ACT II: REVOLUTION

27. Liberty

Sesshoumaru's vixen took more liberties with his person after they left Edo, as if his comforting of her by the well had granted her some sort of permission. Or perhaps it was that visiting with her human friends had made her more accepting of her kitsune nature?

Whatever the reason, she no longer hesitated to curl into his side at night, or lay her head upon his shoulder if she simply wanted closeness.

Sesshoumaru found he did not mind. He had grown accustomed to her. It could be very pleasing, to hold her, letting her soft purring send him to sleep as they shared the heat of their bodies.

It was more pleasing still, to have a companion he trusted to keep watch while he rested.

They took their time in returning to the shiro. Kagome begged him to wait while she played in the human villages they passed, her tailstips twitching. He had no objection, for he was loathe to return to the gilded cage that was his palace. The yoke of being a lord. Traveling with Kagome, he could almost imagine that he was free, as inu were meant to be.

So they inspected the borders of the West, crisscrossing between one human village and the next.

"Why do you let humans live on your lands?" she asked him curiously one night, one of her tails wrapping around his leg as she made herself comfortable in his arms.

He shrugged one shoulder. "Why do I allow deer, or monkeys, or any other creature?"

"Hmm," was all she said in reply.

"It is good they are here," he continued. "For if you did not have humans to trick, it is me you would pester."

"Hey!" she protested, her wild, bright fox-laugh filling the night.

-l-

Kagome was looking into her little round mirror, smiling to herself as she used it to watch her humans. She'd discovered when she'd first stolen the reflective sphere that if someone possessed an object touched with her magic, she could us the mirror to watch them. She and Shippou had spent many happy hours observing the little girl in the first village Kagome had ever played tricks in – the child she had gifted with a living origami fox.

Parting her lips, she exhaled, letting her breath fog up the glass in her hand. When the fog faded, Kagome could see Sango and Miroku. Sango wore the pearl Kagome had forged from fang and fire on a comb, tucked into her black hair.

"Never have I seen a vixen so vain," Sesshoumaru said, letting a calf roll from his shoulders to land on the ground with a thump. They would be having beef this night. Kagome hoped he hadn't taken the animal from a human farm. He was within his rights, of course. As Lord of the Western Lands, everything within its borders was his to do with as he pleased.

Still, it would be far easier for them to find other game than it would be for a farmer to replace the calf. And she never wanted a repeat of what had happened when Rin killed that farmer's steer. She still had nightmares of watching those arrows strike Sesshoumaru; only in her dreams he was purified, and Kagome became a monster that killed indiscriminately, waking with the taste of blood in her mouth.

Dismissing her troubling thoughts, Kagome huffed at her alpha. "It's not like I'm looking at my own reflection."

That gave him pause. With a rush of air, he was behind her, looking over her shoulder.

"Are you not?" he asked at last, sounding confused.

Kagome blinked. "Can't you see?"

She held up the mirror, filled with the image of Sango sharpening a sword and Miroku singing to his daughter.

"This one sees only the two of us."

"Huh." It had never occurred to Kagome that Sesshoumaru couldn't see what she did in the mirror. After all, she shared the visions with Shippou easily enough.

Suddenly all the times Sesshoumaru had ordered them to put the mirror away made a great deal more sense.

"Maybe if I…" Without asking or waiting for permission, Kagome stood and hopped onto Sesshoumaru's back, wrapping her arms around his neck. The muscles in his shoulders twitched, but made no move to punish her for her presumption. Kagome was beginning to think that he made allowances for her, because kitsune were expected to be a little wild.

She fully planned on taking advantage of that.

Raising the mirror up to hold it in front of Sesshoumaru's face, she focused all of her magic on letting him see what she did in the reflective surface.

"How about now?" she asked, her eyes radiant with foxfire, a green haze forming around the two of them as her youki became visible.

Sesshoumaru was silent. Then, "It would seem there are some things only a kitsune may know."

Kagome giggled at his sullen tone. Poor baby! He hated it when there were things he couldn't do.

"Don't worry," she whispered in his ear, nipping the lobe as she would to a naughty kit. "You're good at lots of other things."

He growled at her, but it was halfhearted.

Kagome nipped his ear again.


28. Wolf

They were on the northern border of the West when Kagome sensed a rapidly approaching youki. She scented the air.

"Wolf," she said, remembering her lessons, before darting behind Sesshoumaru's back. Kitsune were dirty tricksters, not warriors. She could shoot a bow and weave illusion, and use her claws in a pinch, but Sesshoumaru rarely needed help to defeat any who would challenge him, and Kagome didn't exactly relish battle. And besides, he was spoiling for a test of his skills. She could tell. He hadn't faced any truly worthy opponents lately.

Maybe she'd ask Inuyasha to sneak attack him once they returned to the shiro. Just to help Sesshoumaru work his fidgets out.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" a familiar masculine voice called from a whirlwind of dust. "I thought that was you. Okuri-sama sent me to talk to you about the Feast of Four Treaties. He thinks you should hold it at your shiro this year, since you helped defeat Naraku. We're to celebrate your victory. And the half-breed's."

Sesshoumaru let a short displeased growl erupt from his throat. "You will speak of this one's brother with respect, ookami."

Kagome was surprised, but not as much as she would have been before… well. Everything.

"Since when do you care – "

Sesshoumaru growled again, a low warning note that humans would be unable to hear.

"Alright, alright." The wolf youkai sounded put out.

Leaning to the side to see around Sesshoumaru, Kagome gasped, her eyes widening. "Kouga?"

The wolf prince – it was really him – looked at her. He was just as she remembered him – dark, brash, arrogant, ruggedly handsome, and with that wild smirk always in place. As she watched, his nostrils flared, and then he gave Sesshoumaru a knowing look. "I heard rumors you were courting a vixen, but I didn't think they were true."

"Kouga, you don't recognize me?"

Sesshoumaru put his arm across her body, pushing her back behind him. Ignoring his warning, Kagome dug her heels in.

Kouga really didn't know it was her? For one small second that seemed to last an eternity, Kagome felt lost.

Then she realized: Youkai relied so heavily on scent. No matter how much she looked like Kagome the human miko physically, Kouga smelled a kitsune.

"Kouga it's me. Kagome!"

"What?"

A quick explanation was given, and then Kouga zipped around Sesshoumaru, hoisting Kagome up and spinning her in a circle, shouting out his happiness that 'his woman' was alive. She giggled, clapping her hands, her tails writhing with glee to see an old friend.

Sesshoumaru snarled. Kagome suddenly found herself pulled from Kouga's arms and slung onto Sesshoumaru's back, like a kit who'd got themselves into harm's way. Instinctively, she wrapped her arms around Sesshoumaru's neck.

Kouga was not so lucky. His feet dangled in the air, his face turning purple. Sesshoumaru held the wolf youkai up by his throat, claws tinted deadly green with poison.

"You have touched the Lady of my pack," the inu said dangerously.

"Didn't know," Kouga croaked.

For a few long seconds, Kagome was silent, completely nonplussed. Knowing that she was technically the alpha female of their pack, and hearing Sesshoumaru say it out loud and defend her honor were two very different things.

Then Kouga started clawing at Sesshoumaru's hand, making a horrible choking noise.

"Sesshoumaru! Let him down!" Kagome cried, pulling at the straps that held Sesshoumaru's armor in place.

He ignored her.

She growled in frustration, stuck between wanting to help Kouga, and not wanting to attack Sesshoumaru. She couldn't betray him like that. But he was being completely unreasonable! Kouga was just being… Kouga. After she told him she still didn't want to be his woman again, he'd chat for a little while, and then he'd get bored and whirlwind off somewhere else.

When Kouga's eyes started bugging out of his head, Kagome lowered herself to the ground and bowed to Sesshoumaru, showing him the back of her neck. "Please, Sesshoumaru-sama."

Eyes like two gold coins looked at her, a cold wind sending a chill down her spine. Even his voice was cold, colder than she had heard it in a long time, when he spoke. "You beg for this ookami's life?"

"Yes. He's a friend."

"Hn."

Kagome felt Sesshoumaru's claws on the back of her neck. Then he dropped Kouga, saying, "Tell Okuri the feast will be at the Western shiro."

Kagome rushed to the fallen wolf's side at once, helping him to sit up and frantically whispering to him that he'd better stop all that 'my woman' stuff before he got himself killed. He rubbed his throat, wincing at the sores where Sesshoumaru's poison had eaten his skin away.

"Some alpha you got," Kouga coughed once he'd caught his breath.

Kagome looked up to see Sesshoumaru's back in the distance. He'd already started walking away.

"Yeah," she agreed. Sesshoumaru was certainly something. "Look, Kouga, sorry about this. Don't know what got into him."

Sesshoumaru stopped, looking back at her.

"I better go."

Standing, she broke into a fast trot, racing through the grass to catch up with Sesshoumaru. It seemed best to leave with him quickly, so that he and Kouga couldn't keep provoking each other.

"See you at the feast!" Kouga called behind her.

-l-

They denned that night in a cave near a stream that babbled and sang. It was beautiful, but Kagome couldn't enjoy it. Sesshoumaru was angry with her, and she was just as angry with him, and not sure what to do to make things better. She didn't even know why he'd reacted so strongly to Kouga. There had to be more to it than Kouga touching her. To think anything else was preposterous. Yes, it was improper to treat the Lady of the pack with such familiarity, but not such a grave insult as to warrant death...

But she didn't ask, and Sesshoumaru didn't tell her. The silence between them grew ever more oppressive. She sat on her side of the den, looking into her mirror, and Sesshoumaru stayed on his side, mysteriously staring into the distance, as he liked to do.

Sometimes Kagome suspected he was actually daydreaming.

At last, the full moon high in the sky, she was unable to take it anymore and left their den in search of humans. She'd feel better after a trick and a good deed or two. At the very least, she wouldn't be staring at Sesshoumaru, trying to fathom what exactly went on inside his head. At times he could be more frustrating than Inuyasha had ever been.

She ranged high and low looking for a village that wasn't so far away from Sesshoumaru that he wouldn't be able to sense her youki. Finding none, she went farther still, finally stumbling upon a camp of men. They were soldiers, from the look of their clothes and weapons at their belts. A roaming militia.

"Make sure the sentries stay within sight of the fire. Odd things have been moving in the forest," one of the men told the others. "I've heard tale of child stealers, howling wolf demons, and a giant snake swallowing villages whole. S'usually better in the West. The other monsters are afraid of the Ice Dog."

"Mebbe theys finally learnin' that there ain't no such thing as an Ice Dog," one of the younger men replied.

"Don't you be doubting the Ice Dog! My great grandfather saw him once. He lives in a palace on the roof of the world, and he carries the moon on his forehead. That's what my grandfather said."

"My sister says that the Ice Dog's been bewitched. There's a sorceress with fire for hair and stars for eyes that's made him her slave. That's what's got the demons riled, mark my words!"

"Enough!" snapped the oldest of the men. "Ice Dog or no Ice Dog, get to your posts and keep your eyes peeled."

Making herself walk unseen, Kagome moved through the camp, picking over the militia's supplies. She didn't want any of their weapons. Youkai weapons were stronger, and magical. It was the same with armor. Kagome was drawn to the things that shined in the firelight, but she knew that Sesshoumaru wouldn't like something like that.

It was that thought that made her realize she was hunting for a gift. A peace offering between them. She still thought he had behaved foolishly, but she didn't want to stay angry. And she'd never know why he'd done what he did if he didn't start speaking to her again.

At last she found a bag of scrolls among the one of the officer's bags. Sesshoumaru could add those to his collection at the palace. Absorbed, she started reading through them to see which he'd like best, not noticing anything else around her.

A dog barked.

Danger! Danger!

Kagome whirled to see a mortal dog standing behind her, growling. With a frightened yelp, she lost control of her spell of invisibility and ran from the camp, the dog on her heels.

She cut left at an angle through the trees, and the dog did too.

She followed her nose to water and ran through it, but the shallow stream was not enough to throw the hound off her trail.

It seemed he chased her forever, sending her tumbling end over end through a thorny bush, before she remembered that she was a magic fox and the dog should be afraid of her.

Turning on the spot, she let out a growl of her own, tossing a ball of foxfire.

The dog whimpered and ran, tail between its legs.

That done, Kagome climbed the nearest tree to pick the thorns out of her hair and sulk.

-l-

Sesshoumaru found her when the sun was setting the next day. She'd spent the day in the high branches of her tree to avoid the soldiers prowling through the forest.

"About time," she grumbled to herself, still disheveled. She climbed down when Sesshoumaru beckoned to her.

"You did not go back to the wolf," he said, his eyes raking over her, taking in the dirt and thorns stuck in her hair and the fur of her tails.

Kagome's mouth dropped open in shock. "Of course I didn't!" she screeched at him, then winced.

She'd hurt her own ears.

She held out the scroll. "I wanted to get you a present. To show I was sorry for not listening."

He accepted her gift, his raised eyebrow loudly asking just how she'd gotten herself into such a mess.

"There was a dog," she muttered.

"Ah." There was wry humor in his tone. "Dogs and foxes don't mix."

Kagome bared her fangs at him.


29. War

Sesshoumaru led his vixen back to their chosen den, where they stripped down to their underthings and bathed in the stream, as they had done many times on their travels through the West.

What made this time different was that it was Sesshoumaru, not the pups, who used his claws to help Kagome pick the thorns and dirt from her hair, feeling himself relax as the last of the wolf prince's scent was washed from her skin. Just a hint of that ookami musk was enough to set his teeth on edge.

He was grateful that Kagome seemed willing to let the matter drop. He couldn't give her an explanation for his behavior, because he truly didn't know. He had no quarrel with the wolf that he had not already taken payment for. It was just that seeing Kouga touch Kagome with such familiarity had awoken something primal within him, a feral voice that said Mine.

Somehow, he didn't think she would find that an acceptable reason.

He had to agree. Such sentiments were inappropriate for any female he did not intend to mate.

And he did not intend to mate. He already had an heir in Rin. No other purpose could be served.

"Aya!" Kagome cried when he pulled the last thorn from her scalp. He snorted at her dramatics. She could handle much more pain than that caused by a few pricks of the skin.

When he made her turn so he could examine the thorns that were tangled in the fur at the base of her tails, where she couldn't reach, he paused. Grooming her hair was one thing, but to place his hands on her tails was quite another. The tails were the seat of a kitsune's power, and it was very… intimate, for another to handle them. Sesshoumaru was uncomfortable presuming.

"May I…?" he said, the tips of his claws resting lightly on Kagome's lower back.

He could hear her heart pound.

"Yes, alright. Thank you," she said at last.

Sesshoumaru ran his claws through her fur, finding it was softer and finer than that of her true form's. Kagome arched her back, seemingly unable to help herself, a throaty moan coming from her lips. Able to scent how his touch was affecting her, and in turn affected himself, Sesshoumaru made short work of removing all the thorns.

It crossed his mind that he would like to take his vixen as a lover. Perhaps just for a tryst or two, until he grew bored with her, as he invariably did with all his conquests. And he was free to do so now that she was no longer promised to Inuyasha.

But as soon as he let her go, she swam away from him, dunking her head in the water.

-l-

"What's the Festival of Four Treaties?" Kagome asked, walking along at Sesshoumaru's side.

"A celebration of peace among the Nothern Lands, Eastern Lands, Western Lands, and Southern Islands," he indulged her curiosity.

"Oh. Like a party?"

"Hn."

"Will there be dancing?" She skipped ahead, twirling in place, her tails giving a certain flourish to the movement.

He shrugged one shoulder.

She frowned at him. "I miss the kits. You never play with me."

He raised a brow at her. "Inu do not play."

"Rin does," Kagome shot back.

"Rin is a pup."

Kagome pouted.

Sesshoumaru checked to see that they were alone, expanding his aura to be sure that no higher youkai were near enough to bear witness. When he was satisfied, he gave his vixen a shove. "Run."

Her eyes sparkled like jewels as she shifted into her fox form, taking off through the trees.

Letting go of his own humanoid shape, Sesshoumaru howled a hunter's song, and gave chase.

-l-

Kagome yipped a taunt back to the Great Dog chasing her, a breathless fox laugh that made her eyes spark with fire. Her heart pounded and the muscles in her legs burned, but it was with joy, for nothing bad would happen should Sesshoumaru catch her. When he caught her. He was her alpha, her Lord, and he would never harm her.

It was so odd now, to think that the first time they'd met they were enemies.

Sesshoumaru nipped at her tails, his powerful legs somehow failing to make the ground shake. Perhaps he was flying, skimming just over the ground. Kagome wished she were that graceful. Maybe one day she would be. Maybe one day she would earn all nine of her tails, and turn gold like Inari-sama. Gold kitsune could fly.

But until then, Kagome grinned a fox grin to herself, her pink tongue lolling over her fangs, jumping is close enough.

With that, she abruptly turned and gathered herself up, the muscles in her hind legs bunching, and launched herself into the trees.

And landed in a ruin.

Villagers lay dead by the score. Smoke billowed up from burnt out huts. A cloud of ash rose into the air around Kagome as she landed, giving her fur a dull grey cast. Over everything lay the heavy stench of wolf youkai.

Kouga? But he promised…

Shocked, it didn't occur to Kagome to wonder why she hadn't been able to scent the carnage until she was directly on top of it. She returned to her humanoid form with a soft pop.

A shiver of air passed over her skin, and Kagome turned to see Sesshoumaru standing beside her, also in his human form. His face was completely blank, but being as familiar with him as she was, Kagome was able to feel his anger.

Silently, he began to inspect the ruins. Kagome followed him, pulling out bodies and laying them in rows. She would give them all proper burials, no matter what Sesshoumaru said. If he thought it would take too long, or that they didn't deserve it because they were human, then he could just go back to the shiro without her.

That's not fair. You know he'll wait, and even help, if you ask.

But she almost wished he would fight with her. Anything, to shake her out of this haze of numbness. Anything to chase Kouga's scent from her nostrils.

My fault. I made Sesshoumaru let him go, and this is what he did right after we left.

Could he have done it to get back at Sesshoumaru? No. No one would expect the Great Dog to care about a human village. Even now, Kagome knew that most of Sesshoumaru's anger stemmed from the trespass on the West, his territory. And maybe some part of him was upset because of Rin. Because this horrified Kagome.

To his credit, Sesshoumaru did not once mention that Kagome had begged for Kouga's life. That she was, however indirect, the reason all these people were dead. He could have. He so easily could have destroyed her with a few cruel words.

But he didn't. He simply watched as she continued to pull bodies from the rubble, doing her best to lay families side by side. It was unspoken that he would help when and if she asked, but until then the task was hers.

Kagome was grateful. This grisly work was her penance. The only way to restore her honor.

A small, humorless smile twisted her lips at that thought.

How youkai she was becoming. Or maybe it was just the values of the era rubbing off on her.

When she reached the center of the village, Kagome stopped.

There, on the blackened ground, was some sort of reptilian scale, glittering in the sunlight. It was about twice the size of Kagome's thumb, and a deep green that reminded her of seaweed. A few drops of dried rusty-red sat on top of it.

Blood?

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kagome's voice sounded small in the still air. She pointed. "What's that?"

Sesshoumaru came to stand behind her, looking in the direction of her shaking finger. He raised a brow.

"It is the ground, Kagome… Perhaps you should sit."

Kagome shook her head, grinding her fangs together. "No, not the ground! The scale, the … I don't know, dragon, or snake, or lizard scale sitting on top of the ground!" Her voice rose in a hysterical pitch, and she took a deep breath to steady her nerves.

So safe, so peaceful had her life been since joining Sesshoumaru's pack, that she had grown unused to seeing this much death.

"Vixen," Sesshoumaru was stern now. "Come. You will rest."

"No."

Kagome marched up to the mysterious snake scale, and heedless of any danger, picked it up. For a few seconds it was like moving her hand through molasses, as if the air around the scale had coalesced to prevent her handling it, but Kagome let foxfire flare around her hand, and soon enough had the scale in her palm.

As soon as she touched it, there was a horrible feeling of pressure, and then a sound like a gong that was somehow inside her head. She staggered, trying not to faint or be sick as an indescribable wrongness clawed over her skin.

When she could breathe again, the scene before her was much different. Gone was the scent of the wolves. The bite marks on the bodies had changed shape.

Kouga didn't do this.

Kagome closed her eyes, a single tear painting a pathway on her grime streaked face.

Sesshoumaru laid his hand on her shoulder, and then stroked his claws through her hair. Kagome leaned into him, not caring that she was squashed against his breastplate.

"It would seem there are some things only a kitsune may know."

Kagome looked up, blue eyes meeting gold. "What does it mean, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"War," he said, running one clawtip over the scale Kagome held cupped in her hand. "It means that someone seeks war."


30. Secrets

They made haste back to the Western shiro. Sesshoumaru wanted to meet with his councilors, to see if any other destroyed villages had been reported by his scouts.

"I'll have Inari-sama examine the scale," Kagome said, resisting the urge to shout over the wind. Youkai senses were such that she knew Sesshoumaru could hear her, though they rode his youki cloud, streaking through the sky at speeds she didn't want to contemplate. "She's a better sorceress than I am. She might be able to tell us something."

Sesshoumaru clamped his fingers around her wrist. "You will tell no one of the scale, or the spell of illusion. And only Inuyasha shall know about the village at all."

Confused, Kagome bit her lip, her fangs hooking over the delicate pink flesh. "But why keep secrets – "

"Recall the story of the Dragon and the Man."

Kagome blinked, but obediently cast her mind back, trying to remember the tale Sesshoumaru had shared with her and the kits one night, a fable he'd used to teach Rin and Shippou about strategy and the art of subterfuge…

Oh.

"The Dragon pretended to be fooled by the Man's promises, and the Man thought himself clever. In the end, his arrogance was his downfall, for he came too close, and the Dragon killed him with one snap of mighty jaws," she recited, artfully capturing Sesshoumaru's deadpan tone.

Sesshoumaru nodded and rumbled his approval, not noticing Kagome's gentle mocking.

"We will allow our enemy to think himself clever. And when he draws too close, we will strike, and he shall know why they call this one the Killing Perfection."

Sesshoumaru's lips stretched in a rare smile, a feral grin that revealed his bloodlust.

Kagome's heart skipped several beats, and she found herself smiling back just as ferociously, her fangs itching.

-l-

When Sesshoumaru and Kagome reached the palace, preparations for the Feast of Four Treaties were well underway, Sesshoumaru having sent word ahead of them. Jaken presided over the endless details, beaming with the importance of his task, and directing anyone who argued with him to "take it up with Inuyasha-sama, the wise and great second son of the magnificent Dog General."

Inuyasha seemed more disgruntled than anything over his new admirer, shrugging when Kagome teased him about it. "Don't know what to tell you. Kicked him out a window once, and now I can't get rid of him. Doesn't take much to make the imp happy."

Watching Jaken trot along in Inuyasha's wake, Kagome had to agree.

Despite her worries over who could be trying to incite a war between the North and the West, Kagome soon fell into a routine. She'd learned long ago, in her travels with Inuyasha, to take happiness where she could find it, and when weeks passed with no more reports of fire or blood, it became easy to let the problem rest at the back of her mind.

Especially with the rush of excitement surrounding the feast.

Kagome was spending time with her kits in the gardens, Inari-sama walking with her, when the first guests began to arrive.

"First representatives of the lesser tribes will come from each land, bringing food, gifts for the hosting lord, and preparing for shows of strength and skill. It will be marvelous! I had only seven tails the last time I attended," Inari said, clapping her hands.

"The ruling youkai will come once everything is ready. And then it will be a month of courting and games and tricks and magic!" She tossed her head back, laughing a fox-laugh so infectious that Kagome and Shippou joined in.

"Will we be seeing your family, Inari-sama?" Kagome asked, pausing to give Shippou a boost into a tree where he'd be better able to see the parade of youkai entering the palace. Rin followed him up with an easy leap.

Inari nodded serenely. "Yes. My uncle, Myobu-sama, is the Lord of the East. He is very anxious to meet you, Kagome-hime."

"It's just Kagome. I'm no one's princess," Kagome said for what felt like the millionth time. She wasn't sure when or how, but the title had crept up on her during her time traveling with Sesshoumaru, until every youkai in the palace was greeting her with the honorific and visiting nobles were treating her as a daughter of the house. Shippou too, had become a prince overnight.

Inari's lips curled into a mischievous grin. "You are Sesshoumaru-sama's princess, Kagome-hime."

Kagome felt herself flush, and flapped her hands, trying to divert Inari's attention before the too observant golden kitsune started interrogating her. Maybe she should copy Yukiko-sama, and start carrying a fan she could use to hide her face…

"Why is your uncle so interested in meeting me?" Kagome blurted, catching on the first topic to enter her mind.

Inari was, thankfully, diverted. She raised one elegant hand to cup a blossom of the sakura tree they were standing under. It was blooming out of season, as everything in Sesshoumaru's gardens did. The youkai gardeners who tended the plants kept the gardens of the West from ever knowing winter.

"Firstly, you are something of a curiosity. Everyone knows the story of The Shikon Wish. You are a human become kitsune. A living legend." Inari plucked the blossom from the tree and began threading it into her flaxen hair. The pink set off her coloring beautifully.

Kagome blushed again.

"And secondly?"

"My uncle sets great store by bloodlines. He has long sworn that his heir will be sired only on a full-blooded kitsune." Inari spoke in a hush, her manner suggesting that she found her uncle's beliefs distasteful. Or at least, that's what Kagome chose to think. She liked Inari. If Inari agreed with her uncle, Kagome didn't want to know. "My uncle is only half-kitsune, you see," Inari continued.

"He's hanyou?"

"No, no. His mother was youkai. Just not a kitsune. And he believes that his blood is weaker for it."

Kagome tried not to be annoyed at the way Inari scoffed, as if the very idea of a kitsune hanyou ruling the East was ridiculous. "That still doesn't explain why he's interested in me."

"The East suffered most terribly during the Years of Naraku." Inari's eyes flashed amber, her fox mask markings seeming darker in the light filtering through the branches of the sakura tree. "The Accursed One hunted many of the kitsune lines to extinction, and absorbed them, for their powers of illusion and transformation." Inari looked away, unusually somber, and finished, "Now, the only full-blooded vixen who is not too closely related to Myobu-sama to bear him kits is the Fox Princess of the West. It is why he so readily agreed when Sesshoumaru-sama sent for me to teach you."

Kagome had absolutely no idea how to respond to that. So she said only, "I'm sorry for your loss."


31. Dog

Yukiko-sama arrived at the Western shiro with great fanfare. Kagome and Shippou were taking lessons from Inari when a flustered servant all but burst into the room, tripping over himself to let Kagome know that Lord Sesshoumaru's pack was summoned to the courtyard to great his Lady Mother.

Kagome and Inari made eye contact.

Yukiko had not been to the shiro since the death of the Inu no Taisho. And Kagome at least had assumed that Yukiko would continue to keep her distance, what with Inuyasha living in the palace now. Surely it would be painful, to come face to face with proof of your husband's love for another woman?

But what if Yukiko didn't realize that Inuyasha was here?

Worse, what if she did, and that was why she came?

Stifling a gasp, Kagome made a dash for the courtyard, her tails streaming along behind her like banners.

When she burst into the afternoon sunlight, it was to see Yukiko facing Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha across the courtyard, the brothers standing side by side.

The air was filled with a heavy silence.

Kagome went to stand between Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru, not sure what she should do. Not sure what she could do without offending one of the youkai present and making everything worse.

Then Yukiko said, "Were you not going to invite me to the feast, my son?"

Inuyasha's ears twitched. Maybe he hadn't known the inu female before them was Sesshoumaru's mother.

"You have never shown interest in attending before, Mother," Sesshoumaru replied.

"Hn."

Inuyasha snickered, and Yukiko's golden eyes fixed on him. "You must be – "

"Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru's brother," the hanyou said proudly, lifting his chin in challenge.

Yukiko's gaze swept Inuyasha from head to foot, and Kagome held her breath, waiting for some kind of explosion. Surely, Inuyasha, Yukiko, and Sesshoumaru couldn't exist in the same space without a confrontation occurring?

But Yukiko's lips curled into an evil smirk, and she laughed. "Impetuous! Just like your father!" In a blur, she crossed to Inuyasha's side, linking her arm through his, one hand resting on his bicep. "And so strong, too," she purred, a wicked gleam in her eye. "Come, you shall escort me to my quarters, and then give me a tour of the gardens. It has been so long since I last saw them."

Inuyasha's ears flattened to his head, and then he squared his shoulders, blushing. "Keh!"

He looked at Sesshoumaru, but Sesshoumaru was an expressionless statue. Finding no help there, Inuyasha turned to Kagome.

She shrugged, trying not to laugh.

Yukiko's sense of humor was much funnier when Kagome wasn't the butt of her jokes.

Inuyasha had no choice but to let himself be pulled out of the courtyard on Yukiko's arm.

"You don't think she's seriously flirting with him, do you Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kagome asked, once she was sure that the pair were out of earshot.

Silence.

Kagome looked up at Sesshoumaru. He was still staring blankly ahead. "Sesshoumaru-sama?"

He blinked.

This time, Kagome did laugh.

Returning to his senses, Sesshoumaru turned on his heel and stalked in the direction of his study without a word.

Kagome laughed harder.

-l-

Inari was waiting when Kagome returned to finish her lesson.

"There is a rumor that Inuyasha-sama shall soon be Sesshoumaru-sama's brother and father," Inari said before Kagome had time to sit down.

Kagome giggled. If this kept up, she was going to give herself the hiccups. "I think Yukiko-sama is just trying to irritate Sesshoumaru-sama. 'It is her way of being humorous,'" she replied, repeating Sesshoumaru's words from the first time Kagome had encountered his mother.

Inari looked troubled. "So she is playing with Inuyasha-sama's affections?"

"No. I think he'll be very relieved when he realizes that she's just having a bit of fun," Kagome answered carefully, an inkling of a thought chasing itself around her mind. Before Inari could change the subject to spell anchors and etiquette for the feast, Kagome laid her hand on top of the golden kitsune's. "You care about Inuyasha, don't you?"

"He is a good leader. Gruff, but honorable. He often invites me to sit with him, for company, when the rest of the pack is not in residence," Inari said with the air of one trying too hard to be casual. "He deserves love and happiness."

"Yes. Yes, he does," Kagome smiled. More seriously, she asked, "Inari… what you told me about your uncle, and his beliefs about uh, bloodlines… do you share his beliefs?"

Inari's eyes went wide and startled.

Hunted.

Her fox mask markings usually made her eyes look smaller, but now the markings just emphasized her expression, underscoring the shock of a secret unconvered. "No," Inari answered once she'd regained her equilibrium. It didn't take her long.

She was a fox of nine tails.

"No, I don't believe as my uncle does."

"Then you wouldn't be against mating an inu… Or even a hanyou?" Kagome continued mischieviously.

Inari said, "Dogs and foxes don't mix." But there was no conviction in her words.

Not to be deterred, Kagome grasped both of Inari's hands in her own. "Then it's a good thing it's a new moon tonight. You see, tonight Inuyasha won't be a dog at all. He'll be human."

Inari's jaw dropped open, and then her face lit with such gratitude that Kagome thought Inari must be in love with Inuyasha.

"Not a dog at all," Inari muttered. Then she was running her claws over Kagome's wrists, and bowing low, showing the back of her neck. "Thank you, Kagome-hime. Thank you!"

-l-

Later that night, Kagome stood in Sesshoumaru's study, staring out the window. Sesshoumaru was behind her, still working, reading scroll after scroll.

She smiled softly to see that he was using the ink well she had gotten for him.

With the approach of the feast, he'd been working later and later into the nights, until he'd stopped coming to bed altogether. Kagome had taken to waiting until the kits fell asleep, and then going to Sesshoumaru's study to keep him company.

She worried about him getting lonely.

She was about to ask him if he would stop and sleep for the sixty-third time, when a glow in the gardens caught her eye.

Inari was leading a very human Inuyasha along the garden path, her hips swaying suggestively. A ball of foxfire – a lure light – shone in her hands. If Kagome focused, she could pick up the sound of Inari serenading the hanyou with a kitsune love song.

She drew Sesshoumaru's attention to the window, wrapping her hands around his arm as Yukiko had done to Inuyasha earlier.

"Inari's magic is strong. He may not be able to break free," Sesshoumaru said. He made toward the window, as if he were going to jump down into the garden.

"Don't," Kagome said, keeping a firm grip on his sleeve. "Inuyasha is the most stubborn person I know. Even human, Inari wouldn't be able to lead him unless he wanted to be led."

"Hn."

"And if he's with Inari, you don't have to worry about him becoming your step-father," Kagome went on.

Sesshoumaru bared his fangs at her.

-l-

It was two days before Kagome saw her teacher again.

When Inari did finally reappear, she practically floated into the room, a self-satisfied smirk stretching her lips wide.

"I thought you'd never get used to the way inus smell, not if you lived here a thousand years," Kagome teased. It was good to see Inari and Inuyasha so happy, but a little sad too. It brought home that Kagome's future didn't lie with Inuyasha. Made it real.

"It's different with hanyou," Inari waved a hand, gloating. "And there are wonderful benefits. He is so strong, so demanding, and with such a naughty mouth! And then on his human nights he is all soft sweetness, drunk on my love spells." She gave a happy sigh. "It is two lovers in one delicious male."

There was a squeak.

Kagome turned to see Inuyasha standing in the doorway, his face as red as his haori.


32. Feast

The rulers of the other three lands arrived the next day, along with the summer, the Feast of Four Treaties finally upon them.

First came Okuri-sama, from the North. He was a massive brown-haired ookami with grey eyes and dark skin. His hair was sheared short, and stood out from his head in a way that reminded Kagome of a lion's mane. Sesshoumaru said that Okuri was Kouga's elder cousin, and that he hadn't been ruling the North very long. The wolves had only taken over the North relatively recently, after the defeat of the dragons.

Next was Kiyohime-sama, the Lady of the Southern Islands. She traveled by the sea, in her true form as a massive water dragon. When she changed into her humanoid form, she had deep blue-green hair, pale eyes that seemed almost blind, and a beautiful kimono that shimmered like mother of pearl. Like all the noble female youkai attending the feast, her face was painted white, her lips and cheeks rouged. A design of green scales covered her eyelids up to her brow bone.

Kagome liked her, though she was notoriously bad tempered, simply because Kiyohime always smelled like the ocean breeze.

And last appeared Myobu-sama, the Lord of the East, making a grand entrance in a fantastic pyrotechnic display. Kagome could see immediately that the dark red kitsune was related to Inari. He had the same markings in the shape of a fox mask around his eyes, though his were a deep green that was almost black. Incredibly handsome, he seemed to ooze charisma.

He had only six tails.

Curious, Kagome asked Inari about it later, at the Welcome Feast. Why would Myobu stay lord, when Inari had stronger magic?

Inari's eyes darted around the dining hall, and Kagome thought she went pale beneath her face paint. It was difficult to tell, for both she and Inari wore the thick white make-up that went with formal dress for the feast, their cheeks and lips rouged red, and black fox masks painted around their eyes.

Inari pulled a piece of rice paper from her sleeve, and quickly folded it into a monkey, hands raised to cover its ears. A spark of Inari's magic, and they were engulfed by a bubble of silence. No one could hear them speak, and neither could they hear anyone beyond the range of the spell.

"I'm outside the ruling line, and female to boot," Inari confided. "And I made a vow."

Kagome studied her teacher – and, she thought, friend. Inari seemed to want to say more. There was an intensity to her expression that just begged Kagome to do something. But when Kagome waited, there was only silence.

"Is this why he wants to find a mate for you outside the East?"

Inari nodded, appreciation for Kagome's quick wits in the quirk of her mouth. "I'd imagine it's daunting for my uncle to have a niece with more tails than he. He will be pleased that I am being courted by a hanyou. He has always feared that my heirs will challenge his."

Kagome hummed her understanding and returned to her dinner. There was something she was missing, she could feel it in her bones. But if Inari maintained the spell of silence any longer, someone in the hall was bound to notice and draw attention to them.

Kagome almost asked whether Inari wanted to mate Inuyasha, but ultimately decided it wasn't any of her business.

-l-

Having tired of keeping her guard up in the dining hall (it seemed every time she turned around, a youkai was there calling her 'princess' and asking oh-so-innocent questions about Sesshoumaru), Kagome elected to spent the next evening hiding out in the pack's private gardens. Decision made, she hiked up the train of her formal kimono, wiped the thick white festival make-up from her face, and scurried as quickly as she could down the hallways.

Eventually, she got desperate enough that she simply jumped from a balcony.

Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha would spend the evening trapped at the head of a banquet table. Kagome's defection wouldn't go unnoticed.

She'd make it up to them by taking their place tomorrow. For now, all she wanted to do was sit quietly and check on Sango and Miroku. Pulling her little round mirror from her obi, she set about doing just that, her eyes glowing as she summoned a vision in the glass.

"What a lovely mirror," a warm tenor voice said in Kagome's ear. She whirled to find Myobu-sama standing close, his deep red tails splayed behind him in a fan shape.

Kagome hurriedly fogged the mirror with her breath, for some reason not wanting Myobu to see the image of Sango and Miroku within. She reached out instead to the origami fox touched with her magic.

Kagome's little girl child appeared, playing with her wooden spinning top.

"You left something of your power with a human?" Myobu asked in surprise, his seemingly permanent fox grin exposing his fangs. His tongue darted out, running over the tip of his left incisor.

"You disapprove?" Kagome cleared the vision from her mirror, tucking it into her obi.

"On the contrary. You'll find that in the East, we love humans. In more than one way." Myobu let his tongue loll from his mouth, then winked at her. Kagome smiled weakly in return, distinctly uncomfortable. "We're not like these old dogs, unable to learn new tricks."

"Sesshoumaru-sama isn't like that."

Myobu smiled charmingly, his handsome face brightening. Kagome found herself silently thanking Inari for her warnings about her uncle, for if Kagome hadn't known about Myobu's reasons for wanting her, it would have been very easy to be taken in by the Fox Lord's attentions. He was one of the most beautiful youkai males Kagome had ever seen with his full lips and chiseled cheekbones, and that long dark red hair. In the two days he had been present at the shiro, had gone out of his way to spend time with her, and bring her little gifts of the kind kitsune enjoy. Gold, mirrors, a bell, anything that sparkled or made a pleasant sound…

Kagome sighed.

"You are unhappy, vixen-hime?" Myobu offered Kagome his arm, and not wanting to offend him, Kagome took it.

"You know that only Sesshoumaru-sama's pack members are permitted in these gardens, Myobu-sama," Kagome said, gesturing to the plants around them. "You must stop sneaking in. I should hate for you to be in trouble."

And I wish I had a hiding place where I knew you wouldn't go.

Myobu tilted her chin up with one sharp claw, forcing her to look into his black-green eyes. "But we are kitsune, vixen-hime. We were born to break rules. And," he laughed, "there is no one who can catch me!"

With a loud crack and a ball of foxfire, Myobu disappeared from sight. Kagome was sure he was trying to impress her.

She felt badly for him. He seemed friendly enough, despite his beliefs. It wasn't his fault that it was difficult to seem impressive when compared to Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru-sama.

It was not his fault that Kagome would never fully let go of her humanity.

"Kagome-hime, are you well? I don't know how one of the guests got past me," an obviously anxious guard called from the garden gate. He was a black-haired inu. Kagome remembered him from her combat classes. He'd occasionally taught pole-arms.

"All is well, Takeshi. Don't worry."


33. Guard

Sesshoumaru did not quite detest the Feast of Four Treaties, but it was a near thing. He didn't like the herd of strange youkai tramping all over his lands, hunting his game, crowding his home, and pestering his humans.

Those humans were for Kagome to play her little tricks on. He couldn't have them coming to fear youkai, sending for miko, and putting wards on their villages. Having to rescue his vixen from one such encounter was more than enough.

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he looked down at yet another scroll from his scouts, detailing the latest troubles his guests had wrought.

At least the pups were enjoying themselves. He'd suspended their lessons for the duration of the feast, allowing them to attend all of the events. When Kagome brought the pups to Sesshoumaru's room for sleep every night, she hardly laid them down before they both fell into slumber, out like the snuffing of a candle.

Their favorite event thus far was the daily display of skill. Each day, a crowd gathered in the stands Sesshoumaru had ordered erected in the shiro's largest practice court, and watched as representatives of each land put on shows of the martial and magical arts. Just that morning, Kagome had woven pretty illusions, and thrown shuriken burning with foxfire at ever more difficult targets. While her marksmanship was not the best, her showmanship had more than made up for it. Following her performance she'd been set upon by an entire host of admirers.

Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were to finish out the event with an exhibition swordfight between the two of them upon the morrow. Sesshoumaru was looking forward to the opportunity to test his skills against his brother. It would be most cathartic. Especially after watching Myobu the Fox Lord conjure flowers from his sleeves to give to Kagome following her performance. The red fox had been making a fool of himself over the vixen since his arrival. It was... irritating.

And then there was the business with the burned out villages. Two more had been reported since he and Kagome discovered the first. Sesshoumaru was certain that whoever was responsible was at the feast, and would seek to sow dissent amongst the ruling royals.

He trusted no one present, save Inuyasha and Kagome.

Hearing a familiar giggle, Sesshoumaru rose, going to the window to look at the garden below.

The pups were not the only ones enjoying the feast. As Sesshoumaru watched, his vixen darted among the flowers, pursued by the wolf prince, Kouga, and Myobu the Fox Lord. Kagome's face was painted. White rice powder was a stark contrast to her usually sun-warmed skin, rouge tinted her lips and cheeks, and the mask of a fox framed her eyes, making them appear bluer than ever.

The wolf prince backed Kagome into a corner. Her tails twitched with playfulness, and then she darted away, as Sesshoumaru had known she would. She was kitsune, and more importantly, she was Kagome, and Kagome liked to play such games. She did it often with the pups, referring to it as 'tag' or 'hide and seek' depending on the rules they were employing.

When Sesshoumaru was a pup, he had called it 'chase.'

But while it was all a harmless game to the vixen with her painted fox mask, it was most decidedly not innocent on the part of the wolf and the male kitsune. They were each testing the waters, to see what Kagome's reaction would be to a proposed courtship.

Sesshoumaru growled bad-naturedly to himself.

He was displeased they hadn't spoken to him first. That was all. Not that he would approve if they asked. After all, Rin was of an age at which she needed an older female. He would ask Kagome to stay with the pack until Rin was older, at least two hundred years or so.

Until then, she would be his to protect.

That decision made, he leapt from the window, landing in the garden. It took him only a moment to catch Kagome. She laughed her kitsune laugh and scolded him for spoiling the game, though the way she clung to him spoke of relief.

He glared at Myobu and Kouga.

-l-

"Sesshoumaru-sama, might this Myobu speak with you?"

Sesshoumaru was in his dojo, showing Rin the beginning forms of swordplay. She was too young, yet, to really begin learning, but had begged to help him prepare for his match with Inuyasha, proclaiming loudly her desire to be "just like Rin's Honored Father, the greatest sword master to ever live!"

No father could resist a plea like that.

"Go to Kagome, Rin," he told his daughter when Myobu interrupted them.

The kitsune lord waited until Rin was out of sight before addressing Sesshoumaru again.

"You guard your pack jealously," Myobu began, smoothing back his dark red hair. He wore the top half pulled up in a top knot, but the rest spilled over his back and shoulders, as long as Sesshoumaru's own.

"I guard my pack well," Sesshoumaru replied, already knowing the course this conversation was going to take.

"My niece tells me that she is being courted by your brother, Inuyasha-sama."

"This Sesshoumaru is grateful to Inari of the Nine Tails for her service," Sesshoumaru said, mentioning the number of Inari's tails just to antagonize Myobu. "The Lady of this one's pack has given her approval. As have I."

"And I as well," Myobu rejoined, a sort of ingratiating cheer flowing from him.

Sesshoumaru waited.

"I had hoped," the kitsune began, "that we might join our packs twice over."

"No."

"What?" Myobu spat, his smile faltering. His tail tips twitched back and forth. Sesshoumaru wasn't familiar enough with Myobu to know what the twitching conveyed, but he was certain it wasn't respect.

"Rin is too young," Sesshoumaru said, being purposefully dense.

"Ah, no. I meant the Fox Princess." Myobu was all smiles again, an oily oozing charm that made Sesshoumaru wrinkle his nose. He would suggest that Myobu was actually an eel youkai, if it would not be so very insulting to the eels.

"Kagome is also too young," Sesshoumaru said before taking one of the practice swords down from the weapon wall. "If you'll excuse me, I must train with my warriors."

And that was all he would hear on the matter.

-l-

"Oi, Sesshoumaru."

"What do you want, Inuyasha, that couldn't wait until this afternoon's festivities?"

"Heard you put the word out that you're not giving permission for anyone to court Rin or Kagome. Don't get me wrong – I think you're right – but I just wanted to warn you."

"Warn me, brother?"

"Yeah, warn you. You'd better get Kagome in here and tell her what you did and why, cause if she finds out from someone else, she'll be hella pissed."

Sesshoumaru raised a brow.

"Burning down the dojo with foxfire pissed," Inuyasha continued with a completely straight face.

Reasoning that Inuyasha had proven his intelligence in the past with the way he handled his duties as steward, Sesshoumaru elected to take his advice, and summoned Kagome to the study.

"You are wearing your hair black today," he told her as she entered the room, hoping to put her in a good mood.

Inuyasha snickered.


34. Exhibition

Kagome hurried through the hallways, cursing herself for being late on the day that Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were giving their exhibition match. It would reflect poorly on the West if Kagome wasn't in attendance, but first she'd had trouble getting Rin and Shippou calm enough to get them ready, and then she'd spilled her rice powder and had to swallow her pride and borrow Yukiko-sama's, and then she'd had to listen to a lecture from Yukiko about dogs and foxes not mixing, and clumsiness, and there might have been something in there about humans being sea foam, but at that point Kagome had stopped paying attention. Finally, she'd been forced to send the kits on ahead to the royal box with Yukiko so that they, at least, wouldn't be late…

Kagome huffed, puffing out her cheeks, and decided that her tardiness was actually all Yukiko's fault.

It made her feel better.

But at least she was almost to the practice courts. If she took a shortcut through the gardens…

Suiting action to thought, she took a sharp turn and leapt out the nearest window, landing effortlessly in the outstretched branches of a sakura tree. As always was the case in Sesshoumaru's gardens, the tree was in full bloom, the pink blossoms obscuring the ground from Kagome.

And screening her from view.

"Hasss it been done?" came a dry, hissing voice that Kagome didn't recognize. She went very, very still, not daring to even breathe loudly.

The voice that replied was muffled, and Kagome realized that she must be on the edge of influence of a spell of silence, like the one Inari had cast during the Welcome Feast.

"Is there no other way?"

"No! There isss no other way. The Dog of the Wessst mussst pay. For too long have we ssshouldered hisss burdensss. You ssshould take care to remember your vow. Or do you want to lossse a tail?"

"I have kept my vow."

There was a short, nasty laugh. "Good. For you know it isss more than your wordsss that bind you. But it is more pleassaaaant for both of us thisss way, yesss?"

"That ki-pearl was meant for my sister!" the kitsune exploded. "To give her the strength to escape from Naraku! She is dead because you stole it. Because of you. I hate you."

Kagome put her hand over her mouth, afraid the two youkai talking under the tree would hear her gasp. Tears threatened at the edges of her eyes.

She recognized the voice of the kitsune.

There was another one of those terrible laughs. "It doesss not matter, ssso long asss you obey."

The two youkai parted ways, and Kagome clung to the trunk of the sakura tree, trembling.

She had to tell Sesshoumaru!

Forcing herself to count to a hundred, just to be sure the two youkai weren't coming back, Kagome waited, and then scrambled down the tree, running for the arena like her life depended on it.

-l-

When Kagome arrived at the royal box, Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were already standing at the edge of the practice-court-turned-arena, observing as Warriors of the West came forward to erect a barrier between the rest of the palace and the area where the brothers were to fight. It was standard for practice bouts among youkai. With the type of power youkai wielded – Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha especially – there would be nothing left of the Western shiro if such precautions weren't taken.

Of course, both Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were more than capable of breaking through a barrier, but so long as they didn't intentionally try to do so, the barrier should hold.

Kagome chewed her lip, trying to come up with some reason to leave the stands, some reason to speak with Sesshoumaru. It probably wouldn't matter in the end, but she felt a compulsion to warn Sesshoumaru right now.

The two youkai she'd overheard had been speaking like something was going to happen. Sesshoumaru was going to be attacked, and soon, maybe right after his bout with Inuyasha. Maybe the fools thought Sesshoumaru would be weakened, after facing the Tetsusaiga.

Kagome cast her eyes over the royal youkai seated in the box, letting their talk wash over her. Yukiko sat to the left of the heavy chair Sesshoumaru usually occupied, every inch the regal. To the right of Sesshoumaru's throne was Kagome's empty seat – hers by right of being the default Lady of the West. Then came Rin, in the smaller throne of the heir, with Shippou squeezed in next to her, regardless of propriety and the seat at the end of the row meant for him, and Inuyasha's empty chair. One tier up from the pack of the West were the chairs for the visiting royals. There sat Okuri and Kouga, Kiyohime, Myobu, and Inari.

"I'm telling you, Dog-Breath is no slouch," Kouga was saying. "I've never really seen Sesshoumaru in action, but the idiot can really swing the Tetsusaiga."

Kagome was inexplicably warmed at Kouga's faith in Inuyasha, though she suspected that in this particular instance, it was misplaced.

"As you say, Cousin," Okuri nodded along. He had a deep, musical voice that brought to mind a pack of wolves in full cry. "But this Okuri had the privilege of training under the great Inu no Taisho. If the pup is half as good as the sire…"

How odd it was to hear Sesshoumaru called 'pup.' Kagome mentally adjusted her estimation of Okuri's age.

"Shall we make this interesting?" Myobu interrupted, running his tongue over his fangs, lips stretched in a fox-smile. With a snap, a hunk of gold appeared in his hands.

Kiyohime leaned forward. "What sssay you, Yukiko-sssama? Who ssshall prevail? Or are you blinded by a mother'ssss love?" Kiyohime's voice sent shudders down Kagome's spine, strangely devoid of inflection as it was.

And then there was the hissing.

Yukiko flicked her fan closed, and turned to face the youkai seated behind her. "This one is blinded by nothing, Kiyohime. My son is the more powerful of the two, of that there is no question. And yet… Inuyasha is the most like the General. This Yukiko suspects the match is an even one. The outcome will depend on which desires victory more."

At that, Kagome hit upon an idea.

"Come, Rin. Come, Shippou," Kagome said in her best imitation of Sesshoumaru. She wanted the kits with her, in case… Just in case.

"Where are we going, Mama?" Shippou asked, taking Kagome's hand.

"We are going to give Sesshoumaru-sama a reason to win!" Kagome told him, pasting a smile on her lips. She'd take the kits down to the arena and offer Sesshoumaru her handkerchief or a kiss or something like she'd seen in the movies. Anything to get her close enough to whisper in his ear.

Inari stood, declaring, "And this Inari shall do the same for Inuyasha-sama!"

Kagome swallowed and led her little procession out of the royal box. Behind her, she could hear Kiyohime wagering a bag of pearls on Sesshoumaru, and Kouga countering with a month's worth of fresh kills on Inuyasha.

-l-

Sesshoumaru exhaled slowly through his nose, concentrating on emptying his mind of all but the upcoming battle. True, they were fighting only to first blood, but Inuyasha was wielding their father's fang, and the hanyou had improved much since he began training with the Warriors of the West.

His solitude was interrupted by his vixen and pups charging toward him, Inari of the Nine Tails on their heels.

Inari went to Inuyasha, removing one of the magically preserved flowers she wore in her hair, and pressing it into Inuyasha's hand. "This Inari grants you favor, Inuyasha-sama. Should you prevail, this one will reward you with a kiss."

Inuyasha blushed, but smiled a toothy smile and tucked the flower into his sleeve.

To Sesshoumaru's surprise, he was next. There was a moment of consultation between vixen and pups, and then Kagome pulled a leaf from some hidden place in her obi and folded an origami dog. This she held out to the pups, Shippou covering the totem in his breath and Rin pricking her finger and anointing the brow of the little dog with a drop of blood.

Sesshoumaru blinked. He was no sorcerer, but even he could recognize the creation of an amulet of protection.

Kagome held the totem out to him. "This Kagome and her kits offer you favor, Sesshoumaru-sama. Should you prevail, this one will reward you with a kiss."

Sesshoumaru gravely took what was offered, tucking the origami dog beneath his armor, just over his heart. He told himself that the tingle down his spine was a result of the lingering magic.

But that sensation was nothing to the one that curled his toes when Kagome arched up and ran one of her fangs along his jaw. He had to stifle an approving rumble, but could not quite stop himself from grasping her waist.

To steady her, of course.

Her lips were against his ear, her breath tickling along the sensitive flesh. Sesshoumaru tightened his grip on her waist, his mind racing forward to the kiss he would claim as his prize when he defeated Inuyasha.

Whispering softly, so that only Sesshoumaru could hear, Kagome said, "Remember the story of the Dragon and the Man."

Sesshoumaru's eyes widened.

He understood.

He released Kagome, and she stepped back, face turned up to him. Sesshoumaru nodded to her.

Then he took his place in the arena.


35. Blood

The barrier around the arena went up with a crackle of youki, and Kagome and Inari turned, making their way back to the royal box, Shippou and Rin racing ahead of them.

By the time Kagome took her seat, Jaken had meandered his way through a speech about how Great and Terrible the two sons of the Dog General were, and was signaling the beginning of the match.

"First to draw blood will be declared the winner!" he squeaked, before running for cover.

Kagome expected the brothers to burst into a flurry of motion, but instead they stared, silent and still. Inuyasha drew the Tetsusaiga, and it transformed in a flash of light, then everything was quiet once more.

Sesshoumaru, as always, was more patient than Inuyasha.

The hanyou lunged with a guttural battle cry. Kagome held her breath, already wishing the bout was over. She knew that there was nothing serious at stake – a kiss and a flesh wound. That was all. And yet somehow, watching the brothers cross blades (figuratively at least, Sesshoumaru had yet to draw his sword) was just as nerve wracking as it had ever been.

Sesshoumaru was still standing placidly in the center of the arena, Inuyasha bearing down on him. Kagome pressed her lips shut to keep herself from shouting at him to move, a flashback of purity-charged arrows streaking across her vision.

At the very last possible second, Sesshoumaru turned on his heel and Inuyasha breezed past him, carried by the momentum of his attack. Sesshoumaru raised his arm, flicking his wrist in a familiar motion, and Kagome watched as Sesshoumaru's youki whip materialized and split the air with a violent crack.

Inuyasha leapt out of reach, and then they were off, careening around the arena in blurs of concussive force, Inuyasha charging Sesshoumaru with powerful swings of the Tetsusaiga, only to retreat from Sesshoumaru's whip. It seemed that neither could gain the upper hand, so long as Sesshoumaru insisted on not drawing Bakusaiga nor using his more powerful abilities, and Inuyasha refrained from the special techniques of the Tetsusaiga. But of course they both held back. If the full power of either one was unleashed in the arena, the barrier wouldn't be able to contain them.

Without warning, Inuyasha changed direction, moving toward Sesshoumaru's latest whip attack instead of away from it. Sesshoumaru's expression remained the same, but Kagome could tell he was surprised by the foolhardy move. Kagome let out a nervous giggle. Trust Inuyasha to find the only way to catch Sesshoumaru offguard: do something that makes absolutely no sense.

As she watched, Inuyasha let the whip strike him, then quickly grasped it despite the pain it must cause, taking rapid shuffling steps forward as he wrapped the end around his forearm. He gave a great heave, using Sesshoumaru's whip against him.

Rather than fight the pull of Inuyasha's attack, Sesshoumaru jumped, using the added force to propel himself high into the air. Once directly over Inuyasha, he dissolved the youki whip, streaking down toward Inuyasha with claws outstretched.

By the time Sesshoumaru landed, Inuyasha was on the other side of the arena.

Inuyasha has gotten faster, Kagome mused. If I were still human, I wouldn't be able to see either of them move at all.

She realized she was holding her breath, and found that she was not the only one. The entire courtyard was eerily silent, every soul present engrossed in the battle unfolding before them. Kagome risked a glance at the royals seated in the box with her.

Okuri and Kouga were rapturous, their eyes rapidly tracking Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru. Kiyohime and Myobu wore matching expressions of calculation. Yukiko's face was hidden behind her fan.

And Inari was plainly frightened out of her wits.

Maybe she, like Kagome, found it difficult to remember that the fight would stop at first blood.

A gasp filtered through the assembled youkai, and Kagome turned her gaze back to the fight, just in time to see Sesshoumaru's youki whip wrap around the blade of the Tetsusaiga, wild ropes of energy sparking with a sound like thunder where the two powers met. An unnatural wind began to rise as both combatants planted their feet. Sesshoumaru yanked, and Inuyasha staggered forward a step, grimly clinging to Tetsusaiga's hilt.

Then Sesshoumaru snapped his wrist, and his youki whip flared brighter. A wave of power traveled along the length of the whip in a sharp undulation, and down Tetsusaiga's blade.

Inuyasha gave a half growl, half scream, his hands smoking. He released the hilt of the Tetsusaiga, cursing loudly that 'the bastard' wouldn't have dared try that if Inuyasha was allowed to use the Tetsusaiga to its fullest potential.

Sesshoumaru moved his arm in a swift, graceful movement, his whip pulling the Tetsusaiga up and away from Inuyasha, and then Sesshoumaru sent the whip cracking forward again, the sword spinning from the tip.

"No!" Inari cried, leaping to her feet in the instant before it happened.

The Tetsusaiga sliced across Inuyasha's shoulder, the point sticking in the stone of the arena floor, returning to its untransformed state.

The battle was over. Inuyasha had lost, cut by his own sword.

He scowled at the wound, grumbling and sheathing the Tetsusaiga as Sesshoumaru approached.

"Sesshoumaru-sama wins!" Jaken screeched, breaking the silence that had pervaded the arena since the battle began.

The voices of the crowd swelled into a cacophony of noise.

Then Inuyasha swayed, blindly reaching out and grabbing Sesshoumaru's arm. Kagome saw his lips form her name, right before his eyes rolled back in his head and he convulsed, falling at Sesshoumaru's feet. Bloody foam gathered at the corners of his mouth.

'The Dog of the West must pay.' I assumed they were talking about Sesshoumaru. How could I be so stupid?!

She had warned the wrong brother.

Pack, pack, brother, sorrow, vengeance, danger, help, pack, brother.

Kagome's stomach bottomed out. She didn't realize she was moving until she was pushing her way through a contingent of the Warriors of the West. It seemed that one second she was sitting in the royal box, and the next she was kneeling at Inuyasha's side, Inari's anguished eyes boring into hers.

"Inari, take my granddaughter and her packmate to their playroom," came Yukiko's cool imperious tones. Kagome had never been so grateful for the presence of the female inu.

Inari hesitated, but Yukiko's youki was swirling just beneath the polite shields she used to keep from overwhelming those around her. It was a hurricane, a tsunami in the distance that promised devastation should it ever reach shore.

Inari tore herself away from Inuyasha and went to retrieve the kits.

Finding her voice at last, Kagome cast about for a familiar face, and found her eyes landing on Takeshi, one of Sesshoumaru's warriors. "Go with Inari-sama and my kits. Do not leave them alone. Don't let anything happen to my children."

Takeshi bowed. "Yes, Kagome-hime."

Kagome returned her attention to Inuyasha. His muscles were tense, contracted, his face a mask of agony. He was so still now, when just moments ago he'd been full of life.

"What are you waiting for, my son?" Yukiko gestured to Sesshoumaru. "Pick up your brother, and let us retire to your private quarters."

Sesshoumaru easily hefted Inuyasha, slinging him over one shoulder in what Kagome would call a fireman's carry.

Together, they trooped towards Sesshoumaru's rooms, taking a shortcut through the gardens and leaping onto Sesshoumaru's balcony. The festival guests were left in chaos, but Kagome couldn't bring herself to care. Surely one of the other royals would step forward to lead the shiro for the rest of the day. Until Sesshoumaru could return.

Inuyasha died before Sesshoumaru could lay him out on the bed.

Kagome didn't know it at first. Not until she'd climbed up next to Inuyasha, and saw he wasn't breathing.

Brother! Sorrow, sorrow, brother, pack, sorrowsorrowsorrowsorrow.

Someone was sobbing. There was a loud wailing noise. It was very distracting. Kagome wished it would stop.

It wasn't until Yukiko slapped her that Kagome realized she was the one crying.

There was a growl that rattled Kagome's bones, and suddenly Sesshoumaru was between Kagome and Yukiko, his face filling her vision and his voice in her ears. He ran his fingers over her sore cheek.

It seemed so stupid, such a waste that after their hunt for the jewel shards, the battle with Naraku, that now, here, this was how Inuyasha would die.

"Vixen, you must cast a spell of silence."

Sesshoumaru's voice had reached Kagome when she was little more than an animal. Had touched her, somewhere deep inside, gone far enough to pull her out of the grip of powerful instincts, out of the hold of a rage she hadn't known herself capable of. Now it did so again, cutting through her grief.

With shaking hands, Kagome pulled a leaf from her obi and started fashioning a spell anchor.

Sesshoumaru.

Sesshoumaru! her brain caught up. The Tenseiga!

"Sesshoumaru, the Tenseiga!" Kagome repeated the thought out loud as soon as she had completed the spell of silence.

He nodded to her and reached for the sword. Normally, Sesshoumaru didn't wear his swords or his armor when he was within the shiro. They were lucky that he was in full regalia for the exhibition match.

"No," Yukiko said.

Kagome whirled on her with an enraged roar, her claws raised and her tails snapping behind her. She didn't care that attacking the more powerful woman would be suicide. Didn't even think about it. She would not let Yukiko stop them from saving Inuyasha.

Protect, brother, pack, brother, brother, danger.

But before she could launch herself from the bed, Sesshoumaru laid a restraining hand on her arm, his eyes fixed on his mother's face.

Yukiko raised a brow. "I will do this thing," she said, plucking at the strand of jewels around her neck.

Kagome remembered the story Yukiko had told her of the Meido Stone.

Yukiko removed the necklace, and gently, almost tenderly placed it around Inuyasha's throat. The gems made little tinkling sounds against the beads of Inuyasha's defunct rosary.

And then, the Meido Stone began to glow.

The effect was not immediate. First, Inuyasha's muscles relaxed, his limbs falling into a more natural pose. Then all signs of injury faded, even the foamy spittle on his lips. Color returned to his cheeks, making it obvious just how pale he'd become. At last, he started to breathe again, moving from death into a deep sleep.

"He will wake soon," Sesshoumaru said. "As Rin did."

Yukiko nodded. "With this, I honor the memory of the Inu no Taisho."

"You loved him," Kagome blurted. She didn't know why she was so surprised.

Yukiko's expression didn't change. "Not enough. Not in time."

"There is always time." Rising from the bed, Kagome went down on her knees, bowing to the youkai who had saved her best friend.

Yukiko did nothing for a long moment. Then she tilted Kagome's chin upwards with the edge of her war fan, a sharp steel rib perilously close to Kagome's jugular. Their eyes locked, and it seemed that Yukiko stared into Kagome's soul.

"Stand," Yukiko said. "You shall not bow to this one, Kagome-sama."


36. Poison

Sesshoumaru surrendered to the clamoring of his instincts enough to have all of his pack brought to his chambers. Inuyasha was ensconced in the center of the bed, Kagome and the pups tucked around him. Sesshoumaru's mother, who had somehow become part of his pack in the last few hours without either of them speaking of it, paced between the door and the balcony, on guard.

Certain that they were as safe as they could be made, Sesshoumaru left them long enough to announce to the shiro that he had inadvertently given his brother a dose of his poison, but all was well now.

The Wolf Prince opened his mouth, no doubt to call Sesshoumaru's story into question, for he at least was in a position to know that Inuyasha had been dosed with Sesshoumaru's poison before in greater amounts, and not suffered nearly so much.

A glare that promised swift retribution was sufficient to silence Kouga.

Sesshoumaru went on to say that he and his pack would be spending a quiet evening with his fallen brother, but his guests were welcome to the bounty of his table. Hopefully that would keep them busy.

By the time he was able to return to his chambers, Inuyasha was awake.

It is well.

Sesshoumaru let his brother's griping and Kagome's happy chatter flow over him, admitting to himself that a part of him was relieved to hear Inuyasha's churlish mutterings. Of course, if his steward died, he would have to return to all the duties of ruling that he hated.

Sesshoumaru climbed onto the bed and took up a position next to Inuyasha, leaning down to scent his brother's neck.

"Oi! Not you too!" Inuyasha leaned away, unable to get far with all of the bodies piled around him. "I've got to put up with it from Kagome, but you going all… you know, is just weird." Inuyasha's puppyish ears twisted and twitched, pressing down against his head.

"It is an alpha's duty to care for his pack," Sesshoumaru said.

Inuyasha just rolled his eyes, a tiny reluctant smile on his lips. The smile grew until it became a smirk, before eventually fading into an expression of seriousness. Inuyasha gripped Sesshoumaru's wrist – the hand he had once been responsible for severing – and ran his claws along Sesshoumaru's skin in the gesture that was used both for apologies and gratitude. "Kagome says I was gone. So I'm guessing you brought me back." Inuyasha looked away, uncomfortable. "Thanks."

"It was not I."

"What?!"

"This Sesshoumaru is not the one who saved you."

Inuyasha gaped, looking at Kagome.

Sesshoumaru's vixen smiled and shook her head. "Nope, not me."

"Well it wasn't Shippou!"

"Hey!"

Kagome shushed the fox kit, and took pity on Inuyasha. "It was Yukiko-sama."

Sesshoumaru could feel Inuyasha tense beside him. Mother stopped pacing long enough to look the hanyou in the face.

"You?" Inuyasha asked in a soft voice Sesshoumaru had only ever heard him use with Kagome.

Mother nodded, sliding her fan open with a snikt. She held the brightly painted silk before her face.

"Why?" The question exploded past Inuyasha's lips in a puff of air. He seemed truly baffled.

"Because once, many years ago," Mother answered slowly, "I did not help when I could have, and a magnificent warrior died. Today, I returned life to the son he sacrificed himself to save. It is… poetic. It is justice. It returns balance."

Pulling himself from the bed, Inuyasha stood in front of Mother. "I.." he started, his ears moving restlessly. Then he pulled a flower from his sleeve – the very one that Inari had given to him before the exhibition match – and inelegantly thrust it at Yukiko with an unintelligible mutter.

Mother actually blushed. Taking the flower, she slid it into place among the intricate knots of her hair.

Sesshoumaru smelled salt. He turned to find Kagome weeping quietly.

"It's just so beautiful," she smiled at him.

"Keh!"

"Hn."

-l-

Sesshoumaru kept the pack together until he was certain that most of the shiro would be gathered in the banquet halls, feasting. Then he met his mother's eyes.

She nodded, displaying her uncanny knack for knowing his mind. "Come, granddaughter. Come… grandson. The turmoil of the day has left me tired, and I require company."

Rin looked to Sesshoumaru. "It is this Rin's duty to care for her pack." She slipped her hand into Yukiko's.

Sesshoumaru allowed the corners of his mouth to curl into a smile. Rin took being the Heir of the West very seriously. She would be a great ruler one day.

And Shippou… Shippou was gazing at Mother, his mouth hanging open. "G-grandmother?" he asked, hesitant.

Yukiko nodded. "Come, grandson. You may guard my sleep."

Shippou scurried to the door, leaving Sesshoumaru alone with his brother and his vixen.

"That was sweet of Yukiko," Kagome's soft utterance broke the silence. She and his mother seemed to have reached some sort of accord. For that, Sesshoumaru was glad. He suspected Mother would not be leaving the shiro for some time, and did not relish the thought of mediating between warring females.

"Feh, she ain't tired. But it got the runts outta here, which I'm betting is what the bastard here was anglin' for."

"It is not I who is the bastard, Inuyasha."

Inuyasha shrugged, waving a hand. "Yeah, yeah. Get to the point. I need to go see Inari."

Kagome went pale, her hair streaking red as she let go of the glamour that kept it black. She opened her mouth, but Sesshoumaru forestalled her, holding up one finger. "Is the spell of silence still in effect?"

"Yes."

Sesshoumaru nodded, gesturing for her to continue. He and Inuyasha listened as Kagome repeated a conversation she had overheard in the gardens, several things crystalizing for Sesshoumaru as she spoke.

"You are certain you recognized the kitsune?"

Kagome nodded, looking to Inuyasha. "Yes."

"No," Sesshoumaru's dog-eared brother shook his head, stubbornly crossing his arms. "No."

"Think, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru said coldly. Kagome glared at him. "It was your sword that caused this. Who would have the opportunity to tamper with the Tetsusaiga, save you?"

"No one! I never take it off, except for when – " Inuyasha stopped abruptly, his ears drooping. "Oh."

Kagome pulled the hanyou into her arms, patting his back, and Sesshoumaru shoved down a frustrated growl, disliking the sight. This was not the time to be coddling Inuyasha. Now was the time to act.

"And you did not recognize the other voice?" Sesshoumaru prodded Kagome, pleased when he had her attention once more.

"It… it could have been Kiyohime. The hissing sounded the same."

"You do not sound confident."

"I'm not. It could have been her. But it might not have been. I'm sorry."

Sesshoumaru shook his head. "You have done well."

He retrieved the Tetsusaiga – still in its sheath – from his sword rack on the far wall, and returned it to Inuyasha. "Draw. We must examine the blade."

Inuyasha nodded, wrapping his fingers around the hilt. Then he favored Sesshoumaru with one of his rakish grins, one fang standing out over his lip. "You know, I bet you could draw it yourself now. Hell, you probably could have the moment you put Kagome and the runt under your protection."

Sesshoumaru considered this. It had never entered his mind to attempt such a thing, not now. Inuyasha needed the Tetsusaiga.

And Sesshoumaru…

Sesshoumaru did not.

"I no longer desire Father's fang."

Inuyasha barked a laugh, and drew the sword.

Kagome moved away, to Sesshoumaru's approval, understandably wary of touching the weapon that had slain Inuyasha. Sesshoumaru ran one claw down the sword, noting that the blade was slick, as if just oiled. He rubbed the residue between his fingers, and then brought it to his tongue, tasting.

"Poison," he confirmed. "It is the venom of a sea serpent. I have encountered it before, in the Southern Islands."

"I can't smell it," Inuyasha complained. "Poison usually smells sweet… Must be some pretty strong stuff. You've gutted me with that hella nasty acid of yours, and it didn't come half as close to killing me."

"This one has long suspected that our shared blood grants you some immunity to this Sesshoumaru's poison."

"What I don't understand," Kagome interrupted, "is why someone tried to kill Inuyasha by poisoning his own sword. Wouldn't it have made more sense to poison yours? Or maybe they knew you probably wouldn't draw it…"

"This Sesshoumaru was the target."

"What?" Kagome blinked, turning and reaching for his hand. He allowed her to take it, lacing their fingers together. "But everyone knows you're immune to poison."

Sesshoumaru met Inuyasha's eyes. "Precisely."

Inuyasha's shoulders slumped in relief, a gusty sigh escaping his lips.

"What?" Kagome asked again, somewhat belligerently. "What am I not getting here?"

"I believe that the kitsune you overheard was commanded to assassinate this Sesshoumaru in such a way as would point to Inuyasha colluding with the South."

"And in the village we found, the illusion made it look like wolves had done it. The North."

"They're still trying to stir up a war then," Inuyasha grumped. "I'm guessing we're not going to give 'em one?"

Sesshoumaru nodded. "I have announced that it was my poison that rendered you unconscious. An error on my part."

Inuyasha snorted. "Never thought I'd hear you admit to a mistake, even as a cover."

"So she used poison… why? To warn you? Because she knew it wouldn't hurt you?" Kagome drew them back to the original point.

"Yes," Sesshoumaru confirmed.

"Okay," Kagome took a deep breath. "Okay. Now what?"

"Now," Sesshoumaru looked at his brother, "Inuyasha speaks with Inari."

-l-

Kagome crept along behind Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru at her side. Sesshoumaru was hiding their youki, and their scent, and Kagome was focusing all of her power on making them invisible even to a fox of nine tails. Their shadows danced along the ground, but try as she might, Kagome couldn't make them disappear.

Sweat broke out on her forehead. Hopefully, Inari would be too preoccupied with Inuyasha to notice a couple of unattached shadows.

They stopped at the door to Inari's guest suite. Takeshi was standing guard outside. Sesshoumaru had ordered him there, though Kagome wasn't sure whether it was to protect Inari, or hold her prisoner.

Inuyasha dismissed Takeshi, and they entered the room. Hurriedly, Kagome found a seat near the wall, where no one was likely to walk, and sank to the floor. Sesshoumaru settled down next to her, pulling her into his lap. She gratefully snuggled into his chest, drawing strength from him. So much had happened this day, she was beyond tired. Drained physically, emotionally, and magically.

But she had to keep them hidden for as long as it took.

"Inuyasha!" Inari cried, flinging herself at the hanyou, her expression a mingling of relief and remorse. Her festival make-up was streaked with tears, her hair and kimono disheveled.

Inuyasha shrugged Inari off, and Kagome felt something in her chest tighten on his behalf. He'd had his heart broken so many times.

"Cast a spell of silence, vixen," Inuyasha commanded, in that moment every inch the Steward of the West. When he was like this, it was easy to see why everyone bowed and called him Inuyasha-sama.

Inari nodded, her tails fluffing out in what Kagome assumed was fear, yet more tears further smearing her make-up. Fast, faster than Kagome could have done it, the spell was cast.

"Was it all a lie?" Inuyasha asked. He sounded empty. Tired.

Inari threw herself at his feet, bowing so low that her forehead touched the floor. "It wasn't meant for you," she pleaded in a broken voice, muffled by the tatami mats. "I had to. I had to. But I hoped… I thought, if I used poison, it wouldn't matter, because it wouldn't hurt him. I never wanted to hurt anyone."

Inuyasha's face softened. He placed a hand on the back of Inari's neck. "Then why?"

Inari told him.

She spoke of being tricked, when she was a child. Of being told she must make a vow of loyalty and obedience, not knowing yet that it was very unusual for kitsune to make such vows, since they couldn't break them without dire consequences.

"But if it came down to losing a tail, or killing one who has been kind to me, one who is so important to so many, I would have chosen the tail. I'd have made that sacrifice, I swear to you!" Inari was still face down.

Maybe she couldn't bear to look at Inuyasha, knowing how close she had come to killing him.

"Why not ask me or the bast- Sesshoumaru for help?"

"There is something more. Something worse," Inari resumed her narrative. "During the Years of Naraku, my sister was captured. Naraku planned to absorb her for her powers of illusion, and shapeshifting. I," Inari's voice cracked, "I put all of my power into a ki-pearl, and sent it to my sister, in the hope that she would be able to use my youki to escape. But my messenger betrayed me, and my ki-pearl was stolen by my master."

Inari looked up, and Kagome was shocked to see that the golden kitsune's face was stained red. Blood leaked from her eyes and nose.

Kagome lost control of her spell of invisibility, and she and Sesshoumaru appeared with a pop. Inari didn't seem to notice. She had eyes only for Inuyasha.

"My master knows magic. Dark magic. Blood magic. I fight it even now, to tell you this," Inari said through the pain that was obviously plaguing her. "I am a puppet."

Inuyasha knelt, gathering Inari into his arms, running his claws through her hair, and wiping away her bloody tears with his thumbs. She clung to him, and Kagome found herself clinging to Sesshoumaru just as hard.

"I know my life is forfeit," Inari said, looking over Inuyasha's shoulder at Kagome and Sesshoumaru. She pulled back and stared up into Inuyasha's face. "But I want you to know, I do love you." She stroked his cheek, leaving a smear of her own blood there. "I kept my distance at first, because of… It was Kagome-hime who made me realize. The wording of my vow – I said I would hold my master above all other youkai. But you aren't youkai, Inuyasha. I could pledge myself to you. For you, I have the strength to fight the spells that keep me silent." Barely holding back a sob, Inari choked out, "You set me free."

Inuyasha kissed Inari then, a kiss filled with passion and desperation, and Kagome felt she understood something. Something that was so fundamental that she had always overlooked it before.

Inuyasha was Inari's hero. He held his delicate lover to his chest, and Kagome knew that he would save her. That he wanted, needed to be her knight in shining armor.

And as much as Kagome had needed saving time and time again, the thing she had always wanted most was to be a savior.

Inuyasha promised Inari that he would protect her, and Kagome felt no regret at all.

Sesshoumaru rose, still holding Kagome in his arms. Kagome didn't protest. She wasn't sure she could stand under her own power, with all the magic she had used today, and everything she had witnessed.

Inuyasha's ears twitched toward them. He gave Sesshoumaru a wary look.

"Who is your master?" Sesshoumaru addressed Inari.

"I cannot say. The spells…"

Sesshoumaru seemed to accept that. "What does your master want?"

"Revenge. To destroy the West. To see it as damaged as the other lands were during the Years of Naraku. The Accursed One must have feared you greatly, for he hardly set foot in your territory."

Sesshoumaru raised a brow. Inari colored, her face scrunching up in pain and another drop of blood spurting from her nose as she fought to say, "To rule all the Four Lands. And to take Kagome-hime. For the power of the Shikon Wish."

Sesshoumaru growled, raising goosebumps on Kagome's arms. She nuzzled his throat, trying to soothe him, but at the same time glad that he cared.

"Can you tell this one when you receive new orders? Will you tell this Sesshoumaru of your master's plans?"

And now Inari turned fierce, the blood on her face becoming a mask of war. "Yes. I will gladly be your –"

She stopped, gasping, blood peppering her lips. Inuyasha rubbed her back, frantic, at a loss.

Inari straightened. "I will gladly be Inuyasha-sama's spy," she reiterated.

Right. The vow. Inari could be loyal to Inuyasha without breaking the vow, because he was hanyou.

Sesshoumaru swept toward the door. At the threshold, he paused. "Then your life is not forfeit."

With that, he carried Kagome from the room.

-l-

That night, Sesshoumaru found himself unable to sleep. His mind was too full of plans and half formed speculations. He had been too arrogant, too complacent in the safety of his pack, and Inuyasha had very nearly paid the price.

Unacceptable.

Sesshoumaru cast his eyes over his massive bed, crowded now. He was inclined to keep the entire pack together, until he had time to put new security measures in place. So he rested back to back with Inuyasha, Kagome in his arms, and Inari in his brother's. Mother slept across the foot of the bed, the pups curled against her sides.

What an odd pack they made. Three inu, three kitsune, and a hanyou. Such were the things tales were made of.

Sesshoumaru smoothed his claws over Kagome's cheek. The face paint she had worn to the exhibition match still clung around her eyes and her forehead was wrinkled, the stresses of the day making themselves known even in slumber. He, too, felt he had aged this day.

He found himself focusing on Kagome's mouth. One of her fangs was peeking between her full pink lips, seemingly calling to him.

Should he…?

Yes, of course he should. It was nothing less than the reward she had promised him, the reward that had been promptly forgotten in the wake of Inuyasha's injury.

Bending his head, Sesshoumaru took Kagome's lips in a soft kiss, letting a contented rumble come up from his chest. She purred back to him in her sleep, shifting closer, one of her hands twisting into his yukata.

Inuyasha kicked him.

Sesshoumaru broke the kiss, turning to glare at his brother. He did not see Kagome smile, though he did feel her bury her face in his chest. With a final scowl in Inuyasha's direction, Sesshoumaru reclined against the pillows.

And then he slept.


37. Serpent

Kagome sat in the bath house, enjoying a long hot soak and very carefully not thinking about Inari, or their unknown enemy. They had already done all that they could. Inuyasha was alive. The kits were safe – always in the company of either Yukiko or Kagome – and Inari was under constant guard, Takeshi shadowing her around the palace.

Inuyasha feared that Inari's master would attack her. Inari feared that her master would force her to attack.

Worrying would accomplish nothing, so Kagome did her best to put it all from her mind, and instead considered the problem that was Myobu-sama. Despite her alpha's request that she not accept any suitors, Myobu-sama still flirted with her, bringing her sparkling treasures and boasting of past tricks he had played.

He favored the kinds of tricks that ended with humans dead or bleeding. Kagome frowned to herself, her tails beating the bath water. It was despicable to kill another creature for sport only. Sesshoumaru-sama only killed to eat or defend, not because he could. Why, if Sesshoumaru killed everything he was capable of killing, the world would be empty except for a very few youkai.

She sighed. Would she spend the rest of what promised to be a very long life comparing every male she met to Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha?

Most likely. She raised a hand to her lips, imagining that they still tingled. And I doubt Myobu can kiss like Sesshoumaru. Now if he would just do it again…

The scent of an ocean breeze tickled her nose, and Kagome pasted a smile on her face and breathed a greeting to Kiyohime, who was joining her in the baths. It was the first time Kagome had seen her without the white make-up worn during the feast.

Kiyohime had silvery markings on her forehead roughly in the shape of a trident. They shone like mother of pearl.

"I have never known Sssesssshoumaru-sssama to be sssso… attentive to a female," the sea serpent youkai said without preamble. Her green hair looked like seaweed, floating in the water.

"Oh?" Kagome replied politely, not knowing what else to say. She hoped that Kiyohime could not hear the thundering of her heart. That hissing voice put Kagome on edge, and she had to forcibly remind herself that she had no proof that Kiyohime was behind Inuyasha's poisoning. "Have you known Sesshoumaru-sama long?"

Kiyohime nodded, one of her wickedly curved claws making little eddies in the water. "We were betrothed onccce, when we were young. He wasss cold, but well mannered. Thisss Kiyohime hasss consssidered offering mysssself to him again."

"Oh," Kagome's eyes widened. Awkwardly, she shifted to wash her hair, just so she wouldn't have to keep looking at Kiyohime.

"Do I have your approval?" the Lady of the Southern Islands asked with an air of impatience.

Kagome sat up. "My approval?"

"You are the Lady of Sssesssssssshoumaru-sssama's pack, are you not?"

"Well, yes. I guess I am." He's told me he wants me to stick around until Rin's older, at any rate. And for whatever reason, Yukiko doesn't want to be Lady.

"Then thisss Kiyohime musssst have your approval to approach him. What issss your word?"

Out of her depth, Kagome stalled for time to think. "Do you love Sesshoumaru-sama?"

Kiyohime tilted her head and regarded Kagome quizzically, as if she'd just said the sky was purple. "Love isss not a consideration."

That surprised Kagome, as did the matter of fact way Kiyohime said it. Could water dragons not love, cold blooded as they were?

"Do you think you'd come to love him?"

Kiyohime laughed, a sound like scales on rocks. "My only love isss the ssssea."

All of her uncertainty leaving her, Kagome decided she didn't approve. She didn't approve at all.

Sesshoumaru was hard to get to know, but he was loyal, and loving, and strong, and he deserved a mate who would be devoted to him.

Not stopping to consider how dangerous it was to tell this monster of the waves that she couldn't have what she wanted, Kagome gave a firm, "No."

It was only when Kiyohime's eyes shined silver that Kagome remembered she was sharing a bath with a serpent who could probably devour her in one gulp. A serpent who could very likely be the one who had enslaved Inari and plotted Sesshoumaru's death. Maybe, having failed once, Kiyohime was trying a new tactic?

Kagome braced herself for a daring escape, foxfire dancing under her skin.

But the glow of Kiyohime's eyes faded after a few minutes. She nodded to Kagome. "You are a brave little fox," was all she said at the last. "Mayhap one day I will ssseek one of your kitsss assss a mate for one of my neonatessss."

"Oh. Um… thank you?"

Kiyohime inclined her head. Then she spoke again. "Be careful who you call friend, little fox. There are sssome who would ussse you asss a ssstepping ssstone to power."

"But I don't have any power," Kagome protested.

"You are the Maker of the Ssshikon Wisssh, one of the humansss that Amaterasssu chossse to ressshape into one of usssss. You are the kamissss' proof that the bodiessss are different, but the ssssspirit isss the sssame. You are change made flessssssh." The water dragon stood, seemingly not noticing the affect her grandiose words were having on Kagome. Her seaweed hair hung over her breasts. "You are frightening, and intoxxxicating. You have much more power than you realizzzze. Be careful, little fox. Thisssss Kiyohime ssssshould hate to sssee your fur plucked."

And with that cryptic remark, Kiyohime took her leave.

Kagome muttered a swear she'd picked up from Inuyasha.


38. Love

Kagome debated for two days whether to tell Sesshoumaru about Kiyohime's proposal. It felt dishonest, not to at least ask his opinion, especially as he'd been so forthcoming with his own reasons for not wanting her to accept any suitors. When consulted, Yukiko's only advice was that it was Kagome's decision as Lady of the pack, and Sesshoumaru had to abide by it. And if he doesn't, the inu female had said, then he doesn't respect you.

In the end, it was the plot against the West that decided her. If Kiyohime was involved, something she'd said to Kagome might turn out to be important.

Kagome's first opportunity to speak with Sesshoumaru privately came that night, when she brought Shippou and Rin to his room to sleep. He was still dressed, signaling he planned to return to his study to continue working once he'd safely seen the young ones to their dreams.

"I need to speak with you," she whispered in his ear, her lips barely moving.

He nodded once, and then they settled down with the kits between them, as was their habit.

It wasn't long before Shippou started to snore his little snuffling snore, his tail stuck up in the air. Rin took longer. She'd always been precocious, and since becoming an inu youkai she'd exhibited an uncanny sense about things going on around her. Sesshoumaru often said it would serve her well as the Lady of the West. He loved her so.

Love.

Kiyohime.

At last Rin's eyes fell shut, Kagome rubbing soothing circles along her back.

"Kiyohime-sama asked for my approval to enter into a courtship with you," Kagome blurted, unable to think of a more subtle way to tell Sesshoumaru. And unable to wait any longer. Anticipation made her edgier than confrontation.

Sesshoumaru turned his head sharply to face her. His expression had gone totally blank in that way that she knew meant he was completely nonplussed. "And what answer did you give her?"

Kagome's voice was small and breathy when she said, "No. I told her no."

And now Sesshoumaru seemed interested. He leaned forward, over the kits, so close that their noses were almost touching. "And what reason did you give?" he practically purred.

"Love."

Sesshoumaru's eyes widened, his pupils dilating. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kagome went on before he could, thinking that he was going to laugh at her, as Kiyohime had. "Kiyohime said that she didn't love you, and she could be Inari's master, and maybe love is a human consideration, but – "

"Love is not just for humans," Sesshoumaru snapped. He leaned back.

Kagome sputtered, falling silent. Sesshoumaru stared straight ahead, at the large blue doors that led to the hall. The mural on this side of them was of the mountain on which the palace had been built.

"I didn't mean… I don't know what I meant." Kagome ran her claws lightly over Sesshoumaru's wrist. He still didn't look at her. "You're right. Of course you're right. I spoke without thinking."

She knew youkai could love. Of course they could love. It just seemed that they didn't put as much importance on it as humans did. Or maybe it was just this era…

Kagome paused, considering what she must seem like to Sesshoumaru. She took every opportunity she was given to point out that humans weren't the meaningless creatures – the sea foam – that most youkai saw them as.

And in the process, she made it sound as if she thought youkai were heartless. Thoughtless.

Monsters.

A yawning pit opened up in her gut. She felt like she was falling.

It isn't easy, to realize that you're the very thing you fight.

Prejudice. Was she really prejudiced against those fantastic beings that ruled the Four Lands? Could she be, now that she was one of them? And would she know it if she was?

She had spent so much time since her transformation defending her lost human nature…

"I'm sorry," she whispered, and meant it.

"Kiyohime and I were betrothed to solidify a trade agreement," Sesshoumaru said just when Kagome had given up hope that he would speak to her again this night. "My father was fond of foreign goods, as you can see from the palace. The Southern Islands have the best ports on our side of the sea."

So that's where all the strange furnishings in the palace had come from. The chairs, the raised tables, the beds lifted up off of the floor, like things from Kagome's own era… She'd had no idea, and always assumed that all of the youkai palaces were furnished this way.

"Why did you break off the betrothal?"

"I did not. Kiyohime no longer saw the need, once she became heir and then Lady of the Southern Islands."

"You mean she wasn't before?"

"Not until she challenged and killed her father and elder sister for the right," Sesshoumaru answered.

"Oh!" Kagome gasped, before pressing her lips into a thin white line. She wouldn't insult Sesshoumaru any more tonight than she had already. If he could accept her for who she was – a kitsune with the soul of a twenty-four year old human – then she could refrain from judging the ruling sea serpents of the South.

At least out loud.

-l-

There was something subtly off when Kagome returned to the room she shared with Rin and Shippou the next morning, to change into her kimono and paint her face with the formal makeup worn during the feast. Something that tickled what she'd taken to calling her tail-sense. Her fur bristled, making the four appendages look twice their usual size.

"What is it?" she murmured to herself, running her hands over the bed, the chests, inspecting her clothes and the kits' toys.

At last she came upon her mirror. There was a brush of unfamiliar youki on the glass. Faint, but there. It faded quickly, so quickly that Kagome would have thought she imagined it had it not been for her tails frizzing.

It was probably a servant. They just moved the mirror when they were cleaning. Kagome picked up the circle, tucking it into her obi. Still. I'll keep it with me from now on.

By the time she left the room, she had forgotten there was anything odd at all. Thoughts of the mirror faded from her mind like mist.


39. Riddle

Kagome woke in the middle of the night, an uncanny sense telling her she must look into her mirror. Fearing that it was the ki-pearl she'd given to Sango, that something was wrong, Kagome panicked, quietly stepping into the hall and fumbling with the reflective circle.

Fogging the glass with her breath, she instead saw a woman, her face tear-streaked, prostrating herself before an origami fox folded from a leaf.

"Please, kitsune-sama!" the woman begged. "You are all I have to turn to! I know you have visited my daughter! Now, I beg you, visit again and help me save her!"

Intrigued, Kagome cast a spell of far-speaking, having practiced so much that she didn't even have to look as she folded an origami fox to match the one the crying woman was praying in front of.

"What has happened to your daughter?" Kagome asked, talking into the mouth of the origami fox in her hands.

She watched in her mirror as the origami fox she'd left in the little girl's room almost two years ago repeated her words, the girl's mother jumping, and then prostrating herself again.

"Aobozu has stolen her from me! I am afraid for her life! And no one else will help me, for fear that he will come for their children next!"

"What of your husband?" Kagome spoke through the fox.

"He says we will simply have another child," the woman said woefully. "A son to carry on his name."

Kagome narrowed her eyes, anger making them spark. The girl's father sounded like the sort who thought women were worthless.

"Kitsune-sama? Will you come?"

Kagome tilted her head. "I'm coming."

Tucking her mirror and the origami fox into her obi, Kagome turned to wake Sesshoumaru, to tell him what she was setting out to do. To see if he wanted to come with her. But no sooner did she take a step towards his room than her thoughts grew muddled, confused.

There isss no time to tell anyone where you are going. Thissss issss your human, your missssssion, a silent voice whispered in her ear. She forgot about Sesshoumaru. Forgot everything but the stolen child.

This was a tail-test.

She leapt out of a window, transforming into her fox shape before she landed, and started running, wishing she could fly like Inari. Even with the powerful stride of her true form, it would take a full day and night to reach the village where she'd made her trickster debut. The girl could be dead by then.

Legs burning, leaving fiery footprints in her wake, Kagome increased her pace.

-l-

Sesshoumaru woke that morning with an uneasy feeling that something was wrong. At first he thought it was just that Kagome was not in her customary place in his bed. For her to rise before him was unusual. For her to do so without taking the pups with her was even more so. And yet, here he was, pups against his sides and no vixen in sight.

It was when he expanded his aura, searching for her youki, that he realized exactly how wrong things were.

Kagome was not in the palace. He could feel traces of her power in the air, but not the kitsune herself. She was not yet powerful enough to hide herself from him, not when he was specifically searching for her.

She was either dead, or she had left him.

Something primal within him howled at the thought of her death, became so enraged that his youki spiked enough to wake both pups. They sat up, eyes wide and fearful, baby fangs glinting as they clung to each other.

Sesshoumaru took a deep meditative breath and ruthlessly suppressed his bestial nature. He would need a clear head to discover what had become of his vixen, and he did not care for the scent of his pups' fear.

"All will be well," he assured them softly, patting each on the head in turn.

Shippou looked up at him, tears in the corners of his eyes. "Where's Mama?"

"Where is Rin's mother?" Rin echoed, her voice small.

Sesshoumaru's breath caught.

"This one shall find her and return her to you," Sesshoumaru promised them. Rising, he strapped on his armor and both his swords, taking particular care with Tenseiga.

He hoped he would not need to use it.

-l-

His mother and Inuyasha were standing in the hall when Sesshoumaru opened the heavy double doors that led to his chambers.

"What's up?" Inuyasha asked, wasting no time. Sesshoumaru found himself grateful for his brother's straightforward nature. "Where's 'Gome?"

"She isn't here," Yukiko said before Sesshoumaru was able to. She wore the far away expression on her face that told him she was expanding her senses. "She left in the night. Her youki trail makes for the Northern border."

Mother had always had finer senses than he.

"Aw hell," Inuyasha grimaced. "Come on then. We'd better go after her."

Sesshoumaru raised a brow, knowing that he would indeed hunt his vixen down and perhaps reprimand her for daring to leave – but he knew not what caused the expression of resignation on Inuyasha's face.

Inuyasha's ears twitched. "Look, you've gotta know Kagome. She's been pretty well behaved since the wish and everything, but she sometimes just… does things. We'd better catch up with her before she adopts a baby troll or gets proposed to by one of the kami or something."

Sesshoumaru snorted.

Inuyasha looked down, directing his next comments to Rin and Shippou, who had come forward to stand on either side of Sesshoumaru. "You know what I mean, runt."

Shippou nodded with the air of a sage departing the wisdom of the universe.

Sesshoumaru strode past Inuyasha, saying simply, "Come." Inuyasha fell into step behind him.

He didn't tell his mother to watch the pups. He knew she would do so without his direction.

-l-

It was dark when Kagome arrived in the little girl's village.

The girl's mother was sitting vigil outside the house, a little red lantern burning next to her. A light to lead the girl home.

The woman gasped when Kagome skidded to a stop before her, fear flooding her scent, but she made no move to run or shout for help. Instead, in a tremulous voice, she asked, "Kitsune-sama?"

Still in her true form and thus unable to speak, Kagome regally inclined her head, taking care that the foxfire that burned around her feet did not damage the woman's home. Unwilling to take any more time – for it had already been far, far too long – she put her nose to the ground, circling her human's house and snuffling around until she picked up the scent of a youkai she was unfamiliar with.

Aobozu. The Blue Monk. The Child Stealer.

There was something wrong with his scent. It was flat, stale. It had only one flavor.

Kagome growled deep in her throat.

Then she was off, following the trail. Aobozu was clever, going through water, and hiding his youki. But Kagome was kitsune, and she'd been trained in tracking by the Great Dog of the West. She found Aobozu's den within minutes of her arrival.

It was almost too easy.

Resuming her humanoid shape, she walked boldly through his front door.

"What'sss thisss? What'ssss thissss?" Aobozu cackled, tossing a set of knucklebones against the cave floor.

His skin was a putrid shade of blue-green and his eyes deep red-purple, but otherwise he looked human, with black robes and black hair. He sat in a nest of bleached bones. The human girl was behind him, unconscious, but alive, lying in the dirt. Kagome could hear that she still drew breath.

"I've come for the girl. She's mine. It's bad luck, to steal from a kitsune."

She was surprised by the steadiness of her voice. The confidence she heard there.

"Your girl? No, oh no. Old Bozu knowsss better than to ssssteal from a fox. Don't sssee your name on the girl!" The Blue Monk gathered up his knucklebones, shaking them in his hands. Kagome wrinkled her nose.

She could tell the bones had come from human children.

"She has been mine since I traded her an origami fox for a hanetsuki set. Give her back to me."

"That doesssn't count, and you know it, little tricksssster!" Bozu screeched, rattling his bones.

Kagome stiffened her spine and her tails, refusing to be intimidated. She had gathered the shards of the Shikon Jewel. She had faced Naraku. She was Kagome of the Four Tails, Maker of the Shikon Wish, and Lady of Sesshoumaru's pack. She'd faced much worse than this one demon!

"But I tell you what, I tell you what," Bozu went on, sucking his teeth. "Let'ssss play a game. Yessssss, a game! Kitssssune like gamesssss, do they not?"

"You know that we do," Kagome's voice echoed through The Blue Monk's den. "What game shall we play?"

"We roll the bonesssss!" Bozu demonstrated, letting his set of knucklebones fly from his hand. "If I win, I keep the girl and you, kitsssune-hime, musssst obey my every command for a day and a night. If you win, you can have the girl back."

Kagome frowned. "I don't like that game. There's too much chance." And Bozu probably cheats. "I propose another. One that will test our wits."

Bozu gave it some thought. "Very well, very well. But if the fox choossssesss the game, then the prize musssst be greater!"

"Agreed."

Kagome thought quickly, her mind catching on one of the stories Sesshoumaru had told her beneath the stars. "I will give you a riddle. If you answer wrong, then the girl comes with me, and you must leave the Western Lands forever. If you answer right, then you keep the girl, and you can have me too. I will be your wife."

"Mate, not wife!" Bozu countered, wise to her wordplay. As a wife, she would be free to leave when she chose, but a youkai mate was bound to their partner for life.

"Alright," she said, after taking a deep breath, sweat breaking out on her brow. "But you may only guess once. And you must promise to let us go if you're wrong. You know what it means, to break your word to a kitsune."

As scared as she was, she was also exhilarated. This, this was surely what Amaterasu and the powers of the Shikon had meant for her to do, when they changed Kagome into a kitsune. She would protect those who needed her, youkai and human alike. She would save one from the other. She would help them understand.

Once a human, now a youkai, she had spent the last few years walking a tightrope between two worlds. And even before that she had stood straddling time, torn between two eras – always, always a woman in twain. But now she saw, oh, how she saw, the revelation stunning in its clarity - she wasn't trapped, wasn't torn, wasn't made of two halves that could never meet.

She was a bridge.

She would merge times and peoples, serve as the gateway through which the future she remembered ceased to be and was replaced with a world where humans and youkai lived openly, side by side.

In her heart, a silent laugh bubbled up. A laugh that was not her own, that she had not heard or felt since the day she made the Shikon Wish. It was the laugh of a demon now dead, the youkai whose power she bore.

It was an expression of triumph.

Unaware of the thoughts chasing themselves around Kagome's head, Bozu went to the pile of bones that made up his nest, and sat himself down. His mouth was open, baring his fangs. As Kagome watched, his tongue darted out, running over his left incisor.

Something niggled at the back of Kagome's mind.

"I agree to your game and promisssse to let you go if I losssse. Tell me your riddle," Bozu demanded.

Doing her best to ignore the squalor around her, Kagome collected her thoughts, and recited:

"Still waters run deep.

I have a bed, but rarely sleep.

I have a mouth, few hear me speak,

Though with a head, I never weep."

Bozu answered immediately, just as Kagome had hoped he would when she put a twist on an old riddle that many had heard before.

"A river! That's an easssy one! A river!"

"No!" Kagome told him, dancing on the spot for joy in her trick. "The answer is Sesshoumaru-sama!"

Old Bozu screamed and stamped his feet, calling her a cheater and a sneak. Eyes rolling in fury, he lunged at her with a screech.

Kagome was unprepared for the attack and he scored a hit, three of his dirty nails gouging her arm. Kagome shivered, her stomach heaving and a strange flare of heat zinging through her veins, seeming to emanate from the wound. Wrenching her shoulder away and leaping back, she flipped neatly to land in front of her human girl, tossing a searing orb of foxfire in Old Bozu's direction.

"Liar!" she jeered at him. "You promised you would let us go!"

He cackled, the light of true madness in his eyes. "I ssssaid I'd let you go. Never ssssaid you'd be alive!"

Bozu lunged again, but this time Kagome was ready. She sidestepped at the last moment, leaping into a spinning kick that connected with Bozu's back, knocking him away from the human girl. Even as she moved, her fingers were working, a leaf pulled from her obi swiftly shaped into an origami box. Raising it to her lips, Kagome blew, inflating the box with her breath.

She and the human girl winked out of sight.

Bozu cackled. "Isssss that all?" he crowed, circling Kagome. He rattled his knucklebones, letting them fall from one hand into the other.

Click click click. Click click click.

"Issss that all? I can ssstill sssee your ssshadow!" He gestured to the wall, where the shadow of a four-tailed fox stretched in the light from the cave mouth. Bozu threw his knucklebones, and one of them struck Kagome, bouncing off her left thigh.

"Found you," Bozu whispered.

Frantic, Kagome skittered away, folding an origami fox and breathing on it, sending it to dance at her side.

Another shadow appeared on the opposite cave wall, identical to her own. Bozu would have to choose which to follow, and once he was confused enough Kagome would be able to retrieve her girl and slip away.

But before she could enact this rather clever scheme or add yet another shadow to the mix, Old Bozu tossed up his hands. "You are too much trouble," he declared.

Then he disappeared in a cloud of emerald flames.

Kagome stayed hidden, not trusting that he was really gone. Surely he wouldn't give up that easily? He'd been determined to kill her only a few minutes ago.

She counted to one hundred before daring to move. When she purposefully made noise and Bozu didn't appear, she relaxed enough to cancel the spell of invisibility and folded her shadow spell away into her sleeve to be used again. Picking up her human, she headed to the cave entrance, still musing over The Blue Monk's behavior.

It was decidedly odd.

But then she thought of it no more, for there, in Old Bozu's dank cave, Kagome grew her fifth tail.


40. Vow

Kagome took herself and her girl to the nearby stream to wash before even thinking about returning the girl to her village. Still angry about the girl's father refusing to search for her, Kagome planned a grand entrance. One that would make a point. It went against the grain, to play on the villagers' fear of her, but it was the best way she knew to ensure a future for the girl, and was she the Fox Princess or not?

It was past time she accepted it and started acting like it.

And this would be another step in the path that led to a future where humans and youkai worked side by side.

The child woke up when Kagome used the end of her sleeve to wash the girl's face. Kagome could hear the change in breathing and the increased heartrate.

"You might as well open your eyes and tell me your name," she told the girl cheerfully. "I know you're awake."

Slowly, the girl child opened wide brown eyes that were a bit too large for her face. Kagome helped her to sit up. "Are you going to eat me?" the girl asked.

Kagome tamped down her irritation, reminding herself that Old Bozu likely would have eaten the girl. Very carefully not smiling and showing her fangs as little as possible, Kagome said, "I don't eat humans. But I do like it when the ones around me are clean."

With that, Kagome folded a fan from one of the leaves she kept in her obi and used it to brush all of the dirt and grime from the girl. After a moment she turned the trick on herself as well, paying particular attention to the blood staining her sleeve. The gouges Bozu had left in her arm still throbbed, despite her youkai healing factor.

"My name is Jun," the girl said.

Kagome grimaced. Jun? The name meant 'obedient.' Combined with her father's disregard for her, it left a bad taste in Kagome's mouth. But she covered her reaction with a smile, not wanting to upset the girl, forgetting in an instant, as she always did, that most humans didn't like the wide stretch of her lips. Smiling was just a part of who she was, as natural to her as breathing.

But Jun wasn't afraid. She smiled back and scooted closer to Kagome, her eyes on Kagome's tails. "You're very pretty," Jun said earnestly.

Kagome laughed. "So are you."

Taking one of the combs from her hair, Kagome worked out the knots in Jun's nest of tangles, brushing until Jun's hair fell around her face in soft black waves. Then Kagome stuck the comb back in place and considered Jun's kimono for a moment.

It was of good quality. Unwanted or not, Jun was the daughter of the village headman. But the power of a new tail was snapping through Kagome, electrifying her blood with every beat of her heart, and she had an idea.

Thinking of Inuyasha's clothes of firerat, Kagome plucked a strand of hair from each of her tails, and then one from her head. Her eyes glowing bright green with the force of her youki, she wove the six strands together, with her every breath whispering words of protection. End over end went the hairs, in hypnotic loops that made Kagome sway from side to side, like a serpent hypnotized. Foxfire began to dance along the strands, but did not burn them, casting Kagome in an eerie green light.

Finally she reached the end of the longest hair and flicked her wrist, shaking the thin weave out. And that was when she saw that her instincts were right. Her newest tail had granted her the power not only of illusion, but of true transformation. As she shook the woven hairs, they turned into a mass of rich cloth, flowing over her palm with the sheen of silk. Kagome held the garment up to see it had taken the form of a kimono in burnt red, the color of foxes and autumn leaves.

She held it out to Jun.

"Put this on. It will protect you. If torn, it will repair itself. It will never need washing. It will grow with you." Kagome smiled. "You're mine now."

Jun's large eyes went wide. She bowed once from the waist, and then seemed to think that wasn't enough and went down on her knees, granting Kagome the bow of a subject to a monarch.

Kagome guessed it was appropriate, but it made her uncomfortable all the same. "Get up, Jun," she said softly, holding out the kimono again. "Put this on. And always remember you're mine. Not as a slave or a servant," Kagome clarified, recalling all at once how a human was likely to react to being told they belonged to another. "You are mine to protect and provide for. If anyone, human or youkai, ever bothers you, tell them you belong to the Fox Princess of the West. Can you do that?"

"Yes, kitsune-hime," Jun promised. She was a resilient girl. In some ways, she reminded Kagome of Rin.

"Then come," Kagome said, holding out her hand for Jun to take. Straightening her shoulders and her spine, she did her best to channel Sesshoumaru's regal manner. "It is time to take you home."

-l-

Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were moving on foot, tracking Kagome's scent and youki. The trail was faint enough that Sesshoumaru was unable to follow it from the air, something that vexed him endlessly. With his youki cloud, he could move much faster. But with his youki cloud, he would not know which way to travel.

So he was stuck on the ground with Inuyasha, moving at a loping run, knowing that every moment that passed something could be happening to his vixen.

Then he felt it. At the very edge of his aura, Kagome's youki spiked high, not quite high enough to herald a transformation to her true form, but certainly she was performing a powerful kitsune spell.

Sesshoumaru halted, and Inuyasha's head came up.

"Got anything?" he asked.

Sesshoumaru nodded. Without pausing for explanation, he grasped Inuyasha's arm and formed his youki cloud under their feet, sending them streaking through the sky towards Kagome. Inuyasha's startled exclamation was lost on the wind.

-l-

Kagome walked with Jun all the way through Jun's village, making sure that they were seen. By the time they reached the headman's house, quite a large crowd followed them. Some carried scythes and pitchforks, made edgy by the presence of a youkai, but the crowd had yet to turn into a mob and Kagome was determined that they wouldn't.

When they stopped in front of the headman's house, the headman was standing there with his wives and two men who looked to be guards. Jun's mother began to cry and, ignoring her husband's orders, rushed forward to hug Jun.

"Thank you, kitsune-sama," she cried over and over. "Thank you, thank you, for saving my daughter!"

Kagome nodded to the woman, reminding herself that she was being the Fox Princess and she had to act aloof, as humans expected her to. Her plan wouldn't work if they didn't respect her. Or worse, if she did something that ignited the low edge of fear that filled the air with an inaudible hum.

The headman came forward. "Thank you for returning my daughter, youkai. But I am afraid there is no reward."

No reward? Is that what he thought this was about?

Kagome grabbed her temper with both hands and held on tight.

"Quiet," she told the headman gently.

For a moment it seemed that he would lash out at her. After all, she was smaller and female, and she dared to give him an order.

Kagome smiled as wide as she could and pointedly spread her tails out behind her, reminders of her inhumanity.

The headman's face went from red to white.

"This girl," Kagome said, pitching her voice to carry, "is mine now. The Claimed Daughter of the Fox Princess of the West." The girl's mother gave a wail, but Kagome touched her shoulder, looking into the woman's eyes as she continued, "She will stay with you until she reaches adulthood. When she is old enough to be betrothed or apprenticed, I will return."

The crowd began to mutter. With her youkai hearing, Kagome picked out "our children next," "only one kitsune. Together we can kill it," and most alarmingly, "should kill the girl, just to be safe."

But before anyone could act on those statements, a shadow fell over the sun. Kagome didn't have to look to see what it was. Sesshoumaru's youki brushed against hers, the sensation conveying something between joy and a reprimand.

Sesshoumaru descended, his youki cloud dissolving, and his scent comforted Kagome. She could smell Inuyasha too.

Kagome turned to them, trusting them to play along.

"My lord," she addressed Sesshoumaru. "Have you come to see my new daughter?"

All around them the humans whispered. "The Ice Dog!" "He's real!" "The one in red looks dangerous…" "Lookit those marks on his face."

While they had been willing to attack one small kitsune, the presence of Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru deterred them completely.

Sesshoumaru's eyes fixed on Kagome's newest tail. Catching his gaze, Kagome flicked the tip of it at him, her face alight with mischief. Sesshoumaru didn't rise to the bait, instead turning his gaze away to inspect Jun. Jun stared back at him, fearless, and then to Kagome's great amusement told Sesshoumaru, "You can't bother me. I belong to the Fox Princess of the West."

It was all she could do not to laugh.

Sesshoumaru nodded gravely and, just as Kagome had hoped he would, reached for the pouch where he kept his coins. Removing ten pieces of gold, he held them out to the child. Glancing at Kagome first to see if it was alright, Jun came forward to take them.

Throughout all of this, the headman watched them. Kagome didn't like the set of his jaw. Apparenly Inuyasha noticed it too, because he stepped forward, holding the claws of one hand up to let them glint in the sunlight. "Anything happens to the kid," he said quietly, but not so quietly that the humans couldn't hear, "and it's you I'm coming after."

Sesshoumaru turned his back on the headman, saying "Come, kitsune-hime. Come, inu-hiko."

"Yes, inu-sama."

Kagome and Inuyasha fell into step, the crowd parting before the three of them like water before a ship. By the time they had walked the length of the village, the women were discussing ways to bring the kitsune's favor to their children, and rumors were circulating that Inuyasha was Sesshoumaru and Kagome's son, and that he would be taking Jun as his bride when they returned for her.

-l-

"What are you going to do with her?" Inuyasha asked once they were away from the village.

"Take her to Edo," Kagome answered. "She can train at Sango and Miroku's school, or learn to heal from Kaede. If she doesn't want to do that, I'll help her find a husband. It's a better future than she would get here, with that father of hers."

Abruptly, Kagome realized that Sesshoumaru had fallen behind and that she couldn't feel his youki. He was hiding it, a sure sign that he was holding himself rigidly in check, fighting instinct and emotion. She stopped in her tracks and faced him, worried.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"Why did you not tell this Sesshoumaru before you left?"

"Oh hell," Inuyasha muttered. "I'm going hunting."

Kagome barely noticed him leave.

"Sesshoumaru-sama…" she said again, expanding her senses, probing his tightly bound youki. There was anger in his scent and outrage in his eyes, but beneath it all was fear and worry.

Fear and worry.

Kagome couldn't remember why she hadn't woken Sesshoumaru after her vision in the mirror, but that thought was lost, pushed away when Kagome pressed herself into Sesshoumaru's arms, letting him feel that she was real, safe and whole and back with him again.

He wrapped his arms around her, resting his face in her hair. "Make to me a vow," he demanded, his voice as smooth as ever. And yet after years spent by his side, Kagome heard every word he did not say and the quaver that was not there.

"Okay," she said in response.

Sesshoumaru pulled back to look at her, incredulity plainly written in the arch of his brows. He was shocked that she agreed so easily. Shocked that a kitsune would not even ask what kind of vow he required.

Kagome laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling herself up to rub her nose against his.

"Kagome of the Five Tails vows that she will never leave the Pack of the West unless Sesshoumaru-sama commands it," Kagome declared, a crackle of youki in the air signaling the geas taking hold.

The muscles in Sesshoumaru's shoulders shifted under her hands, loosening, and Kagome reflected that Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were more alike than they would ever admit. She'd made Inuyasha a very similar promise, once upon a time.

And then Sesshoumaru bent his head, and he was kissing her, and his lips were soft and his scent filled her nose, and the gouges in her arm thudded in time with her pulse, setting her whole body on fire with want.

When Sesshoumaru broke the kiss, his eyes were red-rimmed and Kagome was panting.


41. Illusion

Inuyasha made so much noise when he came back that Kagome thought he must be purposefully warning them. He stomped his feet, he muttered loudly to himself, and he circled to approach upwind, so they couldn't possibly miss his scent, or that of the fish he had caught.

It was like he was afraid he was going to find them making love in the middle of the forest.

Sesshoumaru pulled Kagome closer, nuzzling her neck and scraping one of his fangs lightly along her skin. She shivered, her tails wrapping around him of their own accord. The gouges in her arm throbbed, her head pounding along with them, something hot and sweet coiling in her belly. Thoughts clouding, unaware that jade light had started to edge into her eyes, she brought her lips to Sesshoumaru's once more, purring low in her throat.

More stomping feet, curses, and crashing through the underbrush brought Kagome back to herself.

"Inuyasha is back," she whispered, and was surprised at the sultry tone of her voice. There was more than a little of a vixen's pull there, and she struggled to rein in her youki.

It was unlikely that she could ever really bespell Sesshoumaru, but she never wanted to live with the doubt.

Sesshoumaru lifted his head and looked down at her, one brow raised. He didn't have to speak for Kagome to know what he was saying. She could almost hear it – Let Inuyasha see. This one cares not.

Reaching up, she flicked his earlobe with one claw. His raised eyebrow climbed higher, and Kagome rolled her eyes before pulling herself from his grasp and straightening her kimono, her cheeks aflame.

It wasn't the time or place to figure out what this thing between them was. Was it?

No. It wasn't.

By the time Inuyasha came into view, Kagome was standing placidly at Sesshoumaru's side, having made a valiant effort to pull herself together. Inuyasha glanced from one of them to the other, opened his mouth, thought better of it, closed his mouth, and tossed each of them a couple of fish.

They ate the meat raw, stripping the scales away with their claws and cutting out slivers of succulent pink flesh. Kagome savored the sweet taste. The blood added a tang of salt that pleased the beast that slumbered at the depths of her soul.

-l-

Sesshoumaru waited until Kagome had sated her hunger before he began questioning her on her reasons for leaving, and then pressing for the details of her encounter with the creature she called Aobozu.

"The odd thing is that he just gave up at the end," Sesshoumaru's vixen said, gesturing with a bit of fish before popping the morsal into her mouth. Sesshoumaru watched as she licked a speck of blood from her lips, either unable or unwilling to tear his eyes away. "Oh, that and the scent."

"Scent?" Inuyasha questioned. He'd been unnaturally quiet since his return from his hunting excursion. Sesshoumaru chose not to comment on it.

Kagome wrinkled her nose, a crease forming between her brows as she searched for the words that would describe her meaning. Even when making such a face, her countenance was pleasing.

"It was sort of… colorless? No, that's not right. More like stale. Like the scent trail was old, except he was standing right in front of me."

Inuyasha glanced at Sesshoumaru, and Sesshoumaru inclined his head, signaling that they were in agreement.

"Sounds like an illusion," Inuyasha said.

"Illusion?"

"Yeah," Inuyasha nodded, picking his teeth with a fishbone. Sesshoumaru suspected that he continued to act in such a boorish manner simply to be annoying. "Naraku used to do it all the time. Make a fake scent to hide his real one. But sounds like he was better at it than whoever this bastard is. He kept you from knowing his real scent, but I doubt he'd be able to trick you into thinking he was someone you knew, like Naraku could."

"You will show this one the site of the battle," Sesshoumaru commanded.

Kagome had done well to demand The Blue Monk leave the West. But Sesshoumaru was not satisfied. He would examine this cave and find some way to track the loathsome creature. This Aobozu had attempted to harm Kagome, and for that Sesshoumaru would rend his flesh and melt his bones, and then if Tenseiga would cooperate, resurrect him in order to do it all again.

Kagome smiled a fox-smile and ran her fingers through the length of his silver hair. "Someone's thinking bad thoughts."

Inuyasha made a gagging noise, and Kagome responded with "Osuwari."

Even all these years after the rosary had stopped working, Inuyasha still cringed and braced himself for impact. Kagome had once explained it as something called a 'Pavlovian Response.' Sesshoumaru thought this human, Pavlov, to be a clever sorcerer, and planned to form an alliance with the man once he was born.

"Oi," Inuyasha straightened up. "That was hella mean."

Kagome laughed her fox laugh and turned her back on Inuyasha, setting out toward Aobozu's lair.

Once they reached the cave, Sesshoumaru ordered Kagome to wait with Inuyasha. He could sense no youki within the cavern, but he would take no chances with the safety of his pack.

By the scent trails in the air and the marks on the ground, he was able to reconstruct the battle. They were right in the assumption that Aobozu was using illusion to disguise his real scent.

Illusion.

Sesshoumaru fetched Kagome and set her to searching the cavern. Inuyasha leaned against one side of the cave mouth, his hand on the hilt of the Tetsusaiga. "Keh. What's she going to find that we can't?"

Not so long ago Sesshoumaru's attitude had been much the same. Now he said, "There are some things only a kitsune may know."

Kagome located it beneath the pile of human bones arranged in the shape of a nest – a scale coated in a drop of blood. Just like the one she'd seen in the slaughtered village made to look like it was attacked by Kouga's wolves. When Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha gazed at the spot she indicated, they saw only dirt.

Then Kagome picked the scale up and it shimmered into being, along with the true scent of the youkai called Aobozu.

"Guess it's just part of who you are, 'Gome," Inuyasha teased. "First a shard detector, now a scale detector."

Sesshoumaru ignored their banter. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply, searching through the recesses of his mind. He knew this scent. He had encountered this creature, whoever he was, before. And not as Aobozu.

If only he could remember.

It was long ago, he knew that much. He had a faint recollection of sand and the sound of waves.

The Southern Islands. But he had not been there since he was a pup, and still betrothed to Kiyohime.

"Come," he said, opening his eyes. "We return to the shiro."


42. Weasel

Sesshoumaru took them back to the shiro on his youki cloud, moving so fast that the ground was a blur beneath them, traversing the distance in a fraction of the time it had taken Kagome. There was a tension about him, an anxious wariness that made the fur of Kagome's tails bristle. It was plain that something he had discovered in the cave had upset him.

He didn't tell her or Inuyasha what it was, didn't speak at all, and for once Kagome did not question him. The only reason he would be racing off back to the palace is if he thought his lands or the kits, or both, were in danger, and if that was the case Kagome would sooner let him concentrate on flying. There would be time enough for explanations later.

They touched down just inside the Great Outer Gate in the late afternoon, Sesshoumaru sweeping past those who rushed to greet them and telling Jaken to summon the other royals to his study. Kagome and Inuyasha followed in his wake, Kagome forced to trot to keep up with his long strides and Inuyasha managing a much more dignified prowl. On the way they encountered Takeshi and Inari. Sesshoumaru inquired after the kits, and once assured they were safe with Yukiko, ordered that Inari retire to her room and stay there.

Inuyasha's ears twitched at that, and he looked between Inari and Sesshoumaru, torn. Kagome bit her lip, not sure if Sesshoumaru was protecting Inari from danger, or if he thought she might be the danger. That scale in Old Bozu's cave was just like the one from the slaughtered village, which meant that there was a good chance that Bozu was Inari's master, or at least working closely with him…

When the study door shut behind them, Kagome began folding the totem anchor for a spell of silence without being asked. Sesshoumaru turned to look at her, lips parting, and then curling into a smirk when he saw that she had anticipated what he wanted.

Once the spell was in place she set the totem on his desk.

"Okay, Sesshoumaru, what the hell?" Inuyasha began.

A knock sounded before Sesshoumaru could answer. Kagome opened the door, admitting Okuri and Kiyohime.

"Where is Myobu-sama?" Kagome asked, trying to inconspicuously rub at the gouges left in her arm. They were throbbing again, making it difficult for her to think.

"My nephew hasss not been ssseen ssssincce yesssster eve," Kiyohime hissed. She moved to take a seat in one of Sesshoumaru's chairs, the ones carved with images of ning-ya. Kagome remembered Sesshoumaru saying that the Inu no Taisho had imported most of the palace furnishings through the Southern Islands. Kiyohime must feel right at home.

Wait.

"What does your nephew have to do with Myobu-sama?"

Sesshoumaru blinked, sinking into the chair behind his desk. "Ah," he said.

Kiyohime turned her eerie dragon eyes on Kagome. "Myobu isss my nephew. The ssson of Kitssssune no Kotei and my sssisssster, Isssonadehime." She smiled, and it was awful. "But Sssessshoumaru-sssama will remember him asss Itachiryu."

Inuyasha laughed. "The Weasel Dragon?"

"This Sesshoumaru was a pup," Sesshoumaru said, his tone daring anyone to comment. "And Myobu was often underfoot."

"So you called him Weasel Dragon?" Kagome demanded.

Sesshoumaru shrugged one shoulder.

"How he usssed to trail after usss along the beach…" Kiyohime shifted in her seat.

"Myobu and Itachiryu do not have the same scent." Sesshoumaru addressed that comment to the room at large, his way of asking for an explanation.

Kiyohime wave a hand, lips twisting with contempt. "My nephew is not jussst kitsssune or dragon. He isss both. But he isss too weak to accept thisss. He rejectsss one half of hisss nature, and so lockssss hisss dragon youki away. That isss why his sssscent isss changed. That isss why thisss Kiyohime hasss ssseen to it that he ssshall never rule the Ssssouthern Islandsss."

Kagome found herself looking at Inuyasha. He looked back.

"You are wise to keep your lands out of the hands of one so callow," Okuri said, speaking for the first time since he had entered the room. "Just as Sesshoumaru-sama is wise to embrace the strength Myobu-sama has not yet found." He gestured to Kagome and Inuyasha, who were like Myobu – both and neither, all at once.

But unlike Myobu, they allowed themselves to be whole.

Kagome smiled at the Lord of the North, finding more and more that she liked the deep voiced wolf youkai. "Thank you, Okuri-sama," she told him with a bow.

He accepted her gesture graciously. "But tell me, Sesshoumaru-sama, why do we speak of the Eastern Lord, other than to remark on his absence?"

Sesshoumaru growled. "Because of the reason for his absence." His voice was cold. Acidic. Kagome went to him and rested her hands on his shoulders, feeling that Sesshoumaru needed to touch her, needed her reassurance.

"And what reasssson isss thissss?" Kiyohime asked with the air of one who already knew. Somehow, that made everything click into place. Kagome tensed in anticipation of what Sesshoumaru was going to say.

"In the last day, the Lady of my pack entered into a contest of wits with a creature she knew as Aobozu. She claimed victory." As apprehensive as she was, Kagome had to stifle a smile at the obvious pride in Sesshoumaru's voice as he recounted her adventure. "With her triumph, she gained a new tail, and her defeated foe was made to pay her penalty."

Sesshoumaru's aura brushed against hers, and Kagome dutifully recited, "I will give you a riddle. If you answer wrong, then the girl comes with me, and you must leave the Western Lands forever."

Her eyes widened. That was why Bozu had left so suddenly. If he hadn't…

"Aobozu shares the same scent as Itachiryu. This one believes The Blue Monk to be what remains of his dragon form."

Aobozu was Itachiryu. Itachiryu was Myobu.

Myobu was Aobozu.

And if he hadn't left the Western Lands after promising Kagome he would if he lost her riddle game, he would have forfeited a tail.

Kagome took some measure of comfort in the knowledge that Myobu could never return to the Western Lands. And if her supposition that he was Inari's master was true, then surely Inari would be safe so long as she stayed in the West.

Inuyasha must have reached the same conclusion. He was smiling and glancing at the door.

Sesshoumaru's youki spiked, making the air in the room oppressive and heavy. The temperature dropped, and Kagome wondered if that was why humans spoke of Sesshoumaru as the 'Ice Dog.'

He was glaring at Kiyohime.

"You knew," he accused, death in every syllable.

"Of courssse." Kiyohime was as calm as the sea on a clear day. "Myobu isss ruled by his passsionssss, like a fox, and as ruthlessss as a water dragon. It wasss only logical that he would try to take what he feelsss is hisss. It issss unfortunate he will not live to hisss potential." She gave a sigh. "He isss unworthy of hisss power. Ssso I warned the Little Fox. Didn't I?"

Kagome blinked, nonplussed. "Oh. Actually yes, she did. I just didn't understand at the time."

The temperature in the room slowly returned to normal, light growing brighter as the looming threat of Sesshoumaru's youki lessened.

Though Kiyohime hadn't batted an eye, she too seemed to relax minutely once it became apparent that Sesshoumaru wasn't going to fly across the desk to tear her limb from limb.

"Should it come to war, the North will align with Sesshoumaru-sama," Okuri offered in the silence.

"The Sssouth asss well," Kiyohime was quick to add.

Sesshoumaru nodded, accepting the alliances. "The Weasel will likely return to his lands to hide from the wrath of this Sesshoumaru. We shall wait for him to surface. While the East is the weakest of the Four Lands after the Years of Naraku, war is… undesirable."

Sesshoumaru glanced at her when he said that, and Kagome smiled at him, running her claws over both his wrists in gratitude.

Edo was in the East. If they went to war, and Myobu learned of the village's connection to her…

The wounds in her arm pulsed, and Kagome wished to be alone with Sesshoumaru so that she could kiss him from head to toe for his thoughtfulness.

-l-

Myobu ran, heading for the Eastern border as fast as his true form could take him. In that moment, he despised the Fox Princess – for the riddle that earned him exile, yes. But his hatred burned even hotter because she had forced him to travel in this way.

He was neither truly kitsune nor dragon, and couldn't avoid that fact when in his true form. He had the long body and scales of a serpent, but he breathed foxfire and his spine split into six reptilian tails. His eyes burned red, but still bore the fox mask markings. A ruff of red fur around his serpentine head and trailing whiskers on his pointed snout was what had led to his hated childhood nickname – Itachiryu, the Weasel Dragon.

Though his quickest mode of travel, he loathed this form and avoided assuming it when given a choice.

Ever since the day Kiyohime had murdered his grandfather and his mother for the Southern throne and coolly explained to him that it was only logical because he was too kitsune to rule the Clan of Wind and Water, he had vowed that he would never be a dragon, and felt sick when the geas took hold. The force of his own magic fractured his youki.

Sometimes he thought it had fractured his mind.

But no matter.

He was the Fox Lord. What he could not obtain through honor, he would take by guile.

He had underestimated Kagome, but their encounter had not been a total loss. Adept at blood magic, he'd taken the opportunity to send a spell coursing through her veins when he slashed her with his claws. None in the West knew him for an enemy. When his spell took hold, they would send for Myobu-sama to help the Fox Princess and he would have her brought to the Eastern shiro.

And then, she and her power would be his.

And then, the West would fall.

And then, he would have his revenge on Kiyohime.

The serpent who stole his birthright, the dogs who mocked him and killed the last members of the Dragon Clan of the North – the Clan of Air and Fire – and the wolves who dared to step in where a member of Myobu's family should rule… he would have his revenge on all of them.

Starting with Sesshoumaru.


43. Kitsuneno'otan

Kagome had enjoyed the Feast of Four Treaties for the most part (minus homicidal fox-dragons and accidental poisonings), but she was glad when it was over and the palace started emptying out. Not that it was ever really empty – but recently it had been packed to the rafters.

Lessons were resumed, and Sesshoumaru started coming to bed regularly again, when weeks passed with no word of Myobu. It seemed that the Weasel was content to stay hidden for the foreseeable future, and Kagome could be nothing but relieved. Slowly but surely, life at the palace returned to normal.

The gouges Aobozu – Myobu! – had left in her arm were slow to heal and burned like a beesting, but somehow Kagome never remembered to show them to anyone. She'd look at the scabbed over welts and think to herself that she needed to see the palace healer, or discuss the injury with Inari and Yukiko, only to have the wound fade from her mind the second it was covered by her kimono sleeve. Even her worry at her own forgetfulness barely stayed in her thoughts for longer than an eyeblink.

With the bloom of new flowers came a bounce in her step, and though her cuts had by then healed, the surge of energy is matched by a throbbing in her arm. Her eyes sparked with foxfire and her limbs were filled with a wild energy that soon turned to agitation. She joined the kits in begging to be taken along on a patrol, to travel, to go anywhere. Twice, she snapped at Inuyasha when he told her to calm down, something in her making her want to challenge him.

At last, Inari recognized what was happening, and confronted Kagome with it.

"It is time for your kitsuneno'otan," she said without mercy.

"But you said I probably wouldn't have one! I already had three tails when I became a kitsune, and now I have five!" Frantically, Kagome slipped her tails out of her obi, letting them stand proudly around her and pointing.

See! Five!

Chuckling at her student's dramatics, Inari bade Kagome to sit back down. "Your case is hardly usual. I said you probably wouldn't have a kitsuneno'otan. Probably is not definitely."

"Maybe you're wrong?" Kagome said hopefully, her hands on her cheeks.

Inari leaned close and scented Kagome's neck. "No. I am sure I am right. And soon, it will be obvious enough to all in the palace."

Groaning, Kagome slumped over the table, letting her head thump against the dark wood.

"I will speak to Sesshoumaru-sama for you," Inari said.

"Sesshoumaru?" Kagome echoed weakly.

"Who else would you choose?" Inari sounded way too smug about that.

Great. Just great. She hadn't gotten to see Sesshoumaru much at all since they'd kissed outside Jun's village, nevermind being alone with him, and now…. This.

Kagome nodded, her head hitting the table again with a muted thump, thump, thump.

-l-

"She comes of age?" Sesshoumaru asked delicately, trying to be certain of what Inari was telling him.

"Yes, my lord," the golden vixen affirmed. "I had thought it might not happen with her, since it usually occurs just before the third tail… and yet here we are."

Sesshoumaru nodded, remaining silent as he mulled that over. "What must be done for her?" he said at last, not sure if it was the same as with inu youkai.

Inari told him, seeming far too happy about it.

In the usual course of things, when a young kitsune reached the point of kitsuneno'otan – the turning of the tail – an unmated member of their leash was chosen to guide them through the shedding of their virginity. Through sexual awareness, they gained their third tail, and became an adult in the eyes of their peers. An older leash member looked on, to make sure no abuse occurred, and that the younger kitsune was not frightened.

"I will be her witness," Inari went on. "And she chooses you as her guide."

When Sesshoumaru remained silent, Inari spoke again, "It is a great honor to be chosen, my lord. If, however, you do not wish to participate in the ritual, I am sure the Wolf Prince – "

"No," Sesshoumaru said, more forcefully than he had intended to. Standing, he paced, his youki crackling around him, revealing his agitation.

He had no objection to rutting with his vixen, of course. Her form was pleasing and she had proven herself to be a valuable member of his pack. When he'd awoken to discover her gone, he'd been most… unsettled. And so of course it was natural for him to share his pleasure at finding her unharmed. Those kisses... But he did not desire more than shared pleasure. More was not necessary, as he already had an heir in Rin.

This ceremony, this kitsuneno'otan, placed great importance on the role of the guide – a position of honor and trust. It was fitting that Kagome should turn to her alpha to fulfill the role, and yet… Sesshoumaru was wary of what his acceptance might mean to her.

And what if he sired a pup on her? The ceremony Inari spoke of did not allow for the types of magic that would ensure such a thing did not occur.

…Kagome was a fine mother to Rin and Shippou. Powerful, protective, and nurturing. And the thought of her belly rounded with his pup filled him with a sweet, sharp elation that he chose to interpret as pride. No purpose could be served by adding another pup to the pack, and yet the thought was not distasteful.

But to allow one not of the pack to serve as Kagome's guide?

That was unacceptable.

Sesshoumaru's pack was small. Shippou was much too young, and looked upon Kagome as a mother, narrowing the choices to Inuyasha or himself.

He would not let it be Inuyasha, he thought, a vicious snarl that he was unaware of curling his lips.

Certainly that would upset Kagome, as she had decided Inuyasha was not an acceptable mate. And Inuyasha was courting Inari.

Secure in his reasons, Sesshoumaru turned back to Inari, blinking when he saw she had pressed herself to the far wall, pulse thrumming with terror.

"Your eyes," she said weakly, fear spiking her scent.

Had they flashed red? He hadn't realized.

Taking a long, deep breath, Sesshoumaru centered himself.

"What will become of Kagome if this ceremony does not take place?" he asked after coaxing Inari back to the center of the room.

Inari gave an elegant shrug. "If she were normal, she would stay a perennial child with only two tails, until she was driven to find a partner on her own. With Kagome, perhaps the same. Or perhaps not."

Until she was driven to find a partner on her own.

"Tell her that I, Sesshoumaru, will gladly be her guide."

-l-

Nine was a sacred number among kitsune, and so it was nine days later that Sesshoumaru touched down outside a series of caverns his parents had once used as dens when they wished to be away from the palace. He had directed Inari and Kagome to the caves, thinking them sufficiently safe and private for Kagome's kitsuneno'otan.

Here, the two vixens had prepared for his arrival.

Remembering what he had been told, Sesshoumaru stripped himself of silk and swords, folding his clothes neatly and leaving them in a pile just inside the entrance of the den, his swords on top. A barrier placed at the cave mouth ensured that they would not be disturbed.

Naked save for the scant covering provided by his long white hair, he followed his nose to the cavern where Kagome waited. As he should have predicted, she was in the ninth cave from the entrance.

She was sweet and rosy, naked as he was, her tails snapping back and forth. Sesshoumaru had felt that body pressed against his own many times, but never had he allowed himself to imagine what lie beneath her clothes in any great detail.

He was more than pleased by what he saw.

Of Inari's presence there was no sign, but Sesshoumaru was certain she was there, using a kitsune trick to grant them the illusion of privacy.

As soon as Kagome set eyes on him, her scent flooded with fear, her heart pounding in his ears. Sesshoumaru paused.

"I am unacceptable?"

It had been made clear on more than one occasion that she found his body desirable. Her changing scent made the reaction impossible to hide, and she had responded most enthusiastically to his kisses. Did she require more than lust in a lover?

He would not have her frightened and resentful of her alpha. If she didn't want him, he would swallow his pride and retreat. Though it made him growl to think of it, he would send Inuyasha in his place. Or perhaps allow her to choose from amongst the warriors who served the West. Takeshi was near, guarding Inari at a discreet distance.

"No!" Kagome protested, almost shouting. Then, more quietly, "No. No, Sesshoumaru-sama. I'm just nervous. Please. Stay."

He nodded, padding over to her slowly so as not to alarm her further. Gently, he ran three claws down her arm. "On this day you should call me Sesshoumaru."

"Sesshoumaru," she repeated timidly, her eyes fixed on the place between his legs. Her scent was changing.

"Be not afraid," he commanded softly, before taking her lips in a kiss.

-l-

Kagome woke the next morning in Sesshoumaru's arms, sore, but satisfied. Better yet, the aching, nagging sensation that had been plaguing her was gone, as Inari had promised it would be.

And she had another new tail.

Sesshoumaru was watching her.

She let out a nervous giggle. "Um. Thank you?"

What were you supposed to say in this situation? Was this awkward? She wasn't sure if this was awkward.

"You are pleased," he said, a statement rather than a question. How smug he sounded!

But then, he had reason to be.

"Very," she agreed, laying her cheek on his shoulder.

Firmly, she reminded herself of Inari's words of caution. Don't set yourself up for heartbreak by expecting anything to come out of your kitsuneno'otan. It may not be as special to your guide as it is to you.

Despite her thoughts, Kagome knew that Sesshoumaru would always have his own little corner in her heart.


44. Consequences

Myobu crumpled the rice paper in his hands, incinerating Inari's neat brushstrokes in a puff of foxfire.

He had been certain, when he dug his claws into Kagome-hime's flesh and cast a spell that called up lust in the blood, that she would either be forced into kitsuneno'otan or driven mad enough to attack the Ice Dog.

And he'd been equally certain that in the event of kitsuneno'otan that he, Myobu of the Six Tails, would be called to deflower her. He was the most obvious choice – the only full grown kitsune male of noble birth still living. And then she would have been his… he knew many uses for virgin blood, including a love spell that would have ensured the Fox Princess of the West would beg to be the mate of the Eastern Lord. He'd have called her to his palace and she'd have never left, and then he'd have her power and a valuable pawn to play against the West.

He should have pressed harder. He should have used Inari, made her steer the Fox Princess toward him…

It wasn't right that the Great Dog should have such a promising vixen. From Inari's report, it seemed Sesshoumaru-sama might even take Kagome-hime to mate!

He would not allow it.

Myobu was a great believer in keeping bloodlines pure. There should be no crossbreeding between the different types of youkai. He blamed his own frustrating inability to gain more than six tails on the fact that his father had mated a sea serpent.

Inari of the Nine Tails was the product of three generations of kitsune-kitsune matches. Unfortunately, she was too closely related to mate Myobu, being the offspring of his half-sister and a distant cousin.

That was why he had so readily consented to her being courted by a hanyou. Her bloodline must be diluted, or it was likely any kits she bore would depose Myobu's heirs.

And besides all that, Sesshoumaru-sama already had too much power. For him to have Kagome-hime as well, when there were no other vixens of proper age and stature to give Myobu an heir… Myobu had been in the process of resigning himself to a mixed match, when the Shikon Wish shaped a vixen from a human. Surely the occurrence of such a thing was a sign from the kami that Myobu was to have her. Why else would she become a kitsune?

If she had been meant for the Great Dog, the kami would have reshaped her into an inu youkai. She was Myobu's fate. Part of his destiny, the female who would help him gain dominion over all the Four Lands.

Kiyohime was driven to kill Myobu's mother by desire to avoid marriage to the Great Dog, and Ryuukotsusei, the last of the Northern Dragons, was dispatched by that unintelligent fool of an inu hanyou. Through these events was Myobu denied not one, but two kingdoms.

And now, thanks to the trickery of the Fox Princess, Myobu could never again set foot in the West.

All these things, he laid at Sesshoumaru's door.

But Myobu would have his revenge. In time, he would have the North and the South. It would take only patience and cunning, and liberal use of Inari's ki-pearl. Even sweeter still, he would have Kagome-hime.

He saw the way the Dog Lord watched her, the way he protected her and panted after her.

She would be Myobu's for the power she represented and possessed. And more importantly now, she would be Myobu's because it would cause the Lord of the West pain.

And as for the West…

Running his tongue along his left incisor, Myobu went to his magical workroom and retrieved the enormous sea turtle shell he kept there. Inverting it, he filled it with water taken from a ning-ya's grotto. Two drops of his own blood and the water began to swirl, forming a miniature whirlpool. A conduit to another realm.

Staring into the hypnotic motion of the water, Myobu listened.

"Yesss, yessss," he murmured to himself, scales spreading across his face and arms. It was difficult to hold onto his fox form when he used what remained of his dragon youki. But it was necessary. Necessary…

"I will do asss you sssay," he told the churning vortex before him.

Then he severed the connection, pouring the water out onto the floor. It spread around his feet, seeping into the woven mats like blood on a battlefield.

Myobu imagined it was the blood of his enemies, pooling around his ankles as they breathed their last.

He wore Inari's ki-pearl on a chain around his neck, charmed to be invisible. He pulled it out now, squeezing the small jewel in his fist. With a mental twist, he accessed her youki. His green fox mask markings grew jagged at the edges, bleeding over his skin like ink on parchment, until his face was that of Aobozu. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

When he opened them, he saw the world as Inari saw it. He told her to move toward the door and her body obeyed. Inuyasha stood in his path, and Myobu smiled and murmured to him, stroking the hanyou's cheek with Inari's hand.

Inari fought him. He was able to control her for a few moments only. But she would get weaker, of that he was sure. It would take time, years perhaps, but one day she would be nothing more than an extension of his will.

Myobu could never rule the West. But Inari could. Once Sesshoumaru and that little scrap of an heir were disposed of, Inuyasha would be the Lord.

And Myobu, through Inari, would be his consort.

-l-

There was a new awareness between Sesshoumaru and Kagome following her kitsuneno'otan. A carnal knowledge of each other that neither could deny.

Kagome would run her fingers through his hair, and Sesshoumaru would remember the sting of his scalp when she pulled those very same locks, crying his name. Her leg would brush his as they lay together, the pups around them, and he would recall the delicious pressure of her thighs locked around his waist, the curve of her breast in his hand.

She gave him looks of molten foxfire, the scent of her arousal chasing him through the halls of the shiro when she caught sight of him sparring with his sworn warriors, or when they walked together in the gardens. He bared a fang, and she smirked a knowing womanish smirk, and ran her fingers over his chest, playing with the edges of silk cloth, but never quiet daring to slip under and caress the skin beneath.

Three times, he almost took her. Once in his bed, when she had lain with the entire length of her body pressed into his side, the scent of her lust and his own filling his nose and making his eyes bleed red.

It was only the thought of answering Rin and Shippou's questions after the act that stopped him.

The second time she was in the dojo courtyard, practicing with her shuriken, and wearing the uniform of the palace trainees that somehow seemed more suggestive than all of her elegant kimono. The sight of her, concentration on her face, her hair bound back, exposing the back of her neck to his view as she arched and threw, muscles sinuously sliding…

He'd hurried away before he could forget himself.

The third time it had been the sight of her fangs. He admitted to himself now that he'd always found them almost unbearably attractive. When she bared them, his control snapped. He blinked and she was in his arms, moaning his name, the scent of her driving his passion to new heights. With a great rip of cloth, he parted her kimono, uncaring that they were in his study and any of his councilors could walk in. Pleasure taken with one of such beauty was not something to be hidden.

She scrabbled at the knot of his obi, and he tore at her breast bindings, his fangs lengthening as he licked at her neck, finding the sweet spot where he would bite, where he would mark, where he would claim…

Mine.

With an abruptness that left Kagome staring at him in wide eyed astonishment, he thrust himself away from her, his iron will tested by every step back he forced himself to take, when his whole body was screaming now, more, closer, mine, mine, mine.

His dignity hanging around him in tatters, Sesshoumaru resolved that something would have to be done about this madness. To take Kagome as a lover was one thing, and something he'd hesitated over only because he didn't want to give her an expectation for something more that would result in anger and disharmony within the pack. But this, what he'd almost done…

He, Sesshoumaru, who had walked the path of Supreme Conquest for over a hundred years, had almost claimed a mate with no rhyme or reason that he could see, no aim in mind. He had almost been overcome by the desires of his bestial nature, a nature he had always ruthlessly bent to his will.

It would not stand.

"I must go," he said to Kagome, rearranging his clothes so the silk hung properly once more.

"Go?"

He didn't turn to look at her. He feared that if he did he would be once more overwhelmed by the need to possess her.

Without saying more, stopping only to place the Seal of the West on Inuyasha's bed, Sesshoumaru left his shiro. He would go into his lands and hunt alone, as he had always done until so very recently. There, he would master himself and his instincts, as he always had in the past.

And when he returned, everything would be as it was.


45. Absence

It was safe to say that Inuyasha had never confused Kagome as much as Sesshoumaru.

After her kitsuneno'otan, he blew hot and cold. One moment his desire was so thick in the air that she could smell it halfway across the shiro, and the next he was shoving her away and telling her that he had to 'go,' but not where he had to go, or why he had to go, or even when he would be back.

Clearly, being unable to commit was a family trait.

At least she was fairly certain that Sesshoumaru didn't have an undead former love who looked exactly like her wandering around in the woods somewhere… But then, Sesshoumaru had been alive for hundreds of years, so who knew? Maybe he did have some secret girlfriend out there that he could only visit on the third blue moon of every fifth year because she was under a curse and it was all horribly star crossed and that was why Sesshoumaru seemed so cold to the world at large.

It occurred to Kagome that she was being slightly, just slightly, paranoid.

Sitting down and discussing the whole mess with Inari helped to settle her mind, and made a few things clear.

First, she and Sesshoumaru had never discussed what they were to each other. It could be that he thought she just wanted a casual lover – but inu were not known for being quite so free in their affections. Or, it could be the opposite: that he wanted a tryst only, and sensed that her heart was more engaged than his.

Whatever the case, he was bothered by something, and when he returned, presumably from finding things to kill until he felt better, Kagome would need to have an honest conversation with him.

And, having gone down that road once before and not liked it one bit, Kagome was determined not to be drawn into another tale of unrequited love. Three months. She would wait for Sesshoumaru to decide what he wanted for three months. It wasn't a very long time for someone with her lifespan. After that, while she wouldn't seek out other partners, neither would she keep herself hidden away. She was done putting her life on hold.

That decided, she bent herself to the task of helping Inuyasha govern the West in Sesshoumaru's absence.

-l-

Sesshoumaru spent the first few weeks of his journey patrolling the borders of his lands, paying particular attention to the long border between the West and the East. Now that he knew the identity of his enemy, past events were coming into focus, forming a pattern that he was convinced he would have noticed sooner if the powerful instincts he kept wrapped close to his bones had not been pushing him towards a certain vixen.

His distraction had been so complete that for the first two nights he had hunted too much game, used to having a vixen and pups to feed when he traveled. Angry at himself, he'd spent the next three days meditating beneath a waterfall, the sound of roaring water filling his ears as they had once been filled by Kagome's chatter of the future and the laughter of the pups as they played.

He had to master this absurd longing. He would. To be so undisciplined was a weakness he could not afford. Look at what allowing intstinct to roam unchecked had done to his great and terrible father. Look how he himself had been manipulated in the past like a puppet on strings through his attachment to Rin.

It was his duty to care for his pack. But this thing that threatened to swallow his reason whole went beyond that. It was madness. Sheer insanity. If he allowed it in, his tightly coiled control would unravel, rendering him as irrational and unable to master his youki as Inuyasha. Perhaps even more so. Left unchecked, his power could turn him into a ravening beast.

He missed them. His pack. He missed the sounds of their breathing and the warmth of their bodies at night. He missed the brush of familiar youki against his own. He even missed Mother's irritating manner.

Most of all he missed blue eyes and dainty fangs smiling at him.

When he found himself in the vicinity of Jun's village, it seemed natural to make his way toward the headman's house to check that Kagome's ward was well. He did not bother to hide his presence. The villagers would recognize him.

And he found he wanted to be seen.

By the time he stood before Jun's dwelling, she and her mother were by the door to greet him. Jun was dressed in the kimono Kagome had made for her. The kimono that was the same color as Kagome's tails.

"Inu-sama," the girl's mother greeted him politely, bowing low. Sesshoumaru ignored her. It was Jun he was interested in.

As the silence stretched on, the woman straightened once more.

Being a child, Jun was the first to lose patience. "Where is the Fox Princess?" she asked, staring up at Sesshoumaru.

"Where is the Fox Princess, Honored Father!" Jun's mother hissed.

Jun nodded, but did not repeat the correction, instead switching to, "Are you really going to be my Honored Father-in-Law? Everyone in the village says that I am going to marry your son, the Dog Prince in Red."

Sesshoumaru considered this. "Inuyasha is the brother of this one. This Sesshoumaru's son is too young to take a wife."

"Oh," Jun said. "Will you be my Honored Brother-in-Law then?"

Her mother looked like she might faint at any moment.

"Perhaps."

It was not a lie, and if being thought Inuyasha's future bride would protect the girl from the wrath of the villagers, he would not strip that protection away.

Jun took this in, and then she smiled at him. Her brown eyes reminded him of Rin, but her next actions brought forth memories of Kagome.

Darting forward, she tapped him on the hand with her small fingers. "Can't catch me!" Then she turned and took off running as fast as her short human legs could carry her.

Now Jun's mother appeared mortified, and afraid for Jun's life.

Sesshoumaru ignored the woman's apologies in order to give chase. He allowed Jun to evade him for a full two minutes before catching her and instructing her in strategy.

When it grew dark, Sesshoumaru returned Jun to her home and retreated to the forest.

The next day, he went back to the headman's house.

A month and a half was spent instructing Jun in foraging and tactics for evading capture. By the end of the third week he'd told her every story he knew at least twice.

So he began repeating the ones Kagome had told to him.

Jun was just as baffled by the future's human sorcery as he was, a fact which he found reassuring.

-l-

When light dawned on his fifty-first day in Jun's village, Inuyasha found Sesshoumaru by the stream where he was teaching Jun to fish.

"Inuyasha-hiko," Jun said politely, putting her palms flat against her thighs as she bowed. Sesshoumaru was pleased that she remembered her etiquette lessons.

Inuyasha was taken aback. He blinked, and then he scowled, fixing his golden eyes on Sesshoumaru. "You got a minute, inu-sama?"

Sesshoumaru inclined his head. "Stay here, Jun."

They moved far enough away that Jun would not be able to hear them, but not so far that Sesshoumaru would lose track of the little girl.

"Well this is damn pathetic. You know that, right?" Inuyasha opened the conversation.

Sesshoumaru's lips tightened, but he refused to be drawn into a pointless battle.

"Why are you here, Inuyasha?"

"Officially? I'm here because Inari says Myobu might be sniffing around the Southern Islands. Unofficially, I'm here to kick your ass for leaving Kagome. I mean, what the hell?!"

Sesshoumaru snarled. "It is none of your concern."

Inuyasha's sword hand flexed around the hilt of Tetsusaiga. He looked like Father. "Bullshit. Kagome's moping around the palace trying to put on a brave face for the runts, Shippou hates you for makin' her cry, you left the Seal of the West with me, and I find you out here with the only human outside of Edo who has anything to do with 'Gome. It sure as hell is my business."

"I require solitude."

Inuyasha jerked his chin toward the human girl diligently trying to catch fish with nothing but her hands.

"Jun requires training."

"That kid is nice and all, but that ain't the reason you're here," Inuyasha scoffed. "She's a way for you to feel close to Kagome, and if you don't realize that then your ass is dumber than I thought."

Sesshoumaru's eyes widened, then narrowed, his hands clenching into fists. Choosing not to dignify that claim with a response, he instead queried Inuyasha on how the hanyou had located him. He'd been hiding his scent and youki. If Inuyasha had discovered some way to circumvent the technique, Sesshoumaru wanted to know about it.

Inuyasha grinned humorlessly, his fangs protruding over his bottom lip. "Kagome. You know that protection amulet she made for you?"

Sesshoumaru placed his hand over his heart. The origami dog, given to him as a token just before that fateful exhibition match with Inuyasha, was always there, tucked between silk and armor.

"So long as you got something her magic's touched, she can find you in her mirror. Shippou can do it too, since he helped make the amulet. Kitsune thing, I guess."

Sesshoumaru was at once both discomfited and relieved to know that he and his vixen were connected in some way.

Mine. Mine. Mate. Mine, whispered the beast within.

Sesshoumaru steeled his resolve.

No.

He was in control. He, Sesshoumaru, would not be a slave to his baser desires.

"This one will travel to the Southern Islands to hunt Myobu. You will return to the shiro to guard the pack," Sesshoumaru declared.

"Like hell I will! I got just as much right to kick Myobu's face in as you do, for what he's done to Inari! I won't – "

"You will." Sesshoumaru took a menacing step forward, his youki uncoiling to freeze the air.

Jun whimpered, less sensitive to their auras than another demon or gifted human would be, and yet still aware of the malevolence surrounding Sesshoumaru.

Inuyasha's ears flicked, a muscle in his jaw twitching. "Fine. I'll go protect them for you. But dammit…" he floundered for a moment. "You got a good thing going with Kagome. And for some reason you make her happy. Don't screw that up."

Don't screw that up like I did.

The sentence hung unspoken in the air between them.

Sesshoumaru said nothing.

"Feh." Inuyasha turned away, heading back the direction he came. "You know," he called over his shoulder, "I've thought you were a lot of things, but a coward was never one of them."

Then he was gone.

-l-

When Inuyasha got back to the shiro, he headed straight for the room he shared with Inari in the royal wing, swinging in through the window so that he could avoid walking in the hallways. He wanted a break from all the idiots who kept asking him when Sesshoumaru was coming back, and he didn't want to face Kagome's disappointment. Not yet.

Dammit, he hated it when she cried. The runt he could put up with. Even Rin's tears didn't bother him that much. It was different because she was a kid. But Kagome? All she had to do was sniffle and it just shot his day all to hell.

He dropped lightly into his room, blinking and looking around when he realized it was dark. He could smell Inari. It was weird she hadn't lit one of the lamps or something.

She was kneeling in the center of the floor, staring at her hands.

"Nari?" Inuyasha said, moving to stand next to her. She hated it when he messed up her hair, so he ran his fingers down the smooth column of her neck instead. "You alright, vixen?"

She didn't move.

"Nari!" Inuyasha said. Sharper. More insistent.

"Inuyasha," she whispered. Blood began to leak from one of her eyes.

In an instant he scooped her up in his arms, cradling her against his chest. "Inari, don't be stupid. You don't have to hurt yourself fighting him."

Her eyes flashed with golden foxfire and she slumped weakly against him. Inuyasha shut the hell up, figuring he could yell at her later, after he'd listened to whatever she was trying so hard to say.

"Promise me… promise you will never take me as your mate. Never!" She grasped at his haori, one of her claws nicking his skin. "Not until my ki-pearl is returned, or Myobu is dead!"

Inuyasha felt like he'd been punched in the gut with Sesshoumaru's acid, but he gave his word. "I hate this," he said gruffly, his ears laid back flat against his head. "Wish I could do something."

Inari coughed, another bloody tear rolling down her face. "Nothing to do. He uses my own strength against me. Just hold me."

Inuyasha leapt onto the bed, making Inari as comfortable as possible. She nuzzled his neck, whispering, "No matter what I say after this, you must keep your word."

Inuyasha kissed the top of her head. "He'll be dead soon, Nari. Sesshoumaru went to the Southern Islands to get the bastard, just like you said."

So faint that even Inuyasha didn't hear it, Inari said, "But I didn't…"

-l-

Sesshoumaru walked along the beach, scowling as the smell of salt and surf invaded his nose. While pleasant for the most part, the scent of the sea was overpowering, making it difficult to track Myobu, no matter what face he was currently wearing.

Having already scoured the more remote parts of the Southern Islands, Sesshoumaru was in the Port of Ning-ya, the largest Southern youkai community outside of Kiyohime's palace.

This was the port through which the Southern royals did most of their trading, thanks in no small part to the large cove screened by a series of small barrier islands, and protected by a tribe of ning-ya youkai who had sworn themselves to the South. Sesshoumaru had not set foot on its beaches since he was a pup, sent to visit in order to foster an alliance. That was of course when the North was still ruled by dragons and Ryuukotsusei had been threatening war…

Since it was quite certain that Kiyohime would strike Myobu down if he was idiotic enough to approach the Palace by the Sea, it followed that the Weasel Dragon might attempt to lose himself among the crowd at the Port of Ning-ya.

A blaze of powerful youki made Sesshoumaru look out over the water. There, in the distance, he could see the looping coils of a massive sea serpent curling through the waves beyond the barrier islands. The serpent raised its triangular snout, silver eyes fixing on Sesshoumaru. A frill of skin the color of seaweed arched around the dragon's head, giving it the appearance of being crowned.

It opened its jaws, and two large fangs became visible, each filled with the deadly poison that had once killed Inuyasha.

Then the serpent gave a hissing roar and plunged forward, its undulating body sluicing through the water at a speed even Sesshoumaru found impressive. Others standing on the beach began moving away from the water, but Sesshoumaru paid them no mind.

The serpent arrived at the shore, curving its body up to tower over Sesshoumaru, poised to strike.

Then it vanished in a flash of sapphire light, coalescing into the form of Kiyohime.

"Ssssessshoumaru-sssama," she said with a smile. "To what do I owe thisss pleasssure?"

He inclined his head to her, being courteous to the one who ruled the lands in which he traveled. "Myobu is rumored to be in the South."

Kiyohime's expression never changed. "Ssstraaange. I would think here isss the lassst place he would hide. If he isss here, I have no knowledge of it."

Sesshoumaru was silent, absorbing her words.

"Would you care to ssshare my den for the night? You remember where it isss. It isss the very sssame one we dissscovered asss neonatesss. I have improved on it over the yearssss."

"That would be acceptable."

Kiyohime began to walk, and Sesshoumaru fell into step beside her, both of them careful to neither fall behind nor pull ahead.

"Thisss one had hoped your presssenccce meant the Little Fox hasss consssented to a match between usss. Thisss Kiyohime ssstill ssssearches for one worthy of ssssiring the Sssouthern heir."

Taken by surprise, Sesshoumaru's heart beat an odd tattoo in his chest. The tilt of Kiyohime's head told him she had noticed, but she wisely refrained from comment.

"This Sesshoumaru will have no mate."

-l-

Kagome looked into her little round mirror, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. One fell on the glass, obscuring the image of Sesshoumaru and Kiyohime.

She'd wanted to check in on him, to be sure that he was alright. To see if he had found Myobu, if he would be home soon, so that she'd have something to tell the kits. Inari had encouraged her to watch him in the mirror, and eventually Kagome had taken that advice.

Only to see Sesshoumaru agree to spend a night with Kiyohime, and declare that he would never take a mate.

She sighed.

There was a knock on the door.

"My lady?" Takeshi called when Kagome didn't answer. A pause. "Kagome-hime? Inari-sama wished me to see if you are alright."

Kagome went and opened the door, not bothering to hide the tears on her face. Takeshi had likely already smelled the telltale salt.

He gazed at her a moment, then respectfully offered her a silk handkerchief. She took it, gratefully drying her eyes and giving him a wan smile.

"Would my lady care for a walk in the gardens? The flowers always cheer Rin-sama."

And now Kagome laughed. It was a watery laugh, but a laugh just the same. "Thank you, Takeshi. I think I would like that."


46. Time

Sesshoumaru sat in quiet repose in the seaside cave Kiyohime used as a den. While he and Kiyohime had long been acquainted and were betrothed at one time, he did not trust her enough to truly sleep. She seemed to share his misgivings, for she watched him through slitted eyes, lounging in a hollow in the sand.

In the shallows just beyond the cave, a group of ning-ya sang, voices climbing and falling in sonorous melody for the pleasure of the Lady of the South.

"Thisss one would offer you her body for the night, Sssessshoumaru-ssama," Kiyohime's words imposed on the tranquility of the moment.

Sesshoumaru did not move. He did not even blink. "And this one would decline, Kiyohime."

Kiyohime smiled and waved one hand to say that she was not offended by his refusal. A being of cold logic like himself, she rarely lost her temper. He had once thought she would make a good mate for that very reason.

Now he found her manner… lacking.

"You desssire the Little Fox. Thisss I underssstand. If ssshe were able to give me heirsss, I would court her myssself."

"This Sesshoumaru has no need for more heirs."

Why did it feel as if he was repeating a mantra?

But he had no time to think further. His amulet of protection burned against his chest, a sting of foxfire that he felt through the silk of his clothes. An instant later he sensed the approach of a powerful aura.

Not as powerful as himself or Kiyohime, but powerful enough.

He stood and moved to the entrance of Kiyohime's den, wind lifting his hair and sleeves and the spray of the sea wetting his face. The ning-ya had stopped singing.

The sea boiled and began to churn, the waves changing direction until a whirlpool formed. Kiyohime stepped up behind Sesshoumaru.

"Mother," she said simply.

With a speed to rival Kiyohime's in her serpent form, a youkai emerged from the center of the swirling water. From the waist up she appeared to be a beautiful human maiden, save for the fact that she had six arms and two large fangs protruding over her lips. They reached all the way to her chin, dripping with the poison that Kiyohime had inherited.

From the waist down she was an armored centipede-serpent, deep seaweed green with a yellow underbelly. A hundred segmented legs helped her gain purchase in the sand, one of the reasons she could move so quickly.

She wore no clothes, though a circlet of pearls dangled on her forehead. The long black hair that tumbled over her shoulders and hung over her breasts was her only modesty.

Sesshoumaru remembered her. He had been presented to her in the Southern shiro when she was still Lady of the Southern Islands.

"Jishinamazu," he greeted her politely.

"Sesssshoumaru-sssama," she returned, lisping around her giant fangs.

"What do you want, Mother?" Kiyohime asked flatly.

Jishinamazu stared at her daughter, and then ignored her in favor of addressing Sesshoumaru. "I have heard that you ssseek my grandssson."

Sesshoumaru nodded, resting his hand on the hilt of Bakusaiga.

"I know what he hasss done. I will help you find him, if you will come with me to my palaccce beneath the sssea."

Sesshoumaru hesitated for only a moment. He wished to end things with Myobu without resorting to war with the East, something that attacking the Eastern shiro would all but guarantee. No, he needed to challenge Myobu to single combat outside of his territory.

Only then would Sesshoumaru's pack be truly safe.

Subtly, Sesshoumaru prodded Jishinamazu's aura with his own. His initial impression held true. While she had seemed dangerous to him as a pup, now she was nowhere near a match for him.

Confident that she did not pose a true threat, Sesshoumaru acquiesced to visiting her undersea palace.

"Are you coming, Kiyohime?" Jishinamazu asked just before Sesshoumaru stepped into the vortex of water.

"Thisss one hasss not the time," Kiyohime's answer floated to him on the tide.

-l-

"I'm worried," Kagome confided to Inari and Yukiko, watching the kits play out of the corner of her eye to make sure they wouldn't overhear. "This is the longest he's been away from the shiro since Naraku. At least… it's the longest he's been without taking me with him. What if something's happened to him? What if Myobu – "

"My son is more than a match for the Weasel Dragon," Yukiko opined, snapping her fan open to hide the movement of her lips from any who might be watching.

Kagome sighed. She didn't really believe that Myobu was capable of defeating Sesshoumaru. But her greater fear was one that she couldn't bring herself to say aloud.

What if he was staying away just to avoid her? What if he had discovered that Kiyohime was who made him happy?

What if the kits cried for their father at night, and it was because of Kagome that he didn't return home?

What if he regretted the vow he had asked her to make, that she would never leave his pack?

"I'm sure he'll return eventually." Inari said. She ran her tongue over her left fang, and Kagome blinked at her, made uneasy by the mannerism Inari surely must have picked up from her uncle, Myobu. "But you should not pine for him, Kagome-hime. You deserve a male who will be present when you wish it of him."

Yukiko sniffed, but offered no rebuttal in Sesshoumaru's defense.

Kagome felt her heart sink.

-l-

Jishinamazu's palace was fashioned from living stone – coral that had been coaxed somehow to grow into walls and turrets. It was completely dry on the inside, the halls lit with glowing fish trapped in orbs of glass.

Bones littered the entranceway, the remains of aquatic youkai dressed in moldering armor, some still clutching weapons.

Jishinamazu noticed the direction of Sesshoumaru's gaze. "I wed Kiyohime'sss father for hisss power, wealth, and posssition. When sssshe cut him down before hisss time and took my title, I needed a new kingdom to rule. Thisss wasss once the palace of The Sssea Princessss. Now it isss mine." She gestured at the scattered bones, pointing out the skeleton of a warrior still holding a dusty bow, a broken arrow shaft lying next to him. "The fool actually called for a human to ssssave her. Urasssshima Taro. I poissssoned him very eassssily."

Sesshoumaru tilted his head. Jishinamazu was rightly proud of her strength and had left the scattered bones of her conquered foes here as a testament. And yet… he could not help but wonder what Kagome would have to say of her actions.

He was certain that she would not approve.

Jishinamazu headed down a hall and Sesshoumaru followed her, making sure to stay far enough back that he would not be struck with her tail. Her many feet made a skittering sound that echoed off the walls.

She led him to what appeared to be a magical workroom of some kind. As he watched, she picked amongst shelves full of jars and implements, her six arms making the work go faster. One arm held what looked like a turtle shell, the others rapidly grabbing up bottles and either discarding them or tucking them into the upturned shell, as if it were a basket. Once she was satisfied that she had what she needed, she went to the center of the room and wound her body into a coil, rearing up to tower over him.

"I will need ssssomething of yourssss," she told Sesshoumaru. "A hair, blood, a claw, a fang… it matterssss not."

Sesshoumaru was not a sorcerer. He had no real knowledge of the intricacies of magic. And yet, he knew that his fangs were highly prized by those like Totosai, who practiced transmorgrification. Did it not follow that the rest of him would be just as valuable?

"Why?" he asked Jishinamazu.

She sucked her teeth, her long tongue swiping poison from the tips of her fangs. "I am a blood witch," she answered. "It isss how my magic issss fueled. I cassst the ssspell for you, ssso you mussst pay the pricccce."

-l-

Eventually Kagome's worry overcame her conscience. She'd told herself that she wouldn't do this unless it was an emergency, but Sesshoumaru hadn't contacted them or been seen by anyone they knew in so long…

Kagome took out her little circular mirror and breathed on the glass, searching out the spark of her youki that lived inside Sesshoumaru's amulet of protection. Her heart pounded in her chest. She expected to see him trapped somewhere, maybe hurt, frantically trying to get back to them, to get help, maybe lost in another realm…

He was sitting in a sumptuous palace, being served tea.

Kagome didn't realize how hard she was squeezing the frame of the mirror until the glass cracked, neatly dividing Sesshoumaru's face in two.

All this time… all this time, she'd been afraid, and Rin had been watching the sky, and Shippou had been crying… all this time, and he was drinking tea in a palace, probably Kiyohime's juding by the furniture.

"Why that no good… arrogant… inconsiderate – When I get my hands on him!" Kagome ranted, choking on her rage.

She forced herself to calmly put her mirror down. He'd already made her crack it, she would not throw it against the wall.

-l-

"I am sssorry we could not come to an arrangement," Jishinamazu said as she opened the whirlpool that would allow Sesshoumaru to leave her realm and return to the Port of Ning-ya.

Sesshoumaru glared. "In the future, do not waste this one's time."

"A thousssand apologies." She bowed her head, waving him through the whirlpool with all six of her arms.

Narrowing his eyes, Sesshoumaru took his leave.

He emerged on the shore just beyond Kiyohime's den, in the exact place where he had left. And yet… It was evening when he departed, and now the sun rose high. Had he been in Jishinamazu's realm that long? It had seemed like only a few hours.

He entered the den and found that Kiyohime had gone, which was not surprising. What was surprising was that her scent had faded as well.

Turning on his heel, Sesshoumaru exited the cavern, searching the waves until he spotted the bobbing head of a ning-ya. "You, merman," he hailed the youkai. "When was Kiyohime last present on this beach? You will tell this Sesshoumaru."

The merman surged up in the water, revealing his humanoid torso and arms. "The moon has drawn the tide into the cavern seven times since our Lady of the Southern Islands swam these waters."

Sesshoumaru clenched his teeth, a growl erupting from deep in his belly.

Seven moons. Seven moons had passed here while he spent a few hours with Jishinamazu. Time must move differently in her realm – and she had not warned him.

His mind was flooded with a litany of curses, most of which he had learned from Inuyasha.

He had begun to suspect that Jishinamazu lured him to her palace only to obtain some piece of his body for use in her magic – to what purpose, he knew not. So he had refused to pay the price of her spell and only pretended to drink the tea her servants had prepared for him, refraining from cutting her down because he needed her to open the gateway that would allow him to return to the world.

But now it seemed more sinister still. What if she had been meant to distract him? His pack could be in danger.

And he had been gone from this world for seven moons, and away from the West for ten.

With a violent explosion of youki, Sesshoumaru ripped away his corporeal form, taking to the skies as a vibrant ball of light.


Notes:

Okuri's name: In Japanese folklore, an Okuri is a large dog or wolf that follows travelers at night. Usually thought to be a portent of death. In my head, his hair kind of looks like Wolverine's from X-Men.

Kiyohime's name: In The Tale of Kiyohime, Kiyohime is the daughter of a lord who becomes a sea serpent, out of her rage at being scorned by her lover.

Myobu's name: See notes on previous chapters.

Takeshi's name: A Japanese male name meaning 'fierce warrior.'

The formal make-up worn for the feast: Is based on the make-up worn by performers in Japan, particularly geisha and the actors in kabuki theatre. All the female youkai that are part of a noble house will wear white make-up with different embellishments that represent their powers. The kitsune have fox masks, Kiyohime has scales, Yukiko and Rin have purple eyeshadow that gives the impression of dog tails, etc.

Neonates: Proper name for baby snakes.

The Blue Monk/Aobozu: The name is taken from Japanese folklore about a monk who steals children, but I made up pretty much everything else to suit the story.

Kitsune no Kotei: Translates to The Fox Emperor.

Isonadehime: In Japanese folklore, Isonade is an enormous shark-like sea monster. I tacked on 'hime' to the end, because I've decided that it's the naming convention of the Southern royals that all of the girls have 'hime' in their name somewhere.

Itachiryu: I just smashed the words for 'weasel' and 'dragon' together.

If you are confused by the bloodlines: Remember there is a chart in my fanart section.

Kitsuneno'otan: The phrase is derived from 'kitsune no otan' which is literally 'the turning of the tail.' The ceremony is inspired by the ceremony maiko used to undergo to become geisha. A geisha in training, a maiko, wears a red collar to signal that they are still in training, because red is the color of innocence. Once they are ready to become full geisha, men bid for the chance to take their virginity. Once the ritual ceremony is complete, the maiko is a geisha and begins wearing a white collar, a color that indicates sensuality. The geisha ceremony is called 'the turning of the collar.'

The idea that kitsuneno'otan would occur as a coming of age/adulthood ceremony comes from the practices of tribes from several different cultures. Much like I've had the kitsune do here, when a young tribe member was on the verge of adulthood, an older tribe member would be chosen to take their virginity. Another tribe member, usually a holy person, would look on to make sure the younger tribe member wasn't abused. The idea was that a younger tribe member needed to be taught how to have sex, and shown what it was supposed to be like so that they would know if they were being abused, and how to treat others.

Nine is a sacred number: I completely made this up. But it made sense to me, that nine would be a sacred number, since the kitsune goal in life is to gain nine tails.

Jishinamazu: Her name is taken from a sea monster that is known for causing earthquakes by slapping its tail against things.

The Palace Beneath the Sea: The character of Jishinamazu and her palace are inspired by the Japanese folktale Urashima Taro. In the story, a giant sea centipede (though in some versions of the tale it is a sea scorpion) is menacing the kingdom of the Sea Princess. The Princess sends one of her subjects to land to get help, and a fisherman named Urashima Taro is brought to the Palace Beneath the Sea. Urashima Taro fights the centipede, and kills it by shooting it with an arrow coated in his saliva. The Princess offers to let him stay in her kingdom forever in gratitude, but he declines. However, when he returns to his village, he discovers that time moves differently in the realm of the Sea Princess, and 300 years have passed. Everyone he knows is dead. - Obviously, in my version of the story, the centipede is the victor, and takes over the Palace Beneath the Sea.

How Long is a 'Moon': I got this question multiple times already, so I thought I'd add a note. In many cultures, and in story telling convention, a 'moon' refers to the period it takes the moon to go through a full cycle of waning and waxing. This process is a month long. So, a 'moon' correlates to a month.