a boyfriend, Yukimura?"

I'd been in the middle of taking a drink from my water bottle when Kido asked that question entirely out of the goddamn blue; he patted my back when I choked, water sluicing down the wrong pipe as I sputtered in surprise. He just laughed, though, apparently amused by my shocked expression and brush with death-by-drinking.

"Sorry." (But it should be noted that his sly smile didn't look sorry at all.) "Should've worked my way up to that one."

"Yeah, definitely warn me before asking something like that next time." I chugged water, collar of my sweatshirt suddenly far too tight for comfort. "Jesus."

He had the manners to wait for me to finish before asking any more questions. "Well," he said, not at all perturbed. "Do you, Yukimura? Have a boyfriend, I mean."

"No. I don't date at all." I met his eyes and tried to convey unyielding resolve, because I would not create another Kuwabara situation if I could help it. "I don't date anybody, ever."

"OK." He nodded a few times, processing. "Can I ask why not?"

"Not enough time on my hands and my priorities lie solidly elsewhere," I said. "Dating is a distraction, one I don't have time for. Especially not now that I'm trying to figure out my Territory. Dating is the last thing on my mind and doesn't even rank on my To Do List." I crossed my arms and nodded once, sharply. "In short, I'm single and happy and have no intention of changing that distinction any time soon. So there."

He absorbed that in silence, eyes wider than I'd yet seen them. Good. I'd wanted my little speech to shock him, brooking absolutely zero room for argument just in case he got it in his head I was somehow pining for companionship—but apparently he didn't much care, because he let out a low laugh and shook his head, seemingly unbothered.

"Huh," was all he said, not arguing or quibbling. "That's a shame."

"Hmm?"

"Oh, nothing." Another sly smile. "You're exactly my type, is all."

I sputtered again. Kido only laughed, though, and called out for Amanuma, wondering if the kid wanted any of Kido's leftover bento. He didn't say anything else on the subject of my dating life. He didn't move back to the other pod of seats right away, either, but he didn't push or pry. Kido continued to treat me just as he had before—with open congeniality and a sharp sense of humor, finding common ground over our friendship with Kaito and our burgeoning psychic powers. In spite of his declaration that I was his type, I soon found myself perfectly at ease and certain we'd begun to solidify a friendship.

But something told me, no matter how relaxed around him I'd begun to feel, Kido had the potential to be trouble. Only what kind, I couldn't say.


One train ride, a bus ride and a hike later, we found ourselves at the foot of Genkai's stairs in the heart of the forested mountains. Night had fallen some time prior, but birds still sang in the trees, distant and musical. The air smelled different so far outside the city. Green and growing things, dirt, fresh water, cold air—no exhaust or motor oil, no concrete or paint and plaster. Distantly I smelled smoke; perhaps Genkai was cooking something, or smoking her pipe as she waited for us. I inhaled deeply of it, not sure whether I was more excited about the fresh air or the stars burning overhead. The first time I'd visited Genkai's temple, I'd left before sundown and had missed their appearance, but now they shined overhead in tumbling swirls and opalescent rivers, the clean country air and lack of light pollution putting the Milky Way and all its glory on full and scintillating display. I'd had a hunch they'd be gorgeous out here. I'd written Genkai's stars into many a fanfic back in my day, and as we began to climb the temple's steps, I happily pointed out constellations to my friends. They needed to appreciate the amazing scenery as much as I did.

Only I was the only one in our party who seemed to give a crap. Kido grinned while I gushed about the constellations and their visibility, more focused on my explanations than on the stars themselves, but Yana, Kaito and Amanuma just shot me looks that said my enthusiasm was mine and mine alone. They remained nearly silent on our trip up the temple's hundreds of steps, the three of them huffing and puffing too much to appreciate anything. Kaito, the chronic academic that he was, struggled with the climb, face red and breath huffing. Amanuma's short legs didn't do him any favors in spite of his boundless, child's energy, and Yana bitterly complained about being forced to move so much. He was the lazy sort, and he was honest about being the least in-shape of us all, wearing the label of layabout as a badge of honor.

"Now, now," Kido chided when Yana's complaints grew a touch too acerbic. "Just keep moving. It'll be over soon, I'm sure."

By the time we reached the top, only I was breathing normally, and only I didn't have to stop and sit beneath the tori at the top of the steps to rest. Even Kido needed a minute to regroup. Their fatigue confused me at first; the climb hadn't been that hard. Why were they being dramatic? Was I really that much more suited to physical activity than they were? The realization that I was the most athletic person in our group was rather unsettling, and for a second I could quite place why—but, oh yeah. I was accustomed to running with Yusuke and company, hardened fighters who used spirit energy to perform superhuman feats of athleticism on a regular basis. Immediately I felt guilty for judging my friends' weaknesses. After so much time with Yusuke, it was no wonder my perception of normal human strength was skewed...

Not that I should've gotten cocky. No sooner had I turned away from my friends as they sat on the top steps, catching their breaths, than did I lose my own, the sight of what lay beyond the tori knocking the wind from my chest in a one-two punch.

Beyond the arch and the enormous gates lying open beneath it lay Genkai's temple. A large courtyard sat in front of a peak-roofed building resplendent with Shinto architecture. The courtyard looked familiar; it's where I'd conversed with Genkai the first time I met her so many years prior, after all, and I'd committed the site to memory at the time. What wasn't familiar were the people that filled the courtyard to the brim. Men, women, a few children—at least a dozen faces crowded the space like fallen autumn leaves, tents scattered here in a makeshift camp. Chairs and tables had been set up near a large fire pit, over which bubbled a pot of something that leaked sluggish smoke into the night sky. Lines hung with laundry crisscrossed each other near the back of the courtyard near the tall wall separating the temple compound from the forest beyond; a few kids ran beneath billowing sheets, laughing and playing tag.

Genkai had warned me that there were others—other Territory users who'd sought her out for help and guidance. But she hadn't told me there would be this many people! The place bustled with activity and life, even the crying of a baby issuing from one of the tents. More voices drifted toward us from around the corner of the large building up head. Just how many people were at the temple, anyway?

"You made it here in one piece, I see."

Genkai stood a few feet away with hands clasped behind her back, pipe dangling from her wizened lips. I trotted over and bowed, long and low. She looked the same as she had the last time I saw her on Hanging Neck Island, her cobweb hair and walnut-lined face bearing the lofty expression of her usual, grumpy disdain. It was so her that I could only smile back, not at all offended.

"Thank you for having us, Genkai." I stepped back and gestured at the pile of people at the top of the steps. "Please, come meet my friends."

She scoffed, but she followed me over to them anyway. "Ever the polite one. And here I thought we were past petty formalities."

"Just setting a good example for the others." Gesturing at her, I told my friends: "Everyone, this is Genkai. Genkai, this is—"

Kaito held up a hand and mopped his reddened face, but he climbed to his feet without complaint and bowed. "Kaito Yuu. Territory Taboo. It's nice to meet you."

"And you, as well." Genkai looked him over in silence and apparently found him up to snuff, because the smallest of smiles graced her wrinkled mouth. "Keiko's told me about your abilities. Potential for much chaos, Taboo. I'm looking forward to seeing it in action."

"As am I." He met her thin smile with one of his own, cheered. "I confess I am itching to test it out."

"Hmmph. Don't be too eager, now." Rheumy eyes focused on Amanuma. "And you, boy?"

He flinched, but he recovered and faked a cool expression, like she hadn't just scared him out of his skin. "I'm Amanuma Tatsuhiko. My Territory is called Arcade. I can bring games to life. It's very cool."

Genkai's eyes glittered. "Favorite game, kid?"

"Oh. Uh." The question caught him off guard. Took a second for him to blurt: "Time Crisis, I guess."

"Heh. We'll have to see if you can beat my high score."

His eyes widened. "You play video games?"

"I'm old, kid, but I'm not dead," she snapped before moving on to Kido. "Now what about Blondie, here."

He didn't react to the nickname, instead giving Genkai a polite, deep bow—a gesture of good manners completely at odds with his shaved eyebrows and tough-punk persona.

"I'm happy to make your acquaintance. I'm Kido Asato. Territory: Shadow," he said, language unfailingly polite. "I can freeze people in place by stepping on their shadow. Thank you for your guidance in the days to come."

Genkai looked him over for a second in silence before declaring, "Interesting." She said nothing else to him and instead affixed Yana with a stare. "You?"

Unlike the others, Yana didn't bother standing or bowing. He sat with elbows on his knees, face nearly grey from exhaustion, and lifted a single hand in a casual greeting. "Yanagisawa Mitsunari," he said between labored breaths. "But everybody calls me Yana. Territory's called Copy. I can copy anyone I touch. Memories, looks, voice..."

"In other words, you're going to be trouble." Genkai chuckled and shot me, of all people, a look. "Well. Can't say I'm surprised, given you're running with Keiko here. Trouble since the day our eyes met, this one."

"Hey!" I yelped. "That's not fair!"

"I think it's plenty fair, given the grief you've caused." Genkai laughed louder, mirth like rattling bones. "I have a rooms inside for you. Saved them for you since I knew you were coming, unlike the rest of the Territory users who traveled here."

Kido looked over the courtyard, taking stock of its high occupancy. "How many people are here, Genkai-sensei?"

"Thirteen, by my last count." She paused a second, considering. "Well. Thirteen Territory users and a few parents of the younger ones, that is."

Immediately I thought of the baby I'd heard crying. It wasn't a shock to hear kids had been afflicted with Territories, especially given my association with Amanuma, but still. Just how young were some of these psychics?

"Youngest is five," Genkai said (once again making me wonder if she could read minds). "Oldest in his fifties. Mushiyori Fever didn't discriminate." She moved from one topic to the next with brusque efficiency. "I have places for you to rest inside the temple, but you'll need to pull our own weight around here if you want to stay. That means cleaning up after yourselves, cooking, doing chores. My temple is not a theme park." Dark eyes traveled to each of our faces, unflinching and hard. "Am I understood?"

"Yes, sensei," we all said in unison, because Genkai was impossible to defy when she wore that expression.

She smirked at our deference. "Good." Her cobwebbed head jerked toward the courtyard behind her in a backwards nod. "I've been evaluating everyone who comes in. Most can control their power through instinct, but some have it harder and require guidance. I'll need to chat with each of you to determine how much help from me you need, if any. Once we figure that out, we'll see if you need to stay, and for how long."

"Have you sent many others on their way?" Kaito asked.

"A few," she admitted. "The ones who stay need tutelage to master their abilities—or suppress them. I don't care either way." Genkai turned on her heel, pipe bobbing between her clenched teeth. "Now follow me. Let's get you settled."

Yana drew in a shaking breath. "Could I have... one moment more?" he said, breathing still labored. "Those stairs were killer."

"Harrumph," grunted Genkai. She didn't so much as pause, beating a steady track away from my fallen friend. "Don't keep me waiting too long. Keiko, with me. Now."

I didn't dare defy her, so I followed her across the temple courtyard toward the sliding paper doors sitting open below a curving eave painted brilliant red. The temple boasted a long porch down the front and sides, elevated above the courtyard itself by at least a meter. Genkai mounted the steps up to the porch with nimble leaps of her short legs, and when I joined her on the porch to stare out over the courtyard, she began to speak. Words issued from the side of her mouth, her face carefully turned away from mine.

"So," she said. "What do you think?"

I swallowed. "About?"

"This." One gnarled hand waved at the tents, the fire pit, the people milling about. "All of this."

A few people in the crowd had followed us with their eyes. Some of them stared at Genkai; others looks at me, sizing me up where I stood beside the crotchety old psychic. One in particular was a man, mid-twenties and tall, with long hair and dark eyes, who sat near the fire with elbows on knees, watching us with a frown. Another was a young girl in a school uniform who stood over by the laundry lines, folding a sheet as she stared in our direction. I ignored them both, especially the man.

"It's..." I stopped, swallowing a lump of nerves. "Ah..."

Genkai eyed me over askance. "Don't tell me your nerves are failing already," she said, not bothering to hide her disappointment. "You only just got here."

I rubbed at the back of my head, fingers carding in the short strands. "How could you tell?" I asked.

"You look like you're about to vomit all over my courtyard."

"Oh. Sorry." A deep breath didn't make me feel any better. "I just… it's a lot. This is a lot more than I was expecting."

"Oh?"

"The anime. The legend. It didn't show this part at all. It didn't show you training people—not so many people, anyway." I waved toward my friends near the steps, still gathered around Yana as his lazy bones recovered from the climb. "I only knew about Yana, Kaito and Kido. Not anyone else."

But Genkai eyed me oddly, as if I'd said something wrong. "No one?" she asked, disbelieving. "Really?"

"Yeah," I said. The disquiet in her eyes set a flutter of nerves in my belly. "Why?"

She shrugged. "I find that hard to believe."

"What?" Nerves metamorphosed into alarm. "Why?"

"You're telling me you don't see even one familiar face in this crowd?" she asked—and then she beckoned me to look, really look, at the sea of faces churning below the temple's long and winding porch.

I didn't see anyone, though. All of the faces in the crowd belonged to strangers. My gaze slid over them without hooking or catching on any one face in particular. Even the girl and the man who'd been staring didn't pique my recognition. Some stared back with interest as I cataloged their features, but that didn't make any of them jump out at me as as familiar. A young woman with a child on her lap, an older man and woman sitting close to one another, a nondescript person near in the middle, a girl in a baseball uniform like she'd just come from club practice, a rough-looking guy with a scar and a shaved head... No, none of them looked familiar at all.

"Sorry, Genkai," I said. "They're all strangers."

Genkai huffed—but then she squinted into the crowd for a second. The vexation faded from her face, replaced by a weary fatigue I didn't understand. The sigh she heaved was all annoyance, though, punctuated by her chucking her pipe into the courtyard with a swift lash of her gnarled arm.

"Boy, didn't I tell you to cut that out?" she shouted. "No using your Territory unless I've told you to!"

"Oops—sorry, sensei!" someone called back—and, wait.

Wait.

I knew that voice!

The second I heard them speak, recognition sparked in me like lightning on dry tinder. Wait one gosh-darn a second—!

Someone in the crowd stood up, movement in the middle of the throng catching my eye. For a second I couldn't quite focus on them, eyes sliding off and away as though their very image were too slippery to grasp, but then—like a camera coming slowly into focus—they appeared before me. The previously unknown, nondescript face I'd somehow truly failed to notice earlier snapped into observable space, familiarity descending in a crashing wave, like I'd somehow checked my brain back at the tori arch and my mental faculties were just now catching up. At once I recognized his short hair, that broad face framing a sheepish smile, the crooked nose and massive hands that passed over his short-shorn hair in a shy stroke. My jaw dropped and I lifted a finger, pointing at him in abject shock.

"You—!" My mouth worked around empty air. "You—you! Oh my god, it's you!"

"Hi," said Ezakiya—my quiet, unassuming friend from Hideki-sensei's aikido class. With a grin of friendly greeting, he said, "It's nice to see you too, Keiko."


NOTES

At last, the Ezakiya setup chickens have come home to roost. Feels good. Didn't include mention of him in the recap because I didn't want to give away the ending. Any guesses as to the nature of his Territory? There were some pretty major hints before this chapter, plus an almost-explanation in this one, and the title of this chapter was chosen very purposefully for multiple reasons...

Didn't include him in the chapter recap because I didn't want to spoil the surprise.

As several of you have surmised, we're going to have something of a "Training Arc" at this point. This is based on a shonen anime, so that makes thematic sense. NQK needs space to experiment with her Territory, not to mention test subjects, and this feels like the best solution to her need for both. We'll start that arc properly in a few chapters, but this is kind of the prologue to it.

Also I realized I fucked up the flow of these chapters when I split them to preserve the short length of 120; such is life. I should've put the whole first scene of THIS chapter into 120, all the Kurama confrontations contained in one place. This chapter ended up being 14k, uggghh. I'll probably go back and move that scene into 120 in a few weeks, but I'll keep it here for now just so no one misses reading it.

Oh, BTW, Kido Asato is cuter in the manga than he is in the anime. He looks exhausted all the time and for some reason I think he's adorable? He's good at putting on a tough-guy front, but he's actually really sweet (like Yusuke, only much more polite... you'll see). Excited to get to work with his character. But true to Keiko's word in this chapter, we don't know much about his home life or background since he was a one-arc character, so a lot of what I write for him will be entirely based on head-canons. Please keep that in mind as he's developed. Same goes for Yana, that lovably lazy layabout.

There's gonna be a lot of OCs in this arc, but I'm hoping you'll like them. Focus will always be on Keiko and the canon cast, however, so rest easy. Keiko's really going to come into her own in the days to come and I couldn't be more excited about it.

Huge thanks to everyone who commented last time. Really glad to still have you aboard. I'm so excited for what's to come! Enormous gratitude goes out to: xenocanaan, Convoluted Compassion, Kaiya Azure, EdenMae, Vyxen Hexgrim, cestlavie, AnimePleaseGood, vodka-and-tea, Anya Kristen, wing of butterfly, cezarina, tammywammy9, MissIdeophobia, buzzk97, C S Stars, MysticWolf71891, Call Brig On Over, ladyofchaos, VSuperOld, Psycho Mutt, Sarah, ewokling and a guest.

NEXT CHAPTER WILL BE POSTED TWO WEEKS FROM NOW ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2021