After her meeting with the hanyou, Kagome decided that it was about time to pay a visit to Miroku and Sango. Oddly elated, she only just managed to keep her pace properly sedate as she left the confines of the Dairi and headed towards Sango's residence.
It began to snow lightly as she made her way, scattered flakes drifting slowly down from the darkened sky to dust the pathways and tops of buildings. Kagome reveled in it, loving the crisp, clean feel that the air always seemed to take on when it snowed.
Unfortunately it also brought out several groups of court women, admiring the gently floating flakes as they strolled about beneath their light paper parasols. Kagome did her best to avoid these groups, though with little success.
Each time she happened to stumble into the path of the women they would all freeze, as if seeing a wandering spirit emerge from the light drifts of snow. They regarded her with painted eyes that were at once skeptical and nearly awed.
Slowly, ever so slowly and uncertainly, they would bend in the slightest of bows to her. Without a word Kagome would return it, though she was rather at a loss as to whether or not it was still appropriate for her to bow to them.
Hurriedly she would then be on her way once more, conspiratorial whispers rasping along on the air behind her. Still she was pleased, despite the disconcerting nature of the women's new behavior. That they would bow, that they would consider her with such attentive eyes, meant at least that they were thinking seriously of all she had done. Most definitely a good sign.
Even so she resolved herself to being wary for a time. The feelings they expressed before her may very well not be the same things they felt when in the privacy of their own circles. The tide of opinion was, as she had learned from the rumor scandal, fickle and easily reversed.
At length she reached the Tachibana residence. She was allowed immediate entrance, despite her lack of invitation. A servant led her to a back quarter of the residence where Sango was sitting with the cousin that Kagome had met at the outing with the court women.
The two, to Kagome's surprise upon her entrance, were polishing weapons. It looked a bit absurd, two women in such fine dress and elegant ornaments with hulking weapons in their laps.
Despite her joy at once more being able to see Sango, Kagome was slightly disappointed. With the cousin present there was no way that she could speak freely. Still she put on a smile for them both and embraced Sango warmly when the woman rose to greet her.
For a time the three sat and chatted idly about this and that as the two taiji-ya continued their work. The subject of the court meeting and Kagome's vision was skirted around tactfully by all, none of them quite knowing how to approach the subject while in the confines of such company. Still Sango managed to send Kagome a few looks that told the miko clearly that they would find time later to discuss it.
At length Sango rose, placing the weighty, gleaming Hiraikotsu back on the wall alongside the rest of the clan weapons with an ease that was astounding to behold in such a slight frame. She left for a moment to instruct a servant to bring tea and summon the houshi from his residence, as she assumed he would also like to see Kagome again.
He arrived just after the tea was served, and the four whiled away the remainder of the morning and all of the afternoon with good food and easy conversation. Kagome enjoyed the time, despite not being able to thank Miroku and Sango for their part in the resolution of the rumor or to talk to them about the vision. Sango's cousin proved to be quite the sensible, straightforward woman, and it was nice for the miko to allow her mind to be at ease for a time.
As afternoon began to creep into evening she had to ask for their pardon. She needed to organize a few things before her meeting with the Tennō the next morning. Reluctantly they allowed her to go with kind words and the promise to meet again, Miroku and Sango pulling her aside momentarily to promise that they would find time to talk more intimately later.
She returned to the Dairi after a few more awkward encounters with courtiers out strolling in the snow. For a time she stopped within the confines of the Dairi’s walls to admire the light layer of snow that now lay in a thin coat over the land.
The world always seemed to stretch on forever when it was covered in such a white, and more than ever she felt that she could understand the oneness of things during such times. Lightly she shuffled her feet to leave tracks as she went, marking her own little place in the grand scheme of things.
At length, her fingers and toes having gone numb at the tips, she reached Kikyou's residence and returned to her new room within it. As a passing thought she wondered if she should perhaps go to see the future Empress that she might clear up her new situation with her. She hesitated, though, uncertain if she was really ready to face the imposing woman.
Certainly the future Empress had seemed to accept her vision without objection during the women's outing and had even been one of the major reasons that the vision had been a success. Still Kagome understood well enough what a sharp woman Kikyou was, and she was not yet confident she could face those unyielding brown eyes without faltering.
In the end she merely returned to her new room in the residence, deciding it was best to let that meeting happen whenever it would happen. Hopefully by that time her footing would be steadier as far as the reactions in the court were concerned.
In the safety and privacy of her new, rather lavish room she pulled out the lists she had compiled while in isolation. She stepped back out for a moment to ask a servant to have a brush and ink stone brought to her before returning to organize the papers and review what she had written.
When the servant brought the requested materials she began to make a few notes here and there, just little things that she had noticed or remembered since she had first written the list. At length she set her work aside that the ink might dry for a time, catching another servant to request that dinner be brought.
She smiled to herself as she ate the meal in silence. Surely Inuyasha would have to give her credit for such efforts, even if he was still a bit upset over the vision. She could hardly wait to show him all of the hard work she had put in.
When she finished her food, she returned the tray and dishes to a servant before going back to reorganize her dried papers. She folded them up and tucked them away neatly beneath her pillow.
A servant came in to prepare her for bed as she finished up, and Kagome realized suddenly that she had managed to while away her entire day. She was surprised also by the servant, asking the woman who had sent her.
The woman looked puzzled for a bit before replying that no one had sent her. It was only proper, she said, that someone of her station should be readied always by attendants. The only reason they had not dressed her that very morning was due to the fact that she had risen and left so early on her own.
After that she submitted quietly to the woman's attentions as she dressed her, combed out the length of her hair, and washed her face and hands. The prospect of being prepared every morning and evening by servants was not a particularly appealing one, though she supposed she should be glad to be treated with such honor.
Still it seemed rather troublesome. She made a mental note to ask Inuyasha if there was any way around it.
She thanked the woman and bid her goodnight as she finished her task and departed. Blowing out several lanterns scattered throughout the room, Kagome crawled into her futon. She shifted onto her side to watch the snow dancing just outside one of the high windows of her room, absently grinning as she reflected on what was to come the next morning.
Finally things seemed to be moving in the direction she had hoped for. She could not help but think that soon she and Inuyasha would be able to really start fixing things.
Her last thought was to wonder where exactly Inuyasha would decide to meet with her, before she slipped off into a peaceful slumber.
A servant woke her the following morning as the sun was beginning to climb into the sky. She informed her that a servant from the Tennō was waiting for her to get ready that he might bring her to meet with his Majesty.
Kagome rose and submitted once more to the attentions of a servant, requesting only that she be allowed to wear miko robes rather than a juni-hito. The servant did not question this, and Kagome was happy to realize that her new position as a court spiritualist would allow her to get away with wearing miko robes much more often. It was a relief to know she would be able to avoid the accursed restriction of a juni-hito for a time.
She refused breakfast when it was offered to her, not particularly hungry and not wanting to keep Inuyasha waiting too long for her. Tucking her papers away into the front of her robes, she went out to the gate of the residence to where she was told his servant was waiting.
To her surprise she found Hojo Akitoki there, fiddling anxiously with the sode of his light guard armor. He looked up as she arrived, his face flushing happily before he bobbed in an ungainly sort of bow.
"Good morning, Kagome-sama."
"Good morning, Akitoki-sama," Kagome said, bowing in return. "I apologize for making you wait. You are the one the Tennō-sama sent to fetch me?"
Pink tinged the tips of the young guard's ears, his expression turning still more bashful. He gave her a small, shy smile.
"No, actually," he replied sheepishly. "His Majesty had assigned a different guard to do it really. But that guard was talking about it during our watch together last night, and I asked if I might do it in his stead. I…well, I wanted to see you."
He managed to raise his head to look her in the eye, his expression acutely embarrassed yet oddly sincere. Kagome faltered, certain that something important was going on but uncertain exactly what it was. She settled for the most sensible explanation after a moment.
"You wanted to check on me after the court incident, right?" she said, offering him a smile. "Thank you, Akitoki-sama. You really are very kind."
Akitoki's expression fell slightly, though he managed still to smile weakly. The young guard was not one to be easily turned from his chosen course.
"Not at all, Kagome-sama," he said. "After all, I would like you to be able to depend on me. Shall we go, then? His Majesty wishes to meet with you in one of his personal gardens along the edge of the Kenreimon gate."
"Ah, yes. I should not keep the Tennō-sama waiting long. Lead the way, please."
Akitoki bowed slightly and started off in the general direction of the Jijūden, Kagome at his side. He stole shy glances at her as they went, admiring the fineness of her features in the light of early morning.
"Are you not tired, Akitoki-sama?" Kagome asked as they went. "You said you had watch last night, and then to get up so early just to fetch me this morning. Truly I am sorry to be such a burden."
"Rising early and remaining awake late into the night are things I am accustomed to as a guard, Kagome-sama. And it is hardly as if you asked me to go to any trouble," Akitoki said good-naturedly. "I wanted to do something for you. Even if I was tired, I would gladly rise early to see you."
Kagome laughed slightly, covering over her uncertainty. Again there was that nagging feeling that she was not quite catching something important. And the look in his eyes, that devoted sort of concentration, was familiar somehow. She struggled to recall where she had seen it before.
"Truly you are too kind to me, Akitoki-sama," she said at last. "I wonder, how long have you been working in the service of his Majesty?"
"Oh, I have been working as an imperial guard since I was fifteen, though I have been training since I was about thirteen," Akitoki answered. "Since I am a second son, and the son of a lesser clan, at that, I have to work for my place in this court."
"That is something," Kagome said admiringly. "All that hard work, I mean. And you say since you were fifteen? How old are you now, Akitoki-sama? Somehow I thought we were close in age."
"I will turn twenty one next season, Kagome-sama. My parents…are beginning to encourage me to find a bride," the young guard ventured, rather boldly in his opinion.
"Is that so?" asked Kagome, quietly surprised at the age difference between them. "Kaede-sama always told me that men of the court did not usually consider marriage until they reached their thirties. I suppose it is different for a second son, then?"
"…Yes, Kagome-sama," Akitoki replied, disappointed that she had not so much as blinked to acknowledge the hint.
They were a ways beyond the Jijūden now, having skirted around the building to get behind it. They seemed almost to be entering a snow glazed forest, if not for the well-ordered nature of the foliage. In fact it was a series of large gardens made and kept especially for the use of the Tennō and any of his consorts.
Akitoki thought hard on how he might rally as they walked beneath the branches of the trees on the outer edge of the garden. In the time that they had been apart he had resolved himself, and he refused to give up until he made his intentions clear.
"You know, Kagome-sama," he tried again, swallowing down his embarrassment forcefully. "There is a girl I have in mind."
"For a bride, you mean?" asked Kagome, though her focus had wandered out onto the beauty of the surrounding trees.
"Yes," replied Akitoki, feeling his face heat further despite the chill of the air.
"She must be a lovely court lady, then," Kagome commented, turning a smile on the guard.
"S-she is certainly lovely," stuttered Akitoki. "Though as to her being a court lady…"
He trailed off, allowing her room to fill in the rest. She stared at him for a long moment as they walked, a slight frown creasing her brow. Akitoki held his breath anxiously, waiting for her to come to the logical conclusion.
"Akitoki-sama….by chance, have you…." Kagome said slowly, putting it all together. "You mean you have fallen in love with one of the servants?"
The guard almost fell over. But she was looking at him so seriously. He felt a sharp, quick stab of despair. Was he really so far outside the range of her romantic interests?
But perhaps she was just very unassuming. That was it, he told himself. He would simply have to come straight out and tell her. He came to a halt, turning a burning yet resolved look on her. She stopped as well, her head tilting quizzically.
"K-Kagome-sama," he said with the utmost gravity, and her look turned to one of concern. "I know it is terribly forward and presumptuous of me to say so, however, my feelings-"
"Oi, Kagome! I know you're there! Quit lagging and hurry the hell up!"
Both jumped at the voice booming out from just beyond a nearby line of trees. Akitoki turned a stunned look on her, and Kagome nearly flinched. Silently she cursed the hanyou for his utter lack of sense.
"Kagome-sama, that is not …the Ten-?"
"My apologies, Akitoki-sama!" Kagome cut him off hurriedly. "I really should be going. I will come to visit you later, alright? Thank you so much for the escort!"
She offered him a quick bow before dashing off, leaving the dumbfounded guard to puzzle through things on his own.
Darting beyond the tree line, Kagome ran straight into something solid and fell roughly onto her backside. She sat blinking for a moment, dazed at the sudden impact. As her eyes refocused she saw the wall of red she had crashed into looming before her.
Though it was not so much a wall as a rather irate looking sovereign glaring down at her. For a moment Kagome was tempted to draw back at the blatant ire written across his features, but she quickly came to her senses and returned the glare. He was the one yelling like some ruffian in front of one of the guards that was supposed to revere and respect him.
"Who the hell was that?" growled the hanyou lowly.
"Obviously it was one of your guards, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome returned archly.
"He wasn't the one I sent to get you!"
"Akitoki-sama swapped duties with the other guard because he wanted to see how I was doing."
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop to think them over. She winced slightly as Inuyasha's expression darkened further, realizing that that bit of information might very well get the young guard in trouble.
"He went against my direct orders, huh?"
"Not really against, Inuyasha-sama, just-"
"I'll have him demoted," the hanyou declared darkly.
"What? No, Inuyasha-sama! You can't do that! Akitoki-sama got me here, just as you wanted! There's really no reason to be angry!" Kagome pleaded, frustrated.
"He disobeyed me! You want me to just sit there and take it like an idiot when subjects disobey me?"
She bit her tongue, at a loss. He was right. Despite the purity of his intentions, Akitoki-sama had in a sense disobeyed the Tennō. She lowered her eyes, submitting for the moment.
"I apologize, Inuyasha-sama. But please do not punish Akitoki-sama. He was merely concerned about me."
"...Figures that you'd stick up for your new lover, huh?" Inuyasha said lowly, somehow more annoyed than ever despite her deference.
Of course he would be annoyed, he reasoned. It was disgusting, being forced to listen to the two morons coo over each other.
Well, maybe he had not been forced to listen, but with his ears he could hardly avoid overhearing. And anyone would have been pissed off, having to listen to that stammering, bashful idiot of a guard drool all over her!
"Lover?" echoed Kagome, turning uncomprehending eyes up to him.
"Don't play dumb, woman," he snapped. "I could hear you two fawning all over each other like a pair of real idiots!"
"No one was fawning, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome returned, ignoring for the moment the obvious question of exactly how long he had been listening in on them. "Akitoki-sama and I were merely talking. We became friends during the time I was in isolation."
"That's where I know that bastard from!" Inuyasha exclaimed, recalling suddenly. "He was the one who came and asked me to be able to guard you! So you two were just all over each other the entire time, then? You were supposed to be in isolation, not getting cozy with my fucking guardsmen!"
"Well, considering that I can't exactly meditate all day of every day for an entire week, I don't really see what else I was supposed to do!" Kagome returned heatedly. "You are the one, Inuyasha-sama, who threw me into that room for a week with barely an explanation!”
“It's only natural that I would talk with the few people available to me! And Akitoki-sama and I weren't 'all over each other'! It isn't like that at all! You're completely misunderstanding things!"
"The hell it isn't!" the hanyou barked back. "I ain't stupid, Kagome! That fucking idiot was about to declare intent!"
"…Declare intent?" Kagome said, her confusion muffling her ire for a moment.
"Declaring intent, stupid! Telling you he intends to… pursue you," Inuyasha spat as if the word left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
Kagome frowned, replaying her conversation with the guardsmen over in her head. Abruptly something seemed to click. Akitoki’s extreme shyness, his constant blushing, his odd attentiveness, his sudden mention of finding a bride…
"Akitoki-sama isn't…interested in me, is he?" Kagome said wonderingly, though more to herself than to the Tennō.
"What the hell do you think I've been saying, you-!?" Inuyasha exploded.
The hanyou cut himself off, pausing for a moment. Kagome was staring hard down at the ground now, her expression utterly bewildered. Inuyasha's scowl twisted incredulously.
"…You…really didn't know?" he said after a moment, a small portion of his anger fizzling out.
"But…Akitoki-sama couldn't possibly…" Kagome said, still struggling with the idea despite the sense it made.
"Idiot! How in the seven hells could you not notice?! He was drooling over you almost as bad as that mangy wolf does!" Inuyasha berated her, though without much of his previous ire.
"Well, you'll pardon me, Inuyasha-sama, for not being accustomed to men…pursuing me," Kagome murmured, acutely embarrassed at not having figured it out sooner. "The boys in my village tended to shy away from getting too close to me, after all."
She glared down at the ground, her cheeks warming. That was where she had seen that expression before. Kouga wore it almost all the time that he was around her, or at least some variance of it. Really she had been foolish not to notice it.
And now that she did know, she was at loss as to what to do. Akitoki and Kouga were very different people, so of course she could not handle the situation in the same manner. Akitoki was so kind, it was hard to imagine trying to tell him that she was not interested. Ah, this certainly did make things awkward. So much for having made a new friend…
"Feh. Whatever. Now you know," Inuyasha huffed, tamping down a twinge of curiosity at the mention of her life in the village as his anger all but faded out. "C'mon. We have a lot to discuss."
With one hand he reached down and hoisted her up by the back of her robes. Kagome scowled at the rough treatment, but refrained from commenting. She paused as Inuyasha finally moved out from her direct line of vision, catching sight at last of the area he had chosen for their meeting.
It was surprisingly beautiful. Hardly any place she would have expected him to choose. It was a tiny little snow covered ledge, just the slightest upslope of ground, and it overlooked a rather vast, dark pond. Water lilies and snowflakes dotted the surface of the water here and there, swaying gently. Snow-dusted trees ringed the small clearing and pond as far as her eyes could see.
A couple of layers of silk cloth had been laid out on the top of the ledge for them to sit on. An ornate and over-sized rice paper parasol had been set up on the ground beside the cloths, keeping them clear of snow.
Kagome's eyes slid back to the hanyou beside her curiously. Somehow she could not avoid the feeling that he had picked the spot specially for her benefit. He caught her look and returned it with a scowl.
"What? Got a problem? You're the one who insisted on doing this somewhere other than my chambers," he said defensively, a faint blush dusting the ridges of his cheeks.
"No problems, Inuyasha-sama. It's a lovely spot," Kagome responded, a slight smile dancing at the corners of her lips.
His obvious guardedness when she had done so little to warrant it all but confirmed her suspicions. She felt a pleased little flutter dart through her stomach at the thought.
"Feh," Inuyasha huffed, brushing past her up the slope to flop down rather gracelessly onto the cloths.
Kagome stifled a chuckle and followed his lead. She knelt down onto the cloths, shivering slightly at the feeling of the frozen ground just beneath the thin layers. The miko took a moment to enjoy the view of the surroundings that their position on the ledge afforded before turning to the Tennō.
"How did the Council meeting go?" she asked, starting off with the thing foremost on her mind.
The hanyou snorted, his gaze out on the gently swaying waters of the pond. He shook his head, the twist to his lips taking on a quality of disbelief.
"Fucking strangest meeting I've ever been to," he replied. "They were quiet. The whole damn lot of them, the whole damn time. Just….listening."
"…Isn't that what they're supposed to do, Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome ventured.
"That bunch of wrinkled old bastards? Not a chance in the seven hells," Inuyasha snorted. "They're always trying to pull something. Using their power to press me into delegating funds to grow their personal armies, to expand their properties, to give them more control of incoming and outgoing trade, to give them more authority over the commoners. It fucking never ends with them!"
"But not this time?" Kagome supplied.
"Yeah. Not this time. All of them just sat there with these idiotic looks on their faces, like the kami might strike them down the second they opened their big mouths."
"Ah…Well, what did you tell them while you had their attention, then?"
"Told 'em that I was transferring all of the power of an official court spiritualist to you, and that you'd be working directly for me from now on. Even then the bastards barely flinched."
Kagome stilled, her eyes widening. It was not as if she had not already known this to some extent, but he said it so very casually. It was disconcerting.
"Don't you think this is a little much to give me, Inuyasha-sama? I mean, this and placing me up on the dais alongside Kikyou-sama…" she trailed off uneasily.
"You're the one who fought for it, Kagome. You gonna back down now that you got it?" the hanyou returned challengingly.
"No, Inuyasha-sama, of course not. I'm glad for it, really. It's just…isn't it a lot all at once? It's no small leap to go from being a commoner among nobles to a court spiritualist in direct service of the Tennō-sama," Kagome said softly.
"Like I said, you fought for it. That's something I have to respect. So how about you just shut up and be grateful for once?" Inuyasha huffed.
Kagome went silent, at a loss as to how to respond. This was what she had hoped for. He was willing to trust her with this. No small amount of trust, either. And with the vague idea she had of his history with people, it was made all the more meaningful. Kagome's heart warmed at the thought, and she bowed her head to hide a soft expression that she knew would most likely have earned her Inuyasha's ridicule.
"Thank you, Inuyasha-sama. I will do my best," was all that she could manage, soft and sincere.
"Feh. I know already," the hanyou returned, his tone slightly less gruff than usual. "So?"
"….So what, Inuyasha-sama?"
"So, you didn't call me out here and ask about the Council meeting just for the hell of, did you?" Inuyasha said. "I'm assuming you actually have something to say about it all. So spit it out."
"Ah, right," Kagome said, forcing her mind back onto the business at hand. "Well, after what you just told me….Hmm. I can't claim to know much about the workings of the Council besides the little that Kaede-sama told me, but it seems to me that now would be a good time to test the waters."
"Test the waters?" Inuyasha echoed, arching a brow.
"I mean….how to put it?" Kagome muttered, chewing at her lower lip in thought. "To see how much ground we have gained, I guess. To see how far they're willing to bend to you now. You've said before that they're uncooperative. I guess I want to be able to judge how well it's all come out, and it seems that the Council might be the best gauge for it."
"….Yeah," answered Inuyasha after a moment of consideration.
"Then, do you have any idea of what we might do exactly to test them? Though I suppose their having accepted my official appointment to the position of spiritualist is a solid place to start from," Kagome mused thoughtfully.
"I already know just what to do," the hanyou said lowly, dark satisfaction bubbling just beneath the words as his scowl curled up wickedly at the corners. "I'll route those damn bastards, the same way they've been routing me since my fucking ascension."
"Route?" Kagome asked.
"Yeah, route. To push something through using force," he said, though the fiendish gleam in his golden eyes said clearly that his mind was still occupied with the thought of finally getting the better of the Council.
"What sorts of things do they 'push through'?" Kagome asked.
Inuyasha shot her a pointed look at the further interruption of his vengeful musings. Kagome frowned in return and leveled a stern look at him, refusing to apologize for her lack of knowledge.
"They push for funding to fit their own agendas, for the allowance of increases in the sizes of their personal armies, for more control over trade routes, for more control in the issuing of laws and decrees," the hanyou ticked off each thing with a clawed finger. "All that shit.”
“It's how they chip away at the Tennō's power. They take all the authority out of the position and I become just a figurehead, easy to off."
"And they've been working at this since your ascension a year ago?" Kagome reflected. "How much have they been able to take from you?"
"A fucking chunk," the hanyou admitted bitterly. "The threat of an army that might or might not listen to me and a few half-assed clans backing me hardly slows those assholes down one damn bit."
"Then they're just biding their time," Kagome said softly, speaking aloud mostly to herself as she puzzled things out. "Stealing power from you bit by bit as their clans recover from the throne war. That way you'll be easy to depose once one of the clans regain enough strength to oppose your supporters with any certainty.”
“Then they'll take the throne without much to block them, already in possession of the authority of the Tennō. They're just waiting for it…"
She trailed off, a cold creeping over her that had nothing to do with the chill in the air. Somehow their position always seemed to be a bit worse than she had thought. She wondered if even her vision could be more than a slight deterrent against such a determined force.
Inuyasha watched the progression of her thoughts across her face from the corner of his eye. She was really too easy to read, slight horror settling over her features as she came to the logical conclusion. It was an unpleasant thing to see on her face.
"I'll push through a decree to cut the size of their personal armies, then," the hanyou said, gratified to see the expression disappear as her eyes shifted towards him.
"For the test, wench," Inuyasha continued. "I'll force them each to cut the number of personal soldiers they’re allowed to keep."
Kagome frowned, considering this for a long moment. It would certainly be a test of his influence, but….
"Perhaps you should start with something smaller, Inuyasha-sama," she suggested at length.
"A smaller cut in the numbers?"
"No, just…it seems to me that having military power taken from them is the thing they'd struggle hardest against," she explained. "Even if they were inclined to obey you right now, I don't think they'd be able to accept something so drastic right away."
"Feh. No more than the bastards deserve," Inuyasha huffed, unwilling to give up on the idea of the old men's faces as he told them he would be taking their soldiers from them.
Now that would be something worth going to a Council meeting for. Inuyasha chuckled darkly to himself.
"I know you're eager to get back at them," Kagome sighed, catching the vindictive glint in his eyes once more. "But they took power from you in small bits, right? I think we should do the same, to avoid causing any trouble if possible."
"You mean the way you 'avoided trouble' with your vision scheme," Inuyasha sniped, a little bitter at having his plan ruined. "What should we do then?"
Kagome frowned at the small slight, but chose to ignore it. She took a moment to sort through various ideas, though she already half-knew what it was that she wanted to do.
"Well," she hesitated, realizing there was no real way to say it without coming off as self-serving. "I do have one idea that I think would be suitable. It's certainly minor enough, though it would still prove useful as a small test of power…"
"Spit it out already, Kagome."
"I…want to send funds to the villages in my area that were destroyed by the youkai attacks," Kagome said hurriedly. "It doesn't have to be my village! But a lot of the other villages were hit hard and…"
"What're you getting all worked up about, wench?" the hanyou asked, watching her as she fidgeted uncomfortably.
"I…don't want you to think I have an agenda," Kagome said softly, glancing over at him. "Like the members of the Council, I mean. It's really not like that. I just want-"
"Want to help those villages of yours," Inuyasha cut in, finishing for her. "I already know that. You've been yapping about it since day one."
"I just don't want you to think I'm acting like them again," Kagome admitted, frowning.
It did seem as if she had gained his trust, but it was so new it was rather precarious. If he suspected her of acting like a deceitful courtier again, she would undoubtedly lose the trust she had worked so hard to gain from him.
"Idiot. I gave you a seat on the dais, didn't I?" the hanyou said gruffly. "I mean, I get it now. You and them are like two different breeds."
"The vision plot surprised me," Inuyasha interrupted. "I didn't expect that kinda thing from you. But I get it now. You didn't want the power for yourself. You didn't hurt anyone.”
“You're…different, Kagome. I won't make the mistake of lumping you in with them again. So quit your whining already."
It was true. Yesterday's meeting had made him realize clearly enough that he could not dismiss her as just some human, or just some courtier, or even just some woman. He had sensed from early on that Kagome was some kind of oddity, but the previous day's meeting had solidified it for him.
"Ah…Alright, then," Kagome said, her heart fluttering oddly in her chest.
She pressed a hand to it, hoping it would calm down a little. Really, she could not be letting herself get all worked up every time she gained the smallest bit of ground with the Tennō. It was unbefitting of the role she was now supposed to play.
"Now that we've got that crap out of the way," said Inuyasha, recalling her attention and effectively stopping the fluttering. "Did you have specific villages in mind?"
"The ones that were hit by the youkai swarm," Kagome answered. "There were at least four in the area around my village that were almost entirely demolished."
"And do you have an idea of how much they'll need?"
"Rather than sending funds, Inuyasha-sama, I thought it might be more appropriate to send supplies," Kagome said. "You know, food, water, materials for rebuilding houses, maybe seeds to plant a new crop when spring comes around.”
“We don't do much in the way of buying and selling in the villages, you see. Merchants rarely ever pass our way. They know we don't have much in the way of currency, let alone surplus of anything to trade."
The hanyou eyed her for a long moment, considering this. The tan had still not faded entirely from her skin despite the amount of time she had spent in the court, and her eyes seemed to drift far off for a moment. It was not hard to tell that she was thinking of her own little village, and the life she had led there.
Curiosity prodded annoyingly at him once more. What had her life been like there? What had she been like then?
But Inuyasha could not bring himself to ask her any of these things. So he merely gazed at her in silence for a time, as if he might decipher answers from the line of her profile.
After a bit Kagome managed to rouse herself from her musings on the condition of her village and its inhabitants, not having realized she had even fallen into it. She turned a sheepish smile on the Tennō beside her, only to find his gaze trained on her intently.
He turned away quickly, scowling hard out at the waters before them. Kagome frowned quizzically.
"I'll tell the Council we're sending supplies to them and see how it goes," he stated gruffly, red tingeing the ridges of his cheeks. "Anything else?"
"Well, there was something," said Kagome, pressing her hand against the folded piece of parchment in her robes. "But I think I need a bit more time to talk to a few people before I present it to you. Do you mind if we meet again tomorrow?"
"We'd have to anyway," Inuyasha replied. "So I can tell you how the Council reacts. I'm gonna try out the proposition on 'em at today's meeting."
"Alright. This same time tomorrow, then?" Kagome asked, quietly flattered that his first instinct was now to discuss court happenings with her.
"Mmm," the hanyou grunted in agreement.
"Will you go to prepare for the Council meeting now?" asked Kagome, rising to stand.
"I'll go to eat breakfast now," scoffed the hanyou. "I'm hungry as all hell, and those geezers don't deserve my 'preparation'."
Kagome arched her brows wryly at him, making a mental note to start etiquette training with him tomorrow as well. It was high time he learned to carry himself in the manner of a ruler. Or at least in the manner of a civilized, intelligent being.
"I will take my leave for the day then, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome said, bowing. "I have a lot of ground to cover before we next meet."
Inuyasha grunted his assent, watching as she turned and started down the small incline. A thought occurred to him suddenly, and he was on his feet before he even realized it.
Kagome paused, turning back to look at the hanyou.
"Where are you going?"
Kagome frowned, confused.
"I already told you, Inuyasha-sama, I'm going to prepare for tomorrow's meeting-"
"Not that!" he cut her off. "Where are you going? What place?"
"The Tachibana residence," huffed Kagome, uncertain as to the point of the question.
"Oh. Fine, then. Get going," Inuyasha said dismissively, plopping back down and flapping a shooing hand at her.
"Inuyasha-sama-" Kagome said, scowling darkly.
"You said you had a bunch of shit to get done before tomorrow, so get to it," Inuyasha interrupted her again, unwilling to answer the question he knew would follow.
Kagome's jaw clamped shut on an angry retort, her teeth grinding in a decidedly unladylike manner. Must he always be so high-handed with her? With a huff she turned and stomped lightly away, wondering why she had ever been pleased by anything that might come from such a rude man.
Inuyasha watched her go, unrepentant. He had a right to know where she was going to be. And he most certainly had a right to know if she was going to be traipsing around with that idiotic, lovesick fool of a guardsman. It was his right as her sovereign, damn it, and she had no reason to be all huffy about it.
Inuyasha nodded to himself, secure in his own reasoning.
In a slight pique Kagome made her way quickly over the snowy paths to the Tachibana residence. She was allowed entrance without question and shown to a sitting room to await Sango's return.
The noblewoman was not long in coming, though she was rather rumpled and wearing her taiji-ya uniform when she arrived. She protested at attending to a guest in such a state and would have gone to bathe had Kagome not assured her firmly that she did not mind in the least.
Sango had tea and breakfast brought for the both of them to the sitting room, informing Kagome that she had been out with her cousin doing a bit of weapons training. She feared she was getting rusty, she said, since it had been such a long time since her last real field mission.
They chatted idly as they ate. When they had finished and servants had cleared the dishes, Sango finally got around to asking about the reason behind Kagome's visit. The miko promptly pulled from her robes the notes she had made, laying them out before the taiji-ya on the table.
"I know there are a good deal of other things that I still need to discuss with you and Miroku-sama, Sango-sama, but for right now I am afraid that this has to take priority," said Kagome, alluding lightly to both the rumor scandal and her own vision ploy.
Sango was silent for a moment, looking over the list Kagome had handed her. Kagome flushed slightly when the older woman had to squint and bring the parchment closer to her face, wishing she had worked harder at the writing lessons Kaede-sama had given her. At last the noblewoman set the list down, turning her attention back to the girl.
"You are trying to get an idea of the stances of the clans here in court?" she concluded.
"I want to know who can be counted on to support the Tennō-sama and who…" she trailed off, unable to think of any tactful way to finish the sentence.
"You mean, who the Tennō-sama needs to keep a closer eye on," Sango supplied.
Kagome nodded once more, waiting for her to continue.
"Well, in regards to the other matter we need to discuss, I suppose it would be better to wait until the houshi returns," Sango said thoughtfully. "Right now he is out of the court doing a small bit of field work. And I will certainly give you any help I can, Kagome-chan, but I can not claim to be privy to all of the goings on of the court. It is hard to see the forest for the trees, after all."
"Whatever help you can give me will be more than enough, Sango-sama," Kagome assured her gratefully. "I think I have the most basic of concepts of what is going on, but I don't have the leisure of time to form a fuller picture. I thought you could help me there, since you've been raised here and I know I can trust you to give me the straightest truth."
Sango smiled, pleased at this show of faith from her friend. Kagome finally seemed to be finding her balance here in the court and gaining a bit of confidence. She turned her eyes back down to the parchments spread out across the table, scanning them critically. Most of the major clans seemed to be accounted for, along with Kagome's observations of them…
"The Minamoto," Sango put in, tapping the kanji lightly with one finger. "I know a bit about them. They are highly anti-youkai in sentiment. They have been for generations."
"Anti-youkai?" Kagome echoed questioningly, her brows lifting.
"Yes. They aim to keep any blood that is not strictly human away from the throne," the taiji-ya replied. "They believe youkai blood is…impure, if you will."
Kagome frowned, the concept striking her as odd.
"They think youkai blood is impure? But that does not make any sense. Youkai were created by the kami at the same time as humans, from the same elements in nature. They serve as a counterbalance to humans. How could that be impure?"
"They read the creation story a bit differently than most," Sango explained, shaking her head. "If you have ever read a transcription of the story itself, the writing concerning the creation of humans and youkai is…slightly ambiguous, I suppose.”
“It can be read as most read it, as human and youkai having been created in a counterbalance and complement to one another. However, it can also be twisted a bit to be read to say that youkai were created as the darkness to balance out the light of humanity."
"That…how could that be?" Kagome said slowly, her brow furrowing in consternation. "It might make sense if all youkai were purely evil or all humans were purely good. But…"
Sango shook her head dismissively, one hand flapping in a gesture of decided incomprehension.
"People will believe what they wish to, Kagome-chan, regardless of logic or sense. The Minamoto have it set in their minds that youkai are impure. It would take a great deal to dissuade them of that notion at this point."
"But some of the Minamoto women were associating with the Taira women at the outing," Kagome pointed out.
"'The enemy of my enemy'..." Sango mused thoughtfully, and then, at the miko's blank look, "I mean, neither the Taira nor the Minamoto clan are in favor of our current Tennō-sama. Considering this, they might for a time set aside their animosity in order to work against his Majesty."
"You think so?" Kagome asked. Absently she began to worry her lower lip with her teeth, considering this.
If the Minamoto and the Taira truly were willing to set aside their differences in order to work against Inuyasha, that meant that two of the major clans in the court were already set solidly against him. That left the Tachibana and the Fujiwara clans to support him.
However, the Tachibana already seemed to have their hands full dealing with the youkai stirring up trouble outside of the court, and the Fujiwara were so thoroughly decimated that they likely had little left to offer.
That left Inuyasha at quite a disadvantage, Kagome reflected darkly. Still, there had to be somewhere to look for support….
"What about the minor clans, Sango-sama?" Kagome voiced at last, raising her eyes to meet her friend's expectant gaze. "What can you tell me about them?"
Sango frowned thoughtfully for a moment before rising. She slid open the shoji screen that connected the room to the hall, calling out for a servant. One appeared promptly and Sango asked her to fetch a brush and inkstone. The servant nodded and disappeared down the hall to obey.
She returned quickly, handing the implements off to the noblewoman with a bow before setting off again. The taiji-ya resumed her seat at the low table, motioning for Kagome to come sit beside her.
The miko complied, watching as the noblewoman began to sketch out row after row of elegantly flowing Kanji alongside her own messy scrawl. Absently she admired the woman's skill as she watched the words sweeping across on the page.
"There are literally hundreds of minor clans within the court," Sango spoke as she worked, pausing every now and then to dip her brush back into the inkwell. "I cannot claim to know all of them, or even to have in depth knowledge of most of them.”
“However, the minor clans do tend to group rather conveniently for our purposes beneath the major clans. They rely on us for support and power, you see, and we, in turn, rely on them for the same. Minor clans can also aspire to gain more influence in the court by allying themselves with the proper major clans, the ones in a position to gain favor with the Tennō-sama.”
“Beneath the Minamoto clan, as you might imagine, are minor clans composed mostly of humans. From what I can recall, the Mononobe, Nakatomi, Soga, Kusakabe, and Hojo clans associate most closely with them."
Kagome nodded at this, though she was surprised to learn that Akitoki's clan was associated with the Minamoto. He had always sounded so very eager to serve the Tennō as one of his soldiers. Perhaps, though, he was not of a mind with the rest of his clan. The miko made a mental note to talk to him about this when they next met.
"Next are the Taira clan," Sango continued, her brush moving rhythmically over the page. "As we have established, their clan is composed mostly of full youkai. They have little tolerance for mixed breeds or humans. Thus the minor clans that they allow to associate with them are composed mostly of youkai, as well.”
“Chief among the minor clans that support the Taira are the Ki, Abe, Hashiji, and Ō clans. As far as I know, that is. While the Taira are certainly the most vocal of the clans opposing his Majesty, they are remarkably good at keeping secret those they associate with. Very few outside the clan are privy to any knowledge of their movements at any given time."
"Then the Taira clan might have a number of other clans at their disposal that no one else is aware of?" Kagome asked. Sango nodded.
"They would be the ones to keep the closest eye on," the taiji-ya said, her expression darkening slightly. "It is hard to be certain, but I think they have been able to recover most quickly from the throne war."
Kagome sighed, having vaguely guessed at this much already. She would need to work on finding some insight into the Taira, some way to gain access to their inner workings. The only problem with that, she lamented silently, was that she had absolutely no clue how to go about doing it.
Sango, reading the gloomy turn of her thoughts across her face, offered up a tentative smile to her friend.
"How about we take a break for a bit?" she suggested, setting her brush down atop the inkstone. "It is a lot to take in all at once, and the only clans left to go over are the ones that I know to be in support of his Majesty."
Kagome mirrored her friend's smile with a small one of her own, grateful for the offer. Her head was beginning to feel a bit heavy with names and associations and planning.
"Just for a little while," she assented. "We can return in a bit to finish up."
"Good," Sango said, bringing her hands together decisively. "And I know just where we can go to relax. To the bath house!"
Kagome chuckled, her mood lightening instantly at the noblewoman's enthusiasm.
"That's been in the back of your mind this entire time, hasn't it, Sango-sama?" Kagome accused lightly.
Sango gave an airy little shrug, her lips quirking upwards a bit guiltily. "I was out practicing for hours before I came here. I must smell badly enough to offend the kami by now."
This had Kagome laughing outright, her hand coming up to cover her mouth as she shook with mirth. Sango's smile widened, her goal accomplished. Kagome continued to try to take quite a lot of work upon her shoulders, and the noblewoman was glad to be able to ease her worries even just temporarily. She wanted to be able to support her friend.
"If you are done laughing at me, then let us go," Sango suggested. Kagome left off laughing, turning mirth-bright eyes on her.
"Yes, of course…Thank you, Sango-sama."
Despite Kagome's best intentions, the two did not return to their work that night. They spent an exorbitant amount of time in the baths, laughing and chatting the time away as they cleansed themselves.
Afterwards Sango insisted that they go for a walk, as it had once again begun to snow and she wished to use her new parasol. Kagome agreed easily enough, both happy to be in the taiji-ya's company and reluctant to return to their earlier task.
She also realized that the older woman was trying her best to help ease her mind for a bit. She was touched by the effort.
Thus they whiled away the remainder of the day and a portion of the night strolling the pathways of the court. By the time they were finished the snow was piled nearly ankle-deep and showed no signs of stopping that night. Kagome parted warmly from Sango at the Tachibana residence, heading back to the Dairi and her own room in Kikyou's residence.
As she lay down to sleep, a fleeting glance out her window reminded her that the new moon was only a few nights away. Kagome fell asleep smiling.
A ray of morning sunlight slanting across her closed lids roused Kagome the next morning. She stirred groggily, recalling vaguely in her morning haze that she had to meet with Inuyasha.
She forced herself up out of bed and summoned a servant to aid her in dressing. Eating a quick breakfast as the woman worked on her, Kagome made a mental list of all the things she needed to go over with the hanyou. She tucked her notes into the front of her robes, as well, to show to him.
After thanking the servant woman she set off toward the Jijūden, trudging through the thick blanket of snow that coated the pathway. She hugged the thick karaginu draped over her miko robes closer to herself, grateful to the serving woman for having insisted she wear it. Scattered flakes still drifted haphazardly down from the grey morning sky and it was freezing out.
She made her way quickly through the gardens, the Shishinden, and over across the water walkway. A guard stopped her before she could enter Inuyasha's chambers in the Jijūden.
"His Majesty requested that I send you back to his private gardens," he explained with a bow. "The Tennō-sama informed me that you might find his Majesty in the same place as yesterday morning."
"Oh," Kagome said, a pleased grin turning up her lips. "Thank you. I will go find his Majesty there."
She returned his bow and started off around the edge of the building, her steps light as she went. It was rather cold to be meeting outside, but she had really liked the spot he had picked for them yesterday.
She entered the gardens and started in past the trees. Vaguely she recalled the path she had taken the day before, finding it again after several moments of searching. It led her straight back to that same small incline, a familiar red-clad figure gazing out at the icy waters of the large pond from the top.
"Inuyasha-sama!" she called, a grin stretching her face as he turned to look at her. "Good morning!"
He merely raised a dark, heavy brow in response to her cheer as she made her way up the slope, taking her place beside him beneath the large parasol. The blanket he had had set out for them to sit on was much thicker this time, she noted gratefully.
"I hope I did not keep you waiting long," she said, reaching into her robes to pull out the folded parchment. "You did not send a guard to fetch me this time."
"Didn't need to give the bastard any more opportunities," the hanyou muttered, so lowly she barely heard him.
"What?" she asked, looking up.
"Nothin'," he returned quickly, and then pointed at the papers in her hand. "What're those?"
"My notes," Kagome said, holding them up a bit sheepishly. "I have been compiling them from what I have been able to see here so far. Sango-sama helped me, too. They're not very comprehensive, though…"
Inuyasha plucked the parchment from her hands, unfolding it to scan through quickly. Kagome watched his eyes dart over the pages, absently biting her lip. She hoped he would approve of her efforts.
"This…you got all this in the time you've been here?" Inuyasha voiced at length, his eyes darting once more over the combination of what was obviously Kagome's sloppy kanji intermixed with someone else's neat script.
He looked almost impressed, the usual surly set of his features softening around the edges. Kagome preened inwardly, her eyes brightening as she observed him.
"Like I said, Sango-sama helped me. I did not know almost anything about the workings of the minor clans," she offered modestly, feeling rather giddy.
"This is good, Kagome," he offered at length, raising his eyes to meet hers.
He jerked back slightly at the look on her face, taken off guard. She looked so…happy, cheeks pink and grey eyes warm as they rested on him. He felt his own cheeks heat to match and turned hastily away with a cough.
"W-What about the Tachibana and the Fujiwara?" he stuttered, waving the pages at her in his agitation.
"I have to go back and meet with Sango-sama again before I can say anything for certain," Kagome replied. "But I believe I would be safe in saying that you have the support of those clans."
The hanyou's disconcertion dissipated as he considered this, nodding slowly.
"Yeah. The old men in the Council from those clans don't try to pull too much crap. Still obnoxious as hell, though."
Kagome raised her brows at him, her lips pursing in slight disapproval.
"I hardly think you're in a position to be complaining about your supporters, Inuyasha-sama," she chastised lightly.
He huffed unrepentantly, but something in his expression sobered. Kagome bit her lip, berating herself for having killed the pleasant mood so quickly.
"We're still at a loss," the hanyou said at last, his look becoming darkly contemplative. "The Fujiwara've got almost nothing left to offer. And the Tachibana ain't exactly at the height of their power anymore, either."
"…No, they're not," Kagome assented softly, her eyes falling to the blanket beneath them. "But…I mean, it's something, isn't it? We're figuring out where we stand, at least…"
She trailed off weakly, risking a glance up at him from beneath her lashes. His expression was distant, though, and she sighed. Absently she fiddled with her the sleeves of her karaginu, casting about in her mind for something to bring him back to the conversation.
"Sango-sama thinks the Taira clan is our biggest threat," she settled on at last, recalling the things she had reminded herself to tell him earlier. "I would have to agree. That Taira Kagura woman has tried to cause trouble every time I have seen her. And Sango-sama says that she believes they are recovering themselves the fastest."
"The Taira clan…?" the hanyou echoed, dragging his attention forcefully back into the present. "…Yeah. Makes sense. The bastards made their feelings about my 'dirty blood' pretty damn clear from the moment I was announced successor. They don't push for too much in the Council, though. Mostly just work at blocking anything I try to do."
Kagome looked up at him, frowning as she mulled over this new snippet of information. Something never quite seemed to add up about the Taira clan, as if she were missing some critical piece…
"I will work at getting an in with the Taira clan, somehow," Kagome murmured, as much to herself as to Inuyasha. "We need a direct link to them. We need to know what they are up to…."
She trailed off thoughtfully, and the hanyou observed as her brow furrowed in concentration and her gaze turned inward. She looked troubled, frustrated as she attempted to work through the problem all on her own.
He was struck by the urge to offer her something. Anything. With possibly the exception of his mother, no one had ever worked so hard for him. Given so much to help him. And all that Kagome got for her trouble was more trouble. Every odd was stacked against him and she stuck with him anyway.
Kagome deserved better, fool girl that she was. He wanted to give her something.
"I pushed through for the supplies in the Council," he blurted, and her eyes flew up to meet his as she was torn from her thoughts.
"Huh?" she returned inelegantly.
"The supplies for those little villages of yours," he returned. "I told the Council yesterday that I was going to send them supplies from the capital so that they could start rebuilding. The old men didn't put up much of a fight over it."
Kagome's mouth slipped open a little bit.
Inuyasha nodded, something lifting in his chest at the dawning look of hope in her face.
"Yeah. There're already some workers out fixing up the Taira clan branch house that got destroyed, so I sent word to them to head towards the villages to do a survey of the area. Word should come back from them of what they'll require to make repairs in a few weeks, and then I'll send out whatever they need."
Kagome was silent for a long stretch, merely staring at him. And then her face crumpled a bit, a suspicious sheen gathering along the fringe of her dark lashes. Inuyasha flinched, panic spiking through him.
"Thank you," Kagome cut across his protests, her voice cracking. "Thank you, Inuyasha-sama. I know Miroku-sama told me it wasn't my fault, but I've felt so guilty. Thank you."
"G-Guilty?" the hanyou echoed, put off by her reaction.
She nodded, a breathless little laugh escaping her. "T-the villages…it was my aura that drew the rampaging youkai to the area. It was my fault they got destroyed in the first place."
"Kagome…" he said, his expression sinking into a frown. She had been carrying that with her all this time, too?
"But it's alright now. You fixed it," Kagome pressed on, a few tears escaping her despite how she fought them back. The whole of her guilt and shame and relief and gratitude seemed to be rushing to the forefront in a confusing torrent.
Something inside the hanyou constricted at the sight of her, small and vulnerable like a child, and he scooted tentatively towards her across the blanket. Slowly, ever so slowly, he placed a clawed hand on the top of her head, giving her an awkward pat. He could vaguely recall his mother doing the same to comfort him when he was small.
She peeked up at him, sniffling. A wobbly smile crept over her features. His heart lurched uncomfortably.
"Thank you," she said softly.
"Feh. You said that already," Inuyasha muttered, flushing.
Kagome chuckled, swiping at her eyes.
"So I did. I meant it, though."
"You mean everything you say," Inuyasha scoffed, rolling his eyes. "That's what makes you so weird."
She laughed again, the sound lighter this time.
"I feel like I should take offense at that."
Inuyasha shrugged, a smirk tilting up one corner of his mouth. There, he'd taken care of that.
"This is good, though, isn't it?" she said hopefully after a beat, slowly recollecting herself. "That the Council would bow to you so easily must be a good sign, right?"
Inuyasha nodded. "Seems that way."
"You should keep at it, then," Kagome suggested eagerly. "Try for something else at the next Council meeting. Something bigger."
He considered this for a minute, eyes narrowing in thought.
"I could restrict residence visits. Limit the amount of time they're allowed to spend off at their outside residences," he put in, looking to her.
"That's perfect!" Kagome enthused, beaming up at him. "It's still relatively small and unobtrusive, but it serves as a way to keep them close and monitor them when they do leave."
He swelled a bit at the praise from Kagome, sitting up straighter. "Yeah. Exactly."
"Good," she said approvingly, nodding in agreement. "You'll do that at the next Council meeting and then you can tell me how it goes. Though, I do wish there were some way to get a fuller idea of how things are going over since my vision. I'm guessing the Council is a rather small number of people to estimate the entire court's opinion from?"
"Yeah," Inuyasha agreed. "There ain't that many old men on the Council, however much noise they're able to make. And it's mostly only made up of members from the major clans."
"Maybe I will go visit Sango-sama again, then," Kagome mused. "She might be able to help me come up with something."
She turned her gaze up to meet his, intending to ask to be dismissed that she might get back to work. The words froze on the tip of her tongue, though, when she found golden eyes much closer to her own than she had anticipated. There was a slight weight on her head, as well. His hand, she realized dazedly.
They were close enough for their frosted breath to intermingle in the cold air. Kagome felt a hot flush sweep through her from head to toe, but she could not seem to bring herself to move. Her conscious mind seemed to shut down entirely. She was caught, a moth to a flame.
Inuyasha, for his part, had merely been leaning over to swipe at a dragonfly that had been hovering annoyingly close to her head. She caught him off guard, turning her face up towards his so suddenly.
He was struck dumb by the mercurial grey eyes so close to his own, her features more impossibly delicate up close than he could have imagined. He noticed suddenly the softness of her hair beneath the hand he had neglected to remove. She…smelled nice….
A loud squawking abruptly rent the still air and the two figures jerked apart. Kagome blinked in consternation at the hanyou for a long moment, feeling as if she were emerging out of some sort of strange haze. Her heart beat a frantic tattoo in the cage of her chest, and her face burned hot against the cold air of the morning.
She scrambled up suddenly, bowing jerkily to the Tennō.
"I-If you'll excuse me, Inuyasha-sama, I h-have a few things that I need to attend to," she managed to get out.
"Y-Yeah, go," Inuyasha returned, at a loss. What the hell had just happened?
Kagome bobbed another awkward bow and, without another word, turned and nearly fled toward the Tachibana clan residence.
By the time she reached the front gate of the residence Kagome had managed to calm herself a bit. She paused there, taking in a deep lungful of biting air. It sobered her, and at last she could feel her blush beginning to fade.
In all her fifteen years of life she had never experienced anything quite like that. Like being caught inexorably up in some force she could hardly comprehend. She had thought her heart was trying to work its way out through her throat, the way it was pounding. And all over a simple look….
She shook her head forcefully, fighting back another flush that threatened to warm her face. Whatever that was, it had been a fluke. Pure chance and oddity. And she certainly did not have time to be entertaining such thoughts when there was so much else to be done.
Resolving firmly not to think about it anymore, the miko stepped through the front gates and into the residence. She walked in through the main entryway, entering one of the many hallways. A small group of servants was gathered a ways down the hall and she turned towards them. They bowed deferentially at her approach.
"Do you happen to know where Sango-sama is?" she asked. "I would like to speak with her, if possible."
"Our Ladyship has gone beyond the Outer Wall to practice," replied one of the men. "I can take you to her, if you wish, Miko-sama."
"Is she with anyone? I would not want to interrupt," Kagome said, though it was a bit of a half-truth. She did not want to interrupt, but she also could not speak with Sango about the matters she wished to in the presence of an outsider.
"I believe the houshi Shingon Miroku-sama is accompanying her," put in a servant woman.
"Oh, he has returned?" Kagome said, her face lighting at the news. "Then, if one of you would not mind…"
The man who had first spoken nodded.
"I will accompany you, Miko-sama."
He bowed once more before gesturing for her to follow him. He led her back out of the residence, winding around the outer wall of the premises. A few twists and turns among various residences brought them to the Inner Wall, which they passed through without comment from the guard.
The area between the Outer and Inner Wall turned out to be more densely populated than the miko had expected. Courtiers, merchants, servants, and guardsmen milled about everywhere in the snow, a flurry of life and activity.
Several courtiers stopped in the midst of their business at the sight of the miko as she went, bowing to varying degrees in acknowledgment of her. Kagome returned these gestures with a nod of her own, feeling vaguely self-conscious at the attention. Still she straightened her shoulders and schooled her features into a look of impassive dignity, unconsciously mimicking the look Kikyou wore at all times.
They reached the Outer Wall and were allowed passage by the gate guards, stepping out into the forest that surrounded the Northern Entrance of the Heian-kyō. The serving man led her a bit of the way into the trees before halting, gesturing for her to continue forward with a bow.
There were three serving women standing there amidst the trees, and they dipped quick bows to her as Kagome passed. Chaperones, she realized, to make certain there was no seeming of impropriety in the taiji-ya being out alone in the woods with the houshi. With a wry twist to her lips, Kagome wondered why that notion had never crossed her mind before the scandal with Kouga.
There was a sudden yell from the trees just beyond her and she jumped, her heart leaping in surprise. She pressed a hand to it, rushing forward between the trees. Berating herself for not having thought to bring her bow, she prayed that her friends were alright-
Only to skid to a halt at the sight that greeted her. It was merely Miroku and Sango in the wide clearing, locked together in combat as the noblewoman pressed an attack with her wakizashi. He deflected her strike with his shakujou, the rings clanging as he caught the blow with the sturdy shaft of the staff.
Sango pushed her assault, her features tightening as threw her weight behind her blade in a bid to overpower him. Miroku seemed to bend under the weight of her force, one foot sliding back as she heaved forward. A moment later, though, Sango pressed too far forward, and the houshi quickly turned his backward feint up and under to throw the off-balance taiji-ya back.
Sango stumbled for a moment, but then pivoted on her heel and used her momentum to jump back to a safe distance. She faced the houshi again, her wakizashi poised as she circled him intently for an opening.
Kagome was frozen where she stood, awed at what was playing out before her. Oddly enough it was not the impressive display of skill that most caught her attention. While they were truly something to behold in their obvious prowess with their respective weapons, it was the expressions on both faces that Kagome was nearly entranced by.
They both looked so…happy. Perhaps that was too mild a word for the glow that lit both the face of the noblewoman and the man, but it somehow seemed both simple and complex enough to fit.
They were focused entirely on one another as they struck and parried and duck and wove in a dance so intricate that it might have come down from the kami themselves. Only the two of them seemed to exist in the whole world, and it seemed that was more than enough for the both.
It was beautiful. And somehow…intimate, she reflected. She felt guilty, as if she had stumbled in upon something very private. She took a step back, thinking to escape before she was noticed.
Miroku, however, caught sight of her. He looked dismayed for a moment, but quickly covered it over with a too-wide welcoming grin. Sango, catching the direction of his gaze, turned as well. A look of disappointment flashed across her features before she could hide it, and Kagome felt another twinge of guilt.
"I-I am sorry to interrupt," she called meekly.
"Not at all, Kagome-chan. It is good to see you after such a long time," Miroku greeted her warmly, coming over to embrace her.
She allowed the embrace warily, glad when he did not attempt anything. Sango seemed to have composed herself by the time they parted, sheathing her wakizashi smoothly and coming over to greet the younger girl with a smile.
"Kagome-chan, what are you doing out here? Houshi-sama and I were just training a bit. He returned this morning from his errand," she explained.
And had come straight to see her upon his return, Kagome noted silently. That which she had always vaguely suspected of the two was fast blooming into a certainty.
"I needed to speak with you again, Sango-sama," was all that she voiced. "I'm glad to find you back, as well, Miroku-sama. Did your errand go well?"
"The troublesome nest was successfully eradicated," he responded easily. "Though I missed dearly the company of the two finest women in the court while I was way."
Sango and Kagome shared a wry look, smiling crookedly at one another. Kagome chuckled softly, her guilt easing.
"Well, then, all airy flatteries aside," Sango said, with a pointed glance at the houshi. "What was it you needed to discuss, Kagome-chan?"
"Pardon me, Tachibana-sama," a servant said, emerging from the trees behind them. The three turned to face her.
"I am sorry to interrupt, but there is a messenger here for you," the servant resumed, bowing. "He says he is from the Tennō-sama, and that the message is important."
Sango frowned, turning a quizzical look on the miko. Kagome shook her head, her expression mirroring the older woman's.
"Allow him forward," Sango instructed the servant. The woman nodded, motioning to a man standing behind her.
The messenger came forward, bowing to Sango and offering up a folded piece of parchment. The noblewoman took it with a word of thanks and the messenger bowed once more before taking his leave.
Miroku and Kagome both crept closer to the woman as she unfolded the note, coming to stand just behind her as she read. From over her shoulder Kagome could see that the note read, in a rough scrawl:
We are aware your father and brother will be returning soon from their mission outside the court. It is Our desire that a celebration should be thrown upon their return. We leave to you the arrangements, ordering only that the whole of the court be in attendance. Our funds are at your disposal for the time being.
The note was stamped with a wax seal depicting Amaterasu, marking it as a true missive of the Tennō. Kagome only just managed to keep from gaping openly. She felt a small flutter of pride at the obvious work the hanyou had put into the note even as she wondered at its purpose.
"You did not ask the Tennō-sama to throw a celebration in honor of the return of my father, did you, Kagome-chan?" Sango asked, sounding mildly mortified at the idea as she scanned the note once more.
"No, no. I did not even know your father and brother would be returning soon," she replied, shaking her head.
"Truly?" the noblewoman asked, glancing up at her. "His Majesty must have quite the memory, then, to keep track of such matters…but why a celebration?
"Your father is the head of the Tachibana clan, Sango-sama," Miroku supplied. "And he has been away for quite some time now. Still, a court-wide celebration does seem a bit much…"
A thought struck Kagome at his words. Court-wide. As in, the entire court in one place at one time. A perfect opportunity for observation…
A grin of dawning realization spread across her face, almost giddy in nature. He was doing it for her. He was offering her up the opportunity she wanted. He had been thinking of her. She could not contain a happy little laugh that bubbled up, raising her hand to cover her mouth.
"Kagome-chan?" Miroku said, catching sight of her face. "Do you know something about this?"
Kagome nodded, trying to school her features to look at least a bit less silly.
"I spoke with the Tennō-sama this morning, and told his Majesty that I would like an opportunity to observe the entire court all at once, if possible," she explained. "I believe this is his Majesty's way of offering me that opportunity."
"That's rather clever," Sango said, her brow furrowing thoughtfully. "Inviting all the clans to intermingle under the pretense of a celebration. It might get them to lower their guards a bit."
"And here I was under the vague impression that his Majesty was not the brightest star in the sky, if you will," mused the houshi.
"I suppose his Majesty has his moments," Kagome said, the grin stretching inexorably across her face again. He was working just as hard as she was, and the knowledge fueled further her desire to push forward.
Miroku and Sango exchanged curious glances at the expression on the miko's face. She seemed to glow, lit by some secret warmth from within.
"Does this have anything to do with what you came to speak to me about, Kagome-chan?" Sango asked, waving the paper to recall the girl's attention.
"Yes," she responded, shaking herself mentally. "Though I had meant to come ask you if you could help me think up some way to gather all the courtiers together. I suppose that's taken care of now. There is one other thing, though."
"What is it?"
"The Taira clan," Kagome responded, sobering slightly as she got back to the business at hand. "I need to get some sort of in with them. Some way to gain inside knowledge of their doings. I was hoping the two of you could help me think something up."
Miroku's expression darkened slightly, and he glanced at the line of the trees behind them to make certain none of the servants were close enough to overhear.
"That is a dangerous position to place yourself in, Kagome-chan," he said, his eyes serious as they met hers. "The Taira clan is not to be dealt with lightly. They dislike humans enough as it is. I do not wish to think what they might do should they catch you conspiring against them."
"I'm not conspiring against them," Kagome said. "I'm afraid that they are conspiring. I need to know what they are doing in order to keep them from causing trouble for the Tennō-sama."
"That's too much for you to take on, Kagome-chan," Sango broke in sternly. "I understand that you want to help, but that is too much. You would be putting your life at risk."
"It isn't like I haven't done that already," Kagome replied gently, knowing it was their concern for her that made them fight her. "I know you're both thinking of my safety, and I am sorry to make you worry, but I'm not the priority here. There are much more important things at stake."
Sango looked as if she might argue this point, but seemed to see the truth of reluctantly and bit her lip with a small huff of consternation. Miroku sighed.
"Truly, Kagome-chan, you make things rather difficult," he opined.
"I do hope the Tennō-sama appreciates the lengths you go to. But we will support you nonetheless," Sango put in firmly. "So do try not to keep us in the dark about things. We are always here for you. Do not forget that."
"Thank you," Kagome said, bowing her head in gratitude. "I promise I will try to keep you informed of what I am doing."
"As to the Taira clan, I am not certain we can be of help," Miroku said, looking to Sango.
The noblewoman nodded in agreement. "As Houshi-sama said, the Taira dislike humans. It would be nearly impossible for one to get anywhere near their inner circles. Especially you, with your connection to the Tennō-sama."
"Then it could not be me. And it could not be someone human," Kagome said thoughtfully.
"Only a full youkai would have any luck with this task, I think," Miroku supplied. "Anyone with any sort of mixed blood would not be allowed in."
"A full youkai…" she echoed, turning this over in her head.
Her eyes widened. She knew what to do.
"I've got it!" she exclaimed, surprising both of her companions.
"A way to get in?" Sango asked. Kagome nodded eagerly.
"How?" asked Miroku.
She shook her head.
"Allow me a bit of time to see if I can make it work, and then I promise I will tell you everything."
Sango frowned disapprovingly.
"Please. Just trust me," she pleaded, clasping her hands imploringly before them.
She was afraid they would not approve if she were to tell them beforehand. But if she could get everything in motion first, they would have no choice but to go along with it despite their reservations.
Miroku and Sango shared a look. He shook his head, and she scowled petulantly.
"As if we could ever hope to stop you," the houshi sighed at last. "But, sooner or later, it would be nice if you could come to rely more on us, Kagome-chan."
"I will. I am certainly relying on you both to put together the celebration," she said earnestly. "I just need to go it on my own for a bit this time."
"Go, then," Sango allowed, waving a hand. "Do what you will, but please be careful. Houshi-sama and I will start on the preparations for the celebration right away."
Kagome beamed at them both, nodding.
"Thank you both. I'm counting on you," she said. "I'll come find you again just as soon as I can get everything worked out."
Ducking in a quick bow, she turned on her heel and started off with purpose.
Sucking in a deep breath, Kagome attempted to collect herself as she sat amongst the roots of the Goshinboku tree. It had taken a bit of inquiring around among the servants, but at length she had managed to find her quarry. She had quickly had a messenger sent off on her errand before coming to the En no Matsubara to wait.
Any moment now, she mused nervously. She wondered what she was going to say in order to get this all to work out. It was asking a lot, she knew, more than she really had any right to ask. Still, it was a plan she could not abandon without trying.
Youki tingled along her sixth sense and Kagome lifted her gaze up from the ground.
He was here.
Kouga strode eagerly over to stand before her and the miko rose to meet him, donning a tentative smile of her own. She was uncertain exactly what sort of ground they were on after what had happened at the women's outing.
The wolf Lord ended that uncertainty for her quickly. He stepped forward, sweeping her into his arms and pressing her close to himself. Kagome squeaked in surprise, having anticipated at least a bit of annoyance at the small trick she had played.
"I'm glad you called for me, Kagome," he said. "I've missed seeing my woman. And this court's boring as hell without you around."
"I-it is good to see you again, too, Kouga-sama. Though I would appreciate it if you would let me go," she returned, gratified when he released her.
At least she had thought a bit ahead this time. The En no Matsubara was empty at the moment, most of the courtiers and servants in their respective residences eating the afternoon meal as she had hoped. Still, they were meeting in a public place in the light of day. There was nothing that could be called scandalous about this meeting, though she would have to take care that they were not overheard.
She smiled up the wolf Lord, uncertain of how to start the conversation off. He returned her look with his usual wolfish grin, ice blue eyes intently taking in her face as if it had been ages since he last saw her.
He stood very close to her, she noted absently. Though, really, he always stood very close to her. He seemed to have little sense for boundaries. Still, his proximity did not rob her of her wits. It did not inspire her heart to pound. Not in the way that it had that morning with-
"I-I need to talk to you about something, Kouga-sama," she said at last, her gaze dropping to her clasped hands as she reined in her wandering thoughts forcefully.
Kagome bit her lip, at a loss as to how to continue. It really was too much to ask.
"It's about the kiss, isn't it?" Kouga supplied slyly, and her eyes shot up to meet his. "You want to give me a real one this time. A real reward."
"I gave you a real reward. You never specified what sort of kiss I had to give you," Kagome returned archly, tempted to smile.
The wolf Lord was always consistent, she would give him that much.
"You're a tough one, Kagome," Kouga said, eyeing her in a rather pleased manner. "That's alright, though. I like a good chase."
Kagome quirked a brow at him, torn between exasperation and amusement. She settled for shaking her head and trying to get back to her original purpose.
"As I was saying, Kouga-sama, there is something I need to ask you. It is a rather big something, at that," she said, sobering. "And this time, I can offer no real reward aside from my gratitude."
The grin slipped slowly from his face, his eyes becoming serious as they considered her.
"It's important to you, Kagome?" he asked, with a perceptiveness that was rather surprising coming from him. She nodded.
"Very much so. It is part of the reason I am here in the court in the first place. I need to do this, and I could think of no other way than to ask you," she said earnestly, a hint of pleading in her tone. "I know I it will be asking a lot of you, but you are the only one I can trust to do it, Kouga-sama."
"Trust?" he echoed, caught by the word.
"Yes, trust," she repeated, nodding firmly.
"I'll do it, then," he declared.
Kagome blinked, stunned. Her brows drew together incredulously.
"I…I haven't even told you what I'm asking yet, Kouga-sama," she pointed out.
"Don't care," he returned dismissively, waving a hand. "If you trust me to do it, I'll do it, Kagome. I want you. I want you and I'll do whatever it takes to win you over."
Her eyes widened, stunned and touched at how utterly serious he was. He was willing to do this for her, even though she could promise nothing in return. His devotion was truly something to behold. With a small twinge, she wished she could return even a fraction of his feelings. Still…
"Alright, then. We have a deal," she said softly. "…Thank you, Kouga-sama."
She had her in with the Taira clan.