It was two days before they could catch a ship heading back to the mainland. The fisherman who had found them along the shore, while initially bemused at their disorientation, proved to be quite kind and helped them to find a ship as well as an inn to stay at until they could depart.
They spent the two days, at Inuyasha's urging, examining the ports around Tsushima. Numerous trade ships were docked in the harbors, most of them either Chinese or Korean.
Inuyasha explained to her that Tsushima had long stood outside the control of the Tennō, separated as it was from the rest of Japan both physically and in terms of its composition. Many foreigners had taken up residence on the island, moving it even further outside the Tennō's authority.
It made sense then that Inuyasha's father had been lured all the way out to the island by the raiders. There was no one there to come to his aid and it was the last place anyone would think to search for the Tennō's body.
As to the involvement of an outside party in his father's death, Inuyasha said his bets were on China. His father's relations with the Chinese Emperor had always been strained at best and the man was eager to expand his empire. Japan was a prime target and China had the resources at its disposal to launch an attack if they chose.
But someone within the court, someone who had been close enough to know about the relationship between Inuyasha's mother and father, had to have been present to orchestrate the entire thing. And if what Kagome had heard from the spider youkai truly was connected, they were still very much present.
Both agreed that it was in their best interest to return to the court as quickly as possible. Kagome had already placed protection around several of the villages around hers, and she feared what might happen-what might have already happened-in their extended absence.
The ship they boarded took nearly four days to reach its destination at a small port in Matsue. Kagome was fairly certain that Inuyasha did not sleep a single night while they were on board and chided him for it, telling him that he would surely fall ill if he failed to take care of his own body. He merely brushed her off, huffing something about hanyou not getting sick like humans.
Apparently sea-sickness was another issue altogether, though, as she observed him hanging over the side of the ship more than once looking quite ill. She refrained from making any comment, knowing well enough that it would only irritate him.
He was obviously anxious over the delay. She felt much the same. She often caught him gripping the hilt of his newly acquired sword tightly, his gaze distant and troubled. She wondered if his concern was for the past or the future. Perhaps it was both.
Kagome often wished she could bring herself to talk with him about all that had happened, beyond merely pragmatic speculation on the circumstances of his father's murder. After all, he had just discovered not only a connection between his father and mother that he had never thought existed, but also that that same connection had led to the both of them being killed.
She could never quite bring herself to broach the subject. So she remained silent on that count, allowing him to take his own time to sort through it while staying close to offer her support.
When they finally docked in Matsue's harbor, they did not waste any time in starting off toward the capital. Thankfully they were not far from it. It took only a day and a half or so for Inuyasha to get them there, though they did not stop to rest more than an hour or so in all that time.
As the walls of the Heian-kyō at last came into sight, both breathed a bit easier to see that it appeared none the worse than when they had departed. Guards stood posted at the western gate as they approached.
"Everything seems to be alright," Kagome said tentatively.
"Yeah, we'll see about that," he grumbled in response.
He let her down from his back as they reached the guards, steadying her with a hand around her upper arm as she wobbled. Her legs felt weak after such a long period of disuse.
Inuyasha pulled a clan seal from inside his robes, flashing it at the guards who obviously had no idea what exactly their Tennō looked like. They were allowed inside without question. Kagome guessed he carried the seal of a prominent clan to keep himself from being identified.
"I need to go to the Dairi to see Kikyou," Inuyasha said as soon as they were safely inside. "She's been covering for me this whole time. She's probably wondering where in the seven hells we are by now."
"Shall I come with you?" Kagome asked.
"No," Inuyasha said, a bit sharply. Kagome blinked.
"She's bound to be pissed at how long I've been gone. I said I'd be back quick. Better that I deal with her alone," he explained.
"Oh…alright," Kagome said, feeling a bit disappointed somehow.
"Look, go see your friends. Let 'em know you're not dead or anything," he urged gruffly, flapping a shooing hand at her.
Kagome's eyes widened as she realized that she had not even said so much as a farewell to Miroku or Sango. She had taken off in a complete panic when she had heard about what was happening near her village. The last time she had seen either of them had been at the court gathering that Sango had planned.
"Oh, no," she gasped softly, her heart sinking in her chest. "I did not tell them a thing before I left."
"Then go tell them now, idiot," he reiterated.
She nodded, more to herself than to him, before turning on her heel to go. She needed to go to them as soon as possible to try and make amends for having been such an awful friend.
"Oi, I'll call for you when it's all settled," Inuyasha called after her.
"Alright," Kagome called back, tossing a wave in his general direction before quickening her pace toward the Tachibana residence.
Absently she noticed that the court seemed rather quiet. It was mid-afternoon, normally a time when the courtiers would be out strolling after the afternoon meal, but she did not encounter a soul on her way to the residence.
The guards at the gate of the Tachibana residence seemed surprised at the sight of her, but allowed her in without question. The servant who greeted her at the door informed her that Sango had been very worried about her ever since she had learned that she had gone out of the court shortly after falling ill.
She asked Kagome to wait for a moment while she went to inform Sango of her arrival.
Kagome worried her lower lip anxiously as she waited in the entryway, wondering how upset the noblewoman would be with her. At least she seemed to have found out that she had left the court, but she had done so so shortly after falling ill and had not even stopped to explain her reasons for leaving to her friends. Truly she had been terrible to them, even though they had always treated her so kindly.
A loud, quickly approaching series of thumps stirred her from her guilt-filled reverie. Her eyes only had an instant to process the blur of color that swung around the corner into the entryway before a solid weight slammed into her.
Warm, slim arms banded about her, squeezing the remaining breath from the already startled miko. She only barely managed to remain standing, supporting both her own weight and the weight of the nearly hysterical taiji-ya clinging to her.
"Thank the kami you're alright!" Sango exclaimed, releasing her death grip only to take Kagome's face tightly between her hands. "Look how pale you are, though! Like you haven't slept in days. Oh, but at least you're alive and you're back. I thought…I thought…"
She bit her lip and shook her head hard, as if she could not quite bear to give voice to her imaginings. Kagome blinked up into her face, feeling sympathetic tears well in her own eyes.
"I'm sorry," she said in a small voice.
"Don't you ever do that to me again," Sango said sharply, her gaze locking with Kagome’s. Kagome nodded, feeling small.
Sango sniffled, her expression softening. She pulled a small silk handkerchief from the inside of one of her trailing sleeves, using it first to daintily clean Kagome's face and then her own.
"Let's go sit somewhere and you can explain everything to me, alright?" Sango suggested.
Kagome nodded once more. The older woman took her hand, leading her past a group of servants who had gathered to watch the unusual scene. A warning glance from Sango scattered them, each moving off quickly to attend to their duties.
Sango led her out into the Tachibana gardens around the back of the residence. It was fairly empty there as many members of Sango's clan were out on assignment once more.
Sango led them to a secluded corner where a small bench sat overlooking a frozen pond. They both settled on the bench and there was silence for a long moment. Sango held her hand tightly.
"Where is Miroku-sama?" Kagome asked at length, recovering her voice.
"He has been worried, as well. The last time I saw him we discussed going out after you. With all that has been happening, though, it was difficult to obtain permission to leave," Sango replied.
"Happening?" Kagome echoed, shifting to look at her.
A small frown, almost a wince, twinged across Sango's face, though she attempted to hide it by turning away. A pang of worry darted through Kagome's stomach.
"You were going to tell me what happened out there," Sango hedged.
Kagome frowned, the pang sharpening to a jolt.
"Sango-sama," she said more firmly, squeezing the hand wrapped around her own. "I know I have been an awful friend to you, and for that I cannot apologize enough. And I will tell you everything, down to the last detail. But if something has been happening here I need to know."
She met the older woman's eyes pleadingly. Sango frowned, her gaze dropping to their linked hands.
"You just returned, Kagome-chan. You look exhausted. Won't you just rest, just for a bit, before you leap into things once more?" Sango asked softly.
"I can't rest knowing something is wrong in the court, especially not after abandoning my duties here," Kagome pressed anxiously.
"No one can blame you for wanting to be there for your family, Kagome-chan," Sango said, then sighed. "Alright. I promise I will tell you, if you will promise to remain here and rest for the remainder of the night. No acting on anything until the morning."
Kagome hesitated, weighing this. She nodded slowly.
"I promise," she said. "Please tell me."
Sango sighed, her expression still discontented. She turned her gaze out onto the frozen pond, seeming to gather her thoughts for a moment.
"There was…an incident a few days after your departure for your village," she began carefully. "A branch of the Taira residence was broken into. Some of the clan's valuables were stolen and a member of the clan was injured when he caught the thieves trespassing."
Sango hesitated, her eyes darting to Kagome's face and then away once more. Kagome squeezed her hand, urging her silently to continue.
"The injured clansman identified the thieves," she resumed. "The future Empress sentenced them, as the Tennō-sama has gone into a religious seclusion for a time to seek the guidance of the kami. Both of the thieves…were publicly executed."
Kagome's eyes widened.
"That's…barbaric," she breathed, horrified. "How can public execution be the punishment for stealing?"
"I wish that were the end of it," Sango said grimly. "The thieves…they were not members of the court. They were from the outside. Ever since the robbery all of the courtiers have been up in arms about the presence of outsiders in the court, from the servants to…to you and Miroku-sama. I believe they are beginning to resent that the Tennō-sama has allowed for the presence of outsiders of common birth."
Kagome felt the blood drain from her face. She blinked, struggling to comprehend.
"Who were they?" she asked, dread knotting tightly in the pit of her stomach. "The thieves-who were they?"
Sango grimaced, and Kagome knew that that was exactly the question that she had wanted to avoid. She hesitated for a long moment, her gaze fixed on her lap. Kagome waited, feeling vaguely ill.
"They were among those I hired for the gathering to welcome my father and brother back into the court," she sighed at last. "That is part of the reason why the courtiers are so upset with the Tennō-sama. The incident has left a stain upon the memory of the gathering."
Bright green eyes and a mop of red hair flashed through Kagome's mind. She thought she might be ill. Her hand trembled within the confines of Sango's and the other woman looked up, alarmed.
"Kitsune," she said, her voice cracking on the word. "Were they…were the thieves kitsune?"
"A couple, husband and wife," Sango replied, leaning in towards her concernedly. "Kagome-chan, you didn't know them, did you?"
Kagome pressed a trembling hand to her face.
"They had a son," she said. "They had a little boy. And now…and now who does he have? Kami, Sango, they killed his parents…"
Sango placed a hand on her shoulder, but Kagome scarcely felt it. That cheerful little boy with whom she had played had had his parents stripped from him in an instance. He might even have been forced to witness their deaths. All over something as petty as thievery.
"I have to go find him," Kagome murmured, more to herself than to the other woman. "I can't just leave him."
She made to stand, but Sango's iron grip on her shoulder forced her back down. The noblewoman frowned at her.
"You promised, Kagome-chan," she said accusingly.
"Sango-sama…" she began to argue, but stopped short at the look on the other woman's face. She would not be leaving the Tachibana residence without a struggle tonight.
"It's not right, Sango-sama," she said softly.
Sango frowned, squeezing her shoulder sympathetically. She stood, tugging Kagome up along with her.
"Come. You need to eat something and have some tea. You can tell me about everything and then rest for a bit before deciding what you want to do," Sango said gently.
Kagome nodded half-heartedly, allowing herself to be led. Still her mind whirled at how quickly things had shifted and how one small incident had left a young boy alone in the world.
Kagome passed a tense night at the Tachibana residence. She picked listlessly at the food she was given and told Sango the story of what had happened outside the court, leaving out for the time being that the Tennō had been with her and that they had stumbled upon the former Tennō's final resting place. Much as she loved and trusted her friend, there were some things better left unsaid for the moment.
Sango insisted that she stay in her personal room for the night rather than one of the many guest rooms. Kagome knew she feared that she would try to sneak off in the night, but she intended to keep her promise. Her dreams that night were troubled.
In the morning Sango harangued her into eating breakfast and going to see Miroku before she could do anything else. Kagome agreed, partly because she had no idea what else to do.
She wanted to find Shippou if she could, but she had no idea where to look. And Inuyasha had said he would summon her when he was ready, so there was little she could do but wait on that count. It was frustrating, but she was at a loss.
Miroku's residence seemed even smaller somehow than the last time Kagome had seen it. It was quieter, as well. It took some time before a servant came to greet them in the entryway.
When they asked to see Miroku the servant hesitated, glancing at Sango. She said that she was not certain if the houshi was accepting visitors at the moment and asked them to wait as she went to check. The miko and noblewoman traded a bemused glance.
The servant announced that he was well enough to see them when she returned and led them back into the small garden on the side of the residence. Sango grew visibly anxious at the mention of the houshi's health.
He appeared to be in fine health, though, when they found him sitting beside a small pond in one corner of the garden. He was not alone, either.
Kagome felt her heart catch in her throat at the sight of the small figure sitting bent beside Miroku. The tangle of red hair was even more striking against the gloom of the grey clouds that had choked the sky since the dawn.
"Shippou-chan," she called, her throat constricting around the word.
The small figure sat bolt upright, his head whipping around so quickly it almost looked painful. Green eyes, much dimmer than Kagome remembered, widened. His small face seemed to crumple all in an instance.
Kagome was not certain if she moved or if it was him, but a moment later he was in her arms in a blur of motion and color.
"Kagome! Kagome! Kagome!" he sobbed like a mantra, his tears seeping into the front of her robes.
"I'm so sorry, Shippou-chan. I'm so sorry," she murmured in return, her arms wrapped securely about his small form.
She rocked him as he sobbed and shook, tears staining her own face. He rambled with only a semblance of coherence about his parents and his home and how he had tried so hard to find her but had been unable to. Kagome could not bring herself to say anything in return, merely holding him and listening.
At last the tears seemed to run dry and he lifted his face from her chest, gazing up at her with wide red-rimmed eyes.
"Where'm I supposed to go now?" he asked quietly.
Her heart broke.
"You don't have to go anywhere. You can stay here. I promise I'll take care of you from now on, alright?" Kagome said earnestly, wanting nothing more than to protect him for the rest of his life from the cruelty of the world.
A small spark lit in his eyes.
"Really?" he asked softly, as if the offer might be revoked if he spoke too loudly.
"I promise," Kagome said firmly. "I'm here for as long as you need me."
His expression crumpled once more and he hid his face in the crook of her shoulder. There were no tears this time, but his small arms were banded so firmly about her neck that she knew it would be quite some time before he would let go.
Her gaze met the concerned looks of Sango and Miroku over the child's head, both of them watching helplessly.
"He came to me a few days ago. I believe he was following your scent," Miroku offered, seeming to be at a bit of a loss. “He said he had been separated from the rest of his clan when they were forced to leave court after...well, after. He hid and came searching for you.”
Kagome nodded, adjusting the boy in her arms as she moved to join them.
"I am glad to see you are well. Sango-sama and I were worried when you did not return quickly," Miroku continued with a small smile, reaching out to place a warm hand on her arm.
Kagome's smile in return was brittle.
"I am truly sorry to have worried you both," she said. "Have you been feeling unwell? One of your servants mentioned that you had not been well enough to take visitors. Is there anything I can do for you? I know a number of herbal remedies I could mix."
Sango's eyes turned to the houshi in concern. Miroku's smile took on a guilty quirk at the corners.
"It is not so much a physical illness as a reluctance to be in the company of courtiers at the moment," he said with an apologetic glance at Sango. "They have been rather…critical in regards to my social standing of late."
"Who? What have they been saying to you?" Sango asked sharply, looking indignant on his behalf.
"Nothing that I would repeat in the company of ladies such as yourselves," he hedged, though neither missed the genuine flash of anger that flitted just behind his eyes.
"Is this all because of…" Kagome began, trailing off as she remembered the child in her arms.
Miroku and Sango seemed to realize it, as well, their gazes dropping to the little boy. A tense silence stretched between the three.
"They didn't do it," came the muffled murmur from Kagome's shoulder.
Shippou raised his head, glaring up at all three of them with defiant eyes.
"They didn't do it," he repeated more loudly. "My parents wouldn't do somethin' like that! All they wanted was to work here and earn some money, but some man said they stole his stuff and then they were killed! But they didn't do it! I swear!"
Kagome turned incredulous eyes on her two friends.
Sango bit her lower lip, her gaze sliding away from the other woman's. Miroku placed a hand on her shoulder.
"It was their word against that of the Taira headman's. The law was brutally clear in this instance," Miroku explained, a bitter edge to his words.
"That's not fair!" Kagome exclaimed indignantly. "They were condemned on nothing more than a word?"
"It is the law, Kagome-chan," Sango said weakly, though she could not meet the other woman's eyes. "It is above us all."
Kagome bit down on her lip angrily, unable to argue the point. The law was a thing divinely ordained, passed from the kami to the Tennō to the people. Was it for her to argue with the kami?
But she could not forget the orphaned child in her arms so easily. He looked up at her with eyes that burned with fierce, frustrated tears and she could not believe that this was just.
"I think I need to go now," she said softly.
Miroku frowned, taking a step towards her.
"You only just arrived, Kagome-chan," he said.
"I just need to take a walk," Kagome said. "Everything…Everything is piling up. I just need to get out for a bit."
Both seemed to be on the verge of saying something, of stepping forward to stop her.
"I won't leave again. I promise," Kagome said, sensing their concern. "I just need to collect my thoughts."
"Then we will be waiting here with lunch when you return," Sango said, her eyes hopeful.
Kagome nodded, turning and heading out of the residence.
For awhile Kagome walked aimlessly about the court with the kitsune who was now her own. Neither was much inclined toward speech.
Eventually Kagome's steps led them to the En no Matsubara and the Goshinboku, where they settled into the roots to sit together.
"Are you angry?" Kagome asked softly, stroking his hair as he sat in her lap.
"Yeah," he replied, his voice losing all hints of childishness for a moment.
She drew a shaky breath, wrapping her arms around him and drawing him back into her chest. He did not resist, but he did not lean into her entirely either.
"I promise I will take care of you from now on," she vowed quietly, wishing she had been able to take care of him when he had truly needed it.
She had worked so hard to gain some semblance of respect for herself in the court that she might begin to help fix the things that had gone awry. Now she wondered if perhaps she had gone about it all wrong.
She had tried to earn their respect by working on their level and to a degree she had been successful. But that was only because she had tried to make them forget about her common birth. What had happened to Shippou's parents made it agonizingly clear that the people of the court considered anyone outside of themselves to be little more than nothing.
She had done well for herself, but had done nothing for others of common birth. She had been running headfirst in the wrong direction.
Stroking the boy's hair back, she wondered if she could really continue to stay here where people such as herself counted for nothing. She toyed absently with the fantasy of simply taking Shippou back to her village to live out the rest of their lives in relative peace.
She sighed, knowing she could never do it. She had promised Inuyasha that she would remain at his side and she had promised Miroku and Sango that she would not run off again. Besides which she would accomplish nothing by running.
Could she really just submit herself to a system of law that would sooner condemn her for her birth than seek the truth, though?
Abruptly Shippou sat up straight as a rod in her lap. He wiggled free of her arms and leapt in front of her, his small teeth bared.
His name had no sooner left her mouth than a gale rose around them, kicking up dirt in all directions. Both coughed, covering their eyes until the clouds settled.
Standing before them, arms crossed as casually as if he had merely strolled up, was Kouga.
The fur all along Shippou's tail rose. He glared warningly at Kouga, what Kagome could only imagine was a small growl stuttering in the back of his throat.
"Found ya," Kouga announced, his grin entirely wolfish.
Ignoring Shippou's threatening posturing, he swaggered leisurely toward her.
"You skipped out on me," he accused, though his grin did not fade in the least. "But I knew you'd be back. No way my woman's gonna leave me behind."
"I had business I had to attend to," Kagome replied vaguely, standing and scooping the kitsune into her arms to keep him from lunging at the larger youkai. He squirmed in her hold until he was facing Kouga, continuing to glare fiercely at him.
"Leave Kagome alone!" he snapped. "I won't let any of you stupid courtiers touch her!"
This caught Kouga's attention. He quirked a brow in an almost amused fashion, leaning down until he was face to face with Shippou. He bared his own, much sharper fangs in a too-wide grin.
"You've got guts, kid, but you'd do better to know when an enemy's too big for you," he advised lowly, snapping his teeth once for emphasis.
Kagome scowled, pulling the child away from him.
"Please do me the kindness of not picking on children, Kouga-sama," she said sternly.
He scoffed, then blinked, and squinted more closely at Shippou. Shippou bristled, glaring at him in return.
"You look familiar, runt," Kouga said, frowning as he struggled to recall. "Ah! I know. You look like those kitsune who were beheaded the other day."
Kagome's hand had connected with the flesh of Kouga's cheek before she even realized she was moving. His head did not move an inch, though his cheek reddened rapidly. He blinked bemusedly at her.
Kagome glared at him in return, tucking Shippou closer to her chest with her throbbing hand as if she might protect him from the memory.
"How dare you say something like that so casually," she hissed. "Two people are dead! And for what? To reassure you courtiers of your superiority?"
"Hey! I'm no stuffy-ass courtier! I came here and stayed here for you, remember?" Kouga snapped in return, an unusual flare of pique flashing across his features. "Besides, I'm with you on this. I don't think they did what Hakudoshi said they did. Even if they did, what the court did ain't right."
Some of the edge drained from Kagome's face. She shifted Shippou in her arms, gazing warily at the wolf Lord.
"You…you truly think so?" she asked.
"We don't handle it that way in my tribe," Kouga said, shaking his head. "We don't hand out punishment without letting everyone speak their piece. And we sure as hell don't dole out death as the punishment for everything. All that would do is breed resentment among my people."
"But what about the law of the kami?" she countered with a note of desperation creeping into her voice. "Can you disregard it so easily?"
Kouga snorted derisively, but sobered slightly at the look on her face. Her wide eyes were trained on his face, searching. It was rare for him to get this kind of attention from her.
He sighed, scratching his head. He figured he'd better try and be serious this time.
"Look, I know about that stupid law. According to it, me and my tribe aren't worth much. And you and the kitsune aren't worth shit. Do you really feel like you aren't worth shit?" he said.
"No," Kagome replied, softly but firmly. "We're not worthless."
"Right. Me'n my tribe feel the same. So instead of following a law we can't believe in, we decided to make one that we could. 'Cuz the law of the kami or whoever really only suits the courtiers," he said.
Kagome gazed at him for a long moment, processing this. She frowned, her gaze dropping.
"I have always believed that following the ways of the kami was the best path one could take in life," she said softly.
"You really think the best path is the one where you're worthless?" Kouga countered, one brow cocked critically. "You think that's what the kami want for you?"
"…I don't know," Kagome confessed, her voice small. "I don't know what they want for me anymore."
"Try asking them, then," Kouga said, as if it were as simple as that. "I've never talked to 'em, but maybe they might answer you."
A small laugh escaped her at the straightforwardness of the suggestion. She offered him a wry grin.
"Perhaps you are wiser than I have given you credit for, Kouga-sama," she said. "I am sorry for having been stingy in my esteem."
"Yeah, well," he blustered, puffing up. "I am pretty wise."
Kagome laughed, her smile widening. She shifted Shippou in her arms. He was asleep, having dozed off some time after realizing that Kouga was no threat to her. She imagined he must be entirely exhausted after the past week that he had had.
"I am sorry that I left without saying anything," she said. "Come sit and talk with me for awhile?"
She took a seat on one of the upraised roots, patting the seat beside her invitingly.
Kouga took the seat eagerly, a silly grin stretching across his face.
After Kouga finished expounding upon how much he had missed her and how much he hated the court though he remained for her sake, they talked more of the laws in his tribe. Kagome was fascinated and slightly wary at the idea that they followed a code that was entirely of their own making, tailored to fit their own needs with regards to the ways of the kami but without worry over their approbation.
As to his association with the Taira clan, Kouga informed her with no small amount of pride that he had managed to make quite a bit of headway in gaining their trust. As the Lord of quite a large number of youkai outside of the court, they were eager to solicit his good will and cooperation.
He had not yet been allowed access to the upper echelons of the clan, but he said that he was hopeful he soon would be if he did not misstep. He also informed her that if there was foul play afoot, it was buried too deeply for him to see yet.
Kouga reluctantly allowed her to take her leave when the sun began to sink below the walls of the court, securing from her first the promise that she would be sure to meet with him once more in a few days' time.
Kagome returned to Miroku's residence with Shippou still fast asleep in her arms. Miroku and Sango were having tea together when she arrived and looked relieved at her return.
She offered them both a sheepish smile to reassure them of her much improved state of mind. The remaining tension dissolved and a meal was ordered for all of them to share.
Shippou woke as the food was set out for them, digging in ravenously. His table manners were nothing short of horrendous, but Kagome did not have the heart to chide him for it at the moment. She resolved to start teaching him soon, though, as he was going to be remaining under her care in the court.
They all ate quietly for a time, the sound of Shippou's occasional slurps and crunches the only real noise in the room. At length Miroku cleared his throat, setting down his hashi in a manner that made clear his intent to speak seriously.
Kagome and Sango both mirrored his movements, giving him their full attention.
He met both of their eyes solemnly, one and then the other. His gaze held Sango's for an instance longer, something unreadable flashing behind his dark eyes.
"I want to make clear to you both where I stand, as I hold you in higher esteem than anyone else in my acquaintance," he said. "I have no intention of letting what has happened pass unmarked."
Sango and Kagome exchanged a look. Faint stirrings of alarm flitted across Sango's face.
"What do you mean, houshi-sama?" she asked, her eyes searching his face as she turned back towards him.
Miroku turned his full attention upon her, his eyes meeting hers in a silent plea for understanding. Sango blinked, her features tightening anxiously.
"We have known one another since childhood, Sango-sama, and I know there is no ill-will in your heart towards any being, big or small," he said earnestly. "But the same cannot be said for much of the rest of the court. As an outsider I have long allowed myself to be treated as an inferior within the court, believing that it was merely my burden to bear here."
"This tragedy has proven me wrong. In failing to stand for myself, I have failed others, as well. I can no longer remain silent and hope for change to be wrought on its own or by the hands of those who have no interest in it."
All the color had drained from Sango's face. She gazed at him as if he had just slapped her, cold horror dawning in her wide eyes.
"I never…I never knew you were suffering," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "You always looked so cheerful. I never…Why didn't you ever tell me?"
Miroku frowned. His gaze sunk to the table between them.
"As I said, it was mine to bear. I did not wish to burden you with it," he said. "I do not blame you, Sango-sama."
"I blame me!" Sango yelled, slamming her palms down on the table. Tears shimmered brightly in her burning eyes.
"I blame me for not knowing! I blame me for not seeing! I blame me for never doing anything! Did you truly think that I could be indifferent to your suffering?"
She glared at him. He still could not meet her gaze. Tense silence stretched tight between them.
"…I never thought myself equal to you," Miroku said at last. "And thus I never confided in you. But I wish to stand equal at your side now. And that is something that I am willing to fight for."
His eyes locked with hers. The tears burning in her eyes slipped down her cheeks at last and the anger vanished from her expression. Both were silent, searching for something in each other.
Kagome looked on with wide eyes, her presence obviously forgotten for the moment. Even Shippou had paused in his gorging to watch. Kagome fidgeted, feeling they should leave the room but not wanting to draw the attention of her friends by moving.
Miroku and Sango's eyes swung towards them.
In an instant Sango's face was the color of Inuyasha's haori. Even Miroku looked mildly embarrassed, clearing his throat loudly.
"As I said, I have no intention of being passive any longer," he said, his tone overly businesslike. "I am not yet certain what course of action I will take, but I wished to make you both aware of my intent to act."
"Whatever you decide to do, you will have my aid," Sango said, overcoming some of her discomfiture.
"Sango-sama…" he said, looking as if he might argue.
"No, Miroku!" she interrupted. "It is far past the time when I should have stood with you! I will stand with you now. If you are concerned about my position within the court, know that I am not."
She met his gaze unwaveringly, her jaw set. He hesitated for a moment, but could not fight back a small smile. An answering grin crept across her features.
"As you wish," he conceded, with a gentlemanly flourish of one of his hands.
Watching them, Kagome felt some of her uncertainty fade. Sango was so ready and willing to leap to the aid of her friend. She wasted no time worrying over laws that she knew in her heart to be unfair. She placed all of her faith in her friends.
Kagome wanted to do the same, though the thought of going so blatantly against the kami sent a chill sweeping through her.
Miroku seemed to notice this. He turned his attention on her, his expression sobering a degree.
"I do not wish to make you uncomfortable, Kagome-sama," he said. "Nor do I require any vows of your support. I understand your beliefs and would not force you to compromise yourself."
Somehow the assurance made her feel worse, but she could not quite manage to form a reply. So she merely nodded, her eyes downcast.
Silence descended for a few moments. Sango folded her hands back into her voluminous sleeves, rising from the table.
"It is growing late," she said, once more the picture of propriety and grace. "I think it is time we take our leave for the night, houshi-sama. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Not at all," Miroku replied, rising as well. "You are always welcome at any time. Allow me to see you out."
Kagome scooped up Shippou, who was once again looking drowsy after having stuffed himself. She followed her two friends out, solemnly observing the warm glances they exchanged.
She prayed for certainty.
No certainty dawned with the rising sun the following morning.
Kagome had chosen to stay the night at the Tachibana residence. As far as she knew her place was still technically in the Fujiwara residence, but she did not relish the prospect of returning there after all that had happened.
Thus she accepted Sango's offer of a guest room to stay in for the night. Shippou remained in the room with her, sharing her futon. He was still anxious, reluctant to be parted from her for long. She could hardly blame him.
Sango woke them both in the morning with promises of tea and breakfast. Both were served promptly and the three sat and discussed what to do with the day.
The entrance of a servant interrupted their planning. He bowed once, informing Sango that a servant of the future Empress awaited Kagome in front of the residence.
Kagome felt her stomach sink. She had known this would come eventually, but she had hoped to put it off for at least a few days.
She could hardly refuse the future Empress' summons, though. With a sigh she asked Sango if she could watch Shippou while she went to attend Kikyou.
Sango agreed readily, but the kitsune protested. He refused to be separated from her, clinging to her leg desperately. He cried that he did not want her to disappear, too.
Kagome could not resist such a plea, though she knew this meeting would be no place for the child. Still she acquiesced, apologizing to Sango and promising to return as quickly as possible.
The Fujiwara servant awaiting her outside the residence cast a questioning look at Shippou, but did not comment. It was a long, silent walk to the inner palace and Kikyou's residence.
When they reached it the servant directed her towards the future Empress' chambers, informing her that the other woman awaited her there.
Kagome instructed Shippou to wait outside the room for her. He agreed reluctantly, seating himself just outside the shoji.
She hesitated just outside the room, her stomach in a knot and her mind working furiously. She had no idea how to face the woman after all that had happened.
Taking a deep breath, she slid the screen open.
Hard brown eyes met her own. Kikyou's back was unyieldingly straight, her mouth set in an unforgiving line.
"You do not bother even to observe proper etiquette in opening the shoji now?" she said, forgoing any sort of greeting. "Your constant demonstrations of your lack of respect for myself and the court will no longer be tolerated."
"Have you even the vaguest notion of what chaos you caused in abandoning your duties here in favor of a few minor villages? Your priorities are far from where they need to be if you intend to be of any use within the court."
Kagome gaped at her for a moment, unprepared for such an immediate assault. Kikyou returned her gaze, fire and ice in her eyes. An intricate fan flapped in short, sharp waves in her left hand.
Even in her anger, her vivid green juni-hito was arranged impeccably around her kneeling form. She was every inch the irreproachable courtier.
And all at once everything shifted into sharp, clear relief for Kagome. The future Empress' words and what she had allowed to happen.
"That is all that any of us are to you, isn't it?" Kagome said. "Minor? Barely even worth your consideration?"
It was Kikyou's turn to be taken aback, her fan stilling slowly in her hand. Obviously she had been expecting a much more deferent response. Kagome felt a twisted satisfaction in having interrupted her composure even slightly.
"I will not stand for insolence from you, Kagome. Not after I have allowed you such leeway," Kikyou said, her tone hardening warningly. Her fan snapped shut in a gesture that demanded an end to Kagome's nonsense.
But Kagome was far from done.
"You may stand or sit as you please, Fujiwara-sama, but you will hear me and you will understand that you are in the wrong here," Kagome returned, advancing upon the woman.
She did not kneel. She would not submit this time.
"I believe you are a good woman. I have respected you, even grudgingly, since the time I entered the court. But you have done wrong. You have robbed a little boy of his parents without thought."
Kikyou blinked, her brow wrinkling slightly in confusion. Comprehension dawned slowly in her eyes. She set her jaw once more.
"I followed the law," she said coolly. "They were thieves and they dared even to assault one of the Taira in the process of their crime. They were unable to defend themselves against the accusations."
"Precisely! They hadn't the slightest hope of defending themselves!" Kagome burst out, the noblewoman's detachment fueling her anger. "What proof did you have? What, other than the word of the Taira who you know to be suspect? And what besides their own word did they have to defend them? A word that you count as insignificant!"
Kikyou's expression turned to stone. She rose, slowly and with painful dignity, to face Kagome.
"I followed the law," she repeated lowly. "They stood accused by a nobleman of thievery and assault. The law was clear and I enforced it, as is my duty as future Empress. And I will not be made to repent because you refuse comprehend that."
"And I will not be made to be silent because you cannot comprehend that the law might be wrong," Kagome said. "I am not worthless, nor were they. We are children of the kami as much as you and I will not pretend otherwise any longer."
"Continue in your blasphemy and I will see you thrown from the court," Kikyou said, unmoved.
Some of Kagome's anger cooled into disappointment. The other woman refused to hear her.
"Do as you will," she said softly. "But I hope that you will at least think. You stole the lives of two people without hesitation. You orphaned a little boy. Those are burdens that you will have to live with, but you do not have to add to them. Please think. Please prove that you are the woman I believe you to be."
Kikyou was silent, her expression entirely closed off.
Kagome sighed, turning and exiting the room without another word. Shippou gazed up at her with wide, solemn eyes as she picked him up.
"She killed my parents?" he asked.
"…No," Kagome replied after a moment. "Ignorance is responsible for the death of your parents. She was merely the body it moved through. Do you think you can understand?"
"I don't know," Shippou said quietly.
They both fell silent.
They spent the remainder of the day wandering the court. Shippou had yet to see much of it and Kagome decided that a tour was in order. It at least served to keep both of their minds occupied.
They also visited the bathhouse. Kagome made certain to wait until an odd hour when she knew that scarcely anyone would be there, uncertain as she was of what their reception would be.
She cleaned Shippou up first, the layers of dirt that came off of him evidence that he had not bathed in quite some time. His clothes were also washed, though there was not much she could do against the years of caked in grime that clung to them. She resolved to have new clothes made for him as soon as she could.
Afterwards she took Shippou back to the Tachibana residence. His stomach was rumbling audibly.
In the back of her mind she was anxious, fearing that a servant would be waiting for her there to force her from the court. Perhaps worse after the way she had spoken to the future Empress.
Still she did not regret having spoken her mind. She did not feel wrong.
But her worries were for naught. No servant awaited her. Sango was not at home, either. The servants were familiar enough with her to allow her in anyway, preparing a quick meal for her and the little boy.
Shippou inhaled his food once again. Kagome wondered if it was because he was growing or because he was so unaccustomed to having food so readily available. She ate little of her own food, her appetite nearly nonexistent.
Shippou began to nod off almost immediately afterward. Kagome took him to the guest room they had shared the night before and put him to bed. She sat beside the futon, stroking his hair until she was certain he was asleep.
Alone in the dark room with only her thoughts to keep her company, her anxiety began to grow once more. She had no idea what the future Empress intended to do. She was certain that she would not go unpunished. Even if she had been in the right in what she had said, she had spoken far above her own station.
She fidgeted uneasily, wondering what in all of Japan she would do if she were banned from the court. She could hardly bear the thought of being made to give up after all that she had done.
Perhaps she could lead the villages in revolt. Win fair recognition for them.
But they had so few resources at their disposal that success would be unlikely without great sacrifice. And even that was only provided that she could rouse the villages to action. Judging from what she had recently witnessed, many of them wished only to live as far apart from the court as possible.
Besides which, raising a rebellion would mean going against Inuyasha. If it came to that, she did not think that she could do it.
She sat up straight, realizing suddenly what she needed to do. Quietly she crept from the room, careful not to wake the sleeping boy.
She would go to Inuyasha and make herself clear. There was no way he would allow her to be put out of the court if only he understood.
Kagome hastened to the Dairi and Inuyasha's chambers. The guards there informed her that he was out in his private gardens. She thanked them, knowing almost instinctively where he would be.
She retraced her steps from the last time that she had been there, heading towards the spot where they had often met. Reaching the line of trees that hid the small hill and pond, she was gratified to hear his voice.
She paused, though, at the sound of another voice answering his.
Peeking cautiously out from behind one of the trees, she strained to make out the figures atop of the hill through the darkness of night.
The fiery red of his haori identified Inuyasha, sitting at the peak of the hill. Standing beside him…
Kagome froze, her heart sinking into her stomach.
Kikyou was with him.
Even under the shroud of darkness, she looked more discomposed than Kagome had ever seen her. Her hair was unornamented, she carried no fan with her, and even her juni-hito was arranged improperly.
Besides which she stood while Inuyasha sat, forgetting even the etiquette of not rising above the Tennō. Her expression was hard to read in the dim light, but her body was set in a rigid line.
"Then you will put her above me in this, too?" she said, so lowly that Kagome barely caught the words. "You will allow her blatant disrespect for this entire court and its laws to continue unchecked?"
"No!" she snapped, and Kagome flinched. It was the first time she had ever heard the woman's voice rise above its usual controlled drawl.
"No, Inuyasha! I will not stand for it! I have tried to respect your decisions as my Lord and sovereign, but I will not be silent any longer! You have already abandoned me-abandoned your duties- to indulge her in her misguided whims! How far will you allow this to go before you cease to be blinded by her and remember your duties?"
"I promised to protect her. I couldn't just let her go out there and get herself killed after what she's done here."
"And what of what I have done?" Kikyou returned, her voice dropping once more to a strained whisper. "Have you any idea of what you left me to when you went chasing after her? Had anyone discovered you were missing, I would have been lost. You abandoned me, Inuyasha, to trail after some common girl that you have hardly known for more than a few months. You left me alone…"
Her voice cracked, despite her best efforts to keep it firm. Inuyasha rose, his outline moving towards her.
"Kikyou…I…I'm sorry. I didn't think…"
His arms went around her. She seemed to hesitate, but after a moment her arms went eagerly around him in return.
"I am to be your wife," she said softly. "You have made promises to me, as well. I want to support you, my Lord, but I will not come second to her."
"I'm sorry, Kikyou," Inuyasha repeated, his voice uncharacteristically soft. "And you're right. You're…you're the one who's going to be my wife. You have to come first."
There was silence between them then, but Kagome's ears were filled with the thundering of her own heart. She felt hot and cold at the same time and wished desperately she could bring herself to move. She was rooted to the spot.
Kikyou leaned back slightly in the embrace. Slowly she leaned in, pressing her lips to his.
She ran, stumbling, all the way back to the Tachibana residence. At least that gave the sharp aching in her chest the excuse of over-exertion.
She wanted to keep running, but she had no idea to where. She could not run fast enough to escape.
After a few long minutes of indecision she gave up and went inside. She headed absently for one of the reception rooms, needing to sit and calm herself.
She wandered into a room and paused, surprised to see someone already inside. The halls were quiet as many of the servants had already retired for the night.
It was Sango, her face faintly illuminated by the light of a candle. She knelt on one of the room's several cushions, bent intently over a scroll spread across her lap.
She glanced up when Kagome entered, her hands sliding unconsciously to cover the scroll.
"Kagome-chan," she said, a flush creeping up over her cheeks. "What are you doing up so late?"
"I might ask the same of you," Kagome said, grateful for the momentary distraction. "What are you reading?"
She knelt down beside her, trying to make out what was written on the aged parchment. Sango sheepishly removed her hands, allowing her a proper view.
"A record of my clan," she explained. "I was just looking it over."
Kagome's eyes skimmed over the numerous names, arranged like the branches of a tree to reflect the people's relations to one another within the clan.
"For what purpose?" she asked, her eyes trailing down until she found the names of Sango, her father, and her brother.
"I…I wished to see if there was anyone of lower status that had ever been brought into our family," she said, color rising once more to suffuse her face.
Kagome glanced up at her, a small smile lighting her face.
"For Miroku-sama's sake," she supplied. "To prove that commoners really aren't so far from courtiers. You're a good friend, Sango-sama."
Sango chuckled uneasily.
"Well, I have yet to find anything," she hedged, rolling the scroll up and setting it aside. "But what of your meeting with the future Empress? She was not too harsh with you, was she?"
A pang shot through Kagome. Two shadowed figures locked in an intimate embrace. A kiss.
"…I would rather not talk about it, if that's alright," she said, her voice slipping out in a rasp.
Sango frowned, craning her head to try and meet the younger girl's eyes. She blinked, surprised.
"Kagome-chan," she murmured worriedly. "You're crying. What's wrong?"
Kagome reached up to touch her own cheek, her fingers coming away damp. Surely enough she was crying. She felt her lower lip begin to tremble, a choked sob escaping her.
"I-I don't know," she fumbled. "I shouldn't be…I don't know…"
She pressed her hands to her face, trying to stem the flow of tears. Sango's hand came to rest on her shoulder, the older woman leaning in protectively.
"What did she say to you?" she asked sternly. "Future Empress or not, I will not allow her to-"
"No, it wasn't her," Kagome said, shaking her head. She sniffled miserably, wishing the tears would stop.
"Then what, Kagome-chan?" Sango pressed anxiously. "What could have upset you so much? Please, I want to help."
Kagome bit her lip, drawing a shaky breath. She shook her head once more.
"I just…I saw something. And it surprised me, that's all," she said, a weak attempt at sounding casual.
Sango frowned, reaching out with her trailing sleeves to dab at the younger girl's face. She met her eyes intently.
"This is not what surprise looks like, Kagome," she said gently. "This…this is what heartbreak looks like. Tell me what you saw or it will only continue to eat away at you."
Kagome blinked up at her with red-rimmed eyes. She hesitated, uncertain herself what exactly was wrong with her and at a loss to explain it to Sango.
"I saw…I saw a man I know, a courtier, while I was out walking," she began, hoping that in speaking she could begin to make sense of the jumble of her emotions. "He was with…with his…with his…betrothed…"
Her voice cracked. Sango squeezed her shoulder, silently encouraging her.
"T-they were together," Kagome continued shakily. "They were…embracing. I didn't mean to see them…it's not as if I didn't know they were engaged. I was just…shocked, I guess…"
Several hiccupping sobs overtook her. Inuyasha's soft words to Kikyou echoed in her head.
"Oh, Kagome," Sango crooned, wrapping her arms about the girl's shoulders. "I am so sorry. I never realized."
"…Realized what?" Kagome rasped, dragging the back of her hand roughly across each eye.
"That you are in love and suffering so much over it," Sango said, smoothing her hair back from her face. "That's what this is, Kagome-chan."
Kagome froze. Slowly she shook her head.
"No," she said, a little more forcefully than necessary. "No, there's no way that I…"
She could not bring herself to finish. She continued to shake her head as if that might force the very notion out of it.
Sango pulled back slightly, placing her hands on either side of Kagome's face. She met her eyes earnestly.
"You will prolong your own suffering by refusing to accept it," she said. "Do you think of him often? Desire to be near him whenever possible? Do you confide in him and desire his good opinion of you above all others?"
Kagome sat mute. The instinctive 'yes' that vibrated through her turned her blood to ice in her veins.
"…I can't be," she mumbled through lips gone numb, wanting to convince herself as much as Sango. "Even if he weren't betrothed already, such a hope on my part…would be impossible. Our statuses…there's no way. I'd be a fool to even…"
Sango's face softened sympathetically. She pulled back, turning and grabbing the scroll she had been looking at before. She proffered it to Kagome.
"That is a kind of foolishness that I know well," she confessed quietly. "I was not searching this for houshi-sama. I was doing it for myself."
She hesitated, her eyes downcast.
"I wanted…to see if there was any record of marriage between the nobility and those of lower status. I wanted to know if it was even a possibility. I hoped that if there was at least precedent, then there…there might be hope for me, as well. But…there is none, and I am as much a fool as you."
She glanced up, tears glittering on her lashes, and shrugged helplessly. A small, sad laugh escaped her.
"I am in love with houshi-sama."
Tears tracked slowly down her pale cheeks, the picture made all the more tragic by the wobbly smile that threatened to slip from her face at any moment. A sob that was half laugh escaped Kagome, her tears overflowing once more.
She slid forward on her knees to embrace Sango, clinging to the woman and being clung to in return.
"At least we can be fools together," she whispered, feeling the weight of the words as they slipped from her.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, she had fallen in love with Inuyasha.
Entirely, hopelessly in love.