Sunset found them near a river.
Sesshoumaru surveyed their surroundings, satisfied with what he saw. It was peaceful. Plentiful. Fresh water teeming with fish would fill their bellies before night fell along with the wild pears that grew near the edge of the woods. They were perfect for picking, the sweet, juicy aroma wafting on the evening air testifying to their ripeness. And not too far from the river, a shallow cave waited to shelter them from the coming night’s chill.
It was defendable and comfortable, and the miko would be adequately warm and shielded from the elements.
Casting a glance over his shoulder, he spotted her wandering half-heartedly as she looked for tinder, her eyes to the ground. An uncharacteristic silence had followed her since leaving the village where the harsh words of misguided women had torn at her budding confidence, and Sesshoumaru found his concern over her well-being growing when that silence turned into avoidance.
It was unexpected. Since they had begun traveling together, she had craved touch and affection. It had been a sweet, fragile development between them, but it was one that had carried them both through the difficulties of their situation.
He frowned. With far less chagrin than anticipated, Sesshoumaru admitted to himself that he had become fond of the feel of her fingers glancing off his whenever she had the opportunity. It was almost extraordinary to consider, but the absence of those small, seemingly insignificant actions had begun to leave a void in the space of only a few hours.
Dried flora crunched, bringing his attention back to the present, and he turned to her again, eyes narrowing. Her shoulders pitched forward and stooped like an old woman’s as a pungent odor reminiscent of onion rolled off her in waves.
Something in him recoiled.
Shame. Alone and hidden from the disapproving gaze of others, she reeked of shame. He watched her, noting the dull, empty look in her eyes and every listless motion to pick up a stick, usually deft fingers barely grasping at the twigs she gathered.
She was shutting down.
Her head jerked up at his voice, surprise at being drawn from her thoughts disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. A stubborn, pink mouth pressed into a flat line, and she shook her head. “Can we not talk about this right now? I—I just can’t.”
“Cannot or will not?” His lips pursed, and he gave her a look, watching her lackluster expression turn somewhat sheepish.
“Will not”—that onion aroma spiked again, sharp and sulfurous—“cannot. Does it matter?”
“Sesshoumaru, please.” Her blue eyes begged him with a desperation that rarely surfaced. “Don’t be my hero right now. Just…just let me be.”
Her phrasing caught him off guard enough to give her what she wanted.
“If you wish it.”
“I wish it,” she breathed, some of the tension in her shoulders melting a bit.
He tried not to be insulted by her relief.
While she turned back to gathering kindling, Sesshoumaru scowled, snatching his hair into his hands and yanking it back until he had it gathered into a high tail. Whore. The insult raged in his throat, and he caged the need to curse it behind his teeth. Such words were damaging, and the miko didn’t deserve the reminder.
Securing his hair, Sesshoumaru began to disrobe. He could fume while he fished. The harsh abuse to his scalp had done little to alleviate the ire simmering below surface, and the cold waters awaiting his intrusion held a better chance at distracting him.
When he was left only in his fundoshi, he laid his clothing on a dry rock and set his boots beside it, ignoring the urge to make right the wrong against her as it bore down on his instincts without mercy.
Cursing to himself, he stepped into the river, the frigid water swirling about his ankles, when her startled voice suddenly broke the silence.
“What are you doing?” she asked, voice shaking.
Sesshoumaru’s mood darkened at the apprehensive tone, but he forced his mask of indifference to slip into place. “Fishing. Or do you not wish to eat?”
Cheeks flushed, she pulled at her fingers under the bundle of twigs in her arms. “No, food would be good.” She still wouldn’t look at him.
The realization caught him off guard, and he lifted his chin in defiance of it. Such sentiments were futile. Rolling his shoulders to loosen the creeping tension in his muscles, he waded into the water. “There is fruit along the edge of the forest.”
And that was it.
He watched her long enough to see her begin moving toward the pear trees before he bent and thrust his hands into the water.
It didn’t take long, Soon enough, slick scales slid within his grasp, and he struck, claws plunging through the unsuspecting fish in a quick kill. With deadly efficiency, he pulled it from the river, slicing down its belly and gutting it in a single stroke before tossing it up on the bank.
It was a name she did not deserve. Dispatching another fish, he sought her form and found her reaching up into the low branches of the fruit trees. He could smell the salt on her cheeks and cursed under his breath.
Another fish joined the other two.
For the first time since Naraku, it felt like there was a wedge between them.
Dinner was quiet, barely two words said between them. After picking pears, she’d handed him some fruit and retrieved a roasted fish before retreating to the opposite side of their fire, eyes once again distant as she ate—if it could even be called eating.
Sesshoumaru watched under a rapidly growing cloud of irritation as she nibbled. Her bites were small, the bits of torn flesh only like what a kitten could tear off in a single bite, and the pear beside her remained untouched.
He found his own appetite steadily disappearing and set his dinner aside.
Concealing his surprise at hearing her finally cut through the strained silence between them, he looked up at her across the fire. “Yes, Miko?”
Hands trembling as she set her skewer down, Kagome took a deep breath. “For the record, I never thought…I never—”
Looking down suddenly, she furrowed her brows. She couldn’t get it out. Everything she was trying to say disappeared once again under the guilt and shame she couldn’t seem to shake.
Disappeared beneath a struggle that she did not deserve to have.
He waited. Portraying a calm he didn’t feel, Sesshoumaru waited as his insides twisted into a concerned network of impatience and frustration while he gave her the space she needed to speak—the space she needed so that she could finally give him some idea of what could be done to ease this discomfort that had so unforgivably intruded the small sense of normal they had begun creating together.
She took another breath and dared to meet his eyes then, and the blue fire that flashed through them took him by surprise.
She was angry.
His brows lifted slightly. “Miko?”
“They shouldn’t have implied that about you.” Tears broke free, unable to be kept at bay any longer. “You never made me feel like that. Like what they called me.” Kagome sniffled before turning away to stare off into the woods.
Sesshoumaru stared, his mask slipping as he took in the defiant posture. She didn’t cry beyond the silent slip of tears down her cheeks, too angry and too hurt to fully express what churned inside of her. But it was there, spicy and piquant underneath harsh scent of the shame that still clung to her.
Her anger. For him.
It was humbling.
Without a word, he made his way over to her. When she still didn’t look back at him, he sat down, leaving a couple feet between them for her comfort. “Their insinuation on my character does not concern me, Kagome.”
She whirled around then, eyes flashing. “It bothers me!”
He grit his teeth. As upset as she was, he was not unaffected by her distress. It took everything in him not to go flying back to that village to seek retribution over this tension between them. “Why do you let them hold such power over you, Kagome?”
Pushing to her feet, she swung a fist through the air as her voice choked back emotion. “They tried to cheapen everything!”
“Yes! Cheapen!” Defeat pushed through her rage, and she covered her face with her hands, her voice finally breaking.
Her shoulders shook with the force of her tears, and she sank back down, curling in on herself once again. “It was special,” she whispered. She reddened, refusing to look at him as she did. “And they labeled me that word when it felt like…when I felt like…” Her brows knit as she struggled to find the words.
Sesshoumaru carefully kept his face blank and turned his gaze to the fire, exuding a false calm while his anger at the village women and his distress at her hurt blistered under the surface. “When you felt like what, Kagome?”
Her arms wrapped around herself then, and she clenched her eyes shut. “Yours.”
His head snapped around.
“Silly, huh?” she said, offering a weak, sad smile.
Unbidden, a presumptuous warmth heaved through his chest. But before he could reach out—before he could say or do anything—she stood and rushed off toward the river.
He stared after her.
He found her with her feet dangling in the water.
“I know you’re there.”
Her voice was soft, tinged with the pain she had struggled with all day. Salt trails clung to her cheeks, and the line of her shoulders was tense as she hunched forward, kicking her toes in the current of the river shallows.
Sesshoumaru frowned. That water was cold, even for him. “You are going to get sick.”
Not turning around, Kagome waved a hand dismissively and dipped her toes lower. “It’s just my feet. I’ll stick them in front of the fire when I go back.”
His jaw tightened, lips pressed together as he watched a shiver course over her. Already she was chilled and ignoring it, and he forced himself not to snap out a biting comment about her carelessness.
But then, the gentle sound of her splashing reached his ears, and he took a controlled breath, stuffing the urge to snap deeper. It was subtle, but even in the dark he could see the tension in her shoulders begin to slacken as she played in the icy waters.
He sighed, and rather than demand she stop, he toed off his boots and joined her.
If it startled her, she didn’t show it. “Worried you’ll get sick?” she asked, and for the first time in hours, there was a hint of a smile in her voice.
It was small, but something in his heart surged. Nevertheless, he squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. “No.”
He couldn’t be sure, but her lips seemed to twitch.
They didn’t speak after that. And though his instincts held him captive to an unexpected and decidedly difficult impulse to do so, he did not touch her, giving her space to sort out the melancholy shrouding her in its oppression.
Absently, his feet swirled in the water beside hers as they sat. The temperature was uncomfortably cold, but he ignored it in favor of the peace that had fallen over them and the oddly satisfying sight of her smaller feet next to his.
He cocked his head slightly. It was not something he had noticed before, but she had nice feet. Dainty. Pale—though not nearly so pale as his own. Her short stature allowed her toes to only just dip beneath the surface of the water, leaving her casual movement to splash noisily with each swing of her legs.
His eyes softened a bit as he watched her kicking like a child. It was strange. In truth, he had never thought to take a mate. And as such, he had also not given much thought to how such an event, significant as it may be, might affect him. But he had, and it had. And suddenly, besides the constant pull of wanting to assure her well-being, human, female feet were something he found interesting. Pretty, even.
Looking over, he found wide eyes staring back at him, and he quickly schooled his features. “It is nothing.”
She didn’t appear to believe him, but she let it go anyway.
He was surprised when he felt her toe slide up the blade of his foot. “Miko?”
“Your feet are so much bigger than mine.” She shifted a bit, stretching her leg over to press her right foot against his.
Deciding to not draw attention to the fact that she was finally touching him again, he looked at their feet and tried to not let the relief he felt show. Instead, he swooped his toes underneath hers, lifting her foot from the water. “I am much taller than you.”
A small, barely noticeable smile spread over her lips. “Yeah.” She fell silent then, letting his foot float hers above the water. Then, with only a slight hesitation, she leaned against him more.
His previous relief amplified, spreading through his chest and wrapping around his heart like warm wool as it soothed the hurt of her earlier avoidance. Refusing to move lest he startle her back into the unwelcome state she had been locked into most of the day, he held still and stared ahead at the woods, continuing to give her the space to settle as she needed.
He simply turned his ear to her to show he was listening.
Kagome sighed, the quiet puff of air blowing softly over her lips. “I missed you today.” Then, before he could respond, she leaned up and kissed the corner of his mouth, the blue eyes that slid to his filled with a different kind of guilt as she pulled back. “I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t expect the second kiss that came. But a quick press of lips landed full on his mouth before he saw it coming, and he cleared his throat, trying to appear unaffected. “It is fine.”
“No.” She lay her head on his shoulder, curling a small hand around his arm as she did. “But thank you for understanding anyway.”
Sesshoumaru said nothing, but as she sank into him more, he allowed his own pent up stress to release in a slow and deliberate breath before giving in and resting his chin atop her head. He closed his eyes when he felt her reach up and start combing through his hair, suppressing the urge to groan as little tendrils of electricity slipped over his scalp and sent him spiraling toward relaxation.
“You called those women old.”
So much for the moment.
“I did no such thing.”
The combing motion paused. “You said—”
“Miko, I implied they looked old. There is a distinct difference.”
The sour tang of displeasure swirled and mixed with the little bit of hurt left tingeing her scent, and he wondered for a moment at the confusing woman he had mated. When she leaned back to glimpse his face, a frown on her lips, he stubbornly tightened his own as he looked back at her. The miko felt sorry for the women who had insulted her.
And he could not fathom why.
They stared at each other, not a word between them. She sat with her frown and he with his, daring her to challenge how he had handled the situation. But she didn’t. Instead, she just shook her head and lay it on his shoulder again.
“You and that tongue.”
He realized he must have been more tired than he thought when he had to squash the urge to stick it out at her.
“Don’t think I don’t know what just went through your head.”
When he gave her a questioning look, Kagome crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out.
His eyes widened. How did…
“I spend nearly every minute with you, Sesshoumaru.” Her head tipped back to the moonlight, and she closed her eyes, bathing in the glow as if it could erase all her worries. “Knowing your thoughts was bound to happen at some point.”
She wasn’t wrong, and it had happened before, though he hadn’t put much stock in it. Even Rin and Jaken had had some measure of understanding where his mind was concerned. But the miko—his mate—was something altogether new. And it would be a lie to himself to call it the same.
In truth, it was a bit unnerving as accustomed to his privacy as he was, and he mentally shook off the disquiet the notion caused. “Hn.”
Yes, better to just not think about it.
“What about you?” The soft sound of her swallow broke her speech, and she fidgeted next to him, her tone suddenly vulnerable. “Do you know what I’m thinking?”
The question was unexpected and accompanied by the sweet, berry scent of her shyness, and his lips twitched.
Yes, he knew.
But as he looked over at her to see cheeks reddening in the dark, his amusement faded. And it faded fast, something affectionate rising from deep within as he watched her try not to show how awkward the question made her feel.
But hiding it was impossible. Beneath her shyness, layers of spice lurked. Spicy, cinnamon notes of anticipation washed over his tongue as he inhaled, the natural citrus of her scent blending with it. It told him everything—everything—about her thoughts. But he also knew it wouldn’t do to just tell her that.
She was still pink in the cheeks when he reached over and brushed one long finger under her chin, tilting it up.
Wide blue eyes shimmered with unshed tears as he leaned down. But when his lips met hers, softly and slowly reaffirming where they stood, she melted against him and brought her arms up around his neck.
They kissed slowly. Tenderly. She abandoned the riverbank for his lap, her hands framing his face as she pushed sweet desperation into his mouth and sought the comfort and connection that came when they touched.
It was something he needed too, and he pulled her closer, soothing her heart where it had been razed open and left bleeding, wounded by those unfair, harsh words.
He wasn’t prepared for the possessive, defiant throbbing that tightened his ribs and renewed his earlier tension, and he circled his arms around her and kissed her harder.
She shuddered under his touch. “Sesshoumaru?”
Pulling back, he struggled to speak. His arm felt heavy as he reached up and curled a wayward tendril of her hair around his finger, bringing it close to inhale her scent. Both the pungent aroma of onions and shy berry had disappeared, leaving behind the juicy orange and bright lemon that now mixed with his own.
Leaving behind something a little bit more as well.
He buried his face in her neck, breathed her in. The smell of them chased away the memory of the shame that had stubbornly lingered for hours, and Sesshoumaru felt her hand tangle in his own hair, her other rubbing his back in her own efforts to reassure and comfort.
He let himself sag against her, swallowing her with himself.
She laughed, the sound a bit watery, and her arms tightened around him. “Why did you hide these hugs from the world for so long?” she whispered.
Sesshoumaru simply closed his eyes and smiled into her skin, holding her closer.
She snuggled more deeply into him for a moment before pulling back just enough to glimpse him. Her features softened. “We’re going to be okay, right?”
He touched his forehead to hers. “We will be alright.” Standing them up then, he offered his hand. “Come.”
It felt right when she took it, and they walked back, quiet peace between them as the day’s cruelty slipped into the past.
The word burned away inside of him, and as they re-entered their camp, he lifted her hand, pressing a kiss to her palm.
Those village women were wrong.
She was his.