Sunday, March 26, 2006

Property - Chapter Thirteen

Summer soon overshadowed spring, and yet, Kagome still found herself in the little gardener's hut. The grass had grown tall and trees fairly glittered in the sunlight. Kagome supposed that she should admire the plethora of flowers. Just several months ago, they had been hidden entirely under the snow.

Like on that night with Sesshoumaru.

The gardeners were quite industrious, and Kagome found herself learning from them. How to plant. How to water. How to transplant. How to weed. Kagome liked watering the plants. It was easy and straightforward. And some plant always needed to be watered.

It kept her mind off of Sesshoumaru.

The rumors had died down from the raging fire it had been, but people still looked at her askance. Her father had not formally disinherited her, but she rather suspected that it was only a matter of time. Some very important person would pressure father and she would be declared dead to the family. In the meantime, she remained at the gardener's hut. Souta had been instated as the Higurashi heir. Kagome rarely saw her family, never talked to them, and certainly never joined them for dinner anymore.

It would feel odd anyways, since the last dinner she had enjoyed with them was with Sesshoumaru by her side.

Kagome kept on telling herself that she should pack up and leave. The gardeners did their job better than she, and her family would certainly rather see her gone. There were places to be, a world to see. And she kept on telling herself that she needed more bread—the kitchen had run out tonight. Or that it was raining—and she might as well start on a day of good weather. Or that a certain flower wasn't looking healthy, and maybe she'd stay just a week or two more to make it better. It wasn't as if she was in any hurry. She had been absolved of all responsibilities but herself.

Sometimes, Kagome would see a flutter of white hair in the distance, and her heart would flutter unexplainably. She would tell herself that she was being stupid. Then, the figure would come close enough for her to identify him as Inuyasha. It wasn't like she actually expected anybody else, but she'd still feel a sudden bout of lethargy and go in and lie on her cot for the rest of the day.

It was a nice cot. It was plain and narrow, but it was clean and sturdy. She wasn't the heir anymore, not even part of the royal family, practically speaking, and she should be satisfied with the cot. And she was. After a few days, she no longer felt the scratchiness of the blanket or the rigidity of the cot.

Some nights, though, she'd wake up in the middle of the night, wondering why nobody was beside her.

It was silly... very silly, she told herself as she refilled the watering can. She accidentally spilled some water on her kimono and slippers, but it was sunny outside and they would dry. She should leave, Kagome knew. It was sunny, and the kitchen had bread, and the flowers were fine. Today was the perfect day to pack and leave.

But she had to finish watering the flowers. The gardeners expected her to. It was already afternoon, and by the time she was done, it would be almost evening, with a scant four or five hours left of the summer day. If she were to travel, she might as well start early in the morning.

So she lugged her watering can and watered all the flowers. She even weeded a little part of the garden before she became too confused between the flowers and the weeds. After that, there was a quick dinner of bread and water and she found herself lying on her bed as the last of the sunlight lit the dusty hut.

She couldn't leave tomorrow, either, Kagome thought as she was falling asleep. She needed to bathe tomorrow and wash the dirty clothes. The clothes would need time to dry. Besides, she had to tell the gardeners that she was, in fact, leaving.

So, no, she couldn't leave tomorrow, either.

"Where's Miroku?" Sango's father, Nobu, asked Sango with reservation. His daughter had returned to the taijiya village, dressed in her exterminator clothes and with blood on her weapon, Hiraikotsu. He wondered if her reticent unhappiness was due to the marriage, but so far, he had seen neither hide nor hair of his son-in-law.

"Oh, he got busy," Sango answered airily. "I want to know what assignments you have."

"There's a neighboring village to the east needing a caterpillar youkai exterminated. A spider youkai in a village to the south. There's a band of youkai about a day's travel from here. I was thinking about sending the five best of ours to handle them... they can always signal for reinforcements..." Nobu trailed off as he realized that there were only three requests for youkai termination, less than half of the usual number.

He should be happy that youkai are harassing humans less and less, but instead he worried that the youkai were banding up or biding their time to plan something more destructive. He worried a little about what they would do if youkai simply stopped attacking humans. Would the village starve? Mostly, though, he worried over the two contradicting rumors he had heard. One was that there was a youkai—or was it hanyou?—who claimed he would share the Shikon no Tama's power with all his followers. The youkai was gathering followers. The other rumor, though, said that the Western Lands were in firm hands again and that several new codes have been passed, including safety of the humans. Strange, that, coming from a youkai territory.

"I'll go exterminate the youkai bandits," Sango announced suddenly, startling her father out of his thoughts.

Nobu looked at his daughter carefully. "You can't go alone."

"I won't. I'll have Kirara and Hiraikotsu with me."

Nobu sighed. "I should at least send some men with you."

"I'll signal for them if I need them." Sango patted Hiraikotsu by her side. "Men are not as reliable as Kirara and my boomerang, anyways.'

She was strong, Nobu knew. He had trained her himself. She might even be the second strongest warrior in the village, second only to himself. But she was his daughter, and he worried for her. Still, he knew that he could no longer dictate to her. He would send men to camp near the village, though, so they would be able to respond instantly if she signaled for aid.

Changing topics, he asked, "Where's Miroku?"

Sango sighed. She should not have expected her father to have forgotten about his absentee son-in-law. They were sitting on the edge of the porch, and she swung her legs a little as she answered, "I'd like to know that, too."

"How did you get separated after the wedding?"

"What wedding?" Sango heard herself laughing, but after a look at his father's face, she stopped. "He never showed up." She hiccupped. "He stopped at the village next to the Higurashi house and never showed up to the wedding."

Another hiccup.

"I'm sorry."

"I'm so angry," Sango found herself saying. Her mouth didn't seem to want to stop. "I'm so angry!" Hiccup. Her knuckles were white from her tight fists. "How dare he not show up? And when I asked him"—hiccup—"he won't even give a reason! No reason!" Her hands were trembling by her sides. Must be from the anger.

"I'm sorry, Sango," Nobu said as he searched for something adequate the console his daughter.

"I'm going to find him," she said and hiccupped. "I'm going to castrate him and skin him and jab his eyes out with burning tongs to make him tell me why—why..."—hiccup—"why!—he just didn't show up to our wedding."

Nobu remained silent. He didn't know how to help his daughter. But he certainly intended to find Miroku and demand retribution.

"He didn't even bother to make up an excuse, dad," Sango continued. "I thought he loved me, and he didn't even try to tell me what was wrong with me." Hiccup.

Nobu interjected, "There's nothing wrong—"

"Well, it's not like I care. I'm better off without him. I just wanted to know, why!"

Nobu looked at his daughter. Suddenly, he understood something. "You loved him."

Sango shook her head as she hiccupped. "He's not worthy of being loved."

A weird plop landed on her leg. It must be raining, she thought. She looked up to see vague impressions of blue. She blinked a couple of times to clear her vision, but it didn't help very much, and then something was running down her cheeks.

I'm crying, she thought. She never cried. But she was crying for a stupid man who had left her. He was unworthy of being cried over. And yet, she was crying over him.

She chuckled and hiccupped through her tears. "I guess I did love him."

Nobu put an arm over his daughter, who had always been so strong, for him, for Kohaku, and for the whole village. He patted her as she leaned against him. "Sometimes, some things happen."

"But why?" Sango could barely understand the words out of her own mouth. She was a blubbering mess.


"I don't want to be philosophical."

"Some things just are and some things just aren't meant to be," Nobu answered. "But you can always go and torture him for the reason."

Sango smiled. "I think I will."

"Are you still going to exterminate a band of youkai by yourself?"

Sango punched her father lightly on the shoulder. "Of course I am. I would never back down from a taijiya mission and stain my honor."

Nobu laughed, content that his daughter, even if still suffering from her loss, was already on her road to recovery.

Kikyou and Inuyasha were happy.

She had started enjoying the little things in life. She liked walking down the hall, because sometimes she'd see Inuyasha. She liked taking walks in the gardens, because sometimes she's meet and talk with Inuyasha. At dinner, Inuyasha would send messages to her through his eyes. And at night, he snuck into her room and she giggled like a little girl.

And yet... there was something very... pastel about the whole arrangement.

Inuyasha was careful not to bring up any topics that could bring bad memories or cause disagreements. He held and touched her carefully, never going further than she asked, and it made her wonder to where his passion gone.

For her part, she was ever vigilant of how she worded things, careful not to give commands. She kept her emotions in check, fearful that he would feel any negativity through the bond and their cautiously reconstructed relationship would fall to ruins.

They were happy together.

They were always with each other and smiling at each other. They walked with each other, and she held onto his arm. They talked about everything under the sun.

And about none of the past that was stashed away in the dark recesses of their memories.

But they were happy. And together.

Except for some reason, everything seemed washed out and pale to Kikyou. Their time together seemed rehearsed. She already knew which flowers would be pointed at next they walked down the garden. She already how he would react to her comments. She already knew where and when they would meet in the halls and every word they would say.

The spontaneity was gone.

But Kikyou could accept that. After all, they were both changed. They weren't rash and immature anymore. The rose-colored glasses had shattered with misunderstanding.

But he was Inuyasha and they were together. And happy.

Kikyou clung to that knowledge.

All would be well, because... well, Inuyasha was still dashing and gallant and just a little bit shy. Kikyou was quiet and taciturn, but her eyes would always lit up when she saw him. They would be fine together because... well, Kikyou wouldn't give any commands and Inuyasha would not do anything rash and both of them would stay far away from the quicksand of bad memories.

Izayoi's favorite flowers had withered under the summer sun. Now, Sesshoumaru could only see the bright blues and reds and yellows through the window. They had sprung up in time for the summer sun, but come autumn, they would betray the gardeners and desert the gardens.

He wouldn't mourn their loss. Another wave of them would simply take over the gardens again next summer. And next summer. And the summer after. Until the end of time.

Or until somebody decided to destroy the gardens.

Sesshoumaru turned away from the garden. He loathed wasting time. Every waking moment since his return had been spent on some political thing or another. A rebellion averted here. A dispute settled there. One minor lord requests that perhaps...? No.

And yet, there didn't seem to be enough to do. Freedom felt strange, he thought, after five hundred years or service. It felt hollow as he stared out the window.

Every free moment seemed like a moment to think and to reflect.

He saw the gardens and reflected on how the last time he had noticed a garden was when the snow still covered the garden at the Higurashi house.

When he was working or arbitrating or sleeping, he could pretend that freedom was sweet and that he didn't feel so... empty inside.

He sat at dinner with his father, and felt the shadow of a ghost of a memory. He would feel agitated, and his father would tell him sternly to clamp it down. Or did he want to start a war in the Taiyoukai house?

Maybe he did.

Sesshoumaru had stopped trying to analyze himself because he had stopped making sense. There had been anger and hurt and betrayal when Kagome had repudiated him, but his father had long since convinced him that it was to his own advantage anyways, and he had placed the priestess in the back of his mind, where memories were left to drift away.

A human aura skittered past his door, and he suddenly stood alert, before he realized that it was just Rin, and there was none of that... priestess fire in the aura.

He turned back to work, but there was not very much to be done, and he would finish too soon, with too much time left to remember.

"You love her, don't you?" Touga asked Sesshoumaru suddenly, breaking the silence that had settled into the room.

"No," Sesshoumaru answered clearly as he looked studiously out the window. There was no need to define "her." Outside, the flowers were mere shades of gray under the clouded night sky.

After a pause, he confessed, "I might have loved someone. A figure of my imagination. But that wasn't her."

"Can you ever know somebody completely?" His father asked. A strange question, that.

Sesshoumaru considered. "No." He wished for some of the startlingly white winter blossom. But maybe even that would have appeared gray under the clouded sky. "But I know that I didn't love her."

"Maybe she is not so different from what you imagined—"

"Maybe. But she never told me her reasons and I suppose I'll never know."

It started raining outside. A short, summer shower, no doubt. A passing one.

"I know you blame Inuyasha for Izayoi's death," Touga said suddenly.

"Not entirely."

Touga sighed and found a chair to sit in. "You know, I loved her."

Sesshoumaru nodded. "You mated her even though she was human."

Touga turned over baubles of fond memories in his head and smiled. "But I was scared, too. I wondered if I truly loved her. I wondered if she was what she seemed. I wondered if she would be a weakness or change or try to change me."

"But you still mated her."

"I made a blood-bound between us, so I could know her emotions and if she was in trouble and protect her." Touga shifted and leaned deeper into the seat. He could see Sesshoumaru out of the corner of his eyes. "I married her and slept with her. I made vows and completed the first part of the mating bond. But I never finished it."

Startled, Sesshoumaru turned to look at his father, but Touga was looking away, far into the shadows of the room.

"I was scared," Touga started again. "A completed mating bond bound two souls together. I thought if I only completed the first half, I could always finish the second half later. And if I didn't like Izayoi so much or if she or I changed, we could still live with each other until her human death, and it wouldn't be such a long time.

"You know about the mating bond, Sesshoumaru. The blood-bond gives you access to her feelings and where she is so that you can protect her. The first half of the mating bond binds your auras together. The last part weaves them together so that the life forces can feed into each other."

Touga stared resolutely ahead. "So, you see, I killed Izayoi."

Sesshoumaru tried to make sense of that, but couldn't. "I don't see."

Touga sighed heavily. "The first half of the mating bond usually kills humans. You know this. Youki is a naturally aggressive force whereas human auras are naturally inert. Youki tend to overpower human auras when bound to them. In priestesses, it's different, because their auras are so big that they manage to keep the youki in check instead of being overwhelmed by the youki."

Sesshoumaru nodded. He still didn't see how this had led to his mother's death, though.

"Do you know what auras are?"

"The expressions of our spirits."

"That's what I told you," Touga said. "But I have since learned that they are our spirits. When you suffocate someone's aura, you force the connection between body and soul to break. Youki is reparable when hurt physically, because they are not physical entities, but battered enough, they can cause death.

"Do you know what spirits are?"

"They are reflections of our emotions."

"Something else I told you. But actually, they are our emotions. A youki of love swells. A youki of hopelessness shrivels."

Sesshoumaru took in this new information. He wondered what had changed Touga's perceptions on such basic concepts.

"I only bound our auras together," Touga continued with his story. "And then Naraku attacked us and fatally wounded both of us. Inuyasha sought to save us—yes, he was trying to help us—and the Wolf Prince offered his lair as our sanctuary, and looked to find humans to aid us.

"But we were both fatally wounded. I had insisted that Izayoi be brought to safety first, since the Wolf Prince refused to endanger his men. He was the only one there. So Izayoi was carried away to safety, thinking that I had fatal wounds and was probably left to die.

"She despaired. She loved me and she despaired when she thought that she would have to live on without me. The Wolf Prince could not console her. She would not believe him when he said that I was still alive. And her soul—and her aura—shriveled as she thought herself into a depression.

"And I had only completed the first part of the mating bond, thinking that if all worked out, I could finish it later. But I never got a chance to, because her aura had shriveled and had stopped resisting mine. My youki overwhelmed her aura and her soul fled."

For a long moment, father and son remained silent. The clouds had moved and moonlight lit the flowers again, bringing a faint glow to their petals.

"So," Touga concluded. "You shouldn't blame Inuyasha for Izayoi's death."

Sesshoumaru looked at his father. "Are you saying that I should blame you?"

"I was young and uncertain," Touga explained. He told himself that he was not trying to find excuses. "I tried to calculate everything, make sure that every option was left open, every possibility accounted for. But sometimes, I would be better off letting things develop as they should...

"I still make that mistake sometimes," Touga confessed. He would have gone further, about how maybe Kagome had loved Sesshoumaru. Maybe Sesshoumaru should blame Touga instead of Kagome. But he had confessed one mistake tonight and he did not feel up to more. Maybe tomorrow, or next week, he would tell Sesshoumaru about what had transpired during the negotiation with Kagome, because he didn't want Sesshoumaru to feel betrayed.

But if Sesshoumaru loved Kagome... if she returned his love... if they married... The Western Lands would still fall apart in an heirless marriage. Or, worse, a hanyou heir would be seen as a weakness to be eliminated. It would have worked if Sesshoumaru already had a legitimate heir, but it was too late for that now.

So, he didn't tell Sesshoumaru what had happened.

"Did it hurt?" Sesshoumaru asked suddenly.

Touga smiled in the memory. "Like repudiation," he answered. Izayoi's death had proven him to be an unfit protector. The half-formed mating bond had snapped and debilitated him completely for weeks. He wondered at his son's strength that Sesshoumaru was already being productive and acting as the Taiyoukai heir.

He worried, too, that Sesshoumaru was keeping it all in and that one day, he would simply break.

"You should go see Kagome," Touga suggested gently.

Sesshoumaru turned sharply to his father. See Kagome? His heart started stumbling in his chest and for some reason, he felt strangely panicked.

"For some closure," Touga added. "You can always bring Rin and Jaken if you would like some company."

It was a good suggestion, Sesshoumaru admitted. And the shadowed room came into sharp focus again as he thought of seeing Kagome. The pain of her repudiation was still there, but he thought that he should ask her for her reasons. Maybe she had his best interests at heart. Maybe her father forbade her to entangle herself with him. Maybe his father laid it down as a condition for peace. It would be just like the Kagome he knew to repudiate him for such stupid reasons.

His mind was already calculating on how much they would need to pack. Ah-un would have to come along, since Rin didn't like walking. They could stop by at the wolf's caves on the way, ask him what he knew about Kagome.

Oh, gods, Kagome had better not be married to Kouga, Sesshoumaru thought suddenly. They should travel fast. Leave tomorrow. Even if the Kouga and Kagome were engaged, they couldn't possibly be married already. It had been only what... a month? Two? Surely, Kagome's father would not have forced Kagome to marry Kouga already.

He must inform Rin now. Rin seemed to like Kagome, and he could say... he was bringing Rin to let her get more in touch with humans. Surely, Hiroshi Higurashi would not turn down Rin, even if he thought Sesshoumaru might be hostile.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Property - Chapter Twelve

When they arrived at Kouga's cave, they found that it stunk with gore and was shadowed by death. Barely recognizable body parts from both men and wolves lay around. The bright blood provided sharp contrast against the dull brown dust and the pale green plants. Kouga stood high up on the mountain, looking murderous and had not noticed Kagome and her traveling companions yet.

After some hesitation, Kagome decided that it was best to alert him instead of taking him unawares. "Kouga," she shouted upwind. "Wolf Prince Kouga!"

Slowly, his pale blue eyes focused on Kagome, before his face morphed into a gentler veneer. "Lady Kagome."

When he came down the path to meet them, Kagome asked, "What happened?"

"Naraku," Kouga snarled with his lips curled. "I'm going right now to kill him right now."

Kagome placed a hand on his arm to slow him down. "You might want to heal and regroup first."

"What is there to regroup?" Kouga asked, all of a sudden sounding resigned. "This is our territory. And we have well over five hundred wolves throughout these caves. Naraku comes in here with his two lackeys and wipes out half of us and injures the rest of us."

"Then why are you going against him by yourself?" Kagome asked reasonably.

"I have to avenge them."

"Maybe he has some weakness."

Kouga laughed at that. "Maybe I have more."

Kagome looked down at the valley. There were only trees down in the valley and no carnage. "Maybe you can find some allies. He attacked us when we were traveling west, too."

Surprisingly, Kouga's eyes lit up at Kagome's newest suggestion. "Sesshoumaru was upset, too, wasn't he? He'll probably want to kill that bastard, too." Then, he looked around and remarked, "Where is he?"

Kagome's hand closed convulsively around the Shikon no Tama and the necklace that was made from Sesshoumaru's hair.

Fortunately, her father stepped up. "Sesshoumaru-sama decided to stay at the Taiyoukai house and take on his duties as the Taiyoukai heir."

"So you're not under his claim anymore?" Kouga asked speculatively, looking at her necklace.

Kagome ignored her father's sharp glance. "No." But I wish I was, she added silently. But it had never been Sesshoumaru's choice in the first place, so she supposed that none of the feelings on his part had been genuine. At least she knew how it felt to be cared for by someone like him. She thought how lucky Rin was, to be chosen by him.

Uncomfortable with where the conversation was going, even if he was the one who had proposed the alliance in the first place, Higurashi cut in, "We are traveling back to the Higurashi house."

"Oh," Kouga flustered, realizing that he had been ignoring the elder Higurashi. "Congratulations on your... successful negotiations." He had had to think fast for a non-offensive term for Higurashi's release. "And you are welcomed to stay at my lair. I can prepare some rooms for you."

Higurashi accepted graciously. "That would be much appreciated."

Higurashi spent the next day going over the terms of their alliance with Kouga. Sango and Miroku both had professional training and helped with bandaging and healing the injured wolves. Kagome learned from them, too, and even managed to insert a little dose of healing energy with every wound she bandaged.

The day after, Kagome and company left Kouga's caves to go back to the Higurashi House.

"What are you doing?" Inuyasha asked, confused, when they entered the third room this afternoon.

"I'm airing out the rooms," Kikyou answered without taking a moment off of dusting the table tops and the chairs. She fluffed the blankets on the bed a couple of times.

"I mean, why are you doing this?"

"Because Kagome and her father are returning," Kikyou answered. She had just received the missive this morning and realized that she had not done much while Kagome was gone. The least she could do was to air out their rooms, even if she couldn’t defend against Naraku's attack. "And I have barely done anything as the leader of the Higurashi House."

Inuyasha trailed behind Kikyou. "I don't remember Mr. Higurashi airing out rooms."

"Of course you don't." She decided that she would have one of the maids dust the carpets. Meanwhile, she could use the rag she had to dust the drawers. Industriously, she pulled them out one by one to wipe their edges. "Mr. Higurashi is a man. I am a woman."

"Oh." Inuyasha didn't really understand. Maybe it was because he was a man.

Kikyou was on the last drawer, but it wouldn't open. She tugged and tugged and tugged. Finally she gave up and asked, "Will you help me get their drawer open?"

"Sure." With on pull, the drawer was flying out of the dresser and landed on the floor.

Kikyou tugged suspiciously on the green cloth that was stuffed into the drawer. She didn't know what it was, but it looked like it could be washed. With Inuyasha's help, she spread the cloth on the floor and found that it was a sheet.

With blood on the middle of it.

Even that would not have been so condemning if not for the parch-y, circle-shaped areas right next to it. She had a fair idea of what her cousin had been up to.

"She should have married him," Kikyou muttered. She supposed she could burn or wash the sheet without anybody knowing anything, but Kagome would still have to do something else to cover for the fact that she wasn't a virgin. At least Kagome wasn't a priestess, she thought, or she would either already be crippled for life, or unable to marry anybody else because this man was her true love.

She had forgotten about Inuyasha's sensitive hearing. He asked, "Sesshoumaru?"

"Sesshoumaru?" Kikyou repeated dumbly. The name sounded familiar and it took a moment for her to remember the slave that she had bought on a hunch that he might be somebody important. She had meant to tell Kagome that, but somehow never got around to it before her cousin had left with the blood-bound. She hoped that her cousin didn't do anything stupid with the blood-bound. "You mean, she did that with her blood-bound?"

At Inuyasha's pointed look, Kikyou flustered, "Well, you and I are different. We've known each other longer. And we... are different..."

Inuyasha shrugged. He didn't want to force Kikyou into any confessions. "Sesshoumaru was a pleasure slave."

"Oh." Kikyou found herself jumping away from the sheet. "She can't marry him."

"Of course not," Inuyasha agreed.

She turned to look at him. "What do you mean?"

He shrugged. "He's the Taiyoukai heir. He can't have hanyou children as an heir."

"He's the Taiyoukai heir?"

Inuyasha frowned at Kikyou's surprise. "I thought you bought him because he's my half-brother."

"And you're his brother?"

"Half-brother," Inuyasha corrected. "Didn't you know?"

Kikyou shook her head. "He had a strong youki. I thought he would be powerful as a blood-bound or maybe even from one of the important families. But, gods, he was the Taiyoukai heir!"

For wont of something to do, she paced around the sheet again. "But, then, you're a Taiyoukai, too."

Inuyasha shrugged.

"Why didn't you ever tell me?"

He shrugged again. "It wasn't important."

"Men and communication," Kikyou muttered her breath. She had always thought that she communicated fairly well with Inuyasha, especially before she had wrongfully accused him of murdering her sister. She had thought he would have told her something like this. She supposed that old adages remained for a reason.

She asked him, "So, what do we do with the sheet?"

"I don't know," he answered uncomfortably.

"We should—"

Kikyou was cut off by a servant's entrance. The servant explained, "I was sent to help out in any way I can when the housekeeper found out that you are cleaning out the rooms." The servant stood up from her bow and her gaze landed on the sheet spread out in the middle of the room, with suspicious stains all over it.

"Oh, Lady Higurashi," the servant gushed in a scandalized whisper.

Before Kikyou could threaten the servant not to tell anybody about it or else, the servant scampered off, no doubt to share the gossip.

Kagome thought that she should be happy when she returned to the Higurashi House. She should be like Kouga, exclaiming, "Home, sweet home." Even if she was upset over losing Sesshoumaru, she should rejoice in the peace between the Western Lands and the human territory. Even if she would never see Sesshoumaru again, except perhaps in formal settings with polite words, she still had many other friends.

Thus, she consoled herself, when she entered the Higurashi House. Although they had only left for several weeks, she was sure that rumors had abounded as to their business and their whereabouts. It was long enough for trees to burst with fresh, green leaves and flowers to pop up from the ground; it was more than long enough for servants to gossip, even blood-bound ones. Besides, they had human servants, too.

Surprisingly, Kikyou was out to greet them as well as Kagome's mother and brother. After the initial hello's and how do you do's, Kikyou pulled Kagome aside.

"I'm sorry," Kikyou apologized.

"What?" Kagome asked, bewildered. "What happened?"

"I..." Kikyou looked around and lowered her voice to be sure that it couldn't be heard over the chatter. Not that she needed to have bothered, since the gossip mill ran quickly. "I was cleaning out your room for you."

"Oh, thanks." That was an unusually thoughtful gesture from Kikyou. Kagome if anything triggered this change of heart.

"No, listen," Kikyou interjected. "I was cleaning the dust off the drawers, so I was opening them."

"Okay..." Kagome had no idea what this was going.

Kikyou sighed. "On the bottom drawer of you dresser, there was a green thing stuffed on top."

Green thing, green thing, green thing... Kagome scrunched up her brows in an effort to remember what she had stuffed in there so long ago. She shouldn't be expected to remember, she thought sullenly, what was with everything else that was happening to her.

"The sheet," Kikyou said, finally frustrated from Kagome's lack of remembrance. "With blood... and other bodily fluids on it."

Suddenly, Kagome's face paled. It was several seconds before she asked, "You didn't tell anybody, did you?"

Kikyou looked away from Kagome. "Look, I'm really sorry, but a maid walked in on us."

"You..." Kagome took a deep breath. "Who said you could go in my room?"

Kikyou glared at Kagome. "It's not my fault that you decided to sleep with someone. Or that you can't hide the evidence well enough."

Kagome had a good idea of what her parents wanted to talk to her about as she entered her parents' room. They'd sent a very vague but nicely worded message to tell her that this was a private meeting, mandatory, and that even Souta needed not to attend.

"Father, mother," she greeted formally as she sat herself on the floor across the coffee table from her parents. The grave situation seemed to call for it. Light streamed through the windows, but a sheer white curtain dulled the brightest rays into a soft, diffused glow.

"Kagome," her mother, Ayako, replied. "We wanted to talk to you about something... unsettling."

Kagome nodded. Normally, she would have explained that she knew the rumors and that they were true—true enough, anyways, for the scandal to be justified. For some reason, though, she had not been her normal, energetic self these days. Her sleep had seemed fitful, despite that she remained free of nightmares. In her waking hours, she stewed in boredom, and nothing brought out her excitement anymore, not even playing with Shippou. So, she kept silent and let her parents work for the conversation.

"As you know, servants like to talk," Hiroshi Higurashi continued valiantly. "And if they have nothing to talk about sometimes they will make up things to talk about."

Again, Kagome nodded.

Mother sighed and leaned forward to look into Kagome's listless, brown eyes. "Honey, we're worried about you."

Kagome managed to drag up a smile. "I'm fine."

Father sighed, too. "I wanted you to know that there are... unsavory rumors about you."

Kagome nodded.

"They say..." Hiroshi forged on. Distantly, Kagome found that she had to admire his tenacity. "It's difficult for me to say this about my own daughter."

Mother held father's hand under the table. She continued for him. "Daughter... they say that you have been with a man... the way a wife is with a husband."

Kagome smiled at this analogy. Perhaps, she thought. But she very much doubted that the whirlwind passion and the frantic urgency could be found in many married couple's beds. And surely, husbands and wives stood by each other for longer than a night. They would talk to each other and share their troubles. They would lie leisurely by each other's sides just admire the stars. They would choose to stay with each other and hold each other's hands when facing their own unruly child.

Ayako frowned worriedly at her daughter. "Please tell us how we can disprove this rumor."

Kagome didn't want the rumor disproved. It hadn't felt wrong, that night they shared, and if she could do it all over again, she would have done the exact same thing. At least, she had had one night with him. Quietly, she told her parents, "I don't want to keep it a dirty little secret."

Her parents were surprised, but Hiroshi controlled himself soon enough. "Look, Kagome, even if you loved him—or even if you still love him—he's not here. It's not worth it for you to bear the shame for such an irresponsible man."

"I was the irresponsible one."

"You were, too." He was not going to let Kagome off the hook so easily, but he wanted to salvage the situation. "But ultimately, he was the one—"

Kagome looked at the sheer, white curtains. "He couldn't have done anything different."

Ayako took Hiroshi's sigh as a signal to try another approach. "Kagome, even if it is not his fault, unless he can marry you..." She continued at Kagome's headshake. "Or if there's a baby..." Another headshake. Mother's audible sigh of relief. "Then, nothing's going to happen anymore between you and him. You should do the best to preserve your future."

Quietly, Kagome repeated, "I don't want to keep him a dirty little secret."

"Do you know how much you are giving up by doing this?" Father demanded, his voice less gentle.

Mother put a steadying hand on father before he could say any further. "I know this sounds impossible right now, but you can find another man to love," mother soothed. "You are still young and attractive. Losing your first love is difficult, but don't give up everything else in life because of it."

Kagome kept her eyes on the blue curtains and refused to answer.

Father shifted in his seat, trying to work out the tension in his muscles from worrying for his daughter. "Just announce that that the rumors are false and we'll stand by you. The whole thing will be forgotten in less than a month."

This time, Kagome turned to look at her parents in the voice. She steadied her voice before saying firmly, "I won't keep him a dirty little secret."

At this, father narrowed his eyes ominously. "Who is it anyways?"

"It's not his responsibility."

"But who is it?" Hiroshi demanded.

Kagome gritted her teeth. "I'm not telling you. You're just going to debase him. Or insult me. Or force us to marry each other, which will not happen."

He slapped his hands on the table in a loud crack and lifted himself out of his seated position. "Is this how you don't keep him a dirty little secret? Is he why you are going to give up the position of a Higurashi heir and any chance of an advantageous marriage? Is he why you are going to fight with your own parents?"

Sullenly, Kagome pointed out, "We are the ones choosing to have the fight. Don't blame it on him."

"Dear," Ayako tried to soothe her husband and pull him back down by the sleeve. "I don't think—"

"Kagome, you're our daughter," Hiroshi ignored Ayako's words. "And we love you dearly. But we still guide all of the humans. We can't let little things in the family slide—not things like this. People will lose faith in our ability to protect them, if we can't even look out for your interests."

"I understand that," Kagome answered quietly.

"Do you?" Hiroshi's words held a sharp edge. "Then, choose. Either you announce that the rumors are unfounded, or you take leave of the Higurashi house because I do have another child to be the heir."

Ayako tugged harder on his sleeve. "You shouldn't..."

"The girl has to learn something," he told her. "She's the Higurashi heir. She's already sixteen and she barely started learning about the family and political affairs. And she's already made a mistake that she's unwilling to rectify."

Before Ayako could say anything else, he stormed out of the room.

"Really, Kagome," Ayako chided quietly when father was definitely out of earshot.

"It's okay, mother." Kagome felt strangely acquiescent about all of it. So, she would have to make a living on her own, but it couldn't be that bad. "Souta would make a better leader anyways."

"Kagome, don't say that." Mother struggled visibly to find something to say to change her daughter's mind, but Kagome had her mind made up already.

"It's true." Kagome pushed herself up, ready to leave the room. Her parents had told her what they wanted to tell her and she had informed them of her decision. "I think I'll take one of the empty gardener sheds before I explore the world. You know, I've always wanted to just wander around, but I've only ever been at the Higurashi House. And traveled to the Western Lands."

"Kagome, don't be rash," Ayako called out behind Kagome and then lowered her voice. "You can still fall in love again, even if the man is your true love."

Kagome found herself grinning painfully at that. "No, he was just an infatuation."

Mother persisted, "But you don't know. It's not like you're a priestess or anything—"

"But I am," Kagome confessed. "I slept with him and I still have my powers. So, what does that mean?"

For a moment, Ayako couldn't think of a suitable reply, and then her daughter was gone, probably packing her suitcase. Even if Kagome hadn't seen very much of the world—or because of it—she was persistent in her decisions. Hopefully, they could settle the situation before Kagome actually started to wander the country, but she didn't know what could be done now that the rumors would be proven true. What could Hiroshi do but disinherit Kagome to prove that he had the fairness and firmness to punish those who break his rules, even his own daughter?


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Property - Chapter Eleven

"Father," Sesshoumaru called just as his father was about to enter the room where Kagome waited to discuss the terms of Higurashi's release.

"Yes, Sesshoumaru?" Touga answered. Perhaps he had lost his son for five hundred years, but he still knew how people thought, and he knew--he hoped--that his son's psyche was not so warped and deviated from five hundred years or forced blood-bond. "Is there any particular condition you'd like to ask for?"

Sesshoumaru looked away and then back at his father's gold eyes. Both he and Inuyasha had inherited their eyes from their father. "Don't... make it too hard on her."

Touga's eyes widened in surprise, but it was already too late for Sesshoumaru to phrase his request differently. He wondered if he had helped or hurt Kagome.

After a reassessing gaze, Touga asked, "You're not a blood-bound anymore, are you?"

Sesshoumaru fixed his stare on the wall behind his father. "I'm blood-bound."

At this, a frown crossed his father's brows. "But you are no longer a blood-bound. I wonder..." Much to Sesshoumaru's irritation, his father didn't finish the sentence. Instead, he said, "I can try to honor your request, but the whole of the Western Lands is at stake."

After a slight hesitation, Sesshoumaru nodded. It was the best his father could do, and Sesshoumaru was already being selfish by asking even this much leniency to be shown to a mere human. Still... "She never did anything wrong."

Touga nodded. "But her father still lied."

"Her father didn't know."

His father put a consoling hand on Sesshoumaru's arm. "Let me handle this. I have experience."

Reluctantly, Sesshoumaru nodded. He understood why he couldn't join the negotiation. He was biased, if not for his father, then against him. He would upset the balance between Kagome and his father by making the negotiation two against one. He would...

But damn it, he thought, Kagome would be worried. He knew he would be able to feel her anxiety through the bond and he wouldn't be there to comfort her. He wouldn't be able to do anything about it. He wouldn't even be able to lie by her side platonically, because it would cause a scandal.

His hands fisted in frustration, but he walked away. If he couldn’t do anything about it, he would rather be somewhere far away. Preferable with wooden blocks or trees he could blow apart.

"Don't worry," his father soothed in vain. "But I want to talk to you afterwards."

Again, Sesshoumaru nodded. He wanted to talk to his father too, if only to know exactly what would transpire during the negotiation. But for now, he forced himself to leave the corridor.

Kagome had no idea of how to begin the negotiation. Touga Taiyoukai was an imposing figure, tall with broad shoulders and a commanding air like Sesshoumaru. However, unlike Sesshoumaru, she didn't know if she could trust him. Certainly, he would have the Western Lands' best interests and if she wanted something against that...

The question, then, she supposed, was if having her father released and maintaining peace conflicted with Touga's agenda.

"I suppose you knew that your father traveled to the Western Lands." Touga knew he had startled her, but he didn't intend to wait forever for her to speak. He almost wished that he had simply dealt with the elder Higurashi instead of this completely inexperienced girl. Still, he had to negotiate with her. "I did not ask for his presence; I asked for my son's."

Kagome nodded dumbly.

After a slight pause in which Touga determined that Kagome didn't have anything to add, he continued, "And now my son is here."

Again, she nodded.

"Which was what I asked had asked for originally." After a significant pause, Touga leaned forward. He was glad that Kagome seemed compliant, but he wondered at how intimidated she felt. He wanted to impress on her that he was letting her off easy, which he was. "But why did your father lie about my son's presence in your house? What did he hope to gain? And how can I let somebody lie to me so blatantly? If I do not punish him, my people will lose trust in me."

Kagome looked at her fisted hands in her lap, doing her best to keep away the frustrated tears. "He didn't know," she told Taiyoukai. "He never met Sesshoumaru before he left for here."

"'Met,' huh? I am quite aware that blood-bounds are often dirty little secrets kept out of sight." He saw Kagome's face flush in embarrassment, maybe because he had hit the truth or because she was completely innocent. "However, even if you speak the truth, your father should have searched the household more thoroughly."

He was right, Kagome realized. But... "Can we settle this peacefully?"

"Of course, I don't want a war either," Touga spread his hands in a magnanimous gesture. "And I do not find satisfaction in debasing others. So, my conditions are quite simple."

Kagome felt hope lifting in her chest. Maybe she could do it.

"These are the conditions," Touga continued. "As you know, Sesshoumaru is the Taiyoukai heir. I want him fit to be the Lord of the Western Lands, which means without burdens. I want you to release him from his blood-bound."

"But he says he's not a blood-bound anymore."

"He's not," he agreed easily. "But he is still blood-bound."

Sesshoumaru had mentioned that before. "Then, how do I release him from his blood-bound?"

Touga looked at the girl in front of assessingly again. "Tell him, 'You are unworthy to protect me and I severe all ties with you.' It's not so much the words but the sentiments behind it that would release the bond."

During Touga's explanation, Kagome's eyes had widened steadily. "But," she barely managed to choke out. "That's repudiation."

He answered gravely, "It's the only way to free him from you."

Free him from her. She was a burden, she knew. She couldn't travel fast enough. She didn't know how things worked. She was ignorant and oblivious a lot of the times. But to be told that she was a burden...

Except all of it was true. All Kagome could object was, "I heard it hurts."

Touga grinned with a self-deprecating edge. "Like hell," he answered. "Still, this pain lasts only a while. If the blood-bond is not severed, he will always be tied to you. The blood-bond forces him to protect you, if not obey your every whim. It forces him to want to be near you so that he can protect you. And he cannot be the Lord of the Western Lands like that."

There, Kagome thought vaguely. There, Touga Taiyoukai explained it all: why Sesshoumaru was nice to her, why he had rushed her to the village, why he protected her and comforted her. None of it was of his own free will, but an inclination resulted from a blood-bond forced upon him.

At least, Touga didn't ask for war. But she felt her ribs constricting around her heart as she agreed to his proposition.

"I'm glad you can see it my way," Touga said. "And I hope you won't alienate him from his own father by telling him that I asked this of you."

Kagome shook her head blindly. "Of course not," she managed to whisper.

Sesshoumaru wasn't hers, Kagome told herself. One person can't own another. And it's not like she was in love with him or anything. It was just a silly little infatuation. And even if it wasn't, nothing could come of it, because neither youkai nor humans would want hanyou heirs. Kouga was exception because he led only a tribe, but for Sesshoumaru... youkai would think that it was their own self-interest to rebel. And even if all that wasn't true, Sesshoumaru didn't love her. He already had Rin.

"I'll have someone show you to your rooms, then," Touga's announcement drew Kagome back to the bleached reality.

"Rin," Sesshoumaru greeted as he entered the private dining room, which was always filled with hors d'oevres, even if it was not meal time. Guests showed up all the time and even the residents of the house enjoyed always having snack available.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" Rin looked up from the table. Her newest hobby was ikebana and she was fiddling with the centerpiece on the long table. "I really did miss you."

He smiled at that sentiment. They had not seen each other for ten years, since she was eight years old and the bastard child of a servant in a house he had served. Once, when he had been punished for an imagined transgression, his mistress had told him not to ask for food. The servants had not served him unless he had asked and he had almost starved to death despite his demon heritage because of his profusely bleeding wounds caused by his mistress in the first place. It had been Rin who had seen him and brought him kitchen leftovers. Not gourmet, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

Later, her mother had died. Her mother's protection had been flimsy at best, but after her mother's death, nothing shielded her from the sick attentions of some of the residents and guests at his mistress's mansion.

Sesshoumaru had managed to find a loophole in one of his mistress's orders and had pointed Rin to the direction of the Western Lands with a lock of his hair as token for safe passage. He had wanted her out—he had owed her a debt and came to see her as his daughter or little sister—before he went in heat and crumbled the castle with his bloodlust. He had not seen her since, but he was glad to know that she had made it.

"And I am glad to see that you are safe." He paused trying to gauge her mood. "I do object to the insinuations..."

Rin blushed at that and for one crazy moment, Sesshoumaru thought she was going to admit to a crush on him. "Oh, that, well, I know how you don't really like... having woman demand things of you and she... well... looked like one of them. So, I just thought... maybe I could... you know... help you keep her away."

"Oh." Sesshoumaru ran a hand through his hair. "I appreciate it..." He wondered how he should explain that he was not a blood-bound anymore. And more importantly, how if Kagome did have some... demands... they would not be unwelcomed.

Thankfully, Rin figured it out without his explanation. "You like her!" She turned back to her ikebana arrangement. Quietly, she apologized, "I'm sorry. I thought..."

"It's all right." It wasn't like Kagome had had "demands" anyways.

At that moment, a servant entered the room. He coughed politely and announced, "Your father would like to see you in his study, Sesshoumaru-sama."

Sesshoumaru nodded. Then, he said to Rin, "I will see you later."

"Yes, father?" Sesshoumaru stood in the study with his father. His shoulders felt tense.

His father walked over to a cabinet with a strong ward over it. He grabbed a sword from within the cabinet. "I wanted to give you your sword."

"My sword?" Sesshoumaru was unaware that his father had kept his sword. It was a wooden one, after all, just for practicing, since he had not yet finished his martial arts training when he became a blood-bound.

"The Tenseiga," Touga elaborated, holding out a simply but elegant sword. It was not Sesshoumaru's wooden sword. "I had two swords made from two of my fangs after both you and Inuyasha left. I knew that I could no longer protect you, but my fangs are powerful, and they would be able to aid you."

Touga handed Tenseiga to Sesshoumaru with both hands. Carefully, Sesshoumaru drew the shining, unblemished blade from its scabbard. A strong sword with a sharp edge, which meant it was a superb sword, but Sesshoumaru did not see any special qualities at which his father had hinted.

"It's made especially for you." Touga moved to sit behind his desk. "Just as Tessaiga is made for Inuyasha. The Tenseiga can channel your destructive rage so that you can think rationally in a fight."

With this new information, Sesshoumaru examined the sword again. He still couldn't feel any special wards, but he supposed that it might be inherent in a sword made from a piece of a youkai. Besides, even if it had no magical qualities, it was a good sword, and Sesshoumaru was in need of a good sword, among other weapons.

"Thank you," he accepted graciously. "And what does the Tessaiga do?"

Touga sighed and looked at the other sword still in the cabinet. "It's difficult to be a hanyou, because they are not truly half and half. Instead, they are both youkai and human, with two separate auras, and the two parts are always warring for supremacy. So, like your sword, his lets out his youki, but his does so completely, so that only the human remains in him."

Sesshoumaru pondered over that for a moment. Then, he asked, "So, it would be like the new moon of the month."

Touga nodded. "Go practice with your sword. You probably need to get used to it."

Obediently, Sesshoumaru left the room to go to the courtyard. The moon lit up pale flowers that blossomed so early in the year. He couldn't remember what the flower was called, but he remembered how his mother, Izayoi, had loved them. She used to say that they were the most beautiful because they blossomed in the harshest conditions. He supposed he understood her sentiment now, although it had always confused her when he was a child. Women were supposed to like roses. Izayoi had been one of the winter blossoms, too.

It wasn't until he was halfway through the first basic set that he remembered he had forgotten to ask his father about the negotiations. He wasn't too worried, though, since Kagome would probably tell him in the morning.

"You're leaving already?" Rin sounded aghast as Kagome, her father, Sango, Miroku, Shippou, and Kirara prepared to leave the next morning.

"We have to," Kagome replied. She couldn't understand why Rin sounded upset. They had barely spoken two words and if she was in Rin's position, she wouldn't want Sesshoumaru's former mistress around. "Besides, I'm sure you can take good care of Sesshoumaru."

"I—" Rin was about to explain when Sesshoumaru cut in.

"I'll escort you until Kouga's territory."

"Thank you, but there's no need, as long as you send word out to not attack us," Kagome's father declined the offer. He didn’t seem very much the worse for wear. The only obvious effect of his stay at the Taiyoukai house was his fatigue.

"Nevertheless, I will escort you," Sesshoumaru announced.

This time, Higurashi didn't object. Kagome had to agree that if Sesshoumaru had been intimidating before, he was doubly so now. He was dressed in what she supposed was his full regalia, complete with armor and a white pelt. A sword hung from his waist.

Another part of Kagome was not too concerned about Sesshoumaru's appearance. This part of her considered his insistence to accompany her. His worry for her had made her flutter strangely before she realized that it was forced upon him by the blood-bond, and it fell like an anvil, leaving her feeling strangely empty.

"Sesshoumaru," she said. She should do it now. Get it over with. Save him several days of pointless travel. "I would like to say something to you." She glanced around a little. "In private."

Nodding, Sesshoumaru led them to a meadow on the estate. He wondered what Kagome wanted to say. Did she hope to dissuade him? She should know his obstinacy and persistence by now. Or did she want to say good-bye? Tell him that it had been fun traveling with him? Or did she... He didn't want to think about the possibility because he wanted so much... but did she want to make promises? Tell him that she would return? He hoped she would. After all, the Higurashis and the Taiyoukais were not enemies.

"I..." Kagome started when they reached the meadow. The grass barely reached their ankles and tickled her softly.

Sesshoumaru found his heart hanging strangely in his chest. It must be beating... but everything seemed so still as he waited for her to finish her sentence.

Kagome took a deep breath to steady her thoughts. It was not the words but the sentiment. She had to think about what she was going to say, and it was difficult, because she didn't think that he was unworthy. And because after this... he would not want to be near her anymore or comfort her or protect her. Even if the blood-bond forced it on him, she had liked being able to depend on him to fight off the evil youkai and to be there when a nightmare frightened her awake.

Still, she was being unfair to him. And to his father, if she reneged on the agreement. But mostly, she was being unfair to him, tying him to her, even if he didn't think so.

She let out her breath and spoke quickly and quietly, "You are unworthy to protect me and I severe all ties with you." At the last moment, she looked away from him, not wanting to see the pain his gold eyes. Before he could react—she didn't want to know how he would react—she walked back to join her father and her friends.

It was unnecessary, though, since Sesshoumaru did not react visibly. All he could feel was the bond snapping like an old rubber band and hitting him in the chest, the agony forcing him to his knees. The pain was shattering, like a glass ball exploding from his stomach. Still, he could think and understand her words and wonder why she had repudiated him. How had he been inadequate and unworthy? It felt like betrayal... and worse...

And it was Kagome who had done this to him. He would have expected this from anyone but her. He supposed, though, that one can never know another person completely. Kagome, apparently, hadn't been what she seemed either.

And anger. How dare she accuse him of being unworthy when he had done everything—everything!—he could have done and ask for nothing in return? How dare she cut him off as if she were so much better than he when he was the Taiyoukai heir, and she nothing but a human woman? How dare she give him so much pain when he had only offered her comfort and protection?

A red haze started to rim his vision and he pulled blindly on a sword to do something—anything. And yet, the bloodlust was strangely empty as he let the tip of his sword sink deep into the frozen ground.

The Tenseiga, he thought bitterly. He couldn't not think, because the Tenseiga would take away his bloodlust.

For a long moment, he knelt there, his sword in the ground. His vision was red, but he didn't know what to do. He knew, though, that nothing would alleviate the pain except for time.

When he finally stood up, the sun had already set. He brushed the grass away from his knees, but they only sprang back up. He felt different, but it was not so bad, he decided. After all, he had survived five hundred years with this kind of hate and loathing simmering in his chest.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Property - Chapter Ten

"We shouldn't leave," Kagome objected when Sesshoumaru suggested that they start traveling again. "Sango's not here yet."

"We have been here for three days already," Sesshoumaru pointed out reasonably. "The longer we take to reach the Western Lands, the more danger your father will be in."

"Yes," Kagome agreed reluctantly. "But... what about Sango?"

"She can do well enough on her own. She's a taijiya," Sesshoumaru said. The words sounded like a compliment, but the way he pronounced "taijiya" made it seem as if he were disgusted with Sango's profession. Well, it made sense, since taijiya exterminated youkai.

"I can escort you," Kouga offered unexpectedly.

"Oh, thank you for the offer," Kagome started.

Sesshoumaru cut in, "But we won't come to harm in the Western Lands."

Kagome glanced at Sesshoumaru sharply. "How do you know that? Anyways, the offer is very gracious, but we shouldn't impose on you more than we already have."

"We shouldn't," Sesshoumaru agreed blandly.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to me to accompany you further?" Although Kouga's question was directed at the both of them, he was looking at Kagome.

Kagome hesitated a little. It would be nice to have an extra person along in case something did happen, but she already felt guilty for depending on Kouga so much even though they probably wouldn't form an alliance. Besides, Sesshoumaru seemed rather capable of defending all them... but sometimes, like right now, he would ride a strange mood and act completely... unsociable? Grim? Ruthless and callous? None of those were quite the right words, but they came close.

Sesshoumaru treated Kouga to a harsh stare. "Do you not trust my ability to handle situations in the Western Lands?"

It was a simple and valid question, Kagome thought, especially since Kouga was the Wolf Prince and Sesshoumaru was... well, a former blood-bound. To her surprise, though, Kouga stiffened up before backing up a step. "Of course I do," his tone was placating, at odds with the tension that she felt emanating from him. "I was simply offering my assistance to Lady Kagome, since it can be dangerous for a human to be in a hostile youkai territory. I have full confidence that you are completely capable of protecting yourself in the Western Lands."

"I can protect her," Sesshoumaru asserted.

Kouga gave Sesshoumaru a stare which Kagome couldn’t decipher. "Make sure that you do."

It was early afternoon when the mountainous terrain finally eased into flat grasslands. Kagome would not even have noticed it except that a strange youkai ran towards them and inquired after their business.

"What is your business?"

Unsure of quite what to say—she had never been outside the human territory—Kagome looked at Sesshoumaru for advice.

For a moment, Sesshoumaru seemed to glower at the youkai, and then he responded, "We are traveling to the Taiyoukai House."

"You can't do that. It's closed except for important things," the sentry responded immediately, making Kagome's heart sink. She had never really thought that they would convince the Taiyoukai Lord to release her father easily, but to be stopped so soon from their mission...

In her arms, Shippou tensed, pulling Kagome's attention back to the two youkai. She looked over to Sesshoumaru to see his eyes fading back to gold... from red?

"I can't?" Sesshoumaru inquired softly.

"O-o-o-of c-c-c-course, y-you c-c-can," the sentry started stuttering. He leaned away from Sesshoumaru, his eyes frightfully large. "I-I h-have n-no-no right t-to stop y-you, L-l-lord T-t-t-t-t-taiyoukai."

"Oh, and you needn't bother informing anyone of my arrival," Sesshoumaru added.

"Y-y-yes, L-l-lord T-taiyoukai," the sentry replied. He gave Kagome a suspicious look before scampering off.

"Shall we?" Sesshoumaru gestured to the path through the field.

Kagome nodded and followed as Shippou hopped onto the ground again, now that the strange youkai was gone.

"I know that you are a taiyoukai," Kagome finally asked, unable to rein in her curiosity anymore. "But why do all the youkai refer to you as Lord Taiyoukai? I mean, there are other taiyoukais around. All youkai with human forms are taiyoukai. The sentry was a taiyoukai. Even Shippou is going to become a taiyoukai."

Sesshoumaru still led the way ahead of Kagome and Shippou. He seemed confident of where he was going and since Kagome had no idea, she simply followed. Besides, they had been heading in the right direction so far. Without turning around, he answered casually, "Taiyoukai is also a name."

"I know that," Kagome answered a bit impatiently. "We are going to see the Touga Taiyoukai."

Sesshoumaru forced himself to continue walking. There was no reason for him to be tense. He was in his own land, with his own people, and Kagome could no longer hurt him. But she never had. And if she left him... or became scared of him... Sesshoumaru didn't want to think about that. What did Kagome matter, now that he had his land and power again?

But a tiny part of him asked what did land or power matter, if he had to lose Kagome?

Which was really stupid, because he had only known Kagome for such a short time... but he felt as if he knew her inside and out. But she still shouldn't be important to him... except although he could think that rationally, his instincts clamored for him to act differently, as if she was important to him.

She should know who he was, he thought. He had told himself this. And he had told her. But the silly girl would not let her mind wrap around the idea that he was the Taiyoukai heir, for whom Touga was looking.

Was it her obstinate need to be right? It didn't seem so, as she had listened to Sango and him various times. Was she being protective about her father's innocence? But his secret identity would not change her father's ignorance.

Or was it hat she simply could not believe that he had deceived her? But she didn't know him very well and he hadn't indicated that he was trustworthy. It would have been stupid of her to believe him.

But she had listened to him. She had even trusted him when he was explaining to her about himself. She might have been skeptical or wary or aghast or anything else, but she had trusted that he would tell her the truth.

And he would have. He remembered deciding to reveal his identity to convince her of the necessity of this trip. But he also remembered the strange... inclination to refrain from telling her. He had wanted to interact with her as her equal. He had wanted her to trust him and listen to him without the mantle of power. He had expected for her to find out eventually.

Except she was being willfully oblivious. He even told her that Taiyoukai was a name, and she didn't react.

"I know that you're a taiyoukai and all," Kagome went on behind Sesshoumaru, not sensing his internal turmoil. "But honestly, with their trembling and differential treatment, it almost makes me think that you are the Lord of the Western Lands or something."

Not quite, but close, Sesshoumaru thought. He tried to think of a way to answer her that wouldn’t seem condescending but would make her realize the truth.

He was spared that by a shout from behind them. "Wait up!" Sango shouted. Kirara flew in the sky, catching up with them with her great youkai strides. When she caught up, Sango jumped deftly off of Kirara before Miroku got a chance to grope her.

"Sango," Kagome shouted happily and gave her friend a hug. "I thought you wouldn't catch up. And... hi, Miroku."

"And you are as beautiful as always, Kagome-sama," Miroku replied, as he would have normally. Funny, Kagome thought vaguely, she had expected Miroku to have changed now that he stood Sango up. Instead, everything seemed to have returned to the way it had been before their engagement.

"Taijiya," Sesshoumaru acknowledged with a slight nod. "Priest." He was not nearly so generous with Miroku, merely turning back around after an assessing stare.

Kagome followed Sesshoumaru, chattering to her friend, as if they had been apart for years instead of days. Miroku followed them grudgingly with Kirara. Shippou wandered, sometimes hopping in front of Sesshoumaru and sometimes riding on Kirara.

"You looked so mad when we just caught up to you." Somehow, the conversation had turned back to earlier this afternoon.

"I was," Kagome agreed readily and with much vehemence. "I hate it when people make cryptic comments."

"People? Cryptic comments?"

"I just asked him why the sentry called him 'Lord Taiyoukai' as if the sentry himself wasn't a taiyoukai," Kagome expected, using copious gestures to express her frustration. "And all he'd say was that 'Taiyoukai is a name.' As if I don't know that! Of course I know that! Touga Taiyoukai is the Lord of the Western Lands and I'm going to see him. And there are Touga's sons, who would both be Taiyoukai—Taiyoukai! See, I know it's a name. The Taiyoukai heir is a Taiyoukai."

As Kagome took a breath, Sango muttered, "I see." The question was how to tell her friend that the Taiyoukai heir and the "Lord Taiyoukai" were one and the same.

"So he called him Lord Taiyoukai," Kagome continued. "Like the Taiyoukai Lord. Or maybe what the Taiyoukai heir would... be called." She had trailed off lamely as she just figured something out.

Kagome forced herself to breathe evenly as she reevaluated her logic. Sesshoumaru had been a blood-bound for a long time. The Taiyoukai heir had been a blood-bound for a long time. Sesshoumaru had come to the Higurashi house. The Taiyoukai heir was in the Higurashi house, supposedly. Youkai were frightened of Sesshoumaru and deferred to his authority even with Kouga present. He was called "Lord Taiyoukai." He even claimed that Taiyoukai was a name.

"Oh, my gods," Kagome whispered as her feet planted themselves into the ground. "He is the Taiyoukai heir."

Sango watched her friend worriedly. "Um, yes."

"He is the Taiyoukai heir!"

"You've mentioned that." Sango wondered if she should have tried easing Kagome into the idea differently.

"He is the Taiyoukai heir!"

"Er, yeah, you've said this and I've agreed with it." Ahead of them, Sesshoumaru had stopped. Miroku and Kirara were catching up as well. Sango was feeling strangely panicky and claustrophobic even though they were in open grasslands.

Slowly, flushed disbelief replaced the pale shock on Kagome's face. "Why didn't he just tell me? I would've just freed him."

"Well," Sango tried to placate Kagome. "He didn't know—"

"And I would have known for sure that he could save my father. I wouldn't have interrogated his motives so much if I knew he was the Taiyoukai heir!" Kagome's voice was rising from the high range to the painful. "And here I was worrying if we'd run into bad trouble without Kouga, but if Sesshoumaru had only told me that he was the Taiyoukai heir, I wouldn't have worried and argued."

"Aren't you upset that he lied to you?" Sango prompted.

"Of course I am!" Kagome fumed. She marched on ahead of Sesshoumaru and hoped the path didn't fork. She didn't know where she was going. "I am spitting mad. I am so mad that you can put a log on me and see it light on fire."

It took two stomping steps forward before Kagome started up again. "Why couldn't he have just told me? It's not like I was going to hold it against him or anything. And it would've saved us so much trouble."

"Well..." Sango searched in vain for an adequate explanation. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the incongruity of how Sango had expected Kagome to react and how Kagome had actually reacted.

But Kagome either didn't hear the taijiya or decided to ignore her. She kept walking onward. Sango sighed as she and the rest of the group followed the Higurashi heir.

Kagome learned something today: Stomping—especially continuous stomping—took a lot of energy. She tired long before nightfall. Part of it was the mere physical exertion, but a lot of it was that she had thought about the situation and calmed down.

Okay, so Sesshoumaru hadn't told her his identity earlier. But she really oughtn't to have expected a blood-bound to give his owner something she could use against him. Then, he hadn't told her even when he was free, and Kagome thought perhaps he had thought that she would not travel with him if she had known. And he would have been right. Or at least, she would not have agreed as easily. Instead, she would have doubted his motives and the authenticity of his claims.

But afterwards, he hadn't told her either, and that made her upset. They were already on the road and he should have known her well enough by then to tell her that. Except apparently he had tried to tell her that, very subtly. The youkai in the village knew and called him "Lord Taiyoukai." Kouga almost said it, but stopped himself when he had figured it out. And apparently, sometime since the youkai village, Sango had figured it out, too. Or maybe Miroku told her. Miroku knew a great many things.

So, she was still very upset over it. But she found it a little more difficult to blame it on Sesshoumaru. After all, he wasn't vocal like her and she shouldn't have expected for him to announce everything the way she did. She wondered if there were other things that she had missed.

And she was very upset over her own obliviousness. So many clues and hints and she hadn't even noticed them. So, maybe the fact that Sesshoumaru was the Taiyoukai heir wasn't so important, considering that she would probably have found out when they reached Touga Taiyoukai. But if she was to lead the Higurashi House...

She probably needed to be subtle and discreet and sensitive the way Sesshoumaru was to his surroundings. Which was not going to happen in a hundred years.

And gah! Sesshoumaru must be well over five hundred years old! So he had had a lot of experience living life. And—gods!—doing other... blood-bound stuff, too. Kagome shook her head as she felt her face flame up. She would not think about things like that.

But that thought inevitably made her feel guilty, because although she acted normal, every time she looked at him, she felt her heart stumble a little to catch up with her breathing. And she thought very... unseemly thoughts as she remembered their one night together. Sometimes, she felt just a little awkward and off-kilter when he was around, as if she needed to do something, but had no idea what. If she was next to him, though, it was better, and touching him soothed the strange tightness, but it never quite went away. She had a notion, though, that if they did that again, she would feel all better.

But that was really selfish. Because, honestly, the man had been a blood-bound, probably for pleasure, for five hundred years. If there was one thing he didn't want to do, it was probably that. Especially with his former mistress.

And if logic wasn't enough, then evidence must be. He had lain next to her for many nights since then, but hadn't even tried to touch or hold her. Thankfully, he hadn't refused to let her cuddle with him. And then, there was the fact that they were mated, and he hadn't done anything about that.

But it was all wishful thinking, because if for some bizarre chance he did return her feelings—which she didn't even understand—she was still the Higurashi heir. She could not afford a scandal and neither could she marry for love.


Was she in love with Sesshoumaru?

No, of course not. She didn't know him that well. And they didn't dance together or share heartfelt secrets.

But she supposed that she could be infatuated with him. After all, he was handsome and strong. He certainly had the mysterious brooding personality down. And well, he was gentlemanly and didn't hesitate to make her feel better when she had nightmares. And they were going on this whole trip for her father...

So she was a lot infatuated. But infatuations passed soon enough, and had little to do with love.

The entire company had made camp. Kagome sat outside watching the stars while snuggled under blankets.

Sesshoumaru sat down quietly beside her. "You shouldn't be upset."

Kagome looked sharply back at him, the sharp contour of his face at odds with the flowing grass. His gold eyes shone bright and his markings still extruded that exotic air. "I'm not."

"Maybe I should have mentioned it earlier." Sesshoumaru continued at Kagome's fervent nod. "But you should have noticed as well."

Kagome pursed her lips in reluctant agreement. "Look, Sesshoumaru—" She stopped to check herself. "I mean, Lord Taiyoukai—"

"Sesshoumaru," he corrected. "I don't call you Lady Higurashi."

Kagome blushed and nodded. Why did she blush? "Sesshoumaru, I know that you are probably anxious to go home and all that, but will you still try to free my father, please? We really didn't mean to make you blood-bound and we can't really afford to wage war against you."

Sesshoumaru stared ahead of him, where the grass faded into the angular silhouette of the distant mountains. It made him angry—and he could feel the rage building in him—that she thought his agenda would change because she had discovered his identity. He might be manipulative and use others, but he wouldn't have done it to her. And unreasonably, he thought that she should know that.

And if he really was as cold-blooded as she thought he was, then she shouldn't have asked that of him. Didn't the stupid girl know that it could be used against her? If he wanted to wage war, what she had said would only encourage him.

Kagome pulled the blanket tighter around her at Sesshoumaru's silence. "Please?" She whispered again.

Somehow, his anger pulled and twisted at his guts. Humans made him blood-bound and reneged on their promise. Humans deserved to be punished. But Kagome had done nothing wrong, and that she was the only one who felt guilty for the crime which she didn't commit made him feel as if he should reassure her.

But what platitudes could he offer? Event the final decision of war would not be in his hands, but in his father's.

Still, he could make sure that Kagome didn't get hurt. Even if there was a war, he would make sure that she wouldn't get hurt. She would live a good, full life. She would marry and have children and be with the ones she loved.

Frustration mingled with anger. He should be the one, he thought. He should be the one to be by her side. He should be the father of her children. He would be able to protect her and care for her properly. She was already his mate, gods be damned, and the necklace of hers proclaimed it.

He felt the power building in him and realized with a start that the red bloodlust was starting to cloud his vision. It felt almost like being in heat. Jerkily, he stalked away before he would rip through the tents and hurt somebody.

A strange tension settled. Or maybe it was just on Kagome, but she felt it strangling the words out of her mouth until it was awkward to even make small talk with Sango, who was her childhood friend.

So it was with relief that they finally arrived at the Taiyoukai house. At least something would be resolved.

Kagome still felt a bit of surprise when the guards merely looked at Sesshoumaru and opened the gate. When the rest of them tried to step, though, they found the sharp end of swords pointed their way.

Sesshoumaru treated everyone of them to a sharp glare. "They're with me," he declared.

When the swords were returned to their scabbards, Kagome breathed a sigh of relief and heard Sango and Miroku do the same.

"Lord Taiyoukai," one of the guards spoke up. "We were awaiting your arrival. Your father said that any humans arriving with you should be disposed of."

Kagome gulped in trepidation.

Sesshoumaru only waved his hand negligently. "I'm telling you to at least wait until I verify the situation with my father."

"But," the guard started. "How can we be sure that she"—here, he shot Kagome a patently venomous glare—"is not ordering to protect her."

"Just let me talk to my father first," Sesshoumaru reasserted. "Besides, if she really did order me to protect her and you try to kill her, you would be fighting against me. And I'm sure that both of us would sustain injuries."

After a slight hesitation, the guard nodded assent and Kagome breathed again. "I shall have Gurin escort you to your father, then."

Sesshoumaru nodded. He didn't need an escort. Even after five hundred years of absence, he still knew where the main rooms where, even if additions had been added, which was probable. But the escort was for his sake, so that Kagome does not order him to ambush his own father or something equally sordid. They all thought that he was still a blood-bound.

He could feel that Kagome was uncomfortable within the walls of the Taiyoukai house, but there was little he could do about it other than getting her father out as soon as possible.

They turned to enter house when a figure ran out of the palace and ran barreled into Sesshoumaru. "Sesshoumaru-sama," she exclaimed, hugging Sesshoumaru tightly. "You're finally home! I've missed you."

Almost immediately, she let go and stood demurely, her face flushed, either from the excitement or from cold. "Are you going to stay here with us this time?"

The girl was about eighteen or twenty, Kagome guessed, certainly older than herself. She couldn't help but compare the girl's pristine white kimono to her own serviceable yukata. She hadn't had a chance to change into her formal clothing yet.

The girl certainly knew Sesshoumaru and was close to him. The affection between them was obvious, in their actions, their postures, even their eyes. She didn't even know why she had expected Sesshoumaru to be unattached. He had the beauty, the power, the elegance... the everything. Of course he would already have a girl waiting for him.

Kagome felt an attack of what she recognized as jealousy. It was perfectly normal, though, since she was infatuated with Sesshoumaru.

"Let me introduce you," Sesshoumaru said gesturing to Kagome and drawing her back to the present. "This is Kagome Higurashi, the Higurashi heir. This is Sango, a taijiya. This is Miroku, a priest. And this," he said gesturing to the elegant woman, "is Rin. She—"

"—stays at the Taiyoukai house because Sesshoumaru-sama is here," Rin finished for him.

Sesshoumaru held back a frown at that. He had meant to say something else, but he knew it would hurt her if he corrected her now. Besides, there was no time for lengthy explanations. Instead, he could only see the shadows on Kagome's face as she turned to talk to Sango.

They went onward to meet the Lord of the Western Lands.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Property - Chapter Nine

Inuyasha was sitting against the wall across from Kikyou's bed when she woke up. His head was bowed and he remained silent, but from past experience, she knew that he was also acutely aware of his surroundings. He probably realized that she was awake.

"Good morning, Kikyou," Inuyasha confirmed her suspicions.

"Good morning," Kikyou replied. The routine was comforting and safe, but she knew that soon enough, they would be on shaky grounds. So, she might as well say what needed to be said. "I have decided that it is unfair to hold you to the blood-bond."

"Did you plan to repudiate me again?" Inuyasha's voice remained carefully neutral.

Kikyou looked away from his piercing gold gaze. "There's no other way."

"The hell there isn't!" Inuyasha shouted suddenly, startling Kikyou into looking at him again. "Do us both a favor and stop thinking you know everything because you don't. I've told you this and I'll tell you again: I don't want out from the blood-bond. If I did, I'd've killed you last night, when I was human."

"Your ownership would have simply reverted to Kagome."

"Exactly," Inuyasha said. "And she dislikes the thoughts of blood-bounds."

"Fine, then," Kikyou yelled at him. "Kill me if it'll make you happy."

Inuyasha sighed. That was a dangerous order that she gave him, since he would have had to obey her command. If he would have been happier with her dead, he would have had to kill her. "Kikyou, you're not listening to me. I'm saying that I'm your blood-bound because I want to be. I don't want out."


He heaved another tired sigh. "Look, let's just pretend that none of this happened."

"I—" Kikyou was about to protest, but then she thought about what he had said. He was right in that she didn't know everything. But was he right in that other people might make better decisions? Maybe, but only if they were looking out for her interests in the first place, and she knew that this was a world of each for his own. But maybe, maybe... she'd listen to Inuyasha this once. "I'll try."

Inuyasha smiled gently, and it felt like Before again.

"I thought that Taiyoukai and Higurashi aren't on good terms," Miroku broke the awkward silence.

Sango sighed and took in the little room. It was clean and serviceable, but the ceiling hung low and the plaster was starting to come off the walls. She was relieved that he chose a safe topic. "They aren't. Apparently, there might be war soon."

"Is that why Sesshoumaru is traveling with them?"

She frowned a little at the odd phrasing of the question. "He's Kagome's blood-bound."

"So she's accepting Taiyoukai's condition," Miroku mumbled more to himself than to Sango. After a thoughtful pause, he added, "I wonder if it was better if she hadn't. Now, Taiyoukai will know for sure that Higurashi lied."

"What?" Sango understood Miroku's words, but they weren't adding up. "What are you talking about?"

"Kagome's blood-bound," Miroku replied with patience. At her continued blank stare, he clarified, "Sesshoumaru Taiyoukai. The Taiyoukai heir."

"What?" Sango's voice squeaked unnaturally high in the confines of Miroku's borrowed room. "Sesshoumaru... Taiyoukai?"

He nodded solemnly, unable to understand why she was in shock.

"Are you sure?" She pressed.

He nodded again. "The mark of the Moon is the line marking of the Taiyoukai family. There was only one Taiyoukai born in the last thousand years without the marking, and he was a hanyou."

Sango grabbed onto one of Miroku's wrists too tightly. "Then we have to go tell her now."

Miroku's purple eyes widened in surprise. "You mean, she doesn't know that Sesshoumaru's Sesshoumaru?"

Sango shook her head in affirmation.

"I had thought that he traveled with her willingly... but if he's a blood-bound, things can become... complicated."

"You mean dangerous?"

"Complicated," Miroku repeated himself. "And maybe dangerous."

Sango thought about that for another moment. "Would it ameliorate the situation if he weren't a blood-bound?"

"Repudiation?" Miroku suggested skeptically. "Considering the tales about the Taiyoukai family and Sesshoumaru in particular—which you should know, since you're a taijiya—I doubt that anybody, most youkai included, would survive Sesshoumaru's wrath at being a blood-bound and treated like a slave. Not to mention, repudiation often releases the violent side of a youkai completely." He paused and looked at his hands in his lap. A guard covered one of them, spelled to keep the curse from spreading. "Frankly, I'm surprised that she's still alive, even if Sesshoumaru's still a blood-bound. I've heard rumors... about how he kills his owners. Most blood-bounds can't do that."

Sango stared at the table as Miroku fell silent. Sesshoumaru was violent, he had reminded her suddenly, though she couldn't imagine how she had forgotten it in the first place. Maybe it was his stoic silence. Or his urgency at taking Kagome to safety when she had been injured. Or maybe it was how he had worried, his normally impassive eyes clouded with anxiety as he had waited for Kagome to wake up.

But the fact that he was the Taiyoukai heir changed things considerably. Ulterior motives sprang up where Sango had only seen concern—and maybe even a little bit of affection—between Sesshoumaru and Kagome, especially since Kagome now held the Shikon no Tama...

And the memory of her very first meeting with Sesshoumaru became vivid in her mind: his careless threats, his easy puff of poisonous smoke, the eerie glint in his cold, gold eyes, and the cruel slant to his smile as he taunted her and dared her to tell on him...

And he was not a blood-bound. Sango had thought Kagome safe with Sesshoumaru, because she had thought he wanted to keep Kagome safe. And he might still want to keep her safe, but what would happen once he reached his own territory? Once he regained his lost status and power, how would he discard Kagome?

The only other people traveling with Kagome were Kouga and Shippou. Kouga might have good intentions, but he refused to take risks, and certainly not when a confrontation with Sesshoumaru was sure to bring the worst repercussions. Besides, Kouga's territory bordered the Land of the West. Shippou, too, would want to protect Kagome, but he was so young that he would probably need more protection than he could provide for her.

Sango clenched her fists in sudden agitation. She looked at Miroku carefully. "What if Kagome had somehow freed him already?"

Miroku was startled into meeting Sango's eyes. "She's already repudiated him?"

"Yes," Sango nodded. Then, she reconsidered her answer. "Well, maybe not. He's not visibly angry or unstable. And he's still around her. Most repudiated blood-bounds stay away for at least a year, because of the pain of repudiation."

Miroku sighed as he tried to puzzle it out. "Are you sure that he's no longer a blood-bound?"

Sango frowned at the question. "He said so himself. Kagome... never confirmed it, though."

Miroku rubbed his forehead. "Maybe he told the truth. But he could have lied, too. It's not difficult, since Kagome does not have experience with blood-bounds."

Sango nodded in reluctant agreement. "I need to tell her."


"About the possibility that Sesshoumaru lied to her... and who Sesshoumaru is. Kagome doesn't know. I have to leave as soon as possible. There are still a few hours of sunlight left."

Miroku pulled on Sango's wrist as she stood up. "You shouldn't."

The spark that still jumped between them had surprised her and it took her a moment to respond. "What? Why not?"

Seeing that Sango would hear him out, Miroku let go of her hand quickly. It was uncomfortably warm and soft and smooth under his hand. "You shouldn't tell her. He... Youkai have very good hearing, and it would not do to make an enemy of the Taiyoukai heir, especially if he's already free. Besides, there are probably reasons that Sesshoumaru did not tell Kagome of his real identity... especially since it's probably the easiest way for him to gain freedom. You shouldn't risk it."

"So I should just keep my friend in blind danger?" Sango asked angrily. "I knew you are about self interest, Miroku, but I am not. Besides, I'm not stupid. I wouldn't tell her when he can hear us."

"But she would still act differently. She's not very good at deceptions."

"Unlike you," Sango responded bitterly. The bitterness had taken her by surprise, since she had felt very professional when they were just talking about Kagome and Sesshoumaru. But now that Miroku was revealing all the little personality faults to which Sango had been blind before, she felt a great pressure pushing in on her.


"I don't want to listen to your paltry explanations," she decided suddenly. It wasn't worth it to get upset over somebody like Miroku. Not even if she had thought that he was the love of her life. "I'm leaving now."

This time, Miroku didn't stop her as she stood up to leave the table. As she was just about to step outside the door, though, she heard him say, "I'm coming with you."

"I don't need you," Sango shot back.

Miroku didn't argue. "But Kagome might."

Sango didn't bother arguing, because Miroku was a very strong adversary against youkai. Besides, only he could change his own mind once it was made up. Always a protector of the defenseless, she thought. He had once said that he admired her strength, but now Sango wondered if the admiration made him feel inferior. Maybe that was why he decided against the marriage.

Marriage, marriage, marriage. Spending time with Miroku would only remind her of being stood up at her own wedding. But she couldn't worry about that now, not with the Taiyoukai heir, free for the first time in five hundred years, shepherding the Higurashi heir to the Western Lands for unknown reasons.

Sango would be strong. For her friend's sake. And for humanity's sake. And she would accept Miroku as a traveling companion because Miroku could make the difference between death and survival if youkai attacked them.

Once it was all over, though, Sango would have her good, long cry in the comfort of her own room.

After she castrated Miroku.

Kagome couldn't help it. She looked around a bit suspiciously as Kouga proudly announced, "Home, sweet home."

It was a cave on the side of a mountain, just as he had promised. But after all the "Wolf Prince" business, she had expected... well, not this. Hidden on the side of the mountain, behind some trees, was an inconspicuous little opening. She would have to bend down to get through. She didn't know what to expect inside, but it seemed rather dark. Not a flicker of light showed from inside.

Kouga led the way through. Shippou huddled in her arms. And Sesshoumaru shepherded them from behind. Resolutely, Kagome bent at the waist—quite low—to enter the cave. She would not add her own anxiety to Shippou's.

And she was surprised. The inside was unlit, but the sun lit the cave surprisingly well. Although, Kagome suspected that was just because of the time of the day. It was roomy and airy. Skins lay on the stone ground for people to sit on and the wolves who sat on them look quite comfortable. A simple but imposing stone chair was seated at the far end of the cave. She rather suspected that it was the throne.

Kouga hurried towards the chair and sat down just after Sesshoumaru came inside.

Sesshoumaru bowed his head slightly toward Kouga in acknowledgement. "Nice lair."

Kouga smiled, a bit strained. He had hoped that he would be sitting in his throne by the time Sesshoumaru came through, in which case Sesshoumaru would have had to bow to him and acknowledge him as the one with the higher rank. At least, Kouga thought, Sesshoumaru had acknowledged them as equals. He hadn't had to.

Kouga replied evenly, "Of course, it is nothing compared to where you live."

The wolves, who had lain about lazily, perked up at this. Those in their wolf forms swiveled their ears to make sure that their proud leader had just humbled himself.

When no answer was given, a wolf spoke up, "And where's that?"

Before Kouga could answer, Sesshoumaru spoke up, "At the Higurashi house."

One of the wolves whistled lewdly.

Kouga decided to ignore the wolf. He would deal with the wolf later. Instead, he decided to formally announce Sesshoumaru first, as he had the highest ranking of the visitors. "This is Sesshoumaru—"

Before he could finish, though, another wolf asked loudly, "We don't care about the dog. We want to know who the good-looking lady is."

Even though the wolf had referred to Kagome as a "lady," there were obvious implications in the wolf's question, mainly if she was Kouga's and if the other wolves could "share." Kouga watched Sesshoumaru stiffen beside him and felt a tendril of apprehension.

But Kouga wasn't going to apologize for the behavior of the wolves. They were exiled to this strip of the mountain because of a long-forgotten transgression. They acted as buffer between the humans and the Western Land. They had a hard enough time scraping enough food to survive. The mere fact that Kouga's father had educated him at all before his father's death had been a near miracle.

Sesshoumaru Taiyoukai probably lived in a palace and had had two hundred years to learn from the Lord of the Western Lands. Well, Kouga wasn't going to apologize and that was that. Still, he kind of wished that the wolves at least knew what the personal item of a youkai—in this case, Sesshoumaru's hair—on another meant.

Instead, he answered the wolf's question, "She's Lady Kagome Higurashi. Mind you treat her respectfully."

At their leader's strict tone, the wolves nodded, even those in wolf form. The wolf who had asked the previous question, Ginta, asked another one, "So she's the lady you went off to collect for the alliance?"

Kouga nodded rigidly, and if he hadn't been looking carefully for warning signs from Sesshoumaru, he would have missed the momentarily narrowed eyes.

"You marrying her?"

"We... haven't discussed the alliance yet," Kouga answered evasively. He felt more than saw the tension knot even tighter in Sesshoumaru. The Taiyoukai heir took a menacing and proprietary step toward Kagome, and Kouga knew that if didn't change the subject soon, his caves might get a fresh coat of red paint. "I believe the guests are tired. I will show them to their rooms."

"This is unacceptable," Sesshoumaru voiced his opinion of the room in front of him.

Honestly, Kouga didn't know why he had expected Sesshoumaru to be accommodating. It would be nice, though, for Sesshoumaru to have shown some respect due to the host. "What is your complaint?"

Sesshoumaru surveyed the room again. It wasn't really a room, just another chamber in the labyrinth of caves, but Kouga thought that Sesshoumaru couldn't complain about that, since all the rooms were part of the cave. If the Taiyoukai heir had complaints to that nature, he should have objected when shown to Kagome's room. After all, Kouga's entire stronghold was the cave.

"I wish to remain beside Kagome in her room," Sesshoumaru intoned.

Kouga flashed a quick look at Sesshoumaru to see if he was in earnest. He was. "You can't." Before Sesshoumaru could threaten Kouga, Kouga continued, "You are not a child, like Shippou. And you're not married to her. It's not good for her reputation or yours. Or mine. Especially mine, and these are my people."

"I care not about your reputation, and there are easier ways to stop wagging tongues." Sesshoumaru made a precise motion, slashing his nails sideways at neck level.

Kouga narrowed his eyes before he remembered that Sesshoumaru was the Taiyoukai heir. He gritted his teeth instead. "Surely, you would not be so discourteous to your host."

Sesshoumaru simply stared at Kouga for a moment, and Kouga thought he could see all the different, gruesome ways to gut a wolf demon in those gold eyes. Then, Sesshoumaru turned his gold eyes down the hall, and Kouga was careful not breathe an audible sigh of relief.

"Courtesy is a two-way street," Sesshoumaru stated. "However, in this case, you may explain to your subjects that I am blood-bound to the Higurashi heir."

"But you are not."

Sesshoumaru glanced down at Kouga's audacity. "I doubt they would be able to tell one way or another. In either case, I am blood-bound."

There was a certain implacability to Sesshoumaru's features. Kouga turned back toward Kagome's room. "I will lead you to her room and tell the other wolves that you are her blood-bound. However, I request that you do not enter the inner chamber while she is asleep, but remain in the outer chamber."

Sesshoumaru gave a curt nod. "That is acceptable."

Kagome curled tighter under the pelts. It was almost spring, but this high up the mountains, the air was still chill. Besides, there was no banked fire to warm the air, since it would only deprive the room of oxygen.

She whimpered as her nightmare assailed her again. The lucid nightmare felt strange.

Kagome had slept fine since meeting Sesshoumaru, since she had been occupied one way or another and her dream had been unable to intrude. Tonight, though, Shippou slumbered on a nearby pelt and Kagome was all by herself, with no fatigue, no injury, and no Sesshoumaru to keep the nightmares at bay.

Inuyasha and Kikyou. The nightmare was always about Inuyasha and Kikyou. The white-haired dog demon and the black-haired priestess. Kagome wasn't quite sure how she knew that, but then, she was dreaming.

There was war and pain. Fire and death. Love and birth and betrayal. The nightmare was trying to tell her something, Kagome realized, now that she was aware of her priestess powers, thanks to Sesshoumaru.

But if the dream was about a white-haired dog demon, the demon could be Sesshoumaru, too. And the black-haired priestess could be herself.

But no, Kagome's mind worked out. Because the dog demon had dog ears like Inuyasha—and an extra dog tail. The priestess wore a priestess outfit, which Kagome had never owned or worn.

The war was painful, though, and death and the fire and the betrayal.

Suddenly, she felt someone shake her by her arm and she flung out her hand to bat it away, only to have the hand grabbed firmly. Slowly uncurling, Kagome turned and saw Sesshoumaru looking down at her.

"A nightmare?" he asked.

Kagome nodded mutely.

Sesshoumaru shuffled around and finally lay on the pelt beside her and covered himself with the same blanket, which was also made of pelt. Kagome wondered exactly how many animals the wolves had hunted. Or were these youkai pelts?

"Would you like to tell me about it?" Sesshoumaru questioned gently as he slid an arm around Kagome.

She found herself snuggling closer into his warmth and his chest seemed awfully strong and protective. "It's... hard to describe."

"Sometimes, it helps to talk about such things."

Closing her eyes, Kagome tried to distance herself from her nightmare. It wasn't very difficult with Sesshoumaru next to her. There was something about the youkai, though Kagome wasn't quite sure what, but he made her feel safe. Safe enough to talk about her nightmare, at any rate.

"It's about a white-haired dog demon and a priestess," she started. "Inuyasha and Kikyou, I think. It's kind of hard to tell in dreams, but I've had them for about a year before you came to the Higurashi House. And there are war and pain. Fire and death. Love and birth and betrayal. And there's always someone laughing in the back. A human and a spider youkai—except they were one, and three. A man, a woman, and a little white girl, except they were all one. It's difficult to describe."

"I understand."

Kagome wanted to peer at his face to make sure that he did, but she felt too tired. "I... don't know what to make of it."

"Don't worry about it," Sesshoumaru's deep voice soothed. "Just sleep now and have sweet dreams."

She felt a little smile at that. Trust Sesshoumaru to think that he could dictate which dreams she had. But she was tired. It was late. The nightmare had been exhausting, and she slept.

Sesshoumaru lay awake for a long while after Kagome's breath fell into a deep, even rhythm.

It was painful to lie beside her and to feel her slight warmth and soft curves pressed against him. He didn't think she understood what he had meant when he had said that they were mated. Nor could he really imagine how she could have had intimate relations with any man—and especially him—and still fall asleep so easily beside him.

Because he wanted her so much that it was painful for him. It didn't really make that much sense, since she wasn't really truly that remarkable. Pretty, but not beautiful. Strong, but too vulnerable. Courageous... maybe, or just blind and rash.

But that didn't matter much to him right now. Instead, all he could think about was nudging her awake. Or better yet, kissing her awake. And to feel her hands on him as he kissed her. To feel her trembling as he took her. This time, he would remember.

And he could do it easily, too. She would not refuse him if he asked. He had acquired enough skill and practice so that she wouldn't be able to even think properly until they were both well and exhausted.

Sesshoumaru seriously considered it.

But it seemed too much of a violation, even if she would be willing. More so of a violation because he could make her willing. She was too inexperienced to know any better if he decided to use his knowledge of bedplay on her.

And he wanted her willing... not just willing in the throes of passion, but also to know who he was and to choose him. It was stupid, because he was in pain, and he could make her more than enjoy herself. But in the end, he would be taking her choice away. Others had done that to him and he would have gladly punished them. But not Kagome. Kagome had never demanded anything of him... and he would not betray her.

Still, Sesshoumaru suspected that even the best intentions would have come to naught if not for the little kit sleeping on another pelt in the same room. So, he supposed that the fox was good for something, after all.

So, instead, Sesshoumaru decided to ponder.

First, he pondered about his current life. He had thought that freedom would simplify life. After dreaming of it for five hundred years—after degradation and humiliation for five hundred years—he was finally free. If he simply neglected to finish the second half of the bonding ritual, the half-formed mating bond would fade with time.

Although, he suspected that a part of him would always yearn for Kagome, because a mating-bond—even a half-formed one—would never dissipate entirely.

Still, freedom was within his reach. And a small yearning was a vast improvement over the compulsive obedience in a strictly blood-bound relationship.

Freedom was within his reach, and yet he didn't know what he wanted to do anymore. All his owners had been murdered by him or died of natural causes. Vengeance on Kagome seemed petty and unfair and more a stain on his honor than a declaration of her wrongs, since she had done no wrong.

Kagome was innocent.

Then, he should reconsolidate his powers. Back at the Western Lands, he would talk to his father. They would hunt down the bastards who ambushed the Lord of the Western Lands and his Lady. Naraku first. Inuyasha second—even if his father was reluctant. And the Wolf Prince last.

Except that the Wolf Prince was no longer the Wolf Prince five hundred years ago. A descendent, maybe, and a fairly distant one at that. Kouga was probably ten or fifteen generations down from the Wolf Prince who had led to Sesshoumaru's mother's death. And Kouga, no matter his faults, was innocent of that crime.

Besides, how would Sesshoumaru's own father react? True, Taiyoukai had demanded Sesshoumaru's freedom, bargained for it, and even taken the head of the Higurashi House hostage for it. But it said nothing of his father's disappointment in him, for not protecting his mother, for not thinking the plan through better, for getting himself in a stupid, fucked-up situation for five hundred years.

And his father might see Kagome as the summation of the causes of Sesshoumaru's unfortunately condition. His father might even punish Kagome for the imagined transgressions.

Imagined, because Kagome was innocent.

And Sesshoumaru was blood-bound to protect her, even if he was no longer her blood-bound. So he had to protect her from his father's wrath, but he still had to risk it, because without his place as the Taiyoukai heir, he would have nothing.

Then there was still that slight problem of Kagome being ignorant of his identity as the Taiyoukai heir. It was... different to be treated as an equal. To be neither groveled to, of which Kouga seemed on the verge, nor spat at like scum. It was refreshing... and relaxing.

But Kagome was still the Higurashi heir, which meant she had responsibilities, just as he did. Their responsibilities weren't compatible, though, unless they formed an alliance by marriage. Which would still have been a problem since humans and youkai would not mix willingly. Besides, both of them would have to stay at their own Houses, and what kind of marriage would that be?

If Sesshoumaru even mentioned the idea to his father, Kagome would probably be sent away—exiled—in rder to preserve the family and the youkai unity.

And Kagome was innocent. And he had to protect her. And he could not protect her if she strayed too far away from him. So he really ought to keep her by his side.

But at least one thing was clear, Sesshoumaru thought. He knew what Kagome's dream meant: it was the story of his own parents. Of the white-haired dog demon—his father had a magnificent snow white tail—and a Higurashi priestess. Theirs was a story of war and pain. Of fire and death. Of love and birth. And betrayal.

And the evil laughing two-one-three was Naraku.