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Behind the Silk Screen

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Before Kagome could so much as blink, Inuyasha had toppled the silk screen and lunged at the wolf youkai. Kouga was caught off guard, as well, and the fist planted solidly in his gut sent him skidding across the room, through piles of cushions, and into the far wall. A resounding crack told Kagome that it was likely some ribs had been snapped.

"Damn wolf!" snarled Inuyasha, advancing on the dazed youkai. "What in the seven hells are you thinking, breaking into the fucking imperial palace!"

Alarmed, Kagome scrambled up from her place by the overturned screen. She slipped clumsily among the many silk cushions, trying to make her way over to the enraged hanyou.

"Inuyasha-sama! Wait!"

Inuyasha did not spare her so much as a glance, but rather continued his menacing advance. Kouga struggled dazedly where he lay. He wheezed faintly, spitting blood onto the tatami mats of the floor.

"The hell I'll wait, woman! First he abducts you, then he breaks into my fucking court! This asshole needs to be taught a lesson in fucking boundaries!"

Inuyasha reached Kouga and dragged the wolf up by his hair. Kouga struggled feebly, still winded from what had been an especially savage blow.

"Inuyasha-sama, please wait! Please!" Kagome tried again, stumbling her way over to the Tennō at last.

She hovered at his side, uncertain how to calm him down. This was quite an idiotic stunt for Kouga to have pulled. She was a little tempted to hit him herself…

Inuyasha spared her a scathing look, but seemed to be hesitating at the sight of his nearly incapacitated enemy. He shook the wolf roughly.

"Oi, wolf shit. You awake?" he drawled, shaking the wolf once more for emphasis. "I want you to be able feel it when I rip that flea bitten tail right off your ass."

Kouga hung limply in his grasp, unmoving. Inuyasha eyed him, contemplating throwing the wolf into another wall to rouse him. Or kill him. Either one would do, so long as the youkai could no longer stir up shit in his court or sniff around Kagome when he had no right.

"Inuyasha-sama, he did save my life, whatever other foolish things he may have done," Kagome said, utilizing the only weapon she really had in her arsenal at the moment. "Don't you think you should-?"

"I think I should throw his mangy ass into the imperial prison and let him rot there," Inuyasha cut her off, irritated with her continuing defense the mangy wolf. "This is the second fucking time he's messed with imperial business. And you can't harp on that 'life-saving' shit for-"

Kouga's foot in his gut cut off the rest of whatever he was going to say. The wolf Lord had been playing possum.

Inuyasha swore loudly, tossing the offending youkai away. Kagome gasped, stumbling backwards in her surprise.

"Stop it! Both of you need to stop it!" she cried desperately, beginning to truly fear what the outcome of this might be.

"Like hell! I'm gonna save you from this dog-shit, Kagome!"

And Kouga was back up and heading for Inuyasha again. Inuyasha, on her other side of the room, was doing the same.

Kagome would have rolled her eyes at their childishness had she had the time. Rather she did the first thing she could think of to prevent the impending bloodbath.

Unfortunately that first thing turned out to be throwing herself directly in Kouga's path. Even more unfortunately, Kouga was so startled by her sudden move that he skidded to an awkward halt. And to put the unfortunate crown on it all, Kagome, surprised by his stop and already unbalanced, stumbled straight into his arms.

Time stretched on in oppressive silence like a cord pulled taut. Kagome could almost hear Inuyasha's surprise and outrage growing behind her. She struggled weakly against Kouga's hold on her, mortified by the awfulness of the situation.

"The fucking hell, woman!" came the roar from behind her, snapping the cord at last.

She was yanked roughly from Kouga’s embrace and pulled back to Inuyasha's side. She winced as her shoulder was jarred by the motion.

"Oi! Don't touch my woman, dog-breath!"

Kagome was yanked back against the Kouga’s chest, her head beginning to spin at the abrupt motion. Kouga leapt away, pulling her along, as Inuyasha advanced and reached out to reclaim her.

"Nuh uh, shit for brains. She was obviously asking me to save her from you. Kagome's coming back with me to be the Lady of the Eastern Wolf Tribe. And together the two of us are gonna dominate the eastern lands," Kouga sneered, nimbly snatching her just out of Inuyasha's grasp each time the hanyou lunged and reached for her.

If there was one thing Kouga had over Inuyasha, it was certainly speed, Kagome lamented absently as she was thrown about like a doll between the two. Abruptly Kouga's words sunk in past the rattling of her brain inside her skull. Kagome stiffened, renewing her struggles against his hold.

"Kouga…Kouga-sama! Hold on! Please, put me down!" she snapped, shoving back against the fur-covered armor on his shoulders.

"And let that dog shit put his dirty paws all over you? I don't think so, Kagome!" Kouga said, continuing his game of keep-away with the hanyou.

"Dammit, you stupid wolf! She said put her down! Hold her much longer and she's gonna get your fucking fleas!" Inuyasha snarled.

Kagome groaned. They seemed to be determined to ignore her wishes entirely. She decided it was time for one last ditch attempt. She took a deep breath.

"Ah! Kouga-sama! My shoulder! My shoulder! It hurts!"

It was true enough, Kagome reasoned to herself. Her shoulder was beginning to ache again, despite the fact that Kouga was being careful about jostling that particular part of her. Still, the way that they both slid to an abrupt halt at the words told her that the small deception was worth it.

Kouga placed her carefully down on one of the cushions the two had torn up during their romp through the room, kneeling down at her side.

"I'm sorry, Kagome. I didn't realize-"

Inuyasha shut him up with a fistful of feathers from torn pillows to the face and a good shove. He took the wolf's place at her side.

"Idiot! Why the hell are you throwing yourself all over him when your shoulder is hurting?!"

"I wasn't-!"

"Shut up! How bad is it? Does it need to be bandaged again?" Inuyasha said, prodding around the wound with surprising delicacy.

"It's not that bad, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome replied, wondering at the careful touch. Her face felt a little warm as she watched him examine the wound with some kind of coarse concern.

Kouga came to sit grudgingly a short distance away from her, hesitant to argue with the hanyou or touch her again lest he injure her further. He settled for glaring with extreme hostility at Inuyasha as he inspected her.

Kagome felt a bit guilty for making them both worry over something so small, but was rather satisfied at this momentary truce. This was what she had been angling for. Now it was time to put her sudden little idea into motion.

"Kouga-sama," Kagome began, her voice calculatingly polite. "I am terribly sorry you came all this way, but I really do not require saving. And certainly there were…better methods you might have employed if you wished to come see me."

"But I-" Kouga began to argue, thrown by her sudden formality.

"However," Kagome said. "Now that you are here, you might as well remain awhile. At least until you and Inuyasha-sama can settle matters in a satisfactory and civil manner. You are a Lord, after all, and I am certain Inuyasha-sama can have quarters arranged for you for a time here in Heian."

Kagome turned an insistent look on Inuyasha, hoping he would catch her meaning. Inuyasha returned her look with one of utter revulsion.

"Like hell I'll stay let this disease-ridden wolf stay in my court! He fucking broke in and tried to take advantage of you again!"

"Inuyasha-sama," Kagome gritted out with strained patience. "Kouga-sama most certainly did have a few errors in his judgment of the situation, but he is a Lord, after all. And it is the Tennō-sama’s wish to remain in good favor with all of the Lords, is it not?"

The harshness in Inuyasha's expression morphed slowly into understanding, though it looked to Kagome to be only a partial, questioning sort of understanding. Nonetheless, if he got it even a little, he would play along with her.

"Wait…You're the Tennō, dog breath?"

Both Kagome and Inuyasha turned from their silent communication to stare at the wolf Lord, twin looks of disbelief etched on their features. He stared back blankly.

"You…just realized that?" Kagome said, unable to contain herself.

"I knew you were fucking stupid, but even I didn't think you were this much of a moron,” Inuyasha said, a slight twitch developing in one dark brow. "Where in the seven hells do you think you are, asshole?"

"I…" Kouga hesitated, taking a true look at his surroundings for the first time.

A bit of uncertainty slipped into his eyes, but he puffed himself up and scowled more deeply to cover it.

"It ain't like anyone would ever peg dog-breath here for bein' the Tennō," he said more loudly than necessary. "And even if he is, that doesn't change anything. I ain't giving Kagome up."

Well, this general lack of respect for the Tennō and his authority was certainly another thing to add to the long list of issues that would have to be addressed, Kagome noted. More so she marveled at the wolf Lord's utter lack of all sense.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Inuyasha-sama's lips pull back in a fierce snarl, his hands curling into fists at his sides. He tensed, and she could tell he was ready to go for the throat. Kagome reached out instinctively, placing a restraining hand lightly on his arm.

Inuyasha’s blinked, his gaze shifting questioningly to the delicate touch. Taking advantage of the opening, Kagome shifted subtly in between the two. Facing Kouga, she made certain that she caught his eyes with her own before speaking.

"Kouga-sama," she began, in the most demure and appealing tone she could manage. "I am aware that you and Inuyasha-sama, his Majesty, have many differences to work through.”

“However, I do not believe it proper that you address the sovereign of your country in such a manner. It would also please me greatly if you would remain for a time in the court until all matters can be settled to our satisfaction."

Kagome held his eyes for a long moment, willing him to go along with it out of consideration for her. Admittedly it was a bit low to play on his odd infatuation with her, but for the moment it was necessary. She would make herself clear in the time to come.

"Well, I…uh," Kouga said, coloring slightly under her intent gaze. "Fine, I guess. Whatever my woman wants. As long as dog shi-…as long as he keeps his grubby paws off of you, Kagome."

"Thank you, Kouga-sama," Kagome said, giving him a smile and gripping Inuyasha's arm more firmly as she sensed his youki flaring behind her. "I will go fetch a servant who can take you to temporary quarters until we can have better accommodations prepared. Is that agreeable, Inuyasha-sama?"

The hanyou did not argue, but gave her a dark look that clearly said he was neither satisfied nor finished with her. He then turned his glare to Kouga, and Kagome took it as permission.

She rose and went towards the entrance, praying the two could remain civil for just a few moments. She picked her way carefully among the torn up cushions and scattered feathers, stopping for a moment to check on the unconscious guard that had come to warn them of Kouga's unexpected arrival. It seemed to be just a bump on the head, but she would have to call someone to tend to him.

She slipped out from the Tennō's quarters and into the cold night air. It was still snowing lightly, and a group of people were huddled uncertainly at the opposite end of the walkway around the glow of a few lanterns. They had obviously followed Kouga's trail here and had no idea what to do.

They stirred and began to chatter loudly as she emerged and came towards them. A few of them, guards in full armor, stepped forward to the head of the group. Kagome frowned, wondering at the lack of loyalty that had kept them from charging in to defend their Tennō from the threat.

"Everything is fine. There was merely a…misunderstanding of sorts," Kagome called, preempting the blustering excuses she could see the guards preparing to give. "I need two servants to come with me. One will lead our noble guest to an available room befitting his status.”

“The other will take the guard inside who was…incapacitated in the midst of the confusion back to his quarters to rest and be tended to."

Kagome felt a little uncertain giving out orders as if she had any authority, but annoyance with the crowd lent her voice strength. No one questioned her, either out of due shame for their lack of action or because of the automatic authority that coming out of the Tennō's chambers lent her.

Two of the braver servants stepped forward and followed her back into the tensely silent room as the rest of the group dispersed. One, the man of the two, went hurriedly to the side of the fallen guard, hefting the other man up and hauling him from the room.

The other, a small but sturdy looking older woman, trailed after Kagome all the way over to the now petulant looking wolf Lord. Inuyasha, in anticipation of the entry of the servants, had gone to fume silently behind the screen.

Kagome was grateful to find that no blood seemed to have been shed in her absence. She bowed to Kouga and gestured to the servant woman, who bowed low, as well.

"Kouga-sama, she will lead you to your chambers. Simply follow her and you can get settled in for the night."

"What about you, Kagome?" he asked, rising to clasp her hands tightly in his own.

Kagome took a deep breath to gather her patience, glancing warily at the screen to make certain that Inuyasha did not try anything. She shifted her gaze back to Kouga, slipping her hands out of his grasp.

"I have to remain and finish my business with the Tennō-sama," she explained, and saw Kouga bristle exactly as she had expected. "But it would trouble me greatly if you were to remain and be bored by the tedious matters that we have to discuss. So, please, just go to your room and get a good night's rest. For my sake."

Kouga hesitated for a long moment, torn between the instinct to please Kagome and the desire to irritate Inuyasha. At length he nodded slowly.

"Fine. But if he tries anything, just come get me and I'll fix him, Tennō or whatever. And you'll come see me in the morning. We'll eat together."

"I will…see what I can do about that."

Kouga nodded and, to her great dismay, swept her into his arms for a parting embrace. Kagome squeezed her eyes shut in mortification, hoping it would end quickly. She could feel Inuyasha's eyes burning holes in her even through the screen.

Of course, it actually proved to be quite the lingering embrace as Kouga sniffed her and held her purposefully close in order to get in his parting shots. Through her intense embarrassment and growing desire to sink through the floor, she admired Inuyasha's restraint in not tearing the wolf to shreds.

Eventually he released her and followed the servant woman, who had thankfully kept herself busy tending to the cluttered room while she waited, out, though not before throwing a smug smirk at the outline of the fuming Inuyasha.

Kagome breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to have gotten through that tricky situation with minimal harm done. Mentally she patted herself on the back for having executed all of Kaede’s lessons in tact so very well.

"Oi, wench. Care to explain to me what in the seven hells you just did? Besides throwing yourself at the flea-bitten wolf like some fawning moron."

Kagome deflated, reminded that she still had some explaining to do if all were to go through as she hoped. With a mental sigh she turned to kneel down before the screen. Inuyasha came to stand beside it, arms crossed over his chest as he glared darkly down at her.

"First of all, I was hardly fawning over him, Inuyasha-sama-"

"Like hell," Inuyasha snorted. "You were all over him. I saw how you jumped straight into his scrawny arms! Is that the sort of thing you’re into?"

"I did not-!"

But Inuyasha merely huffed loudly over her attempts at explanation, turning up his nose. Kagome glared hard at his stubborn profile, but sighed at length.

He was obviously frustrated over everything that had occurred, and it was not as if he didn't have the right to be. After all, Kouga had broken into his court, insulted him repeatedly, attempted to abduct her, and the hanyou was still forced to allow him to stay without punishment.

"Regardless of what I did or did not do with Kouga-sama, do you understand my purpose in asking him to stay in the court?" she asked, hoping to set aside the rest of it for the moment.

"So that you can slobber all over him some more?"

"Inuyasha-sama!"

"What?! It's true, ain't it!"

He turned a glower on her that she gave right back to him, neither budging in the least. At length Kagome bit her lip, forcefully swallowing her pride. They needed to talk this through if he was to understand.

"Listen, Inuyasha-sama. I think it very important that he remain here in the court," Kagome said at last, collecting herself through sheer force of will.

"…Why?" Inuyasha asked, seeming to relent for the moment.

"I do not know how connected to or separate from the court he might be, but Kouga-sama is a Lord. More importantly than that, he is a Lord with a substantial number of youkai under his control. I have seen that much with my own eyes. And so I believe Kouga-sama and his clan could prove to be valuable supporters in our cause," Kagome explained.

"And you really think shit-for-brains is gonna listen to anything I say?" Inuyasha returned archly.

"Ah, well…" Kagome faltered, coming to the snag in her plan. "Hopefully during the time he will be here in the court, I can convince him to be more cooperative. He seems to…have a soft spot for me of sorts."

Inuyasha snorted derisively, his irritation flaring back up full force at the mention.

"So, what? You're gonna offer your body up to him in exchange for obedience? Thanks, but I’ll fucking pass on having any part in that shit.”

He turned his head dismissively, glaring at the far wall.

Kagome gasped, her face heating in indignation at the suggestion. She stood to face him, her fists balling tightly. How dare he!

"I will do what I have to do to secure your position, as I said I would!" Kagome snapped. "But I won't stand to be insulted when all I've tried to do is help you! Now if we are finished, may I retire for the night, Inuyasha-sama?"

"Feh. Whatever, go," Inuyasha tossed off callously, though inwardly he winced. She really sounded pissed this time…but she was the one who had forced him to allow that mangy wolf to stay in the court even after all the shit he had stirred up!

"Good night then, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome bit out, spinning on her heel to go.

Kagome took her leave quickly, fuming as she made her way out of the Inner Palace. She made her way back to Sango's residence and the room that had been prepared for her.

She found that Sango had already retired for the night and that Miroku had remained at his own residence. She was thankful, considering that it meant she could get a night's rest before having to explain all of what had gone on.

Huffily she changed into a light sleeping yukata and laid down, though sleep was not quick in coming. All she had been trying to do was help him, and he had all but accused her of being some kind of harlot! Really, it was too much…

At length she drifted into a fitful sleep, nursing her wounded pride.


Kagome awoke early the following morning, rested but not particularly refreshed. She recalled telling Kouga that she would try to visit him in the morning and decided it would be best to follow through with that, if only to prevent him from storming the court once more in search of her.

Kagome summoned a servant who helped her to prepare, washing and rewrapping her shoulder as well. As the elderly servant woman was brushing out her hair and retying it, Kagome wrote a quick note to Miroku and Sango explaining all that had gone on with Inuyasha. That way neither of them would have to bother with looking for her once they awoke.

The servant woman then went out to speak with a few other servants as to where exactly Kouga had ended up being placed for the night. It turned out to be a small residence near the Inner Palace, previously inhabited by a clan that had fallen into disgrace and that was now vacant. The woman led Kagome to it.

Kagome paused to take a deep breath at the entrance to Kouga's temporary room, preparing herself to deal with any of the number of outrageous things the wolf Lord might do or say. She needed to walk the fine line between staying in his favor and not leading him on if things were to work out as she hoped.

Resolution firm, Kagome stepped into the room. She nearly fell over at the sight that greeted her.

Somehow he had managed to get a hold of several heavy furs, which he had draped over the walls and scattered all over the wooden floors. To introduce light into the darkened room, he had built up a fire in the central fire pit of the room.

The lack of any ventilation left the room positively sweltering, and Kagome would have said she was right back in the cave on Kouga's lands had she not known better. Choking slightly on the heavy smoke hanging in the air, Kagome ventured further into the room.

Kouga, reclining lazily beside the dancing flames, sprang up at the sight of her. He was beside her in a flash, taking her hands and pulling her forward into the room. He rambled energetically about something Kagome could not quite follow, stunned as she still was by the drastic alterations made to the room.

He sat her forcefully down beside the fire, taking a seat so close to her that his thigh pressed against hers. Kagome scooted back nervously, only to be mirrored by Kouga. Obviously he had very little sense for human boundaries.

"I hope…your night was a pleasant one, Kouga-sama," Kagome said, uncomfortable with the serious, fixed look the wolf Lord was directing at her.

"It was alright," Kouga said dismissively, his intensely blue eyes never straying from her. "Once I had the servants fix the room up, anyway. I would rather have been closer to my woman, though."

And he was leaning towards her once more. Kagome scrabbled back desperately, jumping up at last and walking away from the fire.

She pretended to examine one of the furs closely to cover her jumpiness, absently tugging at the collar of her robes as she felt beads of sweat begin to collect at the nape of her neck.

"I wonder where the servants managed to find these," she chattered pointlessly, fingering the fur in exaggerated contemplation.

She could feel it as the wolf came up behind her and she had to fight not to flinch as his clawed hand came to rest on her shoulder. He was so close she could feel his warmth against her back.

"Kagome, I get it. I know why you asked me to stay here in the court."

Kagome pulled a face at what was supposed to be the suggestive undertone in his voice. Of course she should have expected that he would make whatever he wanted out of her proposal to have him remain in the capital. She turned carefully to face him, her expression guarded.

"And what exactly do you understand, Kouga-sama?" she asked, edging her tone with a stiff formality that she hoped would cool his ardor.

"I, uh…I know that you wanted me here to save you, of course," Kouga faltered, confused by the sudden shift. “You want me to save you from dog-breath so that you can be my woman. I mean, you couldn't say it in front of him 'cuz he's the Tennō and all that shit, but this way I can save you like you wanted."

"And how did you come to that conclusion, Kouga-sama?" Kagome returned levelly.

"I…uh…well," Kouga groped for words, but suddenly could not follow the line of logic that had led him to his conclusion. "It's just…obvious, right?"

Kagome eyed him, noting the uncharacteristic uncertainty in his expression. As trying as he might be, his feelings for her seemed strangely sincere. She pulled back a bit, softening her demeanor and distractedly fanning herself with one hand.

"Please listen very carefully to what I have to say, Kouga-sama," she said with gentle firmness. "I did not ask you to stay here in order to save me. I asked you to stay because there is something I am trying to achieve here in the court, and I believe you can help me to do it.”

“In regards to...your feelings for me, I can not honestly say that I return them. Nor can I say that I will be in any position to return those feelings any time in the near future.”

“I am truly sorry if I have given you the wrong impression, and you are free to leave at any time if that is your wish. However, I would be deeply grateful if you would remain."

Kouga stared at her for a long moment, his face blank as if he could not comprehend. And then something seemed to sink behind his eyes, and he half-reached for her before drawing his hand back.

He looked more than a little confused and hurt. It tugged at Kagome's heart terribly, and she had to bite back conciliatory words that might lessen what she was trying to convey.

"So you…don't want to be my woman?" he asked at length, his eyes searching hers.

"I am sorry, Kouga-sama," Kagome said softly, lowering her gaze to the fur covered floor.

"It's because of dog-face, isn't it?" Kouga said with a hint of accusation. "You're in love with him, right?"

"What? No! Of course not!" Kagome said, her eyes widening they snapped back up to meet his. “Where did you even get such an idea?”

The very thought of it was ludicrous. Not only was Inuyasha the Tennō, but beyond that the two of them could scarcely be near one another without him deciding to pick a fight with her!

"Good."

Kagome blinked, as surprised by the word as by the cocky tone in which it was tossed out. A confident grin was splitting Kouga's face from ear to ear, fangs glinting in the light of the fire. Kagome's heart sank and she wondered where she had slipped up this time.

"If there's no reason why not, then I'm definitely going to make you my woman," Kouga declared. "You'll see, Kagome. You'll be my mate within a week. Definitely!"

Without further warning he swept her up into his arms, clasping her tightly to himself. Kagome froze within his arms, so stunned by his boundless self-assurance and how little he had actually listened to what she had said that she could not move.

At the edge of her line of vision Kagome caught some kind of movement and quickly refocused her eyes. There in the entryway stood a servant, a younger, pretty sort of girl. Her eyes were white all the way around as she gaped at them, her mouth hanging open in a most improper manner.

Kagome jerked, fairly shoving Kouga away from herself. He looked as if he would protest, but Kagome spun him around to see their unexpected visitor. Still he did not seem to feel much other than annoyance, turning a surly look on the accidental interloper.

"Ah, um…I-I'm sorry to have interrupted you two while you were….But the Tennō-sama has requested that you be brought to his Majesty immediately," the servant girl stuttered, her cheeks flushed at the intimate display she had witnessed.

She gave a quick, awkward bow and Kagome hurried over to her side, casting Kouga a sharp look on her way. She put a hand on the girl's shoulder.

"It's alright. It's just a misunderstanding, that's all. A misunderstanding," Kagome offered lamely, and the girl stared uncertainly at her. "Ummm…how about you just take me to the Tennō-sama now, alright?"

"You and Kouga-sama don't need to finish?" the girl questioned, brows arched with all the impertinence of youth.

There was something sharp behind the girl's dark eyes and Kagome felt a brief flash of concern.

"Yeah, actually, me and my woman-"

"There's nothing to be finished," Kagome cut the wolf Lord off sharply, shooting him a silencing look. "I have to go meet with Tennō-sama now, Kouga-sama. I am sorry to cut our conversation short, but his Majesty's orders take precedence."

Kouga looked as if he might argue or say something derogatory about Inuyasha, but Kagome kept him pinned with a stern stare. Luckily he seemed for once to understand her meaning and settled for a sullen scowl, huffing out a sigh as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"Then I will take my leave," Kagome said, more in hopes of getting the servant girl moving than anything else.

The girl took the hint reluctantly, leaving off her covert glances between the wolf Lord and the miko in favor of turning to go. Kagome offered Kouga a nod and a hint of a smile as thanks for his small show of tact.

Kouga returned the gesture with a beaming grin, as if he had done something particularly wonderful. Kagome turned to follow the servant, rolling her eyes.

"Don't forget what I said, Kagome!" he called after her, and she tensed. "I'm not kidding about making you my woman! I'll come see you later!"

Kagome's insides turned to stone at the scandalized look the young servant girl shot her. Determinedly she ignored him and forced her feet to continue moving forward down the long halls, her face pointedly blank. The servant girl continued to shuffle along ahead of her, but kept her eyes trained unwaveringly on Kagome.

"Kouga-sama is joking, of course. He has…a unique sense of humor," Kagome said to her, her tone as light as she could force it to be.

"I'm certain, Kagome-sama," the girl replied, sounding quite the opposite.

They reached the entrance to the residence and both slipped their shoes back on before exiting. They walked the paths to the Inner Palace in silence, encountering few other courtiers as it was still very early.

For that matter, the sun was just beginning to fully illuminate the morning sky. Kagome realized that she could not have been with Kouga-sama for very long despite how it had felt, and quick on the tail of that thought it occurred to her how much more suspicious it must have seemed to find her in the youkai's chambers so early.

Mentally Kagome squirmed, wondering how she could have been stupid enough to put herself in such a position. She had not been thinking at all.

She also could not help but wonder why Inuyasha would summon her so early in the day. They had parted on rocky terms the previous night, and it was hard to believe that he would be eager to see her again so soon. Perhaps he wished to continue degrading her despite her best efforts…

Distracted by her musings, Kagome nearly tripped over a great white crane lying on the path before she realized she was almost to Inuyasha's chambers. The crane gave her a look that she could only interpret as annoyance as she stepped apologetically over it, following the servant girl up the steps and through the Shishinsen.

The snow had ceased to fall sometime during the night, but the chill was still sharp in the air and the large pond over which the walkway to the Tennō's chambers was built was blanketed in a layer of frost. Kagome wondered if it were sturdy enough to slide around on, as she had once done in her village when she was little.

She hesitated at the entrance to the chamber, glancing at the servant girl as she stood waiting for Kagome to enter. Kagome opened her mouth, considering asking the girl to keep quiet about the things she had witnessed and heard in Kouga's room.

But it would seem as if she truly had something to hide were she to say that. And the servants here in the capital all seemed to be very kind and well-mannered people. It was unlikely that they would be prone to gossip or rumor-mongering.

"Umm…Good-bye," Kagome said, as she had been staring at the girl too long to say nothing at all.

"Good-bye," the girl replied shortly, looking anxious to be off.

Kagome nodded and entered the chamber. She could hear the girl scamper off like an excited rabbit the moment she was inside.

It was pleasant inside the chamber, the warmth of a fire that was now merely embers held inside the room. Kagome rubbed her hands together to take the chill from them. The screen was back up once more and the room had been cleaned of all of the scattered feathers, paper, and snow.

Vaguely Kagome could see the outline of Inuyasha reclining behind the slatted screen. She frowned and took a seat on a cushion before it, waiting warily to be addressed.

"Took you long enough."

"I came as soon as the servant summoned me," Kagome returned, lips twitching in irritation.

"Feh. Just get here faster next time."

"…Is there a reason you summoned me here so early?" she bit out, hand clenching where they rested atop her thighs.

"I…"

There was a long pause. A very long pause. A pause that just kept on stretching and stretching and stretching awkwardly along.

"Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome said at length.

"I summoned you because…because I…I do have a reason, y'know!" Inuyasha snapped. "I summoned you 'cuz…shit…."

"Do you not have a reason for calling me here?" Kagome said incredulously.

"I-no!…That wolf!" Inuyasha stuttered, mentally kicking himself for not having thought up anything to tell her. Of course she would ask for some sort reason!

Kagome paused for a moment, taking in what he had said. "You do not mean…? You did not do it just to get me away from Kouga-sama, did you?"

There was that exaggerated pause again. Kagome bit down on her tongue so hard she thought it might come off, desperately holding back the torrent of disrespectful words that wanted to pour forth. The thought of tipping the screen over on him even flashed briefly across her mind.

"Inuyasha-sama," she began with terrible patience. "You-!"

"What?! I ain't gonna have that wolf slobbering all over you in my capital! He's got no fucking right!" Inuyasha fumed, rising to stand behind the screen.

"I tried to explain to you why Kouga-sama is here!" Kagome cried. "I tried to explain that all I'm trying to do is help you, and you-!"

"Pardon me, my Lord."

Both turned at the sound of a third voice in the room. In the entryway stood Kikyou, her expression more stony than Kagome had ever seen it. Kagome flushed hotly, her mouth snapping shut. She wondered how long the woman had been standing there.

"Kikyou? What're you doing here?" asked Inuyasha, sounding as if his thoughts ran along the same line.

"Conveniently enough, I was coming to request that you call Kagome here so that she might begin her duties as my lady-in-waiting," Kikyou replied, barely sparing her a glance as she went to stand behind the screen at Inuyasha's side. "I am sorry to have interrupted your…discussion, my Lord."

"You didn't," said Inuyasha, and Kagome saw his outline reach up to clasp the hand Kikyou proffered to him. "It was over, anyway."

"Ah, I see," Kikyou replied softly, the barest hint of satisfaction in her voice. "Then you do not mind if I take the girl with me now? There is much to be done."

"Go ahead. I don't care."

Kagome flinched, stung at the abrupt dismissal. He suddenly seemed so... distant. She wondered at the sudden shift.

"Thank you, my Lord. I will take my leave with her," Kikyou said, pressing his hand lightly before stepping out from behind the screen. "Will you be dining with me tonight, my Lord? I have missed your company these past few evenings."

"Yeah, sure," Inuyasha replied.

"Good. I will look forward to it," Kikyou said, and there was a brief flash if softness in her face.

The future Empress stepped regally to the entryway, her blue and white juni-hito trailing gracefully behind her. She paused, turning back to Kagome and raising a delicate brow expectantly.

"Come, Kagome."

Kagome bristled at being called as one might call a dog, and defiantly remaining seated just a moment longer than necessary. The noblewoman met her gaze levelly, though something hard entered her eyes.

Kagome turned and bowed perfunctorily towards the screen before standing to leave.

"I take my leave, Tennō-sama," she said stiffly.

That said, she turned to trail after the future Empress.

"Oi, Kagome!"

The miko turned at the call, surprised. Kikyou turned back, as well. The hanyou hesitated.

"Never mind. Just go," Inuyasha huffed.

Feeling slightly disappointed, Kagome bowed once more and turned to continue after Kikyou.

Inuyasha flopped back down onto the nearest cushions, absently reaching out to shred one with his claws. Annoyance buzzed lightly throughout his limbs, urging him to get up and move.

He had a meeting with the Council of State soon, however, and could not afford to go far. They were going to discuss…the allocation of funds towards the reconstruction of properties damaged by rampant youkai. Or some shit like that.

The hanyou groaned as he recalled. That must be why he was so annoyed. He was not looking forward to that lot of wrinkled, rambling old men trying to trick him again.

That was it. It had nothing whatsoever to do with that fool girl and her moronic wolf. Not at all.

Inuyasha rolled over, resigning himself to lay there until he was summoned to the meeting. For a moment he allowed his eyes to fall shut, and waiting there in the darkness behind his closed lids was the disgusting specter of the drooling wolf looming over that wide-eyed idiot of a woman.

He growled, banging his head lightly against the floor.


"Kagome."

She raised her head from where she was hunched over on the wooden floor, craning her neck around to face her caller. Kikyou knelt primly nearby on a sitting mat just behind the line of an open shoji screen, surveying her coolly from a distance.

Kagome turned back, picking up her rag and continuing to scrub the floor of the hallway. She paused, pushing a few stray hairs back from her face with a grimy hand.

"Yes, Fujiwara-sama?" she replied to the call at length, addressing the floor far more than the woman.

"There are some issues that need be addressed."

"Would you like me to continue cleaning while we speak?" Kagome asked, unable to keep from being a bit pert after all that she had been put through.

Kikyou had led her in chilly silence to her chambers on the eastern edge of the Inner Palace, which was no more than Kagome had expected. She had also expected the future Empress' quarters to be large and lavish, which they proved to be. They were basically the twin of Inuyasha's own residence on a slightly smaller scale.

What Kagome had not expected was what came next.

She was not overly knowledgeable on the matter, but even she knew the general duties of a lady-in-waiting. A lady-in-waiting was to follow her mistress and take care of any personal requirements she might have, such as helping with bathing, grooming, or wardrobe.

Upon their arrival at the residence, Kikyou had asked her to do none of these things. Rather she had stopped the first servant they encountered and instructed him to bring a pail of water and several rags.

The servant had done so speedily and without question. Kikyou had then instructed him to tell the servants that they may do as they pleased for the next until she summoned them back.

The man had stood for a few moments, confused, before the slightest raising of one of Kikyou's fine brows had sent him scampering off to do as he was told.

Obviously the future Empress was not one to be lenient if crossed.

And thus they had come to this, Kikyou sipping a steaming mug of tea as she watched Kagome scrub her way up and down the extensive hall. Only about ten more hallways to go, Kagome thought dismally. She wondered if Kikyou intended to have her clean the rooms, as well.

"No, you may continue to clean as I speak," Kikyou said, catching her small bit of insolence and choosing to ignore it.

"As you wish, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome muttered, re-wetting her rag from the wooden pail and scrubbing hard at the floor.

It was frustrating. It was so frustrating that she thought she might begin to tear her hair out soon. What right or reason did this woman have to ridicule her in this manner?

"Good, then," said Kikyou. "I will start with the obvious. You are wondering, I am certain, why I am using you to do the job of my servants."

"The thought had crossed my mind, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome replied archly.

"And am I correct in assuming you believe my intent to be malicious?" Kikyou said softly, watching her intently as she scrubbed at a spot.

The village girl had an abundance of spirit, if absolutely nothing else.

"I…gave no thought to your intent," Kagome lied.

Of course she had assumed that Kikyou was trying to upset her. Perhaps even trying to make her so angry that she would snap and give the future Empress an excuse to send her home. Kikyou had never made any secret of her opinion about Kagome's presence in the court, after all.

"I see," said Kikyou, unconvinced. "Nonetheless, I wish to clarify matters. I do not do harbor any ill will towards you."

Kagome paused in her work, turning slightly to glance at the future Empress from the corner of her eye. Kikyou’s eyes still had that look of carefully cultivated distance, but she did not seem to be insincere. Then again, Kikyou, while not at all a pleasant person in Kagome’s esteem, somehow did not seem the type to lie.

"Ill will," Kikyou continued. "Would, after all, imply that I was concerned enough with you to wish for your unhappiness. Quite frankly, you do not matter enough to me to warrant my feeling one way or another about you.”

“That is what I intend to remind you of. You are not an exception, despite how you may have been treated up until this point. You are of common birth, Kagome. By the will of the kami you were placed beneath the nobility, meant to serve. Close associations between us are impossible. It would upset the very order of things.”

“Now, I am not ordering you to leave the court. You have fought fairly for the right to remain here. But do not expect me, nor anyone else, to treat you as if you belong here. Do not expect to find much in the way of happiness."

Kagome came to a slow halt in the midst of her work, the rag slipping from her grasp as she straightened up. She turned to face Kikyou, something cold beginning to creep into her chest. Yet still there was not the smallest trace of animosity anywhere in the noblewoman's countenance.

Kagome's heart seemed to sink down through the polished wooden floors. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you seem to have forgotten it, or perhaps never to have understood the truth of things here to begin with," Kikyou answered simply, her dark eyes unwavering. "It is the truth. Order must be maintained in this court and throughout this country, and to maintain it everyone must know their own place in it.”

“I believe that the seeming favor that Tachibana Sango and the Houshi have shown you has led you to believe that you are somehow on a level with the rest of us, to be treated as an equal. The…odd attention that my Lord has shown you has not helped, either."

Kagome looked up at the strange note of hesitation in Kikyou's voice. But the noblewoman was no longer looking at her as she had managed to do so steadily up until that point.

"I will not pretend to understand his unusual concern with you. But I will inform you that it is a passing thing, not to be taken seriously in any manner," Kikyou said, a hard note finally entering her words. "As is, I am certain, whatever interest Tachibana Sango and the Houshi have shown. Ultimately they know their places. You must remember yours."

Kagome stared at the woman, an odd numbness overtaking her. She was at a loss in the face of such cold certainty.

And it was a truth that the village girl had allowed herself to lose sight of in the midst of everything. She was not like these people. She was common born and was to be treated as such.

She had come into the court anticipating harsh treatment and had been thrown off by Miroku and Sango’s kindness. And even Inuyasha’s gruff familiarity had set her at ease, tricked her into believing that he was a person no different from herself.

But he was not a person like her. He had all but told her as much during their last two meetings, with his casual dismissals of her efforts with Kouga. And she, fool girl with a muddled head that she was, had had the insolence argue and feel slighted when he was merely treating her as he had every right to. As a servant, not a friend.

Truly she could have no friends here, however kind Miroku and Sango might be. They were not of a kind. Close association was not possible. By the kami, she had been a fool.

She pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling sick and sad and hollow. But she had known to expect this, Kagome reminded herself forcefully. She had not come in blind.

"Of course…you are correct, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome managed at last, dropping back down and grabbing her rag. "I forgot myself. I apologize. It…will not happen again."

There was a long pause from the woman behind Kagome, though she was beyond caring about a response. She just wanted to finish cleaning and go somewhere she could be alone. Somewhere she could begin to sort through the tangle of her muddled feelings.

"As long as you understand, there is no harm done," Kikyou said quietly. "Finish cleaning two more halls and then you may retire to your new room in the southern quarter of the residence. You will know it when you see it- it will be the only spare room in the quarter.”

“I will call to have your things brought there. Your day will begin again when I summon you tomorrow. These cleanings will be a regular activity, to serve as a reminder of what we have discussed today…Things will be much easier for you, Kagome, so long as you keep all of this in mind. You should not suffer unduly."

With that Kagome heard the shoji door slide shut with a delicate yet resounding clack, signaling Kikyou's departure. She continued to scrub dutifully, focusing doggedly on the slide of the rag over the floor.

Back and forth, back and forth, re-wet, wring out, and start again. And again. And again. How long it went on Kagome did not know.

At length she realized she had reached the end of the final hall. She blinked several times, disoriented, before realizing she was done. She rose stiffly, her joints protesting at the sudden shift in position, and went out into the garden to dump the dirty water.

She sought out the servants' quarters and placed the bucket and rag there to be dealt with later. She then began the task of searching out the southern quarter of the residence.

Heading in a southern direction was not particularly difficult, but for the many buildings with countless winding hallways. The residence had to be at least three times the size of Sango's and far more empty.

At length she found the quarter, and a bit more wandering through the halls led her to the only unadorned room. It was of a good size, larger even than the one Kagome had been given in Sango's residence.

Strangely enough, a futon had been laid out already, and a mug of tea sat steaming beside it. Kagome sat down on the futon, taking the mug in both hands and letting its warmth flow through her finger tips.

She had thought that all the servants were still out. The only one in the residence who knew this was her room should have been Kikyou…

But even the thought of that was ridiculous. Kagome took a sip from the mug, but the familiar flavor did not hold its usual comfort. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. And she was more alone than she had ever been before. Though perhaps she had been alone all along and had merely failed to realize it.

Kagome cringed, mortification twisting her innards sickeningly. She had presumed so much. She had lost sight of herself and her surroundings. Sango and Miroku were not her friends. Inuyasha was not her friend. They had tolerated her and she had taken advantage.

At least Kikyou had brought her back to her senses, she thought bitterly. Otherwise she might have continued on blindly in her foolishness, shaming the kami themselves with her behavior.

No, she was on her own here in the court. She would serve respectfully and dutifully, carrying forward with her purpose as much as she could. But never again would she forget.

Kagome set the still-steaming mug aside, finding herself unable to force any more down. She just wanted to go to sleep.

She flopped back on the futon, curling in on herself. Without bothering to pull the covers up or even change clothes, Kagome closed her eyes and dozed off.


"Kagome-san! Kagome-san! You need to get up now. Fujiwara-sama requires your assistance."

Kagome groaned, rolling over as a gentle hand shook her shoulder. Cracking one eye open just slightly, she could see daylight peeking into the room, as well as the vague outline of a woman leaning over her.

She forced herself to sit up, wondering dazedly what time it was. The woman gave her a sympathetic smile as she covered a jaw-wrenching yawn.

"Sorry to get you up so early, dear," she said. "I know you're probably still tired from all the cleaning yesterday. But our Ladyship has early morning tea with one of the other noblewomen, and she needs you to help her prepare. So rise and shine. C'mon, I'll help you."

The woman helped Kagome to stand, offering her a rough yukata to change into. She did so, laying her dirty robes out on the futon to be taken care of later. She decided to forgo changing the bandages on her shoulder, as she needed to hurry to help Kikyou. The wound seemed to be healing properly.

The servant woman showed her to a well just out behind her quarters, and Kagome pulled water up from it to wash her face and hands. The woman offered her a leather tie, and Kagome pulled her hair back into a long tail.

"Well, don't you look just like one of us," remarked the woman, Takiko, as she surveyed her appearance. She did not sound particularly pleased.

"It is how I am supposed to look," Kagome said, not looking at her. "We should probably go to Fujiwara-sama now, or she might be cross."

Takiko nodded, but turned to face the girl as they started off towards the main quarter where Kikyou was housed.

"You know, Kagome-san, Fujiwara-sama really doesn't have any bad feelings towards you, I think," Takiko chattered. "She just…likes everything in its place. She believes very much in order. And she is terribly straightforward, which makes her a bit…hard to deal with. But she has her reasons."

"And what reasons would those be?" Kagome asked, recalling Inuyasha offering a similar defense for the woman.

"Her Ladyship's family…" Takiko began, and then hesitated. "Never mind. If it something Fujiwara-sama wishes you to know, she will be the one to tell you. It is not my place to be running around gossiping. Just…please try to be understanding with her."

Kagome was silent. While she understood that Kikyou had merely spoken the truth, it was still hard for her to think very fondly of the woman who had made things so difficult for her since their first meeting.

They reached the entrance to Kikyou's chambers. Takiko took her leave. Kagome knelt down before the shoji door and slid it open as Kaede had once taught her to do. She bowed in the open doorway before entering, turning back to kneel on the tatami mats and slide the shoji shut.

"Good, you are here," said Kikyou, kneeling before an ornate dressing mirror. "Please fetch a juni-hito from my trunk. Preferably one with…a firmer sort of look to it."

Kagome frowned, wondering at the odd request. Something 'firm' to meet a guest in? Still she rose without question and went to the large trunk in the corner of the room, opening it to rifle through its contents.

"Is this one suitable, Fujiwara-sama?" Kagome asked, holding up a deep red and black one with winding dragons patterned on it.

"That one will do," Kikyou said, glancing at its reflection in her mirror. "Come help me to put it on."

Kagome did so, and Kikyou stood as she helped her remove her sleeping yukata. Kagome started slipping the first several layers onto her slim, pale frame. She arranged them very carefully so that they would drape correctly before sliding the top layers over them.

At last she tied the waist and slipped the karaginu over everything. Kikyou stepped back to survey her work in the mirror, giving a small nod of approval.

"I prefer no to wear any powder. Fetch a few combs to pull my hair back," Kikyou instructed. "There is a box on the table filled with them."

Kagome went to the large, low table on the left side of the room, taking from it a glossy black box. She returned to Kikyou's side with it, removing the lid and sifting through the many combs to find a fitting set.

She found two painted gold ones with spines carved in the delicate form of dragonflies. Deciding that they would do, she began to comb slowly through Kikyou's mass of dark hair. There were very few tangles, she noted with a tiny pang of envy.

"You are looking more humble today, Kagome," commented Kikyou, watching the girl in the mirror as she worked quietly.

"I have…remembered my place, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome answered, tensing. She focused on combing steadily through Kikyou's hair, refusing to meet the woman's eyes.

"Good," Kikyou returned. "I can not promise that you will be happier, but you will certainly be more at ease. There is a certain comfort in not fighting your fate, you will find."

Kagome glanced briefly up at the woman's face reflected in the glass, surprised at the familiarity with which she spoke about such things. But Kikyou's eyes were unreadable. Well enough, Kagome supposed, as it was not a topic she particularly wanted to delve into with this woman again.

"If it is not too impertinent of me, may I ask with whom you are having tea, Fujiwara-sama?" Kagome said, more to change the subject than anything.

"Merely a noblewoman from the Taira clan," Kikyou replied vaguely.

There was something resigned in the set of her mouth. It sounded somehow more like a chore than a social engagement, Kagome reflected silently.

She swept the sides of Kikyou's hair back with the combs, twisting it in the back and leaving the other half of her hair down. It turned out rather nice looking, surprisingly enough.

Kikyou turned her head slightly this way and that, examining her reflection . A small nod conveyed her acceptance of it.

"I will summon you again when I am finished. Until then, seek out one of the servants and ask them for work to keep you occupied," the future Empress ordered.

With that Kikyou rose and gracefully slid the shoji screen open, sliding it closed behind her once more.

Tittering laughter just outside the screen caught her attention a few moments after the noblewoman's departure. Kagome rose, going to the screen and opening it. The group of women just outside froze, but quickly resumed their chattering when they saw that Kagome appeared to be just another servant.

"What's going on?" Kagome said, noting the mischievous looks all around.

"Our Ladyship is having tea with that Taira woman again," snickered one of the girls conspiratorially. "It's always amusing to see Fujiwara-sama get a little flustered. She's usually such a cold fish."

The group broke into a fit of giggles again. Suddenly a hand shot out to grab Kagome's wrist. She squeaked as she found herself being tugged along rapidly behind the now-moving group.

"Come on. Come watch with us."

Kagome did not argue as she was pulled along, curious as she was to see this Taira woman who was supposedly capable of irking the unflappable future Empress.

Nor was it bad to be accepted so easily among a group of people who seemed to see her as an equal. She would simply watch for a moment and then go to find work as Kikyou had instructed.

The group came to a halt in front of another shoji, this one tucked away in a dark corner of the main house. A girl slid the screen open just the smallest bit, and the rest of the group swarmed around to get a peek. Kagome managed to find a spot and peered in to look, as well.

It was obviously the tea room, as all of the implements of the tea ceremony were inside and there was no table, but rather only cushions on which to kneel. Ornate ink paintings and several scrolls adorned the walls. Currently two women knelt across from one another, two bowls of tea sitting before them.

One of the women was Kikyou, her posture seeming more stiff than refined at the moment. The other had to be the Taira woman everyone was buzzing about, Kagome surmised.

She was beautiful, in a wild sort of way. Her smirking, full lips were painted a deep shade of crimson, matching exactly the color of her sharp eyes. Her dark hair was arranged rather carelessly on her head, a feather hanging from the tie that held it. Beads of the finest jade dangled from her pointed ears, and she wore juni-hito of alternating white and maroon, patterned with butterflies.

As if her odd ears and eyes had not said it clearly enough, her aura reeked of youki in Kagome's spiritual sense. Particularly potent was the aura of the fan hanging from the woman's wrist.

Kagome felt she could understand why Kikyou had not seemed eager to attend this meeting. The woman looked as if she would drink blood as readily as tea.

"So, Kikyou-sama, how has our Majesty been these days?" the woman was drawling, her sharp eyes intent on Kikyou's face.

"His Majesty has been as well as ever, Kagura-sama," Kikyou replied succinctly, her eyes meeting the other woman's in silent challenge.

"Ah, is that so? Good. I was worried his Majesty might be feeling strained with all of the youkai attacks and the like," the woman, Kagura, remarked keenly.

There was a slight tightening of Kikyou's jaw. Kagura's smirk widened a fraction, like a predator scenting a weakness.

"I assure you that my Lord has been dealing quite well with all that is happening. His Majesty has everything perfectly under control," Kikyou returned firmly, her chin tilting slightly upward as if to command more respect from the other woman.

"Hmmm? What measures is his Majesty employing exactly, if you do not mind my asking?" prodded Kagura, obviously unimpressed.

"My Lord has...I am afraid that my Lord has asked me to keep his plans confidential for the time being," Kikyou stumbled slightly, raising her mug to take a painfully proper sip.

Kagura grinned outright now, her elongated eyeteeth glinting.

"Truly? How disappointing. But I suppose I must take your word. After all, his Majesty must be in a tolerably stable position if he can afford to have an Empress with so little clan backing."

Kagome saw Kikyou's pale hands spasm mometarily around her bowl of tea, the knuckles flashing white. One of the servant girls near her gasped softly. She frowned, not following what was going on at all.

"Oh, I am sorry, Kikyou-sama," Kagura said with exaggerated feeling, raising a hand to her lips. "That was horribly indelicate of me. But you know, everyone was so surprised when he decided to not to call off the betrothal. He must care a great deal for you."

"I would prefer to discuss other matters if possible, Kagura-sama," Kikyou forced out, and Kagome was surprised by her lack of tact. Whatever it was they were talking about had shaken the future Empress deeply.

"Ah, my apologies. I did not mean to upset you, Kikyou-sama. How about we discuss that new village girl in court, then, to get your mind off of it?"

Kikyou raised her eyes from the floor, scanning the other woman's face with mild suspicion at the abrupt shift. Kagome leaned in closer as she realized they were talking about her.

"Why would you wish to discuss her?" Kikyou questioned warily.

"Ah, well, I heard from a one of the servants just today that she had talked to a servant who had seen the girl proving herself to be every bit the backwoods hussy that we all suspected her to be.”

“Apparently she is playing bed-warmer to the wolf Lord visiting the court right now. She works fast, I must say. And after you and his Majesty went to all that trouble to have her brought in. How embarrassing it must be,” Kagura commented slyly.

Kagome froze, her breath catching in her throat. Her eyes went wide, her hands clenching where she clutched the edge of the shoji for support.

"I am hardly one to listen to rumors," Kikyou replied guardedly, wondering what the other noblewoman was driving at.

"Kikyou-sama, always so very proper," Kagura said, something biting hiding just beneath her words. "Besides, now that word has spread all across the court about it, it is hardly a rumor anymore. It is simply a fact.”

“I am sure that word of it must even have reached his Majesty by now. The Tennō-sama must be disappointed to learn he made such allowances only to be tricked by a mere harlot. But you have had dealings with her as well, I believe? Tell me, is she as low down as she seems?"

But Kagome could not bear to hear another word. Quietly she slunk away from the group. She slunk all the way back to her room in the southern quarter, where she dropped down onto her futon and sat very still.

Because of one small slip in judgment, the entire court now thought she was no better than a common whore. Miroku thought she was a whore. Sango thought she was a whore. Inuyasha had had all his suspicions of her loose nature confirmed. As if everyone in the court had not thought her disgusting before, now they could say that that feeling was justified.

There was no way that Inuyasha would allow her to remain in the court now. She would be sent home, her reputation irrevocably tarnished for the remainder of her life. She had failed before she had even truly begun. Her head spun.

Kagome lay there for a long time, watching the shadows crawl across her walls as the hours dragged by. She felt horribly disconnected, like one stuck in a nightmare.

There was a sharp clack as her shoji screen was tossed open.

"I told you to wait for me to summon you again, did I not, Kagome?"

It was Kikyou's voice. Kikyou was there. Kagome was almost surprised enough to move. Almost.

"Nothing to say for yourself?"

Kagome was silent.

"I learned from the servant girls that you were among the ones eavesdropping on my conversation with Kagura-sama."

Still Kagome said nothing, unable to summon up the energy to react or respond.

"I suppose you were not pleased with what you overheard."

There was the soft patter of feet on the wooden floor. Distantly Kagome felt a warm hand come to rest on her shoulder. Her eyes widened slightly and she wondered if Kikyou actually intended to try and comfort her.

"I would advise you to grow a thicker skin. If you remain as you are, you will be entirely useless."

With that the hand was gone and the footsteps retreated. Kagome was alone once more.

She passed a sleepless night, unable to pull herself out from the pit she had created.