Part 9:  Demon Imps; Draco’s Move

Hermione spent a good twenty minutes growling to herself in her empty dorm room, a few parchments scattered over the floor from where she’d flung herself
on the bed.  She’d stormed upstairs with every intention of avoiding the childish boys for the rest of the school year.  It wasn’t the teasing that upset her.  It
was hearing them joke about things she’d secretly been considering herself.  

Her gaze fell to one of those loose papers, a crinkled white sheet filled with scrawling lines and cramped text that had been crossed out and rewritten in the
margins, only to be scribbled out again.  The arrows started from the center of the page and weaved down to connect one clump of text after another.  She’d
spent hours on it, hunched over one of the little tables in the Gryffindor common room until long after midnight.  And then, just when she’d been torn on how to
admit the idea to her friends, what did they do?  They threw it right back at her like the joke she knew it was.

She knew it was ridiculous, ludicrous, impossible.  She knew it was.  It was a joke.  It was also the only thing she’d come up with after hours of brainstorming
possibilities.  And now she’d never find a way to even broach the subject without Harry and Ron laughing at her.

Hermione cleaned up the room mechanically, stacking the parchments neatly and putting them back where they’d been on the foot of her bed.  The scribbled
page she kept and carried downstairs with her.  The notes, written without the heavy hand she used when she was sure of something, were almost impossible
to read, faint and sketchy, with only those scribbled out sections catching the eye.  She read each one as she walked, not looking at the carpet or her target.  
By the time she stopped in front of the fireplace in the common room, she’d read the page of notes three times.

It still made more sense than anything else she could think of.  A joke.  A joke made more sense than any reasonable explanation she could come up with.  
What did that say for her intelligence?

She lifted the page to skim one last time.  

Kyuubi; multi-tailed fox form and too old to bother with a humanoid form, meaning he did have one – fox and humanoid form.  Death – spirit sealed into a
human baby.  
Youko Kurama; multi-tailed fox form, tailed humanoid form.  Death – unknown.  Death – undetermined.
Kurama (Shuuichi); multi-tailed fox form, tailed humanoid form, plus a normal human form.  
Human baby; two spirits; sealed spirit – death, spirit not sealed – possession.

Possession equals what?  Imperius?  Mind control? Death?  Merger?
Who is Shuuichi?
Who was Shuuichi??

The map registers the body, not the spirit.
Kurama – youko, magical creature.  Shuuichi – host, human.  One body registers, the others don’t.

Harry said it first.  I didn’t listen.
It’s preposterous.

She watched with resentful eyes as the fire turned her scribbles into crinkled soot.  Even if it were true, and Harry had gotten it right from the start, they
considered it a joke.  Either she treated it as a joke, and they teased her by pretending it was the truth, or she admitted it might be true, and they laughed at
her for being gullible.

Better to just let it go.  The strangers hadn’t done anything threatening.  She wasn’t being graded or judged on how well she solved the mystery.  And
honestly, she knew it wasn’t worth the frustration.  There were hundreds of issues, millions of things she wanted to learn about the wizarding world without
getting stuck on any one unknown.  Her time would be better spent investigating those transitoriums, whatever events they were, than racking her brain over
Kurama’s species and circumstances.  As she’d told Ron, she didn’t have a crush on Kurama, he’d simply sparked her curiosity.

Curiosity motivated her like nothing else could, urging her to strive for those top marks, not just to prove a mudblood could perform magic with the best of
them, but to find the kinks in this age old society.  It wasn’t enough for her to be a good wizard, capable of casting spells too difficult for her classmates.  She
wanted to be a useful member of the wizarding world.  Hers wasn’t just motivation to understand and succeed, it was motivation to succeed in something
worthwhile.  That sort of reasoning made her determined to stick with her campaign for House Elf rights, one of the most blatant ‘kinks’ she’d found in the way
wizards lived.

Harry would have been appalled to learn that she’d kept up her muggle studies during the summer, going over the same textbooks muggles her age were
expected to know.  Her family lived in that world, along with everyone she’d ever known before coming to Hogwarts.  No matter what she was told in her Muggle
Studies class, she knew wizards could learn a thing or two from muggles.  Like how reprehensible slavery was, for starters.  And she was just the muggle-born
wizard to teach it to them…after she finished learning everything she could about wizards.

With her attention nicely diverted to those mysterious Transitoriums and righteous causes like protecting amiable house elves, who, in her opinion, were no
more animals than mentally handicapped humans or eager-to-please children, Hermione set her shoulders back and left the common room.  On her way out,
she gave a friendly smile to the fat lady in the portrait guarding Gryffindor tower.  

Now that she wasn’t berating herself, or letting her brain tie itself into frustrated little knots, she was eager to settle things with Harry and Ron.  They’d only
been teasing her in that annoying but typical way they had.  She couldn’t very well call them immature when if she overreacted every time they teased her.

She was nearing the stairs when she collided with someone exiting rapidly from an empty classroom.  The impact threw her off balance, causing her to stumble
sideways and into the opposite wall.  She was startled to find herself facing off with a very angry pair of Slytherins, the last two students she’d expected, or
wanted, to see in the empty hallway.

“Watch where you’re going,” Goyle barked, his shoulders hunching up as if he didn’t already outweigh her by half a ton.

Hermione’s expression settled into one of cool disdain, a façade she’d used to get out of more than one intimidation session with these particular bullies.  
Crabbe was curling his fists in front of him, having come out of the room to glower at her menacingly.  She responded by straightening her robe and pulling
her wand free where they’d be sure to see it.  As dim as they were, they knew better than to start a magical confrontation with her.  She might not have had
Harry’s gift of getting out of tight situations, but she knew more than her fair share of hexes.

“What’s this?” a sly voice questioned from behind the hulking pair.  Draco stepped into view and leveled an amused look at the bristling Gryffindor.  “Did you
bump into a mudblood, Goyle?  I hope you didn’t get any on you.”

Crabbe had a loud, obnoxious laugh at that.  Draco had started off down the hall and he hurried to follow.  They made it a few steps before they realized
Goyle hadn’t moved.

“She was spying,” Goyle accused, almost spitting the words.

Draco flinched and whipped around to send a dangerous glare at his lackey.  “Let’s go, Goyle,” he said tightly.

As long as she’d known the three, Hermione couldn’t remember ever having seen one of Malfoy’s lackeys ignore an order.  She was naturally shocked when
Goyle lunged at her, snatching her wand with one hand and shoving her back into the wall with the other.  The boy raised his fists with an almost maniacal
gleam in his eyes, as if he wanted nothing more than to pummel her.  And she had a strange idea that it wasn’t personal, that he’d have had the same reaction
no matter who had bumped into him.  Wrong place, wrong time.

Hermione didn’t try to push away from the wall.  She stayed still and let her eyes snap from the furious Goyle, who seemed to be waiting for her rise and give
him a reason to punch her back down, over to Malfoy, whose eyes were venomous slits in his white face.  They both looked like they wanted to kill someone,
but at least Malfoy’s glare wasn’t directed at her.  A flicker of dread started in her stomach and she was suddenly very aware of how quiet the hall was.

She shot a look past Malfoy to where Crabbe was standing with blatant confusing on his mottled face.  There obviously wouldn’t be any help from that quarter.  
A glance down the other side of the hall had her breath catching in disbelief.  She was so relieved to see a professor standing there, any professor, that she
didn’t stop to wonder how long he’d been watching the scene.  She didn’t even care how many points were unfairly deducted from her house.

Snape glared at the surprised, and almost happy look the Gryffindor girl shot him.  He’d been hoping the situation would defuse itself, but now that Hermione
had spotted him, Goyle and the others weren’t far behind.  He made it a point not to so much as look at Draco as he advanced toward the little group.  His
attention immediately centered on the wand wrapped in Goyle’s fat fist.

“What were you planning to do with that wand, Mr. Goyle?” Snape inquired softly.

The boy glowered and threw the offending object onto the floor.  Hermione winced at the impact.  She didn’t hesitate in snatching it up and checking it for
cracks.  Naturally distracted as she was, she was startled when Draco spoke up in a surprisingly cold voice.

“We took it from Granger,” Draco stated, moving to stand beside Goyle as if the encounter had been his idea from the start.  “It appeared she planned to use
it.  We acted in self-defense.  Isn’t that right, Goyle.”

Goyle’s head snapped up and he nodded sharply.  “She started it.”

Hermione was taken back by the looks the Slytherins were giving the head of their house, expressions of distaste and dislike the professor usually received
from everyone but Slytherins.  Snape didn’t seem to notice.  He turned his cool stare down on her, and she straightened with a resigned frown, ready to hear
how many points he deducted from Gryffindor for her having almost gotten attacked.  She didn’t bother to say anything in her defense, reminding herself that
she could make the points up in her classes, just by correctly answering a few extra questions.

Snape almost sneered at the belligerent stare.  He’d come to realize he wouldn’t get any open disrespect from this student, not matter how provoked she was.  
And that just made him dislike her all the more.  “You’d do well to watch who you pull a wand on, Miss Granger.  Consider this a warning.”

For one fleeting moment Hermione wondered if Snape hadn’t just been lenient with her.  She turned to stare after him suspiciously.  It wasn’t until he
disappeared from sight that she realized he’d just left her alone with the Slytherins again.  And from the dark, calculating look Malfoy was sending her, she’d
have been better off in detention.

-.-.-

Harry and Ron were well into their third game of wizard chess when a little voice started offering tips into Harry’s ear.  His first reaction was the most natural
one possible.  He jumped a foot off the ground and scattered the chess pieces all over the grass.  He was rewarded by a squabble of angry sounds from
above his head.

“Aren’t you a rude one!” the high pitched voice cried from the shadowy foliage, its English tainted by what might have been an American accent.  “I swear, that’
s the last time I help a wizard!  I won’t do it again, I won’t, I won’t!  Rude, ungrateful, nasty wizards.  Even the little ones are rude!  It’s all true, every bit of it!”

Ron and Harry slowly moved back to stare up at the tree with very wide eyes.   Harry adjusted his glasses and considered using his wand to illuminate the
shadows that voice was coming from.  Instead, he cleared his throat and addressed Ron from the side of his mouth.

“It was whispering in my ear,” Harry hissed, flashing a worrisome look at his friend.  “Did you see what it was?”

Ron shook his head without taking his eyes off the limb he suspected the thing was hiding behind.  A sharp rustle sent leaves falling onto their heads.

“Don’t talk like I can’t hear you,” the little voice muttered, a pale something peeking out from around the limb.  “And put that stick away before I hit you with it.  I
was invited here!”

Harry winced a little as he quickly shoved his wand back into his pocket.  He cleared his throat again and addressed the creature with what he hoped was a
sincere tone.  “I’m sorry for jumping.  You startled me.  I didn’t think there were any talking magical creatures here aside from the house elves.”

“Magical creature?  Magical?  You wish,” came the sullen, insulted response.  A quiet fluttering knocked more leaves from the tree and a tiny creature flew
down to hover right in front of Harry’s face.  Its body was a pale grayish blue tone, the leathery wings and wispy hair just a shade darker.  What really caught
him by surprise was that the creature was familiar – and entirely nude.  Harry blushed and leaned away.  Ron didn’t notice the second detail since those wings
were facing him, rather than the little female’s smooth…attributes.

“It’s a bloody imp!” Ron blurted, goggling at the thing.

“That’s right,” the female chirped, her voice shifting from hostile to smug.  She flashed the redhead a friendly smile over her shoulder.  Then she abandoned
Harry in favor of taking a perch on the cleared chess board in front of Ron.  If she noticed the boy’s surprise at her lack of human dress, she didn’t show it.

“The name’s Kiri,” she said.  “I’m looking for a carrot hair, a glass eyes, and a fuzzy brain.  Couldn’t find a smart girl I’d call fuzzy, but you two fit the other
descriptions.  I didn’t think you’d go being rude to me when I was offering a little help.  That’ll teach me not to listen to my cousins about rude wizardlets.”

This last bit was muttered with a sidelong look at Harry, who was too preoccupied with the ‘glass eyes’ description to notice.  Ron took it better.  For him, being
called a carrot-head was as common an insult as ‘weasel’ – he’d been called a lot worse.  If anything, he was too amused at the thought of calling Hermione a
fuzzy brain to be insulted.

“You were looking for us, were you?” asked Ron.  He smiled and leaned down a little so the imp wouldn’t have to crane her head back to see him.  “That’s a
real coincidence, considering we just read about your kind not more than two days ago.  Even stranger since we heard demon imps were extinct…”

Kiri snorted in disdain, though it wasn’t really directed at Ron in particular.  “Extinct are we?  Nasty wizards…”

“Hey,” Harry protested, “I already apologized.  I didn’t insult you, I just jumped a little.  That’s no reason to-“

“Was I talking about you?” asked Kiri, her expression more amused than anything.  “You’re rude, but for a little wizard, you’re not so bad.”

It was rather strange to be called ‘little’ by something that was less than a foot tall.  The boys exchanged a bemused look.  Since she seemed to have taken a
liking to Ron, he asked the question on both of their minds.

“Who told you about us?” asked Ron.  “What made you come to Hogwarts?”

“Cousin of mine,” said Kiri, “and I’m looking for a hanyou, giant mix.  Name of Hagrid?  I was told three wizardlets would show me to him.  But I couldn’t find the
fuzzy brain.  Does she have to be here?”

Ron muffled an involuntary snicker behind his hand.  Hermione was a brain, and her hair was rather fuzzy when she wore it down.  But he’d never have put the
two together like that.  Since he was occupied, Harry answered Kiri’s question.

“We can show you to Hagrid,” said Harry.  “Hermione’s in the castle somewhere.”

“Great,” Kiri chirped.  “After the way you acted when I showed up, I thought you’d leave me to find him myself.  Not many people with good things to say about
wizards, you know.  It’s nice that little ones like you two are still decent.  It’ll be a shame when you grow up and forget that.  I guess it can’t be helped, though.  
Don’t get to pick your race, now do you?”

She flashed Harry such a bright smile that he hid his doubtful expression behind a weak grin.  She seemed to have a very low opinion of wizards, and the easy
way she slandered them told him it was common where she came from.  He could only wonder where that was, considering wizards were spread out almost
everywhere.

They packed up the chess game, Kiri helping them find the smaller pieces that were hidden by the grass.  She then disappeared with a quick reassurance that
she would follow.  She just didn’t want to be spotted by the other wizardlets till she’d talked with the hanyou.  The boys were silently relieved to hear that since
she’d have attracted quite a bit of attention if the other students saw her flittering around overhead.

Ron took to watching the sky, curious to see where she was hiding when they crossed the open yard.  It wasn’t until they neared Hagrid’s hut that he spotted a
pale flicker in the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest.  He and Harry approached the edge, getting close enough so she’d hear them, but not close enough to
get eaten by any creatures hiding in the shadows.  He’d just opened his mouth when she shot a startled look past him and disappeared.

Harry glanced over his shoulder and straightened at the sight of the students approaching them.  He had his wand in his hand immediately, Ron following suit
a few seconds later.

“No need for that,” Draco said smoothly.  “We’re here to have a little talk with you, Potter.  If you care to follow, I’m sure you’ll find it very interesting.  It
concerns your pet mudblood.  I’m sure you’ve noticed her absence by now…?”

The blonde boy passed them with a taunting look that wasn’t nearly as obvious as Crabbe and Goyle’s smug sneers.  Ron paled, and Harry stiffened so much
he nearly snapped his wand in his fist.  The two turned to stare at the three Slytherins, watching them enter the forest so slowly it was clear they expected to
be followed.  After a few seconds of sharp, angry silence, Harry and Ron did just that.

Draco didn’t stop until he’d reached a small clearing that was far enough from the yard to suit him, but not so far that they’d be unable to escape if something
attacked them.  He wasn’t the least bit surprised to see that the Gryffindors had taken the bait.  The entire house was filled with would-be heroes, but Potter
was particularly bad about it.  There hadn’t been any question of whether or not he’d follow.

The first thing Harry noticed was that Malfoy’s lackeys weren’t visible until he’d actually entered the clearing.  He wasn’t surprised to see them step out to block
the way he and Ron had come in.  But since he still had his wand in hand, he wasn’t worried, either.  Ron, on the other hand, looked rather peaked, his face
flushed with anger and pale with worry.  The mix simply didn’t go with his freckled complexion.

“What did you do?” Harry asked coldly.

Draco’s lips curved into a darkly amused smile.  “I didn’t do a thing.  The mudblood was the one who didn’t know when to keep her wand out of sight.  Rather
like you, isn’t she?  If you want to know where she is, I suggest you put that away.  Better yet…”

Crabbe stalked toward Harry with a hand out as if he expected him to hand over his weapon.  Harry snorted and waved the wand at the boy, causing the
coward to halt in surprise.

“You’re not getting my wand,” Harry scoffed.  He shoved it into his pocket and turned back to glaring at Malfoy.  Ron’s hands were shoved into his own
pockets, so between them they were as prepared as they would have been with their wands visible.  

“Well?” prodded Harry.  “You said you wanted to talk, Malfoy.”

“I lied,” said Draco.

Harry had barely pulled his wand free when Draco’s hex hit him.  He let out a choked breath, his arms and legs stiffening till he tipped over like nothing so
much as a felled tree.  Ron cast a spell at Draco, but it flew wild.  Crabbe and Goyle had lunged forward to catch his arms.  Between them, they easily
restrained him.  Draco didn’t even need to dodge.

“Nicely done,” Draco nodded, his lackeys grinning in response.

That incident in the hall had been dangerous for him, hinting at how things would go if he ever lost control of either Crabbe or Goyle.  But he’d made up for
that by taking the blame in front of the ‘traitor’.  Not only had he kept his cool, but he had – in Goyle’s eyes – protected him by putting himself in the line of
fire.  Thanks to that, this little ruse was child’s play.

Draco crossed to the struggling Weasely and plucked the boy’s wand free.  He dropped it onto the grass and nodded to Goyle.  The Slytherin promptly put
Ron into a choke hold that kept his head from moving.  Harry was making muffled sounds from where he'd fallen.  While he couldn't exactly move, he was very
aware of the situation.  Draco casually lowered his wand so it was aimed at the prostrate boy.

“Accio map."

Harry's eyes bulged, and Ron was so surprised he stopped struggling against the suffocating hold the Slytherins had on him.  There was a faint fluttering in
Harry's robe, then the Marauder's Map floated over to Draco's hand.  The blonde boy stared down at it with a quiet frown, the tip of his wand ghosting over the
seemingly blank parchment.  After a moment he grimaced and shot Ron a distasteful glower.  Goyle promptly tightened his arm around the redhead's neck.

"Want me to beat it out of him?" Goyle asked eagerly.

Ron's face went white behind his freckles, which, in Draco's opinion, was a good look for him.  As much as he would have liked to see how long it really took to
make a Gryffindor spill his guts, he didn't have all day.  Draco stepped forward and caught Ron's eyes as he cast a spell he'd seldom had reason to use.  It
was a very...distasteful sort of spell.  He'd practiced it so much on Crabbe and Goyle that he knew more about the two idiots than anyone in his right mind
wanted to know.  Having to use it on a Weasely?  He'd sooner have kissed a Hufflepuff.

The spell Draco cast was spoken so quietly Ron couldn't quite make it out.  The effect reminded him sharply of the Imperius curse Moody had cast on them
their fourth year, only instead of separating from his sense of self and becoming distant, he separated from his sense of reality.  One moment he was staring
warily into Draco's eyes and the next he was bombarded by random memories.  It was as if everything he'd done in the last week was replaying in his mind,
broken by glimpses of much older memories from his childhood as the youngest male in a very crowded house.  Those were brief and painful, but his mind
jumped out of them seconds after they started, too quick for him to lodge a mental protest at having to relive the scenes.

The confusing images faded into a single scene, the darkened library as Harry crouched and checked his map for the unidentified thing at the end of the
hallway.  Ron watched with wary curiosity, the same as he had the first time he'd lived the scene.  It wasn't until Harry spoke the password that Ron realized
what was happening.  He tried to push the memory away, to do whatever it was that had let Harry fight the Imperius curse in that Defense class.  All he
managed was a desperate litany of no's.  He was still chanting the word in his mind when reality crept back to him.

He was panting over his knees and sweat dripped into his eyes when he forced them open to stare blearily at the grass beneath him.  A furious sound was
coming from his left, but it seemed to take a huge amount of effort to turn his head and find out what it was.  His vision cleared enough for him to make out
Harry, still immobilized and stiff, but making a muffled 'nn!' sound that was clearly an attempt to say his name.  Ron groaned and crushed a hand over his face.

"Bloody hell...!  Harry, I'm so sorry.  He got the password!  I don't know how he did it, but-"

That 'nn' sound was repeated loudly, Harry's eyes staring hard at him, then flicking over to the two wands lying placidly in the grass between them.  Ron
jumped a little.  He hurried to undo the hex, surprising himself at how well he stood when his legs felt like mush.

"Egh!” Harry blurted, stretching his jaw and rubbing a hand over his cheek where grassy impressions had made for an itchy green stain.  “Remind me never to
leave anyone with petrificus totalus.  I’m surprised Neville forgave Hermione after she used it on him that time.  Who knows how long he was stuck that way...”

“Harry,” Ron scowled.  “I’d rather not remind you why you should be yelling at me right now, but I just said Malfoy got the password - for the map.  Whatever he
hit me with, it made me remember all this stuff and you saying the password was the last thing.  Who knows what that wart plans to do with the Marauder’s
Map.”

Harry shook his head.  He was still wincing from the painful awakening of previously stiff limbs - his legs being the most vocal whiners of the lot - and his
expression was painful when he glanced up at Ron.  “I don’t care what he plans to do with it.  We can get it back later.  Don’t you think we have something a
little more important to be worried about right now?  We didn’t find out what they did with Hermione...”

“Bloody hell...,” Ron said again, his face twisted as if he’d been punched in the gut.  “Can this day get any worse?”

“Let’s not find out,” Harry retorted.

They helped each other up, neither being exactly light on his feet.  Then they bolted out of the forest, their wands ready in their hands and their thoughts
centered on the fact that Malfoy and his thugs couldn’t be too far ahead of them.  They’d just crashed out of the underbrush when a flapping, chittering Kiri
flew into Harry’s face.  Her exclamations came so quickly they sounded more like bird chirps than English words.

“Not now,” said Harry, waving the imp off.  “I don’t care if it’s rude, we don’t have time to play with you.”

“Play??” Kiri screeched.

“Really, Harry, is that any way to speak to an endangered species?”

That lightly condescending and lecturing tone was unmistakable.  Harry and Ron gaped and ducked past the outraged imp, their exclamations drowning out
anything Hermione might have said.  She snapped her mouth closed and stared at her seemingly insane friends as they circled her, Ron giving her a poke on
the shoulder and laughing when he found her solid enough.

“Have the two of you completely lost your minds?” asked Hermione, her tone just a little exasperated.  “What’s wrong with you?  And stop poking me, Ron!  
Honestly.  You don’t just run up to a girl and start poking her.”

Ron’s ears flushed red and he quickly stepped away, his hands curled behind his back.  His scowl was weak at best.  “It’s Hermione, all right.”

“Of course it’s me,” scoffed Hermione, with a perplexed frown.  “Kiri came to find me. She said you’d been cornered by dark wizards...!”

“Malicious,” Kiri piped in, “I said malicious wizardlets.  They weren’t dark at all, especially the smart one.  He was light and bright, brain-bright, not that he
glowed.”

“Right,” Hermione said slowly.  She stared at the odd imp for a moment before turning back to Harry and Ron.

“It was Malfoy,” said Harry.  “He gave some story about...he tricked us.  Tricked us to get the map.”

“And we jumped right in to play heroes, just like always,” Ron groaned.  “Bloody hell....”

Harry twitched and sent his friend an irritated scowl.  “Would you stop saying that?”

“Both of you stop,” said Hermione, her tone just a little sharp.  “Malfoy has the map?  Does he know how to use it?”

“He knows, all right,” Ron blurted, “I’d say he knows.  He took it right out of my head.  I had a Malfoy in my head...!”

The boy’s theatrics didn’t quite elicit sympathy from Harry, who’d figured out what spell Malfoy had used on Ron.  He looked away.  “At least it wasn’t a
Snape...”

Eight yards and a dimension away from the group, another confrontation had met with an equally anti-climactic end.  A slight detour through the trunk of a
seemingly normal tree in the Forbidden Forest opened up to a foreign landscape.  The trees here were sparse and twisted, fireproof gray-blue bark clashing
with blackened leaves.  The ground was ashy and torn in places, deep furrows plowed down to reveal bones and creeping shadows that peeked at the gray
sky before ducking back into their subterranean nests.  The only movement in the mile-wide circumference of post-battle destruction came from a pale figure,
who sat calmly combing tangles out of his silver tail.

Kurama was in a very good mood.  He was sporting some new scrapes and burns to go with his injured palm, minuscule damage compared to his poor plants.  
If he hadn’t enjoyed expending waves of excess youki, he’d have felt guilty for sending some of his favorite seeds into untimely, ashy, deaths.  Unfortunately
for his plants, he and Hiei hadn’t found more than a handful of weak demons in the area, most of whom had run for cover the moment they stepped through
the barrier and into the Makai.  That had left them with little option but to spar, and while Kurama did enjoy a challenge, he’d been looking forward to
terrorizing a few cocky demons, preferably ones who didn’t recognize him on sight.

He finished grooming his silky tail and let it curl beside him in the soft grass he’d grown after the match.  It wouldn’t matter when he eventually shifted back to
his human body, but he disliked getting his hair dusty and tangled.  There was nothing more outlandish than an unkempt youko.  This thought would have
brought a snort if he’d said it out loud, providing his partner had been awake to hear it.  Kurama started on his hair and sent an amused look over at Hiei.  

The demon had managed to fall straight back when he’d passed out, the result of having used his ultimate attack one time too often.  Kurama had been nice
enough to plan that the moment the match started, conning Hiei to use his dragon against his plants, and then on himself so they could engage in more tactile
combat.  He considered it nice on his part because they’d both known who would win in a physical confrontation, without fire or plants to do the fighting for
them.  Kurama had lost just badly enough to annoy him, an irritation that was soothed the moment Hiei pitched over in a dead sleep.  It was difficult to remain
angry with someone who couldn’t stay awake long enough to finish his victory taunts.

Kurama let out a quiet chuckle at Hiei’s expense.  The sound startled the ugly green bur that had been dozing near Hiei’s wrist.  Its scratchy voice was almost
as nasty as its appearance.

“Whatever you’re planning, you can just keep to yourself.  I know your kind.”

Kurama’s pale golden eyes flicked over to glare at the parasite.  “Watch your tongue or I’ll remove it for you.”

“Urk!”   

The little trollish imp glowered at him and ducked lower behind Hiei’s arm, using the black cloth as a shield.  Kurama let out an annoyed sigh and forced his
gaze away.  The thing had shown up right in the middle of their fight, interrupting them long enough for Hiei to get a devious idea.  They’d heard from one of
the professors that the girl, Hermione, had asked about demon imps.  Naturally Hiei had jumped at the opportunity to pick on Kurama’s ‘pet’.  The only reason
Kurama was tolerating the ugly imp’s presence was because it had sent one of its cousins to Hogwarts.  They hadn’t figured out a plan to replace the giant’s
geezard, and Hiei had thought it a funny idea to send an illegal creature over to act as translator - and problem causer.  The little female probably would be
able to find a rare creature for the class, but she was also bound to cause a mess of trouble if the wizarding society learned of her presence at the school.  
That was why Hiei liked the idea.  Kurama hadn’t found a good enough reason to dissuade him from his plan.  And that, his inability to dissuade Hiei when he
made his devious little mind up, was the very reason he hated that ugly imp.

“Don’t you glare over here,” the thing growled, its voice sounding more afraid than threatening.  “I know what you’re thinking.”

Kurama gritted his teeth and focused intensely on combing his fingers through his hair, undoing imaginary tangles and reminding himself why he couldn’t just
kill the annoying imp.  He hadn’t seen the thing since Hiei had tried to take over the human world with an army of zombies.  He’d never cared for the creature,
always whispering in Hiei’s ear, encouraging him to do any evil thought that sprang into his already devious mind, daring to mock Youko Kurama, as if Kurama
wouldn’t kill him so long as he was sitting on Hiei’s shoulder.  And it had been right - he hadn’t killed it, despite all of the incentive he’d been given through
those annoying taunts.  That had been years ago, though.  He hadn’t expected to see the creature again.  This time, he’d make certain it didn’t attach itself to
Hiei for another foolish world-domination attempt.  Hiei was devious enough on his own, without an imp giving him ideas.

A prickle of energy in the air made Kurama’s ears twitch and his eyes flick up to the sky.  Sure enough, the air shimmered prettily and a familiar blue-haired girl
appeared, seated sidesaddle on her floating oar.  Kurama was happy to notice that the imp disappeared before the ferrygirl had fully crossed from the Reikai
to the Makai.  It was a wanted criminal, so it couldn’t very well be spotted by a Reikai worker.

Botan flashed a weak smile at Kurama and hurried to land near him.  She looked very uncomfortable, and more than a little worried about her surroundings.  
Kurama understood.  The girl had rarely been to the Makai, never without Koenma as her escort.  For her to come alone, it was probably important.  She didn’
t act like it, though. Her first words were playful.  She gave a cute lecture about playing on the ‘job’ and smiled at how ‘cute’ Hiei was when he slept.  It wasn’t
until Kurama politely asked her why she’d come that she grew serious.

“We’ve had an increase in youkai sneaking into the Ningenkai,” said Botan, her pink eyes wide and worried.  “Koenma-sama said to warn you.  And to remind
you that if that dark wizard-”

“Voldemort,” Kurama supplied.

“Right,” Botan nodded sharply.  “If that Voldemort wizard gathers youkai to his aid, and uses them to attack other wizards, we could see a repeat of the old
youkai-wizard wars.  And if that happens, the wizards will probably try to clean up the Makai itself - if they decide the Reikai can’t keep the two separate.  And if
that happens - the youkai will defend themselves!  But - but if they do defend themselves -”

“Then,” Kurama finished, “they’ll be at risk not only from wizards, but from the Reiaki, as well.  As it is the Reikai’s first duty to protect human life, humans being
the naturally weaker species.”

“Right!” Botan gasped, her eyes as wide as Koenma’s had been when he’d told her what to report.  “And whether the Reikai can fend the youkai off, or not,
the two realms will slip into chaos and the barrier itself will crumble!”

Kurama gave a fond smile and shook his head at the overly dramatic ferrygirl.  “Botan, Koenma already gave us that warning when he first asked us to take
the assignment.  Did you want to tell us about anything other than the increase in youkai migration?”

“Nope,” Botan chirped, smiling brightly.  “Have fun!  I’ll pop by the next time I see you guys here.  Can’t go showing up at that wizard school, you know.”

She lifted smartly and ducked back into the same shimmering portal she’d entered from.  Kurama shook his head once she was gone.  He wasn’t really
surprised that Koenma had asked her to repeat his dire warnings.  What surprised him was that Botan had memorized it exactly - what she’d said was word for
word the speech Koenma had given them over a month ago.  And it wasn’t anything he didn’t already know.

The real reason Kurama and Hiei had agreed was because they trusted their own abilities.  If they’d left the task to someone else, and that group failed, they
would be involved eventually - all demons would be.  Their best chance was to have control of the situation themselves.  And Kurama knew that Koenma didn’t
like the rules anymore than the demons did, so he’d placed them in a position to ‘save’ themselves, where technically the Reikai couldn’t. Since Koenma had
become friends with Yusuke, he’d learned how hypocritical and biased it was to have absolute rules against demons, without similar rules regarding humans.
Unfortunately for all of them, Enma made the rules, not his son.

There was one thing about Botan’s message that did surprise Kurama.  She hadn’t said anything about the weak spot in the barrier they’d come through.  
Koenma surely knew it was there.  He’d had his new tantei and his special task forces locking down all weaknesses in the barrier as soon as they spotted
them, hoping to keep any more demons from passing through.  Botan’s report told him that they were having trouble finding all the weak sections - no surprise
there - and that Koenma was intentionally keeping this one open.  But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense.  With the weak spot near
Hogwarts being the one unwatched area, they could concentrate the migration to a point where Kurama and Hiei could monitor it themselves.  If Voldemort did
attempt to bring more demons into the human world, he’d have to do it right in front of them.

“Scowling again, eh?  Not looking over here, though, that’s good.  Planning to kill something, are you?  Going to watch it squirm, right?  Yeah, I know what you’
re thinking.  It’s all over that prissy face of yours.”

Kurama’s tail bristled at the return of that annoying voice.  He clenched his teeth and rubbed the back of a clawed hand over his eyes.  Then he whipped his
head around to send one very deadly glare at the imp.  “Why did you come back here?  Do you want to die an excruciating death?”

“Right,” the imp mocked, his airy tone belied by the way he ducked behind Hiei’s arm, once more hiding while he made his taunts.  “I’m not afraid of a sissy
youko like you.  Miss your ningen mommy, don’t you?  Pansy-dog likes to talk big, but it’s all talk.  You’re all yip and no bite.”

The dark green imp curled in on himself, chortling so heavily he fell over Hiei’s arm to roll in the grass.  Unlike females of the species, he had no wings to stop
his stubby body from rocking around like a stuffed sausage.  And just like two years ago, he had a knack for infuriating Kurama without any real fear of
retaliation.  The only new aspect to his ‘make fun of the youko’ act was that he seemed to have forgotten his ‘protector’ was currently asleep.

Kurama’s furious glare softened into a sly, evil smirk.  His tail flicked as he quietly eased into a crouch.  “Oi, kisama.  Do you know what I’ve wondered since
the first time I saw you?  If you could possibly taste as ugly as you look.  What do you say we find out?  I can always throw you up afterward.”

“N-nani?”  The imp jerked upright, its beady eyes bulging at the large, sharp-toothed canine looming over him.  It took an instant for Kurama to shift forms.  It
took another instant for him to pounce.  Luckily for the imp, he only needed an instant to get the hell out of there.

Kurama’s jaws snapped shut on empty air, his golden eyes glowing with amusement.  He’d never have profaned his body by consuming something so ugly, but
the stupid imp wouldn’t have known that.  He fell back on his haunches and gave into a smug, canine grin.  After a few minutes it was apparent the imp wouldn’
t be ‘popping’ back for a while.  He lay down with his forepaws and head resting on Hiei’s chest, just in case.  The imp didn’t give off much youki.  This way, he
could doze without it being able to get anywhere near Hiei.  

While Kurama would have liked to kill it, he knew Hiei found the thing useful.  It was better for all three of them if the imp cut him a wide swath in the near
future.  If the impudent creature showed its face near him again, he had every intention of feeding it to a baby death tree.  That way, he could honestly tell Hiei
he hadn’t killed it, and he’d never have to put up with it again.  As small as the imp was, a baby death tree could feed on it for years without causing death.  
And when it eventually did die, it would be from malnutrition and dehydration, not from murder.  

Kurama dozed off with his tails flicking at the tips, and dreamed of justifiable torture in the name of preserving a youko’s reputation.

-.-.-
TBC



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