Rating: PG-13/R for violence and language
Pairings: None/Gen fic
Warnings: None this time. I know, I know! I'll try harder next time.
Summary: Kurama makes his move.
Part One: The Isolated Pawn
Part Two: Exchange Sacrifice
Part Three: The Captured King
Part Four: Hanging
Author's Note: "Komori Yu" is the name of the Japanese version of Spider-Man. I borrowed his name for the home of the Weavers.
Part Five: The King's Bishop
Wednesday afternoon, 11:52 am (human world time)
Kurama had felt eyes on his back all morning. Being watched was not an unfamiliar experience in the Makai, but this was not the usual eyes and ears of Yomi's court, or the here-then-gone flicker of Hiei dropping by on an errand for Mukuro, but something that raised his hackles and made him stretch his senses to the limit as he walked through every doorway and around every corner.
The sensation dulled somewhat in Yomi's antechamber, where Kurama suspected even Shura's inquisitive eyes dared not wander, but something told him that once he was out of Yomi's presence, it would return.
"I think I'll spend the day in the gardens," Kurama said as he stepped out of the room, half a step behind Yomi, and he felt the silent regard vanish.
The gardens were the one area Kurama considered his. He had claimed the fertile stretch of soil behind Yomi's palace and made it his own years ago when he had first begun to train Shura. Yomi had conceded it pleasantly enough, which meant that there had been overly-polite conversation about Kurama over-stepping his bounds and pointed remarks about neglecting his duties before Yomi had tired of the whole thing and made a gift of the space. Yomi could be predictable at times.
It was a place Kurama could generally count on being undisturbed. Plants in the Makai were not of any interest except as food – except the ones with teeth of their own, which were avoided at all costs – and Kurama's reputation for using them as weapons served to act as a reliable warning to most that they should search for their lunch elsewhere. Yomi himself could not be bothered to enter the gardens except on those occasions when he thought it would best serve to annoy Kurama.
Yomi's son was another story, a welcome visitor often wandering beneath the shade of maplewood and sakura trees as alien to the Makai as the janeju and firethorn vines were to the Ningenkai. Shura took after his father in that way – Yomi had the same appreciation for the exotic and unique, though he disguised it better and was not nearly so innocent in his regard.
Kurama hummed to himself as he walked through the gardens, pausing to examine the leaves of a rosebush. The song was one he'd heard only once, and that several hundred years ago when Kuronue had been spectacularly drunk, though the melody had stayed with him. It wasn't particularly catchy; Makai songs rarely were, and he could not remember the words. He was almost certain it was a drinking song of some kind, though. The tune was right. Besides, Kurama doubted Kuronue had known any other type of song.
The emptiness of the gardens made it easy for him to hear the rustle of bodies moving through the leaves, the pad of bare feet on the grass. Sweat and unfamiliar body odor stood out distinctly against the crisp smell of broken stems and crushed flowers. Kurama's human form was not as sensitive as his youko body, but if he concentrated he could still hear the soft rasp of breathing – heavy, heavy, soft – coming from three different sets of lungs.
Oh dear. He seemed to be surrounded. He hummed the end of the song with a flourish and made a mental note to see if Yuusuke had heard the words as he leaned over slightly, inspecting the tiny buds on the rosebush with an attention the perfectly healthy plant did not warrant.
From behind his left shoulder, several meters back, he heard the rustle of clothing and the whisper-soft movement of something – an arm or weapon – moving through the air as one of his stalkers made their first move.
He heard something cut through the air as he dodged, weight on his hands as he tucked his head down and pushed himself forward and up, flipping mid-air to face his attacker. He reached instinctively, following the sound more than the sight, and picked a clear glass dart out of the air less than a foot from his chest. He eyed it quickly, noting the clear liquid it contained within, permeated with the hint of youki and closed his fingers around it carefully before lifting his eyes to scan the trees surrounding him, making a show of looking for his attacker.
"Nice catch." The voice was feminine, congratulatory, as was the demon who stepped out from behind the concealing foliage of the lilac bush several yards away. "But I expected no less of Koenma's most competent servant."
Kurama dropped the dart into the dirt and commanded the grass roots to reach up and drag it beneath the soil. "Weaver," he acknowledged, pitching his voice on the high end, friendly and inquisitive. "You're a long way from the Komori Forest."
"Reikai dog," she said in kind, "you are a long way from your master's heels."
Kurama smiled, refusing to be provoked. It wouldn't be the first time he was accused of dancing to Koenma's tune, nor would it be the last. He did find himself wishing that occasionally someone would find something a little more relevant to insult him with. He'd robbed half the Makai in his day, but no one seemed to remember that. "What business is it of yours whose heels I sit at?" he asked, spreading his hands slightly in a shrug. "The Weaver kin don't bother themselves with the alliances of one demon." That was perhaps an overstatement, as the Weavers could not be bothered with much of anything outside their forest and the surrounding valleys and hills, but he felt he could be forgiven a mild exaggeration or two under the circumstances.
"The Weavers concern themselves with nothing but games of no great importance." The Weaver's voice dipped low and she took an aggressive step toward him. The silver bells threaded into her hair reflected the dim Makai light as she moved, chiming softly. "That is why they rule over nothing but a dreary forest."
Kurama felt his hackles rise, felt his youki stir uneasily. It was never promising when your opponent spoke of ruling or games.
"If you're interested in discussing politics," Kurama said easily, concentrating on the youki saturating the soil and plants around him, making himself ready, "perhaps I could arrange a meeting with King Yomi?"
The Weaver exhaled in a silent laugh and tipped her head, ink-black eyes regarding him through her lashes. "The false kings of the Makai have nothing to say that I want to hear. For now, you will do. You will come with us, Kurama."
"I'm afraid I have plans for this evening," Kurama said, turning to the side as if he planned to break away. He could hear shuffling in the trees from the two remaining watchers. "Perhaps if you left your card, I could get back to you when my calendar was clear?"
The concept of calling cards and appointment calendars was alien to her, and the tightening of her features made it clear she thought he was mocking her. Which, in all fairness, Kurama could admit he was. "You will come with us," the Weaver said again. She lifted one hand and Kurama deliberately took a defensive stance.
The remaining two watchers – the two heavy breathers – emerged from the forest with far less poise and delicacy than the Weaver had managed. One stomped like he was killing ants, heavy booted feet trampling across the grass and Kurama held his tongue as several small plants were crushed. The other was so busy keeping both eyes on Kurama that he nearly walked into a tree.
Good help, Kurama thought the human saying ruefully, but did not voice the sympathy. He was quite certain the Weaver was not here to exchange stories about the difficulties of leading a band of outlaws.
"You will come with us," the Weaver said for the third time.
Kurama risked turning his back to the Weaver, letting her think he was more wary of her helpers. "How could I turn down such a lovely invitation?" he asked. He edged backwards slightly, raising a hand to the side of his throat and palming the seed for the rose whip.
What do I know of Weavers? Kurama had never been to Komori Forest, and if he'd encountered a Weaver in the past, it had not left a lasting impression. He knew the stories, that they were conjurers and illusionists, capable of manipulating light and sound to create a false reality. So is any of this real?
Her two helpers certainly smelled real. Kurama was not receiving any conflicting input, either. His eyes were telling him the same things as his ears.
He heard the Weaver move behind him, the bells in her hair betraying her. He paused a heartbeat, then dodged again, letting the dart fly past him this time.
"My poison paralyzes the limbs and causes minor memory loss." The Weaver's voice was steady. If his hasty dodge had annoyed her, it did not show in her voice. "But it wears away eventually, leaving no permanent harm. Each additional dose makes the side effects longer and more painful. Eventually, the damage is permanent. For your human body, I'd say four doses would be enough to kill you."
"You've yet to hit me even once," Kurama pointed out, holding up his left hand, index finger pointing up. "Perhaps you're getting ahead of yourself?"
"You are outnumbered." Her bare foot padded softly against the soil as she took a deliberate step toward him. "You are surrounded." Another step. "And no one is likely to venture into these gardens until you are long past need of rescue. Do you need additional convincing, Kurama?"
They were all very good points, really. If not for the fact that these were his gardens, his plants, and he could at any moment bring the entire place alive beneath their feet with a mere thought. If she'd known half as much about his abilities as she seemed to think she did, she would never have followed him in here, let alone attempted to attack him.
He wondered what had brought a Weaver out of her forest, what had led her to enlist the aid of regular youkai, what had provoked her argument with him. He wondered what she had meant by her earlier statement about ruling.
He could stay here and bait her all day and learn nothing more than he already had, or he could play along, let her think she had the upper hand until he could determine what was really going on.
"I think you assume a great deal." He held himself still, ignoring her nearly-silent steps in favor of eyeing her minions suspiciously.
"I don't think I do." The Weaver fairly purred from only a few meters away.
Kurama let his eyes go wide and he straightened, turning to face her.
She bared her teeth in a lazy, gloating smile of victory and tossed a third glass dart to him.
Kurama caught it carefully. It was light, nearly weightless in his hand. He rolled the dart between his fingers and let himself smile grimly. "Tell me one thing," he said suddenly, putting just enough anger in his voice to guarantee they would listen. "Are you attempting to target Yomi? I'll tell you honestly: he doesn't care for me particularly. If you mean to take me hostage, he won't be swayed." Amused would far better fit Yomi's state of mind if such a situation were to occur.
The Weaver waved his words away like smoke. "Yomi is not our current concern."
Implying then that he would be a target in the future. Kurama wondered if the Weaver had deliberately given him that much information, or if she hadn't realized what she gave away.
"You don't expect me to poison myself?" Kurama gestured toward her with the dart.
"I do." The Weaver waved her hand again, dismissive. She'd bought his act and written him off as defeated. "Shall I repeat myself? No one is coming to your aid, youko. Administer the drug yourself, or I will." Her eyes narrowed and she bared her teeth slightly. "And I will use considerably more than one dose."
Overconfidence was such an unattractive trait in an opponent.
Kurama sent a spark of youki to one of the seeds he carried, hidden in his hair. The bloodflower was a beautiful flowering plant, whose blood-red blossoms were the only indication of its parasitic nature. He carefully controlled the growth of the plant, encouraging only the thin, hollow roots to grow. He sent one burrowing into the skin of his shoulder blade, where his hair would obscure any marks that may be left, and down the length of his left arm.
He nodded once to the Weaver, to show his compliance, and pierced the skin of his forearm with the glass dart.
His system absorbed some of the poison through contact; he could feel it burn, his human body offering little resistance. Most of it he emptied into the hollow root.
He tossed the empty dart at the Weaver's feet as he carefully healed the puncture wound in the root and ordered it to withdraw. It ached slightly as it slithered back up his arm, and he fought back a shiver as it extracted itself from his skin. It was full of the Weaver's poison; he couldn't reverse its growth and return it to the seed, as he did most of his plants. He held it in place at the base of his neck, letting it hold onto his hair until he could dispose of it without being seen.
The small amount of poison he had absorbed seeped through his blood already. The full dose would have devastated his human body and briefly, he wished he had thought to be in youko form before confronting them. But that might have made them cautious, and even his demon form might not have been able to combat a full dose. The Weaver's youki burned inside of him and it was enough to make his stomach turn. He was losing sensation in his outer extremities already.
Kurama let his knees buckle beneath him and he stumbled.
"Watch him," the Weaver ordered, her voice sharp. Kurama noted the sharpness. Perhaps she was not as certain of the poison's effectiveness as she pretended?
The two minions stomped over to his side. He ignored them as much as possible and focused inward, tracing the path and effect of the poison.
Kurama felt something slide through his skin, following the trail of the Weaver's poison into his blood, through his muscles, slithering around his bones and joints. It burned down the back of his throat and spread through his stomach and creeping tendrils pressed against his lungs and pulled at his breath.
Puppeteers, Kurama thought, a flicker of memory coming to light. Rumors that every so often a Weaver came about who could do more than create illusions.
The Weaver cupped his chin in her hand, her ink-black fingernails leaving marks in the soft skin of his throat. "Stand up, my little pawn."
Something slick and sweet bloomed on the back of Kurama's tongue as his legs started to move without his direction. Kurama's fingers dug into the earth beneath him and pushed; his legs drew up beneath him. He rose slowly, unsteadily. The Weaver pressed a hand against his chest.
"You're going to help us set a trap," she said.
Unnoticed by anyone, the bloodflower fell to the ground.
Wednesday afternoon, 11:59 pm (human world time)
As a thirteen-year-old wannabe street tough, Kuwabara had always believed that strength equaled power equaled fear and/or respect. He'd been strong, and as far as he'd known at the time, that meant he'd been powerful. For good measure he'd imagined a little bit of danger in there too, not like being a bad guy, but just enough that maybe the girls would think he was hot.
Vaguely Condor Joe but without the attitude problem. Or the ninja thing.
Anyway, it was a moot point because he'd never made it to the dangerous bad boy level of gangster hood. All the things you had to do to be dangerous generally involved being an asshole, and Kuwabara was the kind of guy who actually paid for his own porn and the only things he ever stole (besides one incident with a really sweet red convertible, but Urameshi was the one who'd done most of the stealing, Kuwabara had just been along for the ride, and anyway they'd brought it back with a full tank of gas) were his sister's cigarettes and Urameshi's beer. He couldn't help but feel that didn't really count. He was strong, but he wasn't dangerous.
Kurama was dangerous. Not very strong, not in human form anyway. Physical strength was the one area where Kuwabara had Kurama beat. For whatever good that did him when you realized Kurama knew about seventy thousand forms of martial arts and Kuwabara's style of fighting generally involved such complex techniques as "hitting shit", "stabbing shit" and occasionally the flashy tactic of "kicking shit in the head."
Of course, he'd learned to fight from repeated encounters with Urameshi, whose own tactics were more like "hitting shit" and the highly effective "hitting shit harder."
But Kurama had lived more than a thousand years in the Demon World, a place where a smart, careful demon would be eaten alive in ten seconds flat. He'd run a small chunk of it, apparently, as some kind of demonic criminal underlord or something; Kuwabara was vague on details. Decades after Kurama had fled to the human world, demons still recognized his name and face and reacted in fear.
Kuwabara was pretty fucking screwed, that was for sure.
In the half second between seeing Kurama and the attack, Kuwabara came up with about seven different ways he was going to die horribly and that wasn't counting the possibility that Hiei would throw him at Kurama as a sacrificial distraction.
"Oh, we are so screwed," he said. Hiei didn't hurry to disagree with him, which was a first.
Kurama stepped out of the edge of the swamp and leapt, six and a half feet of silver hair and lean muscle hurtling through the air straight for them.
The youko struck Kuwabara's hastily erected kekkai, orange light flashing briefly against his skin as the spiritual energy repelled him, then fell back, landing delicately on the balls of his feet. His tail swished briefly but his expression never wavered. This close, Kuwabara could feel the web of youki and enchantments wrapped around the youko's body. If he inhaled he could taste the cotton-candy stickiness that had ensnared Bishop; he could see the individual strands that criss-crossed Kurama's body like bright black tattoos against his skin and around his hair. They went inside, too, vanishing under the skin in places. Several thin threads hung from the youko's lips and dangled from beneath his fingernails.
"Screwed," Kuwabara said again. He flipped the spirit sword between his fingers, cracking his knuckles nervously as he did. Hiei was still and silent at his side and Kuwabara risked a sideways glance, unhappily willing to let the fire demon take the lead. If nothing else he could probably learn something from watching Hiei get slaughtered. A thought struck him and he narrowed his eyes. "Don't set Kurama on fire."
Hiei sounded exasperated. "He isn't who you need to be worrying about."
"Can you take him down?" If Hiei said yes, Kuwabara would laugh in his face.
"Only as a last resort." The Jagan flared beneath its wards, briefly, and Kuwabara thought of Kurama's brains liquefying and dripping out his ears.
"Yeah," Kuwabara said. "Let's not try that." He concentrated on the pulse of reiki in his blood and the force of the kekkai surrounding them. Kurama stood only a few feet away, leaning forward into the invisible barrier and Kuwabara could feel every ounce of force the youko was exerting. Something about that was off, something was missing, but Kuwabara couldn't figure out what. "We need a plan," he said.
"Drop the kekkai," Hiei ordered.
And okay, yeah, it was juvenile, but when Hiei started snapping orders Kuwabara's first instinct was mainly to be contrary. "No. Why?"
"We can't stand here and stare at each other all night."
Kuwabara frowned. Kurama was pressed against the barrier, but it was no more pressure than you'd get if someone was leaning against a glass door. He could keep the kekkai up for at least a few hours at this rate, assuming nothing else came along that distracted his attention or diverted his reikai away from maintaining it. A stalemate.
No, worse. Because they'd be stuck behind the barrier, waiting for Kurama to magically come to his senses while Kingman's forces were free to give Kurama backup. The kekkai wouldn't hold against a determined attack, and if they came from more than one side, his concentration would be diverted.
Little shrimp had a point. Damnit.
Hiei apparently was following his train of thought – and wasn't that a scary thought? "So we hit him fast, take him down."
"You said yourself you were afraid to fight Kurama," Kuwabara pointed out. "And he's only gotten better since then. All of a sudden you think he's a pushover?"
"I'm not fighting Kurama," Hiei said. "I'm fighting the Queen. Kurama stopped calling the shots." He drew his katana; his arm moved so quickly that it blurred slightly. "So drop the kekkai before I go through it."
"No, stop – look!" Kuwabara snapped his fingers irritably. "We can't stop him this way, not as long as she's controlling him. She's got her threads into him. If we tie him up, she'll just make him fight anyway, maybe hurt him breaking free, and eventually we'll end up killing him by accident just trying to restrain him. We need to break her control."
Hiei snarled, which could pass for agreement if Kuwabara didn't look too closely at the expression on his face. "What do you suggest then?"
"Look, he's not using his youki, right?" That was what was missing. It wasn't that there was a lack of plants for Kurama to play with – the swamp just a few meters away would have kept him supplied against a hundred opponents, let alone the two of them. If Kurama had been using his powers against them, they'd have been dragged underground by overgrown roots and left to smother in the dirt by now, kekkai or no. "So one of us should be able to hold our own against him for a little while." Hiei was faster than Kurama, Kuwabara stronger. Alone, one of them could probably hold out for a reasonable amount of time. "I'll stay here, you go find Urameshi."
"You think you can take Kurama on yourself."
Kuwabara made a mental note to take serious offense at the tone in Hiei's voice later, when they weren't about to die horribly. "I think you're faster than I am and that you can go in, get Urameshi, and get out again in the time it takes me to sneeze." He grit his teeth. "But hey, if you think I'd be better able to defeat the Kingman and his minions than you, then by all fucking means-"
The fire demon glanced over his shoulder toward them mountain, a curiously blank expression on his face. "If you die, Kurama's going to be emotional."
Kuwabara grinned. "Then you better hurry." He didn't give any warning; he just let the kekkai fall.
Hiei vanished from sight, his movements so fast that Kuwabara couldn't follow them visually without concentrating. He could feel Hiei's youki for a minute like a receding flame at his back.
Kurama surged forward impossibly fast, moving from stationary to attack mode almost faster than Kuwabara could process. Not as fast as Hiei or Urameshi – Superman had nothing on those two; faster than a speeding bullet nothing – but faster than Kuwabara could move. Fast enough.
He had time to dodge only because he'd been expecting Kurama to rush him. He ducked low, avoiding the blow Kurama was aiming at his face, braced his hands against the ground and swung his leg out, knocking Kurama's feet out from under him.
The youko fell, his legs cutting a swath in the sand as he slid down. Fell. Kurama put ballerinas and martial artists to shame. He'd taught Kuwabara that move and how to counter it.
That answers that, Kuwabara thought with grim satisfaction, pushing himself back up onto his feet and ignoring the sand that clung to his palm. I'm not fighting Kurama. I'm fighting the Queen. His chances of living through the next hour or two were looking better every minute.
A few feet away, Kurama rose from the sand, the skin on his left leg scraped red and beaded with blood.
Kuwabara backed off a few steps, letting the youko pace him step for step until they were nearly moving in synch. "So is this the part where I say 'Oh, Kurama, I know you're in there somewhere' and you clutch your head and stagger around until you break her control by sheer force of will and I swoon or something?" He considered that. "I'm not swooning, I don't care what the movies say." He stepped sideways instead of backwards and Kurama almost stumbled before mimicking him. "So can your black widow monster woman hear us?" He waggled his eyebrows. "Or is she too busy biting Kingman's head off?"
Kurama swung at him, his full weight behind the blow. Kuwabara grabbed him by the wrist and used the youko's forward momentum to throw him forward, sending the youko crashing to the ground. "Or – hey, she's not biting Urameshi's head off, is she? Because Keiko'd never stand for it."
Provoking Kurama was almost as much fun as provoking Hiei, but a lot harder. Kuwabara had made something of an art form of it over the years. This was too easy to be any fun, though. Kurama never would have let a stupid joke like that taunt him into a reaction.
"You know," Kuwabara said, huffing irritably and planting on hand on his hip, "other guys get to rescue hot red-headed girls and wake them with a kiss. I get Kurama the Wonder Puppet trying to disembowel me. There's no justice."
Kurama heard that one. The youko's next attack was a bit more emphatic and a bit less clumsy. Kurama actually growled as he surged to his feet and dove at Kuwabara, getting his arms around the human's waist and knocking them both into the dirt. Kuwabara winced mentally before he swung, cracking Kurama across the jaw with a right hook that made the youko's head snap back.
With a little effort Kuwabara managed to shove Kurama off him. He rolled with him and grabbed Kurama's wrists, holding them against the youko's chest. "All right, all right, stop helping her, Kurama. I promise not to compare you to any more fairy-tale princesses, all right?" He grimaced as Kurama tried to pull free and tightened his grip. It would be too easy to hurt Kurama by accident this way. "I don't suppose you want to sit quietly and wait for the others to get back, huh?"
Kurama bucked underneath him and Kuwabara barely managed to twist in time to block Kurama's knee with his hip – "Fighting like a girl!" – and Kurama took advantage of his distraction to wrench one hand free and dig his claws into Kuwabara's upper arm.
It was a minor wound, but it still hurt and Kuwabara hissed through his teeth as Kurama raked his hand down the length of his arm, shredding the sleeve of his jacket and gouging the skin beneath.
"Not the clothes!" Kuwabara grabbed at Kurama's wrist, grimacing slightly at the blood smearing across his fingers. "I've already lost an entire outfit because of you people and a brand new pair of sneakers, and now I have to replace my favorite coat, too?"
Kurama snarled and lunged upward, pushing against the hand Kuwabara still held pressed against his chest.
Kuwabara jerked backwards just as Kurama's teeth snapped shut half an inch from his face, nearly tearing a chunk of skin from his cheek. It was as much surprise as anything that made him loose his grip, cannibalism having been very low on the list of things Kuwabara was expecting next.
And okay, yeah, just a bite, but damn Kurama's youko form had some sharp teeth.
He rolled away from the youko and pushed himself up with his injured arm, winching slightly, but the muscles were already healing, the skin slowly knitting itself back together. In a few minutes the jacket would be the only casualty.
"Lady," Kuwabara said, wagging a finger at her, "you are seriously tempting my policy against beating up girls."
Kurama paused a few feet away and pointed at something behind Kuwabara's back.
One eye kept warily on Kurama, expecting a trick of some kind, Kuwabara risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Hiei stood on a low hill a few dozen meters away, watching them fight. Kuwabara drew in breath to call out to him, ask what if he was waiting for an invitation or what, when he saw the hair-like black threads running through Hiei's skin and eyes.
Kuwabara threw a hand up in the air, the tattered sleeve of his jacket almost sliding all the way down to his shoulder. "The plan was not hard! Go in, don't get caught by the evil spider-monsters, get Urameshi, get out! Four steps, Hiei! What part was it exactly that confused you?" He resisted the urge to flip Hiei off and settled for yelling "You little midget!" as loudly as he could.
Okay. Bad, meet worse.
Hiei's head was tilted to the side, his eyes half-closed. One leg lifted like a marionette on a string and jerked forward; his whole body spasmed slightly, his arms flopping at his sides.
Then he straightened and vanished, moving too fast to see, too fast for Kuwabara to avoid.
To be continued in Counterplay
With any luck it won't take me seven months to update the next chapter. ^_^