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Behind the Silk Screen

Chapter Text


The low intonation of the sacred words murmured softly through the silence of the room, inflection dipping and leaping like the trickle of a stream over smooth stones. Soft light gathered in small, work-calloused hands, poised just above the pitiful form of a prostrate child on a dirt-packed floor. The hands hovered searchingly over the length of the boy's body- head to foot, foot to head-halting just above the center of the boy's stomach.

With gentle pressure the hands pushed down. The boy began to shudder.

The shudders grew quickly into convulsions that wracked his small frame, and a sound like the scream of wind whipping through a narrow valley filled the room. A shadow, writhing and twisting, seeped slowly up from the boy, lingering briefly above him before slipping out through the thatched roof of the small, crude hut.

The boy lay still once more, his face relaxing into untroubled slumber.

Kagome sighed softly, leaning back and placing her hands in her lap as the glow faded from them. She turned to the two pale countenances sitting at the small boy's feet, offering them a reassuring smile.

"He should be fine now. It was just an unsettled spirit making him sick. A little rest and he'll be right back to normal."

There was a rasping exhalation from the woman, the little boy's mother, that Kagome could only assume was relief. The man, the boy's father, solemnly placed both of his palms before him on the floor and bowed until his forehead nearly touched the dirt.

"We thank you deeply, Miko-sama. You are welcome to anything in our possession as payment."

"No, no. It's not necessary. I'm glad I was able to help," Kagome protested, standing and dusting off her tattered red hakama. Slinging her longbow and arrows up over her shoulder, she bowed in return.

"If it's alright, I'll be back to check on him in a few days. I want to make certain that that spirit doesn't come back to bother him while he's still recovering."

"You're welcome anytime, Miko-sama," the wife spoke up, her smile infinitely grateful as only a mother's could be. "But the spirits certainly seem to be unsettled lately. My Taro is the third one you've had to take care of this month. I don't know what this village would do if we didn't have you to protect us."

Kagome's smile faltered for a moment. She readjusted the quiver on her shoulder self-consciously.

"It's very kind of you to say so…" she murmured, eyes downcast. "I should be going now, though. I promised Mama that I would help out in the fields today."

Bobbing a bow to the two, Kagome exited the hut quickly.

Clouds hung low and dark in the sky outside, as they had been wont to do for the past few months. The downpour would start soon, Kagome lamented to herself.

All of the rain they had been receiving had overflowed the banks of the river on which her small village was situated, drowning much of what had been a meager crop to begin with. Winter would be upon them soon and what little grain they had in reserve would be used up quickly. The village would be in no small amount of trouble if something was not done soon.

Kagome sighed. She had been turning the situation over and over in her head for nearly two months now, and she only ever seemed to find new worries to concern herself with. There were only two solutions that she had been able to come up with for all her sleepless nights, each of them implausible at best.

One would be to trade with a neighboring village for a supply of grain to last through the winter. Unfortunately her village had so little surplus of anything that it was unlikely that another village could be persuaded to trade, if that village even happened to have enough to spare.

Another obstacle in that plan would be the recent decimation of numerous villages by a horde of restless youkai. She and Kaede, the village's elder miko, had managed to erect a barrier strong enough to protect their own small village from the attacks, but many other villages with lesser spiritualists or none at all had been destroyed. That was what she had heard from the few merchants that had passed through the village, anyway. So there was no way of knowing how long it might take to even reach the closest village still standing.

The second option would be to make the long journey to the imperial court in Heian and beg for some sort of aid. But in addition to the time it would take just to get there, it would take even longer for the decision to be made as to whether or not aid would be granted. And even if it was, there was no telling what kind of payment would be asked of her village in return.

To top it all off the spirits and youkai had been restless for months, their agitation grating constantly on her spiritual sense. The horde that had swept through destroying villages was merely one extreme manifestation of their growing malcontent.

Kagome sighed again, a small frustrated huff, as one hand came up to press at her temple. Certainly she and Kaede had managed to protect the village, but where was their so-called Tennō when his subjects needed his help? Walled up in his grandiose palace and too busy with courtly affairs to concern himself with them, no doubt.

Or at least that was the way that Jii-chan had explained court life to be after having visited the court once in his youth. Kagome herself had never once encountered a courtier and had never had the time to venture much outside of her village, let alone anywhere near Heian.

The wind kicked up suddenly, sweeping up the slope atop which Kagome stood as the downpour began. The miko's eyes slid closed as she felt the cool drops trickle down her face, silently asking the kami what their reasons could possibly be for allowing this to happen to her village.

There was no response. There was never a response.

The rain continued to pour. All of her ever-growing worries clamored for attention in the darkness behind her eyelids. For a brief, choking moment Kagome could feel her future unfolding before her, long and dark and difficult.

Kagome drew in a deep breath, opening her eyes. One moment at a time. That was how she had to do this. That was how she was going to get them all through this.

Nodding to herself, she set off down the hill to begin checking the barriers.


After what felt like a small, damp eternity, Kagome finished her checks and began her slogging journey up the largest hill in the village through the raging downpour, on her way to the village's temple. Though "temple" seemed a gross exaggeration as far as the shabby little structure was concerned. It was more of an enlarged hut really, but with stronger thatching on the roof and slightly thicker walls. It was, however, all that her humble village could afford.

Kagome pushed the thick, coarse mat hanging in the doorway aside as she entered, ringing what water she could from her hair and trailing sleeves.

"Kaede-sama, I was just out checking the barriers and…" Kagome trailed off as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the room.

Kaede sat beside the fire pit in the center of the room, a cup of tea clutched between her rough, weathered hands. The good tea cups, Kagome noted absently.

But it was the stranger seated across from Kaede that froze Kagome's familiar greeting on her lips. He turned away from the fire to face her, a friendly smile gracing handsome features and a couple of fine gold rings in his right ear catching the light.

Kagome flushed in embarrassment. She realized simultaneously why Kaede had brought out the good teacups and that she looked like a living landslide, drenched and splattered with muck.

"Kagome, child," Kaede called, her rasping voice firm enough to shake Kagome from her stupor. "This is Shingon Miroku-sama. He is a houshi visiting us from the imperial court."

Prompted by Kaede's words, Kagome lowered herself gracefully down onto her knees in the doorway.

She bowed low, hoping the gesture would somewhat mitigate her bedraggled  appearance.

"It is an honor to meet you, Houshi-sama," Kagome said formally, just as Kaede had taught her. "Please excuse my breach of manners and my…less than proper appearance. I was not aware that we would be receiving an esteemed guest today."

"Not at all, Kagome-chan," Miroku returned with a chuckle, surprising Kagome with the familiar address. "After all, any man who fails to appreciate a woman who looks quite so well as you do when wet is no man at all."

Kagome rose up from her bow, her expression twisting incredulously. The houshi continued to smile his blithe smile, as if he had not ever uttered an inappropriate word in his life. Kagome's eyes slid to meet Kaede's single good one in askance, but the old miko merely shook her head in a manner that said clearly she had expected nothing less.

"Come, child, sit," Kaede instructed, motioning for the younger miko to take the place beside her near the fire.

Kagome rose hesitantly and went to her, giving the grinning houshi a wide berth. He was very clean, she noted as she passed, mentally comparing his pale skin to the ever-begrimed skin of herself and the villagers.

His short, dark hair was tidy and pulled back into another fine looking gold ornament at the nape of his neck. His dark osode and deep violet kesa were also of some rich material, obvious even from a distance. All testament to the great wealth of the court, and a poignant reminder of the lack in her own little village.

Kagome realized that she had not quite managed to keep the bitter turn of her thoughts from her face as she sat down, alerted by the slight slip of the houshi's smile and Kaede's gentle grip on her shoulder. Quickly she schooled her face into civility and offered to make another pot of tea.

The houshi replied in the negative with equal civility, if a bit more warmth. In the silence that followed Kagome reminded herself firmly that the man in front of her was not the cause of her frustrations and did not deserve to deal with them.

"What business is it that takes you so far away from the capital, Houshi-sama?" Kagome asked, forcefully shucking off the tension she had caused in the room.

"I wish to investigate the recent spiritual disturbances that have been reported in this area," Miroku responded, though Kagome caught the quick look that passed between the houshi and Kaede. "The recent youkai attacks seem to have stirred things up even further, making my job of finding the source a bit more difficult than I had expected. But rest assured that I am doing everything within my power to prevent such a tragedy from recurring."

"Are you just passing through, then, on your way to one of the wrecked villages, Houshi-sama?" Kagome said. "I think they might require your aid more than us, after all, and they might be able to provide you with more information about them. The youkai were not able to enter our village."

Another furtive glance passed between the man and her mentor.

"Actually, Kagome-chan, I decided to visit this village precisely because it was not destroyed. I was curious as to what saved your village when several of the surrounding villages were completely leveled. Kaede-sama has been informing me that this small miracle can be attributed to you," Miroku explained, his look becoming oddly intent as it came to rest fully upon her.

"No, not at all," Kagome said, slightly discomfited. "I only helped a bit. Kaede-sama was the one who did most of the work. She is just too modest to say so."

"I'm far too old for modesty, child," Kaede interrupted dryly. "If it had been me I would have said so."

"You do have quite an aura, Kagome-chan," Miroku added, the sharpness still in his eyes. "I was able to sense it from quite a distance away, actually."

"Well…" Kagome faltered, at a loss with the gaze of both her mentor and the houshi now fixed on her. The feeling of missing something important hung irritatingly just above her like smoke from the fire.

Long moments passed filled only by the pattering of the rain against the hut and the slight crackle of the fire. Miroku and Kaede sipped their tea quietly, neither of them making any moves that Kagome could see to renew their silent communication. She was stuck with nothing but vague annoyance and a few half-formed suspicions.

At length Kaede set down her mug of tea and stood, the creaking of her old joints nearly audible.

"Well, Houshi-sama, if you will excuse us, I believe Kagome's original purpose in coming here was to request my assistance in reinforcing the village barrier. As I would like to accomplish that task before night falls, we must be going. Right, child?" she said.

"Ah, yes," Kagome said, recalling her initial intent suddenly.

She rose quickly and fetched a cloak hanging on the wall, knowing that Kaede’s old age left her vulnerable in weather the likes of which continued to rage outside. Kaede nodded gratefully, wrapping the rough garment around her shoulders and head.

"Feel free to remain here in the temple for as long as you wish, Miroku-sama. It is, as always, at your disposal," Kaede offered as she and Kagome grabbed their bows and headed towards the door.

Miroku rose to join them, gold topped shakujou jangling in his hand.

"I am afraid I have already imposed on your kind hospitality for far too long, Kaede-sama," he said with a slight bow. "Besides which, I have a few matters to attend to before I must move on. I suppose we will be forced to part ways here for the time being."

Before Kagome could so much as blink he was at her side, bending over to kiss her hand. It was such a foreign gesture that she had to fight down the urge to flinch. Until she felt the quick sweep of something across her posterior. Reflex alone had her open hand connecting hard with his face, mortification chilling her as the fleshy sound echoed in the small room.

"I…I-your hand!…you…" Kagome sputtered, her own hands flapping in odd, distressed gestures that were half placating and half explanatory. By the kami, she had struck a noble!

"Not to worry, Kagome-chan. My hand slipped and you reacted as anyone would," the houshi said smoothly, gingerly touching the redness blooming across his cheek.

Kagome could not help but think that the hand on her butt had felt oddly deliberate for an accident, but managed to bite back that observation. No need to press her luck any further if he was content to leave it be.

"Let us be on our way and let Miroku-sama be on his, child," Kaede spoke up, barely suppressed laughter thickening her voice. She took Kagome's hand to lead her out like a child, but Kagome hesitated as something occurred to her.

"Umm, Miroku-sama," she ventured hesitantly. "I do not quite know how to say this, especially after hitting you like that…"

"Ah, could it be that you have fallen for me?" Miroku interjected with the utmost seriousness. "Alas, fair Kagome-chan, as beautiful as you are, I am currently in no position to take a wife, though I suppose I could at least grant you the pleasure of bearing my-"

"Ah, no, that is not it at all," Kagome interrupted, too surprised by the outlandishness of his words to remember manners. "I was just wondering if you would be returning to the capital before winter."

"Oh!" said Miroku sheepishly, though without quite the degree of embarrassment that Kagome thought fitting of the situation. "Yes, I intend to. Why do you ask?"

It was Kagome's turn to feel sheepish.

"It is just…because of all the rain and the flooding, the village's crops for this season are wrecked, and I have quickly exhausted every option I know of to keep us all from going hungry this winter. I was hoping…that you might plead to the Tennō-sama on our behalf. I am truly sorry and ashamed to request this of you, but I think you might be our best hope."

Kagome bowed low, well aware that she was putting herself at his mercy.

"Now, no need for that Kagome-chan," the houshi said. "I will be more than glad to plead on behalf of your village when I return."

"Truly?" Kagome could have hugged him, her eyes bright with relief as she raised them to look at him.

"Of course," he replied. "And all that I would ask in return is that you, Kagome-chan, would bear for me a healthy-"

"Time to go, child," Kaede cut him off, practically dragging the young woman out of the hut.

"Farewell, Kagome-chan. I am certain we will meet again," Miroku called after them as they disappeared out into the storm.

"Are we certain he's a houshi? And of the court?" Kagome asked, casting an incredulous glance backwards.

"One would hope so, child. Otherwise you've just allowed him to grope your hindquarters with only a small slap in return."

"Wonderful…"


It was not until dusk that Kagome was allowed to return home, waterlogged, exhausted, and thoroughly irritated.

Holes in the eastern-most edge of the barrier had required much more energy than she had anticipated to fix, on top of her already having expended a good amount of power in healing the child that morning. And all the while the rain had continued to pour down on their heads. Kagome could almost feel the crops dying.

To add to her irritation, Kaede had skirted neatly around every question she had asked concerning her strange visitor. While that did much in confirming her suspicions that something beyond what had been revealed was going on, in the end she was left with more questions than ever. Thus she returned home feeling rather defeated, hoping for nothing beyond changing into a dry set of clothes and crawling into her futon.

Her day, however, was nowhere near over.

Emerging from the cozy hut that she shared with her mother, brother, and grandfather was Miroku. Kagome nearly fell over.

Catching sight of her he waved cheerfully, yet again seemingly ignorant of the strangeness of his actions.

"I knew we would be meeting again, Kagome-chan. Certainly it must be fate. Though I am afraid that you are looking a bit worn after your long day."

Kagome's mouth opened and closed several times, but even a polite formality refused to spring readily to her lips. She settled for merely shaking her head, hoping to clear whatever fog had entered it.

"I see you are speechless with joy at our reunion. But come inside and sit down. We have much to discuss."

With a gentle hand on her shoulder he led her inside. Only vaguely did Kagome realize how silly it was to be led into her own home by a stranger, occupied as she was with keeping track of how low on her back his hand dared to dip.

Her mother sat inside the hut, clutching a piece of needle work in white-knuckled hands. She jerked up as they entered, as if suddenly throwing off a heavy weight. With a smile almost too wide she rose to greet them.

"Kagome, I'm so glad you're finally back. I was getting worried about you being out in this weather all day long," she fretted, wrapping her daughter in a tight embrace despite how soaked the miko was.

The embrace was oddly lingering for just a welcome-home hug, and Kagome could have sworn she felt her mother shaking faintly.

"Where are Souta and Jii-chan?" she asked, managing to put her mother at arm's length to take a look at her.

Her mother turned away quickly and went to busy herself with digging around in a small, rough trunk for a blanket. At a loss, Kagome looked to the houshi at her side. His smile was as friendly and unhelpful as ever.

Kagome's mother discovered a blanket with a tiny exclamation and quickly returned to wrap it firmly about Kagome's shoulders, leading her and Miroku to the fire pit in the center of the room. She forced them both to sit down and bustled about making a warm pot of tea in a manner so informal that Kagome had no doubt her mother and the houshi had been talking for some time before she arrived.

"May I ask what you are doing in my home, Houshi-sama?" she ventured hesitantly.

"This is the other business that I had to attend to. Though I believe your lovely and honorable mother would like to be the one to explain things fully to you," he replied.

Apprehension prickled lightly down the length of Kagome's spine. She turned to her mother.

"Mama? What's going on?" she called, halting her mother in her tracks. "Where are Souta and Jii-chan? Why have you been talking with Houshi-sama?"

Slowly the older woman set down all the trinkets she had been busying herself with. She came to sit across from the two, eyes fixed on the hands folded tightly in her lap.

The smile was gone. It had been painfully forced, Kagome realized.

Abruptly she noticed how tired her mother looked, the lines around her eyes and mouth deep. The older woman made a few helpless, pointless gestures with her hands before she was able to look her daughter in the eye.

"Kagome, dear…" she searched for words, and Kagome found herself holding her breath. "You know…you know too well what the situation here in the village is. As things stand we won't last through the winter. And even if we do, we'll still be dependent on you to keep the youkai from attacking."

"I know you're strong, dear…I know. But if things continue like this…all I can see is something that is long and difficult and painful for you. I don't want that. And I'm sure some part of you has realized it, too, and that you don't want it either, even if you're scared to say so."

"Mama," Kagome said, wanting her to stop.

She knew well enough what her future in the village would be, saddled with the weight of protecting it and yet never really belonging to it for the rest of her life. There was only one path for her to walk, and the bleakness and inevitability of it had nearly overcome her in her weaker moments.

But she had long since learned to accept it as the fate given to her. Better that she bear it with all the grace and cheer she could muster, as giving voice to her fears would only serve to trouble the villagers who depended upon her.

She refused to add another burden to the load of those who already had more than their fair share to deal with. They were strong, and it would be a grave failure on her part not to be strong, as well. That her mother had been able to see the fear in her…could the others see it, too? Was she failing them when they needed her most?

"I sent Souta and Jii-chan out to see what they could do in the way of covering the crops when Miroku-sama came requesting to speak with me," Kagome's mother plowed on relentlessly, though her voice trembled like it was all she could do not to cry.

"They both want what's best for you as well, but I didn't think that they would be able to handle this in quite the manner necessary. You've gotten beyond this village, Kagome. It's as simple as that."

"The way that Kaede-sama educated you, your immense spiritual gifts, even just by your own nature you're set apart. You've gone so far beyond all of us that the villagers can't help but clutch at you, relying on you even as they hold you as something apart from themselves. And you can't help but struggle to please them all, because that's who you are. But you'll never be happy here-it's not possible. It won't be enough for you. I'm scared that life here will crush you, will drain all the brightness I see in you."

"Mama, stop," Kagome pleaded, desperately frightened to hear the words she scarcely ever allowed herself even to think spoken aloud. "I was raised here, I'm just the same as everyone…as you…I'm a part of this village…"

"Hush now, Kagome," he mother broke in with gentle firmness, her expression slowly beginning to crumble. "You know better than that. I know better than that. You're my baby, and to watch you struggle every day…to watch you grow into someone so bright and strong…when Shingon-sama made his offer there was no choice but for me to accept."

"I know you'll be angry, but…please try to understand that I only want what's right for you," she entreated.

"I do believe that your honorable mother has only your best interests at heart. A lesser woman would not be able to do what she has done," the houshi added solemnly. Kagome jumped a little, having forgotten for a moment that he was still in the room with them.

"What has she done?" Kagome asked through lips gone numb, heart sinking like a stone through her chest to rest down in the pit of her stomach.

"Shingon-sama…has requested that you accompany him on his journey back to Heian. In a few days time, after you've packed and said your good-byes to the villagers, you'll be going with him…to live in the court as a spiritualist."

The tears that her mother had been so valiantly holding back escaped now in small, hiccupping sobs. She pressed a hand to her mouth as if to muffle the sound, her eyes meeting Kagome's in askance.

The cold and exhaustion of the day seemed to seep down into Kagome's bones. She could only stare at her sobbing mother, the woman who had just given her away.

Darkness welled up, veiling her eyes. She fainted.


 

Chapter Text

Kagome had a distinct feeling that she did not want to wake up. Although her mind struggled to grasp exactly what it was, she knew there was definitely some unpleasantness to face in the waking world were she to return to it. So she hovered indecisively on the border of consciousness, hoping to fall back into the darker depths of sleep.

There was noise, though, somewhere near her head. Some sort of raspy, snuffling noise invading the calm of her mind. It was her mother, Kagome thought with sudden insight. She was crying. Just as she had been crying before Kagome…

She suddenly recalled why she had wanted to remain asleep. Too late, though. Her mind had already begun to regain focus. With an inward grimace the she opened her eyes, resigned though not ready to deal with the oddity that was currently her reality.

Her mother's face came into focus first, directly above her. It was red and puffy, tears still dribbling forlornly from her dark brown eyes. They left small tracks of clean, tanned skin amidst the customary thin coat of dirt they all wore like a second skin in the village.

The older woman made a strangled sound when she realized her daughter was awake, her sudden motion joggling Kagome's head where it rested in her mother's lap. Her mother bent double to hug Kagome's torso tightly, mumbling nonsensical words.

"You're smothering me, Mama," Kagome protested, upset by her mother's distress.

"It's for your own good, Kagome, I swear it is," was the watery response as her mother finally regained the ability to form words.

"Smothering me is for my own good?" Kagome joked weakly, though no part of her felt like joking.

Her mother hiccuped feebly, the sound choked as she reluctantly released her daughter. "No, not that. I mean…" she trailed off, shaking her head.

Kagome, free of the stranglehold, sat up.

"Are you certain you are feeling well enough to get up, Kagome-chan?"

The question came from somewhere down by her feet. The houshi was sitting there, joined now by her brother and grandfather.

"I feel fine," Kagome replied, an edge to her tone that she could not blunt.

He was, after all, the cause of this mess.

"Are you sure you're alright, Nee-chan?" Souta piped up. "It's not like you to go and have a fainting spell."

His unsuspecting tone told Kagome that he still had no idea of what had come to pass between their mother and the houshi.

"I'm alright, really. Being out in the rain and working all day must have taken more out of me than I thought," she offered, loathe to be the one to inform him of the circumstances.

Judging by the utter silence in the room, the rain had finally stopped. After considering the situation for a moment, Kagome rose carefully.

"Might I ask you to accompany me outside, Houshi-sama?"

"Kagome," her mother said, a warning edge to her tone. Her apprehensive expression said that she anticipated violence if Kagome were allowed to be alone with the man.

"I just need to speak with him, Mama."

"Then I'll go with-"

"I need to speak with him alone, Mama," Kagome interrupted her gently.

"Then let us go outside and be alone, Kagome-chan," Miroku said, rising to join her.

"Just yell if he tries anything, Kagome," Jii-chan spoke up, giving Miroku a suspicious glance.

Her grandfather had always had an instinctive wariness of outsiders, but Kagome thought him quite justified in this instance. She surreptitiously sped up her steps, keeping just out of the range of the nobleman's hands.

"Sir, I am a houshi- a man of the cloth," Miroku protested, his expression one of exaggerated innocence.

"Yeah, yeah," Jii-chan muttered disrespectfully. Kagome turned her head to conceal a small grin.

When they had exited the hut and were far enough to be out of hearing range, Kagome spun to face the man gravely.

"I'd like an explanation of what's going on. A very thorough explanation," she demanded with only trace amounts of her former politeness.

"As long as you promise not to faint again, Kagome-chan, I will be more than happy to give you an explanation," Miroku ribbed lightly.

"Don't blindside me with any more life altering information, and I promise I won't faint again," Kagome returned, irritated at the reminder.

Miroku nodded and raised his hands in a gesture of peace. "Where would you like me to begin?"

Kagome took a moment to organize her thoughts. "How about the real reason you came to this village?"

"I truly was sent from the capital to investigate the spiritual disturbances," Miroku said. "There have been unusual occurrences all across the land, but the most prominent happenings have been here on the southern edges.”

“And though I have been unable to locate the exact source, the majority of the jyaki I have sensed has been in this general area. But there is more to it than mere investigation."

"So you lied earlier?" Kagome interjected, her expression growing stonier by the moment.

"Not lying, Kagome-chan, merely excluding a few details here and there. There is a world of distance between the two," Miroku replied with the air of something profound. Kagome scoffed in a most unladylike manner.

"But to return to my point," the houshi pressed on, the corner of his mouth tipping wryly upward. "Several reports were made by merchants and visitors to the capital about a village that had been left miraculously unscathed after the youkai rampage."

"My village?"

"Your village, indeed, as well as your miracle. I initially expected that the safety of the village could be attributed to the inhabitance of youkai nest or something equally unpleasant in it. I was quite surprised and pleased to find such a treasure as yourself in such an unlikely place."

"Listen," huffed Kagome with what fraying patience she had left, shaking her head. "Perhaps you weren't listening earlier or you thought I was just being modest, but I was serious when I said that Kaede-sama was responsible for most of it. I barely did anything."

"I was listening, but rather than modesty I believe it to be misconception on your part. Though Kaede-sama may have acted as a channel through which to funnel them, it is your powers that created the barrier that saved your village.”

“Even a spiritualist of the lowest order would be able to sense that. You have a very distinct aura, Kagome-chan, and though you may respect her deeply, Kaede-sama's pales in comparison."

There were no traces of joviality in his face or tone, not so much as an easy half-smile resting on his lips. Kagome faltered, her certainty and ire failing for a moment.

"There's no way that I…it's just…not-"

"I assure you, Kagome-chan, that I have never before encountered a spiritualist of your caliber," the houshi asserted with firm relentlessness, pressing the idea forcefully into her head. "Though your training is lacking, I believe you have the power to rival the kami themselves if handled properly."

"I thought we weren't dropping any more of that life altering information," Kagome muttered, pressing a hand to her brow as if it might help to sort out the flurry of her thoughts.

"That's the reason you want me to come to the capital?" she managed after a moment.

"I was instructed to find out the situation of this village and act accordingly. I find it very according that you should come back with me."

"But why? I mean, even if by some chance I do turn out to be as great as you think I could be, aren't there hundreds of other great spiritualists at the capital's disposal?" Kagome pleaded. She found herself wanting to lie back down, despite her resolution to have everything out in the open.

"Sadly, these past few years have seen a great decline in the number of those entering the orders, as well as the deaths of many of the greats already within them. Certainly there is no one with quite your raw potential there.”

“And in times such as we find ourselves, with spirits all across the country suddenly up in arms, your power, I am sure, would prove to be invaluable," Miroku explained with an air of slight apology.

It was impossible not to take pity on the pale young woman, with her small world suddenly being torn open at the frayed seams.

Kagome turned away from him, scrubbing roughly at her forehead with the calloused palm of her hand. She took a deep, measured breath, exhaled, took another, exhaled, and her mind slowly calmed, her agitation fading to a mild buzz in the back of her head.

It was a technique Kaede had taught her when she was young and her father had passed away. For weeks she had been so distressed that she had had trouble concentrating and, subsequently, trouble using her powers to help others who had fallen victim to the same plague that had killed her father. The technique had helped to stabilize her and to save those others that could be saved.

She grouped her thoughts carefully. Her mother had essentially promised her to the houshi and the court. She had done it for Kagome's own good, that much the young miko could understand.

And truly Kagome should have felt grateful, ecstatic even. To be taken so easily out of an existence of struggle into a secure life, to learn that far from being just another mundane spiritualist she possessed such an immense gift from the kami, to be put in a position to help hundreds with her powers rather than just the small circle of her village- all of it should have been like some wild fantasy reserved solely for her dreams.

But it was not good at all. In fact, all Kagome could feel was ill, wishing the houshi and all his grand plans for her as far away from her village as possible. She could not simply abandon her village, her responsibilities. She could not so easily let go of the burden she had been fated to bear, not after carrying it so diligently for so many years.

"I don't think they'll last long here without me, Miroku-sama," Kagome voiced at length. "I know it sounds conceited of me to say that, but they depend on me for a lot and…"

"Your honorable mother has already taken the trouble of explaining exactly how much this village depends on you. Frankly, I am surprised that you are not more eager to escape such a burdensome existence," Miroku said sympathetically.

Kagome shrugged, shaking her head. "They're my people to protect, and you see why I can't just abandon them."

"On the contrary, I see all the more reason for you to leave," Miroku said. Kagome frowned, waiting for him to elaborate.

"Another thing that your mother and I covered in our discussion was the problem of the void that would be left by your absence. As a solution, I put forth the protection of the capital in return for taking you. They will receive imperial guards, access to the imperial food supply, and any spiritualists or healers that they might have need of. In short, they should be comfortably set for the rest of their lives."

"You could really do all that?" Kagome asked incredulously.

"It would only be fair to give them at least that much in return for taking something so precious. And it would be my personal pleasure to give you a chance at a life that you might have some say in," Miroku said, the warm smile returning to his face.

"Ah…" was all Kagome could manage.

There was something wet on her face, and for a moment she wondered if it was starting to rain again. But the skies were clear.

Kagome realized she was crying. She had never felt so relieved in her entire life.

She slipped slowly down onto her knees in the muck, all of her muscles relaxing at once. Burying her face in her hands, she cried softly.

She had been struggling to do her duty by the villagers as far back as she could recall, just barely managing to keep them one step ahead of disaster at every turn. The future, however, had always been a bleak prospect, with no change in sight and little hope for improvement. But now, with this...

She sobbed, pressing clenched hands to her eyes. They were saved. She was saved. At last, the struggle seemed to be over.

"There, there," Miroku cooed soothingly, kneeling down and patting her gently on the head like a small child. "Everything will be fine now."

For the first time in a long time, Kagome was actually able to believe it.


After crying until it felt as if there were no tears left in her in front of the houshi, Kagome had been left feeling acutely embarrassed. Luckily he had seemed to understand and, after giving her a quick pat on the backside to "return her fully to her old spirit", had informed her that he would be going to prepare for their departure. He said that he would be returning to fetch her in one day's time and suggested that she should pack and say her farewells in the meantime.

Kagome had seen him off with a sheepish smile and a wave, making a mental note to ask Kaede for a staff or club of some sort as she would probably be traveling alone with the houshi all the way to the capital.

Now the young miko took a moment to close her eyes and center herself before entering the hut. Her mother might already know, but she still had to inform Jii-chan and Souta of everything that had come to pass.

She pushed aside the coarse door hanging and stepped inside. And ran straight into her mother, brother, and grandfather. She tumbled back onto the ground with a small 'oomph'.

The three were slow to move forward to help her up, all of them looking rather abashed.

"Doing a bit of eavesdropping, huh? And here you always told me that was rude, Mama," Kagome griped lightly, standing without their assistance. "How much did you hear?"

"No, Kagome, we weren't-"

"Foolish granddaughter, how could you think your grandfather would-"

"We weren't able to hear anything, Nee-chan. You went too far away from the hut," Souta put in bluntly. The other two shot him sharp looks.

"Well, alright, then," said Kagome, slightly disappointed. It would have been easier if they had simply overheard. "Why don't you all sit down and I'll explain everything."

They complied. Kagome explained.

At the end her mother was crying again, but Kagome could tell most of it was happiness. It was what she had wanted to begin with. Souta and Jii-chan were both silent for a long, strained amount of time.

At length Souta stood and brushed roughly past her out of the hut. Kagome rose instinctively to go after him but hesitated, unsure if chasing after him would be wise. She looked back towards her grandfather, awaiting his reaction.

He stared hard at her for a long moment before sighing, his old face sagging deeply. "Go after your brother. This old man, for one, understands your reasoning. And who knows, maybe you'll be able to kick that Tennō into action when you get to court."

Kagome flashed him a brief, grateful smile and rushed out. Souta was out of sight already, but she knew well enough where he would be headed. She made her way towards the river.

As she had predicted, he was there. He stood ankle deep on the muddy bank, pitching rocks into the current.

"Souta?" Kagome called tentatively.

"I don't want to talk to you," was the terse reply. He pitched a stone hard and it skipped three times before sinking.

"Then I won't talk. I'll just sit right here," Kagome said, flopping down on the muddy bank.

It hardly mattered at this point, she was such a mess. Absently she ran her fingers through her dark hair to tidy it a little, waiting.

"It's even more annoying if you just sit there and stare at me, Nee-chan," Souta snapped, a little sooner than she had expected. Kagome could not help but smile, bowing her head to hide it.

"Then what would you like me to do?" Kagome asked.

"I'd like you to just go away. That's what you're planning anyway, right?" Souta sniped, uncharacteristic scorn in his voice.

"That I can't do for you. Anything else?"

"You could explain to me exactly when you got so high and mighty that you thought you needed to move to the imperial court!" Souta barked, spinning to face her with eyes bright with feeling. "You could explain when you got so far above all the rest of us!"

"Souta…"

"Are we all some big burden to you? Do you really want to leave so badly? Have you always just been waiting for a chance to get out of here?" Souta accused, anger stealing away his good sense.

There was a rock in his hand and for a wild moment Kagome thought he might toss it at her. But he merely chucked it out into the river where it made a small splash and was carried away with the flow.

"Is that what you really think of me, Souta?" Kagome asked quietly.

He looked frustrated for a moment at her lack of real response. It was obvious that he was trying to provoke her. He was angry and wanted to fight it out. But then his fierce expression collapsed and he threw himself down beside her in the mud, pounding the ground with a fist.

"Of course that's not what I think of you. But why…why do you have to go? I don't care about all that stuff they'll give us for you. I don't care about any of that. You shouldn't have to sell yourself to save us! You shouldn't have to go…" Souta trailed off, unable to look at her.

"I'm not selling myself, Souta. I swear. The village needs the things they're going to give us, but I wouldn't go if I didn't really want to," Kagome said.

Souta shot her an accusatory look, opening his mouth to start in again.

"It's not that I want to be away from you or the village or anything," Kagome cut him off firmly. "Despite everything, I want to stay here. I love you and Mama and Jii-chan more than anything in the whole world, you know.”

“But I'm being given an opportunity that I know will never come again. I can go to the capital and learn and work at changing things for the better for all of you. I'll be put in a position to help so many people, Souta.”

“That's what Papa always said was most important, right? And that's what Kaede-sama always taught me. But I'll tell you what. If you tell me you really want me not to go, I won't go. Because I love you more than anything."

Kagome smiled at him, meaning every word of it though she was already certain of his answer. He was his father's son, after all.

"You're so embarrassing, Nee-chan, always spouting girly stuff like that," Souta whined, flushing faintly. He mumbled something else that she could not catch over the soft babble of the river.

"What was that?"

"I said, I want you to stay," Souta reiterated, turning to face her now.

"Souta," Kagome said, surprised.

Her brother smiled wryly, shaking his head.

"Just joking, Nee-chan…sorta. Maybe I just needed to get it out of my system." He chuckled humorlessly.

"I know things…haven't been easy for you, despite the way you act. There's always something scared in your eyes, and something sad.”

“I just…it's hard to just let you go like that. I can't help but think, 'what will I do now'? It's pathetic, and selfish…"

Kagome gingerly put her arm around his shoulders, aware that he was in the midst of one of those awkward in-between stages of growing up that did not much appreciate affectionate gestures. He allowed her to hug him without a struggle this once.

"I know exactly what you'll do when I'm gone."

"What?"

"You'll go on being the man of the family, just as you have been for a long time now," Kagome asserted confidently.

Souta snorted.

"If I'm the man of the family, then what's Jii-chan?"

Kagome tapped her chin thoughtfully.

"Hmm…the entertainment?" she offered. They both laughed a little at the idea.

"Seriously, though, you're more the man than I am, Nee-chan," Souta argued.

"Thanks, that makes me feel special," Kagome quipped. "But really, I've been too busy running around the village all the time to care for our family. You're the one who makes sure Mama and Jii-chan eat well and take care of themselves.”

“You light the fire pit at night when it's cold. You go out and bring down most of the game and fish for the meat. You manage the family crop plot. So whatever you might think, you are most certainly the man of the family."

"You really think so?" Souta asked.

Kagome nodded.

"Maybe you're right."

They lapsed into silence, watching the sun sink in a blaze of red and orange. It reflected dazzlingly off of the water.

"You'll come back and visit, right?" Souta asked.

"Every chance I get," Kagome replied firmly.

"I'll…miss you, Nee-chan," Souta admitted quietly. He looked painfully embarrassed.

"Awwww, I'll miss you, too," Kagome cooed teasingly, pulling him to her and kissing wetly him on both cheeks. He struggled now, laughing a little and trying to pull away.

"Gross, Nee-chan! Sto-…Stop it! You're so embarrassing!"

The two had made their peace. Even so, Kagome felt a bit like crying.


The rest of the night passed without event. The two returned to the hut and Kagome's family helped her to begin packing before they all retired for the night, exhausted in every sense of the word.

They slept with their futons closely huddled together for the first time since Kagome's father had passed away. It seemed appropriate, and Kagome savored the feeling of their warmth surrounding her.

In the morning they rose late, a luxury that was unusual for them. They finished packing with much fuss from Kagome's mother, who insisted that she pack the family's finest kimono for the miko's arrival in the capital. Jii-chan, of course, insisted that Kagome pack every hokey protection amulet that the family owned, including a rather questionable looking dried bird's foot.

Kagome had protested that she was nearly carrying the whole hut away with her, but had quietly savored all of the familial fussing and concern.

Eventually, after they had frittered away as much time as possible with packing, the time came for Kagome to make her rounds. She did not relish the idea, though she was very fond of many of the villagers. Nonetheless she made her way out and slowly worked through the huts, saying her good-byes and placing her last blessings on the inhabitants.

Reactions were mixed, from tearful well-wishers to those that threw themselves at her feet and begged her not to go. A few, Kagome could tell with a sinking heart, were resentful, either seeing her departure as a betrayal or angry at her chance at something that might as well have been oceans away from them. It could not be helped, though, and she bore it with all the grace that she could muster.

At last Kagome reached the village's largest hill and the temple atop it, her final stop for the day. Her family fell away from her at that point, understanding that she wanted to say her farewell to her long-time mentor alone.

With a deep, heavy feeling of finality, Kagome climbed the hill and entered the temple for the last time.

Kaede-sama sat facing the door, looking as if she had been expecting her student at any moment. Though that would not have surprised Kagome much, considering how fast news spread in such a tiny village as hers. She bowed to the elder miko, a formality the two rarely observed.

"My dear child, sit down," Kaede ordered gently.

Kagome complied, coming to sit across from her.

"I-"

"I already understand the situation, child, and I'm certain your poor lips have had enough of explanations to last several lifetimes, so why don't we just skip to the important things," Kaede preempted her, holding up a gnarled hand.

"This is what you were speaking to Miroku-sama about yesterday, isn't it?" Kagome asked, events suddenly connecting in her mind.

"Yes, it was. Miroku-sama came seeking answers as to this village and I provided them. He then inquired into your particular situation in the village and as to whether or not I thought it wise that you accompany him. I told him that I did think it prudent, though I believe he would have tried for you either way. He is quite stubborn in that way," Kaede said with an indulgent half-smile.

Kagome frowned, something odd catching her attention.

"You speak of Miroku-sama in a very familiar manner," she stated, a question lacing her words.

"We had met and become slightly acquainted before our unexpected reunion yesterday," Kaede answered the implied question.

"But the houshi has never been to this village before that I can remember…Wait, you don't mean…" Kagome trailed off, disbelieving.

"As hard as it may be for you believe, child, I did once reside in the capital as a spiritualist. For reasons I would prefer not to disclose, I chose to leave that life for a simpler one.”

“Actually, though it may rile you a bit to learn it, I chose this village to live in because of you. I had never seen such a brilliant aura before," Kaede explained, her voice soft with the air of remembering something awe-inspiring.

"Because of me?" Kagome echoed dumbly.

It all made sense, oddly enough. Though she had not thought much on it at the time, Kaede had come into the village when Kagome was already seven years old.

How else would Kaede have learned how to read and write, as she had taught Kagome to do? Not to mention all of the etiquette lessons that the elder miko had given to the younger. Still, it was difficult to comprehend.

"Are you sure you don't want to talk about why you left?" Kagome pressed, deeply curious.

"I'm quite certain," Kaede replied, unyielding.

"Alright, then," Kagome surrendered, a bit disappointed. "Well, then, how do you think I'll fare in the capital?"

"I won't lie to appease you worries, child," Kaede warned.

Kagome nodded eagerly.

"Well, then, I suppose it will be a struggle for you. Though I have taught you as much as I am able, your manners are nowhere near those of a courtier born and bred. Nor do I think you cunning enough to deal well with all of the deceptions that are commonplace in the world of the court.”

“You also have the fact that you were neither born nor raised among them to contend with, and they have never thought well of outsiders. Add to all of that the strenuous spiritual training you will undoubtedly have to undergo. Other than that, however, I believe you might have quite a wonderful time."

"Well, you said you wouldn't be easing my worries," Kagome mumbled, though she was really only vaguely troubled. It all still felt very far away. "I suppose I can only try my best."

"There's the child I love," Kaede said fondly. "Don't let them pervert that spirit of yours, no matter what. Stand as an example, even if you have to stand all alone."

Kagome smiled, warmed by Kaede's affection.

"Thank you, Kaede-sama, for all that you have done for me."

She bowed low, hoping that even in its simplicity the gesture was enough to express her deep gratitude.

"Good-bye, child."

"Take care, Kaede-sama."

An understanding ran deep between them. Words were inadequate and unnecessary. Kagome smiled. Kaede smiled back. The young miko left.


Kagome returned to her hut to eat her last meal with her family and wait out the time until the houshi came to retrieve her, knowing that it would only be a matter of time. The majority of the meal was whiled away with small talk, as no one was willing to acknowledge the inevitable.

The knock came at last, a gentle rapping on one of the walls. The houshi obviously wanted to give her a bit of privacy in which to say her final farewells. Kagome was grateful for the small gesture. With a deep breath filling her lungs, she put down her bowl and stood to look over her family.

"This is it," she said, though it was rather unnecessary.

"Now, don't exaggerate, dear. This isn't any 'it', just another little happening in life. You'll be back when you can, very soon I'm sure," her mother chided her shakily, standing as well.

She embraced her daughter in a hold fit to strangle a bear, and Kagome returned the hug with equal force. She breathed deeply, imprinting firmly in her mind the smell of mud and rain and the river.

"You're right, Mama. I'm sure I'll be back in no time at all," Kagome said, though she knew neither of them believed it.

Her brother stood next and gave her a swift, masculine sort of one armed hug.

"Don't worry about anything here. I'll take care of it all," Souta declared with a certainty meant to send her off at ease. Kagome bent down and kissed the crown of his head, despite his protests.

She walked over to her grandfather who had remained seated and kissed him on the temple. He patted one of her hands, smiling a gap-toothed smile up at her.

"Don't let them change you, dear girl. Whatever they say, you'll never be better off than you are now."

Kagome nodded and went to pick up her heavy sack of things, fine kimono, faulty protection charms, and all. She slung it over her shoulder, buckling a little under its weight before straightening back up.

Viciously she bit her lower lip, swallowing back the tears that threatened to overflow. She flashed her family one last smile, though it wobbled a bit at the corners.

"I will definitely be back, so keep a futon laid out for me, alright?" she said.

They all nodded, and Kagome could only assume that their silence meant they were struggling as hard as she was to part without tears. With hurried steps Kagome exited the hut.

Her throat was too tight for her to say anything to the houshi, but he seemed to understand this. Without a word he took her sack and went about hitching it to the back of his large, dark horse alongside his things.

Kagome shifted agitatedly from foot to foot while watching him, glancing back every now and again to see if any of her family happened to be peeking out to watch her go. She did not see any of them and was slightly thankful. She was not sure that she could actually go through with this were she to see them now.

A short eternity later and Miroku was finished, turning back to help her mount the horse. His hands remained respectful as he lifted her into the saddle and as he climbed up in front of her.

He instructed her to hold on and she complied, burying her face and hands in the back of his robes. He did not question her actions, merely saying, "We're off," before kneeing the horse into a mild trot.

Kagome cried quietly into the back of his robes as the sun set and they moved further from the village, never once looking back.


Kagome awoke the following morning as the first rays of dawn colored the sky, bleary-eyed and disoriented. She was wrapped in the futon she had packed and could only assume that she had cried herself to sleep at some point during the night.

Sitting up, she realized that her village was nowhere in sight and felt her heart clench sharply. A profound, hollowing wave of loneliness swept through her and she was tempted to lie back down to sleep for a while.

"Feeling better, Kagome-chan?" Miroku's voice came from a few lengths away, breaking through her dark thoughts.

He was sitting beside a small fire, roasting a couple of fish over it for their breakfast. The horse was tied to a nearby tree, grazing among the forest foliage.

"Yes, much better, thank you," Kagome fibbed, forcing a smile. "I apologize for falling asleep on you like that, Miroku-sama."

"No problem at all, Kagome-chan," the houshi said, waving her off cheerfully. "I quite enjoyed putting you in your futon last night. I considered crawling in with you to keep you warm, but I was afraid it might be a bit small for the both of us."

Kagome chuckled disbelievingly, one fist flexing threateningly beneath the covers as she wondered how much of that statement was in earnest. She vowed silently never again to fall asleep before him. 

"Would you like some breakfast?" Miroku offered, pulling from over the fire one of the sticks on which had been roasting a fish. He held it out to her.

Kagome crawled out of her futon and accepted the fish with a small, "Thanks." She blew lightly on it before taking a bite.

"You are certain that you are feeling better, Kagome-chan?" Miroku inquired, nibbling at his own fish.

Kagome looked up, but the houshi had his eyes fixed on his food. She grinned wryly. A lecher he might be, but Miroku really did seem to be a good man. Quite perceptive, at that.

"I'm sure I'll be fine," Kagome replied, already feeling a little less alone. "Even if I wasn't always happy there, it's still a big change to just pack up and leave. And I'm a little worried about what it will be like in the capital, as well as how the villagers will fare now that I'm gone, even with the help you send. It's a big change for them, as well."

"I believe that things will actually become more peaceful now that you are gone, if you will pardon my saying so," the houshi said. Kagome frowned.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't wish to upset you in any way, but I think it important that you understand," Miroku said, his expression losing a bit of its levity.

He tossed the stick his fish had been skewered on into the flames, watching as it was consumed.

"As I have mentioned before, your spiritual aura is very unique and very large. And because you were never taught to control it properly, it is easy to sense from quite a distance. That being the case…I believe it may have been you that attracted some of the youkai activity to your area.”

“After all, a powerful but essentially untrained miko is a prime target for any youkai that might want a quick boost in power. They eat you, absorb your abilities, and automatically become a power in the spirit world."

Kagome gaped at him, eyes growing wide.

"You don't mean…it's my fault that horde destroyed all those villages?" Her skin prickled, horror sliding over her like the cool brush of a snake's skin.

"I don't mean anything of the sort. You can only be held accountable for your own actions, and youkai will do as they want regardless of anything. So please…"

Miroku trailed off, drawing from her blank expression that she was not listening. He sighed, half-wishing that he could take the words back.

Kagome gazed fixedly at the left over half of her fish, no longer hungry. Her stomach churned. By the kami, had it truly been her fault? All those people…

There was something else, too, creeping around on the fringe of her mind. It was vaguely prickly, like…

"Miroku-sama," she said, the wheels in her mind abruptly set to turning. He looked up at her, surprised.

"Yes?"

"Can you feel that?" she asked.

The prickle had grown into the sting one might feel from a splinter. Miroku cocked his head questioningly at her.

"What do you-"

Kagome was already up, dashing over to the horse and desperately fishing through her enormous sack. The feeling had swiftly grown into a pain like being stabbed, though not a physical pain so much as a detached discomfort she could feel with her spiritual sense.

Miroku was up now, shakujou jangling in hand. He could obviously feel it as well, though the way that he kept turning to keep an eye on all directions told Kagome that he could not pinpoint the source of it either. With a yip of triumph she pulled her bow and arrows free of the sack.

Only to scream as she was knocked back and pinned roughly to the ground by countless thin, pointed insect legs, belonging to the youkai that had burst from the foliage directly behind her. She struggled and writhed vainly beneath it, watching as a torso that was humanoid and female bent down towards her face. It was a centipede youkai, Kagome realized, and a huge one at that.

"Kagome-chan!" Miroku called from somewhere to her right.

Kagome struggled harder, but the thing had her arms firmly pinioned to the ground, preventing even a simple warding gesture.

The youkai was face to face with her now, beady eyes staring into her own and rows upon rows of pointed fangs bared. It seemed to be sniffing her, moving down her stomach slowly as if scenting for something. It paused at her right hip, grinning fearsomely.

"Shikon…" it hissed, opening its mouth wide and sinking its jaws into the flesh of her hip.

Kagome shrieked. In a burst of pearly light, the youkai exploded.

Bits of green flesh rained down on the stunned miko and the houshi. Their eyes met amidst the debris, the houshi's hand frozen in its hold on the rosary wrapping the opposite hand.

"Are you alright, Kagome-chan?" he asked, shaking off his stupor and rushing to her side. Kagome ignored the hand he proffered to help her up, preferring to remain on the ground for the moment.

"I'm fine, I think," she managed.

The monster's fangs had barely pierced her skin before it had spontaneously exploded. Quiet reigned for a few moments, both of them absorbed in watching the falling pieces of flesh.

"Well, that was quite a start to our trip. Welcome to the wide world, Kagome-chan," Miroku joked feebly, more to break the silence than anything. A spindly leg landed atop his head, flailing slightly.

Kagome fell back against the ground, chuckling a bit hysterically. Welcome to the wide world.

 

Chapter Text

Days passed uneventfully after the centipede youkai's attack. A routine was established.

Kagome and Miroku would rise with the sun, eat, and set out on horseback to cover as much ground as possible while there was light in the sky. At night they would pick a spot to settle. Miroku would go around their little camp placing wards and ofudas to prevent any further incidents.

The two would then eat once more before settling into their respective futons for the night. It took Kagome an inordinate amount of time to convince Miroku that the nights were not nearly cold enough to warrant his crawling into her futon with her.

The whole time Kagome was uneasy, too preoccupied to even think much on the fact that she was leaving her village further and further behind. She had been able to laugh off the first attack because she and Miroku had escaped relatively unscathed, but after considering the incident she had been left with several nagging questions.

The fact that the spirits and youkai were restless was unquestionable. They had been for quite some time. But the focus that the centipede youkai had seemed to have when attacking struck her as odd.

It had gone straight for her without so much as a glance to spare for Miroku or even the horse, which would have made an easy meal if that had been what it was after. Nor had it simply devoured her when it had the chance, but rather it had seemed to be searching for something on her person. It had muttered something along the lines of 'Shikon', or the like.

Miroku had offered no explanations or opinions on the matter. At times, though, Kagome had caught him gazing fixedly at the flames of their camp fire in a manner that suggested it nagged at him.

In addition, Kagome could sense other youkai nearby at almost all times of the night and day. That in and of itself would not have been strange, but there was a certain feeling of concentration and purpose to the way they followed so doggedly after the houshi and herself.

They never ventured too near, but were perpetually hovering around the edges of Kagome's spiritual sense. At night she could almost feel them pressed up against the barriers that Miroku erected, their eyes all fixed upon her. Kagome slept fitfully.

Miroku's words just prior to the attack continued to eat at her, as well, though she could never bring herself to broach the subject again with him. Had she really been the cause of all of those attacks? Had the youkai been after her? Was she at fault?

The guilt that thought caused nearly made her ill at times. She pushed it back, though, with the reassurance that at least now she was doing the right thing in going away to get proper training.

Despite it all, Kagome could not help but enjoy the journey a bit. They passed snow topped mountains so large that their tips grazed the clouds, and Kagome wondered if one might meet a kami by climbing to the top.

They traveled through forests so deep that they were actually pitch dark at their hearts, the tall trees clustered so closely together that their branches blocked out the sun. Kagome could feel spirits everywhere in those forests, skimming along her senses at every turn. It was a pleasant feeling, to be surrounded by so much life and energy.

They rode over rolling plains and tall grasses that seemed to stretch on ahead for small, gently swaying eternities. They even passed through a few small villages on the way, and Kagome felt such nostalgia at the sight of the tiny huts and the rough-hewn people that it might have been a thousand years since she had left home.

She learned that the land she lived in was one more beautiful than she had ever guessed, filled with much more than a muddy river that tended towards flooding and tiny dirt hills. She hoped secretly that they would allow her to do more traveling once she had been properly trained in the court.


The month or so it took to reach the court passed with surprising quickness. Kagome was caught off guard when Miroku announced that the capital and the court would probably be within sight sometime the next day.

The night of the announcement she lay in her futon after having eaten dinner, tired yet unable to rest. Her stomach was knotting up horribly at the thought of what was to come the next day. Though for the most part she had been able to avoid thinking about it during her journey, all of Kagome’s latent worries now congealed into a pressure that came to rest squarely on her chest.

She was not accustomed to wearing fine clothes, to bathing regularly, to speaking respectfully at all times, to acting the part of a delicate lady, to being constantly witty and entertaining, to deferring to everyone that she met. None of it had been necessary in her village.

She was aware of her ignorance in comparison to nobles. Her travels with Miroku had proven this to her several times over, though he had never mocked her for it.

But exactly how ignorant would she prove to be? She was prepared for them to be wary of her because of her low birth, but exactly how set against her would they be? She knew she was untrained compared to many other spiritualists, so would she be able to handle the training she was to be given?

Doubts nagged at her through the entire night like biting gnats, but at some point Kagome drifted off into a restless sleep.


In the morning she awoke feeling more tired than before she had gone to sleep, but sheer force of habit had her cleaning up the camp and mounting up behind Miroku.

"You are feeling well, Kagome-chan?" Miroku asked, nudging the horse into a trot.

They were on their way.

Kagome nodded feebly and then, remembering he could not see her, croaked out, "I'm fine."

His slight 'hmmmm' in response said he was not accepting that answer.

"Nervous about our arrival in the capital?" he pressed.

"I said I'm fine," Kagome repeated stubbornly, forcing a bit more cheer into her tone.

Despite the unconventional friendship that had grown between them over the course of the trip, she was reluctant to share her worries with Miroku. At the end of the day, he was still a nobleman and probably could not understand her concerns. There was no point in bothering him with her troubles.

"Rather than listening to what women say, I prefer to listen to what they mean," Miroku spouted, as if he were the sagest man in all of Japan. Kagome snorted a laugh, unable to help herself.

"So you obviously think that when women say 'hello, Houshi-sama', they mean 'feel free to put your hands wherever you like', right?" Kagome quipped.

"I like to think so," Miroku replied lightly. Kagome chuckled despite herself, shaking her head.

"You're such a pervert," she said.

"I am a man of the cloth, Kagome-chan. It is impossible for me to be a pervert," Miroku said with a smile. "But far more importantly, do you feel better?"

The smile slipped from Kagome's face as she realized he had been trying to cheer her up, replaced quickly by a softer, warmer expression. She felt a rush of affection for the him, and the thought briefly occurred to her that he was like the inappropriately amorous older brother that she had never asked for. She hugged him lightly from behind, silently grateful.

"You won't abandon me when we get to court, right? You might be the only friend I'll have," Kagome confided.

"If anyone is allowed to know you as I have come to know you, I'm certain that you will have many more friends than just myself. Nonetheless, I promise not to abandon you," Miroku vowed.

"Thank you, Miroku-sama," Kagome said softly.

"Well, fellow outsiders in the court such as ourselves must stick together," Miroku said softly.

Kagome frowned, leaning out to peer at his face.

"What do you mean?" she said.

"Ah, well, unfortunately my history is an ignoble one, my dear Kagome-chan," Miroku said, a hint of discomfort creeping into his tone. "I was born and raised in the court, but I am not of the court. I belong to none of the noble clans that hold power there.”

“My father was merely a humble wandering houshi before the previous Tennō-sama invited him into the court to work as a spiritualist. Invited or not, though, my father was still of common birth and married a woman of similar standing, leaving me in quite an awkward position as far as the court is concerned."

"They've…have they been unkind to you because you're not noble by birth?" Kagome ventured, catching just the slightest hint of some past hurt in the furrow of his brow.

"Not unkind, Kagome-chan. The people of the court are far too refined to ever do anything so vulgar as to be unkind. Rather they are cold. Or perhaps condescending, at times. Theirs is the kind of politeness that can bite like the cut of a knife," Miroku said, affecting a careless shrug. Still there was a sadness to his eyes that betrayed him.

"I'm sorry," was all Kagome could manage, though she berated herself for the weakness of such a sentiment. "It must have been difficult for you."

She could sympathize with the loneliness of growing up in a place feeling different than everyone else and unable to do anything about it. Her heart ached at the thought of a young Miroku all alone in the midst of the court, wearing his easy grin to hide his sadness. One hand came up to clutch at the fabric of his robes, a small gesture of support.

"Now, now, Kagome-chan. No one need apologize for my life, least of all you. Besides, there are far worse things in the world than some exclusion. For instance, I have never had to struggle for daily survival as you and many of the impoverished villagers have," Miroku pointed out, veering the talk carefully away from his past.

"I suppose so," she replied softly. And then, forcing herself to shake off the gloom, "Everything will be fine in the court now. For the both of us, I am certain."

Miroku nodded along indulgently, and Kagome did not see the worry that lined his brow this time. 

They rode on towards the capital.


The sun was sinking low in the sky when Miroku nudged Kagome lightly with his elbow. She stirred, coming out of the daze she had fallen into. Twisting a bit to ease her cramping muscles, she rubbed her bleary eyes to clear the haze from them.

Turning forward and opening her mouth to ask Miroku why he had roused her, Kagome froze.

Never in her life had she imagined that something so grand could exist in the living world. Her grandfather had attempted to describe it to her, as had the few merchants passing through her village, but she realized that they had all failed to do it justice.

In the deep red of the setting sun glowed a low, long beige wall, stretching east to west as far as Kagome could see. The wall was topped by a light green roof of cypress wood, sloping gently downwards from a pointed peak.

"That's the Suzakumon gate. It encloses the entire Greater Palace as it stretches from south to north. Just inside the walls you can see the tops of the Daigokuden and the Burakuden buildings. You might be able to see a few of the residences of the clans and the baths, as well," Miroku informed her, pointing out the buildings as he spoke.

Shifting her gaze, Kagome could see the large structures just beyond the wall. Their roofs rose above the Suzakumon gate, a deeper green than the roof of the outer gate but still of the same cypress wood tiles.

They also sloped down from a point, though as the buildings were aligned north-south Kagome could see that the roof sloped down on both sides in a triangular formation with a slight overhang jutting out on all sides. What she could see of the walls was pure, unstained white with the edges of deep red pillars peeking out from beneath the overhangs.

"It's…it's so big," Kagome breathed, awed.

"You literally haven't seen even the half of it."

"What! How am I ever supposed to find my way around inside? It must be like a maze with all of those buildings and walls," Kagome said, intimidated by the very prospect.

"I doubt you will have to concern yourself with knowing all of it. The residences of the nobles make up the majority of the Greater Palace and are to be entered only on invitation.”

“The Daigokuden is used mainly for matters of state, so it is unlikely you will be summoned there. And the Inner Palace is the residence chiefly of the Tennō-sama and his consorts, along with their ladies-in-waiting. Unless the Tennō-sama takes quite a liking to you, you won't be going there," Miroku said.

"Alright," Kagome said, though her worry eased only slightly. She continued to study the structures with wide eyes, in awe at the idea that people had built such a thing. 

As the two large, wooden gates that they would enter through loomed closer, she had to make a conscious effort to breathe. Four fully armored guards came into view, equipped with spears and shields. Kagome's hands flexed nervously where they gripped Miroku's robes.

"Calm down, Kagome-chan. Breathe deeply," Miroku instructed gently, bringing the horse to a halt in front of the guards.

One of the four men stepped forward and Kagome took a deep breath, willing her heart to quiet. There was no turning back now.

"Name, rank and purpose," the guard said brusquely.

"Shingon Miroku. Imperial Spiritualist of the First Order. Returning from assignment to give my report," the houshi answered, equally businesslike.

"Seal," the guard said, extending an expectant hand.

Kagome turned a questioning look on Miroku, but he merely reached inside his robes and pulled out some small square of red lacquered wood. He handed it to the guard who studied it for a moment before nodding and returning it.

Miroku tucked it back into his robes before Kagome could get a good peek at it. She could only guess it was some kind of insignia.

"Welcome back, Houshi-sama. If you will dismount, we will have your horse and belongings tended to shortly."

Miroku nodded and slipped down lightly. One of the guards moved forward to help Kagome dismount, his rough face impassive. She regarded the man hesitantly from her perch. Miroku stepped forward casually as if he had not seen the man and extended his arms to assist her. With a grateful smile she allowed him to help her down.

"Does the lady have some sort of identification, as well?" asked the man who seemed to be the head guard.

The fourth guard stepped through the gate as the other two pulled it open, leading their horse and belongings away.

"She is my guest," Miroku stated, drawing himself up authoritatively. The guard did not so much as blink.

"Apologies, Houshi-sama, but if she does not have anything to verify that her presence in the court is welcomed, we can not allow her through," the guard replied.

He cast a disdainful eye over Kagome, mouth twisting slightly. She was suddenly very aware of the raggedness of her crude kosode and the filth she wore from head to foot. She flushed and dropped her eyes, torn between indignation and shame.

"Though she is unexpected, I assure you that the lady is not unwelcome," Miroku argued.

"We have our orders, Houshi-sama, and no one but the Tennō-sama is above them. You may pass if you wish, but the girl is to remain outside."

The guard bowed in what was meant to be an apologetic manner, but came off as more of a begrudging formality. Out of the corner of her eye Kagome saw the man wince as he straightened back up.

Miroku appeared only slightly ruffled by this unexpected turn, but the way in which he gripped his shakujou more tightly and squared his jaw hinted at an agitation that Kagome rarely saw from him. Silence stretched tensely on and she knew he was at a loss.

Kagome pushed back her embarrassment and forced her mind into action, feeling that it was time for her to do her part. She looked from her tight-lipped friend to the guard and back, considering.

She had nothing like the seal Miroku had shown and no one in the court to vouch for her presence. Miroku had brought her to the capital on more of a whim than an order, hoping that the Tennō and the court would find her spiritual abilities impressive enough to warrant her staying. Slight movement from the head guard caught her eye and Kagome saw he was rubbing discreetly at his back, his face pinched.

An idea struck her like a bolt from the blue. It was a long shot, but…

"Excuse me, sir," Kagome said, stepping forward from behind the human shield Miroku had created for her. Both the guard and the houshi focused on her, the guard's hand dropping from his back.

"I do not mean any insolence in saying this, but Houshi-sama was kind and gracious enough to bring me to the court because he saw something worthy in my spiritual abilities. If I could show you, as well, honorable sir, something worthy of entrance into court, would you be willing to allow me passage?"

Miroku watched her, waiting to see where she was going with this. The guard opened his mouth to reply, a refusal already written on his stern face. Kagome cut in quickly.

"For instance," she said in her most demure voice and with her most unassuming expression. "Your back is hurting you, is it not? Some kind of strain, I would guess. I could easily heal that for you."

The guard's eyes widened, his hand sliding unconsciously over the injured area.

"How in the world-"

"I sensed it, honorable sir. There is a slight disruption in your spiritual flow," Kagome fibbed, pushing her advantage.

She could sense the disturbance in his back now that she knew what to look for, but it had been his behavior that had tipped her off.

"Would you allow me to fix it for you?"

The man looked nervous, hand flexing uncertainly on his back. He shook his head slowly, a refusal on his lips.

"I assure you she is quite skilled. I have seen her work healing miracles before with a mere touch of her hand," Miroku interjected.

He had regained his usual composure, the easy smile resting loosely on his face. Kagome suppressed a grin, unsurprised at how comfortably he lied.

"There can be no loss on your part, honorable sir," she added, forcing him to take that last little step back into the figurative corner. "Either I will be able to heal you, or I will prove myself to be useless and you will not have to allow me entrance."

He faltered under their double assault, looking back to his fellow guardsmen for support. They were both watching intently now, curious to see what the girl could do. The head guard sighed, knowing he would seem a coward were he to refuse now.

"Well, alright, then. But make it quick and know that I make no promises."

With an internal cheer of victory, Kagome bowed and stepped forward. She circled around the man once, closing her eyes and getting a feel for exactly where the problem was.

It was the upper back, near the left shoulder and probably caused by some sort of strain when working with a sword. She extended a hand to hover over the injured area. The guard watched her warily, fighting not to jerk away.

Softly Kagome began to chant, invoking the words Kaede had taught her to ease the overburdened. The sounds danced joyfully in the air as they spilled from her lips, soft light gathering in her outstretched hands. She pressed her fingertips gently to his back to keep from startling him. The area glowed for a brief moment and it was done.

"Try moving your shoulder," Kagome instructed, stepping back to survey her work.

The guard did so, rotating it cautiously. His entire face seemed to furrow downward in astonisment as he frowned.

"It…doesn't hurt," he said quietly, awed. Kagome beamed.

"Then you will be happy to allow her to pass through the gate," Miroku said, not allowing the man a moment to recover from his shock. It was more of an assertion than a question.

"I guess so," muttered the man dazedly, still rotating his shoulder.

Miroku seized Kagome by the arm, pulling her along through the gates and calling over his shoulder, "Thank you very much for your understanding, and please have our belongings brought to the Shingon residence."

They were away from the gate so fast that it had Kagome's head spinning. All she could see of the inside of the Greater Palace and its people were blurs for a stretch as Miroku pulled her along at a quick clip.

He stopped on the steps of what appeared to be a temple in a small courtyard, empty of any people. Kagome gazed up at the grand structure once she had regained her balance, her head going light with awe again.

The colors of the building were muted in comparison to the brilliant reds, whites, and greens she had seen as they were approaching. The roof tiles were a quiet grey, the walls dull white, and the pillars and detailing a reserved brown.

The building sat on a raised wooden base and had the look of three buildings piled on top of one another, each with its own individual roof. The bottom layer was average in size, the middle exceptionally thin, and the top a much smaller rectangular building situated atop the two squares, the only one with the same triangular sloping roof that she had seen on the other buildings.

"-me-chan. Kagome-chan," Miroku called, touching her shoulder lightly. Kagome turned from the building to focus on him.

"Huh?"

"I've been calling you for a bit, but I believe you were too busy admiring the Shingonin. It's the only Buddhist temple within the court," he said, amused. "But I wanted to compliment you on your performance out there. That took more wit than I know most to possess."

"Well, I couldn't have pulled it off if you hadn't stepped in," Kagome demurred, glowing at such high praise and still flushed with her victory.

"So modest, Kagome-chan! Why I am certain that you must be the most charming, intelligent, and beautiful woman that I have-"

"Houshi-sama?" came a voice, halting the man's exaggerated rigmarole. Kagome turned gratefully to the person at the bottom of the steps.

It was a woman, and quite a beautiful woman at that. Her long, dark hair was tied at the ends with a white ribbon and pink powder covered the lids of wide, long-lashed brown eyes.

The layers of her silk juni-hito visible to Kagome were white with solid pink ellipses, trailing down to the ground and complimenting her moon pale skin. The sleeves of her karaginu overcoat enveloped her arms in their entirety, not even the tip of a finger peeking out. Beneath her quiet admiration of the woman, Kagome noticed that she looked displeased.

"Sango-sama!" Miroku exclaimed, going oddly stiff. "What a great pleasure it is to see you again!"

He bowed rigidly at the waist. The houshi looked more uncomfortable than Kagome had ever seen him before.

The woman was silent, gazing up at him with an inscrutable look. Kagome's glance shifted between the two, both of them seemingly oblivious to her presence. There was some sort of odd tension stretching like a wire between them, something she could not quite name. She wondered what the relationship between the two was.

Randomly Kagome's eyes began to sting, followed by her nose. She sneezed, the sharp little sound cutting the silence.

The wire snapped and both of them whipped their heads around to face her. Kagome smiled sheepishly.

"Excuse me."

"Ah!" the young woman gasped, raising a long sleeve to cover her mouth primly. "Please excuse my great rudeness! I am Tachibana Sango, of the Tachibana clan. We serve Japan's rulers faithfully as taiji-ya."

She pressed her hands together through her trailing sleeves and bowed gracefully.

Good manners dictated that Kagome should respond with her own introduction. Reluctantly she did so.

"I am Kagome. Common born. I serve as a miko in my village."

"Oh."

Sango's face fell, taking in Kagome's rough appearance for the first time.

"I brought her to the court because of her immense spiritual powers," Miroku said, coming to Kagome's aid. Sango's gaze turned to him, the look in her pretty eyes sharpening.

"I see."

Sensing another awkward silence coming on, Kagome cleared her throat. "So, Houshi-sama, what exactly were you planning to do now?"

"I need to meet with the Tennō-sama to inform him of my findings," he replied. "During the report, I will attempt to arrange for an introduction between his Majesty and yourself, Kagome-chan. I do believe, however, that it would be best if you could be…tidied up before you are presented."

"Might I offer my assistance?" Sango spoke up. "I could accompany her to the baths and have proper attire arranged while you do your part."

"If it is not too much of a bother, I would be very grateful to you, Sango-sama," Miroku said, a wide, genuine smile stretching across his face. "Truly you are much too kind."

"Not at all. Why don't we get going, Kagome-san?"

Sango turned and began walking in measured, graceful steps, obviously expecting Kagome to follow along. She bid a quick farewell to the houshi before trailing after her, her steps considerably less refined.

"Thank you once again, generous Sango-sama. I leave Kagome-chan in your most competent and beautiful hands and look forward to seeing the both of you later on," Miroku called after them. Kagome saw Sango flush slightly, bowing her head to cover it.

"Thank you so much, Tachibana-sama. I truly appreciate you doing this for me," Kagome said, feeling it only proper that she express the sentiment herself.

"Ah, no, not at all, Kagome-san. I am certain you must be thankful to finally be away from the houshi. Though you are probably already aware of it, he has a tendency towards…the indecent," Sango grated out, her lovely face strained momentarily with irritation.

"No, it truly was not that bad, Tachibana-sama. I mean, Miroku-sama-" Kagome began in a placating manner.

"So then you welcomed his advances? Perhaps you have taken a liking to him?" Sango interjected, ice crackling in her voice. Her graceful gait had turned into a small stomping of her wooden geta sandals beneath the hem of her robes.

"Nothing like that, Tachibana-sama!" Kagome exclaimed, baffled by the other woman's behavior. "It might sound presumptuous of me to say it, but Miroku-sama and I became good friends on our trip. Like…brother and sister almost."

Sango halted, turning to Kagome with an unasked question in her eyes. Kagome vigorously in answer. The quick succession of relief followed by rose-red embarrassment on Sango's face was almost comical to watch, but Kagome managed to keep from laughing.

"I apologize, Kagome-san, for my odd behavior, but it has been a trying day," Sango said, bowing. "The thought that the houshi might have been bothering you with his indecent advances did not sit well with me."

"No need to apologize, Tachibana-sama. We all have our off days, and even on such a trying day you offered to take care of me. You must truly be a very generous person," Kagome returned graciously, relieved at the easing of tension between them.

Sango uttered a few denials for the sake of humility, resuming her leisurely walk. Kagome followed, surreptitiously attempting to match her tiny steps.

The noblewoman's attitude toward the miko warmed considerably as they continued on along the stone paths, winding around enclosed noble residences and small official buildings in various reds, greens, and whites. They all had some architectural variance of square building on a raised base with white walls, triangular sloping green roofs, and supporting red pillars under the eaves, with a few exceptions here and there.

Sango pointed out each building as they passed, giving its name, function, and a bit of the history of its clan if it were a residence. Kagome listened intently, trying to store all the information away for the future.

In the between times Sango asked about Kagome's life and her village, doing her own share of intent listening. Kagome related to her every detail she could think of, and the other woman seemed to absorb it all with utmost interest.

Kagome could not help her surprise, though it made her feel a bit ungenerous for having doubted the woman with no real knowledge of her. Sango's initial reaction to her status had seemed to bode very ill, but it looked now as if that had merely been an instinctive reaction.

The more they talked, the more Sango proved herself to be friendly and open minded, not even pulling so much as a face when Kagome stumbled in her etiquette or speech…or just plain stumbled, as she had managed to do a couple of times in her initial nervousness.

The other courtiers that they happened to cross paths with, however, did not prove themselves quite as tolerant as Kagome's escort.

Every so often the pair would come across a group out for an evening stroll, most of them women, and Sango would stop in order to give the acknowledgement that etiquette dictated proper.

She would introduce Kagome, as well, and each time the miko had the great pleasure of watching the courtiers' expressions twist with varying degrees of distaste. Certainly Sango was turning out to be the exception rather than the rule. Kagome was vaguely disheartened by the brief encounters, but forgot most of her perturbation in the face of Sango's warmth.

Darkness had covered the sky completely by the time they reached the bath-house, a large red wooden building much plainer in style than the others. From a chimney at the top billowed a continuous cloud of steam, puffing gently up into the blackness of the night sky.

"The baths are heated?" Kagome asked, gazing up at it.

"Of course," Sango replied, amused at the excitement she could see blooming on the younger woman's face. "Would you like to go in?"

Kagome nodded eagerly, forgetting her manners for a moment and rushing in before Sango. Sango merely smiled and shook her head when she turned back to apologize.

The inside of the baths was thick with steam, muggy warmth enveloping the two as they entered. The floor was made entirely of wood, not a bit of it dirt as Kagome was accustomed to.

A lowered space where they first entered provided a place for the two to leave their shoes, which they did before continuing inside. At the far end of the room were two large baths built into the floor. Water spilled over the edges occasionally as the courtiers inside moved about.

"These are the group baths," Sango explained. "They are for rinsing off a final time before leaving the bath house. We need to go upstairs to the more private baths first."

Kagome nodded and trailed after her as she ascended the staircase on the right. On the second floor there was a corridor with a series of curtains on both sides. Sango walked down it a ways before selecting a curtain and pushing it aside to enter.

Inside was a moderate sized room with a small heated bath in the center and a few shelves on the far wall. Sango went over to the shelves and pulled from them a few colorful bottles and washing cloths. She began removing the top layers of her juni-hito.

"You are taking a bath, too, Tachibana-sama?" Kagome asked, feeling that it must violate some unwritten rule for a noblewoman and a commoner to bathe together.

"Of course. You will need someone to help you wash properly, and I was planning on taking one soon anyway."

The reply was casual and unconcerned. Kagome felt a little touched somehow.

"Kagome-san? Would you mind helping me with my juni-hito? Sorry to bother you, but I usually bring an attendant. Winter is approaching and I am up to fifteen layers," Sango said sheepishly.

"Oh, certainly," Kagome said, walking over to her. Silently she marveled at how Sango had even been able to move in fifteen layers of heavy silk.

Together they removed the layers of fine fabrics and embroidery, placing them with care on the shelves. Kagome removed her own few layers and they both slipped into the bath.

Kagome felt all her aching muscles turn to mush in the soothing warmth, a pleased sigh escaping her. She was certain she had never felt anything quite so nice in her entire life, sinking blissfully down into the water up to her chin. Sango watched the girl with affectionate amusement, relaxed by the unassuming nature of her company.

After a few moments of contented soaking, Sango handed Kagome a cloth and they both began to wash. Sango added a bit of something from a pink tinted glass bottle to the water and the scent of aloe and sandalwood rose with the steam to fill the room.

Kagome inhaled deeply, continuing to scrub at her skin with the rag. It was strange to see the cloth turning brown with dirt as patches of her skin began to show through.

"Dip your head under, Kagome-chan, and I will wash your hair for you," Sango suggested when they had both finished. Kagome noted her change in address and smiled.

"Alright."

Kagome ducked down beneath the warm water, closing her eyes and savoring the brief feeling of weightlessness. When she emerged Sango was behind her with a purple bottle in her hands.

She poured from it some thick liquid, rubbing it between her hands before working it into Kagome's hair. The older woman worked slowly and carefully, untangling numerous snarls and working the substance in thoroughly. It had a pleasant, light scent to it and Kagome found her eyes sliding shut of their own volition.

"Umm…Tachibana-sama?" Kagome said.

"Sango."

"Huh?"

"You can call me Sango, Kagome-chan. Tachibana-sama does not seem right coming from you," Sango said, her hands still working away diligently.

"Oh…alright, then. Thank you, Sango-sama," Kagome said, her voice soft. The allowance of such informality was no small gesture.

Sango chuckled.

"I suppose that will do for now. You wanted to ask me something?"

"I was just wondering…and please tell me if it is too presumptuous of me to ask, but I was curious as to how you and Miroku-sama know one another?" Kagome hazarded, treading cautiously on the fine line of propriety. She always had been too curious for her own good.

The hands woven into her dark hair stilled. Kagome tensed, realizing that she had pushed Sango's kindness too far. She flailed about mentally, trying to find something to say. But the hands stiffly resumed their work and she closed her mouth.

"Ahahahaha…Why, there's no particular relationship between the houshi and I. We're barely acquaintances really. I mean, what woman could ever develop a relationship with such…such an indecent man," Sango said a bit too loudly.

Her fingers flexed against Kagome's scalp, scratching lightly. Kagome winced but remained silent.

"I see," she said, grateful she had not lost a friend over her impertinence. She decided not to push the issue any further, despite Sango's suspicious answer.

"So what about your clan, Sango-sama? You mentioned something about taiji-ya," Kagome said, guiding the conversation back onto safer ground.

"Rinse," Sango ordered.

Kagome dunked her head again. She was excited to find her hair soft, knotless, and pleasant smelling when she resurfaced, running her fingers through the slippery locks wonderingly.

"Do you mind returning the favor?" Sango asked, handing Kagome the bottle before dipping under the water.

Kagome repeated Sango's earlier actions, pouring the substance into her hands and working it into the noblewoman's hair when she came back up.

She worked tentatively, wary of making mistakes. Sango's hair was much nicer than her own, she noted absently, long and soft with few snarls in it.

"My clan has been serving the Tennō-sama for generations and generations," Sango began. "We are taiji-ya by trade, each of us trained in the art of youkai extermination from a very young age. That was how we originally gained our noble status so many years ago."

"Are you trained in the art?"

"Of course," Sango answered, a note of pride in her voice. "I have been trained since I was young in all of the warrior arts, but I specialize with Hiraikotsu."

She looked so pleased with herself that Kagome was hesitant to question it, but asked anyway, "What is a Hiraikotsu?"

"Oh, sorry, I forget that most people do not know what that is," Sango said, laughing sheepishly. "It is…well, it's…How about I just show it to you? I am not quite sure how to explain it in a way that would do it justice."

Kagome nodded.

"Have you been out in the field often?" she asked.

"Not often. Too much fighting is unbefitting of a noblewoman," Sango said, the words practiced and resigned in the way of a lesson reluctantly learned.

"But I have been out enough to understand what goes on. Mostly we are only employed in defending the capital itself, but a few times I have been further out. The villages are virtually defenseless and the people always look like they are in the midst of hard times."

"They always are," Kagome admitted quietly, sobering at the memory of her own little village.

Sango winced, realizing she had accidentally prodded a sore spot.

"I apologize, Kagome-chan. It must have been hard for you," she said with soft sincerity.

"A bit," Kagome said dismissively, shaking her head to clear it. "But it's all alright now. My village will be fine, and you've been kind enough not to make it difficult for me here."

"Well, if you ever need anything…." Sango left the sentence open, but Kagome understood well enough.

"Thank you, Sango-sama. I will not hesitate to ask."

They finished their bath in amicable silence, grabbing their things and going downstairs for the finishing soak before drying off. They applied some kind of aloe lotion from a third green bottle to their skin before redressing and going to Sango's residence.

The residence was a large, sprawling one near the center of the Greater Palace and, Sango informed Kagome, near to the Inner Palace where the Tennō resided. Several smaller buildings were spread throughout the enclosed space, connected to the main house with covered walkways.

There was a large garden in the back filled with walking paths and sakura trees, beneath one of which was a koi pond. Kagome had the continuous, disorienting feeling of having entered some alternate world, clean and beautiful and full of good smells in a way that her small world in the village never had been. It was amazing.

Even in her awe, though, she noticed how empty the residence was, save a few servants scattered here and there. Sango explained that many of the members of her clan were currently out on duty because of all of the unrest amongst the youkai.

Kagome was quietly relieved at not having to deal with any more nobles. It would have been foolish of her to assume that everyone in Sango's clan was as kind and open as Sango had proven to be.

At one point Sango stopped to speak with a servant, requesting that the woman have clothes brought for Kagome until Sango could arrange to have some made for her. Kagome protested at this, but Sango would have none of it.

The older woman seemed to have made it her personal mission to see to Kagome's happiness and comfort. Kagome surrendered in the end, secretly pleased by Sango's concern for her.

After the two had finished touring the residence, Sango led Kagome to one of the detached houses where she had arranged a room to be set up. The clothes she had ordered were laid out in the room when they arrived, including two juni-hitos, traditional miko garb, and a light sleeping yukata.

Kagome bowed and apologized and thanked the noblewoman profusely for going to the trouble, but Sango waved her off nonchalantly. The noblewoman soon left her to get to sleep as it had grown late.

With the help of the servant Sango had summoned, Kagome put on the two light layers of the sleeping yukata. The servant would have taken her old clothes to be burned, but Kagome stopped her. Somehow she could not bear to part with them, no matter how out of place they proved to be in the court.

The servant woman gave her an odd look, but bowed respectfully and left Kagome to retire for the night. Kagome crawled into the large futon that had been laid out, warm and clean and comfortable.


She could not sleep.

Time stretched on interminably in the darkness and every moment Kagome felt more awake. She knew she should have been tired after such a long day. She even tried arguing this to her uncooperative body. Still she could not find rest and at last she became so frustrated that she had to get up and move.

At first she stuck with pacing around inside her room, hoping to wear herself out. That quickly became annoyingly repetitive, and she wondered if maybe some fresh air would help calm her enough to sleep. She was accustomed to sleeping close to the outdoors, after all, and to hearing the whispering of the wind and the cooing of birds as she drifted off. She crept quietly out to the garden behind the main house.

It was an especially dark night, and Kagome realized that it was a new moon. Even with little light, though, the closed blossoms of the sakura were beautiful to behold. She looked forward to spring when they would bloom, imagining sitting beneath them to share a meal with Sango and Miroku.

The night was reasonably warm, despite the fact that winter was fast approaching. For a time Kagome amused herself with wandering the paths aimlessly, trying to take in everything that had come to pass. It all seemed too surreal, even as she stood in the midst of it.

When she was at last forced to abandon her ambling by the low wall that enclosed the Tachibana residence, she turned her eyes skyward to search for the brightest star. She spotted it quickly, along with a huge Enoki tree stretching so far up in to the sky that the stars seemed to hang from its massive branches.

Kagome craned her head back to gaze up at the behemoth, her eyes going wide. It seemed to be glowing in the sight of her spiritual sense, its aura a deep golden the likes of which she had never seen before. It felt…warm, somehow.

Seized by a sudden urge, Kagome took off in as quiet a run as she could manage, winding her way out of the gardens and through the front gate of the residence.

It took a bit of back tracking and running in circles, but eventually she managed to reach the tree. It towered majestically in the center of the open garden area that Sango had named as the En no Matsubara, presiding with silent authority.

Kagome slowed her approach, reverence in her every step. Its aura pulsed gently as she came forward, enveloping her own in its otherworldly warmth. She stretched her hands out towards the trunk, breath catching in her throat as her palms made contact with the rough bark of it.

"What in the seven hells are you doing?"

Kagome yelped in surprise, heart jolting in her chest. Her eyes cast about wildly in the surrounding darkness in search of the source of the unexpected voice.

The indistinct outline of what she guessed to be young man sat nearly hidden amidst a tangle of protruding roots at the base of the tree. It was hard to make out much of him in the dim light of the stars, but his dark eyes seemed almost to glow as he peered out at her.

His hair, long and so dark it almost blended with the night sky, was draped haphazardly amongst the roots, and he wore a deep black karaginu and sashinuki of some fine looking material. He most definitely looked the part of a noble.

"I…ah, I'm sorry…I…I didn't mean..to…," Kagome fumbled, hardly able to get anything out past her mortification at having been seen. She bowed low at the waist, her face flaming at her unintentional intrusion.

"I didn't ask for an apology, woman," the man huffed, and there was a slight rustling as he shifted deeper back into the shelter of the roots.

Kagome frowned, peering up at him from her bow. He flapped a dismissive hand in her direction.

"I’m saying feel free to get lost. You're annoying." 

He turned his gaze away from as if that were the final word on the matter. 

Kagome rose up from her bow, her back going straight with indignation. Noble he may be, but that hardly gave him the right to act so boorishly towards her.

"I've hardly said two words to you! What right've you to say I'm annoying?" she shot back, her chin tilting up petulantly.

"Good to know you can form a whole sentence. So I'll try this again, nice and slow for you this time-What in the seven hells are you doing out here?" the man responded, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that he had been chastised by someone beneath him in status.

"The tree," Kagome said begrudgingly. "I sensed its aura and I wanted to come see it up close."

"Goshinboku? Sensed its aura?" This seemed to get his attention and the man extricated himself from his resting place in the roots, standing. He had very strong features, obvious even in the darkness.

"I'm a miko of the Shintō order. The tree…it's got a very strong aura," she explained, her ire cooling momentarily as the barrage of insults ceased.

"Huh? Of course Goshinboku has an aura. It's ancient. You must be pretty dense if you've never sensed it before."

Irritation flared quickly once more. "I'm not dense! This is my first day in the capital!"

"What?" he said, moving forward slightly to examine her. "Well, I can't remember seeing your face before, but just about everyone here in the court looks about the same anyway."

"Well, I'm not of the court. I just arrived today. The houshi Miroku-sama brought me," Kagome said.

"That lech?" the man burst out, eyes widening. "You ain't pregnant with his kid, are you?"

"No! No!...What? No!"

The man snorted. "Then why’d he bring you?"

"My spiritual abilities. Miroku-sama thinks they will prove useful," Kagome said, cheeks flushed with the indecency of his previous suggestion.

"So that's what he did when he was out there," the man muttered, more to himself than to her. "Figures he'd find a way to bring a woman back. You're village born, huh?"

"Yes. My name is Kagome," she offered, years of etiquette training making the offering of her name almost reflexive.

"Kagome?" he echoed as if testing the word, and somehow she was unsurprised at the liberty he took with her name. "You're pretty mouthy for a miko."

"And you're pretty coarse for a courtier," Kagome returned, bristling once more. Their eyes met through the dark, holding for a long moment in silent challenge.

"Feh. Whatever."

With a huff the man turned to look out towards the horizon. There was something vaguely anxious in his gaze and Kagome turned to look as well. All she could see were stars.

"I never asked why you were out here in the middle of the night," she said, the thought occurring to her suddenly.

"So does that mean you're gonna ask now?" he said, glancing at her from the corner of his eye.

"I am asking."

"Didn't sound like a question."

"Fine. What were you doing out here in the middle of the night?" Kagome sighed. It was like speaking with a small child.

"Thinking," he replied.

"Thinking?"

"Yes, thinking. It's probably not something you're real familiar with," he quipped. There was just the barest hint of a smirk lingering around the corners of his lips, and Kagome could have sworn he was getting some kind of enjoyment out of this.

"What were you thinking about out here at this time of night, oh sage one?" Kagome said, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.

"Keh! Lots of stuff."

"Lots of stuff?" she echoed incredulously, pressing a harried hand to her forehead. "Thank you for being so terribly candid with me."

"Fancy word, woman."

"Only to you."

Kagome was already in mid-glare by the time she began to wonder how they had degenerated back to that again. It was odd, though. Beneath all of her ire…some part of her was enjoying this a bit. It was a relief to be able to speak so freely. And the brightness of his eyes in the dark suggested that she might not be alone in that.

Abruptly the man looked away. Light was beginning to tinge the edges of the sky and there was alarm on his face.

"I gotta go."

He started to walk off, but paused and turned back to her.

"See you next new moon, wench."

"It's Kagome!" she called after him, but he was already gone.

With a small laugh, the young woman turned and walked back to the Tachibana residence. When she lay down in her futon for the second time she drifted off immediately, realizing just before she passed out that she had never gotten the strange man's name.


In the morning when a servant came in to wake her, Kagome found that she felt oddly well rested despite how little sleep she had actually gotten.

The servant helped her to dress before she could go meet Sango for breakfast, though Kagome opted to wear the miko garb of a white long-sleeved karaginu and red hakama with tabi socks and zori sandals. She was afraid of the effort it would take to put on one of the fifteen layered juni-hito.

The servant then brought in a basin of water for her to wash her face before helping her to comb out her long hair. Once she was deemed presentable the servant led her into a large main sitting hall containing a long, low dining table of shining dark wood. Miroku and Sango were both seated on cushions at the table, apparently awaiting her arrival to begin breakfast.

"Kagome-chan! Why, you look even lovelier than I could have imagined," exclaimed Miroku, jumping up from his place at the table to lead Kagome to a seat.

The gesture was distinctly brotherly, but she could not help glancing at Sango to see her reaction. Her friend had turned her face away quickly.

Kagome mumbled an awkward thank you and sat down, still looking anxiously towards the noblewoman. The taiji-ya turned back to face the table after instructing a servant to bring in breakfast. A too wide smile was plastered firmly to her face.

Kagome winced, looking towards Miroku to see if he had noticed. He was putting more effort into looking disinterested than she thought necessary, examining his hashi with great interest.

"How did you sleep, Kagome-chan? And as the houshi so kindly pointed out, you do look lovely. The miko robes really suit you," Sango said stiffly, though a little sincerity slipped in at the end. It seemed to be her own attempt at nonchalance.

"I slept…well," Kagome said, opting not to tell the two about her late night encounter.

It seemed a little too risqué to be proper, and in the light of day she half-thought that it was just some odd dream brought on by nerves.

"And thank you again for the robes, Sango-sama. This is probably the nicest thing I've worn in all my life. I'm glad you think it suits me."

Sango's smile softened around the edges.

"Not at all, Kagome-chan."

"We have something very important to do today, Kagome-chan," Miroku spoke up, sensing that the tension in the room had dissipated. "I was unable to meet with the Tennō-sama last night due to the fact that his Majesty was not feeling well.”

“However, I did manage to speak to a few members of the Council morning of State to arrange a meeting for today. After conversing a bit on the issue, the Council members thought it best that you and I be presented together to his Majesty."

"Oh, alright," Kagome said, relieved at the idea of having Miroku with her when she met with the Tennō. The houshi, however, looked slightly shamefaced.

"I am afraid that that was not all that they decided," he confessed. "They also said that it would be best that our meeting be a public one, rather than a private meeting with the Tennō-sama. All those currently residing in the court will be invited to a welcoming ceremony, to see you with their own eyes."

Kagome had gone cold at the words 'welcoming ceremony'. A ceremony centering around her, and so soon after her arrival…she wasn't prepared in the least…

"I am truly sorry, Kagome-chan," Miroku said, his face sincerely apologetic. "I tried to inform the Council that you would most certainly be uncomfortable with such an arrangement, but they would not budge. This is simply how things are done in the court."

"Kagome-chan," Sango said sympathetically, coming over to kneel beside her friend. She pulled back one of the sleeves of her karaginu, placing a hand consolingly over the miko's.

"I'm alright," Kagome managed, trying to convince herself. Sango's hand on her own returned some warmth to her. She flashed the older woman a grateful smile.

"I mean, I am a bit scared, but Miroku-sama has gone to so much trouble to bring me to court in the first place, so I have to start doing my own share in all of this. I will be just fine, I promise."

"That's the spirit," Miroku said approvingly. Sango nodded heartily in agreement, patting the Kagome's hand before returning to her place.

"When is this 'welcoming ceremony' to take place, Miroku-sama?" Kagome asked, picking up her hashi and attempting a few bites. Her stomach felt unsettled.

"When the sun is at its highest point in the sky. We still have some time yet," Miroku replied, beginning to eat as well.

The delicious fish Kagome had been chewing turned to sand in her mouth, but she forced herself to swallow and continue eating. She knew she would need any strength she could muster.

"And exactly how many courtiers will be there?" she made herself ask, bracing inwardly for the reply.

"Oh, not nearly so many as there used to be in the capital. Only some hundreds are here currently," Sango said in what was meant to be a heartening manner.

For a village girl who had not seen even a hundred people in all her fifteen years of life, it was not quite so comforting.

"Many of the courtiers moved back out to the residences on their own lands when the current Tennō-sama ascended to the throne."

"The courtiers have separate residences outside the capital?" Kagome asked, curious and glad for the momentary distraction.

"You did not know?" said Sango. "I suppose your village is not one of the ones connected to a clan, then. Well, almost every properly established clan owns a good amount of land granted to them by the Tennō-sama, and the capital is the sole property on the Tennō-sama himself, though the courtiers are allowed to have residences here in order to be near the court.”

“But almost all of them also have residences on their own lands, as well, and usually the lands that they own coincide with a few villages that people have set up. Thus the clan who owns the land also owns the village on it and is responsible for its care."

"That makes sense," said Kagome contemplatively. "It must be good for those villages to have the courtiers' protection, especially in these times."

"Not quite, though it might seem that way at first glance," Sango said, frowning. "The villages get a bit of protection, but most of the efforts of the guards and spiritualists are focused around protecting the residence itself. On top of that, the villages have to pay a percentage of their crops in taxes to the clan in return for being allowed to work the fields on their lands.”

“I mean, the villagers are given better tools and plots and irrigation systems to work with, but a lot of the harvest still goes towards the clan's wealth. They might be worse off in the end than unconnected villages such as yours that are left to their own devices."

"That…doesn't seem right," Kagome said, troubled. Would her village become like that now that it was connected to the capital?

"Unfortunately that is also simply how the court works," Miroku said with a certain amount of resignation.

It should not be, Kagome could not help but think. She finished her meal in silence and rose, bowing to both of her friends.

"Thank you very much for the meal. It was delicious," Kagome said, though that was a small lie. While she was certain that it must have been delicious, her frustrations had kept he from tasting most of it.

"Would you mind if I went and meditated out in the garden until it is time for us to go, Sango-sama? I'd like to try to collect myself before the ceremony."

"Alright. I will come get you a bit before we have to leave so that we can make certain you are looking your best. You probably would not be surprised to learn that appearances are very important here in the court."

"Really? I never would have guessed," Kagome joked, fingering the fine cloth of her karaginu. She exited towards the gardens.

The bite of winter was back in the air despite the strong sunlight, but Kagome found the cold did not seep in through her new robes the way that it had through her old clothes.

She picked out a spot beneath a sakura tree near the koi pond, sitting down cross legged with her hands resting on her knees. She closed her eyes and began to concentrate on her breathing.

Panic jabbed at her a few times from the edges of her mind, trying draw her back to worry over the impending ceremony and the plight of the villages, but Kagome expelled it with each exhale.

Through the palms on her knees she drew in small amounts of the spiritual energy from the hibernating tree behind her and the fish swimming leisurely in the pond, absorbing their peace into herself. Soon she had managed to lose herself amid the quiet, continuous pulse of the surrounding nature. Time swept by her oblivious form like the rush of a river over smooth stones.

When the sun had climbed high in the sky a hesitant hand reached out and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. Kagome slipped back up into her body like one resurfacing from the depths of water. Sango was there, looking apologetic for having disturbed her.

"Is it time to get ready?" Kagome asked, rotating her shoulders to clear the stiffness from them. Sango nodded.

"Yes. My apologies. You looked so peaceful like that. Actually I walked past you a couple of times and did not even notice you were sitting there. You looked like a part of nature, somehow."

"That's pretty much the goal of it," Kagome said, pleased at the admiration in her friend's tone.

"Could you teach me how to do it sometime? It would probably prove useful right before I have to go out on a mission," Sango said, assisting Kagome in her clumsy attempts to stand. The miko's legs had gone entirely to sleep.

"Certainly," Kagome said readily.

Sango aided her in hobbling back to the side house that was her current residence, Kagome fighting back pained giggles at the pinpricks that coursed through her legs as they regained feeling. Sango helped Kagome to wash her face thoroughly and re-comb her hair.

"Are you sure you do not want to wear one of the juni-hito? The blue one would really make your eyes stand out," Sango said, holding up the karaginu of the aforementioned juni-hito.

"That's alright, Sango-sama. I have a feeling I won't be near as graceful as you are the first few times I wear a juni-hito, and I don't think that's quite the impression I want to make on the court. Besides, I'm presenting myself as a spiritualist, so I might as well look the part."

"True," Sango allowed, a bit disappointed as she set the overcoat back down amongst the other layers.

Sango was eager to see how her new friend would look in the formal attire of the court. She anticipated her proving to be a classical beauty, maybe even the court beauty. That would easily win the approval of the male courtiers, if nothing else.

"Are we done, then?" Kagome asked, examining herself in the round hand mirror Sango had given her. She certainly looked clean and tidy enough to at least not stick out so much.

"Ah! Just one more thing!" Sango exclaimed, rushing as much as her juni-hito would allow over to a small, ornate wooden chest. She opened it and pulled out a circular box of ivory, bringing it back over to Kagome.

Sango knelt down beside her, removing the lid from the box and placing it aside. Inside was a series of different sized brushes and several powders of varying hues.

"Your skin is a bit tan from the time you have spent out in the sun. We can use powder to make you appear pale until it fades," Sango explained, taking out one of the brushes and dipping it into the white powder.

She swiped the brush lightly over Kagome's face and neck to the edge where robe met skin. Kagome watched in the mirror as her skin was turned as pale as Sango's. Suddenly her grey eyes seemed very obvious in contrast.

"It smells a bit funny," Kagome said, wrinkling her nose. "What is it made of?"

"You probably do not want to know," replied Sango, replacing the brush in the box. Kagome pulled a face.

"Hmmm," Sango hummed, turning Kagome's face this way and that to examine her work. "That is good, it makes your eyes stand out a bit more, but there is still something missing…"

Picking up a smaller brush, Sango dabbed it in some deep blue powder and ordered Kagome to close her eyes. Lightly she painted over the lids of her eyes.

Kagome opened her eyes when Sango had finished and examined her face in the mirror. It was amazing how powder could alter a person, she reflected. She turned her face this way and that, admiring the effect on her reflection.

The pale skin and blue shadow covering her eyes made her look regal in a distant sort of way, her unusual gray eyes sharp and obvious. It was a slight advantage she was grateful for.

"Thank you, Sango-sama. I think I am much more suited to face them all now."

"You will be fine, Kagome-chan. The houshi seems to have a lot of faith in you, and I know that he does not rest his faith lightly on things," Sango said soothingly, putting away the ivory box.

So much for the two of them being 'barely acquaintances', Kagome observed slyly. She nodded anyway, accepting the praise.

"Well, it is time for us to be going. Are you ready?" said Sango.

"As ready as ever I will be."

"Then let us go."

Sango took Kagome's hand, and together they headed to the Daigokuden for the meeting that would decide Kagome’s fate.


When they reached the looming, multi-roofed building, Sango was allowed to enter while Kagome was instructed to remain outside until the courtiers finished arriving.

Sango parted with her friend reluctantly, pressing both of her hands and wishing her luck before going inside to join her clan.

Fear began to wiggle its way into Kagome's pounding heart at the parting, but she fought it back valiantly with the memory of her earlier peace in the garden. She had to maintain her composure to get through this.

Miroku soon joined her in waiting outside, informing her that it would only be a matter of moments before they were allowed to enter. She truly hoped so, because the waiting was beginning to wear her thin.

At last a court guardsman emerged from the building and informed them that it was time for their entrance.

Miroku gave her a gentle smile and squeezed her hand reassuringly. She nodded, her heart thumping wildly in the pit of her stomach. Returning her nod, Miroku stepped through the doors first. Kagome stepped through behind him, a dizzying rush of blood surging up to pound in her ears.

The sight that greeted her was almost more than she could take in.

The building was spacious and low roofed inside, lined around the walls with red pillars. On both her left and right sides knelt a sea of nobles on the polished wooden floor, in an array of colored silks and finery so bright and varied that Kagome thought she might go blind. They formed a long aisle down which Miroku was slowly walking, Kagome trailing after him with steps as small and carefully measured as she had ever seen Sango take.

At the end of the seemingly eternal aisle was a raised dais with a few steps leading up to it. It was topped with an ornate throne of gold and ivory, pictures of the sun goddess Amaterasu carved into the bottom.

The throne, though, was partially obscured by a slatted golden silk screen set up in front of it. Through it Kagome could see the indistinct outline of a man, which she could only assume to be the Tennō himself. She remembered Miroku mentioning to her once that the Tennō always sat behind a screen, only permitting those of the highest rank and his direct servants to view his hallowed person.

At the right side of the throne knelt a strikingly beautiful, incredibly pale woman in a red and white juni-hito upon an intricately embroidered silk cushion. Her face, despite the fineness of her features, looked horribly cold.

The whole room had begun buzzing upon Kagome's entrance, fans flapping excitedly in every hand, but silence fell as the houshi and the miko came to kneel at the base of the throne. Both bowed low.

Kagome waited for Miroku to rise before lifting her own head, trying to focus on him and tune out all else. She did not dare to try and search for Sango among the strange painted faces of the crowds.

"Your Majesty," the houshi began grandly, raising his voice to carry throughout the room. "I have returned from the honor of my assignment to report my findings on the situation along the southern edge."

He paused, awaiting the response.

"Go on," came the voice from behind the screen. Kagome was a bit surprised at the rough quality of it.

Miroku bowed quickly and continued.

"I was, regrettably, unable to discover the exact source of the disturbances. However, I was able to discover the village that had survived the attacks and the reason it was saved, which I believe to be related to the unrest."

He made a sweeping gesture in Kagome's direction. She fought not to flinch as all eyes turned to her, the chattering in the crowd resuming to a lesser degree. It felt as if all of the blood in her body had rushed up to heat her face.

"Kagome," came the voice again from behind the screen.

Miroku's brow furrowed in consternation and Kagome felt her own do the same. No one had mentioned her name yet.

"Ah…The Council told Us," the Tennō said quickly.

The noblewoman on his right turned a vaguely puzzled look on him, the first real hint of expression Kagome had seen on her face since the beginning of the ceremony. At least it confirmed that she was not merely some odd, life-sized porcelain doll.

"Yes, of course," Miroku said, though he did not seem wholly satisfied with the answer.

Kagome heard the name of the Tennō enter the chatter surrounding her, followed by a few tittering laughs. She frowned, wondering at this.

"Continue with your explanation, Houshi," the Tennō ordered. Miroku bowed again.

"Of course, your Majesty," Miroku said. "As I was saying, Kagome-san was the source of the village's salvation. Using her spiritual abilities, she was able to erect a barrier large and strong enough to ward off any youkai attacks. Thus her village was saved.”

“Unfortunately, Kagome-san is relatively untrained in the spiritual arts, and I believe it may have been her powerful and distinct aura that was attracting youkai to the area in the first place."

Kagome winced, having forgotten that detail in the midst of everything else. A rippling gasp spread out through the crowd. Fans and mouths went crazy, chattering and flapping in mad chaos.

"Shut up!" yelled a voice, and Kagome was shocked to realize it was the Tennō's. His manner of speaking was no better than many of the rougher men of her village.

"We are sure that the court is wondering why you brought the wen-….woman here when you think she's the one who caused that disaster," his Majesty continued, and Kagome wondered yet again at his slip.

This was the man that was supposed to be descended from the sun kami herself?

"As I mentioned earlier, your Majesty, I believe Kagome-san to be in possession of potentially unrivaled spiritual abilities. That being the case, I thought the best option would be to bring her here to be properly trained in the use and control of them," Miroku explained.

"In this way the disturbances on the southern edge cease and your Majesty gains a powerful spiritualist to employ at his discretion. I believe she will prove particularly useful in the times such as we find ourselves, your Majesty."

"You know how unorthodox it would be to accept someone of common birth into the court?" the Tennō asked.

"I am aware, your Majesty. However, I believe Kagome-san to be fully capable of adapting to any situation, and I do not believe her birth status will hinder her in any way," Miroku declared with conviction.

The room fell silent once more, everyone waiting on the Tennō's decision. Miroku turned partially to Kagome, offering a small smile. Kagome managed to smile back, grateful for the faith he had shown in her. She braced herself to learn her fate, turning her gaze expectantly up to the silk screen. Her hands trembled slightly where they were clasped in her lap.

"Houshi, We have considered your opinion," the Tennō spoke at last. Kagome sucked in a breath.

"And We say that the miko Kagome will be allowed to stay, on the condition that she completes all court training successfully."

The room burst into motion once more and Kagome heard several cries of protest go up. She turned with wide eyes to Miroku who was beaming at her amidst the clamor. An echoing grin stretched across her face. Distantly she thought she could hear Sango cheering.

"Silence."

A voice rang out above the clamor. Eyes turned to the source and fans slowed gradually.

It was the woman on the right side of the dais, and she did not look pleased.

"Though I do not to presume to contradict the Tennō-sama's word, which we all of us know to be law, I feel it is my duty as future Empress to speak my piece," she said, her voice ringing clear and crisp like a bell.

"My Lord and Majesty, I do not believe it proper to allow a commoner into the court, however questionably gifted she might be. If the kami did not see fit to give her noble status from birth, then she is no more meant to be among us than any other commoner."

Many of the courtiers erupted into cheers and applause.

How in the world was that not contradictory, Kagome wondered. The future Empress' eyes met the miko's for a brief moment, but there was none of the dislike or upset that Kagome had expected to see in the other woman's deep brown eyes. They remained vaguely detached.

"Kikyou, We understand what you mean, but it isn't your place to make those decisions," the Tennō spoke up.

"It is simply not proper, my Lord," the woman, Kikyou, persisted dispassionately. “We have nothing save the Houshi’s word that she possesses any spiritual gifts worth noting, and even should she they would have to be quite considerable to even entertain the notion of bringing her into the court.”

"What will change your mind, then?" the Tennō asked, seeming to relent slightly.

Kagome frowned, wondering why someone with absolute authority would allow himself to be led in that manner.

Kikyou considered his words for a moment.

"There is a nest of youkai near my clan's lands in the east that has been proving particularly troublesome. If this girl were to go there and dispose of the entire nest, with only the spiritual knowledge that she has now and no court training to aid her, then I would change my opinion and say she was truly among the ones gifted by the kami."

"Kikyou…"said the Tennō incredulously.

"With all due respect to her future Majesty and your Majesty," Miroku interrupted, rising to stand. "I believe this test to be unreasonable. Such an errand would be a death sentence to almost any spiritualist-"

"Then she obviously was not meant to be here, Houshi-sama," Kikyou cut in. "Return her to her village."

Her gaze met Kagome's again, the future Empress' eyes unconcerned with the miko's fate. Anger rose like bile in Kagome's throat.

"I will do it," she declared loudly.

Miroku whipped around to look at her, his expression one of horror.

"Kagome-chan-"

She shook her head and rose to her feet, her eyes never leaving Kikyou's. The future Empress looked somewhat surprised, one delicate eyebrow arching.

"Do not presume to think I will feel bad if you should perish in the effort," Kikyou said coolly.

"I do not. After all, if I die then it must be what the kami willed for me," Kagome returned.

"As you wish. You will depart in a week. Be ready."

Amidst the cheers and flapping, bright fans of courtiers, Kagome’s fate was thus sealed.

Chapter Text

The court meeting had been called to an immediate end after Kagome's assignment was given. Miroku had executed a hasty bow before grabbing her arm, nearly dragging her out of the building before any of the courtiers had even gotten to their feet. His expression was drawn tight with agitation.

Sango was waiting for the two outside, having managed to slip out in the midst of all the commotion. Kagome might have found it amusing how closely her expression matched Miroku’s if the both of them combined had not been so fearsome.

As soon as they were far away enough to not be overheard, Sango started in fiercely on her. Miroku aided her with small, sharp commentary here and there.

They pointed out every possible danger of the mission, every flaw in her logic for accepting, and detailed every possible scenario that might end in her gruesome and painful death. Kagome was certain that it was only their extensive training in manners that kept them from degenerating into yelling at her.

By the time the three reached the Tachibana residence they both seemed to have worn themselves out, their admonitions slowing to small comments every now and again. Kagome continued to nod contritely, quietly asking a passing servant to have tea sent to the main dining hall.

Once seated at the long table Miroku and Sango lapsed into stony silence. The tea arrived promptly, and Kagome waited until the two had had a few calming sips before venturing to speak.

"Sango-sama. Miroku-sama. I know you both are not very pleased with what I did-"

Sango snorted, interrupting her. Kagome blinked, astonished at the unladylike gesture.

"Of course we are not pleased," affirmed Miroku, not bothered in the least by Sango's slip in etiquette.

"Well, yes, you have both made that very clear," Kagome tried again. "But…is there any chance that you could bring yourselves to see why I did it?"

"You allowed the future Empress to rile you," Sango said.

"I did not-"

"The Tennō-sama had already decided that you could remain in the court," Miroku interrupted yet again.

"The Tennō-sama backed down as soon as the future Empress began to disagree," Kagome argued, growing slightly irritated. "If I had not done anything she would have sent me home and the Tennō-sama would not have done anything about it. Everything the both of you have done for me would have been meaningless then!"

"It will be far more meaningless if you die!" Sango snapped, slapping her palm down on the table. The teacups rattled. Kagome flinched.

"Now, now. We are all feeling a bit frustrated. Let's try to calm down and speak rationally," Miroku said wearily, pressing a hand to his temple.

Sango frowned at him, but nodded reluctantly. Kagome gazed at him expectantly, hoping he might be able to reason Sango out of her ill humor.

"Alright, then," he continued. "Kagome-chan, I think I can reasonably speak for both myself and Sango-sama when I say that we are feeling more than a little helpless. Now that you have agreed to this mission there is nothing we can do for you, you see.”

“You have given your word to the future Empress before the entire court. There is no way to revoke that without serious consequences. Thus there are only three ways in which all of this can end. You will be victorious and return for training, you will fail and be sent home, or you will…perish."

Sango nodded in grimly in agreement.

"As much as we might want to help, you took it out of our hands, Kagome-chan."

Kagome frowned, her gaze dropping to the mug of tea clasped in her hands.

"I am sorry. I did not mean to distress either of you. But…well, with all due respect, Miroku-sama, why did you bring me here if you did not believe I was capable of doing something like this?" she said softly.

"It's not that I do not believe you capable, Kagome-chan," Miroku sighed, shaking his head. "But I wanted you to have training and…well, I thought things would turn out much differently."

"So you don't believe that there is any chance that I will succeed?" Kagome asked, her heart sinking a little.

"Kagome-chan…" Miroku relented, seeing the crestfallen look on the her face.

"We want to go with you."

Kagome and Miroku turned to look at Sango, wearing matching expressions of surprise.

"Sango-sama..."

"But the future Empress said I had to do this alone," Kagome said.

"The future Empress said that you had to take out the nest of youkai alone," Sango pointed out. "So Houshi-sama and I will merely accompany you on the journey. We will only interfere in the extermination if it looks like it will cost you your life. Just so long as you are alive, nothing else matters."

"Sango-sama," was all Kagome could manage, touched.

"The gracious Sango-sama is right," Miroku agreed, throwing the noblewoman an approving glance under which she flushed faintly pink. "As long as you still have your life, we will be able to work something out."

Kagome was quiet. She considered arguing with them. It would be asking far too much for them to take such pains on her behalf, and a close association between the three of them might hurt them in the eyes of the other courtiers. Both, however, looked firm in their resolve.

"Alright, then. Thank you both so very, very much," Kagome said, smiling softly. "Just know that I intend to win, no matter what."

Both of them smiled in return.

"Of course, Kagome-chan."


Once the three of them had reached an understanding, Miroku and Sango wasted no time in getting to work. Together they managed to set up a series of tests to determine the strengths and weaknesses in Kagome’s spiritual abilities.

Of course they could not teach her anything new, as the future Empress had dictated that she must go in with only her current knowledge. That, however, did not prevent them from helping her to refine what skills she did have.

She found it amusing how well Sango and Miroku managed to work together when they were not at odds with one another. She was grateful their efforts, as well, considering that she had had no plan whatsoever behind her acceptance of the future Empress's challenge. Truthfully she had allowed herself to be provoked in some ways.

But Kagome also knew that this challenge might be the only way that the courtiers would ever begin to accept her. She had seen how firmly set against her most of them were, even when the Tennō himself had approved of her staying.

If she could accomplish such a feat as this, though, it would force them to at least allow her to live in relative peace in their midst. Or so Kagome hoped, anyway.

Through the tests they managed to find that her strengths were in her ability to heal and skill with the bow. Unfortunately her healing skills would be useless in this task, as Kagome was incapable of healing her own woulds.

The bow and arrows, however, were an advantage. They allowed her to do damage from a distance, keeping her out of the range of physical blows.

Unfortunately there was also quite a downside to archery. The amount of spiritual energy she could pack into a single arrows was severely limited, and after taking down a few youkai she would surely be discovered by the others and mobbed. Kagome alone would be unable to fire off enough arrows to defend against such a multi-pronged attack.

If she could create a barrier for protection while firing the problem would be solved. Sadly Kagome was horrendous when it came to erecting barriers. The barrier that had saved her village had been made of her power, but had essentially been formed by Kaede. Thus the barrier strategy was a moot point.

The three had seemed to reach an impasse for a time after coming to these conclusions. Healing was useless, an attack with arrows alone was improbable at best, and Kagome could not be taught how to create a barrier strong enough to keep youkai out. Two days passed in a stagnant, frustrating manner.

Sango saved them all with a small epiphany.

She caught Kagome in the garden near the koi pond one day, meditating in order to keep from drowning in her anxieties. It took Sango a great deal of searching, walking past the koi pond repeatedly, before she was actually able to spot Kagome who had been sitting there all along in such relaxed state that she had been unnoticeable.

They had never bothered to test Kagome in her meditation skills as none of them had figured them relevant, but quite the opposite proved to be true.

Sango suggested after her discovery that Kagome try an ambush. It would require her getting dangerously close to the heart of the nest, but if she could manage to fire off a few arrows and then quickly slip into a meditative state it might work. It would probably call for a few repetitions of the process and unfailing nerves, but it was not impossible.

For the remaining four days she had before she had to set out, Kagome put every ounce of energy she had into practicing both her meditation and her aim with the bow.

Miroku set up a series of archery targets in Sango's garden, even going so far as to play moving target himself a few times.

Sango did her part by making meditation as difficult as possible for Kagome, tossing her Hiraikotsu near the miko and making a general clamor while the younger girl attempted to concentrate.

Slowly and painstakingly Kagome learned to tune out all distractions and simply slip into non-being.

A few times at night Kagome found herself drawn again to the aura of the Goshinboku. Weary from training but too anxious to sleep, she would creep out and lay in the roots of the tree to draw on its comforting energy. Vaguely she realized that some part of her was hoping for the coarse man to appear again. He never did.

Once, though, just as Kagome was beginning to slip into unconsciousness in the cradle of the twisting roots, she could have sworn she sensed some sort of odd aura hovering above her in the high branches. With a jolt she had jumped up, scanning the dark. A severely sleep deprived mind had her imagining she saw a flash of gold and red, but she could find nothing there upon closer inspection.


The morning of the day before departure found Kagome and Sango packing. It proved to be a bit more difficult than either had anticipated.

Sango, despite being a profoundly sensible woman in many respects, was still a courtier and used to traveling in some style. It took no small amount of persuading on Kagome's part to convince the older woman that three full trunks was most certainly not packing light.

Miroku walked in on them in the midst of this, some sort of scroll in hand. He was frowning, looking vaguely perplexed.

"Is something the matter, Houshi-sama?" asked Sango, putting down the set of hair combs that she had been trying to convince Kagome was essential to their trip.

"Not wrong, I suppose. Just…suspicious," Miroku answered, holding up the scroll.

Sango took it from him and unrolled it. Kagome came to stand behind her, reading over her shoulder.

"What is it?" Kagome asked after a moment of scanning the paper.

She could make out parts of it, but the majority was worded with such stiff formality that it was almost incomprehensible to her.

"The Tennō-sama has decreed that his Majesty will be sending guards to accompany us on the trip," said Sango, frowning as she read through the document a second time.

"Three guards," added Miroku. "Though not for the purpose of aiding us in any way. Rather they are going to monitor us to make certain that everything is done correctly."

"Is that odd?" asked Kagome, not seeing anything terribly strange about it.

"It is unusual that the Tennō-sama would dispatch imperial troops on a mission that is neither official nor a matter of state," Sango explained. "The Tennō-sama could just have Fujiwara troops watch over us if his Majesty is so concerned with us doing things correctly."

"Fujiwara troops?" Kagome echoed.

"Ah, I think we forget that you are unfamiliar with the workings of the court. You have been acclimating yourself to the life and manners quite beautifully, Kagome-chan," Miroku said. Kagome smiled her thanks and waited for him to continue.

"Fujiwara is the clan that the future Empress Kikyou-sama belongs to. They once dominated court life entirely, though their power has…diminished in recent years. But as almost all clans do, they keep their own troops on their lands in case battle is ever necessary. And Sango-sama is quite right, it would be much more sensible for the Tennō-sama to employ them in our guardianship."

"So one can only surmise that his Majesty has taken some sort of special interest in Kagome-chan's situation," Sango said thoughtfully.

They all considered this, drawing out the implications. Kagome was slightly worried, wondering if this kind of attention was something she should want.

Slowly she and Sango resumed packing, the taiji-ya much less argumentative. Miroku helped for a while, making occasional remarks on Sango's many virtues, before he drifted off to make preparations of his own.

The remainder of the day passed in a relatively uneventful manner, but Kagome's sleep that night was a restless one filled with tossing and turning. She had vague dreams of blood and wolves and human birds. A sense of disquiet began to grow in Kagome that would follow her all the next day.


The three were dressed and ready to set out with the rising of the sun the following morning, all of them anxious to be off.

They met up at the eastern entrance of the Suzakumon gate. Miroku ordered a guard there to have three horses readied and saddled with their bags.

"Where are the guards that the Tennō-sama is sending?" asked Kagome as they waited for the guard to return with their horses. There was no one else to be seen besides a few other gate guards.

"I was instructed to simply wait here until they arrive," Miroku replied.

"They did not specify a time?" asked Sango, adjusting a few of the armored plates on her sleek, black taiji-ya uniform. She had opted to wear it rather than a juni-hito, as the rich silks of that luxurious garment seldom proved comfortable on long rides.

Miroku shook his head in the negative. Sango huffed out a small sigh.

"That's troublesome. Hopefully they will not take too long. I want to be off as soon as possible."

Silently Kagome agreed with her friend. Her nerves were fluttering in her stomach like the wings of a small bird.

Shortly the guard arrived with three large, brown horses, each saddled with a few bags. Kagome went over to hers, a big gentle mare, and began to pet it, cooing to it in the silly voice that people tend to lapse in to when speaking to animals.

She fed it the last few pieces of apple left over from her breakfast, wrapped in a little cloth and tucked into the front of her robes. As it chomped them down she continued to talk to it, mostly to distract herself, asking the horse to be careful with her as she was still inexperienced in riding on her own.

Time dragged on slowly as they waited for the guards to arrive, Miroku joining Kagome with the horses as Sango paced about in her agitation. Eventually the three caught the sounds of hooves clattering on the stone walkway, the noise drifting towards them on the chill morning breeze. Three large black horses and their riders came slowly into view.

Miroku and Sango both executed deep bows, Kagome following their example quickly. As they straightened up, the three guards dismounted. Kagome had to bite back an exclamation.

Two of the guards were human and largely unremarkable to her, but the third’s features were strikingly familiar. She stared at him, examining the man from head to toe. But 'man' was not wholly accurate.

The general shape of his features was hard-edged and very similar to the coarse man she had met beneath the Goshinboku, but Kagome was certain that he had been human.

The being before her was most definitely not. Gold slit-pupiled eyes, long silver hair, elongated claws on both hands and bare feet, and a pair of triangular dog ears atop his head set him drastically apart from any human.

Kagome could have pegged him as a youkai with her eyes closed. His aura positively reeked of youki. But something was slightly off about it, though she could not pinpoint what it was.

All of the similarities between the man in front of her and the man beneath the Goshinboku left her to wonder if the two were related somehow. But a human and a youkai related? Was it possible? Kagome thought it would definitely be too forward of her to voice any of this, so she kept quiet.

"Good morning! You are the guards that the Tennō-sama instructed to accompany us?" Miroku said.

The youkai, seemingly the head guard, grunted an assent.

"Well, it is a pleasure to meet all of you. I am Shingon Miroku, a houshi-"

"We-I... I already know who you are, houshi. No need to go through all that introduction crap. Let's just get going," the youkai cut him off roughly.

Kagome was astonished. He spoke just like the coarse man, too.

Miroku looked mildly affronted for a moment, but covered it over with an easy grin.

"Ah, how silly of me. Of course the Tennō-sama would have explained the situation to you. However, his Majesty neglected to inform us of your names."

"Ah. Yeah. I’m...Genji," the youkai said shortly, by way of introduction.

"Genji-sama?" Sango echoed incredulously, obviously fishing for a clan surname.

"Genji is fine," the youkai rebuffed her.

"Zetsubode Hidetaka," said the taller of the two human guards, giving his own name and breaking the awkward silence that followed Genji’s words.

"Uragiri Hideyoshi," offered the other guard.

Sango and Miroku bowed again, but the slight degree of their bow told Kagome that the clans of the guards were minor ones. She mirrored their actions.

"Let's get going already," groused the youkai, moving to mount his horse.

A slight, steady clacking had them all turning to look back down the stone path. Astonishingly it was the future Empress gliding swiftly down the path, her wooden geta causing the noise beneath the hem of her deep red juni-hito. Her face was impassive as ever, but Kagome could sense a certain agitation about her.

"I am afraid that I have thought it over, and I cannot condone such foolhardy and nonsensical conduct, my Lor-" Kikyou began upon reaching the group. Oddly enough, she seemed to be addressing Genji.

"Whether you approve it or not, Fujiwara-sama, this is what the Tennō-sama decreed," Genji cut her off firmly, his expression warning.

Kikyou looked vaguely puzzled for a moment, but seemed to comprehend something as she looked from Miroku to Sango to Kagome. Still she persisted in arguing.

"Even so, I believe leaving the capital like this to be a terrible mistake. There is no reason for you to accompany them. Rather you are needed here to keep order-"

"No more, Fujiwara-sama. The Tennō-sama has taken care of everything. We- I'm going," Genji declared, mounting up. The other two guards followed his lead.

Kagome, Sango, and Miroku remained standing, looking uncertainly at the future Empress as she clutched the trailing fabric of her own sleeves.

"Mount up. We're leaving," ordered Genji, looking purposefully away from Kikyou.

Slowly the three did as commanded, Kagome receiving a help from the Miroku. The guards pulled open the large wooden gates.

"As you will. I will do my duty as future Empress and keep order myself," Kikyou declared. She spun around and headed purposefully back down the path, casting only one lingering glance back at Genji.

"Move out," ordered the youkai, kneeing his horse into a trot after glancing quickly back at Kikyou's retreating form.

He shook his head a bit as if to clear it, and his gaze slid over to consider Kagome as she adjusted herself in her saddle behind him. Kagome's eyes turned up to meet his own by chance, and the youkai turned hastily away.

The rest of the group also spurred their horses into motion. They rode out of the gate and on for a silent stretch of time.

Questions buzzed silently around Sango, Miroku, and Kagome. The other two guards somehow seemed to understand what had gone on between Genji and the future Empress. Every now and again the three cast questioning looks at one another, but Miroku was the first to work up the nerve to ask.

He pulled his horse up beside Genji’s, offering him a small smile. The youkai did not spare him so much as a glance. Miroku cleared his throat, but still Genji ignored him.

"Ah, Genji-sama?" Miroku ventured.

"What?" Genji responded flatly.

"May I inquire as to the relation between yourself and the future Empress?" Miroku said.

"No."

"What?"

"No, you can't inquire. It's none of your business. All you have to worry about is riding until I say we can stop for the night," Genji snapped.

"Ah…alright, then," Miroku submitted, falling back to ride between Kagome and Sango. The three exchanged a look, but no one dared push any furrther. They were left with only their suspicions and guesses.


The rest of the ride that day passed slowly and without event. Miroku, Sango, and Kagome chatted amongst themselves, reviewing the plan for when they arrived at the youkai nest. The two human guards joined in the conversation a few times, giving their own input. Genji, on the other hand, rode ahead of the group the entire time, avoiding talking to anyone.

At sunset the youkai picked out a small clearing in the forest they were riding through, ordering them to stop there for the night. He informed them that it would probably take another day and a half or so to reach Fujiwara lands.

Sango, Miroku and the two human guards went to work setting up camp. Kagome volunteered to go collect fire wood, slinging her bow and arrows over one shoulder before venturing deeper into the woods.

She was glad to be on her own for a while, clearing her mind and then refilling it with the hum of the nature all around her. She wandered aimlessly, picking up fallen branches here and there. She shivered as a cool wind kicked up, her teeth chattering slightly. Winter was upon them now and the temperature was sinking with the sun.

Kagome was stopped by the sound of splashing. She could sense a river running through the forest, but the noise seemed too loud to be just the trickle of water over rocks. Kagome cautiously wove her way through the trees towards the source.

It was Genji there, sashinuki and karaginu rolled up as he waded around in the river water. A small pile of fish sat on the bank behind him and as she approached his hand jabbed sharply into the flowing water. When he pulled it back out there was a fish speared on the end of his elongated claws.

Kagome hesitated, wondering if she should interrupt. Goodness knew she would probably only get snapped at if she did announce her presence. She turned to walk away. A twig snapped loudly beneath her foot and she froze.

The youkai whipped around, golden eyes scanning the surrounding trees.

Guiltily Kagome crept forward.

"Oh. You," Genji said flatly, his expression relaxing back into the scowl he had worn all day.

He stared expectantly at her. Kagome fidgeted.

"So what the in the seven hells are you doing out here?" Genji snapped at length, impatient.

"Ah…" Kagome said, holding up the bundle of sticks in her arms. "I was just collecting fire wood. I did not mean to interrupt you. I will go back to camp now. "

Kagome bowed hastily and turned to leave, flustered. But darkness had fallen in earnest now and she hesitated, unsure of which way she had come from.

"Oi, woman."

Kagome turned back, both slightly irritated at the address and struck once again by how similar he was to the coarse man beneath the Goshinboku.

"Yes, Genji-sama?" she managed with strained politeness.

He returned his focus to fishing, not bothering to face her as he said, "You don't look too bright to me, so I'd suggest you just wait till I'm done. Then you can follow me back to the camp so you don't get yourself lost and eaten by some wild animal."

Kagome felt a slight tick develop above her left eye at the casual insult.

"No, thank you, Genji-sama. I can find my way back just fine all on my own." Kagome sounded considerably less polite this time.

She turned again to leave, ready to storm off in a huff. The surrounding trees were all blanketed in a thick darkness. She could barely see in front of her.

Kagome glanced between the dark, looming woods and Genji, wondering which was the lesser of the two evils. With a sigh she decided that a little embarrassment and degradation was preferable to death at the fangs of some nocturnal beast.

She sat down quietly on the bank, not saying a word. Genji glanced at her from the corner of his eye, smirking. Kagome scowled at his back.

"Guess you're not as dumb as I thought."

"I suppose not," Kagome bit out.

He speared two fish simultaneously, tossing them back onto the bank amongst the small pile he had already caught.

There was some splashing as he sloshed out of the river and onto the bank. He shook himself like a dog, water droplets flying everywhere.

"Hey!" squeaked Kagome as a few droplets splashed onto her face.

He ignored her, unrolling his sashinuki and karaginu.

"You could apologize," Kagome muttered under her breath.

"I could do alotta things," Genji returned.

Kagome glanced at him, surprised. Those ears were not just for show.

He gathered up the fish that he had caught, bundling them up into the cloth he had laid out beneath them and starting off into the woods without a word. Kagome scowled and jumped up with her bundle of sticks, rushing after him into the dark.

Silence stretched thickly between the two. Kagome soon grew uncomfortable, though he seemed unaffected. He barely even seemed to be aware of her presence.

"You can see where we are going in the dark like this?" Kagome said, to fill the silence.

A grunt was her answer. She took it as a yes.

"That must be useful."

Genji shot her a sideways glance.

"If you're just yapping to hear the sound of your own voice, feel free to shut up."

Kagome only just barely managed to keep herself from dropping her bundle of sticks to hit the man. Her hands flexed almost spasmodically. In the end, no matter how crude, he was a nobleman of some great status. He did not strike her as the type to be forgiving if she stepped out of her place.

"Then how about I ask a question that I actually need an answer to?" Kagome offered sharply.

"Just because you ask doesn't mean I have to answer."

"I know," Kagome said, taking that as permission of a sort. "So you can answer me or not when I ask why exactly the Tennō-sama thought it necessary to send his Majesty's own guards along on this mission."

Genji froze in his tracks, turning to face her fully for the first time. His golden eyes were bright in the darkness as he stared hard at her, searching her face for something. Kagome stared back, uncertain. At length he turned away.

"The Tennō-sama…didn't feel the need to explain to us," Genji said slowly.

"Oh…"

Kagome was hardly satisfied with the answer, but saw no point in pursuing it further. They resumed their walk.

"So what in the seven levels of hell made you agree to do this?"

Kagome jumped a bit, surprised at the sound of his voice. She had not expected him to make anything vaguely resembling an attempt at conversation. He certainly did not look very interested in her answer. That, however, might just have been his face. It seemed to be stuck that way.

"The mission, you mean?"

"Yeah."

"I did not want to be thrown out of the court before I even got a chance, I suppose," Kagome replied thoughtfully.

"And if you die? Is some fancy life in court with nice clothes and food really worth your life?"

"I do not particularly want to be in court to have a 'fancy life' or anything," Kagome answered, considering this. "I mean, it will be nice to live without having to worry about surviving. But really…there are going to be so many things that I will be able to do if I can be trained in the court. I can help people like the ones in my village. I can finally do something other than feel bad about all the things that I could not do."

"...that’s your reason for coming to court?" he said, disbelief clear in his face as he eyed her.

"Is that so strange?" Kagome said defensively.

"Yeah. It's really strange," he said, though without any real edge to the words. Rather his expression had grown thoughtful, his eyes shuttering as he turned them back to the path before them. 

"I suppose I will have to beg your pardon then, Genji-sama," Kagome huffed, nettled by this casual dismissal.

"Nothing for me to pardon," he said. He glanced at her, shaking his head.

Kagome frowned, deciding that perhaps it would be best to simply ignore him from here on out.

They reached the camp and Genji stopped short on the fringe of it. Kagome looked at him for a moment before moving to walk past.

"Oi, wench."

Kagome turned back to him.

"Pick your fish."

He held out the bundle to her.

Kagome blinked at him, feeling that this might be some odd peace offering. He looked less surly, anyway.

She picked a fish.


They all ate before going to sleep. Kagome noticed when Genji crept out beyond the fringe of the camp to sleep. He seemed to prefer being away from the group as much as possible. She wondered at the odd tendency.

Kagome awoke in the middle of the night, finding she needed to relieve herself. She extricated herself from her futon near the fire, careful not to rouse Sango where she slept nearby.

She crept lightly around the edge of the camp, looking for a large bush or some other sort of covering that might offer privacy. She found one and promptly froze.

There were voices coming from the other side.

Kagome crouched down and listened carefully. A few moments of listening told her it was the two human guards. But what were they doing up at that hour?

"So we're agreed, then?" whispered one guard. "We'll do it when we reach the Fujiwara lands?"

"Yeah," replied the other guard. "Then it can be dismissed as the Fujiwara stirring up trouble. They're in a position to do it, and they certainly have motive. It'll be perfect."

"It has to be done," said the other guard. "I mean, a hanyou? It's ridiculous. It can't be tolerated."

"Yeah," agreed the other guard.

The two fell silent for a stretch. Kagome took the opportunity to creep away unnoticed. She went and tended to her business in the woods before returning to her futon.

She lay awake for a time, wondering what the guards had been talking about. It had sounded suspicious at the very least.

She wondered if she should inform Sango and Miroku of what she had overheard. Quick on the heels of that thought was the question of whether or not Genji was involved in the seeming plot. He had been sent with the two, after all.

Kagome decided it would be best to say nothing until she understood more. There was no need to cast unnecessary doubt on Genji if he were not involved. She did not know for certain that what the guards were doing was bad, either. She resolved to watch over the two on her own for a while.


The group rose early the next morning and ate before cleaning up the camp. They mounted up and continued their journey east.

That day's ride was unremarkable, with only an occasional attempt at groping from Miroku toward Sango and a few barked orders from Genji.

Kagome spent the day watching the two human guards, though with little in the way of answers or results. The only thing she really learned was that Genji generally avoided too much involvement with the two humans, though they seemed keep a rather keen eye on him.

At night they settled in a forest clearing again for the night. Genji went off to fish and Kagome followed after him, not quite certain of her own motive.

Surprisingly he tolerated her presence on the bank as he fished. He did not speak to her or do anything to overtly acknowledge her presence, but he did not order her to go away, either.

They ate, slept, and set out again the next morning for the final leg of their journey. In the late afternoon Genji informed them that they were only a short ways away. He told Kagome that they could either continue straight on to the nest or stop for a time at the Fujiwara residence to rest.

Kagome opted to head straight for the nest. She did not feel entirely prepared, but more than anything she wanted to get it all over with.

They rode on towards the nest.


As they drew closer to the nest Kagome began to feel faintly ill. The aura of the youkai was large and filled with a good amount of malice. The sheer force of it told Kagome that the number of youkai in the nest might be somewhere up in the fifties. She shuddered slightly.

"You sure you wanna do this? Whatever your intentions might be, this is all still looking pretty idiotic to me."

Kagome jumped, torn abruptly from her darker thoughts. She had not noticed Genji dropping back to ride beside her.

"I…I'm not backing down," Kagome said with more certainty than she felt.

"You're scared shitless," said Genji bluntly.

Kagome frowned at him.

"I am scared. But that doesn't have to stop me. Sometimes you just have to be scared and do it anyway, right?"

Genji took a long look at her, seeming to consider this. He shook his head.

"Keh. Idiot."

"Maybe I am," Kagome murmured, more to herself than to him.

"Oi, woman."

"Yes?"

"If you…if you need any help or if you get in trouble…"

He trailed off, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Kagome smiled faintly.

"I know. All I have to do is call and Miroku-sama and Sango-sama will come to help me."

Genji shot her an incredulous look.

"By the kami, you really are an idiot," he snapped, spurring his horse to ride ahead of her again.

"Huh?"

"We are here," called Miroku from the front of the group.

Kagome nudged her horse up to where he, Sango, and the two human guards had stopped. Genji was apart from the group and off to the side, fuming over something or other.

"This is the edge of their territory," Miroku clarified. "Their aura solidifies and permeates this area. My guess is that the nest is somewhere up in the cliff side there."

Miroku pointed to a relatively small, sharply sheared cliff face looming a short way off in the distance.

"I guess that's where I am headed, then," Kagome said, nudging her horse forward.

"Kagome-chan, wait. We need to-" Sango said, reaching out a hand as if to restrain her.

"It's best that you all stay here," Kagome called back, kneeing her horse into quick trot. "If I get in trouble I'll head straight back here for help."

"Kagome-chan, I do not believe that to be wise. What if-" Miroku tried to argue.

"Please just stay here, all of you," Kagome called back, cutting him off. "If you're with me I'm afraid you'll be too tempted to jump in unnecessarily. Don't worry, I'll be fine. Just…believe in me a little bit!"

"Oi, woman!"

"I'll be back in a little while! Wait there for me!"

Kagome spurred her horse into a gallop, ignoring their calls. Thankfully they seemed to reluctantly respect her wishes, as no one came after her. She secured the quiver and bow on her shoulder as she rode, comforted by their weight on her back.

After galloping for a distance, Kagome stopped her horse in a thick clump of trees. She dismounted, taking the horse's reins and looping them loosely around a tree trunk.

In the cover of the trees the horse would not become a target for the youkai and could run if anything happened to come after it. She cooed to it for a few moments, thanking it for taking her all that way and assuring it she would definitely be back.

Ever so slowly and cautiously, Kagome crept around the edges of the trees. She was careful to keep just inside the shadows. She was very near to the cliff now.

She edged her way along the cliff face, looking for a path to climb up and taking great pains to remain calm enough to suppress her aura. She found a precarious little ledge trail and began her climb.

Kagome had to cling to the cliff side to keep her balance on the narrow ledge, grasping at whatever protruding stones she could get her hands on. The climb was slow and tedious, but she was very careful to quiet her nerves enough to keep from being detected.

Finally Kagome found what she had been hoping for. It was a small ledge, just big enough for Kagome to sit down on. Below it she could see a large, dark opening that, judging from the feel of its aura, led into the youkai nest.

Kagome sat down on the ledge, resting her back against the cliff face and bringing her quiver of arrows into her lap for easier access. Notching one arrow, she slipped into the deepest meditative peace that she could manage, pulling the solid essence of the cliff face in through her back as she rested against it.

Her eyes remained open, watching and waiting. It was high noon and Kagome had not yet seen any of the youkai emerge. Most likely they had gone out to hunt for food. It was only a matter of time until they returned.

Her guess proved to be more than accurate. In a matter of several moments the air all around her was filled with horrendous shrieking, some garbled cross between a human scream and a hawk's cry. Round, winged bodies were swooping down out of the sky towards the nest entrance.

Kagome managed to keep her composure despite the horrible noise. Sango had made more noise when throwing Hiraikotsu, so Kagome could manage it. What she saw as the youkai drew closer, however, nearly unnerved her entirely.

The youkai were large, with spherical feathered bodies like those of some grotesquely bloated bird. Wings and taloned feet connected to this body, as well as a semblance of a human torso that protruded from atop it. The human face was monstrously distorted. But such an appearance was no more than she had expected.

What Kagome had not counted on were the meals they carried back with them from hunting. Mangled human corpses hung from their claws, intestines spilling forth and heads missing where they had been torn from shoulders. A few of the corpses seemed to be of other youkai, as well. Some kind of wolf youkai, if Kagome were to guess.

Kagome nearly lost her focus at the sight of such gore. For a moment panic spiked within her. A few of the bird youkai turned to her abruptly, spotting her for the first time. She drew a deep breath and slowed her heart forcefully, slipping back into a state of non-being.

The youkai that had spotted her now swerved in confusion at her sudden disappearance. The whole flock had arrived, numbering somewhere in the fifties at her best estimate. The group swooped and whirled about the entrance, disoriented by the confusion of their fellows.

Kagome saw her chance clearly. There were several birds lined up in her range just beneath her. It would have to be quick, but she could do it.

Kagome slipped out of meditation and the birds all turned to her immediately, shrieking. She aimed and paused for an agonizingly long moment, imbuing the arrow with her power. She fired.

Four of the youkai disintegrated, caught in the direct line of fire. Three more wailed loudly and began to drop, burned by the purification light. The rest of the horde halted for a moment, dipping and whirling wildly in their agitation and surprise.

Kagome cursed mentally. She had hoped to take down at least ten of the birds with that shot. She had not packed enough energy into her arrow in her haste to fire.

Time was of the essence and she leaned back against the cliff, imposing blankness on her mind. The youkai began to regroup.

Once again the birds had lost all traces of her, but now that they had seen her clearly they began to swarm around Kagome's perch on the ledge. A few even came close enough for their breath to fan over her skin, reeking of blood and human flesh. Only just barely did she manage to tamp down her gag reflex.

More than making her uncomfortable, however, the birds' closeness prevented her from being able to line up a good shot. The arrow would have maximum impact at such a close range, but would limit her to targeting at most two birds. The rest would be upon her so fast that she would not have time to scream.

Ever so slowly Kagome got to her feet, careful no to accidentally touch any of the youkai. They may not be able to see, sense, or smell her, but they would certainly be able feel her if she bumped them.

She edged her way along the cliff face, absorbing the cliff's steadiness through her flattened palms. Keeping a sharp eye on the flock, she made certain that none of them made any moves to follow. Slowly she managed to climb to a slightly higher, even smaller ledge.

Kagome barely had room to stand on the ledge and was concerned that it might give beneath her weight, but she could see no alternatives nearby. Besides that it was an excellent position from which to shoot down at least seven more of the youkai, still swarming around the ledge she had originally been on.

Kagome found a precarious balance, notching another arrow. She took a few moments to line up a perfect shot. Taking a deep breath, she dropped her guard and fired. The twang of the bow string was loud in her ears.

Thirteen youkai disintegrated in a flash of blue. Four more shrieked and fell. The rest of the flock erupted into a chaotic mess, shrieking and diving. Kagome gave a little jump of joy at her success.

A jump of joy that sent the fragile ledge beneath her crumbling.

Kagome screamed as she went tumbling down the cliff face, scraping against rocks and protruding edges on the way. She scrabbled wildly for a purchase amongst the rocks to halt her descent to the distant ground. Her hands bled with the effort, but she could not manage to get hold of anything solid as she rolled and twisted helplessly downward.

Two large, taloned feet saved her, but Kagome's relief was fleeting. The largest of the birds had her in its clutches.

Sore and bleeding, Kagome struggled desperately against the hold. She knew she would rather fall to her death than face whatever the bird youkai might do to her. But both her arms and legs were pinned tightly and all of her flailing was to no avail.

The bird flew through the midst of the group, squawking and showing off its prize. Kagome's heart began to hammer when as it glided down through the dark entrance to the nest. She knew very well how slim her chances of ever emerging from the lair again were.

The large bird tossed Kagome roughly down and she rolled like a rag doll, stopping only when she hit a wall. Quickly she scrambled to her feet, backing herself into a tight corner and summoning up every last bit of spiritual energy she had.

The large bird crowed its triumph loudly, the rest of the flock alighting behind him in the nest.

"Stupid little human," it sneered. "You really think that there is any chance of escape now? We will make you pay for what you did to our kinsmen."

"They deserved it for devouring all of those poor people," Kagome said, muscles tensing and hands glowing as they began to approach.

There was no question in her mind as to whether or not she could beat them and escape. She simply did not have enough spiritual training to take out so many alone.

That did not mean, however, that she was simply going to lie down and die. She thought of Souta and Mama and Jii-chan and Sango and Miroku and even Genji.

If she went out, she went out fighting.

The first bird reached her, talons arching down to slash at her. Kagome just barely managed to dodge, thrusting her glowing palm up against the bird's gut while it was still off balance. It shrieked and stumbled back against its fellows, a dark palm print burned into its stomach.

A second set of talons raked across the Kagome’s left shoulder, tearing robe and flesh. Kagome screamed and struck out blindly with another glowing fist. Somehow it made contact and the bird ducked back.

Kagome backed further into the tight corner, clutching at her bleeding shoulder. Her left arm had lost all sensation, so despite having managed to hold on to her weapons during her fall down the cliff face it seemed unlikely that she would be able to use them. She was shaking all over, tired already from the effort of summoning up her powers directly without the use of a chant or medium.

Desperately Kagome wished for her friends. They had insisted upon coming with her to prevent this exact scenario, and she had been foolish enough to force them to stay behind. Inwardly she cursed herself.

She looked up just in time to see the largest bird's talons descending upon her head. She closed her eyes in anticipation of the death blow, her mind flashing briefly to an image of the sakura trees behind Sango's residence with Sango, Miroku, Mama, Souta, and Jii-chan all sitting beneath them in the bright light of spring.

The moments stretched on and Kagome felt no pain. She cracked one eye open. Her small sliver of vision was filled with jet black and fuzzy brown. Kagome opened her eyes fully.

There was a man-no, most definitely not a 'man'. He was a youkai for certain, as his aura proudly announced to anyone capable of reading it. Dressed in an assortment of furs and dark armor plates with long, pitch black hair tied in up in a high tail, the man was broad backed and lean muscled as he held back the large bird's talons. Vaguely Kagome noticed a brown tail and connected him to the wolf youkai she had seen dangling from the claws of the birds earlier.

"Oi, woman," the youkai in front of her called, casting a glance at her over his shoulder. His face was hard-edged, his eyes the blue of a river covered in frost.

"Yes?" Kagome managed, dazed at his sudden appearance. Where had he even come from? How had he gotten in front of her so quickly?

"You're the one that piled up those nasty bird carcasses at the bottom of the cliff?" he asked, thrusting the bird whose clawed foot he had been holding away from him. The bird flew backwards, knocking away some of the others surrounding her as well.

"Yes," Kagome replied automatically, staring wonderingly at where the bird had landed.

The wolf youkai smirked.

"Then you and me've got a common goal," he said. "Think you can get up? We're not quite done yet."

The bird youkai were regrouping now, closing in on the pair once more. The wolf crouched down slightly, readying for a fight.

Slowly Kagome managed to climb to her feet, gripping the wall with her good arm for support. Her left shoulder throbbed and blood poured sluggishly from the wound, but she gritted her teeth against the pain.

"What do I need to do to?" Kagome asked.

"A fighter, huh? Not too shabby for a tiny little human," the wolf youkai said approvingly. "I can make enough room for you to do it, but you're gonna need to be able to fire those arrows of yours. Think you can?"

He dodged a taloned foot in mid-sentence, ducking beneath it before planting his fist in the bird's gut. More claws came at him from the left, but a swift, sharp extension of his left leg sent the bird stumbling away.

"I'll do it," Kagome declared firmly, her desire to live fueling her with the strength to do just about anything at that point. She wanted to live to see that scene beneath the sakura tree.

"Alright, then. Here we go."

The wolf youkai began to move his legs so rapidly that cloud of dirt arose around him, expanding to fill the entire cave. It developed quickly into a swirling mass surrounding his form. He darted forward into the group of birds, running circles around them and drawing them into the air vacuum he had created in the small cave.

Kagome lifted her bow, ignoring the screaming protests of her shoulder and the long tendrils of her own dark hair whipping manically all about her face. She planted her feet firmly to keep from being sucked in, though the wolf youkai had moved to the opposite edge of the cave to keep the pull on her from becoming too great.

She drew an arrow from her quiver and notched it, taking her time to pack in as much spiritual power as she could. She aimed at the sides of the vortex, careful to avoid the area where she estimated the wolf to be. She let the arrow fly.

Fifteen of the youkai downed in a flash or pearlescent light. The others screamed in outrage, trying in vain to escape the pull of the vortex and get at her. A few of the smarter ones swooped in towards the center of the swirling column of wind, aiming for the wolf.

Kagome quickly notched another arrow and fired, taking out the ones after going after her youkai savior. Blood loss quickly worked to numb the pain in her shoulder and she slipped into an unthinking rhythm of notch, hold, and release.

Notch, hold, release.

Notch, hold, release.

Notch, hold, release.

The cave was filled with the death cries of the birds, echoing hauntingly within the stone walls.

Kagome had already notched and fired another arrow into the dirt floor of the cave by the time she realized that all of the bird youkai were gone. The bow fell from her limp hands as the wolf youkai slowed to a stop, the windstorm slowly dissipating at his halt.

"Damn, woman!" he exclaimed, whistling low as he looked around at the ashes coating the cave floor and walls. "I didn't honestly think you could do it before dying from blood loss, let alone do that quick. By the kami, you've got some damn kinda power!"

His words fell on deaf ears as Kagome slipped down to lean against the cave wall, exhausted and trembling all over.

It occurred to her suddenly that she had just failed in her mission by accepting the wolf's aid. Kagome began to cry quietly.

"Wh-what? Why are you crying, woman? You just took out an entire nest of human eating youkai! You won! You ain't even dead!"

He edged uncertainly toward her, at a loss at the sight of her tears.

"My name's Kagome, not 'woman'!" she sniffled. "And I didn't win. I broke the rules so now I have to go home and my village will starve!"

He stared blankly at her.

"Rules? Village?"

Kagome just nodded, not particularly answering any question. Her head was beginning to feel as if it might simply float away from her body at any moment.

"You might've lost too much blood, wom- I mean, Kagome," the youkai said, coming forward to kneel in front of the girl.

"Yeah," Kagome agreed faintly. "Do you think I'll die? I don't really want to die. Even if I failed, I still need to be there to help my village…"

"You're pretty loyal, huh?" the wolf remarked, looking contemplatively at the rapidly fading woman. "I like that. Whatta y'say I save your life?"

"Sounds good," Kagome muttered, slipping into unconsciousness at last.

The wolf youkai grinned roguishly.

"Alright, then. But it's gonna cost ya."

Without further ado he scooped the woman up carefully, dashing off with her.


Kagome was warm. Oddly warm for someone who was either dead or in the process of dying. Maybe her soul had reunited with the elements once again, as all souls did in death. Maybe she had become fire. Or perhaps she had joined with a hot spring. A hot spring would be lovely.

But if she had returned to nature, why did she still retain her own individual consciousness?

Slowly Kagome opened her eyes, discovering that she did in fact still have eyes and a body. The stone roof of a cave, lit orange by the glow of flames, slowly came into focus.

A fur blanket was what was keeping her warm, draped carefully over her form. Mindful of her injured left shoulder, she sat up.

Kagome bit down hard on her tongue to keep from crying out.

She was in a large, dark cave full of wolves, both of the animal and youkai variety. They were littered all across the floor, dozing in the warmth of the fire. There were several that were merely an arm’s length away.

Kagome's mind began working furiously to recall how she had gotten there. It was fuzzy, but she could just recall the wolf youkai she had met saying something about saving her. So then this was his clan and he was the one who had wrapped her shoulder. Taking off her karaginu and chest bindings in order to so, she realized suddenly.

She flushed a violent red, mortification welling up. How much had he seen?

The padding of feet echoed through the cave and Kagome turned towards the source, praying that it would not wake any of the wolves around her.

It was the man she had met in the bird youkai nest, emerging from some deeper part of the cave. He broke into a wide grin at the sight of her, coming to kneel down beside the nest of furs she was wrapped in.

"Finally awake, huh? You've been out cold since noon," he said. "You should be fine, though. Seems like we got it wrapped before you lost too much blood. How's it feel?"

"It's alright," Kagome answered slowly, thrown off by the familiarity with which he spoke to her. "Were you…the one who wrapped my shoulder?"

"Of course," he responded, chest puffing out with pride.

Kagome flushed again.

"You didn't…see anything, did you?" Kagome murmured.

The wolf youkai looked confused for a moment, but comprehension dawned on him and he grinned more widely than ever.

"You mean your breasts? Yeah, I saw. Nice pair, too. Don't look so embarrassed, Kagome! It's only right that as your-"

"It is not 'only right'!" snapped Kagome, so much blood rushing to her head that she thought it might burst. “There's nothing right about it! I want my karaginu back!"

"It's a little torn-"

"I want it back now!" Kagome demanded fiercely.

"Feisty woman, huh?" said the wolf, looking oddly pleased at this.

He rose and went back into the depths of the cave, returning with Kagome's torn and bloodied karaginu. She forced him to turn around before she slipped it back on under the cover of the fur blankets.

Fully clothed, she slipped out from beneath the furs and began making her way toward the cave's exit, picking carefully around sleeping wolves.

"Oi, Kagome! Where are you going?" the wolf called after her.

"I need to leave now. I have people that are probably worried about me. Thank you for your help, sir," Kagome said stiffly, continuing on her way.

Suddenly the wolf was at her side. Kagome jumped, surprised once more at his soundless speed.

Without so much as a word he swept her up into his arms.

"No more of that 'sir' crap. The name's Kouga, Lord of the Eastern Wolf Youkai Tribe. It's a name you won't soon be forgetting," said the wolf, carrying her out through the entrance into the night air.

They were on a long, flat ledge now, the jagged stone illuminated by the soft glow of a crescent moon. Apparently the wolf den was carved into the side of a mountain.

Kagome struggled and squirmed until Kouga set her down. She glowered at him before turning to search for some way down off the mountain.

Any climbing would probably be excruciating with her shoulder in such poor condition, but even that was preferable to further humiliation. Besides, she needed to get back to her companions as soon as possible. Surely they would be looking for her.

"Whoa, there! I only took you out here so you could get a bit of air and cool off. There ain't no way I'm letting you just leave like that. Besides, you have no clue where we are," Kouga pointed out, coming up to stand beside her.

Kagome scowled at him, but silently conceded that he was right. She had absolutely no idea where she was, or even if she was still on Fujiwara lands.

"You have to let me go back to my companions," Kagome said, a hint of pleading in her tone. "I mean, they have to be worried about me. And besides…I-I saved you, too! You said you needed my purification powers back in the bird youkai nest-my arrows!"

"You're right," Kouga allowed. "That flock of bastards has been picking off members of my tribe for months now, and hundreds more were killed trying to take them out. You could even dismember the fucking things and they would still heal. There was some kinda weird jyaki around them. Your arrows were the first thing that I ever saw that could take them out."

"So you'll take me back to my companions?" Kagome said hopefully, storing the information about the bird youkai away in the back of her mind for later examination. She had noticed something odd about their jyaki.

"Not quite," said Kouga. "You saved me once. I saved you twice. Once in the cave and twice with the bandages. You still owe me and I ain't letting you go until you've paid your debt."

"Paid my debt?" echoed Kagome, filled suddenly with trepidation.

Kouga advanced on her slowly, elongated canines glinting in the light of the moon.

"That's right. And I know just how you can do it."

"By warding your cave to keep out other youkai?" Kagome suggested desperately, not liking the look in his eyes at all.

"Not quite," Kouga said, chuckling.

"Then what would you like? Sewing? Cooking? I can do a lot of useful little things like that."

Kagome's back hit the mountain side and she realized that she had been backing away from the wolf's advances. Kouga loomed right in front of her, backlit by the moon as his eyes met hers.

"You're going to be my woman," he declared, advancing the final step to wrap his arms about her.

"What?" Kagome squeaked, her mind going blank with shock. She could not even struggle against his hold.

"You'll be my mate. With your powers and mine together, we'll dominate even beyond the eastern lands," Kouga said, clearly proud of himself for thinking up something so clever.

"Kagome!"

Kouga and Kagome turned at the unexpected sound of a new voice.

Standing on the edge opposite the pair and framed by the crescent moon was Genji, watching with wide golden eyes as Kouga and Kagome embraced.

"What in the seven hells?"

Chapter Text

"Genji," Kagome breathed.

She blinked a few times, shaking her head to clear it. He was still there when she looked again, bathed in the glow of the moon and looking torn between disgust and disbelief at the sight of them.

Abruptly Kagome realized she was still wrapped in Kouga’s arms. She flushed hotly, managing to extract herself from the embrace while Kouga was still caught off guard.

"Genji-sama!" she called, running over to clutch at his sleeve. She felt light headed with relief at the sight of a familiar face.

Genji glared at the wolf for a moment longer before glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. He scowled, lightly shaking her off of his sleeve.

"Sorry. I thought your ass needed to be saved. Didn't realize I'd be interrupting something."

Kagome opened her mouth to argue, horrified at the misunderstanding.

"Well now that you get it, dog shit, why don't you just run along and let me finish up with my woman," sneered Kouga, forestalling her.

"His woman already, huh?" drawled Genji dryly, his left eyebrow seeming to develop a sudden twitch. "Guess you're not as innocent as you pretend to be."

"No, Genji-sama, I-!" Kagome tried again.

"Don't you dare insult Kagome, you mutt!" Kouga cut her off once more. Kagome shot a glare at the wolf lord, willing him to be quiet.

"Why don't you try and stop me, you flea bitten wolf!" Genji snarled in return, his anger abruptly switching directions. His clawed hands flexed threateningly at his sides.

"Maybe I will!"

"Then shut your fucking mouth and come on!"

And suddenly they were moving towards each other, fists cocked and claws extended. Kagome panicked and did the first thing that came to mind. She jumped on Genji’s back, restraining him. Her shoulder screamed in pain at the sudden movement, but she managed to keep her hold.

"Kagome! Wh-what in the seven hells, woman? Get offa me!"

"Kagome! Don't touch that dog shit! You don't know where it's been!"

"Both of you just be quiet!" shouted Kagome. "Just listen! Genji-sama, Kouga-sama saved me from dying back in the youkai nest and then brought me here and told me I was his woman or something! It's all just in his head! And Kouga-sama! It's all just in your head! So please don't fight!"

"Kagome…" said Kouga, looking a bit hurt.

She nearly groaned at the sight. One would think that she had actually given some indication of returning his feelings.

"So he…abducted you?" Genji asked, putting the pieces slowly together in his head.

"I suppose so, a little bit," Kagome replied uncertainly. "But-"

"Fucking wolf!" snarled Genji, tearing himself from Kagome's hold. She squeaked quietly in pain at the jerking motion.

He closed the distance between himself and Kouga in a blur of red motion, his fist connecting with the wolf youkai's face hard enough for Kagome to hear the resounding crack as his jaw was dislocated. Kouga went down roughly and skidded a few lengths across the ledge.

"Genji-sama!" Kagome cried, darting forward to grab his arm before he could press the attack further. Kouga may have upset her with his unwelcome advances, but that did not discount the fact that he had saved her life.

"Get off, woman! It's a fucking imperial offense to abduct a servant of the Tennō!" Genji snapped. "And what kind of sick bastard takes advantage of a wounded woman?"

"Technically I'm not a servant of the Tennō-sama yet," Kagome said, grateful for the fact that Genji only struggled minimally to keep from wrenching her shoulder again. "And he didn't take advantage of me. He wrapped my wound so that I wouldn't bleed to death."

Kagome chose to pointedly ignore the fact that the Lord of the Eastern Wolf Tribe had taken a look at her breasts while she was unconscious. It hardly seemed a prudent time to air that grievance.

Genji ceased his struggles, glaring down at Kouga as he struggled to his feet. Kouga managed to rise, spitting blood and relocating his jaw with a quick jerk of his hand. Kagome winced.

"Please, Genji-sama. Let's just go back to Miroku-sama and Sango-sama. Whatever else might have happened, he saved my life," Kagome begged, crumbling the last of the inu-youkai's resistance.

"Keh. Whatever. Damn wolf isn't worth it anyway," he huffed with a disdainful toss of his head.

Abruptly he turned and scooped her up. Kagome squeaked, arms going instinctively around his neck to stabilize herself.

"Oi!" Kouga exclaimed, moving towards them.

"Don't you dare move, you fucking wolf. I'm taking Kagome back," Genji snapped, shooting the youkai one last warning glare. Shifting her to rest more firmly in his arms, he started forward.

Kagome sent a pleading look over Genji’s shoulder to Kouga, silently begging him to just stay put and be quiet. Oddly, Kouga seemed to understand. He stopped mid-step in his pursuit. He nodded firmly at her and Kagome frowned, sensing something idiotic coming on again.

"Don't worry, Kagome. I know dog shit has some sort of strange hold over you and you have to go with him right now, but I'll come to save you soon," Kouga called to her with the utmost sincerity. "I love you, Kagome!"

Kagome flushed for what felt like the thousandth time that night, dropping her head onto Genji’s shoulder in embarrassment and exasperation. No man had ever said something like that to her before, and she found her heart speeding up just the slightest bit. But it was so incredibly stupid.

She realized that Genji had stopped, tensing. He looked ready to turn back around and throttle Kouga.

Kagome clutched him around the neck more tightly to remind him of her presence in his arms, pleading quietly enough that only he could hear it, "Please, Genji-sama. Can't we just go back now? I’m exhausted."

A slight shudder seemed to pass through Genji and Kagome wondered at it. The night was hardly that cold. Thankfully he began moving forward again to leave, heeding her wishes.

"Don't worry, Kagome! I will come to save you from that half-breed mutt! It won’t be long before I come to claim you!"

Genji’s steps faltered at the word, but did not break his stride as he reached the edge of the ledge and sprang over it. He leapt nimbly from rock to rock down the mountain slope, looking determinedly forward.

"Half-breed?" echoed Kagome, unfamiliar with the term. She looked to Genji for an answer.

"Yeah, half-breed. Hanyou," spat Genji, as if the words were a bad taste in his mouth. He refused to meet her searching look.

Kagome had the distinct feeling that she had heard that word used before, but had no idea where or what it meant. Her village was small, after all. If it were some court term then it was likely she had never encountered it.

"What is that, Genji-sama?"

"Don't fucking joke like you're stupid, woman," Genji said with real venom. "Hanyou. Half-demon."

"Oh…" was all Kagome could manage, taken aback by his sudden anger.

She fell silent. For a time the only sound was that of the wind rushing past as Genji continued to propel them forward in leaps and bounds. His arms were horribly tense around Kagome, and she got the feeling that it was all he could do to not just drop her.

"If you're thinking something, just say it," Genji ground out at length. "Just say whatever shit you have to say and get it over with."

"Well…I suppose this…explains why your aura is different than that of most youkai. I noticed that when we first met," Kagome offered, though she had not really been thinking of anything besides how awkward she felt.

"Bullshit."

Abruptly Genji skidded to a stop. They were off of the mountain now and he placed Kagome down on her feet none too gently. She staggered slightly and looked to him, blinking in her confusion.

"Why can't you just say what you're fucking thinking? I thought you would at least have the balls to say what you mean."

"What in the world are you talking about, Genji-sama?" Kagome said. "Is there something you want me to say?"

"Say what you're thinking! Say it's disgusting! Say it's an abomination! Say all that shit that everyone else says! Just don't fucking lie to my face!"

"Why do you insist on thinking I'm lying? And why would I be thinking something like that?" Kagome snapped, unable to restrain herself. "I don't understand what's disgusting! I don't understand what you're talking about!"

They glared at each other for a long moment. Genji seemed to be searching for something in her face, her eyes, her body. He was thrown off when he failed to find it, his glare melting into a deep frown. He snorted to cover his confusion, turning away from her.

"Feh. Whatever. Forget it."

"Wait! You don’t get to just blow up at me and then refuse to explain yourself!" Kagome said, irritated.

"If you don't get it then it doesn't matter," grumbled Genji. "C'mon. Let's go. The houshi and the woman are probably running around like idiots wondering where in the seven hells we are."

He squatted down, offering up his back to carry her this time. Kagome stared hard at him, wondering whether it would be worth it to push the issue. She had been truthful, after all, when she said she had no idea what he was talking about. Still, the likelihood of getting anything out of this ill-tempered emotional blockade of a man seemed unlikely at best. 

With a long-suffering sigh she decided that she did not have the energy for another fight. She climbed carefully onto his back, and he secured her with a clawed hand behind each knee. He leapt forward once more.

They traveled in tense silence, though Kagome was quietly thrilled at the sensation of nearly flying across the land. She wondered why he had bothered to ride a horse on the journey.

It struck her suddenly that he had been trying to hide his differences as much as possible. He had yelled something about her thinking him an abomination. It must have been something others had said to him before.

Kagome sighed. Now she felt bad, though she was certain she had not done anything wrong. For that matter she was the one who had been falsely accused. Even so…

"Do people treat you badly because you're a hanyou?" she inquired gently.

Genji stumbled in mid-leap, but managed to regain his footing and continue.

"I'm trying to get you back so we can bandage that shoulder up right. Damn wolf probably infected it with some weird disease. So how 'bout you shut up while I get you there?" he said.

"Is it so bad being a hanyou?" Kagome persisted, brushing off her annoyance. She truly wanted to understand.

Genji groaned. "It's a fucking stigma, alright? Satisfied?"

"Not particularly," Kagome replied, frowning. "I'm sorry. I'm just beginning to understand what it is to be part of the court and amongst its people. But growing up like that must have been so…"

Kagome trailed off, struck by the thought. She could hardly imagine enduring a lifetime of the anxiety and uncertainty she had suffered through in that first court meeting, feeling always an outsider in ways that could not be changed.

"It never bothered me. I never cared what they thought," Genji said stubbornly.

Kagome was silent. It was an obvious lie and deserved no answer. No one could possibly have felt nothing about being detested for the sole fact of their existence. He would not have been so angry at the thought of her viewing him the same way if it truly did not bother him.

Thinking about it, Kagome felt she could understand him a little better. He was not simply a rude person by nature. It also explained why he was so very eager to assume the worst of her. He likely rarely saw anything else out of people.

"Genji-sama?"

"What?" he bit out, anticipating more prodding.

"I failed my mission," Kagome admitted, surprising him.

"What?"

"Kouga-sama stepped in and saved me from being killed. I received help."

There was a long pause on his end.

"Did you die?"

"What?"

Kagome blinked, surprised.

"Did you die?" Genji reiterated as if she were slow.

"Of course I did not die. I am here, aren't I?"

"Then you didn't fail your mission."

"But Kouga-sama helped me. The future Empress said I had to do it by myself."

"I won't tell if you don't."

"Genji-sama," Kagome said, gazing at the sharp ridge of his cheekbone incredulously. "Isn't that… dishonest? Aren't you bound by oath to tell the truth to the Tennō-sama or some such?"

Genji snorted.

"I thought you were so dedicated to helping all those little villages and people."

"I am!"

"Then you're going to give all that up because you're afraid of telling one little lie? Kinda shows how much resolve you really had, huh?"

Kagome was silent, considering this. It was unpleasant, but he was right.

"I suppose I will lie, then," she said resignedly.

"Yeah. Things in your little village were probably pretty clear cut, but the place you're trying to go is anything but. Sometimes it's just gotta be this way."

Genji did not sound like he enjoyed it much either.

"I've got quite a bit to learn, then, don't I?"

"No."

"No?"

"No," Genji said. "You're better off now. To the Tennō, I mean. I don't think he needs anymore court-bred snakes to deal with."

"Really? But-"

"Just shut up. We're almost there."

Kagome barely suppressed a groan. It was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation with him.

Glancing around, though, she recognized the cliff that they were passing as the one that had been the nest of the bird youkai. Apparently Kouga's den had not been too far from the Fujiwara lands.

"Are they waiting in the Fujiwara residence?" Kagome asked.

"Yeah. They're waiting for me to bring you back."

Something occurred to Kagome suddenly. She craned her neck to glance at the his face.

"You…came to save me, Genji-sama?" she ventured slowly. She saw his face flush slightly in the light of the moon.

"I…I didn't come to save you 'cause I wanted to or anything, idiot!" he stuttered. "But the houshi and the woman just wouldn't shut up about it, and I knew they'd end up getting themselves caught too if they went in. And then I woulda had to come and save all your asses! Stupid. Who'd wanna come save you?"

Kagome drew back, stung momentarily. She opened her mouth, uncertain of what she would say but knowing that it would be fittingly scathing.

She paused. Slowly she closed her mouth, shaking her head. In the end he had come to her rescue, whatever he might say.

"Thank you, Genji-sama."

He was silent for a moment, having expected an argument. He found himself at a loss.

"Keh."


It only took them a little bit longer to reach the residence, a sprawling, blue-roofed and white walled estate twice the size of the Tachibana residence in the court. Kagome could see what seemed like thousands of covered walkways running through hundreds of lush gardens as Genji leapt over the fortified outer wall.

Sango and Miroku were there waiting when they landed in the main courtyard. Sango released the houshi's hand as if she had been burned, running over to practically tear Kagome off of Genji’s back. She enveloped Kagome in a hug fit to strangle, muttering jumbled chastisements and epithets of relief.

Miroku came to smile at the suffocating miko over Sango's shoulder, wisely refraining from joining in the hug. An easing of the lines around his face betrayed his worry and his relief.

Genji slunk quietly off somewhere, obviously uncomfortable in the midst of the group. Sango dragged Kagome into the residence and quickly found an empty room, kicking Miroku out as she stripped Kagome of her karaginu and thoroughly cleansed the wound. Kagome related to her the whole of the ordeal while the taiji-ya was busy rewrapping the bandages.

"In the end you got help?" Sango said, weaving forward and back as she maneuvered to pass the cloth over and around Kagome's shoulder.

She gave a final tug to make sure the bandages were wrapped firmly. Kagome winced and nodded.

"What are you going to do?" asked Sango anxiously, sitting back to regard her.

"No one need mention that Kagome-chan received help," Miroku said, sliding open the shoji to enter the room. Apparently he had been listening in.

Kagome yelped, quickly tugging her karaginu back up around her shoulders. Sango scowled, chucking the roll of bandages at him. It hit him square in the forehead, but he merely blinked as it ricocheted off into a corner. Calmly and without remark he sat beside the scowling noblemwoman.

"After all," Miroku continued. "It was not as if Kagome-chan requested Kouga-sama's assistance. He was merely acting on his own. So I see no reason to mention it."

"But Genji-sama knows what happened," said Sango. "Surely he will tell the Tennō-sama about this. He is his Majesty's direct servant, after all."

"No, actually," Kagome said. "Genji-sama suggested the same thing as Miroku-sama. He is not going to tell anyone."

"Ah…Genji-sama, hmmm?" said Miroku, tapping his chin thoughtfully with one finger. Kagome looked inquiringly at him.

"He seems very…concerned with you, Kagome-chan," Miroku offered as an explanation. "He has been keeping a quiet eye on you this entire trip."

"Really?"

Kagome frowned, digging in her mind for any reason that Genji might have to be interested in her. The only thing that she could imagine was that he was keeping tabs on her for the Tennō.

"Do you think we should be worried about him, Houshi-sama?" Sango asked.

"I do not think so," said Kagome slowly. "He is…hard to deal with, certainly, but somehow I can not see him as being conniving or deceitful. It just…does not seem to fit him."

Both Miroku and Sango cast curious looks at her, though she missed them in her preoccupation with her own thoughts. They exchanged looks, communicating silently. Sango shrugged.

"I suppose we will trust your judgment, Kagome-chan," she said.

"Then we are agreed that nothing of the wolf-youkai will be mentioned again," Miroku said. "We should rest here for tonight and tomorrow. No use rushing back. I will have a messenger sent ahead to set up another court meeting. My apologies, Kagome-chan, I am afraid you will have to suffer through another one."

Kagome's heart sank at the thought, but she forced a smile and a shrug. At least she had few days to mentally prepare this time.

"Alright."

"Come on, Kagome-chan. We will go find you a room to rest in. Unless you are hungry? We could get food instead," Sango said with something of a mothering air. She helped Kagome to stand and led her out if the room.

"No, thank you, Sango-sama. Just sleep will be fine."

"Alright, then."

Kagome was shown to a room and Sango took her leave, wishing her a good night. She settled gratefully into the expansive futon laid out for her. She slipped quickly into a deep sleep.

Her dreams, however, were not nearly so peaceful. There was nothing more to them than a few dark shadows and some vague sounds, but she would wake the following morning with a profound sense of dread.


The next day Kagome was allowed to sleep in until nearly noon to recover from her adventure. She was starving when she finally awoke, not having eaten the previous day. A servant brought her breakfast and helped her to prepare for the day, as well as re-bandaging her wound and checking it to make certain no infection had set in.

Once she was cleaned up and dressed in fresh miko robes, she went out to join Sango and Miroku for a tour through the many gardens of the residence. They proved to be amazing in both number and appearance.

The gardens contained everything from rows upon rows of precisely ordered sakura trees to koi ponds big enough that they required stone bridges to traverse them, each engraved with magnificent stone dragons and lined with colorful lanterns. Kagome felt all the awe and other-worldliness of entering the capital again. She wondered how the future Empress could possibly be so cold after having grown up amongst such beauty.

There was something odd about the estate, however. There were positively no nobles to be seen anywhere on the expansive grounds. Even servants seemed to be few and far between. Kagome voiced this observation to her companions.

The smile that had been sitting on Sango's face all morning slipped at the question, and she turned away from her to stare towards the outer wall of the garden. Confused, Kagome turned to Miroku. He frowned at her, shaking his head.

"It…It was not all because of the bird youkai, was it?" Kagome asked, recalling with a sick twist of her stomach the corpses the birds had been carrying when she encountered them.

Miroku shook his head once more. "Sadly, several of the Fujiwara were killed by the bird youkai. However, the true tragedy of the Fujiwara clan occurred several years ago. It…is a time in our history that most courtiers prefer not to speak of now."

Kagome continued to watch him expectantly, hoping he would go on. He turned away from her, as well. Silence descended over the three.

"We…will tell you eventually, Kagome-chan," Sango said at length. "Just be a little patient. The wounds of that period of time are still fresh."

"Alright," Kagome conceded reluctantly, storing her curiosity away for another time. Both Miroku and Sango seemed truly disturbed by the thought of having to speak of it.

"I think I will go fetch us tea," said Sango suddenly, with lingering discomfort. "Tea out here in the garden would be lovely."

Without another word she turned and headed hurriedly towards the main house. Miroku glanced at Kagome apologetically before trailing after her. Kagome remained, knowing it was best for her to simply wait and allow them time to compose themselves.

Kagome stood enjoying the scenery for awhile, along with the cool crispness of the winter air. She was absently wondering if she would get to see snow soon when the sound of footsteps alerted her to the presence of others. It was the two human guards.

They smiled at her and at each other, walking over to greet her with a bow. Kagome was surprised at the gesture, but quickly returned it. She could not help feeling a bit wary of the two, though, remembering the conversation of theirs that she had overheard. But nothing had happened so far, so perhaps she had simply misunderstood.

"We have been looking for you, Kagome-sama," said the taller of the two.

Zetsubode, Kagome remembered despite her surprise at his sudden respectfulness. The guards had been as polite as common courtesy required toward her on the journey, but had never seemed to hold her in this sort of high regard.

"Yes, Kagome-sama. We heard about how you defeated the nest of youkai single-handedly. We wanted to congratulate you," put in the other guard, Uragiri.

"You are assured a place at the Tennō-sama's right hand now," Zetsubode said. Suddenly Kagome understood their newfound respect for her.

"Well, thank you both."

"It is a shame though," muttered Uragiri, turning away as if he had not meant for her to hear.

Kagome frowned. "What is a shame?"

"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all, Kagome-sama. Uragiri-san simply does not know when to be silent."

"If something is the matter I would like you to tell me," Kagome said, concerned at the sudden shadow that seemed to fall over the two.

"Really, it is nothing, Kagome-sama," Zetsubode insisted.

"Except that your amazing talents as a spiritualist will all go to waste," said Uragiri, as if he could not contain himself.

"Uragiri-san! Be quiet! That is nothing that Kagome-sama need concern herself with," Zetsubode scolded the shorter guard. "Though it is a shame…"

Kagome looked back and forth between the two guards as they exchanged pitying looks, supposedly on her behalf. There was something odd about all of this, something stiff and strange.

"I do not mean to pry, Zetsubode-sama. Truly I do not. But I would very much like to understand what you are both talking about," Kagome said.

"Ah, excuse us, Kagome-sama! How rude of us to speak of all of this in front of you! Please forgive us!" exclaimed Zetsubode with an exaggerated bow. "Truly, though, I would prefer not to expose you to such unpleasantness."

Kagome pressed the guard with an expectant gaze, slightly frustrated with his reticence. At last he heaved a heavy sigh, surrendering.

"If it is truly your wish to know, Kagome-sama, then I am in no position to deny you," said Zetsubode, bowing once more.

"The problem lies with the Tennō," put in Uragiri, obviously the more outspoken of the two. "Certainly he will end up misusing your great power, Kagome-sama."

Kagome nearly stepped back in her astonishment. Never would she have thought that any courtier could so openly speak with disrespect towards the Tennō. Certainly she had had a few discourteous thoughts towards his Majesty in her darker moments, but she still knew that he was a man to be revered as the one who controlled the fate of their land.

Zetsubode saw the shock written deeply across her face and placed a restraining hand on his companion's shoulder, offering her an apologetic look.

"Pardon him, Kagome-sama," he said. "That was far too bluntly put for a delicate lady such as yourself."

"What does he mean?" Kagome asked, recovering enough to gather her thoughts. She was not nearly so delicate a lady as to let the issue drop now.

"I mean," Uragiri said eagerly. "Our current Tennō does not have the power to use such an asset as yourself in a fitting manner. You will be wasted on him."

"Wasted?" echoed Kagome. "What do you mean, his Majesty doesn't have the power? He rules the entire country, does he not?"

"Our current Tennō…might not prove to have so much power as you imagine," said Zetsubode carefully, and Kagome caught a glint of something sly in his pale eyes. "I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we merely feel your many talents could be put to better use in a…different capacity. A capacity you might find to be far more rewarding."

Uragiri grabbed her hand suddenly and placed something on her palm, curling her fingers closed around it. Caught off guard, Kagome could only stare blankly at her fist as the two guards executed quick bows and began walking off.

"We will be back to discuss this with you further after you have had an opportunity to think," called Zetsubode over his shoulder.

Kagome raised her head to watch their retreating figures, opening her mouth and half-reaching her empty hand out as if to call them back. She shook her head, deciding against it. She needed a good bit of time to process what had just happened.

She sought out a bridge and took a seat on its stone railing, opening her hand to examine what the guard had placed in it. She gasped and nearly tumbled off into the pond below, only managing to steady herself at the last moment.

A small jade snake, intricate scales carved all across its back, sat in her palm. She would never have even recognized the precious stone had a merchant passing through her village not shown her a pebble of it once, telling her that even that miniscule piece was worth enough to purchase food for her entire village for two months.

It was a rare stone imported from China, the merchant had said. The statuette in her hands was likely worth several of Sango's best silk juni-hito.

That was not all, however. There was also a small wooden seal, much like the one she had seen Miroku pull out when they first reached the capital.

It was painstakingly engraved with what she could only assume to be a clan insignia, a depiction of Susano-o-no-Mikoto, the kami of the rainstorm and wayward brother of Amaterasu. Whatever clan this emblem belonged to, they were most certainly not minor.

So then what in the world had the two guards been referring to? They had alluded to the Tennō somehow being incompetent or lacking in power. They had also suggested that her own power could be put to better use in some way other than direct service of his Majesty. Perhaps employed directly by the government officials?

But, no. If that was what they had meant, they would have simply come out and said it. There was nothing untoward about working directly for government officials. And there had most definitely been something off about what had just been proposed.

Kagome glanced down at the jade snake sitting on her palm, parallel with the clan emblem. She was hardly familiar with this sort of thing, but she was not ignorant enough to believe that the expensive little trinket was merely some reward for her recent ordeal. This was payment, and payment never came without the expectation of some sort of return.

So then perhaps she was being paid to serve the clan whose symbol now rested in the palm of her hand. That should not be so horrible considering that each clan was meant to serve the Tennō, and thus indirectly she would still be serving his Majesty and receiving the power to help those in need.

It was wrong, though. The way they had spoken of the Tennō, the way that they had so clearly waited to approach her until she was alone...

"Kagome-chan!"

Kagome jumped, nearly tumbling over the railing again. Instinctively she shoved the snake and clan emblem away into the front of her robes. It came to rest coldly against the swell of her breasts, and Kagome wondered vaguely why she had hidden it. Still, she made no move to pull it out again.

Sango and Miroku came trotting over, her arms laden with a tea tray and his with a large blanket.

"There you are, Kagome-chan. Do you still want to have tea?" Sango asked, seeming to be back in her usual high spirits once more.

Kagome stared at her for a moment, trying to force her mind back onto a normal track. Sango frowned at her when she failed to respond.

"Is something the matter, Kagome-chan?"

"No, no, nothing," Kagome replied. "I was just…somewhere else inside my mind. Tea sounds great, though."

"Good," Sango said.

The three made their way over to a patch of direct sunlight and laid out the blanket. The rest of the afternoon was whiled away with tea, snacks, and pleasant conversation about nothing in particular. Kagome savored such a peaceful moment with her friends, her slightly aching shoulder reminding her of how grateful she was to be alive.

Her conversation with the guards, however, continued to weigh heavily in the back of her mind. Kagome wondered why she had felt the need to hide it from Miroku and Sango. Still, she could not bring herself to share it with them no matter how hard she tried.


They spent one final night there at the Fujiwara residence to allow Kagome to finish recuperating before packing up to leave the following morning. They were provided with fresh horses to carry their belongings and escorted to the main gate.

Genji was there to meet them along with the two human guards. Kagome was amused to see that this time the hanyou did not even bother with a horse. She was considerably less amused to see the sly glances the two human guards threw her, feeling the weight of the snake and emblem heavy against her chest.

They set out at a slow pace for the benefit of the injured miko, whose shoulder was jarred terribly if the horse were to so much as break into a trot. The result was that as night fell and they settled down in a small wooded grove, they had not even made it off of the Fujiwara lands.

Genji, of course, went off on his own into the woods as soon as they began to set up camp. Kagome, almost unable to help herself, trailed after him. She had not seen him since he had brought her back from Kouga's den and he had avoided speaking to her all day. She could not help but be curious, Kagome argued to herself.

She found him lounging up in a tree on the edge of the woods, eyes closed as if he were asleep. The way his ears twitched at her approach, however, told Kagome he was awake. She waited patiently for him to acknowledge her presence.

"What is it, woman?" he groaned at length, cracking open one golden eye to peer down at her. "Keh. Can't get any damn peace with all of you humans around."

"I just wanted to speak with you," Kagome replied, unfazed by his irritation.

Genji blinked, his customary scowl deepening in confusion. The very concept that anyone would seek him out simply for the purpose of holding a conversation seemed a foreign one to him. He leapt down from his tree to stand before.

"About what?" he asked, almost suspiciously.

"You did not ride a horse today," Kagome said, the first thing that came to her mind.

"Didn't feel like it," Genji sniffed defensively.

"Ah, I see," said Kagome simply. Genji stared at her, one dark brow cocked in question.

"Is that all you came out here to say?"

Kagome considered this a moment before shrugging sheepishly, her cheeks flushing a faint pink.

"Moron."

Kagome bristled, crossing her arms over her chest. She had wanted to talk to him, but she had not particularly thought it through.

"Well, you avoided me all day…" she accused, her tone slightly more petulant than she intended.

"Ah…" said Genji, turning away. "That…"

"Is something the matter?" Kagome asked, catching the slight shift in his demeanor.

"Nothing. I just have a buncha crap to think about before we get back to the capital."

"Is it about keeping my secret from the Tennō-sama and the future Empress?" Kagome asked, guilt creeping over her.

The way Genji's shoulders stiffened just the slightest bit told her that she had hit near the mark, despite his silence.

"Genji-sama…"

"Look, it's not your concern. So just keep out of it, alright?"

"But-"

"Genji-sama! Kagome-sama! There you two are. We were wondering where you had run off to."

The pair turned to see the two human guards emerge out of the darkness from between the trees. Kagome tensed, eyeing the two warily.

"Is it time for us to go back and eat?" she asked.

"Not quite," replied Zetsubode. "Miroku-sama and Sango-sama are still busy preparing the food. We merely came to see what the two of you were up to."

Uragiri, Kagome noticed, came to stand unusually close to Genji as his fellow guard was speaking. Genji seemed slightly uncomfortable, but made no move to put distance between the two of them.

"So what were the two of you discussing?" asked Zetsubode with a too wide grin.

"None of your business," Genji said as Kagome hesitated.

"Ah, well, perhaps we should discuss something that is our business, then?" said Zetsubode, turning a smug eye on Kagome. "Have you had adequate time to consider our proposition, Kagome-sama?"

Kagome felt her stomach clench at the mention of that conversation. Genji shot her an incredulous look, golden eyes narrowing.

"What's he talking about, Kagome?"

"Simply a little alliance of mutual benefit, Genji-sama," Zetsubode drawled, his normally courteous expression dissolving quickly into something dark. "Kagome-sama is eager to gain power and profit, is all."

The hanyou's eyes flashed, his lips pulling back in a shocked snarl as he gazed at her.

“Genji-sama, no! I-"

There was the quick flash of metal in the darkness and a guttural groan was torn from Genji's throat. Uragiri had pulled forth a small dagger and plunged it into Genji's chest while the hanyou was distracted. Kagome shrieked, pressing her hands to her mouth in horror.

"Bastard!" Genji roared, blood flying from his lips as he reached up to tear the dagger free. He tossed it aside as if it had been no more than a splinter.

He spun towards Uragiri, fist cocked to deal a blow. Abruptly he stumbled, eyes widening as he lost his momentum and crumpled into a heap at the smirking guard's feet.

"You really think I'm foolish enough to believe a simple dagger will bring you down, monster?" laughed Uragiri, aiming a fierce kick at Genji’s rib cage. "I took the liberty of borrowing a bit of special poison from the taiji-ya's supply. Don't worry, though. It will only induce temporary paralysis. Woman didn't bring along any deadly poisons."

"Genji-sama!" Kagome cried, jerking forward to go to him.

She froze when Zetsubode drew his katana, holding it to the weakly struggling hanyou's throat.

"Please remain where you are for a moment, Kagome-sama. We have a few things to discuss."

Kagome complied, afraid that Genji would be harmed further if she dared to move. The hanyou managed to flop over onto his side to face her, his eyes burning accusingly up into her own. She bit her lower lip hard, feeling her eyes burn.

"Why are you doing this? Isn't he your fellow guard?" Kagome yelled, her voice choked.

"Hardly," snorted Uragiri. "It might be slightly more tolerable if the mutt was."

"Genji here is a prime example of the defects of our current government, Kagome-sama," Zetsubode said, pressing the tip of his blade more closely to the hanyou's throat. "He is an incompetent individual in an undeserved seat of power. For that matter, his very existence in our court is an affront. The Taira clan, whose insignia you currently have on your person, aims to fix all that once and for all."

Kagome's hand went instinctively to her heart, pressing against the wood of what she now knew to be the Taira clan's seal. She glanced at Genji, but his eyes were firmly shut now. Kagome winced, her chest constricting as she remembered his words about the ridicule his hanyou heritage had earned him.

"What do you mean, about Genji-sama being incompetent?" she asked, forcing the feeling away and settling on the question foremost in her mind. She needed to understand, to keep them talking.

"His very presence on this mission is a colossal blunder," answered Zetsubode. "The capital may well be in shambles by the time we return, the way he chose to leave it so abruptly and so needlessly. Not that he ever did much in the way of governing it before, but every ship needs a figurehead, I suppose."

"...Genji-sama's position is that important?"

"Ha!" Uragiri scoffed. “The half-breed persisted in using that name and pretending he was just a simple guard with you, huh? Let me ask you, who was it that came trailing after Genji-sama when we were just about to depart from Heian?"

"The...future Empress," Kagome replied slowly.

"And why would the future Empress be so intimately associated with a mere guard as to personally go out of her way to stop him from going on this mission?"

"I…I don't know."

"You don't know, Kagome-sama, because there is no reason," Uragiri crowed triumphantly. "There is no reason the future Empress would go to so much trouble to stop a mere guard. Who would the future Empress go to such lengths for, do you think?"

Kagome was silent. She knew what answer her mind was drifting towards, but it was as if there was a wall that kept the thought from fully emerging. It was too outrageous.

"Your silence says you understand well enough, Kagome-sama," said Zetsubode. "Hopefully you will also prove intelligent enough to understand why we are doing what we are doing. Such an abnormal and inadequate creature, one who would abandon his throne on a mere whim, is unfit to sit at the head of our beloved country."

"Y-You think him unfit simply for this indiscretion?" Kagome asked.

"You know as well as we do that that would be unreasonable, Kagome-sama," said Zetsubode, his grin widening as he seemed to be making progress with the miko.

"He has, in the short time since his ascension to the throne, committed several grave offenses. He has introduced legislation attempting to take power out of the hands of the courtiers, so that he might hoard it himself. He has attempted to regulate the lives of the courtiers outside of the court on their own estates. Something he clearly has no business in.”

“He has even attempted so ludicrous a feat as to delegate national funds for his own purposes, without approval from the Council. Basically he is throwing the entire of our noble government into chaos. If none of that is enough to convince you, Kagome-sama, there is the simple fact that he is unnatural in his very existence. A human and youkai union is unnatural. It's disgusting."

Kagome bit her lip, her eyes sliding back down to the prone form of the hanyou.

The poison had taken full effect by now and he had ceased struggling, his golden eyes bright and furious as they darted from face to face. She tried to attach him to all of the grave offenses of which he was being accused, but found that she could not. All she could see was his scowling, honest face.

"And how does the Taira clan propose to fix things exactly?" Kagome pressed on.

"There's no change as long as the monster's around with his claim to the throne," said Uragiri. "So we get rid of him. The hanyou has a brother who is in a position to inherit the throne upon his demise, but the brother's been away studying in China since the little bastard's ascension.”

“We have a member of the Taira clan in position to act quickly upon being informed of the hanyou's death, taking the throne firmly in hand before the brother has a chance to return. Once in power, the Taira will return the court to its proper form. And there's certainly no dirty blood within the Taira."

"Then this is a rebellion?"

Finally Kagome understood what it was that had bothered her so deeply.

"Rebellion is a very rough term, Kagome-sama, with far too many negative connotations," said Zetsubode smoothly. "It is simply a change, and life is nothing if not change. But if you must think of it as a rebellion, think of it as a bloodless and peaceful one."

"With the exception of the blood of his," Kagome pointed out.

Zetsubode shrugged. "Sacrifices must be made."

"What is it that you want from me?" Kagome asked, pulling from her robes the jade snake and Taira symbol. "Obviously this is payment for an expected service."

"We want you to work for our clan, of course," Zetsubode said. "Your…birth status is unfortunate, but when word spreads of what you have accomplished on this mission, you will become the stuff of legends. We will spread the tale, maybe exaggerate it a little, and there will not be a youkai in all of Japan that will dare come against the Taira rulers."

"But we can hardly just let you join us like it's nothing," Uragiri interrupted. "You have to prove that you will be loyal. You're common born, after all, and haven't been taught the same manners as a true courtier. We can't have you proving to be some little peasant snake in the grass."

Kagome nearly snorted at the absurdity of who such a statement was coming from, but managed to hold it back. She turned to Zetsubode, seemingly the more rational of the two, a question in her face.

"To prove your loyalty to the cause, we thought you should be the one to do away with our Lordship here," the guard answered her unasked question coolly, as if he were asking no more of her than to swat a fly.

"Do not worry. We waited until we were on Fujiwara lands for a reason. We will inform the court that it was a Fujiwara ambush. The future Empress is in a position to potentially seize power after the death, after all, and so the story will most likely be accepted without question."

Kagome was silent, unable to form a reply. Her composure seemed to evaporate like so much water in the sun. Her entire body had gone cold, the seriousness of the situation seeping down into her bones and making them like lead. They wanted her to kill Genji.

No, not Genji. The Tennō.

Since they had informed her of their plot there was no way that they would simply allow her to leave if she refused. Even if she were to call out for Miroku and Sango, it was impossible for them to get there before the hanyou was harmed. Someone was going to die here.

"Should you refuse, Kagome-sama, I am afraid that we could not allow you to leave here, you understand," Zetsubode said, sensing her hesitation. "I would encourage you to think on the wealth and power you stand to gain from this alliance. It is hardly a life you would be taking, anyway. There can be nothing but misery in the world for such a poor creature."

Kagome's hands had started to tremble slightly, her longbow resting heavily against her back. Her heart was beating a loud tattoo inside her head, muddling her thoughts. But she had to think and she had to do it quickly.

She kept her eyes trained unfalteringly on the ground, unable to look at any of the three people before her. There were a hundred questions and she did not have the time to think thoroughly through any of them.

"Your decision?" Uragiri grated out, impatient with her dithering.

Kagome looked up at him, his expression hard as stone. In that split second she made an almost instinctive decision, the consequences and whether it was right or not be damned. She pulled the bow from her shoulder and slowly drew an arrow from the quiver at her back, notching it.

Uragiri's grin of approval was nearly manic in its width. "Good girl!"

A smirk curled at the edges Zetsubode's lips as he lowered his sword and stepped away from the hanyou, allowing her a clear shot. Kagome leveled her aim at the hanyou's prone form, swallowing back her horror at what she was about to do. She drew back the string.

And whipped around at the last moment, loosing the arrow at Zetsubode. Her aim was true despite her trembling and it pierced him straight through the chest. The traitorous guard barely had time to look surprised before he collapsed.

Uragiri gaped at his fallen conspirator, a strangled noise bubbling up in the back of his throat. Kagome quickly notched another arrow and aimed at him, her shoulder twinging in reminder of her injury. Uragiri turned to her, his face drawn back in a horrid snarl. Kagome had never seen so much rage in one person's eyes before.

"You bitch!" he screeched, fumbling to unsheathe his sword. "You traitorous, common born little whore!"

"I don't want to shoot you," Kagome said, a faint tremble to the words. "Please just surrender quietly."

Uragiri screamed, charging senselessly toward her with his katana raised. Kagome closed her eyes and fired. It was a clean shot and she could hear the dull thud as his body hit the ground.

She opened her eyes, carefully avoiding looking at either of the fallen men. She managed to stumble over to Genji’s-no, but what else to call him?-still prone form, falling to her knees at his side. He finally opened his eyes and gazed up at her silently, still unable to move. There was something like awe in his face.

Kagome's eyes began to water, her breath escaping her in shaky little gasps. She doubled over, clutching her stomach to keep from being sick. She pressed her face into the fabric of the red karaginu beneath her, unable to hold back the wracking sobs that welled up.

She had killed two men.

Over the four prone forms in that clearing snow began to fall at last, coating everything in white.

Chapter Text

"Kagome. Oi, Kagome."

Kagome hiccupped, raising her head from its resting place on the hanyou's chest. She swiped at her still leaking eyes with the back of each hand, clearing her vision enough to see his face.

He sat up beside her, the poison's effects apparently having worn off. Kagome felt only a detached sense of surprise. For the most part she was just drained, as if everything inside of her had been hollowed out.

"The poison wore off," he said lamely after a long moment, unable to think of anything else. He blanched slightly at the deadpan look on her face, red-rimmed eyes staring blankly out at him.

"That was fast," Kagome replied automatically, though she was not certain how long she had been crying there. It did not seem any darker or lighter out than before.

"Bastard didn't pick a very strong poison," he said, slightly disturbed by the lack of expression on her face.

Kagome’s gaze wandered, drifting about aimlessly to discover a world blanketed in white surrounding them. There were flakes resting on his hair and her own shoulders, but she could hardly feel the chill of it.

A few lengths from her were two raised mounds of snow, a hand sticking out from beneath one and a foot from the other. Kagome's eyes fixed on the two white graves, unable to turn away.

"I killed them," Kagome said without meaning to, and the words hung heavily in the air amidst the falling snow.

The hanyou stared at her empty expression for a long moment, realizing abruptly that this was the first time she had ever killed a human being. Mentally he groaned. Of course this would be the first time. She hardly looked the type to have gotten blood on her hands before.

"It…It ain't your fault," he offered, gratified when she turned her attention on him. "They forced you to do it. They would've killed you."

"That does not make it right," Kagome replied flatly.

The hanyou growled low in his throat, torn between frustration and pity. The bastards had threatened to kill her, but the stupid woman still looked devastated.

"Then think of it like this," he said. "I'd be dead if you hadn't killed them. Whatever shit they were spouting, there woulda been a hell of a lot of blood shed over a power shift that big. Not all the clans woulda just trailed along after the Taira like whipped dogs. You stopped all that from happening."

Kagome blinked slowly at him. Once, twice. Gradually the words seemed to sink in, and a bit of life returned to her eyes as they narrowed.

"You lied to me. This whole time you lied to me," Kagome said, and somewhere in the back of her mind a voice whispered that this was no way to address the sovereign of Japan.

"Yeah, well…"

"You're the Tennō," Kagome continued, and somehow it was shocking to say it aloud. "You're the Tennō. You're the Tennō. Genji isn’t even your name! You left the capital-your court! And the guards you trusted to protect you just betrayed you. They tried to overthrow you! And…and…"

"Thanks for the summary of events," he said dryly, though it was clear that she was verging on hysterics.

"Aren't you upset?!" Kagome cried, her voice cracking. "The two guards you trusted to come with you on this mission tried to kill you and take your throne! They…they said all kinds of horrible things!"

"Doesn't bother me," he muttered, turning away from her. "I shoulda known those two were a couple of snake-in-the-grass bastards. All courtiers are. So it doesn't bother me."

Kagome gaped at his stubborn, sullen profile, outraged at his casual dismissal of everything that had happened. She had done the unthinkable to save his life, and he was brushing it off as if it was nothing. Her hands curled into fists at her sides, so hard she could feel her fingernails biting into the flesh of her palms. 

"Why did you even do this?!" she exclaimed. "Why in all of Japan did you feel the need to leave the capital and come on this mission? Some kind of odd pity? Twisted curiosity? Did ruling our country just get too tedious for you?"

The hanyou whipped his head around to face her, eyes flashing.

"I did it because I fucking thought you might be worth it!" he barked.

That shut Kagome's mouth quickly enough. She stared at him, eyes wide. Slowly the snarl slipped from his face, and a flush crept up to replace it as he realized what he had let slip.

"That finally got you to shut up," he muttered to cover his embarrassment. "Idiot. We need to get going. We have to get back to Heian soon or there's gonna be a real load of crap to deal with."

The hanyou rose and shook the snow from himself. He offered her a clawed hand.

 "C'mon."

"But…shouldn't we at least perform the final rites for them?" Kagome asked, feeling that she most definitely could not just leave the bodies as they were. "I mean, I know they were traitors, but…I still-"

"By the kami, woman!" he cut her off, shaking his head in exasperation.

He flopped down to kneel once more in the snow, clearing a patch of ground with his hands. He started to dig, grumbling a steady stream of profanities. 

Kagome began clearing her own area. She would have preferred to send them into the next life on a pyre as tradition dictated, but a burial was as much as they could do under the circumstances.

The ground was hard and cold, and soon her hands had gone numb. Fingernails chipped and broke as she scraped at the unyielding dirt. Before long her hands had begun to bleed.

Still Kagome continued single-mindedly. She had taken two human lives, whatever the circumstances. This could hardly even be considered an adequate punishment.

"Oi, wench."

Two clawed hands came to grip her wrists lightly, forcing them to still. Looking over her shoulder, Kagome saw that he had already finished his makeshift grave and covered it over again. She, on the other hand, had barely scratched the surface.

He tugged her out of the way, moving to take her place. He began digging once more.

"I'll finish this. You…make a marker for the other one or something. Without mutilating yourself, if you can manage that."

Kagome opened her mouth to argue, but was unable to find the will. She shook her head and scanned the area for a large stone.

Spotting one, she picked it up and sat it carefully at the head of the burial mound. She then took an arrow from her quiver and began to roughly scratch out the Kanji of the guard's name in the stone.

"Oi, Kagome."

"Yes?" she responded absently, focused on carefully etching in the symbols. Her injured hands throbbed with the effort.

"I…I'll make sure that these deaths aren't traced back to you. So don't worry about any clans trying to get back at you for this or anything."

Kagome paused in her work. She glanced over her shoulder at the hanyou, but he was focused on his work. She looked back down at the headstone and at the faint, shaky Kanji that was all that remained to mark the fallen guard's place in the world. A few drops of her blood were smeared across the stone, as well.

"I would prefer that you did not do that."

He froze, turning an incredulous stare on her. 

"Huh?"

"I did kill these two men. Whatever anyone else might know or not know, that fact will not change. I deserve any punishment coming to me," Kagome answered resolutely, finishing the last detail on the rock. 

"What? Do you know how many enemies you'll-?"

He cut himself off, the stiff resolve in Kagome's shoulders telling him that he could yell until the last breath left his lungs and he would still get nowhere. He growled low in his throat, cursing her stubbornness under his breath.

Lurking just beneath that frustration, though, was a sinking feeling. She was just some poor country hick that happened to have some spiritual ability, after all. Already she had the blood of men on her hands. Not monsters, the likes of which she was used to disposing of for the sake of her people, but men who had chosen the wrong path and might easily have chosen another.

Jeers of bastard and half-breed from lips hidden behind gracefully flapping fans echoed in his mind, and he knew that anything decent in the girl would not survive long in the world of the court.

"I'll protect you."

It was not until Kagome turned to gaze at him with curious grey eyes that he realized the words had come from his mouth. He could feel heat rush to his face and irritation prickle up to cover it.

"D-Don't misunderstand!" he snapped defensively, swinging around to resume his digging at a furious pace.

"After all the shit you've been put through, I'd have to be a real asshole not to let you serve me in the court! And the Tennō has to look out for his servants! That's all I meant!"

"Oh," said Kagome softly, taking this in.

She watched his rapid movements as he finished the grave and turned to retrieve the body. He laid it to rest with a surprising lack of malice, though there was a brief flash of something akin to regret in his golden eyes.

This was the man she was to serve from now on. Kagome found herself smiling faintly.

"Thank you. I will do my best to serve you from now on, Tennō-sama."

Inuyasha glanced back at Kagome, finding her face earnest and open even in her sadness. The thought that she really had been worth it despite all of the crap caught him off guard, and he coughed loudly.

"Feh."


The two finished the second burial mound and placed another stone at the head to mark it. This time the hanyou prevented Kagome from writing the inscription in favor of using his claws, which proved much faster and less painful for both of them.

They returned to the camp to find Miroku and Sango just finishing up with the preparation of dinner. It was a shock for Kagome to realize that the whole ordeal had occurred in the short span of time that it took them to catch and prepare a meal. For the difference she felt it might have been a lifetime ago that she had left the camp to follow the man she had thought was Genji.

No sooner had the houshi and taiji-ya opened their mouths to greet the pair then did the hanyou begin to bark orders to pack up. He offered no explanations, his stony expression saying clearly that he expected unquestioning obedience.

Sango looked as if she might challenge him on this, but a pleading look from Kagome convinced her to bite her tongue for the time being. Miroku, trusting Kagome, as well, followed suit.

The camp was quickly stricken and the horses readied. With a sharp pang, Kagome released the two horses of the guards into the woods. Their belongings she tossed into the fire, saying a quick prayer for the safe passing of their souls into a peaceful place.

For a time her gaze was helplessly fixated on the flames as their possessions were consumed. That weighted, hopeless feeling crept over her once more.

It was the horrible feeling of having done something so very permanent and so very irrevocable. It was the frightening feeling of knowing that she had the power to snuff out a life almost as simply as putting out a candle.

Kagome shook the despair off forcefully this time, pushing it to the back of her mind to deal with at a later time. For now she needed to focus on getting back to the capital quickly enough to prevent any further disaster.

At length she forced herself to put out the fire and mount her horse, alongside Miroku and Sango. The hanyou stood at the head of the group, impatient to be off.

Miroku and Sango both cast concerned glances at Kagome, but she merely shook her head to preempt any questions they might want to ask. She could not yet bear the idea of recounting fully what had gone on, and some small part of her was afraid of how they might look at her if they knew.

At the hanyou’s command they set out at a gallop, determined to reach the capital in no more than a day's time. Kagome's shoulder protested at the continuous jarring motion and her hands throbbed as they gripped the reins, but she bit her tongue against any complaints.

The wind kicked up as they rode, whipping flurries of snow into their faces. It was not long before the four had gone numb from head to toe. Still they rode on with dogged purpose. Kagome reflected bleakly that it at least dulled the pain in her shoulder.

The watchful glances of Miroku, Sango, and even the hanyou on occasion told Kagome that they were likely to stop if she expressed any discomfort, and they did not have the time to waste on her at the moment.

They rode on for what felt like an eternity to all, halting only briefly every now and again to rest the horses and take a drink.

Just before nightfall the following day, the gates came into sight. Kagome only barely managed to strangle a cry of joy, her shoulder throbbing so badly that she felt on the verge of falling from her horse.

The hanyou glanced back at Kagome, a frown lining his forehead. He yelled back to her to meet him in his chambers in the Inner Palace once she had had her wounds treated, before continuing on ahead of the group to the gates.

This earned no end of shocked exclamations from Miroku and Sango. Kagome realized that her friends had been just as ignorant to the presence of the Tennō on their journey as she had been.

It made sense, considering that only a few among the courtiers were ever allowed to see his Majesty’s face. The hanyou had also been using a false name to travel undetected among them. Absently Kagome realized that she had never thought to ask him what his true name was. 

Kagome reluctantly promised them a complete explanation of everything once she had eaten and had her wounds cared for. They agreed to this with equal reluctance as the group arrived at the eastern gateway.

They were allowed to pass without as much as a word of question from any of the guards. Their horses were taken by waiting servants upon their entrance.

Miroku suggested that they go to his residence to care for Kagome's wounds, as it was the closest one. Kagome, slightly dizzy with the pain in her shoulder and leaning on Sango for support, readily agreed.

It was a small building on the north-eastern edge of the Greater Palace, its solemn colors in the style of the Shingonin temple. There was a single snow covered garden behind the building. It had no pond, but did feature a large stone statue of the Buddha in a pose of deep meditation.

Miroku ordered medical supplies and food to be brought by one of the few servants tending the residence. He led the two girls to a modest guest room and settled in to 'supervise' the re-bandaging.

Sango, however, forced him out violently. Kagome nearly laughed at the sight, the strange normality of the scene easing her mind for a moment.

A servant brought the necessary medical supplies and settled in to take care of her, but Sango sent the woman off, insisting that she personally be the one to treat Kagome. Touched by the protective gesture, Kagome managed to summon up the nerve to recount the recent disaster.

She falteringly relayed the story in its entirety as Sango got to work, speaking just loudly enough for Miroku to hear her on the other side of the shoji. She shook while relating the death of the guards, barely managing to tamp down the feeling of horror that recalling it brought.

Sango wanted to discuss the issue in more depth, but the quiet anguish in her friend's eyes kept her silent. She merely laid a supportive hand on Kagome's good shoulder, offering what small comfort she could.

Faintly Kagome could hear Miroku chant a prayer for the souls of the deceased. There was also one said on her behalf, for the pardon of her indiscretions in the name of a righteous cause. Kagome felt her eyes well with tears, moved by their support.

She managed to rein the feeling back to a mere sniffle and a grateful smile, leaning over to envelop Sango in a one armed hug. The noblewoman was surprised at the intimate gesture, but returned the embrace warmly. It was good to see Kagome opening up, even if it was under such circumstances. 

"What? Am I not to be included in this beautiful display of affection? I am wounded, Kagome-chan, truly," declared Miroku theatrically, sliding the shoji open to enter upon hearing silence in the room.

Sango glared at him over Kagome's head. "You are lucky we finished bandaging already, Houshi-sama."

"You torment me as always with your suspicion, Sango-sama," Miroku responded, smiling. "I would never harbor indecent intentions towards the honorable Kagome-sama. She is, after all, now a personal servant to his Majesty."

He placed a tray of food before the two women. Kagome released Sango and took a pair of hashi and a bowl of rice from the tray, starting in on the food with vigor. It felt like it had been an eternity since she had last eaten. Miroku watched bemusedly as she nearly inhaled the food, but merely shook his head indulgently.

Sango picked up a bowl and began to eat as well, though at a much more sedate and well-mannered pace. Miroku held off on taking up his own share for a moment, looking thoughtfully between the two women as he considered the tale he had just heard.

"Kagome-chan?"

"Hmmm?" Kagome said, mouth full as she glanced up at him.

"Well, I feel it necessary to say that I agree with your course of action, though I am saddened that you were forced to do something so obviously against your principles," said Miroku. "However, I also must say that I believe things will become more difficult for you from here on. You killed two agents of a clan powerful enough to plot an overthrow with confidence.”

“You will also now be placed in a position at the right hand of the Tennō-sama, which will earn you more than a small amount of resentment because of your status and his Majesty’s own. I am sorry to burden you with more concerns than you already carry, but I want you to be fully aware of the situation."

"Ah…" said Kagome softly. "Yes…I suppose so."

In the back of her mind she had already acknowledged the fact that things would not be getting any easier any time soon, but those concerns had been overridden by her guilt over the guards. Now was the time to deal with everything, before going to meet with the Tennō.

Kagome sighed deeply.

 “If you would not mind, Miroku-sama, I would be very grateful if you would explain to me what exactly the Tennō-sama’s position here in the court is. Obviously it is not as absolute as I originally imagined, if there are clans willing to try and take the throne into their own hands."

"That is a rather long story, Kagome-chan," Miroku replied. "Hopefully you are in a listening mood.”

Kagome nodded, urging him to continue. Miroku folded his hands in his lap, silent for a moment as he gathered his thoughts.

“The story begins about five years ago upon the death of our previous Tennō-sama,” he said. “His former Majesty, may his soul inhabit peaceful places, had two sons, the elder of which is a full youkai born of the former Empress. Naturally, it was expected that he would be the one to inherit the throne.”

“The former Tennō-sama, however, had a different idea. He had secretly had it written in an imperial decree, read upon his demise to the court, that his younger son would be the one to take the throne. His younger son being a hanyou, considered illegitimate by many as he was born of a noblewoman not even among his former Majesty's concubines.”

“You can imagine the upset this caused in the court. Of course, as this is the court that we are speaking of, the upset was a subtle one. Several court factions rose up to bar the ascension of the younger son to the throne, working through their officials in the Council of State.”

“Clan after clan stepped into the 'lead' role of government, each deposed in quick succession by death or disfavor. All foods had to be checked for poisons-that was a common, hard to trace method for offing an undesirable leader. The walkways of the capital ran red with the blood of those killed in the dead of night so that another might take their place of power.”

“It was a time of great fear and uncertainty in the court. Very few dared to challenge the larger clans as they ran amok.”

“Villages outside the court were also affected to a degree, as courtiers funneled funds out to finance battles fought amongst themselves and used the villagers on their lands as unwilling soldiers.”

“About a year ago, though, the handful of clans loyal to the younger son, or more so perhaps to the previous Tennō-sama’s will, managed to rally their forces enough to finally place the current Tennō-sama on the throne.”

“Of course, it did not hurt that many of the powerful clans had done much in the way of chipping away at each other by that point. They had little means left to continue the power struggle at that time, and most of them acknowledged that they would be unable to hold on to the throne for long even if they managed to get hold of it.”

“This, however, did not mean much other than a general quieting of the clans. The Council of State was and is still composed of members of the clans that fought to keep the current Tennō-sama from the throne, as there would have been further rioting had the loyalist clans attempted to remove them. And they are still determined that his Majesty should not exercise any true power.”

“Funds continue to be delegated on the whims of the Council and clans continue to keep their own armies. No decrees proposed by the Tennō-sama have passed successfully through the Council since his Majesty's ascension.”

“It is rather well known within the court that general opinion is against the Tennō-sama. The unfortunate reality is that more violent insurrections the likes of five years ago are not impossible, or even unlikely."

Kagome gazed with wide eyes at Miroku as he finished, stunned into silence. All of the information came to sit like rocks inside her head, clunky and heavy and hard to turn over.

The situation sounded much worse than she ever could have imagined. There were several parts to the story that she could not fully comprehend with her limited knowledge of how the court functioned, but what she could understand told her that the Tennō was in a very difficult place.

His Majesty was in a position of absolute responsibility with none of the power. Opinions were already set firmly against him, and any grievances with the way things were being run could be placed squarely on his shoulders.

He could neither move forward, nor in good conscience abdicate the throne and allow the court to fall back into pandemonium. The Tennō, the holy descendant of the goddess Amaterasu, was essentially a prisoner in his own court.

To top it all off, Kagome had all but sworn allegiance to his Majesty with her actions. The killing of the two guards would effectively gain her a court full of enemies and the undesirable notice of every clan scheming against the Tennō. Even if she wanted to back out into a smaller position in the court, there was no escape.

Escape was sounding pretty good, though. Kagome sighed, half-heartedly shoveling a few more bites of her rice into her mouth.

She placed her bowl down on the tray, the food like ash in her mouth. She glanced back up to find both Miroku and Sango gazing expectantly at her, awaiting a more comprehensive response.

"I…don't know if I can do this," Kagome found herself saying.

It was shameful, but it was how she felt. It was just too much.

"Kagome-chan…" said Sango, frowning. "You have come so far already. You just need to-"

"Sango-sama," Miroku interrupted her.

She turned to him, surprised. Miroku shook his head firmly. Sango frowned.

"We are in no position to place pressure on Kagome-chan," he said. "I believe she has enough to worry about without us forcing our opinions."

Sango opened her mouth as if to defend herself, but closed it after a moment. Shame crept onto her features. She turned contritely to her friend.

"I am sorry, Kagome-chan," she said, grasping one of her hands. "I did not mean to…"

"It's alright, Sango-sama. I understand. I'm disappointed in myself, as well," Kagome admitted, her gaze falling to her lap. "But I just don't think I…"

"Do not fret, Kagome-chan," Miroku said as she trailed off. "We will support you to the best of our ability in whatever course you choose to take from here."

"Yes, of course," said Sango with conviction, nodding.

Kagome offered a feeble smile to the two, feeling oppressed by their kindness despite their good intentions. Or maybe it was not their kindness, but something within herself. Kagome rose to her feet and bowed formally to the two courtiers.

"Thank you both," Kagome said. "I believe it is time I went to meet with his Majesty. Miroku-sama, might I request that one of your servants accompany me? I do not know the way to the Inner Palace."

"Ah, yes, certainly," Miroku agreed, slightly disconcerted by her lapse back into formality.

He stood and slid the screen open once more, calling a name down the hall. An older woman appeared and he instructed her to escort Kagome to the Inner Palace. Her eyes widened briefly in surprise and she shot her a furtive glance, but nodded obediently.

"Thank you both. I suppose…I will see you later," said Kagome, avoiding eye contact with either of the two.

"Kagome-chan…" said Sango, reaching out a hand as if to stop the girl.

Miroku placed a silent hand on her shoulder, giving her a look that said this was a matter in which they could no longer have any say. Sango scowled at him for being so logical when she could not be, but nonetheless clasped the hand on her shoulder and acknowledged silently that this was a decision that Kagome had to make all on her own.

The noblewoman watched her friend trail down the hall after the servant, her heart sinking. Perhaps it was wrong of her to want Kagome to stay and prove herself strong enough to take on an entire court. Perhaps it would be better to just let her go home and live the simple life the kami had intended for her when they placed her in her small village.

Still, it was a hard hope to let go of. 

"Houshi-sama…"

"I know, Sango. I know."


Kagome was only half aware as the servant led her along the avenues to the Inner Palace. Part of it was regret for so obviously having let Miroku-sama and Sango-sama down, but a larger part was worry over how she would face the Tennō. She had no idea what to say.

Every explanation that ran through her mind ended up sounding cowardly. Perhaps that was appropriate, she reflected morosely, as it was cowardice in many ways. She had thought herself stronger than this, and it was crushing to realize that she was not.

But the incident with the guards had left her so drained of resolve. She knew she would not be able to do what she had done again, but it seemed inevitable if she were to remain and serve a ruler in such disfavor with his subjects. Kagome sighed heavily.

Her focus returned to her surroundings as they reached the towering red wall that enclosed the Inner Palace. The servant woman seemed to be at a loss as they reached the guardsman at the gate, her gaze shifting nervously about as if in search of salvation.

The guard, however, took one look at Kagome and stepped aside to allow her passage, informing Miroku's servant that she was free to return to her master.

The guard nodded Kagome forward as the older woman gladly scurried off. Kagome passed hesitantly through the gates and abruptly found herself in a garden so lush she might have thought it a forest had it not been so well-ordered.

Their branches lightly frosted with snow, sakura trees lined the walkway. Just beyond them on both sides she could see glimpses of Wisteria trees lining large ponds filled with water lilies and colorful koi fish. Kagome jumped as two large white cranes strutted leisurely across her path, barely sparing her so much as a glance.

At the end of the long walkway was a wide flight of steps, at base of which towered a large orange and sakura tree on either side. Kagome climbed the steps up to a stone platform on which sat a large, wide building of wood, white walls, and black adornments. The roof was of the same sloping style as the others she had seen in the capital and a few steps led up to an elevated outdoor walkway around the building.

A woman, a servant judging by her subdued clothing, hurried down from the walkway towards Kagome. The woman smiled and the light lines around her eyes reminded Kagome for the briefest instant of her mother. Her eyes stung at the sudden wave of homesickness that swept over her. She would have given anything to go home at that moment.

"His Majesty is expecting you in his chambers in the Jijūden, Kagome-sama," the servant said, bowing. "If it pleases you, I will take you the rest of the way."

Kagome could only nod, unaccustomed to such respectful treatment from anyone inside the court. She trailed obediently after the woman as she was led up the small flight of stairs and through the low, pillared entryway of what the servant told her was the Shishinsen.

They passed quickly through the building, which contained only one large room with the focal point of an intricate throne, and went outside once more onto a covered walkway. It took Kagome a few moments to realize that rather than there being two bodies of water on either side of the walkway, the walkway had been built over the water.

She marveled at this even as her heart began to beat a little harder, anxiety over her impending confrontation setting in full force. She studied the small islands dotting the water to distract herself, each covered in a unique arrangement of smooth stones and colorful flowers. Snow fluttered down to rest on the surface of the water, lending to the entire scene a gentle feeling that Kagome could only wish she was more in a mood to appreciate.

"We are here, Kagome-sama," the servant woman said, forcing her back to the present. "His Majesty awaits you inside."

Kagome looked up at the moderately sized building before her, the walls white with vibrant red and gold detailing. Even the trim of the roof was done in some sort of golden filigree. On either end of the building sat a large stone statue, one of the Buddha in meditation and another of the sun goddess Amaterasu with the rays of the sun shining forth from her brow.

Kagome thanked the servant and took a deep, steadying breath before moving forward through the low entryway, pushing aside an ornate silk door hanging depicting a large white inu-youkai.

The room she entered was surprisingly warm, lit by the glow of a small fire pit in the center. It was a spacious room with white walls, several of which were covered in an assortment of intricate murals.

The walls were trimmed in gold filigree, and on the right side of the room sat a large, low desk of rich cedar wood. It was covered in a litter of official looking scrolls.

On the left side of the room was a sheer canopy of some gauzy white material, enclosing the Tennō's luxurious futon. The rest of the room was scattered with lush sitting cushions and ornate trunks filled with things Kagome could only imagine.

In the very center of the room had been placed a silk screen, depicting the same inu-youkai Kagome had seen on the hanging in the entryway. 

On the screen he was shown bounding across a star filled sky on the night of a full moon. Each thread was so delicately woven that Kagome imagined she might be able to feel the shaggy texture of the youkai's fur if she touched it. A stern-looking guard stood on either side of the screen.

Lighted from the back, the vague outline of the Tennō was visible. Ignoring the plummeting of her stomach into her feet, Kagome came to kneel stiffly on the cushion placed before the screen.

"You guys can leave now," came the rough voice from behind the screen, addressing the guards. "I want to speak to the miko alone."

The guards nodded and exited without question. Kagome watched them go warily, recalling her last encounter with royal guards. She suddenly regretted not having brought her bow with her, and was repulsed a moment later that she had even had the thought.

"Not all of my guards are traitors," groused the Tennō.

Kagome jumped as the voice sounded closer to her than she had expected. His Majesty had come to recline on a cushion just to her left, most definitely not behind the screen any longer.

"Ah…but, the screen, Tennō-sama," Kagome said, gesturing feebly at it.

"Tennō-sama?" he echoed, his face twisting as if he had smelled something unpleasant. "Oh, yeah. I guess I never told you. The name’s Inuyasha. All that ‘Tennō-sama’ bullshit weirds me out.”

“And the stupid screen's just for show. If I didn't make it look good then there'd be rumors flying all over the court in no time."

"But, your Majesty…" Kagome floundered, caught off guard by his familiar manner now that she knew the truth of him. She had naturally assumed that they would be observing the proper formalities once in the capital.

"I-nu-ya-sha."

"...Inuyasha-sama-" Kagome tried in placatingly.

"There. Glad we got that outta the way," Inuyasha interrupted. "I summoned the Council for an emergency meeting."

"And what…happened?" Kagome asked reluctantly, setting aside for a moment her own concerns.

"Obviously they all played dumb about the whole thing, even the Taira clansmen," Inuyasha said, disgust thick in his voice. "They all said it was all just those two guards acting on their own. They're pretty quick to dump their clansmen when their asses are on the line.”

“Seems like there were instructions not to make any moves 'til they got word of my death, 'cuz none of the Taira clan did anything while we were gone according to the reports I got."

"What do you intend to do to them?"

"Do to them?" echoed Inuyasha incredulously. "If that's how you think it works then you don't know shit about the court."

"Of course I don't," Kagome returned, irritated. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, I can't fucking do anything about it," Inuyasha bit out. "Since you and me are the only ones that saw what happened with the guards, we've got no proof that's worth shit to anyone.”

“If I try to punish a clan without damn good proof of what they've been doing, not only will that clan riot, but so will every other clan that's got the smallest problem with anything. It'd be like handing the bastards an excuse to rise up against me."

"Then you're just going to let them get away with this?" exclaimed Kagome.

"Court politics," huffed Inuyasha, the sharpness of what was meant to be a careless shrug betraying his irritation. "I'll watch 'em closer from now on. Bastards'll probably be on guard and play good for at least a couple months."

"And then what?" Kagome snapped. "You let them try it again and maybe succeed? You let them take over the court? You let them throw everything into chaos and use helpless villagers to fight their battles?"

Inuyasha's keen golden eyes slid over to her, staring hard at her for a long moment. "Someone told you?"

"Miroku-sama told me everything, and to be honest I'm not sure if I can do this anymore," Kagome bit out, unable to contain it any longer.

If nothing was to be done, if the plotting clans were just going to win anyway, then why had she killed those men? What was the point of any of it?

"…You're backing out?" asked Inuyasha, his eyes darkening. "Then go. No one's forcing you to stay."

He turned away from her to glare fiercely at the cedar desk, a clear dismissal. Kagome sat frozen at the abruptness of it.

"Inuyasha-sama, I-" Kagome said, uncertain of what she would say but knowing she could not simply leave things like that.

"You said you can't do it, so get the hell out already," snarled Inuyasha, getting up to pace agitatedly back and forth behind the screen. "It's not like it's a surprise or anything. You're just some village hick from nowhere. My fucking fault for thinking you had some guts."

"I do want to help!" protested Kagome, rising to stand in his path. Lurking beneath all of his ire was something that sounded suspiciously like disappointment, and it cut just as much as Miroku and Sango's had.

"I really want to! That's the whole reason I agreed to that ludicrous mission in the first place! But I…I killed two men. I know you must have seen a lot worse, and suffered through things much more horrible, but I can't do that again.”

“And I don't know how long I could last in a court filled with people that I would have to be suspicious of every moment of every day. I just wanted to help the villages, and I don't think I can…"

Kagome held his gaze, willing him to understand and valiantly holding back tears. Inuyasha's expression remained unyieldingly fierce, but a subtle easing of his posture told her he was listening. He could understand what she was saying at least.

It occurred to Kagome suddenly that everything she was now so desperate to flee from was everything that Inuyasha had already fought through three times over. And worse than she could imagine, as an illegitimate half-breed son in the ultimate position of power and scrutiny.

But she was frightened. She had not been raised for this or among this. All she had anticipated in coming here was to do what she had always done in a higher context, heal the sick and protect against evil youkai who would cause harm.

Court politics, secretive plots, underhanded power plays, poisoning, murder in the dark of night…it was all so far beyond anything she had ever had to deal with. In such a large and complicated world Kagome was utterly lost.

She longed for home and simplicity and family. For the place where she held the respect and regard of the people around her. For the place where her hands were always covered in dirt, but never in blood.

But if she ran away now, back to the safety of her village and a world she understood, what would that accomplish? The villages and common people of Japan would be no better off than before.

Sango and Miroku, who had been so kind to her despite everything, would be left to suffer through the same fear and oppression of five years ago. The capital would fall back into chaos and would probably drag the rest of the land down with it before long.

There was Inuyasha, too. He would be left to struggle alone again, with no one to depend upon and everyone to suspect. Some part of him had been looking for an ally in her, Kagome realized.

That was why he had done something as outrageous as leaving the capital to go along with her. She was uncertain of what he had been hoping to gain from it, but his upset with her desire to leave told the story clearly enough.

"Listen, just go back already," said Inuyasha, breaking Kagome from her thoughts. His voice lacked some of its earlier harshness, and his gaze was fixed firmly just over her shoulder.

"You weren't meant for this. You're already half-crazy, so you'd be out of your mind within the week. Just…go home. No one will come after you again."

Kagome considered this and him for a long moment. He was willing to let her go to spare her. This was the out she had been hoping for. She was not meant for this, after all.

"You…you said you would protect me, didn't you, Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome said slowly.

"Eh?" Inuyasha’s gaze shifted to her face, dark brows rising in question.

"Back on the Fujiwara lands. You said you would protect me, didn't you?" Kagome pressed.

"I-I didn't…What in the seven hells does that have to do with anything?" Inuyasha sputtered, flushing faintly.

"Well, you said you would protect me. You're trying hard to keep your end of the deal, but I forgot mine. I promised I would serve you faithfully," Kagome said quietly.

The discomfort vanished from Inuyasha's countenance. His eyes searched hers, his expression sobering.

"What are you saying?" he said lowly. 

"I'm saying…" Kagome hesitated, searching for the words to fit what she felt. "I am saying that I do not want everything I have done until now, and everything that has been done for me, to be pointless.”

“I'm scared out of my wits. This is all so much bigger than I ever could have imagined, and I can't help but think that my presence here will be useless. But that should not stop me from trying. That's not the way I want to live. That won't accomplish anything.”

“I want to help you make a better country, Inuyasha-sama, for everyone's sake. And if that's not your aim as Tennō-sama, then I want to make it your aim, as presumptuous as that may sound. I want to help you, Inuyasha-sama."

"Kagome…"

Inuyasha's jaw clenched and he shook his head.

"You already know that everything is stacked against me," he said at length. "I don't have a single damn thing working in my favor. I'm the half-breed mutt, the bastard child, the second son. I wasn't even allowed the formal education most courtiers get.”

“I've got no idea why in the seven hells my old man decided to do this to me. One of those battles must have knocked his wits loose or something. And I sure as shit can't see things changing anytime soon.”

“The only thing I want is to get through all this shit alive and without the whole thing collapsing. So I don't think I can build this perfect world you're imagining."

"I'm not naïve enough to ask you to build a perfect world, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome said. "Perfection is impossible. Even I know that.”

“I won't ask you to make the people happy, either. That's a choice that they have to make for themselves. All I would ask is that you work hard to make a place where each person has the room to make that decision.”

“I don't think you have completely given up yet, either. I don't think you would be bothering yourself with me if you were truly done with everything."

"You assume a lot, woman," Inuyasha said, though he did not argue with her. "What about the guards? I can't promise you'll never be put in a situation like that again, not with things in this court as fucked as they are."

Kagome's heart clenched at the question. She had expected it, but had no real resolution for such a problem.

"I…" Kagome faltered. "I realize that. And I really don't want to ever be forced to take a life like that again. The thought makes me feel sick.”

“I don't want the kami to shun me when I die because I dealt carelessly with the lives of their children. But…better that I carry the weight of every life I take with me for all eternity and do what I can to atone, than that many should suffer because I am afraid. I think the kami would see that as far more disgraceful.”

“Besides, if I quit now, taking the lives of those two guards really will have been for nothing. I should appease their spirits, at least, by continuing forward with the cause for which they died."

Inuyasha eyed her contemplatively, silent respect welling within him. She did have guts, he'd give her that.

"…I did promise to protect you, as the Tennō, if you really intend to stay and see this through," he said at length.

"Then I can remain and serve you?" 

Her face was hopeful as she raised it toward him.

"I-I guess so," Inuyasha muttered, looking away.

"Well, there is the first thing we can fix," Kagome said, beaming and feeling truly relieved for the first time since the death of the guardsmen. "You are the Tennō-sama. You do not 'guess' anything. You simply know. Or at least that is how it has to seem."

"…Yeah," Inuyasha agreed slowly, surprising Kagome. She had expected some sort of snarky comment, but he seemed willing to listen to her.

That was good, Kagome thought. Together with him she was going to try to rebuild a nation. They would probably need to be able to at least hold a decent conversation first. She grinned wryly at the thought.

"I'll hold a meeting with the Council tomorrow and tell them you'll be serving officially as a court spiritualist from now on," said Inuyasha, recalling her attention. "They already know you're the one who took down the guards, so this ain't gonna sit well with most of them, especially the Taira clan. Be on your guard for that.”

“They'll probably insist on having a court ceremony held to officially induct you, so be ready for that, too. You'll also 'officially' be a target after that. I'll arrange it so you can start training next week. I've also got a way I can keep you nearby so I can make sure you don't do anything stupid."

"How is that?" Kagome asked, aware that it would look suspicious for even an official servant of the Tennō to be in close quarters with him for extended periods of time.

"Ah, well," Inuyasha coughed, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "I…told Kikyou that you succeeded in your mission, and about what happened with the guards. She took the story, but still looked suspicious. When I asked her what you could do to convince her, she said she…wants you to serve as her lady-in-waiting."

Kagome's brows shot up to meet her hairline. 

"It'd give you a way to stay in the Inner Palace without questions," said Inuyasha defensively. "Besides, she said it was the only thing that would make her accept you. Obviously she's around me a lot, so she's gonna have to accept you if this is gonna work."

Kagome suppressed a groan. Working under that ice woman who had caused her such trouble to begin with was not appealing in the least. But if it was for the cause, then it had to be done.

"Alright, then," Kagome sighed. "I can play at lady-in-waiting if need be. I just don't understand why Kikyou-sama seems to mistrust me so much."

"Kikyou just has a rough time with change," Inuyasha said, his expression softening a fraction.

Kagome wondered at the fondness that warmed his eyes. It was an expression she had never seen from him before. It was nice to know he still had those sorts of feelings in him.

"Tennō-sama!"

Inuyasha and Kagome whipped around simultaneously at the unexpected voice. Inuyasha turned and shoved Kagome into a sitting position, dropping down to sit in front of her to block her outline against the silk screen.

"Yeah, what is it?" he barked.

Mentally Kagome groaned. They would need to work on getting him to speak in a manner more befitting his station.

"My apologies for the intrusion, Tennō-sama," the guard said from the other side of the screen, his outline shifting as he bowed low. "But there is trouble. A gate guard has brought word that an outsider has somehow managed to gain entrance to the capital without permission.”

“The guards attempted to stop him, but he proved to be too swift for any of them to catch. As of now he has harmed no one, but they sent me to warn you that he seems to be making his way towards the Inner Palace."

"The hell?" Inuyasha swore. "What-"

But the hanyou was cut off as an almighty wind swept into the room, sending the papers on the cedar desk flying and blowing in with it a flurry of snow flakes. The guard cried out and there was a thud as he was knocked aside.

"Oi, dog-shit!" called a voice. "Come on out, and bring Kagome with you! I know she's in here! I tracked her through this whole stinking place!"

Kagome froze, her every muscle winding tight. She could feel Inuyasha tense beside her. He recognized the voice, as well. Kagome prayed to all the kami that they were both wrong and it was just a murderous maniac out for their heads.

Slowly Kagome peeked her head out from behind the edge of the screen. There in the entryway, snow dusting his hair and shoulders, stood Kouga. He looked quite proud of himself, too.

He caught sight of her and a beaming smile stretched its way across his face, fangs glinting in the firelight. His tail waved enthusiastically behind him.

"Kagome! See, I told you I would come to save you!"

Kagome would have laughed at the absurdity of it had Inuyasha's growl not been rumbling through the ground beneath her. She turned her gaze to the hanyou. His eyes seemed to be glowing, filled with a burning brilliance of their own.

"I'll kill him."



Chapter Text


Before Kagome could so much as blink, Inuyasha had toppled the silk screen and lunged at the wolf youkai. Kouga was caught off guard, as well, and the fist planted solidly in his gut sent him skidding across the room, through piles of cushions, and into the far wall. A resounding crack told Kagome that it was likely some ribs had been snapped.

"Damn wolf!" snarled Inuyasha, advancing on the dazed youkai. "What in the seven hells are you thinking, breaking into the fucking imperial palace!"

Alarmed, Kagome scrambled up from her place by the overturned screen. She slipped clumsily among the many silk cushions, trying to make her way over to the enraged hanyou.

"Inuyasha-sama! Wait!"

Inuyasha did not spare her so much as a glance, but rather continued his menacing advance. Kouga struggled dazedly where he lay. He wheezed faintly, spitting blood onto the tatami mats of the floor.

"The hell I'll wait, woman! First he abducts you, then he breaks into my fucking court! This asshole needs to be taught a lesson in fucking boundaries!"

Inuyasha reached Kouga and dragged the wolf up by his hair. Kouga struggled feebly, still winded from what had been an especially savage blow.

"Inuyasha-sama, please wait! Please!" Kagome tried again, stumbling her way over to the Tennō at last.

She hovered at his side, uncertain how to calm him down. This was quite an idiotic stunt for Kouga to have pulled. She was a little tempted to hit him herself…

Inuyasha spared her a scathing look, but seemed to be hesitating at the sight of his nearly incapacitated enemy. He shook the wolf roughly.

"Oi, wolf shit. You awake?" he drawled, shaking the wolf once more for emphasis. "I want you to be able feel it when I rip that flea bitten tail right off your ass."

Kouga hung limply in his grasp, unmoving. Inuyasha eyed him, contemplating throwing the wolf into another wall to rouse him. Or kill him. Either one would do, so long as the youkai could no longer stir up shit in his court or sniff around Kagome when he had no right.

"Inuyasha-sama, he did save my life, whatever other foolish things he may have done," Kagome said, utilizing the only weapon she really had in her arsenal at the moment. "Don't you think you should-?"

"I think I should throw his mangy ass into the imperial prison and let him rot there," Inuyasha cut her off, irritated with her continuing defense the mangy wolf. "This is the second fucking time he's messed with imperial business. And you can't harp on that 'life-saving' shit for-"

Kouga's foot in his gut cut off the rest of whatever he was going to say. The wolf Lord had been playing possum.

Inuyasha swore loudly, tossing the offending youkai away. Kagome gasped, stumbling backwards in her surprise.

"Stop it! Both of you need to stop it!" she cried desperately, beginning to truly fear what the outcome of this might be.

"Like hell! I'm gonna save you from this dog-shit, Kagome!"

And Kouga was back up and heading for Inuyasha again. Inuyasha, on her other side of the room, was doing the same.

Kagome would have rolled her eyes at their childishness had she had the time. Rather she did the first thing she could think of to prevent the impending bloodbath.

Unfortunately that first thing turned out to be throwing herself directly in Kouga's path. Even more unfortunately, Kouga was so startled by her sudden move that he skidded to an awkward halt. And to put the unfortunate crown on it all, Kagome, surprised by his stop and already unbalanced, stumbled straight into his arms.

Time stretched on in oppressive silence like a cord pulled taut. Kagome could almost hear Inuyasha's surprise and outrage growing behind her. She struggled weakly against Kouga's hold on her, mortified by the awfulness of the situation.

"The fucking hell, woman!" came the roar from behind her, snapping the cord at last.

She was yanked roughly from Kouga’s embrace and pulled back to Inuyasha's side. She winced as her shoulder was jarred by the motion.

"Oi! Don't touch my woman, dog-breath!"

Kagome was yanked back against the Kouga’s chest, her head beginning to spin at the abrupt motion. Kouga leapt away, pulling her along, as Inuyasha advanced and reached out to reclaim her.

"Nuh uh, shit for brains. She was obviously asking me to save her from you. Kagome's coming back with me to be the Lady of the Eastern Wolf Tribe. And together the two of us are gonna dominate the eastern lands," Kouga sneered, nimbly snatching her just out of Inuyasha's grasp each time the hanyou lunged and reached for her.

If there was one thing Kouga had over Inuyasha, it was certainly speed, Kagome lamented absently as she was thrown about like a doll between the two. Abruptly Kouga's words sunk in past the rattling of her brain inside her skull. Kagome stiffened, renewing her struggles against his hold.

"Kouga…Kouga-sama! Hold on! Please, put me down!" she snapped, shoving back against the fur-covered armor on his shoulders.

"And let that dog shit put his dirty paws all over you? I don't think so, Kagome!" Kouga said, continuing his game of keep-away with the hanyou.

"Dammit, you stupid wolf! She said put her down! Hold her much longer and she's gonna get your fucking fleas!" Inuyasha snarled.

Kagome groaned. They seemed to be determined to ignore her wishes entirely. She decided it was time for one last ditch attempt. She took a deep breath.

"Ah! Kouga-sama! My shoulder! My shoulder! It hurts!"

It was true enough, Kagome reasoned to herself. Her shoulder was beginning to ache again, despite the fact that Kouga was being careful about jostling that particular part of her. Still, the way that they both slid to an abrupt halt at the words told her that the small deception was worth it.

Kouga placed her carefully down on one of the cushions the two had torn up during their romp through the room, kneeling down at her side.

"I'm sorry, Kagome. I didn't realize-"

Inuyasha shut him up with a fistful of feathers from torn pillows to the face and a good shove. He took the wolf's place at her side.

"Idiot! Why the hell are you throwing yourself all over him when your shoulder is hurting?!"

"I wasn't-!"

"Shut up! How bad is it? Does it need to be bandaged again?" Inuyasha said, prodding around the wound with surprising delicacy.

"It's not that bad, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome replied, wondering at the careful touch. Her face felt a little warm as she watched him examine the wound with some kind of coarse concern.

Kouga came to sit grudgingly a short distance away from her, hesitant to argue with the hanyou or touch her again lest he injure her further. He settled for glaring with extreme hostility at Inuyasha as he inspected her.

Kagome felt a bit guilty for making them both worry over something so small, but was rather satisfied at this momentary truce. This was what she had been angling for. Now it was time to put her sudden little idea into motion.

"Kouga-sama," Kagome began, her voice calculatingly polite. "I am terribly sorry you came all this way, but I really do not require saving. And certainly there were…better methods you might have employed if you wished to come see me."

"But I-" Kouga began to argue, thrown by her sudden formality.

"However," Kagome said. "Now that you are here, you might as well remain awhile. At least until you and Inuyasha-sama can settle matters in a satisfactory and civil manner. You are a Lord, after all, and I am certain Inuyasha-sama can have quarters arranged for you for a time here in Heian."

Kagome turned an insistent look on Inuyasha, hoping he would catch her meaning. Inuyasha returned her look with one of utter revulsion.

"Like hell I'll stay let this disease-ridden wolf stay in my court! He fucking broke in and tried to take advantage of you again!"

"Inuyasha-sama," Kagome gritted out with strained patience. "Kouga-sama most certainly did have a few errors in his judgment of the situation, but he is a Lord, after all. And it is the Tennō-sama’s wish to remain in good favor with all of the Lords, is it not?"

The harshness in Inuyasha's expression morphed slowly into understanding, though it looked to Kagome to be only a partial, questioning sort of understanding. Nonetheless, if he got it even a little, he would play along with her.

"Wait…You're the Tennō, dog breath?"

Both Kagome and Inuyasha turned from their silent communication to stare at the wolf Lord, twin looks of disbelief etched on their features. He stared back blankly.

"You…just realized that?" Kagome said, unable to contain herself.

"I knew you were fucking stupid, but even I didn't think you were this much of a moron,” Inuyasha said, a slight twitch developing in one dark brow. "Where in the seven hells do you think you are, asshole?"

"I…" Kouga hesitated, taking a true look at his surroundings for the first time.

A bit of uncertainty slipped into his eyes, but he puffed himself up and scowled more deeply to cover it.

"It ain't like anyone would ever peg dog-breath here for bein' the Tennō," he said more loudly than necessary. "And even if he is, that doesn't change anything. I ain't giving Kagome up."

Well, this general lack of respect for the Tennō and his authority was certainly another thing to add to the long list of issues that would have to be addressed, Kagome noted. More so she marveled at the wolf Lord's utter lack of all sense.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Inuyasha-sama's lips pull back in a fierce snarl, his hands curling into fists at his sides. He tensed, and she could tell he was ready to go for the throat. Kagome reached out instinctively, placing a restraining hand lightly on his arm.

Inuyasha’s blinked, his gaze shifting questioningly to the delicate touch. Taking advantage of the opening, Kagome shifted subtly in between the two. Facing Kouga, she made certain that she caught his eyes with her own before speaking.

"Kouga-sama," she began, in the most demure and appealing tone she could manage. "I am aware that you and Inuyasha-sama, his Majesty, have many differences to work through.”

“However, I do not believe it proper that you address the sovereign of your country in such a manner. It would also please me greatly if you would remain for a time in the court until all matters can be settled to our satisfaction."

Kagome held his eyes for a long moment, willing him to go along with it out of consideration for her. Admittedly it was a bit low to play on his odd infatuation with her, but for the moment it was necessary. She would make herself clear in the time to come.

"Well, I…uh," Kouga said, coloring slightly under her intent gaze. "Fine, I guess. Whatever my woman wants. As long as dog shi-…as long as he keeps his grubby paws off of you, Kagome."

"Thank you, Kouga-sama," Kagome said, giving him a smile and gripping Inuyasha's arm more firmly as she sensed his youki flaring behind her. "I will go fetch a servant who can take you to temporary quarters until we can have better accommodations prepared. Is that agreeable, Inuyasha-sama?"

The hanyou did not argue, but gave her a dark look that clearly said he was neither satisfied nor finished with her. He then turned his glare to Kouga, and Kagome took it as permission.

She rose and went towards the entrance, praying the two could remain civil for just a few moments. She picked her way carefully among the torn up cushions and scattered feathers, stopping for a moment to check on the unconscious guard that had come to warn them of Kouga's unexpected arrival. It seemed to be just a bump on the head, but she would have to call someone to tend to him.

She slipped out from the Tennō's quarters and into the cold night air. It was still snowing lightly, and a group of people were huddled uncertainly at the opposite end of the walkway around the glow of a few lanterns. They had obviously followed Kouga's trail here and had no idea what to do.

They stirred and began to chatter loudly as she emerged and came towards them. A few of them, guards in full armor, stepped forward to the head of the group. Kagome frowned, wondering at the lack of loyalty that had kept them from charging in to defend their Tennō from the threat.

"Everything is fine. There was merely a…misunderstanding of sorts," Kagome called, preempting the blustering excuses she could see the guards preparing to give. "I need two servants to come with me. One will lead our noble guest to an available room befitting his status.”

“The other will take the guard inside who was…incapacitated in the midst of the confusion back to his quarters to rest and be tended to."

Kagome felt a little uncertain giving out orders as if she had any authority, but annoyance with the crowd lent her voice strength. No one questioned her, either out of due shame for their lack of action or because of the automatic authority that coming out of the Tennō's chambers lent her.

Two of the braver servants stepped forward and followed her back into the tensely silent room as the rest of the group dispersed. One, the man of the two, went hurriedly to the side of the fallen guard, hefting the other man up and hauling him from the room.

The other, a small but sturdy looking older woman, trailed after Kagome all the way over to the now petulant looking wolf Lord. Inuyasha, in anticipation of the entry of the servants, had gone to fume silently behind the screen.

Kagome was grateful to find that no blood seemed to have been shed in her absence. She bowed to Kouga and gestured to the servant woman, who bowed low, as well.

"Kouga-sama, she will lead you to your chambers. Simply follow her and you can get settled in for the night."

"What about you, Kagome?" he asked, rising to clasp her hands tightly in his own.

Kagome took a deep breath to gather her patience, glancing warily at the screen to make certain that Inuyasha did not try anything. She shifted her gaze back to Kouga, slipping her hands out of his grasp.

"I have to remain and finish my business with the Tennō-sama," she explained, and saw Kouga bristle exactly as she had expected. "But it would trouble me greatly if you were to remain and be bored by the tedious matters that we have to discuss. So, please, just go to your room and get a good night's rest. For my sake."

Kouga hesitated for a long moment, torn between the instinct to please Kagome and the desire to irritate Inuyasha. At length he nodded slowly.

"Fine. But if he tries anything, just come get me and I'll fix him, Tennō or whatever. And you'll come see me in the morning. We'll eat together."

"I will…see what I can do about that."

Kouga nodded and, to her great dismay, swept her into his arms for a parting embrace. Kagome squeezed her eyes shut in mortification, hoping it would end quickly. She could feel Inuyasha's eyes burning holes in her even through the screen.

Of course, it actually proved to be quite the lingering embrace as Kouga sniffed her and held her purposefully close in order to get in his parting shots. Through her intense embarrassment and growing desire to sink through the floor, she admired Inuyasha's restraint in not tearing the wolf to shreds.

Eventually he released her and followed the servant woman, who had thankfully kept herself busy tending to the cluttered room while she waited, out, though not before throwing a smug smirk at the outline of the fuming Inuyasha.

Kagome breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to have gotten through that tricky situation with minimal harm done. Mentally she patted herself on the back for having executed all of Kaede’s lessons in tact so very well.

"Oi, wench. Care to explain to me what in the seven hells you just did? Besides throwing yourself at the flea-bitten wolf like some fawning moron."

Kagome deflated, reminded that she still had some explaining to do if all were to go through as she hoped. With a mental sigh she turned to kneel down before the screen. Inuyasha came to stand beside it, arms crossed over his chest as he glared darkly down at her.

"First of all, I was hardly fawning over him, Inuyasha-sama-"

"Like hell," Inuyasha snorted. "You were all over him. I saw how you jumped straight into his scrawny arms! Is that the sort of thing you’re into?"

"I did not-!"

But Inuyasha merely huffed loudly over her attempts at explanation, turning up his nose. Kagome glared hard at his stubborn profile, but sighed at length.

He was obviously frustrated over everything that had occurred, and it was not as if he didn't have the right to be. After all, Kouga had broken into his court, insulted him repeatedly, attempted to abduct her, and the hanyou was still forced to allow him to stay without punishment.

"Regardless of what I did or did not do with Kouga-sama, do you understand my purpose in asking him to stay in the court?" she asked, hoping to set aside the rest of it for the moment.

"So that you can slobber all over him some more?"

"Inuyasha-sama!"

"What?! It's true, ain't it!"

He turned a glower on her that she gave right back to him, neither budging in the least. At length Kagome bit her lip, forcefully swallowing her pride. They needed to talk this through if he was to understand.

"Listen, Inuyasha-sama. I think it very important that he remain here in the court," Kagome said at last, collecting herself through sheer force of will.

"…Why?" Inuyasha asked, seeming to relent for the moment.

"I do not know how connected to or separate from the court he might be, but Kouga-sama is a Lord. More importantly than that, he is a Lord with a substantial number of youkai under his control. I have seen that much with my own eyes. And so I believe Kouga-sama and his clan could prove to be valuable supporters in our cause," Kagome explained.

"And you really think shit-for-brains is gonna listen to anything I say?" Inuyasha returned archly.

"Ah, well…" Kagome faltered, coming to the snag in her plan. "Hopefully during the time he will be here in the court, I can convince him to be more cooperative. He seems to…have a soft spot for me of sorts."

Inuyasha snorted derisively, his irritation flaring back up full force at the mention.

"So, what? You're gonna offer your body up to him in exchange for obedience? Thanks, but I’ll fucking pass on having any part in that shit.”

He turned his head dismissively, glaring at the far wall.

Kagome gasped, her face heating in indignation at the suggestion. She stood to face him, her fists balling tightly. How dare he!

"I will do what I have to do to secure your position, as I said I would!" Kagome snapped. "But I won't stand to be insulted when all I've tried to do is help you! Now if we are finished, may I retire for the night, Inuyasha-sama?"

"Feh. Whatever, go," Inuyasha tossed off callously, though inwardly he winced. She really sounded pissed this time…but she was the one who had forced him to allow that mangy wolf to stay in the court even after all the shit he had stirred up!

"Good night then, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome bit out, spinning on her heel to go.

Kagome took her leave quickly, fuming as she made her way out of the Inner Palace. She made her way back to Sango's residence and the room that had been prepared for her.

She found that Sango had already retired for the night and that Miroku had remained at his own residence. She was thankful, considering that it meant she could get a night's rest before having to explain all of what had gone on.

Huffily she changed into a light sleeping yukata and laid down, though sleep was not quick in coming. All she had been trying to do was help him, and he had all but accused her of being some kind of harlot! Really, it was too much…

At length she drifted into a fitful sleep, nursing her wounded pride.


Kagome awoke early the following morning, rested but not particularly refreshed. She recalled telling Kouga that she would try to visit him in the morning and decided it would be best to follow through with that, if only to prevent him from storming the court once more in search of her.

Kagome summoned a servant who helped her to prepare, washing and rewrapping her shoulder as well. As the elderly servant woman was brushing out her hair and retying it, Kagome wrote a quick note to Miroku and Sango explaining all that had gone on with Inuyasha. That way neither of them would have to bother with looking for her once they awoke.

The servant woman then went out to speak with a few other servants as to where exactly Kouga had ended up being placed for the night. It turned out to be a small residence near the Inner Palace, previously inhabited by a clan that had fallen into disgrace and that was now vacant. The woman led Kagome to it.

Kagome paused to take a deep breath at the entrance to Kouga's temporary room, preparing herself to deal with any of the number of outrageous things the wolf Lord might do or say. She needed to walk the fine line between staying in his favor and not leading him on if things were to work out as she hoped.

Resolution firm, Kagome stepped into the room. She nearly fell over at the sight that greeted her.

Somehow he had managed to get a hold of several heavy furs, which he had draped over the walls and scattered all over the wooden floors. To introduce light into the darkened room, he had built up a fire in the central fire pit of the room.

The lack of any ventilation left the room positively sweltering, and Kagome would have said she was right back in the cave on Kouga's lands had she not known better. Choking slightly on the heavy smoke hanging in the air, Kagome ventured further into the room.

Kouga, reclining lazily beside the dancing flames, sprang up at the sight of her. He was beside her in a flash, taking her hands and pulling her forward into the room. He rambled energetically about something Kagome could not quite follow, stunned as she still was by the drastic alterations made to the room.

He sat her forcefully down beside the fire, taking a seat so close to her that his thigh pressed against hers. Kagome scooted back nervously, only to be mirrored by Kouga. Obviously he had very little sense for human boundaries.

"I hope…your night was a pleasant one, Kouga-sama," Kagome said, uncomfortable with the serious, fixed look the wolf Lord was directing at her.

"It was alright," Kouga said dismissively, his intensely blue eyes never straying from her. "Once I had the servants fix the room up, anyway. I would rather have been closer to my woman, though."

And he was leaning towards her once more. Kagome scrabbled back desperately, jumping up at last and walking away from the fire.

She pretended to examine one of the furs closely to cover her jumpiness, absently tugging at the collar of her robes as she felt beads of sweat begin to collect at the nape of her neck.

"I wonder where the servants managed to find these," she chattered pointlessly, fingering the fur in exaggerated contemplation.

She could feel it as the wolf came up behind her and she had to fight not to flinch as his clawed hand came to rest on her shoulder. He was so close she could feel his warmth against her back.

"Kagome, I get it. I know why you asked me to stay here in the court."

Kagome pulled a face at what was supposed to be the suggestive undertone in his voice. Of course she should have expected that he would make whatever he wanted out of her proposal to have him remain in the capital. She turned carefully to face him, her expression guarded.

"And what exactly do you understand, Kouga-sama?" she asked, edging her tone with a stiff formality that she hoped would cool his ardor.

"I, uh…I know that you wanted me here to save you, of course," Kouga faltered, confused by the sudden shift. “You want me to save you from dog-breath so that you can be my woman. I mean, you couldn't say it in front of him 'cuz he's the Tennō and all that shit, but this way I can save you like you wanted."

"And how did you come to that conclusion, Kouga-sama?" Kagome returned levelly.

"I…uh…well," Kouga groped for words, but suddenly could not follow the line of logic that had led him to his conclusion. "It's just…obvious, right?"

Kagome eyed him, noting the uncharacteristic uncertainty in his expression. As trying as he might be, his feelings for her seemed strangely sincere. She pulled back a bit, softening her demeanor and distractedly fanning herself with one hand.

"Please listen very carefully to what I have to say, Kouga-sama," she said with gentle firmness. "I did not ask you to stay here in order to save me. I asked you to stay because there is something I am trying to achieve here in the court, and I believe you can help me to do it.”

“In regards to...your feelings for me, I can not honestly say that I return them. Nor can I say that I will be in any position to return those feelings any time in the near future.”

“I am truly sorry if I have given you the wrong impression, and you are free to leave at any time if that is your wish. However, I would be deeply grateful if you would remain."

Kouga stared at her for a long moment, his face blank as if he could not comprehend. And then something seemed to sink behind his eyes, and he half-reached for her before drawing his hand back.

He looked more than a little confused and hurt. It tugged at Kagome's heart terribly, and she had to bite back conciliatory words that might lessen what she was trying to convey.

"So you…don't want to be my woman?" he asked at length, his eyes searching hers.

"I am sorry, Kouga-sama," Kagome said softly, lowering her gaze to the fur covered floor.

"It's because of dog-face, isn't it?" Kouga said with a hint of accusation. "You're in love with him, right?"

"What? No! Of course not!" Kagome said, her eyes widening they snapped back up to meet his. “Where did you even get such an idea?”

The very thought of it was ludicrous. Not only was Inuyasha the Tennō, but beyond that the two of them could scarcely be near one another without him deciding to pick a fight with her!

"Good."

Kagome blinked, as surprised by the word as by the cocky tone in which it was tossed out. A confident grin was splitting Kouga's face from ear to ear, fangs glinting in the light of the fire. Kagome's heart sank and she wondered where she had slipped up this time.

"If there's no reason why not, then I'm definitely going to make you my woman," Kouga declared. "You'll see, Kagome. You'll be my mate within a week. Definitely!"

Without further warning he swept her up into his arms, clasping her tightly to himself. Kagome froze within his arms, so stunned by his boundless self-assurance and how little he had actually listened to what she had said that she could not move.

At the edge of her line of vision Kagome caught some kind of movement and quickly refocused her eyes. There in the entryway stood a servant, a younger, pretty sort of girl. Her eyes were white all the way around as she gaped at them, her mouth hanging open in a most improper manner.

Kagome jerked, fairly shoving Kouga away from herself. He looked as if he would protest, but Kagome spun him around to see their unexpected visitor. Still he did not seem to feel much other than annoyance, turning a surly look on the accidental interloper.

"Ah, um…I-I'm sorry to have interrupted you two while you were….But the Tennō-sama has requested that you be brought to his Majesty immediately," the servant girl stuttered, her cheeks flushed at the intimate display she had witnessed.

She gave a quick, awkward bow and Kagome hurried over to her side, casting Kouga a sharp look on her way. She put a hand on the girl's shoulder.

"It's alright. It's just a misunderstanding, that's all. A misunderstanding," Kagome offered lamely, and the girl stared uncertainly at her. "Ummm…how about you just take me to the Tennō-sama now, alright?"

"You and Kouga-sama don't need to finish?" the girl questioned, brows arched with all the impertinence of youth.

There was something sharp behind the girl's dark eyes and Kagome felt a brief flash of concern.

"Yeah, actually, me and my woman-"

"There's nothing to be finished," Kagome cut the wolf Lord off sharply, shooting him a silencing look. "I have to go meet with Tennō-sama now, Kouga-sama. I am sorry to cut our conversation short, but his Majesty's orders take precedence."

Kouga looked as if he might argue or say something derogatory about Inuyasha, but Kagome kept him pinned with a stern stare. Luckily he seemed for once to understand her meaning and settled for a sullen scowl, huffing out a sigh as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"Then I will take my leave," Kagome said, more in hopes of getting the servant girl moving than anything else.

The girl took the hint reluctantly, leaving off her covert glances between the wolf Lord and the miko in favor of turning to go. Kagome offered Kouga a nod and a hint of a smile as thanks for his small show of tact.

Kouga returned the gesture with a beaming grin, as if he had done something particularly wonderful. Kagome turned to follow the servant, rolling her eyes.

"Don't forget what I said, Kagome!" he called after her, and she tensed. "I'm not kidding about making you my woman! I'll come see you later!"

Kagome's insides turned to stone at the scandalized look the young servant girl shot her. Determinedly she ignored him and forced her feet to continue moving forward down the long halls, her face pointedly blank. The servant girl continued to shuffle along ahead of her, but kept her eyes trained unwaveringly on Kagome.

"Kouga-sama is joking, of course. He has…a unique sense of humor," Kagome said to her, her tone as light as she could force it to be.

"I'm certain, Kagome-sama," the girl replied, sounding quite the opposite.

They reached the entrance to the residence and both slipped their shoes back on before exiting. They walked the paths to the Inner Palace in silence, encountering few other courtiers as it was still very early.

For that matter, the sun was just beginning to fully illuminate the morning sky. Kagome realized that she could not have been with Kouga-sama for very long despite how it had felt, and quick on the tail of that thought it occurred to her how much more suspicious it must have seemed to find her in the youkai's chambers so early.

Mentally Kagome squirmed, wondering how she could have been stupid enough to put herself in such a position. She had not been thinking at all.

She also could not help but wonder why Inuyasha would summon her so early in the day. They had parted on rocky terms the previous night, and it was hard to believe that he would be eager to see her again so soon. Perhaps he wished to continue degrading her despite her best efforts…

Distracted by her musings, Kagome nearly tripped over a great white crane lying on the path before she realized she was almost to Inuyasha's chambers. The crane gave her a look that she could only interpret as annoyance as she stepped apologetically over it, following the servant girl up the steps and through the Shishinsen.

The snow had ceased to fall sometime during the night, but the chill was still sharp in the air and the large pond over which the walkway to the Tennō's chambers was built was blanketed in a layer of frost. Kagome wondered if it were sturdy enough to slide around on, as she had once done in her village when she was little.

She hesitated at the entrance to the chamber, glancing at the servant girl as she stood waiting for Kagome to enter. Kagome opened her mouth, considering asking the girl to keep quiet about the things she had witnessed and heard in Kouga's room.

But it would seem as if she truly had something to hide were she to say that. And the servants here in the capital all seemed to be very kind and well-mannered people. It was unlikely that they would be prone to gossip or rumor-mongering.

"Umm…Good-bye," Kagome said, as she had been staring at the girl too long to say nothing at all.

"Good-bye," the girl replied shortly, looking anxious to be off.

Kagome nodded and entered the chamber. She could hear the girl scamper off like an excited rabbit the moment she was inside.

It was pleasant inside the chamber, the warmth of a fire that was now merely embers held inside the room. Kagome rubbed her hands together to take the chill from them. The screen was back up once more and the room had been cleaned of all of the scattered feathers, paper, and snow.

Vaguely Kagome could see the outline of Inuyasha reclining behind the slatted screen. She frowned and took a seat on a cushion before it, waiting warily to be addressed.

"Took you long enough."

"I came as soon as the servant summoned me," Kagome returned, lips twitching in irritation.

"Feh. Just get here faster next time."

"…Is there a reason you summoned me here so early?" she bit out, hand clenching where they rested atop her thighs.

"I…"

There was a long pause. A very long pause. A pause that just kept on stretching and stretching and stretching awkwardly along.

"Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome said at length.

"I summoned you because…because I…I do have a reason, y'know!" Inuyasha snapped. "I summoned you 'cuz…shit…."

"Do you not have a reason for calling me here?" Kagome said incredulously.

"I-no!…That wolf!" Inuyasha stuttered, mentally kicking himself for not having thought up anything to tell her. Of course she would ask for some sort reason!

Kagome paused for a moment, taking in what he had said. "You do not mean…? You did not do it just to get me away from Kouga-sama, did you?"

There was that exaggerated pause again. Kagome bit down on her tongue so hard she thought it might come off, desperately holding back the torrent of disrespectful words that wanted to pour forth. The thought of tipping the screen over on him even flashed briefly across her mind.

"Inuyasha-sama," she began with terrible patience. "You-!"

"What?! I ain't gonna have that wolf slobbering all over you in my capital! He's got no fucking right!" Inuyasha fumed, rising to stand behind the screen.

"I tried to explain to you why Kouga-sama is here!" Kagome cried. "I tried to explain that all I'm trying to do is help you, and you-!"

"Pardon me, my Lord."

Both turned at the sound of a third voice in the room. In the entryway stood Kikyou, her expression more stony than Kagome had ever seen it. Kagome flushed hotly, her mouth snapping shut. She wondered how long the woman had been standing there.

"Kikyou? What're you doing here?" asked Inuyasha, sounding as if his thoughts ran along the same line.

"Conveniently enough, I was coming to request that you call Kagome here so that she might begin her duties as my lady-in-waiting," Kikyou replied, barely sparing her a glance as she went to stand behind the screen at Inuyasha's side. "I am sorry to have interrupted your…discussion, my Lord."

"You didn't," said Inuyasha, and Kagome saw his outline reach up to clasp the hand Kikyou proffered to him. "It was over, anyway."

"Ah, I see," Kikyou replied softly, the barest hint of satisfaction in her voice. "Then you do not mind if I take the girl with me now? There is much to be done."

"Go ahead. I don't care."

Kagome flinched, stung at the abrupt dismissal. He suddenly seemed so... distant. She wondered at the sudden shift.

"Thank you, my Lord. I will take my leave with her," Kikyou said, pressing his hand lightly before stepping out from behind the screen. "Will you be dining with me tonight, my Lord? I have missed your company these past few evenings."

"Yeah, sure," Inuyasha replied.

"Good. I will look forward to it," Kikyou said, and there was a brief flash if softness in her face.

The future Empress stepped regally to the entryway, her blue and white juni-hito trailing gracefully behind her. She paused, turning back to Kagome and raising a delicate brow expectantly.

"Come, Kagome."

Kagome bristled at being called as one might call a dog, and defiantly remaining seated just a moment longer than necessary. The noblewoman met her gaze levelly, though something hard entered her eyes.

Kagome turned and bowed perfunctorily towards the screen before standing to leave.

"I take my leave, Tennō-sama," she said stiffly.

That said, she turned to trail after the future Empress.

"Oi, Kagome!"

The miko turned at the call, surprised. Kikyou turned back, as well. The hanyou hesitated.

"Never mind. Just go," Inuyasha huffed.

Feeling slightly disappointed, Kagome bowed once more and turned to continue after Kikyou.

Inuyasha flopped back down onto the nearest cushions, absently reaching out to shred one with his claws. Annoyance buzzed lightly throughout his limbs, urging him to get up and move.

He had a meeting with the Council of State soon, however, and could not afford to go far. They were going to discuss…the allocation of funds towards the reconstruction of properties damaged by rampant youkai. Or some shit like that.

The hanyou groaned as he recalled. That must be why he was so annoyed. He was not looking forward to that lot of wrinkled, rambling old men trying to trick him again.

That was it. It had nothing whatsoever to do with that fool girl and her moronic wolf. Not at all.

Inuyasha rolled over, resigning himself to lay there until he was summoned to the meeting. For a moment he allowed his eyes to fall shut, and waiting there in the darkness behind his closed lids was the disgusting specter of the drooling wolf looming over that wide-eyed idiot of a woman.

He growled, banging his head lightly against the floor.


"Kagome."

She raised her head from where she was hunched over on the wooden floor, craning her neck around to face her caller. Kikyou knelt primly nearby on a sitting mat just behind the line of an open shoji screen, surveying her coolly from a distance.

Kagome turned back, picking up her rag and continuing to scrub the floor of the hallway. She paused, pushing a few stray hairs back from her face with a grimy hand.

"Yes, Fujiwara-sama?" she replied to the call at length, addressing the floor far more than the woman.

"There are some issues that need be addressed."

"Would you like me to continue cleaning while we speak?" Kagome asked, unable to keep from being a bit pert after all that she had been put through.

Kikyou had led her in chilly silence to her chambers on the eastern edge of the Inner Palace, which was no more than Kagome had expected. She had also expected the future Empress' quarters to be large and lavish, which they proved to be. They were basically the twin of Inuyasha's own residence on a slightly smaller scale.

What Kagome had not expected was what came next.

She was not overly knowledgeable on the matter, but even she knew the general duties of a lady-in-waiting. A lady-in-waiting was to follow her mistress and take care of any personal requirements she might have, such as helping with bathing, grooming, or wardrobe.

Upon their arrival at the residence, Kikyou had asked her to do none of these things. Rather she had stopped the first servant they encountered and instructed him to bring a pail of water and several rags.

The servant had done so speedily and without question. Kikyou had then instructed him to tell the servants that they may do as they pleased for the next until she summoned them back.

The man had stood for a few moments, confused, before the slightest raising of one of Kikyou's fine brows had sent him scampering off to do as he was told.

Obviously the future Empress was not one to be lenient if crossed.

And thus they had come to this, Kikyou sipping a steaming mug of tea as she watched Kagome scrub her way up and down the extensive hall. Only about ten more hallways to go, Kagome thought dismally. She wondered if Kikyou intended to have her clean the rooms, as well.

"No, you may continue to clean as I speak," Kikyou said, catching her small bit of insolence and choosing to ignore it.

"As you wish, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome muttered, re-wetting her rag from the wooden pail and scrubbing hard at the floor.

It was frustrating. It was so frustrating that she thought she might begin to tear her hair out soon. What right or reason did this woman have to ridicule her in this manner?

"Good, then," said Kikyou. "I will start with the obvious. You are wondering, I am certain, why I am using you to do the job of my servants."

"The thought had crossed my mind, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome replied archly.

"And am I correct in assuming you believe my intent to be malicious?" Kikyou said softly, watching her intently as she scrubbed at a spot.

The village girl had an abundance of spirit, if absolutely nothing else.

"I…gave no thought to your intent," Kagome lied.

Of course she had assumed that Kikyou was trying to upset her. Perhaps even trying to make her so angry that she would snap and give the future Empress an excuse to send her home. Kikyou had never made any secret of her opinion about Kagome's presence in the court, after all.

"I see," said Kikyou, unconvinced. "Nonetheless, I wish to clarify matters. I do not do harbor any ill will towards you."

Kagome paused in her work, turning slightly to glance at the future Empress from the corner of her eye. Kikyou’s eyes still had that look of carefully cultivated distance, but she did not seem to be insincere. Then again, Kikyou, while not at all a pleasant person in Kagome’s esteem, somehow did not seem the type to lie.

"Ill will," Kikyou continued. "Would, after all, imply that I was concerned enough with you to wish for your unhappiness. Quite frankly, you do not matter enough to me to warrant my feeling one way or another about you.”

“That is what I intend to remind you of. You are not an exception, despite how you may have been treated up until this point. You are of common birth, Kagome. By the will of the kami you were placed beneath the nobility, meant to serve. Close associations between us are impossible. It would upset the very order of things.”

“Now, I am not ordering you to leave the court. You have fought fairly for the right to remain here. But do not expect me, nor anyone else, to treat you as if you belong here. Do not expect to find much in the way of happiness."

Kagome came to a slow halt in the midst of her work, the rag slipping from her grasp as she straightened up. She turned to face Kikyou, something cold beginning to creep into her chest. Yet still there was not the smallest trace of animosity anywhere in the noblewoman's countenance.

Kagome's heart seemed to sink down through the polished wooden floors. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you seem to have forgotten it, or perhaps never to have understood the truth of things here to begin with," Kikyou answered simply, her dark eyes unwavering. "It is the truth. Order must be maintained in this court and throughout this country, and to maintain it everyone must know their own place in it.”

“I believe that the seeming favor that Tachibana Sango and the Houshi have shown you has led you to believe that you are somehow on a level with the rest of us, to be treated as an equal. The…odd attention that my Lord has shown you has not helped, either."

Kagome looked up at the strange note of hesitation in Kikyou's voice. But the noblewoman was no longer looking at her as she had managed to do so steadily up until that point.

"I will not pretend to understand his unusual concern with you. But I will inform you that it is a passing thing, not to be taken seriously in any manner," Kikyou said, a hard note finally entering her words. "As is, I am certain, whatever interest Tachibana Sango and the Houshi have shown. Ultimately they know their places. You must remember yours."

Kagome stared at the woman, an odd numbness overtaking her. She was at a loss in the face of such cold certainty.

And it was a truth that the village girl had allowed herself to lose sight of in the midst of everything. She was not like these people. She was common born and was to be treated as such.

She had come into the court anticipating harsh treatment and had been thrown off by Miroku and Sango’s kindness. And even Inuyasha’s gruff familiarity had set her at ease, tricked her into believing that he was a person no different from herself.

But he was not a person like her. He had all but told her as much during their last two meetings, with his casual dismissals of her efforts with Kouga. And she, fool girl with a muddled head that she was, had had the insolence argue and feel slighted when he was merely treating her as he had every right to. As a servant, not a friend.

Truly she could have no friends here, however kind Miroku and Sango might be. They were not of a kind. Close association was not possible. By the kami, she had been a fool.

She pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling sick and sad and hollow. But she had known to expect this, Kagome reminded herself forcefully. She had not come in blind.

"Of course…you are correct, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome managed at last, dropping back down and grabbing her rag. "I forgot myself. I apologize. It…will not happen again."

There was a long pause from the woman behind Kagome, though she was beyond caring about a response. She just wanted to finish cleaning and go somewhere she could be alone. Somewhere she could begin to sort through the tangle of her muddled feelings.

"As long as you understand, there is no harm done," Kikyou said quietly. "Finish cleaning two more halls and then you may retire to your new room in the southern quarter of the residence. You will know it when you see it- it will be the only spare room in the quarter.”

“I will call to have your things brought there. Your day will begin again when I summon you tomorrow. These cleanings will be a regular activity, to serve as a reminder of what we have discussed today…Things will be much easier for you, Kagome, so long as you keep all of this in mind. You should not suffer unduly."

With that Kagome heard the shoji door slide shut with a delicate yet resounding clack, signaling Kikyou's departure. She continued to scrub dutifully, focusing doggedly on the slide of the rag over the floor.

Back and forth, back and forth, re-wet, wring out, and start again. And again. And again. How long it went on Kagome did not know.

At length she realized she had reached the end of the final hall. She blinked several times, disoriented, before realizing she was done. She rose stiffly, her joints protesting at the sudden shift in position, and went out into the garden to dump the dirty water.

She sought out the servants' quarters and placed the bucket and rag there to be dealt with later. She then began the task of searching out the southern quarter of the residence.

Heading in a southern direction was not particularly difficult, but for the many buildings with countless winding hallways. The residence had to be at least three times the size of Sango's and far more empty.

At length she found the quarter, and a bit more wandering through the halls led her to the only unadorned room. It was of a good size, larger even than the one Kagome had been given in Sango's residence.

Strangely enough, a futon had been laid out already, and a mug of tea sat steaming beside it. Kagome sat down on the futon, taking the mug in both hands and letting its warmth flow through her finger tips.

She had thought that all the servants were still out. The only one in the residence who knew this was her room should have been Kikyou…

But even the thought of that was ridiculous. Kagome took a sip from the mug, but the familiar flavor did not hold its usual comfort. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. And she was more alone than she had ever been before. Though perhaps she had been alone all along and had merely failed to realize it.

Kagome cringed, mortification twisting her innards sickeningly. She had presumed so much. She had lost sight of herself and her surroundings. Sango and Miroku were not her friends. Inuyasha was not her friend. They had tolerated her and she had taken advantage.

At least Kikyou had brought her back to her senses, she thought bitterly. Otherwise she might have continued on blindly in her foolishness, shaming the kami themselves with her behavior.

No, she was on her own here in the court. She would serve respectfully and dutifully, carrying forward with her purpose as much as she could. But never again would she forget.

Kagome set the still-steaming mug aside, finding herself unable to force any more down. She just wanted to go to sleep.

She flopped back on the futon, curling in on herself. Without bothering to pull the covers up or even change clothes, Kagome closed her eyes and dozed off.


"Kagome-san! Kagome-san! You need to get up now. Fujiwara-sama requires your assistance."

Kagome groaned, rolling over as a gentle hand shook her shoulder. Cracking one eye open just slightly, she could see daylight peeking into the room, as well as the vague outline of a woman leaning over her.

She forced herself to sit up, wondering dazedly what time it was. The woman gave her a sympathetic smile as she covered a jaw-wrenching yawn.

"Sorry to get you up so early, dear," she said. "I know you're probably still tired from all the cleaning yesterday. But our Ladyship has early morning tea with one of the other noblewomen, and she needs you to help her prepare. So rise and shine. C'mon, I'll help you."

The woman helped Kagome to stand, offering her a rough yukata to change into. She did so, laying her dirty robes out on the futon to be taken care of later. She decided to forgo changing the bandages on her shoulder, as she needed to hurry to help Kikyou. The wound seemed to be healing properly.

The servant woman showed her to a well just out behind her quarters, and Kagome pulled water up from it to wash her face and hands. The woman offered her a leather tie, and Kagome pulled her hair back into a long tail.

"Well, don't you look just like one of us," remarked the woman, Takiko, as she surveyed her appearance. She did not sound particularly pleased.

"It is how I am supposed to look," Kagome said, not looking at her. "We should probably go to Fujiwara-sama now, or she might be cross."

Takiko nodded, but turned to face the girl as they started off towards the main quarter where Kikyou was housed.

"You know, Kagome-san, Fujiwara-sama really doesn't have any bad feelings towards you, I think," Takiko chattered. "She just…likes everything in its place. She believes very much in order. And she is terribly straightforward, which makes her a bit…hard to deal with. But she has her reasons."

"And what reasons would those be?" Kagome asked, recalling Inuyasha offering a similar defense for the woman.

"Her Ladyship's family…" Takiko began, and then hesitated. "Never mind. If it something Fujiwara-sama wishes you to know, she will be the one to tell you. It is not my place to be running around gossiping. Just…please try to be understanding with her."

Kagome was silent. While she understood that Kikyou had merely spoken the truth, it was still hard for her to think very fondly of the woman who had made things so difficult for her since their first meeting.

They reached the entrance to Kikyou's chambers. Takiko took her leave. Kagome knelt down before the shoji door and slid it open as Kaede had once taught her to do. She bowed in the open doorway before entering, turning back to kneel on the tatami mats and slide the shoji shut.

"Good, you are here," said Kikyou, kneeling before an ornate dressing mirror. "Please fetch a juni-hito from my trunk. Preferably one with…a firmer sort of look to it."

Kagome frowned, wondering at the odd request. Something 'firm' to meet a guest in? Still she rose without question and went to the large trunk in the corner of the room, opening it to rifle through its contents.

"Is this one suitable, Fujiwara-sama?" Kagome asked, holding up a deep red and black one with winding dragons patterned on it.

"That one will do," Kikyou said, glancing at its reflection in her mirror. "Come help me to put it on."

Kagome did so, and Kikyou stood as she helped her remove her sleeping yukata. Kagome started slipping the first several layers onto her slim, pale frame. She arranged them very carefully so that they would drape correctly before sliding the top layers over them.

At last she tied the waist and slipped the karaginu over everything. Kikyou stepped back to survey her work in the mirror, giving a small nod of approval.

"I prefer no to wear any powder. Fetch a few combs to pull my hair back," Kikyou instructed. "There is a box on the table filled with them."

Kagome went to the large, low table on the left side of the room, taking from it a glossy black box. She returned to Kikyou's side with it, removing the lid and sifting through the many combs to find a fitting set.

She found two painted gold ones with spines carved in the delicate form of dragonflies. Deciding that they would do, she began to comb slowly through Kikyou's mass of dark hair. There were very few tangles, she noted with a tiny pang of envy.

"You are looking more humble today, Kagome," commented Kikyou, watching the girl in the mirror as she worked quietly.

"I have…remembered my place, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome answered, tensing. She focused on combing steadily through Kikyou's hair, refusing to meet the woman's eyes.

"Good," Kikyou returned. "I can not promise that you will be happier, but you will certainly be more at ease. There is a certain comfort in not fighting your fate, you will find."

Kagome glanced briefly up at the woman's face reflected in the glass, surprised at the familiarity with which she spoke about such things. But Kikyou's eyes were unreadable. Well enough, Kagome supposed, as it was not a topic she particularly wanted to delve into with this woman again.

"If it is not too impertinent of me, may I ask with whom you are having tea, Fujiwara-sama?" Kagome said, more to change the subject than anything.

"Merely a noblewoman from the Taira clan," Kikyou replied vaguely.

There was something resigned in the set of her mouth. It sounded somehow more like a chore than a social engagement, Kagome reflected silently.

She swept the sides of Kikyou's hair back with the combs, twisting it in the back and leaving the other half of her hair down. It turned out rather nice looking, surprisingly enough.

Kikyou turned her head slightly this way and that, examining her reflection . A small nod conveyed her acceptance of it.

"I will summon you again when I am finished. Until then, seek out one of the servants and ask them for work to keep you occupied," the future Empress ordered.

With that Kikyou rose and gracefully slid the shoji screen open, sliding it closed behind her once more.

Tittering laughter just outside the screen caught her attention a few moments after the noblewoman's departure. Kagome rose, going to the screen and opening it. The group of women just outside froze, but quickly resumed their chattering when they saw that Kagome appeared to be just another servant.

"What's going on?" Kagome said, noting the mischievous looks all around.

"Our Ladyship is having tea with that Taira woman again," snickered one of the girls conspiratorially. "It's always amusing to see Fujiwara-sama get a little flustered. She's usually such a cold fish."

The group broke into a fit of giggles again. Suddenly a hand shot out to grab Kagome's wrist. She squeaked as she found herself being tugged along rapidly behind the now-moving group.

"Come on. Come watch with us."

Kagome did not argue as she was pulled along, curious as she was to see this Taira woman who was supposedly capable of irking the unflappable future Empress.

Nor was it bad to be accepted so easily among a group of people who seemed to see her as an equal. She would simply watch for a moment and then go to find work as Kikyou had instructed.

The group came to a halt in front of another shoji, this one tucked away in a dark corner of the main house. A girl slid the screen open just the smallest bit, and the rest of the group swarmed around to get a peek. Kagome managed to find a spot and peered in to look, as well.

It was obviously the tea room, as all of the implements of the tea ceremony were inside and there was no table, but rather only cushions on which to kneel. Ornate ink paintings and several scrolls adorned the walls. Currently two women knelt across from one another, two bowls of tea sitting before them.

One of the women was Kikyou, her posture seeming more stiff than refined at the moment. The other had to be the Taira woman everyone was buzzing about, Kagome surmised.

She was beautiful, in a wild sort of way. Her smirking, full lips were painted a deep shade of crimson, matching exactly the color of her sharp eyes. Her dark hair was arranged rather carelessly on her head, a feather hanging from the tie that held it. Beads of the finest jade dangled from her pointed ears, and she wore juni-hito of alternating white and maroon, patterned with butterflies.

As if her odd ears and eyes had not said it clearly enough, her aura reeked of youki in Kagome's spiritual sense. Particularly potent was the aura of the fan hanging from the woman's wrist.

Kagome felt she could understand why Kikyou had not seemed eager to attend this meeting. The woman looked as if she would drink blood as readily as tea.

"So, Kikyou-sama, how has our Majesty been these days?" the woman was drawling, her sharp eyes intent on Kikyou's face.

"His Majesty has been as well as ever, Kagura-sama," Kikyou replied succinctly, her eyes meeting the other woman's in silent challenge.

"Ah, is that so? Good. I was worried his Majesty might be feeling strained with all of the youkai attacks and the like," the woman, Kagura, remarked keenly.

There was a slight tightening of Kikyou's jaw. Kagura's smirk widened a fraction, like a predator scenting a weakness.

"I assure you that my Lord has been dealing quite well with all that is happening. His Majesty has everything perfectly under control," Kikyou returned firmly, her chin tilting slightly upward as if to command more respect from the other woman.

"Hmmm? What measures is his Majesty employing exactly, if you do not mind my asking?" prodded Kagura, obviously unimpressed.

"My Lord has...I am afraid that my Lord has asked me to keep his plans confidential for the time being," Kikyou stumbled slightly, raising her mug to take a painfully proper sip.

Kagura grinned outright now, her elongated eyeteeth glinting.

"Truly? How disappointing. But I suppose I must take your word. After all, his Majesty must be in a tolerably stable position if he can afford to have an Empress with so little clan backing."

Kagome saw Kikyou's pale hands spasm mometarily around her bowl of tea, the knuckles flashing white. One of the servant girls near her gasped softly. She frowned, not following what was going on at all.

"Oh, I am sorry, Kikyou-sama," Kagura said with exaggerated feeling, raising a hand to her lips. "That was horribly indelicate of me. But you know, everyone was so surprised when he decided to not to call off the betrothal. He must care a great deal for you."

"I would prefer to discuss other matters if possible, Kagura-sama," Kikyou forced out, and Kagome was surprised by her lack of tact. Whatever it was they were talking about had shaken the future Empress deeply.

"Ah, my apologies. I did not mean to upset you, Kikyou-sama. How about we discuss that new village girl in court, then, to get your mind off of it?"

Kikyou raised her eyes from the floor, scanning the other woman's face with mild suspicion at the abrupt shift. Kagome leaned in closer as she realized they were talking about her.

"Why would you wish to discuss her?" Kikyou questioned warily.

"Ah, well, I heard from a one of the servants just today that she had talked to a servant who had seen the girl proving herself to be every bit the backwoods hussy that we all suspected her to be.”

“Apparently she is playing bed-warmer to the wolf Lord visiting the court right now. She works fast, I must say. And after you and his Majesty went to all that trouble to have her brought in. How embarrassing it must be,” Kagura commented slyly.

Kagome froze, her breath catching in her throat. Her eyes went wide, her hands clenching where she clutched the edge of the shoji for support.

"I am hardly one to listen to rumors," Kikyou replied guardedly, wondering what the other noblewoman was driving at.

"Kikyou-sama, always so very proper," Kagura said, something biting hiding just beneath her words. "Besides, now that word has spread all across the court about it, it is hardly a rumor anymore. It is simply a fact.”

“I am sure that word of it must even have reached his Majesty by now. The Tennō-sama must be disappointed to learn he made such allowances only to be tricked by a mere harlot. But you have had dealings with her as well, I believe? Tell me, is she as low down as she seems?"

But Kagome could not bear to hear another word. Quietly she slunk away from the group. She slunk all the way back to her room in the southern quarter, where she dropped down onto her futon and sat very still.

Because of one small slip in judgment, the entire court now thought she was no better than a common whore. Miroku thought she was a whore. Sango thought she was a whore. Inuyasha had had all his suspicions of her loose nature confirmed. As if everyone in the court had not thought her disgusting before, now they could say that that feeling was justified.

There was no way that Inuyasha would allow her to remain in the court now. She would be sent home, her reputation irrevocably tarnished for the remainder of her life. She had failed before she had even truly begun. Her head spun.

Kagome lay there for a long time, watching the shadows crawl across her walls as the hours dragged by. She felt horribly disconnected, like one stuck in a nightmare.

There was a sharp clack as her shoji screen was tossed open.

"I told you to wait for me to summon you again, did I not, Kagome?"

It was Kikyou's voice. Kikyou was there. Kagome was almost surprised enough to move. Almost.

"Nothing to say for yourself?"

Kagome was silent.

"I learned from the servant girls that you were among the ones eavesdropping on my conversation with Kagura-sama."

Still Kagome said nothing, unable to summon up the energy to react or respond.

"I suppose you were not pleased with what you overheard."

There was the soft patter of feet on the wooden floor. Distantly Kagome felt a warm hand come to rest on her shoulder. Her eyes widened slightly and she wondered if Kikyou actually intended to try and comfort her.

"I would advise you to grow a thicker skin. If you remain as you are, you will be entirely useless."

With that the hand was gone and the footsteps retreated. Kagome was alone once more.

She passed a sleepless night, unable to pull herself out from the pit she had created.

Chapter Text

A long, gray week passed for Kagome following the incident with the Taira clanswoman. True to her word, Kikyou had her roused early every morning and promptly set her to scrubbing hallways and tending gardens.

When she finished such chores, Kagome was allowed to clean off a bit in the well behind her residence. After that she would eat and spend the remainder of the day tending to Kikyou.

She trailed after the future Empress in much the manner of a whipped dog, head bowed and eyes focused on the floor. Any small task that Kikyou might require of her was performed in heavy silence, without complaint. Aside from giving orders, the noblewoman rarely addressed her.

Neither said anything of the rumors surrounding Kagome or of the noblewoman's visit to her chambers. At times, though, Kagome would feel Kikyou's steady gaze on her, as if the older woman was right on the verge of addressing the issue.

Kagome was grateful that she never did. She did not think she could stand to be condemned by that calm, disinterested voice.

But the silence surrounding Kagome was fast becoming a deafening one. The servants at Kikyou's residence had not been long in learning that she was the girl of the rumors, and they had taken to avoiding her like one diseased whenever possible.

They would fall pointedly silent whenever she passed them in the halls, moving quickly out of her path as if the slightest contact might taint them. Kagome knew they must be talking about her quite a bit, but was strangely relieved that they chose to keep it behind her back.

Their silence, however, did not trouble her so much as her sudden disconnection from certain others. Miroku and Sango had not come to see her even once since she had been assigned to serve Kikyou. Not so much as a note had come to her from them in an entire week.

However much her heart railed against the thought, Kagome could only interpret this pointed absence as an attempt at severing all ties with her. Nobles and commoners could never truly be friends, after all, and they had to have heard the gossip about her and Kouga. Most likely they were suffering now because of their previous association with her.

Kagome writhed in her skin every time she thought about how much shame the rumors must have brought on the two people who had been so kind to her, friends or not. How terribly they must think of her and how much they must regret ever having been foolish enough to get involved with her.

Even Kouga himself seemed to want nothing to do with her any longer. He had made no attempts at contacting her. Kagome did not know what to account this to, other than that he might have found it too bothersome to pursue her if this was what came of it. Perhaps he had even gotten bored and simply left the capital.

Either way Kagome was the slightest bit grateful for his absence, despite what it might mean. Not that it seemed that the situation could get much worse, but his hovering around her would certainly not make things any better.

More troubling still was the utter absence of any word from the Tennō. He had not summoned her to his chamber even once since she had last spoken with him. She knew with awful certainty that he had caught wind of the rumor and could only imagine that this stony silence was merely the calm before the storm.

Soon enough he would surely work his way past his initial rage. When he could finally bear the sight of her again he would summon her and pass his judgment, casting her out of his court in disgrace.

The thought of such disdain from him was one that Kagome tried not to entertain for very long, as it stung more sharply than almost anything else. She had just been starting to earn a little bit of his trust, and now he must feel disgusted over ever having gone to all that effort for her. Perhaps he truly would give up on everything now, and she would be the cause of it.

Several times Kagome had considered trying to go to him, trying to address the entire court, in order to clear up the whole outrageous misunderstanding. The harsh reality, however, was that her word was worth nothing here.

She had no clan to support her. She could have no friends to speak on her behalf. She did not even have a witness to attest to what had gone on, besides the servant girl who had started the whole rumor in the first place.

Besides that, there was the truth that she had done something foolish. As a young unmarried woman, she had no business being in a man's chambers alone at such an hour. Even in her small village such a thing would be considered poor conduct.

But Kagome had been so focused on her goal of gaining Kouga's support that she had not stopped to think things through properly. Nor had she ever imagined how such news could spread through the court like wildfire, twisting and growing until it had gained her the scorn of everyone around her.

In her dreams Kagome had the horrible sensation of sinking deeper and deeper down into a dark, stiflingly empty pit. And every morning when she woke the pit still lingered about her, weighting her every move and casting shadows on the surrounding world.

She struggled weakly, but all Kagome could see was the overwhelming disapproval and disappointment of those around her. There was no way out.


On her eighth day serving Kikyou, however, there was a change. Kagome awoke before a servant came to rouse her. Looking groggily about, she could see from the light filling the room that it was some time later than she was usually made to rise.

She felt a brief, dull pang of worry, wondering if the servant had forgotten to wake her. Kikyou might be cross with her. Then again, it was not as if Kikyou was ever pleased with her really…

Slowly Kagome crawled out from her futon, intending to go find out what was going on. That in and of itself would be a feat, considering that none of the servants would speak to her. Glancing about the room, she realized that there were no clothes for her to change into, either.

Looking down at her rough, worn sleeping yukata, Kagome sighed. She briefly contemplated going out in it, speculating as to whether or not they could possibly think her any more indecent than they already did. It hardly seemed likely.

With another sigh she sank back down onto her futon, lacking the drive to do anything else. If Kikyou wanted to punish her, she could punish her. Kagome simply could not bring herself to care.

Just as she was falling back into the welcoming embrace of sleep and oblivion, the shoji door slid open. Kagome roused herself, watching as a servant boy walked hesitantly into the room. He set down the bundle he was carrying several lengths away from her.

Kagome watched him, her heart sinking the smallest bit. She did not bother trying to speak to him, as she had found again and again that her efforts with the servants never got her anywhere.

He turned to as if to leave, but hesitated and turned back once more. He gave her a long, open look from head to toe. There was something in his face, some twisted mix of disgust and curious desire.

Kagome felt her skin crawl sickeningly. Fear flashed briefly in her gut as it occurred to her that they were alone and there was little to stop him from trying something.

Disgust, however, seemed to win out. The boy's mouth twisted at even having entertained such thoughts with such a woman, and he hurriedly left the room. Kagome let out a breath she had not realized she was holding.

Disgust crept in as the air rushed out. She was no idiot. She knew well enough how men looked at women when they thought them loose.

Her stomach roiling slightly at the thought, she crawled over to the bundle the boy had left and slowly opened it. Her eyes widened slightly at the sight of a set of fine, clean miko robes of crisp white and deep red. A small note sat on top of the clothes and Kagome picked it up, reading:

I have been informed by the court's High Priestess Midoriko-sama that a training date was arranged by my Lord several days ago for you. In light of this I pardon you from your duties as my attendant for the day.

You are to meet Midoriko-sama at high noon in the Chūwain, enclosed by the outer Kenreimon gate of the Inner Palace on the northern edge. Be prompt and properly respectful. Also, be prepared to return to your duties to me early tomorrow.

Work hard,

Fujiwara Kikyou

Kagome blinked several times, frowning. She read the note once more. Still the words were the same.

A small, trembling hope rose in Kagome's chest for the first time in days. If Inuyasha had arranged a training session for her, then he could not possibly be intending to dismiss her from the court!

Still doubt hovered in her mind, circling ominously like a black bird. If Inuyasha knew about the rumor as she was certain he did, then it simply made no sense at all. She scanned through the note once more.

Ah. There was the catch.

The arrangements had been made several days ago, meaning that the Tennō had probably made them before she had so foolishly gone to see Kouga. He was simply too furious at her or too busy to remember to call off the meeting. Kagome sighed, slumping as the tiny ember of hope in her chest flickered out.

Well, whether or not the Tennō wanted it to happen, the appointment was still set. She might as well attend and get from it what she could.

Kagome stood and removed the sleeping yukata, donning the robes that had been provided. The material felt like silk against her skin after days of nothing but coarse serving clothes. She unbraided her hair from the plait she had worn it in for the past week, running her fingers through it for lack of any comb.

She went out to the back of the residence and drew water up from the well. She splashed it against her face, gasping at the cold.

Still she scrubbed until her cheeks were pink and her fingers numb, wanting to look at least slightly more presentable. She washed her hands in the bucket, as well, before dumping the contents out onto one of the nearby plants.

Judging by the angle of the sun overhead, Kagome estimated that she had about half an hour or so before high noon. She decided to set off without breakfast, knowing she would probably need the entirety of the time to find the Chūwain building.

She headed towards the eastern entrance through the inner wall, finding it easily enough after leaving the confines of Kikyou's residence. Thankfully she encountered no one on her way except for the guard who watched the gate, though she was uncertain if anyone would recognize her by appearance anyway.

She went northwards as the note had indicated, observing the numerous storage areas and private official structures that lined the outer Kenreimon wall of the Inner Palace. She had not known there were buildings contained by the outer wall, as well.

Kagome passed through several slightly populated areas on her way, tensing anxiously each time. For the most part, though, people barely spared her a second glance. She had only been before the entire court once, after all, and they could hardly be expected to remember her face. A small mercy.

At length Kagome came to the red torii that framed a set of steep ascending stairs. She passed under the torii and began to climb the numerous stone steps, lined on each side by towering, thick-trunked trees.

She relaxed a bit in the cool, concealing shade of the dense foliage. There was a very calm aura to this place. The first aura that Kagome had really noticed in several days. Even nature had seemed silent and detached from her after the spread of the rumor.

She breathed deeply, apologizing silently to the kami for her neglect. She reached the top of the steps and passed under the second torii, signaling that her ascension onto a higher plane had finished.

A series of several small red and white buildings were arranged around a larger, central one. Each had the sloping triangular roof she had become accustomed to seeing in the court and each was connected to the others by sets of covered walkways.

Two tall, stern looking stone komainu, the shrine guardians, sat on raised pillars on either side of the main building to ward off any harmful spirits. Kagome bypassed these and headed off to the left where she could see a small, manmade pond. A plank of wood lay across it with several wooden ladles placed on the plank.

Kagome took up one of the ladles, scooping up water and pouring slowly it over both of her hands. She took one last scoop of water sipped it, washing it around in her mouth before spitting it back out beside the pond. She replaced the ladle and turned towards the main shrine, the water having purified her enough to enter.

She paused before the entryway of the shrine, over which was hung a shimenawa to mark the land as sacred ground. She clapped twice to gain the attention of any kami inhabiting the place, before bowing to show her deference to them.

The miko took a deep breath, filling herself with a serenity that helped to temporarily distance herself from her circumstances. It was good to finally feel as if she had gotten away from herself.

Kagome straightened once more and shrieked, nearly falling backwards in her surprise. In the previously empty entryway now stood an older, solid looking woman in red and white miko robes.

Long hair flowed freely, unbound, down her back. Once dark as night, snow white threads were now peppered throughout the mass of midnight strands.

She gazed at Kagome with steady, deeply brown eyes. Her face was only slightly lined in her old age, and what had obviously been the great beauty of her youth was now a regal sort of serenity.

The symbol of the mitsu tomoe had been tattooed upon her forehead, Kagome noted with no small amount of awe. She remembered Kaede sketching the symbol out in dirt for her when she was younger, telling her that only the most distinguished spiritualists were allowed to wear the mark.

Three flames were traditional, Kagome recalled. Four flames, however, were upon this woman’s brow, representing great knowledge of the interplay of all the forces of the cosmos. Truly this woman must be a formidable spiritualist, none other than the O-Miko Midoriko.

"You are Kagome?" the woman asked, shaking Kagome free from her thoughts.

"Y-Yes. Pleased to meet you, O-Miko-sama," she said, bowing deeply.

She frowned, though, her face towards the ground. There was no question in her mind as to whether or not this woman was the O-Miko Midoriko. However, she had not felt the woman's approach at all.

Even now, bowing before her and concentrating, she could not feel even the vaguest hint of spiritual energy around the woman. In Kagome's sixth spiritual sight she was all but invisible.

"No need for that," the woman said, gesturing for Kagome to rise. "I would rather that we skip the pointless formalities and start on our lessons."

Kagome straightened, an apology springing instinctively to her lips. But now the woman was right beside her, frowning questioningly into her face. Kagome stumbled backwards a step. This woman was oddly light-footed.

And suddenly the O-Miko’s hand reached out, skimming over her hip. Kagome jerked, a strange jolt running through her from head to foot. The woman's frown deepened, the palm of her hand coming to press flat against the protrusion of her hip bone.

There was a flash of light, and Kagome fell backwards with a small yelp.

She sat for a moment, dazed. She blinked hard, trying to regain her vision and figure out what the woman had just done to her. Nothing hurt, though her hip felt a little numb.

Nothing in her aura felt any different, either. At last her eyes cleared, and she found Midoriko staring down at her with vague disquiet in her face.

"You know a woman by the name of Kaede?"

It was more statement than question.

"She was my teacher back in our village," Kagome replied without thinking, disoriented.

Though her expression did not shift much outwardly, something behind the elder woman's eyes seemed to sink. She bent down, offering a hand to help Kagome up. Instinctively she accepted it, surprised by the strength with which she was hauled to her feet.

"I am terribly sorry," the woman uttered softly, turning away from her to enter the main shrine.

Kagome trailed hurriedly after her, gathering her scattered wits as she went. "Wait! What just-?"

"You do not strike me as the harlot that many have made you out to be," Midoriko interrupted quietly, slanting a knowing glance at her from the corner of her eye.

Kagome went cold, stumbling to a halt. She had forgotten for a moment, but the curse would not let her alone for long. Even Midoriko had heard the rumors. Did she not want to teach her anymore?

"I'm not a…a loose woman!" Kagome burst out vehemently, unable to restrain the words after having bitten them back for so long. "Those rumors are completely untrue! I mean, certainly I made an error in judgment, but I…!"

"Calm yourself, Kagome," Midoriko said, quietly slipping off her zori sandals before stepping onto the tatami mat floor. "I believe you."

Kagome closed her mouth, observing as the woman went over to the shrine at the far end of the room. She frowned, feeling off balance. It was sad to realize that trust felt unfamiliar.

"How do you know?" Kagome said incredulously, knowing she should not push the matter and unable to stop herself.

"Your aura speaks more loudly than any words could," Midoriko replied simply. "And I do not put much stock in the rumors that fly like carrion crows about this court. They are all of them vicious, and all of them aimed to injure."

She knelt down, bowing deeply before the shrine of Amaterasu. Kagome removed her own shoes absently, her thoughts churning, and went to join her.

"Everyone else seems to believe it," Kagome said quietly, a bitter edge to her words. She knelt down beside the woman, bowing as well.

"Everyone else wants to believe it," Midoriko responded. "They never wanted you here in the first place. Your presence here upsets their sensibilities, throws into disorder things they have been taught since they still wore swaddling cloth. Of course they would want to think badly of you. I would suggest that you learn to discount such talk if you plan to remain here."

"…You are not concerned with my birth status, then, O-Mimi-sama?" Kagome asked, ignoring for the moment how much that advice sounded like the advice she had been given by Kikyou.

"While there are many traditions that I hold dear, I do not believe that the longevity of a thing necessarily lends to it any truth. We are all of us people beneath the kami, commoner and courtier alike. That is the only distinction that I have ever felt truly needed to be made in this world, whatever the lessons might say to the contrary. All others are simply human attempts to make order," Midoriko said.

Kagome gazed at the woman wonderingly, her brow furrowing as she tried to process this. She had been raised with the traditional lessons in her village, as well, and had never thought to question the truth of them.

Of course people were people, to be treated as such, but the kami placed certain people in different places for reasons, didn't they? Were not those who were born lower meant to serve, and those born higher meant to rule? There had to be an order to things….didn't there?

She could not quite get her mind around it. The idea was too new, too foreign to her.

"Shall we begin, then?" Midoriko asked, recalling her attention.

"Ah…yes," Kagome agreed, tucking her tangled thoughts away to be sorted through at another time.

Midoriko might be slightly incomprehensible to her, but she found herself eager to listen to whatever she had to teach her. She seemed…almost transcendent somehow, as if she were already beyond the world.

"Then you may start by telling me what you have already been taught."

"Ah, well…" Kagome thought for a moment, recalling all of the lessons she had had with Kaede back in her village. "I am fairly decent at healing. I can use the bow and arrows without much trouble. The meditations come easily to me. I think that might be about it…"

Kagome trailed off sheepishly, realizing fully for the first time how truly lacking her skills were. Midoriko eyed her contemplatively, a quiet 'hmmm' on her lips. At length she shook her head.

"Kaede always had spirit, I will give her that. But she was never a great talent when it came to the spiritual arts," she sighed. "I think she might have done you a disservice in training you in such a half-hearted manner. Though she likely thought you would never have much use for any kind of great power in the confines of your village."

"You knew Kaede-sama, O-Miko-sama?" Kagome asked, suddenly recalling her mentioning her mentor earlier.

"I taught Kaede," Midoriko amended. "She was not much my junior in age, but far my junior in skill. Being a daughter of the once prosperous Fujiwara family made her a bit soft, you see.”

“I can only suppose from the look of surprise on your face that village life has aged her more harshly than myself. I would suggest that you learn to rein that in a bit. Displaying too much of your mind to the world is not always prudent."

Kagome could only vaguely take in the advice, distracted as she was by the sudden whirring of her thoughts.

Of course she was shocked to learn that Kaede was both the disciple of and younger than Midoriko, but far more so than that was the shock of learning that Kaede was of the Fujiwara.

Her mentor and the woman who had caused her so much trouble here in the court were related. Perhaps even directly related. Perhaps even so close as sisters or the like! Kagome had the eerie feeling of being tangled in a binding web.

But Kaede's revealed lineage brought an entirely more puzzling thought to the surface. Why would a woman whose clan was at the height of its power, practically reigning alongside the Tennō, abandon the court in favor of a life of poverty and struggle in a tiny, failing village?

"Midoriko-sama?" Kagome ventured.

Midoriko's brows lifted in indication to continue.

"What happened to the Fujiwara clan?"

A shadow fell abruptly over Midoriko's face, all of its fine lines deepening for just an instant. Brown eyes, deep with the passing of many years, slid away to gaze at the altar to Amaterasu once more.

"How does the fate of the Fujiwara clan concern you, Kagome?" she queried, something like reluctance lurking just beneath her words.

"I just…want to understand," Kagome said a bit helplessly. “I need to understand what is happening here. What I am caught up in.”

Midoriko was quiet for a long stretch, staring contemplatively at the single flower in an ornate vase that sat upon the shrine. She sighed softly, looking truly aged to Kagome for the first time.

"I suppose the quest for understanding is an honorable one, though we are straying from our original purpose here," she said. "Ah, well. Furthering your understanding of the court has its own importance. Though it is a story I would prefer not to have to tell."

"Everyone keeps saying that," Kagome said pensively, recalling the number of other times the tragedy of the Fujiwara family had been lightly alluded to. "Is it really so terrible, what happened?"

"One of the lowest points in the history of the court, and that is saying something," Midoriko said lowly. "Has any one yet told you of the throne war that occurred before the ascension of our current Tennō-sama?"

"Yes," Kagome replied. "I was told about the former Tennō-sama's decree and how other clans fought to bar the current Tennō-sama's ascension."

Kagome tried very hard to keep the word as just a word in her mind. Tried very hard not to picture his angry, disappointed face as she said it.

She focused on Midoriko's answer instead, willing herself not to sink back down into those feelings for at least a bit longer.

"Then you already have the gist of it," Midoriko said. "The tale of the Fujiwara family is a chapter in that story, one that everyone would gladly forget if we had the ability.”

“The Fujiwara clan has served the Tennō-sama faithfully for generations upon generations. They never questioned his Majesty's will and never hesitated to put all of their resources at his disposal. This was originally how they gained such high standing within the court, as a reward for their unwavering devotion.”

“Knowing this, it should come as no surprise to you to learn that the Fujiwara wholeheartedly stepped in to support our current Tennō-sama when it was decreed that his Majesty would be the next successor.”

“They supported any word passed by the Tennō-sama, and wanted to see his former Majesty's will done regardless of what their personal opinions might have been.”

“As you likely know, this was not a popular opinion. In stepping up to openly back our current Tennō-sama, they gained themselves many enemies. Still, the Fujiwara clan had enough power behind them to discourage any outright attacks.” 

“And so it began with the Lady of the Fujiwara clan. She was found dead in the bath-house. No one had thought to check that water for poison, but surely enough it had been tampered with.”

“It was a clever move, impossible to trace because of the way the water was pumped into the bath-house from an unmonitored source. Still, the Lord of the Fujiwara clan had several servants put to death for the crime, though they were likely innocent.”

“The Lord went a bit insane after the death of his Lady, a kind, soft-spoken woman with whom he had been deeply in love. He became positively nonsensical in his grief, and the Fujiwara clan fell into disarray.”

“One night in his madness he wandered out to visit his wife's grave alone. That was where his body was found the next morning, his head having been removed.”

“Yet again no criminal could be found. All of his responsibilities fell to his only son, who was a mere thirteen years of age at that time. He proved to be incompetent at best.”

“He did not know how to organize the family troops, and sent them out to keep watch of the other clans in their residences outside the court. A horrible mistake on his part.”

“Together they were a great force, but he spread them too thin and they were slaughtered one group at a time. The majority of the survivors deserted or turned traitor, unwilling to die for what was fast becoming a lost cause.” 

“The son had no great skill in organizing the clan, either. With few soldiers left to help them hold their position, many of the clan members became frightened. A large group, the majority of them, decided to retreat back to the safety of their residence in the east.”

“They…never made it back. Along the way they encountered something, no one is quite certain what to this day, and they were slaughtered to the last woman and child.”

“There was not a single survivor to tell the tale of what befell them there. Reports of it came back to the capital from several merchants, all of whom claimed it was the most horrendous massacre they had ever borne witness to.”

“And thus the Fujiwara clan fell from power, barely a handful of the clan surviving. The son was so sick with grief over his failures that he committed ritual seppuku soon after, leaving his sister, our future Empress, as the last prominent member of the once great line.”

“Never before in the history of the court had a clan been so maliciously targeted and so ruthlessly picked off. The deliberateness of it all was unmistakable and chilling.”

“Killing the relatively powerless Lady first was too calculated for it to have been anything else. Whoever was responsible for it knew the Fujiwara clansmen well enough to know what weak points to aim for, and was more than a bit skilled in the art of manipulation."

Kagome sat in silence, her mind blank with horror. Distantly she realized that it all made sense. The lack of clansmen to be found at either Fujiwara residence. The Taira woman, Kagura, alluding to Kikyou having no clan backing.

But an entire clan, with members numbering most likely in the hundreds, slaughtered for supporting the will of Japan's divine Tennō? And killed off in such a pointedly calculated manner, without sparing even the helpless women and children.

"Kaede-sama…" Kagome breathed, a horrible thought occurring to her.

"Many of Kaede's closest relatives were killed," Midoriko filled in, her eyes downcast. "Kaede herself lost her eye when returning late one night from visiting her mother's grave, though the guardsmen she was with managed to prevent the loss of her life by surrendering his own.”

“At last the grief became too heavy a burden for her to bear any longer. I… advised her that she would likely be best off if she were to leave the court and all of the tragedy behind her. She agreed readily, and I aided her in escaping from the court in secret."

Kagome slumped slightly, curling in on herself. She felt as if she wanted to cry, but no tears would come. It was too terrible.

She had never thought to ask Kaede. She had never once seen the kindly woman look like she was suffering in the least bit. And yet all the while Kaede had been living with this terrible secret, and Kagome had been oblivious.

Kikyou came to her mind unbidden. Kami knew she was in no way interested in sympathizing with the cold woman, but she could hardly help herself now.

To have had to watch her relatives be killed off one by one, to fear every day that she might be the next to go, and then to have to pick up the all of the pieces once it was over. If Kikyou had not hardened herself against it all, there was no way she could have survived.

"I understand that you are upset at learning all of this so suddenly," said Midoriko, deep sympathy in her voice. "But there is nothing that can be done for it now. All we can do now is strengthen ourselves and walk forward, making certain that nothing of the kind ever occurs again."

Kagome raised her eyes to the older woman, observing the look of careful composure on her graceful features. She had been through the massacre of the Fujiwara and the throne war, as well. And yet she was not broken. She was not defeated.

Suddenly Kagome's own problems did not seem quite so insurmountable. She still had her family, though they were not near her at the moment, and her life was not in any particular sort of danger.

So what if people snubbed her and thought her low down? So what if she was to be nothing but a servant in the court, separate always from those she served? Surely she could bear this much.

She realized that she had been letting the court have far too much influence over her. She needed to toughen up if she was going to get where she needed to go. And by all the kami, she would definitely find a way to convince Inuyasha to let her stay in the court!

"Midoriko-sama," Kagome said, turning eyes bright with newfound resolve to meet the older woman's. "Please do me the great honor of teaching me everything you know. I will definitely make certain that such evils never occur again."

She bowed deeply, her forehead coming down to touch the tatami mats beneath her. Midoriko watched the girl prostrating herself so humbly, resolution in the very set of her slim shoulders. She allowed herself to smile slightly.

Perhaps her initial worries had been unfounded. Perhaps the girl had enough spirit to get her through everything that Midoriko knew would soon be coming…

"If you have the will to follow through with your words, then I can surely make you as great as the ancient Empress Pimiko-sama herself," Midoriko said, fondness growing quietly behind her words.

"Pimiko-sama?" Kagome echoed questioningly, rising from her bow. The name was unfamiliar to her.

"Kaede neglected to tell you of Pimiko-sama?" Midoriko asked. "Well, she never was any great scholar, either. One would hope that the years might have altered her lackadaisical nature, but…"

She heaved poised little sigh, shaking her head at some memory. Kagome smiled slightly despite the lingering heaviness in her heart. There was a very obvious affection toward Kaede in Midoriko’s words, like an elder sibling concerned for the future of a younger one.

"Who was Pimiko-sama, Midoriko-sama? A miko?" Kagome questioned.

"Not just any miko," Midoriko corrected, her chin tilting up with just a hint of pride. "She was one of the founders of our long line. She was also one of the first rulers of Japan, presiding over a large clan of subjects in the Honshu and Kyushu provinces of old."

"She…did not rule alongside an Emperor?" Kagome asked incredulously.

Women did not rule alone. It simply did not happen, as far as Kagome knew. The throne was always passed from male heir to male heir, or to the husbands of daughters or nearest male relatives in the absence of a male heir.

"Empress Pimiko-sama did not need an Emperor," Midoriko said, a grin playing at the edges of her lips. "She gained her nobility. She ruled through her own ability and nothing more."

"How do you mean?" Kagome asked, intrigued. How exactly would one go about gaining noble status, she wondered.

"She was a miko, as I have said. But she was far more than most miko can claim to be. She was given the ultimate gift by the kami," Midoriko said. "She was given the gift of foresight. The ability to see certain things before they came to pass.”

“For this, and for her other great spiritual gifts, people respected her deeply. They followed willingly after her."

Kagome blinked once. Twice. A third time. She had an idea.

It was absurd. It was outrageous and so utterly preposterous that she could hardly believe it had come into her head. It was absolutely perfect.

Abruptly Kagome scrambled to her feet. She made a hurried, sloppy bow to Midoriko. Buzzing with sudden energy, it took all she had not to just break into a run.

"I'm terribly sorry, Midoriko-sama, but may I request that we cut this lesson short? I've just had a thought that I believe would be best tended to immediately," Kagome said, clasping her hands before her in askance.

"What happened to wanting to learn everything I have to teach?" returned Midoriko bemusedly, unable to follow the sudden shift in the girl.

"I beg your pardon, Midoriko-sama. I promise I will give you my full attention and effort during our next training session, but I truly believe I must act immediately," Kagome said, not wanting to disrespect the woman but not willing to back down, either.

Midoriko studied the girl, eyeing the bright look in her eyes. She looked far more spirited now than when she had first entered the shrine. And it was rather admirable, the way she managed to draw such resolve from tragedy. The elder miko could not help but think she would very much like to see the places this girl was fated to go.

"Alright, then," Midoriko allowed. "Go ahead. But be prepared to work to make up for this next time."

"Yes, of course. Thank you, Midoriko-sama," Kagome said, nearly breathless with relief and agitation.

She bowed once more before hurrying as quickly as was proper from the room, stopping only to slip on her sandals before dashing out. Midoriko watched her go, her expression slipping as the girl's sprightly form disappeared from sight. She turned to Amaterasu's altar, bowing her head once more to pray.

"Hear my lowly prayers if you would, Amaterasu-sama, just once more. Please do not punish her for my weak, foolish heart…"


Kagome practically flew across the distance between the temple and the Inner Palace, ignoring the odd looks her mad dash her. Before she had even really gathered all of her chaotic thoughts and half-formed plans, she was in front of the entrance to Inuyasha's chambers.

She stood for a moment, trying to catch her breath and figure out how she was going to manage to actually get inside. Surely Inuyasha would not be happy to see her, and she had come unbidden. A guard standing near the entryway eyed her critically.

Kagome exhaled, deciding that she might as well try the direct approach. It could not do much harm, anyway. She stepped up to the guard, drawing herself up to her full and admittedly unimpressive height.

"I need to speak with his Majesty," Kagome said, meeting the man's eyes firmly.

"I didn't know his Majesty had summoned anyone," returned the guard, noting her ruffled appearance from having run the entire way.

"His Majesty did not summon me, but I need to speak with him nonetheless," Kagome insisted stubbornly, clenching her fists and willing herself to press forward.

"I don't think-"

"Please go tell his Majesty that the miko Kagome is here to see him," Kagome interrupted, gesturing insistently towards the hanging curtain.

It was not in her nature to be so forceful with people normally, but at the moment she was determined. The lingering grief over the story, still fresh in her mind, drove her on. She needed to talk to Inuyasha no matter what.

"I'll see if his Majesty's interested in seeing you," the guard ground out, obviously annoyed.

With a huff he turned and entered the chamber. Kagome sighed, pacing around agitatedly as she awaited a response. She prayed one week was sufficient time for him to have at least calmed down enough that he would consider seeing her.

After what felt like an eternity to her, the guard reemerged. He looked even more disgruntled. Kagome grinned involuntarily.

"His Majesty says you may enter," the guard muttered, as Kagome had anticipated.

"Thank you," Kagome said with no small amount of satisfaction, brushing past him.

She entered the dimly lit chamber, a bit of her satisfaction fading as nervousness set in. She had given very little thought as to how she would actually handle all of this.

Quietly she knelt down before the screen, bowing her head and waiting to be addressed before she spoke. She knew Inuyasha would need to say his piece before he would be ready to hear anything she had to say.

It was tensely silent for a long, long moment. Kagome braced herself for the explosion she could feel building.

"The hell did you come here for?"

Kagome winced at the sound of the voice coming from behind the screen. He was not yelling as she had expected, but somehow the low rumbling growl to his voice was worse. She shifted, steadying herself.

"I know you must have heard certain things, Inuyasha-sama, and I know that you are probably very cross with me, however-" Kagome attempted hurriedly.

"Cross? Cross? Cross isn't the fucking half of what I am with you!"

There was the yelling. Kagome jumped slightly as the shadow behind the screen stood and seemed to loom threateningly over her. Perhaps this had not been such a good idea…

"I knew you were an idiot, but how could you do something so fucking… idiotic?! All that yapping about wanting to do all that righteous shit and then you pull something like this! What the hell were you thinking?" Inuyasha ranted, pacing wildly about behind the screen.

"I wasn't thinking, but it's not what you think it-" Kagome tried again, leaning forward desperately. At this rate he would dismiss her from the court before she could even get out a full sentence.

"It's clear as day what the hell happened!" Inuyasha erupted, cutting her off. "You put yourself in a fucking stupid position with that mangy, flea-bitten wolf and rumors got started! Damnit, woman!"

Kagome froze, her eyes going very wide. All of her arguments went cold on the tip of her tongue. Surely she could not have heard correctly…

"And do you know how many fucking courtiers started petitioning to have you thrown out of the court because of it?" Inuyasha continued to rage. "It took forever to get those assholes to shut up!”

“I had to ask-ask, wench!-that mangy ass wolf to not go near you so that the rumors would die down! I had to ask that perverted houshi and that Tachibana woman to spread counter-rumors!”

“All that because you felt the need to run around like a little imbecile all over the damn court playing emissary! And I damn well better be getting one hell of an apology for all that crap!"

His tirade finished, Inuyasha crossed his arms and waited with strained patience for her to grovel and bow in her gratitude. Silence. Complete silence. Had she fucking fallen asleep or something?

Inuyasha growled, stomping around the screen to Kagome's side to see what was going on. She was simply sitting there, staring perplexedly at the screen.

Inuyasha groaned. By all the kami, she was broken.

"Oi, wench-"

"You mean," said Kagome softly, wonderingly. "All this time, you knew I hadn't done anything inappropriate with Kouga-sama?"

"Not the whole time," Inuyasha answered slowly, wondering what exactly was going through her head. "At first I heard it and I was so fucking pissed I couldn't see straight. But Kikyou was with me, and she said it didn't make sense for you to…'put yourself in that sort of position'…or something.”

“And I was still pissed as hell, but I couldn't stop thinking about it and it didn't make sense. And I just kept fucking thinking about it, and all that did make sense was that you had been fucking naïve as usual and shit had happened from there."

Kagome blinked, her gaze shifting downwards as she tried to process it all. Slowly she turned to look at Inuyasha. The hanyou nearly blanched at the expression on her face, crumpled like a small, hurt child.

"Then why didn't you ever summon me? This whole week…" Kagome trailed off, her voice cracking as tears began to leak from her eyes.

Panic spiked in Inuyasha's chest. The hell?! He hadn't said anything that bad, had he? Swearing under his breath, Inuyasha dropped down beside her.

"Oi, listen, I-"

"You-!" Kagome choked, turning suddenly and collapsing against his chest.

Inuyasha flinched, his entire body going rigid at the sudden contact.

"I can't believe you! You're terrible! Awful!" Kagome chanted, pounding lightly at one of his shoulders as she continued to sob.

It was such a relief. By the kami, it was such a relief. They had all believed in her. They had been working to help her. None of them had tried to abandon her. None of them thought her low-down. Kagome was nearly incoherent in her happiness.

"All week I thought you and Miroku-sama and Sango-sama all hated me!" she cried, hardly aware as the words tumbled from her mouth. "I thought you believed the rumors! I thought you were going to throw me out of the court! I thought you were avoiding me! Stupid, stupid, stupid!"

"Who are you calling stupid, stupid? You're the one who got yourself into all this by not thinking," Inuyasha defended, though with much less venom than before.

He shifted awkwardly, staring down at the girl sobbing and clinging to him. Still, as uncomfortable as he was, he could not bring himself to simply push her away as he might have done with others. One of his hands hovered uncertainly over her head as he wrestled with the urge to offer some sort of consoling gesture.

"Oi, look, Kagome," he tried awkwardly. "I was pissed off over all the bullshit. I was too pissed off to even wanna see you. Just…ugh! What in the seven hells will make you stop crying, woman!?"

Kagome sniffled loudly, pushing back slightly. She glared up at him with watery eyes.

"Well, excuse me," she huffed, wiping angrily at her damp cheeks. "I only spent a whole week alone, thinking you all hated me and I was going to be sent home in disgrace to tell my village I failed!"

Inuyasha sighed in long-suffering manner. He scowled down at the hiccupping girl half-heartedly.

"Whatever. It's all done now," Inuyasha said dismissively. "Just watch yourself with the courtiers from now on. You associate too closely with any of them and shit's bound to happen."

Kagome's eyes widened, his words striking a sudden cord in her head. Her gaze shifted slowly down to her hands, planted firmly against Inuyasha's chest for support, as if they were some strange foreign entities.

Her eyes trailed further down, and her heart nearly stopped. She was practically sitting in the lap of the sovereign of her country.

With a squeak Kagome jerked backwards, apologies spilling from her mouth. She was mortified, hardly able to believe that she had just been so incredibly disrespectful. But Inuyasha had watched the progression of emotions across her face, feeling it when her muscles tensed to bolt.

On instinct his hand shot out, grabbing one of her wrists as she attempted to escape. Caught off guard and off balance, Kagome came tumbling back down into the hanyou's lap.

"What the hell is wrong with you now, wench?!" Inuyasha barked over the jumbled apologies still flowing rapidly form her mouth.

"Propriety! And order!" Kagome attempted, struggling against the hanyou's unyielding hold. "A commoner can't associate closely with nobles! A commoner can't-!"

"What are you babbling about, woman?" he asked, managing to catch hold of the struggling girl's shoulders to keep her still. She raised wide, petrified eyes up to meet his own before they darted away quickly, her face going pale.

"P-Please let me go, Tennō-sama. I can not apologize enough for my utter disrespect. I-I got caught up in….well, I promise you I will never act so shamefully out of line again…Just, please…."

Inuyasha's scowl deepened in confusion. He gripped Kagome’s shoulder more tightly, giving her a small shake. She jerked, blinking up at him in surprise.

"What. The. Hell. Are. You. Talking. About?" he repeated, speaking with the slow emphasis one might use for a particularly dull child.

"The Future Empress…she did me the service of reminding me of what I had forgotten," Kagome said softly. "I cannot change my birth status, Tennō-sama, and you…you cannot lower yourself to be familiar with me. None of the nobles can. I am sorry that I have been so presumptuous with you up until now…but I promise…I promise it will not happen anymore. I know my place now, so please don't…"

"Kikyou told you all this?" Inuyasha interrupted.

"She told me nothing I was not already aware of, though I was foolish enough to forget it," Kagome replied, her eyes downcast.

Inuyasha stared down at her for a long moment, thrown by the abrupt shift. She had never hesitated to argue with him before, to run her mouth and force whatever ideas popped into that fool head of hers onto him.

And now that she was finally quiet…he found he didn't like it. He didn't want it.

"Forget again, then," he ordered.

Kagome turned an uncomprehending frown up to him. "Forget…?"

"Everything. Everything Kikyou told you. Everything anyone's ever told you about all that 'commoners should be this' and 'nobles should be that' bullshit."

"But, Tennō-sama-"

"No! Dammit, woman, we've been over this! I'm Inuyasha. And you're Kagome, in case your head is so filled with shit that you've forgotten that, too," he snapped, gratified when her eyes flashed up to meet his briefly in irritation. "And I sure as hell don't need another court-trained serving worm, bowing and simpering all the time. I've got plenty of those bastards, and they'd as easily serve someone else as me. But you…Look, screw lowering yourself to scrape at the feet of all those morons. I'll back you, propriety be fucked."

Kagome's eyes widened in astonishment, staring up into his own intensely golden ones. Her mouth worked wordlessly, trying to catch up, to form some sort of coherent response to his outrageous words. He could not be serious…

"But I can't!" she cast about desperately. "By associating closely with Miroku-sama or Sango-sama or…or you, Inuyasha-sama, all I could do is bring shame to you. People are born into certain positions for a reason, and-"

"You really believe that?" the hanyou cut in, a hard edge to his tone. "You really believe that where you're born decides how much you're worth? How much you can do?"

"I just…I was always taught-" 

"Maybe you were taught wrong! Maybe everyone was taught wrong! Just because something gets repeated over and over doesn't make it fucking right, Kagome! You want change, don't you? You want better for those villagers and everyone, don't you?"

She was silent, her mind whirring as she tried to keep up. Wasn't this…wasn't this what Midoriko had tried to tell her, as well?

"Well, don't you?!" Inuyasha barked insistently.

"Yes! I do! I really do!" Kagome burst out, almost without thought.

"Well, shit will never change for them or you if you keep actin' like you're inferior! So do what you want! Act how you want! Be friends with whoever the fuck you want to be friends with! Prove to those stuck-up bastards that you're just as good as they are!"

The hanyou gazed fiercely into her face, his eyes alight. Kagome gazed back helplessly, caught up in the torrent of his intensity. There was something there, though, some fire that seemed to go beyond even his anger at her or on her behalf…

It struck her suddenly, and she nearly gasped. Inuyasha was not just talking about her situation, though perhaps that was all he meant to talk about.

It was him, too. Born into a supposedly inferior position as a bastard son and a hanyou, but fighting to make the court believe that he was worth just as much as anyone.

That was the difference between them. He was fighting, whereas she was still clinging to the notions of an order and propriety that she felt safe in. The courtiers were not the only ones who had been taught the order of things from the time they were in swaddling cloths. Still…

"Alright," she managed to get out, nodding. "Alright. I'll try."

A grin split the hanyou's face, so wide his canines glinted in the lamplight. A sort of pride surged up in him.

"That's the first smart thing you've said since you got here," he approved smugly. Kagome frowned.

"Well, I think I have one more," she replied, tilting her chin up petulantly.

"What?" the hanyou returned, pleased to see she was something like her old obnoxious self again.

"I…I want to be your friend, Inuyasha-sama," she declared, meeting his eyes stubbornly with her own.

Inuyasha's grin dissolved, his jaw going slack. A flush crept up to heat his face.

"W-What?"

"You said I could be friends with whoever I want, right?" Kagome pressed, silently pleased at having gained the upper hand. "I want to be friends with you, Inuyasha-sama. I want to help support you. And…maybe together we can prove to them that we really are worth just as much."

The hanyou blinked down at her, his embarrassment slowly fading. Her face was…sincere. Open. She actually…wanted to be friends with him. Something curled warmly up into his chest, though he fought to push it down.

"I…Feh," Inuyasha scoffed, unable to come up with anything else. Kagome's face softened into a shy smile.

"I will take that as a yes," she said. "Thank you, Inuyasha-sama."

The hanyou huffed, turning away to conceal the flush climbing up his neck. Really, the girl was harder to figure out than those stupid old tomes in the archive building…

"Ah!" gasped Kagome after a few moments of silence, abruptly recalling what she had come to say in the first place. "Inuyasha-sama! I was with Midoriko-sama, and she was telling me a story and I had the most…well, maybe it's a bit risky, but I think it could work if we-"

"Quit babbling, woman, and spit it out already," Inuyasha cut in.

"Fine, then," Kagome huffed, a little of her excitement fading. "Let's see…"

She considered it for a few minutes, trying to figure out a way to explain her plan without it sounding entirely insane and implausible. It was more than a little outrageous, she had to admit. Still, if it worked it might very well be the answer to several of her prayers…

A thought occurred her and a broad smile blossomed across her face. Inuyasha observed that smile with no small amount of wariness. It was the smile of someone plotting something. And the kami only knew what sort of crazy shit this girl was capable of…

Kagome stood, kicking several cushions out of her way. She turned back to Inuyasha, beaming. The hanyou grimaced, watching with growing trepidation as the girl spread her arms wide for what he imagined would be the many wild gesticulations accompanying an even wilder explanation.

Suddenly Kagome began to convulse. Tremors wracked her slim frame from head to toe, and her face went as pale as snow. Her eyes rolled back into her head. She made small choking noises, shaking violently all over.

"Kagome!" Inuyasha shouted, jumping up and going to the girl.

Panic spiked in the hanyou, his chest tightening. What the hell was happening to the girl? He grabbed both of shoulders, pulling her into his arms in the hope of stopping the convulsions.

Kagome flopped back limply in his grasp, the whites of her eyes showing. Suddenly she was utterly still.

Inuyasha stared into her slack face, his breath trapped in his throat. Kagome…Kagome…

"Oi, Kagome. Kagome! Kagome!"

Chapter Text

Kagome was still.

Kagome was very, very still.

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

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

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

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

"Kagome."

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

"Kagome! Are you-!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What in the seven hells, woman!?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you understand, Inuyasha-sama?"

Inuyasha stared blankly at her for a long moment.

"Not a fucking thing."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Listen, woman…"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And no one ever…questioned her visions?"

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

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

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

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

"Yes," Kagome agreed, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kagome."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

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

"Tomorrow?" Kagome echoed, raising her gaze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It will be fine."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So modest," Hisana cooed, looking pleased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Rounds?"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kouga-sama!" Kagome cried pleadingly.

"They-"

"Kouga-sama, please!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kouga-sama, I need you."

Chapter Text

 


Kouga stared down at the small figure against his chest, eyes wide and face rapidly reddening to rival the crimson of Kagome’s juni-hito. Under the bright gaze of the vibrant grey eyes peering up at him, he faltered. The Lord of the Eastern Wolf Tribe was, perhaps for the first time in his life, truly at a loss for words.

In the utter blankness that her words had reduced his mind to, he could only gape down at her as the moments dragged on and her ecstatic expression dimmed. At length she drew back a short distance, a frown creasing her powder-pale brow.

"Kouga-sama?"

The trance stupor he had fallen into cleared, and Kouga's thoughts whirled forward in a torrent of flurried color and emotion. Before even the wolf himself could process it, his arms were wrapped almost crushingly about Kagome.

"Kouga-sama!"

But Kouga paid no heed to her surprised cry or her wriggling struggles, a rush of elation pumping fiercely through him and blinding him to all else. He tightened his embrace about her, taking in the scent of her hair and the feel of her small, warm frame joyfully.

"I knew it! I knew you'd decide to be mine, Kagome!"

Kagome suppressed a cry that she knew would call forth unwanted attention. Pushing futilely against his firm hold, she prayed with all of her heart that none of the court women would suddenly feel inclined to take a walk near the stream.

"Kouga-sama, no! No…what?….Whatever you've got, you've got it all wrong!" she hissed in consternation, though it was clear enough that all of her protests were raining down on deaf ears.

With a huff, Kagome went limp in his hold. Struggling only seemed to tighten the vice around her anyway, and she was certain he would unwittingly snap one of her ribs soon.

She forced herself to calm down enough consider what blunder had ended her in this position yet again with the wolf Lord. Somehow the two of them never quite seemed to be able to connect correctly.

Skimming quickly through her memories of the last few moments, she gasped as she compared the words she had meant to say with the ones that had actually sprung from her mouth in her excitement. With all of her might she abruptly shoved back against the wolf Lord, and thankfully he was surprised enough to release her.

Holding his armor-covered shoulders firmly at arm's length, Kagome gazed sternly into Kouga's ecstatic eyes. She felt a quick flinch of guilt, realizing that she truly had misled him this time. Silently she scolded herself for not being more self-conscious even after all that she had learned, vowing to work harder at controlling her impulsive reactions.

"I meant, 'I need you to help me', Kouga-sama," Kagome amended, leaving no room for miscommunication. "I need your help."

Kouga's face-splitting grin slipped a notch and he seemed to process this for a long moment, his eyes shifting to and fro as if to trace the path of his own thoughts. He scowled then, raising his gaze back up to meet her own accusingly.

Kagome released her grip on his shoulders and moved back a step, slightly disconcerted to find anything like ire from the wolf Lord directed at herself.

"That's not what you said," Kouga objected, something almost petulant in the twist of his mouth.

"It is what I meant, though," Kagome returned, her tone slightly more apologetic.

He glared at her for a silent stretch before turning his back to her with a snort. Kagome frowned and chewed her lower lip, worried that she had really upset him this time. Truly her several informal encounters with Kouga had made her less cautious than she should have been around him.

"Well, what if I don't want to help you, huh?" he huffed.

She blanched slightly. She really had upset him this time.

"I truly am sorry, Kouga-sama," Kagome said pleadingly, bowing despite the fact that he could not see her. "It was not my intention to mislead you. But I really do need your help-"

"I'm not really in the mood," he cut her off childishly.

"Kouga-sama, please, I-"

"I guess I could be persuaded, though," he interrupted again, glancing at her from over his shoulder. "If you promised me compensation."

"Compensation?" Kagome echoed, frowning slightly. "I do not really have anything of much value, Kouga-sama…"

"It's not some piece of crap court trinket I want," Kouga snorted.

"Then…what, Kouga-sama?" Kagome said, wary even as the words left her lips. 

Kouga’s look grew decidedly wolfish, his eyes roving from the hem of her juni-hito to the crown of her head. Kagome flushed under the suggestive gaze, fighting the urge to cover herself despite the fifteen layers already draped over her frame. Surely he could not be thinking…

"A kiss," Kouga declared. "That will be my reward."

"Kouga-sama!" Kagome exclaimed, barely remembering to keep her voice down. "That's hardly a proper thing to-!"

"Then I'm not doing it," he said, turning away from her once more.

She gaped, her face reddening further in her upset. On the one hand, whatever Kouga's standards might be, a kiss was hardly any small thing in her estimation. It was not something to just be given away so casually, and it might further mislead the wolf Lord as to her feelings for him.

On the other hand, a chance as perfect as this one might never come along again and he was absolutely essential to her plan. A glance back at the edge of the trees and a passing thought of Inuyasha decided it for her.

"Fine," she huffed out, truly feeling the weight of the word in her chest. "If you do this for me, I will…give you a-a…kiss…."

"Then we have a deal," Kouga said, whipping around to grab her hands. "Just tell me what you want me to do. I'll finish up in a flash and be back for my reward."

Kagome cringed, wondering what exactly she had just done. She sighed, shaking her head and deciding not to think about it for the moment lest she lose her nerve. She slipped her hands from his to gesture at the stream.

"I need you to find the source of this stream. How quickly do you think can do that?"

He tilted his head back slightly, nostrils flaring as he scented the air. He sifted through the various smells contemplatively until he found the right one.

"Smells like it's not far," he concluded aloud. "I could be there and back in a matter of minutes."

"Alright, then," Kagome said, nodding more to herself than to him as she considered this. "I need you to go to the source and remove whatever is blocking its flow. I am assuming that the water is frozen, so you will need to melt it.”

“Run around it until you have heated the surrounding air enough to melt the ice all at once. I need it to come down in one big rush, alright? Do not forget that.”

“After that I need you to follow its progress as the water flows back towards here. When you think it is about seventeen minutes or so from here, run ahead of it and come tell me. Do you think you can do all of that, Kouga-sama?"

"Anything you want, Kagome," he responded readily, eager to be off that he might sooner return and claim his prize.

"Good," Kagome said, though the look on his face did not do much to ease her nerves. "You should get going now. And make certain none of the women see or sense you, alright? It will all be pointless if any of them catch you."

Kouga nodded and then was gone in a blast of wind that had her stumbling backwards. She sighed, kneeling carefully down on the ground and patting her head to make certain that the intricate pinning of her hair had not been ruined. Feeling that it was still intact for the most part, she settled in to wait with as much patience as she could muster.

With all of her heart she prayed to the kami that this plan of hers would work. No one should question the elements or seasons, after all. And so long as no one caught on to Kouga's presence, everything would be alright.

Absently Kagome realized that the wolf Lord, in his eagerness, had not even bothered to question why she was asking him to do all of this.

She sighed, shaking her head bemusedly. She could never quite comprehend what it was that went through Kouga’s head. Then again, perhaps it was just that he was so utterly simple that he seemed complicated.

And to demand a kiss of all things! Some kind of noble he was, to ask something like that of her. But then again, that kind of decorum most likely did not matter much in the intimate, rural setting in which Kouga and his clan lived.

Kagome sighed, shaking her head. There was no help for it. Though she did not relish the idea, a kiss was no great thing in comparison to what she was aiming to do here.

If she could pull this off-no, when she pulled it off, Inuyasha would finally be forced to trust her fully. On top of that, the court would be in just the position necessary for her to begin working as she truly wished to. She could finally begin to put things into motion.

Kagome nodded to herself, affirming in her mind that her mission was a worthy one and that she was in the right in doing everything necessary to further it. She closed her eyes, spreading her spiritual sense out and slowly up the bed of the trickling stream.

Her senses would not stretch far enough to touch either the source of the stream or Kouga, but still she waited patiently. She kept a portion of her senses concentrated on the tree line, as well, just to make certain there were no surprises on that end.

From what she could feel, almost all of the women seemed to still be sitting on the sheets spread out that they might enjoy their meals. That was good thing. It would be much easier to get their attention if they were all still arranged in so orderly a manner.

Abruptly her focus shifted back to the stream as she felt a rush of water burst over her spiritual senses, roaring and sloshing and overflowing its banks in jubilation. In quick succession followed the familiar prickle of Kouga's youki, slowing his usual speed slightly to keep pace with the rushing water.

Kagome bit her tongue to hold back a cry of joy, continuing to follow the course of the wolf and the water with her second sight. It was much more water than she had even dared to hope for, and Kouga seemed to have done a perfect job of melting it quickly enough to cause a huge surge. It would have exactly the dramatic effect that she was hoping for.

Now came the real trial. What sort of announcement would have the most impact of the noblewomen?

Kagome sifted quickly through every lesson Kaede had ever given her on the kami and courtiers. A common link between the two…

Poetry! Such rhythmic and elegant endeavors were of course dear to the kami, as they put the soul of the individual more in line with the flow of the universe. Courtiers, too, valued it as a way by which to showcase refinement. It was the perfect!

On the downside, Kagome's lessons in poetry were anything but extensive. Really Kaede had only given her the proper format of a few styles of basic verse and a handful of odd examples. She certainly did not want to come out sounding more boorish than some already thought her by mangling the spiritual art of disciplined verse.

Still, it was too perfect a medium to pass over. If she stuck to a simple shichigon-zekku form of Shigin chant poetry, she should be able to keep her blunders to a minimum. Nodding, Kagome began working out the words and rhythm in her mind.

A few minutes later Kouga came skidding into the clearing, calling her back into the present moment. He beamed at her, obviously quite pleased with his efforts.

"I did it just like you said, Kagome," he said. "I'd say you've got about nineteen minutes or so before the water reaches here."

Kagome nodded and got to her feet, not quite finished polishing what she wanted to say but well aware that it was to be now or never. With a deep breath and a cursory glance down at her juni-hito to make certain it was not overly rumpled or stained, she started back towards the tree line.

"Oi, Kagome!"

She glanced back, startled. Kouga eyed her expectantly, a too-wide grin splitting his face.

"My compensation, remember?"

Kagome flushed hotly, recalling her promise. For a brief moment she considered asking to postpone payment, but quickly dismissed the idea. There was no use in just delaying the inevitable, and she could not afford to waste the time that Kouga would undoubtedly spend arguing with her over it.

Thus Kagome, in a highly unladylike gesture, picked up the hem of her juni-hito and marched purposefully over to the youkai, stopping when she was about arm’s length away. Kouga's eyes widened slightly, as if he had expected her to put up more resistance.

Still a promise was a promise, and Kagome was a woman of her word. Trying hard not to think about it, she went up on her toes until she was as near to face to face with the wolf as she could get. His eyes met her own and she flushed scarlet, her gaze sliding down a bit to his lips.

She forced herself to lean forward and willed her fluttering heart to be calm, absently licking at her own lips. Glancing once more up into those keen ice-blue eyes, Kagome was struck by a sudden notion.

Swiftly she leaned in and kissed the youkai Lord.

Right on the cheek. Though she made sure it was near enough to the corner of his mouth that he was momentarily stunned.

With that, Kagome turned tail and hurried away as fast as her geta and juni-hito would allow. She grinned slightly to herself, realizing that it was a rather cheap trick.

"Oi!"

"It counts!" Kagome called back, not bothering to turn or slow her pace.

She knew that he would not bother to follow her. Whatever else he might be, Kouga was a warrior and lived by the way of a warrior. Payment had been given, albeit not in quite the anticipated form, and so he had no reason to further pursue her for the moment.

Her grin widened as she reached the tree line and felt the aura of the youkai Lord fade behind her. Just as she had anticipated.

Still all of her good feelings curdled as she peered out through the trees at the groups of women kneeling primly on fine silks across the clearing from her. Nerves fluttered like the wings of a humming bird through her stomach, and a hint of embarrassment even dared to rear its reticent head.

It was such a juvenile feeling for such a serious moment, and Kagome scolded herself roundly. Still the thought of so many critical eyes on her as she did something so outrageous was nothing if not embarrassing.

Taking a deep breath in through her nose, she concentrated on the feel of air sliding into and then back out of her lungs. Slowly she slipped back into her memories of the character that she had played so many times before in the Dengaku, telling herself that this was just another one of the many dances done in celebration of the harvest.

It was time to give them a show they would not soon forget.

Forcefully Kagome thrust herself out from the cover of the trees, staggering and clutching her head with purpose. She dared not raise her eyes to look, but she could feel several gazes turn to her.

With all of the grace that years of moving through the steps of the Dengaku had given her, Kagome made as if she were going to tumble to the ground. At the last moment she twisted, turning quickly so that the layers of her juni-hito twirled about her feet.

She tottered forward a few more steps before standing still for a long moment, swaying to and fro while silently congratulating herself on having pulled off such a move in such a cumbersome outfit.

From the corner of her eye she could see several of the figures across from her rise, and she clutched once more at her head as she tripped forward a few steps. She let out a small wail, just loud enough that she was certain the women would hear her, before rolling her eyes forcefully back into her head.

Abruptly she surrendered all control of her muscles, crumpling to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Lying perfectly still, Kagome could hear the shocked and horrified cries of several women echo through the clearing. She kept her eyes closed and her expression carefully lax, listening as many of the women rose and some ventured nearer to her prone form.

"What is happening?"

"Is she ill?"

"Has she gone mad?"

"Kagome! Kagome!"

From amidst the numerous chattering voices one emerged, loud and scared. Kagome pushed down a twinge of guilt, reminding herself that this was exactly what she had been hoping for.

She listened carefully to the dull clomping of a pair of geta as the figure to whom the voice belong hurried over as quickly as her juni-hito would allow, dropping roughly to her knees at her side.

"Kagome! Kagome, can you hear me? Kagome!"

She could feel the nervous fluttering of her dear friend's hands, roving carefully up and down her form in search of injury. Still she did not move, waiting for just the right moment. She vowed that she would apologize thoroughly to Sango just as soon as she got the chance.

Anxiously Kagome continued to lay and listen, allowing none of her inner turmoil to manifest in either her limp frame or her placid expression. The nervous fluttering of fans and the muffled thud of geta grew louder as more and more of the women came to crowd about her. She felt keenly the weight of each of their stares upon her.

There was a gentle rustling as a second figure came unexpectedly to kneel at her side.

"What is wrong with her, Sango-sama?"

It was Kikyou's voice.

"I am not certain, Fujiwara-sama. She just collapsed… I am afraid to move her. I might make it worse if I cannot figure out what is ailing her first."

Now was the time, Kagome knew. The women were gathered as closely as they were going to get and there would not be a better one.

Letting out a low, keening sort of wail, she began to clench and unclench every muscle in her control rapidly in the mimic of a shaking fit. She forced her body to shake and spasm and writhe about, pleased with the gasps and exclamations that rippled through the surrounding crowd. A few of the women even screamed.

"Kagome!"

"Move."

Vaguely Kagome felt as Sango was pressed to the side. Then a pair of slender arms wound themselves about her convulsing shoulders, hauling her up against a slight chest.

It was Kikyou, Kagome realized. She was so shocked she almost fell out of her character, but managed just barely to turn her surprised flinch into yet another contortion of her body.

"You need to lay her on her side and loosen the neck of her juni-hito!" instructed Sango, seeming to regain some of her wits.

Kagome went limp then, knowing that she wanted no such thing to happen. The whole crowd went silent as the miko sagged back lifelessly into the future Empress' hold. A long moment stretched past and then the chattering resumed twofold, the air all around dancing with the swishes and flicks of numerous fans.

"Can you tell if she is alright, Sango-sama?" came Kikyou's voice softly from above her.

"I do not know-"

Sango cut herself off as Kagome slid her eyes open suddenly. She stared blankly up into the gray sky, her eyes as wide as she could make them. In her periphery vision she could vaguely see the faces of the women all around her, their excited babbling and exclamations filling her ears.

"Kagome?" Kikyou said, shaking her shoulders slightly. "Kagome? Can you hear me?"

Kagome shifted her wide, all-encompassing gaze to meet the anxious brown eyes of the future Empress. Summoning up a bit of her spiritual energy, Kagome drew it like a film across her eyes. Through the blue glow she saw Kikyou's eyes widen a fraction.

There were several gasps and squeaks of surprise from the other women nearest to them. Sango crept forward to peer over the shoulder of the future Empress at Kagome in what almost looked like awe.

"Kagome?"

But Kagome did not focus her gaze on any of them, remaining carefully disconnected. Rather she called forth another tendril of her power, drawing it up like air into her throat. Her every breath crackled with the force of it.

Now for the finishing touch. Opening her mouth, the miko intoned the words she had so hurriedly conjured up with all of the gravity of delivering the second message of Kiyomichi-sama,

"In the cage of Winter's grasp sleeps

The water of man's higher life, although

In this season of ice they shall,

In divine hands, joyfully drown all banks."

Each word crackled with the raw power that came of summoning up her abilities without a medium, licking and lashing statically at the air all around Kagome. Women gasped and shrieked and stumbled backwards at the otherworldly spectacle. Judging by a few dull thuds, Kagome thought that some might even have fainted.

Kikyou, amazingly enough, held on to her through the whole ordeal, her eyes intensely focused on Kagome's glowing orbs. Truly the woman seemed unshakeable, intently taking in each word that sizzled through the air around her with something like awe blooming in her stoic face.

Kagome gave the future Empress one last long, wide-eyed look as she finished speaking, shifting her gaze slowly and with purpose between Kikyou's eyes and the tree line and then back again. Silently willing to noblewoman to understand, Kagome allowed herself to go limp once more.

A heavy hush had fallen over the group of women once more. Gently Kikyou laid Kagome back down on the cool ground. Kagome resisted the urge to squirm or open her eyes to take a peek, forcing herself to hold still and praying that Kikyou would get the women moving quickly. There was not much time left.

"Wh-what in all of Japan was that?"

A shaking voice broke the silence at last. It sounded like the Minamoto woman that Kagome had met earlier, though it was hard to be certain.

"Has your girl gone mad, Fujiwara-sama?"

"Maybe she is possessed!"

"Possessed! You mean an evil spirit! No-!"

From there the talk degenerated into a cacophony of nervously excited squawkings, so many women speaking so rapidly that one word was hardly discernible from the next. The sheer force of will it took Kagome to keep from groaning was almost painful.

Her mind darted about like a nervous bird beneath the closed lids of her eyes, trying frantically to think up some way to salvage the quickly deteriorating situation.

"Silence!"

Kikyou's voice rang, loud and clear like the peal of a bell, over the others. Slowly the chaos died down, and Kagome could almost feel it as all of the anxious and expectant eyes turned to the future Empress.

"Now, cousins, you must calm down and consider this rationally. You are true ladies, after all, and true ladies do not succumb to such unseemly behavior."

She paused, allowing time for the women to take this in and compose themselves appropriately. Kagome could sense it as they all forced themselves into a semblance of equanimity for at least the sake of appearances, their fans resuming the leisurely wave characteristic of 'true ladies'.

"Now, Sango-sama. You are taiji-ya and familiar with such things as possession, are you not?" Kikyou said.

"Yes, that is true, Fujiwara-sama," came Sango's voice, and Kagome was surprised to hear that she was still on the ground near to the miko's prone form.

"And would you say that what just occurred looked like a possession by an evil spirit, Sango-sama?"

"No," Sango answered softly, her hand coming up to rest on Kagome's shoulder. "That was definitely not an evil spirit, Fujiwara-sama."

"And Kagura-sama," Kikyou pressed on. "The aura coming from Kagome just now, it clashed with your youki?"

"…It did," Kagura admitted begrudgingly.

"Then it was obviously a spiritual aura," reasoned Kikyou, and Kagome would have hugged the woman could she have moved. "My cousins, I believe we have just been allowed by the kami a glimpse at the divine. Come now, follow me."

Kikyou's footsteps turned towards the tree line, a swish of air indicating that she had motioned with her fan for the noblewomen to join her.

There was a moment of hesitation among the noblewomen that seemed to stretch on forever for Kagome. At the edge of her spiritual sense she could feel the waters rushing torrentially along down the riverbed, and she knew that if they did not go now the impact that she had been hoping for would be lost entirely.

Still Kagome could do nothing more lest she betray her own ruse, and so she concentrated all of her will into not tensing up. It was in the hands of the kami now to pass judgment on her charade.

At last she felt movement as Sango gave her shoulder a meaningful squeeze before rising up from her side. She started out quickly after the future Empress.

"Cousin, wait for me!" called a voice, followed by hurried, clomping little foot falls.

It was Hisana from earlier, Kagome realized. With her cry the dam seemed finally to break. The ground on which Kagome's head rested resounded with the steps of noblewomen making their way towards the stream.

Kagome remained motionless even as the sound faded behind the tree line. Briefly the urge to rise and go watch the reactions of the women rang through her limbs, but she dismissed it quickly. It would seem odd if she were to get up now. Better that she play at being unconscious until they took her back to the court, however frustrating it might be.

To satisfy at least a bit of her curiosity, she stretched out her senses beyond the line of the trees to where she could feel all of the women gathering. It was not quite as good as actually seeing and hearing their responses, but it would have to do.

Kikyou and Sango stood at the head of the group, Kagura, Kanna, and Hisana just slightly behind them. From what Kagome could sense most of the women seemed confused, their gazes straying this way and that and the next for whatever it was that had brought them there. Kikyou, on the other hand, was focused with no small amount of intensity on the tiny trickle of the stream.

The future Empress had understood, then. And if the intensity of her concentration was any indication, Kikyou obviously thought her vision to be an authentic one. That was certainly a step in the right direction.

Stretching her senses little further, Kagome sought out the flood of water once more. She was pleased to find that it was only moments away from the women. They could probably hear the roar of it by now.

Kagome followed its aura as it came roiling and spilling fiercely down into the river bed just before the women, branches and stones and rocks and mud caught up in its flow. So intense was her focus in her excitement that she felt even the waves that jumped the bank and washed over the hems of the robes of several women.

Shifting her concentration back onto the auras of the women, Kagome waited tensely for a reaction. Her second sight was a pure white blank.

And then there was an explosion of color so bright that Kagome wanted to cover her already closed eyes. Surprise, disbelief, even a bit of fear were the feelings that seemed to dominate the group as they began to put together everything that had gone on.

All positive reactions in her mind. Only something they were taking seriously could be made to evoke such a strong reaction.

There was a thread of something else, though. It was such fierce, writhing emotion that its color shifted by the moment in Kagome's second sight, but when pressed she had to call it some kind of desperate relief. It was Kikyou.

Kagome was not quite certain what to make of this. Fighting down a frown, Kagome withdrew her senses from the women. She had done all she could and it seemed that she had gotten the response she was hoping for. Now she had simply to wait and see how the rest would unravel.

Mentally exhausted from all of her frantic efforts, Kagome allowed her mind to drain slowly of all thought. Half-dozing she rested there, a vague sense of contentment stealing warmly over her despite the chill air.

She had done her best. Whatever happened now, she had done her best. She could hardly wait to tell Inuyasha.

As far as she knew, it could have been hours or minutes before the light thudding of footsteps penetrated her haze. She roused herself slightly to listen, refraining still from giving away her consciousness.

The women came to stand in a rough circle about her, and she could feel the force of almost every eye upon her form. Yet they all remained several lengths away from her, none of them daring to come any nearer. Weighty silence reigned for a time.

"I believe, cousins, you all understand well enough what has occurred here."

There was something strange about the future Empress' voice, Kagome thought. It was subtle, very subtle, but it was there. Somehow it almost seemed…firmer. More certain. Silently she wondered at this.

"There is no way," retorted another voice quickly, sharply. "There is no way…not in some common born upstart. Some ice melted. That is all. Nothing more than that."

That was Kagura. She sounded uncharacteristically disturbed. Still a few women murmured their agreement, fans flicking agitatedly at the air. Most of them were Kagura's relatives, Kagome guessed.

"You know as well as I do that the kami are responsible for all things in nature, Kagura-sama, even 'some ice melting'," Kikyou said. "Besides, how would you account for such a torrent of water? Nearly all of the tributary ice would have had to have melted almost in an instant, and in this season and weather, too.”

“And even were we to presume that this was merely some playful whim of the kami, why would Kagome be privileged to their whims before they went through? How else would you explain her fit, or her fore-knowledge, Kagura-sama?"

"I…"

Kagura could only trail off into frustrated silence. There really was no argument against the nearly flawless logic of the future Empress. Inwardly Kagome applauded Kikyou, truly appreciating her inflexible disposition for perhaps the first time.

Still Kikyou was silent for a protracted moment, obviously waiting for any other objections the women might think to voice. They made not a sound, though, stunned as most of them were by the gravity of what had just occurred before them. Kagome could feel Kikyou's sense of victory wrapped firmly about the future Empress' form like a set of new armor.

"Cousins, you would all do well to mark this day," Kikyou said. "For on this day you have been allowed to witness the divine. On this day you have seen the birth of a Seeress.”

“On this day you have seen the renewal of the ancient promise of the kami to in all ways support a righteous Tennō-sama, in the form of their blessing of his Majesty's servant. On this day, cousins, you have witnessed a vision."


Soon after this declaration, Kikyou made it known that it was past time that the group return to the Heian-Kyō. No one argued this, all of them having gone silent and thoughtful in the wake of Kagome's performance.

The future Empress had the servants clear the grounds and load Kagome carefully into her carriage. No guests joined the two in their carriage on the way back, and the ride passed in silence. The entire time Kagome could feel Kikyou's eyes on her face, and Kagome could not help but wonder what was going through the noblewoman's mind.


It was not until some time later when she awoke in an unfamiliar room that Kagome realized she had actually fallen asleep at some point. Groggily she wormed her way out from beneath the blankets of the expansive futon in which she had been placed, sitting up to yawn and stretch.

Scanning the large room, only slightly smaller in size than that of the future Empress, Kagome wondered absently where they had placed her. There were a couple of folding screens placed here and there, and the walls were adorned with three of the most intricate ink paintings that she had ever seen.

There were shoji screens both behind and in front of Kagome and, peering around the edge of one of the folding screens, she found a low wooden table and a set of cushions. A trunk of dark cedar wood and a small mirror rested in the far corner of the room.

Overall it was very well set up. Too well furnished for them to have simply placed her in a random room, anyway. It seemed that this room had been prepared specifically for someone's use.

Her clothes had been changed, too, Kagome realized. It was lovely, light sleeping yukata of the softest cotton, patterned appropriately enough with flowing streams. Certainly Kagome had grown accustomed to the sight of such finery here in the court, but all of this together seemed far too grand for the likes of herself.

Curious, Kagome crawled over to the shoji screen directly behind her and slid it open just the slightest crack. Peering out, she was surprised to find a long, low wooden sitting porch and a garden just outside of her room. Both seemed to be empty of any other people as far as she could see, and the short surrounding wall kept anyone else from entering.

Cautiously she slid the shoji open a bit further, glancing about once more to make certain that no one was coming. Finding that the place was truly empty, Kagome stepped out into the pale morning light. She shivered, pulling her yukata tighter about herself against the bite of the crisp winter air.

The garden was not an exceptionally large one when compared with others that Kagome had seen, but it had a peaceful, cozy sort of feel about it. At its center rested a large koi pond, filled with drifting water lilies and lined all around with various stones. Sparse but well-managed vegetation dotted the ground here and there.

Directly opposite her, resting almost against the enclosing wall, was a small wooden shrine of some sort. On either side of it sat a small stone statue, one of the Buddha and the other of Amaterasu. Both figures were in poses of deep meditation.

The quiet, intermittent clacking of the kakei as it was filled and then emptied its water into the koi pond echoed through the small space. It was nice, thought Kagome, closing her eyes to listen for a moment.

Reluctantly she disengaged herself from the tranquil atmosphere, deciding that it was time to figure out what was going on. She slid the shoji screen closed behind her, going to the opposite screen and sliding it open a crack. Peeking out into the long hallway just outside, she jumped back with a squeak of surprise.

There were guards posted on either side of the shoji just outside of her room. But why in all of Japan would there be guards for her? Kagome raised a hand to touch her brow, scouring her mind for even the vaguest of memories of what had led up to this situation.

"Is something the matter, Miko-sama? Was there something that you needed us to get for you?" came a voice through the screen.

It was male, obviously one of the guards. He had probably been alerted by her little cry, she realized. She crept forward to peer at him through the opening in the shoji.

"Yes…um, I am sorry to bother you, but could you possibly tell me where I am and what I am doing here? You see, I just woke up and I am a little bit lost…" Kagome trailed off sheepishly.

"Yes, of course, Miko-sama. My apologies," said the guard, and she saw him bow low before the screen. "You are in one of the disconnected quarters of the Chūwain. The Tennō-sama thought it best that you go into ascetic isolation for a time that you might reflect on the vision that the kami gave you.”

“We are here to serve you should you require anything, but otherwise there will be no one allowed to see you. Ah. Actually, the future Empress gave me this to give to you when you finally awoke. I believe it is from his Majesty."

A piece of folded paper was slipped beneath the door. Kagome picked it up, opening it and reading:

Looks like you really did it, you insane wench. You’ll need to stay here until everything gets sorted out. I will call for you in a week, so suck it up and stay put until then. If you need something, let the guards know. I made sure to pick a pair of loyal ones this time.

Inuyasha

Kagome scowled at the note, huffing softly. That was hardly any sort of thanks for all of her effort. He did not even sound slightly pleased with her. Still he did not seem too angry at her either, and with a sigh she decided that that was probably all she could expect from him for the moment.

Even more disappointing than his reaction, though, was the fact that Kagome had not gotten to announce to him in person what she had done. She had really been looking forward to it, too. Finally she could force him to put some real faith in her.

The idea of a week in isolation was hardly very appealing, either. What would she do with an entire week all alone? It reminded her uncomfortably of the week she had spent in near segregation after the spread of the rumor regarding herself and Kouga. Having been raised in the tight community of her village, she was hardly accustomed to much privacy and was distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of being left on her own for such a stretch of time.

That, and Kagome had been anticipating being able to visit with Miroku and Sango once more. She was not certain if she should explain what she had done to them or not, but she at least wanted to get their reactions on what had gone on. Besides which she missed being able to speak with them, and she had yet to thank them properly for all that they had done for her during the rumor incident.

It would also have been nice to go out among the courtiers to gauge how they were dealing with her little spectacle. That way she might be able to act if it seemed the tide of general opinion was flowing somewhere undesirable. But now she was simply cut off from it all, though a small part of her grudgingly admitted that she could understand the reasoning behind it.

All in all, Kagome's leftover good feelings from her victory were quickly souring. Absently she sighed again, wondering what exactly she was supposed to do now. It was disconcerting to have no immediate purpose with which to occupy herself.

"Ah, Miko-sama? I apologize if I am disturbing you or prying, but is something the matter?" the guard spoke up from outside of the screen, concerned at the second burdened sigh in the span of several moments.

"Oh, no. It is nothing, really," Kagome said, forcing her voice into a semblance of cheerfulness. "I was just thinking about…various things. I apologize."

"Not at all, Miko-sama," the guard returned kindly. "I…I am more than willing to be of service to you in any manner that I can. Perhaps you would like for me to fetch some food for you? It must have been awhile since last you ate anything."

"That would be wonderful," Kagome said, recalling suddenly how long it had been since her last meal. "Thank you so much…"

"I am from the Hojo clan, Miko-sama," the guard filled in when she trailed off expectantly. "Hojo Akitoki, at your service. I will go fetch your meal straightaway."

She could hear his eager steps padding off down the hall before she could so much as open her mouth to thank him. Kagome blinked several times, bemused at the man's behavior. She tilted her head, trying to recall any previous mention of the Hojo clan made to her. She could not, meaning it was most likely a minor clan.

She was slightly startled by chuckling just outside the screen, remembering after a moment that there was a second guard posted at the door. Peeking once more through the opening in the shoji screen, she gazed at the mirthful dark haired man.

"Is…something the matter?" she asked.

"Oh, no, not at all, Miko-sama," the man guffawed, trying to compose himself. "I beg your pardon. It's just…he's so eager."

"I suppose so," Kagome replied warily as the man degenerated back into choked chortles.

"Truly I am sorry, Miko-sama. I have known him for some time, and the kid hardly ever ceases to amuse," the man explained. "He requested this job, you know? Went as far as to beg the Tennō-sama to be allowed to guard you."

"I…see," said Kagome, not quite sure what to make of this. "Ah, I do not suppose you would know where I could get a set of clothes to change into?"

"There should be a few sets of robes and some other things in the trunk in there, Miko-sama," the guard said. "Please feel free to tell me if you require anything else."

"Yes, of course. Thank you."

Sliding the screen fully closed once more, Kagome rose and went back to the trunk. She pulled from it a set of miko robes, pausing at the sight of a stack of papers and writing utensils just beneath them. Struck by an idea, she undressed and redressed quickly.

Tying her hair back into a long tail at the nape of her neck, Kagome pulled out the papers, ink stone, and brushes to bring them over to the dining table. She knelt before them for a moment, looking about thoughtfully. On a whim she rose and slid open the shoji that led out into the garden, nodding in satisfaction as the cadenced beat of the kakei filled the room. Returning to the table, she settled in to do a bit of writing.

First off she penned a letter to Miroku and Sango, assuring them that she was perfectly well and apologizing for having scared the noblewoman. She requested that they keep her updated on the goings on in the court while she was in isolation and promised to explain everything more thoroughly when she was allowed to see them in person once more. She was not quite ready to either lie or reveal everything to her friends yet.

Setting that letter aside, she entertained the idea of writing to Inuyasha. At length she dismissed the idea as an unproductive one. She doubted she would get a response any more in depth than what she had already gotten from his letter.

Besides that, she was not quite certain what she even wanted to say to him. It seemed he already knew anything she might have to tell. The urge to have some sort of contact with him lingered, but she decided it was best to just ignore the feeling for the time being.

There was a light tapping at the shoji where the guards were stationed, and Kagome rose to open it. The young guard from before bowed in the doorway, a tray of food placed before him. The other guard, still standing, looked on with amusement tilting up the corners of his mouth.

"Thank you so much, Hojo-sama," Kagome said. “I am glad you were so quick. I am famished."

"Not at all, Miko-sama. I am glad I could be of service to you. I hope all of the food is to your liking," he said, pushing the tray slightly towards her.

Kagome smiled and reached out to bring the tray the rest of the way into the room, accidentally brushing the guard's hand as she did so. Immediately his face flamed brighter than the red of her hakama. Kagome frowned, puzzled, and the other guard smothered a laugh.

With a slight bow, she took up the tray and slid the shoji screen shut. Outside she could hear Hojo stuttering some nonsense while the other guard erupted into full-blown snorts of glee. She bit her lower lip thoughtfully, wondering if there had been some subtle joke she had missed.

Shrugging mentally, she decided that their odd behavior was not really her concern. She had Inuyasha’s assurance that they were both loyal, after all.

She returned to the table and set the tray down, digging into the food with vigor in the absence of anyone to critique her manners. Despite all of the negative aspects of this sudden isolation, it was a bit nice to be freed for a time from the scrutiny of the courtiers.

As she ate she considered what she should do next, mentally sorting through all of the things she wanted to get done and picking out the ones she knew she could accomplish while in the confines of the room.

As she finished she decided that it would be best to do a mental review of her lunch with the noblewomen. That way she might begin to sort through all that she had seen there.

Setting the tray aside, she drew another sheet of paper towards herself. Kaede had always preached to her the value of writing things out as a means of organizing tangled thoughts. That seemed the most effective manner of dealing with the complex relations that the court women had displayed.

For a long moment she simply stared at it, trying to organize her thoughts enough to find a starting point. At last she picked up her brush, dipped it in the well of the ink stone, and began to list the name of each clan she had encountered.

First off was Sango's clan, the Tachibana. Their loyalties seemed straightforward enough. None of them had been hostile towards herself or the future Empress, and from what she had heard it seemed that many of them were out employed in the service of the Tennō. That was well enough. She had at least one set of allies, then.

Next were the Minamoto. They were a bit harder to pin down. The Minamoto woman she had ridden with in Kikyou's carriage had seemed quite supportive of the future Empress, but the clan as a whole seemed to want little to do with the Tachibana.

If the Minamoto were in favor of the Tennō, they should logically have no problems with a clan sharing the same loyalties. Perhaps a clan rivalry for higher status, then? That, however, did not entirely explain their willingness to associate with the Taira clan, though they obviously seemed to have no great love for the members of it. What was the commonality that connected the two?

She did not yet have enough information to pass judgment on their position. Resolving to keep an eye on them for the time being, Kagome simply left room on the parchment for anything she might learn in the future.

Which brought her to the Taira clan. Kagome scowled, Kagura's smirking face surfacing in her mind's eye. At least the youkai woman had made it abundantly clear where their loyalties had been placed. They were in favor of the elder brother.

Dipping her brush to write this out, she paused. Suddenly she was struck with a thought the likes of a stone wall being dropped unceremoniously in her path. The two guards that had attempted to kill Inuyasha! They had claimed connection with the Taira clan!

A combination of reluctance to even think about the events that had taken place on that fateful trip and the fact that the guards had been human had kept her from ever making the connection. But from what she had seen, all of the Taira clan seemed to be composed of youkai. How, then, had two humans come to be associated with the clan?

Perhaps the claim of the guards had been false. Scrambling up from her place, she hurried over to the shoji screen. Pushing it open slightly, she peered out at the guards.

"Um, excuse me," Kagome began.

"Is there something you require, Miko-sama?" Hojo asked politely.

"Ah, Kagome is fine, if you do not mind. Miko-sama feels…a bit too formal," Kagome said, noticing uncomfortably the high honor of such an address. "I just had a question, and I was wondering if either of the two of you could help me."

"Of course. We are here to serve you, Miko-…K-Kagome-sama," Hojo faltered, the tips of his ears going pink at being allowed to use her given name.

"Well, then, do either of you know what the symbol is that the Taira clan uses?"

"That would be Susano-o-no-Mikoto, divinity of the rainstorm," the young guard answered promptly.

"Ah, I see," Kagome said thoughtfully, considering this. "Thank you, Hojo-sama. That was just what I needed."

"Not at all," returned Hojo, looking pleased. "I am glad to be of service to you, Kagome-sama."

With a slight smile she bowed before sliding the screen closed once more. Slowly she resumed her place at the table, chewing her lip as she contemplated this.

It was safe, then, to assume that they had not been lying about their ties with the Taira. That, however, only made things that much more puzzling.

The Taira clan was a clan of youkai and was blatantly pro-youkai in its sentiments. They seemed to want not the slightest trace of human blood anywhere near the throne.

But then why would they employ two human guards for such an important mission? Why would the guards even consent to such a mission, knowing as they must that at the end of the road it would gain them no status?

Maybe they had been promised some special reward. Or perhaps they had been deceived and made to do so that they alone might take the fall if they were caught.

But there were simply too many questions to rest on any assumption firmly. Truly the Taira clan was quite a tangled web, grinning fangs and shining claws peeking out from every angle.

The only thing she could decide with certainty was that they were a threat. She made a note to inform Inuyasha that they should be placed under surveillance, if they were not already.

As a passing thought she included the clan of the future Empress in her list. She had not met any others from the clan besides Kaede and Kikyou, but according to Midoriko they had been faithful to a fault when in power.

It stood to reason that whatever remained of the clan still retained such loyalty, considering Kikyou's status in the court. Such loyalty, even in a number so small, would likely come in handy in an emergency. She made careful note of this.

She gazed thoughtfully at the column she had compiled on the Fujiwara as she completed it. It occurred to her for the first time how truly unwise a move it was for Inuyasha to keep Kikyou on as his future Empress.

Kaede had explained to her that the majority of noble unions were made on the basis of securing some kind of power or support within the court. At the time she had been very young and the thought of two people marrying for any reason other than love had seemed detestable, but here in the court she could see why such a thing might be necessary.

It seemed unlikely that Inuyasha was keeping her purely out of stupidity, though. He could be quite an idiot, but he was not stupid.

It stood to reason that the arrangement had been made before the fall of the Fujiwara clan, but there was only one real reason that Inuyasha would have carried on with the engagement after the clan's near decimation.

He was in love with her, then. It was not as if Kagome had been unaware of this before, but somehow it was shocking to actually form the thought fully in her mind. She wondered at her own reaction, shrugging it all off after a long moment of uncomfortable agitation.

Spreading all of her lists out before her on the table, Kagome nodded in satisfaction. It was good to have a bit of a feel for the position she was in here in the court. It could hardly be called conclusive, as it included none of the minor clans at work within the capital, but even so it was a start.

Abruptly Kagome frowned, realizing she had already run out of things to occupy her time. With a huffy little sigh and small grumble directed at the hanyou who had imprisoned her, she gathered her papers up and folded them neatly. She tucked them carefully away beneath her futon for safe keeping.

The small shrine out in the garden caught her attention, and she decided that she might as well meditate. That was what she was supposed to be doing while holed up in the room, anyway.

Besides which she had quite a few things that needed to be cleared with the kami. She was not sorry, certain as she was that she had taken the best course of action available to her.

Still she had claimed associations with the divine that she did not truly have, and for that she had to at least offer her apologies. She would submit herself humbly to whatever punishment they would see fit to put on her.

Kagome felt the need to re-harmonize with the rhythm of nature, as well. She had been feeling slightly off ever since her entrance into the court, her sense of innate balance obstructed by the numerous buildings that separated her from nature and the abundance of negative feelings that filled each one.

Now was certainly not the time to be losing her grip on the divine gifts the kami had given her. Not when it was finally time to put them all to full use. Nor did she particularly enjoy the feeling of isolation that sometimes crept up on her due to the loss.

The week's isolation hardly seemed such a bad thing after all, now that she was more in the right mind to consider it. It would be good for her to have some alone time to reflect on everything that had gone on.

Feeling more at ease with her unexpected situation, she pulled off her tabi socks and padded barefoot out into the garden. A broad, uncesored grin stretching the length of her face, Kagome flopped down lightly at the edge of the koi pond and slid up the legs of her hakama past the knees.

Slowly she slipped her feet into the greenish waters, a delightful shudder coursing down her spine at the stinging chill.

Ah, how she had missed this feeling of complete connection. For a brief moment she allowed herself to close her eyes and pretend that she was back in her village, waiting on the bank of the river as Souta fished for dinner.

The moment passed and Kagome chuckled quietly, the fond memories warming her.

Leaning back against her arms with her feet still dangling loosely in the water, Kagome took a deep breath and let her mind slip gently down through her body into the waters. The light, consistent clacking of the kakei lulled her. For the remainder of the day she stayed there, swaying gently in an age old dance around the fish and the water lilies.


As the night began to slip its soft, dark veil over the world, Hojo Akitoki crept timidly into her room. Worried at the lack of any sound coming from inside for so long, he had brought food as an excuse to enter.

At the sight of her, hakama rolled up to reveal slim, pale legs and leaning back in a pose of the utmost ease and vulnerability, he nearly turned tail to run.

Still he pressed on doggedly, fearing for the state of her health as she was exposed to such low temperatures. Reaching his hand out, he shook her shoulder lightly to wake her from whatever daze she had fallen into.

Wrapped in a lingering sense of complete peace, Kagome was not able to muster any embarrassment at him having caught her in such a state. She merely smiled hazily up at him. She was also only mildly concerned when she found she could no longer move her cold-numbed feet.

Alarmed, the guard, with much stuttering and many apologies, scooped her up and carried her back inside. Fetching a towel, he fought not to faint as he dried off her legs and chafed them until circulation returned and chased the mildly blue hue from her skin.

With a sleepy, absent smile Kagome thanked him. Following which she promptly crawled into her futon and fell fast asleep, losing all memory of the event amidst her dreams of talking koi fish and rivers flowing towards the ocean.

Hojo Akitoki, on the other hand, would carry that memory like a precious gem with him to the end of his life. In his recollection it would forever be the night when he first learned what it was to be in love.


The following morning Kagome awoke to a faint voice from the other side of the shoji screen. Sleepily she crawled out from the comfort of the spacious futon, sparing only a moment to wonder how she had gotten there. She decided that she must have moved herself out of the garden at some point and had simply forgotten in her post-meditation haze.

Pausing to re-tie her hair and straighten out her sleep-rumpled robes, she slid open the screen. Hojo was there, looking more bashful than ever she had seen him before with a breakfast tray placed before him. He bowed low to her, his face nearly touching the tatami mats.

"G-good morning, Kagome-sama," he stuttered, his words muffled by his proximity to the ground. "I hope I did not disturb you. I-I thought you might be hungry. You did not eat lunch or dinner yesterday."

"Thank you," Kagome said, slightly touched by his attentiveness. "That was very thoughtful of you, Hojo-sama. Oh! Hold on just a moment, would you?"

She stood and traipsed quickly back into her room, picking up her letter to Miroku and Sango from its place on the table. She returned and held it out to the guard is askance.

"If it is not too much trouble, could you perhaps deliver this to the Tachibana residence? It needs to go to Tachibana Sango-sama."

"Of course, I will be-"

"I will do it, Kagome-sama," the other guard interrupted, taking the letter from her hand before Hojo could. "You stay here and guard her, Akitoki. Y'know, just you and her."

The guard chuckled as the boy flushed scarlet. He bowed to Kagome before turning to leave, tossing a wink at Akitoki before he was entirely out of sight.

Kagome frowned, confused. Akitoki kept his gaze trained on the floor, red up to his hairline. A long moment of awkward silence passed.

"It…must get boring, standing out there all day long," Kagome said at length, wracking her brain for anything to break the tension.

"Not at all," Akitoki returned good naturedly. "As long as it is to protect Kagome-sama…"

He trailed off sheepishly, ducking his head again to cover his embarrassment. Kagome wondered if it was perhaps her new status that made him so bashful around her. It was rather puzzling. Shrugging it off as unimportant, she smiled at the guard.

"Would you like to come sit with me while I eat, Hojo-sama?" she said, feeling it rude to continue to talk with him in the doorway. "Ascetic isolation is all well and good, but I really would enjoy some company."

"Ah…If it would please you, Kagome-sama," he said, looking a little awed at the offer.

He bowed once more before stepping slowly into the room. Kagome took up the tray and went to the table, kneeling upon a cushion. He followed suit, coming to kneel timidly on the cushion opposite her.

"Your friend told me you requested a position as my guard," Kagome said, vaguely curious.

She picked up her hashi and began to eat, hoping he would keep the conversation going. His face coloring yet again, he bowed his head and nodded shyly.

"That is true. You probably do not remember this, Kagome-sama, but I was among the guards at the outer gate when you first arrived," he said. "I was privileged enough to see your very first miracle here. It was amazing, the way you healed the head guard as if it were nothing. I…I had been hoping to meet you again since that time."

"Really?" said Kagome, her face warming slightly at the praise. "But it was just a small healing. Nothing all that wonderful."

"Of course it was wonderful," objected Hojo, raising his head at last to look at her. "Your powers are truly amazing, Kagome-sama. You should give yourself more credit. I mean, you even turned out to be a Seeress. You are a link to the kami themselves."

"Ah, yes…" said Kagome quietly, the earnest awe in his face bringing forth a quick twinge of guilt.

He frowned, seeing her sudden downward shift in mood. He silently berated himself for whatever indelicacy had just come from his mouth, scouring his mind for something that might please her.

"Many people have been asking to see you, Kagome-sama," he settled on at last.

"Really?"

"Yes," he said readily, pleased when her gray eyes turned towards him once more. "They all want you to read their futures or bless their children. But the Tennō-sama has forbidden anyone from coming near you until things are all settled in the court meeting next week."

"Is that so…?"

Kagome trailed off absently, considering this new bit of information.

It was certainly a good sign if people were taking her that seriously. Although from the sound of it her vision had also stirred up a bit of chaos within the court, if it required Inuyasha keeping her isolated for an entire week. A small warmth seeped into her chest at the thought that the hanyou was indeed keeping his promise to protect her.

"Thank you for informing me, Hojo-sama," she said softly, raising her eyes to meet his.

Her expression was so gentle and her eyes so warm as she turned her face to him that for a moment Hojo could not properly draw another breath. His heart beat in odd tattoo, reminding him of the previous night's realization.

"You can call me Akitoki, if it pleases you, Kagome-sama," he managed to get out at last.

"I would like that, Akitoki-sama," Kagome returned, pleased at the prospect of having made another friend.

She beamed at him, entirely oblivious to the feelings growing every moment within his heart towards her. He returned her smile shyly, and the rest of the meal was passed with pleasant chatter about things of no great importance.


The remainder of Kagome’s week of isolation did not pass quickly, but she could hardly bring herself to mind it very much. She spent the majority of the time in meditation and prayer. She knew it was likely that she would not find peace the likes of which the room and garden provided again once she was placed back in the rushing flow of court life.

And so she whiled away her time in silence and thought and harmony. Slowly she began to feel a bit more like her previous self, connected by innumerable threads to everything about her. Once more she could hear the quiet, omnipresent song of nature humming about her. It was a great comfort.

This return of harmony to her spirit she optimistically took to be a favorable sign from the kami. Of course she still expected some form of punishment from them somewhere down the line. One could not simply blaspheme the divine and expect no punishment, and she had done what she had done knowing that full well.

But that they did not cut her off from themselves completely meant that they most likely were not entirely displeased with her actions. If she were to be bold she might even assume that they approved to some degree. Either way it was a balm to her slightly bedraggled heart to think that they would not now turn their backs on her.

In the thoughtful, hazy hours of the early mornings, Kagome was also able to reflect on all of her actions in the court. She realized she had been rushing about in a frantic manner, caught up in the pace of the court life. She resolved to move more at her own speed from then on, lest she begin to allow life in the court to twist her into something she was not.

Admittedly she had also done things in the capital that she would never have considered doing back within the small circle of her village, but that much she could write off to experience. New experiences and new situations allowed one to act in new ways, and she had not done anything too peculiar to her personality.

With perhaps two exceptions. First the killing of the guards and then her prophetic ploy. But even these things she did not regret. Rather the small, slighted cry of morals she had been raised with from birth tugged at her, insisting that she not venture off in such unfamiliar directions.

The larger part of her, however, was at peace. She did not enjoy killing those two men. She did not enjoy deceiving so many people. For both actions she had suffered and would most likely continue to suffer.

Still a person could only walk the path that they felt to be right, understanding that sometimes it would be painful and most times it would conflict with other equally valid paths. Her father had tried to explain all of this to her when she was young, but only now was she truly beginning to understand what he had meant.

In the end Kagome knew that all of the things she had been taught were good and solid, and she had no intention of going senselessly up against them. But the time had more than come when she had to find the things that were right for her, rather than just the things that were right. She was choosing her own path now, and in that knowledge she was secure. She would not falter.

In the time she had she was also able to speak more with Akitoki. He was attentive to her needs to a fault, bringing her tea, regular meals, and even extra blankets when he felt that it was too cold for her to sleep through the night without them. A few times he even fetched herbs and tonics for her, stuttering out that he feared for her health now that the temperatures were truly beginning to drop.

They would talk through the screen during such times, or Kagome might invite him in to sit on the porch with her. She always invited the other guard, as well, though he consistently refused her offers with a sly nod to his friend.

Often times, left with so much time and so little to do, Kagome's thoughts would stray back to her family. It had been some time since she had had the leisure to think much on them, and in the silence of that room the homesickness that their memory evoked was often unbearable. Twice she picked up a brush and paper, the half-formed idea to write to Inuyasha of her troubles spurring her on.

In the end she always dismissed this notion as foolish, and in these times, too, she would go to talk to Akitoki. He was patient with her as she babbled on about the home and the loved ones she had left behind, and in return she asked him to tell her his own story.

It turned out that he was indeed the son of a lesser clan within the court and a second son, at that. He aspired to some day serve the Tennō as a commander among his guards.

He was truly a good man, and at the end of the week Kagome felt that she had gained another good, solid friend. At times, though, she would catch him staring at her so intently that it was unnerving. She had no notion of what to make of these instances and ended up dismissing them uncomfortably as some personality quirk of the guard's.

At last, though, the week did come to a close and Kagome received yet another brief note from the Tennō, telling her to be ready for a court meeting the following day. Several serving women then came to fetch her and she said her goodbyes to the guardsmen, promising to visit Akitoki soon at his clan's residence.

She was taken back to the future Empress' residence and cleaned up before being placed in a new, larger chamber. Half-expecting to finally be able to receive visitors, she was disappointed when a servant informed her that no one was yet allowed near her until after the meeting the following day.

Kagome had lain down to sleep then, figuring that she would need all of her wits about her to cope with whatever was to come. Sleeping, however, proved a bit difficult. Through the whole of the night she could sense several figures hovering just outside of the shoji screen enclosing her room.

It was obvious enough that they were servants eager to get a look at the newly revealed Seeress. That, however, did not make the feel of their intent gazes roving her supposedly slumbering form any less disconcerting. She passed a night almost entirely devoid of sleep, longing ironically enough for the confines of her peaceful room in the Chūwain.


Kagome was roused late the next morning, as the meeting was not until the afternoon. She was ushered into yet another room where the servants went about washing, brushing, and redressing her. She was glad to find she would be allowed to wear miko robes to the ceremony, being that she was appearing in the capacity of a spiritualist.

When she was finally deemed presentable the servants brought her food, but Kagome could hardly force any down. Her stomach already felt full with anticipation of what was to come. The memory of her first disastrous court meeting refused to leave her alone, flashing in broken bits and pieces through her head.

Morosely she wished for Inuyasha or Miroku or Sango to appear and work her out of the rut she was fast falling into, or at least to talk to her a bit about what to expect. Even Kikyou and her cool reprimands that it was foolish of her to be worried over such a thing would have been welcome.

No one came, though, and Kagome was forced to try and shake the cloud off all on her own when two guards came to fetch her. They led her in silence to the Daigokuden, instructing her to wait at the door until it was opened and the Tennō called her forward. It seemed that all of the courtiers were already situated inside, the meeting in progress.

She was left alone then. For a seeming eternity she stood there before the grand doorway, tense and ill. Silently she cursed Inuyasha, wishing he would hurry up and just let her in already. She wondered petulantly if he was punishing her for acting so freely on her own.

And then the doors were pulled open. Kagome thought her heart might burst as she heard Inuyasha's voice resound through the room, calling her forward. She took one wooden step forward before freezing.

Hundreds of pairs of curious and guarded and hostile and awed and expectant eyes were trained intensely on her every movement. The chamber was utterly silent save the flapping and flicking of fans, moving in so many varied gestures that Kagome could hardly make out a single one of them. In the midst of that sea of anonymous faces and violently bright colors, Kagome felt she might drown.

She forced her legs back into motion, ducking her head to stare at the wood floor beneath her as she went. Murmuring rippled throughout the crowd as she passed, but Kagome dared not look up again until she reached the foot of the dais on which Inuyasha and the future Empress were seated.

Kikyou, of course, wore the mask of utter apathy that seemed always to slip down over her features in the presence of groups of nobles, kneeling with rigid authority at the right hand of the Tennō. Inuyasha was concealed behind his slatted screen, but Kagome could clearly feel his gaze upon her.

"Take your place," came the rough order from behind the screen.

Kagome frowned, puzzled by the command. She noticed then a second cushion placed on the dais at the Tennō's left hand side. Her eyes widened and she hesitated, wondering if Inuyasha would really go so far as that.

"Your place, Miko-sama," Kikyou spoke, gesturing vaguely with her fan to the cushion.

Kagome fought not to gape at the two figures, bowing low to them to cover her consternation. A seat on the same level as the future Empress! Inuyasha was pushing things too far!

Still she did not wish to make a scene. Keeping her face carefully neutral, Kagome climbed the few steps of the dais and knelt solemnly on the cushion. The chatter of the crowd increased tenfold in noise, and it was not hard to tell that there were a number of courtiers who were far more outraged than Kagome had been at the move.

"Be quiet!" barked Inuyasha, loudly enough that it reverberated throughout the entire room.

The courtiers ceased their chatter and fell grudgingly silent, like small children scolded by a parent.

"You've heard an account of what occurred during the women's outing from Our future Empress," he continued, and Kagome could only assume he was referring to what had occurred before her entrance. "Now We will allow questions. Stand if you've got something to say."

Several courtiers rose up throughout the room.

"Minamoto Youji, speak," said Inuyasha, acknowledging the man.

"Your Majesty," returned the Minamoto man, bowing. "To the Miko-sama, I would ask if you have ever experienced such an occurrence before?"

"If you mean have I ever had vision before, then the answer would be no, Minamoto-sama," Kagome responded, intending to stick as closely to the truth as possible. "I can only interpret this new gift as a show of approval from the kami of my service to the Tennō-sama."

"I see," retuned the man thoughtfully. He bowed once more before sitting.

From the corner of her eye, Kagome caught a look from the future Empress that was almost approving in nature. Pride curled quietly inside of her, lending a bit more confidence.

"Michinaga Youhei, speak," ordered Inuyasha, acknowledging the next man.

"Your Majesty," said Youhei, mimicking the Minamoto man's bow. "I would also address the Miko-sama. How can she be certain that it was not some possession, some evil spirit's attempt to mislead us?"

"I have been performing exorcisms in my village since I was young, Michinaga-sama," Kagome said firmly, a little offended by the suggestion. "Never once have I myself been possessed. My body is holy vessel, and I would be aware should the likes of an evil spirit try to defile it."

"Taira Kagura-sama can attest to the fact that it was no evil spirit, as well," Kikyou added when the man did not look quite satisfied. "She told us as much after the vision took place. She could sense no jyaki. Rather Miko-sama's aura conflicted with her own youki. Is that not right, Kagura-sama?"

Kagura, already standing, turned a stony look on the future Empress.

"That…is correct, Fujiwara-sama," she admitted grudgingly, and Kagome could almost hear her teeth grinding in frustration.

"Then it is as you say, Fujiwara-sama," conceded Michinaga, bowing to her. "Thank you. And may I say, on behalf of my clan, welcome to you, Miko-sama."

He resumed his seat. Several others followed his lead. It seemed that Kagura's testimony was particularly convincing to many. Still the youkai woman remained standing, her red eyes smoldering.

"Taira Kagura, speak," Inuyasha called, acknowledging her.

"Your Majesty," said Kagura stiffly, giving the most perfunctory of bows. "I have no questions. Rather I have an assertion. And that is, that this vision is an inauthentic one. Merely a fluke. Some delusion or mad fit of the girl's addled mind."

The court erupted in a rush of noise. Fans flapped frantically about as the courtiers twisted this way and that to speak to their neighbors, everyone eager to voice their own opinion. Kagura stood above them all, observing the chaos she had created with satisfaction. Kagome gaped at the woman, blown away by her audacity.

"Shut up, all of you!" Inuyasha bellowed, rising to stand behind the screen. "What the he-…What do you base this opinion on, Kagura?"

"Merely the basic knowledge that all of us courtiers are given from birth," responded Kagura with a dismissive flick of her fan. "She was born low for a reason. The kami showed her no favor then. They certainly would not show anyone of her standing favor now. It was a fluke."

Kagome bit back a cry of indignation. There was no logic behind her claim at all. Not the slightest hint! It was like saying that a man afflicted by bad fortune could never hope to have good fortune by simple virtue of the fact that he had never had it before. Nor had she even attempted to explain the water flooding exactly as and when Kagome predicted it.

Though at least it meant the youkai woman did not know the truth of the matter, as Kagome had feared she might for a moment. She was merely trying to cast doubt on her any way that she could, stirring suspicions up among the coutiers. And from the look on her face Kagome would guess she knew full well that there was no reason to back up her objection.

She also knew that none was needed. Scanning the room, Kagome could see many fans waved in sweeping gestures of agreement and consent. The faces of many of the courtiers had turned suddenly suspicious at the reminder of her status in the world.

That the commoners of the world were not the favored of the kami was indeed something they had all been told from the days of their youths. They would no more think to question such a statement than they would the rising and setting of the sun each day.

Her heart sank in her chest. There was nothing she could think of to counter such an attack, ambiguous as it was. Inuyasha and Kikyou were silent, seemingly at a loss, as well.

"You would claim, then, to know the hearts and minds of the kami, Taira-sama?"

Many heads turned almost as one towards the figure that had just appeared in the open doorway of the Daigokuden. For a moment the person was obscured by the flood of light coming in from behind them, but then the figure stepped with stately purpose into the room.

It was Midoriko.

Gasps and astonished whispers fluttered frantically throughout the mass of people. Kagura's face fell abruptly, a vague snarl curling the corners of her lips. Midoriko paid no heed to any of the confusion her appearance had caused, stepping with serene authority up to the foot of the dais.

"Midoriko-sama," Kikyou addressed the woman, something like surprise arching her brows the slightest bit. "It is unusual that you would deign to grace us with your presence during a court function. Might I ask your purpose here?"

"Talk of the kami and prophetic visions," Midoriko replied. "If such things are not of my concern as the court spiritualist, then I do not know whose concern they would be. Besides which, Kagome is a disciple of mine. Her affairs are also my concern."

She bowed slightly before turning to face Kagura, her eyes trained with imposing steadiness on the youkai woman's face. Kagura held her ground, though her blood red lips curled further downwards in her obvious displeasure.

"To return to my previous question, you would claim special knowledge of the kami, Taira Kagura-sama?" Midoriko reiterated, her tone utterly placid.

The crowd had gone silent, even the fans having slowed to irregular little sweeps here and there. Kagome found that she was holding her breath.

"On this matter I believe we all know the minds of the kami. We have been taught it from the time of our youths," Kagura said stiffly.

"Ah, I see," said Midoriko. "Then you believe that the kami bend their divine will to whatever teachings that courtiers happen to agree upon? You would contend that the holy truth that they create follows only after the teachings of court scholars? You would argue that the will of the kami comes second to the will of man?"

"I did not say any of that," Kagura said, raising her voice slightly though there had barely been even a hint of challenge in Midoriko's voice. "I said rather that on this point we all understand what the opinions of the kami are, based on what knowledge they gave to our teachers in times of old and that has been passed on to us."

"Still you claim knowledge of divine minds, Taira-sama," Midoriko pointed out mildly. "You now would venture to argue that simply because the kami perhaps once told something to man, it has become a law restricting them.”

“You say, Taira-sama, though perhaps not so clearly and not in so many words, that divine will is a concrete thing. That it as soon as it is spoken by man, it never again alters.“

“That under no circumstances and in no situation might the kami see fit to work through different channels or in different manners than the ones which they might once have mentioned to our ancestors so long ago.”

“Is this truly what you believe, Taira-sama?"

"…Of course not," Kagura ground out after a long, tense silence. "I misspoke, Midoriko-sama."

It was clear enough that she was only conceding due to the fact that she would lose all credibility should she continue to try and defend what Midoriko had so clearly revealed to be a blasphemous assertion. Silently Kagome cheered, grateful to the elder miko for ripping apart Kagura's illogical statement when she could not.

"As the best among us sometimes do, Taira-sama," Midoriko allowed, the faintest of smiles gracing her lips. "Though in the future I would advise you not to question the work of the kami when the evidence of their will has been laid out so clearly before you. You will often find that they do not take lightly such offenses."

Not bothering even to bow to the court spiritualist, Kagura stiffly resumed her seat. Midoriko turned once more to face the dais. Show bowed again before the Tennō and the future Empress.

"I had another purpose in coming here, Tennō-sama," she said. "As I have already stated, Kagome-sama is my disciple. Therefore I wished to come and attest before the entire court, to any like Taira-sama that may have doubts, that her vision was a true one.”

“She is one beloved of and blessed by the kami. Her aura has told this to me truly enough since first we met. Regrettably I was not present to witness the miracle that occurred during the women's outing, but I have had many years to learn to listen to the voice of the kami when I feel they are trying to speak to me.”

“I am certain they are speaking to me now in various ways, telling me to support Kagome-dams in all of her endeavors. Thus I now give my word as to her authenticity and would take upon myself any claims against her. Her words and actions are now as good as my own."

Absolute silence. No one moved. It seemed that no one was even breathing.

"Does anyone want to bring their complaints up on this up against the O-Miko?" Inuyasha's voice resounded in the silence.

Fans resumed their tentative flapping, courtiers turning this way and that to see if any of their fellows dared rise and challenge the formidable woman. None did, and a long moment passed in silence.

"Then this meeting is over," declared the Tennō. "And you all understand where Kagome stands in this court now. As Our personal servant and Midoriko's disciple, she is not to be crossed."

There was a moment of hesitation before the courtiers began to rise and slowly file out of the building. From the bits and pieces she could see, Kagome could get no firm handle on the reaction of the nobles. She absently resigned herself to going about once things were more settled to find out.

More so, though, she was concerned with the O-Miko still standing at the foot of the dais. Inappropriately enough the woman was gazing up at her, her steadfast brown eyes trained on her face. As much as she wanted to, Kagome could not seem to look away.

This holy, revered woman had just lied for her to the entire court. Whether or not she was aware that she had lied was questionable, but nonetheless she had. On top of that she had given Kagome the ultimate vote of confidence by tying her reputation firmly to the village girl's own.

Kagome felt ill. She wondered if perhaps this was her punishment from the kami; to taint the name of such a holy woman. Silently she railed at the unjustness of Midoriko being degraded for her choices.

"Kagome, would you walk with me?" Midoriko asked as the last of the crowd exited the room.

"Yes, of course," Kagome replied faintly, rising and stepping down from her seat sullenly.

She was obscurely grateful to finally be able to break eye contact with the woman. She felt she might burst into tears like a fool were she forced to meet those bright, clear eyes any longer.

"Oi, Kagome."

Kagome turned back to look at the screen. She could see the outline of Inuyasha standing behind it. She wondered distractedly if he was pleased with the way things had turned out.

"My chambers, tomorrow morning."

"Of course, Tennō-sama," she responded automatically, her heart sinking a little further at the fact that he did not sound pleased in the least.

She bowed before trailing after Midoriko out of the building, unaware of the hanyou peering uneasily out after her from behind the screen.


The two miko walked out into the sharp chill of the winter air in silence, wandering on along a random path. Kagome could not even bring herself to open her mouth to thank the older woman, despite how much she knew she owed her. Guilt sat heavily upon her shoulders, bowing her head towards the ground.

"You do not look happy, Kagome, despite this good turn of fate in your favor," commented Midoriko at last. "Perhaps you are not pleased with my interference?"

"No! No, nothing like that, Midoriko-sama," Kagome said hastily, shaken slightly from her miserable daze. "Truly I am more grateful than I can say to receive such support from you. It is far more than one in my position should be allowed to ask for, to have such a revered figure as yourself tie your honor to my own. But…"

"I do not want to know, Kagome," interrupted Midoriko gently.

"What?"

Kagome frowned, coming to a halt. She scanned the elder miko's face questioningly.

"About the vision," Midoriko clarified, stopping as well to meet her searching eyes. "We discussed once before something possibly questionable that you were considering doing for the sake of your purpose here.”

“I do not wish to know if the vision was part of that. I do not wish to know if it was real. I do not wish to know if it was false. I will believe in you, Kagome. Whatever happens or has happened, I choose to believe in you."

Kagome gaped at the woman. She shook her head slightly, wondering if she had heard properly.

Midoriko had spoken up for her with the knowledge that she might very well be making a liar of herself. It was nearly incomprehensible.

"But, Midoriko-sama-"

"Did you think you were the only one choosing your own path, Kagome?" the noblewoman cut in, her expression softening around the edges. "I am choosing mine, as well, even at this advanced age. This is my decision, regardless of anything else. I made no false claim when I said that the kami are leading me to support you.”

“Besides which, I promised that I would care for you. The kami certainly can not look with favor on one who does not keep their promises."

For a moment Kagome could get no solid hold on any words. She floundered in the sudden upwelling of emotion in her chest, grasping around for any one feeling to hold on to.

At last her face crumpled, tears springing to her eyes at the kind devotion of this woman. She bowed low, hiding her pitiful expression.

"Thank you, Midoriko-sama," she said. "I will do my best not to disappoint you."

"My happiness will not rest on your actions, Kagome. I am merely making the decision I feel to be best," responded Midoriko, not unkindly. "Come, we will take tea together. After that we can meditate for a time, and you can clear your head."

"Yes," Kagome sniffled, nodding. "That would be nice, Midoriko-sama."

"Come along, then," Midoriko said, a sliver of affection slipping into her tone. "Dry your eyes. You are the Tennō-sama’s miko now. We cannot have anyone seeing you in such a state."

Kagome nodded, rising up from her bow to rub at her watery eyes. Midoriko caught her hand softly, lifting her own trailing sleeve to wipe at her face. Kagome flushed, chuckling slightly as more tears dribbled from her eyes. It was hard for her to believe her own good fortune at times like these.

As Midoriko had said, she must be one of the favored by the kami.


The following morning Kagome rose early. She ate, dressed, fixed her hair, washed her face, and quickly headed to the Jijūden to meet with Inuyasha. She had a feeling that he would give her a harder time than she was certain he already intended to should she not be prompt in her appearance.

At least the time she had spent with Midoriko the previous day had put her once more at ease, after having been so thoroughly shaken during the court meeting. Together they had discussed her aims in the court and how she planned on going about achieving them, the elder miko providing what bits of advice she could here and there. Midoriko had maintained that she would support her in all of her endeavors, and they had meditated with positive energy on their purposes until nightfall.

Now, confident in her aims and beginning to feel excited over the nearly perfect success of her ploy, Kagome strode through the gardens, the Shishinsen, and over the water walkway to the Jijūden where she was prepared to argue down the sovereign of her nation. The guard bowed out of her way without comment at the entrance to Inuyasha's chambers, and Kagome felt a small twinge of gratification at the obvious influence of her new status.

She halted in the entryway, surprised. There was no screen in sight, merely Inuyasha lounging on a pile of cushions with an official looking document held up before his face. She realized suddenly that they no longer had to bother with such things, and a smile stretched inexorably across her face. It was a rather wonderful sort of feeling, the sudden glowing sensation inside her chest.

"Good morning, Inuyasha-sama," she chirped, deciding to start the encounter off on a positive note.

The hanyou looked up from the paper, his scowl twisting incredulously at her. He glanced behind her at the entryway, apparently gauging the amount of light outside.

"You're early," he said at last.

Kagome's cheerful expression faltered slightly. It seemed there would be no distracting him from the ill humor he had fallen into. Nonetheless she gave a bow before coming to kneel down across from him.

"You said yesterday you wished to see me this morning, Inuyasha-sama."

"Yeah," Inuyasha agreed, putting the paper aside. "We need to talk about all the shit that's happened."

"You mean all of the things I made happen?" Kagome ventured.

"Yeah, that. I… I can't believe you went through with it."

There was something like disappointment in the way that he refused to meet her eyes. A pang shot through Kagome's chest, and she found herself leaning forward with a quick defense ready on the tip of her tongue.

"You told me that as long as I could pull it off it was fine," she argued. "I will apologize for perhaps acting too freely, Inuyasha-sama, but I acted nonetheless. It worked, too! I thought you would be pleased that-"

"That's not what I'm talking about!" Inuyasha snapped, his eyes flashing briefly in her direction. "I'm talking about the fact that you did it at all! The fact that your conscience never stepped in to stop you!"

"My conscience?"

"Yes, your fucking conscience!" Inuyasha snapped, becoming more and more worked up as he thought about it. "Or have you forgotten it already?! Dammit, woman! You weren't… like this when you got here!"

"I…don't understand, Inuyasha-sama," said Kagome slowly, searching his averted face with her eyes.

"You…you!..." Inuyasha said, rising to pace the length of the room in agitation. "What you did…it's the fucking same type of thing that any slimy courtier might've pulled to get power! I didn't want…!"

Unable to quite express the stinging, roiling sensation in his chest, Inuyasha flopped back down a good distance from her. He turned forceful gold eyes upon her at last, willing her to explain herself.

"You…fear that I am turning into one of them, then?" Kagome said at last, trying to puzzle through all the things he had said and all of the things he had not said.

"…Yeah," Inuyasha said lowly, his gaze dropping as his ire cooled a bit at her quiet tone.

"You are…afraid I will turn on you?"

"Maybe eventually. But now…you're just turning. This place'll twist you. If this is how it's going to be…I'd be better off just sending you back."

That was right. If keeping her as his servant was going to make her into just another blank face among the vicious, clawing masses of the court, then he wanted no part of it.

He could hardly claim to understand Kagome most of the time, but he knew enough to know that she would come to hate herself should she become like the rest. He would not watch that happen to her. He could not watch that happen to her.

It was…uncomfortable, though. True enough he had placed her in isolation that she might be away from the wrath of any of the courtiers who might be upset with the sudden turn, but somehow he had also wanted her to…repent, maybe. To come out of it feeling bad for what she had done. To show him that she was still the same girl he had first argued with that night under the Goshinboku.

But she was proud. There was no remorse. And it irked him, irked him so much that his chest burned, but he would not keep her any longer. Not to turn her into this.

"Inuyasha-sama…" Kagome said gently, pinpointing at last the unlikely culprit beneath all of the snarling.

He was worried for her.

"Inuyasha-sama," she repeated softly, willing him to look at her. "I think you've misunderstood me. I did not do this…with a heart full of the idea of gaining power."

"Oh? Then why did you do it, Kagome?" he said with biting skepticism, eyeing her warily. To his ears such words could only ring as similar to the beginnings of every other courtier's defense of angling for power.

"I…" Kagome began, flushing but still raising her eyes determinedly to meet his own. "I did it for you. I…want to help you, Inuyasha-sama, as your friend. Remember?"

The hanyou froze, struck dumb by the unexpected response. Her cheeks were tinted deeply pink, a painfully earnest kindness in her eyes as they met his own. It was so honest that it almost hurt to look at, and still Inuyasha could not turn away.

His heart gave an awkward, smarting jump in his chest. He raised a hand to rub at it absently.

"And I know it will likely be hard for you to understand, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome said, shaking her head. "But it was something I felt I had to do. It was a choice I had to make.”

“I feel terribly for having lied to so many people, truly I do, but I do not regret my choice to do it. And any punishment that I will receive down the line, I will humbly accept. But, well…ah, it sounds more complicated when I try to explain it all out loud."

"I think...I get it," Inuyasha murmured, finally managing to tear his gaze away. "I get it already. Just…stop."

It was too much. It was too much. He could not look at that expression on her face any longer or he might...he was not certain what he would do. His chest was tight with…something.

On the up side, there could be no courtier's malice or scheming behind such a face. That much he knew.

She could remain in the court, then. Inuyasha scowled as the odd flittering sensation started up again in his stomach. He wondered if the food he had eaten for breakfast had been spoiled.

"Are you alright, Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome asked, frowning. "You…don't look well."

It was true. He was red almost to the tips of his ears and had suddenly started clutching his stomach.

"I'm fine, wench," the hanyou bit out roughly.

He shook his head almost violently, forcing himself back into order. He turned a scowl on her, perhaps one more forceful than was necessary. She blanched slightly.

"I guess I'll take your word this time," he allowed snappishly. "You can go now."

"That…is all?" Kagome said, thrown by the abrupt dismissal.

"I have a Council meeting soon," Inuyasha said, eager to be done with this encounter. "Thanks to all the shit you've stirred up, it'll probably last 'til late tonight."

"…Alright, then," Kagome said, a bit baffled at the quick turn of things. "I suppose I will be going. Might we meet tomorrow? I would like to discuss the Council's reaction to things, and I'm sure we didn't quite cover everything today."

"Fine," Inuyasha said reluctantly.

"Good," Kagome smiled. "I will be going then."

She bowed before turning to leave, oddly pleased that she had managed to secure time with him the next day. The confusing encounter of just moments before had been awfully brief after a slightly more than a week's separation.

In the entryway Kagome paused, a thought occurring to her suddenly. She turned back to find the hanyou staring rather intensely after her. He quickly averted his eyes when she caught him, red dusting the ridges of his cheeks.

"Would you mind if we met somewhere other than your chambers tomorrow, Inuyasha-sama?" she ventured. "Maybe somewhere outdoors? Now that we don't have to bother with such pretenses and all…"

"Whatever," he snorted, staring hard at the wall.

"Good," Kagome responded. "Pick any spot you like and send a servant to tell me, alright? See you then, Inuyasha-sama."

Inuyasha grunted in response, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the wall as he heard her trot out of the room. She certainly sounded pleased with herself. He scowled, wondering how she could be so chipper.

He felt inexplicably unbalanced. At least his stomach had stopped acting up, though. He would really have to look in to picking another cook to prepare his meals.

Nodding to himself, Inuyasha rose to retrieve the document he had been going over before her interruption. As his eyes scanned the pages unseeingly, he tried to recall the last time anyone had done anything for him simply because they wanted to.

He could hardly recall a single instance. Kagome's straightforward grey eyes seemed to pierce him once more, and his heart twinged oddly in his chest again.

The hanyou growled. Now he had heartburn, as well. He made a mental note to definitely find a new cook.

Chapter Text

 


After her meeting with the hanyou, Kagome decided that it was about time to pay a visit to Miroku and Sango. Oddly elated, she only just managed to keep her pace properly sedate as she left the confines of the Dairi and headed towards Sango's residence.

It began to snow lightly as she made her way, scattered flakes drifting slowly down from the darkened sky to dust the pathways and tops of buildings. Kagome reveled in it, loving the crisp, clean feel that the air always seemed to take on when it snowed.

Unfortunately it also brought out several groups of court women, admiring the gently floating flakes as they strolled about beneath their light paper parasols. Kagome did her best to avoid these groups, though with little success.

Each time she happened to stumble into the path of the women they would all freeze, as if seeing a wandering spirit emerge from the light drifts of snow. They regarded her with painted eyes that were at once skeptical and nearly awed.

Slowly, ever so slowly and uncertainly, they would bend in the slightest of bows to her. Without a word Kagome would return it, though she was rather at a loss as to whether or not it was still appropriate for her to bow to them.

Hurriedly she would then be on her way once more, conspiratorial whispers rasping along on the air behind her. Still she was pleased, despite the disconcerting nature of the women's new behavior. That they would bow, that they would consider her with such attentive eyes, meant at least that they were thinking seriously of all she had done. Most definitely a good sign.

Even so she resolved herself to being wary for a time. The feelings they expressed before her may very well not be the same things they felt when in the privacy of their own circles. The tide of opinion was, as she had learned from the rumor scandal, fickle and easily reversed.

At length she reached the Tachibana residence. She was allowed immediate entrance, despite her lack of invitation. A servant led her to a back quarter of the residence where Sango was sitting with the cousin that Kagome had met at the outing with the court women.

The two, to Kagome's surprise upon her entrance, were polishing weapons. It looked a bit absurd, two women in such fine dress and elegant ornaments with hulking weapons in their laps.

Despite her joy at once more being able to see Sango, Kagome was slightly disappointed. With the cousin present there was no way that she could speak freely. Still she put on a smile for them both and embraced Sango warmly when the woman rose to greet her.

For a time the three sat and chatted idly about this and that as the two taiji-ya continued their work. The subject of the court meeting and Kagome's vision was skirted around tactfully by all, none of them quite knowing how to approach the subject while in the confines of such company. Still Sango managed to send Kagome a few looks that told the miko clearly that they would find time later to discuss it.

At length Sango rose, placing the weighty, gleaming Hiraikotsu back on the wall alongside the rest of the clan weapons with an ease that was astounding to behold in such a slight frame. She left for a moment to instruct a servant to bring tea and summon the houshi from his residence, as she assumed he would also like to see Kagome again.

He arrived just after the tea was served, and the four whiled away the remainder of the morning and all of the afternoon with good food and easy conversation. Kagome enjoyed the time, despite not being able to thank Miroku and Sango for their part in the resolution of the rumor or to talk to them about the vision. Sango's cousin proved to be quite the sensible, straightforward woman, and it was nice for the miko to allow her mind to be at ease for a time.

As afternoon began to creep into evening she had to ask for their pardon. She needed to organize a few things before her meeting with the Tennō the next morning. Reluctantly they allowed her to go with kind words and the promise to meet again, Miroku and Sango pulling her aside momentarily to promise that they would find time to talk more intimately later.

She returned to the Dairi after a few more awkward encounters with courtiers out strolling in the snow. For a time she stopped within the confines of the Dairi’s walls to admire the light layer of snow that now lay in a thin coat over the land.

The world always seemed to stretch on forever when it was covered in such a white, and more than ever she felt that she could understand the oneness of things during such times. Lightly she shuffled her feet to leave tracks as she went, marking her own little place in the grand scheme of things.

At length, her fingers and toes having gone numb at the tips, she reached Kikyou's residence and returned to her new room within it. As a passing thought she wondered if she should perhaps go to see the future Empress that she might clear up her new situation with her. She hesitated, though, uncertain if she was really ready to face the imposing woman.

Certainly the future Empress had seemed to accept her vision without objection during the women's outing and had even been one of the major reasons that the vision had been a success. Still Kagome understood well enough what a sharp woman Kikyou was, and she was not yet confident she could face those unyielding brown eyes without faltering.

In the end she merely returned to her new room in the residence, deciding it was best to let that meeting happen whenever it would happen. Hopefully by that time her footing would be steadier as far as the reactions in the court were concerned.

In the safety and privacy of her new, rather lavish room she pulled out the lists she had compiled while in isolation. She stepped back out for a moment to ask a servant to have a brush and ink stone brought to her before returning to organize the papers and review what she had written.

When the servant brought the requested materials she began to make a few notes here and there, just little things that she had noticed or remembered since she had first written the list. At length she set her work aside that the ink might dry for a time, catching another servant to request that dinner be brought.

She smiled to herself as she ate the meal in silence. Surely Inuyasha would have to give her credit for such efforts, even if he was still a bit upset over the vision. She could hardly wait to show him all of the hard work she had put in.

When she finished her food, she returned the tray and dishes to a servant before going back to reorganize her dried papers. She folded them up and tucked them away neatly beneath her pillow.

A servant came in to prepare her for bed as she finished up, and Kagome realized suddenly that she had managed to while away her entire day. She was surprised also by the servant, asking the woman who had sent her.

The woman looked puzzled for a bit before replying that no one had sent her. It was only proper, she said, that someone of her station should be readied always by attendants. The only reason they had not dressed her that very morning was due to the fact that she had risen and left so early on her own.

After that she submitted quietly to the woman's attentions as she dressed her, combed out the length of her hair, and washed her face and hands. The prospect of being prepared every morning and evening by servants was not a particularly appealing one, though she supposed she should be glad to be treated with such honor.

Still it seemed rather troublesome. She made a mental note to ask Inuyasha if there was any way around it.

She thanked the woman and bid her goodnight as she finished her task and departed. Blowing out several lanterns scattered throughout the room, Kagome crawled into her futon. She shifted onto her side to watch the snow dancing just outside one of the high windows of her room, absently grinning as she reflected on what was to come the next morning.

Finally things seemed to be moving in the direction she had hoped for. She could not help but think that soon she and Inuyasha would be able to really start fixing things.

Her last thought was to wonder where exactly Inuyasha  would decide to meet with her, before she slipped off into a peaceful slumber.


A servant woke her the following morning as the sun was beginning to climb into the sky. She informed her that a servant from the Tennō was waiting for her to get ready that he might bring her to meet with his Majesty.

Kagome rose and submitted once more to the attentions of a servant, requesting only that she be allowed to wear miko robes rather than a juni-hito. The servant did not question this, and Kagome was happy to realize that her new position as a court spiritualist would allow her to get away with wearing miko robes much more often. It was a relief to know she would be able to avoid the accursed restriction of a juni-hito for a time.

She refused breakfast when it was offered to her, not particularly hungry and not wanting to keep Inuyasha waiting too long for her. Tucking her papers away into the front of her robes, she went out to the gate of the residence to where she was told his servant was waiting.

To her surprise she found Hojo Akitoki there, fiddling anxiously with the sode of his light guard armor. He looked up as she arrived, his face flushing happily before he bobbed in an ungainly sort of bow.

"Good morning, Kagome-sama."

"Good morning, Akitoki-sama," Kagome said, bowing in return. "I apologize for making you wait. You are the one the Tennō-sama sent to fetch me?"

Pink tinged the tips of the young guard's ears, his expression turning still more bashful. He gave her a small, shy smile.

"No, actually," he replied sheepishly. "His Majesty had assigned a different guard to do it really. But that guard was talking about it during our watch together last night, and I asked if I might do it in his stead. I…well, I wanted to see you."

He managed to raise his head to look her in the eye, his expression acutely embarrassed yet oddly sincere. Kagome faltered, certain that something important was going on but uncertain exactly what it was. She settled for the most sensible explanation after a moment.

"You wanted to check on me after the court incident, right?" she said, offering him a smile. "Thank you, Akitoki-sama. You really are very kind."

Akitoki's expression fell slightly, though he managed still to smile weakly. The young guard was not one to be easily turned from his chosen course.

"Not at all, Kagome-sama," he said. "After all, I would like you to be able to depend on me. Shall we go, then? His Majesty wishes to meet with you in one of his personal gardens along the edge of the Kenreimon gate."

"Ah, yes. I should not keep the Tennō-sama waiting long. Lead the way, please."

Akitoki bowed slightly and started off in the general direction of the Jijūden, Kagome at his side. He stole shy glances at her as they went, admiring the fineness of her features in the light of early morning.

"Are you not tired, Akitoki-sama?" Kagome asked as they went. "You said you had watch last night, and then to get up so early just to fetch me this morning. Truly I am sorry to be such a burden."

"Rising early and remaining awake late into the night are things I am accustomed to as a guard, Kagome-sama. And it is hardly as if you asked me to go to any trouble," Akitoki said good-naturedly. "I wanted to do something for you. Even if I was tired, I would gladly rise early to see you."

Kagome laughed slightly, covering over her uncertainty. Again there was that nagging feeling that she was not quite catching something important. And the look in his eyes, that devoted sort of concentration, was familiar somehow. She struggled to recall where she had seen it before.

"Truly you are too kind to me, Akitoki-sama," she said at last. "I wonder, how long have you been working in the service of his Majesty?"

"Oh, I have been working as an imperial guard since I was fifteen, though I have been training since I was about thirteen," Akitoki answered. "Since I am a second son, and the son of a lesser clan, at that, I have to work for my place in this court."

"That is something," Kagome said admiringly. "All that hard work, I mean. And you say since you were fifteen? How old are you now, Akitoki-sama? Somehow I thought we were close in age."

"I will turn twenty one next season, Kagome-sama. My parents…are beginning to encourage me to find a bride," the young guard ventured, rather boldly in his opinion.

"Is that so?" asked Kagome, quietly surprised at the age difference between them. "Kaede-sama always told me that men of the court did not usually consider marriage until they reached their thirties. I suppose it is different for a second son, then?"

"…Yes, Kagome-sama," Akitoki replied, disappointed that she had not so much as blinked to acknowledge the hint.

They were a ways beyond the Jijūden now, having skirted around the building to get behind it. They seemed almost to be entering a snow glazed forest, if not for the well-ordered nature of the foliage. In fact it was a series of large gardens made and kept especially for the use of the Tennō and any of his consorts.

Akitoki thought hard on how he might rally as they walked beneath the branches of the trees on the outer edge of the garden. In the time that they had been apart he had resolved himself, and he refused to give up until he made his intentions clear.

"You know, Kagome-sama," he tried again, swallowing down his embarrassment forcefully. "There is a girl I have in mind."

"For a bride, you mean?" asked Kagome, though her focus had wandered out onto the beauty of the surrounding trees.

"Yes," replied Akitoki, feeling his face heat further despite the chill of the air.

"She must be a lovely court lady, then," Kagome commented, turning a smile on the guard.

"S-she is certainly lovely," stuttered Akitoki. "Though as to her being a court lady…"

He trailed off, allowing her room to fill in the rest. She stared at him for a long moment as they walked, a slight frown creasing her brow. Akitoki held his breath anxiously, waiting for her to come to the logical conclusion.

"Akitoki-sama….by chance, have you…." Kagome said slowly, putting it all together. "You mean you have fallen in love with one of the servants?"

The guard almost fell over. But she was looking at him so seriously. He felt a sharp, quick stab of despair. Was he really so far outside the range of her romantic interests?

But perhaps she was just very unassuming. That was it, he told himself. He would simply have to come straight out and tell her. He came to a halt, turning a burning yet resolved look on her. She stopped as well, her head tilting quizzically.

"K-Kagome-sama," he said with the utmost gravity, and her look turned to one of concern. "I know it is terribly forward and presumptuous of me to say so, however, my feelings-"

"Oi, Kagome! I know you're there! Quit lagging and hurry the hell up!"

Both jumped at the voice booming out from just beyond a nearby line of trees. Akitoki turned a stunned look on her, and Kagome nearly flinched. Silently she cursed the hanyou for his utter lack of sense.

"Kagome-sama, that is not …the Ten-?"

"My apologies, Akitoki-sama!" Kagome cut him off hurriedly. "I really should be going. I will come to visit you later, alright? Thank you so much for the escort!"

She offered him a quick bow before dashing off, leaving the dumbfounded guard to puzzle through things on his own.

Darting beyond the tree line, Kagome ran straight into something solid and fell roughly onto her backside. She sat blinking for a moment, dazed at the sudden impact. As her eyes refocused she saw the wall of red she had crashed into looming before her.

Though it was not so much a wall as a rather irate looking sovereign glaring down at her. For a moment Kagome was tempted to draw back at the blatant ire written across his features, but she quickly came to her senses and returned the glare. He was the one yelling like some ruffian in front of one of the guards that was supposed to revere and respect him.

"Who the hell was that?" growled the hanyou lowly.

"Obviously it was one of your guards, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome returned archly.

"He wasn't the one I sent to get you!"

"Akitoki-sama swapped duties with the other guard because he wanted to see how I was doing."

The words were out of her mouth before she could stop to think them over. She winced slightly as Inuyasha's expression darkened further, realizing that that bit of information might very well get the young guard in trouble.

"He went against my direct orders, huh?" 

"Not really against, Inuyasha-sama, just-"

"I'll have him demoted," the hanyou declared darkly. 

"What? No, Inuyasha-sama! You can't do that! Akitoki-sama got me here, just as you wanted! There's really no reason to be angry!" Kagome pleaded, frustrated.

"He disobeyed me! You want me to just sit there and take it like an idiot when subjects disobey me?"

She bit her tongue, at a loss. He was right. Despite the purity of his intentions, Akitoki-sama had in a sense disobeyed the Tennō. She lowered her eyes, submitting for the moment.

"I apologize, Inuyasha-sama. But please do not punish Akitoki-sama. He was merely concerned about me."

"...Figures that you'd stick up for your new lover, huh?" Inuyasha said lowly, somehow more annoyed than ever despite her deference.

Of course he would be annoyed, he reasoned. It was disgusting, being forced to listen to the two morons coo over each other.

Well, maybe he had not been forced to listen, but with his ears he could hardly avoid overhearing. And anyone would have been pissed off, having to listen to that stammering, bashful idiot of a guard drool all over her!

"Lover?" echoed Kagome, turning uncomprehending eyes up to him.

"Don't play dumb, woman," he snapped. "I could hear you two fawning all over each other like a pair of real idiots!"

"No one was fawning, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome returned, ignoring for the moment the obvious question of exactly how long he had been listening in on them. "Akitoki-sama and I were merely talking. We became friends during the time I was in isolation."

"That's where I know that bastard from!" Inuyasha exclaimed, recalling suddenly. "He was the one who came and asked me to be able to guard you! So you two were just all over each other the entire time, then? You were supposed to be in isolation, not getting cozy with my fucking guardsmen!"

"Well, considering that I can't exactly meditate all day of every day for an entire week, I don't really see what else I was supposed to do!" Kagome returned heatedly. "You are the one, Inuyasha-sama, who threw me into that room for a week with barely an explanation!”

“It's only natural that I would talk with the few people available to me! And Akitoki-sama and I weren't 'all over each other'! It isn't like that at all! You're completely misunderstanding things!"

"The hell it isn't!" the hanyou barked back. "I ain't stupid, Kagome! That fucking idiot was about to declare intent!"

"…Declare intent?" Kagome said, her confusion muffling her ire for a moment.

"Declaring intent, stupid! Telling you he intends to… pursue you," Inuyasha spat as if the word left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

Kagome frowned, replaying her conversation with the guardsmen over in her head. Abruptly something seemed to click. Akitoki’s extreme shyness, his constant blushing, his odd attentiveness, his sudden mention of finding a bride…

"Akitoki-sama isn't…interested in me, is he?" Kagome said wonderingly, though more to herself than to the Tennō.

"What the hell do you think I've been saying, you-!?" Inuyasha exploded. 

The hanyou cut himself off, pausing for a moment. Kagome was staring hard down at the ground now, her expression utterly bewildered. Inuyasha's scowl twisted incredulously.

"…You…really didn't know?" he said after a moment, a small portion of his anger fizzling out.

"But…Akitoki-sama couldn't possibly…" Kagome said, still struggling with the idea despite the sense it made.

"Idiot! How in the seven hells could you not notice?! He was drooling over you almost as bad as that mangy wolf does!" Inuyasha berated her, though without much of his previous ire.

"Well, you'll pardon me, Inuyasha-sama, for not being accustomed to men…pursuing me," Kagome murmured, acutely embarrassed at not having figured it out sooner. "The boys in my village tended to shy away from getting too close to me, after all."

She glared down at the ground, her cheeks warming. That was where she had seen that expression before. Kouga wore it almost all the time that he was around her, or at least some variance of it. Really she had been foolish not to notice it.

And now that she did know, she was at loss as to what to do. Akitoki and Kouga were very different people, so of course she could not handle the situation in the same manner. Akitoki was so kind, it was hard to imagine trying to tell him that she was not interested. Ah, this certainly did make things awkward. So much for having made a new friend…

"Feh. Whatever. Now you know," Inuyasha huffed, tamping down a twinge of curiosity at the mention of her life in the village as his anger all but faded out. "C'mon. We have a lot to discuss."

With one hand he reached down and hoisted her up by the back of her robes. Kagome scowled at the rough treatment, but refrained from commenting. She paused as Inuyasha finally moved out from her direct line of vision, catching sight at last of the area he had chosen for their meeting.

It was surprisingly beautiful. Hardly any place she would have expected him to choose. It was a tiny little snow covered ledge, just the slightest upslope of ground, and it overlooked a rather vast, dark pond. Water lilies and snowflakes dotted the surface of the water here and there, swaying gently. Snow-dusted trees ringed the small clearing and pond as far as her eyes could see.

A couple of layers of silk cloth had been laid out on the top of the ledge for them to sit on. An ornate and over-sized rice paper parasol had been set up on the ground beside the cloths, keeping them clear of snow.

Kagome's eyes slid back to the hanyou beside her curiously. Somehow she could not avoid the feeling that he had picked the spot specially for her benefit. He caught her look and returned it with a scowl.

"What? Got a problem? You're the one who insisted on doing this somewhere other than my chambers," he said defensively, a faint blush dusting the ridges of his cheeks.

"No problems, Inuyasha-sama. It's a lovely spot," Kagome responded, a slight smile dancing at the corners of her lips.

His obvious guardedness when she had done so little to warrant it all but confirmed her suspicions. She felt a pleased little flutter dart through her stomach at the thought.

"Feh," Inuyasha huffed, brushing past her up the slope to flop down rather gracelessly onto the cloths.

Kagome stifled a chuckle and followed his lead. She knelt down onto the cloths, shivering slightly at the feeling of the frozen ground just beneath the thin layers. The miko took a moment to enjoy the view of the surroundings that their position on the ledge afforded before turning to the Tennō.

"How did the Council meeting go?" she asked, starting off with the thing foremost on her mind.

The hanyou snorted, his gaze out on the gently swaying waters of the pond. He shook his head, the twist to his lips taking on a quality of disbelief.

"Fucking strangest meeting I've ever been to," he replied. "They were quiet. The whole damn lot of them, the whole damn time. Just….listening."

"…Isn't that what they're supposed to do, Inuyasha-sama?" Kagome ventured.

"That bunch of wrinkled old bastards? Not a chance in the seven hells," Inuyasha snorted. "They're always trying to pull something. Using their power to press me into delegating funds to grow their personal armies, to expand their properties, to give them more control of incoming and outgoing trade, to give them more authority over the commoners. It fucking never ends with them!"

"But not this time?" Kagome supplied.

"Yeah. Not this time. All of them just sat there with these idiotic looks on their faces, like the kami might strike them down the second they opened their big mouths."

"Ah…Well, what did you tell them while you had their attention, then?"

"Told 'em that I was transferring all of the power of an official court spiritualist to you, and that you'd be working directly for me from now on. Even then the bastards barely flinched."

Kagome stilled, her eyes widening. It was not as if she had not already known this to some extent, but he said it so very casually. It was disconcerting.

"Don't you think this is a little much to give me, Inuyasha-sama? I mean, this and placing me up on the dais alongside Kikyou-sama…" she trailed off uneasily.

"You're the one who fought for it, Kagome. You gonna back down now that you got it?" the hanyou returned challengingly.

"No, Inuyasha-sama, of course not. I'm glad for it, really. It's just…isn't it a lot all at once? It's no small leap to go from being a commoner among nobles to a court spiritualist in direct service of the Tennō-sama," Kagome said softly.

"Like I said, you fought for it. That's something I have to respect. So how about you just shut up and be grateful for once?" Inuyasha huffed.

Kagome went silent, at a loss as to how to respond. This was what she had hoped for. He was willing to trust her with this. No small amount of trust, either. And with the vague idea she had of his history with people, it was made all the more meaningful. Kagome's heart warmed at the thought, and she bowed her head to hide a soft expression that she knew would most likely have earned her Inuyasha's ridicule.

"Thank you, Inuyasha-sama. I will do my best," was all that she could manage, soft and sincere.

"Feh. I know already," the hanyou returned, his tone slightly less gruff than usual. "So?"

"….So what, Inuyasha-sama?" 

"So, you didn't call me out here and ask about the Council meeting just for the hell of, did you?" Inuyasha said. "I'm assuming you actually have something to say about it all. So spit it out."

"Ah, right," Kagome said, forcing her mind back onto the business at hand. "Well, after what you just told me….Hmm. I can't claim to know much about the workings of the Council besides the little that Kaede-sama told me, but it seems to me that now would be a good time to test the waters."

"Test the waters?" Inuyasha echoed, arching a brow.

"I mean….how to put it?" Kagome muttered, chewing at her lower lip in thought. "To see how much ground we have gained, I guess. To see how far they're willing to bend to you now. You've said before that they're uncooperative. I guess I want to be able to judge how well it's all come out, and it seems that the Council might be the best gauge for it."

"….Yeah," answered Inuyasha after a moment of consideration.

"Then, do you have any idea of what we might do exactly to test them? Though I suppose their having accepted my official appointment to the position of spiritualist is a solid place to start from," Kagome mused thoughtfully.

"I already know just what to do," the hanyou said lowly, dark satisfaction bubbling just beneath the words as his scowl curled up wickedly at the corners. "I'll route those damn bastards, the same way they've been routing me since my fucking ascension."

"Route?" Kagome asked.

"Yeah, route. To push something through using force," he said, though the fiendish gleam in his golden eyes said clearly that his mind was still occupied with the thought of finally getting the better of the Council.

"What sorts of things do they 'push through'?" Kagome asked.

Inuyasha shot her a pointed look at the further interruption of his vengeful musings. Kagome frowned in return and leveled a stern look at him, refusing to apologize for her lack of knowledge.

"They push for funding to fit their own agendas, for the allowance of increases in the sizes of their personal armies, for more control over trade routes, for more control in the issuing of laws and decrees," the hanyou ticked off each thing with a clawed finger. "All that shit.”

“It's how they chip away at the Tennō's power. They take all the authority out of the position and I become just a figurehead, easy to off."

"And they've been working at this since your ascension a year ago?" Kagome reflected. "How much have they been able to take from you?"

"A fucking chunk," the hanyou admitted bitterly. "The threat of an army that might or might not listen to me and a few half-assed clans backing me hardly slows those assholes down one damn bit."

"Then they're just biding their time," Kagome said softly, speaking aloud mostly to herself as she puzzled things out. "Stealing power from you bit by bit as their clans recover from the throne war. That way you'll be easy to depose once one of the clans regain enough strength to oppose your supporters with any certainty.”

“Then they'll take the throne without much to block them, already in possession of the authority of the Tennō. They're just waiting for it…"

She trailed off, a cold creeping over her that had nothing to do with the chill in the air. Somehow their position always seemed to be a bit worse than she had thought. She wondered if even her vision could be more than a slight deterrent against such a determined force.

Inuyasha watched the progression of her thoughts across her face from the corner of his eye. She was really too easy to read, slight horror settling over her features as she came to the logical conclusion. It was an unpleasant thing to see on her face.

"I'll push through a decree to cut the size of their personal armies, then," the hanyou said, gratified to see the expression disappear as her eyes shifted towards him.

"What?"

"For the test, wench," Inuyasha continued. "I'll force them each to cut the number of personal soldiers they’re allowed to keep."

Kagome frowned, considering this for a long moment. It would certainly be a test of his influence, but….

"Perhaps you should start with something smaller, Inuyasha-sama," she suggested at length.

"A smaller cut in the numbers?"

"No, just…it seems to me that having military power taken from them is the thing they'd struggle hardest against," she explained. "Even if they were inclined to obey you right now, I don't think they'd be able to accept something so drastic right away."

"Feh. No more than the bastards deserve," Inuyasha huffed, unwilling to give up on the idea of the old men's faces as he told them he would be taking their soldiers from them.

Now that would be something worth going to a Council meeting for. Inuyasha chuckled darkly to himself.

"I know you're eager to get back at them," Kagome sighed, catching the vindictive glint in his eyes once more. "But they took power from you in small bits, right? I think we should do the same, to avoid causing any trouble if possible."

"You mean the way you 'avoided trouble' with your vision scheme," Inuyasha sniped, a little bitter at having his plan ruined. "What should we do then?"

Kagome frowned at the small slight, but chose to ignore it. She took a moment to sort through various ideas, though she already half-knew what it was that she wanted to do.

"Well," she hesitated, realizing there was no real way to say it without coming off as self-serving. "I do have one idea that I think would be suitable. It's certainly minor enough, though it would still prove useful as a small test of power…"

"Spit it out already, Kagome."

"I…want to send funds to the villages in my area that were destroyed by the youkai attacks," Kagome said hurriedly. "It doesn't have to be my village! But a lot of the other villages were hit hard and…"

"What're you getting all worked up about, wench?" the hanyou asked, watching her as she fidgeted uncomfortably.

"I…don't want you to think I have an agenda," Kagome said softly, glancing over at him. "Like the members of the Council, I mean. It's really not like that. I just want-"

"Want to help those villages of yours," Inuyasha cut in, finishing for her. "I already know that. You've been yapping about it since day one."

"I just don't want you to think I'm acting like them again," Kagome admitted, frowning.

It did seem as if she had gained his trust, but it was so new it was rather precarious. If he suspected her of acting like a deceitful courtier again, she would undoubtedly lose the trust she had worked so hard to gain from him.

"Idiot. I gave you a seat on the dais, didn't I?" the hanyou said gruffly. "I mean, I get it now. You and them are like two different breeds."

"But…"

"The vision plot surprised me," Inuyasha interrupted. "I didn't expect that kinda thing from you. But I get it now. You didn't want the power for yourself. You didn't hurt anyone.”

“You're…different, Kagome. I won't make the mistake of lumping you in with them again. So quit your whining already."

It was true. Yesterday's meeting had made him realize clearly enough that he could not dismiss her as just some human, or just some courtier, or even just some woman. He had sensed from early on that Kagome was some kind of oddity, but the previous day's meeting had solidified it for him.

"Ah…Alright, then," Kagome said, her heart fluttering oddly in her chest.

She pressed a hand to it, hoping it would calm down a little. Really, she could not be letting herself get all worked up every time she gained the smallest bit of ground with the Tennō. It was unbefitting of the role she was now supposed to play.

"Now that we've got that crap out of the way," said Inuyasha, recalling her attention and effectively stopping the fluttering. "Did you have specific villages in mind?"

"The ones that were hit by the youkai swarm," Kagome answered. "There were at least four in the area around my village that were almost entirely demolished."

"And do you have an idea of how much they'll need?"

"Rather than sending funds, Inuyasha-sama, I thought it might be more appropriate to send supplies," Kagome said. "You know, food, water, materials for rebuilding houses, maybe seeds to plant a new crop when spring comes around.”

“We don't do much in the way of buying and selling in the villages, you see. Merchants rarely ever pass our way. They know we don't have much in the way of currency, let alone surplus of anything to trade."

The hanyou eyed her for a long moment, considering this. The tan had still not faded entirely from her skin despite the amount of time she had spent in the court, and her eyes seemed to drift far off for a moment. It was not hard to tell that she was thinking of her own little village, and the life she had led there.

Curiosity prodded annoyingly at him once more. What had her life been like there? What had she been like then?

But Inuyasha could not bring himself to ask her any of these things. So he merely gazed at her in silence for a time, as if he might decipher answers from the line of her profile.

After a bit Kagome managed to rouse herself from her musings on the condition of her village and its inhabitants, not having realized she had even fallen into it. She turned a sheepish smile on the Tennō beside her, only to find his gaze trained on her intently.

He turned away quickly, scowling hard out at the waters before them. Kagome frowned quizzically.

"I'll tell the Council we're sending supplies to them and see how it goes," he stated gruffly, red tingeing the ridges of his cheeks. "Anything else?"

"Well, there was something," said Kagome, pressing her hand against the folded piece of parchment in her robes. "But I think I need a bit more time to talk to a few people before I present it to you. Do you mind if we meet again tomorrow?"

"We'd have to anyway," Inuyasha replied. "So I can tell you how the Council reacts. I'm gonna try out the proposition on 'em at today's meeting."

"Alright. This same time tomorrow, then?" Kagome asked, quietly flattered that his first instinct was now to discuss court happenings with her.

"Mmm," the hanyou grunted in agreement.

"Will you go to prepare for the Council meeting now?" asked Kagome, rising to stand.

"I'll go to eat breakfast now," scoffed the hanyou. "I'm hungry as all hell, and those geezers don't deserve my 'preparation'."

Kagome arched her brows wryly at him, making a mental note to start etiquette training with him tomorrow as well. It was high time he learned to carry himself in the manner of a ruler. Or at least in the manner of a civilized, intelligent being.

"I will take my leave for the day then, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome said, bowing. "I have a lot of ground to cover before we next meet."

Inuyasha grunted his assent, watching as she turned and started down the small incline. A thought occurred to him suddenly, and he was on his feet before he even realized it.

"Oi, wench!"

Kagome paused, turning back to look at the hanyou.

"Yes?"

"Where are you going?"

Kagome frowned, confused. 

"I already told you, Inuyasha-sama, I'm going to prepare for tomorrow's meeting-"

"Not that!" he cut her off. "Where are you going? What place?"

"The Tachibana residence," huffed Kagome, uncertain as to the point of the question.

"Oh. Fine, then. Get going," Inuyasha said dismissively, plopping back down and flapping a shooing hand at her.

"Inuyasha-sama-" Kagome said, scowling darkly.

"You said you had a bunch of shit to get done before tomorrow, so get to it," Inuyasha interrupted her again, unwilling to answer the question he knew would follow.

Kagome's jaw clamped shut on an angry retort, her teeth grinding in a decidedly unladylike manner. Must he always be so high-handed with her? With a huff she turned and stomped lightly away, wondering why she had ever been pleased by anything that might come from such a rude man.

Inuyasha watched her go, unrepentant. He had a right to know where she was going to be. And he most certainly had a right to know if she was going to be traipsing around with that idiotic, lovesick fool of a guardsman. It was his right as her sovereign, damn it, and she had no reason to be all huffy about it.

Inuyasha nodded to himself, secure in his own reasoning.


In a slight pique Kagome made her way quickly over the snowy paths to the Tachibana residence. She was allowed entrance without question and shown to a sitting room to await Sango's return.

The noblewoman was not long in coming, though she was rather rumpled and wearing her taiji-ya uniform when she arrived. She protested at attending to a guest in such a state and would have gone to bathe had Kagome not assured her firmly that she did not mind in the least.

Sango had tea and breakfast brought for the both of them to the sitting room, informing Kagome that she had been out with her cousin doing a bit of weapons training. She feared she was getting rusty, she said, since it had been such a long time since her last real field mission.

They chatted idly as they ate. When they had finished and servants had cleared the dishes, Sango finally got around to asking about the reason behind Kagome's visit. The miko promptly pulled from her robes the notes she had made, laying them out before the taiji-ya on the table.

"I know there are a good deal of other things that I still need to discuss with you and Miroku-sama, Sango-sama, but for right now I am afraid that this has to take priority," said Kagome, alluding lightly to both the rumor scandal and her own vision ploy.

Sango was silent for a moment, looking over the list Kagome had handed her. Kagome flushed slightly when the older woman had to squint and bring the parchment closer to her face, wishing she had worked harder at the writing lessons Kaede-sama had given her. At last the noblewoman set the list down, turning her attention back to the girl.

"You are trying to get an idea of the stances of the clans here in court?" she concluded.

Kagome nodded.

"I want to know who can be counted on to support the Tennō-sama and who…" she trailed off, unable to think of any tactful way to finish the sentence.

"You mean, who the Tennō-sama needs to keep a closer eye on," Sango supplied.

Kagome nodded once more, waiting for her to continue.

"Well, in regards to the other matter we need to discuss, I suppose it would be better to wait until the houshi returns," Sango said thoughtfully. "Right now he is out of the court doing a small bit of field work. And I will certainly give you any help I can, Kagome-chan, but I can not claim to be privy to all of the goings on of the court. It is hard to see the forest for the trees, after all."

"Whatever help you can give me will be more than enough, Sango-sama," Kagome assured her gratefully. "I think I have the most basic of concepts of what is going on, but I don't have the leisure of time to form a fuller picture. I thought you could help me there, since you've been raised here and I know I can trust you to give me the straightest truth."

Sango smiled, pleased at this show of faith from her friend. Kagome finally seemed to be finding her balance here in the court and gaining a bit of confidence. She turned her eyes back down to the parchments spread out across the table, scanning them critically. Most of the major clans seemed to be accounted for, along with Kagome's observations of them…

"The Minamoto," Sango put in, tapping the kanji lightly with one finger. "I know a bit about them. They are highly anti-youkai in sentiment. They have been for generations."

"Anti-youkai?" Kagome echoed questioningly, her brows lifting.

"Yes. They aim to keep any blood that is not strictly human away from the throne," the taiji-ya replied. "They believe youkai blood is…impure, if you will."

Kagome frowned, the concept striking her as odd.

 "They think youkai blood is impure? But that does not make any sense. Youkai were created by the kami at the same time as humans, from the same elements in nature. They serve as a counterbalance to humans. How could that be impure?"

"They read the creation story a bit differently than most," Sango explained, shaking her head. "If you have ever read a transcription of the story itself, the writing concerning the creation of humans and youkai is…slightly ambiguous, I suppose.”

“It can be read as most read it, as human and youkai having been created in a counterbalance and complement to one another. However, it can also be twisted a bit to be read to say that youkai were created as the darkness to balance out the light of humanity."

"That…how could that be?" Kagome said slowly, her brow furrowing in consternation. "It might make sense if all youkai were purely evil or all humans were purely good. But…"

Sango shook her head dismissively, one hand flapping in a gesture of decided incomprehension.

 "People will believe what they wish to, Kagome-chan, regardless of logic or sense. The Minamoto have it set in their minds that youkai are impure. It would take a great deal to dissuade them of that notion at this point."

"But some of the Minamoto women were associating with the Taira women at the outing," Kagome pointed out.

"'The enemy of my enemy'..." Sango mused thoughtfully, and then, at the miko's blank look, "I mean, neither the Taira nor the Minamoto clan are in favor of our current Tennō-sama. Considering this, they might for a time set aside their animosity in order to work against his Majesty."

"You think so?" Kagome asked. Absently she began to worry her lower lip with her teeth, considering this.

If the Minamoto and the Taira truly were willing to set aside their differences in order to work against Inuyasha, that meant that two of the major clans in the court were already set solidly against him. That left the Tachibana and the Fujiwara clans to support him.

However, the Tachibana already seemed to have their hands full dealing with the youkai stirring up trouble outside of the court, and the Fujiwara were so thoroughly decimated that they likely had little left to offer.

That left Inuyasha at quite a disadvantage, Kagome reflected darkly. Still, there had to be somewhere to look for support….

"What about the minor clans, Sango-sama?" Kagome voiced at last, raising her eyes to meet her friend's expectant gaze. "What can you tell me about them?"

Sango frowned thoughtfully for a moment before rising. She slid open the shoji screen that connected the room to the hall, calling out for a servant. One appeared promptly and Sango asked her to fetch a brush and inkstone. The servant nodded and disappeared down the hall to obey.

She returned quickly, handing the implements off to the noblewoman with a bow before setting off again. The taiji-ya resumed her seat at the low table, motioning for Kagome to come sit beside her.

The miko complied, watching as the noblewoman began to sketch out row after row of elegantly flowing Kanji alongside her own messy scrawl. Absently she admired the woman's skill as she watched the words sweeping across on the page.

"There are literally hundreds of minor clans within the court," Sango spoke as she worked, pausing every now and then to dip her brush back into the inkwell. "I cannot claim to know all of them, or even to have in depth knowledge of most of them.”

“However, the minor clans do tend to group rather conveniently for our purposes beneath the major clans. They rely on us for support and power, you see, and we, in turn, rely on them for the same. Minor clans can also aspire to gain more influence in the court by allying themselves with the proper major clans, the ones in a position to gain favor with the Tennō-sama.”

“Beneath the Minamoto clan, as you might imagine, are minor clans composed mostly of humans. From what I can recall, the Mononobe, Nakatomi, Soga, Kusakabe, and Hojo clans associate most closely with them."

Kagome nodded at this, though she was surprised to learn that Akitoki's clan was associated with the Minamoto. He had always sounded so very eager to serve the Tennō as one of his soldiers. Perhaps, though, he was not of a mind with the rest of his clan. The miko made a mental note to talk to him about this when they next met.

"Next are the Taira clan," Sango continued, her brush moving rhythmically over the page. "As we have established, their clan is composed mostly of full youkai. They have little tolerance for mixed breeds or humans. Thus the minor clans that they allow to associate with them are composed mostly of youkai, as well.”

“Chief among the minor clans that support the Taira are the Ki, Abe, Hashiji, and Ō clans. As far as I know, that is. While the Taira are certainly the most vocal of the clans opposing his Majesty, they are remarkably good at keeping secret those they associate with. Very few outside the clan are privy to any knowledge of their movements at any given time."

"Then the Taira clan might have a number of other clans at their disposal that no one else is aware of?" Kagome asked. Sango nodded.

"They would be the ones to keep the closest eye on," the taiji-ya said, her expression darkening slightly. "It is hard to be certain, but I think they have been able to recover most quickly from the throne war."

Kagome sighed, having vaguely guessed at this much already. She would need to work on finding some insight into the Taira, some way to gain access to their inner workings. The only problem with that, she lamented silently, was that she had absolutely no clue how to go about doing it.

Sango, reading the gloomy turn of her thoughts across her face, offered up a tentative smile to her friend.

"How about we take a break for a bit?" she suggested, setting her brush down atop the inkstone. "It is a lot to take in all at once, and the only clans left to go over are the ones that I know to be in support of his Majesty."

Kagome mirrored her friend's smile with a small one of her own, grateful for the offer. Her head was beginning to feel a bit heavy with names and associations and planning.

"Just for a little while," she assented. "We can return in a bit to finish up."

"Good," Sango said, bringing her hands together decisively. "And I know just where we can go to relax. To the bath house!"

Kagome chuckled, her mood lightening instantly at the noblewoman's enthusiasm.

"That's been in the back of your mind this entire time, hasn't it, Sango-sama?" Kagome accused lightly.

Sango gave an airy little shrug, her lips quirking upwards a bit guiltily. "I was out practicing for hours before I came here. I must smell badly enough to offend the kami by now."

This had Kagome laughing outright, her hand coming up to cover her mouth as she shook with mirth. Sango's smile widened, her goal accomplished. Kagome continued to try to take quite a lot of work upon her shoulders, and the noblewoman was glad to be able to ease her worries even just temporarily. She wanted to be able to support her friend.

"If you are done laughing at me, then let us go," Sango suggested. Kagome left off laughing, turning mirth-bright eyes on her.

"Yes, of course…Thank you, Sango-sama."


Despite Kagome's best intentions, the two did not return to their work that night. They spent an exorbitant amount of time in the baths, laughing and chatting the time away as they cleansed themselves.

Afterwards Sango insisted that they go for a walk, as it had once again begun to snow and she wished to use her new parasol. Kagome agreed easily enough, both happy to be in the taiji-ya's company and reluctant to return to their earlier task.

She also realized that the older woman was trying her best to help ease her mind for a bit. She was touched by the effort.

Thus they whiled away the remainder of the day and a portion of the night strolling the pathways of the court. By the time they were finished the snow was piled nearly ankle-deep and showed no signs of stopping that night. Kagome parted warmly from Sango at the Tachibana residence, heading back to the Dairi and her own room in Kikyou's residence.

As she lay down to sleep, a fleeting glance out her window reminded her that the new moon was only a few nights away. Kagome fell asleep smiling.


A ray of morning sunlight slanting across her closed lids roused Kagome the next morning. She stirred groggily, recalling vaguely in her morning haze that she had to meet with Inuyasha.

She forced herself up out of bed and summoned a servant to aid her in dressing. Eating a quick breakfast as the woman worked on her, Kagome made a mental list of all the things she needed to go over with the hanyou. She tucked her notes into the front of her robes, as well, to show to him.

After thanking the servant woman she set off toward the Jijūden, trudging through the thick blanket of snow that coated the pathway. She hugged the thick karaginu draped over her miko robes closer to herself, grateful to the serving woman for having insisted she wear it. Scattered flakes still drifted haphazardly down from the grey morning sky and it was freezing out.

She made her way quickly through the gardens, the Shishinden, and over across the water walkway. A guard stopped her before she could enter Inuyasha's chambers in the Jijūden.

"His Majesty requested that I send you back to his private gardens," he explained with a bow. "The Tennō-sama informed me that you might find his Majesty in the same place as yesterday morning."

"Oh," Kagome said, a pleased grin turning up her lips. "Thank you. I will go find his Majesty there."

She returned his bow and started off around the edge of the building, her steps light as she went. It was rather cold to be meeting outside, but she had really liked the spot he had picked for them yesterday.

She entered the gardens and started in past the trees. Vaguely she recalled the path she had taken the day before, finding it again after several moments of searching. It led her straight back to that same small incline, a familiar red-clad figure gazing out at the icy waters of the large pond from the top.

"Inuyasha-sama!" she called, a grin stretching her face as he turned to look at her. "Good morning!"

He merely raised a dark, heavy brow in response to her cheer as she made her way up the slope, taking her place beside him beneath the large parasol. The blanket he had had set out for them to sit on was much thicker this time, she noted gratefully.

"I hope I did not keep you waiting long," she said, reaching into her robes to pull out the folded parchment. "You did not send a guard to fetch me this time."

"Didn't need to give the bastard any more opportunities," the hanyou muttered, so lowly she barely heard him.

"What?" she asked, looking up.

"Nothin'," he returned quickly, and then pointed at the papers in her hand. "What're those?"

"My notes," Kagome said, holding them up a bit sheepishly. "I have been compiling them from what I have been able to see here so far. Sango-sama helped me, too. They're not very comprehensive, though…"

Inuyasha plucked the parchment from her hands, unfolding it to scan through quickly. Kagome watched his eyes dart over the pages, absently biting her lip. She hoped he would approve of her efforts.

"This…you got all this in the time you've been here?" Inuyasha voiced at length, his eyes darting once more over the combination of what was obviously Kagome's sloppy kanji intermixed with someone else's neat script.

He looked almost impressed, the usual surly set of his features softening around the edges. Kagome preened inwardly, her eyes brightening as she observed him.

"Like I said, Sango-sama helped me. I did not know almost anything about the workings of the minor clans," she offered modestly, feeling rather giddy.

"This is good, Kagome," he offered at length, raising his eyes to meet hers.

He jerked back slightly at the look on her face, taken off guard. She looked so…happy, cheeks pink and grey eyes warm as they rested on him. He felt his own cheeks heat to match and turned hastily away with a cough.

"W-What about the Tachibana and the Fujiwara?" he stuttered, waving the pages at her in his agitation.

"I have to go back and meet with Sango-sama again before I can say anything for certain," Kagome replied. "But I believe I would be safe in saying that you have the support of those clans."

The hanyou's disconcertion dissipated as he considered this, nodding slowly.

"Yeah. The old men in the Council from those clans don't try to pull too much crap. Still obnoxious as hell, though."

Kagome raised her brows at him, her lips pursing in slight disapproval.

"I hardly think you're in a position to be complaining about your supporters, Inuyasha-sama," she chastised lightly.

He huffed unrepentantly, but something in his expression sobered. Kagome bit her lip, berating herself for having killed the pleasant mood so quickly.

"We're still at a loss," the hanyou said at last, his look becoming darkly contemplative. "The Fujiwara've got almost nothing left to offer. And the Tachibana ain't exactly at the height of their power anymore, either."

"…No, they're not," Kagome assented softly, her eyes falling to the blanket beneath them. "But…I mean, it's something, isn't it? We're figuring out where we stand, at least…"

She trailed off weakly, risking a glance up at him from beneath her lashes. His expression was distant, though, and she sighed. Absently she fiddled with her the sleeves of her karaginu, casting about in her mind for something to bring him back to the conversation.

"Sango-sama thinks the Taira clan is our biggest threat," she settled on at last, recalling the things she had reminded herself to tell him earlier. "I would have to agree. That Taira Kagura woman has tried to cause trouble every time I have seen her. And Sango-sama says that she believes they are recovering themselves the fastest."

"The Taira clan…?" the hanyou echoed, dragging his attention forcefully back into the present. "…Yeah. Makes sense. The bastards made their feelings about my 'dirty blood' pretty damn clear from the moment I was announced successor. They don't push for too much in the Council, though. Mostly just work at blocking anything I try to do."

Kagome looked up at him, frowning as she mulled over this new snippet of information. Something never quite seemed to add up about the Taira clan, as if she were missing some critical piece…

"I will work at getting an in with the Taira clan, somehow," Kagome murmured, as much to herself as to Inuyasha. "We need a direct link to them. We need to know what they are up to…."

She trailed off thoughtfully, and the hanyou observed as her brow furrowed in concentration and her gaze turned inward. She looked troubled, frustrated as she attempted to work through the problem all on her own.

He was struck by the urge to offer her something. Anything. With possibly the exception of his mother, no one had ever worked so hard for him. Given so much to help him. And all that Kagome got for her trouble was more trouble. Every odd was stacked against him and she stuck with him anyway.

Kagome deserved better, fool girl that she was. He wanted to give her something.

"I pushed through for the supplies in the Council," he blurted, and her eyes flew up to meet his as she was torn from her thoughts.

"Huh?" she returned inelegantly.

"The supplies for those little villages of yours," he returned. "I told the Council yesterday that I was going to send them supplies from the capital so that they could start rebuilding. The old men didn't put up much of a fight over it."

Kagome's mouth slipped open a little bit. 

"Really?"

Inuyasha nodded, something lifting in his chest at the dawning look of hope in her face.

"Yeah. There're already some workers out fixing up the Taira clan branch house that got destroyed, so I sent word to them to head towards the villages to do a survey of the area. Word should come back from them of what they'll require to make repairs in a few weeks, and then I'll send out whatever they need."

Kagome was silent for a long stretch, merely staring at him. And then her face crumpled a bit, a suspicious sheen gathering along the fringe of her dark lashes. Inuyasha flinched, panic spiking through him.

"O-Oi-!"

"Thank you," Kagome cut across his protests, her voice cracking. "Thank you, Inuyasha-sama. I know Miroku-sama told me it wasn't my fault, but I've felt so guilty. Thank you."

"G-Guilty?" the hanyou echoed, put off by her reaction.

She nodded, a breathless little laugh escaping her. "T-the villages…it was my aura that drew the rampaging youkai to the area. It was my fault they got destroyed in the first place."

"Kagome…" he said, his expression sinking into a frown. She had been carrying that with her all this time, too?

"But it's alright now. You fixed it," Kagome pressed on, a few tears escaping her despite how she fought them back. The whole of her guilt and shame and relief and gratitude seemed to be rushing to the forefront in a confusing torrent.

Something inside the hanyou constricted at the sight of her, small and vulnerable like a child, and he scooted tentatively towards her across the blanket. Slowly, ever so slowly, he placed a clawed hand on the top of her head, giving her an awkward pat. He could vaguely recall his mother doing the same to comfort him when he was small.

She peeked up at him, sniffling. A wobbly smile crept over her features. His heart lurched uncomfortably.

"Thank you," she said softly.

"Feh. You said that already," Inuyasha muttered, flushing.

Kagome chuckled, swiping at her eyes. 

"So I did. I meant it, though."

"You mean everything you say," Inuyasha scoffed, rolling his eyes. "That's what makes you so weird."

She laughed again, the sound lighter this time. 

"I feel like I should take offense at that."

Inuyasha shrugged, a smirk tilting up one corner of his mouth. There, he'd taken care of that.

"This is good, though, isn't it?" she said hopefully after a beat, slowly recollecting herself. "That the Council would bow to you so easily must be a good sign, right?"

Inuyasha nodded. "Seems that way."

"You should keep at it, then," Kagome suggested eagerly. "Try for something else at the next Council meeting. Something bigger."

He considered this for a minute, eyes narrowing in thought.

"I could restrict residence visits. Limit the amount of time they're allowed to spend off at their outside residences," he put in, looking to her.

"That's perfect!" Kagome enthused, beaming up at him. "It's still relatively small and unobtrusive, but it serves as a way to keep them close and monitor them when they do leave."

He swelled a bit at the praise from Kagome, sitting up straighter. "Yeah. Exactly."

"Good," she said approvingly, nodding in agreement. "You'll do that at the next Council meeting and then you can tell me how it goes. Though, I do wish there were some way to get a fuller idea of how things are going over since my vision. I'm guessing the Council is a rather small number of people to estimate the entire court's opinion from?"

"Yeah," Inuyasha agreed. "There ain't that many old men on the Council, however much noise they're able to make. And it's mostly only made up of members from the major clans."

"Maybe I will go visit Sango-sama again, then," Kagome mused. "She might be able to help me come up with something."

She turned her gaze up to meet his, intending to ask to be dismissed that she might get back to work. The words froze on the tip of her tongue, though, when she found golden eyes much closer to her own than she had anticipated. There was a slight weight on her head, as well. His hand, she realized dazedly.

They were close enough for their frosted breath to intermingle in the cold air. Kagome felt a hot flush sweep through her from head to toe, but she could not seem to bring herself to move. Her conscious mind seemed to shut down entirely. She was caught, a moth to a flame.

Inuyasha, for his part, had merely been leaning over to swipe at a dragonfly that had been hovering annoyingly close to her head. She caught him off guard, turning her face up towards his so suddenly.

He was struck dumb by the mercurial grey eyes so close to his own, her features more impossibly delicate up close than he could have imagined. He noticed suddenly the softness of her hair beneath the hand he had neglected to remove. She…smelled nice….

A loud squawking abruptly rent the still air and the two figures jerked apart. Kagome blinked in consternation at the hanyou for a long moment, feeling as if she were emerging out of some sort of strange haze. Her heart beat a frantic tattoo in the cage of her chest, and her face burned hot against the cold air of the morning.

She scrambled up suddenly, bowing jerkily to the Tennō.

"I-If you'll excuse me, Inuyasha-sama, I h-have a few things that I need to attend to," she managed to get out.

"Y-Yeah, go," Inuyasha returned, at a loss. What the hell had just happened?

Kagome bobbed another awkward bow and, without another word, turned and nearly fled toward the Tachibana clan residence.


By the time she reached the front gate of the residence Kagome had managed to calm herself a bit. She paused there, taking in a deep lungful of biting air. It sobered her, and at last she could feel her blush beginning to fade.

In all her fifteen years of life she had never experienced anything quite like that. Like being caught inexorably up in some force she could hardly comprehend. She had thought her heart was trying to work its way out through her throat, the way it was pounding. And all over a simple look….

She shook her head forcefully, fighting back another flush that threatened to warm her face. Whatever that was, it had been a fluke. Pure chance and oddity. And she certainly did not have time to be entertaining such thoughts when there was so much else to be done.

Resolving firmly not to think about it anymore, the miko stepped through the front gates and into the residence. She walked in through the main entryway, entering one of the many hallways. A small group of servants was gathered a ways down the hall and she turned towards them. They bowed deferentially at her approach.

"Do you happen to know where Sango-sama is?" she asked. "I would like to speak with her, if possible."

"Our Ladyship has gone beyond the Outer Wall to practice," replied one of the men. "I can take you to her, if you wish, Miko-sama."

"Is she with anyone? I would not want to interrupt," Kagome said, though it was a bit of a half-truth. She did not want to interrupt, but she also could not speak with Sango about the matters she wished to in the presence of an outsider.

"I believe the houshi Shingon Miroku-sama is accompanying her," put in a servant woman.

"Oh, he has returned?" Kagome said, her face lighting at the news. "Then, if one of you would not mind…"

The man who had first spoken nodded. 

"I will accompany you, Miko-sama."

He bowed once more before gesturing for her to follow him. He led her back out of the residence, winding around the outer wall of the premises. A few twists and turns among various residences brought them to the Inner Wall, which they passed through without comment from the guard.

The area between the Outer and Inner Wall turned out to be more densely populated than the miko had expected. Courtiers, merchants, servants, and guardsmen milled about everywhere in the snow, a flurry of life and activity.

Several courtiers stopped in the midst of their business at the sight of the miko as she went, bowing to varying degrees in acknowledgment of her. Kagome returned these gestures with a nod of her own, feeling vaguely self-conscious at the attention. Still she straightened her shoulders and schooled her features into a look of impassive dignity, unconsciously mimicking the look Kikyou wore at all times.

They reached the Outer Wall and were allowed passage by the gate guards, stepping out into the forest that surrounded the Northern Entrance of the Heian-kyō. The serving man led her a bit of the way into the trees before halting, gesturing for her to continue forward with a bow.

There were three serving women standing there amidst the trees, and they dipped quick bows to her as Kagome passed. Chaperones, she realized, to make certain there was no seeming of impropriety in the taiji-ya being out alone in the woods with the houshi. With a wry twist to her lips, Kagome wondered why that notion had never crossed her mind before the scandal with Kouga.

There was a sudden yell from the trees just beyond her and she jumped, her heart leaping in surprise. She pressed a hand to it, rushing forward between the trees. Berating herself for not having thought to bring her bow, she prayed that her friends were alright-

Only to skid to a halt at the sight that greeted her. It was merely Miroku and Sango in the wide clearing, locked together in combat as the noblewoman pressed an attack with her wakizashi. He deflected her strike with his shakujou, the rings clanging as he caught the blow with the sturdy shaft of the staff.

Sango pushed her assault, her features tightening as threw her weight behind her blade in a bid to overpower him. Miroku seemed to bend under the weight of her force, one foot sliding back as she heaved forward. A moment later, though, Sango pressed too far forward, and the houshi quickly turned his backward feint up and under to throw the off-balance taiji-ya back.

Sango stumbled for a moment, but then pivoted on her heel and used her momentum to jump back to a safe distance. She faced the houshi again, her wakizashi poised as she circled him intently for an opening.

Kagome was frozen where she stood, awed at what was playing out before her. Oddly enough it was not the impressive display of skill that most caught her attention. While they were truly something to behold in their obvious prowess with their respective weapons, it was the expressions on both faces that Kagome was nearly entranced by.

They both looked so…happy. Perhaps that was too mild a word for the glow that lit both the face of the noblewoman and the man, but it somehow seemed both simple and complex enough to fit.

They were focused entirely on one another as they struck and parried and duck and wove in a dance so intricate that it might have come down from the kami themselves. Only the two of them seemed to exist in the whole world, and it seemed that was more than enough for the both.

It was beautiful. And somehow…intimate, she reflected. She felt guilty, as if she had stumbled in upon something very private. She took a step back, thinking to escape before she was noticed.

Miroku, however, caught sight of her. He looked dismayed for a moment, but quickly covered it over with a too-wide welcoming grin. Sango, catching the direction of his gaze, turned as well. A look of disappointment flashed across her features before she could hide it, and Kagome felt another twinge of guilt.

"I-I am sorry to interrupt," she called meekly.

"Not at all, Kagome-chan. It is good to see you after such a long time," Miroku greeted her warmly, coming over to embrace her.

She allowed the embrace warily, glad when he did not attempt anything. Sango seemed to have composed herself by the time they parted, sheathing her wakizashi smoothly and coming over to greet the younger girl with a smile.

"Kagome-chan, what are you doing out here? Houshi-sama and I were just training a bit. He returned this morning from his errand," she explained.

And had come straight to see her upon his return, Kagome noted silently. That which she had always vaguely suspected of the two was fast blooming into a certainty.

"I needed to speak with you again, Sango-sama," was all that she voiced. "I'm glad to find you back, as well, Miroku-sama. Did your errand go well?"

"The troublesome nest was successfully eradicated," he responded easily. "Though I missed dearly the company of the two finest women in the court while I was way."

Sango and Kagome shared a wry look, smiling crookedly at one another. Kagome chuckled softly, her guilt easing.

"Well, then, all airy flatteries aside," Sango said, with a pointed glance at the houshi. "What was it you needed to discuss, Kagome-chan?"

"Ah, well-"

"Pardon me, Tachibana-sama," a servant said, emerging from the trees behind them. The three turned to face her.

"I am sorry to interrupt, but there is a messenger here for you," the servant resumed, bowing. "He says he is from the Tennō-sama, and that the message is important."

Sango frowned, turning a quizzical look on the miko. Kagome shook her head, her expression mirroring the older woman's.

"Allow him forward," Sango instructed the servant. The woman nodded, motioning to a man standing behind her.

The messenger came forward, bowing to Sango and offering up a folded piece of parchment. The noblewoman took it with a word of thanks and the messenger bowed once more before taking his leave.

Miroku and Kagome both crept closer to the woman as she unfolded the note, coming to stand just behind her as she read. From over her shoulder Kagome could see that the note read, in a rough scrawl:

We are aware your father and brother will be returning soon from their mission outside the court. It is Our desire that a celebration should be thrown upon their return. We leave to you the arrangements, ordering only that the whole of the court be in attendance. Our funds are at your disposal for the time being.

The note was stamped with a wax seal depicting Amaterasu, marking it as a true missive of the Tennō. Kagome only just managed to keep from gaping openly. She felt a small flutter of pride at the obvious work the hanyou had put into the note even as she wondered at its purpose.

"You did not ask the Tennō-sama to throw a celebration in honor of the return of my father, did you, Kagome-chan?" Sango asked, sounding mildly mortified at the idea as she scanned the note once more.

"No, no. I did not even know your father and brother would be returning soon," she replied, shaking her head.

"Truly?" the noblewoman asked, glancing up at her. "His Majesty must have quite the memory, then, to keep track of such matters…but why a celebration?

"Your father is the head of the Tachibana clan, Sango-sama," Miroku supplied. "And he has been away for quite some time now. Still, a court-wide celebration does seem a bit much…"

A thought struck Kagome at his words. Court-wide. As in, the entire court in one place at one time. A perfect opportunity for observation…

A grin of dawning realization spread across her face, almost giddy in nature. He was doing it for her. He was offering her up the opportunity she wanted. He had been thinking of her. She could not contain a happy little laugh that bubbled up, raising her hand to cover her mouth.

"Kagome-chan?" Miroku said, catching sight of her face. "Do you know something about this?"

Kagome nodded, trying to school her features to look at least a bit less silly.

"I spoke with the Tennō-sama this morning, and told his Majesty that I would like an opportunity to observe the entire court all at once, if possible," she explained. "I believe this is his Majesty's way of offering me that opportunity."

"That's rather clever," Sango said, her brow furrowing thoughtfully. "Inviting all the clans to intermingle under the pretense of a celebration. It might get them to lower their guards a bit."

"And here I was under the vague impression that his Majesty was not the brightest star in the sky, if you will," mused the houshi.

"I suppose his Majesty has his moments," Kagome said, the grin stretching inexorably across her face again. He was working just as hard as she was, and the knowledge fueled further her desire to push forward.

Miroku and Sango exchanged curious glances at the expression on the miko's face. She seemed to glow, lit by some secret warmth from within.

"Does this have anything to do with what you came to speak to me about, Kagome-chan?" Sango asked, waving the paper to recall the girl's attention.

"Yes," she responded, shaking herself mentally. "Though I had meant to come ask you if you could help me think up some way to gather all the courtiers together. I suppose that's taken care of now. There is one other thing, though."

"What is it?"

"The Taira clan," Kagome responded, sobering slightly as she got back to the business at hand. "I need to get some sort of in with them. Some way to gain inside knowledge of their doings. I was hoping the two of you could help me think something up."

Miroku's expression darkened slightly, and he glanced at the line of the trees behind them to make certain none of the servants were close enough to overhear.

"That is a dangerous position to place yourself in, Kagome-chan," he said, his eyes serious as they met hers. "The Taira clan is not to be dealt with lightly. They dislike humans enough as it is. I do not wish to think what they might do should they catch you conspiring against them."

"I'm not conspiring against them," Kagome said. "I'm afraid that they are conspiring. I need to know what they are doing in order to keep them from causing trouble for the Tennō-sama."

"That's too much for you to take on, Kagome-chan," Sango broke in sternly. "I understand that you want to help, but that is too much. You would be putting your life at risk."

"It isn't like I haven't done that already," Kagome replied gently, knowing it was their concern for her that made them fight her. "I know you're both thinking of my safety, and I am sorry to make you worry, but I'm not the priority here. There are much more important things at stake."

Sango looked as if she might argue this point, but seemed to see the truth of reluctantly and bit her lip with a small huff of consternation. Miroku sighed.

"Truly, Kagome-chan, you make things rather difficult," he opined.

"I do hope the Tennō-sama appreciates the lengths you go to. But we will support you nonetheless," Sango put in firmly. "So do try not to keep us in the dark about things. We are always here for you. Do not forget that."

"Thank you," Kagome said, bowing her head in gratitude. "I promise I will try to keep you informed of what I am doing."

"As to the Taira clan, I am not certain we can be of help," Miroku said, looking to Sango.

The noblewoman nodded in agreement. "As Houshi-sama said, the Taira dislike humans. It would be nearly impossible for one to get anywhere near their inner circles. Especially you, with your connection to the Tennō-sama."

"Then it could not be me. And it could not be someone human," Kagome said thoughtfully.

"Only a full youkai would have any luck with this task, I think," Miroku supplied. "Anyone with any sort of mixed blood would not be allowed in."

"A full youkai…" she echoed, turning this over in her head.

Her eyes widened. She knew what to do.

"I've got it!" she exclaimed, surprising both of her companions.

"A way to get in?" Sango asked. Kagome nodded eagerly.

"How?" asked Miroku.

She shook her head. 

"Allow me a bit of time to see if I can make it work, and then I promise I will tell you everything."

Sango frowned disapprovingly. 

"Kagome-chan…"

"Please. Just trust me," she pleaded, clasping her hands imploringly before them.

She was afraid they would not approve if she were to tell them beforehand. But if she could get everything in motion first, they would have no choice but to go along with it despite their reservations.

Miroku and Sango shared a look. He shook his head, and she scowled petulantly.

"As if we could ever hope to stop you," the houshi sighed at last. "But, sooner or later, it would be nice if you could come to rely more on us, Kagome-chan."

"I will. I am certainly relying on you both to put together the celebration," she said earnestly. "I just need to go it on my own for a bit this time."

"Go, then," Sango allowed, waving a hand. "Do what you will, but please be careful. Houshi-sama and I will start on the preparations for the celebration right away."

Kagome beamed at them both, nodding.

"Thank you both. I'm counting on you," she said. "I'll come find you again just as soon as I can get everything worked out."

Ducking in a quick bow, she turned on her heel and started off with purpose.


Sucking in a deep breath, Kagome attempted to collect herself as she sat amongst the roots of the Goshinboku tree. It had taken a bit of inquiring around among the servants, but at length she had managed to find her quarry. She had quickly had a messenger sent off on her errand before coming to the En no Matsubara to wait.

Any moment now, she mused nervously. She wondered what she was going to say in order to get this all to work out. It was asking a lot, she knew, more than she really had any right to ask. Still, it was a plan she could not abandon without trying.

Youki tingled along her sixth sense and Kagome lifted her gaze up from the ground.

He was here.

Kouga strode eagerly over to stand before her and the miko rose to meet him, donning a tentative smile of her own. She was uncertain exactly what sort of ground they were on after what had happened at the women's outing.

The wolf Lord ended that uncertainty for her quickly. He stepped forward, sweeping her into his arms and pressing her close to himself. Kagome squeaked in surprise, having anticipated at least a bit of annoyance at the small trick she had played.

"I'm glad you called for me, Kagome," he said. "I've missed seeing my woman. And this court's boring as hell without you around."

"I-it is good to see you again, too, Kouga-sama. Though I would appreciate it if you would let me go," she returned, gratified when he released her.

At least she had thought a bit ahead this time. The En no Matsubara was empty at the moment, most of the courtiers and servants in their respective residences eating the afternoon meal as she had hoped. Still, they were meeting in a public place in the light of day. There was nothing that could be called scandalous about this meeting, though she would have to take care that they were not overheard.

She smiled up the wolf Lord, uncertain of how to start the conversation off. He returned her look with his usual wolfish grin, ice blue eyes intently taking in her face as if it had been ages since he last saw her.

He stood very close to her, she noted absently. Though, really, he always stood very close to her. He seemed to have little sense for boundaries. Still, his proximity did not rob her of her wits. It did not inspire her heart to pound. Not in the way that it had that morning with-

"I-I need to talk to you about something, Kouga-sama," she said at last, her gaze dropping to her clasped hands as she reined in her wandering thoughts forcefully.

"What?"

Kagome bit her lip, at a loss as to how to continue. It really was too much to ask.

"It's about the kiss, isn't it?" Kouga supplied slyly, and her eyes shot up to meet his. "You want to give me a real one this time. A real reward."

"I gave you a real reward. You never specified what sort of kiss I had to give you," Kagome returned archly, tempted to smile. 

The wolf Lord was always consistent, she would give him that much.

"You're a tough one, Kagome," Kouga said, eyeing her in a rather pleased manner. "That's alright, though. I like a good chase."

Kagome quirked a brow at him, torn between exasperation and amusement. She settled for shaking her head and trying to get back to her original purpose.

"As I was saying, Kouga-sama, there is something I need to ask you. It is a rather big something, at that," she said, sobering. "And this time, I can offer no real reward aside from my gratitude."

The grin slipped slowly from his face, his eyes becoming serious as they considered her.

"It's important to you, Kagome?" he asked, with a perceptiveness that was rather surprising coming from him. She nodded.

"Very much so. It is part of the reason I am here in the court in the first place. I need to do this, and I could think of no other way than to ask you," she said earnestly, a hint of pleading in her tone. "I know I it will be asking a lot of you, but you are the only one I can trust to do it, Kouga-sama."

"Trust?" he echoed, caught by the word.

"Yes, trust," she repeated, nodding firmly.

"I'll do it, then," he declared.

Kagome blinked, stunned. Her brows drew together incredulously.

"I…I haven't even told you what I'm asking yet, Kouga-sama," she pointed out.

"Don't care," he returned dismissively, waving a hand. "If you trust me to do it, I'll do it, Kagome. I want you. I want you and I'll do whatever it takes to win you over."

Her eyes widened, stunned and touched at how utterly serious he was. He was willing to do this for her, even though she could promise nothing in return. His devotion was truly something to behold. With a small twinge, she wished she could return even a fraction of his feelings. Still…

"Alright, then. We have a deal," she said softly. "…Thank you, Kouga-sama."

She had her in with the Taira clan.


 

Chapter Text

A few nights after Kagome’s meeting with the wolf Lord, the new moon rose. Kagome found herself rising that night, drawn from her bed as if by the pull of some unseen force. With little conscious thought she drew on a thick robe over her light sleeping yukata and padded off through the chill night air and the empty pathways to the En no Matsubara.

At first glance there was merely the serene glow of the tree, its branches so vast that they seemed to twine up to tangle with the stars. Beautiful, but somehow disappointing. She found herself frowning out into the empty courtyard.

And then he emerged from the deep shadows at the base of the tree, smirking as if he had known that she would be there. Kagome felt her own expression light up in response as she stepped forward to meet him. 

"So you came after all, wench. And here I thought you might be too busy pissing all the courtiers off."

"Not so busy that I could not take time to come and bother you in their stead. We had a promise, after all," Kagome returned archly. "And I thought that we had already established that I have a name?"

"Ka-go-me, right?" he said, more than a hint of mockery there. "Wench suits you better, if you ask me."

"I do not recall asking you. Though I will ask what I might call you, as you did not deign to tell me before running off the last time," she said.

At this he hesitated, his eyes straying from hers for the first time.

"…Toga," he murmured at last, a bit contemplatively. "Toga is fine."

Kagome's brows drew together at the curious phrasing and lack of clan name, but she decided not to press the issue. This was only her second time meeting the man, after all, and he had no obligation to share intimate details with her.

"Toga-sama it is, then," she said. "Pleased to make your acquaintance…again."

He looked a bit uncomfortable at the use of his name, his eyes shifting to look up at the tangled branches of the Goshinboku. He went over and took a seat atop one of the gnarled roots.

"How have you been doing here?" he said at last, his eyes serious as they peered at her through the darkness. Kagome was a bit taken aback by the sudden shift.

"Well enough," she responded, a bit guardedly.

"Bullshit," he declared. Her eyes flew up to meet his.

“What-”

"Cut the crap, Kagome," Toga cut her off. "I know what you've been doing around here. Hell, the whole court knows what you've been doing. They would have treated you like shit even if you'd done nothin' but try to blend in, so they must be treating you like the seventh level of hell after all you've pulled since you got here."

He pinned her with a searching look, his expression expectant. She hesitated, uncertain if it was wise to speak about such things. At last she moved slowly to take a seat across from him, her eyes fixed on her lap.

"It hasn't been nearly as bad as it might have been," she confessed, more to the ground than to him. "Sango-sama and Miroku-sama have been very kind to me through everything. Midoriko-sama has taken me on as her pupil. And the Tennō-sama…the Tennō-sama has supported me far beyond what I might ever have dared to ask."

She paused. He waited silently, and she could feel his eyes on her.

"I often miss my family," she managed at last, and felt her eyes welling as she had feared they would once she gave voice to the sentiment. "And I often wonder if I am going about all of this the right way. I'm trying my hardest, doing the things that I can, but I feel uncertain.”

"I don't want to say I'm uncertain, though, because this is so important. There's so much depending on this, I don't want to say I'm scared of failing, but…I'm scared of failing. I'm so scared of failing. And I keep wishing I knew the right thing to do, instead of just groping about blindly in every direction and hoping that I can make something of it all..."

The last words were muffled by the sleeves of her robes as Kagome bent her head, attempting as best she could to hide the tears she could feel beginning to flow freely. She had never dared to confide these feelings in anyone since her arrival, afraid that she would reveal a weakness she could not afford in her uncertainty.

Afraid even more that admitting her uncertainty aloud would paralyze her, would keep her from being able to move forward any further in the face of such overwhelming responsibility.

It had all spilled forth helplessly before Toga, though, welling to the surface in a sudden rush. Her hands trembled where she clenched them in her lap. She felt small and scared.

A hand came to rest gingerly on the back of her bowed head, patting her hair in a strangely familiar gesture.

"I knew it. I knew you were trying to hold it in. You're stubborn, after all."

Kagome huffed indignantly, the sound choked and wet with tears.

"Who's stubborn?" she murmured weakly.

"You are. You try to do everything on your own. You try to take all the responsibility for everyone else," he accused.

"How would you know?" Kagome asked, raising her head to gaze up at him incredulously.

The darkness made it difficult to tell, but she could have sworn he flushed at that. He withdrew his hand to scratch awkwardly at the back of his head.

"I just…you're an easy type to read, that's all. All noble and responsible all the time," he said, rolling his eyes.

Kagome scowled, swiping at her eyes. "Well, pardon me for being noble and responsible."

He huffed, gazing levelly back down at her. "It ain't an insult, Kagome."

"Then rolling your eyes is a complimentary gesture here in the court. I will have to keep that in mind.”

"Dammit, woman, I'm not trying to argue with you!" he snapped.

"Well, you're doing a terrible job of it, then!"

They glared at one another for a long moment before a hiccup erupted from Kagome. Toga's expression softened.

"Look, all I mean is you can't be responsible for everything. You said yourself that you're doing what you can, right? Then just keep doing that. It's more than most of the other bastards around here try to do.”

"And…if you ever feel…y'know, worried or anything…well, you've got one night a month where I'll listen to whatever you have to say. Anything."

Kagome felt her own expression soften as she gazed up at him. He seemed to glow in the light of Goshinboku's aura and her heart clenched at the sight.

"Why are you being so kind to me?"

He considered this for a moment, then shook his head.

"Because I want to be," he replied lowly.

Kagome rose slowly, her eyes turned up towards his face. She stepped forward and her arms went around him without thought, but only with such a feeling of gratitude that she could not restrain herself.

She knew she had no real reason to trust this man who had given her nothing more of himself than a first name, but she found that she did. And perhaps in time she would think herself foolish for it, but for the moment she simply believed in him.

"O-Oi-!"

"Thank you, Toga-sama," she murmured, her forehead against his chest. "Thank you for being kind to me, whatever your reasons are. From now on I will come to you. I will only tell you when I am uncertain, and you will have to promise to keep my secret so that I can continue to do my best in the light of day. You will keep my secrets, won't you?"

"…I will," he said, one of his hands settling on her shoulder.

"Then I promise to keep yours, as well, if ever you feel the need to tell me. I want to help you in return if I can," she offered.

"You already do," he said, so lowly that she almost did not hear him.

She tilted her head up to look at him, a question in her gaze. His face was unreadable as he gazed back at her. His grip on her shoulder tightened for a moment as if he might press her closer. Abruptly he averted his eyes and his arm fell away from her.

Kagome flushed, stepping back self-consciously. Perhaps that had been inappropriate of her…

"I have to go for now," he said, and her heart sunk a bit. For the first time she felt the chill of the night air around them.

"I see."

"I'll be back, Kagome. One month from now. And every month after it," he said firmly. "We have a promise."

The corners of her lips turned up slowly. She nodded, her eyes alight as she turned them up to meet his.

"Yes, we do."

He nodded, one corner of his mouth turning up in a grin. He turned and started off across the En no Matsubara, tossing a wave in her direction as he went. She watched after him until he was out of sight.

Somehow she felt stronger, having been able to admit aloud that she was afraid. And Toga had not said a word to condemn her for her admissions, either. It was a comfort, being able to share some of her burdens without having to worry about revealing herself to be weak.

She had rarely allowed herself to express such sentiments, even to her family back in the village. She had always feared that it would somehow be a betrayal of their expectations of her. And in the court she was under far too much scrutiny to even entertain the notion of confessing herself.

Still, Toga had managed to pull it from her with merely a few gruff words. She felt oddly at ease around him, despite the very brief amount of time they had spent together.

She smiled to herself. The kami had blessed her with yet another kind soul in her path. Truly she was fortunate.

She slept soundly that night.


A mere two weeks stood between the time that the Tennō issued the order that a celebration was to be planned and the time that Sango's father and brother were due to return to the court. This, Sango informed Kagome one night in a particular fit of pique, was hardly enough time to put together a small dinner party for a group of intimate friends, let alone to plan a celebration fit for the entire court.

To this Kagome could only shake her head and smile weakly in return, patting her friend's shoulder in a conciliatory manner. She had little idea of how these things worked, being that she had never had a hand before in the planning of any sort of party.

There hadn't really been any planned in her village, anyway. The celebrations that had happened tended to be spontaneous, based on an excess of wheat harvested that season or the birth of a healthy baby.

Nor could Kagome imagine that Inuyasha had had any idea of how much effort such endeavors took. He had had little to celebrate in his short reign, and hardly seemed the type to concern himself with such matters anyway.

So in the short two week span that followed the announcement, Kagome found that nearly every waking moment was spent at the sides of the taiji-ya and houshi as they struggled valiantly to put together what Sango was perversely determined would be the event of the age.

Kagome helped to clear and temporarily block off the area of the En no Matsubara, where the celebration was to be held. She aided Sango in the arrangement of various silks and flowers and streaming lanterns, all in varying shades of gold and red. Kagome had been the one to timidly suggest the color scheme, as she hoped to ultimately emphasize Inuyasha's role in all of it in some subtle way.

Sango deftly handled the hiring of entertainment, from a troupe of wandering kitsune illusionists to a group within the court known for their refinement in the performance of gagaku music. Miroku was in charge of ordering the food and drink for the celebration, choosing many rare imported Chinese delicacies from some of the travelling merchants he was familiar with.

In short, no expense was spared in the planning. Kagome flinched a bit at the amount of money changing hands all for the sake of one celebration, unable to keep herself from mentally tallying the number of rice bushels that might have been bought back in her village for that amount.

Sango reminded her, however, that wealth was one of the few things the courtiers understood. The more wealth shown, the more respect to be gained. Ultimately it was all to glorify the Tennō’s name, as he had put himself forth in support of the event. Kagome conceded this fact, although a bit reluctantly.

Any time in those brief two weeks not spent attending to the preparations for the celebration was spent at the Tennō's side or tending to her lessons with Midoriko. The restriction of residence visitations went off without a hitch when Inuyasha had put it forth to the Council. The courtiers were now allowed no more than one month out of any given year to spend at their residences, short of any unforeseen disaster.

This seemed a good step to Kagome, and she had suggested he also push for a temporary ban on the construction of any new residences. This had gone through as well, and the building of any new residences had been banned for an entire year. Only repairs on previous residences would be allowed pending review of the damage.

At this the hanyou informed her that the men of Council had begun to grow irritated- "crotchety old bastards" had been his exact words- and they had both agreed that it would be wise to sit back for a time and watch what might happen. There was no use or profit in pushing for everything all at once, after all, and there was no certainty as to the amount of leverage Kagome's efforts had gained them.

So Inuyasha announced to the Council the celebration that was being held in honor of the return of Sango's family from their duties and informed them that attendance was mandatory for all clans. He reported to Kagome with no small smirk that that had "gotten them off their wrinkly old asses" for a moment. There had been no real celebrations held within the palace since the death of his father, and this sudden display of his authority must have been nothing short of stunning to them.

Inuyasha had no doubts that everyone would be in attendance, though, if only in the hopes that he might make a fool of himself. Kagome assured him that this would not be the case, not with Sango at the head of the endeavor, and began to utilize the remainder of their morning meetings to give to Inuyasha the etiquette lessons that Kaede had given to her when she was young.

Inuyasha had grumbled at great deal at this, but ultimately submitted to the lessons sullenly. As he was a bastard son, only his mother had ever attempted to give him lessons before, he informed her, and his time with her had been brief. Kagome's heart ached for his loss, evident even so many years later when he spoke of his mother, and resolved not to let the other woman's efforts go to waste.

They worked at refining his speech to a level worthy of his station. This consisted for the most part of Kagome acting the part of a hypothetical courtier and asking Inuyasha to respond to whatever she said, though it often ended in her becoming so ruffled she nearly smacked him when he could not seem for the life of him to stem the flow of his profanity.

Their progress was slow over those two weeks-slow enough that at times Kagome was tempted to tear at both her hair and his-but at last they came to a point where the Tennō was able to respond civilly, if not elegantly, to the majority of her statements. Though he was still unable to hold himself back if she tried anything even vaguely provoking.

Still, she supposed it was the best she could do for the time being. Also she realized that she would be far better off finding a more capable teacher for the continuation of the Tennō's education. Her lessons with Kaede had really been rudimentary at best, and certainly not designed for someone of Inuyasha’s station. She made a mental note to ask Sango to help her to find someone trustworthy and capable to fill the position.

"Are the preparations for the celebration complete, then?" Inuyasha asked her as they finished their lesson on the eve of the day before Sango's family was to return.

Kagome frowned, blinking at him. Inuyasha frowned in return.

"What is it? Is something wrong?" he asked.

"Somehow I don't like it when you do that," she responded, shaking her head.

Inuyasha's frown deepened to a scowl.

"You spent two nauseating weeks yammering at me to 'speak properly' just so you could tell me that you don't like it?" he practically snarled.

"No, no," Kagome responded quickly, waving a hand in negation before he could work himself into a real pique. "I mean, when it is just the two of us…well, I feel awkward when you speak so formally to just me.”

"And I am sure it takes effort on your part, as well. When it's just the two of us I would like it if you were able to speak freely, Inuyasha-sama. Just be as you are most comfortable being. I'm not a courtier, after all. "

The hanyou frowned, considering this. 

"…Then, just around you, I can do what I want?"

"Yes. I would like it if you could be yourself around me without having to worry, as you have given me the allowance of acting so informally with you, Inuyasha-sama," Kagome returned with a smile. "Besides, I like you better when you're not holding yourself back in any way, Inuyasha-sama."

She flushed a little at her own admission, her eyes fixed shyly on the tatami mat beneath her. The hanyou could feel himself flush slightly in response.

"Alright, then," he agreed, his voice as gruff as he could manage to make it. Kagome smiled shyly, darting a quick glance up at him from beneath her lashes.

"It's getting late. Now that our lesson is done, you had best go get some rest. The celebration is tomorrow and we are all going to be very busy," she said.

"Feh. As if I'd need as much sleep as a human. You go rest up. You're the one that's really gonna need it," he scoffed lightly, waving a dismissive hand.

"Alright, then," Kagome said with wry grin, rising to leave his chambers. "Good night, Inuyasha-sama. Sleep well."

"Night, Kagome. You…you sleep well, too."



The day of the celebration began before dawn for Kagome. She was roused from her bed by several of Kikyou's servants who dragged her into the private bathing chamber she had used the morning of the court women's outing to the sakura grove.

She was scrubbed and rinsed thoroughly in a perfumed bath, her hair oiled and combed until it hung in a shining fall down her back. Despite her protestations she was dressed in a fine juni-hito of red and gold, printed all over with images of cranes. It was heavy, but the servant women informed her that Kikyou had insisted she look her finest for the occasion.

The paling powder was applied to all visible areas of her skin and her lips were painted a vibrant crimson. The line of her eyelashes was exaggerated with kohl and her eyelids were dusted with a fine pale blue powder.

When the preparations were done she was led, stumbling awkwardly in the heavy layers, to Kikyou's chamber. The noblewoman awaited her in the room, her head bent as she plucked a few notes on the koto lying in front of her. The sound was clear and certain, her slender fingers moving deftly over the thirteen strings.

Kagome slid the shoji door closed behind her and Kikyou's gaze rose to meet her own. The future Empress' gaze slid over her form in a look of quick assessment. Finding her appearance acceptable, she nodded and gestured for her to sit.

Kagome did so, slowly and with care, making certain to adjust the layers of the juni-hito around her so that they would not be rumpled when she rose again.

"Can you sing, Kagome?" the future Empress asked without preamble. The village girl blinked, her brows drawing together.

"I suppose I can, Fujiwara-sama. I used to sing for some of the celebrations of in my village. I can hardly claim any great skill in it, though," she replied.

"I will be the judge of your skill," Kikyou returned coolly. "Sing something you know for me. I will accompany you."

She raised her hands to hover expectantly over the koto. Kagome frowned, confused as to why the future Empress was choosing to do this now of all times. Still, one of the village songs popular during her childhood sprung to her mind and she sang:

Lo, see the sakura that stand in the morning mist,

I hear them speak to me in a tender tone,

In the eve I love to see the waving willows,

They stretch their hands to me strolling

Alone."

Kikyou managed to pick up and follow the simple melody of the children's song beautifully on the koto, the music somehow as nostalgic and sweet as Kagome felt while singing the song. She looked on in silent admiration as the noblewoman plucked the last few wavering notes, which seemed to hang mournfully on the air for a few moments longer.

"You play beautifully, Fujiwara-sama," Kagome said softly. Kikyou looked up at her, the usual solemnity of her features softened for a moment in what might have been surprise. Kagome wondered if perhaps she was unaccustomed to hearing such praise.

"I have had many years to practice," the noblewoman replied matter-of-factly. "And your singing is more than adequate for my purposes. Here, you will memorize this for today's celebration."

"W-What? For today's-?"

She looked down at the paper that Kikyou had slid across to her, a few neat rows of perfectly formed kanji on it. It was short, at least, but did the noblewoman really expect her to…?

"You want me to sing this at today's celebration?" she said, feeling slightly nauseous.

"Yes. I composed it specifically for that purpose," the future Empress replied unapologetically.

Kagome was aware of the fact that she was practically gaping at the woman, but could hardly compose herself.

"Y-You cannot sing the song yourself, Fujiwara-sama? I mean, it is yours, and I'm so ill-prepared…"

"While I am highly skilled in many of the noble arts, the kami did not see fit to bless me with the gift of song," Kikyou replied, her eyes lowering to the koto. Kagome could have sworn she saw a faint flush upon her cheeks at the admission, though it was put forward so straightly.

"Moreover," she continued, her eyes lifting to meet Kagome's own. "Your position on the dais was not given merely for show. We two are the Tennō-sama's right and left hands. We bring to His Majesty either glory or shame through our actions.”

"We will bring glory and justify my Lord's decisions through our show of refinement to the court today. We will show that we are among the chosen of the kami, our position, and my Lord's by proxy, divinely approved."

Kagome had not considered this. Sango had mentioned to her during the planning of the celebration that shows of refinement were very important within the court. Respect and prestige could easily be won or lost through such displays, she had explained.

And here though Kikyou had worked hard all on her own to compose a song and music for the glory of the Tennō she had lowered herself to sharing it with the village girl. Kagome could only imagine how difficult that must have been for someone with Kikyou's pride, coming to her for help.

For that matter, it must have also been a blow to find some common-born girl suddenly sitting level with her on the dais. Kagome bit her lip. She could not imagine that Kikyou had been consulted in that matter before it had gone through. She felt a prick of guilt at not having realized sooner.

Even so the future Empress did not act bitterly towards her. Rather she continued to strive to find ways to further Inuyasha’s position within the court. Just as Kagome herself was doing. It was odd to think that they had something in common.

Kagome bowed lowly, palms on the floor before her in a show of both apology and deference.

"As you wish, Fujiwara-sama. I aim, as you do, to serve the Tennō-sama in whatever manner that I can," she said. "I also…I also hope to become a support to you, if you will allow it."

There was silence for a long moment. Kagome flushed, though she did not lift her head, thinking that perhaps her offer was an entirely unwelcome one to the future Empress.

"…I would like that, Kagome," came her voice at last, softer than Kagome had ever heard it before. "Thank you."

Kagome raised her head, stunned at the sight that greeted her. Kikyou was…smiling. It was no more than a faint upturn at the corners of her lips, but her dark eyes seemed to glow in a way that lit her whole face.

Truly she was a beauty, in a myriad of ways. Kagome could see why Inuyasha must have chosen to stay with her even after her clan had fallen. That thought, coming to her unbidden, darkened her expression for a brief moment.

"You have proven yourself time and again to be loyal and hard working, though you lack at times in refinement," the noblewoman pronounced. "I look forward to being able to count on your efforts in the future."

A shy smile spread across Kagome’s face, unused to any sort of praise from the noblewoman. It was nice to think that a woman such as Kikyou might be willing to rely on her.

"I will do my best, Fujiwara-sama," she said.

"Then let us go. The ceremony is to begin soon."


The celebration began with a welcoming at the northern entrance of the outer Suzakumon gate as Sango's relatives rode in in a procession. The troop of musicians hired for the occasion played as they rode down a corridor of brightly arrayed courtiers, all of them alternately waving or merely observing depending upon their inclination.

This part Kagome watched from a distance, as she was not allowed to be seen until they moved to the decorated enclosure of the En no Matsubara. That was where she, Kikyou, and Inuyasha were to be formally announced before the real celebration could begin.

She watched the proceedings from a hidden side-path until they moved to go stable the horses and the courtiers began to turn towards the En no Matsubara. Kagome hurried on ahead of them along the back paths, happy to have caught a glance of the joy radiating from Sango as she received her father and brother back into the court.

Inside the En no Matsubara she resumed her seat on the improvised dais of ivory and gold inlay that had been placed near the Goshinboku. The future Empress shot her a slightly disapproving glance as she hurried about, her fan flicking in a gesture of pique.

Kagome, managing to successfully arrange the layers of her finery about her so as not to muss them as she knelt upon her own cushion, slid the fan dangling from her wrist open and then slowly closed once more in a gesture of supplication that Sango had shown her. Kikyou tilted her head at this, looking faintly pleased that she had taken in hand her own education in fan language.

Kagome smiled to herself, glancing back towards the large screen of golden and red that obscured the Tennō from view at the top of the dais.

She had known she would need a greater command of fan language and court etiquette in order to make the most of this opportunity that Inuyasha had provided for her and had asked Sango and Midoriko to tutor her while they worked together. She was rather proud of how much she had been able to pick up.

There was a great rustling of fans and silks as the courtiers began to enter the area of the En no Matsubara. Kagome looked on in silent awe at the dazzling array of colors, jewels and fans and silks and all measures of finery that one could imagine. It was like a great migration of exotic birds, their plumage ornate and somewhat mystifying.

She could see the confusion on many of their painted faces as they came to sit on the beautiful silks that had been assigned to each clan specifically. The beginnings of a malicious sort of satisfaction flickered across the fans of some of the women, signaling to one another that their expectations had been vindicated as they took their place in the hot sun without even the shade of a parasol to offer dignity to their positions.

Kagome smiled inwardly at this, content to wait for the moment to come. Sango's family, her father and younger brother at the head, took up their place last on a silk laid out in the center of the celebration. Sango separated herself from the group and came toward the dais, bowing low with a reverential sweep of her fan.

"I thank you for allowing this celebration in honor of my clan's safe return from duty, Tennō-sama," she said, projecting for the entire court to hear. "His Majesty honors us with His care, and in return we seek only to honor the Tennō-sama."

"We are grateful for the efforts of your clan on Our behalf, and shall continue to honor you so long as you shall honor Us," the Tennō returned, and Kagome could feel herself nearly glowing with pride at the authority in his tone. "To all of Our cousins, We are pleased to share with you today the bounty of the wealth with which the kami have blessed Us.”

"Let the celebration commence."

Sango bowed once more before straightening and turning toward the expectant and obviously underwhelmed crowd with a look so smug it was nearly mirthful. Raising her fan high above her head, she drew it in an intricate sweep that seemed to encompass the whole of the sky visible from the En no Matsubara.

In an instance the sky went dark, something like a sweeping wave of ink flooding over it to blot out the sun. The courtiers gasped as the En no Matsubara was thrown into darkness. Kagome could hear Kikyou stir beside her on the dais. She could feel Inuyasha rise from his position behind the screen.

For a long moment there was nothing but darkness. Kagome could feel her pulse quicken with anticipation.

A burst of light erupted within the darkness, and small shards of the light separated out to become twinkling stars in the newly formed night sky. A larger piece came to hang low as a heavy full moon. The paper lanterns strung throughout the En no Matsubara flickered to life row by row, lighting the astonished faces of the courtiers with the glow of a thousand different colors.

The clans burst into motion, twisting and turning to gaze about them at the spectacle that Sango had so cleverly devised. They gaped with wide eyes at the complete transformation, even the cutting sweeps of fans stilled for the moment. She looked down to Sango, and found the noblewoman grinning triumphantly up at her.

"My cousins, by the Tennō-sama's will, even day can be made into night," Sango announced loudly, her fan twisting in a full circle of accomplishment. "On this day His Majesty honors the efforts of my father and brother with this display. Please join us in honoring them."

Music seemed to spring up from within the air itself at this, and the branches of the En no Matsubara swayed softly in the pull of some strange wind. The stars overhead flickered, twinkling in time with the melody. The troop of dancers that had been hired streamed into the area, waving silks and fans in an undulating rhythm as beautiful and timeless as the flow of a river.

Servants moved in, quietly and unobtrusively as the courtiers were distracted by the sounds and sights, to place artfully arranged trays of Chinese delicacies at the center of each seated group. Sango moved to rejoin her clan in the center of the celebrations, her father and brother rising to welcome her with looks of pride and gratitude.

Kagome raised her fan to cover the width of her smile, her joy so great she had to fight to keep from squirming. It had all gone off without a hitch, and the results were more beautiful than she could have envisioned. Even Kikyou sat silent beside her on the steps of the dais, her eyes attentive as she took it all in.

"Oi, Kagome," came the low murmur from behind the screen.

Kagome turned, shifting closer to the screen.

"Yes, Tennō-sama?" she replied, equally softly but well aware of her position at the moment.

"Are those kitsune that I smell?"

"Yes, Tennō-sama," she replied, covering her grin once more with her fan. "Sango-sama came up with the idea, as she has encountered so many kitsune clans in her travels. She thought it would truly be something to have them use illusions to cover the En no Matsubara in night during the day time. They are responsible for the music you can hear, as well.”

"She hired a whole troop of them, thirty or so in all. There should be more displays to come any moment now…"

A faint 'pop' and a handful of gasps finished her sentence for her, as a rain of sakura petals fluttered down from mid-air to shower the Minamoto clan. Some of the women positively cooed with delight, the men laughing heartily as the rain caught in their clothes and hair. Several more pops left other clans equally amused, a variety of fine flowers falling down around them.

Several large, glowing cranes also blinked into sudden existence, strutting through the En no Matsubara among the courtiers to mingle with the dancers as they swayed about. Kagome heard a soft hum of approval from Kikyou at the sight.

"The kitsune are very skilled, aren't they, Tennō-sama?" she murmured happily to him.

"Mmm. That Tachibana woman is pretty clever. Knows exactly how to get to these snobs. This is one display they won't be able to tear down any time soon."

Kagome nodded her agreement, filled to the brim with pride in her friend's accomplishment. The awe of the court was obvious at the skill and refinement of taste put into the planning, heightened by the fact that many of them had come in expecting little to nothing from their current Tennō.

This would go a long way toward combating the image they must have manufactured through a combination of rumors and stumblings on Inuyasha's part that he was an unrefined ruffian unfit to hold his position.

Undoubtedly it would not sway the hearts of those major clans that were so thoroughly set against him, but there was hope for the minor clans at least who might see this first display of power from him and hope to gain influence in the court by pledging their loyalties.

Which reminded Kagome of her original mission in all of this. She pulled from her long sleeve a sheaf of rice paper and a rough coal stick she had been given by the servants. It made a bit of a mess of her hands, but she could hardly bring something as conspicuous as a brush and ink stone up onto the dais with her.

The courtiers had begun to move freely about the En no Matsubara now that the initial excitements were over, visiting and mingling with one another amidst the occasional pop of a burst of flowers here and there. The glow of kitsune-bi, which had before been serving as the stars in the sky, had sunk down gradually to provide further light for them.

The Minamoto were intermingling with a number of the lesser human clans, and Kagome took swift note of these on her parchment.

Sango had done her the great favor of requiring that all clans in attendance wear a symbol of their clan's founding kami somewhere on their person while in attendance. This was not an uncommon practice, the noblewoman had informed her, and so it was not odd to ask.

The Minamoto, who wore the symbol of Hachiman, were surrounded by clans wearing the emblem of Ame-no-Uzume and Inari respectively. Akitoki was among them, chatting amicably with a female courtier and wearing the symbol of Ame-no-Uzume. That was the Hojo clan, then. They seemed to get along well with the Minamoto.

The Taira clan, wearing the symbol of Susano-no-Mikoto, was surrounded entirely by clans of youkai, as might be expected. On the fringes of the group, though, some of the youkai mingled tepidly with the Minamoto. The relation was obviously not a warm one, but enough to be dangerous to Inuyasha.

Kagome took careful note of the minor human clans that mingled with the Taira. Sukuna-Biko-Na, Raijin, and Fūjin were their respective deities. Their loyalties must be counted as suspect.

The youkai clans who mingled with the Taira were noted, as well. Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, Ryūjin, and Toyotama-hime.

Lastly Kagome turned toward the Tachibana. Many clans passed them briefly, offering the obligatory welcome back to the Heian-kyō, but there were a few minor clans that lingered about to chat more intimately with them.

For the most part they were human, but there were a couple of lesser youkai clans, as well. The humans bore the symbols of Tenjin, Omoikane, Sarutahiko, and Uke Mochi. The youkai wore the marks of Ōhoyamatsumi and Konohanasakuya-hime.

Kagome copied this all down quickly, taking note as well of the minor clans that kept more to themselves. Sango had perhaps overestimated a bit in saying that there were hundreds of minor clans, though there were likely at least one hundred. For the most part, though, the number of members in any given minor clan did not appear to be very large.

Even so, winning over a number of the minor clans would be a good step. It would both serve to take power and resources from the greater clans and to lend that power to Inuyasha. The clans that kept mostly to themselves seemed to be the best targets for such a maneuver.

There was no sight anywhere of the Fujiwara clan, who would have worn the emblem of Ame-no-Koyami as Kikyou-sama did upon her fan. Kagome frowned at this. Most likely they were all holed up in their residence outside of the court.

Even if there were very few of them left, though, it would at least make for a good show of loyalty and support to the Tennō if they were to return. Kagome made a mental note to bring this up with Kikyou at a later date, to see if the noblewoman could not entice her kinsmen to return.

Several times Kagome caught sight of Kouga, mingling amongst the many youkai surrounding the Taira clan. They seemed to accept him without too much fuss, and one red-headed wolf youkai among them trailed after him for quite some time. He looked distinctly uncomfortable at this and Kagome laughed to herself.

She also caught a few brief glances of the man who fit the description Sango had given her of the Taira clan's head. It was difficult to tell from such a distance what sort of youkai he was, but his hair was pure white and his skin very pale. Oddly enough the feel of his youki seemed very muted amongst the others, whereas she had expected something great and powerful.

He glanced briefly in her direction once, his violet eyes skimming up over the dais. There was something empty about his eyes, some sort of presence that seemed to be lacking. Kagome filed this thought away to ponder at a later date.

Kikyou did her duty as future Empress gracefully, going around to greet everyone and exchange a few words. She welcomed back Sango's clan members warmly, obviously aware of where their loyalties were, and she seemed to give special thanks to Sango.

She was tense upon greeting the Taira, but managed to ignore the spiteful sweepings of their fans and give what looked like at least a few polite words. The Minamoto welcomed her, simpering as before.

Seeing that Kagome was hard at work, the future Empress had allowed her to remain and continue observing this time. Kagome was glad that she did not have to join the noblewoman in her duties. She did not have nearly the amount of tact and diplomacy required to deal with such people.

She admired Kikyou's ability to remain so steadfast through it all. Perhaps her face was stoic, but it was not unkind for the most part. She dealt fairly with everyone and allowed no one to bring her down to their level.

Kagome wondered how much one would have to endure in life to gain such poise. She imagined it was hard won, and her heart went out to the woman. Truly she did want to be able to help her, even if only a little.

"Oi, Kagome, ain't you gonna eat?" came the low voice once more from behind the screen. From the muffled sound of it, he was eating already.

"Please do not speak with food in your mouth, Tennō-sama," she chided lightly, turning her head toward the screen. "And truthfully, I am not very hungry. I just want to focus on observing for the moment."

"You have to eat sometime, woman," he grumbled. Kagome frowned back at the screen, opening her mouth to reply.

She was interrupted by a small pop on the dais beside her. Rather than a rain of flower petals, though, there stood a small kitsune holding a tray of food. He blinked up at her with wide green eyes before breaking into an ear-splitting grin.

"Did I hear something about food?" he asked, offering the tray up to her.

“Ah, yes. Thank you. But…how in the world…" Kagome said, utterly bemused at the sudden appearance.

"I like your scent," the little kitsune said. "I smelled it when we got here, so I was watching you. You just sat here writing the whole time, so I thought you might be hungry. I'm sure Ma and Pa wouldn't mind me taking a few moments off. I'm Shippou."

"Kagome. Pleased to meet you," Kagome responded, smiling at his childish chatter. She reached for the tray, taking a small piece of something so that the boy would not be hurt.

"Oh, sure, when he tells you to eat…." the hanyou grumbled sourly from behind the screen.

"Oh, hush," Kagome clucked, before taking a bite. It was delicious, though she had been honest when she had said she was not hungry. The thought of her upcoming performance left little room in her stomach for anything besides her nerves.

"Thank you again, Shippou-chan. It was very kind of you," she said once she had swallowed. "You are here working with your family?"

"Mmmm," the boy nodded enthusiastically. "My family are top-level kitsune. The best around at illusions. Someday I'll be the best, too."

"I am certain you will be," Kagome agreed, wanting nothing more than to reach out and pinch his cheeks. How she had missed the innocence and simplicity of children!

"I'll come perform for you once I am, Kagome," Shippou promised, puffing up with pride. "You'll be so impressed, I promise!"

A snort emanated from behind the curtain and she turned a frown on it. Shippou blinked, sidling up closer to place a small hand on her leg.

"What's that?" he inquired.

"Someone who still has much work to do on his manners," Kagome replied shortly.

"Smells like dog," the fox-child commented, pinching his nose shut with a small hand. "Why don't we go somewhere else, Kagome, so the dog smell doesn't get on you?"

"Oi!"

Kagome giggled softly. The kitsune beamed up at her, his hand reaching out to clutch the fabric of her juni-hito.

"I have to stay here for right now, Shippou-chan, but I would be glad to play with you later if you would like," she offered. The kitsune nodded eagerly.

"Good. Then I will come to find you after the celebration, alright?"

"Alright. I'll see you later, Kagome. Try not to get the dog-stink on you, okay?"

The boy disappeared with another pop, the tray that he had set down vanishing with him. There was a low muttering from behind the screen.

"I don't smell. Fucking kitsune."

"Now, now, Inuyasha-sama. He's only a child."

"Child my a-"

He cut himself off as Kikyou approached the dais, having finished making her rounds. She resumed her place, and an attendant came scurrying up a few moments later to place the koto before her.

Kagome's gut clenched at the sight of it. It seemed the moment of the performance had arrived.

Sango came forward to the dais once more, her father and brother accompanying her this time. She raised her fan high, gesturing for silence among the courtiers.

"My cousins, a moment of your time, please," she called.

Gradually the court settled down, turning their attention toward the dais. They looked expectantly upon Sango and her family, wondering what more could possibly be made of the celebration.

"The Tennō-sama has offered me a high honor in giving this celebration," Sango's father spoke, his voice deep and warm. "And now the future Empress and the Tennō-sama's blessed miko wish to honor the court with a display of their skill in His Majesty's honor."

"We thank them for this great privilege," Sango's brother continued. "And ask you all to join us now in listening."

He was a young boy, no more than thirteen. His voice was still high with the remnants of childhood, and he had a kindly face that had not yet matured into manliness. Still, there was something off about his aura as Kagome looked at him. Almost as if something were missing.

Kikyou plucked the first few delicate notes on the koto and Kagome blinked, torn from observing. With as much grace as she could muster, she rose and slid her fan slowly open.

Every eye in the court seemed to be fixated upon her in that moment. She nearly choked at the sight, her face going cold. She could feel Inuyasha just behind her, though, his aura strong, and Sango gazed encouragingly up at her from the foot of the dais.

Taking a deep breath, Kagome closed her eyes and brought her fan down in a graceful arc. Summoning up her aura, she brought her spiritual energy into her lungs and up to surround her fan in a light glow. She could hear the slight gasps that rippled through the court, the flapping of fans, but she ignored these and focused on the melody Kikyou wove so artfully around her.

Drawing up the spiritual energy in her lungs and waving her fan in slow, artful sweeps, she sang:

"Wa ga kimi wa

Chiyo ni yachiyo ni

Sazare-ishi no

Iwao to narite

Koke no musu made

You, my Lord

Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations

Until the pebbles

Grow into boulders

Lush with moss

Wa ga kimi wa

Chiyo ni yachiyo ni

Sazare-ishi no

Iwao to narite

Koke no musu made."

The last notes of the koto rang proud and clear across the En no Matsubara as she finished, her fan sweeping high to glow against the dark sky. Silence reigned for a long stretch.

At last there was a burst of awed applause, starting among the Tachibana and the Minamoto. The minor human clans joined quickly and enthusiastically, followed hesitantly by the minor youkai clans.

The Taira offered a begrudging smattering of applause, though many of their fans twisted like snakes in gestures of dismissal. Kagome caught sight of Kagura among them, her eyes positively burning with her displeasure.

She felt Inuyasha rise behind the screen as the applause began slowly to die down. Kikyou rose as well, her expression pleased. She swept her fan in a gesture of approval towards Kagome, her eyes warm.

"Cousins," the Tennō intoned, cutting through the last of the chatter. "You see the gifts that the kami have given to Us, Our right and left hand, the future Empress and the miko Kagome. This is their blessing. Our reign shall not fail with them at Our side.”

"We leave you now having given you the gift of being allowed to witness that which is so close to the kami themselves. We leave you with the reminder that We are your sovereign Lord."

With his words the illusion slipped from the sky and the sun shone bright once more over the courtyard. The courtiers blinked, gazing up as if having come out of a dream. They all sat silent for a long moment, each taking in all that they had seen and heard.

The Taira were the first to rise, many of them looking distinctly displeased as they made their way out. The women's fans flapped in varying gestures of disdain and insult.

Kagome grinned wryly to herself. Whatever they might say amongst themselves, it was obvious that they had little ground to stand on as far as complaining about the celebration.

The other courtiers followed slowly after, leaving in small clumps and conversing softly amongst themselves. The Tachibana were the last to rise, turning almost as one to offer a bow to the dais before they began to depart.

"I would say that was a success," Kagome murmured, watching as the last of the courtiers trickled out of the En no Matsubara.

"More than a success," Inuyasha snorted from behind the screen. "Some of 'em were practically groveling by the time you finished singing."

Kagome flushed at the praise, warmed by the pride in Inuyasha's voice. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of Kikyou, frowning slightly in the direction of the screen.

"It was all Fujiwara-sama's idea, Tennō-sama," she said, well aware it was the noblewoman who deserved all credit for the performance. "She wrote the song and asked if I might sing it. She also played the koto so beautifully that I think anything would have sounded good alongside of it."

"I thought it suitable, my Lord," Kikyou demurred.

"You did well, Kikyou," Inuyasha said, with a softness that surprised Kagome. She saw his hand reach out to clasp Kikyou's from behind the screen. Hers was small and delicate in comparison, and her cheeks flushed warmly at the contact.

Kagome found her gaze fixated to their hands in a kind of shock- they seemed to fit so perfectly together. She felt suddenly alone, empty as the thrill of the celebration's success drained from her abruptly. She stumbled down one step of the dais, forcing herself to tear her gaze away.

"I...I will be going now, Fujiwara-sama, Tennō-sama," she managed, fighting the sudden urge to simply flee. She bowed and turned to hurry off across the En no Matsubara.

She thought she might have heard one of them call after her, but did not have the heart to turn and go back. She should have been happy. Overjoyed, even. Everything had gone perfectly. She had gotten everything that she had hoped for out of the celebration.

But all she could think of were their hands, so perfect in contrast. So very perfect that it hurt her to see it. She felt lost in the sudden jumble of her own thoughts.

She returned to her place at the Fujiwara residence and requested that the servants undo that morning's work, removing the juni-hito along with her make-up.

Clean again, she sat in silence in her room for a stretch of time. She glanced listlessly the rice paper sheaves she had filled with notes during the celebration, knowing that she should go over them.

She could not, however, seem to find it in herself to do anything productive. At last she merely lay down in her futon as the sun set outside of her window.

She was merely tired from all of the day's excitement, she thought to herself as she drifted off. Tired and somehow deeply sad.


Something on her stomach was heavy. Kagome shifted, only half-awake as she attempted to dislodge the weight. It squeaked, moving so that it was now on her back.

She blinked, her head lifting from her pillow as she wondered exactly what kind of weight would squeak. She blinked sleepily down towards her legs, her eyes slowly coming into focus on a shock of red hair and lively green eyes.

"Good morning, Kagome," Shippou chirped from his perch on her back.

"Shippou-chan?" she murmured, sitting up slowly so as not to send the boy tumbling. "What are you doing here? And so early?"

"You didn't come to find me yesterday," the kitsune said with an accusing pout. "So I decided I'd come find you today. Your scent wasn't very hard to track, and my family is staying here to entertain the Tachibana clan a few more days before we have to move on."

"I'm sorry, Shippou-chan. I forgot all about yesterday," Kagome confessed, feeling guilty at having broken her promise to the child. She had thought of nothing but getting away after seeing…

"How about I make it up to you by spending the whole day together?" she proposed, forcing her thoughts from that particular track. "We can play whatever you like, alright?"

Shippou nodded eagerly, tugging at her hand to help her out of bed. Kagome chuckled, rising and opening her shoji door to call for one of the servants. She asked the woman to bring enough breakfast for two to her room, showing her the small kitsune that was her impromptu guest. The woman chuckled and went off to fetch the food.

Kagome pulled a fresh set of miko robes from the trunk in her room and changed quickly, unselfconscious as Shippou was yet only a child. She had just finished combing out the length of her hair by the time the servant woman returned with the food.

She chatted happily with the little boy as they ate, asking him about his family and their travels across the land. He had a number of amusing stories about the many people they had met while trooping across Japan, and he made her laugh endlessly with his impressions and silly faces.

When they had finished eating, Shippou expressed his desire to go play onigokko out in the En no Matsubara. Kagome agreed readily, childishly thrilled at the idea of being allowed to play so freely.

They made it as far as the outer gate of the Fujiwara residence before they were stopped by a timid-looking noblewoman who waited there. She was small in stature, her eyes a light shade of brown and her hair grown down past her knees. Her face was round in an adorably childish sort of way, her brows drawn together in a frown that seemed to have been there for quite some time.

"M-Miko-sama?" she called as Shippou and Kagome were about to pass her by.

They stopped, turning back to look at her. She stepped forward hesitantly.

"I am sorry to bother you, Miko-sama," the woman apologized, bowing lowly. "I know you must be very busy. But I have an urgent request that I hope you will allow me. You see, my little son has been ill for quite some time.”

"My family has brought in several different spiritualist healers, but none have been able heal him. I…I fear his time may be running out, and I have seen and heard tales of the many miracles you have performed. After seeing you at the celebration yesterday and hearing you sing, I feel certain in my heart that the kami have chosen you. Please, Miko-sama, I beg you to try and heal my son."

She bowed low again, her head bent wearily. It was not hard to see that she had been bearing the burden of her son's illness for quite some time. Kagome touched her lightly on the shoulder.

"I will do all that I can for your son. Please lead me to him," she said softly. She sent an apologetic glance to Shippou for the delay of their plans, but he seemed to understand the seriousness of the situation and merely hopped up to ride on her shoulder.

"Thank you, Miko-sama, thank you so much," the woman said, her voice hoarse with feeling. She looked so relieved that she might cry as she took Kagome's hand, drawing her quickly along behind her through a number of the paths of the court.

Her residence was a relatively small one along the western wall of the outer Suzakumon gate. The emblem of Omoikane was carved into the entryway, and Kagome recalled vaguely that she had seen the woman's clan associating with the Tachibana at the celebration.

What was more surprising, though, was the crowd gathered outside the woman's residence. Most were human, though a few youkai were scattered here and there as well. Sango's brother was among them, watching as the woman brought her forward.

"I apologize for the crowd, Miko-sama," the woman murmured, flushing in embarrassment. "I had informed a few of my relatives that I intended to seek your help with my son, and before I knew it it was like this. They are all eager to see you perform a miracle."

Or to see if she would fail, Kagome thought to herself. Even so, they were not her concern at the moment.

"As long as they do not attempt to enter the room while I heal him, there is no problem," she replied reassuringly. The woman relaxed a fraction, smiling faintly as she guided her through the throng of staring courtiers.

She was led through several corridors within the residence before they reached the room in which the young boy lay. He was no more than ten years old at most, though his face was haggard beyond his years. His skin was pale as death itself, and he seemed to be breathing only very shallowly beneath the cover of the futon.

The entire room, though it was spacious and light streamed in from a few windows, had a heavy feeling to it. It was almost ominous.

Kagome could feel Shippou tense from his perch on her shoulder.

"I don't like this," he spoke into her ear. "It doesn't smell right, Kagome."

She nodded, though she was unable to distinguish what it was exactly that was wrong. She went to kneel at the boy's side, examining him quickly from head to toe. There was nothing about his aura that read as being blatantly wrong. It was just oddly muted.

"My Yuutaro was born with a weak body and has always suffered bouts of illness. Recently, however, we had thought that he was doing better. After yesterday's celebration, though, he took a turn for the worst, and he hasn't opened his eyes since.”

"When I spoke to our spiritualist this morning, he said that…that Yuutaro was not likely to live to see dawn tomorrow. He just keeps growing weaker and weaker," the woman explained, her voice catching on a sob.

Kagome frowned, feeling the truth of this through her senses. His pulse was very weak and his aura seemed to grow fainter every moment.

"Can I get you anything, Miko-sama?" the boy's mother asked anxiously from the door way.

"Silence and time are all that I require," Kagome replied, lifting her palms to hover the length of the boy's body. Still she could get no sense of exactly what the disturbance was.

Forcing her spiritual energy into her palms, she pressed them over the boy's heart and closed her eyes.

It was…dark. Very dark. There seemed to be no life anywhere within the boy, though he continued to breathe.

She stretched out her senses within him, searching desperately for some sign that he might still be saved.

There was a light, very, very faint. She attempted to touch it with her own aura, but somehow could not make contact. It seemed to be contained within something else.

She forced her aura against it once more, harder this time. There was a flare that she felt like the rake of hot coals across her senses and she nearly cried out.

When she was able to see again, it became clear what was trapping the small light. There was a great shadow in the shape of a spider wrapped entirely around it, gnawing away at it bit by bit. It seemed to have no spiritual force of its own, but merely leeched off of the boy's. That was why his aura had seemed to be muted.

She hesitated a moment, unsure how to approach the thing. She had never dealt with anything quite like it before. She knew she needed to destroy it before it consumed the last of the boy's life force, but wondered if the boy would be hurt by her doing so.

At last she decided it would be best to lure it away. If it needed energy to feed off of, surely hers would make the better meal. She brought forth a large orb of her own energy, feeding it into the boy through her palms.

The spider-shadow stirred, its hundreds of eyes drawn towards the glow of her energy. Slowly it disentangled its many legs from its grip around the boy's life force, scuttling towards her own.

The miko drew the ball away from it inch by inch, hoping to lure it from Yuutaro's body without allowing it to touch her. It made a sudden leap, though, and latched onto her energy tightly.

Kagome gasped, her stomach heaving. The thing was like a void, endless and empty as it tried to consume her. She could feel the life being rapidly drained from her as it had been from the boy, the spider's fangs digging deeply into her soul.

She tried to breathe, to force herself to calm down and not lose control. The spider was eating away at her ravenously, and she was quickly losing the energy to fight back. She could feel her physical body growing colder and more distant. Vaguely she could hear Shippou calling to her.

Forcing herself to concentrate, she gathered desperately every last bit of her spiritual energy that she could. If the spider wanted to feed, she would see exactly how much it could handle.

With one giant push she forced all of her remaining energy into ball that the spider was feeding off of. The ball glowed with a blinding light, expanding rapidly inside the spider's grasp. The thing shrieked, unable to contain the sudden rush of power.

It tried to loosen its grasp and scuttle away at the last moment, but the light followed and consumed it thoroughly. It dissolved before the onslaught of Kagome's spiritual energy.

She gasped in a breath as she was finally able to open the eyes of her physical body. Her entire body had begun to tremble violently and she had to put down a shaking hand to steady herself as she leaned over the boy.

She looked down at him, and Yuutaro gazed back up at her with eyes as dark as the night. A smile bloomed across his face, a face that no longer bore the haggard marks of illness.

"Thank you," he said softly. Kagome smiled, feeling completely drained.

"You're welcome."

She nearly slumped over, but Shippou rushed in to steady her. The mother hurried into the room, sobs wracking her frame as she realized that her son was awake.

"Yuutaro, Yuutaro!" she wailed, clutching the boy to herself. "My baby! My boy! Oh, Yuutaro, you're alright! You're alright!"

"I'm fine, mother," the boy murmured, wrapping his arms tightly about her in return. 

"Are you okay, Kagome?" Shippou asked anxiously, helping her to sit up. She attempted a reassuring smile, reaching out to pat the kit’s head with hands that were quickly growing worryingly numb.

"I'm fine, Shippou-chan. Just a little tired," she replied, though she felt weak to her very core.

"Thank you, Miko-sama," the woman said, turning to face her with so much gratitude glowing in her watery eyes that the village girl thought she might burst with it. "You've given me back my son. I am forever indebted to you."

"I did nothing but what the kami call me to do. You owe me nothing. Though I would be glad if you would allow me to return from time to time to check in on him."

"Anything. Anything you might ever ask of my clan will be yours, Miko-sama, without question," the woman pledged solemnly.

"Your loyalty to the Tennō-sama whom I serve is all I will ever ask of you or your clan," the miko returned, managing to stand through sheer force of will. "Please notify me if Yuutaro's condition changes at all."

The mother rose to see her out, and her eyes widened when her son rose with ease as well from the futon.

"I would like to see the Miko-sama out, too, Mother," he said, and the woman nearly burst into tears again. Kagome smiled weakly, the glow of a deed well done warm within her.

"Of course, Yuutaro. Come on," the mother said, taking the boy's hand in her own.

They led her slowly back outside of the residence, the awe in the woman's face growing with each step. Her son nearly glowed with good health, stepping lightly along down the halls.

Shippou kept a steadying hand on Kagome's leg, for which she was grateful. The encounter with the spider had taken more out of her than any healing she had ever done before.

They reached the front gates where the courtiers still stood, eagerly awaiting her emergence. The mother, unable to contain herself, burst into the crowd with her son in tow.

"She has healed my boy! She has brought my Yuutaro back from the brink of death!" she announced, holding up the boy's hand that all might see him. He looked more than a bit embarrassed, but it was ignored in the mother's complete rapture at the renewal of her son's life.

Kagome hung back with the kitsune, unable to summon the energy to face the crowd. They gaped at the boy whose face was bright beneath the morning sun, healthier than many of them had ever seen him before. They murmured amongst themselves, though Kagome had begun to feel so dizzy that she could scarcely catch a word of what was being said.

A hand at her elbow saved her just as she was about to collapse, and she found herself looking up into the face of Sango's younger brother.

"I'll help to get you out of here, Miko-sama. You look tired," he said softly, slinging one of her arms across his shoulders to help her walk. He snuck her quietly behind the crowd, busy as they were gaping at the child as his mother continued to tell the tale of what had occurred.

"You're Sango-sama's little brother, right?" she murmured as he helped her along. She tried to look at him, but her eyes refused to focus on any one thing for very long.

"Tachibana Kohaku," he replied. "Though just Kohaku is fine, Miko-sama. Pleased to meet you after hearing so much from my ane-ue. Would you like me to take you to her? You really do not look well, if you will pardon me for saying so."

"I am just a bit tired, Kohaku-sama. If you could help me back to the Fujiwara residence, I would be very grateful," Kagome replied faintly. She could hardly even follow what he was saying any longer. The sound of his voice seemed to fade in and out.

He nodded, turning his steps in the direction of her residence. Shippou trailed along after them.

"Ane-ue has told me that you are from outside of the court. You came in while I was away. Where exactly did you come from, Miko-sama?"

"Kagome is fine, Kohaku-sama," the village girl murmured. "I came from a small village northwest of here on the Sendai River. Have you been there before?"

"I have. The last part of our assignment was near there," he replied. "You must miss your family. Is it hard being apart from them?"

"Mmm," Kagome replied, fighting to remain awake. "It is hard. But I am trying my best. And the Tennō-sama watches out for me within the court."

"That is good, then. Please feel free to come to me, as well, if ever you are in need. Ane-ue says that she treasures you very much as a friend," Kohaku said. "We are here, Kagome-sama. Do you think you can make it to your room?"

"I'll help her," Shippou piped up, taking hold of one of her hands.

"Thank you for your help, Kohaku-kun. It was a…a pleasure to meet you," Kagome managed to get out.

"The pleasure was entirely mine, Kagome-sama. I look forward to seeing you often around the court."

Kagome smiled and waved him off weakly, but could remember little after that besides a servant's gasp as she stumbled into the hallway of the Fujiwara residence. Shippou called to her from somewhere that sounded very far away, but she could no longer reply.


Kagome awoke slowly to the feel of something warm on her forehead. She groaned softly, struggling to open her eyes. Her lids felt heavy, as if they had been stuck together.

"Kagome?"

Her eyes slid open at last at the sound of the voice, a blur of white and gold swimming before them. She reached a hand up slowly, feeling as if she were moving through mud.

A hand, warm and callused, grasped at her own tightly.

"Inuyasha-sama?" she mumbled uncertainly. "Where am I?"

"My chambers, you idiot. You've been out for three days already," he returned, his voice tight.

"Three days? I've been asleep for three days?" she repeated dazedly. What in all of Japan had happened to her?

"Midoriko examined you after you collapsed at Kikyou's place. She said you exhausted yourself trying to save that kid. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that there was a child that needed saving and a woman who needed my help," Kagome replied, frowning up at him.

"You should have called in Midoriko then, wench! You had no idea what you were up against and you just barreled in without thinking!" he yelled, his golden eyes burning as he hovered over her.

"She asked for my help, Inuyasha-sama, and the boy did not have much time left by the time that I arrived. He would have died if I had hesitated," she argued, struggling to sit up and defend herself.

"You could have died, Kagome!" the hanyou snarled, forcing her back down. 

Her eyes widened. His face was so close to her own that she could see flecks of amber in the irises of his eyes.

"I promised to protect you, and you nearly died," he said lowly, his voice strained. "Can't you just…think before doing something so stupid? If you died, Kagome…."

He trailed off, abruptly pulling away from her. Kagome blinked, her heart racing strangely in her chest.

"I'm sorry, Inuyasha-sama," she found herself saying, though she knew well enough she had only done her duty as a miko.

"Feh," the hanyou huffed, his gaze turned away as if he could no longer bear to look at her.

She bit her lip, trying to hold back the sudden tears that threatened. She had only been doing what she had been brought into the court to do. She had only been doing what she thought was best. She felt groggy and disoriented. She hiccupped, tears rolling slowly down over her cheeks.

The hanyou bolted up as if he had been struck, a panicked look on his face.

"Oi! Oi! Quit it! Kami…don't cry, alright?" he snapped, though the last part sounded more like plea than command.

"Look, I'm just pissed, alright? I shoulda known where you were at…I shoulda made sure someone was around to help you."

Kagome blinked up at him, a few tears still dribbling down her face. He huffed, shaking his head and kneeling back down beside her to wipe awkwardly at her face with one of his sleeves. She frowned, tempted to pull away, but decided after a moment to begrudgingly allow the clumsy ministrations.

"It is not your duty to look out for me all the time, Inuyasha-sama. You don't have to blame yourself if I get hurt doing my duty," she said.

"I do," he insisted, his face solemn. "I made you a promise, Kagome. None of the other court bullshit…Nothing matters more than that."

She was silent, looking up into his face. The look she saw there, solemn and earnest, made her chest ache. She wanted to reach up, to touch his face, but she managed to stifle the urge.

"I am sorry, Inuyasha-sama," she repeated, her voice scarcely above a whisper.

"Yeah," he said, his voice equally hushed. His eyes travelled over her face once more for a long, silent moment before he moved back.

"They've been leaving gifts ever since that day," he said, his voice resuming its usual gruff tone.

"Leaving gifts? Who?" she asked, frowning quizzically.

"The family of the minor clan whose kid you saved. And about seven other minor human clans. A couple of youkai clans, too. They've been leaving offerings for you at the Fujiwara residence. Kikyou is handling them for you, tellin' 'em that you're still too weak to accept visitors or perform any more 'miracles' for awhile.”

"A few of 'em have even brought the offerings directly to me. Turns out the kid you healed was the sole heir to the Takahashi clan. Clans don't forget that kinda stuff."

"That’s good, isn’t it?" Kagome said, a smile stretching across her face. "You can count on the support of a few more clans."

"I'm not interested in trading your life for my support," he returned bitterly.

Kagome's smile dimmed. She struggled to sit up, her hands fisting in the blanket of the futon.

"I promise I will be more cautious next time, Inuyasha-sama, but can't you just congratulate me for once? Can't you just tell me that I did well?" she asked, remembering how easily he had been able to say it to Kikyou at the celebration.

He looked at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. At last he shook his head. Kagome's heart sank.

"I won't. I can't," he said, his eyes averted from her purposefully. "After three days of waiting and thinking that…I can't. Not right now, Kagome."

Kagome bit her lip, feeling tears begin to sting at the corners of her eyes once more. She fixed her gaze back on her lap.

"I see. Well, do not trouble yourself over me, Inuyasha-sama," she bit out.

"Kagome…"

"Tennō-sama!" A voice from just outside the entryway interrupted whatever he might have said.

"What?" the hanyou barked, annoyed at the intrusion.

"Forgive me, Tennō-sama. Tachibana Hidehiko-sama is here requesting an audience. He says that it is very urgent."

Inuyasha glanced back at Kagome. She nodded, setting aside her own hurt feelings for the moment. Her futon was already arranged behind the screen, so he settled in himself before calling to the guard to allow the man in.

There was the sound of footsteps as he entered. He knelt on the cushion before the screen and the outline of him bowed low respectfully.

"Please excuse my rudeness in coming here so suddenly, Tennō-sama, but I have received news that cannot in good conscience be delayed," he said, and Kagome realized that the voice belonged to Sango's father.

"Speak," the Tennō replied, giving him permission to go on.

"Thank you, Tennō-sama. Scouts were left behind, of course, when we returned from our recent assignment to the northwest along the Sendai river. One of the scouts arrived this morning in the court after three days straight of riding. He was badly injured, and informed me that many of his fellow scouts are dead.”

“It seems that shortly after we left a swarm of wild youkai appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The scout informed me that they have begun attacking the villages along the Sendai. I humbly request permission to set out immediately with some of my clansmen to protect the villagers and aid my remaining clansmen," he explained, bowing low once more before the screen.

Kagome felt the blood drain from her face as he spoke. Her entire body seemed to run cold, and she reached out instinctively to grasp at Inuyasha's arm. The hanyou looked back at her.

"My village," she breathed, barely loud enough for even his keen ears to catch. "They're near my village."

The hanyou's golden eyes widened.

"You have Our permission to set out immediately, Tachibana Hidehiko," he said, his eyes never leaving hers. "Take whoever among your clans or my guard that you require. Go now. Send word back when you can."

"Thank you, Tennō-sama," the taiji-ya replied, bowing once more before hurrying from the room.

"I have to go," Kagome rasped, struggling to get out from under the futon. Her limbs felt a bit heavy, and her mind seemed to be going in a hundred different directions at once. She couldn't think…she couldn't breathe…

"Calm down," Inuyasha commanded, grasping her shoulders to steady her as she stood. "You're way too weak to be going anywhere right now, let alone running off to fight a swarm of rampaging youkai. The taiji-ya will take care of it. You just-"

"No!" she cried, her eyes wild as she turned them up to meet his own. "They're my family! It's my duty to protect them! You don't understand what damage these youkai can do to a village! You’ve never seen it…the absolute ruin…T-there'll be nothing left of them!"

"You need to stay in the court, Kagome. You can't leave," the hanyou said levelly, trying to ease her panic.

She bit her lip, shaking her head. She could not back down, not now.

"My place is there is much as it is here. My duty is to them as much as to you. Please, Inuyasha-sama, if you care anything for me, you will let me go. I would sooner die than allow myself to turn away when my family needs me," she pleaded, her eyes boring into his own as she gazed up at him.

He hesitated. Allowing her to go alone in the state she was in would be nothing short of a death sentence. But he knew the depths of Kagome's loyalty. He had no doubts that it would kill her should her village be harmed.

He snarled softly to himself, torn. He had already been forced to watch helplessly for three long days as she struggled on the brink of death. The thought of truly being forced to part from her made his stomach turn.

And he had promised to protect her, but how could he protect her if he allowed her to go? He needed to be at her side in order to watch over her and make certain she didn't do anything stupid again...

An idea struck him suddenly.

"I'll let you go, wench," he said decisively.

 

Chapter Text

Events after Inuyasha's begrudging agreement to allow her to leave the court seemed to swirl together for Kagome into a flurry of motion and sound. She had rushed from the Tennō's residence before he could change his mind on the subject, and she could vaguely recall stopping at the Fujiwara residence to grab her bow and arrows.

She could not recall exactly what she had said when she had arrived at the Tachibana residence, but they had accepted her among their party as they readied themselves to depart and now she found herself saddled on the back of a large neko youkai in front of one of the clansmen.

The other members of the clan, Sango's father and brother among them, were similarly situated alongside her as they made their way over the land in leaps and bounds that no horse could ever hope to match. In another situation she might have found it thrilling, but for the moment all her energies were concentrated on attempting to remain calm.

Sango's father, Hidehiko, had informed her that it would take at least two days to reach the villages, even if they rode there without stopping to rest. It frustrated her to no end to find herself so far away when her village truly needed her, and she prayed to every kami she knew that Kaede would be able to hold out until she arrived.

Images of the wrecked villages after the last youkai attack welled up continuously from some poisonous spring in her mind, making her feel ill. She could not imagine what she would do if she found that anyone from her village had been harmed…her mother, her brother, her grandfather, Kaede…

It was awful, and the journey seemed to drag on interminably. Several times the miko nearly slipped from her mount, only to be caught by the man riding behind her. She was still weak after having been unconscious for three days, but nervous energy buzzed through her and kept her going.

They ate a few sparse meals while riding to keep up their strength and save time. Hidehiko and his clan seemed almost as determined as Kagome herself was to protect the villagers, and she admired them for it. Courtiers and distant though they were from the problems of the common born, they still did not forsake their fellow human beings in the face of crisis.

Kagome knew that they were getting close long before Sango's father spoke up to warn the men. The air nearly reeked of youki and she could sense their malice from miles away. It was much worse than the last time and she could sense far more youkai.

With a certainty that came to sit like a weight in her stomach she knew that they had destroyed villages already. There was as yet no way of knowing if her village was one of them, though.

The first charred ruins that they rode through confirmed her grim hunch. The small village had been completely razed, nothing left to mark its place in the world save the ashen piles of a few huts.

Hidehiko urged the Tachibana clansmen to continue on in the hopes that they might yet save other villages from a similar fate, though a couple of the men remained behind to search the wreckage for any survivors. The rest hurried on grimly, determined to catch up with the horde as quickly as possible.

They passed several more villages in similar states of ruin as they rode. Kagome felt herself growing colder at the sight of each one.

Why had she ever left? What had she been thinking? These people, the people of the land who lived every day with no defenses and no advantages, they were the ones who needed her.

They were the ones who needed her protection and while they had been suffering she had been playing a ludicrous game of dress-up and pretend in order to gain the loyalties of people who had no idea what it was to suffer.

What had she been able to achieve for these people? Nothing. She had abandoned even her own family.

Kagome felt very cold.


At last, after what felt like a long journey through the seventh level of hell, they reached the wreckage of a village that appeared to have been attacked very recently. A few of the homes still burned, and there were fresh tracks upon the scarred earth.

They were yet a few miles east of Kagome's village and her heart began to surge once more within her chest. There was still hope that they had not been touched. She might yet be able to save at least one village…

They sped onward, pressing their youkai mounts into one final burst of speed. Hidehiko pulled his mount up alongside her own as they passed the wrecked village.

"Miko-sama, I mean you no disrespect, but must inform you that my men will be wholly focused on their duties as soon as we reach the horde. I cannot promise that they will be able to protect you if you do not remain close," he said.

"I require no protection," Kagome returned, hefting her quiver of arrows meaningfully. "Tell your men to focus their energies on protecting the villagers. I will be responsible for my own fate."

He considered her for a long moment, his expression a strange combination of sadness and affection.

"My Sango has told me much good of you since my return to the court. I fear, though, Miko-sama, that you attempt to take on burdens beyond your years," he said gravely.

Kagome looked back at him, her expression blank. She was well aware that he was attempting to reach out to her, to offer her some sort of reprieve, but found herself incapable of reaching out in return.

"If I do so, then it is obviously done ineffectively at best," she replied, her expression closed off as she gestured towards the decimated landscape.

Hidehiko frowned, his eyes pained.

"Please take care of yourself, Kagome-sama. My daughter loves you as much as if you had been born her sister. She would be devastated if anything were to happen to you," he said, before kneeing his wolf youkai back to the head of the troop.

Kagome looked after him, but in her heart there was little room for the things of the court at the moment. Even thoughts of Sango were subsumed by her guilt.

An awful keening rent the air suddenly, and then they were upon them.

The youkai were a writhing mass of malice in all forms and sizes, by land and by air. There had to be at least two hundred or so of them and they were just beginning to converge upon Kagome's village.

She could just make out the hunched figure of her former teacher in the distance, stepping forward with bow and arrow at the ready to meet the threat. Several men in what appeared to be the garb of taiji-ya were ranged about her, as well, the remnants of the scouts from the Tachibana clan.

Hidehiko loosed a booming war cry that was echoed by the rest of his clansmen as they drew their weapons. At a signal from him they charged into the fray.

The mount on which Kagome rode leapt high, directly into a large clump of crow youkai. The man behind her struck out with his set of poison throwing kunai, hitting several of the birds with deadly accuracy.

The crows began to converge upon them, talons sharp and beaks rife with the stench of rotted flesh. They attacked the vulnerable hide of her mount, which thrashed and kicked out in turn. Both clansman and miko were nearly dislodged, and Kagome raised her hands and forced out a quick, instinctive wave of spiritual energy.

The nearest of the crow youkai disappeared in the flash and their mount descended back to the ground. Kagome pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling a bit ill at having expended such a large amount of energy without the use of a medium.

She cast a quick glance in the direction of her village, but they were not yet near enough for her to join Kaede. The man behind her unsheathed his katana, urging the neko youkai into a nearby clump of the horde.

Kagome quickly shook off any weakness. She leveled her bow and notched an arrow, firing at the farther out targets as the man cut down the youkai nearest to them. She fired in quick procession, gripping their mount tightly with her knees to remain seated, and many youkai fell beneath their assault as they bounded forward.

They neared the edge of the village as they cut a path through the youkai on the ground, narrowly avoiding claws, fangs, and columns of flame, and Kagome saw her opportunity as the neko youkai made to change directions.

Without a word she unseated herself from the mount and allowed herself to fall, rolling quickly to soften the impact. She barely avoided the clawed feet of several youkai, managing to come out in the clear on the border of her village. She scrabbled quickly to her feet, her eyes darting about to catch a glimpse of Kaede.

The elder miko was several feet to her left, firing arrows imbued with her spiritual energy into the mass. A few of the men and women of the village had come forward to join her, brandishing farming tools and a few rusted swords at any of the youkai that came too close to the elder of their village. Souta was among them, backhoe in hand as he swung away with all his might.

Kagome ran towards the group, hurriedly notching another arrow as she went. A cry went up among them as she joined Kaede, leveling her bow alongside her former mentor. The elder miko offered her no more than a grim smile before firing another arrow.

"Everyone, please stay back!" Kagome called to the villagers, loosing an arrow. "I will protect the village, but I need you to stay away from the youkai!"

They seemed to hesitate, watching as the two miko worked efficiently in tandem to pick off the youkai swarming nearest to the village.

"Go now!" Kagome barked at last, desperate to see them out of harm's way.

This got them moving. The group retreated quickly back towards the village.

Kagome planted her feet in a firm stance, eyeing the swarm. The Tachibana rode through, scattering the youkai into separate clumps and hacking away at them. Kaede followed their movements with her good eye, shooting to aid them when they got into trouble.

Kagome took up the role of protecting the border of the village, scanning the horde and picking off any of the youkai that managed to squirm past the control of the Tachibana.

They could do this, she thought as she fired. If they just kept it up, they would be able to eradicate the horde before it could even touch her village. A glimmer of hope began to lift some of the weight in her chest.

And then something seemed to shift.

One by one the groups of youkai began to cease their attacks and pull back. The Tachibana began to regroup, coming to form a solid barrier in front of the two miko. They all watched warily as the horde withdrew, the rage seemingly having gone out of them.

"What are they doing?" murmured one of the Tachibana men.

"I am not certain, but it allows us a moment to recollect ourselves. Hold the line before the village, men," Hidehiko commanded.

Kagome felt an abrupt tug at her spiritual senses and turned to Kaede. The elder miko seemed to sense it, as well. A frown deepened the lines of her face.

"It is not over yet. Brace yourselves," she called.

A sucking noise sounded across the field, like the air was being drawn from it. Their gazes turned to the youkai, whose outlines had become strangely indistinct. It was as if they had all gone blurry about the edges, and the blur began suddenly to warp and congeal into a solid mass.

It took shape slowly, devoid of light or color, until it had amassed into a hulking black spider. Several of the men cursed. Kagome's eyes widened.

She recognized the thing immediately as a grotesquely magnified version of the thing she had faced inside the little boy, Yuutaro. On top of that, the youki of the thing had magnified tenfold upon its formation. Dread trembled through her hands.

"Kaede-sama," she murmured through lips that had gone numb.

"I know, child," the old woman returned quietly. "But we must stand our ground here. I know that you can do this, Kagome. Have faith in the gifts that the kami have given you, as I have faith."

Kagome could say in all honesty that she had no faith in that moment, face to face with the monster that had nearly killed her once before. But she took a deep breath and braced herself as the thing began to move forward one slow step at a time.

She had failed the other villages, but she could at least save her own.

The spider scuttled out to the mid-point of the field before stopping once more. It lowered its hulking body near to the ground and opened its great maw wide. A roiling cloud of purplish gas began to billow forth, spreading rapidly out in a haze that instantaneously wilted and stripped bare everything in its path.

"Shoki," Kaede murmured, her face going pale. She reached out a withered hand towards the young miko.

"Child, I need your power. I know you are tired, but you must focus everything you have right now or we will all of us be lost."

Kagome nodded, taking the elder miko's hand tightly in her own. She felt the tingle all the way up through her arm as Kaede began to draw from the well of her spiritual energy. A barrier began to flicker to life, expanding out to cover the village and the Tachibana men.

"Concentrate, child," Kaede commanded, as the shoki reached the barrier and began to roil against it. Kagome nodded, closing her eyes and forcing more of her energy up through Kaede. She could feel the barrier growing more solid around them.

"Where did it go? It disappeared into the shoki. Can anyone see it?" she heard one of the Tachibana men say.

She did not dare to open her eyes to look, too focused on feeding her spiritual energy into the barrier Kaede had formed. She could not sense it, though, and her heart sped up.

It was too silent.

Kagome's knees nearly jerked out from under her as something crashed against the top of the barrier. There were exclamations from several of the Tachibana and Kaede's hand tightened around her own. Kagome struggled to regain her focus, lifting her eyes to see what had happened.

The spider youkai had leapt up on top of the barrier. It loomed over them, gazing down with its hundreds of eyes fixed on her and Kaede. Kagome flinched, her muscles beginning to tremble at the amount of energy she was expending to keep it and the shoki out.

The youkai, as if sensing her near-exhaustion, lifted its legs and began to pound away at the barrier. Its youki sparked brightly against her spiritual energy and she cried out, feeling every strike like a blow to her body. The spider's flesh sizzled and burned with each blow, but it continued doggedly as if it could feel no pain.

Kagome fell to her knees, only barely managing to keep her hand in Kaede's. She had to hold on. She had to protect the village. Her head was spinning.

"Miko-sama!"

"Miko-sama! Hold on!"

"Kagome-sama!"

She could hear the Tachibana men calling out to her, yelling for her to hold out. She could feel the spider pounding away at the barrier. She was going to pass out. She was going to throw up. But the village…

The spider youkai brought three of its legs down at once in a particularly savage blow and the barrier flickered. Kagome found herself shoved aside, her head spinning as she rolled a few feet away.

She pushed up shakily on her hands, her gaze darting about frantically. The Tachibana mounts were rearing, the men in chaos as shoki leaked in around them. But where was Kaede?

She felt all the blood drain from her face.

Her teacher was on the ground, one of the spider's legs piercing her chest and pinning her to the earth. She had pushed her out of the way…

Kagome screamed, a wordless, keening sound that echoed even above the chaos of the battle.

A sudden surge of pink light erupted from her and spread out in a flash, cleansing the shoki instantaneously. The spider youkai shrieked, shambling backward as the light touched it.

Kagome climbed shakily to her feet, her breathing labored. She made her way slowly toward the writhing mass of the injured spider, notching an arrow with shaking hands.

"You will not…touch my village," she panted, standing before it and attempting to raise her bow with what little strength she had left.

A leg struck out blindly in the spider's agony, catching her across the side. She was knocked down, skidding across the ground. She groaned, laying face down where she came to rest.

Her limbs were growing numb. Too much of her energy had been expended in that last blast. Her vision was beginning to go black around the edges. She blinked rapidly, trying to gather enough of her wits to move again.

Something touched her, pushing her over onto her back. She lay there, looking up into the half-melted face of the spider as it loomed over her. 

Move, she willed herself. Do something.

She could not.

"You! It's you!" hissed a voice, issuing from somewhere deep within the spider. "Those court whores were cleverer than I gave them credit for. A human vessel! No wonder you were able to become such a pest in the court so quickly, little miko!"

"But it's alright. I'll forgive you, now that you've given me this gift. I can finally finish what I began with that damned dog's death."

It raised one of its few undamaged. Kagome watched, her mind growing strangely more and more detached from the scene. There was simply nothing left in her.

"Kagome!"

A blur of red and white slid through her vision, severing the raised leg before it could descend upon her. Kagome could hear the spider howl in pain and the Tachibana men riding forward to aid in bringing it down at last.

She sighed in relief, slipping into unconsciousness. Her village would be safe.


Kagome awoke to darkness, relieved only by the glow of a small fire. It was silent in the small hut, and she found that her body ached all the way down to the bones. She groaned.

"Child? Are you awake?" The rasping voice came from somewhere to her right.

She levered herself up slowly and with no small amount of pain, turning to see Kaede laid out on a futon just across from her. The woman looked older than Kagome remembered in the faint light of the fire, her face deeply strained.

Kagome untangled herself from her own futon slowly, gritting her teeth against the protests of her muscles as she made her way over to the elderly woman.

"Are you alright, Kaede-sama?" she asked, but she knew the answer the moment the words had left her mouth.

The elder miko's wounds had been tended and wrapped, but she was pale as death. Her breathing was shallow-the slight wetness to the sound of it suggesting that one of her lungs had been punctured- and her good eye was glazed over with pain.

"K-Kaede-sama, hold on. I can-" she said, raising her palms over the woman. Kaede reached up, grasping her hands in one of her own. Her skin was cold as ice.

"Save your energy, child. You are yet very weak, and my time has come," she wheezed.

"What? No! I can heal you, Kaede-sama. I can-!"

But she could sense it through Kaede's hand.

The glow of her life energy was so faint inside her that it would have been impossible for the young miko to rekindle it even if she had been in peak condition. She could not reverse death.

"Kaede-sama…please…" she breathed, though she had no idea what she was pleading for.

"Hush now, my dearest child. I have not much time left to me in this world, and I have something that I must confess to you before I go. Please, you must listen to my confession," she said, clutching at her hands.

Kagome bit her lip, nodding even as her eyes began to burn.

Kaede took as deep a breath as her injured lung would allow, her eye sliding shut.

"I came to this village many years ago from the court," she murmured, her voice far away as her mind wandered back into the past. "I was attempting to escape the chaos and pain of the throne war. But that was not all. I carried with me also a burden that I had been tasked with caring for."

She wheezed softly for a few moments, attempting to catch her breath. Kagome clutched her hand more tightly between her own, fighting back sobs. Kaede needed to speak, and she would not interrupt.

"Hah…I grow tired, but I will not deprive you of this final truth," she breathed, more to herself than to Kagome. "I told you no lie when I said that I chose this village because of you, my child. Your aura was like a balm to my weary soul. But…it also struck me as a way to escape my burden."

"I was frightened, child, you must understand this! I was frightened and I was a coward. I passed my burden on to you when you were yet too young to understand, and I prayed to the kami I might be forgiven some day for my weakness. I fear, though, that I altered your fate irrevocably in that moment…"

"What are you talking about? I do not understand, Kaede-sama. You were never anything but kind to me," Kagome said, tears spilling down her cheeks. She found her heart was beating a mad tattoo inside her chest.

"Initially I took on your education in the hope of absolving myself," Kaede continued, too far gone to hear her any longer. "I hoped that if I watched over you, protected you, that I could be saved."

"But I…I grew to love you more than anything in the world. Your kindness, Kagome, saved me when I was lost to the world. I love you, and you must forgive this old woman for her sins against you."

A lone tear tracked through the deep folds of her face. Kagome reached out to wipe it away instinctively.

"What have you done, Kaede-sama?" she asked shakily, though she was certain she did not want to know. 

"The Shikon no Tama," Kaede rasped at last, the words heavy with the weight of years of supression. "The O-Miko Midoriko-sama, my teacher, begged me to leave the court and take it with me. I know little of its true nature, but Midoriko-sama warned me that all would be lost if ever it fell into the hands of those with impure hearts."

She pulled her hand from Kagome's own, lowering it to the level of the younger miko's hip. She tapped lightly with one finger at a spot on her right hip.

A soft pink glow emanated from somewhere beneath her skin. Kagome gasped, a strange jolt going through her at contact.

"I hid it within you, child. I wronged you greatly," Kaede said, her voice growing fainter by the moment. "I thought if it were you, your heart would be pure enough. Your power would be enough to keep it safe. I handled your life without any thought for you, and then I grew to love you more than anything else. This is my punishment…I am…so sorry…"

Kagome could feel her slipping away, her light rapidly dimming. Her teacher. Her friend. One of the precious people who had taught her what it was to love and be loved.

She understood what the elder woman was saying. She understood that she had been used. Lied to. Perhaps even wronged very greatly.

In that moment, she did not care.

"You were scared. You were scared and you didn't know what to do, and you were in pain. I don't blame you. I don't. No one would, Kaede-sama. You cared for me. You watched over me. I love you, Kaede-sama," she murmured feelingly, tears spilling down her cheeks as she reached up to smooth the hair back from the elder woman's brow.

"Your heart is bigger than anything, Kagome. Thank you. Being your teacher has been my only salvation in this life. I believe that you will make your own fate, whatever I have done to alter it."

Kagome nodded, her hands trembling against the elder woman's face.

"I love you. I really love you, Kaede-sama," she babbled helplessly.

"I know. And that is all…that anyone could…"

And the light went out.

Kagome sat for many long moments, staring into her mentor's now still face. Slowly she bent forward, burying her face in the front of the woman's robes, and she began to sob openly at last.

"Kaede-sama," she rasped, clutching at her robes like a lost child. "I was…I w-was…I was supposed to save you! I was supposed to protect you for once! Why…like this…?"

"Kagome…"

She shook her head, caring little who it was or what they wanted. She was sobbing so hard she could scarcely draw breath. Everything hurt.

"Kagome!"

A hand tugged her upward away from the body. She spun to glare at the person, trembling all over.

"She's dead," she hissed, and she felt the words like a knife even as she realized that it was Inuyasha in front of her. "Kaede-sama is dead…"

Without a word the hanyou tugged her up against his chest, her head under his chin as his arms went around her tightly. Kagome clutched at his haori without a second thought, leaning her forehead against his chest as she shook.

"Inuyasha! She's dead! S-She's-!" she sobbed helplessly.

"It ain't your fault. You did everything you could," he said, a clawed hand coming to cup the back of her head.

She clung to him like a lifeline, feeling certain in that moment that he was the only stable thing left in the whole world. He held her protectively, listening to her nonsensical ramblings and replying with words that she scarcely remembered, but that comforted her nonetheless.

At last she began to regain a bit of herself, hiccupping softly as the tears gradually subsided. She lifted her head slowly, pulling back a bit. His arms did not loosen around her, and she blinked up into his face quizzically.

His golden eyes were dark, concerned. Kagome felt a small wave of gratitude sweep through her and suddenly realized something.

"You followed me out here," she accused softly.

His eyes shifted guiltily away from her. "…Yeah."

"But what about the court? Do you really think it was wise to come after me?" she asked, concerned.

"I promised to protect you," he insisted stubbornly. "And I made sure the court was taken care of. No one knows I left. Everyone here thinks I'm a personal guard the Tennō assigned to you. My word to you has to come first, Kagome, or what kinda bastard would I be?"

Kagome gazed at him, touched as much as she was worried. His duty should be to the court first, but still…

"You are a very good man, Inuyasha," she murmured, a little awed by him.

"Not good enough to keep you from nearly dying," he returned lowly.

Kagome looked up into his face, the guilt there obvious. Without a thought she levered herself up in his embrace, pressing her lips lightly to his cheek. His skin was warm beneath her lips.

"Good enough to save my life," she said softly as she pulled back. "Thank you."

He looked down at her for a moment, eyes wide, before his face lit up in a deep flush. Kagome felt herself flush in turn, realizing what she had done, and pulled back to a safe distance.

"W-what happened after I passed out?" she asked, her eyes fixed to the floor between them.

She heard him clear his throat forcefully.

"Between me 'n the Tachibana, we took down that spider. It was pretty weak after you got through with it, but it still managed to take out a couple of the huts here before we got it down entirely. No one got hurt, though, and the Tachibana'll stay behind to help rebuild," he said.

Kagome frowned, the image of the spider surfacing in her mind. It was too much of a coincidence that she would encounter the same thing twice in a row. That it would come after the villages surrounding hers specifically. And if she was remembering correctly, it had known something about her within the court…

"Kagome?" Inuyasha said, seeing the sudden shift in her expression.

She raised her eyes to meet his own, wide with dawning horror. He tensed, taking an unconscious step toward her.

"Inuyasha…I do not think that this was random," she said softly, feeling herself go cold as the words hung in the air between them.

“What?"

"The spider youkai," she said. "When I healed that little boy, Yuutaro, the same spider youkai was inside him. The exact same one. And not long after the villages near my village were attacked! And the spider youkai today…it seemed to know me from the court. It said that I had been…troublesome, or something..."

"Kami, Inuyasha…was it after me? All these people…just to get at me…"

He grasped her by the shoulders, shaking her slightly before she could really begin to work herself up. Her shoulders were slight beneath his hands and he felt a twinge in his chest.

"Cut it out, Kagome. If all that shit's true, we need to get you back to the court where it's safe. The thing must've wanted to draw you out here, so we have to get you back," he said.

"No!" Kagome cried. "What if it comes back? I can't abandon my village again! I won't! They don't even have Kaede-sama anymore…"

"Like I said, the Tachibana are staying here. They'll protect your village. You have to-!"

Kagome shook her head frantically, pulling away from him.

"You go back to the court, Inuyasha-sama. I have to stay here. I will not abandon them when they need me," she said firmly, meeting his eyes stubbornly.

The hanyou glared down at her, his upper lip curling back in a slight snarl. She lifted her chin, refusing to back down.

"Fine then, wench!" he barked at last, his eyes flashing. "I ain't going back either!"

Kagome gaped at him. "What?"

"To protect you, I have to stick with you. So if you don't go back, I don't go back either," he said, a vaguely triumphant smirk turning up one corner of his mouth.

"Y-You…You're mad!" Kagome stuttered, stomping one of her feet emphatically. "You can't stay away from the court that long! Only think of what might happen, Inuyasha-sama!"

"I ain't going back on my word to you, wench. You said it yourself, if I hadn't come after you this time, you'd be dead. You look even worse now than you did before. You stay, I stay, simple as that. You want me to go back, then you're coming with," he asserted.

Kagome scowled at him in turn, well aware that there was no budging him now that he had made up his mind. He was incredibly stubborn. And impractical, on top of that. How could he even think of leaving the court unattended?

"A week," she said at last. "Give me one week to at least erect a few protective barriers in this area in case the thing decides to come back. As soon as I am finished, I promise I will return to the court with you."

Inuyasha nodded, a little bit of the edge going out of his expression.

"A week," he agreed. "The way I set things up, the court should be able to hold up until we get back."

She nodded, though she was more than a bit reluctant. She glanced towards the front thatching of the small hut-the temple, actually, now that she had a moment to look at it-and realized with a sinking feeling what she now had to do.

"I need to inform the villagers of Kaede-sama's passing," she said softly.

"Fuck, Kagome, it can at least wait 'til you-"

One look at her face silenced him. She looked more exhausted and grim than he had ever seen her before.

He breathed out in a huff, stepping forward to take her arm and loop it around his shoulders.

"Inuyasha, what-?"

"You're still weak, right? Just lean on me and we’ll go tell 'em, alright?" he said, refusing to meet her eyes.

Kagome smiled faintly at the awkward show of support. He really was a good, good man.

"Alright. Let's go, Inuyasha."


The village was devastated at the loss of Kaede. She had been with them for many years, witnessed the births of their children, healed them when they were sick, given them guidance in times of trouble.

Many of them looked to Kagome expectantly in the midst of their sorrow and were further devastated to learn that she would not be remaining in the village to replace the miko.

Kagome felt their unanswered expectations like a weight on her shoulders as she informed them that she could only stay long enough to help with Kaede's funeral and erect a permanent barrier of protection around the village.

Inuyasha stood steadfastly at her side, though, glaring at anyone who looked like they might dare to reproach her. She took comfort from his presence, leaning a little more heavily against him than was strictly necessary.

It was settled upon that Kaede's final rites were to be held the following morning, a cremation in the Shintō tradition. After that Kagome would set up a permanent barrier around the village for its protection before heading out to do what she could for the next few villages.

She promised them that the Tachibana would remain for a few days to help with the reconstruction of the few huts on the fringe of the village that had been destroyed in the spider's final thrashings. This seemed to appease them a bit, but it was not hard to read the resentment in many of their faces.

Kagome could not blame them, though. She had left with promises that she would improve their lives, but she had done little to nothing for them in her time away. And now they had been attacked and lost their village miko only to learn that Kagome could not stay more than a day to aid them.

She was able to meet briefly with her family when she finished addressing the villagers. They embraced her warmly, peppering her with questions about her time away. She and Inuyasha were led into their hut and served tea, though her grandfather was more than a bit wary of the hanyou.

It was strange to sit inside the place she had considered her home for such a long time, feeling like such a stranger. Her family said not one word about her many failures on behalf of the village, did not even intimate that they felt the slightest twinge of disappointment, but Kagome could not help but feel separated from them because of it.

She could scarcely even enjoy the fact that she had at last been able to return to the home she had missed so desperately since her departure. It felt like a lifetime had passed between the two times.

When they offered her her old futon to sleep in for the night, she had to refuse. Somehow she could not even bear the thought. She begged off with the excuse of wanting to watch over Kaede's body inside the temple for the night. They were obviously disappointed, but allowed her to go without a fuss.

Now she lay in the dark of the temple once more, staring blankly up at the thatched roof. Inuyasha sat near the entrance somewhere, having refused when she offered him a futon of his own.

Her body ached deeply from the day's exertions, but somehow she felt very cold. Everything was wrong. She had failed so many people. She had gotten her village and a number of others attacked. Kaede had died because of her.

She did not know what to do. She had no idea how she might begin to redeem herself. Perhaps this was her punishment for attempting to play the games of the court.

"Oi, wench, what are you still doing up?" the hanyou's voice cut through the darkness.

"How did you know I was still awake?" she asked, squinting through the blackness of the hut to try and catch a glimpse of him.

"Your breathing. I can hear it, and it's obvious you ain't asleep. What gives?" he persisted.

"I’m...probably just over-tired after today's exertions," she hedged.

"Bullshit," he declared flatly. "You're beating yourself up again, ain't you? I already told you, there's nothing you coulda done for the old woman-"

"It's not just that!" Kagome burst out, unable to help herself. "It's everything! These people-all these people- I was supposed to help them by going to the court! I was supposed to protect them! And I've done nothing! Absolutely nothing…"

She pressed her fists hard against her burning eyes, desperately trying not to cry. She had no right to, not over this.

"You really think all the shit you've done up until now has been nothing?" he asked, his voice oddly soft in the dark.

"Look around!" Kagome said, flinging one hand out in a sweeping gesture. "Several villages have been destroyed. Kaede-sama is dead. Who knows how many others are dead? I could not even save my own village. And who can say how many other villages just like mine are out there suffering? What have I done, Inuyasha?"

There was silence for a long moment.

"…What have you done? Fuck, Kagome, what haven't you done!" he burst out at last. "You put your life at risk for them time after fucking time! You tried everything! If it were me, I'd expect 'em to grovel at my fucking feet for the things you've done!"

"But what good has it done?" Kagome snapped, sitting up and glaring blindly into the dark. "They're not safe! They're not well fed! Nothing that I have done in the court has touched their lives at all!"

Golden eyes seemed to materialize before her out of nothing, burning like candle light in the darkness. Kagome gasped, her heart jumping in her chest.

"You want it to reach them?" he said lowly. "Then you and me, Kagome, we'll make it reach them. We'll push those fucking courtiers until they have no choice but to help the villages. We'll make sure they're protected, fed. Whatever they need. But you need to stick with me here."

A warm, clawed hand wrapped around one of her own. His eyes caught and held hers. She hardly dared to draw breath, transfixed.

"You need to stick with me, Kagome," he said again. "Stay by my side. We'll fix this shit, all of it, if you can just quit fucking beating yourself up long enough to focus. Can you do that?"

Kagome blinked at him, caught off guard. Her heart was beating erratically in her chest, and she couldn't seem to make a single sound.

"Can you do that?" he pressed more forcefully.

"Yes," Kagome said, almost without thought. "I'll stay with you. I promise I'll stay by your side, Inuyasha."

The eyes softened.

"We're gonna do this, wench. I promise you."

She nodded slowly. Looking into those eyes, so bright and sure even in the dead of night, she felt some of her confidence return.

Together, they would do it.

Chapter Text

"She has looked upon that form twice now. Judging from her past actions, I doubt that she will allow this to pass without questioning it. A distraction will be necessary," a voice announced coolly.

"And the Jewel?" a female voice responded, her tone equally distant.

"It will be difficult to get near it for the time being. The miko is under the half-breed Tennō's watch, and the Jewel has obviously integrated itself into her body fully. She is able to utilize its power to protect herself."

"I will have the boy keep a close eye on her once she returns to the court. We will wait to strike until we can be certain that she is vulnerable."

"As you wish, my Lord. As to the distraction, do you have any preferences?" the female voice inquired.

"I leave that to you. I will be moving on my own end. I require only that you make enough noise that I remain concealed as I work," the man replied.

"Then I will keep you in the shadows, as always, my Lord."

"Do not disappoint me, or you know well what the consequences will be."

"…Of course, my Lord."


Kagome blinked slowly, emerging from slumber. Stars glowed brightly within the line of her sight and for a moment she was disoriented. She sat up in her futon, feeling the chill of the night air as the blankets slipped from her torso.

"Kagome? You okay?"

She looked up, catching sight of Inuyasha sitting across from her on the other side of a small fire. Slowly she began to recall where they were.

Just the day before the village had held Kaede's final rites. Kagome had stood at the head of the funeral pyre, Inuyasha at her side as she presided over the ceremony.

She had not shed a tear during the proceedings, forcing herself to see Kaede's spirit out of the world with dignity. It was no good to release a soul into the afterlife by drowning it in tears, and Kaede would not have wanted her to cry, she knew.

Shortly after the ceremony she had excused herself in order to go set up the protective barrier. There were a number of spiritual stones stored in the temple, tools that Kaede had used throughout her lifetime to channel her spiritual energy.

Kagome had taken these and set them around the perimeter of the village, Inuyasha trailing behind her as she worked. Once the stones were set up, however, she was at a bit of a loss. She had no real idea how to go about creating a barrier on her own.

Still, she sat herself in the center of the village and closed her eyes, focusing her spiritual senses on the stones. She could feel the remnants of Kaede's spiritual energy within them, and she began to funnel her own energy into them as well.

The stones reached a point where they were practically thrumming with the combined spiritual energies of the young miko and her mentor. Slowly a barrier began to grow up around the village, forming as if guided by an outside will. Kagome continued to feed her power into it until she was certain it would hold strong even when she was gone.

She felt drained immediately afterward, her body protesting vehemently all her recent abuses of it. Inuyasha carried her back into the village to say her farewells, grumbling under his breath all the while about her lack of common sense.

She informed the villagers that as long as they were within the boundaries of the village they should be safe from any youkai attacks. They seemed to accept this reluctantly, though it was obvious that they had still hoped she would decide to remain with them.

A rather dark look from Inuyasha kept any of them from daring to vocalize this.

He stepped away for a moment, though, when her family came to say their goodbyes. Kagome had little idea what to say to them, her guilt over what had happened to the villages still lurking in the back of her mind.

Her mother seemed to sense her discomfort, enveloping her without a word in her warm embrace. Kagome pressed her forehead against her shoulder, remembering with a wave of nostalgia how she had done the exact same thing as a child.

"My little girl," her mother murmured, bringing up a hand to stroke the hair back from her face. "So much like your father. Always trying to help everybody. Listen, Kagome, listen to me, alright? We all know you're trying. The villagers know it, too. They're just upset right now."

"But nothing worth doing is ever done easily, and you must remember that. It's only been a month! I have faith that, with time, you will do what you set out to do."

"And depending on that young man of yours for a little help every now and then wouldn't hurt either. He's made it obvious that he's more than willing to help you."

Kagome lifted her head, blinking at her mother. She glanced over to the spot where Inuyasha stood, arms folded as he looked off into the distance. She felt a flush creep hotly up her throat and over her face, realizing with a jolt what the two of them must look like to the villagers.

She pressed hand to her rapidly reddening face, eyes wide as her free hand came up to wave in a gesture of negation.

"No, mama, Inuyasha and I aren't-"

Her mother cut her off with a chuckle and a shake of her head.

"There's no need to deny it. I think I've lived long enough to be able to tell when two people are good for each other. He's very handsome, by the way. I'm glad you were finally able to meet someone that you can feel comfortable with," she said.

Kagome knew her face must have been as red as Inuyasha's haori by that point. She floundered, attempting to refute the assertion, but her mother merely leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead.

"Your home is always open to you here, if you need it, Kagome. And your family is always behind you, whatever happens," she said gently, looking down into her face. "You understand?"

Kagome felt a small smile tip up the corners of her mouth, looking up into her mother's gentle brown eyes. Perhaps the village could not forgive her, but it was obvious that her family had never given up on her. It was comforting to know.

"I understand, mama," she said softly. "Thank you."

She had hugged Souta and her grandfather good-bye, as well, promising to try and come back to visit under happier circumstances. She also made them promise to come for her in the capital if ever something were to happen to them or the village again. Whatever happened, she told them, she would never abandon them or her home.

Shortly afterwards she and Inuyasha had headed out towards the next village, the sun sinking low in the sky as they left. The Taira remained behind to help with the reconstruction, Sango's father promising Kagome that he would send some of his men back to the other villages that had been attacked to aid the survivors.

They had discussed it briefly and decided the best way to handle the matter would be to bring any survivors from the wrecked village into either her village or one of the other villages that she would erect a barrier around. That way they could be certain of safety and the comfort of help from the other villagers.

"Oi, anybody there?"

The words, along with a light rapping of knuckles against her temple, brought Kagome back to the present. She blinked up at the hanyou crouching over her, shaken from her recollections.

"Thought it was best to snap you out of it before you started drooling on yourself or somethin'," Inuyasha scoffed, rapping once more on her head before he sat back.

Kagome flushed faintly, frowning.

"I don't drool," she protested, though her hand came up unconsciously to check both corners of her mouth.

"Ha! The hell you don't," he returned. "A few hours into the night and your futon's practically a puddle."

Kagome blinked, her face heating further.

"You watch me while I'm sleeping?" she practically squeaked, a little mortified at the idea.

That wiped the smirk off of his face rather quickly. His face took on the hue of his haori.

"O-Of course I don't! I mean, I don't gotta sleep as much as you humans do, and it's my job to look out for you anyway and…"

He trailed off, obviously realizing that he had given himself away. He spun away from her with a too-loud scoff, marching back over to his side of the camp stiffly.

Kagome blinked, a chuckle welling up in the face of his discomfort. He was only looking out for her, even if he had caught her drooling.

"Well, thank you for watching out for me. I appreciate it," she called after him.

He blinked, some of the red fading from his cheeks as he eyed her over his shoulder. He puffed up a bit, obviously a little pleased at the praise.

"Feh. Whatever. Now go to sleep so we can hurry up and get to the next village early tomorrow morning," he ordered.

"Yes, yes," she sighed, laying back in her futon and closing her eyes once more.

She had set up no protective barriers around their camp, despite it being in the middle of a forest. Inuyasha had ordered her not to, telling her to save what little strength she could recover for the villages. Even so, she felt entirely secure in the knowledge that Inuyasha was watching over her.

"Good night, Inuyasha," she said softly, liking the ritual of it perhaps a bit more than she should have.

"Night, Kagome," he murmured in return, and she suspected he enjoyed it a little bit, too.


In the next few days a routine of sorts developed. Early in the mornings Inuyasha would carry her into the next closest village along the river. They would meet with the village head and Kagome would explain what had happened and what she intended to do.

For the most part the villages agreed readily to her offer, already all too familiar with the havoc that youkai attacks could wreak on an unprepared village. Some, though, were hesitant and suspicious, especially when it came out that Kagome had been serving in the court.

They mistrusted the court and everything about it. It had never been there for them before, they asserted, and they had no reason to depend upon it now to help them.

However saddened Kagome was to hear this, there was little she could say against it. Inuyasha looked on at these exchanges, his expression grim. She could only imagine how it must make him feel to hear such things.

Still, she was eventually able to persuade even the most stubborn of them that she was only concerned with keeping them safe and that there would be no court strings attached to the service. Protective barriers were raised, though little gratitude was expressed in return.

They never remained in the villages overnight. Many of the villagers seemed wary of Inuyasha, some even hostile, and Inuyasha seemed equally uncomfortable in their midst.

Thus Kagome made a point at the first village of stating her preference towards moving on before nightfall, ostensibly for the sake of getting a head start to the next village the following morning.

She and Inuyasha spent the nights camped out in the woods together. Under other circumstances this might have worried her, her powers too weak at the end of each day to form any sort of protection. However, all throughout each night she could feel the gaze of the hanyou upon her, watching over her. She slept soundly.


On the fifth day of their travels together, they reached a village that was tucked back among a range of small mountains along the river. Something about the place felt different to Kagome, though she could not say exactly how or why. Inuyasha seemed to feel it as well, something in his stance becoming tense as they drew near.

The reaction they received from the villagers upon their learning about Kagome's court connections went further to confirm that something was indeed off. Certainly some of the other villages had been mistrustful of her, but the reaction from the villagers there was nothing short of violent.

They attempted to force her out bodily and only Inuyasha's protection prevented this from happening. She pleaded with the hanyou not to hurt them, to give her a chance to understand what was happening, but it was difficult when all the men in the village stood armed and ready against only the two of them.

"Please," she called, trying to peek out from behind the solid wall of hanyou rooted squarely in front of her. "Please stop this. We are only here to help. There have been youkai attacks recently-"

"My village will gladly take its chances against the youkai, if more court interference is the alternative," the village headman cut her off, though his eyes and sword were locked onto Inuyasha's movements in front of her. The hanyou's lip curled in the beginnings of a warning snarl.

"What do you mean, more interference?" Kagome asked, placing a restraining hand on her protector's shoulder. "I have not seen any sign of a court presence here in this village."

"Of course not! It was destroyed five years ago along with most of our village! The presence of the Konoe clan house nearly got us all killed. It's taken us this long to even get back to the point of scraping by, and we won't have the court coming in here to drag us down again!"

Kagome opened her mouth, another question half-formed on the tip of her tongue, but paused as she felt a sudden shift in the hanyou before her. His shoulders felt as if they had been pulled taut like the string of a bow. The little she could see of his face from over his shoulder had lost its fierceness, replaced instead by blank disbelief.

"Inuyasha?" she murmured softly.

He blinked, his head turning vaguely in her direction though his eyes remained distant.

"My mother," he spoke lowly, almost more to himself than to her. "This was my mother's home. This was where she was killed."

Kagome felt her eyes grow wide. Almost without conscious thought she grabbed Inuyasha's arm and began to pull, leading him back out of the village. He blinked, coming back to himself a bit, but still allowed himself to be led along.

The villagers jeered as they went, cheering their departure, but Kagome chose to ignore it for the moment. They could come back and try again once they had sorted themselves out. Inuyasha had to come first.

She tugged him along until they were a safe distance outside of the village's borders before spinning to face him. Her hands came up to the sides of his face, forcing him to meet her concerned gaze.

"Are you alright?" she asked, searching his eyes with her own.

"I-I'm fine, wench," he blustered, flushing as he swatted her hands away. "I…was just surprised, that's all. I just didn't think I'd ever actually come here. Where she..."

He trailed off, his gaze turning inward once more.

"Then…this is where your mother's clan lived outside of the court?" Kagome ventured softly.

He nodded.

"Yeah. The Konoe clan. This village must've been on their land. My mother…after she had me, things…got rough for her in the court. So she…after awhile she thought it would be better if she came out here to live. Just...just until things calmed down. But she..."

Kagome bit her lip, reaching out to grasp his hand.

"She didn't come back?"

"There was an attack. Band of raiders took the place by surprise. No one from the clan survived," Inuyasha said tersely. The hand beneath Kagome's curled into a fist.

"Oh, Inuyasha…"

"Let's go, Kagome," the hanyou interrupted, turning away abruptly. "They obviously don't want us here, and they might try to hurt you if go back again. So let's just go."

His pain was obvious, even after so many years. He had never gotten a chance to say good-bye. To see her one last time. He had been no more than a child and one day she had simply been gone. Of course it would still hurt him.

"I…I think we should stay," she called hesitantly after him.

He paused, though he did not turn to face her. His shoulders tensed.

"Kagome…"

"Please, Inuyasha. I can't imagine how painful this must be for you, but…don't you think you should at least take the chance to say good-bye? To pay respects to your mother's grave? You might never get one again."

"It's obvious, how much you must have loved her. And I'm sure she must have loved you, too. So…please, just stay to say good-bye. So that both of you can be at peace."

He was silent and still for a long moment. Kagome waited, praying he would take the chance to unburden himself if only a bit.

At last he turned to her. His expression was uncertain, hesitant. Kagome instinctively held out a hand towards him.

"I'll be with you if you want me to be, or I'll wait here if you want me to," she offered hopefully.

He sighed, tromping forward to seize her outstretched hand in his own. He started back towards the village, tugging her along after him.

"C'mon, then. Since you obviously ain't gonna let this go," he grumbled.

Kagome smiled.


They avoided going directly into the village this time, preferring not to have to deal with the villagers for the time being. Instead they skirted around the edges, searching for any sign of where the Konoe residence might have been.

After almost half an hour's search they came to the easternmost part of the village and a large, open plot of grassy land. Littered over the surface of it was a series of grave-markers, varying in shape and size. A graveyard.

Inuyasha paused on the outer edges of the plot, his face darkening. He had yet to let go of her hand, and Kagome tightened her hand around his in silent support. After a long moment, he started forward.

The majority of the graves seemed to belong to villagers who had died in the raid, judging from the writing on the headstones. Though headstone might have been too extravagant a word to describe the grave markers, many of them little more than stones with a few crude kanji carved into them. The poverty of the village was obvious.

Kagome felt she could understand the villagers' rage somewhat, the sweeping plain covered as far as she could see with graves. They had obviously lost a lot in the raid. And they were not the only ones, she thought as she glanced at the hanyou beside her.

His eyes lingered over each headstone they passed, a brief flash of relief lighting in them as each one failed to be the one they sought. His hand continued to tighten around hers in grim anticipation, though, as each one brought them one step closer to his mother's.

They reached a place where the plain began to slope upward into a hill. Atop the hill was a section of graves set apart from the rest. Even from a distance it was easy to see that moss had grown up over many of the headstones on the hill, their care far more neglected than all the rest.

Inuyasha came to halt at the foot of the hill, his gaze fixed on the graves atop it. Kagome turned to look at him, waiting quietly.

"Those graves…no one's been taking care of 'em like the others," he murmured, though he did not look at her as he spoke.

Kagome glanced back up the graves, nodding slowly. No offerings of incense or food sat before any of the headstones. Grave rites were clearly not being observed there.

"They smell different, too," the hanyou continued. "Familiar."

"…The Konoe clan graves?" Kagome ventured slowly.

Inuyasha nodded, though he did not move. For several minutes he merely stood there as if rooted to the spot, staring up at the graves. Kagome watched him silently, waiting for him to be ready. 

At last he released her hand and began to stride up the hill with purpose. She scrambled up after him, reaching the top several seconds after he did.

He was kneeling before one of the stones by the time she caught up, his nose nearly pressed against it as his brow furrowed in concentration. Kagome frowned, blinking at the odd sight.

"Inuyasha?" she said, taking a step toward his bent figure. She could hear the snuffling sounds as he scented the stone.

He took one last, long sniff before turning to look at her. His brows were drawn together sharply, his confusion evident.

"It smells like my old man," he said, though he did not sound like he quite believed it. "This whole place smells like my old man."

"Your father?"

"Yeah. It's barely here anymore, but it's his scent."

"Perhaps he came to visit your mother, then?" Kagome suggested.

Inuyasha shook his head, his mouth curling back bitterly.

"No, not my old man. He never came to see us in the court, not even once. And she wasn't his wife. She wasn't even one of his concubines. He…he wouldn't have come here," he said, his look darkening.

"But his scent is here, you said. What other reason could there be?" Kagome replied gently, her heart aching at the way he spoke of his own father.

The hanyou's gaze dropped, his eyes boring into the earth beneath him for a long moment. At last he stood, turning and starting in among the headstones.

"Inuyasha?" Kagome called, hurrying after him.

"We're here to find my mother's grave, right?" he said, not bothering to slow down for her. "Let's quit wasting time and get it over with already."

Kagome frowned, uncertain how to respond. The subject of his family was obviously a painful one for Inuyasha, and she was afraid to prod too much lest she open old wounds. For the time being she decided to hold her tongue and allow him to work through it on his own.

It did not take much to locate his mother's grave, even amongst so many others. The graves atop the hill were arranged roughly in a number of concentric circles radiating outwards with a single grave sitting directly in the center.

The headstone that marked it was by far the largest one on the hill and the only one upon which no moss had grown. Inuyasha froze at the sight of it, standing several feet away. The sharpness drained instantaneously from his face, and for a moment Kagome felt as if she were seeing him as a child. He looked vulnerable.

She placed a hand gently on his arm, wanting to offer her support in some way.

"That's her," he said unecessarily, looking for all the world like he could not take another step forward.

"I know," Kagome said gently. "Let's go see her, alright?"

Her hand slid down to grip his wrist lightly, tugging him onward. He followed along with little resistance, blinking when they reached the headstone. A small frown creased his brow as they both caught sight of the tiny kanji etched alongside the larger kanji that depicted the name of Inuyasha's mother, 'Konoe Izayoi'.

The tiny kanji, invisible from a distance, read simply: 'Beloved mate'.

Kagome glanced from the writing to Inuyasha's face, trying to gauge his reaction. His face was unreadable, though, a mercurial mix of emotions seeming to vie for dominance.

"Inuyasha…it must have been your father. Who else could have written it?" Kagome said hopefully. "He…he came for her."

Inuyasha shook his head, nearly taking a step back from the grave. She held his wrist firmly, refusing to allow him to run away from something so important.

"So he waited until she was dead!" he barked. "It took her being murdered by a band of raiders to make him come see her! Fuck that, Kagome, and fuck him! That bastard didn't deserve to be around my mother!"

He pitched forward, dropping to his knees with one clawed hand extended to scratch out the tiny message forever. Kagome gasped, reaching forward to stop him.

A flash of light blinded them both momentarily. Inuyasha fell back on his haunches, blinking rapidly to clear his vision. Kagome, on her knees beside him, did the same.

"The hell…?"

"Inuyasha," Kagome said, pointing to the ground beneath him as she regained her sight.

The earth of Izayoi's grave, just beneath Inuyasha's hand, glowed faintly. The hanyou blinked, frowning as he scooped some of the glowing earth up into his clawed hand.

Some of the soil fell away to reveal a small black pearl sitting in the center of his palm, emitting a soft white light. Kagome leaned in towards him to get a closer look at it, sensing a distinct youki besides Inuyasha's own swirling all around the small orb.

"What is it?" she murmured.

"I dunno, but it's got my old man's youki all over it," he said lowly, his gaze fixated on the small orb.

"This is your father's, as well?" Kagome asked, reaching in to tentatively pluck the jewel from his palm so that she could examine it more closely.

The glow was extinguished as soon as it made contact with her skin. Kagome frowned as she felt all of the youki recede back into the black jewel. She glanced up at Inuyasha, cocking her head curiously before pressing the jewel back into his palm. It lit up once more, the former Tennō's youki emerging to swirl around it.

"It only reacts to you," she said, looking up into his face. "Perhaps…perhaps because of your mother's blood. It seems your father left it for her, after all."

"Why bother?" Inuyasha bit out, scowling down at it. "What's some little rock after abandoning her for years?"

Kagome frowned, her heart sinking. She had suspected that his relationship with his father had been bad from the few bits and pieces that he had let slip, but she had never realized exactly how bad it was. He honestly believed that his own father had abandoned his mother and himself. She could scarcely imagine living with that kind of pain.

But, looking from the pearl sitting in his palm to the ever so carefully etched kanji on the headstone, Kagome could not honestly believe that that was the case. These were not the actions of someone who did not care.

She reached out slowly, covering the jewel in Inuyasha's palm with her own hand. His gaze shifted to her face, but she kept her own trained on their hands and the light peeking out from between them.

"You said yourself that your father had no reason to come here, right?" she said softly. "Your mother was not his wife. Nor was she one of his concubines."

"But he did come here. His scent is here, and who else would have carved those words on her grave? 'Beloved mate'. He didn't write it for others to see. He didn't make it big or grand. He wrote it for her, and for himself. He…he wrote it because that was what he felt."

"And this pearl. He left it for her, and it obviously reacts to her blood. It's filled with his youki. Don't you think…don't you think that maybe he just wanted some part of himself to be close to her, even in death?"

Kagome raised her eyes, meeting the hanyou's own and willing him to try and see things her way. To try and believe that his father had loved his mother, even if it was not in the most obvious of ways.

"Kagome..." Inuyasha said, his jaw set stubbornly against her words.

"I know that I do not understand what it was like for you growing up-how hard it must have been to grow up so close to your father and yet to have never seen him because of the circumstances," she cut him off, desperate for him to at least hear her out. "I am merely saying that I…I do not believe that loving someone is so simple a thing as merely being near them, or seeing them."

"You never saw your father, but I cannot help but feel that he saw you. Both of you. Why else would he have come here? Why else would he have named you as his heir, despite all odds?"

She held his eyes, watching as his expression slowly shifted into something reluctantly thoughtful. She curled his fingers closed around the pearl and patted his hand.

"Please think about, Inuyasha. I do not want you to suffer with this. And please talk to your mother. I am certain that she would want to hear from you. I will give you some time alone, alright?" she said, rising to stand.

She walked out to the far edge of the hill overlooking the plain, wanting to give him some time and space to say whatever he needed to say to his mother's spirit and to think about what they had found.

A small, hunched old man hobbled into her line of sight as she gazed out over the plain. He was coming from the village, making his way slowly towards one of the headstones with a pail of water in one hand and an offering of food in the other.

Kagome started down the hill towards him, intent on asking him a few questions while she could get him alone. It would be too difficult to deal with the entire village to get the answers that she wanted.

The old man stopped as he caught sight of her, the lines in his face deepening in an unwelcoming scowl. Kagome pressed forward, quickening her pace when he turned to go back to the village.

"Please, sir! Please wait just a moment!" she called after him.

"Go back to the court, miko. We don't need your kind sniffing around our village. Can't you see you've done enough damage?" he called bitterly over his shoulder.

His old joints did not allow for quick movement, however, and she easily overtook him. She came to block his path, forcing him to stop. He glared up at her from dark eyes set within the deep folds of his face.

"Please, sir, I only want to ask you a few questions. I have no intention of going back into the village right now."

The old man's mouth twisted bitterly, his eyes darting around her form. He heaved a sigh after a moment, obviously deciding that he could not outrun her. His eyes swung back to meet hers with defiant impatience.

"The graves up on the hill," she began, seeing his tacit acceptance. "Can you remember anyone ever having come to visit them to observe the rites?"

The old man scoffed, shaking his head.

"I'm sure you can see it yourself, but no one goes near those ones. Normally it'd be the job of the Konoe clan to care for 'em, but they're all gone. You'd think the court might send someone every now an' again, but obviously they don't give a damn, either. They're not ours, and they're not our responsibility. We didn' even dig the graves, so they're not ours to care for," the old man replied stubbornly.

"Wait, what do you mean you did not dig the graves?" Kagome broke in. "If you villagers did not put the Konoe clan to rest, then who…?"

"A big daiyoukai," the old man replied, stretching his arms wide to indicate its size despite the pail and food occupying his hands. "Came to fight off the raiders, he said, but he was too late by then. So he buried up the Konoe clan and ran off to track them down. Didn' look it at the time, but he musta been from the court. Never came back again, though, to visit the graves. Well, good riddance to more court nonsense."

Kagome frowned, ignoring the pointed jab at the end in favor of puzzling over the information that had just been given. Her eyes widened, two pieces clicking together in her head suddenly.

"The daiyoukai…was he an inuyoukai, by any chance?" she ventured, unable to keep the eagerness from her tone.

"Big white one," the man confirmed, though he looked wary of her sudden excitement. "Never gave a name…"

But Kagome was off and running back towards the hill as soon as the confirmation left his lips, calling a quick thanks over her shoulder as she went. She could hardly wait to tell Inuyasha, scrambling in an ungainly manner up the side of the hill.

She lost a bit of her speed at the sight of the hanyou, still kneeling before his mother's gravestone at the center of the rings of graves. His head was bowed, his hands pressed together around the pearl. He really did seem to be trying to talk to his mother.

Kagome approached slowly, reluctant to disturb him even with the information she now carried. One of his ears swiveled towards her as she neared. He raised his head to look at her, his eyes solemn. Kagome came closer, fighting the urge to reach out and stroke back his hair as she might a child.

"Did I disturb you?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

He shook his head slightly.

"No. I was just tellin' her about you anyway," he replied, his customary roughness almost entirely absent from his voice.

Kagome felt herself flush warmly, inordinately pleased to hear that he would talk to his mother about her. She pressed a hand to her cheek as if to suppress it, trying to ignore the slight fluttering in her chest as she met the hanyou's eyes.

"I-I found something out that I think you should hear," she said.

He frowned, his expression shifting into incredulity.

"I found one of the villagers alone out by the graves and wanted to ask a few questions," she answered his unspoken question, lifting her hands defensively as a hint of anger sparked in his eyes. "I wasn't in any danger, Inuyasha. It was just a little old man, all alone. He couldn't have done me harm even if he had wanted to."

He snorted derisively, shaking his head. Kagome frowned, but pressed on.

"He told me something interesting about the Konoe graves that I think you should know," she said. "The villagers did not bury the Konoe clan members. A daiyoukai did."

Inuyasha frowned, realization dawning slowly on his face.

"My old man…?"

Kagome nodded quickly, kneeling down at his side.

"I believe so. The old man said it was a big, white inuyoukai. He came here to protect the village-to protect your mother-from the raiders, but he arrived too late to stop them. He buried the clan before going to track down the raiders, the old man said. Don't you see, Inuyasha? He came here to save your mother and went after the raiders to avenge her death!" Kagome said, her eyes scanning his face intently for a reaction.

His brow furrowed deeply, his gaze dropping. After a long moment he shook his head.

"No…there's no way in the seven hells," he declared. "My mother…she wasn't his wife or mistress. The raid wasn't a big one. And even back then the Konoe were considered small fish in the court. There's no way they woulda let my old man out of the court specially to deal with the raid. They would've sent some soldiers, at best, but there's no way the Council let him outta the court for a woman who they didn't even acknowledge as being associated with him."

"Did they let you out to come protect me?" she returned pointedly, arching a brow. "Obviously he must have snuck out. Why else would you never have heard about it until now? And all of the evidence says he was here. He wanted to protect your mother so much that he was willing to defy the court to do it. He truly did love her, wife or concubine or not."

Inuyasha was silent, his eyes fixed on the ground as he tried to process this. Almost unconsciously his fist uncurled to reveal the small black pearl still glowing steadily in the center of his palm. His eyes shifted toward it, its glow reflected in them. His frown slackened slowly, the solemn, childlike look stealing over his features once more.

"I don't…I don't get it, Kagome. If he cared so much about us, why…?"

He trailed off, staring into the pearl as if it might offer him some sort of answer. Kagome bit the inside of her lip, watching him. Years of belief were not so easily discarded, after all, and his relationship with his father had obviously been almost nonexistent. How could he just suddenly accept that a man that he had barely known had loved him as his son?

Still, better that he try to work through it all now. It would be tragic if he were to go through his entire life believing that his own father had cared nothing for himself or his mother.

Kagome placed a hand lightly on his arm to get his attention. He glanced up at her, and she offered him a small smile.

"Your father loved you, Inuyasha," she said firmly, pressing his arm to emphasize her words. "I believe it, and I want you to believe it, too. You might not think so, but things like this are important. I want…I want you to be able to feel that your father loved you. I want you to be happy."

"I didn't even know him, Kagome," the hanyou said lowly. "And it's too late now. There’s no way of knowing what he thought about anything anymore."

Kagome sighed, her gaze lowering to the pearl.

"I'm sure if we could see him, he would tell you," she murmured, though she could sense she was hitting a wall with the hanyou that would not be so easily gotten past.

"Yeah," Inuyasha returned, his expression growing distant. "If we could see him…"

The glow around the jewel seemed to strengthen for a moment. Miko and hanyou both blinked.


It could have been an eternity or mere moments later that Kagome opened her eyes again. She felt as if everything around her had warped and stretched strangely, leaving her disoriented. She pressed a hand to her temple, trying to figure out why she suddenly felt so strange.

"Kagome?"

She looked up at the sound of the hanyou's voice. He sat in the same place, blinking at her with his face drawn in consternation.

"Did you feel that?" he asked. She nodded.

"What was it?" she asked. He shook his head.

"The hell if I know. All of the sudden…"

He cut himself off, ears twitching atop his head. His frown deepened.

"It's quiet," he said suddenly.

Kagome cocked her head, listening. He was right. There was not a single sound to be heard. Not the wind, not the chittering of birds. Nothing.

Her eyes met his questioningly and they both turned in unison to look around. Both froze, eyes widening.

"What is that?" Kagome gasped, scarcely able to believe what she was seeing. She brought up a hand to rub at her eyes, but the vision remained before her.

Inuyasha was silent beside her, unmoving. At length she turned to him, shaking his arm. Even that failed to draw his attention away from the sight in before them.

"Inuyasha?"

His lips moved numbly, forming words she could not catch. She leaned closer, trying to hear.

"Inuyasha? What is it?"

"My old man," he mumbled dazedly, loud enough for her to hear this time. "That's my old man."

Kagome's mouth fell open in surprise, her gaze whipping back toward the mass that had so shocked her before.

It towered above the both of them, the bones of what had obviously once been a great daiyoukai. Panels of armor still hung from its shoulders and chest, and the rusted remains of many swords still rested where they must once have pierced flesh. Great, cavernous eye sockets seemed to gaze down upon them, as if there were yet some remnant of life in the massive form.

"Your father?" she barely managed to get out, her mind working furiously. "By the kami…"

Somehow they had stumbled upon the final resting place of the great Inu no Taisho.

Chapter Text

Silence had descended upon the pair, stark and heavy. Neither knew what to do or say or even what had exactly had just occurred. The black pearl still glowed faintly in Inuyasha's hand, and Kagome found herself staring at it as if transfixed.

"…They never found my old man," came the murmur, low and hollow, that roused her from her stupor.

Inuyasha was not looking at her, but at the towering remains of what had apparently once been his father, one of the most powerful daiyoukai in all of Japan. Nor did it seem that he was speaking to her. His eyes were distant, looking back on some memory she could not see.

"What do you mean, never found?" Kagome reiterated, frowning.

He blinked slowly, a bit of the haze of remembrance clearing from his face. He shook his head.

"He wasn't in the court when he died," Inuyasha answered, his gaze lowering to the ground beneath him. "Council told everyone he'd gone out to do an inspection of the northern borders. Everyone figured he'd died trying to put down some of the youkai hordes up there.”

“They sent out a search party, but no one found the body. Everyone knew he was dead, though, 'cuz the feel of his youki had disappeared from around the Heian-kyō."

"His youki?"

"Every Tennō does it. Forms a barrier around the court. Like marking territory. Lets everyone know not to screw with your land. Disappears when you die, though," he said.

Kagome cocked her head, frowning as she tried to recall the feeling of the court.

"But I've never sensed a barrier around the court in all the time I have resided there," she said, wondering if perhaps her senses were off.

Inuyasha's frown deepened into a scowl, his gaze darkening.

"I'm only half, remember?" he bit out. "Not enough youki to create one."

"Oh…" Kagome said softly, uncertain what else to say.

"Feh," Inuyasha huffed, his shoulders jerking in a sharp shrug of dismissal. "Doesn't matter."

She bit her lip, certain that it did matter to him a great deal. Still, there would be time later to deal with that issue. For the time being they had much larger, more skeletal problems to deal with.

"Then, if no one was ever able to find your father's body before, how in the world did we happen across it?" she asked, gesturing up at the looming figure.

"The hell if I know," he replied, a hand coming up to scratch at the back of his head. "Can't even remember how we got here."

"Me neither," she said, frowning. "We were at your mother's grave and then…"

She trailed off, unable to recall anything beyond that. She looked to Inuyasha to see if he might be able to supply more.

He had taken the black pearl between two fingers and was studying it intently, a fang peeking over his bottom lip in concentration. He brought it close to his face and sniffed tentatively, brow creasing.

"I think I remember this," he said at last.

"The pearl?" Kagome asked.

He nodded slowly.

"I only saw it a few times, but…I think it belonged to my mother," he said, straining to remember. "When I was really little, I think she showed it to me. She carried it…she carried it in a special pocket inside her robes. And she said… something about how she looked at it when she wanted to feel close to my old man."

"Feel close to?" Kagome echoed thoughtfully. "Well, it was obviously given to her by your father, so…perhaps she meant it literally? It has got your father's youki in it and reacts to your mother's blood. Perhaps…perhaps your father gave it to her so that, if ever she needed him, she could get to him with ease?"

"You mean, if she needed to see my old man, she'd just…what, make a wish on this thing?" the hanyou said incredulously, holding the pearl up to eye it once more.

"Not a wish, maybe. Just…just a desire to be near him, I think. I mean, we were discussing being able to see your father right before…well, right before this," she answered, gesturing to their surroundings.

He was silent for a stretch, considering this. His expression grew heavy, perplexed. She could see some of the childlike confusion creeping back into his eyes.

"It makes sense, doesn't it?" she prodded gently. "He wanted to be near her and she wanted to be near him. The court made things complicated, but that never changed."

His gaze lifted from the pearl to meet hers. There was a frown on his face, but it had none of its usual edge to it. Kagome felt a sharp pang go through her at the sight.

"Then it was me he didn't want," he murmured, his tone an odd mixture of resentment and resignation.

He was on his feet walking  and moving towards the skeleton before she could even process
the words. She felt as if she had been struck, her eyes stinging at the raw pain that had been evident in him for just that brief moment.

"Inuyasha…" she called, her voice catching.

He either did not hear her or did not want to hear her. He continued towards the remains.

Kagome bit down punishingly on her lower lip, swallowing back her tears. Silently she berated herself for having pushed too hard.

She had thought that it would be a comfort to him, learning that his father truly had loved his mother despite how it seemed. She had never stopped to consider what that might mean for him, his father never having bothered to try and see him.

She couldn't bring herself to believe that his father hadn't loved him. But she couldn't provide him with any proof that he had, either, and Inuyasha had already lived his entire life believing that the former Tennō wanted nothing to do with him. It only made sense that he would take these new revelations as confirmation of that.

Kagome breathed a deep sigh before climbing to her feet. She jogged after the hanyou, intent on getting him to talk all of it out with her before he came to conclusions all on his own.

"Inuyasha," she called, reaching out to place a hand just above his elbow once he was within reach.

Inuyasha pulled his arm away, not bothering to look at her.

Kagome blinked, her heart sinking. She let her hand fall to her side.

"Inuyasha…I…"

"Just let it go for once, Kagome," he cut in roughly. "It ain't like I had no idea how my old man felt about me. Who'd be proud of having a half-breed for a kid? At least now I know the old bastard wasn't mistreating my mother. So just let it go."

Kagome opened her mouth. Closed it. She had no more to offer him. She bowed her head, trying to swallow back her own sadness for his sake.

"…I'm so sorry, Inuyasha," she managed at last, unable to think of anything else to say to him.

"Let's figure out where the hell we are so we can get back," Inuyasha said, as if he hadn't heard her.

Kagome's eyes darted up to his face.

"But…what about your father's body?" she ventured. "Now that we've finally found him after all these years…"

"It's sat here this long. It can rot here for the rest of eternity for all I care," he said dismissively, turning and striding off in another direction. There was a tall sand dune visible in the distance that he seemed to be heading towards.

Kagome frowned, trailing after him.

"But…can't I at least perform the final rites for him before we go? I would feel terrible just leaving him here like this."

Inuyasha stopped dead, spinning to face her. Kagome came to a stumbling halt just short of running into him.

"Cut it the fuck out, Kagome!" the hanyou barked, with a genuine anger that made her blanch. "Why do you have to poke your fucking nose into everything? I don't need you to try and fucking fix my life! So just back the hell off and deal with your own shit for once, alright?"

She gaped up at him, mortified.

Slowly her face crumpled, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. Her clenched fists shook slightly at her sides. Inuyasha felt a bit of his ire cool at the sight.

"Kagome-"

"Do not bother," she hissed, her lower lip trembling with the effort it took to keep from crying. "I understand perfectly now, Inuyasha-sama. I am sorry to have been such a bother."

She swept past him, striding with purpose towards the sand dune. Inuyasha stood looking after her, a sinking feeling in his gut.

Well, if she wanted to be pissed off, fine. As long as she stopped prodding. Kami knew she meant well-she meant well in just about every fucking thing she did-but he didn't need to hear it anymore. So what if his old man hadn't given a shit about him? It wasn't like he hadn't known that his entire life.

"Ah!"

A pained cry had him racing towards her before his mind could even process the sound. She was lying on the ground several feet away, unmoving. Inuyasha's stomach lurched sickeningly.

"Kagome!"

He slid to his knees beside her, slipping a hand beneath her shoulders to help her sit up. She let out a soft groan as he pulled her against his chest, his eyes scanning her body frantically for any sign of injury.

"Ow…" she moaned, brow creasing as her eyes fluttered open to meet his.

"What in the hell happened?" he asked, his heart still pumping erratically at the abrupt scare. Kami, he turned away for one second and…

Kagome lifted her hands to examine them, blinking at them a bit dazedly. The flesh of her palms was an angry red, blisters beginning to form. He took one of her hands carefully in his own, examining the damage. It looked painful, but superficial at worst.

"There's some sort of barrier," Kagome murmured. "I…I didn't sense it at all. I ran into it and…it must be made of some sort of youki…"

She flexed her hands tentatively, wincing as pain lanced through them. The hanyou frowned. He brought one of her hands up, thumb sliding carefully along the edge of the tender flesh. Kagome frowned up at him, a slight flush stealing over the ridges of her cheeks.

"It's not that bad, really," she muttered, trying to take her hand back. He held it fast.

"D'we have any bandages?" he asked, gesturing with his chin towards her pack that he wore slung over one of his shoulders.

"I think so," she said.

He released her hand and set her down carefully on the ground before pulling the pack from his shoulder. Kagome watched him rifle through it, feeling a bit of her previous ire return now that the shock had passed.

"Please do not trouble yourself, Inuyasha-sama," she said stiffly, struggling to stand without using her hands to lever herself up. "It will heal on its own."

A hand on her shoulder forced her back down, and Kagome glared up into his face.

"Calm down, wench, and just let me do this," he ordered, brandishing a small handful of herbs almost just under her nose. "These are the ones for burns, right?"

Her eyes nearly crossed as she attempted to examine the herbs. She frowned, her eyes slanting to meet his.

"How did you know?"

"Smells the same as the ones you used to treat that old lady in the one village we passed through," he answered with a shrug. "Hands."

Kagome's scowl returned. She pulled her hands behind her back defiantly.

"As I have already said, Inuyasha-sama, that will not be necessary."

He returned her glare with one of his own.

"Quit pouting and lemme see your hands," he growled, brandishing one of his hands expectantly.

"No," she said, unable to keep the note of petulance from her voice. “And I am not pouting.”

The hanyou stared hard at her for a long minute. She met his gaze evenly, unmoved. He huffed a sigh of resignation, muttering something under his breath.

"Sorry," he grumbled at last, the word so muffled it took her a moment to understand it.

She stared at him for a few moments, some of the edge draining slowly out of her expression. Releasing a small sigh, she shook her head.

"I didn't mean to pry into your business," she said softly. "I only wanted to help."

She held out one of her hands to him, a peace offering of sorts. He took it, pressing the herbs lightly against her burns.

"My business…is your business," he said lowly, his eyes intent on her hand as he worked. "Kami know you've made it that way since you showed up…and I-I don't completely hate it, I guess."

She blinked up at him, slightly surprised and more than a little touched at the admission. A small smile lit her face, a hand coming up to tug affectionately at one of his forelocks. He gave her an irritated glance before returning his attentions to her hand.

"Are you certain you won’t come to regret saying that?" she teased, unable to resist one last jab.

"I already regret it," he muttered, tying off the bandages on her hand. "Other hand."

She offered up her right hand obediently and watched as he proceeded to treat it with the same level of concentration. The sight of his expression as he worked, brow slightly furrowed and eyes fixed intently on the task, inspired a happiness within her that she could not entirely understand.

He tied off the bandages on her hand and looked up at her. The sight of her smile, glowing and grateful, caught him entirely off guard. He experienced a twinge of some feeling so strong that it was almost pain. He looked away hurriedly.

"The, uh, the barrier…you couldn't break it?" he asked, clearing his throat.

Kagome shook her head.

"It's too powerful for me to handle by myself, especially after I've been expending so much energy on the villages for the past few weeks," she explained, turning her attention back towards the unexpected hindrance. "I would venture to guess that the barrier is the reason no one was able to find your father. I imagine that anything inside the barrier is invisible from the outside and it's difficult to even sense the energy of the barrier if you're not looking for it."

Inuyasha frowned.

"Why would the old man go to that much trouble to keep his corpse from being found?"

"I don't think it was him," Kagome said slowly, her brow furrowing as she tried to recall. "The energy of the barrier…I only felt it for a moment when I connected, but it did not feel the same as the youki of the black pearl."

"Then some other youkai put up the barrier after he died?" Inuyasha asked incredulously.

Kagome shrugged, shaking her head.

"I suppose so."

Their eyes met, the unspoken 'why' of the matter passing between them. His eyes shifted towards the skeleton that loomed a short distance away.

"Do you know of any youkai who would have wanted to protect the sanctity of your father's body that much?" Kagome asked.

Inuyasha shook his head slowly, gaze lingering over the swords which protruded from various parts of the remains.

"No way," he said. "If they'd been concerned with protecting sanctity or whatever, wouldn't they at least've bothered to clean up the body a little? And why leave him out here? If the youkai was so loyal, why not bring him back to the court?"

"Then, what…?"

"Whoever the hell it was, they didn't want the body to be found," he said firmly. "I don't know much about my old man, but I know he was a tough old bastard. I never understood how a border inspection coulda been the end for him, even if he was alone and caught off guard. But, if someone planned it, it makes sense that they'd wanna hide the body to keep anyone from ever looking into it."

"You believe his death was planned, then?"

"I just don't think taking down a youkai like my old man coulda been a spur of the moment thing. And you said that villager said my old man went after the raiders, right?"

Kagome nodded, watching his face curiously. She could almost see him piecing fragments together in his mind.

"My old man…he died about a month after word came to the court about the raid on the Konoe clan. I always just figured it was a coincidence, but if he really did go after the raiders, who's to say it didn't take him a month to track them down?"

"There were supposed to be several ceremonies held the month after the raids to honor the Konoe clan, presided over by my old man, but all of them were cancelled by the Council. No one in the court knew why. And if he really did sneak outta the court, the Council would've wanted to cover it up."

"He had a reputation for doing whatever the hell he wanted, and the Council always tried to cover it up to keep order. The border inspection always sounded like a load of crap to me, anyway. It ain't exactly the sort of thing the Tennō goes off to do alone, and without anyone knowing about it except the Council."

"Then you think your father was killed by the same raiders who killed your mother?" Kagome asked, frowning as she attempted to follow the line of his thoughts.

"I think the raiders meant to kill my old man and killing my mother was just a way to get at him," the hanyou said, his eyes darkening.

Kagome's eyes widened.

"You…Don't you think that's a lot to assume, Inuyasha?" 

The hanyou shook his head. He met her eyes, his own fairly burning as he followed the trail of his own thought like a hound that had caught the scent.

"Like I said, there's no way in hell some band of nobodies just happens to take out the old man. And the Konoe clan, they were a minor clan at best. Their residence couldn't have been that great, and I doubt they had anything there worth goin' through all that trouble to steal. So why them?"

"Unless they knew about how close your mother and father were," Kagome filled in, warming slowly to the idea. "They attacked knowing she was there, and that he would come alone if she were in trouble because the court didn't approve of them. But why the month long gap between their deaths?"

"They would've wanted him as far away from the court as possible-the further he was, the less chance of anyone comin' to help him or seeing the raiders who were trying to off him without attracting any attention. So they spend a month letting him track them as far away from the court as possible," he replied, sounding more and more certain by the moment.

"An ambush," Kagome said thoughtfully. "They drew him out and attacked him when they knew they had the advantage."

Abruptly Inuyasha stood. He proffered a hand to her, gesturing for her to get up.

"C'mon," he said.

She offered up her forearm, avoiding her burned hands, and he pulled her lightly to her feet before starting off toward the bones. She trailed after him.

"Inuyasha, what are we doing?"

"There's something about the body that whoever the hell murdered the old man didn't want anyone to see. We're gonna find it," he replied firmly.

"And you're…alright with that?" she ventured delicately.

He glanced back at her out of the corner of his eye.

"Even if he didn't give a damn about me, he didn't deserve this. It's one thing to die in battle, and another to be murdered in cold blood. And if these really are the same bastards that killed my mother, they deserve everything that's comin' to 'em when I track 'em down," he said darkly.

Silent admiration welled within her. He concealed it alarmingly well, but when it came down to it Inuyasha had more heart than most. She quickened her stride to walk alongside him.

"What are we looking for, then?" she said.

"Hell if I know," he replied.

"Anything and everything it is, then," she returned dryly.

They reached the foot-quite literally-of the towering frame of Inuyasha's father. Kagome bit her lip, craning her head back to look up at it.

"This might prove to be a bit difficult," she murmured, uncertain where to even begin.

Inuyasha knelt down before her, offering up his back.

"Get on," he said. "It'll take forever if you try to do it on your own."

Kagome situated herself on his back, yelping slightly when he stood and hitched her up so that she rested more closely against his back. She gripped his shoulders, her face warming faintly as it always did at the close contact. 

"Hold on," he said, scarcely a second before launching them both upward.

Kagome felt her stomach drift upward out of her body, marveling silently at the ease and grace with which he moved beneath her. She bit her lip, fighting to keep from laughing at the sudden thrill.

He alighted on one of the lower ribs after a few leaps, a handful of oversized arrows protruding a few feet away.

Kagome slid down off of his back, balancing carefully as she walked over to examine the arrows.

Proportionally the shafts were much shorter than those of her own arrows. They also appeared to be made out of bamboo, the feathers at the base unfamiliar to her. She knelt down, stretching out a hand to see if she couldn't pry one of the arrows loose to inspect it further.

Inuyasha's hand around her wrist stopped her short. She glanced up at him questioningly.

"It's faint, but it smells like shōki," he said by way of an explanation.

"Shōki…" she murmured to herself, storing that piece of information away. "Well, if they thought ahead enough to coat their arrows in shōki then they must have been expecting a powerful opponent. These arrows…they don't look like any I've ever seen before, either. I've never seen arrows crafted from bamboo."

He frowned, taking this in silently. After a moment he knelt and offered his back once more. Kagome climbed on and they continued onward, making their way up and around the towering figure in leaps and bounds.

They stopped once more near one of the swords that Kagome had observed earlier. It was also exceptionally large, obviously meant to be wielded by a youkai, but that was not the only thing unusual about it.

The blade was double edged, coming to a sharply pointed tip. Admittedly Kagome knew little of swords, but she had never seen its like before in the court. It was as anomalous as the arrows.

The picture etched into the grip of the sword caught her attention, as well. It appeared to be a dragon, hooded and lacking any legs like a serpent. It was carved roughly, with choppy strokes.

Her brow furrowed, some faint memory tugging at the back of her mind. She had seen it before somewhere. She struggled to recall, but the memory danced just beyond her reach.

"I've never seen this kinda blade before," Inuyasha said, confirming her suspicions. "It doesn't look like any of ours."

"The picture carved into the grip looks familiar," Kagome said. "I can't recall where I've seen it before, though."

The hanyou remained a moment longer, staring hard at the sword as if to force it to offer up some sort of answer. At last he shook his head with a huff, launching them upward once more.

The body was littered with the remnants of Inuyasha's father's last fight. Swords and arrows, of the same odd make, protruded everywhere. Deep and numerous scores on the bone bore witness to the strength and number of his enemy. They had attacked in what must have been no less than a swarm, and they had been merciless.

The pair reached the skull without having found much that provided any real answers. The massive jaws of the former Tennō gaped wide, fangs bared as if in one last great howl.

Something glittered in the midst of that gaping maw and Kagome frowned. She squinted, shifting on Inuyasha’s back as she tried to get a better look at whatever it was.

"Inuyasha, do you see that?" she asked, pointing over the hanyou's shoulder. "Inside of his mouth."

Inuyasha moved them a few steps closer, straining his eyes down into the darkness of the gaping cavity.

"What?" he said.

Kagome slid down off of his back, moving in closer to inspect it. Sure enough numerous silk-like threads were intertwined across the opening, glinting faintly in her vision.

"Can't you see them?" she called back to him, one hand reaching out toward the threads. "Right here-"

She gasped, nearly stumbling backwards as light flared through the threads. For just an instant they were illuminated, the spider-web pattern and ghostly spider sitting at the center of it becoming apparent.

Inuyasha was beside her before she could blink, a hand on her back to keep her from falling. He scowled, pushing her back behind him for good measure.

"What the hell is that?" he asked, though he could no longer see the thing.

"Some sort of barrier," Kagome replied, peeking over his shoulder to get a look. "It looked like a spider's web. It's difficult to tell, but it might be made of the same youki as the barrier surrounding this place. Why here, though? If there's already a barrier protecting this place…"

"The back-up plan," Inuyasha replied lowly. "Whatever the hell it was that they didn't want to be found, it's probably down in there."

"I-Inside?" she said, blanching slightly at the thought.

It was one thing to hop about the body like a pair of fleas. It was entirely another to go poking around inside of it. Things were beginning to get a bit sacrilegious for her tastes.

"You think you can break that barrier?" he interrupted her thoughts.

"Yes, I think so," Kagome replied, eyeing the threads. "It's relatively small, and there's not nearly as much youki in it as the barrier surrounding here. But, Inuyasha, is it really alright to…?"

He turned a dry look on her, one dark brow lifted critically.

"We're standin' on a pile of bones, and this is what you flinch at?" he said.

She frowned, her lower lip protruding petulantly. She pushed lightly at one of his arms, trying to move him out of her way.

"Fine, then. Move so that I can break it," she said. "You have to admit it's a bit grotesque, though."

He stood aside and she pulled her bow from its place inside her quiver. She restrung it with a practiced motion and drew an arrow, notching it and leveling it at the place she remembered seeing the spider's outline.

She drew her arm back in a smooth motion, holding for a long moment to focus her energies directly into the tip. She released, the arrow flying true and straight to connect solidly.

The outline of the spider flared once more as her arrow made contact. Sparks flared, crackling between the two as the opposing energies clashed. Kagome blinked, a flash of memory sparking simultaneously.

The arrow pierced, shattering the barrier in a flash of blue light. Both spider and web vanished.

Inuyasha moved forward, intent on entering. Kagome did not follow.

Realizing he stood alone, Inuyasha turned back to order her to hurry up. He paused at the look on her face.

She stood with her bow still held in position, though her arms sagged slightly. Her eyes were unfocused.

"Kagome?" he called.

She blinked, presence returning to her face. Her grey eyes swung up to meet his own, the turbulence of her thoughts lighting them in that strangely mercurial way.

"That spider," she said slowly. "It keeps appearing everywhere. In that little boy, at my village, and now here."

Inuyasha frowned.

"You sure it's the same one?" he asked.

She shook her head, her gaze sinking.

"The one in the little boy and at my village…I'm certain those two were the same. They had the exact same energy. This one…the youki has been here for years. It's much harder to tell."

"But at the village the spider youkai said something to me. I was dazed and it didn't make any sense at the time, but…I think it may have mentioned your father's death. It was vague, but here's the mark again. Don't you think it's a bit too much of a coincidence?"

Inuyasha's face darkened, the line of his jaw tightening.

"Then the ones who did all this…"

"Are still in the court," Kagome finished grimly. "Whatever they've been planning for all these years, they're not done yet."

"Great," the hanyou growled, just managing to keep from slamming his fist into one of the bones. "Just fucking great! One more thing we've gotta worry about. Can't we catch a fucking break already?"

Kagome sighed, unstringing her bow and sliding it back into its place in her quiver. Silently she shared his frustration, biting the inside of her cheek. Things never seemed to get any easier.

But it wouldn't do to give in to despair, she reminded herself. So she took a deep breath and resituated the quiver on her shoulder, starting towards the hanyou.

"At least we know to be on our guard now," she said. "For now let's just focus on the problem at hand."

She gestured into the darkness before them expectantly. Inuyasha snarled something under his breath, upper lip curling back as he fought the urge to lash out.

He knew she was trying to be practical, but she just didn't seem to get it. It wasn't just that this was one more obstacle to overcome. It was her, too. One more thing to threaten her life. One more thing to test his sanity.

Managing just barely to swallow back his anger, he swung around and squatted down to offer up his back once more.

"Get on," he said, a bit more roughly than he intended.

Kagome frowned, but climbed on without comment.

The hanyou made a small leap, landing nimbly atop one of the massive fangs. Two sets of eyes peered down into the seemingly endless darkness.

"Should we light a torch first?" Kagome asked apprehensively.

"I can see just fine," Inuyasha said, before launching them down into the darkness.

Kagome muffled a shriek, her arms winding tightly around his neck. She couldn't see a thing, not even the hanyou she clung to so tightly. It was a bizarre sensation, falling through absolutely nothing. It felt as if her stomach was trying to escape her body through her throat.

"Inuyasha," she said, uncertain if her own voice would even make a sound in the muffling darkness.

"Huh?" came the reply, reassuring despite its ineloquence.

"Can you see where we'll land?" she asked, peering vainly in the direction she assumed was downwards.

"Yeah, it's comin'. Hold on."

A few moments later she felt the impact, his legs bending beneath her. The normal feeling of pressure, weightiness, returned and she sighed in relief.

Inuyasha squatted down and she slid off of his back, wobbling uncertainly in the darkness. A hand pressed against her back steadied her.

"Hold on," she murmured, raising one of her injured hands above her head.

A little bit of concentration sparked a small ball of blue light in her hand, just enough to dimly illuminate their surroundings. And to throw into sharp relief the face of the hanyou standing a bit too close to her.

He flinched back from the ball of light that had been mere inches from his face.

"Watch it with that thing!" he snapped, a hand coming up to check that his nose wasn't singed.

"Sorry," she murmured. "Didn't realize you were so close."

"Yeah, yeah," he huffed. "Let's just find what we're lookin' for and get the hell out of here, alright?"

She nodded, turning in a slow circle to see if she could spot anything. For the most part there were only solid walls of bone on every side. Her light skimmed over something anomalous for an instant and she paused, turning back.

"Inuyasha, there," she called, pointing towards it.

The bones in one corner seemed to have warped to form an altar of sorts, a raised dais into which was thrust a sword.

Kagome crept closer to examine it. The sword looked rather old, the wrapping on the grip frayed and the blade nicked in various places.

"What is this?" she murmured skeptically to herself, half-turning to see if there was anything else of prominence to be seen.

She caught sight of Inuyasha standing just to her right, his eyes fixed on the dais. His expression was oddly serious.

"Inuyasha?"

He cast her a glance out of the corner of his eye, but his gaze quickly returned to the sword.

"It's his sword. The old man's sword," he said.

Kagome blinked, her brow furrowing slightly in disbelief as she turned back to look at it.

"But it's so small," she said, trying to imagine the thing in the hands of the great inuyoukai. It would have been nothing more than a toothpick to him.

"It changed when it was in his hands," the hanyou said, his eyes distant. "It was legendary. Passed down from Tennō to Tennō. The old man had it re-forged outta one of his own fangs when he inherited it. Could slay a hundred youkai with one swing."

There was a sort of reverence in his face that she had never seen there before.

"So it was a mark of the Tennō-sama's right to rule," Kagome said thoughtfully. "And it was lost along with your father."

Inuyasha nodded.

"Then this is what they didn't want to be found. They weren't only trying to hide the fact that they'd killed your father. They didn't want the sword found, either. You said it's legendary. It would have given too much power to the next ruler," she said, thinking her way through it all aloud.

"Then why didn't they just take the sword?" Inuyasha said. "They coulda had that power for themselves."

She frowned, not having considered that.

"…I don't know," she admitted. "But it's the only thing down here, isn't it?"

"I guess," he replied, glancing at the emptiness around them.

"Then go get it already," she said, gesturing towards the dais.

"What?"

"The sword. Go get it," Kagome repeated.

"The sword is for full youkai. In my hands it'd be nothing but a hunk of rusted metal," the hanyou protested.

Kagome frowned, sensing something more to it than just that. There was no way something that small would keep him from taking the sword after they had come this far.

"Do you not want your father's sword?" she ventured.

The hanyou's gaze dropped. 

"It's not that," he said lowly. "He wouldn't have wanted me to have it."

Her heart sank.

She glanced up at the sword and made a quick decision. She turned and started toward the dais, hopping up onto it and going straight for the sword.

"Kagome?"

"I refuse to let you leave here without this, Inuyasha," she said stubbornly, wrapping her bandaged hands around the grip. "You are wrong about this. I know your father would have wanted you to have it. I just know it!"

She tugged upward with all of her might, ignoring the burning of her hands. The muscles in her back and arms pulled and strained for long moments, but the sword stuck fast. Her hands slid from the grip and she stood breathing hard, scowling down at the sword.

"Kagome, cut it out! I don't want the fucking sword!" Inuyasha called angrily.

She shook her head, repositioning her throbbing hands around the sword's grip. She planted her feet firmly once more and pulled, straining with all of her might.

Her hands burned terribly, the wounds chafing beneath her bandages. She bit her lip to keep from making a sound, but a slight whimper slipped out.

Hands were on her shoulders almost instantly, tugging her away.

"Would you cut it out, you moron? You're hurting yourself," Inuyasha snapped.

"I…can't get it...out," she panted in return. "It's…stuck."

He groaned, pressing her lightly aside. He hesitated for a moment before stepping up to the sword.

"You want the sword so bad?" he groused. "Fine. Let's get the fucking sword so we can get out of here already."

The moment his hand made contact with the sword's grip there was a palpable pulse of energy, travelling up the length of the blade into the grip and up through his arm. Inuyasha’s entire body began to pulse in time with the blade, like the beating of a heart.

Kagome watched, eyes widening, as the youki of the father flowed up from the blade to wrap around the son as if in an embrace. In turn Inuyasha's own youki was pulled forth to wrap around the blade, sinking into the metal to become a part of it.

She realized as she watched the blade slide easily from the bone in which it was encased that this was why the sword had not been taken. It was meant for Inuyasha. It would be useless to anyone else.

Silence stretched between them as they both gazed at the sword. Inuyasha looked slightly awed, uncertain, the blade in his hand both foreign and familiar. Kagome watched him, wondering if he would see the blade's acceptance of him for what it was-the ultimate sign of his father's approval.

A low hissing interrupted both of their thoughts. Kagome turned this way and that, trying to find the source. The scent of decay caught her nose and her stomach lurched sickeningly at the flash of memory that hit.

"Shōki," she breathed, hardly able to get the word out. "Shōki! It's filling up the room!"

But the hanyou was already at her side, draping his haori over her head and wrapping it tightly about her much smaller frame. The sword was tucked into the tie around his hip and he swung her up into his arms.

"Keep that on," he ordered, launching them upwards as the shōki began to close in around their place on the dais. "I'll get us out of here."

But even as he spoke the poisonous clouds were swirling up around them, billowing in from every level.

"Hold your breath!" he barked, tugging the edge of his haori down over her face. Not before she caught sight of the shōki beginning to eat away at the flesh on his hands and face, though.

She cried out, trying to push at least one hand free of the haori he'd trapped her in so that she could purify some of the poison around him. He held her fast, though, knowing it would melt flesh and bone the moment it made contact with her.

He gritted his teeth, continuing to bound doggedly upward despite the patches of his flesh he could feel melting and bubbling. One glance told him that the poison was beginning to eat away at Kagome’s hakama, tabi, and zori. His heart jerked in his chest, spurring him onward faster than before. He at least had to get her out.

A light appeared, signaling that their exit was just ahead. His feet connected with a rib and one last great push had them sailing out Inu no Taisho's gaping mouth.

He allowed them to plummet downward, falling the length of the body before landing lightly at the foot. An elbow from the thrashing woman in his arms caught him on the chin before he had much time to feel relief.

He scowled, setting her down a safe distance away before whipping the haori off of her head. She blinked for a moment before lunging at him.

Inuyasha braced himself for an attack, but instead her hands settled gently on the sides of his face. He opened his eyes warily and was greeted by the sight of her tearful face, her expression anguished. He winced. He would have preferred the attack.

"Look at you! You're burned all over!" she cried, her hands trailing from his face down to his hands. "Why in the world would you…? I could've at least purified some of it!"

"It would've burned your hand off, idiot," he said, though his words lacked any real force. "I'm hanyou. I can take it. It's healing already, see?"

He held up one of his hands for her to inspect, the flesh at the edges of a hole in his palm already beginning to mend itself.

Kagome stared at the proffered hand for a moment before her face crumpled, frustrated tears flowing even more quickly down her face. She cradled his hand gently between both of her own, her hands shaking slightly.

"Don't you ever do something like that again!" she managed to choke out. "I felt so helpless! I-I thought you were going to die! What would I do…what would I do if you…?"

He gazed down at her, at a loss. It was almost frightening how deeply it seemed to affect her. Something tugged in his chest, his hand moving to touch her damp cheek gingerly. He leaned in to say something, anything, to take that look off of her face.

A resounding crash jolted them both back into the present. Inuyasha only just managed to throw them both clear as a fragment of melted bone came crashing down.

"Kami, Inuyasha, your father's body…" Kagome breathed, her eyes widening.

The shōki was quickly eating through bone and armor, seeping through the cracks and out towards them once more. The once great form of Inu no Taisho was quickly collapsing in on itself.

"No time for that," he said, ignoring a sharp pang in his gut at the sight. "We need to get outta here now."

"I can't break the barrier," Kagome said, eyes wide.

"We’ll figure it out," he growled, snatching her up and making a run for the barrier. The shōki was closing in quickly, rolling from the body in thick clouds.

He set her aside as they reached the barrier, cocking an arm back and slamming his fist into it as hard as he could manage. Not even a spark.

Kagome bit her lip, her gaze shifting from his vain efforts to budge the barrier to the rapidly approaching clouds of poison. She stepped in to cover the hanyou's back, drawing her bow and an arrow from her quiver.

She concentrated on purifying any of the shōki that came near enough to be dangerous to them, realizing with a sinking feeling that she was running low on arrows. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the hanyou still pummeling his fists vainly against the barrier.

"Inuyasha, please hurry! I haven't got many arrows left," she called, firing off another one into a plume of creeping shōki on their left. Three arrows left.

He paused, glancing wildly from the shōki closing in on all sides to the arrows in Kagome's quiver. The barrier wasn't budging, but even his haori wouldn't protect her for long once they were completely immersed in the stuff. He needed to get them through now or she didn't stand a chance.

He dug his claws into one of the wounds in his hands, gratified at the blood that welled up. He soaked his claws in it before leaping up, dragging them down the length of the barrier.

"Hijinkessō!"

Sparks flared where his claws made contact, the barrier crackling all around him. But it remained solid, immovable.

"One arrow left, Inuyasha!" Kagome called, her voice strung tight. The shōki was creeping in on all sides, mere feet away from her now.

Inuyasha snarled, desperation rising quickly within him. He had to protect her. 

A pulse resounded against his hip, echoing throughout his body. It was the rusty old blade again, calling his youki to rise.

Without thought he drew it, gripping it with both hands and raising it before him. The pulsing quickened, a flash of light sliding along the blade.

When the light dimmed the rusted blade was no more. It was a sword bigger in size than himself, worthy of being called his father's fang. It was his sword.

Squaring his feet, he raised the blade over his head. With the force of his desperation, he brought the sword down against the barrier.

For a long moment the sword connected and stuck, sparks flying wildly as its youki fought against the youki of the barrier. Slowly it began to pierce through, sliding downward to cut a narrow opening.

"Kagome!" he yelled. "Go!"

She swung around, making a dash for the opening just as the shōki began to reach her. She nearly tumbled through, Inuyasha diving through just behind her as the barrier sealed itself once more.

They both sat panting and dazed in the midst of the sand that they had emerged upon, waves lapping against the shore in a steady rhythm just feet away from them. The final resting place of Inuyasha's father was invisible once more, for all the world as if it did not even exist.

Kagome felt a sharp pang of sadness, thinking of the way in which Inuyasha's father's body had been desecrated. Silently she vowed to hold her own small ceremony for him once they returned to the court.

She glanced over at the hanyou who had just saved them both. He was staring at the rusted blade in his hands as if he could not quite believe it existed.

"Inuyasha?" she said softly.

He looked up at her, lifting the blade for her to see.

"It transformed for me," he said, as if he needed some sort of confirmation that it had actually happened.

"It's your sword, Inuyasha," she returned with a small smile. "Your father must have meant for you to have it. And you just saved both of our lives with it."

His eyes slid once more along the blade, an incredulous grin tilting up one corner of his mouth.

"Yeah," he said softly. "I guess so."

"Oi! You two!"

They both turned at the sudden call. A middle-aged man carrying a large net slung over his shoulder stood on a sand dune just above where they both sat. His skin was deeply tanned and weathered.

"You look lost," he called, eyeing their clothing. "Need some help?"

"Where are we?" Kagome called back.

The man frowned, the question obviously a strange one.

"You're on Tsushima," he replied. "What, you sail to the wrong island?"

The hanyou and miko exchanged a look.

"We're on an island," she said quietly to him.

"We're on a trade port," he said, his expression darkening rapidly. "My old man was killed on a trade port."

And in that moment they both realized that their problem extended much farther than just Japan.

Another country had been involved in the assassination of the previous Tennō.

Chapter Text

It was two days before they could catch a ship heading back to the mainland. The fisherman who had found them along the shore, while initially bemused at their disorientation, proved to be quite kind and helped them to find a ship as well as an inn to stay at until they could depart.

They spent the two days, at Inuyasha's urging, examining the ports around Tsushima. Numerous trade ships were docked in the harbors, most of them either Chinese or Korean.

Inuyasha explained to her that Tsushima had long stood outside the control of the Tennō, separated as it was from the rest of Japan both physically and in terms of its composition. Many foreigners had taken up residence on the island, moving it even further outside the Tennō's authority.

It made sense then that Inuyasha's father had been lured all the way out to the island by the raiders. There was no one there to come to his aid and it was the last place anyone would think to search for the Tennō's body.

As to the involvement of an outside party in his father's death, Inuyasha said his bets were on China. His father's relations with the Chinese Emperor had always been strained at best and the man was eager to expand his empire. Japan was a prime target and China had the resources at its disposal to launch an attack if they chose.

But someone within the court, someone who had been close enough to know about the relationship between Inuyasha's mother and father, had to have been present to orchestrate the entire thing. And if what Kagome had heard from the spider youkai truly was connected, they were still very much present.

Both agreed that it was in their best interest to return to the court as quickly as possible. Kagome had already placed protection around several of the villages around hers, and she feared what might happen-what might have already happened-in their extended absence.

The ship they boarded took nearly four days to reach its destination at a small port in Matsue. Kagome was fairly certain that Inuyasha did not sleep a single night while they were on board and chided him for it, telling him that he would surely fall ill if he failed to take care of his own body. He merely brushed her off, huffing something about hanyou not getting sick like humans.

Apparently sea-sickness was another issue altogether, though, as she observed him hanging over the side of the ship more than once looking quite ill. She refrained from making any comment, knowing well enough that it would only irritate him.

He was obviously anxious over the delay. She felt much the same. She often caught him gripping the hilt of his newly acquired sword tightly, his gaze distant and troubled. She wondered if his concern was for the past or the future. Perhaps it was both.

Kagome often wished she could bring herself to talk with him about all that had happened, beyond merely pragmatic speculation on the circumstances of his father's murder. After all, he had just discovered not only a connection between his father and mother that he had never thought existed, but also that that same connection had led to the both of them being killed.

She could never quite bring herself to broach the subject. So she remained silent on that count, allowing him to take his own time to sort through it while staying close to offer her support.

When they finally docked in Matsue's harbor, they did not waste any time in starting off toward the capital. Thankfully they were not far from it. It took only a day and a half or so for Inuyasha to get them there, though they did not stop to rest more than an hour or so in all that time.

As the walls of the Heian-kyō at last came into sight, both breathed a bit easier to see that it appeared none the worse than when they had departed. Guards stood posted at the western gate as they approached.

"Everything seems to be alright," Kagome said tentatively.

"Yeah, we'll see about that," he grumbled in response.

He let her down from his back as they reached the guards, steadying her with a hand around her upper arm as she wobbled. Her legs felt weak after such a long period of disuse.

Inuyasha pulled a clan seal from inside his robes, flashing it at the guards who obviously had no idea what exactly their Tennō looked like. They were allowed inside without question. Kagome guessed he carried the seal of a prominent clan to keep himself from being identified.

"I need to go to the Dairi to see Kikyou," Inuyasha said as soon as they were safely inside. "She's been covering for me this whole time. She's probably wondering where in the seven hells we are by now."

"Shall I come with you?" Kagome asked.

"No," Inuyasha said, a bit sharply. Kagome blinked.

"She's bound to be pissed at how long I've been gone. I said I'd be back quick. Better that I deal with her alone," he explained.

"Oh…alright," Kagome said, feeling a bit disappointed somehow.

"Look, go see your friends. Let 'em know you're not dead or anything," he urged gruffly, flapping a shooing hand at her.

Kagome's eyes widened as she realized that she had not even said so much as a farewell to Miroku or Sango. She had taken off in a complete panic when she had heard about what was happening near her village. The last time she had seen either of them had been at the court gathering that Sango had planned.

"Oh, no," she gasped softly, her heart sinking in her chest. "I did not tell them a thing before I left."

"Then go tell them now, idiot," he reiterated.

She nodded, more to herself than to him, before turning on her heel to go. She needed to go to them as soon as possible to try and make amends for having been such an awful friend.

"Oi, I'll call for you when it's all settled," Inuyasha called after her.

"Alright," Kagome called back, tossing a wave in his general direction before quickening her pace toward the Tachibana residence.

Absently she noticed that the court seemed rather quiet. It was mid-afternoon, normally a time when the courtiers would be out strolling after the afternoon meal, but she did not encounter a soul on her way to the residence.

The guards at the gate of the Tachibana residence seemed surprised at the sight of her, but allowed her in without question. The servant who greeted her at the door informed her that Sango had been very worried about her ever since she had learned that she had gone out of the court shortly after falling ill.

She asked Kagome to wait for a moment while she went to inform Sango of her arrival.

Kagome worried her lower lip anxiously as she waited in the entryway, wondering how upset the noblewoman would be with her. At least she seemed to have found out that she had left the court, but she had done so so shortly after falling ill and had not even stopped to explain her reasons for leaving to her friends. Truly she had been terrible to them, even though they had always treated her so kindly.

A loud, quickly approaching series of thumps stirred her from her guilt-filled reverie. Her eyes only had an instant to process the blur of color that swung around the corner into the entryway before a solid weight slammed into her.

"Kagome-chan!"

Warm, slim arms banded about her, squeezing the remaining breath from the already startled miko. She only barely managed to remain standing, supporting both her own weight and the weight of the nearly hysterical taiji-ya clinging to her.

"Thank the kami you're alright!" Sango exclaimed, releasing her death grip only to take Kagome's face tightly between her hands. "Look how pale you are, though! Like you haven't slept in days. Oh, but at least you're alive and you're back. I thought…I thought…"

She bit her lip and shook her head hard, as if she could not quite bear to give voice to her imaginings. Kagome blinked up into her face, feeling sympathetic tears well in her own eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said in a small voice.

"Don't you ever do that to me again," Sango said sharply, her gaze locking with Kagome’s. Kagome nodded, feeling small.

Sango sniffled, her expression softening. She pulled a small silk handkerchief from the inside of one of her trailing sleeves, using it first to daintily clean Kagome's face and then her own.

"Let's go sit somewhere and you can explain everything to me, alright?" Sango suggested.

Kagome nodded once more. The older woman took her hand, leading her past a group of servants who had gathered to watch the unusual scene. A warning glance from Sango scattered them, each moving off quickly to attend to their duties.

Sango led her out into the Tachibana gardens around the back of the residence. It was fairly empty there as many members of Sango's clan were out on assignment once more.

Sango led them to a secluded corner where a small bench sat overlooking a frozen pond. They both settled on the bench and there was silence for a long moment. Sango held her hand tightly.

"Where is Miroku-sama?" Kagome asked at length, recovering her voice.

"He has been worried, as well. The last time I saw him we discussed going out after you. With all that has been happening, though, it was difficult to obtain permission to leave," Sango replied.

"Happening?" Kagome echoed, shifting to look at her.

A small frown, almost a wince, twinged across Sango's face, though she attempted to hide it by turning away. A pang of worry darted through Kagome's stomach.

"Sango-sama?"

"You were going to tell me what happened out there," Sango hedged.

Kagome frowned, the pang sharpening to a jolt.

"Sango-sama," she said more firmly, squeezing the hand wrapped around her own. "I know I have been an awful friend to you, and for that I cannot apologize enough. And I will tell you everything, down to the last detail. But if something has been happening here I need to know."

She met the older woman's eyes pleadingly. Sango frowned, her gaze dropping to their linked hands.

"You just returned, Kagome-chan. You look exhausted. Won't you just rest, just for a bit, before you leap into things once more?" Sango asked softly.

"I can't rest knowing something is wrong in the court, especially not after abandoning my duties here," Kagome pressed anxiously.

"No one can blame you for wanting to be there for your family, Kagome-chan," Sango said, then sighed. "Alright. I promise I will tell you, if you will promise to remain here and rest for the remainder of the night. No acting on anything until the morning."

Kagome hesitated, weighing this. She nodded slowly.

"I promise," she said. "Please tell me."

Sango sighed, her expression still discontented. She turned her gaze out onto the frozen pond, seeming to gather her thoughts for a moment.

"There was…an incident a few days after your departure for your village," she began carefully. "A branch of the Taira residence was broken into. Some of the clan's valuables were stolen and a member of the clan was injured when he caught the thieves trespassing."

Sango hesitated, her eyes darting to Kagome's face and then away once more. Kagome squeezed her hand, urging her silently to continue.

"The injured clansman identified the thieves," she resumed. "The future Empress sentenced them, as the Tennō-sama has gone into a religious seclusion for a time to seek the guidance of the kami. Both of the thieves…were publicly executed."

Kagome's eyes widened.

"That's…barbaric," she breathed, horrified. "How can public execution be the punishment for stealing?"

"I wish that were the end of it," Sango said grimly. "The thieves…they were not members of the court. They were from the outside. Ever since the robbery all of the courtiers have been up in arms about the presence of outsiders in the court, from the servants to…to you and Miroku-sama. I believe they are beginning to resent that the Tennō-sama has allowed for the presence of outsiders of common birth."

Kagome felt the blood drain from her face. She blinked, struggling to comprehend.

"Who were they?" she asked, dread knotting tightly in the pit of her stomach. "The thieves-who were they?"

Sango grimaced, and Kagome knew that that was exactly the question that she had wanted to avoid. She hesitated for a long moment, her gaze fixed on her lap. Kagome waited, feeling vaguely ill.

"They were among those I hired for the gathering to welcome my father and brother back into the court," she sighed at last. "That is part of the reason why the courtiers are so upset with the Tennō-sama. The incident has left a stain upon the memory of the gathering."

Bright green eyes and a mop of red hair flashed through Kagome's mind. She thought she might be ill. Her hand trembled within the confines of Sango's and the other woman looked up, alarmed.

"Kagome-chan?"

"Kitsune," she said, her voice cracking on the word. "Were they…were the thieves kitsune?"

"A couple, husband and wife," Sango replied, leaning in towards her concernedly. "Kagome-chan, you didn't know them, did you?"

Kagome pressed a trembling hand to her face.

"They had a son," she said. "They had a little boy. And now…and now who does he have? Kami, Sango, they killed his parents…"

Sango placed a hand on her shoulder, but Kagome scarcely felt it. That cheerful little boy with whom she had played had had his parents stripped from him in an instance. He might even have been forced to witness their deaths. All over something as petty as thievery.

"I have to go find him," Kagome murmured, more to herself than to the other woman. "I can't just leave him."

She made to stand, but Sango's iron grip on her shoulder forced her back down. The noblewoman frowned at her.

"You promised, Kagome-chan," she said accusingly.

"Sango-sama…" she began to argue, but stopped short at the look on the other woman's face. She would not be leaving the Tachibana residence without a struggle tonight.

"It's not right, Sango-sama," she said softly.

Sango frowned, squeezing her shoulder sympathetically. She stood, tugging Kagome up along with her.

"Come. You need to eat something and have some tea. You can tell me about everything and then rest for a bit before deciding what you want to do," Sango said gently.

Kagome nodded half-heartedly, allowing herself to be led. Still her mind whirled at how quickly things had shifted and how one small incident had left a young boy alone in the world.


Kagome passed a tense night at the Tachibana residence. She picked listlessly at the food she was given and told Sango the story of what had happened outside the court, leaving out for the time being that the Tennō had been with her and that they had stumbled upon the former Tennō's final resting place. Much as she loved and trusted her friend, there were some things better left unsaid for the moment.

Sango insisted that she stay in her personal room for the night rather than one of the many guest rooms. Kagome knew she feared that she would try to sneak off in the night, but she intended to keep her promise. Her dreams that night were troubled.

In the morning Sango harangued her into eating breakfast and going to see Miroku before she could do anything else. Kagome agreed, partly because she had no idea what else to do.

She wanted to find Shippou if she could, but she had no idea where to look. And Inuyasha had said he would summon her when he was ready, so there was little she could do but wait on that count. It was frustrating, but she was at a loss.

Miroku's residence seemed even smaller somehow than the last time Kagome had seen it. It was quieter, as well. It took some time before a servant came to greet them in the entryway.

When they asked to see Miroku the servant hesitated, glancing at Sango. She said that she was not certain if the houshi was accepting visitors at the moment and asked them to wait as she went to check. The miko and noblewoman traded a bemused glance.

The servant announced that he was well enough to see them when she returned and led them back into the small garden on the side of the residence. Sango grew visibly anxious at the mention of the houshi's health.

He appeared to be in fine health, though, when they found him sitting beside a small pond in one corner of the garden. He was not alone, either.

Kagome felt her heart catch in her throat at the sight of the small figure sitting bent beside Miroku. The tangle of red hair was even more striking against the gloom of the grey clouds that had choked the sky since the dawn.

"Shippou-chan," she called, her throat constricting around the word.

The small figure sat bolt upright, his head whipping around so quickly it almost looked painful. Green eyes, much dimmer than Kagome remembered, widened. His small face seemed to crumple all in an instance.

"Kagome!"

Kagome was not certain if she moved or if it was him, but a moment later he was in her arms in a blur of motion and color.

"Kagome! Kagome! Kagome!" he sobbed like a mantra, his tears seeping into the front of her robes.

"I'm so sorry, Shippou-chan. I'm so sorry," she murmured in return, her arms wrapped securely about his small form.

She rocked him as he sobbed and shook, tears staining her own face. He rambled with only a semblance of coherence about his parents and his home and how he had tried so hard to find her but had been unable to. Kagome could not bring herself to say anything in return, merely holding him and listening.

At last the tears seemed to run dry and he lifted his face from her chest, gazing up at her with wide red-rimmed eyes.

"Where'm I supposed to go now?" he asked quietly. 

Her heart broke.

"You don't have to go anywhere. You can stay here. I promise I'll take care of you from now on, alright?" Kagome said earnestly, wanting nothing more than to protect him for the rest of his life from the cruelty of the world.

A small spark lit in his eyes.

"Really?" he asked softly, as if the offer might be revoked if he spoke too loudly.

"I promise," Kagome said firmly. "I'm here for as long as you need me."

His expression crumpled once more and he hid his face in the crook of her shoulder. There were no tears this time, but his small arms were banded so firmly about her neck that she knew it would be quite some time before he would let go.

Her gaze met the concerned looks of Sango and Miroku over the child's head, both of them watching helplessly.

"He came to me a few days ago. I believe he was following your scent," Miroku offered, seeming to be at a bit of a loss. “He said he had been separated from the rest of his clan when they were forced to leave court after...well, after. He hid and came searching for you.”

Kagome nodded, adjusting the boy in her arms as she moved to join them.

"I am glad to see you are well. Sango-sama and I were worried when you did not return quickly," Miroku continued with a small smile, reaching out to place a warm hand on her arm.

Kagome's smile in return was brittle.

"I am truly sorry to have worried you both," she said. "Have you been feeling unwell? One of your servants mentioned that you had not been well enough to take visitors. Is there anything I can do for you? I know a number of herbal remedies I could mix."

Sango's eyes turned to the houshi in concern. Miroku's smile took on a guilty quirk at the corners.

"It is not so much a physical illness as a reluctance to be in the company of courtiers at the moment," he said with an apologetic glance at Sango. "They have been rather…critical in regards to my social standing of late."

"Who? What have they been saying to you?" Sango asked sharply, looking indignant on his behalf.

"Nothing that I would repeat in the company of ladies such as yourselves," he hedged, though neither missed the genuine flash of anger that flitted just behind his eyes.

"Is this all because of…" Kagome began, trailing off as she remembered the child in her arms.

Miroku and Sango seemed to realize it, as well, their gazes dropping to the little boy. A tense silence stretched between the three.

"They didn't do it," came the muffled murmur from Kagome's shoulder.

Shippou raised his head, glaring up at all three of them with defiant eyes.

"They didn't do it," he repeated more loudly. "My parents wouldn't do somethin' like that! All they wanted was to work here and earn some money, but some man said they stole his stuff and then they were killed! But they didn't do it! I swear!"

Kagome turned incredulous eyes on her two friends.

Sango bit her lower lip, her gaze sliding away from the other woman's. Miroku placed a hand on her shoulder.

"It was their word against that of the Taira headman's. The law was brutally clear in this instance," Miroku explained, a bitter edge to his words.

"That's not fair!" Kagome exclaimed indignantly. "They were condemned on nothing more than a word?"

"It is the law, Kagome-chan," Sango said weakly, though she could not meet the other woman's eyes. "It is above us all."

Kagome bit down on her lip angrily, unable to argue the point. The law was a thing divinely ordained, passed from the kami to the Tennō to the people. Was it for her to argue with the kami?

But she could not forget the orphaned child in her arms so easily. He looked up at her with eyes that burned with fierce, frustrated tears and she could not believe that this was just.

"I think I need to go now," she said softly.

Miroku frowned, taking a step towards her.

"You only just arrived, Kagome-chan," he said.

"I just need to take a walk," Kagome said. "Everything…Everything is piling up. I just need to get out for a bit."

Both seemed to be on the verge of saying something, of stepping forward to stop her.

"I won't leave again. I promise," Kagome said, sensing their concern. "I just need to collect my thoughts."

"Then we will be waiting here with lunch when you return," Sango said, her eyes hopeful.

Kagome nodded, turning and heading out of the residence.

For awhile Kagome walked aimlessly about the court with the kitsune who was now her own. Neither was much inclined toward speech.

Eventually Kagome's steps led them to the En no Matsubara and the Goshinboku, where they settled into the roots to sit together.

"Are you angry?" Kagome asked softly, stroking his hair as he sat in her lap.

"Yeah," he replied, his voice losing all hints of childishness for a moment.

She drew a shaky breath, wrapping her arms around him and drawing him back into her chest. He did not resist, but he did not lean into her entirely either.

"I promise I will take care of you from now on," she vowed quietly, wishing she had been able to take care of him when he had truly needed it.

She had worked so hard to gain some semblance of respect for herself in the court that she might begin to help fix the things that had gone awry. Now she wondered if perhaps she had gone about it all wrong.

She had tried to earn their respect by working on their level and to a degree she had been successful. But that was only because she had tried to make them forget about her common birth. What had happened to Shippou's parents made it agonizingly clear that the people of the court considered anyone outside of themselves to be little more than nothing. 

She had done well for herself, but had done nothing for others of common birth. She had been running headfirst in the wrong direction.

Stroking the boy's hair back, she wondered if she could really continue to stay here where people such as herself counted for nothing. She toyed absently with the fantasy of simply taking Shippou back to her village to live out the rest of their lives in relative peace.

She sighed, knowing she could never do it. She had promised Inuyasha that she would remain at his side and she had promised Miroku and Sango that she would not run off again. Besides which she would accomplish nothing by running.

Could she really just submit herself to a system of law that would sooner condemn her for her birth than seek the truth, though?

Abruptly Shippou sat up straight as a rod in her lap. He wiggled free of her arms and leapt in front of her, his small teeth bared.

"Shippou-chan?"

His name had no sooner left her mouth than a gale rose around them, kicking up dirt in all directions. Both coughed, covering their eyes until the clouds settled.

Standing before them, arms crossed as casually as if he had merely strolled up, was Kouga.

The fur all along Shippou's tail rose. He glared warningly at Kouga, what Kagome could only imagine was a small growl stuttering in the back of his throat.

"Found ya," Kouga announced, his grin entirely wolfish.

Ignoring Shippou's threatening posturing, he swaggered leisurely toward her.

"You skipped out on me," he accused, though his grin did not fade in the least. "But I knew you'd be back. No way my woman's gonna leave me behind."

"I had business I had to attend to," Kagome replied vaguely, standing and scooping the kitsune into her arms to keep him from lunging at the larger youkai. He squirmed in her hold until he was facing Kouga, continuing to glare fiercely at him.

"Leave Kagome alone!" he snapped. "I won't let any of you stupid courtiers touch her!"

This caught Kouga's attention. He quirked a brow in an almost amused fashion, leaning down until he was face to face with Shippou. He bared his own, much sharper fangs in a too-wide grin.

"You've got guts, kid, but you'd do better to know when an enemy's too big for you," he advised lowly, snapping his teeth once for emphasis.

Kagome scowled, pulling the child away from him.

"Please do me the kindness of not picking on children, Kouga-sama," she said sternly.

He scoffed, then blinked, and squinted more closely at Shippou. Shippou bristled, glaring at him in return.

"You look familiar, runt," Kouga said, frowning as he struggled to recall. "Ah! I know. You look like those kitsune who were beheaded the other day."

Kagome's hand had connected with the flesh of Kouga's cheek before she even realized she was moving. His head did not move an inch, though his cheek reddened rapidly. He blinked bemusedly at her.

Kagome glared at him in return, tucking Shippou closer to her chest with her throbbing hand as if she might protect him from the memory.

"How dare you say something like that so casually," she hissed. "Two people are dead! And for what? To reassure you courtiers of your superiority?"

"Hey! I'm no stuffy-ass courtier! I came here and stayed here for you, remember?" Kouga snapped in return, an unusual flare of pique flashing across his features. "Besides, I'm with you on this. I don't think they did what Hakudoshi said they did. Even if they did, what the court did ain't right."

Some of the edge drained from Kagome's face. She shifted Shippou in her arms, gazing warily at the wolf Lord.

"You…you truly think so?" she asked.

"We don't handle it that way in my tribe," Kouga said, shaking his head. "We don't hand out punishment without letting everyone speak their piece. And we sure as hell don't dole out death as the punishment for everything. All that would do is breed resentment among my people."

"But what about the law of the kami?" she countered with a note of desperation creeping into her voice. "Can you disregard it so easily?"

Kouga snorted derisively, but sobered slightly at the look on her face. Her wide eyes were trained on his face, searching. It was rare for him to get this kind of attention from her.

He sighed, scratching his head. He figured he'd better try and be serious this time.

"Look, I know about that stupid law. According to it, me and my tribe aren't worth much. And you and the kitsune aren't worth shit. Do you really feel like you aren't worth shit?" he said.

"No," Kagome replied, softly but firmly. "We're not worthless."

"Right. Me'n my tribe feel the same. So instead of following a law we can't believe in, we decided to make one that we could. 'Cuz the law of the kami or whoever really only suits the courtiers," he said.

Kagome gazed at him for a long moment, processing this. She frowned, her gaze dropping.

"I have always believed that following the ways of the kami was the best path one could take in life," she said softly.

"You really think the best path is the one where you're worthless?" Kouga countered, one brow cocked critically. "You think that's what the kami want for you?"

"…I don't know," Kagome confessed, her voice small. "I don't know what they want for me anymore."

"Try asking them, then," Kouga said, as if it were as simple as that. "I've never talked to 'em, but maybe they might answer you."

A small laugh escaped her at the straightforwardness of the suggestion. She offered him a wry grin.

"Perhaps you are wiser than I have given you credit for, Kouga-sama," she said. "I am sorry for having been stingy in my esteem."

"Yeah, well," he blustered, puffing up. "I am pretty wise."

Kagome laughed, her smile widening. She shifted Shippou in her arms. He was asleep, having dozed off some time after realizing that Kouga was no threat to her. She imagined he must be entirely exhausted after the past week that he had had.

"I am sorry that I left without saying anything," she said. "Come sit and talk with me for awhile?"

She took a seat on one of the upraised roots, patting the seat beside her invitingly.

Kouga took the seat eagerly, a silly grin stretching across his face.


After Kouga finished expounding upon how much he had missed her and how much he hated the court though he remained for her sake, they talked more of the laws in his tribe. Kagome was fascinated and slightly wary at the idea that they followed a code that was entirely of their own making, tailored to fit their own needs with regards to the ways of the kami but without worry over their approbation.

As to his association with the Taira clan, Kouga informed her with no small amount of pride that he had managed to make quite a bit of headway in gaining their trust. As the Lord of quite a large number of youkai outside of the court, they were eager to solicit his good will and cooperation.

He had not yet been allowed access to the upper echelons of the clan, but he said that he was hopeful he soon would be if he did not misstep. He also informed her that if there was foul play afoot, it was buried too deeply for him to see yet.

Kouga reluctantly allowed her to take her leave when the sun began to sink below the walls of the court, securing from her first the promise that she would be sure to meet with him once more in a few days' time.

Kagome returned to Miroku's residence with Shippou still fast asleep in her arms. Miroku and Sango were having tea together when she arrived and looked relieved at her return.

She offered them both a sheepish smile to reassure them of her much improved state of mind. The remaining tension dissolved and a meal was ordered for all of them to share.

Shippou woke as the food was set out for them, digging in ravenously. His table manners were nothing short of horrendous, but Kagome did not have the heart to chide him for it at the moment. She resolved to start teaching him soon, though, as he was going to be remaining under her care in the court.

They all ate quietly for a time, the sound of Shippou's occasional slurps and crunches the only real noise in the room. At length Miroku cleared his throat, setting down his hashi in a manner that made clear his intent to speak seriously.

Kagome and Sango both mirrored his movements, giving him their full attention.

He met both of their eyes solemnly, one and then the other. His gaze held Sango's for an instance longer, something unreadable flashing behind his dark eyes.

"I want to make clear to you both where I stand, as I hold you in higher esteem than anyone else in my acquaintance," he said. "I have no intention of letting what has happened pass unmarked."

Sango and Kagome exchanged a look. Faint stirrings of alarm flitted across Sango's face.

"What do you mean, houshi-sama?" she asked, her eyes searching his face as she turned back towards him.

Miroku turned his full attention upon her, his eyes meeting hers in a silent plea for understanding. Sango blinked, her features tightening anxiously.

"We have known one another since childhood, Sango-sama, and I know there is no ill-will in your heart towards any being, big or small," he said earnestly. "But the same cannot be said for much of the rest of the court. As an outsider I have long allowed myself to be treated as an inferior within the court, believing that it was merely my burden to bear here."

"This tragedy has proven me wrong. In failing to stand for myself, I have failed others, as well. I can no longer remain silent and hope for change to be wrought on its own or by the hands of those who have no interest in it."

All the color had drained from Sango's face. She gazed at him as if he had just slapped her, cold horror dawning in her wide eyes.

"I never…I never knew you were suffering," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "You always looked so cheerful. I never…Why didn't you ever tell me?"

Miroku frowned. His gaze sunk to the table between them.

"As I said, it was mine to bear. I did not wish to burden you with it," he said. "I do not blame you, Sango-sama."

"I blame me!" Sango yelled, slamming her palms down on the table. Tears shimmered brightly in her burning eyes.

"I blame me for not knowing! I blame me for not seeing! I blame me for never doing anything! Did you truly think that I could be indifferent to your suffering?"

She glared at him. He still could not meet her gaze. Tense silence stretched tight between them.

"…I never thought myself equal to you," Miroku said at last. "And thus I never confided in you. But I wish to stand equal at your side now. And that is something that I am willing to fight for."

His eyes locked with hers. The tears burning in her eyes slipped down her cheeks at last and the anger vanished from her expression. Both were silent, searching for something in each other.

Kagome looked on with wide eyes, her presence obviously forgotten for the moment. Even Shippou had paused in his gorging to watch. Kagome fidgeted, feeling they should leave the room but not wanting to draw the attention of her friends by moving.

Shippou burped.

Kagome blanched.

Miroku and Sango's eyes swung towards them.

In an instant Sango's face was the color of Inuyasha's haori. Even Miroku looked mildly embarrassed, clearing his throat loudly.

"As I said, I have no intention of being passive any longer," he said, his tone overly businesslike. "I am not yet certain what course of action I will take, but I wished to make you both aware of my intent to act."

"Whatever you decide to do, you will have my aid," Sango said, overcoming some of her discomfiture.

"Sango-sama…" he said, looking as if he might argue.

"No, Miroku!" she interrupted. "It is far past the time when I should have stood with you! I will stand with you now. If you are concerned about my position within the court, know that I am not."

She met his gaze unwaveringly, her jaw set. He hesitated for a moment, but could not fight back a small smile. An answering grin crept across her features.

"As you wish," he conceded, with a gentlemanly flourish of one of his hands.

Watching them, Kagome felt some of her uncertainty fade. Sango was so ready and willing to leap to the aid of her friend. She wasted no time worrying over laws that she knew in her heart to be unfair. She placed all of her faith in her friends.

Kagome wanted to do the same, though the thought of going so blatantly against the kami sent a chill sweeping through her.

Miroku seemed to notice this. He turned his attention on her, his expression sobering a degree.

"I do not wish to make you uncomfortable, Kagome-sama," he said. "Nor do I require any vows of your support. I understand your beliefs and would not force you to compromise yourself."

Somehow the assurance made her feel worse, but she could not quite manage to form a reply. So she merely nodded, her eyes downcast.

Silence descended for a few moments. Sango folded her hands back into her voluminous sleeves, rising from the table.

"It is growing late," she said, once more the picture of propriety and grace. "I think it is time we take our leave for the night, houshi-sama. Thank you for your hospitality."

"Not at all," Miroku replied, rising as well. "You are always welcome at any time. Allow me to see you out."

Kagome scooped up Shippou, who was once again looking drowsy after having stuffed himself. She followed her two friends out, solemnly observing the warm glances they exchanged.

She prayed for certainty.


No certainty dawned with the rising sun the following morning.

Kagome had chosen to stay the night at the Tachibana residence. As far as she knew her place was still technically in the Fujiwara residence, but she did not relish the prospect of returning there after all that had happened.

Thus she accepted Sango's offer of a guest room to stay in for the night. Shippou remained in the room with her, sharing her futon. He was still anxious, reluctant to be parted from her for long. She could hardly blame him.

Sango woke them both in the morning with promises of tea and breakfast. Both were served promptly and the three sat and discussed what to do with the day.

The entrance of a servant interrupted their planning. He bowed once, informing Sango that a servant of the future Empress awaited Kagome in front of the residence.

Kagome felt her stomach sink. She had known this would come eventually, but she had hoped to put it off for at least a few days.

She could hardly refuse the future Empress' summons, though. With a sigh she asked Sango if she could watch Shippou while she went to attend Kikyou.

Sango agreed readily, but the kitsune protested. He refused to be separated from her, clinging to her leg desperately. He cried that he did not want her to disappear, too.

Kagome could not resist such a plea, though she knew this meeting would be no place for the child. Still she acquiesced, apologizing to Sango and promising to return as quickly as possible.

The Fujiwara servant awaiting her outside the residence cast a questioning look at Shippou, but did not comment. It was a long, silent walk to the inner palace and Kikyou's residence.

When they reached it the servant directed her towards the future Empress' chambers, informing her that the other woman awaited her there.

Kagome instructed Shippou to wait outside the room for her. He agreed reluctantly, seating himself just outside the shoji.

She hesitated just outside the room, her stomach in a knot and her mind working furiously. She had no idea how to face the woman after all that had happened.

Taking a deep breath, she slid the screen open.

Hard brown eyes met her own. Kikyou's back was unyieldingly straight, her mouth set in an unforgiving line.

"You do not bother even to observe proper etiquette in opening the shoji now?" she said, forgoing any sort of greeting. "Your constant demonstrations of your lack of respect for myself and the court will no longer be tolerated."

"Have you even the vaguest notion of what chaos you caused in abandoning your duties here in favor of a few minor villages? Your priorities are far from where they need to be if you intend to be of any use within the court."

Kagome gaped at her for a moment, unprepared for such an immediate assault. Kikyou returned her gaze, fire and ice in her eyes. An intricate fan flapped in short, sharp waves in her left hand.

Even in her anger, her vivid green juni-hito was arranged impeccably around her kneeling form. She was every inch the irreproachable courtier.

And all at once everything shifted into sharp, clear relief for Kagome. The future Empress' words and what she had allowed to happen.

"That is all that any of us are to you, isn't it?" Kagome said. "Minor? Barely even worth your consideration?"

It was Kikyou's turn to be taken aback, her fan stilling slowly in her hand. Obviously she had been expecting a much more deferent response. Kagome felt a twisted satisfaction in having interrupted her composure even slightly.

"I will not stand for insolence from you, Kagome. Not after I have allowed you such leeway," Kikyou said, her tone hardening warningly. Her fan snapped shut in a gesture that demanded an end to Kagome's nonsense.

But Kagome was far from done.

"You may stand or sit as you please, Fujiwara-sama, but you will hear me and you will understand that you are in the wrong here," Kagome returned, advancing upon the woman.

She did not kneel. She would not submit this time.

"I believe you are a good woman. I have respected you, even grudgingly, since the time I entered the court. But you have done wrong. You have robbed a little boy of his parents without thought."

Kikyou blinked, her brow wrinkling slightly in confusion. Comprehension dawned slowly in her eyes. She set her jaw once more.

"I followed the law," she said coolly. "They were thieves and they dared even to assault one of the Taira in the process of their crime. They were unable to defend themselves against the accusations."

"Precisely! They hadn't the slightest hope of defending themselves!" Kagome burst out, the noblewoman's detachment fueling her anger. "What proof did you have? What, other than the word of the Taira who you know to be suspect? And what besides their own word did they have to defend them? A word that you count as insignificant!"

Kikyou's expression turned to stone. She rose, slowly and with painful dignity, to face Kagome.

"I followed the law," she repeated lowly. "They stood accused by a nobleman of thievery and assault. The law was clear and I enforced it, as is my duty as future Empress. And I will not be made to repent because you refuse comprehend that."

"And I will not be made to be silent because you cannot comprehend that the law might be wrong," Kagome said. "I am not worthless, nor were they. We are children of the kami as much as you and I will not pretend otherwise any longer."

"Continue in your blasphemy and I will see you thrown from the court," Kikyou said, unmoved.

Some of Kagome's anger cooled into disappointment. The other woman refused to hear her.

"Do as you will," she said softly. "But I hope that you will at least think. You stole the lives of two people without hesitation. You orphaned a little boy. Those are burdens that you will have to live with, but you do not have to add to them. Please think. Please prove that you are the woman I believe you to be."

Kikyou was silent, her expression entirely closed off.

Kagome sighed, turning and exiting the room without another word. Shippou gazed up at her with wide, solemn eyes as she picked him up.

"She killed my parents?" he asked.

"…No," Kagome replied after a moment. "Ignorance is responsible for the death of your parents. She was merely the body it moved through. Do you think you can understand?"

"I don't know," Shippou said quietly.

They both fell silent.


They spent the remainder of the day wandering the court. Shippou had yet to see much of it and Kagome decided that a tour was in order. It at least served to keep both of their minds occupied.

They also visited the bathhouse. Kagome made certain to wait until an odd hour when she knew that scarcely anyone would be there, uncertain as she was of what their reception would be.

She cleaned Shippou up first, the layers of dirt that came off of him evidence that he had not bathed in quite some time. His clothes were also washed, though there was not much she could do against the years of caked in grime that clung to them. She resolved to have new clothes made for him as soon as she could.

Afterwards she took Shippou back to the Tachibana residence. His stomach was rumbling audibly.

In the back of her mind she was anxious, fearing that a servant would be waiting for her there to force her from the court. Perhaps worse after the way she had spoken to the future Empress.

Still she did not regret having spoken her mind. She did not feel wrong.

But her worries were for naught. No servant awaited her. Sango was not at home, either. The servants were familiar enough with her to allow her in anyway, preparing a quick meal for her and the little boy.

Shippou inhaled his food once again. Kagome wondered if it was because he was growing or because he was so unaccustomed to having food so readily available. She ate little of her own food, her appetite nearly nonexistent.

Shippou began to nod off almost immediately afterward. Kagome took him to the guest room they had shared the night before and put him to bed. She sat beside the futon, stroking his hair until she was certain he was asleep.

Alone in the dark room with only her thoughts to keep her company, her anxiety began to grow once more. She had no idea what the future Empress intended to do. She was certain that she would not go unpunished. Even if she had been in the right in what she had said, she had spoken far above her own station.

She fidgeted uneasily, wondering what in all of Japan she would do if she were banned from the court. She could hardly bear the thought of being made to give up after all that she had done.

Perhaps she could lead the villages in revolt. Win fair recognition for them.

But they had so few resources at their disposal that success would be unlikely without great sacrifice. And even that was only provided that she could rouse the villages to action. Judging from what she had recently witnessed, many of them wished only to live as far apart from the court as possible.

Besides which, raising a rebellion would mean going against Inuyasha. If it came to that, she did not think that she could do it.

She sat up straight, realizing suddenly what she needed to do. Quietly she crept from the room, careful not to wake the sleeping boy.

She would go to Inuyasha and make herself clear. There was no way he would allow her to be put out of the court if only he understood.

Kagome hastened to the Dairi and Inuyasha's chambers. The guards there informed her that he was out in his private gardens. She thanked them, knowing almost instinctively where he would be.

She retraced her steps from the last time that she had been there, heading towards the spot where they had often met. Reaching the line of trees that hid the small hill and pond, she was gratified to hear his voice.

She paused, though, at the sound of another voice answering his.

Peeking cautiously out from behind one of the trees, she strained to make out the figures atop of the hill through the darkness of night.

The fiery red of his haori identified Inuyasha, sitting at the peak of the hill. Standing beside him…

Kagome froze, her heart sinking into her stomach.

Kikyou was with him.

Even under the shroud of darkness, she looked more discomposed than Kagome had ever seen her. Her hair was unornamented, she carried no fan with her, and even her juni-hito was arranged improperly.

Besides which she stood while Inuyasha sat, forgetting even the etiquette of not rising above the Tennō. Her expression was hard to read in the dim light, but her body was set in a rigid line.

"Then you will put her above me in this, too?" she said, so lowly that Kagome barely caught the words. "You will allow her blatant disrespect for this entire court and its laws to continue unchecked?"

"Kikyou-"

"No!" she snapped, and Kagome flinched. It was the first time she had ever heard the woman's voice rise above its usual controlled drawl.

"No, Inuyasha! I will not stand for it! I have tried to respect your decisions as my Lord and sovereign, but I will not be silent any longer! You have already abandoned me-abandoned your duties- to indulge her in her misguided whims! How far will you allow this to go before you cease to be blinded by her and remember your duties?"

"I promised to protect her. I couldn't just let her go out there and get herself killed after what she's done here."

"And what of what I have done?" Kikyou returned, her voice dropping once more to a strained whisper. "Have you any idea of what you left me to when you went chasing after her? Had anyone discovered you were missing, I would have been lost. You abandoned me, Inuyasha, to trail after some common girl that you have hardly known for more than a few months. You left me alone…"

Her voice cracked, despite her best efforts to keep it firm. Inuyasha rose, his outline moving towards her.

"Kikyou…I…I'm sorry. I didn't think…"

His arms went around her. She seemed to hesitate, but after a moment her arms went eagerly around him in return.

"I am to be your wife," she said softly. "You have made promises to me, as well. I want to support you, my Lord, but I will not come second to her."

"I'm sorry, Kikyou," Inuyasha repeated, his voice uncharacteristically soft. "And you're right. You're…you're the one who's going to be my wife. You have to come first."

There was silence between them then, but Kagome's ears were filled with the thundering of her own heart. She felt hot and cold at the same time and wished desperately she could bring herself to move. She was rooted to the spot.

Kikyou leaned back slightly in the embrace. Slowly she leaned in, pressing her lips to his.

Kagome bolted.


She ran, stumbling, all the way back to the Tachibana residence. At least that gave the sharp aching in her chest the excuse of over-exertion.

She wanted to keep running, but she had no idea to where. She could not run fast enough to escape.

After a few long minutes of indecision she gave up and went inside. She headed absently for one of the reception rooms, needing to sit and calm herself.

She wandered into a room and paused, surprised to see someone already inside. The halls were quiet as many of the servants had already retired for the night.

It was Sango, her face faintly illuminated by the light of a candle. She knelt on one of the room's several cushions, bent intently over a scroll spread across her lap.

She glanced up when Kagome entered, her hands sliding unconsciously to cover the scroll.

"Kagome-chan," she said, a flush creeping up over her cheeks. "What are you doing up so late?"

"I might ask the same of you," Kagome said, grateful for the momentary distraction. "What are you reading?"

She knelt down beside her, trying to make out what was written on the aged parchment. Sango sheepishly removed her hands, allowing her a proper view.

"A record of my clan," she explained. "I was just looking it over."

Kagome's eyes skimmed over the numerous names, arranged like the branches of a tree to reflect the people's relations to one another within the clan.

"For what purpose?" she asked, her eyes trailing down until she found the names of Sango, her father, and her brother.

"I…I wished to see if there was anyone of lower status that had ever been brought into our family," she said, color rising once more to suffuse her face.

Kagome glanced up at her, a small smile lighting her face.

"For Miroku-sama's sake," she supplied. "To prove that commoners really aren't so far from courtiers. You're a good friend, Sango-sama."

Sango chuckled uneasily.

"Well, I have yet to find anything," she hedged, rolling the scroll up and setting it aside. "But what of your meeting with the future Empress? She was not too harsh with you, was she?"

A pang shot through Kagome. Two shadowed figures locked in an intimate embrace. A kiss.

"…I would rather not talk about it, if that's alright," she said, her voice slipping out in a rasp.

Sango frowned, craning her head to try and meet the younger girl's eyes. She blinked, surprised.

"Kagome-chan," she murmured worriedly. "You're crying. What's wrong?"

Kagome reached up to touch her own cheek, her fingers coming away damp. Surely enough she was crying. She felt her lower lip begin to tremble, a choked sob escaping her.

"I-I don't know," she fumbled. "I shouldn't be…I don't know…"

She pressed her hands to her face, trying to stem the flow of tears. Sango's hand came to rest on her shoulder, the older woman leaning in protectively.

"What did she say to you?" she asked sternly. "Future Empress or not, I will not allow her to-"

"No, it wasn't her," Kagome said, shaking her head. She sniffled miserably, wishing the tears would stop.

"Then what, Kagome-chan?" Sango pressed anxiously. "What could have upset you so much? Please, I want to help."

Kagome bit her lip, drawing a shaky breath. She shook her head once more.

"I just…I saw something. And it surprised me, that's all," she said, a weak attempt at sounding casual.

Sango frowned, reaching out with her trailing sleeves to dab at the younger girl's face. She met her eyes intently.

"This is not what surprise looks like, Kagome," she said gently. "This…this is what heartbreak looks like. Tell me what you saw or it will only continue to eat away at you."

Kagome blinked up at her with red-rimmed eyes. She hesitated, uncertain herself what exactly was wrong with her and at a loss to explain it to Sango.

"I saw…I saw a man I know, a courtier, while I was out walking," she began, hoping that in speaking she could begin to make sense of the jumble of her emotions. "He was with…with his…with his…betrothed…"

Her voice cracked. Sango squeezed her shoulder, silently encouraging her.

"T-they were together," Kagome continued shakily. "They were…embracing. I didn't mean to see them…it's not as if I didn't know they were engaged. I was just…shocked, I guess…"

Several hiccupping sobs overtook her. Inuyasha's soft words to Kikyou echoed in her head.

"Oh, Kagome," Sango crooned, wrapping her arms about the girl's shoulders. "I am so sorry. I never realized."

"…Realized what?" Kagome rasped, dragging the back of her hand roughly across each eye.

"That you are in love and suffering so much over it," Sango said, smoothing her hair back from her face. "That's what this is, Kagome-chan."

Kagome froze. Slowly she shook her head.

"No," she said, a little more forcefully than necessary. "No, there's no way that I…"

She could not bring herself to finish. She continued to shake her head as if that might force the very notion out of it.

Sango pulled back slightly, placing her hands on either side of Kagome's face. She met her eyes earnestly.

"You will prolong your own suffering by refusing to accept it," she said. "Do you think of him often? Desire to be near him whenever possible? Do you confide in him and desire his good opinion of you above all others?"

Kagome sat mute. The instinctive 'yes' that vibrated through her turned her blood to ice in her veins.

"…I can't be," she mumbled through lips gone numb, wanting to convince herself as much as Sango. "Even if he weren't betrothed already, such a hope on my part…would be impossible. Our statuses…there's no way. I'd be a fool to even…"

Sango's face softened sympathetically. She pulled back, turning and grabbing the scroll she had been looking at before. She proffered it to Kagome.

"That is a kind of foolishness that I know well," she confessed quietly. "I was not searching this for houshi-sama. I was doing it for myself."

She hesitated, her eyes downcast.

"I wanted…to see if there was any record of marriage between the nobility and those of lower status. I wanted to know if it was even a possibility. I hoped that if there was at least precedent, then there…there might be hope for me, as well. But…there is none, and I am as much a fool as you."

She glanced up, tears glittering on her lashes, and shrugged helplessly. A small, sad laugh escaped her.

"I am in love with houshi-sama."

Tears tracked slowly down her pale cheeks, the picture made all the more tragic by the wobbly smile that threatened to slip from her face at any moment. A sob that was half laugh escaped Kagome, her tears overflowing once more.

She slid forward on her knees to embrace Sango, clinging to the woman and being clung to in return.

"At least we can be fools together," she whispered, feeling the weight of the words as they slipped from her.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, she had fallen in love with Inuyasha.

Entirely, hopelessly in love.

Chapter Text

Revolutions were made by degrees. By the minutest shifts in thought and the smallest actions, coalescing over time to form the new.

These were some of the musings that Kagome entertained in the days following her reluctant revelation-the sort of abstract musings well suited to a mind steeped in melancholy.

She went over and over the events since her arrival in the court in her mind, trying to pinpoint when exactly it had happened. She chastised  herself for not having had the sense to guard against it. 

She had thought him rough at first, abrasive and off-putting, but small glimpses of a man who was deeply brave and determined to do right where he could had peeked out at her like the glimmer of the sun peeking out from behind storm clouds. And he had been loyal to her, had trusted her in his own way, when few others had.

By degrees her respect had been earned. By degrees she had come to desire his friendship and confidence. She had scarcely noticed when her desire to be of help to him began to take just as high a place as her desire to help the people of her village. Had scarcely noticed when her friendly affections had ceased to be so simple as they once were.

Kagome tried to console herself with the knowledge that she had no prior experience in such matters and that the sheer improbability of such an affection between herself and the Tennō had kept the thought from ever entering her mind. She had not guarded herself against her affections because she had never suspected them until it was too late.

Still, this was a rather cold comfort to heartbreak.

She passed two listless days with Sango and Shippou, seldom leaving the sanctuary of the Tachibana residence. Memories, moments of self-reproach, dark thoughts on the future, and the hopelessness of her situation assailed her by turns during her waking hours, exhausting her beyond the will to do much besides wander the Tachibana gardens.

Sango seemed to bear up under it much better, though the older woman confessed to her that she had had a good amount of time to come to terms with her own situation. She described with a bitter mixture of wistfulness and pain the days of her childhood that she had spent at Miroku's side, drawn to him at first by his obvious loneliness in the court and then by his wit and kindness.

He had been flirtatious with her as they grew older, but she dismissed it as his way and tried not to take it to heart. Besides which she had always known that when she came of age she would be married off to the head of another branch of her clan to assure good relations between the families.

But Miroku's constant attention, his endless support and companionship, had been taken to heart nonetheless. She found herself jealous of his attentions to other women and lonely when he went out of the court on assignment. She found that she desired his esteem above that of any other person.

Privately, for all that she could tell that Sango was as troubled as herself, Kagome thought her slightly better off. Now all the pieces began at last to form a clear picture, and Kagome could not help but believe Miroku's feelings were much the same as Sango’s.

Whether or not that mutual affection would ever come to fruition was the true problem. She did not say this to Sango-sama, though, as she felt it was not her place to declare Miroku's feelings for him.

Sadly she could not claim the same comfort for herself. Inuyasha was already wholly committed to another woman. There was no chance that her feelings could be returned in kind.

Even his tentative trust and friendship must now be in question, serving to compound her suffering further. For those two days the worry buzzed constantly in the back of her mind that she would be summoned to his chambers and dismissed for her behavior towards the woman who was to be his wife. The very thought was unbearable, bringing with it fresh tears every time it surfaced.

The summons never came, though. All was silence on his end, and at last her capacity for suffering and self-pity exhausted itself.


With the dawning of the third morning came resolve. Kagome could no longer indulge her sorrow. Thinking and brooding and mulling over the situation had not changed it one bit or served to dispel her unwelcome feelings.

Thus she resolved that she would bury her feelings, never to speak of them again. They could only be a hindrance if she was to continue to work in the court. And for all that had happened between herself and the future Empress, Kagome had no real desire to come between her and the Tennō.

Inuyasha had made his promise to Kikyou first, after all, and if nothing else she seemed to care for him sincerely. And, much as it pained her to think on it, he seemed to return her affections.

Besides which, even in the rare moments when Kagome allowed herself to indulge in the fantasy that they might somehow be together, she had to acknowledge that such a connection could only be detrimental to both of their positions within the court. She had only her spiritual gifts to recommend her, and even those would be in question if she were to be the thing that broke up his long-standing engagement.

It would seem as if she had merely come to court seeking power for herself and he would seem fool enough for falling for her ploy. 

Kagome would not do harm to Inuyasha for the world, not even with her own feelings. And so they were pushed down deep, her burden to bear for the sake of them both.

That morning she decided to pay a visit to the temple, a vague notion of purifying herself and starting anew forming in her mind. She left Shippou to keep Sango-sama company, promising to return soon. The young kitsune was gradually relaxing to the point where she could be out of his sight for more than a stretch at a time, though he still groused slightly at being left behind.

The Chūwain was silent and still in the early light of morning. Kagome tucked her hands back into the sleeves of her robes as she ascended the long flight of stairs, the chill beneath the shadow of the trees sharp and invigorating. She breathed deeply, relieved to be outside once more after days of relative isolation.

She shuddered as she went through the process of cleaning her mouth and hands, the water in the basin icy. Still, it soothed the ragged ache in her chest that had plagued her since that unfortunate night.

She stepped to the entrance of the temple slowly and consciously, moving through the familiar ritual of claps and bows to alert the kami to her presence. The sound of her own motions echoed on the still morning air and she delighted in the sound.

The statue of Amaterasu that Midoriko had once shown her seemed the best place for meditation and she headed towards it. The small pavilion was as empty as the rest of the Chūwain, Amaterasu gazing serenely out at the world which she sustained with her light.

Kagome knelt down before the statue, bowing until her forehead brushed the ground. She remained there, concentrating all of her attention on the statue before her.

"Amaterasu-hime-sama, I pray for guidance and for the strength to stand when others cannot," she began. "I have taken a stand against the laws of the kami, against your laws, but I fear I cannot ask forgiveness of you. I will not. When I think on you, giver of light and sustainer of life, I cannot believe that you could condone a system that counts the lives of certain people for so little. Shippou-chan…Shippou-chan did nothing to deserve what has been done to him."

"Nor, I believe, did his parents. They wanted only to make a way for themselves and their son in the world. I long to follow the ways of the kami, to live with balance and kindness, but I…I will not submit to a law simply because others contend that it is of you, Amaterasu-hime-sama. I must follow my own mind, the mind given to me by the kami, in this. I ask your blessing, but I will go it alone if I must."

She released a breath and rose, glad to have given voice to her resolve. For a moment her eyes caught the eyes of the statue.

Eyes that appeared now to be gazing back into her own. The smile shifted on the kami's face, became deeper and warmer.

Kagome blinked.

The statue was unchanged. She frowned, shaking her head and wondering if perhaps lack of sleep over the course of the last few days was beginning to affect her mind.

"Kagome?"

Her gaze swung once more to the statue's face. It was unmoved.

A hand came down lightly on her shoulder. Kagome turned to find Midoriko just behind her.

"It is you. I am glad to see you have returned, and in good health it seems. I was worried," she said, a gentle smile sliding across her features.

Kagome noted slight lines around her eyes and mouth, wondering if they had been there before. She looked tired, as if she truly had been worrying deeply over Kagome's disappearance.

Abruptly the girl's mind flashed back. Kaede's final confession. Her first encounter with Midoriko.

She blinked wordlessly up at Midoriko for several long moments. At last her expression dissolved into a frown.

"You knew," she accused softly, unable to stifle it. "All along…you knew."

Midoriko's smile faded by degrees until she was frowning in return.

"Knew what, Kagome?" she said, an undertone of apprehension to her words betraying her.

"About the Shikon no Tama," Kagome returned, searching her face. "You knew from the moment I came to you that I had it. You…you touched my hip. You knew."

Midoriko's eyes darkened. Kagome's heart sank. She could not help but feel that she had been used somehow. She averted her eyes from the older woman's.

"Kagome…I only wanted-"

"What is it exactly? Why were you so desperate to get rid of it?" Kagome broke in softly, loathe to listen to any sort of justifications. "I think you owe me at least an explanation."

She felt Midoriko hesitate behind her. At last she knelt down beside her, her gaze fixed on the face of Amaterasu.

"I thought it better that you did not know," Midoriko said lowly. "The Shikon…it has a way of twisting things. Of changing people. I thought that ignorance would be safety for you. I wanted to protect you…to atone for my mistakes."

Kagome glanced at her from the corner of her eye, the O-Miko's words resonating inside her head with Kaede's final confession. Her hands, clasped in her lap, spasmed at the memory.

"It's my body, isn't it?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Bitterness, acrid like bile, rose in the back of her throat at the thought of her fallen mentor.

"Am I to suffer under the weight of your mistakes in ignorance?"

Midoriko's eyes slid shut as if she had dealt her a physical blow. Kagome felt a twinge of guilt, but it was not enough to cool her anger.

"I wish I could take back…but such wishes do more evil than good," Midoriko sighed, her voice tight.

She turned to face Kagome, her eyes deep and haunted. Kagome felt some of the edge go out of her expression at the stark pain she saw there.

"The story of the Shikon no Tama begins with the throne war," she began. "I was a girl much like you, Kagome. I wanted only to follow the ways of the kami and to do what was best for the people under my care. When the fighting between clans began to escalate, I went on a journey to Mount Hakusan. I wanted to speak to our creators, to plead on behalf of the court for order to be restored and the senseless violence to end."

"I climbed to the peak of Mount Hakusan and sat in prayer for seven days, refusing to eat or drink until the kami would answer me. At last the First Pair appeared to me in a vision. They gave me the Shikon no Tama, a relic of our forebears lost to them in the midst of many wars, and told me that it contained all the forces of good and evil, the balance of the world, within it. They told me that it was the heart of its possessor that would decide the direction in which fate would lean, granting one wish."

"I took the Jewel and returned to the court, determined that I would use the power I had been granted to set things right. When I returned…"

She stopped short, her expression tightening. Her eyes drifted back to the statue of Amaterasu, tracing over the contours of the stone face and form as if she saw them for the first time. The lines around her eyes and mouth deepened into a map of hard lived years.

"…I told you once that I knew the man who carved this statue," she said at last. "What I did not tell you…did not tell anyone…was that I loved him."

She stopped again and closed her eyes, the effort of those words seeming to exhaust her. They carried the weight of years of repression with them, and Kagome could not but think that perhaps she had never spoken them aloud before.

Kagome reached out to her on impulse, all of her own resentments vanishing in a rush of keen sympathy. She could hardly be insensible to such feelings after what she had just finished suffering through. She clasped the woman's hand tightly between her own.

"I loved him beyond reason or sense," Midoriko said, tears slipping from beneath her tightly closed lids. "But I hesitated. And when I returned to the court from Mount Hakusan…he…he had been killed in one of the skirmishes between the clans."

"I was devastated. Certain that I should never recover. I gave in to my pain wholeheartedly, and I desired nothing more than the deepest suffering for those who had had a hand in his death. The Shikon began to grow dark, and my heart grew darker with it. It provoked evil in any who came near it, but in my own distress I turned a blind eye."

"One night, though, I was ambushed by several youkai of the court. The Shikon had built up such an aura of malice that they were drawn to it. I barely escaped with my life. I realized then what I had allowed myself and the Shikon to become…and what might have happened had they succeeded in taking the Jewel from me. I knew that my pain would only continue to feed it, and that those within the court would continue to be drawn to its darkness. So when I learned that Kaede was considering leaving the court…"

She trailed off, shaking her head. Her shoulders sagged inward and it was as if all the weight of the years caught up to her at once. Her face twisted, her mouth working silently for a moment as tears continued to course down her cheeks.

"My heart was weak," she whispered hoarsely. "I readily forced what should have been my burden onto her, hoping to put it away from myself forever. And now it has fallen to you. I wonder daily how many will have to suffer for my folly, and I begin to lose hope of ever being forgiven even as I try to pay penance each day…"

Tear-bright eyes fixed on Amaterasu's face, a resigned sort of longing in their depths. Kagome looked on in silence, trying to process the sordid tale and the fact that a thing brought down by the kami themselves was now housed inside of her body.

Certainly she had felt…something at certain points in her life. Some power outside of her own that seemed to manifest whenever she was in dire straits. But she had always been able to dismiss it as a fluke in her powers or a trick of her imagination once the trouble had passed.

Unconsciously her hand slid to her hip, the same spot Kaede and Midoriko had touched in turn before. There was no lump there, no scar or mark of any sort. And yet it had been with her for years, this thing of ancient legend. It was hers to care for and protect, hers even to use if she so chose.

"If I made the right wish," Kagome began thoughtfully. "If I could make the right wish, then the Shikon no Tama's power would disappear, right? I could end all of the turmoil surrounding it forever. Everyone might be freed of this burden and many things could be set right."

Midoriko's eyes slid to meet hers. She frowned, the hand clasped within Kagome's turning upward to grip the younger woman's wrist. 

"The risks of making such a wish are bound to outweigh the possible good to be done," she said. "Even when I first received the Shikon no Tama I was wary of using its power. Unless your heart is pure and your wish is entirely selfless, you stand to tip the balance of the world irrevocably."

"But the kami would not have gifted mankind with this did they not know that there was some chance of such a wish being made," Kagome said. "I want to end this. For your sake and Kaede-sama's. The passing of this burden should end here, with us."

Midoriko searched her eyes for a long moment. She pulled back slowly.

"I can appreciate the goodness of your intentions, Kagome," she said. "Kaede chose well when she chose you to guard the Shikon no Tama, though I regret that it now must be a weight upon your shoulders. But the Shikon is not something to be taken lightly. I will not tell you never to make use of it-it is yours now to do with as you will-but I will ask you not to act rashly. Unless you can come to the point where you are certain that the wish is perfect…"

Kagome nodded, consenting to this.

"I understand," she said. "Until I can use the Shikon without hesitation, I will continue to guard it."

Midoriko nodded, relief tingeing her expression.

"I trust you will do what you feel is right," she said. "And I will continue in my promise to support you in all things…if you will accept such help now that you know me truly."

Kagome frowned, torn for a moment between a sense of having been deceived and her innate sympathy for the woman. It was because of her that she now had another potential obstacle to contend with, and Midoriko would have continued to conceal it from her if she had not learned it from Kaede. A small, spiteful part of her even wanted to place the blame upon her for Kaede’s untimely end.

The moment passed. Kagome sighed, deciding to put behind her any ill will she was tempted to harbor towards Midoriko. The story she had just been allowed to hear was proof enough that she was as much a victim in her own way as Kaede had been.

She turned a small, tentative smile on the older woman. Midoriko's expression echoed her own after a moment, relief softening her features.

"You are too kind to me," she said softly.

Kagome shook her head.

"I have found that there is too little human kindness here in the court," she said, half-jokingly. "I am merely attempting to rectify that through my own meager efforts."

Midoriko's smile widened, but after a beat her expression slid into thoughtfulness.

"I hope you will forgive me, but I happened to overhear you earlier," she said. "It strikes me as something you might like spiritual counsel on."

Kagome hesitated. Though it was clear that she had already been found out, she was uncertain how to go about discussing her thoughts with Midoriko. She could not help but think that she would be seen as blasphemous to an authority within the court such as the O-Miko.

Midoriko, watching her face, saw the apprehension there.

"The way of the kami is not so rigid a thing as you might think, Kagome," she offered. "It is a thing of individual conviction as much as it is a set of laws to live by. I will not claim to have lived always by the letter, though I have always striven to act in the spirit."

Kagome glanced up at her searchingly.

"Then you would say…" she began tentatively. "That I am right in going against the law if I truly feel that it is wrong? Even though it comes from the kami, as well?"

"It is a difficult question. Certainly you are not the first to struggle with it," Midoriko said, frowning thoughtfully. "Nor is it a question I can answer for you. All I can say is that in the end you will only be accountable to yourself and the kami, and I feel that if you can go to that place with the conviction that you did not compromise yourself then no one can ask any more of you."

Kagome considered this in silence. Her hands twisted absently in the fabric of her hakama.

"…Did you ever feel that the law of the court was unjust?" she asked softly.

"There were moments when it rankled me and I questioned it," Midoriko said honestly. "But I never quite came to the point of opposing it. A great deal of my spirit seemed to desert me after…after the Shikon no Tama and the events surrounding it. I became complacent in many things."

"I cannot believe that the devaluing of the lives of their creatures is something of the kami," Kagome said, raising her eyes to search Midoriko's for understanding.

"I am inclined to side with you, especially after witnessing the execution of the kitsune couple several days ago," Midoriko said gravely. "The future Empress was so determined to uphold the sacred law, I think, that she was blinded to the fact that the Taira seemed only to want to test her and cause a fuss."

"There have been so few of those of common birth who have come into the court that the unjustness of the law towards them was never much more than an abstract thing. But I suppose the worlds inside and outside of the court cannot remain separate forever, however the courtiers might wish it."

"I do not think it is right that they should," Kagome said. "Rather I came here determined that they should no longer be. The people out there suffer and struggle, denied the help that the court could readily provide if they so chose. But as long as the courtiers believe them to be inferior they will never want any part of them."

"I fear court opinion will not be easily swayed on that count," Midoriko warned. "They are raised to believe in little more than the superiority of their own birth. To make them see the worth of anybody else…"

She trailed off, spreading her hands in a gesture of helplessness.

Kagome frowned, acknowledging the truth of this silently. She shrugged, moving to stand.

"I have to at least try."
  
Midoriko nodded.

"Of course. Please inform me when you have decided upon a course of action," she said. "Until then, I will pray."

Kagome smiled, a bit wryly.

"Thank you, Midoriko-sama. I am certain I will need it," she replied.

She bowed and turned to go, catching sight of the statue out of the corner of her eye.

She could have sworn Amaterasu was smiling once more.


Kagome returned to the Tachibana residence to find that Sango and Shippou had gone to visit with Miroku. A servant also informed her that something had come for her from the Dairi and had been placed in her room.

Her heart felt as if it had crawled into her throat. She wondered if perhaps it would not be better to go out and walk for awhile, to take some time to breathe, before she sat down to meet her fate. A few minutes of wandering agitatedly among the halls of the residence, though, brought her to the conclusion that it was better to face it head on. The sooner she knew what was to become of her, the sooner she might begin to formulate a plan to reverse whatever decision had been made.

She found the piece of parchment sitting innocuously atop the pillow of her futon. Taking a deep breath, she snatched the letter up and broke the seal almost defiantly.

Kagome,

I heard what happened from Kikyou. She's pissed. I won't be seeing you for awhile after that stunt. She wants you out of the court, but give her some time and she'll cool off. Until then, lay low and try not to do anything stupid, alright?

Inuyasha

Kagome blinked down at the note, paradoxically stunned at both the leniency and harshness of her punishment.

She had been so certain that Kikyou would insist that she be forced from the court, but it sounded as if Inuyasha were giving her some degree of clemency. It almost sounded as if he were defending her to Kikyou.

On the other hand, she was now entirely cut off from him until Kikyou could be reconciled to the idea of her remaining in the court. She could not count on any support from him. She would be unable to confer with him, work on plans with him…unable to see him. It bothered her deeply that the latter might have been what bothered her the most.

She bit her lip, silently chastising herself. It was better that she not see him. It would give her more time to get a handle on her feelings.

It was better that she not see him.

The sinking feeling persisted.

Folding up the parchment, Kagome tucked it away in her sleeve. She sat silent for a few long moments, wondering what she should do.

Inuyasha was asking her to try to blend in for awhile. But she simply could not do that. Not after all that had happened.

Making a scene now, however, might really be the last thing she would be allowed to get away with in the court.

With a sigh, Kagome roused herself and headed out of the room. Miroku’s place was the best option for the present moment. Until she actually had a plan as to what she wanted to do, it was no use agonizing over whether or not she dared risk it.

She walked briskly through the streets of the court, aware of the stares she received from those she passed. They viewed her with critical eyes, their awareness of her position in the world aroused once more after all that had gone on. Kagome held her head high, refusing to bow before it.

She was admitted readily into the sitting room where Miroku, Sango, and Shippou all sat sharing hot tea to ward off the biting chill of the day. Miroku requested another cup be brought for her as she knelt upon one of the cushions to join them.

"Shippou has presented to me an idea that I wish to share with you," Miroku said after they had all exchanged greetings.

Kagome's eyes shifted to the kitsune, her brows raised expectantly. Even in the midst of the gloom of the past few days, she had seen the unusual silence and thoughtfulness of the young boy. Much as she had been struggling within herself, he had seemed to be wrestling with something of his own.

"I wanna have final rites done for my parents," Shippou said without preamble, his green eyes meeting hers steadily.

"He would like you to perform the rites," Miroku put in.

"Of course I will, Shippou-chan," Kagome agreed readily, realizing why he had been so introverted the past few days. "Anything you need. Anything at all."

"Unfortunately it is not quite so simple as that, Kagome-chan," Sango said, setting down her mug of tea.

Kagome turned to her, a slight frown settling over her features. A servant bustled in and out of the room, leaving a mug of steaming tea in front of her.

"What do you mean?" she asked, taking up the tea to warm her hands.

Sango frowned, shaking her head rather helplessly.

"Because they were…" she hesitated, glancing at Shippou apologetically before continuing. "Because they were convicted of offenses within the court, by law they are not entitled to any final rites. To perform them would be to go against the law."

"You can't be serious," Kagome said, setting the mug back down with a slight clatter. "Everyone deserves final rites, criminal or what have you. A soul without the rites is doomed to wander! Does the court hope to punish people beyond even this lifetime?"

"I am glad to see that you feel as I do," Miroku said, diffusing her agitation momentarily. "I had a feeling that you would. Which is why I have a proposition of my own to make to all of you, if I may."

He paused, waiting until he had their full attention. When all eyes were fixed on him he spread his hands open in askance.

"I wish to go through with the rites. It is my intent that Kagome-sama and I should perform them jointly here in the court. We will give the final rites that might be given to any courtier, and we will give them publicly. We will make certain that everyone in the court sees what we are doing."

"And you will see yourselves thrown from the court for your troubles, if not worse!" Sango interjected, her eyes wide. "Houshi-sama, you cannot be serious about this!"

"I can, and I am," Miroku responded levelly, meeting her eyes. "I know well enough that Kagome-sama and I alone, however well-intentioned, would be ineffective. That is why we need your help, as well, Sango-sama."

Her expression cooled slowly. Comprehension of his intent to depend upon her dawned across her face. She leaned in.

"What do you need me to do?" she said, and Kagome could tell that she was prepared to do whatever the houshi might ask of her wholeheartedly.

She had promised to stand by Miroku no matter what, and Sango was a woman of her word through and through. Silently Kagome admired the strength of her friend.

"I want your clan to attend the ceremony of the rites," Miroku said, a slight smile stretching across his