AN: Sorry if this is a little later than planned, and possibly a little lower in quality. I'm afraid I've received some rather bad news unexpectedly, and have been distracting myself with writing this. Will try to go back and edit later.
That said, as promised, this chapter enters Canon. Credits to a flashback sequence in Episode 47 for the first part of the chapter, and line borrowing from episodes 6 and 8 for the latter part. Quotations credited and formatted as usual. Enjoy.
Beta'd by the ever-loyal Akayuki Novak, without whom I could not hope to begin explaining Hiei's ever complicating mental landscape. Many thanks.
…The bells were ringing in the dale,
And men looked up with faces pale.
The dragon's ire, more fierce than fire,
Laid low their towers and houses frail.
The mountain smoked beneath the moon.
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled the hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.
Far over the Misty Mountains grim,
To dungeons deep and caverns grim,
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!
- Excerpted from 'Over The Misty Mountains Cold,' written by J.R.R. Tolkien and originally published within his novel 'The Hobbit'
Chapter 14: We Must Away, Ere Break of Day
A forest clearing at twilight. Nothing particularly noteworthy at first glance.
Hiei's steps on the leaf mould are silent; his companion's sneakers crunch them. Once more, he reminds himself of the necessity of working with the brute. He went and sprung him from his prison cell not three hours ago, just after the change of the guard, for a reason, after all.
And it wasn't anywhere near as easy as Sasuke had it when recruiting for Team Hebi. Kurama concocted a fast-evaporating plant gas to make the guards less alert and remove evidence of tampering, and Hiei made free use of it. He baited Gouki into following him with the prospect of a team heist and partnering the famed Kurama – out of action for the last decade and a half. Had the brute been less predictable and raised a ruckus, it could have all been ruined at that moment. Fortunately, the Kyūkonki is more cunning than intelligent as a whole, and Gouki has proven a true member of his species.
Now, they bind him to the job and introduce the last partner.
Gouki is expecting silver hair and fox ears, claws, and an aura that reeks of deception and danger.
When the slight redhead clad in a maroon school uniform steps from the trees, he is understandably less than impressed.
More precisely, he thinks it's a joke.
For a minute, he's laughing so hard he can't get a word out, before wheezing, "You're telling me that this is him?! That's very funny, Hiei!" He gasps out a few more chuckles.
Just as well they had a Plan B for if the ogre refused to be led completely blind on this. Unbeknownst to Gouki, the entire ground is listed with gases to make him more suggestible to intimidation when the demonstration occurs.
"I heard boogeyman stories about Yoko back in lockdown, and this red-haired princess ain't it. You want me to believe you're the real legend? You're gonna have to get out of that skin!" He ends with a middle finger raised high from his right hand, as if to punctuate how far below him in both height and power he finds this human.
To be fair, Hiei would have been fooled too. If he hasn't used it in the last ten minutes, Kurama has a complete lockdown on his youki, suppressing it to the levels of a mildly spiritually sensitive human at all times. He can suppress it further if necessary, but that requires concentration and is uncomfortable for extended periods.
Kurama only smiles at them both, a smile that reminds Hiei far too much of another deceptively feminine male, whose power he realized too late. But Kurama is not like that snake, and will not become like the mad scientist. Hiei won't let him.
Isn't that what Naruto said about taking you back home?
Dammit, Hiei is himself. Not Sasuke. He has the lessons of experience of a lifetime and a half to draw on, and he will succeed.
"I cannot do that." Kurama's smile never wavers. "This is a merger, not a possession. I can no more separate from my current human biology than you can from your Kyūkonki horns."
Gouki, of course, will not accept such excuses with only their word. Given their target, the Spirit King's most secure vault, Hiei wouldn't either. Still, calling him "a human kid playing pretend"?
Impatient as ever, Hiei drawls his suggestion that Gouki fight him to prove his worth. It certainly worked on Sasuke when the Sound Four came calling. Gouki immediately accepts, without even the Jagan's push for him to make the choice.
Of course, the brute is as unpleasantly surprised as Team Seven in the Forest of Death when Kurama unleashed energy creates a shockwave that raises the dust of leaf mulch.
"It is true, I am not as strong as before." Green eyes narrow. "But, I have also acquired priorities to protect."
Having stepped to one side and closed his eyes, Hiei's passively running Jagan picks up an image of a soft hand smoothing a bandage across the nose, a kind smile and shocked trust and safety. Given the height of the point of view, Hiei suspects this is the incident he's heard only peripherally about, when Shiori saved her son from broken glass. The incident that sealed the bond of mother and son to be more than one-sided and in name.
When Hiei produces the rose, Gouki is still cocky enough to make a joke about going on a date, despite his surprise.
Hiei shakes his head, eyes still closed. He doesn't need to see this; his ears will paint a perfect picture as it is.
A light touchdown of feet, behind Gouki, who has yet to move despite his bluster.
Crack. Crack. Kreeeak…
Hiei opens his eyes in amusement. As if to add insult to injury, Kurama's not only divided the semicircle behind him into stumps and logs, he's cut them so that the trees fall and land parallel to each other, neat enough for splitting the logs.
An elemental youkai's nose is not as keen as an animal youkai's. Hiei can still taste the sudden stink of sweat on the air.
"O-Okay, Kurama. I was just jokin'. I'm sure you'll be fine to work with for a while."
Smart choice. Apparently, Gouki can learn.
With four days and six hours until the full moon, they infiltrate the Spirit King's Palace Vaults. Hiei's proud to say they do it without alerting a single guard. The unlocking goes equally smoothly.
Three beings are required to unlock the artifacts. One from Ningenkai, one from Reikei, one from Makai. Technically, they're cheating. Kurama's body is soaked in Ningenkai energy from its lifetime there. This is the first time he's crossing the border in this form – it's one of the reasons Hiei had to break Gouki out alone. Hiei's birth energies are Makai-tainted from the centuries growing up there – a mere year away isn't enough to overcome that. Gouki, thanks to his time in Reikei prison, 'feels' like a native – albeit one of the darker residents.
The fooling works well enough on the lock. But not enough to keep the alarms silent: as Gouki hits the last trigger, even as the doors swing open, the siren blares and the intercom crackles.
Guards come running. Cursing, Hiei draws up his white scarf from his throat – if he can avoid a mug shot, it will be helpful. His partners' attire is no good for such. Snatching the sword from its resting display, he knocks down the first guards – yell at your partners later, deal with these obstacles now – while Gouki forces the Gem into the pocket of his too-small jeans and Kurama secretes the Mirror inside his school coat.
Kurama doesn't need to show off his elegant style. A tap of his fingertips, each coated with poison, and the guards are woozy, their reactions slowed, easy prey for Gouki's sluggish and untutored fists, a civilian dart board for ninja-trained Hiei. Weak. Slow. Easy prey, waiting to be snatched up.
Gouki roars in triumph and snatches up the closest one, eyes glowing red with unleashed yoki, intent on having a celebratory meal right then and there. Then the intercom fully wakes up: "Security Breach on the Artifact Vault!"
"Alright, Gouki, that's enough," Hiei snaps, reminding himself to end it non-fatally. He's been careful to leave them unconscious; Reikei has no problem with quizzing their staff's ghosts, and none of them need a murder count added to their charges. No matter how much like prey they seem, a live-combat crisis is not the first time to test a blade.
The stupid being barely turns his head in acknowledgement of the words, and Hiei doesn't need the Jagan to understand the 'don't tell me what to do' inherent in the bloodlust on Gouki's face. It takes Kurama's additional reinforcement, that they're running short on time, to get the thug to listen enough to drop the guard.
The intercom blares as they speed their way out: "All guards report to the palace perimeter! Seal the doors! They've taken all three of them!"
Unfortunately for Reikei Security, they did not come through a door. They came through a window. And from the window, it is a short drop and run to the portal, and all of them, even Gouki, are at least twice as fast as their quickest pursuer.
Human energy and the vacuum of the portal hit him like a shock of cold water. He is suddenly aware of his own battle high, like a beacon in this place to those who know how to look, and forces it down. Kurama's hand on his wrist is helpful, the pressure a sharp anchor.
"Play human, now," the kitsune murmurs, his own energy tightly locked away again. Gouki and Hiei force their levels down as much as they can, Hiei forcing his hand off the sword and tucking it within the energy concealment woven into the shadow threads of his cloak. He's reluctant to take his hand off the blade, lest it decide him an unfit master and attempt to cut back.
Kusanagi had its own tests for him to pass before it accepted him as a master. This blade he has sated with blood before sheathing it again, but will it be enough? Or will it insist on not merely blood, but lives to slake its thirst?
He could always test it, of course, Hiei muses, absently aware of entering a local café (they've landed in an uptown business district, some miles away from the hospital and Kurama's home both) and ordering a fine green tea. For once, he has the money to spare without resorting to common pickpocketing. It would be easy enough to test the blade and gain some more – foolish humans, building in gridlocked patterns like this, weaving their own net-snares. Easy prey, ripe for the taking. Their waitress' bones are fine enough that she might not even notice the cut – no, no, fool, we can't draw attention here, we're hiding.
Hurriedly blowing on his tea, Hiei breaths and counts. In for a slow count of ten, hold for a count of six, exhale a count of twelve, wait another four, inhale for ten once more… repeat three times, sip tea once, repeat again.
His battle high reined in once more, Hiei forces himself to keep his Jagan closed, relying on his other senses to assess his partners. Sasuke relied on that Cursed Seal too damn much in non-emergency situations. He is not Sasuke. He will not use the Jagan merely to tag his partner's mental states. Or to wipe Gouki on the sidewalk like the insect stain he is so close to becoming. They are in public, and they are avoiding attention. Shaking off the hunt. He is not prey. He does not need to assert such by turning predator and searching out prey.
He really shouldn't need to be reminding himself of all this either.
"If I can keep my hand off my prize, you can keep your hands off yours, Hiei," Kurama breathes. He starts, and pulls his hand away from his cloak and back toward his teacup. Damn it, he should know better than this.
"Ten more minutes, Kurama. That's all I can stand of the crowding here." And as long as I can keep us shielded from prying eyes with the misdirection.
Nodding, Kurama signals for their check. Hiei is using too much energy to keep up his façade of impenetrable confidence to argue when the kitsune pays for the lot. Not even a mental grumble about how this isn't a date. Just as well that Gouki is keeping them company. Too many people have made assumptions when he and Kurama do lunch meetings alone, on the rare occasion they can't use Kurama's room to talk.
He's grateful when they enter the sealed forest clearing, safe and sound and sealed. Gouki's jewel is proving true to its name, hungry indeed. He's heard at least one commotion of a collapsed person on their way over here. He doesn't have the spare time to sort it out, not before he sorts out the sword.
Gouki is laughing in victory, far from the sight of human eyes. Kurama remains subdued and on guard, and Hiei can't be sure if there's some hidden watcher he hasn't sensed and doesn't want to reveal the Jagan to, or simply that his partner finds Gouki untrustworthy. He should probably be worried about it all, but he really isn't. Kurama can take care of himself (no he can't you damned idiot), and Hiei won't betray any possible weak spot in front of untrusted eyes. So, the watcher needs a distraction, one Hiei is happy to provide.
Instead, he begins practicing katas with the new blade, reminded of sword practice with Kusanagi once more. It's a different weight than his usual katana, and sings a different song with his swings. Come to think of it, the orb is rather like Itachi's mirror-shield in its absorbsion of souls, even if Itachi only ever absorbed Orochimaru, and the Mirror, too, absorbs life energy. (And later he will curse himself for not following that thought up, and be suspicious that he did not think to do so, and rejudge his own mental state completely once more – but that will be later).
Entering more and more difficult katas, Hiei launches himself into the air, thinking to reproduce Kurama's feats with his Rose Whip. It's a good chance to test the sword's other rumored abilities as well.
Let's see what army you can forge of my prey.
He slices a tree, which becomes an E-Class winged demon with a tail – perfect for scouting purposes if mass-produced – if it didn't become petrified wood again a few minutes later.
"If this sword can make youkai of trees, just think what it could make from humans!" he laughs, landing on the ground, caught up in exhilaration and the power high of his own prowess. Half-jokingly, Hiei turns to the others and proposes that they go to the next city – he'll create an army a thousand youkai strong from humans (an image of black scelera and cracked skin, and glasses and snake scales, flits across his mind) –
– and Gouki can feed their thousand human souls to the Gakidama before the transformation occurs (the Shinigami towers over them, without concept of mercy or justice or anything but sacrifice for sacrifice) –
– while Kurama can use his Mirror at the full moon, and supposedly bring them complete control (red rings and black tomoe and interlocking circles and all the world's a stage of puppets and their strings).
That last image brings him back to himself, aware that, if for but a moment, he was not just joking. Hiei can tell the sword would enjoy being used by someone with such a goal, but he is not Madara. He would only ever do it for her, just as that man would only ever do it for a little boy that never wanted it, and another for a dead girl, and another for revenge and spite on a world that did not favor him as fully as he likes. But Hiei is not an Uchiha, even with an Uchiha's memories, and he knows the world takes care of itself very well. It unnerves him that he even needs to remind himself of that.
Gouki, however, takes him seriously, and asks Kurama to join. Kurama apologizes, declaring "I must withdraw from this alliance."
For one moment, Hiei is filled with fury at the reply, at another person leaving, ("Coward! Your years of hiding yourself in the Ningenkai have made you just like them, spineless and ready to be walked on!" Weakling. Prey.) before he remembers the plan, remembers why they did all this in the first place.
Then he's just angry at himself.
He's not Naruto, to fight for someone who wants to, needs to leave. He's not that selfish.
(Even if it hurts.)
Suddenly, horribly aware that something is wrong, he pushes at his own mental bonds, vaguely aware of the continuing conversation. Gouki, equally scornful, suggests Kurama hands over the mirror, in that case: he has no right to the loot if he's withdrawing.
"I can't. I have great need for it myself first." Hiei screws his eyes shut, desperatedly fighting for mental control, Hina and Mikoto and Shiori all laid over each other in his head…
The wind whistles as Gouki winds up for a punch, stating he will take the mirror back in that case…
"Yo! Hang on!"
Abruptly, a new voice enters. It's a human boy, who proposes an alternative: he beats them up and takes the Artifacts back. It sounds so like Naruto for a second that a double image imposes itself over the boy. But no, he's too tall, too differently colored, even the look in his eyes is different.
Hiei swears at himself; how the hell did this guy sneak up on him? How has he gotten so wrapped up in himself that he missed it? Damn it, he knows he has a tendency to tunnel vision; he thought he'd learned to compensate and constantly scan for outside influence! "Who are you? How do you know about the artifacts?" he manages to hiss out in a moment of mental clarity (if that's what you call a momentary lessening of the bloodlust that washes his vision in red).
The fact that he's stalling with stupid queries for identity and how the boy knows such information while scanning for spirit energy levels indicates exactly how much of his brain is on autopilot – should let someone else ask, shouldn't draw attention yet, what kind of ninja is like that, he's not the idiot in orange.
"Oh, I was hoping you'd ask. The name's Urumeshi Yusuke. I'm a Spirit Detective."
Both Gouki and Hiei are incredulous: a human servant for Koenma is one thing, but for one with such low Reiki to be sent after them, one known murderer and two unknowns, is an insult. Something in his grin and introduction style reminds Hiei of Sasuke's memories of his idiot teammate.
Hmm, there's an idea…
Testing his hypothesis, Hiei chooses his next words carefully. "Don't worry, he's just one of Koenma's fools." Nobody likes being called an idiot. "He must have been the only human they could round up! His spirit energy is pathetic!" More precisely, it's so low that Hiei can't even register it. "And he looks weak." So did Naruto, deceptively so. Still, if the boy reacts to it, it's worth it.
Gouki follows the conversational lead, claiming the human will be dead in one punch.
"Idiots! I'm not afraid of you at all!"
Cocky. But does that confidence come from youthful belief in one's own indestructibility, or with reason? Hiei forces himself to remember, past the dark haze of amusement that comes with toying with a weaker foe, that Naruto only seemed weak in the classroom, and hid the greatest of the biju within himself, even if one discounted the idiot's post-graduation personal growth rate. The inability to register on Hiei's sense could also place him at the opposite end – past the levels Hiei can chart.
"I won't be participating in this fight!" He leaps into the trees, gaining a bird's eye view before the detective can react.
No matter which lifetime, Hiei has always preferred to observe his foes first.
Not that he'd lose in any case, but a ninja always takes the extra advantage when he can, no matter how dishonorable a samurai might call it.
Reality beckons once more as Kurama turns his back and walks out of the clearing. "I don't have time to be arrested." *Sorry, Hiei. I can't be caught now.* An image of Shiori accompanies, along with a calendar.
And that is enough for Hiei to understand – and cover accordingly for his partner.
One last shout to throw the detective off. "Stop, Kurama! You can't just walk out on our plan!"
One last dash to follow after his partner for a short while before they split, and one last mental promise to meet up the morning after the full moon at the old warehouse, if all is well.
Behind him, he hears the detective protesting their leaving just as he arrives, and Gouki moving to confront him.
It's the last clearly aware thought Hiei has for some time. As much as he'd like to tag Gouki's mental presence, he's exhausted, and his mental defenses have taken a battering.
As soon as he's in his warded section of the abandoned warehouses, his defenses of traps and alarms active, he collapses without even taking the time to eat. Sleep is more important, the Jagan a watchful sentinel but one that drains his energy.
One hand is still resting on the blade's hilt.
He will not awake for two days, and then only to eat and drink before collapsing back into bed. By the time he rises on the fourth day, the night of the new moon, he barely has enough awareness to function.
But it's enough to operate the Jagan, and get an update on the situation.
"Their mistakes were simple ones," Hiei murmurs, idly caressing the bandages he uses as a headband. "Gouki's was overconfidence, and Kurama's… sympathy, for his human prey." Not prey, mother. But aren't the two synonymous, given the examples I've seen?
"I… am the only high-class demon left."
I am the last of my clan who remain loyal to its values.
"I certainly won't make the same mistakes," he reassures himself. The blade tilts in his hand, his birth eyes reflected on its lower half, his active Jagan above the center fold of the metal. He has not held a blade of this type before, but it suits him, he thinks. "My plan's too good for that!"
I'll create a demonic army, who will only heed my instructions and bring me the things I want… the person I want…
(Reviewing that memory a week later, Hiei will decide that shoving Sasuke's memories away in mental cupboards was not, actually, the best way to deal with things. If he'd actually used the memories rather than denied them, he might have realized that he was starting to sound like Tobi and Madara. Particularly once that bit about the demonic army as more than scouts became more than a joke.)
(But that is later. Much later.)
'The Shadow Sword will transform any human it cuts into the lowest level of youkai – a strong but sluggish creature – spreading poison from its initial cut and changing all its energy to that of a youkai. Only the sword itself can reverse the effect.'
It took him two hours with his out-of-practice reading skills and kanji that had undergone an evolution, it seemed, to understand those two sentences on his own.
He didn't think he'd have to do it alone.
"It's better this way," he assures himself. He's always worked best alone, without a partner. Didn't his time after the bandits prove that? "The other two wouldn't have the courage to use the weapons as they're intended. I will!" One is a thug who prefers using his fist, while the other never did like getting his hands dirty, or his clothes. The justification seems reasonable, especially with the sword thrumming with approval in his hands.
He launches himself from the warehouse roof.
"I'll kill Urameshi Yusuke!"
The blade might slice the air, but Hiei is truly the flying shadow he is named.
No shadow touches the ground. The warehouse is quiet and deserted once more, the presence gone with less evidence than a ghost left in its passing.
AN: And Canon is begun. Happy New Year to all. I'll be heading back to school soon, so please enjoy.
Next time: Hiei kidnaps Keiko, battles Yusuke, and suffers an unexpected betrayal – all while battling his new blade for control.