“His name is Menōmaru.”
Kagome paused where she stood, her hand hovering just over the shoji. She blinked, turning her gaze to the outline of the youkai silhouetted against the brilliant blue of a dawning spring morning.
Sesshoumaru’s back was to her where he stood across the room, a faint breeze tugging at the length of his pristine white sleeves and silver hair. He had opened the outer shoji of the room that looked out onto one of the sprawling gardens of this wing of the Chūwain that currently served as his prison. The hollow clacking of a kakei as it dipped to empty water into a small pond was the only sound to be heard for long moments.
Sesshoumaru turned his head fractionally from the view, eyeing her over his shoulder with faint distaste.
“Have you nothing to say, human?” he said, one silver brow arching faintly. “Surely you have no more desire than this Sesshoumaru to draw this out longer than need be.”
Kagome slid the shoji closed behind her, taking a step into the room. She raised a brow of her own in challenge.
“Well, I cannot say I have any particular desire to exchange pleasantries of any kind, Sesshoumaru-sama,” she returned levelly. “Especially considering that the majority of our encounters have ended in threats to my life and you have yet to even acknowledge that I have a name beyond ‘human woman’. However, I had hoped you might elaborate a bit as the name Menōmaru means very little to me.”
A faint thinning of his lips betrayed his annoyance with her before he turned his face away once more. Kagome took a few more steps into the room, more than prepared to wait. He had finally summoned her. She had no intention of leaving until she knew everything that he did.
“The battles between my father, the great Inu no Taisho, and the King of Goryeo, Hyōgo, are legendary among the court,” he said after a beat of silence. “Although this Sesshoumaru should have expected no less than to have to explain the whole matter in its entirety to a common born human.”
Kagome bit her lip against a sigh that wanted desperately to escape. She was familiar enough with the inu-youkai’s lofty demeanor to know that she was unlikely to escape this encounter unscathed. It was merely a question of whether the injuries were to be to her pride or her body.
She forced herself to move to his side, tilting her head back to look him in the face. Standing at more than a head shorter than him, she knew she cut a distinctly unimposing figure, but it was the best she could do to show him that she was not to be put off. Still Sesshoumaru did not so much as glance at her, his gaze distant as he observed the gentle morning breeze rippling across the surface of the pond. The hollow clacking of the kakei sounded once more. Kagome drew a deep breath.
“Please, Sesshoumaru-sama,” she forced out with great patience. “I am well aware that I am not as well versed as yourself and those of the court in matters concerning the former Tennō-sama, may His soul inhabit peaceful places. But what do those battles or this Menōmaru person have to do with the symbol on the flag? That is what you called me here to discuss, is it not?”
Sesshoumaru turned a baleful look on her. Were he another man, Kagome thought he might have sighed.
“My father defeated King Hyōgo,” he resumed as if she had not spoken, and Kagome bit her lip to keep herself from snapping. “In doing so he reclaimed Tsushima and several other islands from Hyōgo’s grip. Hyōgo had wished to prove the superiority of his kingdom’s might in infringing on my father’s lands, to expand his own lands and to force my father’s hand in trade. Hyōgo gravely underestimated my father, and in the end it cost him both his honor and his life. This Sesshoumarua believes that his son, Menōmaru, seeks revenge for his father’s losses and has at last found a means to have it in the bumbling of the half-breed and the man you claim to have orchestrated my father’s murder.”
Kagome’s eyes widened, her annoyance dissipating an instant.
“Goryeo,” she said, the word heavy as it left her. “The symbol belongs to the kingdom of Goryeo, then?”
She knew little of the kingdom beyond a few brief lessons that Kaede had given her in her youth. Their closest neighbor and once a great partner in trade, only a few week’s journey by sea. And apparently desperate enough for revenge for past slights that Naraku was able to manipulate the King.
“The symbol you showed this Sesshoumaru is not that of Goryeo,” Sesshoumaru said, sparing her a faintly withering glance. “Menōmaru is neither brave nor foolish enough to openly have moved against this Sesshoumaru’s father or to declare a war even now. The symbol of Goryeo is the phoenix, one anyone within the court might have recognized should they have seen it. The symbol you brought to this Sesshoumaru was that of the imugi.”
“Imugi?” Kagome echoed, frowning.
“A giant serpent youkai,” Sesshoumaru said. “A being of waves and storms. One that must survive one thousand years to become a ryū. A symbol flown by the wakō, pirates long funded by Hyōgo to terrorize the waters between our lands when he did not wish to dirty his own hands. Apparently Menōmaru has decided to take up his father’s legacy in funding them, as well. The wakō are untrained and loyal to none, but their ships are fast and they will do anything so long as the reward is large enough.”
Kagome felt her stomach knot. Pirates being paid by Goryeo’s king. A kingdom’s leader hiding behind bands of criminals to organize the murder of one Tennō and attacks against another. And Naraku behind it all, manipulating it to his own ends.
Still, at least now she knew. Their enemies were not formless shadows or forces. They were flesh and blood, things that could be known and understood. Things that she and Inuyasha could find ways to defend against.
She forced her gaze back to Sesshoumaru’s.
“Have you any idea how large the wakō fleet is, Sesshoumaru-sama?”
He lifted one silver brow, considering her for a moment.
“Likely not large,” he said. “Though the size will be of little consequence. They will be merely the first wave. Quick attacks designed to gauge defenses and create cracks which the larger fleet can exploit. It is Menōmaru’s way of ensuring that he will suffer no losses should the situation prove other than what he believes it to be.”
“You seem to understand a great deal, Sesshoumaru-sama,” Kagome said, impressed despite herself.
The corners of his lips curled downwards, his chin lifting imperiously.
“This Sesshoumaru was present at my father’s side in all of his battles,” he said. “Though he was led astray at the end of his life, my father had no equal on the battlefield. He was a Tennō worthy of his throne.”
Unlike Inuyasha. Kagome scowled, hearing the implication clearly enough.
“It was your father, Sesshoumaru-sama, who chose your brother to succeed him,” she said, unable to help herself. “As strong as you are, as capable as you might be, you must understand by now why the former Tennō-sama chose as he did. Your brother strives to protect people, to protect your father’s people. Have you ever wanted to protect anything even once in your life?”
She felt the flare of his youki like a lash across her spiritual sense as he turned to face her fully for the first time since she had entered the room. She forced herself not to flinch, forced herself not to back away even as she watched a faint red bleed into the whites of his eyes and the magenta markings on his face turn to jagged slashes of violent color.
“If a thing cannot protect itself, then it is meant to perish,” he said, elongated canines flashing out at her.
Kagome met his gaze, her fists clenching at her sides.
“Your father did not believe that,” she said softly. “And if you truly do, Sesshoumaru-sama, then I pity you. If you believe that is what strength is, then you understand nothing. And what of Kagura-sama? She is struggling, doing everything in her power to free herself and return to you! And if she cannot, would you simply condemn her to death? Would you say that she was destined to die?”
“Speak her name again, human, and you will learn quickly enough what I know of strength,” he hissed.
The threatening cracking of the knuckles of his rapidly elongating clawed fingers resounded in the silence between them, punctuated by the hollow clacking of the kakei.
“You could help her!” Kagome snapped, nails biting into the flesh of her palms as she fought down the instinctive urge to summon up her spiritual power. “You could help us all! But you’re too selfish, too fixated on this legacy of your father’s that doesn’t even truly exist! Do you really think that this is what he wanted for his sons?”
His face elongated grotesquely before her, his mouth stretching into a slash of red that seemed to split his features in two. The red had consumed his eyes fully now, even his irises seeming to dissolve within it. In a movement that Kagome could not follow with her eyes, his hand was before her, the sickly green glow of his poison a mere hand’s breadth from her face. Amazingly, though, he held himself there.
A small tremble passed through Kagome’s limbs. She gazed up at him with wide eyes, watching the hesitation there.
“The legacy my father left to me,” he said at last, his voice no more than a low rumble in his throat. “Is no more than a sword that will not cut and a throne withheld from me that by all rights should have been mine. An empty legacy. So, human, enlighten this Sesshoumaru: what is it that my father desired?”
There was the same condescension there that was ever-present in his manner, the same derision, but something in the way that his inhuman crimson eyes searched hers spoke of something else. For the first time, Kagome realized that perhaps Sesshoumaru was lost.
Some of the edge went out of her glare.
“You know as well as I do, Sesshoumaru-sama, that I do not have that answer,” she said. “Perhaps...perhaps your father needed you and Inuyasha-sama to figure it out for yourselves. Perhaps that was the only way you could see it. Or maybe it’s something that you have to make for yourself, something you have to decide all on your own.”
He eyed her for a long moment before his lips curled downward in distaste, the red draining slowly from his eyes. His gaze slid away from her, his features slowly receding back into a semblance of humanity.
“What do you know of anything?” he murmured, almost more to himself than to her. “Go. You have the knowledge you sought and your presence grows more tedious with every moment.”
Kagome frowned, but the words did not nettle her as they had before. His features were a mask once more, pristine and unreadable, but for the first time his eyes reminded her of Inuyasha. She sighed.
“Fine,” she said. “I will take my leave if you feel that we are done here, Sesshoumaru-sama.”
He said nothing, his gaze fixed on some point beyond her sight. The dismissal was clear enough.
Kagome turned to leave, but could not help pausing as she reached the shoji. She glanced back, catching sight of his retreating figure as he moved to stand out in the sunlight of the garden. A cloud passed overhead, the shadow of it sliding over his still form.
The breeze kicked up once more, tangling in the length of his silver hair and billowing through the folds of his robes. She watched as he lifted his face to meet it, watched as it drove the clouds onward until he stood half illuminated and half in shadow.
The kakei echoed forlornly once more.
Kagome slid the shoji closed behind her.
“Your brother is exhausting.”
Inuyasha jumped, pressing a hand to his chest. The entryway hanging that he had just pushed aside swung back into his face and he spluttered, swatting it away.
Kagome blinked up at him from her place curled up on the futon, surprised at having been able to startle him. He glared at her.
“Kami, woman,” he snapped. “How did you beat me here? And why in the seven hells are you sitting in the dark like that?”
Kagome frowned, shrugging as she uncurled her arms from around her knees.
“I wanted somewhere quiet to think, so I thought I could do it while waiting here for you,” she said. “I guess I got so caught up in my thoughts that I forgot to light the lantern.”
After her less than satisfactory meeting with Sesshoumaru she had spent the majority of the rest of the day tangled in her own thoughts, though she had at least managed to accomplish a few more things around the court despite her preoccupation. She had left his wing of the Chūwain and sought out Midoriko, joining the elder miko in her rounds of purifications and healings throughout the court. At one point as they had departed the Chūwain Kagome could have sworn she saw the little girl from the previous day, still ragged and filthy looking, darting around a corner, but no sooner had she processed the thought than whoever it was was out of sight. She had attempted to follow to no avail and Midoriko said she had yet to encounter the girl, either.
After she and Midoriko had finished their work, they had parted ways and Kagome had returned to the Dairi. Part of her had wished to ask Midoriko for her counsel on what Sesshoumaru had revealed to her, but she had quickly decided against it. As much as she trusted Midoriko, Kagome was loath to reveal anything about the ships to anyone beyond Inuyasha. Unfortunately he had told her the night before that he was to be stuck in Council meetings until late and thus she was left to her own devices.
She had headed to the Dairi after separating from Midoriko to check on the progress being made in preparing housing for the appointments. She was pleased to find that the servants were making quick work of readying the Kōkyū and Daijō-kan for habitation. She joined them in their work for a time, helping to move the necessary items and clean where she could. The protests of the servants were perfunctory, accustomed as they had grown to her presence among them and her insistence on involving herself.
Kagome was grateful for the distraction that the work provided, though her thoughts rushed up and over her like a wave as soon as the sun began to set and she headed back towards her new residence. She had declined dinner, claiming exhaustion after a long day and begging off to go rest. She had quickly slipped through the wall to her and Inuyasha’s place, eager to be alone with her thoughts and to wait for him to share what she knew.
“Wait,” Inuyasha said, brows furrowing as he moved towards her. “My brother?”
He squatted down at her side, eyeing her suspiciously. Kagome nodded, her gaze sliding away from his.
“He summoned me to come speak with him today,” she said, deciding it was best to get it out as quickly as possible.
She could practically feel his hackles rise and from the corner of her eye she saw the gleam of his fangs as he opened his mouth to start in with her. Her hand darted out, her eyes locking with his as she pressed it over his mouth. Inuyasha’s eyes widened, brows jumping up until they were obscured almost entirely by his fringe.
“Just listen for a moment before you tell me off, alright?” she said hurriedly. “He didn’t hurt me. And if he had truly wanted to I am more than capable of defending myself, as you well know. I had asked him about the symbol on the flag that the ningyō gave me and he knew what it was.”
Inuyasha glared at her from over her hand, eyes narrowing. She yelped as she felt the slickness of his tongue dart out against her palm, snatching her hand away.
“And when exactly did you go to that bastard for help?” he snapped.
Kagome returned his glare with one of her own, scrubbing her hand against her hakama.
“Several days ago,” she replied. “He was one of the only people who I thought might know what the symbol was. And, as I said, he did.”
Inuyasha’s frown deepened. He reached out, pressing a clawed hand to her cheek. Kagome blinked, faintly surprised at the gesture when she had fully expected a fight.
“He didn’t do anything to you?” he said lowly, his eyes roving her face in search of injuries.
Kagome shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Though I annoyed him fairly thoroughly.”
“Keh,” Inuyasha scoffed, a faint upward quirk to one corner of his lips as his eyes met hers. “Good. Bastard deserves it.”
He lowered his hand, satisfied that she was unharmed. He shifted to sit cross-legged at her side, the few faint beams of moonlight that were all that illuminated the place highlighting the silver of his hair for a brief instant. The sight stirred a memory of earlier that day, of nearly identical silver strands stirred by the wind.
Kagome reached out, running her fingers idly through the strands nearest his face. Inuyasha blinked, a flush suffusing his face.
“W-what?” he said. “Did you wanna b-brush it again or…?”
“You really do look alike,” Kagome said. “You and Sesshoumaru-sama.”
Inuyasha’s face dropped. His left brow twitched faintly, his lips curling downward in distaste.
“That’s what you were thinking about?”
“I just…” Kagome said, twining the strands about her fingers as she silently admired the fineness of them. “I know that you’ve told me the two of you never got along, and I can’t say I don’t understand why. Sesshoumaru-sama is cold and arrogant and...well, he tried to kill you, so that certainly didn’t engender any brotherly feelings. Still, I can’t help but feel that two of you are...similar somehow.”
Inuyasha recoiled, his hair slipping from her fingers.
“Similar?” he said, spitting the word out as if it were a foul taste on his tongue. “Me? With that uptight asshole?”
Kagome sighed, pressing a hand to her head. Perhaps this was not a conversation that he was ready to have.
“Not like that,” she said, shaking her head. “In many ways, you couldn’t be more different. It’s just...when I spoke to him today, I thought that he seemed a bit like you did when I first met you. Like he’s searching for something. Like he’s...a bit lost, maybe.”
Inuyasha quirked one dark brow, his eyes narrowing incredulously.
Kagome sighed once more. No, this was definitely not a conversation that he was ready to have.
“Nevermind,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. “It’s not important. What is important is what he was able to tell me about the symbol. He said that the symbol is that of an imugi and that it belongs to the wakō.”
The disgust vanished from his expression, incredulity coming fully to the fore.
“Why would the ningyō go out of their way to warn you about wakō?” he said. “Far as I know, those bastards are always out there. They go after anyone with anything worth stealing.”
Kagome shook her head.
“No, it’s not the wakō we need to worry about,” she said. “Well, I mean, it is and it isn’t. It’s the person who is controlling the wakō, the person who is paying them to target us specifically. Sesshoumaru-sama says that it’s the son of one of your father’s old enemies, a person named Menōmaru. The current King of Goryeo.”
Inuyasha’s eyes widened, catching the moonlight in such a way that they almost seemed liquid. His mouth fell open slightly.
“Goryeo?” he echoed. “You mean it’s that bastard’s son?”
“You know about King Hyōga?”
“He’s half the reason I never saw my old man,” he snapped. “I lost count of the number of times my old man went off to fight him, and he was doing it even before I was born. The asshole just kept trying and trying. He never stopped until my old man ended up killing him. And now you’re his saying kid is trying it?”
“It would make sense, wouldn’t it?” she said. “Your father embarrassed and defeated his father. The entire court would have known about it, and we know Naraku is clever at manipulating others. If he went to Menōmaru, perhaps he convinced him that he could help him kill your father to get his revenge and then promised him that if he would help him he could finally have what his father had sought after for so long.”
“Then why the wakō?” Inuyasha said, leaning towards her. “They’re not loyal to anything but what they can get out of it, and there can’t be that many of them. Why not send his own ships?”
“Because he’s hiding,” Kagome said, leaning in in turn. “He’s afraid to fail openly like his father did, so he’s hired the wakō to do his dirty work. He wants to send them ahead to break through our defenses, and if they succeed then he will press the attack with his own ships. If they fail then he can abandon them, pretend as if he was never involved.”
“That fucking coward,” Inuyasha growled.
“At least we know now,” Kagome said softly. “That’s something.”
He blinked, his expression softening somewhat. He reached out, laying his hand atop hers where it rested on the cool wood of the floor between them.
“Yeah, it’s definitely something,” he said. “Thanks to you, Kagome.”
Kagome flushed at the unexpected praise, her gaze falling to the sight of his clawed hand enveloping her own much smaller one.
“Thanks to Sesshoumaru-sama, really,” she murmured.
Inuyasha’s face fell.
“I ain’t thanking that bastard.”
“Somehow I do not think he would want that, either,” Kagome replied drily. “But more importantly, what do we do about it?”
He frowned, considering this.
“Their ships will be fast,” he said. “Made for quick attacks. It’s hard to know how they’ll attack or what they’ll target.”
Kagome frowned. That was about as far as she had been able to get, as well.
Inuyasha’s hand tightened around her own. She glanced up, meeting his gaze.
“Oi, I said I would handle it, right?” he said.
“Then...have a bit more confidence in me, alright?” he murmured.
Kagome blinked, considering this. She leaned forward the last little bit, resting her forehead against his. His eyes widened, a flush creeping up his neck to suffuse his face. She smiled.
“Alright,” she said softly. “You’re right. I trust you.”
He was silent for a stretch, his eyes searching hers. His lips worked soundlessly, forming words he could not give voice to. She wondered idly what they might have been, distracted by the warmth of his breath on her face and the faint ache it inspired in her.
Abruptly she leaned forward, pressing her lips to his. She felt a brief moment of hesitation before he returned the kiss, his fervor matching and then quickly overtaking her own.
She wrapped her arms about his shoulders as he pressed her back against the futon, the heated tangle of lips and limbs drowning out any more thoughts of ships that night.
Nearly a week passed in a relatively uneventful manner after Kagome’s meeting with Sesshoumaru. She spent most of it doing as she had been to maintain the delicate balance she and Inuyasha appeared to have achieved within the court. She spent a great deal of time with Midoriko, either continuing in the training of her spiritual powers or about the court doing the work of a court spiritualist. Midoriko especially thought it beneficial that she be seen as much as possible about the court, that she come to know and be known by the courtiers as much as she could. Seeing her, Midoriko insisted, seeing firsthand her abilities and her strength and her genuine desire to be of service, was essential.
Kagome was not so certain about how essential it was in regards to herself, but she was glad enough to apply the advice where Inuyasha was concerned. They resumed their strolls about the court as often as they could manage, tending to any concerns or questions that arose.
Inuyasha, for his part, had grown greatly in his ability to converse with the courtiers. Minor barbs were largely ignored-though she found that this was often just him allowing his irritation to simmer beneath the surface until he could vent it to her in the privacy of their room at night-and he was even thoughtful in many of his responses. At times Kagome found herself simply watching him, silently awed at the figure he cut. If there had ever been any doubt that he was of the bloodline of the Tennō, there was none in those moments.
It did make her feel lonely, though. When he looked like that, it was difficult to forget the distance between them. It was difficult to forget that one day the distance between them would be so great that she might only ever be able to see him like this.
But every night without fail she would find him in their place, the place where only the two of them existed, and he would make her forget that distance. And for as long as she was able, Kagome was content to forget.
At the end of the week she finally received the summons that she had been hoping for. A servant found her on one of her walks about the court with Inuyasha, informing her quietly that Chūsei was requesting her presence at her residence when she was finished. She glanced at Inuyasha, certain that he had been able to hear her. He nodded, tilting his chin in the direction of the Dairi.
Kagome thanked the servant and they were quickly on their way. They had nearly finished a full circuit down the busier avenues of the Heian-kyō already and the walk back to the Dairi was a short one. As soon as they were safely within the walls, Inuyasha hastily shucked off the kanmuri that he had opted to wear that day. His hair fell in a tangle down his back, his ears twitching as they were freed of their confinement. He heaved a sigh of relief.
“Finally,” he said. “Fucking thing pinches my ears.”
“Then why wear it?” Kagome said, stretching her arms up over her head in the hopes of easing some of the tension in her shoulders.
The walks about court, however successful, always left her feeling a bit exhausted. Though it felt as if recently exhaustion had become a silent, faithful companion of hers, embracing her at times when she least expected it. Absently the thought of the Shikon surfaced, but she pushed it back down quickly.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Inuyasha’s gaze on her, his eyes surreptitiously skimming the line of her body as it curved in the stretch. She exaggerated the movement just a bit further and felt a rush of pleased warmth as his eyes widened faintly, his face coloring as his gaze darted away.
“‘Cuz it looks better this way, right?” he murmured. “You said that, remember?”
Kagome nodded, silently flattered that he had taken the words to heart.
“True,” she said softly. “You do look quite impressive in all of it.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw his flush deepen. She smiled to herself.
“Keh,” he scoffed. “What about you?”
Kagome blinked, turning towards him.
“What about me?” she said, glancing down at her robes.
They were perfectly clean, not a fold out of place. She had even allowed the servants to spend an inordinate amount of time brushing out and arranging her hair that morning.
“I had all those juni-hito sent to your place!” he snapped. “You haven’t worn one of them!”
Kagome groaned, shaking her head.
“We’ve been over this!” she said. “I’m a spiritualist! I dress as a spiritualist so that they will see me as a spiritualist.”
Inuyasha paused and Kagome stopped beside him. The light spring breeze that had been sweeping the avenues of the court all morning kicked up once more, pushing a lock of hair across her eyes. She pushed it back, blinking as the wayward breeze died out.
His face when she caught sight of it again was oddly intent, golden eyes fixed on her face.
“What if they saw you as more?” he said.
Kagome swallowed, feeling a prickle of trepidation creep up the length of the back of her neck. She frowned, shaking her head.
“I am what I am, Inuyasha,” she said softly. “What else would you have them see me as?”
He did not answer for long moments, though his mouth opened and closed several times as if he would have. His fists clenched at his side and he shook his head, turning on his heel and starting forward once more.
“If you don’t know, then forget it,” he said brusquely.
Kagome scurried after him, wondering at the sudden shift in his manner. Perhaps the kanmuri really had been pinching his ears too tightly.
They walked in silence for a stretch, Kagome darting glances at the hanyou that he would not meet. As they passed the orange and sakura trees that framed the steps to the Shishinden she noted absently that the sakura tree looked just on the verge of flowering. It wouldn’t be too long before they were in full bloom.
They passed through the Shinshinden and around the outer walls of the Jijūden before arriving at her residence where they were ushered inside by a waiting servant. He seemed faintly surprised to see Inuyasha accompanying her and Kagome realized that Chūsei had not explicitly asked for the both of them. Mentally she shrugged this off as they were led to one of the smaller tea rooms of the residence. There was little Chūsei could have to say to her that she could not say before the Tennō.
The servant bowed before the shoji, sliding it open for them to enter. Kagome thanked him as they passed into the room, the man sliding the shoji closed behind them.
In the middle of the room Chūsei knelt atop a cushion, a steaming ceramic mug on the dark wood of the low table before her. Her eyes widened as they entered the room. She rose hastily, her hands sweeping over the simple green fabric of her yukata and the dark coils of her coroneted hair, neatly arranged and shot through here and there with threads of silver. She smiled, extending her hands to them.
“Well, well,” she said, pressing Kagome’s hands between her own. “I didn’t expect the pleasure of seeing the both of you together, though I am glad of it. I would offer to have more tea prepared, but I know your Majesty isn’t partial to it. Sit, though, and I’ll fetch us another cushion and something to eat, perhaps?”
Inuyasha nodded and she smiled, patting his arm once before hurrying from the room. Kagome glanced at him, faintly surprised at the easy familiarity between the two of them. She knew that Chūsei had been reporting to him during her absence from the court, but Inuyasha was surly with those he did not know well on his best days.
Inuyasha dropped the kanmuri he still carried unceremoniously on the dark wood of the table, gesturing with his chin for Kagome to take the one cushion that was available opposite Chūsei. Kagome frowned.
“I shouldn’t sit before you,” she said. “It would look-”
“Keh,” Inuyasha interrupted. “Chūsei’s smart enough not to worry about that kind of shit. Sit.”
Kagome’s frown deepened. She turned to him, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Please tell me you do not use that kind of language around Chūsei-san,” she said.
Inuyasha rolled his eyes, crossing his arms in turn.
“I’m on my best behavior, sensei,” he snarked. “So sit. And make sure you eat when the food gets here.”
“I ate plenty this morning,” she protested, kneeling down on the cushion. “I’m not a child.”
Inuyasha pinned her with a look, eyes narrowing.
“Plenty, huh?” he said. “You mean a measly bowl of miso? I could hear your stomach all morning.”
His ears twitched meaningfully atop his head. Kagome opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. She pressed a hand to her stomach. How had he known it was miso?
“The two of you seem to get on well,” she commented. “You and Chūsei-san.”
Inuyasha shrugged, his gaze shifting to the cushion that the older woman had vacated.
“Keh,” he said. “Like I said, she doesn’t care about unnecessary shit. Besides, you trust her, so-”
The soft slide of the shoji interrupted whatever else he might have said and they both turned as Chūsei reentered the room, bowing before sliding the shoji closed once more. She moved to the table, setting the cushion she had fetched down at the head of it.
“My apologies for the wait,” she said. “The food should be here shortly. Please have a seat, your Majesty.”
Inuyasha nodded, moving to the cushion and nudging it with his foot until it was beside Kagome’s. He flopped down gracelessly onto it.
“Thanks,” he murmured.
Chūsei blinked, her eyes sliding between the two of them for a moment before she resumed her own seat. Kagome nudged the hanyou with her foot beneath the table, silently urging him to give her a little more of the space that propriety dictated in present company. He shot her a questioning look, but made no move to distance himself.
“Thank you both for coming so quickly,” Chūsei said, drawing their attention. “I hope I didn’t pull you away from anything important.”
Kagome offered her a smile, shaking her head.
“Not at all,” she said. “The Tennō-sama and I were simply making the rounds around the court, and we were nearly finished anyway. Besides, I’ve been eager to speak with you, but I did not wish to interrupt until you had had the time you needed.”
“Thank you for that,” Chūsei said, bowing her head. “The errand took me a bit more time than I thought it would, but it was delicate enough that I wanted to ensure I did not misstep in it.”
Kagome nodded, but a voice from the other side of the shoji forestalled her from answering. Chūsei rose and went to it, sliding the shoji open to accept a tray of food. She thanked the woman there who bowed before sliding it closed once more.
Chūsei knelt beside the table, carefully setting down the tray heaped with dishes and beginning to place them before them on the table. Kagome made a move to assist her, but Chūsei gently swatted her hands away. She offered her a small smile as she resumed her seat.
“Please, eat up,” she said, gesturing to the food. “I’ll be happy to tell you everything as you do.”
Inuyasha nodded, eagerly taking up his hashi and leaning in to inspect the food. He paused a moment before pushing several of the dishes closer to Kagome. She shot him a petulant look, missing entirely the thoughtful frown that lined Chūsei’s face as she watched them.
She allowed them several moments and mouthfuls before she began speaking again.
“As I said, it was delicate going and so it took longer than I had initially thought it would,” she said. “My apologies for it, but I didn’t want to risk alerting any of the courtiers to what I was doing should I approach the wrong servant.”
Kagome swallowed her mouthful of rice, shaking her head.
“Please don’t apologize,” she said. “I asked a great deal of you. I was well aware it would take time.”
“And I imagine his Majesty is aware of my errand?” she said, her gaze shifting to Inuyasha.
He glanced up at her, nodding. He swallowed an over-large mouthful and Kagome stifled a sigh.
“Kagome told me about it,” he said.
“I thought as much,” she said. “Well, I am pleased to be able to tell you both, then, that the errand was a successful one, moreso even than I’d thought it could be.”
“They agreed, then?” Kagome said eagerly.
Chūsei’s smile widened. She nodded.
“Some more readily than others,” she said. “But with the assurance that they would be protected, they all agreed in time. There are at least three in each of the clan houses that have agreed. Well, with one exception, I’m afraid.”
“The Taira?” Kagome supplied.
Chūsei nodded, her gaze falling to the mug of tea she cradled in her hands.
Kagome glanced at Inuyasha. He met her look, nodding once, and she knew he understood her. That was an issue that had already resolved itself.
“My apologies,” Chūsei said softly. “I tried my best, but I couldn’t find a way into that snake’s den that wouldn’t raise their suspicions.”
“It’s alright,” Kagome said. “I knew when I made the request of you that that would likely be impossible. You can leave that matter to us. We’ll figure out some way of handling them in all this. Besides, you have nothing to apologize for, Chūsei-san! The work you’ve done with this is amazing, beyond anything I could have hoped for.”
Beside her, Inuyasha nodded, placing his hashi down atop one of the bowls.
“Kagome’s right,” he said. “You did good, Chūsei.”
She looked up at him, a smile blooming across her face before she dipped her head in deference.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” she said. “For the two of you, I was more than glad to do it. But I did not ask you here to be praised for my efforts, though I will confess to enjoying it. I wished to consult you as to how I mean to proceed from here. Now that they are in place, they will need a bit of time to observe, deliberate, and then to communicate back to me. I had thought to give them a week, if it suits you.”
Kagome glanced at Inuyasha. He met her look with a slight shrug.
“Doesn’t give us much time if we wanna have a ceremony to announce it,” he said.
“I suppose,” Kagome said. “But don’t you think we would do best not to delay it any further? Every time we go out the courtiers talk of almost nothing else, and the sooner we secure their ties to you the better, Tennō-sama.”
Inuyasha pulled a face at her use of the title, but did not comment. His gaze slid away from hers as he wrestled with the idea, his jaw set hard against it.
“Fine,” he said at last, the word heavy with his reluctance. “A week.”
Chūsei eyed him, her brow furrowing.
“Are you sure, your Majesty?” she said. “I can delay it if need be.”
Inuyasha shook his head, his gaze fixed on the dark wood of the table.
“No,” he said. “Kagome’s right. We can’t avoid it, so let’s just get it over with.”
Chūsei’s eyes slid to Kagome’s, a question in her gaze. Kagome shook her head. There was little way for her to explain to the woman Inuyasha’s reticence without giving away a great deal too much.
“Thank you again, Chūsei-san,” she said instead. “Truly. A week should be just what we need.”
“So how much do you know about planning court wide banquets?” Inuyasha said. “Because I haven’t got a fucking clue.”
Kagome glanced at him, the corners of her lips twitching downward. Shaking her head, she continued doggedly forward.
“That’s why we’re visiting Midoriko-sama,” she said. “She presides over ceremonies all the time with the court. Surely she will have some idea of how to put one together.”
Behind her Inuyasha scoffed. She turned a glare on him which he returned with a sharp look of his own.
“We’re going to her because neither of us knows shit about it,” he said. “It’s too bad that Tachibana woman is still-”
He cut himself off at sight of her expression, at the way it fell in an instant at the mention of the woman. He sped his steps, hovering just behind her. She did not meet his gaze.
“It’s fine,” she said hastily. “And you’re right. I wish Sango-chan were here. She knows all about this sort of thing.”
“...Do you miss her?”
Kagome felt a strange lump in her throat at the words and the tentativeness with which they were spoken. She bit her lip against the wash of feeling.
“Yes,” she managed after a moment. “I miss them all. Sango-chan, Miroku-sama, Shippou-chan. I miss them terribly. But more than anything I wish that I could just see them, just know that wherever they are that they are alright. If I could just know that, then perhaps their absence would be a little easier to bear.”
“You found a way to see me when you were gone,” he said quietly. “Maybe we can find a way to see them.”
Kagome paused, glancing back at him. His hand was curled around the nenju, his expression earnest.
A faint smile touched her lips.
“Maybe,” she said softly. “I would like it very much if that were possible.”
He came to walk beside her and she felt his hand slip into hers. She smiled, her hand curling around his in turn.
“Then I’ll figure it out,” he murmured.
She squeezed his hand, glad of its warmth even as she doubted that he could. Still, it was difficult to feel lonely or worried for too long with him at her side.
They reached the outer gates to the Dairi and paused. Kagome reluctantly pulled her hand from his, shooting him an apologetic glance.
“We should hurry to the Chūwain,” she said. “Assuming Midoriko-sama does have an idea of how to put all of this together, we still only have a week. Last time Sango-chan had two weeks to do it and she was close to tearing her hair out the entire time.”
Inuyasha nodded, squatting down before her and offering up his back. Kagome eyed him.
“It’s still light out,” she said.”Someone might see us.”
Inuyasha shot her a withering look over his shoulder.
“They see us together all the time, Kagome,” he said.
“Not...touching,” Kagome said.
Inuyasha rolled his eyes.
“Wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea,” he muttered. “Just get on. I’ll make sure no one sees us and we can walk back as far apart as you want, alright?”
Kagome opened her mouth to argue, but quickly closed it once more. There was no real point in arguing with him when he was like this and time was of the essence. As long as he was careful, it should be fine. She moved forward, carefully settling herself on his back.
He tucked his hands behind her knees, tugging her more closely against his back before he rose. Kagome gripped his shoulders, aware of the warmth of him even through the layers of his robes. She felt a flush begin to creep up her neck and shook her head to abate it.
“Follow the Kitsuji ōji,” she said, her face warming further when her voice squeaked faintly. “At this time of day it’s usually fairly quiet.”
Inuyasha nodded, though he shot her a questioning glance over his shoulder before leaping forward.
He kept to the rooftops, leaping lightly from one to the next with a grace and silence that was still impressive to her despite the number of times she had experienced it. She had been right about the Kitsuji ōji and they passed over only one small group of courtiers, moving so quickly that Kagome doubted the group saw them.
He also made quick work of the steps up to the Chūwain, taking them in bounds. He would have bypassed the purification ritual, as well, if she had not forced him to stop and observe it. He did so grudgingly before they moved into the main hall.
Midoriko was not to be found there, but one of the disciples that Kagome knew well told them that she was just down the hall in the records room. She offered to guide them there, but Kagome politely declined as she knew the way well enough.
The records room was in a detached wing of the Chūwain farthest to the northern edge. It was a quiet place, meant primarily for study and transcription and used to store a great number of records from the court. Kagome was grateful to find the cluttered room largely empty save a miko nearly dozing over on open scroll in the corner. She cleared out fairly quickly at the sight of them.
They found Midoriko tucked behind several shelves, bent over several rolls of parchment that she was rapidly filling with a series of flowing kanji. At the sight of them she set aside her brush on the inkstone, rising and bowing low to Inuyasha.
“Tennō-sama, Kagome, to what do I owe the pleasure?” she said. “My apologies for my appearance. I had meant to hole myself away for the day with my work and had not anticipated visitors, let alone his Majesty.”
She held up her hands, her fingers and palms splotched all across with ink.
“The Nihon Shoki?” Kagome said.
Midoriko smiled, nodding.
“I was actually working on detailing the lineage of the Tennō-sama for it,” she said, bowing her head to Inuyasha.
“My apologies for interrupting your work,” Kagome said. “And for coming unannounced like this. We had a matter come up that the Tennō-sama and I urgently require your counsel on.”
Midoriko’s brows lifted faintly, her gaze sliding from Kagome to Inuyasha and back again. Something entered her eyes, a keenness that sent a trickle of trepidation through Kagome. She recalled suddenly how much Midoriko knew of her true feelings towards Inuyasha and she fought back a wince, wondering if it had been wise of her to come here with him.
“No apologies necessary,” she said with a smile that did not put Kagome any more at ease. “I am always happy to provide any counsel that I can to you, Kagome, and of course I am ever your Majesty’s servant. Shall we move to the main hall? I can ask to have tea brought, or anything else you might require.”
Inuyasha shook his head.
“Here’s fine,” he said. “It’s better if it’s just the three of us around.”
Midoriko’s eyes widened faintly, but she nodded. She gestured to the other side of the cluttered table.
“Discretion it is, then,” she said. “Please, make yourselves as comfortable as you can in this mess that I have made.”
She waited until they had seated themselves before taking her own seat. Kagome glanced at Inuyasha, uncertain how exactly to begin. He tucked his hands into the depths of his sleeves, offering her no more than a slight shrug. Stifling a sigh, Kagome turned back to meet Midoriko’s curious look.
“It is in regards to the appointments,” she said, deciding that it was best to waste as little time as possible. “We are very near to having made the selections and we were hoping you could advise us on how to proceed.”
Midoriko’s eyes widened, a smile turning up the corners of her lips.
“Then you were able to find a way to make your choices,” she said. “I am glad to hear it. I had mulled the matter over for a time after you came to me with it to little avail. Though I should have known that you were more than clever enough to work through it on your own.”
Kagome smiled, ducking her head at the praise.
“Thank you,” she said. “Though I owe the answer that I found at least in part to you, Midoriko-sama. It was our discussion of the matter that inspired me to make the choice I did. I’ll confess it’s a bit of an...unorthodox method, but a good one nonetheless. That is part of the reason that we sought you out. The other part involves the announcement of the appointments. His Majesty and I, we...well, we…”
“We don’t know the first thing about planning anything,” Inuyasha finished for her.
Midoriko’s brows inched up at the blunt admission. Kagome fought to keep her gaze from him, well aware of the annoyance that would show there and unwilling that Midoriko should see anything out of the ordinary between them.
“What his Majesty means to say is that neither of us has much experience in putting together ceremonies here in the court,” she said stiffly. “So we had hoped that we might borrow yours, Midoriko-sama, or any advice you might have to offer.”
“I see,” said Midoriko, her head tilting thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose I do have some experience in planning ceremonies, though I’m afraid I’ve never planned anything too grand. Religious ceremonies for the most part. Still, if the Tennō-sama wishes it, I will do whatever I can. When do you intend that the ceremony should be held?”
Kagome hesitated, biting her lip. Midoriko arched one dark brow, her eyes narrowing.
“I will take that to mean that I do not have long,” she said.
“A week,” said Inuyasha. “Can you do it?”
“Can I do it? Yes. What it will look like is another question entirely,” Midoriko said, shaking her head.
“I’ll make sure you have anything you need,” Inuyasha said. “Or whoever you want to help you.”
“My thanks, Tennō-sama,” Midoriko said, bowing her head to him. “Though my concern is primarily for the both of you. I know how hard you have worked to bring us to where we are right now. I’ve no desire to tarnish it any way.”
“You won’t,” Kagome said hurriedly. “I trust you. We both do. And I swear I will do anything and everything I can to be of help to you. But time is of the essence in this matter. We need to move forward with the appointments if we hope to continue making progress here in the court.”
Midoriko nodded, though her gaze strayed to Inuyasha at this. He did not meet her look, his eyes shifting to the shelves behind her. Her brows knit together, and Kagome thought she saw a flash of some sort of understanding there.
“I understand,” she said. “And, as I have said, I am ever the Tennō-sama’s servant. I will not refuse if there is a way that I can be of help to the both of you.”
A smile stretched across Kagome’s face and she glanced at Inuyasha. He returned her look, nodding.
“Thank you, Midoriko-sama,” she said. “Truly.”
Midorko nodded, returning her smile though the slight furrow to her brow remained.
“For the both of you, I am glad to do it,” she said. “Now, while I have you both here, we had best discuss any ideas you might have for the ceremony that you wish me to include.”
Kagome blinked, her gaze going to Inuyasha. He met it, shaking his head slightly. Kagome suppressed a sigh, turning back to the elder miko.
“Truthfully we haven’t got much in the way of ideas,” she admitted, shamefaced. “We have not had much time to think upon it. I’m sorry.”
Midoriko’s lips pressed into a thin line and Kagome could tell she was doing her best to contain a sigh. Her eyes fell to her own ink-stained hands and then to the heaps of parchment and scrolls scattered about her. She paused, her eyes fixing on one in particular.
Her gaze trailed slowly from it up to Kagome. Or rather to Kagome’s shoulder. It lingered there for long moments, a look of dawning inspiration spreading gradually across the woman’s face.
“What if we were to frame the ceremony around Amaterasu-sama?” she said thoughtfully. “Spring is upon us, and in the past we used to always usher the season in with a celebration devoted to Amaterasu-sama and the return of her warmth to our lands. Besides which you, Kagome, can claim a rather...unique connection to her. One that we would not be amiss in emphasizing, I think.”
Absently Kagome’s hand strayed to her shoulder, resting over the sun scar. It felt slightly warmer than usual through the material and she blinked, a sudden thought occurring to her. She turned to Inuyasha, eyes widening.
“The appointments,” she said. “If Amaterasu-sama guided us to them…”
He nodded, his brow furrowing thoughtfully.
“That could work,” he said.
Divine appointments. Kagome could have kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. It would be the perfect cover for the servants, one that would be nearly impossible to question.
Glancing between the two of them, Midoriko laid her hands on the table before her.
“I will take that to mean that you both are amenable to the idea,” she said, smiling faintly.
Kagome nodded, her smile widening.
“It’s brilliant, Midoriko-sama,” she said. “Absolutely perfect.”
“It’s good,” he said.
Midoriko smiled, inclining her head at the praise.
“It will still need some fleshing out yet, but it is a base upon which we can build,” she said. “I will devote the rest of the day to filling in some of the details, if it pleases your Majesty. Kagome, I will expect you early tomorrow to make good on the promise of your assistance.”
“Do whatever you need to,” Inuyasha said, rising to stand at the obvious dismissal. “Like I said, anything you need can be made available.”
Kagome rose, as well, though her foot slipped on the cushion beneath her as she did. She stumbled, but Inuyasha’s hand shot out quickly to steady her. She murmured her thanks, flushing faintly as his hand slid away from her.
Midoriko’s head tilted, her gaze thoughtful as it slid from one to the other. She rose.
“Another point in favor of Amaterasu-sama,” she said suddenly, her dark eyes fixing on Inuyasha. “Is her connection to the Tennō-sama. You, your Majesty, and your line are her descendants. It is through her mark upon you, Tennō-sama, that you were given the right to rule. It is something interesting to contemplate, is it not?”
A furrow appeared on Inuyasha’s brow as he eyed her, a frown edging his lips. His gaze slid from her to Kagome, his eyes widening suddenly. The barest hint of a smile curled up the corners of Midoriko’s lips as his gaze darted back to her.
“If you’ve time to spare, Tennō-sama, perhaps we can discuss the matter further,” she said. “It would aid my research greatly, and hopefully prove useful to you, as well.”
Inuyasha nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on her.
“Yeah,” he said. “Kagome, you go ahead of me.”
Watching the both of them, Kagome frowned. There was something going on there, something just out of her grasp.
“I can wait,” she said. “I don’t mind.”
Midoriko turned a smile on her, shaking her head.
“There is no need,” she said. “It will be a tedious matter, primarily for the sake of my records. Truly I am sorry to even keep his Majesty for it, but there’s no help for it. I am certain you have a great many other matters to attend to and I do not wish to keep you from them. I will see you tomorrow to begin our work, as early as you can manage here in the main hall.”
Kagome opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again after a moment.
Aside from a niggling sensation that she was being purposefully excluded from this discussion, there was nothing she needed to be concerned about. It was only natural that there would be some conversations that the O-Miko would need to have privately with the Tennō. Besides, if the matter was truly an important one then Inuyasha would surely share it with her.
“Of course,” she said at last. “I will see you on the morrow, Midoriko-sama. Tennō-sama.”
She bowed before turning to go. Reaching the entryway to the room, Kagome paused.
Glancing back, she saw that the pair was still standing. Inuyasha’s back was to her, but Midoriko’s face was still visible. There was a brightness to her eyes, something eager in her stance.
Kagome forced herself to turn away. If she needed to know, she would know.
She exited, leaving the two to their devices.
“How did your talk go with Midoriko-sama?”
Kagome could have kicked herself. She had vowed that she would not ask, that she would allow him to tell her on his own when and if he wished to.
Still, none of that resolve had prevented her from opening her mouth the literal moment he stepped past the entryway hanging to their place. She bit her lip.
Inuyasha blinked, eyes widening as they met hers in the soft moon-glow of the small room. The entryway hanging swung down behind him, brushing against the backs of his nubakama.
“Sorry,” Kagome said, shaking her head. “Come in. Sit down.”
She patted the space on the futon beside her. He moved to her side, eyeing her warily as he took the space offered.
“Sorry,” she said again. “I was just curious as to what the two of you discussed. I didn’t mean to accost you as soon as you stepped into the room. Was it...was it anything interesting?”
Inuyasha’s gaze slid away from hers, fixing on a dark corner of the room. Atop his head his ears twitched in several rapid motions, flattening out before swiveling up and about.
“Keh,” he said. “It was nothing. Just...Tennō stuff, alright?”
Kagome frowned, leaning forward to try and get a better look at his face. He kept it turned determinedly away from her.
“Tennō stuff?” she echoed incredulously.
His ears twitched again. And again. Kagome’s frown deepened.
“Just, y’know, normal stuff,” he mumbled. “About Amaterasu and…”
He trailed off. Kagome tilted her head, incredulity creeping quickly into suspicion. She tugged at his sleeve, but still he would not look at her. Kagome scowled. Reaching up, she grasped his forelock and gave it a firm tug.
“Ow! What in the seven hells, Kagome?”
He turned a glare on her. Kagome met it squarely.
“If it was nothing, then why are you acting so strangely?” she pressed.
Color crept into his face as he attempted to hold her look, his jaw set defiantly.
“You said you trust me,” he said.
Kagome blinked, caught off guard.
“I...of course I do,” she said.
“Then trust me,” he said, leaning in to bump his forehead lightly against her own. “You’ll know when you need to.”
“...so it was something?”
Inuyasha groaned, flopping back against the futon and throwing an arm across his face.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, sighing. “I understand. I trust you.”
He peeked out at her from beneath his arm as she settled in beside him, resting on her forearm. For several long moments there was silence between them, Kagome desperately trying to tamp down the myriad of additional questions that his words had stirred in her. He would tell her when he was ready. She could be patient. It was only natural that people should not share everything with one another all the time. After all, she-
A light tapping on her forehead drew her away from her thoughts. Inuyasha’s eyes met hers as he rolled over on his side to face her, giving her one last light rap between her eyes with his knuckle.
“Quit obsessing,” he said.
He scoffed, rolling his eyes.
“You are! Your eyebrows always do that thing when you’re obsessing.”
“Like this,” he said, furrowing his brows in such an exaggerated manner that his entire face was pinched.
Kagome scowled, swatting at his arm.
“I do not look like that!”
“How do you know? You can’t see yourself!”
They glared at one another until at last Kagome sighed, relenting.
“Fine,” she said. “I was obsessing.”
“Knew it,” he said, smirking faintly.
She sighed once more, her eyes sliding closed. She rolled over onto her back, smiling slightly to herself as she felt Inuyasha shift to lean over her. Her eyes slid open and she met his look, searching.
“How about a distraction, then?” she murmured.
He frowned, brows drawing together before lifting with sudden comprehension. His face reddened, the look in his eyes heating.
“Fine by me,” he said lowly, the words warm against her lips as he leaned in the last bit to claim them.
The instant warmth that flooded her was more than enough to drive any lingering thoughts from her mind. Kagome met the gentle pressure of his lips against hers eagerly, more than happy to lay aside her concerns for a time.
A shudder passed through her as she felt the light scrape of his fangs along her lower lip. She felt his lips curl upwards in a smile against her mouth. He had figured out that little trick somewhere in their fumblings and never failed to use it against her.
Well, two could play at that. She shifted, reaching up to tangle her hands in his hair until she reached his ears. Lightly she ran her blunted fingernails along the base of each ear, gratified at the deep groan that was torn from him at the motion.
Inuyasha tore his lips away from hers, pinning her with a glare that was somewhat undercut by the vast darkness of his pupils and his ragged breathing. Kagome smirked, tongue darting out to run over her kiss-swollen lips.
“Shut up,” he muttered, his lips descending on hers once more before she could protest that she had not said anything.
She continued her assault on his ears as their lips tangled, his tongue sweeping out to soothe the bite of his teeth against her lower lip. She shifted beneath him, hooking one of her legs around his hips and urging him closer. She gasped as his hips flexed against her, the hard length of him grinding against her core in a way that echoed along her every nerve.
He captured her lips again, repeating the motion relentlessly as his hand slid up the length of her side to rest on her breast. His thumb stroked over it through the light fabric of her sleeping yukata, every sweep a small spike of sensation against her hardening nipple. She writhed beneath him, hands sliding down to clutch at the neck of his han-juban.
Inuyasha’s lips left hers, sliding down to nip lightly at the juncture between her neck and shoulder as his hand moved to tug the neck of her yukata open enough for his hand to slip inside. Kagome’s hands slipped inside his han-juban in turn, her fingers skimming the warmth of his collarbone and chest as she worked the garment down past his shoulders.
“Sit up,” he murmured, breath hot against the flesh of her neck.
Kagome nodded a bit dazedly, shifting with him as he moved to sit up. Both were breathing a bit too hard as he fumbled with the tie of her yukata. For a moment she was worried he would simply shred the thing-too many pieces of clothing had been lost to those claws- but at last there was the whisper of fabric on fabric as the knot came undone. The material loosened about her, sliding down to bare her shoulders to his eyes.
Inuyasha paused, his gaze fixing on the darkened skin that made up the sun mark that dominated most of her left shoulder. His hand came up, fingertips trailing lightly over the flesh there. Kagome watched him, wondering at the riveted look to his gaze.
Slowly he leaned forward, pressing his lips to the mark. Warmth curled through her at the contact, though it was not the frenzied heat that usually accompanied these moments. It spread through her limbs and pricked at her eyes.
Inuyasha glanced up at her, his eyes bright as his lips lingered over her skin. Kagome swallowed, transfixed. Something in that look sent a shudder through her, a disorienting mix of longing and trepidation.
At last Inuyasha ducked his head, releasing her. Kagome nearly sighed in relief, the sound quickly morphing into a gasp as his tongue slid out to trace the edges of the mark. Before he had almost always avoided it, his look pained whenever his gaze did fall on it. Now, though-
Her thoughts were scattered to the four winds as he tugged at the loosened fabric of her yukata, the material easily surrendering its tenuous hold and slipping down to pool around her hips as his hand found her breast again. The flesh of his palm was rough against the soft skin there, his thumb tracing tight circles around her nipple.
He ducked his head, his lips finding the neglected breast and working quickly to remedy that. Kagome’s hands buried themselves in his hair once more, clutching at him as the pull of his lips and hands threatened to drive her outside of her own mind. His fingers tugged gently at one nipple, his lips and teeth working eagerly around the other. She felt his free hand slide up over her thigh slowly beneath her yukata, crying out as it reached the slickness of her core.
He was cautious as he stroked between her thighs, ever wary of his claws. Still the slick glide of his fingers in tandem with his fevered attention to her breasts was almost enough to undo her, every bit of her coiling so tightly that Kagome was sure she would shatter.
“Inuyasha! Ah, please, Inuyasha-!”
He glanced up at her, doubling his efforts at the sight of her flushed skin and fever bright eyes. His fingers found the small nub between her folds and she mewled, her back arching desperately. Inuyasha groaned around her breast, his length throbbing at the sight as he stroked his fingers over it again and again.
There was nothing behind Kagome’s closed lids save a bright, blinding white as Inuyasha continued his ministrations, every stroke between her thighs or against her nipples heightening the sensation of it. The feeling of it was so strong that she almost wanted to beg him to stop, to pause, to let her breathe, but she could scarcely recall how to form words, let alone give voice to them.
Abruptly, though, she got her wish as his hands and lips stilled.
She panted, open-mouthed as she blinked down at him. His pupils were huge as he glanced up at her, so dark they seemed almost to consume the gold of his eyes.
“I need you,” he said. “Right now.”
She nodded, shifting hurriedly with him as he rearranged her until she rested in his lap. He reached down between them, struggling with the tie to his nubakama for a moment before he was able to undo it. Kagome assisted him in pushing it down his hips, reaching in to free his length from the confines of his fundoshi.
He groaned, his head falling forward as the warmth of her hand enveloped him. Kagome felt a thrill at the sight of him, running her hand slowly along his length. He was warm, almost too warm to the touch and she found that she was always surprised at the feel of him, a heady mix of hard and smooth.
Her thumb rolled over the swollen tip, circling the moisture weeping from it and spreading it across the rest of the head. His voice cracked around a cry of her name, his hips jerking up into her hand. She continued her unhurried strokes, drawing out the sensation as he had done for her. His face was pinched tight, even his ears pinned back as she sped her strokes.
Suddenly his hand shot out, catching and holding her wrist. His eyes were hooded as they met hers, his breath ragged. With his free hand he reached down, pressing it to her hip and urging her forward. She moved at his urging, her breath hitching as the tip of him prodded at the slickness of her entrance.
He held her there for a moment, leaning forward to capture her lips with his own as the anticipation stretched taut between them like an invisible thread.
At last it snapped as he pressed her hips down, shifting upward in the same motion to bury the head of himself inside of her. Kagome bit down on his lower lip, her hands scrabbling for purchase on his shoulders.
He eased himself into her until they were hip to hip, her weight balanced against his thighs and by the arm he had wrapped around her back. He released her lips, his head falling to rest against the slight swell of her breast. His tongue darted out to lave against her nipple and she cried out.
“Kami,” he muttered as he felt her tighten around him, her limbs trembling faintly.
Sucking her nipple into his mouth, he held her hips steady as he thrust up and into her. Kagome cried out again, her entire body shuddering around him this time. He was unrelenting, withdrawing and thrusting hastily back into her to the hilt.
He released her breast, his thrusts speeding as she continued to clamp down around him. He sucked in a breath at the sight of her, the arch of her back pale and smooth and highlighted in the moonlight as her breasts bounced slightly with every push of him inside of her. She panted, her eyes liquid as they met his, and he was certain there had never been anything better in the world.
Kagome leaned up to wrap herself around him as the sensation began to overwhelm her. Inuyasha ground his hips up and into her, panting as his movements grew more erratic.
“Kami, Kagome,” he growled, words rumbling across her collarbone. “You’re so...I just-”
“I’m close,” she whimpered. “Inuyasha, Inu-”
A sharp thrust stole her voice, the head of him pressing against something inside her that sparked across her nerves like wildfire. Her mouth fell open in a silent cry, her entire body tightening around him as she reached her release.
Inuyasha gave several more short, sharp thrusts, the tightness of her sheathe milking him for all he was worth as he reached his own climax. He shuddered, burying his face against her chest as the sensation nearly overwhelmed him.
Their panting breaths filled the small room as peace slowly descended on the pair. Inuyasha tilted his head back, peering up into her deeply flushed face.
“Was that...distracting enough?” he said.
“Huh?” she said ineloquently, unable to think past the pleasant hum of sensation filling her limbs.
A smirk tilted up one corner of his lips, a fang peeking out over his lower lip. Kagome frowned faintly, aware that she was being made fun of but unable to care much. She swatted lightly at his shoulder even as her lips turned up in a mirror of his own.
Inuyasha shook his head as his smirk widened into a smile. He shifted her carefully, lifting her until he could remove himself from her and set her down on the futon. Kagome groaned, both at the sensation and at the sudden realization of how badly cramped her legs had become while she was over him.
Inuyasha tugged the blankets of the futon out from under her as she rubbed the kinks out of her legs, draping it over her as soon as she was able to straighten her legs out. She laid back and he stretched out beside her on his side, eyeing her.
“You should sleep,” he said. “You’re up early tomorrow, right?”
She nodded, stifling a yawn with her hand. She could feel her limbs beginning to grow heavy with a pleasant mixture of satisfaction and exhaustion.
“You’ll wake me?” she said.
He nodded, reaching down to tug the blanket up over her still bare chest. His hand brushed the sun mark as he pulled it away, lingering over the skin there for several moments.
Kagome murmured her thanks, her eyes slowly beginning to slide shut. Even as she drifted off she could feel the warmth of his gaze, fixed unerringly on Amaterasu’s mark.
Hard work had never bothered Kagome. From the time she was very young she had been accustomed to working hard, be it helping her father with the harvest or her mother with tending to Souta or Kaede with healings in the village. Hard work was simply a fact of existence in a village, something to be expected of anyone old enough to walk and talk.
After a week spent with Midoriko in organizing the ceremony, however, Kagome thought that perhaps she had never before understood what hard work truly was.
Every day of that week was spent from dawn until well past dusk at the woman’s side, nearly every moment of it occupied. If Kagome had ever thought that planning the return ceremony for the Tachibana with Sango had been difficult, it now seemed a dream by comparison.
Part of the struggle for her was that Midoriko, unlike Sango, insisted that Kagome be involved in every aspect of the planning and execution. It was essential that Kagome understand every bit of it should she ever need to plan one on her own, Midoriko insisted. While Kagome could reluctantly see the truth in this, there was something in Midoriko’s insistence on the matter that made her suspect that there was more to it than the elder miko was letting on. Still she did as she was bid, doing her best to commit as much of the process to memory as she could.
Beyond this, however, Kagome could recall little of the week. The only distinction that seemed to exist to mark the passing of the days was the brief darkness behind her closed eyelids that she would find temporary respite in each night. Her exhaustion was so deep that she even struggled to recall where she slept, whether she made it to her and Inuyasha’s place or simply collapsed in her own room. There were nights where she thought she felt his warmth beside her or his clawed hand stroking back her hair, but they might just as well have been dreams for all of the clarity that she could recall them with.
During the days Inuyasha did join her and Midoriko from time to time to check in on their progress. Invariably these were the only times that Midoriko allowed herself to be separated from Kagome, the pair moving off to discuss some matter or another. Had Kagome had even a modicum of energy to spare, she might have been curious enough at the continued secretiveness between the two to try and find out what it was that they were discussing. As it was she was simply grateful for the brief moments of rest that their talks allowed her.
At last, though, after what felt like both a small eternity and the barest blink of an eye, the day of the ceremony was upon them.
Kagome was roused that morning at first light, her unresisting form nearly dragged into the bathing chamber in the back of her residence. She began to be somewhat cognizant of her surroundings as she was guided into the waters of the bath, the warmth of them seeping slowly into her limbs and clearing some of the haze from her mind.
The serving women moved about her with impressive coordination and efficiency, scrubbing and oiling every bit of her down to the tips of her toes. They brushed and oiled her hair, as well, combing it until it shone like spun silk. As they worked they commented on how long her hair was growing and how pleased they were to finally see her beginning to put on weight-they were always concerned that she ate like a bird- keeping the conversation light as they knew how occupied her thoughts were with what was to come that day.
Silently Kagome was grateful to them for their discretion. Her head felt full to almost bursting after the flurry of the last week, her thoughts circling endlessly around every detail of the ceremony to assure herself that nothing had been left undone.
She was distinctly less grateful upon being shown what she was to wear that day.
Though it was one of the few details that she and Midoriko had not bothered to discuss, Kagome had felt fairly safe in her assumption that she would be allowed to wear the ceremonial robes of a spiritualist. A bit more formal than her usual garments, but still functional enough and more than befitting of her position and her role in the ceremony.
Laid out before her, though, was a juni-hito elaborate enough to rival any she had ever seen before. It was a brilliant wash of red and white silks, the colors so vivid that she almost wanted to shield her eyes against them. Embroidered all across it in some of the most delicate needlework she had ever seen were golden images of the sun, its rays bright and strong as they stretched the length of the fabric. It was beautiful and so utterly uncomfortable looking that Kagome could not suppress a sigh.
“It’s only ten layers, if that makes it any better,” said one of the women, Setsuko, sheepishly. “Not nearly so many as the winter ones.”
Kagome turned a pleading look on her.
“Tell me it wasn’t an order,” she said, unable to keep the petulance from her tone.
Setsuko shook her head, her lips twisting apologetically.
“From the Tennō-sama,” she said. “And the O-Miko-sama, for that matter. They insisted on us pulling it from the retired wardrobe of a former princess.”
Kagome bit her lip against another sigh, having expected nothing less. She nodded.
“Alright,” she said. “Best to get it over with, then.”
Setsuko bowed her head in agreement, offering her another contrite half-smile before gesturing to the other woman, Oshizu. Both moved forward, picking up the innermost layer and beginning the process.
They were fastidious in their attentions, every layer draped and arranged carefully to flatter her. When they had arranged the last layer Kagome was somewhat pleased to realize that Setsuko was right in the difference between ten and fifteen layers. While it could hardly be called comfortable, the juni-hito was at least not so heavy as previous ones that she had worn.
Unfortunately they were far from being finished with her.
With the juni-hito in place, the women set in with the necessary accessories. The first was a hand-fan, a lovely, delicate thing painted with the scene of Amaterasu emerging from the cave. Thankfully during her week with Midoriko the elder miko had made certain to re-familiarize her with fan language, picking up on and furthering the lessons that Kikyou had once given her. Kagome was grateful for it as the delicate accessory was looped about her wrist.
After the fan came a delicate golden sun circlet. Oshizu set it carefully atop her head, adjusting it until the sun symbol rested perfectly upon the center of her brow. From the symbol trailed delicate golden strands around the thicker metal of the band. The two women arranged her hair so that it concealed entirely the thicker band before artfully draping the chains over the dark strands of her hair. When they were done it appeared as if the sun symbol sat suspended, its rays catching the early morning light that filtered into the room so dazzlingly that Kagome was almost transfixed by the sight.
Still she was hesitant, eyeing her own reflection uneasily in the small hand mirror the women had provided to her.
“It’s lovely, truly,” she said, turning her face this way and that. “But...don’t you think it’s a bit much?”
In the mirror she saw Oshizu and Setsuko exchange a look, a faint smile curling up the lips of the latter.
“Perhaps for anyone else, Kagome-sama,” she said. “But I think it suits you quite well.”
Kagome frowned, aware of the artful dodge but uncertain how to counter it. The ornament was definitely above her station. Certainly she had seen other women of the court don similar ornamentation before, but they had all been the ladies of major clans or…
Or Kikyou, Kagome realized with a prickle of apprehension. The woman she could most clearly recall being arrayed in finery such as this was Kikyou.
Kagome bit her lip, trying to force down the sudden wash of unease that filled her. If this was what Midoriko and Inuyasha had chosen for her then she could bear up under her own discomfort at feeling like a bird with overbright plumage.
Besides, she and Midoriko had been careful to arrange every detail of the ceremony around Amaterasu. It should come as no real surprise that Midoriko would want to be certain to emphasize that down to the last detail. Certainly it was known that Kagome had a rather unique connection to Amaterasu. It was only natural that they should wish to emphasize that during the ceremony.
Kagome nodded to herself. Yes, surely that was it.
“Kagome-sama, please hold still or we will end up making a mess of that fine face of yours,” chided Setsuko.
She had come to kneel at Kagome’s left side, Oshizu at her right. Both held small, slim brushes in their hands, Setsuko’s poised less than a hand’s breadth from Kagome’s face. Kagome blinked, flushing faintly.
“Sorry,” she murmured.
Setsuko shook her head, grasping her chin lightly to hold her face still. Her eyes fixed on Kagome’s mouth as she leaned in, the brush tracing the curve of her upper lip. Kagome tamped down a shiver at the cool, almost slimy sensation of it as she repeated the motion on her lower lip.
Finished, Setsuko leaned back to examine her work. She tilted Kagome’s face towards Oshizu to judge, as well, releasing her only once the other woman offered an approving nod. Oshizu then leaned in, murmuring to Kagome to close her eyes. She complied and moments later felt the slide of a brush along her lash line, the strokes sweeping outward to lengthen the line of her eyes. After that followed the light dusting of a powder over her eyelids.
“What do you think?”
There was a faint rustling and then a light touch, fingers sweeping across a spot beside her lips.
“There, now it’s perfect,” responded Setsuko as the touch withdrew. “Please take a look, Kagome-sama.”
Obediently Kagome opened her eyes, slightly startled to immediately meet her own gaze as Oshizu lifted the small mirror up for her to examine.
Her lips and eyelids they had painted a vivid red that perfectly complemented the color of her juni-hito. The line of the dark charcoal made her grey eyes appear hooded and somehow deeper than they usually did.
Kagome blinked, realizing with a feeling that she could not quite place that she recognized herself. Every other time that she had been forced to go through this process she had felt as if a stranger had come out of it, fluffed and preened and utterly foreign to her. But somehow she recognized herself.
That was not to say that she was comfortable. The layers still sat heavy upon her shoulders and she was certain that at some point she would end up making a mess of the paint on her lips, but for all of that she did not feel like a stranger in her own skin for once. The woman in the mirror, for all of her finery, was still as much her as when she wore her miko robes. Or even as much her as she had been in her village, clothed in dirt and frayed robes.
Kagome reached up, pressing a hand to her chest. Even through the layers she could feel the steady thump of her heart. She nodded to herself.
“Thank you. I think I am ready.”
She wasn’t ready.
Kagome bit her lip, her stomach knotting as she peered out upon the scene before her.
Courtiers filled the clearing as far as the eye could see, hundreds of jewel-bright figures milling about as they visited with one another and found their places upon the silks that had been laid out. They were framed by rows and rows of sakura trees on either side of the clearing, bud covered branches bright green with the promise of blooms soon to come. It was the same clearing in which Kagome had attended that first fateful women’s outing what seemed like almost a lifetime ago.
Ornate decorated carriages had been arranged by Midoriko and Kagome to bring the courtiers from the Heian-kyō out to the clearing, each arrayed in swathes of silk and filled with fresh spring flowers. Normally they would have been pulled by oxen, but Midoriko had had the stroke of brilliance to instead suggest that they use shikigami instead. At her request several of the onmyōji of the court had worked for almost two days to conjure enough of them to pull each cart, each one entirely formless so that it appeared as if the carriages drove themselves. From what Kagome had seen, the courtiers had appeared quite taken with this touch.
The ornate carriages now all sat on the edge of the clearing, the last of the courtiers trickling out of them.
Well, not quite the last of them. Kagome let the embroidered hanging of her carriage fall shut, forcing herself to take a deep breath as she turned to look back at her companions.
“Do we have to?” she said, unable to help herself.
Midoriko pinned her with a stern look.
Beside her Inuyasha shrugged, tugging at the kanmuri beneath which the length of his hair was pinned up.
“Keh. I say we just skip out right now,” he said. “They’ll be fine on their own and I can take this stupid thing off my head. You think if I ask that thing it’ll just take us back-?”
He fell silent as Midoriko turned her look on him.
“Fine, fine, I get it. I was just messing around, anyway,” he muttered. “...sorta.”
Midoriko sighed, her eyes sliding shut, and Kagome was certain that she was struggling to keep from rolling her eyes.
“We have planned everything down to the last detail, and done so quite well, I might add,” Midoriko said. “You both know how vital it is that we all play our roles, do you not?”
Inuyasha and Kagome shared a commiserating look before nodding, both properly chastened.
“Good,” she said. “I will go out first and trust that the both of you will follow.”
The pair nodded. She offered them a small smile before rising, brushing her hands down the length of the ceremonial chihaya she had donned over her white kosode for the occasion. The garment hung just past her knees, pristine white and patterned beautifully with swooping red cranes. She had had the length of her heavily silver-streaked hair tied back at the nape of her neck and on her brow was an ornament composed of fresh spring flowers with delicately woven silver threads hanging down from it.
She looked every bit the O-Miko, Kagome thought as she watched her be handed out of the carriage.
A warm, calloused hand settled over hers and she blinked, turning back to Inuyasha.
He, too, was a sight to behold, having forsaken the traditional ceremonial kikūjin for his favored shade of crimson in his shitagasane, the material patterned all over with golden images of fearsome inu-youkai. His hakama were a matching crimson and the mass of his silver hair had been pinned up beneath the most elaborate kanmuri she had yet seen. Studying him, Kagome realized his garments actually complemented hers quite well.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, interrupting the thought. “We’ll do it just like you planned with Midoriko. We chat with the bastards for a while, we eat, and then we leave. Easy.”
Kagome frowned, eyeing him.
“That’s not exactly the plan,” she said. “But I appreciate the sentiment. I just...these things always make me so nervous. Like one misstep and…”
She trailed off, shaking her head. He squeezed her hand, a sympathetic quirk to the corner of his lips.
“Believe me, I fucking get it,” he said. “But I know you. You worry a lot and then do it better than most of those bastards could even dream. ‘Sides, we both know how important this is.”
Kagome’s eyes widened, a sudden rush of warmth filling her chest. A shy smile crept across her face and she squeezed his hand in return.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “You’re right. The appointments are crucial to everything we want to do going forward. I’ll make certain that this goes off without a hitch.”
Inuyasha frowned, his brow knitting for a moment. Then he blinked, seeming to recall something.
“The appointments,” he murmured. “Right. Yeah.”
The warmth dissipated somewhat.
“What did you think we were talking about, Inuyasha?”
Shrugging, he shook his head in a jerky motion that he repeated a few times too many.
“The appointments,” he said hurriedly. “Obviously. That...we were obviously both talking about that.”
Kagome’s frown deepened.
But he had withdrawn his hand from hers, placing both hands on her shoulders to scoot her unceremoniously towards the carriage hanging.
“Midoriko’s waiting,” he said. “Better hurry or she’ll be pissed.”
It was too late, though, as a hand had already reached up at the sight of the hanging moving to assist her out of the carriage. Kagome turned back, shooting Inuyasha a glare before taking the proffered hand and stepping out into the clearing.
The chatter that filled the clearing seemed loud after the relative quiet of the carriage, the sounds sweeping over her so suddenly that she was almost disoriented. The servant handing her out of the carriage released her hand, bowing, and Kagome only just remembered to thank him before starting forward on legs that she felt oddly disconnected from.
They had arranged the space of the clearing into three distinct sections arranged around a central circle that had been left purposefully empty. This allowed the Taira, the Tachibana, and the Minamoto to arrange themselves and their minor clan branches as they wished without having to intermingle if they did not wish. Initially Kagome had thought to include a space for the Fujiwara, as well, but Midoriko had quickly pointed out that in addition to there being very few members of that clan remaining within the court the gesture was also not likely to be received very well after all that had occurred. Reluctantly Kagome had agreed.
At the head of the empty central space that the three sections surrounded they had had a raised dais constructed that would serve as Inuyasha’s place during the festivities. Kagome’s place was to be there, as well, and she fixed her eyes upon it as she moved forward.
Midoriko was already several lengths ahead of her, moving amidst the throngs of courtiers with a grace and ease that Kagome could not help but envy. Because of the centrality of her role in the ceremony she, too, had been prepared a place upon the dais which she was moving steadily towards.
Taking a deep breath, Kagome lifted her chin and schooled her features into a semblance of what she hoped was calm. She was almost close enough to be seen now and-
And there was someone at her side.
She blinked, her eyes widening as she turned her head to find Inuyasha there. He did not meet her look, his gaze fixed steadily ahead as if he had not seen her.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “You’re supposed to wait until Midoriko-sama and I have reached the dais!”
“I got bored,” he returned. “‘Sides, you move so slow, who knows when it’ll be that you finally make it up there? And before you decide to make a stink, just know that they’re starting to look.”
One quick glance back at the crowd told her he was right. Heads were slowly beginning to turn in their direction, some of the courtiers on the fringes of the clearing having caught sight of them. Kagome knew enough to know it would be only a matter of moments before they were all aware.
She bit the inside of her cheek, well aware of the impropriety of the situation and at a loss to do anything to prevent it without making a fool of herself and possibly Inuyasha before the entire court.
“You know better than this, Inuyasha,” she murmured, so softly that she knew only his ears would be able to catch it.
“I know worse, too,” he returned. “Relax, Kagome. You wanted to give them a show, so let’s give them one.”
And with that, before she could so much as blink, he slipped his arm through hers and started purposefully forward. Kagome had to fight to keep from stumbling on the height of her geta as he lengthened his strides, the only thought she could process in that moment that one way or another she would have her revenge for this.
Thankfully he slowed his steps as they reached the outer edge of where the courtiers were arranged, allowing her a moment to once again compose herself. She straightened her shoulders and plastered on a serene smile, slipping her fan open in her hand at her side.
Almost as one they took their first step into the midst of the crowd. Kagome raised her fan, feeling a slight spark of excitement race through her. This had been meant for Inuyasha’s entrance, but she supposed there was no help for it now.
Twisting the fan in her hand, she swept it out in an expansive gesture of welcome.
Immediately a breeze kicked up, so strong that gasps and cries rippled through the crowd as robes and fans were lifted in it. At the same moment the world all around the clearing exploded into vibrant color, row after row of sakura trees bursting into full bloom.
The breeze swept around and through the vibrant pink blossoms, picking up petals and blooms alike. In mere moments the entire clearing was awash in a haze of drifting flowers, the air filled with the heady scent of spring.
Slowly Inuyasha and Kagome began to move forward, the latter’s smile growing wider at the sight of the wide-eyed awe of the courtiers around them. Petals alighted gently on hair, faces, and robes, littering the pathway beneath their feet until it had become carpeted entirely in them. Kagome had once thought that the clearing would truly be something to behold in the full bloom of spring, but she was ecstatic to realize that she had not been able to picture even the half of its dreamlike quality.
All around them courtiers bowed down as the pair passed, murmurs and exclamations of wonder and approval echoing in their wake. The beauty of the scene seemed to have overcome even the impropriety of their entrance together, for which Kagome was deeply grateful.
She was also pleased to see the respect with which many now seemed to regard Inuyasha as they passed. Hardly a single fan shifted in any gesture save that of esteem or admiration and there was nothing grudging in their bows, save for the groups that composed the main branch of the Taira clan. Knowing as she now did who controlled them, though, that was little wonder.
As they came within sight of the dais Midoriko caught Kagome’s eye, a smile so wide it deepened the lines around her eyes stretching across her face. She nodded in approval and Kagome returned the gesture with a bow of her head.
It had been no easy feat for the two of them to call forth the kodama that inhabited this sakura grove, let alone to convince them to go along with their plan of making the sakura bloom for them. The kodama cared for little beyond the well-being of their trees, after all, so there was no material offer that they could make that would hold any interest for them. Thankfully Midoriko understood enough of their nature to know that they loved little more than the admiration of people for the beauty of nature. Promising them hundreds of admiring eyes all at once had proven enough of a temptation to get them to agree in the end.
Summoning up the wind had been an easier matter. Kagura had agreed to manipulate it readily enough when asked, the request providing her with just the pretense she needed to feed to Naraku as to how she had manipulated Kagome into choosing herself, Kanna, and Byakuya for the appointments. She would simply tell him that Kagome had reluctantly sought her out in desperation-there were very few youkai capable of controlling the winds, after all-and she had agreed in return to secure their spots.
The pair reached the dais and Inuyasha guided Kagome to the cushion on the left, one tier down from his own. She bowed her head to Midoriko where she was seated just one tier lower on the right as Inuyasha ascended past them both, taking up his place at the head of the ceremony.
He turned out to face the crowd, the length of his hakama and shitagasane billowing in the breeze. Swathes of sakura petals continued to rain down around him as his golden eyes slowly surveyed the courtiers before him and for all her annoyance at his cavalier behavior Kagome could not help the smile that stretched across her face. It was perhaps the most regal that he had ever looked.
“Cousins,” he said at last, his voice echoing out over the crowd. “Welcome. We thank you for your presence here on this day, a day on which we gather not only to revive the traditions of old, but also to build the traditions that will define who we are to become after this. We gather to resume the appointments of my father’s time, to once more bind together a court that has been too long fractured by fear and strife. We gather to begin to build a court strong enough not only to stand united within itself, but also strong enough to unite the nation around its strength. We gather to celebrate Amaterasu’s return of light to the world, her gift of spring and the chance for rebirth that it brings with it. We gather to celebrate the gift of her light that Ametarasu has given to the Tennō, and that she gives to all she deems worthy to lead. Now, let the ceremony begin!”
At the raising of his hands the winds kicked up once more, so strong this time that for several long moments nothing was visible past the thick swirl of sakura in the air. As the wind calmed, though, a large column of petals continued to twist and writhe in the central space around which they were all situated.
All eyes shifted towards the column, the wind making it appear almost to dance in their midst, and suddenly the deep, pulsing sound of the da-daiko drum began to echo throughout the clearing.
Abruptly the column dissipated, dissolving into a shower of petals. In its midst was revealed the source of the drumming, a group of costumed mikagura dancers. The man at the drums sped up his tempo, the deep booming sounds increasing almost to the point of frenzy as the dancers stood as if frozen.
Suddenly one of them let loose a yell, a high, reverberating sound that seemed to fill the entire clearing, and the other dancers began to move as one. The play had begun.
Gasps and cries went up from the crowd, fans sweeping in gestures of delight. The dancers were whirls of ornately embroidered silks, their otherworldly masks flashing out from behind fans in startling contrast to the grace of their movements. Each wore the face of a kami for the dance and held in their hands a small strand of bells that chimed in time with their every movement.
In the center stood the masked Amaterasu. In turn each of the kami moved around her, twisting and turning in their pleas for her to emerge from the cave and once more return light to the world. She in turn would pivot away from them, refusing to be moved or to show them her face.
After several turns of this the music began to swell, the beat of the drum quickening in time with the playing of the komabue as all the kami joined together to surround Amaterasu. Their bells chimed in harmony as they circled her, holding out to her their offerings that she might emerge and bring light and order to the world once more.
One by one she accepted them-the mirror, the sword, and the jewel. The other kami made their final circle around her as she stepped forth, turning slowly to present the three treasures to the crowd.
The sky overhead, a muted cloudy grey that several had commented would surely ruin the ceremony with its gloom if not with an afternoon storm, lightened, a shaft of sunlight breaking through to shine down on the now-emerged Amaterasu. She turned, the other kami parting to make way for her. The shaft of light trailed in her wake as she made her way with deliberate steps towards the dais.
The music swelled once more as she climbed the steps and Inuyasha rose, receiving from her the three treasures. Each bowed their head to the other and Amaterasu stepped back. The shaft of light, however, remained, bathing Inuyasha in golden light as he held the three treasures aloft.
Kagome beamed at the sight as a hush fell over the courtiers, even the music of the dance fading out. There could be no more clear picture of the Tennō than the one he made in that moment, a mixture of strength and benevolence that made her heart ache.
Her smile faded, though, as Amaterasu paused in her descent from the dais to face her. She blinked as the figure offered a hand to her, the masked face staring down into her own.
A jolt of panic went through her. This had not been a part of the plan at all. Amaterasu was supposed to descend after presenting the Tennō with the three treasures, the proof of his right to rule, and then the performance was to be finished.
Kagome darted a glance up at Inuyasha, eyes wide. He gestured with his chin to the woman’s proffered hand, his expression strangely unperturbed by the sudden deviation. Hesitantly Kagome reached out, placing her hand within the other woman’s for lack of any better course of action.
The woman drew her up onto her feet, slowly leaning forward until her mask rested against the sun ornament up Kagome’s brow. One of her hands reached out, pressing lightly over the shoulder which bore the sun mark before withdrawing.
After a moment that felt like a small eternity to Kagome, Amaterasu pulled back. The sunlight that bathed her flared around Kagome, illuminating brilliantly the sun ornament upon her brow and the golden suns embroidered into her juni-hito. Kagome had to squint her eyes against it to keep from being blinded, only just barely able to see it as Amaterasu withdrew from her and descended to the foot of the dais.
Amaterasu bowed before the dazzled courtiers, removing the mask as she rose to reveal Midoriko. In the distraction of the breeze and the blossoms she had donned her mask and moved into the center to join the dancers. She smiled, the warmth in her eyes that of deep satisfaction as she surveyed the courtiers.
“Cousins,” she said, raising her voice to carry over the crowd. “It was the gift of Amaterasu-sama’s light that brought to this world order and the hope of a future filled with abundance for all of her children. It is this gift of light that she passes to those she deems worthy, those she knows will use her blessings to bring about that world of plenty that she so greatly desires for us. To them it is given the divine right to lead us forward. Now, in celebration of the bounties to come during this season, please enjoy the bounties we have provided before you.”
A murmur went up as the courtiers looked down at the low, long tables arranged before them, a vast array of dishes having appeared upon each one sometime during the performance. The shikigami from the carriages had made quick, quiet work of this while they were distracted, carrying the dishes in from the one carriage that had been filled with them. Midoriko had arranged for a vast number of dishes to be provided, rare Chinese delicacies mixing with lavish dishes unique to the court to create an array that could not fail to appeal to even the most refined of tastes.
The music resumed as the courtiers began to eat, fans and mouths moving rapidly in comment on the performance as they did. The light around Midoriko, Inuyasha, and Kagome dissipated, for which the latter was immensely grateful. The light was illusionary, created by a small group of tanuki that she and Midoriko had managed to find in the market who were hiding beyond the line of the sakura, but it was still a relief to be out of it.
Kagome resumed her place kneeling on the dais, eyeing Midoriko as the elder miko did the same below her.
“Midoriko-sama,” she murmured lowly as soon as she was certain that the courtiers' attention was no longer focused upon them.
Midoriko made a faint sound of acknowledgement, her eyes following several dishes as they bobbed towards her in the invisible hands of the shikigami. They set them down with a clatter before her and Midoriko took up her hashi.
“I do not recall us discussing that last bit when we spoke of the performance,” Kagome continued, unable to help the faintly accusatory note that crept into her voice.
For several moments Midoriko did not respond, chewing slowly at her food. Her expression betrayed nothing, but she would not meet Kagome’s eye.
“Well, the Tennō-sama and I discussed it,” she said at last. “And we felt that there was no harm in reminding the court of your strong connection to Amaterasu-sama. There are not many who can claim a personal connection to a kami, after all, let alone to her.”
Kagome turned her head sharply, pinning Inuyasha with a look. He froze, hashi halfway in his mouth as he took a bite. He winced faintly around the mouthful at the sight of her.
“Is this what the two of you have been conspiring about?” Kagome hissed. “These clothes and performance? This ceremony is supposed to be about you and your connection to Amaterasu and the courtiers through the appointments. Why distract everyone? And why not at least warn me about it?”
“We were hardly conspiring-”
“You woulda said no-”
Midoriko and Inuyasha both paused, glancing at one another. Midoriko inclined her head to indicate he could continue.
“If it’s my ceremony, then I get to decide what’s included,” he said. “And I think it’s just as important that they understand your position here as mine.”
“His Majesty is right,” Midoriko said. “Intended or not, you have taken on a large role here in the court. It is well past time that they come to acknowledge that-to acknowledge you.”
She offered her a small smile before turning back to resume her meal. Kagome glanced from her to Inuyasha, though his attention was likewise back on his food. She frowned, the niggling feeling that she was missing something important tugging at her.
Inuyasha caught her look, his eyes narrowing. He swallowed, gesturing with his hashi to the food in front of her.
“Eat,” he said. “This is the only chance you’ll get until the ceremonie’s over and I don’t wanna hear your stomach grumbling.”
Kagome wanted to protest, to demand he give her some sort of explanation that she could understand for the oddity of his and Midoriko’s behavior. Still, now was neither the time nor the place for it. She could not allow any appearance of dissension between them before the court.
Besides, despite everything she was hungry. Reluctantly she took up her hashi, vowing to herself that she would get answers from them both later.
As she ate she surreptitiously observed the courtiers. So far everything had gone off without a hitch-barring perhaps the little deviations that Midoriko and Inuyasha had thrown at her- and the mood among the courtiers seemed good overall. There was little they could complain of in terms of the ceremony, Midoriko had seen to that. The sight that the clearing made, sakura petals stirring on the breeze and carpeting the ground, was nothing short of wondrous. The use of the shikigami had been inspired, likely a first in the court, and the troupe that they had hired to perform the mikagura were amazingly skilled. The food and the music of the gagaku were beyond reproach, as well.
Still, here and there she could see odd fan gestures being exchanged. Short, sharp gestures of incredulity and surprise, even gestures of shock from some. The gestures were scattered here and there throughout all three of the groups. From her place on the dais it was impossible to catch wind of any words that might accompany these silent conversations, frustrating Kagome to no end as she attempted to puzzle out what the gestures might mean.
They could simply be in regards to the ceremony, surprise at one or another of the unique aspects of it. Somehow, though, that did not seem to fit. There was something more to them, some deeper upset that she could not quite place.
Before she could come to any real conclusions, her attention was diverted by a gesture from Midoriko. The elder miko glanced up at her, gesturing toward the troupe of performers in the central space. Kagome had been so preoccupied that she had failed to notice that they had ceased playing. It was time, then.
She instantly regretted the food she had just consumed, her stomach clenching uneasily around it.There was no helping it, though. However reluctantly, she had agreed to this.
Taking a steadying breath, she forced herself to rise and descend the dais. She could feel the weight of the courtiers’ gazes like a physical force as she moved forward toward the central space, the performers there parting at her approach to leave only one masked woman kneeling with a yamatogoto before her.
Kagome stopped beside the woman, forcing herself to pause and allow her eyes to sweep out over the crowd. She slid her fan open at her side, bringing it slowly up to cover her face. Taking up the signal, the masked woman plucked the first low, ringing note on the yamatogoto.
Kagome shifted, drawing the fan down from her face. She twisted it in her grasp, sweeping it out before her before lifting it to rest beneath her chin. A shaft of light once more broke through the gloom of the clouds above, illuminating her.
Taking a deep breath, Kagome sang:
“Ten thousand years of
Shall we serve humbly
Greeting the coming year…
Yorozu yo no
Haru no hajime no
Kyō shi yori
Toshi ni aitsutsu…”
The last notes of the yamatogoto shivered in the air as her voice trailed off. Kagome opened her eyes, hardly having realized that she had closed them, and swept her fan out in a gesture of completion before bowing her head to the crowd. She bowed also to the woman at her side, sweeping her fan in a gesture of thanks that the woman returned with a deep bow.
The thrumming of her pulse echoed in her ears, almost drowning out the chatter from the crowd around her. Absently she noted the bright sweeps of color all throughout the crowd that were waving of fans, but she forced her attention away from trying to decipher what each might mean. She raised her arms, refocusing their attention and schooling her features into what she hoped was a look of serene authority. She doubted its effect, though, as she could feel beads of sweat beginning to form at the neck of her robes.
“Cousins,” she said, her voice as carrying as she could make it. “I offer up this composition to the glory of the Tennō-sama, long may his Majesty’s reign be. I thank you again for joining with us on this day to celebrate the old and the new. We have shown you already the honored traditions of old-the re-emergence of Amaterasu-sama’s light into the world and her gift of that light to the Tennō-sama.”
“Now it is time that we speak of the new, particularly the new bonds that we will forge today between your clans and his Majesty. Too long this court has been allowed to exist divided. Too long have fear and greed reigned here. We cast no blame for it. It is only too easy to be led astray. We ask only that you move forward with us in good faith and in the desire not only to restore what once was, but to improve it. As spring begins the rebirth of our lands, so let us all be reborn with it.”
She paused, her eyes sweeping out over the crowd. To her great surprise they were utterly still, hundreds of eyes fixated on her as if they could not look away. She had their attention. Perhaps they could understand her, then.
Kagome took a deep breath, lowering her arms. With hands that trembled slightly she reached into the depth of her sleeve and pulled out the small piece of parchment on which she had transcribed the names Chūsei had given her before the ceremony. She unrolled it before lifting her gaze back to the crowd.
“In this the season of Amaterasu-sama’s return, the O-Miko-sama and myself thought it most fitting to pray to her for guidance as to those best suited to come into the Dairi to begin the task of reunifying the court with his Majesty,” Kagome said. “Here I have written the names that Amaterasu-sama in her infinite wisdom has provided to us. If you hear your name called, please rise and join me here.”
She lifted the parchment, reading out the names there. There were sixty-seven in total, three taken from each of the three remaining major clans and two from every minor clan that numbered over fifty members. As she spoke their names, each rose and moved to join her in the center. As they moved the same beam of light that illuminated Kagome spread to them until at last the entire central space was bathed in warm, golden light. The wind kicked up once more, as well, sakura blossoms filling the air with their gentle scent.
Kagome looked around when she had finished, many of the faces familiar though most she had never put a name to before. Among them she even knew a few-Kagura, of course, and to a lesser degree her sister Taira Kanna. Tachibana Hisana, Sango’s cousin who had been so kind to her when she was yet new to the court. And Akitoki Hōjō, beaming at her with such a look of pride on his face that she could not help but smile in return.
It was he who was the first to bow before her. He knelt down, bowing until his face nearly touched the carpet of sakura petals that covered the ground. After a moment’s pause the others followed his lead, kneeling and bowing low before her. Kagura, Kanna, and Byakuya were the last to follow suit, but even they submitted at last to the necessity of it.
Bathed in golden light, sakura blossoms dancing through the air all around her, Kagome looked up those rows of bowed heads and felt a surge of certainty so strong that it trembled through her limbs.
Glancing back, she met Inuyasha’s eyes and saw in them the same glow that she knew must also be in her own. Because she knew.
They had finally found it. This was the path to their future.