[Please see chapter notes for warning.]
The frustrating thing about finally locating Kaede was the fact that the high only made the ensuing inactivity that much worse. Now that they finally have some answers, ironically was when Kagome couldn't do anything about it. Sango and Miroku was reinvigorated, pouring their efforts into eliminating the false leads from the promising ones they had. Even Shippou, under strict precautions, was able to tap into his kitsune social network in the city for intel. But Kagome, she was too conspicuous, especially with Masae breathing down her neck, to risk prematurity exposing their efforts.
She tried to throw herself into taking more commissions from the healer guild and focus on the work at the herb garden with Jinenji but that was now fraught with tension. With the influx of youkai house servants at the estate, they have to be cognizant of being continuously observed. It was impossible to easily elucidate the loyalties of the head priestess' slaves. But no matter how much Kagome tried to numb her emotions by busyness, she couldn't run away from the mounting anxiety about the increased lengths of time that Inuyasha had been away from the house.
Those three days, when Masae had left the city for the customary retreat before the Banka festival, had been so indulgent. For three days, Inuyasha stuck around. They weren't in each other's faces constantly but he was within sensing range. In a way it made the contrast that much more apparent compared to the days after.
This week, Kagome had to count her blessings if she could even see a glimpse of his face once a day. It was like back before she asked him to live with her, except worse, because there was no pretending that he was just hanging out in the forest if he wasn't at the house. Now, if he wasn't home, he was either out doing Masae's dirty work, or at the estate. The thought terrified her.
Kagome exhaled, trying hard to reign in her emotions. Burying her face into her hands she kneaded her temples and down the sides to her jaw, trying to loosen the tension.
"Kagome?" Shippou's worried voice came from in front of her. "Are you ok?"
She lifted her head, trying to put a smile back on her face for the little boy's sake. "Yeah, Shippou-chan. Just got a bit of a headache is all."
He nodded, though his expression held a trace of doubt. "Okay. Well, Sango and Miroku should be back soon."
"Sure. Why don't we play a game?"
And that they did, playing a few games of ball which evolved into something that involved chasing the youkai children across the grotto. The genuine laughter did help ease some of her anxiety. It also reminded her why it was so important to continue on this mission they've claimed for themselves. Most of the young youkai that Miroku took care of were either ones that had narrowly escaped capture themselves or had kin enslaved in the city. There were so many families they could reunite if they succeeded.
"Kagome-san, you're here early today!"
Kagome stopped mid-stride, pausing in her pursuit of the little squirrel youkai, who giggled and took the opportunity to make her escape.
She made her way to the sitting area where her two friends were shedding their gear, after excusing herself with from playtime.
The taijiya was rolling her shoulders back, loosening them from the weight they carried all day. Miroku leaned back against the rock face and took a swig of water.
"Kagome-sama, it's good to see you."
"Likewise." Kagome took a seat. "Did everything go well today?"
The monk nods, sending a small smile Sango's way. "Yes. I think between Sango-san and I, we've narrowed it down to two pretty strong leads."
Kagome hummed, ushering for them to continue.
"Yes. We're down to the abandoned mine outside the Southwest gate and a derelict manor near Tenrinji. I've tracked groups of newly captured youkai to the mine and Miroku-sama has seen some suspicious activity at the supposedly empty house." Sango summarized, sounding fairly satisfied with their progress.
"That's great!" Kagome clapped her hands together. "Maybe I can help investigate that manor?"
Miroku shook his head, his expression understanding but serious. "I'm afraid not, Kagome-sama. We know for certain that the head priestess has her eyes on you. It would be best for you not to draw any unwanted attention."
Kagome sighed. She needed to think of the big picture.
Switching gears, Sango scooted closer to her, asking gently. "Any news from Inuyasha?"
She forgot to exhale for a moment, then cleared her throat, swallowing. "No. He's... not been back for a couple of days."
Sango squeezed her shoulder. "He'll be alright, Kagome-san. From the little I've seen, he's a strong fighter.
Kagome didn't trust her voice, only nodding in response. After another pause, she spoke up again.
"Well, I guess I better head out then. There's still a few herbs I need to sort before tomorrow."
After a quick goodbye to Shippou, Kagome left for home. A part of her had wanted to stay with them at the grotto, especially the last few days. It must be cozy and comfortable at night, surrounded by friends and familiar youki. The nights at the hut by herself have been fraught with unease. That being said, she had to go back every night, because she couldn't risk missing Inuyasha, on the off chance he might return.
Tonight will be another long night of staying up way past when she would've normally headed to bed, grasping at the desperate hope of seeing him trudge through her door.
'Masae-sama requests your presence tonight' was all the brief message delivered to her that morning at the herb garden revealed. The fact that it left her feeling antsy all day was an understatement. As if it wasn't already increasingly more difficult for her to maintain her composure around the high priestess.
Kagome returned just as the sun dipped below the line of the surrounding mountain range. She was greeted at the door and the steward of the house came to retrieve her soon after. The estate at night held an odd air– secretive and ominous. She didn't recall it being quite so bad when she was last here at night but at the same time, she'd had company before and there's a lot about Masae she'd learned since.
It might be her imagination but Ito seemed to be weirdly avoidant in his demeanour as well. Usually, the man would maintain a steady stream of pleasant small talk to play his role as host. Tonight, the man was quiet, shuffling along and almost preemptively trying to stop Kagome from conversing with clipped replies.
They took a roundabout way past the main receiving hall, the interior darkened as the guests have left for the day. The only people about were groups of servants, by now, all of youkai descent. More than a few sent hateful glares her way, no doubt feeling her reiki, no matter how hard she tried to reign her powers close to her core. They continued on, taking a detour out past the ornamental and then the herb garden. Strange. Perhaps the platformed walkways linking the buildings were usually swept this time of night.
There was no sign of Jinenji's hulking sillouhette in between the dimly lit plant beds. Kagome often wondered where he stayed at night, if he was given at least a decent place to rest after a full day of hard work under the sun. She quickly shook her head, clearing away that thought. It would only do harm to dwell on things like that as she's heading into a meeting with Masae.
Abruptly, the man in front of her came to stop, in the middle of the cramped courtyard between the servant buildings and the main house.
"Kagome-san, I will be taking my leave here. My mistress' study is just beyond here and to the right once you reorient back to the main house." The man bowed deeply to her once. "I bid you a good night."
"Wai–" Before Kagome could even utter another syllable, the man had whirled around and hurried back the way they came without so much as a backward glance.
Something was definitely off. What kind of escort leaves the guest randomly in middle of the yard?
And then Kagome heard sounds, low and garbled but definitely filtered out from the tall barn-like structure. The same place she had avoided since that first night where she saw the youkai slave getting clobbered and... when she first found out about Inuyasha.
The parallels to that night was slowly adding up. Her fingers felt cold and clammy.
The noises came again, muffled groans and then curses. A woman's voice– too low for coherent words to manifest.
This was most definitely a lure. Otherwise, why deposit her here alone? But just like Shippou, who went after the food in the traps even though he should know better, Kagome found herself taking small steps towards the building.
Noiselessly, she crept into the building, the door was sufficiently ajar for her to slip in without difficulty. Her senses prickled. There was definitely a demonic aura, and not surprisingly, bursts of spiritual energy.
There were remnants of wooden partitions that once might've sectioned off the space into stalls for livestock. But many of these have rotted away from disuse. Kagome ducked behind one and then made her way carefully to the next, approaching the back of the building were the occupants were.
At last, hidden behind a pillar and a haphazard pile of crates, was a slender figure in the signature red and white. The person Kagome knew she would find even before she had laid eyes on her.
"Have you decided to tell me what I want to hear yet, youkai?"
Masae gave no apparent reaction to the insult, merely raised her arm. A stifling pulse of energy, and the trill of the whip in her hand. Kagome cringed in her hiding place, watching helplessly as multiple parallel lines of red etched across the demon male's chest, making a crosshatch of the bloody marks already there.
The man grunted, cursing, then snarled at her. Despite this, it was obvious how attractive the demon was. He was tall and lean with a straight curtain of milky blue hair. Dark turquoise eyes set in a fine boned face, glared with hatred mixed in with humiliation. Unbidden, she recalled the off-hand comments, from Sango, Jinenji and even Inuyasha about the criteria for selection of Masae's personal slaves.
For good measure, Masae hit him again, sending the sharpened poppers tearing through the fabric of his clothing into his flesh. He hunched over, breathing heavily through what must be excruciating pain.
The priestess turned, leisurely walking over as she gathered the tails of the switch into a neat bundle and set it on a nearby crate. Maybe it was the flickering of the braziers that lit the structure, but it emphasized the shadow of the hollows of Masae's face. Surely, a few days of fasting during the meditation retreat wouldn't leave a person that gaunt?
Kagome caught the beginnings of a pleased smile on Masae's face before she turned once more to face her captive.
"Not the correct answer." She mused, taking leisurely steps to arrive uncomfortably close to the demon. "Which makes me wonder if you like me resorting to this."
The man launched into a furious struggle, as her long fingers rose and shockingly, began a slow stroke down the side of his face, from his cheek bone down to the jaw. He was bound in an elaborate net of spelled rope, all the same oily black, strung up securely to the wall. The hooks that suspended them were once used for tack and various barn tools. Now, they were reenforced with foreign sutras. His limbs were tied down, with a loop of rope drawn tight around his neck.
Kagome watched in horror, not being able to pull away, as Masae's stroked down the man's neck not once hesitating at the collar of his robes. Her pale hand disappeared inside his clothing and she made wide motions, loosening the fabric until it gaped open, revealing taut muscles.
It was hard to see the crazed desperation that was beginning to infiltrate the man's eyes. His chest was heaving from the effort at fighting the bonds, but to no avail.
Masae chuckled chillingly at the sight.
The bunching of his clothes showcased the trajectory of her hand underneath as she caressed his collarbones, gliding over his chest, perusing his ribs and abdomen. If it wasn't such a perverse situation, Kagome would've used the adjective 'gently'.
Nothing he was doing was fazing her. The growls, the snaps of his teeth, the curses and profanities. Masae only stepped even closer, allowing her arm to encircle his torso and her hand to travel to his back, dipping under the tie of his hakama.
He made an awful choked noise.
Masae pulled back, her hand now free from his clothing and coming to palm his cheek, cupping the side of his face. Kagome closed her eyes for a second when she felt the well of energy, and the resultant smell of burnt flesh.
What she saw when her lids cracked open again made her wish she'd kept them closed longer. The priestess had raised herself up on her toes, and pressed her face against the demon man. From her angle, it was fairly certain that Masae had kissed him.
Somehow, in her volatile emotional state, she'd flinched and her foot shot out, kicking over a pail. The clatter rang through the air, unmistakable for any other ambient noise from outside the building.
Kagome froze, then stepped out from behind the pillar. There was no other choice. There was no time and nowhere to run.
Masae pulled away slowly, her hand disengaging from the youkai's hair. She turned to meet Kagome's eye, expression completely tranquil.
"My apologies, Masae-sama, for interrupting. Perhaps I had misunderstood my escort's direction." Kagome managed to deliver smoothly, her voice so level that she even surprised herself. "Shall we reschedule to a more suitable time?"
The head priestess held her gaze for a few uncomfortable seconds, before responding.
"Ah, Kagome. Good evening. It seems that time has gotten away from me." A hint of a smile ghosted onto her face. "No need to reschedule. I will just be a moment, if you pardon the wait."
Kagome nodded mutely, watching as Masae walked over to a bench, where she proceeded to dip her hands delicately into a basin of water to wash them. She took the opportunity to glance at the youkai, who was now slumped over, head hanging limply from his neck. He was breathing but it looked like the fight had fled him. He didn't even acknowledge the commotion she caused.
Her eyes snapped back to the priestess as soon as the splashing stopped. Masae straightening, patting her hands with a cloth, the approached her.
"Come. I shall finish here after we've spoken."
Without pause, the priestess swept out of the barn. Kagome could only follow, sending one last worried glance at the youkai hanging heavily from his bonds.
As they crossed the courtyard back towards the main buildings of the manor, Masae spoke up again with a soft laugh.
"These days have certainly been overwhelming with the preparations for Banka. It seems like every detail of the festival requires my attention." She mused. "But as I say, it is healthy to find a release for the tension. It is rather fortunate I have access to these fine specimens. Assets that I would gladly share, should you be interested of course."
Kagome's eyes almost bugged out of their sockets. Cranking her neck even lower to hide her face from view, she was immensely grateful for the cloak of darkness around them.
What? That's what Masae is calling this? Stress relief? Sure, that poor excuse is something that Kagome most certainly had heard before. From ones who justified their drink or games of dice or frequenting the brothel, but never from a priestess and certainly not what she was referring to. There was no doubt that what she witnessed was sexual and unwelcomed.
Wait, did Masae imply the offer Kagome herself the opportunity to do the same?
She struggled to choke out an incoherent string of syllables to adamantly refuse the offer.
Masae laughed in response, sounding genuinely amused. As if they were discussing an outing to watch a noh play.
"Ah, I keep forgetting you are young, and kept sheltered for most of your years."
Kagome failed to speak yet again, managing to make a noncommittal noise.
It was taking every ounce of effort for Kagome to tamp down the instinct to flee like a frightened animal. Instead she swallowed all the words she wanted to shout at the head priestess, fixating on repeating a mantra inwardly. This was the only way she can help speed things along. The only way she could help right now. This strange role of confidante that Masae seemed to push onto her is the only way she might uncover the aspects critical to their mission.
Masae lead them to her study, which Kagome had never seen before. It was a warmly lit room with a large table stacked with scrolls and well stocked in writing implements. The room certainly did a good job of mimicking what Kaede's chambers used to look like in Tenrinji.
The priestess moved to sit behind the desk, and Kagome according sat across from her on the other side. She tucked her hands under her shins, subconsciously bracing for the shitstorm that was most definitely to come.
"Kagome, I do apologize again for my inability to find a time to speak with you during the day." The woman rested her folded hands on the table. "But I did want to inform you as quickly as possible so you have time to prepare. I have completed some investigations…"
"Into the circumstances of your dismissal at the end of your apprenticeship with Kaede-sama. And I do not find it to be entirely warranted.
As you've demonstrated at the past few training sessions, your abilities are in no way less than those of the other miko. I believe you deserve another chance."
Masae's dark eyes flashed intently. "If I extend a personal recommendation, there will be no conceivable objection. You may join the upcoming apprentices in the preparations in the autumn and then complete the final rites to be a miko in the new year. I know how difficult it must have been for you to have spent all those years of your youth training to have been sent home falling short of achieving your dreams. How does that sound?"
As much as Kagome loathed to admit, Masae's words hit the nail right on the head. Kagome would not have been able to summarize her own feelings as accurately as the woman did with her last few sentences. And to her disgust, her reaction to the possibility of doing just as Masae suggested was not an immediate 'no'.
She could be a miko after all. All it would take is a few more months and training that she'd already completed. It would not be difficult to go through the formalities again.
Masae smiled at her, noting the receptiveness on her features. "I think you are very capable Kagome, and would make an outstanding miko. It is becoming apparent that Kyo is growing immensely and I would be most grateful were you to work with me closely."
Kagome returned the smile hesitantly. "Thank you so much, Masae-sama. It certainly means a lot to me. But... it is a big decision and I–I would like some time to consider it, if that is acceptable to you."
"Of course. There is no rush. You have until the end of summer to give me an answer. However, I must implore you that this is a rare opportunity and you would make a great miko." She moved to select a sheet of paper to set in front of her. "Now, I better not delay your evening for much longer."
"Thank you Masae-sama. Good evening."
Kagome rose, taking the hint to be dismissed. She bowed lightly in farewell before turning to exit the room. Just as she reached the threshold, Masae's composed voice sounded again from behind her.
"One more thing, Kagome. Curiosity is a sound attribute. My earlier offer on our walk over, is also a standing one, should you reconsider."
Kagome was totally caught off guard again and closed the shoji to the sound of Masae's quiet laughter.
It was such a disorienting thing, to be treated almost with a kind of camaraderie by the head priestess. Maybe this is the favour that those other young miko keep vying for.
On one hand, Kagome understood the implications of the offer. In exchange for a chance for her to obtain the status of a miko, Masae would expect Kagome's obedience and loyalty to her. That would also mean, unquestioned assistance to her cause.
There was no way she could do that. Sell out to Inuyasha's enslaver. What would that mean to their mission?
Yet, as much as she wished it wasn't true, the tantalizing prize of something she had wanted for so long and denied, now gifted with another chance to materialize was still, in a small sense, tempting.
Kagome wasn't sure what woke her. There hadn't been any particularly jarring sound. Opening her eyes, she was greeted by the familiar sight of the rafters in shadow. Although the day had been hot, the night brought a cool breeze that drifted through the shoji she'd left open for ventilation. The nocturnal chorus of insects filtered into the room.
Untangling the bedding trapped around her hip, likely pulled down when her sleeping self tried to cool off, Kagome rolled around to lay on her other side to better face the breeze. That was when she caught sight of him.
Inuyasha had returned.
The weight that lifted off her chest at the discovery of his presence was immense.
The half-demon was propped up against the wall, just inside the open shoji. The moonlight made the cascade of his hair ethereal and casted a long shadow that stretched further into the room. His feet were planted and knees up, slightly apart, upon each an arm dangled loosely. Even though it'd only been a few days but she missed seeing his face. His eyes were closed.
Kagome couldn't be certain if he was asleep but he didn't make any motion to acknowledge her alertness. And though she yearned so much to be able to check him for injuries, more for her sake than his at this point, she would not. Whatever was visible by moonlight seemed unmarred, his robes unstained and that was the best she could hope for. She wanted him to have some uninterrupted rest first and foremost.
Furthermore, it was unspoken between them why he'd chosen, of late, to stay in the sleeping room with her when he made a point to not even step inside prior. He did, however, sit in the furthest corner from her bedding as possible. If Kagome was honest with herself, she much preferred when she could physically be in the same space as him. Never once had it ever crossed her mind that he would take advantage of her.
Kagome sent prayers to the kami that he would still be here in the morning.
Her dark eyes roamed tenderly once more, surveying the quiet half demon, before Kagome fell back asleep with a faint smile.
A/N: Ok, this was difficult to write but I did it. This chapter is a little shorter than the rest but pace/plot wise, it makes sense to pause here.
Also, I hope no one gets too mad at this AU's Kagome. Her whole life she'd been told to be a miko and worked towards it for so long…
Happy New Year everyone :)
Disclaimer: I do not own Inuyasha. However, this plot, the exact sequence of words and any original characters described therein, I reserve all rights to.