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"Genji," Kagome breathed.

She blinked a few times, shaking her head to clear it. He was still there when she looked again, bathed in the glow of the moon and looking torn between disgust and disbelief at the sight of them.

Abruptly Kagome realized she was still wrapped in Kouga’s arms. She flushed hotly, managing to extract herself from the embrace while Kouga was still caught off guard.

"Genji-sama!" she called, running over to clutch at his sleeve. She felt light headed with relief at the sight of a familiar face.

Genji glared at the wolf for a moment longer before glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. He scowled, lightly shaking her off of his sleeve.

"Sorry. I thought your ass needed to be saved. Didn't realize I'd be interrupting something."

Kagome opened her mouth to argue, horrified at the misunderstanding.

"Well now that you get it, dog shit, why don't you just run along and let me finish up with my woman," sneered Kouga, forestalling her.

"His woman already, huh?" drawled Genji dryly, his left eyebrow seeming to develop a sudden twitch. "Guess you're not as innocent as you pretend to be."

"No, Genji-sama, I-!" Kagome tried again.

"Don't you dare insult Kagome, you mutt!" Kouga cut her off once more. Kagome shot a glare at the wolf lord, willing him to be quiet.

"Why don't you try and stop me, you flea bitten wolf!" Genji snarled in return, his anger abruptly switching directions. His clawed hands flexed threateningly at his sides.

"Maybe I will!"

"Then shut your fucking mouth and come on!"

And suddenly they were moving towards each other, fists cocked and claws extended. Kagome panicked and did the first thing that came to mind. She jumped on Genji’s back, restraining him. Her shoulder screamed in pain at the sudden movement, but she managed to keep her hold.

"Kagome! Wh-what in the seven hells, woman? Get offa me!"

"Kagome! Don't touch that dog shit! You don't know where it's been!"

"Both of you just be quiet!" shouted Kagome. "Just listen! Genji-sama, Kouga-sama saved me from dying back in the youkai nest and then brought me here and told me I was his woman or something! It's all just in his head! And Kouga-sama! It's all just in your head! So please don't fight!"

"Kagome…" said Kouga, looking a bit hurt.

She nearly groaned at the sight. One would think that she had actually given some indication of returning his feelings.

"So he…abducted you?" Genji asked, putting the pieces slowly together in his head.

"I suppose so, a little bit," Kagome replied uncertainly. "But-"

"Fucking wolf!" snarled Genji, tearing himself from Kagome's hold. She squeaked quietly in pain at the jerking motion.

He closed the distance between himself and Kouga in a blur of red motion, his fist connecting with the wolf youkai's face hard enough for Kagome to hear the resounding crack as his jaw was dislocated. Kouga went down roughly and skidded a few lengths across the ledge.

"Genji-sama!" Kagome cried, darting forward to grab his arm before he could press the attack further. Kouga may have upset her with his unwelcome advances, but that did not discount the fact that he had saved her life.

"Get off, woman! It's a fucking imperial offense to abduct a servant of the Tennō!" Genji snapped. "And what kind of sick bastard takes advantage of a wounded woman?"

"Technically I'm not a servant of the Tennō-sama yet," Kagome said, grateful for the fact that Genji only struggled minimally to keep from wrenching her shoulder again. "And he didn't take advantage of me. He wrapped my wound so that I wouldn't bleed to death."

Kagome chose to pointedly ignore the fact that the Lord of the Eastern Wolf Tribe had taken a look at her breasts while she was unconscious. It hardly seemed a prudent time to air that grievance.

Genji ceased his struggles, glaring down at Kouga as he struggled to his feet. Kouga managed to rise, spitting blood and relocating his jaw with a quick jerk of his hand. Kagome winced.

"Please, Genji-sama. Let's just go back to Miroku-sama and Sango-sama. Whatever else might have happened, he saved my life," Kagome begged, crumbling the last of the inu-youkai's resistance.

"Keh. Whatever. Damn wolf isn't worth it anyway," he huffed with a disdainful toss of his head.

Abruptly he turned and scooped her up. Kagome squeaked, arms going instinctively around his neck to stabilize herself.

"Oi!" Kouga exclaimed, moving towards them.

"Don't you dare move, you fucking wolf. I'm taking Kagome back," Genji snapped, shooting the youkai one last warning glare. Shifting her to rest more firmly in his arms, he started forward.

Kagome sent a pleading look over Genji’s shoulder to Kouga, silently begging him to just stay put and be quiet. Oddly, Kouga seemed to understand. He stopped mid-step in his pursuit. He nodded firmly at her and Kagome frowned, sensing something idiotic coming on again.

"Don't worry, Kagome. I know dog shit has some sort of strange hold over you and you have to go with him right now, but I'll come to save you soon," Kouga called to her with the utmost sincerity. "I love you, Kagome!"

Kagome flushed for what felt like the thousandth time that night, dropping her head onto Genji’s shoulder in embarrassment and exasperation. No man had ever said something like that to her before, and she found her heart speeding up just the slightest bit. But it was so incredibly stupid.

She realized that Genji had stopped, tensing. He looked ready to turn back around and throttle Kouga.

Kagome clutched him around the neck more tightly to remind him of her presence in his arms, pleading quietly enough that only he could hear it, "Please, Genji-sama. Can't we just go back now? I’m exhausted."

A slight shudder seemed to pass through Genji and Kagome wondered at it. The night was hardly that cold. Thankfully he began moving forward again to leave, heeding her wishes.

"Don't worry, Kagome! I will come to save you from that half-breed mutt! It won’t be long before I come to claim you!"

Genji’s steps faltered at the word, but did not break his stride as he reached the edge of the ledge and sprang over it. He leapt nimbly from rock to rock down the mountain slope, looking determinedly forward.

"Half-breed?" echoed Kagome, unfamiliar with the term. She looked to Genji for an answer.

"Yeah, half-breed. Hanyou," spat Genji, as if the words were a bad taste in his mouth. He refused to meet her searching look.

Kagome had the distinct feeling that she had heard that word used before, but had no idea where or what it meant. Her village was small, after all. If it were some court term then it was likely she had never encountered it.

"What is that, Genji-sama?"

"Don't fucking joke like you're stupid, woman," Genji said with real venom. "Hanyou. Half-demon."

"Oh…" was all Kagome could manage, taken aback by his sudden anger.

She fell silent. For a time the only sound was that of the wind rushing past as Genji continued to propel them forward in leaps and bounds. His arms were horribly tense around Kagome, and she got the feeling that it was all he could do to not just drop her.

"If you're thinking something, just say it," Genji ground out at length. "Just say whatever shit you have to say and get it over with."

"Well…I suppose this…explains why your aura is different than that of most youkai. I noticed that when we first met," Kagome offered, though she had not really been thinking of anything besides how awkward she felt.

"Bullshit."

Abruptly Genji skidded to a stop. They were off of the mountain now and he placed Kagome down on her feet none too gently. She staggered slightly and looked to him, blinking in her confusion.

"Why can't you just say what you're fucking thinking? I thought you would at least have the balls to say what you mean."

"What in the world are you talking about, Genji-sama?" Kagome said. "Is there something you want me to say?"

"Say what you're thinking! Say it's disgusting! Say it's an abomination! Say all that shit that everyone else says! Just don't fucking lie to my face!"

"Why do you insist on thinking I'm lying? And why would I be thinking something like that?" Kagome snapped, unable to restrain herself. "I don't understand what's disgusting! I don't understand what you're talking about!"

They glared at each other for a long moment. Genji seemed to be searching for something in her face, her eyes, her body. He was thrown off when he failed to find it, his glare melting into a deep frown. He snorted to cover his confusion, turning away from her.

"Feh. Whatever. Forget it."

"Wait! You don’t get to just blow up at me and then refuse to explain yourself!" Kagome said, irritated.

"If you don't get it then it doesn't matter," grumbled Genji. "C'mon. Let's go. The houshi and the woman are probably running around like idiots wondering where in the seven hells we are."

He squatted down, offering up his back to carry her this time. Kagome stared hard at him, wondering whether it would be worth it to push the issue. She had been truthful, after all, when she said she had no idea what he was talking about. Still, the likelihood of getting anything out of this ill-tempered emotional blockade of a man seemed unlikely at best. 

With a long-suffering sigh she decided that she did not have the energy for another fight. She climbed carefully onto his back, and he secured her with a clawed hand behind each knee. He leapt forward once more.

They traveled in tense silence, though Kagome was quietly thrilled at the sensation of nearly flying across the land. She wondered why he had bothered to ride a horse on the journey.

It struck her suddenly that he had been trying to hide his differences as much as possible. He had yelled something about her thinking him an abomination. It must have been something others had said to him before.

Kagome sighed. Now she felt bad, though she was certain she had not done anything wrong. For that matter she was the one who had been falsely accused. Even so…

"Do people treat you badly because you're a hanyou?" she inquired gently.

Genji stumbled in mid-leap, but managed to regain his footing and continue.

"I'm trying to get you back so we can bandage that shoulder up right. Damn wolf probably infected it with some weird disease. So how 'bout you shut up while I get you there?" he said.

"Is it so bad being a hanyou?" Kagome persisted, brushing off her annoyance. She truly wanted to understand.

Genji groaned. "It's a fucking stigma, alright? Satisfied?"

"Not particularly," Kagome replied, frowning. "I'm sorry. I'm just beginning to understand what it is to be part of the court and amongst its people. But growing up like that must have been so…"

Kagome trailed off, struck by the thought. She could hardly imagine enduring a lifetime of the anxiety and uncertainty she had suffered through in that first court meeting, feeling always an outsider in ways that could not be changed.

"It never bothered me. I never cared what they thought," Genji said stubbornly.

Kagome was silent. It was an obvious lie and deserved no answer. No one could possibly have felt nothing about being detested for the sole fact of their existence. He would not have been so angry at the thought of her viewing him the same way if it truly did not bother him.

Thinking about it, Kagome felt she could understand him a little better. He was not simply a rude person by nature. It also explained why he was so very eager to assume the worst of her. He likely rarely saw anything else out of people.

"Genji-sama?"

"What?" he bit out, anticipating more prodding.

"I failed my mission," Kagome admitted, surprising him.

"What?"

"Kouga-sama stepped in and saved me from being killed. I received help."

There was a long pause on his end.

"Did you die?"

"What?"

Kagome blinked, surprised.

"Did you die?" Genji reiterated as if she were slow.

"Of course I did not die. I am here, aren't I?"

"Then you didn't fail your mission."

"But Kouga-sama helped me. The future Empress said I had to do it by myself."

"I won't tell if you don't."

"Genji-sama," Kagome said, gazing at the sharp ridge of his cheekbone incredulously. "Isn't that… dishonest? Aren't you bound by oath to tell the truth to the Tennō-sama or some such?"

Genji snorted.

"I thought you were so dedicated to helping all those little villages and people."

"I am!"

"Then you're going to give all that up because you're afraid of telling one little lie? Kinda shows how much resolve you really had, huh?"

Kagome was silent, considering this. It was unpleasant, but he was right.

"I suppose I will lie, then," she said resignedly.

"Yeah. Things in your little village were probably pretty clear cut, but the place you're trying to go is anything but. Sometimes it's just gotta be this way."

Genji did not sound like he enjoyed it much either.

"I've got quite a bit to learn, then, don't I?"

"No."

"No?"

"No," Genji said. "You're better off now. To the Tennō, I mean. I don't think he needs anymore court-bred snakes to deal with."

"Really? But-"

"Just shut up. We're almost there."

Kagome barely suppressed a groan. It was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation with him.

Glancing around, though, she recognized the cliff that they were passing as the one that had been the nest of the bird youkai. Apparently Kouga's den had not been too far from the Fujiwara lands.

"Are they waiting in the Fujiwara residence?" Kagome asked.

"Yeah. They're waiting for me to bring you back."

Something occurred to Kagome suddenly. She craned her neck to glance at the his face.

"You…came to save me, Genji-sama?" she ventured slowly. She saw his face flush slightly in the light of the moon.

"I…I didn't come to save you 'cause I wanted to or anything, idiot!" he stuttered. "But the houshi and the woman just wouldn't shut up about it, and I knew they'd end up getting themselves caught too if they went in. And then I woulda had to come and save all your asses! Stupid. Who'd wanna come save you?"

Kagome drew back, stung momentarily. She opened her mouth, uncertain of what she would say but knowing that it would be fittingly scathing.

She paused. Slowly she closed her mouth, shaking her head. In the end he had come to her rescue, whatever he might say.

"Thank you, Genji-sama."

He was silent for a moment, having expected an argument. He found himself at a loss.

"Keh."


It only took them a little bit longer to reach the residence, a sprawling, blue-roofed and white walled estate twice the size of the Tachibana residence in the court. Kagome could see what seemed like thousands of covered walkways running through hundreds of lush gardens as Genji leapt over the fortified outer wall.

Sango and Miroku were there waiting when they landed in the main courtyard. Sango released the houshi's hand as if she had been burned, running over to practically tear Kagome off of Genji’s back. She enveloped Kagome in a hug fit to strangle, muttering jumbled chastisements and epithets of relief.

Miroku came to smile at the suffocating miko over Sango's shoulder, wisely refraining from joining in the hug. An easing of the lines around his face betrayed his worry and his relief.

Genji slunk quietly off somewhere, obviously uncomfortable in the midst of the group. Sango dragged Kagome into the residence and quickly found an empty room, kicking Miroku out as she stripped Kagome of her karaginu and thoroughly cleansed the wound. Kagome related to her the whole of the ordeal while the taiji-ya was busy rewrapping the bandages.

"In the end you got help?" Sango said, weaving forward and back as she maneuvered to pass the cloth over and around Kagome's shoulder.

She gave a final tug to make sure the bandages were wrapped firmly. Kagome winced and nodded.

"What are you going to do?" asked Sango anxiously, sitting back to regard her.

"No one need mention that Kagome-chan received help," Miroku said, sliding open the shoji to enter the room. Apparently he had been listening in.

Kagome yelped, quickly tugging her karaginu back up around her shoulders. Sango scowled, chucking the roll of bandages at him. It hit him square in the forehead, but he merely blinked as it ricocheted off into a corner. Calmly and without remark he sat beside the scowling noblemwoman.

"After all," Miroku continued. "It was not as if Kagome-chan requested Kouga-sama's assistance. He was merely acting on his own. So I see no reason to mention it."

"But Genji-sama knows what happened," said Sango. "Surely he will tell the Tennō-sama about this. He is his Majesty's direct servant, after all."

"No, actually," Kagome said. "Genji-sama suggested the same thing as Miroku-sama. He is not going to tell anyone."

"Ah…Genji-sama, hmmm?" said Miroku, tapping his chin thoughtfully with one finger. Kagome looked inquiringly at him.

"He seems very…concerned with you, Kagome-chan," Miroku offered as an explanation. "He has been keeping a quiet eye on you this entire trip."

"Really?"

Kagome frowned, digging in her mind for any reason that Genji might have to be interested in her. The only thing that she could imagine was that he was keeping tabs on her for the Tennō.

"Do you think we should be worried about him, Houshi-sama?" Sango asked.

"I do not think so," said Kagome slowly. "He is…hard to deal with, certainly, but somehow I can not see him as being conniving or deceitful. It just…does not seem to fit him."

Both Miroku and Sango cast curious looks at her, though she missed them in her preoccupation with her own thoughts. They exchanged looks, communicating silently. Sango shrugged.

"I suppose we will trust your judgment, Kagome-chan," she said.

"Then we are agreed that nothing of the wolf-youkai will be mentioned again," Miroku said. "We should rest here for tonight and tomorrow. No use rushing back. I will have a messenger sent ahead to set up another court meeting. My apologies, Kagome-chan, I am afraid you will have to suffer through another one."

Kagome's heart sank at the thought, but she forced a smile and a shrug. At least she had few days to mentally prepare this time.

"Alright."

"Come on, Kagome-chan. We will go find you a room to rest in. Unless you are hungry? We could get food instead," Sango said with something of a mothering air. She helped Kagome to stand and led her out if the room.

"No, thank you, Sango-sama. Just sleep will be fine."

"Alright, then."

Kagome was shown to a room and Sango took her leave, wishing her a good night. She settled gratefully into the expansive futon laid out for her. She slipped quickly into a deep sleep.

Her dreams, however, were not nearly so peaceful. There was nothing more to them than a few dark shadows and some vague sounds, but she would wake the following morning with a profound sense of dread.


The next day Kagome was allowed to sleep in until nearly noon to recover from her adventure. She was starving when she finally awoke, not having eaten the previous day. A servant brought her breakfast and helped her to prepare for the day, as well as re-bandaging her wound and checking it to make certain no infection had set in.

Once she was cleaned up and dressed in fresh miko robes, she went out to join Sango and Miroku for a tour through the many gardens of the residence. They proved to be amazing in both number and appearance.

The gardens contained everything from rows upon rows of precisely ordered sakura trees to koi ponds big enough that they required stone bridges to traverse them, each engraved with magnificent stone dragons and lined with colorful lanterns. Kagome felt all the awe and other-worldliness of entering the capital again. She wondered how the future Empress could possibly be so cold after having grown up amongst such beauty.

There was something odd about the estate, however. There were positively no nobles to be seen anywhere on the expansive grounds. Even servants seemed to be few and far between. Kagome voiced this observation to her companions.

The smile that had been sitting on Sango's face all morning slipped at the question, and she turned away from her to stare towards the outer wall of the garden. Confused, Kagome turned to Miroku. He frowned at her, shaking his head.

"It…It was not all because of the bird youkai, was it?" Kagome asked, recalling with a sick twist of her stomach the corpses the birds had been carrying when she encountered them.

Miroku shook his head once more. "Sadly, several of the Fujiwara were killed by the bird youkai. However, the true tragedy of the Fujiwara clan occurred several years ago. It…is a time in our history that most courtiers prefer not to speak of now."

Kagome continued to watch him expectantly, hoping he would go on. He turned away from her, as well. Silence descended over the three.

"We…will tell you eventually, Kagome-chan," Sango said at length. "Just be a little patient. The wounds of that period of time are still fresh."

"Alright," Kagome conceded reluctantly, storing her curiosity away for another time. Both Miroku and Sango seemed truly disturbed by the thought of having to speak of it.

"I think I will go fetch us tea," said Sango suddenly, with lingering discomfort. "Tea out here in the garden would be lovely."

Without another word she turned and headed hurriedly towards the main house. Miroku glanced at Kagome apologetically before trailing after her. Kagome remained, knowing it was best for her to simply wait and allow them time to compose themselves.

Kagome stood enjoying the scenery for awhile, along with the cool crispness of the winter air. She was absently wondering if she would get to see snow soon when the sound of footsteps alerted her to the presence of others. It was the two human guards.

They smiled at her and at each other, walking over to greet her with a bow. Kagome was surprised at the gesture, but quickly returned it. She could not help feeling a bit wary of the two, though, remembering the conversation of theirs that she had overheard. But nothing had happened so far, so perhaps she had simply misunderstood.

"We have been looking for you, Kagome-sama," said the taller of the two.

Zetsubode, Kagome remembered despite her surprise at his sudden respectfulness. The guards had been as polite as common courtesy required toward her on the journey, but had never seemed to hold her in this sort of high regard.

"Yes, Kagome-sama. We heard about how you defeated the nest of youkai single-handedly. We wanted to congratulate you," put in the other guard, Uragiri.

"You are assured a place at the Tennō-sama's right hand now," Zetsubode said. Suddenly Kagome understood their newfound respect for her.

"Well, thank you both."

"It is a shame though," muttered Uragiri, turning away as if he had not meant for her to hear.

Kagome frowned. "What is a shame?"

"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all, Kagome-sama. Uragiri-san simply does not know when to be silent."

"If something is the matter I would like you to tell me," Kagome said, concerned at the sudden shadow that seemed to fall over the two.

"Really, it is nothing, Kagome-sama," Zetsubode insisted.

"Except that your amazing talents as a spiritualist will all go to waste," said Uragiri, as if he could not contain himself.

"Uragiri-san! Be quiet! That is nothing that Kagome-sama need concern herself with," Zetsubode scolded the shorter guard. "Though it is a shame…"

Kagome looked back and forth between the two guards as they exchanged pitying looks, supposedly on her behalf. There was something odd about all of this, something stiff and strange.

"I do not mean to pry, Zetsubode-sama. Truly I do not. But I would very much like to understand what you are both talking about," Kagome said.

"Ah, excuse us, Kagome-sama! How rude of us to speak of all of this in front of you! Please forgive us!" exclaimed Zetsubode with an exaggerated bow. "Truly, though, I would prefer not to expose you to such unpleasantness."

Kagome pressed the guard with an expectant gaze, slightly frustrated with his reticence. At last he heaved a heavy sigh, surrendering.

"If it is truly your wish to know, Kagome-sama, then I am in no position to deny you," said Zetsubode, bowing once more.

"The problem lies with the Tennō," put in Uragiri, obviously the more outspoken of the two. "Certainly he will end up misusing your great power, Kagome-sama."

Kagome nearly stepped back in her astonishment. Never would she have thought that any courtier could so openly speak with disrespect towards the Tennō. Certainly she had had a few discourteous thoughts towards his Majesty in her darker moments, but she still knew that he was a man to be revered as the one who controlled the fate of their land.

Zetsubode saw the shock written deeply across her face and placed a restraining hand on his companion's shoulder, offering her an apologetic look.

"Pardon him, Kagome-sama," he said. "That was far too bluntly put for a delicate lady such as yourself."

"What does he mean?" Kagome asked, recovering enough to gather her thoughts. She was not nearly so delicate a lady as to let the issue drop now.

"I mean," Uragiri said eagerly. "Our current Tennō does not have the power to use such an asset as yourself in a fitting manner. You will be wasted on him."

"Wasted?" echoed Kagome. "What do you mean, his Majesty doesn't have the power? He rules the entire country, does he not?"

"Our current Tennō…might not prove to have so much power as you imagine," said Zetsubode carefully, and Kagome caught a glint of something sly in his pale eyes. "I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we merely feel your many talents could be put to better use in a…different capacity. A capacity you might find to be far more rewarding."

Uragiri grabbed her hand suddenly and placed something on her palm, curling her fingers closed around it. Caught off guard, Kagome could only stare blankly at her fist as the two guards executed quick bows and began walking off.

"We will be back to discuss this with you further after you have had an opportunity to think," called Zetsubode over his shoulder.

Kagome raised her head to watch their retreating figures, opening her mouth and half-reaching her empty hand out as if to call them back. She shook her head, deciding against it. She needed a good bit of time to process what had just happened.

She sought out a bridge and took a seat on its stone railing, opening her hand to examine what the guard had placed in it. She gasped and nearly tumbled off into the pond below, only managing to steady herself at the last moment.

A small jade snake, intricate scales carved all across its back, sat in her palm. She would never have even recognized the precious stone had a merchant passing through her village not shown her a pebble of it once, telling her that even that miniscule piece was worth enough to purchase food for her entire village for two months.

It was a rare stone imported from China, the merchant had said. The statuette in her hands was likely worth several of Sango's best silk juni-hito.

That was not all, however. There was also a small wooden seal, much like the one she had seen Miroku pull out when they first reached the capital.

It was painstakingly engraved with what she could only assume to be a clan insignia, a depiction of Susano-o-no-Mikoto, the kami of the rainstorm and wayward brother of Amaterasu. Whatever clan this emblem belonged to, they were most certainly not minor.

So then what in the world had the two guards been referring to? They had alluded to the Tennō somehow being incompetent or lacking in power. They had also suggested that her own power could be put to better use in some way other than direct service of his Majesty. Perhaps employed directly by the government officials?

But, no. If that was what they had meant, they would have simply come out and said it. There was nothing untoward about working directly for government officials. And there had most definitely been something off about what had just been proposed.

Kagome glanced down at the jade snake sitting on her palm, parallel with the clan emblem. She was hardly familiar with this sort of thing, but she was not ignorant enough to believe that the expensive little trinket was merely some reward for her recent ordeal. This was payment, and payment never came without the expectation of some sort of return.

So then perhaps she was being paid to serve the clan whose symbol now rested in the palm of her hand. That should not be so horrible considering that each clan was meant to serve the Tennō, and thus indirectly she would still be serving his Majesty and receiving the power to help those in need.

It was wrong, though. The way they had spoken of the Tennō, the way that they had so clearly waited to approach her until she was alone...

"Kagome-chan!"

Kagome jumped, nearly tumbling over the railing again. Instinctively she shoved the snake and clan emblem away into the front of her robes. It came to rest coldly against the swell of her breasts, and Kagome wondered vaguely why she had hidden it. Still, she made no move to pull it out again.

Sango and Miroku came trotting over, her arms laden with a tea tray and his with a large blanket.

"There you are, Kagome-chan. Do you still want to have tea?" Sango asked, seeming to be back in her usual high spirits once more.

Kagome stared at her for a moment, trying to force her mind back onto a normal track. Sango frowned at her when she failed to respond.

"Is something the matter, Kagome-chan?"

"No, no, nothing," Kagome replied. "I was just…somewhere else inside my mind. Tea sounds great, though."

"Good," Sango said.

The three made their way over to a patch of direct sunlight and laid out the blanket. The rest of the afternoon was whiled away with tea, snacks, and pleasant conversation about nothing in particular. Kagome savored such a peaceful moment with her friends, her slightly aching shoulder reminding her of how grateful she was to be alive.

Her conversation with the guards, however, continued to weigh heavily in the back of her mind. Kagome wondered why she had felt the need to hide it from Miroku and Sango. Still, she could not bring herself to share it with them no matter how hard she tried.


They spent one final night there at the Fujiwara residence to allow Kagome to finish recuperating before packing up to leave the following morning. They were provided with fresh horses to carry their belongings and escorted to the main gate.

Genji was there to meet them along with the two human guards. Kagome was amused to see that this time the hanyou did not even bother with a horse. She was considerably less amused to see the sly glances the two human guards threw her, feeling the weight of the snake and emblem heavy against her chest.

They set out at a slow pace for the benefit of the injured miko, whose shoulder was jarred terribly if the horse were to so much as break into a trot. The result was that as night fell and they settled down in a small wooded grove, they had not even made it off of the Fujiwara lands.

Genji, of course, went off on his own into the woods as soon as they began to set up camp. Kagome, almost unable to help herself, trailed after him. She had not seen him since he had brought her back from Kouga's den and he had avoided speaking to her all day. She could not help but be curious, Kagome argued to herself.

She found him lounging up in a tree on the edge of the woods, eyes closed as if he were asleep. The way his ears twitched at her approach, however, told Kagome he was awake. She waited patiently for him to acknowledge her presence.

"What is it, woman?" he groaned at length, cracking open one golden eye to peer down at her. "Keh. Can't get any damn peace with all of you humans around."

"I just wanted to speak with you," Kagome replied, unfazed by his irritation.

Genji blinked, his customary scowl deepening in confusion. The very concept that anyone would seek him out simply for the purpose of holding a conversation seemed a foreign one to him. He leapt down from his tree to stand before.

"About what?" he asked, almost suspiciously.

"You did not ride a horse today," Kagome said, the first thing that came to her mind.

"Didn't feel like it," Genji sniffed defensively.

"Ah, I see," said Kagome simply. Genji stared at her, one dark brow cocked in question.

"Is that all you came out here to say?"

Kagome considered this a moment before shrugging sheepishly, her cheeks flushing a faint pink.

"Moron."

Kagome bristled, crossing her arms over her chest. She had wanted to talk to him, but she had not particularly thought it through.

"Well, you avoided me all day…" she accused, her tone slightly more petulant than she intended.

"Ah…" said Genji, turning away. "That…"

"Is something the matter?" Kagome asked, catching the slight shift in his demeanor.

"Nothing. I just have a buncha crap to think about before we get back to the capital."

"Is it about keeping my secret from the Tennō-sama and the future Empress?" Kagome asked, guilt creeping over her.

The way Genji's shoulders stiffened just the slightest bit told her that she had hit near the mark, despite his silence.

"Genji-sama…"

"Look, it's not your concern. So just keep out of it, alright?"

"But-"

"Genji-sama! Kagome-sama! There you two are. We were wondering where you had run off to."

The pair turned to see the two human guards emerge out of the darkness from between the trees. Kagome tensed, eyeing the two warily.

"Is it time for us to go back and eat?" she asked.

"Not quite," replied Zetsubode. "Miroku-sama and Sango-sama are still busy preparing the food. We merely came to see what the two of you were up to."

Uragiri, Kagome noticed, came to stand unusually close to Genji as his fellow guard was speaking. Genji seemed slightly uncomfortable, but made no move to put distance between the two of them.

"So what were the two of you discussing?" asked Zetsubode with a too wide grin.

"None of your business," Genji said as Kagome hesitated.

"Ah, well, perhaps we should discuss something that is our business, then?" said Zetsubode, turning a smug eye on Kagome. "Have you had adequate time to consider our proposition, Kagome-sama?"

Kagome felt her stomach clench at the mention of that conversation. Genji shot her an incredulous look, golden eyes narrowing.

"What's he talking about, Kagome?"

"Simply a little alliance of mutual benefit, Genji-sama," Zetsubode drawled, his normally courteous expression dissolving quickly into something dark. "Kagome-sama is eager to gain power and profit, is all."

The hanyou's eyes flashed, his lips pulling back in a shocked snarl as he gazed at her.

“Genji-sama, no! I-"

There was the quick flash of metal in the darkness and a guttural groan was torn from Genji's throat. Uragiri had pulled forth a small dagger and plunged it into Genji's chest while the hanyou was distracted. Kagome shrieked, pressing her hands to her mouth in horror.

"Bastard!" Genji roared, blood flying from his lips as he reached up to tear the dagger free. He tossed it aside as if it had been no more than a splinter.

He spun towards Uragiri, fist cocked to deal a blow. Abruptly he stumbled, eyes widening as he lost his momentum and crumpled into a heap at the smirking guard's feet.

"You really think I'm foolish enough to believe a simple dagger will bring you down, monster?" laughed Uragiri, aiming a fierce kick at Genji’s rib cage. "I took the liberty of borrowing a bit of special poison from the taiji-ya's supply. Don't worry, though. It will only induce temporary paralysis. Woman didn't bring along any deadly poisons."

"Genji-sama!" Kagome cried, jerking forward to go to him.

She froze when Zetsubode drew his katana, holding it to the weakly struggling hanyou's throat.

"Please remain where you are for a moment, Kagome-sama. We have a few things to discuss."

Kagome complied, afraid that Genji would be harmed further if she dared to move. The hanyou managed to flop over onto his side to face her, his eyes burning accusingly up into her own. She bit her lower lip hard, feeling her eyes burn.

"Why are you doing this? Isn't he your fellow guard?" Kagome yelled, her voice choked.

"Hardly," snorted Uragiri. "It might be slightly more tolerable if the mutt was."

"Genji here is a prime example of the defects of our current government, Kagome-sama," Zetsubode said, pressing the tip of his blade more closely to the hanyou's throat. "He is an incompetent individual in an undeserved seat of power. For that matter, his very existence in our court is an affront. The Taira clan, whose insignia you currently have on your person, aims to fix all that once and for all."

Kagome's hand went instinctively to her heart, pressing against the wood of what she now knew to be the Taira clan's seal. She glanced at Genji, but his eyes were firmly shut now. Kagome winced, her chest constricting as she remembered his words about the ridicule his hanyou heritage had earned him.

"What do you mean, about Genji-sama being incompetent?" she asked, forcing the feeling away and settling on the question foremost in her mind. She needed to understand, to keep them talking.

"His very presence on this mission is a colossal blunder," answered Zetsubode. "The capital may well be in shambles by the time we return, the way he chose to leave it so abruptly and so needlessly. Not that he ever did much in the way of governing it before, but every ship needs a figurehead, I suppose."

"...Genji-sama's position is that important?"

"Ha!" Uragiri scoffed. “The half-breed persisted in using that name and pretending he was just a simple guard with you, huh? Let me ask you, who was it that came trailing after Genji-sama when we were just about to depart from Heian?"

"The...future Empress," Kagome replied slowly.

"And why would the future Empress be so intimately associated with a mere guard as to personally go out of her way to stop him from going on this mission?"

"I…I don't know."

"You don't know, Kagome-sama, because there is no reason," Uragiri crowed triumphantly. "There is no reason the future Empress would go to so much trouble to stop a mere guard. Who would the future Empress go to such lengths for, do you think?"

Kagome was silent. She knew what answer her mind was drifting towards, but it was as if there was a wall that kept the thought from fully emerging. It was too outrageous.

"Your silence says you understand well enough, Kagome-sama," said Zetsubode. "Hopefully you will also prove intelligent enough to understand why we are doing what we are doing. Such an abnormal and inadequate creature, one who would abandon his throne on a mere whim, is unfit to sit at the head of our beloved country."

"Y-You think him unfit simply for this indiscretion?" Kagome asked.

"You know as well as we do that that would be unreasonable, Kagome-sama," said Zetsubode, his grin widening as he seemed to be making progress with the miko.

"He has, in the short time since his ascension to the throne, committed several grave offenses. He has introduced legislation attempting to take power out of the hands of the courtiers, so that he might hoard it himself. He has attempted to regulate the lives of the courtiers outside of the court on their own estates. Something he clearly has no business in.”

“He has even attempted so ludicrous a feat as to delegate national funds for his own purposes, without approval from the Council. Basically he is throwing the entire of our noble government into chaos. If none of that is enough to convince you, Kagome-sama, there is the simple fact that he is unnatural in his very existence. A human and youkai union is unnatural. It's disgusting."

Kagome bit her lip, her eyes sliding back down to the prone form of the hanyou.

The poison had taken full effect by now and he had ceased struggling, his golden eyes bright and furious as they darted from face to face. She tried to attach him to all of the grave offenses of which he was being accused, but found that she could not. All she could see was his scowling, honest face.

"And how does the Taira clan propose to fix things exactly?" Kagome pressed on.

"There's no change as long as the monster's around with his claim to the throne," said Uragiri. "So we get rid of him. The hanyou has a brother who is in a position to inherit the throne upon his demise, but the brother's been away studying in China since the little bastard's ascension.”

“We have a member of the Taira clan in position to act quickly upon being informed of the hanyou's death, taking the throne firmly in hand before the brother has a chance to return. Once in power, the Taira will return the court to its proper form. And there's certainly no dirty blood within the Taira."

"Then this is a rebellion?"

Finally Kagome understood what it was that had bothered her so deeply.

"Rebellion is a very rough term, Kagome-sama, with far too many negative connotations," said Zetsubode smoothly. "It is simply a change, and life is nothing if not change. But if you must think of it as a rebellion, think of it as a bloodless and peaceful one."

"With the exception of the blood of his," Kagome pointed out.

Zetsubode shrugged. "Sacrifices must be made."

"What is it that you want from me?" Kagome asked, pulling from her robes the jade snake and Taira symbol. "Obviously this is payment for an expected service."

"We want you to work for our clan, of course," Zetsubode said. "Your…birth status is unfortunate, but when word spreads of what you have accomplished on this mission, you will become the stuff of legends. We will spread the tale, maybe exaggerate it a little, and there will not be a youkai in all of Japan that will dare come against the Taira rulers."

"But we can hardly just let you join us like it's nothing," Uragiri interrupted. "You have to prove that you will be loyal. You're common born, after all, and haven't been taught the same manners as a true courtier. We can't have you proving to be some little peasant snake in the grass."

Kagome nearly snorted at the absurdity of who such a statement was coming from, but managed to hold it back. She turned to Zetsubode, seemingly the more rational of the two, a question in her face.

"To prove your loyalty to the cause, we thought you should be the one to do away with our Lordship here," the guard answered her unasked question coolly, as if he were asking no more of her than to swat a fly.

"Do not worry. We waited until we were on Fujiwara lands for a reason. We will inform the court that it was a Fujiwara ambush. The future Empress is in a position to potentially seize power after the death, after all, and so the story will most likely be accepted without question."

Kagome was silent, unable to form a reply. Her composure seemed to evaporate like so much water in the sun. Her entire body had gone cold, the seriousness of the situation seeping down into her bones and making them like lead. They wanted her to kill Genji.

No, not Genji. The Tennō.

Since they had informed her of their plot there was no way that they would simply allow her to leave if she refused. Even if she were to call out for Miroku and Sango, it was impossible for them to get there before the hanyou was harmed. Someone was going to die here.

"Should you refuse, Kagome-sama, I am afraid that we could not allow you to leave here, you understand," Zetsubode said, sensing her hesitation. "I would encourage you to think on the wealth and power you stand to gain from this alliance. It is hardly a life you would be taking, anyway. There can be nothing but misery in the world for such a poor creature."

Kagome's hands had started to tremble slightly, her longbow resting heavily against her back. Her heart was beating a loud tattoo inside her head, muddling her thoughts. But she had to think and she had to do it quickly.

She kept her eyes trained unfalteringly on the ground, unable to look at any of the three people before her. There were a hundred questions and she did not have the time to think thoroughly through any of them.

"Your decision?" Uragiri grated out, impatient with her dithering.

Kagome looked up at him, his expression hard as stone. In that split second she made an almost instinctive decision, the consequences and whether it was right or not be damned. She pulled the bow from her shoulder and slowly drew an arrow from the quiver at her back, notching it.

Uragiri's grin of approval was nearly manic in its width. "Good girl!"

A smirk curled at the edges Zetsubode's lips as he lowered his sword and stepped away from the hanyou, allowing her a clear shot. Kagome leveled her aim at the hanyou's prone form, swallowing back her horror at what she was about to do. She drew back the string.

And whipped around at the last moment, loosing the arrow at Zetsubode. Her aim was true despite her trembling and it pierced him straight through the chest. The traitorous guard barely had time to look surprised before he collapsed.

Uragiri gaped at his fallen conspirator, a strangled noise bubbling up in the back of his throat. Kagome quickly notched another arrow and aimed at him, her shoulder twinging in reminder of her injury. Uragiri turned to her, his face drawn back in a horrid snarl. Kagome had never seen so much rage in one person's eyes before.

"You bitch!" he screeched, fumbling to unsheathe his sword. "You traitorous, common born little whore!"

"I don't want to shoot you," Kagome said, a faint tremble to the words. "Please just surrender quietly."

Uragiri screamed, charging senselessly toward her with his katana raised. Kagome closed her eyes and fired. It was a clean shot and she could hear the dull thud as his body hit the ground.

She opened her eyes, carefully avoiding looking at either of the fallen men. She managed to stumble over to Genji’s-no, but what else to call him?-still prone form, falling to her knees at his side. He finally opened his eyes and gazed up at her silently, still unable to move. There was something like awe in his face.

Kagome's eyes began to water, her breath escaping her in shaky little gasps. She doubled over, clutching her stomach to keep from being sick. She pressed her face into the fabric of the red karaginu beneath her, unable to hold back the wracking sobs that welled up.

She had killed two men.

Over the four prone forms in that clearing snow began to fall at last, coating everything in white.