A few nights after Kagome’s meeting with the wolf Lord, the new moon rose. Kagome found herself rising that night, drawn from her bed as if by the pull of some unseen force. With little conscious thought she drew on a thick robe over her light sleeping yukata and padded off through the chill night air and the empty pathways to the En no Matsubara.
At first glance there was merely the serene glow of the tree, its branches so vast that they seemed to twine up to tangle with the stars. Beautiful, but somehow disappointing. She found herself frowning out into the empty courtyard.
And then he emerged from the deep shadows at the base of the tree, smirking as if he had known that she would be there. Kagome felt her own expression light up in response as she stepped forward to meet him.
"So you came after all, wench. And here I thought you might be too busy pissing all the courtiers off."
"Not so busy that I could not take time to come and bother you in their stead. We had a promise, after all," Kagome returned archly. "And I thought that we had already established that I have a name?"
"Ka-go-me, right?" he said, more than a hint of mockery there. "Wench suits you better, if you ask me."
"I do not recall asking you. Though I will ask what I might call you, as you did not deign to tell me before running off the last time," she said.
At this he hesitated, his eyes straying from hers for the first time.
"…Toga," he murmured at last, a bit contemplatively. "Toga is fine."
Kagome's brows drew together at the curious phrasing and lack of clan name, but she decided not to press the issue. This was only her second time meeting the man, after all, and he had no obligation to share intimate details with her.
"Toga-sama it is, then," she said. "Pleased to make your acquaintance…again."
He looked a bit uncomfortable at the use of his name, his eyes shifting to look up at the tangled branches of the Goshinboku. He went over and took a seat atop one of the gnarled roots.
"How have you been doing here?" he said at last, his eyes serious as they peered at her through the darkness. Kagome was a bit taken aback by the sudden shift.
"Well enough," she responded, a bit guardedly.
"Bullshit," he declared. Her eyes flew up to meet his.
"Cut the crap, Kagome," Toga cut her off. "I know what you've been doing around here. Hell, the whole court knows what you've been doing. They would have treated you like shit even if you'd done nothin' but try to blend in, so they must be treating you like the seventh level of hell after all you've pulled since you got here."
He pinned her with a searching look, his expression expectant. She hesitated, uncertain if it was wise to speak about such things. At last she moved slowly to take a seat across from him, her eyes fixed on her lap.
"It hasn't been nearly as bad as it might have been," she confessed, more to the ground than to him. "Sango-sama and Miroku-sama have been very kind to me through everything. Midoriko-sama has taken me on as her pupil. And the Tennō-sama…the Tennō-sama has supported me far beyond what I might ever have dared to ask."
She paused. He waited silently, and she could feel his eyes on her.
"I often miss my family," she managed at last, and felt her eyes welling as she had feared they would once she gave voice to the sentiment. "And I often wonder if I am going about all of this the right way. I'm trying my hardest, doing the things that I can, but I feel uncertain.”
"I don't want to say I'm uncertain, though, because this is so important. There's so much depending on this, I don't want to say I'm scared of failing, but…I'm scared of failing. I'm so scared of failing. And I keep wishing I knew the right thing to do, instead of just groping about blindly in every direction and hoping that I can make something of it all..."
The last words were muffled by the sleeves of her robes as Kagome bent her head, attempting as best she could to hide the tears she could feel beginning to flow freely. She had never dared to confide these feelings in anyone since her arrival, afraid that she would reveal a weakness she could not afford in her uncertainty.
Afraid even more that admitting her uncertainty aloud would paralyze her, would keep her from being able to move forward any further in the face of such overwhelming responsibility.
It had all spilled forth helplessly before Toga, though, welling to the surface in a sudden rush. Her hands trembled where she clenched them in her lap. She felt small and scared.
A hand came to rest gingerly on the back of her bowed head, patting her hair in a strangely familiar gesture.
"I knew it. I knew you were trying to hold it in. You're stubborn, after all."
Kagome huffed indignantly, the sound choked and wet with tears.
"Who's stubborn?" she murmured weakly.
"You are. You try to do everything on your own. You try to take all the responsibility for everyone else," he accused.
"How would you know?" Kagome asked, raising her head to gaze up at him incredulously.
The darkness made it difficult to tell, but she could have sworn he flushed at that. He withdrew his hand to scratch awkwardly at the back of his head.
"I just…you're an easy type to read, that's all. All noble and responsible all the time," he said, rolling his eyes.
Kagome scowled, swiping at her eyes. "Well, pardon me for being noble and responsible."
He huffed, gazing levelly back down at her. "It ain't an insult, Kagome."
"Then rolling your eyes is a complimentary gesture here in the court. I will have to keep that in mind.”
"Dammit, woman, I'm not trying to argue with you!" he snapped.
"Well, you're doing a terrible job of it, then!"
They glared at one another for a long moment before a hiccup erupted from Kagome. Toga's expression softened.
"Look, all I mean is you can't be responsible for everything. You said yourself that you're doing what you can, right? Then just keep doing that. It's more than most of the other bastards around here try to do.”
"And…if you ever feel…y'know, worried or anything…well, you've got one night a month where I'll listen to whatever you have to say. Anything."
Kagome felt her own expression soften as she gazed up at him. He seemed to glow in the light of Goshinboku's aura and her heart clenched at the sight.
"Why are you being so kind to me?"
He considered this for a moment, then shook his head.
"Because I want to be," he replied lowly.
Kagome rose slowly, her eyes turned up towards his face. She stepped forward and her arms went around him without thought, but only with such a feeling of gratitude that she could not restrain herself.
She knew she had no real reason to trust this man who had given her nothing more of himself than a first name, but she found that she did. And perhaps in time she would think herself foolish for it, but for the moment she simply believed in him.
"Thank you, Toga-sama," she murmured, her forehead against his chest. "Thank you for being kind to me, whatever your reasons are. From now on I will come to you. I will only tell you when I am uncertain, and you will have to promise to keep my secret so that I can continue to do my best in the light of day. You will keep my secrets, won't you?"
"…I will," he said, one of his hands settling on her shoulder.
"Then I promise to keep yours, as well, if ever you feel the need to tell me. I want to help you in return if I can," she offered.
"You already do," he said, so lowly that she almost did not hear him.
She tilted her head up to look at him, a question in her gaze. His face was unreadable as he gazed back at her. His grip on her shoulder tightened for a moment as if he might press her closer. Abruptly he averted his eyes and his arm fell away from her.
Kagome flushed, stepping back self-consciously. Perhaps that had been inappropriate of her…
"I have to go for now," he said, and her heart sunk a bit. For the first time she felt the chill of the night air around them.
"I'll be back, Kagome. One month from now. And every month after it," he said firmly. "We have a promise."
The corners of her lips turned up slowly. She nodded, her eyes alight as she turned them up to meet his.
"Yes, we do."
He nodded, one corner of his mouth turning up in a grin. He turned and started off across the En no Matsubara, tossing a wave in her direction as he went. She watched after him until he was out of sight.
Somehow she felt stronger, having been able to admit aloud that she was afraid. And Toga had not said a word to condemn her for her admissions, either. It was a comfort, being able to share some of her burdens without having to worry about revealing herself to be weak.
She had rarely allowed herself to express such sentiments, even to her family back in the village. She had always feared that it would somehow be a betrayal of their expectations of her. And in the court she was under far too much scrutiny to even entertain the notion of confessing herself.
Still, Toga had managed to pull it from her with merely a few gruff words. She felt oddly at ease around him, despite the very brief amount of time they had spent together.
She smiled to herself. The kami had blessed her with yet another kind soul in her path. Truly she was fortunate.
She slept soundly that night.
A mere two weeks stood between the time that the Tennō issued the order that a celebration was to be planned and the time that Sango's father and brother were due to return to the court. This, Sango informed Kagome one night in a particular fit of pique, was hardly enough time to put together a small dinner party for a group of intimate friends, let alone to plan a celebration fit for the entire court.
To this Kagome could only shake her head and smile weakly in return, patting her friend's shoulder in a conciliatory manner. She had little idea of how these things worked, being that she had never had a hand before in the planning of any sort of party.
There hadn't really been any planned in her village, anyway. The celebrations that had happened tended to be spontaneous, based on an excess of wheat harvested that season or the birth of a healthy baby.
Nor could Kagome imagine that Inuyasha had had any idea of how much effort such endeavors took. He had had little to celebrate in his short reign, and hardly seemed the type to concern himself with such matters anyway.
So in the short two week span that followed the announcement, Kagome found that nearly every waking moment was spent at the sides of the taiji-ya and houshi as they struggled valiantly to put together what Sango was perversely determined would be the event of the age.
Kagome helped to clear and temporarily block off the area of the En no Matsubara, where the celebration was to be held. She aided Sango in the arrangement of various silks and flowers and streaming lanterns, all in varying shades of gold and red. Kagome had been the one to timidly suggest the color scheme, as she hoped to ultimately emphasize Inuyasha's role in all of it in some subtle way.
Sango deftly handled the hiring of entertainment, from a troupe of wandering kitsune illusionists to a group within the court known for their refinement in the performance of gagaku music. Miroku was in charge of ordering the food and drink for the celebration, choosing many rare imported Chinese delicacies from some of the travelling merchants he was familiar with.
In short, no expense was spared in the planning. Kagome flinched a bit at the amount of money changing hands all for the sake of one celebration, unable to keep herself from mentally tallying the number of rice bushels that might have been bought back in her village for that amount.
Sango reminded her, however, that wealth was one of the few things the courtiers understood. The more wealth shown, the more respect to be gained. Ultimately it was all to glorify the Tennō’s name, as he had put himself forth in support of the event. Kagome conceded this fact, although a bit reluctantly.
Any time in those brief two weeks not spent attending to the preparations for the celebration was spent at the Tennō's side or tending to her lessons with Midoriko. The restriction of residence visitations went off without a hitch when Inuyasha had put it forth to the Council. The courtiers were now allowed no more than one month out of any given year to spend at their residences, short of any unforeseen disaster.
This seemed a good step to Kagome, and she had suggested he also push for a temporary ban on the construction of any new residences. This had gone through as well, and the building of any new residences had been banned for an entire year. Only repairs on previous residences would be allowed pending review of the damage.
At this the hanyou informed her that the men of Council had begun to grow irritated- "crotchety old bastards" had been his exact words- and they had both agreed that it would be wise to sit back for a time and watch what might happen. There was no use or profit in pushing for everything all at once, after all, and there was no certainty as to the amount of leverage Kagome's efforts had gained them.
So Inuyasha announced to the Council the celebration that was being held in honor of the return of Sango's family from their duties and informed them that attendance was mandatory for all clans. He reported to Kagome with no small smirk that that had "gotten them off their wrinkly old asses" for a moment. There had been no real celebrations held within the palace since the death of his father, and this sudden display of his authority must have been nothing short of stunning to them.
Inuyasha had no doubts that everyone would be in attendance, though, if only in the hopes that he might make a fool of himself. Kagome assured him that this would not be the case, not with Sango at the head of the endeavor, and began to utilize the remainder of their morning meetings to give to Inuyasha the etiquette lessons that Kaede had given to her when she was young.
Inuyasha had grumbled at great deal at this, but ultimately submitted to the lessons sullenly. As he was a bastard son, only his mother had ever attempted to give him lessons before, he informed her, and his time with her had been brief. Kagome's heart ached for his loss, evident even so many years later when he spoke of his mother, and resolved not to let the other woman's efforts go to waste.
They worked at refining his speech to a level worthy of his station. This consisted for the most part of Kagome acting the part of a hypothetical courtier and asking Inuyasha to respond to whatever she said, though it often ended in her becoming so ruffled she nearly smacked him when he could not seem for the life of him to stem the flow of his profanity.
Their progress was slow over those two weeks-slow enough that at times Kagome was tempted to tear at both her hair and his-but at last they came to a point where the Tennō was able to respond civilly, if not elegantly, to the majority of her statements. Though he was still unable to hold himself back if she tried anything even vaguely provoking.
Still, she supposed it was the best she could do for the time being. Also she realized that she would be far better off finding a more capable teacher for the continuation of the Tennō's education. Her lessons with Kaede had really been rudimentary at best, and certainly not designed for someone of Inuyasha’s station. She made a mental note to ask Sango to help her to find someone trustworthy and capable to fill the position.
"Are the preparations for the celebration complete, then?" Inuyasha asked her as they finished their lesson on the eve of the day before Sango's family was to return.
Kagome frowned, blinking at him. Inuyasha frowned in return.
"What is it? Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Somehow I don't like it when you do that," she responded, shaking her head.
Inuyasha's frown deepened to a scowl.
"You spent two nauseating weeks yammering at me to 'speak properly' just so you could tell me that you don't like it?" he practically snarled.
"No, no," Kagome responded quickly, waving a hand in negation before he could work himself into a real pique. "I mean, when it is just the two of us…well, I feel awkward when you speak so formally to just me.”
"And I am sure it takes effort on your part, as well. When it's just the two of us I would like it if you were able to speak freely, Inuyasha-sama. Just be as you are most comfortable being. I'm not a courtier, after all. "
The hanyou frowned, considering this.
"…Then, just around you, I can do what I want?"
"Yes. I would like it if you could be yourself around me without having to worry, as you have given me the allowance of acting so informally with you, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome returned with a smile. "Besides, I like you better when you're not holding yourself back in any way, Inuyasha-sama."
She flushed a little at her own admission, her eyes fixed shyly on the tatami mat beneath her. The hanyou could feel himself flush slightly in response.
"Alright, then," he agreed, his voice as gruff as he could manage to make it. Kagome smiled shyly, darting a quick glance up at him from beneath her lashes.
"It's getting late. Now that our lesson is done, you had best go get some rest. The celebration is tomorrow and we are all going to be very busy," she said.
"Feh. As if I'd need as much sleep as a human. You go rest up. You're the one that's really gonna need it," he scoffed lightly, waving a dismissive hand.
"Alright, then," Kagome said with wry grin, rising to leave his chambers. "Good night, Inuyasha-sama. Sleep well."
"Night, Kagome. You…you sleep well, too."
The day of the celebration began before dawn for Kagome. She was roused from her bed by several of Kikyou's servants who dragged her into the private bathing chamber she had used the morning of the court women's outing to the sakura grove.
She was scrubbed and rinsed thoroughly in a perfumed bath, her hair oiled and combed until it hung in a shining fall down her back. Despite her protestations she was dressed in a fine juni-hito of red and gold, printed all over with images of cranes. It was heavy, but the servant women informed her that Kikyou had insisted she look her finest for the occasion.
The paling powder was applied to all visible areas of her skin and her lips were painted a vibrant crimson. The line of her eyelashes was exaggerated with kohl and her eyelids were dusted with a fine pale blue powder.
When the preparations were done she was led, stumbling awkwardly in the heavy layers, to Kikyou's chamber. The noblewoman awaited her in the room, her head bent as she plucked a few notes on the koto lying in front of her. The sound was clear and certain, her slender fingers moving deftly over the thirteen strings.
Kagome slid the shoji door closed behind her and Kikyou's gaze rose to meet her own. The future Empress' gaze slid over her form in a look of quick assessment. Finding her appearance acceptable, she nodded and gestured for her to sit.
Kagome did so, slowly and with care, making certain to adjust the layers of the juni-hito around her so that they would not be rumpled when she rose again.
"Can you sing, Kagome?" the future Empress asked without preamble. The village girl blinked, her brows drawing together.
"I suppose I can, Fujiwara-sama. I used to sing for some of the celebrations of in my village. I can hardly claim any great skill in it, though," she replied.
"I will be the judge of your skill," Kikyou returned coolly. "Sing something you know for me. I will accompany you."
She raised her hands to hover expectantly over the koto. Kagome frowned, confused as to why the future Empress was choosing to do this now of all times. Still, one of the village songs popular during her childhood sprung to her mind and she sang:
“Lo, see the sakura that stand in the morning mist,
I hear them speak to me in a tender tone,
In the eve I love to see the waving willows,
They stretch their hands to me strolling
Kikyou managed to pick up and follow the simple melody of the children's song beautifully on the koto, the music somehow as nostalgic and sweet as Kagome felt while singing the song. She looked on in silent admiration as the noblewoman plucked the last few wavering notes, which seemed to hang mournfully on the air for a few moments longer.
"You play beautifully, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome said softly. Kikyou looked up at her, the usual solemnity of her features softened for a moment in what might have been surprise. Kagome wondered if perhaps she was unaccustomed to hearing such praise.
"I have had many years to practice," the noblewoman replied matter-of-factly. "And your singing is more than adequate for my purposes. Here, you will memorize this for today's celebration."
"W-What? For today's-?"
She looked down at the paper that Kikyou had slid across to her, a few neat rows of perfectly formed kanji on it. It was short, at least, but did the noblewoman really expect her to…?
"You want me to sing this at today's celebration?" she said, feeling slightly nauseous.
"Yes. I composed it specifically for that purpose," the future Empress replied unapologetically.
Kagome was aware of the fact that she was practically gaping at the woman, but could hardly compose herself.
"Y-You cannot sing the song yourself, Fujiwara-sama? I mean, it is yours, and I'm so ill-prepared…"
"While I am highly skilled in many of the noble arts, the kami did not see fit to bless me with the gift of song," Kikyou replied, her eyes lowering to the koto. Kagome could have sworn she saw a faint flush upon her cheeks at the admission, though it was put forward so straightly.
"Moreover," she continued, her eyes lifting to meet Kagome's own. "Your position on the dais was not given merely for show. We two are the Tennō-sama's right and left hands. We bring to His Majesty either glory or shame through our actions.”
"We will bring glory and justify my Lord's decisions through our show of refinement to the court today. We will show that we are among the chosen of the kami, our position, and my Lord's by proxy, divinely approved."
Kagome had not considered this. Sango had mentioned to her during the planning of the celebration that shows of refinement were very important within the court. Respect and prestige could easily be won or lost through such displays, she had explained.
And here though Kikyou had worked hard all on her own to compose a song and music for the glory of the Tennō she had lowered herself to sharing it with the village girl. Kagome could only imagine how difficult that must have been for someone with Kikyou's pride, coming to her for help.
For that matter, it must have also been a blow to find some common-born girl suddenly sitting level with her on the dais. Kagome bit her lip. She could not imagine that Kikyou had been consulted in that matter before it had gone through. She felt a prick of guilt at not having realized sooner.
Even so the future Empress did not act bitterly towards her. Rather she continued to strive to find ways to further Inuyasha’s position within the court. Just as Kagome herself was doing. It was odd to think that they had something in common.
Kagome bowed lowly, palms on the floor before her in a show of both apology and deference.
"As you wish, Fujiwara-sama. I aim, as you do, to serve the Tennō-sama in whatever manner that I can," she said. "I also…I also hope to become a support to you, if you will allow it."
There was silence for a long moment. Kagome flushed, though she did not lift her head, thinking that perhaps her offer was an entirely unwelcome one to the future Empress.
"…I would like that, Kagome," came her voice at last, softer than Kagome had ever heard it before. "Thank you."
Kagome raised her head, stunned at the sight that greeted her. Kikyou was…smiling. It was no more than a faint upturn at the corners of her lips, but her dark eyes seemed to glow in a way that lit her whole face.
Truly she was a beauty, in a myriad of ways. Kagome could see why Inuyasha must have chosen to stay with her even after her clan had fallen. That thought, coming to her unbidden, darkened her expression for a brief moment.
"You have proven yourself time and again to be loyal and hard working, though you lack at times in refinement," the noblewoman pronounced. "I look forward to being able to count on your efforts in the future."
A shy smile spread across Kagome’s face, unused to any sort of praise from the noblewoman. It was nice to think that a woman such as Kikyou might be willing to rely on her.
"I will do my best, Fujiwara-sama," she said.
"Then let us go. The ceremony is to begin soon."
The celebration began with a welcoming at the northern entrance of the outer Suzakumon gate as Sango's relatives rode in in a procession. The troop of musicians hired for the occasion played as they rode down a corridor of brightly arrayed courtiers, all of them alternately waving or merely observing depending upon their inclination.
This part Kagome watched from a distance, as she was not allowed to be seen until they moved to the decorated enclosure of the En no Matsubara. That was where she, Kikyou, and Inuyasha were to be formally announced before the real celebration could begin.
She watched the proceedings from a hidden side-path until they moved to go stable the horses and the courtiers began to turn towards the En no Matsubara. Kagome hurried on ahead of them along the back paths, happy to have caught a glance of the joy radiating from Sango as she received her father and brother back into the court.
Inside the En no Matsubara she resumed her seat on the improvised dais of ivory and gold inlay that had been placed near the Goshinboku. The future Empress shot her a slightly disapproving glance as she hurried about, her fan flicking in a gesture of pique.
Kagome, managing to successfully arrange the layers of her finery about her so as not to muss them as she knelt upon her own cushion, slid the fan dangling from her wrist open and then slowly closed once more in a gesture of supplication that Sango had shown her. Kikyou tilted her head at this, looking faintly pleased that she had taken in hand her own education in fan language.
Kagome smiled to herself, glancing back towards the large screen of golden and red that obscured the Tennō from view at the top of the dais.
She had known she would need a greater command of fan language and court etiquette in order to make the most of this opportunity that Inuyasha had provided for her and had asked Sango and Midoriko to tutor her while they worked together. She was rather proud of how much she had been able to pick up.
There was a great rustling of fans and silks as the courtiers began to enter the area of the En no Matsubara. Kagome looked on in silent awe at the dazzling array of colors, jewels and fans and silks and all measures of finery that one could imagine. It was like a great migration of exotic birds, their plumage ornate and somewhat mystifying.
She could see the confusion on many of their painted faces as they came to sit on the beautiful silks that had been assigned to each clan specifically. The beginnings of a malicious sort of satisfaction flickered across the fans of some of the women, signaling to one another that their expectations had been vindicated as they took their place in the hot sun without even the shade of a parasol to offer dignity to their positions.
Kagome smiled inwardly at this, content to wait for the moment to come. Sango's family, her father and younger brother at the head, took up their place last on a silk laid out in the center of the celebration. Sango separated herself from the group and came toward the dais, bowing low with a reverential sweep of her fan.
"I thank you for allowing this celebration in honor of my clan's safe return from duty, Tennō-sama," she said, projecting for the entire court to hear. "His Majesty honors us with His care, and in return we seek only to honor the Tennō-sama."
"We are grateful for the efforts of your clan on Our behalf, and shall continue to honor you so long as you shall honor Us," the Tennō returned, and Kagome could feel herself nearly glowing with pride at the authority in his tone. "To all of Our cousins, We are pleased to share with you today the bounty of the wealth with which the kami have blessed Us.”
"Let the celebration commence."
Sango bowed once more before straightening and turning toward the expectant and obviously underwhelmed crowd with a look so smug it was nearly mirthful. Raising her fan high above her head, she drew it in an intricate sweep that seemed to encompass the whole of the sky visible from the En no Matsubara.
In an instance the sky went dark, something like a sweeping wave of ink flooding over it to blot out the sun. The courtiers gasped as the En no Matsubara was thrown into darkness. Kagome could hear Kikyou stir beside her on the dais. She could feel Inuyasha rise from his position behind the screen.
For a long moment there was nothing but darkness. Kagome could feel her pulse quicken with anticipation.
A burst of light erupted within the darkness, and small shards of the light separated out to become twinkling stars in the newly formed night sky. A larger piece came to hang low as a heavy full moon. The paper lanterns strung throughout the En no Matsubara flickered to life row by row, lighting the astonished faces of the courtiers with the glow of a thousand different colors.
The clans burst into motion, twisting and turning to gaze about them at the spectacle that Sango had so cleverly devised. They gaped with wide eyes at the complete transformation, even the cutting sweeps of fans stilled for the moment. She looked down to Sango, and found the noblewoman grinning triumphantly up at her.
"My cousins, by the Tennō-sama's will, even day can be made into night," Sango announced loudly, her fan twisting in a full circle of accomplishment. "On this day His Majesty honors the efforts of my father and brother with this display. Please join us in honoring them."
Music seemed to spring up from within the air itself at this, and the branches of the En no Matsubara swayed softly in the pull of some strange wind. The stars overhead flickered, twinkling in time with the melody. The troop of dancers that had been hired streamed into the area, waving silks and fans in an undulating rhythm as beautiful and timeless as the flow of a river.
Servants moved in, quietly and unobtrusively as the courtiers were distracted by the sounds and sights, to place artfully arranged trays of Chinese delicacies at the center of each seated group. Sango moved to rejoin her clan in the center of the celebrations, her father and brother rising to welcome her with looks of pride and gratitude.
Kagome raised her fan to cover the width of her smile, her joy so great she had to fight to keep from squirming. It had all gone off without a hitch, and the results were more beautiful than she could have envisioned. Even Kikyou sat silent beside her on the steps of the dais, her eyes attentive as she took it all in.
"Oi, Kagome," came the low murmur from behind the screen.
Kagome turned, shifting closer to the screen.
"Yes, Tennō-sama?" she replied, equally softly but well aware of her position at the moment.
"Are those kitsune that I smell?"
"Yes, Tennō-sama," she replied, covering her grin once more with her fan. "Sango-sama came up with the idea, as she has encountered so many kitsune clans in her travels. She thought it would truly be something to have them use illusions to cover the En no Matsubara in night during the day time. They are responsible for the music you can hear, as well.”
"She hired a whole troop of them, thirty or so in all. There should be more displays to come any moment now…"
A faint 'pop' and a handful of gasps finished her sentence for her, as a rain of sakura petals fluttered down from mid-air to shower the Minamoto clan. Some of the women positively cooed with delight, the men laughing heartily as the rain caught in their clothes and hair. Several more pops left other clans equally amused, a variety of fine flowers falling down around them.
Several large, glowing cranes also blinked into sudden existence, strutting through the En no Matsubara among the courtiers to mingle with the dancers as they swayed about. Kagome heard a soft hum of approval from Kikyou at the sight.
"The kitsune are very skilled, aren't they, Tennō-sama?" she murmured happily to him.
"Mmm. That Tachibana woman is pretty clever. Knows exactly how to get to these snobs. This is one display they won't be able to tear down any time soon."
Kagome nodded her agreement, filled to the brim with pride in her friend's accomplishment. The awe of the court was obvious at the skill and refinement of taste put into the planning, heightened by the fact that many of them had come in expecting little to nothing from their current Tennō.
This would go a long way toward combating the image they must have manufactured through a combination of rumors and stumblings on Inuyasha's part that he was an unrefined ruffian unfit to hold his position.
Undoubtedly it would not sway the hearts of those major clans that were so thoroughly set against him, but there was hope for the minor clans at least who might see this first display of power from him and hope to gain influence in the court by pledging their loyalties.
Which reminded Kagome of her original mission in all of this. She pulled from her long sleeve a sheaf of rice paper and a rough coal stick she had been given by the servants. It made a bit of a mess of her hands, but she could hardly bring something as conspicuous as a brush and ink stone up onto the dais with her.
The courtiers had begun to move freely about the En no Matsubara now that the initial excitements were over, visiting and mingling with one another amidst the occasional pop of a burst of flowers here and there. The glow of kitsune-bi, which had before been serving as the stars in the sky, had sunk down gradually to provide further light for them.
The Minamoto were intermingling with a number of the lesser human clans, and Kagome took swift note of these on her parchment.
Sango had done her the great favor of requiring that all clans in attendance wear a symbol of their clan's founding kami somewhere on their person while in attendance. This was not an uncommon practice, the noblewoman had informed her, and so it was not odd to ask.
The Minamoto, who wore the symbol of Hachiman, were surrounded by clans wearing the emblem of Ame-no-Uzume and Inari respectively. Akitoki was among them, chatting amicably with a female courtier and wearing the symbol of Ame-no-Uzume. That was the Hojo clan, then. They seemed to get along well with the Minamoto.
The Taira clan, wearing the symbol of Susano-no-Mikoto, was surrounded entirely by clans of youkai, as might be expected. On the fringes of the group, though, some of the youkai mingled tepidly with the Minamoto. The relation was obviously not a warm one, but enough to be dangerous to Inuyasha.
Kagome took careful note of the minor human clans that mingled with the Taira. Sukuna-Biko-Na, Raijin, and Fūjin were their respective deities. Their loyalties must be counted as suspect.
The youkai clans who mingled with the Taira were noted, as well. Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, Ryūjin, and Toyotama-hime.
Lastly Kagome turned toward the Tachibana. Many clans passed them briefly, offering the obligatory welcome back to the Heian-kyō, but there were a few minor clans that lingered about to chat more intimately with them.
For the most part they were human, but there were a couple of lesser youkai clans, as well. The humans bore the symbols of Tenjin, Omoikane, Sarutahiko, and Uke Mochi. The youkai wore the marks of Ōhoyamatsumi and Konohanasakuya-hime.
Kagome copied this all down quickly, taking note as well of the minor clans that kept more to themselves. Sango had perhaps overestimated a bit in saying that there were hundreds of minor clans, though there were likely at least one hundred. For the most part, though, the number of members in any given minor clan did not appear to be very large.
Even so, winning over a number of the minor clans would be a good step. It would both serve to take power and resources from the greater clans and to lend that power to Inuyasha. The clans that kept mostly to themselves seemed to be the best targets for such a maneuver.
There was no sight anywhere of the Fujiwara clan, who would have worn the emblem of Ame-no-Koyami as Kikyou-sama did upon her fan. Kagome frowned at this. Most likely they were all holed up in their residence outside of the court.
Even if there were very few of them left, though, it would at least make for a good show of loyalty and support to the Tennō if they were to return. Kagome made a mental note to bring this up with Kikyou at a later date, to see if the noblewoman could not entice her kinsmen to return.
Several times Kagome caught sight of Kouga, mingling amongst the many youkai surrounding the Taira clan. They seemed to accept him without too much fuss, and one red-headed wolf youkai among them trailed after him for quite some time. He looked distinctly uncomfortable at this and Kagome laughed to herself.
She also caught a few brief glances of the man who fit the description Sango had given her of the Taira clan's head. It was difficult to tell from such a distance what sort of youkai he was, but his hair was pure white and his skin very pale. Oddly enough the feel of his youki seemed very muted amongst the others, whereas she had expected something great and powerful.
He glanced briefly in her direction once, his violet eyes skimming up over the dais. There was something empty about his eyes, some sort of presence that seemed to be lacking. Kagome filed this thought away to ponder at a later date.
Kikyou did her duty as future Empress gracefully, going around to greet everyone and exchange a few words. She welcomed back Sango's clan members warmly, obviously aware of where their loyalties were, and she seemed to give special thanks to Sango.
She was tense upon greeting the Taira, but managed to ignore the spiteful sweepings of their fans and give what looked like at least a few polite words. The Minamoto welcomed her, simpering as before.
Seeing that Kagome was hard at work, the future Empress had allowed her to remain and continue observing this time. Kagome was glad that she did not have to join the noblewoman in her duties. She did not have nearly the amount of tact and diplomacy required to deal with such people.
She admired Kikyou's ability to remain so steadfast through it all. Perhaps her face was stoic, but it was not unkind for the most part. She dealt fairly with everyone and allowed no one to bring her down to their level.
Kagome wondered how much one would have to endure in life to gain such poise. She imagined it was hard won, and her heart went out to the woman. Truly she did want to be able to help her, even if only a little.
"Oi, Kagome, ain't you gonna eat?" came the low voice once more from behind the screen. From the muffled sound of it, he was eating already.
"Please do not speak with food in your mouth, Tennō-sama," she chided lightly, turning her head toward the screen. "And truthfully, I am not very hungry. I just want to focus on observing for the moment."
"You have to eat sometime, woman," he grumbled. Kagome frowned back at the screen, opening her mouth to reply.
She was interrupted by a small pop on the dais beside her. Rather than a rain of flower petals, though, there stood a small kitsune holding a tray of food. He blinked up at her with wide green eyes before breaking into an ear-splitting grin.
"Did I hear something about food?" he asked, offering the tray up to her.
“Ah, yes. Thank you. But…how in the world…" Kagome said, utterly bemused at the sudden appearance.
"I like your scent," the little kitsune said. "I smelled it when we got here, so I was watching you. You just sat here writing the whole time, so I thought you might be hungry. I'm sure Ma and Pa wouldn't mind me taking a few moments off. I'm Shippou."
"Kagome. Pleased to meet you," Kagome responded, smiling at his childish chatter. She reached for the tray, taking a small piece of something so that the boy would not be hurt.
"Oh, sure, when he tells you to eat…." the hanyou grumbled sourly from behind the screen.
"Oh, hush," Kagome clucked, before taking a bite. It was delicious, though she had been honest when she had said she was not hungry. The thought of her upcoming performance left little room in her stomach for anything besides her nerves.
"Thank you again, Shippou-chan. It was very kind of you," she said once she had swallowed. "You are here working with your family?"
"Mmmm," the boy nodded enthusiastically. "My family are top-level kitsune. The best around at illusions. Someday I'll be the best, too."
"I am certain you will be," Kagome agreed, wanting nothing more than to reach out and pinch his cheeks. How she had missed the innocence and simplicity of children!
"I'll come perform for you once I am, Kagome," Shippou promised, puffing up with pride. "You'll be so impressed, I promise!"
A snort emanated from behind the curtain and she turned a frown on it. Shippou blinked, sidling up closer to place a small hand on her leg.
"What's that?" he inquired.
"Someone who still has much work to do on his manners," Kagome replied shortly.
"Smells like dog," the fox-child commented, pinching his nose shut with a small hand. "Why don't we go somewhere else, Kagome, so the dog smell doesn't get on you?"
Kagome giggled softly. The kitsune beamed up at her, his hand reaching out to clutch the fabric of her juni-hito.
"I have to stay here for right now, Shippou-chan, but I would be glad to play with you later if you would like," she offered. The kitsune nodded eagerly.
"Good. Then I will come to find you after the celebration, alright?"
"Alright. I'll see you later, Kagome. Try not to get the dog-stink on you, okay?"
The boy disappeared with another pop, the tray that he had set down vanishing with him. There was a low muttering from behind the screen.
"I don't smell. Fucking kitsune."
"Now, now, Inuyasha-sama. He's only a child."
"Child my a-"
He cut himself off as Kikyou approached the dais, having finished making her rounds. She resumed her place, and an attendant came scurrying up a few moments later to place the koto before her.
Kagome's gut clenched at the sight of it. It seemed the moment of the performance had arrived.
Sango came forward to the dais once more, her father and brother accompanying her this time. She raised her fan high, gesturing for silence among the courtiers.
"My cousins, a moment of your time, please," she called.
Gradually the court settled down, turning their attention toward the dais. They looked expectantly upon Sango and her family, wondering what more could possibly be made of the celebration.
"The Tennō-sama has offered me a high honor in giving this celebration," Sango's father spoke, his voice deep and warm. "And now the future Empress and the Tennō-sama's blessed miko wish to honor the court with a display of their skill in His Majesty's honor."
"We thank them for this great privilege," Sango's brother continued. "And ask you all to join us now in listening."
He was a young boy, no more than thirteen. His voice was still high with the remnants of childhood, and he had a kindly face that had not yet matured into manliness. Still, there was something off about his aura as Kagome looked at him. Almost as if something were missing.
Kikyou plucked the first few delicate notes on the koto and Kagome blinked, torn from observing. With as much grace as she could muster, she rose and slid her fan slowly open.
Every eye in the court seemed to be fixated upon her in that moment. She nearly choked at the sight, her face going cold. She could feel Inuyasha just behind her, though, his aura strong, and Sango gazed encouragingly up at her from the foot of the dais.
Taking a deep breath, Kagome closed her eyes and brought her fan down in a graceful arc. Summoning up her aura, she brought her spiritual energy into her lungs and up to surround her fan in a light glow. She could hear the slight gasps that rippled through the court, the flapping of fans, but she ignored these and focused on the melody Kikyou wove so artfully around her.
Drawing up the spiritual energy in her lungs and waving her fan in slow, artful sweeps, she sang:
"Wa ga kimi wa
Chiyo ni yachiyo ni
Iwao to narite
Koke no musu made
You, my Lord
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss
Wa ga kimi wa
Chiyo ni yachiyo ni
Iwao to narite
Koke no musu made."
The last notes of the koto rang proud and clear across the En no Matsubara as she finished, her fan sweeping high to glow against the dark sky. Silence reigned for a long stretch.
At last there was a burst of awed applause, starting among the Tachibana and the Minamoto. The minor human clans joined quickly and enthusiastically, followed hesitantly by the minor youkai clans.
The Taira offered a begrudging smattering of applause, though many of their fans twisted like snakes in gestures of dismissal. Kagome caught sight of Kagura among them, her eyes positively burning with her displeasure.
She felt Inuyasha rise behind the screen as the applause began slowly to die down. Kikyou rose as well, her expression pleased. She swept her fan in a gesture of approval towards Kagome, her eyes warm.
"Cousins," the Tennō intoned, cutting through the last of the chatter. "You see the gifts that the kami have given to Us, Our right and left hand, the future Empress and the miko Kagome. This is their blessing. Our reign shall not fail with them at Our side.”
"We leave you now having given you the gift of being allowed to witness that which is so close to the kami themselves. We leave you with the reminder that We are your sovereign Lord."
With his words the illusion slipped from the sky and the sun shone bright once more over the courtyard. The courtiers blinked, gazing up as if having come out of a dream. They all sat silent for a long moment, each taking in all that they had seen and heard.
The Taira were the first to rise, many of them looking distinctly displeased as they made their way out. The women's fans flapped in varying gestures of disdain and insult.
Kagome grinned wryly to herself. Whatever they might say amongst themselves, it was obvious that they had little ground to stand on as far as complaining about the celebration.
The other courtiers followed slowly after, leaving in small clumps and conversing softly amongst themselves. The Tachibana were the last to rise, turning almost as one to offer a bow to the dais before they began to depart.
"I would say that was a success," Kagome murmured, watching as the last of the courtiers trickled out of the En no Matsubara.
"More than a success," Inuyasha snorted from behind the screen. "Some of 'em were practically groveling by the time you finished singing."
Kagome flushed at the praise, warmed by the pride in Inuyasha's voice. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of Kikyou, frowning slightly in the direction of the screen.
"It was all Fujiwara-sama's idea, Tennō-sama," she said, well aware it was the noblewoman who deserved all credit for the performance. "She wrote the song and asked if I might sing it. She also played the koto so beautifully that I think anything would have sounded good alongside of it."
"I thought it suitable, my Lord," Kikyou demurred.
"You did well, Kikyou," Inuyasha said, with a softness that surprised Kagome. She saw his hand reach out to clasp Kikyou's from behind the screen. Hers was small and delicate in comparison, and her cheeks flushed warmly at the contact.
Kagome found her gaze fixated to their hands in a kind of shock- they seemed to fit so perfectly together. She felt suddenly alone, empty as the thrill of the celebration's success drained from her abruptly. She stumbled down one step of the dais, forcing herself to tear her gaze away.
"I...I will be going now, Fujiwara-sama, Tennō-sama," she managed, fighting the sudden urge to simply flee. She bowed and turned to hurry off across the En no Matsubara.
She thought she might have heard one of them call after her, but did not have the heart to turn and go back. She should have been happy. Overjoyed, even. Everything had gone perfectly. She had gotten everything that she had hoped for out of the celebration.
But all she could think of were their hands, so perfect in contrast. So very perfect that it hurt her to see it. She felt lost in the sudden jumble of her own thoughts.
She returned to her place at the Fujiwara residence and requested that the servants undo that morning's work, removing the juni-hito along with her make-up.
Clean again, she sat in silence in her room for a stretch of time. She glanced listlessly the rice paper sheaves she had filled with notes during the celebration, knowing that she should go over them.
She could not, however, seem to find it in herself to do anything productive. At last she merely lay down in her futon as the sun set outside of her window.
She was merely tired from all of the day's excitement, she thought to herself as she drifted off. Tired and somehow deeply sad.
Something on her stomach was heavy. Kagome shifted, only half-awake as she attempted to dislodge the weight. It squeaked, moving so that it was now on her back.
She blinked, her head lifting from her pillow as she wondered exactly what kind of weight would squeak. She blinked sleepily down towards her legs, her eyes slowly coming into focus on a shock of red hair and lively green eyes.
"Good morning, Kagome," Shippou chirped from his perch on her back.
"Shippou-chan?" she murmured, sitting up slowly so as not to send the boy tumbling. "What are you doing here? And so early?"
"You didn't come to find me yesterday," the kitsune said with an accusing pout. "So I decided I'd come find you today. Your scent wasn't very hard to track, and my family is staying here to entertain the Tachibana clan a few more days before we have to move on."
"I'm sorry, Shippou-chan. I forgot all about yesterday," Kagome confessed, feeling guilty at having broken her promise to the child. She had thought of nothing but getting away after seeing…
"How about I make it up to you by spending the whole day together?" she proposed, forcing her thoughts from that particular track. "We can play whatever you like, alright?"
Shippou nodded eagerly, tugging at her hand to help her out of bed. Kagome chuckled, rising and opening her shoji door to call for one of the servants. She asked the woman to bring enough breakfast for two to her room, showing her the small kitsune that was her impromptu guest. The woman chuckled and went off to fetch the food.
Kagome pulled a fresh set of miko robes from the trunk in her room and changed quickly, unselfconscious as Shippou was yet only a child. She had just finished combing out the length of her hair by the time the servant woman returned with the food.
She chatted happily with the little boy as they ate, asking him about his family and their travels across the land. He had a number of amusing stories about the many people they had met while trooping across Japan, and he made her laugh endlessly with his impressions and silly faces.
When they had finished eating, Shippou expressed his desire to go play onigokko out in the En no Matsubara. Kagome agreed readily, childishly thrilled at the idea of being allowed to play so freely.
They made it as far as the outer gate of the Fujiwara residence before they were stopped by a timid-looking noblewoman who waited there. She was small in stature, her eyes a light shade of brown and her hair grown down past her knees. Her face was round in an adorably childish sort of way, her brows drawn together in a frown that seemed to have been there for quite some time.
"M-Miko-sama?" she called as Shippou and Kagome were about to pass her by.
They stopped, turning back to look at her. She stepped forward hesitantly.
"I am sorry to bother you, Miko-sama," the woman apologized, bowing lowly. "I know you must be very busy. But I have an urgent request that I hope you will allow me. You see, my little son has been ill for quite some time.”
"My family has brought in several different spiritualist healers, but none have been able heal him. I…I fear his time may be running out, and I have seen and heard tales of the many miracles you have performed. After seeing you at the celebration yesterday and hearing you sing, I feel certain in my heart that the kami have chosen you. Please, Miko-sama, I beg you to try and heal my son."
She bowed low again, her head bent wearily. It was not hard to see that she had been bearing the burden of her son's illness for quite some time. Kagome touched her lightly on the shoulder.
"I will do all that I can for your son. Please lead me to him," she said softly. She sent an apologetic glance to Shippou for the delay of their plans, but he seemed to understand the seriousness of the situation and merely hopped up to ride on her shoulder.
"Thank you, Miko-sama, thank you so much," the woman said, her voice hoarse with feeling. She looked so relieved that she might cry as she took Kagome's hand, drawing her quickly along behind her through a number of the paths of the court.
Her residence was a relatively small one along the western wall of the outer Suzakumon gate. The emblem of Omoikane was carved into the entryway, and Kagome recalled vaguely that she had seen the woman's clan associating with the Tachibana at the celebration.
What was more surprising, though, was the crowd gathered outside the woman's residence. Most were human, though a few youkai were scattered here and there as well. Sango's brother was among them, watching as the woman brought her forward.
"I apologize for the crowd, Miko-sama," the woman murmured, flushing in embarrassment. "I had informed a few of my relatives that I intended to seek your help with my son, and before I knew it it was like this. They are all eager to see you perform a miracle."
Or to see if she would fail, Kagome thought to herself. Even so, they were not her concern at the moment.
"As long as they do not attempt to enter the room while I heal him, there is no problem," she replied reassuringly. The woman relaxed a fraction, smiling faintly as she guided her through the throng of staring courtiers.
She was led through several corridors within the residence before they reached the room in which the young boy lay. He was no more than ten years old at most, though his face was haggard beyond his years. His skin was pale as death itself, and he seemed to be breathing only very shallowly beneath the cover of the futon.
The entire room, though it was spacious and light streamed in from a few windows, had a heavy feeling to it. It was almost ominous.
Kagome could feel Shippou tense from his perch on her shoulder.
"I don't like this," he spoke into her ear. "It doesn't smell right, Kagome."
She nodded, though she was unable to distinguish what it was exactly that was wrong. She went to kneel at the boy's side, examining him quickly from head to toe. There was nothing about his aura that read as being blatantly wrong. It was just oddly muted.
"My Yuutaro was born with a weak body and has always suffered bouts of illness. Recently, however, we had thought that he was doing better. After yesterday's celebration, though, he took a turn for the worst, and he hasn't opened his eyes since.”
"When I spoke to our spiritualist this morning, he said that…that Yuutaro was not likely to live to see dawn tomorrow. He just keeps growing weaker and weaker," the woman explained, her voice catching on a sob.
Kagome frowned, feeling the truth of this through her senses. His pulse was very weak and his aura seemed to grow fainter every moment.
"Can I get you anything, Miko-sama?" the boy's mother asked anxiously from the door way.
"Silence and time are all that I require," Kagome replied, lifting her palms to hover the length of the boy's body. Still she could get no sense of exactly what the disturbance was.
Forcing her spiritual energy into her palms, she pressed them over the boy's heart and closed her eyes.
It was…dark. Very dark. There seemed to be no life anywhere within the boy, though he continued to breathe.
She stretched out her senses within him, searching desperately for some sign that he might still be saved.
There was a light, very, very faint. She attempted to touch it with her own aura, but somehow could not make contact. It seemed to be contained within something else.
She forced her aura against it once more, harder this time. There was a flare that she felt like the rake of hot coals across her senses and she nearly cried out.
When she was able to see again, it became clear what was trapping the small light. There was a great shadow in the shape of a spider wrapped entirely around it, gnawing away at it bit by bit. It seemed to have no spiritual force of its own, but merely leeched off of the boy's. That was why his aura had seemed to be muted.
She hesitated a moment, unsure how to approach the thing. She had never dealt with anything quite like it before. She knew she needed to destroy it before it consumed the last of the boy's life force, but wondered if the boy would be hurt by her doing so.
At last she decided it would be best to lure it away. If it needed energy to feed off of, surely hers would make the better meal. She brought forth a large orb of her own energy, feeding it into the boy through her palms.
The spider-shadow stirred, its hundreds of eyes drawn towards the glow of her energy. Slowly it disentangled its many legs from its grip around the boy's life force, scuttling towards her own.
The miko drew the ball away from it inch by inch, hoping to lure it from Yuutaro's body without allowing it to touch her. It made a sudden leap, though, and latched onto her energy tightly.
Kagome gasped, her stomach heaving. The thing was like a void, endless and empty as it tried to consume her. She could feel the life being rapidly drained from her as it had been from the boy, the spider's fangs digging deeply into her soul.
She tried to breathe, to force herself to calm down and not lose control. The spider was eating away at her ravenously, and she was quickly losing the energy to fight back. She could feel her physical body growing colder and more distant. Vaguely she could hear Shippou calling to her.
Forcing herself to concentrate, she gathered desperately every last bit of her spiritual energy that she could. If the spider wanted to feed, she would see exactly how much it could handle.
With one giant push she forced all of her remaining energy into ball that the spider was feeding off of. The ball glowed with a blinding light, expanding rapidly inside the spider's grasp. The thing shrieked, unable to contain the sudden rush of power.
It tried to loosen its grasp and scuttle away at the last moment, but the light followed and consumed it thoroughly. It dissolved before the onslaught of Kagome's spiritual energy.
She gasped in a breath as she was finally able to open the eyes of her physical body. Her entire body had begun to tremble violently and she had to put down a shaking hand to steady herself as she leaned over the boy.
She looked down at him, and Yuutaro gazed back up at her with eyes as dark as the night. A smile bloomed across his face, a face that no longer bore the haggard marks of illness.
"Thank you," he said softly. Kagome smiled, feeling completely drained.
She nearly slumped over, but Shippou rushed in to steady her. The mother hurried into the room, sobs wracking her frame as she realized that her son was awake.
"Yuutaro, Yuutaro!" she wailed, clutching the boy to herself. "My baby! My boy! Oh, Yuutaro, you're alright! You're alright!"
"I'm fine, mother," the boy murmured, wrapping his arms tightly about her in return.
"Are you okay, Kagome?" Shippou asked anxiously, helping her to sit up. She attempted a reassuring smile, reaching out to pat the kit’s head with hands that were quickly growing worryingly numb.
"I'm fine, Shippou-chan. Just a little tired," she replied, though she felt weak to her very core.
"Thank you, Miko-sama," the woman said, turning to face her with so much gratitude glowing in her watery eyes that the village girl thought she might burst with it. "You've given me back my son. I am forever indebted to you."
"I did nothing but what the kami call me to do. You owe me nothing. Though I would be glad if you would allow me to return from time to time to check in on him."
"Anything. Anything you might ever ask of my clan will be yours, Miko-sama, without question," the woman pledged solemnly.
"Your loyalty to the Tennō-sama whom I serve is all I will ever ask of you or your clan," the miko returned, managing to stand through sheer force of will. "Please notify me if Yuutaro's condition changes at all."
The mother rose to see her out, and her eyes widened when her son rose with ease as well from the futon.
"I would like to see the Miko-sama out, too, Mother," he said, and the woman nearly burst into tears again. Kagome smiled weakly, the glow of a deed well done warm within her.
"Of course, Yuutaro. Come on," the mother said, taking the boy's hand in her own.
They led her slowly back outside of the residence, the awe in the woman's face growing with each step. Her son nearly glowed with good health, stepping lightly along down the halls.
Shippou kept a steadying hand on Kagome's leg, for which she was grateful. The encounter with the spider had taken more out of her than any healing she had ever done before.
They reached the front gates where the courtiers still stood, eagerly awaiting her emergence. The mother, unable to contain herself, burst into the crowd with her son in tow.
"She has healed my boy! She has brought my Yuutaro back from the brink of death!" she announced, holding up the boy's hand that all might see him. He looked more than a bit embarrassed, but it was ignored in the mother's complete rapture at the renewal of her son's life.
Kagome hung back with the kitsune, unable to summon the energy to face the crowd. They gaped at the boy whose face was bright beneath the morning sun, healthier than many of them had ever seen him before. They murmured amongst themselves, though Kagome had begun to feel so dizzy that she could scarcely catch a word of what was being said.
A hand at her elbow saved her just as she was about to collapse, and she found herself looking up into the face of Sango's younger brother.
"I'll help to get you out of here, Miko-sama. You look tired," he said softly, slinging one of her arms across his shoulders to help her walk. He snuck her quietly behind the crowd, busy as they were gaping at the child as his mother continued to tell the tale of what had occurred.
"You're Sango-sama's little brother, right?" she murmured as he helped her along. She tried to look at him, but her eyes refused to focus on any one thing for very long.
"Tachibana Kohaku," he replied. "Though just Kohaku is fine, Miko-sama. Pleased to meet you after hearing so much from my ane-ue. Would you like me to take you to her? You really do not look well, if you will pardon me for saying so."
"I am just a bit tired, Kohaku-sama. If you could help me back to the Fujiwara residence, I would be very grateful," Kagome replied faintly. She could hardly even follow what he was saying any longer. The sound of his voice seemed to fade in and out.
He nodded, turning his steps in the direction of her residence. Shippou trailed along after them.
"Ane-ue has told me that you are from outside of the court. You came in while I was away. Where exactly did you come from, Miko-sama?"
"Kagome is fine, Kohaku-sama," the village girl murmured. "I came from a small village northwest of here on the Sendai River. Have you been there before?"
"I have. The last part of our assignment was near there," he replied. "You must miss your family. Is it hard being apart from them?"
"Mmm," Kagome replied, fighting to remain awake. "It is hard. But I am trying my best. And the Tennō-sama watches out for me within the court."
"That is good, then. Please feel free to come to me, as well, if ever you are in need. Ane-ue says that she treasures you very much as a friend," Kohaku said. "We are here, Kagome-sama. Do you think you can make it to your room?"
"I'll help her," Shippou piped up, taking hold of one of her hands.
"Thank you for your help, Kohaku-kun. It was a…a pleasure to meet you," Kagome managed to get out.
"The pleasure was entirely mine, Kagome-sama. I look forward to seeing you often around the court."
Kagome smiled and waved him off weakly, but could remember little after that besides a servant's gasp as she stumbled into the hallway of the Fujiwara residence. Shippou called to her from somewhere that sounded very far away, but she could no longer reply.
Kagome awoke slowly to the feel of something warm on her forehead. She groaned softly, struggling to open her eyes. Her lids felt heavy, as if they had been stuck together.
Her eyes slid open at last at the sound of the voice, a blur of white and gold swimming before them. She reached a hand up slowly, feeling as if she were moving through mud.
A hand, warm and callused, grasped at her own tightly.
"Inuyasha-sama?" she mumbled uncertainly. "Where am I?"
"My chambers, you idiot. You've been out for three days already," he returned, his voice tight.
"Three days? I've been asleep for three days?" she repeated dazedly. What in all of Japan had happened to her?
"Midoriko examined you after you collapsed at Kikyou's place. She said you exhausted yourself trying to save that kid. What the hell were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that there was a child that needed saving and a woman who needed my help," Kagome replied, frowning up at him.
"You should have called in Midoriko then, wench! You had no idea what you were up against and you just barreled in without thinking!" he yelled, his golden eyes burning as he hovered over her.
"She asked for my help, Inuyasha-sama, and the boy did not have much time left by the time that I arrived. He would have died if I had hesitated," she argued, struggling to sit up and defend herself.
"You could have died, Kagome!" the hanyou snarled, forcing her back down.
Her eyes widened. His face was so close to her own that she could see flecks of amber in the irises of his eyes.
"I promised to protect you, and you nearly died," he said lowly, his voice strained. "Can't you just…think before doing something so stupid? If you died, Kagome…."
He trailed off, abruptly pulling away from her. Kagome blinked, her heart racing strangely in her chest.
"I'm sorry, Inuyasha-sama," she found herself saying, though she knew well enough she had only done her duty as a miko.
"Feh," the hanyou huffed, his gaze turned away as if he could no longer bear to look at her.
She bit her lip, trying to hold back the sudden tears that threatened. She had only been doing what she had been brought into the court to do. She had only been doing what she thought was best. She felt groggy and disoriented. She hiccupped, tears rolling slowly down over her cheeks.
The hanyou bolted up as if he had been struck, a panicked look on his face.
"Oi! Oi! Quit it! Kami…don't cry, alright?" he snapped, though the last part sounded more like plea than command.
"Look, I'm just pissed, alright? I shoulda known where you were at…I shoulda made sure someone was around to help you."
Kagome blinked up at him, a few tears still dribbling down her face. He huffed, shaking his head and kneeling back down beside her to wipe awkwardly at her face with one of his sleeves. She frowned, tempted to pull away, but decided after a moment to begrudgingly allow the clumsy ministrations.
"It is not your duty to look out for me all the time, Inuyasha-sama. You don't have to blame yourself if I get hurt doing my duty," she said.
"I do," he insisted, his face solemn. "I made you a promise, Kagome. None of the other court bullshit…Nothing matters more than that."
She was silent, looking up into his face. The look she saw there, solemn and earnest, made her chest ache. She wanted to reach up, to touch his face, but she managed to stifle the urge.
"I am sorry, Inuyasha-sama," she repeated, her voice scarcely above a whisper.
"Yeah," he said, his voice equally hushed. His eyes travelled over her face once more for a long, silent moment before he moved back.
"They've been leaving gifts ever since that day," he said, his voice resuming its usual gruff tone.
"Leaving gifts? Who?" she asked, frowning quizzically.
"The family of the minor clan whose kid you saved. And about seven other minor human clans. A couple of youkai clans, too. They've been leaving offerings for you at the Fujiwara residence. Kikyou is handling them for you, tellin' 'em that you're still too weak to accept visitors or perform any more 'miracles' for awhile.”
"A few of 'em have even brought the offerings directly to me. Turns out the kid you healed was the sole heir to the Takahashi clan. Clans don't forget that kinda stuff."
"That’s good, isn’t it?" Kagome said, a smile stretching across her face. "You can count on the support of a few more clans."
"I'm not interested in trading your life for my support," he returned bitterly.
Kagome's smile dimmed. She struggled to sit up, her hands fisting in the blanket of the futon.
"I promise I will be more cautious next time, Inuyasha-sama, but can't you just congratulate me for once? Can't you just tell me that I did well?" she asked, remembering how easily he had been able to say it to Kikyou at the celebration.
He looked at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. At last he shook his head. Kagome's heart sank.
"I won't. I can't," he said, his eyes averted from her purposefully. "After three days of waiting and thinking that…I can't. Not right now, Kagome."
Kagome bit her lip, feeling tears begin to sting at the corners of her eyes once more. She fixed her gaze back on her lap.
"I see. Well, do not trouble yourself over me, Inuyasha-sama," she bit out.
"Tennō-sama!" A voice from just outside the entryway interrupted whatever he might have said.
"What?" the hanyou barked, annoyed at the intrusion.
"Forgive me, Tennō-sama. Tachibana Hidehiko-sama is here requesting an audience. He says that it is very urgent."
Inuyasha glanced back at Kagome. She nodded, setting aside her own hurt feelings for the moment. Her futon was already arranged behind the screen, so he settled in himself before calling to the guard to allow the man in.
There was the sound of footsteps as he entered. He knelt on the cushion before the screen and the outline of him bowed low respectfully.
"Please excuse my rudeness in coming here so suddenly, Tennō-sama, but I have received news that cannot in good conscience be delayed," he said, and Kagome realized that the voice belonged to Sango's father.
"Speak," the Tennō replied, giving him permission to go on.
"Thank you, Tennō-sama. Scouts were left behind, of course, when we returned from our recent assignment to the northwest along the Sendai river. One of the scouts arrived this morning in the court after three days straight of riding. He was badly injured, and informed me that many of his fellow scouts are dead.”
“It seems that shortly after we left a swarm of wild youkai appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The scout informed me that they have begun attacking the villages along the Sendai. I humbly request permission to set out immediately with some of my clansmen to protect the villagers and aid my remaining clansmen," he explained, bowing low once more before the screen.
Kagome felt the blood drain from her face as he spoke. Her entire body seemed to run cold, and she reached out instinctively to grasp at Inuyasha's arm. The hanyou looked back at her.
"My village," she breathed, barely loud enough for even his keen ears to catch. "They're near my village."
The hanyou's golden eyes widened.
"You have Our permission to set out immediately, Tachibana Hidehiko," he said, his eyes never leaving hers. "Take whoever among your clans or my guard that you require. Go now. Send word back when you can."
"Thank you, Tennō-sama," the taiji-ya replied, bowing once more before hurrying from the room.
"I have to go," Kagome rasped, struggling to get out from under the futon. Her limbs felt a bit heavy, and her mind seemed to be going in a hundred different directions at once. She couldn't think…she couldn't breathe…
"Calm down," Inuyasha commanded, grasping her shoulders to steady her as she stood. "You're way too weak to be going anywhere right now, let alone running off to fight a swarm of rampaging youkai. The taiji-ya will take care of it. You just-"
"No!" she cried, her eyes wild as she turned them up to meet his own. "They're my family! It's my duty to protect them! You don't understand what damage these youkai can do to a village! You’ve never seen it…the absolute ruin…T-there'll be nothing left of them!"
"You need to stay in the court, Kagome. You can't leave," the hanyou said levelly, trying to ease her panic.
She bit her lip, shaking her head. She could not back down, not now.
"My place is there is much as it is here. My duty is to them as much as to you. Please, Inuyasha-sama, if you care anything for me, you will let me go. I would sooner die than allow myself to turn away when my family needs me," she pleaded, her eyes boring into his own as she gazed up at him.
He hesitated. Allowing her to go alone in the state she was in would be nothing short of a death sentence. But he knew the depths of Kagome's loyalty. He had no doubts that it would kill her should her village be harmed.
He snarled softly to himself, torn. He had already been forced to watch helplessly for three long days as she struggled on the brink of death. The thought of truly being forced to part from her made his stomach turn.
And he had promised to protect her, but how could he protect her if he allowed her to go? He needed to be at her side in order to watch over her and make certain she didn't do anything stupid again...
An idea struck him suddenly.
"I'll let you go, wench," he said decisively.