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Kagome was still.

Kagome was very, very still.

Inuyasha stared in a blank sort of horror down into the pale, placid face of the girl in his arms. It felt like it had been forever since she had last moved. Time crawled forward with agonizing torpidity.

He shook her again, telling himself that this time she would get up. She would get up and he would yell at her for whatever had just happened and she would yell back. She would get up.

But Kagome did not get up. Her limp limbs flailed pathetically at the jostling and then stilled once more. She lay like broken doll in his hold, pale and fragile and lifeless.

There was a sharp, sharp twinge in the hanyou's gut and one of his clawed hands rose to clutch at it. It felt like he was being stabbed. It hurt.


And then her eyes were open. Wide open and staring hard at something far beyond him. Inuyasha jerked slightly in his shock, feeling almost sick with a sudden rush of lightness and the easing of the knot in his innards.

"Kagome! Are you-!"

He cut himself off. Her focus was not on him at all and her lips moved ever so slightly, forming a stream of silent words. Inuyasha leaned in closer, hoping to catch whatever it was that she was muttering.

Her eyes shifted over to meet his, abruptly focusing. Inuyasha was unable to turn away. Her eyes were a shade of intense, mercurial gray he had never seen before, opened so wide that he could see the whites all the way around. He had never known that such a color even existed.

Suddenly there was a blue glow blocking the gray, spreading over the surface of her eyes like a fine film. It was the glow of Kagome's spiritual powers, Inuyasha remembered, jerking back to hold her at arm's length as her energy sparked lightly against his youki.

"The kami have granted their blessing to the hanyou Inuyasha, that he might rule as Tennō under their approval," Kagome intoned, her words crackling with the force of her spiritual energy. "Follow him, and the whole of this great Japan will flourish. Fail to heed his rule, and you bring about your own destruction."

Inuyasha stared wide-eyed at the girl as her eyes fluttered shut, the glow fading abruptly. The pressing feeling of her aura faded, as well, returning to the slight hum of power that always surrounded her.

Kagome sat up. She merely sat up on her own, freeing herself from his hold. She turned to him with an idiotically pleased grin spread all over her features, and Inuyasha felt his left eyebrow twitch spasmodically.

"Convincing, right? I probably won't say exactly that, but something along those lines," Kagome said excitedly, the stunned look on his face telling her she had pulled off the bit well. "It was good, right, Inuyasha-sama?"

Inuyasha was silent, staring hard at her. There was a slight tick developing in the right side of his face, Kagome noticed. He did not look quite so pleased as she had hoped he would.

"That…" he snarled, and Kagome flinched at the roughness of his voice. "Was an act?"

"…yes?" Kagome said uncertainly, wondering where exactly she had gone wrong. She could practically feel the vibrations of the impending explosion.

"What in the seven hells, woman!?"

A cushion flew to connect solidly with her face before she could even think to dodge. The force of it nearly knocked her backwards, and she stared wide-eyed up at the fuming hanyou towering over her.

"Dammit! I thought you were dead, you moron! That wasn't fucking funny!"

She had just been screwing with him the entire time. And to think he had been…he had been…Dammit!

"It wasn't meant to be funny, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome said weakly, slightly disheartened at how badly her idea had fallen through. "And I thought you'd be able to sense that I wasn't hurt and you would figure out what I was doing from there."

Inuyasha froze on the verge of storming into another tirade, mouth open and clawed finger pointed accusatorially at her. He had not sensed her vitals. Why had he not sensed her vitals?

He could hear it all well enough now. The quiet, even thrumming of her pulse. The almost imperceptible whooshing of air as her lungs expanded and contracted. So why had he missed it before if she were merely faking it all?

He glanced down at the girl who was watching him with sullen tentativeness as she waited for him to continue his rant, his mind wandering almost willfully away from the question. She looked pathetic. All hunched over and frowning like that.

Inuyasha averted his gaze with a huff, refusing to feel bad for having yelled at her. She deserved to squirm a little for pulling such a dumb stunt.

The image of her pale, still face rose unbidden in his mind's eye. Abruptly the burn of his irritation chilled. His eyes strayed back to her pouting form, observing the gentle rise and fall of her chest with each breath. Somehow he could not bring himself to finish his tirade.

"So?" Inuyasha huffed at length, slouching back to observe her while tucking his hands into the long sleeves of his karaginu.

He quirked one heavy, dark brow expectantly, telling himself that he was simply in a charitable mood or something. That was why he was sparing her his wrath for the moment. That was definitely it.

Kagome stared blankly at him. "So…what, Inuyasha-sama?"

"So I'm assuming there's some sort of twisted explanation for that idiotic display," Inuyasha ground out with terrible patience. "And if there's not I suggest you start running now."

Kagome's eyes darted up to his face for a moment, surprised that he did not intend to continue scolding her. The hanyou gazed pointedly away from her, arms and legs crossed and hidden deeply within the folds of his karaginu and sashinuki. He seemed…unsettled, somehow.

She felt a swift, sharp twinge of guilt. He had been worried about her. That was where all of this was coming from. She had been thoughtless, and he had been worried.

She considered apologizing, but another glance at him told her that all he would hear from her right now would be an explanation. Anything else would just rile him up again.

"Well, as you know, I was with Midoriko-sama today," Kagome began. "She told me the story of Pimiko-sama. Do you know it?"

Inuyasha grunted his assent, leaning towards her just slightly to listen. Kagome nodded in return, quietly gratified to see him loosening up.

"Midoriko-sama told me that story," she said. "And suddenly an idea just…occurred to me. Back in my village, when the harvests were still good, I was allowed to participate in the Dengaku. They let me do it even when I was very little, because they always thought the kami would be most willing to heed the prayers of a miko.”

“I don't think I was really anything special as far as all that goes, but either way I loved being able to join in the dances. And my favorite character was that of the man who was said to have founded our village, Kiyomichi-sama.”

“The story passed down in my village told of him journeying across the whole of Japan, a lone holy man seeking out the innate truths of the world. But he came to the spot on which our village now stands and was given an inspiration by the kami, who put into his mind the thought that eventually the people inhabiting that land would realize a great destiny.”

“Kiyomichi-sama took this to heart and built up our village. After a little pleading I convinced the villagers to let me play out Kiyomichi-sama during the Dengaku.”

“I was so excited, and I learned to tremble and shake and collapse to mimic the divine inspiration that the kami gave to Kiyomichi-sama. The villagers all thought I was convincing because of the way in which I manipulated my powers during the act, and let me do the part every year at the beginning of the harvest, despite the oddness of a woman playing a man's role.”

“Do you understand, Inuyasha-sama?"

Inuyasha stared blankly at her for a long moment.

"Not a fucking thing."

Kagome deflated. She frowned, mentally  sorting through her own words for some sort of clarity. She absently tugged at a loose strand of hair hovering near her face as she contemplated how to continue.

"Well, Pimiko-sama was a lone woman, and yet people were willing to follow her, right?" Kagome said. "But why did people follow her so willingly?"

"Her visions," Inuyasha supplied slowly, his brow knitting as he attempted to follow her line of thought. "The kami showed her the future or something, right?"

"Exactly," Kagome affirmed. "The kami gave her visions and people followed her. The kami gave a sort of vision to Kiyomichi-sama and he settled down to build our village. People are willing to follow the kami and those they believe to be blessed by the kami, correct?"

Inuyasha did not respond, his eyes widening slightly as realization began to dawn. Kagome, beaming enthusiastically, did not seem to require a response. She pressed on eagerly.

"So, you see, Inuyasha-sama, if you had the kami on your side, or at least the appearance of such, wouldn't the courtiers be much more willing to follow you, despite their reservations and personal interests?”

“And I know how to act a vision! Whether you'll admit it or not, you were convinced just now! And if I can convince the court that, as your servant, I have been blessed by the kami with the same foresight as Pimiko-sama, then won't they be far less likely to oppose you?”

“I'll play as your liaison to the divine, Inuyasha-sama, and with the authority that lends you, we can begin to change things!"

Inuyasha stared at her for a long moment, his features contorted in disbelief.

"You're insane," he declared succinctly, shaking his head.

"What!?" Kagome cried, bristling as the bubble of her excitement was so tactlessly burst.

"You really think there's a chance in all the seven layers of hell that you can pull this off in court?" Inuyasha interrupted, pinning her with a gaze as hard as stone. "Sure, they're a bunch of idiots and assholes, but they aren't that gullible."

"I fooled you, didn't I?" Kagome sniped, irritated by his condescension.

Certainly she knew that there were holes in her in her plan, but there was no way that she would ever be able to help him do anything if he was just going to casually dismiss her.

"That doesn't count," Inuyasha snapped in return, further irritated at the reminder. "I was just thrown off for second since you did something so weird."

"That's the point, though!" Kagome said. "It's so unexpected that they'll hardly think to question it."

"You just don't get it, Kagome. They're not some tiny bunch of backwoods villagers willing to see the work of the kami in every stupid rainstorm. They're gonna question anything that's different.”

“And you can throw around the names of the kami until your mouth bleeds, but they're not gonna believe a damned thing if you don't back it up. And some of them won't believe it even if you do."

Kagome was silent, unable to summon up any more words in her defense.

She shifted uncomfortably, feeling stung and foolish. And here she had been so hopeful and felt herself so clever for thinking up something this outrageous. Something that she had been so certain would help Inuyasha.

Yet he only saw her as some superstitious little commoner, unable to get out of her small mindset enough to understand the world in which she found herself. It stung, perhaps more than it should have. Was she really still so ignorant?

She risked a glance up at the hanyou from beneath her lashes. He was scowling off at some point beyond her, irritation written in the deep furrow of his dark brows. Had she truly troubled him that much?

It was ridiculous. She had just finally gotten back in his good graces. Perhaps he was regretting their partnership now. Perhaps he was even regretting their fledging friendship.

"I'll prove it to them!" Kagome blurted without thinking.

Inuyasha's focus returned to her even as her own eyes widened. She had not meant to say anything. She just hated the thought of him being disappointed in her. She had to prove herself.

"I…still believe that my idea is a valid one," she forced herself to press on. "So I will prove it to you, too, Inuyasha-sama. I'll do it, and I'll find a way to make all of the courtiers believe me. I don't know how, but I will definitely, definitely do it. So…"

So please don't give up on me already, Kagome finished silently. She met his gaze and held it, willing him to believe her. He sighed, pressing a clawed hand to his temple.

"Listen, woman…"

"Please, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome cut him off, sensing a denial.

Inuyasha turned away from her with low growl. Kagome waited anxiously, hands clenching in the fabric of her hakama where they rested in her lap.

"It's getting late," he said at length. "Just…go back and sleep, alright?"

"Does that mean you're willing to let me try this?" Kagome said, refusing to let it drop.

"It means I'm done talking about it, wench," Inuyasha snapped, but the unyielding expression on her face told him that she would not be put off. "Dammit, woman! Fine.”

“You go think about it for a while. I'll call you back in two days, and if you've come up with a good way to get them all to buy your act, I'll let you go through with it. If not, you drop the stupid thing and never mention it again."

Kagome needed only the briefest of moments to consider this. "Alright."

"Feh. Whatever," the hanyou tossed off. "Just…go now."

Kagome nodded, trying hard to hide her hurt at his eagerness to be rid of her. She would just have to prove herself, if that was what he needed to trust her fully. She would prove herself as many times as was necessary to get him to accept her at his side.

She rose and turned to leave, calling softly over her shoulder as she went, "Goodnight, Inuyasha-sama. Sleep well."

There was no answer, but she had not particularly expected one. She steeled herself, determined that when she returned here in two days she would fix things.

Inuyasha watched her departure from the corner of his eyes, gratified when her figure at last disappeared through the hanging of the entryway. He reclined back into the mass of cushions, relieved to be alone to consider things.

It wasn't the worst idea, despite what he had said. It had several points in its favor that he could think of, though that still left the gaping flaws that he had pointed out.

So if it was not the stupidity of the idea, then what in the seven hells was irritating him about this so damned much? The moment that she had made clear her little plan he had hated it. He had been driven to put a knife in the heart of it no matter what, even if it meant discouraging her.

He wouldn't ever have thought Kagome capable of coming up with something like that. He could still recall clearly how nervous she had been to lie about the details of her first mission. And now she thought to deceive the entire court and perhaps blaspheme the kami in the process.

It was too much. Inuyasha had no great reverence for the divine, as it had never done anything much for him, but he knew enough of Kagome to know that she lived her life in honor of it. For her to propose such a thing…it was hard to avoid the thought that life here in court might be changing her somehow. 

Inuyasha growled quietly, deciding that he did not want to think about it anymore. He closed his eyes, anticipating the calm darkness behind his lids.

Only to jerk back upright when, rather than cool blankness, he was greeted yet again by the image of Kagome’s limp form, lifeless in his arms. He snarled, chucking a cushion into a nearby vase. The fine clay workmanship shattered, and he felt a savage sort of satisfaction.

He did not want to think about this anymore. He did not want to recall the complete blankness that had stolen over him, robbing him of even his superior youkai senses. And he certainly did not want to think about that fool girl anymore.

He would go to see Kikyou, he decided suddenly. He had been preoccupied and neglectful towards her recently. He would go and sit and talk with her. Kikyou was always calm, unruffled no matter what the circumstances. He could understand her.

Inuyasha nodded, affirming it to himself. He stood and exited the room quickly to go see his future Empress.

Kagome did not sleep well that night. Her mind buzzed with considerations concerning her plan and the discussion she had had with Inuyasha. Her thoughts did not quiet sufficiently enough for her to sleep peacefully until the early hours of the morning.

She awoke to the sad realization that she had no more answers than when she had gone to sleep. A stretch of hazy contemplation in the quiet light of morning brought her to the conclusion that she wanted to go to see Midoriko. The elder woman had an air of wisdom to her that Kagome was certain would be useful in this dilemma of hers.

She redressed in her miko robes and combed out her hair before going out to wash up in the well behind her residence. It was only as she began to walk towards the main gate of the Fujiwara compound that she realized that she really did not have the freedom to spend her day doing as she wished.

Kagome was, after all, Kikyou's lady-in-waiting. She had to be around in case Kikyou should happen to require her. For that matter, it was slightly odd that the future Empress had not had her woken up so that she might do her ritual morning scrubbing of the halls.

Chafing slightly at the constraint, Kagome shuffled back into the residence to find out her instructions for the day. The moment she entered the main hall, she ran straight into a large group of chattering female servants. They turned almost as one to stare at her, and Kagome froze.

It took her a long moment to get past her mortification and find words.

"Ah…excuse me, has Kikyou-sama informed any of you of my instructions for the day?" she ventured, half-expecting them all to turn tail and run.

It was foolish of her to have forgotten that the court still hated her just because she had managed to make…something sort of like peace with Inuyasha.

"Kikyou-sama is still asleep," came a reply so unexpected that Kagome nearly jumped.

It was one of the younger girls within the group, and a few of the other women turned rather scandalized looks on her as well. She ignored them and continued.

"She was entertaining a guest until late last night, and she probably won't rise until noon or so. You're free to do what you want until then."

Kagome stared blankly at her for a stretch, too surprised to take in the words. She bowed hurriedly when she was finally able to comprehend it, flushing at her own rudeness and forgetting that it was inappropriate to bow to someone who was technically lower in station than herself.

"Thank you!" she blurted, before turning and nearly fleeing the residence.

When she was finally at a safe distance from Kikyou's compound, Kagome slowed her pace. Her heart, however, continued to pound loudly in her ears. It was ridiculous how giddy she was over a simple address from a young servant girl.

But none of the women had snubbed her as she had become accustomed to, though a few had sent her some rather wary looks. Kagome could not stop grinning like a fool, even as she wondered what could have caused such a turn of events.

Vaguely she recalled Inuyasha having mentioned that Miroku and Sango had been busy spreading counter-rumors. Perhaps they had finally reached even the far corner of the servants in the Fujiwara residence. Kagome had to bite back a squeal of joy, thanking every deity she knew of for the good friends that were working so hard for her.

Before she had even realized it, she had passed under the first torii of the court temple. She blinked, surprised, before trying to sober the tone of her thoughts to something more appropriate for sacred ground. She climbed the steps slowly, closing her eyes and breathing in the cool shade of the tall trees overshadowing the path.

In a far more collected state she passed under the second torii and drifted off to the left, glancing reverently at the two komainu as she passed. She reached the manmade pond and quickly cleansed her hands and mouth with the water, shivering at the chill of it. It was not snowing, but the day was still a cold one.

Rubbing her hands together to take the chill from them, she started towards the main hall of the shrine. Abruptly her steps slowed as she realized that Midoriko might not even be in the temple. She had no appointment with the elder miko, and it was likely that as a court spiritualist she had plenty of other duties to attend to.

She frowned, moving ritually through the process of clapping twice to alert the kami of her presence and bowing to show her respect for their presence. She wondered what she should do if the elder miko was out for the day.

Her worries, however, proved pointless the next moment. Kagome felt a wash of déjà vu as she rose from her bow to once again find Midoriko standing serenely in the entryway of the main hall, as if she had simply been there all along.

"I had a feeling you would wish to speak with me today," she spoke, answering the question before Kagome had even thought to ask it.

"You have premonitory powers, Midoriko-sama?" she said wonderingly, her eyes widening.

"No, nothing so grand as that. Simply feelings every now and again," Midoriko said, waving a dismissive hand. "I am certain that you, too, will begin to get them as you learn more. As you begin to understand the flow of the world."

That said, she turned and disappeared into the main hall, motioning vaguely for Kagome to follow. She stood still for a long moment, awed. It would be wonderful if that were true, she reflected, but somehow it was hard to imagine that she would ever be as wise as this ineffable woman.

Slowly she trailed after her. Midoriko was standing patiently before a door hanging on the right side of the room, waiting for her. She pulled the hanging aside, gesturing for Kagome to pass through.

Kagome complied and found herself on one of the many patterned stone walkways that trailed between the various parts of the shrine. Midoriko joined her on the path, leading her quietly along for a ways until they reached a small, open pavilion.

It was just on the edge of the trees surrounding the temple, and a gentle trickling alerted Kagome to a small stream that flowed just around its sides. Obviously a trench had been dug to get the water to flow in such an unusual manner, but somehow it felt natural enough.

Midoriko stepped carelessly through the stream, not even bothering to lift the hem of her robes to keep them from getting wet. Kagome followed her example, fighting back a shudder at the biting chill of the water. Midoriko had not so much as blinked at it.

The circle of the pavilion was dirt-floored, much like the buildings in Kagome's village. The low walls that defined the edges were a dull brown in color, topped by thin, undecorated pillars that held up the four-cornered roof. A large stone statue of the sun kami Amaterasu sat in the center of the space, dominating it.

Kagome paused to study the intricacy of the workmanship in the statue. Every detail down to the teeth of the combs in Amaterasu's long, straight hair had been laboriously carved. It was amazing.

The regal, inhumanly beautiful kami was shown standing, layers of rich fabric draped elegantly over her slender form. Her hair hung loose to her ankles, decorated by several ornate combs. She wore little in the way of jewelry, and the rays of the sun radiated forth from her smiling brow.

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" came Midoriko's reverent voice, her brow furrowed with the weight of some emotion Kagome could not quite comprehend. "I was allowed the great pleasure of knowing the artist who created it.”

“It took him several years to finish, and every day he worked on it as if it were the very purpose of his existence. It was an inspiring thing to behold."

"Ah," Kagome replied softly, considering this. It certainly did seem to hold the weight of a human life behind it somehow.

"Now, what was it that you sought me out for today?" Midoriko asked, settling gracefully onto the dirt floor.

Kagome stared at her for a moment, finding it odd that a woman of such obvious good breeding could sit so casually in the dirt. Still Midoriko did not seem to mind much, or else did not even consider it, as she gazed evenly up at her.

"I was hoping that you could tell me more of Pimiko-sama," Kagome replied, sinking down to kneel beside the woman.

"Hmmmm," Midoriko hummed thoughtfully, tilting her head slightly to consider the girl. "You wish to follow in Pimiko-sama's venerable foot steps, then?"

"Ah…yes, in a manner of speaking," Kagome answered tentatively, a little discomfited by the sharp attentiveness in her eyes.

"I knew that that would be the sort of path you would choose," Midoriko said softly, more to herself than to Kagome. "You make things very difficult for yourself, Kagome."

"I never presumed to think any of my aims would be easy to achieve, Midoriko-sama," Kagome offered, as the elder woman seemed somehow melancholy.

"Yes, of course. You are a clever girl, after all," Midoriko assented with something like resignation. "This is simply the way things must be."

She fell silent for a stretch of time, studying Amaterasu with eyes that encompassed an entire lifetime. Kagome was left to observe her quietly, wondering at the regret that deepened the lines around her eyes and mouth. At length she seemed to conquer the feeling, pushing it back and regaining her usual serenity.

"You know, of course, that you may come to me whenever you are in need, Kagome," Midoriko said, breaking the silence. "I wish to take full responsibility for you in all matters. I would like to help you as much as possible."

"Ah…uh, yes. Thank you, Midoriko-sama," Kagome replied, momentarily struck dumb.

She could hardly see why this woman would feel such a need to tend to her. It was not as if they knew one another particularly well, though Kagome was admittedly awed by the woman's abilities.

"Back to Pimiko-sama, then," Midoriko said, cutting short her thoughts. "Was there anything in particular that you wished to know of her?"

"What sort of things did she foresee?" Kagome asked, forcing her mind back to her original purpose. "What predictions did she make?"

"Well, by all accounts that I have heard, she foresaw a great many things," Midoriko said. "Wars, invasions, famines, storms, births, deaths, good harvests, bad harvests. The kami allowed her the knowledge of many things that she might lead her people."

"And no one ever…questioned her visions?"

"I suppose there must have been those who questioned her," Midoriko replied thoughtfully. "After all, it is difficult for most to believe something they can not experience directly.”

“However, she made predictions on things that no person without divine insight could have known. By virtue of making predictions on matters that were indisputable in nature, she made herself infallible in the eyes of her people."

"Indisputable..." Kagome echoed meditatively, mulling this over.

"You are in some sort quandary? You have that air of a soul with a problem. That seeking sort of feeling," Midoriko commented, watching her face closely.

"Yes," Kagome agreed, nodding.

"Then perhaps you should simply ask me the question outright, rather than dancing about it in this manner," Midoriko suggested. "I am certain that would be a far more effective way of finding a solution."

"Most likely. But…it is not something I really want to tell you, Midoriko-sama, if you will pardon my insolence in saying so," Kagome admitted, slightly shamefaced. "And besides, if at all possible, I would like to be the one to come up with a solution. I do not…somehow I do not think I should depend on anyone else for it."

"That is an awfully suspicious thing to say, Kagome," Midoriko said, a faint warning lacing her tone. "You make it sound as though your thoughts are on a questionable path."

"They might be," Kagome said softly, turning her gaze towards the ground. "No, not 'might'. I know that what I am considering is not only deceptive in the extreme, but perhaps blasphemous, as well.”

“Still, I cannot help the feeling that I have to do it. That I am supposed to do it, for a purpose that far surpasses my own sense of slighted morality."

Midoriko regarded the girl skeptically, shaking her head slightly. It seemed that things were beginning already, and it was troubling. She had not thought that fate would start to weave its web around this girl so suddenly.

"I can no more pass judgment on your decisions than anyone else. Your only judges are your self and the kami. So if you believe your cause to be just…well, I will make no arguments," the elder miko said softly. "However, I would ask that you meditate here with me for a time. Calm your mind and truly affirm within your self that your decision is worth the things you will sacrifice to it."

"I would like that," Kagome agreed, nodding.

"Alright, then," Midoriko said. "You have told me that you already understand well enough the techniques of meditation, and there can be no better place for it than this. But I would ask that you attempt to fill your mind this time with both everything and nothing, and see what comes to you from that void."

Kagome nodded, considering this as her eyes slid closed. She began her breathing techniques, feeling the slow flow of air throughout her body. It was remarkably easy to slip away from her self in the atmosphere of that small pavilion. Soon she was filled with the trickling of the stream and the chirping of the birds and the rustling of the wind through the bows of the trees.

Gently she put forth the question of her plan to the world, like pushing a small boat out into a stream. She listened carefully for any change in the pulse of the surrounding nature that might be her answer. But there was no alteration. The gentle rhythms of the world moved forward as usual.

Kagome posed the question again, this time turning inward to see if any conflict might be found. Of course there was that small splotch of red, her conscience's indignation that she could even consider doing such a thing. But more than that, greater by far than that, was the great black sense of calm and right.

Certainly she was willing to pay for the trespasses she was going to commit, and she expected her personal punishment would be swift and harsh. Still there was the feeling that what she was doing was greater than herself, and that she had to do it no matter the harm she might do to herself in the long run.

Solid in her resolve, Kagome once more surrendered conscious thought and drifted back into nature. It was a liberating feeling, to be able to blend for a time with the elements. Even when raging in storm or disaster they were always so firm and real and undeniable.

It could have been an eternity or merely a few moments later that a hand on her shoulder forced Kagome to return to herself. She blinked several times before she could focus on the form of Midoriko standing over her. There was a faint smile on the lips of the elder woman.

"You have quite the aura when you meditate," she remarked approvingly. "Like the ocean, I think. We should meditate together from now on. It helps me."

Kagome flushed, both embarrassed and flattered by the praise. To think that she could help this sage woman in any way. She nodded in agreement with Midoriko's suggestion.

"I suppose that you have decided, then?" Midoriko asked, and Kagome's smile dimmed as she recalled the question at hand.

"Yes," she answered. "I still intend to go through with it."

"I had thought as much," Midoriko sighed, and in a surprising gesture her hand reached down to stroke the hair back from Kagome's forehead.

"I'm sorry," Kagome managed, moved almost to tears by the homesickness that the small action gave rise to.

"No need to apologize. You are simply following your own path, as we all must if we hope to live fully," Midoriko said soothingly. "Besides, I understand well enough that things are hardly that simple here. It is not always a question of right and wrong. There is so much of the world that is neither and both all at once."

She offered her hand to the younger miko. Kagome accepted it gratefully and got to her feet. Looking to the sun, she realized that it had probably been some time since she had come to the temple. She felt a dull spike of worry, wondering if Kikyou would be cross with her for having wandered off on her own for so long.

"Ah! I am terribly sorry, Midoriko-sama, but I will have to beg your pardon yet again. I have to go attend to another duty within the court," Kagome said, bowing apologetically.

"Do not worry over it," Midriko said. "In light of the time we have just spent together, I think it will be necessary that I alter my lessons a bit in order to fit you.”

“You are more to deal with than I could have anticipated, even after my initial reading of your aura. Besides, in your current agitated state, you are hardly fit to be trying to learn anything from me. Go on, then. I wish you as much serenity as possible until our next meeting."

"Thank you, Midoriko-sama, for your time and your good wishes."

Kagome bowed deeply at the waist, feeling that truly the kami must be favoring her to allow her to associate with such a woman. She rose and turned to go, stepping through the cool waters of the stream without so much as flinching.


She turned back at the sound of her name. Midoriko still stood with the circle of the pavilion, and it struck her as she looked back that the elder woman bore a remarkable resemblance to the statue of Amaterasu standing beside her.

"I know you will do what you feel is best, whatever I might say. However, do exercise caution if at all possible. I…have a feeling I will come to be quite fond of you, so do me this favor."

Kagome nodded slowly. Somehow it sounded like an apology in her ears. With one last glance at the elder miko's solemn figure, as still as that of the stone statue beside her, Kagome turned and rushed back to the Fujiwara residence.

Her mind buzzed with half-formed questions. That Midoriko was a good, noble woman was unquestionable. Somehow, though, her behavior towards Kagome did not seem to add up. There was something Kagome could not quite pin down beneath all of her words.

She shook her head roughly, pushing her wayward thoughts aside. Midoriko had been nothing but kind in offering her assistance in this and all future matters. That she as a high court spiritualist would extend her hand so graciously to someone in Kagome's position was almost too much to ask.

Midoriko most certainly did not deserve to be questioned. And Kagome would not question her, no matter what silly notions her wayward feelings gave rise to.

Rather she turned her thoughts once more to the problem at hand. She had gained no real answers from her time with Midoriko, but had at least secured in her own mind her feelings and intentions. It would be easier to move forward now that she was certain of herself.

There were also several vague notions simmering in the back of her mind, awakened by her meditations. There were blurred images of trees and snow and water and sunlight and ice. Nothing definitive and certainly nothing sensible, but it was something.

Given time Kagome was certain that she would be able to puzzle through it all. She merely hoped that two days would be enough time.

Kagome was told to go and wait in Kikyou's chamber upon her return to the residence. The servant, a woman that the miko could only assume had heard the counter-rumors from her vaguely apologetic manner, informed her that Kikyou had woken about an hour ago and had been calling for her ever since.

Kneeling stiffly on the tatami mats of Kikyou's grand chamber, Kagome fretted silently over her blunder. She wondered how upset with her Kikyou-sama would be, and what punishment this little faux pas would earn her. She was already assigned to cleaning the halls every morning…

The shoji screen which Kagome faced slid slowly open. Kikyou rose, entered the room, and knelt to slide the shoji shut once more before continuing. She eyed the miko silently from head to toe, her expression as stolid as ever.

Abruptly the village girl realized that she was still in her fine miko robes. She had not been allowed time in which to change into her serving yukata before being ushered into the noblewoman's room. She hastily bent into a deep bow.

"I am sorry for my appearance, Kikyou-sama. I did not have time to change before coming to see you," she offered humbly.

"It is of no consequence," Kikyou said, dismissing the apology with a casual wave of her hand. "Perhaps it is even appropriate at the moment."

She knelt primly down before Kagome, the fine silver layers of her juni-hito pooling effortlessly around her. Kagome frowned, rising slowly up from her bow. It was the first time she could ever remember having been on the same level with the Future Empress.

"You are…not cross with me for going off on my own?" the village girl ventured.

"Not particularly. It would be troublesome to waste time with such an emotion over such a trivial matter," Kikyou replied. "Besides which, it is high time that I ceased treating you as a common servant."

"And here I thought I was your lady-in-waiting," Kagome could not keep herself from retorting, slightly irked somehow at the indirect admission.

"You are not a stupid girl. Do me the courtesy of not affecting to be one," Kikyou said, her eyes sharp though her voice was calm. "We both know full well that I have been using you in the manner of a maid, if not worse."

"Yes," Kagome admitted. "But then, why change now? I can not say that I understand, Kikyou-sama."

The appearance of a slight line between her dark, elegant brows was the only indication of Kikyou's discontent. Her gaze became even more steady than it had been, trained on Kagome's own. She could feel the weight of some great frustration behind the force of her unwavering brown eyes.

"As you currently are, you have become a burden to my Lord," she said at length, her mouth tightening around the edges at the admission. "Your bumbling about the court in such an ignorant manner troubles him.”

“Thus, if I take you and educate you in the ways of the court, if I bring you up to the level of a courtier, he will no longer be forced to trouble his mind with you. You will become a commonality and will no longer occupy his thoughts unduly. He has enough to attend to, after all, without your added weight."

Kagome stared at the woman for a long moment, her eyes gone wide. Her hands clenched where they rested in her lap, her shoulders tensing.

"Inuyasha-sama…told you I was a burden?"

"My Lord came to see me last night," Kikyou said, her eyes flashing briefly at Kagome's familiar address. "He mentioned that he had just met with you, and his manner was agitated and distracted the entire time we were together. It took no great leap in logic to determine that you were the root of the problem."

Kagome cast her eyes downwards, guilt gnawing at her innards. Somehow she always managed to become a problem for the hanyou, despite her best intentions.

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

"If you have time to waste feeling sorry, then use it to fix the problem instead," Kikyou said. "We will begin tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Kagome echoed, raising her gaze.

"A large group of noblewomen have decided to go on a carriage ride outside of the capital. They wish to dine beneath the rows of sakura trees planted just to the north of here, though I will not pretend to understand why when the trees are not even in bloom yet," Kikyou said, a thin coat of disdain on her words. "Either way, it will be tomorrow. You, my lady-in-waiting in earnest, shall accompany me on the outing."

Kagome's eyes widened until she felt they must take up at least half of her face.

"Tomorrow?" she said, her voice cracking around the word. "But isn't that too soon? I mean, I hardly know anything-!"

"What better way to teach a child to swim than to toss him in the ocean," Kikyou said coolly, and Kagome winced at the unforgiving imagery. "Besides, you at least know the rudimentary lessons, do you not? I can not imagine that you would have even been allowed into the capital were you as boorish in manner as most commoners."

"But this is hardly the same," Kagome protested, biting back a retort at the slight to her village. "I was taught the very basics, but I know there is a lot more etiquette involved in these sorts of situations.”

“There are people of various rankings that have to be treated in different manners. There are so many mistakes I could make that it hurts my head just to think about it."

"Then you will simply have to be very careful," Kikyou returned, unrelenting.

"It will be bad for you, as well, Fujiwara-sama, if I make an error while acting as your lady-in-waiting," Kagome pointed out.

"Do not concern yourself with my affairs," Kikyou said firmly. "I understand well enough my own situation and require no instruction from you. Now, you are dismissed. I will send a servant in the morning to wake you that we might ready ourselves appropriately."

Kagome hesitated, staring hard at the impassive woman. She wanted to continue arguing, to convince the Future Empress that there was no way that this could end well.

Still there was the feeling that she could quarrel with Kikyou until she was blue in the face without gaining any ground. Also there was the feeling that the woman was right.

If she did not start now, when would she start? She needed to learn how to be among these people and hesitation would not help. Perhaps Kikyou's methods were harsh, but they would undoubtedly prove to be the most effective. Necessity was the best teacher, after all.

Gazing at the woman's stoic profile, Kagome could not help but wonder if she had been different before the tragic fall of her family. Somehow it was not hard to imagine that those sharp brown eyes had once been much softer. More open.

And abruptly Kagome realized that she no longer felt the aversion towards this woman that had been there since their first meeting. Perhaps she even…respected her now. At the very least she was no longer rankled by the subservience which necessity forced her to show toward Kikyou.

It was simply impossible to think ill of her now that she knew what was behind it all. She had suffered. She had suffered through more in just her youth than most would be forced to suffer in their entire lifetimes. And still she had not allowed that suffering to twist her and make her cruel, as many undoubtedly would have.

Certainly she had become rigid and difficult to get along with. Certainly she had become too attached to the order of things, trying to control what things she could in the world.

But in the end she was not malicious. She had not targeted Kagome out of hatred, but rather because she believed that she was in the right in doing so.

Now that Kagome thought about it, Kikyou was technically the reason that Inuyasha was still speaking to her. She had been the first to point out to the hanyou that the rumors did not make sense. She had not blindly accepted all the chatter as fact, but had been so unfailingly fair towards Kagome as to give her the benefit of the doubt.

And here she was offering to train her in court etiquette so that Kagome might cease being a problem for Inuyasha, and all Kagome could do was argue and complain. Well, perhaps it was not so much an offer as an order, but it was still aid that the woman was not obligated to offer.

"You realize, of course, that I dismissed you several minutes ago," Kikyou said, bringing Kagome out of her thoughts. "If you wish to continue arguing the point with me, by all means do so, though you will get nowhere for all of your efforts. Do not, however, continue to sit there staring like a dullard at the kami only know what."

"Ah!" Kagome started, realizing that she had been staring. "Pardon me. I will take my leave."

She bowed hastily before standing to go. Still she hesitated at the shoji door, feeling guilty for having been so difficult with the woman who was trying to help her.

"Thank you, Kikyou-sama," she said at length, just loud enough that she knew the woman would hear.

Following which she promptly dashed from the room, ignoring even the etiquette of opening and closing the shoji properly in her haste.

In her hurry, however, she missed the widening of the future Empress' eyes at the words, spoken with such soft sincerity. She missed the way in which the woman stared after her for a long, silent stretch of time, her expression so utterly bewildered that one would have thought that she had never heard such a sentiment in her entire life.

The following morning Kagome was awoken early. Earlier even than when she had gotten up to clean the halls. When she groggily inquired as to why she was being roused at such an hour, the reply was that they had to prepare her for the gathering of the noblewomen. The gathering at noon.

Gazing hazily out her window at the not yet lighted sky of that morning, Kagome imagined that she finally understood why all women of good breeding looked so irritated. This was ridiculous.

She was ushered into a large room towards the back of the residence, the floor wooden rather than being composed of tatami mats as most were. There were only a couple of tiny windows high up on two of the walls, and a large wooden tub filled with steaming water dominated the center. Some sort of pleasant scent drifted up from the waters of the tub, soft and elegant.

Kagome was stripped down quickly and pushed into the tub by the several serving women attending her. Her protests that she could clean herself well enough fell on deaf ears as the women came at her from all angles with wash cloths, hair oils, perfumes, and the like.

They cooed over the fineness of her skin despite her years of hard work as they pushed her under and pulled her up from the warm waters. It seemed that the counter-rumors had taken full effect by that point, as no one made even the vaguest reference to her involvement with the wolf Lord. Kagome was oddly pleased at their kind attentions.

When her skin was positively raw and glowing with their vigorous scrubbing, the she was pulled from the tub and dried off from her toes to the ends of her hair. Wrapping a light robe about her small frame, they led her to yet another room through the back hallways of the residence.

This room was far more cluttered, and the light of the dawning day peered in from several windows as they arrived. Several mirrors, folding screens, and trunks were scattered about. The women pushed Kagome down to sit in front of a mirror before diving into the trunks, rapidly sorting through the various contents.

Soon they had laid out before her several golden hair combs, the layers of a deep red juni-hito, and a hand fan to match. Kagome stared at the items for a long moment, frowning.

"I…will not be wearing my miko robes?" she asked at length, looking to the women.

"That would hardly be appropriate for this gathering, Kagome-sama," scoffed one of the older women attending her.

"But…I have no idea how to do anything in one of these," Kagome protested, counting out the number of layers spread out before her.

There were fifteen layers. Fifteen layers of silk and embroidery to try and move in!

"Our ladyship made certain the two of you will have plenty of time to practice such things before the gathering begins," another woman assured her.

And then they were upon her once more, stripping off her robe and replacing it with the layers of the juni-hito. They took care to arrange each layer so that it hung correctly on her, tying and knotting and wrapping and pulling.

They then went to work on her hair, combing out the length of it until it shone like spun silk in the light. The layers nearest her fringe were twisted back with the aid of the combs, leaving the rest to hang freely down her back.

Lastly they coated her face in a fine layer of the pale powder Sango had once used on her. With a thin brush they dusted the lids of her eyes in a red to compliment that of her juni-hito. The very thinnest brush was brought out last and used to paint her lips a deep crimson with some sort of faintly gooey substance.

To cap it all off, they tied the delicate hand fan to her left wrist. Kagome slid it open and closed several times, toying with it idly. With a sigh she realized that it was yet another thing that she had no idea how to utilize properly. She felt her spirits sink a little, wondering if all of this would really be alright.

"Why don't you take a look and tell us what you think, Kagome-sama?" suggested a serving woman, observing her anxious demeanor.

"Ah, yes," Kagome replied absently, not particularly eager to see herself. She was certain that she would look ridiculous, like a child attempting to don adult clothing far before her time.

She nearly fell over at the sight that greeted her, stumbling back a step from the mirror. She crept forward slowly, carefully, to touch the glass, as if afraid that the image within it might vanish at any moment.

The woman contained within that looking glass could not possibly be Kagome. The woman there was elegant and composed and beautiful, poised and swathed in the layers of a juni-hito embroidered with the image of a graceful crane on a spring day. But the gray eyes gazing back at her from beneath red lids were most definitely her own.

"This…is amazing," she breathed, fingers tracing the outline of her reflection. “I look like a different person. Like…"

"Like you could actually be among that lot without worrying?" a servant woman filled in for her, stepping over to adjust one of the combs in her hair slightly.

"Thank you," said Kagome, beaming at the woman's reflection in the mirror. Perhaps this would not be so bad after all. At least she looked the part now.

"Not at all," replied the woman dismissively, stepping back to admire her work. "This is the job of a servant, after all. Besides which, you're having been allowed to do this means something to all of us."

Kagome tilted her head quizzically, looking at the serving woman's reflection in the mirror. "Something to you all?"

"Well, you're just the resident of some little village of no particular significance in the grand scheme of things, if you’ll pardon my saying so, but you're being allowed to join the high-ups, in essence," the woman replied. "You don't think that means something, Kagome-sama?"

"I…don't know," said Kagome thoughtfully, her brow wrinkling as she considered this. She had not taken the time to consider the situation in such terms.

"Well, not to put any extra pressure on you, Kagome-sama, but your presence here means a great deal to the servants in the court," the woman said earnestly. "You're here, serving the Tennō-sama, on your own merits, not just because you were born to it. It offers the hope that if one person can do it, maybe others of low birth can, too.”

“I mean, why do you think we were all so harsh on you over those rumors about the wolf Lord? It's hardly as if you would have been the first servant to bed a nobleman. But we were disappointed, you see. We thought you had messed up and wrecked it for all of us. But we know better now."

"I see," said Kagome faintly, her brow furrowing.

She had always just assumed the servants here in the court saw her as being on their own level. She had never thought that what she was attempting to do here was so grand as to mean that much to them either way.

It made sense, though. If she could manage to push through, she would leave a hole through which they might pass, as well. Her shoulders felt suddenly heavy with the weight of this revelation.

The shoji door to the room slid open, cutting through the slight tension brought on by the serving woman's mention of the rumors. Another servant bowed in the doorway, addressing Kagome.

"Fujiwara-sama wishes to see you now, Kagome-sama."

"Alright," Kagome replied, rising to go with the woman.

She paused, considering. Turning back, she bowed to all of the serving women in the room.

"Thank you all. I will definitely do my best."

She could hear the pleased and affectionate cooing and clapping that filled the room as she departed, but could hardly bring herself to feel glad for it.

She could feel the beginning throb of a headache in her temples, and Kagome could not help but wonder if this was too much pressure for one person to deal with all alone.

Kagome was led to Kikyou's chambers where the future Empress knelt regally on a cushion, awaiting her arrival. The noblewoman eyed her as she entered, at length giving a slight nod of approval.

"At least you will look the part," Kikyou said, unknowingly echoing Kagome's own thoughts.

The future Empress herself was dressed in a juni-hito of the deepest shade of blue, patterned all over with silver bellflowers. A matching hand fan was tied at her wrist and a head ornament of gold crowned her dark locks, strands dangling down from it to twine in her hair.

Her skin was naturally pale and thus needed no powder, but her lids had been dusted blue and her lips painted red. She looked as untouchably lovely as ever, and Kagome could not help but think such a regal beauty was perfectly suited to be the future Empress.

Kikyou made a gesture to the servant who had accompanied Kagome and the woman placed a set of geta sandals before her. She then bowed to both women before taking her leave, sliding the shoji closed to allow them privacy.

"Put those on and show me how you walk," Kikyou commanded, gesturing to the sandals.

Kagome complied, leaning down to slip the geta on over her tabi socks. She straightened back up and nearly stumbled, realizing that she could truly feel the weight of the fifteen layers when trying to balance on the wooden platform of the sandals. Flushing slightly at her mistake, she stiffened her shoulders in what she hoped was a regal manner and took a step forward.

Only to trip up again as her foot caught the hem of one of her longer layers. Kagome's face burned, but she doggedly continued across the room. She tripped several more times and could hardly bear to face Kikyou as she finished.

"Well, that was horrendous," Kikyou declared bluntly as she came to stand before her. "But I can not say that I expected anything better."

She rose to stand beside Kagome, sliding on her own sandals. Leisurely she began to walk the length of the room, speaking as she went.

"Keep your steps very measured, concentrating on each foot as it touches the ground. I realize that such small steps can become frustrating, but the juni-hito does not allow for much freedom in movement. Your posture is far too stiff, as well, and I can see you fighting the weight of the silk.”

“Do not fight it so much. Make certain you can feel the alignment of your spine all through your back and down to the soles of your feet. That way the layers will hang naturally, and you will appear graceful.”

“Never bow your head as you walk. It will make you appear uncertain, and you cannot afford that appearance at this time. Nor should you ever, as I saw you attempt to do, pick up the layers of your juni-hito. It is considered uncouth, and you will be mocked for it should you do so.”

“Finally, your footsteps are far too heavy. The geta make an abundance of noise naturally, but again you must fight against the weight of the layers and measure your steps. Now, come walk with me."

Kagome did so, joining her in her circuit around the room and trying to mimic her motions. It was terribly frustrating, keeping her steps so small when she was not used to it, but slowly she got it.

Aligning her spine, she did find that the layers hung much more naturally and that movement became easier. Still, it was a strain to keep her back so rigidly straight for such a long time.

"That will suffice, I suppose," Kikyou allowed after several circuits, turning from her observations to go kneel once more on her cushion. "Sit. There are other things that need be addressed before we go."

Kagome came to kneel before her, squirming to arrange the layers of her juni-hito comfortably around herself. Kikyou frowned disapprovingly, but did not deign to comment.

"Now, the women at this event will all be of relatively high status, coming principally from branches of the Minamoto, Taira, and Tachibana clans-"

"Sango-sama will be there?" Kagome broke in, excitement surging in her at the thought of being able to see her friend again after so long.

Kikyou cocked on delicate brow slightly at the outburst, and Kagome flushed. She could hardly afford to be forgetting her manners at a time like this.

"My apologies," she said, bowing her head.

"Yes. Attempt to keep your childish outbursts to a minimum, if at all possible," Kikyou returned. "And, yes, I believe the Tachibana woman will be present as well, along with several of her cousins from the clan.”

“But as I was saying, as the women are all of the same general high ranking, with a few exceptions here and there, the general rule will be to be as formal with them as possible.”

“If you can manage it, please attempt to be distant even with the Tachibana woman. The only way these women will accept you is if you prove to be irreproachable in your manners. Let them see no emotion, and they will have nothing to feed off of."

Kagome frowned. She made the women sound awfully fearsome. Like blood-thirsty monsters, or the like.

"Another important point: under no circumstances should you discuss court politics," Kikyou said firmly. "Should you feel the inclination, bite your tongue. Should you be asked, find a way to change the subject.”

“The situation in the court is far too…tentative for anything to be said on the matter without offending or inciting someone. So conceal your loyalties well, unless you want them used against you later on."

Kagome heard clearly the warning beneath this warning. She should not be flaunting her connection with Inuyasha, or she would likely earn herself enemies that she did not need. It would be good, as well, to remain in a relatively neutral position from which she could get a feel for the positions of the other women.

"Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, do you know anything about the etiquette of the fan?" Kikyou said, sliding open the fan tied to her own wrist.

"Nothing," Kagome replied, slightly shamefaced. Kaede had never had a fan with which to teach her in the village, nor had she ever thought it particularly necessary.

Kikyou's expression tightened ever so minutely, and Kagome imagined that if she were a woman of lesser breeding she would have groaned in exasperation. Instead she merely flicked her fan in a quick, agitated little motion.

"Fine, then. I should have expected nothing more. Listen carefully, as this will prove to be critical," Kikyou said. "Fans, among large groups of women such as this will be, speak far louder than words.”

“The smallest gesture made using one is significant in communicating ideas and feelings, so you must always be as attentive to the movements of others as you are to the ones you make yourself."

She raised her fan, fluttering it a few times before her face. Then she lowered it once more to chest level, flapping it again. Kagome followed each movement with her eyes, trying to get a feel for it.

"A fan above the chin indicates more certainty, or perhaps a more forceful tone. A fan below the chin is demure and more suited to polite conversation."

Kagome nodded. Kikyou tilted her fan towards Kagome, and then tilted it back towards herself.

"The angle of the fan, either towards oneself or away, indicates who a comment is being made in reference to. Towards is oneself. Away from is one of your companions."

With a quick flick of her wrist, Kikyou snapped her fan shut. She then slid it slowly open once more.

"An open fan means conversation is currently welcomed. A closed fan, however, indicates that the person no longer wishes to converse with you. Often it also means that the person in question feels you have slighted them in some way."

Now the future Empress waved the fan in a wide arc from left to right. She then repeated the motion to and away from herself.

"The former gesture is one of dismissal. It means the person no longer has any interest in whatever you may be saying or doing. The latter gesture indicates interest, and that they would like something more from you."

The fan came up to cover the lower half of her face. Kagome continued to nod and watch almost idiotically, praying that she would be able to remember it all. The fan then came down from her face to lay flat on the noblewoman's palm between the two of them.

"These are gestures of intimacy. A fan covering the face means that the person does not wish to be familiar with you, or else feels that you are being too familiar and should be more distant.”

“A fan laid flat between two people is an invitation to intimacy. It means the person would like to deal with you on more familiar level."

She flipped the fan to hang upside down in her hand. She then waved it several times in quick, sharp motions.

"As you might guess, this is not a friendly gesture. It is, rather, a gesture meant specifically to slight whomever it is directed at. The nature of its insult depends on the current conversation.”

“There is more, of course, but that is all I believe you will need to know for the time being. Anything that we have not covered you will have to make a guess at. If you can manage to remember everything, you should be fine."

Kagome glanced at her, feeling that in some obscure way the future Empress was attempting to encourage her. Kagome offered her at weak smile that she did not return. Still Kagome knew that Kikyou had every right to be putting pressure on her, as her own reputation was on the line, as well, but that she refrained from doing so out of her own sort of consideration.

Abruptly Kikyou rose, smoothing her robes in a small gesture that betrayed her unease. Kagome rose to follow her as she slid the shoji open, exiting the room. Several attendants awaited them just outside, joining them as they walked through the halls towards the gate to the residence.

As they exited the compound, Kikyou raised and opened her fan to hide the lower half of her face. She shot Kagome a meaningful look, and Kagome quickly mirrored the gesture. Together they walked along the paths leading out of the Inner Palace, accompanied by the attendants and heading toward the western gate.

Kagome squirmed a little in her skin at the stares they garnered as they went along their way. Kikyou and herself would have been conspicuous enough in such finery in the middle of the day, but the circle of attendants ringing them certainly did not help matters.

On the up side, while they all recognized Kikyou at a glance, they seemed not to have the faintest idea of who she was. Although, Kagome reflected, the time was fast approaching when she would have to remedy that.

The western gates came into sight in the distance, large and looming. Lined up before them were several ornate ox-pulled carriages, around which swarmed numerous women in all colors and styles of juni-hito. Even from far away Kagome could see the manic flapping and waving of colored hand fans, and she could feel her spine go rigid with nerves.

"It will be fine."

Kagome's eyes darted towards the sound of the voice. Kikyou had dropped back slightly to walk at her side, her unwavering brown gaze still turned steadily forward. She glanced at her from the corner of her eye.

"Do not work yourself into a panic. It will be fine."

Kagome stared at her, hardly able to comprehend that this woman would be so openly encouraging towards her. As the words sunk in she did begin to relax, reminding herself to breathe. She nodded gratefully at Kikyou before turning her gaze ahead, determined that she would pull this off.

The gates loomed closer, and the women milling about them seemed to turn as one entity to watch their approach. The flapping fans stilled slowly, several coming up to cover the expressions of their owners. All activity seemed to slow to a halt as Kikyou and Kagome at last reached the gates.

The entire group bent to bow almost as one. Kagome took a deep breath to quiet the fluttering in her stomach, lifting her chin. The lesson had begun.

"Good afternoon, cousins," Kikyou called just loudly enough to carry, acknowledging their greeting.

Kagome recalled from one of her first discussions with Sango that 'cousin' was the usual address of one noble to another, whether or not they came from the same clan. It stemmed from the idea that all those of noble birth could trace back their lineages to Amaterasu.

"Good afternoon, Fujiwara-sama," came the responding chorus, following which the women promptly resumed their movement and chatter.

Now, though, Kagome noticed the way in which they began to cluster together in numerous small groups, fans waving languidly as they whispered and chattered amongst themselves. Within several of the groups she caught brief glimpses of sharp fan gestures and pointed looks tossed in Kikyou's general direction. Several of the women separated out from the mass to approach them.

Kagome had to bite back the silly grin that threatened to split her face when she saw that Sango was among them, dressed in a juni-hito of pale green with her long hair hanging freely down her back. A very petite woman with the biggest, brightest brown eyes Kagome had ever seen walked at the taiji-ya's side, and Sango beamingly pointed Kagome out to the woman with a wave of her fan.

The woman smiled, as well, turning a kind gaze on her. Sango caught Kagome's eye then, hers eyes lighting as she waved her fan in two leisurely sweeps. Kagome could only assume this was a gesture of greeting and eagerly slid her own fan open to return it.

A sharp tap on the inside of her wrist stopped her. It was Kikyou's closed fan, and the noblewoman shot her a warning glance from beneath her dark lashes. Kagome sucked in a breath quietly, recalling that she was supposed to be acting politely formal with even Sango.

Bowing her head for a moment, she schooled her features into neutrality. When she raised her face once more, she was able to return the gesture with calm composure. Sango frowned slightly, but did not call her on this as she and the woman came to stand before them.

"Good morning, Fujiwara-sama, Kagome-sama," she greeted. "I know you, Fujiwara-sama, are familiar with my cousin, Tachibana Hisana, but I do not believe she and Kagome-sama have yet become acquainted."

Kikyou nodded, and Kagome bowed politely to the woman. The woman beamed in return, twisting her fan in a gesture of acknowledgement.

"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Tachibana-sama," Kagome said.

"On my end, as well, Kagome-sama," Tachibana Hisana returned. "My cousin has told me so much of you since my return from assignment. And look at what a lovely little thing you are. You and Fujiwara-sama truly put the rest of us to shame."

"Not at all," Kagome demurred, having overheard this sort of banter go on even in her small village between women. "I can hardly hope to measure up in such a gathering as this."

"So modest," Hisana cooed, looking pleased.

Sango looked pleased, as well. The taiji-ya seemed to understand the purpose of her polite distance, and Kagome could positively feel the encouragement radiating off of her. Inwardly Kagome smiled. Even now Sango was still rooting for her.

"Kikyou-sama," called a voice, breaking through the relatively pleasant atmosphere around the four women.

They turned to look, and Kagome felt her shoulders stiffen at the sight of the Taira youkai woman that she had seen once before. Kagura was her name, she recalled. Glancing at Kikyou from the corner of her eye, Kagome could see in the tightening of her grip upon her fan that she, too, was less than pleased by the new arrival.

Her fan waving well above the height of her chin, the youkai woman strolled leisurely over to them in a juni-hito of the deepest black with golden embroidery. The ruby of her lips gleamed wetly in the light of day and for a brief flash Kagome had the horrible thought that it was blood staining them.

At her side shuffled a young, extraordinarily pale girl in a juni-hito of silver and blue embroidery. Rather than a fan, a small hand-mirror hung at her wrist.

Youki surrounded the object in Kagome's second sight, and it was clear that she, too, was a youkai. With large dark eyes she stared blankly out at them all, seeming to see both nothing and everything all at once.

A third woman was walking slightly behind these two off-putting females, looking rather uncomfortable at their proximity. She was both distinctly human and distinctly mousy looking, with shoulder length murky brown locks and dull brown eyes. Her juni-hito, however, attested to a great amount of wealth.

It was a bright golden hue with embroidery of ruby red, depicting the scene in which Amaterasu emerged from the cave to give light to the world. Several strings of jade pendants and pearls hung about her neck and upon her head sat an ornate crown of gold similar to Kikyou's. Kagome could hardly claim to be an expert on court fashions, but even to her the woman seemed to be overdoing it.

"Kagura-sama," Kikyou greeted, her formality more stiff than before. "Kanna-sama. Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon," Kagura returned, her fan flicking out in what nearly looked like a gesture of challenge rather than greeting.

The girl, Kanna, said nothing. She merely turned her empty gaze up to Kikyou's face and gave the faintest of nods.

"And to Minamoto-sama, as well," the future Empress amended as the woman joined them.

"Good afternoon, Fujiwara-sama," the woman returned, her voice as blusteringly pompous as her dress. "It is, as always, a pleasure. Tachibana-tachi-sama, as well."

Kagome noted her pointed lack of any acknowledgement of the two Taira women. Kagura did not seem bothered in the least by this slight, her smirk still resting easily on her lips. Kanna continued to look as if she were not quite connected to anything going on around her.

"I do not believe you three have yet been personally introduced to my lady-in-waiting, Kagome," Kikyou said, gesturing airily with her fan to the miko.

Kagome bowed once more. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintances."

"You are the miko from the outside villages, correct?" the woman from the Minamoto clan asked. "A pleasure, dear, I am sure."

Kagura and Kanna were silent, though in the barest show of courtesy Kagura waved in her fan in acknowledgement. Sango frowned and looked as if she might call the woman on her lack of manners, but Kagome waved her fan casually in the motion of dismissal that Kikyou had shown her.

Sango settled down, lifting her fan to cover a grin. One of Kagura’s brows rose slightly, as if she had not thought Kagome capable of grasping the concept of fan etiquette.

"I believe it is time that we start out," Kikyou announced. "You may all join Kagome-sama and I in our carriage, if you wish."

With that she began walking at a stately pace towards the most ornate by far of the ox-drawn carriages, sitting ready at the head of the rest. The mass of women quieted slightly, observing her progress. They all seemed to take this as the sign that it was time to be off and began to congregate around the several other available carriages.

The Tachibana women, the Taira youkai, and the lady of the Minamoto clan all accepted Kikyou's offer to ride along. They were handed along with the future Empress and Kagome into the carriage. Kagome knelt inside the wooden structure, studying the details of it with keen interest.

It was certainly nothing like the carts of merchants that she had seen passing through her village. Rather than four wheels it had only two large ones, and a roof closed it off from the outside world. It was rather spacious inside, fitting the seven of them on the carpet covered wood of the base easily.

There were windows, as well, covered by hanging mats, and a curtain enclosed the sole entrance point in the rear of the cart. Pushing aside one of the hanging mats, Kagome could see long strands of bellflowers hanging from the eaves of the roof and colorful depictions of the sun along the wooden walls. An ox was harnessed to the front of the carriage and several attendants walked on all sides to guide and steady it.

Kikyou pushed aside the entranceway curtain, peering out to make certain that all of the women were situated in their carriages. Seeing that they were, she nodded to one of the attendants and then allowed the curtain to fall closed once more. The seven women were left in the cool shade of the inside of the carriage as the oxen were spurred forward through the gates.

"I hear from my husband, Fujiwara-sama, that we will be receiving a large shipment of lumber and other building goods from the northern border soon," the Minamoto woman began, waving her fan leisurely at shoulder level. "Though I was not aware that any buildings within the court were in need of maintenance. Are we perhaps adding a wing?"

"No," Kikyou replied readily. "Not adding. It is to be routed to a residence outside of the court, one that was destroyed in a recent youkai attack."

"Ah! Really? How terrible!" the Minamoto woman gasped emphatically, though her eyes lit up at this tidbit of gossip. "Whose was it? The poor dears!"

"It was one of my cousins," put in Kagura. "The branch of the Taira clan under Taira Akiyoshi. They keep a residence separate from the main house."

"Oh," the Minamoto woman sighed, looking as if she wished she could take back her sympathy. "A youkai clan house. Poor things."

"Indeed," Kagura said dryly, her fan twisting in a grand gesture of dismissal towards the woman.

"Hisana-sama," Kikyou spoke once more, cutting smoothly through the budding animosity. "You just returned from assignment out along the southern edges, correct? How is the situation there now?"

Kagome perked up at the mention of the area in which her village was situated. Sango's cousin tapped her chin thoughtfully with her closed fan, obviously choosing her words carefully.

"Well, things are still a bit…hectic," she said at last, her fan sliding open to shield the lower half of her face. "Our forces are still searching for a nest from which the hordes might be originating, but as of the time of my departure they were unable to find one. We are trying our best, but…well, we are slightly overwhelmed."

"Overwhelmed, you say?" Kagura said, her fan twisting eagerly in her hand. "Truly it is tragic, the current state of things. One cannot help but think that with a bit more structure behind the way in which things are ordered, these little disturbances would have remained just that-merely little disturbances."

"And to whom do you attribute this lack of structure, Kagura-sama?" Kikyou challenged lightly, her fan waving in an almost aggressive manner between herself and the youkai though her voice remained as passionless as ever.

"Attribute?" scoffed the Taira noblewoman, her fan sliding shut with a distinct air of satisfaction. "Why, my dear cousin, I was merely thinking aloud. It is hardly to be taken seriously! I am simply reflecting on the value us full youkai place in firm structure. We are almost inflexible, you see- natural born leaders, if you will."

Even Kagome could see through this thinly veiled insinuation. The Taira, then, were supporters of the elder brother.

It made sense, that a clan that was seemingly composed of mostly youkai should support a full youkai Tennō. Subtly Kagome glanced at Kikyou for her reaction, noting her white knuckled grip on her fan.

Her eyes met Sango's across the carriage, the taiji-ya seeming to be searching for a way to guide the conversation in a different direction, as well. Kagome's eyes continued to flit about the small space, hoping to come up with something before Kikyou came to the end of even her extensive patience. At last her gaze settled on the silent Kanna, absently twisting her silver mirror between two pale hands.

"That is an interesting mirror you have, Taira-sama," Kagome said, just as Kikyou's fan flipped in the beginnings of a gesture of insult. "I have never quite seen a design like that. What is it?"

All eyes in the carriage turned to Kanna's mirror. The small girl barely seemed to acknowledge the comment, but lifted the mirror in question a bit higher. Carved into its silver backing was what vaguely resembled a dragon, though a lack of legs and a prominent hood made it far more serpentine in appearance.

The style of the engraving was different from most that Kagome had seen, as well. The detail work lacked the usual Japanese fluidity. It seemed a bit choppy, more harshly beautiful.

"Merely a trinket she received recently from the Lord of the Taira clan," said Kagura dismissively, pushing the mirror down to rest in Kanna's lap. "The artist is new and relatively unknown, so of course the workmanship would appear odd."

"Ah, I see," said Kagome, though there was something suspicious in the woman's haste to put the design out of sight. "What a nice gift to receive."

"As I said, merely a trinket," Kagura reiterated disdainfully, turning her head to push aside one of the window hangings and let fresh air in.

The fans of both Sango's cousin and the Minamoto woman swung upside down in sharp gestures of insult behind the youkai's back. They looked at one another, bemused, but then seemed to both shrug mentally as they turned away. Kagome turned a questioning gaze on Sango at this, but the taiji-ya merely slid her fan closed and shook her head.

Silence reigned within the carriage after that. Kagome was glad of it, as it both prevented any further conflict and allowed her time to think. Nothing, of course, became immediately clear.

Kagome felt that she would need to take time to write it all out later if she were fully to understand everything that was going on around her. Still, it gave her a moment to solidify all the thoughts buzzing around in her head.

The carriage came to a halt, and an attendant peeked in through the back curtain to inform Kikyou that they had arrived. The future Empress nodded and allowed the man to assist her in exiting the carriage, the other six women following suit. Back out in the fresh, crisp light of day, Kagome breathed deeply and took in her surroundings.

They were in the midst of a long row of carefully arranged and tended sakura trees, their bare, frost coated branches twisting and twining their way up towards the cloudy sky. They were lined with clusters of tightly closed, tiny pink buds. Kagome could also hear the faint splashing of a nearby stream, feeling the flow of it along her spiritual senses.

Despite the chill air, the lack of sun, and the bare trees, the place still somehow had a feeling of lightness. Hope, perhaps, the miko reflected. The hope that some fine spring day the trees would burst into vibrant life in a shower of pink petals and the stream would roar with a torrent of water, overflowing its banks as the ice of its tributary was melted by the rays of the sun. The village girl could certainly see why the women had wished to come here.

Chattering voices flared up all around her as the other women began exiting their carriages. They began forming small groups once more, strolling about beneath the bare boughs of the trees and bringing welcome color to the pale scene.

Fans flapped joyously in the freedom of the cool afternoon, and the miko heard numerous exclamations on how lovely the little grove would be come spring. Personally the village girl thought it had quite its own kind of loveliness right at that moment.

"Well, I am off to go join the rest of my cousins," the lady of the Minamoto house announced, seeming eager to be out of the company of the Taira and Tachibana women.

"Must do the mandatory amount mingling, though I would love to stay and speak with you, Fujiwara-sama. Hopefully we will be able to meet again before we return, but if not, remember to remain firm as always, alright?"

"Goodbye, Minamoto-sama," Kikyou said, ignoring completely the odd bit of advice. "Do enjoy yourself."

The woman seemed slightly put off by the dismissal of her words, but nodded and bustled off with a meaningful gesture of intimacy towards the future Empress. Kikyou calmly waved her fan from left to right in dismissal when the woman was no longer looking, the vague twist to her mouth giving Kagome the idea that she would have rolled her eyes if she had less restraint.

"We must be going, as well, Fujiwara-sama," Sango spoke up, her fan fluttering apologetically in Kagome's general direction. "It has been a pleasure. We will see the both of you when you make your rounds, correct?"

"Of course," Kikyou consented. "I thank the both of you for the pleasure of your company."

The two Tachibana women bowed and turned to join the many women beginning to settle down on the several sheets of fine cloth laid out by the attendants. Tachibana Hisana tossed towards Kagome a gesture of interest and continuance as she went, leaving the miko to consider it.

Thus the future Empress, her lady-in-waiting, and the two women of the Taira clan were left standing at the head of the mass as the attendants began to bring forth numerous trays of varying foods.

Kagome turned a questioning glance on the Fujiwara noble woman, wondering why they, too, were not moving to join one of the seated groups. Kikyou's attention, however, was focused solely on Kagura.

She watched the youkai woman expectantly, obviously waiting for her to announce her own departure. The Taira woman merely stood there, observing the other women from Kikyou's side.

"Do not you, too, have to be joining your cousins, Kagura-sama?" Kikyou prompted at length, her fan closing with a resounding snap. "I would not wish to monopolize your time."

"Ah! A dismissal! And here I was hoping to remain at your side the entire day that we might talk together," Kagura proclaimed archly. "But I suppose you are correct, as always, Fujiwara-sama. We will have ample time to speak of many…sovereign matters on the ride back, hmmm? Come, Kanna, we take our leave now."

With that the two youkai women walked off to join a group of courtiers who also looked distinctly inhuman. Kagome caught a glimpse of a gesture of insult very obviously directed at Kikyou from Kagura as they reached the seated women. A sharp peal of laughter went up from the group, and Kagome frowned.

"She's quite provoking towards you, isn't she?" she could not help but comment, sorely tempted to make a rude gesture in return.

"It is not to be minded," said Kikyou, though the set of her jaw was still tense. "That is merely Kagura-sama's way. Come, we must start making rounds if we are to get through before it is time to go."


"It is my duty as future Empress to be seen by every courtier present at events such as these. Both as a courtesy and to keep them mindful of their sovereigns.”

“They must always be mindful of myself and my Lord. As my lady-in-waiting it is your duty to be seen at my side. Thus you must accompany me in this," Kikyou explained absently, her eyes scanning the mass of women.

"I see," said Kagome, thinking secretly that it sounded awfully troublesome.

Still it was another chance to observe these women. In the course of the carriage ride Kagome had only just begun to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Much more information was needed if she were to see the whole of it.

"Come along, Kagome," Kikyou called, lifting her fan to cover the lower half of her face as she finished surveying the crowd.

Kagome mimicked the future Empress' gesture and trailed after her as she glided effortlessly towards the first group of kneeling women. It was the beginning of a long afternoon for Kagome.

The reactions to the appearance of the future Empress were varied, though all veiled at least with a thin layer of polite formality. For the most part it seemed that the Minamoto women welcomed her, though in such an odd an overly concerned way that Kagome could hardly understand it. They seemed very much invested in Kikyou somehow, as had the lady of the Minamoto house who had ridden with them in the carriage.

The Taira clan, on the other hand, positively radiated disdain whenever Kikyou happened to be near. Of course they were nothing but toothy, too wide smiles outwardly, but many times when Kagome and Kikyou encountered a group of them there were several vague insults tossed out.

The Tachibana clan seemed to welcome Kikyou's presence, though a few groups of them seemed rather indifferent. At least with them there were no unpleasant encounters. Kagome was pleased to find that the majority of Sango's relatives present there seemed to be as fair minded as she was.

Reactions towards Kagome were generally wary, with the exceptions of a few of Sango's closest relatives. They all seemed to be sizing her up, and Kagome could practically see them weighing rumors and counter-rumors and every other little bit of information they had heard regarding her against her actual person.

Many, unfortunately, seemed now to be merely waiting for her to slip up that they might condemn her once more. Still no one was openly condemning, and she managed not to make any major mistakes that might invite censure.

As the afternoon wore on, Kagome also began to notice a certain pattern to the way in which the women had grouped themselves. Mostly they were grouped by clan, but in instances they did mix together.

However, the Tachibana women were utterly isolated from the others. The Taira and the Minamoto seemed to have no great love for one another, but in their opposition to the Tachibana they seemed united in some cases. It was a curious little thing that Kagome stored away in her mind for later examination.

As they came to the final group of women, Kagome felt mental exhaustion truly begin to steal over her. It was difficult to deal with the intricacies of fans and words and expressions for such an extended period. She stumbled a bit on the hem of her juni-hito in her mental lethargy, flushing and quickly righting herself.

Kikyou, however, caught her slip. With her fan she subtly made a gesture of dismissal to her. She then gestured vaguely towards the edge of the trees, beyond which Kagome could sense the flow of the stream. She nodded slightly and with deep gratitude, slipping quietly away past the tree line.

She relaxed the moment the flowing water came into view, breathing a sigh of relief at finally escaping the nearly suffocating presence of so many women of high breeding. There were so many ill feelings surrounding them, so much deceit and subtlety that it made her head spin.

Kagome came to kneel down before the stream, carefully arranging her fines clothes so as not to dirty them. It was barely a trickle of water at the moment, though the width of the banks and depth of the bed told her that in the warmer months it was practically a full blown river.

Still she could draw her peace from its unquestionable constancy. She allowed her eyes to slide shut that she might do so.

But there was something amiss. There was a crackle along the edge of her spiritual senses. It was distant, but approaching fast. Extremely fast. And it was familiar. Kagome's eyes snapped wide open in realization.

Just in time to feel the warm rush of air from the small windstorm that seemed to always precede his arrival. Kouga was before her, looking both proud and slightly sheepish.

For a long moment Kagome merely stared at him, certain that if she continued to do so for long enough he would disappear. After all, it was just too ridiculous for him to show up here and now of all places. The wolf Lord, however, did not disappear.

"You alright, Kagome? You look pale," Kouga spoke at length, disappointed that she had not immediately jumped into his arms.

Kagome shook her head, desperately trying to force her mind back into action that she might form a coherent sentence. Kouga knelt down at her side, frowning.

"You're not okay? What's the matter? What's wrong?" he asked, taking her hands into his own.

"No…I…What-What…what are you doing here, Kouga-sama?" Kagome finally managed to get out, trying in vain to tug her hands from his grip.

"I did what the stupid mutt asked," Kouga replied defensively. "I stayed away for awhile. But I got tired and bored. I wanted to come see my woman. I had to."

"You don't understand!" Kagome snapped in distress, a million disastrous endings to this spinning chaotically through her head. "There are seventy-some high ranking noblewomen just beyond those trees! If they find you here with me, it will be the end of everything! Everything, Kouga-sama!"

"Buncha chattery wenches, these court women," Kouga snapped, eyeing the tree line with disgust. "Damn if they don't have their men by the balls here. Talk to any one of 'em and suddenly the whole court knows. But don't worry, Kagome! I'll just tell them you're my woman and-"

"No!" Kagome said, trying to keep her voice down despite the spike of panic that lanced through her. "No, Kouga-sama. You have to listen to me, alright? Listen very carefully.”

“I have been working very hard to even just get this far in the court, and there's a lot more I need to do. But I can't do any of it if my name becomes connected to yours in too familiar a manner. Do you understand?"

Kouga stared blankly at her for a long moment. He cocked his head to one side thoughtfully, and a hand came up to touch the side of Kagome's face.

"You look good like this, Kagome," he said at length, as though he had not comprehended a single word she had said. "But I like you better without the powder. Wolf women don't wear any, you know-"

"Kouga-sama!" Kagome cried pleadingly.


"Kouga-sama, please!"

"Don't worry, Kagome," said Kouga, finally acknowledging her. "You're my woman. I'll definitely protect you. And if those nosey bitches come poking around, I just won't let 'em catch me, alright?"

He stood to demonstrate, running in a vague circle around the area so quickly that Kagome's eyes could not follow him. Splatters of water dripped from the trees down onto Kagome as he passed, and she realized that the warmth of the wind he had stirred up had melted some of the frost clinging to the branches.

The flurry of upset and panic in her mind slowed abruptly, her focus entirely on the few drops of water sliding through her hair and down her face. Her gaze shifted to the trickling stream, and she recalled her initial image of the fine river that it might be.

The elements were unquestionable. This had been in her mind since her meditation with Midoriko. No one thought to inquire about the rays of the sun or the chill of the wind. And as Kouga had said, these women held a certain power in the court.

The youkai came to a halt before her, proud and expectant. Kagome gazed up at him with wide eyes, reflecting vaguely that perhaps this was what they called divine intervention. Nothing else seemed to account for the improbable perfection of it.

She rose to stand before him, and Kouga was a bit surprised at the beaming grin spreading across her face.

But all of his thoughts ceased entirely when she moved forward to place her small hands against his chest, tilting her head back so that her grey eyes caught his own, and said in the most engaging of tones,

"Kouga-sama, I need you."